Librarian Corey Farrenkopf discusses how to intrigue readers into reading genres they say they don’t read.
There are a lot of terrible things you can say to your local librarian:
‘I dropped your copy of Strange Weather in the ocean, and now it’s being voraciously read and/or devoured by a family of bioluminescent squid. I wasn’t going to fight them for it, so …’
‘I had to fend off a flock of seagulls with that copy of Little Fires Everywhere due tomorrow. There’s not too many holds left on it, right?’ (The answer is yes, there are still 125 holds remaining).
‘The oil company shut off our heat and we burned all seven volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to stay warm. They’re on Amazon for a penny a piece, so here’s six cents to cover the damages.’
‘I accidentally knocked over one of the shelves reaching for a copy of The Girls. I don’t want to call it a domino effect, but there’s books everywhere and I have to be at work in 10 minutes. Sorry I can’t help you straighten up.’
Those are all pretty bad, but there is one that stands out above the rest.
Here’s the worst thing you can say to a librarian: ‘I don’t read such and such a genre.’ When a patron stares you in the eyes and vehemently swears he will never read a work of science fiction, or horror, or any genre for that matter, it crushes something inside a librarian’s soul. It’s the limiting of a world. Cutting yourself off from so many possibilities. I get it, you don’t like spaceships, or ghosts, or reanimated dragon corpses dripping ichor across your pages, but there is so much more to each genre than overused tropes and stereotypes. Not every romance involves ripped bodices. Not every science fiction novel has a Spock. Jason, Freddy, and that creepy guy from Saw almost never show up in the pages of horror.
I have a running list I pull from when this issue arises. Once I push down my welling despair, I find out what they do like to read, searching for one link to tie them to an unsuspecting novel or story collection. Oh, you like the pacing in Tom Clancy novels? I see you have a fondness for the Victorian era? Talking animals? I can do that. Or, if you want to be sneaky, you save that info, waiting to catch said patron unaware on his next visit, never mentioning the supposed genre associated with the book in question. (Transparency is usually appreciated by our clientele, though.) The second option is reserved for those who say they don’t like Harry Potter. Those are the saddest cases.
I hope you enjoy my suggestions. If you think of any other good alternatives to add to the list, please mention them in the comments below. Librarians are always looking to expand their recommendations repertoire.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
One of the most fast-paced and atmospheric books you’ll ever come across. There’s a coastal town cut off from the rest of Florida by a shimmering barrier, reverting everything inside to a state of nature. A female exploration team has been sent to figure out what’s gone awry. There’s a tunnel/tower that drops into the earth, a lighthouse with hidden secrets inside, plants that have formed in the shape of humans, a monster that moans in the night, and a secretive government agency that may or may not be pulling the strings. It’s super weird and gripping, and hey, the movie just came out.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
A dystopia where a troop of actors performs Shakespeare across a desolate landscape to keep art alive during the end times. Who doesn’t want to read that? There’s also a side story about a female comic book writer and her art. Also a good tie-in for your graphic novel readers.
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
This one falls somewhere between Fantasy and Science Fiction. On the one hand, you have a witch and a distinguished school of magic. On the other, a technology Google wunderkind attempting to create an inadvertent doomsday device. It’s a battle between technology and nature with a good dose of humor thrown in. Winner of a Locus Award and a Nebula Award, and nominated for a Hugo.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
A successful writer’s muse comes to life and his wife doesn’t appreciate her presence. Oyeyemi mixes magic, fairytale, and literary styles to create a hilarious love triangle between fiction and reality. Occasionally the writer’s own fictions get woven into the narrative, giving it a playful meta feel.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
If a patron liked watching Game of Thrones, this is the next obvious suggestion for epic fantasy. Jemisin won both a Hugo Award and a Sputnik Award in the year it came out. The novel is told through three linking perspectives spanning a vividly depicted continent that suffers from horrendous climate change … which is pretty relevant at the moment. There’s plenty of adventure and romance throughout each chapter, almost always subverting what we would expect of the genre. Jemisin grapples with both race and sexuality with masterful skill. And eventually there’s pirates. Pirates are always a strong selling point.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Two college-aged guys, one from a working class family, the other of Fortune 500 descent, spend their days collecting vintage blues records from the 30s to use in their recording studio. The two create a “lost” record by a fictitious Charlie Shaw, masquerading it as a recovered masterpiece. When it takes off on the internet, strange things start to happen, and the two are essentially cursed by the spirit of the man whose music they ripped off. Can either of them escape Shaw’s ghost? Check it out and see.
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
Possession story? Family drama? A character study on mental health? Tremblay blurs the lines between the three, weaving them all through the lens of a failed reality TV show and its effects on the family portrayed within. The novel’s pacing is phenomenal, the suspense up there with any classic scary movie. Occasional comical blog posts break up the heavy emotions and interject well-tuned humorous insights into all things horror.
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
Two orphans pretend to be clairvoyant, charging their fellow orphanage dwellers to talk to their deceased parents. Eventually a cultist wants to adopt the female orphan, forcing the pair to flee. Years later, told in alternating chapters, we meet the female orphan’s niece, who is pregnant and unsure of what to do with the baby. The orphaned aunt shows up at her house and drags her on a trip of self-discovery through North America … but she doesn’t say a word. Lots of gothic elements with a touch of ghost story thrown in. This one has so many inroads for reluctant readers.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Set in Barcelona in 1945, we follow Daniel as he searches for a forgotten writer through revolution-ravaged city streets. He possesses the last copy of The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, which he discovered in a labyrinth of books called “the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.” The writer disappeared without a trace, and, feeling the unstoppable urge to learn more about the man, Daniel befriends a comical cast of characters, searching for clues. There are also heavy gothic, noir, and coming-of-age elements within, along with one of the most satisfying love stories I’ve ever read. Also a great recommendation for patrons who say they love Spain (Honestly it’s the easiest selling point, from my experience)!
Ill Will by Dan Chaon
A psychologist whose parents were murdered by a supposed Satanist cult. An adopted brother recently exonerated from prison thanks to DNA evidence proving his innocence. A son struggling with addiction, moving through the shadowy underground of drug culture. A hypnosis patient obsessed with linking a string of drunken river drownings to a serial killer. The book jumps through multiple narrators as all the characters move toward harsh realizations and mysteries no one really wants uncovered. This book is so tense and expertly plotted you will cruise through all 480 pages in no time.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
Henry travels through time at odd, uncontrollable moments to visit his wife, Clare, at all ages of her life. The novel tracks their love story as Henry tries to learn how to cope with his condition while Clare grapples with the fear he might never return to her present timeline. If you’re looking for a good tear-jerker, look no further. There’s plenty of dark comedy, too. Whenever Henry appears in the past, he shows up without his clothes, which turns out to be very inconvenient most of the time.
If you want to disregard genre boundaries altogether:
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Told in six interlocking stories, each shifting genres from classic adventure tale, to post-apocalyptic Hawaii, to technology-rich dystopia, to 70s pulp crime mystery, to Victorian romance, to modern-day dark comedy situated inside a nursing home. It’s quite a range, but somehow fits perfectly together like one of those intricate puzzles I refuse to take out from the library. Every sentence Mitchell writes is perfect. Even if every one of those genres isn’t for you (somehow), the writing alone will carry you through. It’s lyrical; it’s precise; it’s concrete. Once anyone starts reading Mitchell’s work, she’ll devour all of it, regardless of his insanely blurred genre lines.
The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith
The Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg is engaged to a man she’s never met in order to save her mother’s crumbling estate and family line. Dunken Ripple is the heir to a real-estate dynasty anchored in a crumbling apocalyptic city. Abby is a feral girl who lives on a trash island off the coast of said crumbling city. All the while, a pair of dragons circles the city, burning down buildings at random. At times, the novel focuses on the love triangle between the three; at others, it follows each as they quest to learn who they truly are. Swanny gets wrapped up with a Torchtown gangster who knows which buildings the dragons will burn before they do. Dunk wants to be a fireman, one of the last saviors left to the city and its flames. Abby wants to learn who her parents are and why she is able to communicate telepathically with animals … among other things. Like Mitchell, each of Smith’s sentences is precisely crafted, sometimes for beauty, sometimes for humor. Almost every genre, except for maybe Westerns, is present here. Recommended for the plot, for the characters, for the humor, for the expansive world and its two endlessly circling dragons!
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his partner, Gabrielle. He works as a librarian and landscaper. His work has been published in or is forthcoming from Blue Earth Review, JMWW, Hawaii Pacific Review, Gravel, Literary Orphans Journal, and elsewhere. He is represented by Marie Lamba of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. To learn more, follow him on Twitter or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.