Literary Tastes: Celebrating the Best Genre Reading of the Year

June 29, 2014

The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) hosted Sunday morning’s “Literary Tastes: Celebrating the Best Reading of the Year” program. Sponsored by publishers Penguin, HarperCollins, and Macmillan, the program featured talks by four authors who won the 2014 Notable Book Award and Reading List Book Awards, which honor authors in genre fiction and nonfiction. The program featured authors Tessa Dare, Christopher Buehlman, Victoria Schwab, and Daniel J. Brown.

A second home in books

Tessa Dare, author of Any Duchess Will Do, explained that her presence in the Reading List Book Awards may be somewhat unfair because Dare is a librarian herself as is her book’s protagonist. What more could librarians want from a historical romance?

Any Duchess Will Do is a work in a genre that is often denigrated: romance. Dare wanted to write a novel with a female heroine who could have her cake and eat it too, or as Dare explained, a book in which “the women got to have sex and then didn’t die!” The novel is set in 19th-century England and features a foul-mouthed barmaid and would-be librarian Pauline, along with a cast of unconventional women.

Dare’s love of books and libraries began at a young age. As a child, Dare’s family moved frequently, which meant her constant companions were books and the familiar libraries and bookstores she found in every new town. Just as she found “a second home in books,” so does her novel’s heroine.

The author called on librarians to be welcoming to their genre readers who take solace in books and libraries as librarians themselves do. She thanked the librarians in the audience for being attentive to romance readers’ needs, but also asked them to spread the word to colleagues who may not be as welcoming to the genre. All romance readers, she said, were familiar with smug smirks from bookstore clerks or disorganized romance shelves in libraries. Librarians must welcome readers of all genres, not predetermine which genres are worthy of the library’s support. Librarians can help all readers find their second home in books.

An author’s anecdotes

Christopher Buehlman, author of The Necromancer’s House, began by admitting that he normally only speaks to audiences to insult them. Buehlman, also known as “Christoph the Insulter” moonlights as an insult comic at festivals. Although Buehlman was kind enough not to insult the Literary Tastes audience, he had the audience laughing.

The Necromancer’s House is the tale of a roguish wizard with a drinking problem who has to confront past mistakes and inhuman horror. How to describe the novel’s genre? As Buehlman put it, “Literary horror sounds pretentious, dark fiction sounds vague, urban fantasy sounds limiting—who would want to read suburban fantasy?” Yet, The Necromancer’s House seems to occupy the intersection between fantasy (dare I say urban fantasy) and horror.

Buehlman treated the audience to a reading of his award-winning novel, which featured loping prose and an unstable main character. The author also shared some true stories from his personal interaction with libraries. Although his was a somewhat antagonistic relationship, he commented that libraries were a place for him to learn about obscure topics like the ankylosaurus and trebuchets.  All the arcane knowledge he gleaned made it possible for him to ground his fiction in the real word, creating worlds that seem believable for mysterious forces that seem impossible.

A golden age for villains

Victoria Schwab, or V. E. Schwab as she appears on book covers, spoke about why people love stories about villains. Culture has shifted from glorifying spandex-clad heroes to analyzing the tragic pasts of brooding demi-gods and sympathetic sociopaths. Schwab’s first adult novel, Viscious, asks readers to deal with the moral failings of its protagonists. She asks readers to face the dilemma of whom to root for when all the characters are bad people doing bad things?

Vicious offers a view into two friends’ “existential crisis on a super-powered scale.” The story of two college friends developing super-powers and becoming enemies is a classic superhero origin story. Schwab began the tale as a flashback to explain the motivations of characters acting in a world where the words “hero” and “villain” have no meaning. Then the flashback turned into a standalone novel of its own, Vicious.

A world of words and ideas

Daniel J. Brown (not to be confused with Dan Brown), author of The Boys in the Boat, was this year’s Notable Books winner in nonfiction.  The Boys in the Boat is a classic underdog story: the University of Washington’s rowing team, comprised of the sons of farmers and mill workers, goes on to compete in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The team, despite its hardships, competed in the games that Hitler oversaw, rowing its way to victory.

Brown told the audience about his long-standing love of libraries, too. He came to a love of libraries from an unlikely source: dropping out of high school. After quitting high school, his mother arranged for him to take correspondence courses to complete his diploma. Part of the deal involved Brown spending hours in the library each day. He took up in the UC Berkeley Library and never looked back. After completing high school, he went on to finish a graduate degree and make a home in academia.

Brown’s fascination with libraries is what made The Boys in the Boat possible. Researching at the University of Washington’s Suzzalo Library, he had access to archives that covered everything from the 1936 Games to the rowing team coach’s logs. Brown reminded librarians that, although many see libraries as a repository of old books, libraries “are very often the wellsprings of new topics and new books.”

LINDSEY HALSELL is an analyst for the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education in California’s Department of Consumer Affairs. She blogs at

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