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Books, Features

What’s Your Kind of Book?

FeetOnce again thanks to Ben Blackman and Sanjida O’Connell for contributing such stimulating guest posts and for keeping the Literary Sofa in business whilst I was, I hope, career-advancingly occupied.  Ben and Sanjida proved to be extremely popular guests sending the stats soaring and I’m hoping they’ll both make return visits to coincide with their new releases (no pressure, Ben).

I’m very pleased to report that my manuscript is finished!  It’s been proofread, which bizarrely resulted in large quantities of fictional champagne going missing thanks to a Search and Replace operator error.  It’s being given the once-over by some new and discerning readers and I am very close to pressing Send.  I’ve kept agents waiting for a month – I hope they’ll think it was worth it.

It’s strange coming to the end of such a big undertaking, especially after this intense final push.  So many extra hours have appeared in the day.  Weekends are back!  I’ve finally cleaned my house and now have time to lose myself in my reading for Hot Picks 2014, which looks like being the best listing so far.  I still can’t get my head round a What I’ve Learned post (and when I do, I’ll have to resist calling it How Wrong Can You Be?) but today’s is about one particular aspect.

There’s nothing like the feeling when you tell someone about your novel, or they read the pitch, and they respond with, That sounds like my kind of book/my cup of tea/right up my street/words to that effect.  It’s something I often find myself saying about books.  It made me reflect on what exactly produces that buzz of excitement and anticipation, and of course it’s different for everybody.  As usual, I engaged my Twitter followers on the topic, asking if there was a ‘kind’ of book they were especially drawn to, more specifically than the broader concept of genre.  And as usual, the responses I got were very interesting.

TeaNow, as you will know if you’ve ever tried to discuss anything complex on Twitter, the confines of 140 characters can be a challenge.  I was pulled into conversations about voice and writing, and I agree that those are key factors in deciding if a book is your thing when you read it.  But for now, I’m thinking about the stage before:  what propels you to buy or pick the book up in the first place:  a pitch, a blurb (which may be on the back or inside cover), word of mouth, the title, the cover.  I’m fascinated by all the things which combine to produce that Ooh! Moment.  Or not.

Here’s a small selection of things my Twitter friends get excited about in fiction:

Time travel, especially involving secret tunnels (really)

Middle-aged, middle-class women having angsty meltdowns

Books about art, places and ‘non-places’

Books within books, where part of the story is told by letters, diary or manuscript

‘Overliterate bitterness,’ à la disgruntled pedagogue bemoans literary success of junior colleague

Great answers!  This was exactly the kind of specific and charmingly idiosyncratic stuff I was hoping for, and am guilty of myself.

I’m such a fan of contemporary American writing that I could happily read nothing else for the rest of my days.  It often seems to have a crisp, pared-down quality that I really enjoy.  OK, that is the opposite of specific, but it does go some way to explaining ‘my kind of book’:

I love books set in New York and especially Brooklyn so much that my own is partly set there.  Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude set in the 1970s was a huge inspiration to me when I came to write those parts.  Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is a classic.

Characterisation matters to me and I adore family sagas (we’re talking dysfunctional of course – try writing a novel about any other kind.) Especially Irish and/or Catholic (been there) or Jewish (can’t explain, except that I have a lot of Jewish friends).  Often set on the east coast, in fact, often in Maine:  The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman, Maine by Courtney Sullivan.

I enjoy the intensity of novels set in a closed world, especially an academic institution:  Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont.

Finally, any book featuring a mysterious, old or abandoned house will make my eyes light up:  The Thirteenth Chapter by Diane Setterfield, Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  There’s one in my next book!

Since I read most new titles in proof without the final artwork, I’m not as influenced by covers as I used to be – until I’m actually in a bookshop and then that reflex kicks back in.  However, a title is a real dealmaker/breaker.  I’ve made a beeline for many on that basis alone, but have probably been put off by just as many.

I try to keep an open mind and not always head straight for my comfort zone in my choice of fiction.  One of the joys of reading is discovering novels you wouldn’t have expected to enjoy, after all, and that’s where social media and book groups really come into their own.  But there’s something rather wonderful about that ‘my kind of book’ moment.

What does it for you?

Thanks to Alan Bowden, June Seghni, Benjamin Dreyer, Ryan Adams, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Shana DuBois, Matt Greene and Wendy Ogden for a great discussion.


Next week my How to Run a Successful Book Blog guide will be appearing on the excellent For Books’ Sake website – do check it out!

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


10 thoughts on “What’s Your Kind of Book?

  1. Aren’t the best kind of books the ones you thought weren’t your kind of book but surprised you?

    On the other hand, I was told one literary agent’s favourite kind of books (for personal reading) were ones that were set in south-east Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, etc.). Not sure if that’s a genre.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | October 16, 2013, 23:03
  2. Congratulations on getting it finished and hope those agents snap it up. Nevertheless, I imagine you miss it, even though lots more time for reading and tweeting.
    I think it’s so much easier to say what’s not my kind of book than what is, although I think I’m getting more of a sense of it through selecting and discarding novels for my website author interviews and wondering if that’s kind of how it worked for you. I definitely like dark and quirky (surely that word means different things to different people) and, as I’m exploring in my latest blog post, novels that bend the rules on character motivation.
    Hard as it is to define, I think it’s important for writers to try to define what we like to be clearer what we’re aiming for ourselves and therefore knowing what kind of advice to accept on improving the MS

    Posted by Annecdotist | October 17, 2013, 07:58
    • Hi Anne and thank you. It feels a relief and exciting, though also scary of course. Will check out your latest blog. Yes, I too like dark and difficult as long as not unmitigated. My list of books I don’t go for would begin: frothy, light and as for whimsical….!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | October 17, 2013, 22:52
  3. Congratulations, first of all, it must be a very satisfying feeling!
    As for what books attract me: I like to keep my mind open for surprises, but do gravitate towards books set in interesting locations (either ones I have visited and liked, or ones I am unlikely to visit but would like to find out more about). I like books in translation – I finally got over my fear that I might be missing out too much of the original. And I too feel a secret yearning for books set in academic environments.

    Posted by MarinaSofia | October 17, 2013, 21:24
  4. Hi Isabel, I love a novel that makes me laugh and cry. I love a good romance, and I’m quite partial to ghost stories. I prefer shorter novels and often (but not always) lose patience with, and give up on, long ones. I love surprising and/or dramatic endings too. Above all, I love characters who are fascinating and keep me reading.

    Many congrats on getting to this exciting stage with your novel x

    Posted by Louise | October 18, 2013, 20:56
  5. Hi Louise
    Sorry I’ve been so remiss replying to comments lately. Am determined to mend my ways now the book’s finished. Thanks for your encouragement, and for sharing your taste in books. I feel the same way now re hugely long novels but am hoping Donna Tartt won’t let me down!

    Posted by Isabel Costello | October 24, 2013, 13:09
  6. Deep comfort zone: novels set in multi-lingual and multinational Eastern European places with lots of local, circumstantial, social and historical detail. Claustrophobic discomfort zone: middle class “relationship” novels. But there are quite a lot of good books somewhere in between which I sometimes happen upon by chance.

    Posted by Tom Voute | October 28, 2013, 12:16


  1. Pingback: 2013 – My Year in Books | Isabel Costello - November 28, 2013

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