Apr 12 2011 10:00am

You Are What You Like to Read: A Book-Selling Savant’s Recs, Pt. 1

Lamb by Christopher MooreBack in the early days of All About Romance, I never felt comfortable contributing to our If You Like... feature (if you like Author A, try Author B) because of a lack of confidence. I always thought my taste in books was “off” from most readers'. Years later, my husband asked me to pick out a book for him to read on an upcoming short trip. I took this task very seriously and recommended Christopher Moore’s Lamb. After he finished it, my husband said, “That guy writes like I think,” a compliment of the highest order from a very picky reader. He’s wrong about that, though; let’s give credit where credit is due: My husband thinks like Christopher Moore, now on his Facebook short list as a favorite author, writes.

At the end of 2010, I finished a two-year stint with Barnes and Noble as a part-time bookseller. B&N is where I discovered my true niche in life—the ability to match books to people based on what they have in hand, or books/authors they’ve liked in the past. It’s such a specialized niche that I’ve come to consider myself a book-selling savant. Today I thought I’d share with you some of the books I’ve had the most luck in matching up with customers—aside from Soulless, which I’ve already written about, and the other Parasol Protectorate books—and the sales pitches I developed for them. Maybe one or more will strike a chord with you:

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

  • Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: A must for foodies and/or memoir readers. Reichl, former NYT food critic, later editor for Gourmet, wrote the only food book ever to move me to tears.
  • Jonathan Tropper’s How to Talk to a Widower: Devastatingly profane, laugh-out-loud funny, yet surprisingly emotional. One of the best books I read last year, although it was published in 2007.
  • Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris: Terrific for Francophiles or those who loved Under the Tuscan Sun. My favorite part of the book is when the author’s husband introduced her to offal. How can you not love a man who falls in love with a woman because she’ll eat organ meats?
  • Christopher Moore: Fans of The Daily Show and books by its various correspondents then and now love Moore, in particular, Lewis Black fans.
    • Lamb: The sub-title for this absurdist novel is “The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” Here’s how the book begins: “The first time I saw the man who would save the world he was sitting near the central well in Nazareth with a lizard hanging out of his mouth.” The narrator, six-year-old Biff, watched another local boy of the same age remove said lizard from his mouth, then pass it to his younger brother, who teased it for awhile before bashing its head in and giving it back to the older brother, who brought it back to life by putting it into his mouth. Biff watches this scene repeat itself three times before telling the older brother he wanted in on it. “The Savior removed the lizard from his mouth and said, 'Which part?’” And it just gets better from there.
    • A Dirty Job: The book begins when a man takes his wife, in labor, to the hospital. She dies. Hilarity ensues. Truly. I kid you not.
  • David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy: An emotionally draining read about a father watching addiction take over his beautiful boy’s life. Any parent of a child who is a square peg in a round hole will relate to moments Sheff describes. What makes this one a cut above most memoirs is that Sheff is a writer by trade, so his story has a more powerfully emotional impact.
  • Paulo Coelho’s The Fifth Mountain: Most readers are familiar with Coelho’s The Alchemist, but I recommend TFM for its powerful, spare writing. Not a word is wasted, and if you’ve never read a book with spiritual undertones, make an exception for this one. I did.
  • Charlaine HarrisSouthern Vampire Mysteries (Sookie Stackhouse) series: The perfect “starter” series for urban fantasy readers, particularly those moving up from YA or crossing over from romance. Many popular urban fantasy novels feature multiple love interests, Arthur’s included (although her Destiny Kills is urban fantasy romance). Sex with more than one partners remains verboten outside of erotic romance, so I started with this series as my “hook” to ease them into “harder” series. Also, that Harris’ her favorite author is Jane Austen is another selling point. Sookie’s wry sensibility has wide appeal—isn’t it a shame how True Blood extinguished it?
  • Patricia Briggs: Briggs didn’t start in romance, and it shows, so it’s not the first series I recommend as a crossover, but it comes soon enough because she writes monogomous leads.
    • Mercy Thompson series: Often appealed to male customers because Mercy is a tattooed garage mechanic by trade. The brand new book in this series, River Marked, features a much more romantic thread. I tear through each new title in this series in a day.
    • Alpha & Omega series: Much more of a hybrid between urban fantasy romance and urban fantasy. The short story that kicks off the series is in the On the Prowl anthology and it’s worth the price of the book in its entirety, particularly for romance readers.
  • Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson series: My favorite urban fantasy series for several years—out of many, many series—it features a half vampire-half werewolf who works preternatural law enforcement in Australia. It’s not first on my list for new readers to the genre because Riley has multiple love interests and sex partners, some within the same book. Each of the first eight books in the series is in the B range, grade wise. That’s right: eight of eight. While book nine starts and ends well (giving readers the closure they deserve), its mid-section didn’t work as well for me. Outside ofJ.D. Robb’s In Death series, I can’t think of any other long series I liked as much. Arthur started in romance, and it shows.
  • Lori Handeland’s Phoenix Chronicles: The first book in this series, Any Given Doomsday, kicked Arthur off the top of my urban fantasy favorites list. Handeland is better known to romance readers for her much longer-lived Nightcreature series—still going strong—so this series represents a major departure. I consider it “the best urban fantasy series you’ve never heard about.” The series features just four books, each of which is an edge-of-your-seat read with a cliff-hanger ending. I wish I could wave my magic wand and declare the series a hit, but it just isn't, which frustrates the hell out of me. I understand a new Phoenix Chronicles short story will be published in an upcoming anthology (Handeland's website mentions the short story Hex Symbols, but a release date is TBA). As it stands, no new full-length books are in the works; if I asked nicely, would Handeland write the next one just for me?

Handeland, unlike Harris and Arthur, adds an apocalyptic aspect to her urban fantasy by incorporating the Nephilim (the off-spring of fallen angels and human women). The Nephilim hit the big leagues last year when Danielle Trussoni’s non-genre Angelology came out. Even better, Handeland blends Native American mysticism with biblical “mythology” (totally non-religious) in a way that provides context to her werewolves, vampires, and other preternatural creatures.

  • Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series: This wonderfully sarcastic, cynical, and awesomely violent new series also incorporates the Nephilim. Jim Butcher fans, and male readers in particular, seem to adore this series right along with me.

(Another author to incorporate the Nephilim is YA author Cassandra Clare, in her Mortal Instruments series. I think Clare, btw, is a very clever author because she stays on trend. Her new YA series, the Infernal Devices, is steampunk, and takes place in the same Mortal Instruments universe, just 150 years earlier, and as many readers know, steampunk went mainstream about a year ago (remember “Punked,” the Castleepisode last fall that centered around a steampunk club?).

  • Laurell K. Hamilton: One of the godmothers of the modern urban fantasy novel.
    • Anita Blake, Vampire Hunterseries: The first several books of this series offer a strong introduction into urban fantasy, but I lost interest at a certain point, as did many other readers, for a variety of reasons. A better story-teller than writer, I think the first books are a must-read, but the other authors I’ve already mentioned are strong story-tellers as well as better writers.
    • Merry Gentry series: I’ve read this entire series, and though I think the most recent book was unnecessary (the series could have ended with the one just before it), I can recommend each of the other seven titles. But because the theme of these books is fertility—meaning lots and lots of strangely unerotic but very graphic sex with multiple partners—its appeal is limited.

That takes care of non-romance books/series I matched up with readers while in savant mode. Check back at H&H tomorrow for my romance picks.


Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Be one of the few who visits her at Toe in the Water or follow her may-be-too-political-for-you tweets at @laurie_gold.

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Megan Frampton
1. MFrampton
I have to read that Christopher Moore book. That sense of humor is so up my alley.
Rachel Hyland
2. RachelHyland
Nice list! Haven't read that Coelho book, but it's now straight into the Amazon cart...

Perhaps these will come up in tomorrow's posting, but I feel I have to add Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story and its sequels You Suck and Bite Me. Lamb is awesome, and A Dirty Job a laugh-riot (some of the characters from which even show up in You Suck), but Moore+vampires+twisted romance=beyond wondrous great.

The other recommendations... okay, sure. Except maybe Cassandra Clare, whose nonsensical Mary Sue-ish prose I wouldn't inflict upon my worst enemy. And, um... why was Laurell K. Hamilton even on this list? I have to say, after reading her section, neither Anita nor Merry felt very... recommended, exactly. Not that I think they should be. But surely a "recommendation" is supposed to be a ringing endorsement, not a caveat-filled series of backhanded compliments? Eh. I'm probably just bitter in that I used to recommend the Anita Blake series to people myself -- before it got all porn-y, of course -- and am now embarrassed that I ever did so...
Charli Mac
3. CharliMac
"Jonathan Tropper’s How to Talk to a Widower: Devastatingly profane, laugh-out-loud funny, yet surprisingly emotional. One of the best books I read last year, although it was published in 2007."

Profane. Emotional. Funny. SOLD!

I too want to read about Biff, Jesus' buddy. Sounds kind of awesome.
Laurie Gold
4. LaurieGold
Rachel -

It's important to remember that as a bookseller, I needed to recommend a whole variety of books. Not included on my list are other books and authors I don't personally read, but know others do. The Cassandra Clare books are YA books, so I generally recommended that the parents of the teens reading them give them a try, and then when they came back for more, I'd segue them into other stuff. As for as LKH, I ripped through the first seven Anita Blake books in about a week, then stopped and never read another. I did keep up with the Merry Gentry books, but feel the need to let readers know it's a series filled with sex. LKH is one of the authors to popularize urban fantasy, though, so even with my problems with her, I continued to recommend her.

I love Bloodsucking Fiends myself, but tried to limit my specific recommendations per author. Lamb and A Dirty Job are grade A reads for me. Bloodsucking Fiends comes in just below, and it's probably a more accessible read for many. If a customer came back after Lamb and/or A Dirty Job, I'd recommend it, along with Fluke and You Suck.

Megan and CharliMac -

Lamb IS awesome. Very few of the booksellers I'd worked with had read or heard of Moore before I started. By the time I left, he was on just about everybody's auto-read list. FYI, his last book, Fool, is a retelling of King Lear from the Fool's POV. I am sad to say I've not read it because I felt I needed to re-read King Lear first. My husband, though, read it, and loved it, and one of my managers early on, who also thought A Dirty Job was fantastic, thought Fool was even better.
Regina Thorne
5. reginathorn
Lamb is absolutely hilarious but also oddly touching and moving as well. I didn't like the other Christopher Moore books I read quite as much but I will certainly give Fool a try.

I'm always nervous about giving people book recommendations because I think it's so revealing of who you are as a person: I'm always imagining them secretly judging me for liking that!!

And do you ever find yourself revisiting books you loved the first time around and wondering what it was exactly that you saw in them? That seems to happen to me quite a bit.
Laurie Gold
6. LaurieGold
Regina -

I'm incredibly stingy when it comes to "loving" a book. Maybe it's because I grade them, and have all the way back to 1993, but I've never felt like those A's are anything but A's. On the other hand, I have gone back and bumped up at least one B+ (My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway) to an A.
7. Callysta
I will give Harris , Briggs, and Hamilton a read, they sound up my alley.
I love Keri Arthur`s books, and miss Riley, what a great character!
Megan Frampton
8. MFrampton
I put the Moore on my hold list at the library, and someone had already placed a hold--I am secretly hoping it's someone who read your post, Laurie, and was taken with the description as much as I was.
9. Twellman
Please do ask Handeland for the next Phoenix Chronicles, cause I want it too!
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