Click here for quick access to all of the materials for the 2014-15 Crime Fiction Genre Study. Please note, some information will be password protected for members only. Click here for information about joining ARRT.


I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information.

Friday, November 21, 2014

BPL Book Discussion Report: Brain on Fire

On Monday, our group met to discuss the memoir Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan.

From the publisher
One day in 2009, twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. A wristband marked her as a “flight risk,” and her medical records—chronicling a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory at all—showed hallucinations, violence, and dangerous instability. 
Only weeks earlier, Susannah had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: a healthy, ambitious college grad a few months into her first serious relationship and a promising career as a cub reporter at a major New York newspaper. Who was the stranger who had taken over her body? What was happening to her mind? 
In this swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her inexplicable descent into madness and the brilliant, lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. A team of doctors would spend a month—and more than a million dollars—trying desperately to pin down a medical explanation for what had gone wrong. 
Meanwhile, as the days passed and her family, boyfriend, and friends helplessly stood watch by her bed, she began to move inexorably through psychosis into catatonia and, ultimately, toward death. Yet even as this period nearly tore her family apart, it offered an extraordinary testament to their faith in Susannah and their refusal to let her go.
Then, at the last minute, celebrated neurologist Souhel Najjar joined her team and, with the help of a lucky, ingenious test, saved her life. He recognized the symptoms of a newly discovered autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain, a disease now thought to be tied to both schizophrenia and autism, and perhaps the root of “demonic possessions” throughout history. 
Far more than simply a riveting read and a crackling medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity and to rediscover herself among the fragments left behind. Using all her considerable journalistic skills, and building from hospital records and surveillance video, interviews with family and friends, and excerpts from the deeply moving journal her father kept during her illness, Susannah pieces together the story of her “lost month” to write an unforgettable memoir about memory and identity, faith and love. It is an important, profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.
Let’s move right on to the discussion:

  • We had 9 liked, 0 disliked, and 3 so-sos.
  • Opening comments had some nice back and forth:
    • So factual. Not enough mix with creative. I guess I just didn’t like the writing style
    • But, she is a journalist and she wrote this like a journalist. Facts come first in that kind of writing.
    • I am in the health care field, so many of the ah-ha moments I was aware of.  Not the diagnosis, but the fact of how the system works.
  • Since most of the opening comments were about writing style, I steered us a little more formally in that direction by saying, “It is written in a very distinctive style. "
    • The frequent switches between casual to technical bothered me.
    • I loved the way she did that because that’s how her life was during this time.
    • It was so compelling, but I have to say, knowing she ended up okay and wrote this book helped me to get through.  If someone else had written the book, I might not have been able to continue. If had I gotten to the end and she died, I would have been devastated.
    • Yes, the story has a happy ending, but it is hard and scary to read.
    • The writing style made me feel like I was falling apart as she was falling apart.
    • Becky, who grew up reading the New York Post told the group that the entire book is sort of written like a Post article-- sensational, quick bursts, easy flowing language, not flowery or beautiful language.
    • She attacked the story of her disease and recovery like a newspaper story.
    • Interesting that both her parents kept journals.
  • Question: Personality...what makes it? Is it static?
    • I hate to say this, but as she feel apart mentally, I liked her less and less. If she had a physical disease like cancer, I would never have felt this way about her. But because the disease completely changed her personality, she became someone I did not like. [I thanked this participant for being so candid and honest.]
    • She definitely needed a support system of people who knew who she was BEFORE. They had to fight to get that person back when she was at her worst because the doctors and nurses only saw the crazy person. No one treating her knew who she really was.
    • Personality is never set.  Our experiences shape it.
    • Trauma can change you forever.  She will never be the same carefree person she was before.
    • She has PTSD, as do her parents and Stephen, probably
  • Question: Identity...what makes it?
    • Identity is more significant and deeper.
    • One person shared something she read by Elie Wiesel about Alzheimers as she was caring for her mother when she was dying from the disease. He described Alzheimers as a book where everything is gone but the cover. That cover is there; it is the identity, but the true person, their personality, is gone.  This is what Cahalan is like.
    • But her identity is forever altered by the fact that she had this disease, went crazy, and almost died.  It has become part of who she is.
  • Question: How did this book change the way you think about memory?
    • I can’t get over how she remembers clearly that her step father called her a “slut” in the car on the way to the hospital, but it never happened.
    • The idea that our brains can clearly remember things that never happened is scary.
    • It is like when you have a realistic dream and you could swear it was all real and actually happened.
    • Yes, in fact, things that didn’t happen become more real to her than things that did.  Her recreation of that fact and how it feels made for a compelling and interesting read.
    • Drugs and her illness also effected her memory.
    • There were huge things that happened to her, that she was a participant in, that she has absolutely no memory of.
    • She had to reconstruct her life and rebuild her memory, but as a journalist, not as the person who it happened to.  Weird. The only perspectives she had were from others and the videos of herself.
    • How much of our own memory is from the perspective of others? Probably quite a lot.
  • Question: Why did she write this book?
    • I cannot imagine trying to explain an incident in my life that I had no memory of.
    • She needed to write the book to heal as a person and to have the confidence to go back to work as a journalist.
    • It started as a vehicle to get back to work.
    • As she began to help and touch others, she felt inspired to keep going.
  • Question: The term mental illness?
    • I don’t think I could ever use the term “mental illness” again. I think I would call everything just illness.
    • Yes, we don’t call a heart attack, cardiac illness. Do we call arthritis ambulatory illness? No.
    • This book showed me that mental illness can have a physical basis.
    • We don’t know enough to know if something is “mental” illness or “physical" illness, so why use the word mental at all.
  • Question: The title...Brain on Fire.?
    • I did not like it because she had an inflammation.  That can go back down with little damage. Fire damage can not be so easily fixed.
    • But an inflammation is hot like fire.
    • Also, fire can cause quick and sudden change.
    • I saw it like an electric fire in her brain.
    • Fire is an emergency always.  The brain is the center of us. Fire and Brain together is a bad thing. Very illustrative.
    • Again Becky shared her NY Post experience. The title of the book was just like a NY Post headline; they are famous for them.
  • Question: The use of faith in the memoir?:
    • Faith in its purest sense is used powerfully in this book.
    • The family has faith that if they keep searching for the truth, they will get her back.  They know they might never find it, but they have faith.
    • They had faith that something was more wrong with her than a psychotic break.
    • Most importantly they had faith that she would heal.
    • I saw this book as an extreme example of real love and true faith. Her parents didn’t love each other, but they truly loved her.  Stephen had true and deep love for her too.
    • Their love gave her faith to heal and live.
  • Some final comments:
    • Stephen loved her and stayed with her even when the real her was not there anymore.
    • The two family weddings she goes to during her recovery were very illustrative of how she was doing.
    • I liked how she described feeling herself coming back as she was typing.
    • I was so scared for her when she couldn’t read or write.  She is journalist and an avid reader. As a reader it terrified me.
    • She was so lucky.  Luck saved her as much as medicine, and she knows that.
  • We always end with words or phrases to sum up the book and close the discussion:
    • compassionate
    • difficult
    • heartbreaking
    • scary
    • search for truth
    • fascinating
    • compelling
    • meaning of illness
    • resiliency
    • mistakes in medicine
    • accurate diagnosis
    • lack of control
    • edgy
    • memory
    • enduring love

Readalikes: Before I get to similar reads, I want to direct people to Cahalan’s website which has a lot of information and suggested reading lists.

There are a couple of directions you can go here.  First, this is a true story of a difficult time.  It is hard to read, but has a happy ending.  This reminded me of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, about which I clearly said as I was reading it, “their life is horrible, but I am really enjoying this book.” I felt weird saying it then, but it was true then as it is now with Brain on Fire.

During the discussion, someone mentioned this memoir reminded her of Everybody’s Got Something by Robin Roberts. "That was a book about hope too,” she shared.

If you have access to NoveList, there is a great “Recommended Reads” list that contain Brain on Fire. [You can find a link to it in the Brain on Fire entry.] There are many books there which look at the way we learn about and battle diseases, such as The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

A few others health and memory related nonfiction titles that may appeal to those who enjoyed Brain on Fire are:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair

Earlier this summer I listened to the audio of one of Europe’s recent bestsellers, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair [herein HQA] by Joel Dicker. I have waited to write this review because I was very torn on who to suggest this book to.  Recently someone came in asking about it after a friend recommended it, so I had to wrap myself around who this book is best suited for whether I was ready to or not.

Part of my hesitation comes form the marketing campaign for this book.  It was pegged as a "literary thriller."  While this is technically true, it is also extremely misleading.  Unlike The Goldfinch or Night Film, which are literary fiction titles that have a large thriller storyline, HQA is a thriller with a publishing world frame, as the story is about authors, mysterious masterpiece novels, and the unsolved murder of a young girl.

Which brings me to the complicated plot first.  This is a book within a book, within a book, within another book, and, quite possibly, within a book 2 more times [if you really want to be specific and annoying]. I could go into a long explanation of the plot here, but if you want that click here. Rather I am going to give you a bare bones sketch.

In 1975 a young girl named Nola Kellergan disappears.  But our story open 33 years later as a writer, Marcus Kellergan, who is struggling to come up with what to write as the follow up to his smash debut novel, is called by his old mentor and writing teacher, Harry Quebert.  Nola's body has been found on Harry's property and he has been arrested for her murder.

What follows is a story told in parallel narratives, one taking place in 1975 and one in the present, as Marcus unravels the truth behind Nola's death.  In the process of the cold case being investigated, Marcus also writes 2 bestselling books about his investigation, the second of which is the book we the readers are reading right now.  He also uncovers way more than just who killed Nola. [Cue sound effects.... da, da, DAAAAA!]

After reading the novel I will say that while it has a HUGE literary frame it is NOT literary.  It is a fun, compelling, intricately plotted, very dramatic thriller.  That thriller part is the key.  HQA has all of the hallmarks of a solid thriller, but that also means it has some of the draw backs.  Depending on whether or not thrillers are your thing this will be awesome or a problem. You can decide for yourself into which camp you fall with the quick list I made below.

Thriller aspects HQA nails:

  • intricate plot twists which keep coming and coming and coming.
  • plot over character development-- characters aren't bad, but many are drawn with broad strokes and rely on familiar stereotypes and tropes, as is common in many thrillers.
  • a compelling, page turning pace despite a long page count.
  • shocking conclusions that go beyond the simple "who dunnit."
  • a great frame-- thrillers stand out from suspense from their reliance on frame, often from a particular profession.  Here the publishing industry is splayed wide open. [For more from me on what makes something a thriller, you can see this older post, but if you are part of the ARRT genre study, we have detailed notes from our long conversation on the issue just last month.]

One word of caution: This is also a novel about the American literary landscape, set in New England, written by someone who lives in Europe.  There were definitely moments when I felt like Dicker relied on stereotypes and used very broad strokes to create his frame.  Now, as someone who lived in New England while getting a BA in American Studies with a focus on literature, I realized before starting this novel that I could be so familiar with the landscape and frame that I would not be satisfied by anyone's portrayal of it, but I have asked a few people who are not as well versed as myself and they too agreed that it was a bit obvious that Dicker is not American.

But judged on its own merits, and not on the mis-marketing by the publisher, HQA is a solid entry into the thriller category.  It makes for a great vacation read.  Despite the plot twists and intricate overlapping of elements and timelines, it is not hard to follow, it moves steadily despite its 650+ page count, and once I let myself go and settled in to listen to the story unveil itself, I had fun. There is a lot of positive to be said for that.

A note on the audio: I could take it or leave it on Pierce Cravens' narration.  His voice was mildly annoying, but then, so too was Marcus, our narrator.  Since I think Dicker wrote Marcus to be slightly annoying, maybe this was on purpose.  For me, this was the type of book I love listening to. I often get upset at the lack of character development and the use of stereotypes as a crutch in many thrillers [but those are some of the reasons their fans love these books, I know], so listening to thrillers allows me to let go a bit more and just let the story wash over me.  I never would have stuck with HQA in print because of my personal genre preferences, but overall, I am glad I listened to it as I now know exactly who to suggest it to. Plus, as I said above, it was a fun read.

Three Words That Describe This Book: parallel storylines, dramatic, intricately plotted

Readalikes: Based on everything I said above, I realized immediately that HQA reminds me a lot of The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer.  Both are thrillers with a new adult coming into his adult career, handling a cold case, with an intricate plot.

In my opinion, today's best writer of dramatic and compelling suspense and/or thrillers that feature ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances who are forced to use the skills they have in their chosen profession to work their way out of the problem is Harlan Coben. So if you have fans of Coben's who are looking for more, try suggesting HQA.

If you really still want a dramatic story with a focus on a mystery surrounding the life of an author, your two best options are Atonement by Ian McEwan (very literary) or The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. [FYI, these are 2 of my all time favs.]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reader's Guide to Tonight's National Book Awards

I am working on catching up on a ton of reviews, so today, please enjoy this great piece from the LA Times  in anticipation of tonight's announcement of the National Book Award winners.

I am excited. This is one of my favorite awards.  Not only do they give out fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, but they also name a young people's literature award.  They are also never afraid to make a bold move, like when they gave Stephen King the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Many people were upset, but not me.  He clearly deserved it.  [Click through for reporting from 2003 on that divisive award.]

This reminds me that you can all watch the National Book Awards on the live stream here.

Also, in general, the NBA website is a fantastic resource for information about American writers.  They have information on every book that makes the finalists lists and they have interesting interviews with authors who have won this citation.

Click here for an example using two time finalist Gene Luen Yang.

In fact, back in 2011 I had this post on using awards lists as an RA tool. Don't forget about all awards lists.

So enjoy the award announcement tonight, but don't forget to use the awards lists and websites as a resource all year long.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New Issue of The Corner Shelf is Available

The newest issue of Booklist’s The Corner Shelf is available with this link.  As usual, it is a treasure trove of information for that space where the work we do with leisure readers and the effort we put into developing our collections meet.

Here is the intro editor Rebecca Vnuk has for the newsletter.
What do drag queens and banned books have in common? More than you might think. Misha Stone and Jared Mills report on "Banned! Books in Drag at SPL," a look at a successful outreach event that found librarians rubbing elbows with drag queens at a Seattle nightclub, all in the name of good reads. Our "Notes from the Field" interview this month features Rita Meade, aka Screwy Decimal. You may know her from her blog of the same name, her Twitter feed (@ScrewyDecimal), or her fabulous children's programming at Brooklyn (NY) Public Library. While you're waiting for the comeback tour of Lost in the Stacks, the library rock band she sings with, take a read and see what else she's been up to (hint: it's a lot!).
This issue also features our biannual "Professional Reading Roundup" to help you stay up-to-speed on the latest Booklist Online exclusive reviews of professional reading titles; and a look at how Baker & Taylor can help you with your A/V collection. ("At the Corner of Baker & Taylor”).
As always, I want to know what you'd like to read about in Corner Shelf. Feel free to contact me at
Rebecca Vnuk, Editor, Reference and Collection Management, Booklist
Use this link to get the details.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Monday Discussion: Annual Thankful Edition

RA for All will be on holiday all next week, which means this is the last Monday before Thanksgiving for the Monday Discussion.  Each year, I have asked you to chime in on what in your professional life you are most thankful for.

I'll go first.

I am thankful that although there is a lot of change going on at our library-- change in staff, change in director, change in an entirely new catalog, changes to our building coming soon---that our patrons keep coming in day after day, with their questions, reading requests, and eagerness to use our services. Things may appear to be in flux, but in reality, none of the most important things really change, The building and the books are firmly entrenched, and they not going anywhere!

Today is also book club day. I am thankful to each and every one of the members of my book club. We all learn so much from each other and we have fun together. Our meetings truly are the highlight of my month at work.

I am also thankful that the oft predicted demise of the printed book and libraries has not come to fruition. I am bombarded with emails on the hottest new books, my new shelves are overflowing with options for readers, and patrons have been leaving with arm-fulls of books all morning.  People are reading lots of ebooks too.  We keep adding more, but the ease of ebooks only appears to be adding to the amount they are reading in all formats.  It is a boon for readers.

No matter where I work now or in the future, I will always be thankful for books.

For today's Monday Discussion, share what you are most thankful for in your chosen field of librarianship.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

My Collection Development Philosophy in a Soundbite

Today I got to spend 2 hours with a library graduate student who was interviewing me for her Readers' Advisory course final paper.

I have done this many times before...heck, I taught the class for 8 years...but nothing makes you really think about why you do what you do more than being interviewed by a grad student.

To prepare for her visit, I really sat down and thought about the questions she was going to ask me.  As a result, I had to think about everything I do, much of it without conscious thought anymore [14 years will do that even to the more introspective among us].

One of the questions she asked me, which I did think about ahead of time, was to define our collection development philosophy.  I came up with the following phrase...

Our fiction collection is Responsive and Responsible.

I am proud of that one because it describes what we strive to do and it is alliterative [always a happy bonus]. But what does it actually mean?

My service community is a pretty typical working to middle class, major city suburb.  We need to have all the big name best sellers, the classics, and a wide collection of good reads in between.

We listen to our patrons, both what they tell us they like AND what the data shows us they like.  We find backlist gems that they should have liked, but might have missed, and pull them out in displays to give them another try.  We don't spend money on titles no one will read.

Click here for a longer post from 2011 when I wrote at length about ordering fiction for a general collection.

The larger point I want to make here is NOT to have you simply appropriate my CD philosophy, but to really think about your own.  Think about what you are trying to accomplish as a whole, and then try to pare it down into a simply word or phrase. Sometimes a soundbite is a great way to remind yourself of the WHYs behind your daily job. And, I have not lost the irony of the fact that this is much like honing the essence of a book down into 3 appeal terms.

Also, inviting grad students into your libraries and allowing yourselves to be interviewed for their term papers is another great way to keep you on your toes.  We happen to be right down the road from a major MLIS program, but with Internet degrees, anyone could have MLIS students living in their communities.  Make sure you are on their radar.

Get yourself involved with the education of our career's future.  You will help them to learn by observing "real world" applications of the theory they are learning, AND they will help you to reevaluate your decision making processes.  It is a CE boon for both parties.

Me, I'm going back to being responsive and responsible.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Character Likability in Fiction

Earlier this week, The Millions, posted a guest essay by author Edan Lepucki entitled, “I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likability in Fiction.

Lepucki takes a hard look at the issue by asking herself if she were a character in fiction...the real her...would people like her? Hammy

I loved this take on the issue because whether or not a reader has to LIKE the main character is one of the hardest things to decipher as we help leisure readers in a public library setting.

First, it is something that is MAKE or BREAK for many readers, but they may not even know that about themselves.  Yes, I have helped people who don’t even realize liking the protagonist is the most important appeal factor, so asking them does not help you understand their preferences.

Second, even with seasoned veterans like myself, the likability of characters in fiction is toward the bottom of my initial questions list. I often have enough trouble getting a patron to tell me about a book they have recently enjoyed.

Third, even readers who HATE most books where the protagonist is unlikable, still once in a while like a book where the characters are despicable (see Gone Girl), but only that specific book, for a completely unrelated issue. [They want to keep us on our toes.]

It’s enough to drive even the most dedicated RA Librarian crazy.

So, all of you read Lepucki’s take on the issue.  As an author, she has really thought about the issue, and her insights such as, she unintentionally made likable character AND the fact that no real person is 100% likable all the time, among others will help you to help readers better. At the very least, it will remind us work to gauge our patron’s tolerance for unlikability.

And, at the very least, it will give you some stock lines you can use to soothe an angry patron who wanted a likable protagonist, but didn’t know it, and you gave them something they hated!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services and ARRT Renewal Time

Today, ARRT hosted a wonderful program with Heather Booth, one of the editors of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services. Click here for the flyer.

Although I missed the program, I was able to follow the tweets from those who were there here.

But, today I really want to remind all of you about the book itself.  The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services is a no-nonsense, practical guide to providing quality Teen Services in your library.  Teens just don’t walk up to the designated teen desk only.  Everyone needs to be prepared to help them.

Heather’s is also particularly well versed in providing RA to teens; she wrote a book on that too!

I realize budgets are tight, and you might not have money to buy this book now, but don’t use that as an excuse not to improve yourself or your library.  The book is part of the collaboration that came out of the work Heather and Karen do with the wonderful Teen Librarian Toolbox. So I urge you to at the very least, check that wonderful resource out. Anyone who works at a public library can learn something to help them to help patrons better.

And, now that the program is over, it is marks both the end of ARRT for 2014 and the start of ARRT Renewal Season.  Look for posts in the coming weeks about the wonderful things we have planned for 2015!

*Full disclosure, Heather’s books are published by ALA Editions, same as my book.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

RA Programming Alert: National READATHON Day

Today I received notice of the first annual National READATHON Day.  From their website:
National Readathon Day
Consider this: 53% of 9-year-olds read for pleasure daily, and by the time they turn 17, that number drops to 19%. Without your help, book worms may soon become an endangered species.  
That's why Penguin Random House and the National Book Foundation are launching National Readathon Day. We're asking book lovers across America to pledge to read for four hours starting at noon (in respective time zones) on January 24, 2015.
Make your commitment here on FirstGiving and fundraise to support the National Book Foundation's efforts to create, promote, and sustain a lifelong love of reading in America. 
You can fundraise individually, join an existing team, or start your own of friends, family, and colleagues. 
We'll be offering incentives and prizes to help keep you motivated to fundraise and #MakeTimeToRead on January 24, when we'll celebrate how important reading is to American culture.
The mission of the National Book Foundation is to expand the audience for literature in America. Its programs include BookUp, 5 Under 25, the Innovations in Reading Prize, and the National Book AwardsIf you need more information about the National Book Foundation or National Readathon Day, email And for press inquiries, email
The first thing I did when I read this notice was email a cross department team of people at my library to start reserving space and to begin planning an event for this day. I am not even working at the library today, but this could not wait.

The second thing I did, is write this post.

Please, if you work at a public library, click through and learn more about the READATHON.  It perfectly matches all public library missions, and will be a wonderful PR opportunity for the library.

And, on a side note, I was just starting to get sad all over again about the cancellation of World Book Night.  This was the time last year when we were gearing up to choose the books and start planning our participation. Jose wore his WBN shirt to work last week, and I was feeling down about not having WBN to use to promote reading out in the community this year.

But now....

I am going full out on READATHON starting now.  Want to join me?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Monday Discussion: Training Needs?

Today's Monday Discussion is a way for me to better plan how I can help you.

I am starting to revamp my genre specific trainings and want to know where to prioritize my efforts.

So far I have requests for Romance and Historical Fiction in early 2015. And of course, I have been entrenched in the genres of Crime Fiction for the ARRT Genre Study (which continues throughout 2015.)

But here is my question to all of you...Which genres do you feel the least strong in? We can even go into subgenres too.

Let me know here or on Twitter.  It will not only help me plan my training programs but I can also plan out what genres to focus my posts on in the coming year too.

So let me know where your knowledge gaps are and I will try to help.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.