“What do you like to read?”
I get this question a lot: when I tell someone about my book-reviewing gig for Shelf Awareness, or when someone sees the long book lists I keep here on the blog and at Goodreads. I also get it when a friend comes to my apartment for the first time and sees my bulging bookshelves. (Though in that case, it’s usually drowned out by, “Wow, that’s a lot of books.”)
Broadly, I love both fiction and nonfiction: novels, memoirs and biography, travel writing, mystery, poetry, middle-grade and young adult lit. But I’ve been thinking lately about a few sub-genres I adore.
These aren’t official classifications in most bookstores, but they share definite characteristics, and they are my literary catnip.
For starters, I love clever British mysteries – preferably with an engaging detective or two and not a lot of gore. Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie remain my favorites, but I also love Jacqueline Winspear, Rhys Bowen, Carola Dunn, Charles Todd and Charles Finch. (All of these authors have created protagonists – some professional detectives, some amateur sleuths – whom I adore.) I am a longtime Anglophile, and there’s something about watching a mystery unfold in my beloved England – especially with plenty of tea and biscuits on hand.
Related: I enjoy the occasional dive into Sherlockiana. I haven’t read all the original Conan Doyle stories, but I have relished a few books and series that feature the great detective. My favorite Sherlock riff is Laurie R. King’s fantastic series about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell, but I also enjoyed A Study in Charlotte (a 21st-century YA take on Holmes and Watson), Nancy Springer’s middle-grade series featuring Sherlock’s younger sister Enola, and The Great Detective, Zach Dundas’ fantastic nonfiction history of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. (Also, it’s not a book, but I can’t forget the BBC Sherlock.)
Continuing with the British theme: I love gentle interwar British fiction. Miss Read’s tales about the village of Fairacre fit this bill, as do D.E. Stevenson’s warmhearted novels of life in England and Scotland. These books are not dramatic or world-changing and that is precisely why I love them: they are stories of ordinary people living quiet, beautiful lives.
There isn’t an official name for this genre, but I love dual-narrative fiction that shifts back and forth in time, twining two different storylines together until they meet in the end. Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams both do this very well, but I’ve read other books that employ this technique to great effect. (Most recently: Maggie Leffler’s The Secrets of Flight; June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore; Natasha Solomons’ The Song of Hartgrove Hall.)
Like a lot of inveterate readers, I adore books on books. These include novels set in bookstores (Parnassus on Wheels, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore); books about the reading life (Ex Libris, Voracious, Howards End is on the Landing), and novels that feature books as a key plot point (The Word Exchange, The Bookman’s Tale). Jasper Fforde’s literary fantasy series featuring Thursday Next, book detective, is its own wildly quirky variation on this theme.
What are your favorite sub-genres? (And does anyone have a more elegant name for this phenomenon?)