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📚 What to Read Next (No. 211): Shades of the King
After a few years of reading big, fat biographies of America’s presidents, I’m really enjoying my current fiction binge. Though I try a lot of contemporary fiction, it’s rare that traditional front-of-the-bookstore fare stays with me. So I’ve been digging a little more into what the book industry calls genre fiction: categories that “follow specific conventions, using tropes, structures, plot points, and archetypes to tell a story.”
Categories here include mystery/thriller, Western, horror, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. Legendary authors like Stephen King, Brandon Sanderson, Nora Roberts, and Ursula Le Guin fall into these genres.
The snooty literary world has often disdained and ignored genre fiction, much to the chagrin of fans. Every once in a while a title like Lonesome Dove or Lord of the Rings sneaks into a “Best of All Time” list, but it’s rare.
And yet, these are the books that are often most memorable for readers—the ones that get closest to the ultimate truths of life. Also, they’re just damn entertaining.
All of this is to say is that you should embrace genre fiction.
The two books featured here this week (with a third snuck in) definitely fall into that broad category and both reminded me of Stephen King.
As always, let me know what you’re reading! I love to hear.
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Enough intro—let’s jump in!
A History of Wild Places by Shea Ernshaw
Published: 2021 | Pages: 351
Maggie St. James is missing. And Travis Wren has a unique ability to find lost people. What he doesn’t count on is Maggie’s trail leading to a secluded, technologically de-vanced, cult-like community in the woods.
There’s a lot of twists and turns in A History of Wild Places. The shifts between characters and places feel a little confusing at first, but in a good way—like you want to keep going and figure out the riddle.
Even though I managed to guess the ending before the big reveal (surprised myself there!), I was still very curious how Ernshaw would pull it off and explain things. Ultimately, she wrapped things up very well…
This is one of those books where the plot and the atmosphere were perfectly aligned. It’s somewhat slow-moving, it’s gloomy and brooding, it’s heavily focused on the natural world—the dirt, the weather, the sounds of the forest. Atmosphere—the sense of place—is incredibly important in any novel; Ernshaw nails that aspect of it.
From the literary world, it reminded me a bit of Margaret Atwood, Edan Lepucki’s California, Lois Lowry’s Giver series, and, as noted at the start, Stephen King.
Though I’m not sure the supernatural element is even necessary here, I appreciate that Ernshaw actually allows it to simmer at the edges rather than take over the entirety of the plot and the characters. That’s a far more interesting approach, which requires the writer to build out the other aspects of the story.
Overall, A History of Wild Places was a thoroughly enjoyable and pleasantly surprising novel.
Night Shift by Stephen King
Published: 1978 | Pages: 505
My latest Stephen King review is published over at StephenKingReader.com. Night Shift was King’s first published short story collection, and it’s magnificent. The 20 stories range from about 10-40 pages and really show off King’s range as a writer. There’s grotesque, creepy, thrilling, dramatic, and even touching stories. Check out the full review and context:
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Published: 2021 | Pages: 336
I came into The Plot with pretty high expectations. It was on numerous “Best Thrillers of 2021” lists and it’s about a writer/professor who steals a plotline from one of his students—right up my alley.
Korelitz does a couple difficult things in this novel that really stood out. First, it’s incredibly fast-paced and quick-reading while still largely relying on prose. There’s plenty of dialogue, but it’s not page after page of conversation (which is an easy trick for writers to keep the pages flying by). She writes elegantly but it never felt slow.
The other tactic Korelitz uses is a story within a story. Not only do we get the main plotline, but we also get numerous chapters of the one that was stolen. That’s incredibly hard to write; Korelitz had to use a completely different tone and voice to make it truly effective, and she did a great job there.
While I had a couple minor quibbles with the story itself, I was pretty shocked by the ending, which is always a treat as a reader.
The Plot is one of those books where the less I say about it, the better. It’s a fast-moving and rather fun psychological thriller that I can easily recommend to just about any reader. Easy ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ for me.
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