Dear Authors – This Reader Wants More Courage, Complexity and Atmosphere

Dear Authors

I know I run the risk of sounding too much like Oliver Twist, but I’m definitely feeling hungry. Not the kind of hunger satisfied by food or drink of course, but the type that can only be assuaged by a knock out reading experience.

I’m tired with characters who find a new purpose in life by running a bookstore/cafe/restaurant. Find crime stories linked to childhood abuse or abuse against women increasingly distasteful. And have little patience with triple time-frame narratives that would work just as well as a single time frame.

Having told you what I’d prefer we didn’t see so much on bookshop shelves, I thought I’d give you a steer about what I’d like to see more of in fiction. Here are 10 books that are examples of the themes and styles I most enjoy reading. These novels, all of which I read in the last two years, would best satisfy my hunger for stellar fiction.

Courageous Women Fighting For A Future

I’d love to see more novels that portray young women who battle hardships and difficulties to achieve what they want from life. They’re often the most memorable characters, the people whose hands you want to hold as they journey through life, willing them to succeed.

The Girl With A Louding Voice by Abe Daré is a perfect example. Daré’s main character is Adunni, a young girl married off at 14 years old to a brute of a husband, then beaten and starved when she runs away and gets a job as a domestic servant. All she wants to finish her education and become a teacher but in Nigeria, the odds are stacked against her.

Thought-provoking Narratives, Rich In Issues

There are times when my brain is overworked or stress levels are rising, when all I want is a book that equals pure escapism (crime fiction usually does the trick).

In normal times however, my reading taste inclines more to novels that open my eyes to new perspectives and challenge me to think about an issue. These are the types of novels I tend to remember a long time after I’ve closed the last page.

I’m thinking of novels along the lines of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet which explores the issue of identity and different ways in which this can be suppressed. The main thread is about twin sisters of colour, one of whom tries to ‘pass’ for white but there are parallels through other characters who change their gender with medical intervention or cross dressing.

Another novel that comes to mind in this category is The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa , a dark and disturbing novel which also tackles the question of identity. Set in a world controlled by a totalitarian regime, this slim work shows how memory and the ability to connect with objects from our past, is an essential human quality. Without it, there can be no soul.

Atmospheric Setting

If you could see your way to writing more narratives that have the ability to transport me to another place, that would be wonderful. I particularly love novels that describe a location and evoke its atmosphere so vividly I feel as if I’m walking its streets, sitting in its cafes and absorbing its smells for real.

One novel that does that brilliantly is 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak, an extraordinary tale of sex worker “Tequila Leila”, who as she lies dying in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul, recalls the key phrases of her life. It’s very much a sensory journey; we smell the lemon, sugar and water that bubbles on on the stove of her childhood home and taste the strong cardamom coffee she drinks at the brothel in Istanbul. With the aid of a map at the beginning of the novel, we can trace her journey through the city to her final resting place at the Cemetery of the Companionless.

A very different narrative, but equally atmospheric, is Twelve Nights by Urs Faes. The first page plunges us into the heart of Germany’s Black Forest, as it introduces a man who walks through swirling snow towards a valley clothed in grey mist. Almost every page that follows adds to that image, taking us deeper and deeper into the forested valleys that seem closed off from the rest of the world.

Looking Back, Authentically

I loved historical fiction ever since I was in my first year of secondary school, particularly those novels set in World War 1 or in the 15th to 17th centuries. I’ve experienced plenty of duds along the way – far too many authors writing in this genre feel the need to stuff their narrative with all the research they undertook.

The best historical fiction writers have deep knowledge of the facts and the people of their chosen period, but they don’t insist on telling me this, they show it in the subtle use of language and rhythms of speech, and in depictions of rituals, attitudes and beliefs. The very very best, go way beyond this, bringing us characters who live and breathe and feel wholly human, rather than just holders of titles.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell does just this with a completely fresh perspective on one of the most celebrated figures from the Elizabethan era: William Shakespeare. From fragments of historical facts, she spins an imaginative tale about the way the Bard turned his grief at the death of his young son, into the tragedy of Hamlet.

O’Farrell’s novel is remarkable but when we come to The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel, I run out of adjectives to describe the brilliance of this novel. It’s the final part of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, a man of very lowly origins who grew to occupy the highest offices of the land under the patronage of King Henry VIII. I was wowed by both of the earlier novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but the final episode trumps even those.

Mantel isn’t telling us about Cromwell and the agility it takes to hold his critics at bay and keep the King’s favour. She seems to be Cromwell, inhabiting his thoughts so fully and drawing us along with her so it’s as if we are sitting inside his head and seeing events through his eyes. It’s a masterpiece that sets the bar high for all future historical novels.

Complex Relationships

My final appeal to all you authors is to get cracking on thoughtful, poignant narratives that show the complexities and messiness of family relationships.

I don’t much care for lovey-dovey relationship stuff or anything that publishers describe as “heart-warming” but – I’m not steering you towards the opposite end of the spectrum either. The Greeks captured the market with tales of completely dysfunctional families so I’m not looking for mothers who kill their children or kings murdered by their wives.

But messy relationships, rivalries, jealousies and betrayals – bring them on!

Ann Patchett gives a modern twist to the tradition of the wicked step-mother in The Dutch House. As soon as she sets foot in the gloriously-furnished Philadelphia house, she sets to work to undermine her newly-acquired son and daughter. Her big opportunity to get them out of her life completely comes when her husband dies. Banished from their childhood home and left out of an inheritance, they are drawn ever closer to each other.

Even more messy is the father and daughter relationship in The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan. In this exquisitely written tale, Flanagan shows the despair and pain at the heart of the tension between Bojan Buloh and his daughter Sonja. They are both grieving after his wife walked out of their home in Tasmania, leaving behind the three year old girl. As years pass their relationship gets steadily worse. The question is whether it has become so broken it can be repaired.

Obviously I don’t want all you authors feeling constrained or thinking you have to write to a formula but if you could just nudge your writing in these directions, I’d be dead chuffed. I’m sure you’ll rise to the challenge.

Waiting with breathless anticipation ….

Karen @BookerTalk

This post is my attempt at the topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by thatartsyreadergirl : “Books I Loved that Made Me Want More Books Like Them”. I’d love to get your recommendations for books that fit the categories I’ve used. I know I have hundreds of unread books already but that’s no reason to stop adding more titles to the wishlist. By the way, do you have particular themes or styles that you love and return to regularly?


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

62 thoughts on “Dear Authors – This Reader Wants More Courage, Complexity and Atmosphere

  • Finished The Girl With the Louding Voice. Not the best novel I’ve ever read, definitely one with a message that needs to be heard. Adunni gives women in her country a much needed voice.

  • I’ve also been reflecting on what sort of books appeal to me now. It’s changed after many decades of voracious and indiscriminate reading. Your appeal to authors amused me though: we write what we must write because of who we are. Luckily for every author there are readers who want what they write. As for the redemption-by -bookstore genre,I would have heartily agreed… Until I read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.

    • Our tastes do evolve over time don’t they. Ic can’t believe I am the same person who devoured Dennis Wheatley all those decades ago since I loathe anything to do with magic, fantasy etc. But that’s what the process of maturity is all about I suppose, trying different things before you decide what really works for you

      • Or the world has changed over time and we change with it. Fascinating tangle of cause and effect.

        • That happens too -there are fashions in literature so some authors rise once more into the light after being largely unknown for so long while others disappear.

  • Here, here. I completely agree. And if I can add one thought: Could editors please go back to editing? I’ve read a lot of books that could have been much better if an editor had snipped off a chapter or two and had helped a writer rework some parts of the story.

    • That’s an excellent addition to the wish list Deb. I’ve come across books too that I thought could have been more closely edited – including one supposedly set in Victorian England where a character said they were “bored of….” something. My eyebrows shot up so high I think they reached the moon

  • I enjoyed reading this open letter, Karen. Although I haven’t read any of the books you’ve mentioned (we’ve got different reading tastes lol!), I could empathise with the points you were making.

    • I suspect most readers would want good characters, atmopshere etc so shouldn’t be too much of an ask should it?

  • I completely share your views about the types of books I’d like to see more of! Yes to books that are deeply, authentically historical and are about complex relationships and issues. And I agree on the books I’ve read – The Vanishing Half, Hamnet, and The Dutch House were all excellent.

    • I was surprised to see a number of bloggers say they were not that enamoured with Hamnet

        • Take a look at Kim at Reading Matters – she just posted her commentary

  • Pingback: Saturday Miscellany—6/12/21 – The Irresponsible Reader

  • Sending you an electronic round of applause for this post. I thought it was just me, feeling fed-up what with lockdown, and rolling blackouts, so I’m cheered to learn that others feel as you do.

    I recently read Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger and would like to read more of his work. He avoids the
    recurring lightweight tropes and wrote a satisfying, thoughtful novel.
    Thanks for the many comments and suggestions from other readers

    • I wonder if there are more books with women victims or am I just more tuned into it?

  • I would say that Sam Youd’s A Palace of Strangers, which I reviewed recently, fits into many categories—Thought-provoking Narratives, Rich In Issues (mixed marriages, apostasy, prejudice)—Looking Back, Authentically (just after WWI and creeping into the 1950s)—Complex Relationships (extended family across countries)—well, I enjoyed it, as you may have guessed!

    • I’d never have guessed that you enjoyed it! Since it ticks so many of the categories I mention I have to look it up now

      • ‘Enjoy’ is such a catch-all word, isn’t it, perhaps there wasn’t a lot of joy as such (what with war and prejudice and so on) so perhaps ‘appreciate’ or ‘admire’ might be better. I certainly got great satisfaction out of this in terms of description, language and a sense of authenticity, but in my review possibly not enough of this got across.

  • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    I 👏 HEAR 👏 YOU! 👏

    Finding crime thrillers that don’t have a dead-or-missing-girl has become a passion project of mine 😅 The Hiding Place by Jenny Quintana is a recent favourite.

    As for thought-provoking/issue narratives, the first one that came to mind was Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid. Colson Whitehead also does it really well.

    • My niece has been nagging me to read the Kiley Reid and I think she even gave me a copy. Not yet read though.

  • I love how you wrote this! And I keep hearing about The Dutch House, the description didn’t appeal to me at all, but it keeps getting recommended… and since I share much of your taste, I should take this as a sign!

    • It has a complicated time frame that was frustrating at times but there were many aspects of that book that were wonderful.

  • I share the feeling about these books and I try to avoid them.

    That’s why I love books published by Gallmeister in France (they’re in a Gallmeister category on my blog)
    I highly recommend
    – Books by David Vann
    – A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do by Pete Fromm
    – The Signal by Ron Carlson
    – The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart
    – The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage.
    – The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage.

    • By an amazing coincidence I bought the Power of the Dog for my husband’s birthday. I’d not heard of it previously but found it in a bookshop and thought it sounded interesting. The other books you mention are new names for me – thanks Emma for adding to my wishlist

  • Hear hear, Karen.
    Though to be fair, I haven’t read much of what is boring you because I am resisting the flood of books that are bogged down in just the ways you describe.
    There is just so much dreary, boring, repetitive, whining stuff around that I am finding that the best way to deal with anything that tempts a little but is hyped by publishers I don’t trust any more, is to put it on reserve at the library. Once it’s in my hands, I can establish very quickly if it’s dross or not, and I’m not under any obligation to review it.

    • I do the same Lisa, I don’t like wasting money so if I’m unsure of an author or the story line I’ll just get it from the library. That way I don’t feel guilty about wasting money if I don’t care for it.

  • I struggled with many of these concepts myself, but in the end, I just went ahead and laid my soul bare. Truly made for some seriously authentic writing!

  • That’s a sound wishlist, Karen, but perhaps rather than expecting other writers to deliver, perhaps it’s time for you to get down to some writing. After all, Toni Morrison once said, “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

    • I got asked this question in the interview I did with Paul for ReadAllAboutIt – I told him about my one and only attempt at writing a novel. I decided it was best left to the experts!

  • I am about to start The Girl with the Louding Voice. Looking forward to it thanks to your blog. Recently finished Expectation which I really loved. A realistic view on friendship between three friends.

    • I do hope you connect with Louding Voice – it’s not a novel that it feels right to say ‘enjoy’

      • Sometimes you are captured, gripped, not necessarily enjoying what you are reading. I hope Louding Voice will capture me.

        • That’s so true. Sometimes the books make for uncomfortable reading but they are nevertheless memorable and compelling

  • I share your distaste for those child abuse/violence against women narratives, Karen. It’s even more dismaying that the latter are so often written by women.

    • I hadn’t noticed that connection Susan. I wonder why its women doing that kind of writing – personal experience influencing them maybe?

      • I do hope not! I wish publishers would switch their focus but, unfortunately, the books are often commercial successes.

        • That’s the problem isn’t it – as long as the publishers see there is a market opening for that kind of a book, they will keep signing up authors to produce those narratives.

  • As for recommendations, although you may have read some:

    The Wars (WWI) by Timothy Findley
    The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout (I know, it’s a Western; trust me on this)
    The Jaguar’s Children by John Vallant
    Dog Boy by Eva Hornung
    Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
    Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott
    From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
    Harvest by Jim Crace
    The Western Wind by Samatha Harvey

    This was a good exercise for me because I’ve been feeling as if good books never come along – but these are just a few from a longer list of books I’ve read in the last eight years. There should be more, but maybe that special feeling after finishing a great book wouldn’t be so special if it happened several times a month.

    • You’ve listed two that I’ve read and loved. Harvest was simply wonderful and it mystifies me why it didn’t win the Booker Prize. I also love Donal Ryan’s writing.
      The other authors are new names to me but I’m definitely going to check them out.

      There are lots of books I enjoyed immensely but the number that are truly stand out to the extent I can remember them for years after, is a much smaller list

      • Entertaining post Karen. I think I must be reading the wrong books because I haven’t really come across books I don’t want to read. I don’t read crime so I haven’t come across the issue of crime based on abuse of women or children, and I don’t think I’ve read any/many books about women opening bookshops or cafes etc. I probably agree with you about the sorts of things you are looking for, and I feel that they are the sorts of books I’m reading. Then again, I cold be a bit brain dead right now and can’t remember exactly what I have read!

        I certainly avoid books labelled as here-warming, achingly beautiful etc. As soon as I read the word “aching” applied to a book or film, I want to retch. (It’s like all the tight-knit communities around the world when disasters strike. Have you ever come across one that isn’t? Cant journalists hear themselves? Anyhow, I’m going off on a tangent here.)

        In Debbie’s list, I can vouch for Timothy Findley, though I haven’t the title she’s named. And, I have read and reviewed Eva Hornung’s Dog boy (she’s Australian but this is set in Russia.)

        Somehow this refused to let me connect to WordPress so I am going to have to enter all my details from scratch. This often happens to me when I comment on my devices but not on my laptop as I am now. Grrrr…

        • Sorry to hear about those technical issues Sue, I’m having a battle when trying to comment on other blogs via my Ipad. It won’t let me see what I’ve actually written so the comment usually ends up as nonsensical.

          I’ll join you in frustrations about the paucity of vocab used in media news programmes but it’s not just the journalists at fault. I cringe every time I hear politicians say “our thoughts and prayers are with the families” – it’s trotted out after every disaster and crisis and has long ceased to have any meaning or effect. Equally detestable is the phrase “lessons will be learned” when an institution is found to have messed up. You know those lessons never will be learned. Sigh….

  • Yes! I think those fulfilment through cafe books are just what they make authors write who fill the shelves of The Works (and then the local charity shops now). Can be fun if well-done but tiring if you read too many!

    • They serve a market obviously otherwise they wouldn’t ever get bought though judging by the vast numbers you see in discount stores, they’re not that popular!

      • Ah, I think they are – I suspect they are commissioned straight for The Works etc and they often have empty shelves here and then I see the books appearing in the charity shops locally, sometimes taking them over, so I think they’re a disposable commodity that is bought, read once, charity shopped then onwards!

        • I never thought about the possibility that they were commissioned specifically for the Works kind of market. There is another category that probably has the same origins – Christmas related stories. I see loads of them in The Works

  • Fabulous post….I share so many of your thoughts! Complicated family is definitely a category I love! I think my fav is A Place For Us…have you read it? I also admired O’Farrell’s work in Hamnet! My TTT post took a similar bent (in that I identified categories) but it wasn’t addressed to authors which is a brilliant spin!

    • I don’t know that book – who is it by?
      Hamnet is fabulous – it’s our book club choice for this month so I’m looking forward to the discussion

      • A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza ….on my favs list… author was 26 when she wrote this and I thought how does she know all this….know so much about complicated family dynamics…it’s also multi generational which I love. So much to love…the fathers viewpoint in the end wrecked me in the best possible way.

        • Sounds interesting so will add to my wishlist. If you hadn’t told me about it, I would probably dismiss it for exactly that reason – how can a 26 year know that much.

        • I’ve been surprised to find a number of readers weren’t sold on it

  • I love this!

    I have been wanting to read Wolf Hall and this has definitely sold me on it.

    I also love messy relationships and The Dutch House is a favourite!

    • My husband just read Wolf Hall – he found it challenging but rewarding. Hope you enjoy it enough to want to read the remaining books

  • Bravo! Excellent ideas. I am currently stuck in one of those historical fiction books (my own fault–I didn’t recognize the author when I clicked on the Net Galley request button). She has facts and figures pouring out of mouths and boring me senseless. If I wanted to know that kind of stuff I’d look it up. I want to know about the lives of the people working with it or whatever. It is also a “Twin” book (as I call them) two books appearing just a bit too close together on just a bit too similar of a topic. It hasn’t been long enough since the first twin. Good post.

    • Ugh I hate those kinds of books – like you my interest lies in the stories of the people, how they lived, what they wore and eat for example. Anything else I can just look up in an academic book


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