The Bookmatcher: Dangerous Landscapes

imageWe’re starting a new feature here at Smart Bitch HQ. I was having a lively email conversation with Billie Bloebaum, who is the book buyer for Powell’s in the Portland airport, and she mentioned how much she enjoyed handselling books she knew were wonderpants but not as widely known as other more prominent bestselling pants.

I mentioned that I’d never had a bookstore employee handsell me a book in a store, and she about fell over. This handselling thing is an art, and with the consolidation of bookstores and the loss of smaller independents, it’s an endangered art. Some bookstore employees are incredibly good at matching your past reading history with newer books or undiscovered treasures. You sometimes find them at indies, and you can also find them at chain bookstores, too. People who are skilled at that art of matching a reader with books she’ll like are lurking among us, and Billie is one of them. Her favorite question: “What’s the last book you read that you really, really loved?”

So, to help her answer that question for more people, we’ve created The Bookmatcher. Folks have written in with their queries, and Billie will recommend books both inside and outside of the romance genre – we are a well-read readership, after all. It’s sort of like the “If you like…” features at DA and AAR, but more specific and more personal. If you’d like to ask for a Book Match, email me at sarahATsmartbitchestrashybooksDOTcom, with “Bookmatcher” in the subject line.

The links in this entry are all coded to Powell’s booksellers, as that’s where Billie works, and is one of the most awesomest independent booksellers.

On to our first query! This reader is not looking for a specific book, but a setting:

“I love books set in rural locales where the landscape is dangerous, and going off alone without preparation can kill you – like the frozen north, the exceptionally hot tropics, that kind of thing. I am not at all a big city fan.

But much of what I find set in, say, Alaska or the rural desolate American west is mystery or suspense. Is there anything else?”

Billie Bloebaum the Bookmatcher says: My first response is to steer this reader in the direction of one Ms. Julia Spencer-Fleming. [Her series begins with In the Bleak Midwinter.] They’re technically mysteries, but romance is at least as important to these novels as is the central crime.

Laura Kinsale loves to set parts of her books in inhospitable terrain—the Sahara (The Dream Hunter), the Amazon (The Hidden Heart), shipwrecked on a deserted island (Sieze the Fire), etc.

And, my personal guilty pleasure read (which I just recently re-read) Johanna Lindsey’s Silver Angel, though the actual landscape doesn’t play a huge role, it is set in a desert kingdom.

Tempest Rising CoverTempest Rising is a new “urban” fantasy that takes place in a small town in Maine.

And, of course Jill Shalvis’s Instant Attraction and the less-good Instant Gratification are set in a small mountain community, where lives are actually in jeopardy fairly frequently.

Thanks, Billie! I reviewed Instant Attraction back in January 2009, and In the Bleak Midwinter and A Fountain Filled With Blood earlier this year as well.

What books set in places where the landscape is deadly, inside and outside the romance genre, work for you? And have you ever had a bookseller handsell you a book that you loved?


Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Laurel says:

    This is classic awesome sales goodness. What a great idea!

    The art of matching the consumer to the product is fading in other arenas, as well. I hate it when I go to a restaurant and ask the server what they recommend. Most of the time they respond with: “It depends on what you like.” No questions about what I like, no qualifying, no information about what the chef is proud to offer. I always want to tell them to grow a sac and quit riding the fence.

  2. 2
    Agnes says:

    There used to be a wonderful site which automated book matching, social networking before web 2.0. It worked much better than Amazon recommendations, too. Unfortunately it has been shuttered (and my word is dead22—how appropriate!). Pity, since their romance users were few and far between which made the romance recs hit or miss for me—I would have loved to see the bitchery unleashed on their data sets.

  3. 3

    This request immediately reminded me of my favourite ever Dick Francis novel, Longshot, about a writer of survivalist guides who ends up roped in to ghostwrite an autobiography – and ends up mixed in with a whole group of racing types who are themselves recovering from a murder in their community.  The theme of survival in unusual terrains is continued throughout – particularly as a source of bonding between the protagonist and the people he is staying with, and when a Mysterious Someone starts using the info from his own books to set dangerous, life-threatening traps.

    The book is actually set in rural England, not exactly the wild exotics, but it is all about surviving scary landscapes and how even your own backyard can be a scary landscape if you’re not prepared.

    Wow.  i haven’t read this book in years and even had to google to find the title but it’s pretty firmly lodged in my memory!

  4. 4
    Lyssa says:

    I remember when I first started reading romances I lived in a town that at the time was still “small town USA”. Teresa, the manager of the local privately owned bookstore was my dealer. Each week she would set aside books she thought I would enjoy. Through her guidance I read books I may not have read, discovered authors I still love today, and basically expanded my horizons into genres I would never have read. I agree her personal service is something that is lost today (unless you live in small town USA). I am excited about you giving through the net this back to the world, but at the same time…it makes me nostalgic for the past.

    SPAMWORD EARLY48=I was introduced to at least 48 books early because of Teresa.

  5. 5
    Karin says:

    I’m a bookseller, I’ve worked in indies for ten years, and I handsell every day. Trying to match reading history, likes and dislikes to what I have in stock and in my head is really most of what my job is about, and it’s what I like most about being a booksseller.

    One of my favourite things about it is that once in a while the customer will handsell me books, based on my recommendations to them. Or when another customer overhears, and joins in the conversation.

    My colleagues and I handsell one another books, too. “You hafta read this one. You liked that one, didn’t you? Here’s a book I think you’ll like.”

    To me, the entire point of going to a bookstore is the conversation about books, getting tips about what next to read. The on-line bookstores, while cheaper, with a wider stock, just don’t have a way to get that personal touch, and you tend to miss the unexpected book that a visit to a bookstore might have given you.

    Yes, I’m totally biased.

  6. 6
    joanneL says:

    rural locales where the landscape is dangerous

    Black Hills by Nora Roberts:  The hills of South Dakota and dude: Mountains, wild animals and No Public Transpo.

    Midnight Rainbow by Linda Howard: Romance in a jungle.

    The Dead Sea Cipher or The Copenhagen Connection by Elizabeth Peters:  Murder, mayhem and romance (touch of) in dangerous settings.

    This is HARD with only one cup of coffee!

  7. 7
    Missy Ann says:

    Good idea! But I can’t imagine the mouth breathers and window lickers who work at Books A Million hand selling me a book. And now that I know there’s a term for it, turns out I’ve been hand selling to the cashiers who work there.

    I am blessed that I have an independent shop close to me and I give them 80% of my business and they hand sell. Not a lot, or maybe just not to me because I always know what I want & try out new authors all the time. The do have some shelves where books recommended by employees are stacked and Lily’s; well we’re BFFs. Anytime we’re in the store together we spend a good 10 minutes comparing notes and putting books in each others hands.

  8. 8
    Missy Ann says:

    Oh and to actually answer the question and not always make it about me… ;)

    Elizabeth Lowell’s Death is Forever or you may find it used under the old title of Diamond Tiger written by Ann Maxwell. Great scenes where our couple is walking through the Australian outback. Without supplies and if that isn’t enough they’ve got a stalker too.

  9. 9
    Amy says:

    @ Karin: Absolutely.  Having a conversation attract yet another person with recommendations is one of the best things about discussing books in a bookstore, whether you’re the customer or the bookseller.  Always delightful.

    As for the remote locale suggestion, I immediately thought of The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.  It’s a bit… quirky, but a large chunk of it has to do with a woman trapped alone in the antarctic. 

    I also don’t know if it’s quite what you’re looking for, but a good bit of Ann Patchett’s excellent novel The Magician’s Assistant follows an LA woman into the rural midwest after the man she loves dies.  The danger isn’t quite there, but the isolation certainly is.  Neither of these suggestions are romance per se, but hopefully still helpful?

  10. 10
    Ros says:

    I am always pretty sceptical about the ‘If you liked X, you’ll love Y’ form of bookselling.  The books that I have loved most have been ones I’ve picked up as not really like anything else I read – Jasper Fforde’s books are a great example of this.  Even within the genre, I find that other people’s recommendations don’t work too well.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, ‘If you love Heyer, you’re sure to love X’.  It’s never worked.  But if you’d like to try me out with your expert, tell her I really, really, really love Heyer’s Venetia.  I promise I’ll read whatever she suggests, but I make no promises to love it.

  11. 11
    quizzabella says:

    Most of the time I buy my books online, but I dearly mourn a little used bookshop in Oxford.  My friends and I used to call it “Black Books” after the very funny comedy series:
    It was run by a very grumpy oldish woman, who when she suggested a book you daren’t not buy it.  Funny thing is that she was usually right – I’ve still got several of the books she suggested on my keeper shelf.  She might have been grumpy but she knew her stuff.

  12. 12
    DS says:

    I’ve been racking my brain for a romance that I liked set in dangerous territory, but I mainly come up with horror.  King’s The Shining was the first one that popped into my mind—snowed in as caretakers to a closed luxury hotel with a history—my favorite King ever. 

    Michael McDowell also wrote a scary novel that made the drifting sand dunes of the Gulf Coast a very dangerous place—Elemental.  McDowell wrote the screenplay for Beetlejuice so you know to expect the unusual although the two are quite far apart in tone and effect.

    Phil Rickman who writes the Merrily Watkins mystery series, also wrote Man in the Moss set on the edge of the Pennines at Samhain.  When the body of a celtic priest/warrior is removed from a bog the village it has protected begins to have problems.  I like to read this one at this time of year.  Rickman is very good with the parts of Britain where the dangerous old Pagan lurks (rather than the new age sanitized stuff.)

  13. 13
    e says:

    In the library world this is called “Reader’s Advisory” and though it might be a dying art in bookstores, it’s still taught in library science grad programs.

  14. 14
    morningstar says:

    Stephanie Bond offers a great mini-tutorial on handselling at her website under Bookseller Articles (

    It’s where I learned tips that have measurably improved my customer-service skills.

  15. 15
    Sarah W says:

    Ditto e, at the library it is reader’s advisory. The guru of RA is Nancy Pearl, who also is from the northeast. She has some interesting things to say about how you match people with books. What I’ve got out of it is that key to getting from one book they liked to another book they might like is finding out what it is about the first one that appealed to them. Best example is Stephanie Meyer, lots of folks like her books, but they like different things. Some people like the romance elements, others the vampires, others that it is “clean,” some people like it because it is popular, and I had someone yesterday ask if I could find another book with the same writing style as Meyers.

    So if you don’t have a good book store around to recommend books, give your public library a try.

  16. 16
    LizC says:

    Every so often the person at the register in Borders will try to handsell me something based on what I’m buying but I say try because every time that has happened they’re handselling a book I’ve already read. Which, I suppose, is good but doesn’t really help me find new books.

    No one has ever tried to handsell me anything in the indie bookstore I occasionally go to. But I only occasionally go there because they don’t have a romance section at all. They’re a bit snobby in that respect.

  17. 17
    Nadia says:

    The first book that came to my mind is heavier on the suspense than romance, but “The Killing Hour” by Lisa Gardner uses inhospitable eco-disaster environments as part of the plot.  Love Lisa Gardner’s books, even though she’s moved more mainstream.  This does one uses characters from previous books; reading the others might better intro the characters but it can stand alone.

    “Up Close and Dangerous” by Linda Howard – plane crash in the snowy mountains.

    Seems like every third romantic suspense I read involves trekking through the jungle somewhere.  Cindy Gerard and Roxanne St. Claire do it well.

    Nora Roberts’ “Hot Ice” chases through Madagascar, I think?

  18. 18
    JamiSings says:

    Since I’m not big into harsh landscapes (prefer city settings like New York or LA) I can’t comment on that part. Though there was one recently I can’t remember the name of – most of it took place in a small town near a wilderness, but part of the back story is set back in the woods. It’s about a little girl whom comes wandering out of the woods, half wild, with a wolf pup, and the doctor whom fights to bring her back to civilization. Turns out the kid and her mom had been kidnapped years ago by a rapist whom raped the mom and kept the child chained up. The girl’s wealthy father had been accused of murdering the mom and her. The mom was long dead by the time the girl escaped the woods and the rapist hadn’t shown up to feed her in a long while, which is why she made the escape, because she was hungry. Darn it, can’t remember the title at all. But it was pretty good. Not earth shattering great, but pretty good.

    But in answer to the question – nope, never, not even as a small child, has anyone handed me a book that I absolutely loved. Probably because I’m as picky a reader as I am an eater. As you’ll find out when you read my e-mail.

  19. 19
    CaroleM says:

    There’s a huge difference between booksellers and people who work in bookstores or sell books online.  If you go to n independant store you have a greater chance of talking to a clerk that loves books and is actually well-read.  If you buy books online, and you buy from an established bookseller, you have a greater chance of buying from a booklover, not just a person who sells books because they bought the $9.99
    digital book on “how to sell books on the internet”.  For instance, I sell books online -have for just shy of 11 years.
    But I’ve been collecting books for 40 years, and read voraciously.  My home (which is probably sinking as I type) is filled with close to 10,000 books.  Only 1,400 or so are listed online, because the rest are my personal books and not for sale.

    That’d be the difference between a person selling books and a bookseller.

    square43 – the number of pounds per inch my house foundation is currently supporting,thanks to all the books

  20. 20
    Kristina says:

    Lol I hand sell to people all the time.  Strangers in the bookstore, strangers on the bus, waiting rooms……etc.  I’m incredibly nosey and interested in what other people are reading at all times.  But I will say that I’ve had the same strangers (especially the bus riders) catch later on and tell me how they loved the books I recommended.  :-)  I always feel like my Karmic balances shifts a little more in my favor when I do that.

  21. 21

    Hmmm…harsh landscape + romance?  I’m going to have to go with Darlene Marshall’s Smuggler’s Bride, where there’s an alligator attack, backwoods critters and insects, snakes, palmetto scrub and possum stew.

    Anyone who’s spent a summer in interior North Florida without air conditioning knows what I’m talking about.[g]

  22. 22

    I’m with Kristina—I handsell books to people all the time. But I still somehow didn’t make it past the interview stage for a job at Barnes and Noble!

  23. 23
    Kristie says:

    Ditto Karin…

    I am a bookseller also.  We carry a huge notebook in the store our customers LOVE.

    It is a “if you like… try”  with a twist… we allow our customers to add to it on a regular basis.

  24. 24
    lustyreader says:

    What an awesome feature! In my 25 years of book buying I can only recall being “handselled” once! It was at the Borders in Madison Square Garden. I was getting ready to hop on a bus back to DC and ran in looking for the first Black Dagger Brotherhood book. I was looking in Sci-Fi/Fantasy first and when I couldn’t find it asked for help. The girl who helped me must have been specifically assigned to the Romance Section because she KNEW her sh*t!

    I walked out with 2 BDB books, a Sherrilyn Kenyon and a Lora Leigh book. Lastly she offered her email address to me so I could ask her more questions, but since I didn’t live in NYC I didn’t accept and now I’m kicking myself. She was something special and I hope this skill doesn’t die out!

  25. 25
    Kalen Hughes says:

    I agree her personal service is something that is lost today (unless you live in small town USA).

    I live in a large city (San Francisco) and maybe it’s different here because our neighborhoods function like small cities, but there’s a ton of personal service at the local shops (books, food, clothes, whathaveyou). The key is being a regular and getting to know the owner/staff (as you would in a small town). And I’ve certainly seen the exact same dynamic at work in Manhattan (my best friend lives in Hells Kitchen). I think maybe the key here is to live in “small town” or “big city” not suburbia (my parents live in suburbia, and there are basically no real “shops”, just Big Box Stores where it’s pretty much impossible for them to give you personal service).

    My favorite part of book stores are the shelf of staff recommendations. I always peruse those when I’m browsing for books.

  26. 26
    phadem says:

    What a great post idea! I’m writing you soon – or do I need to write to Billie? It’s probably in the post and I missed it… I’ve got a setting too that I just love and want more of in my romance reading.

    I’ve never ever ever had a bookstore employee hand sell me anything, nothing, not even a notepad or a book light. So sad now! At first the idea sounded too invasive to me; I imagined some pushy sales person working on commission (and if you do, bless you’re heart, I understand and feel for ya, but I prefer to ask for help first…), but a person in the store that would know what books I might like based on a certain element? This actually sounds awesome.

  27. 27
    Laura (in PA) says:

    This is all kinds of awesome.

    I haven’t had booksellers hand-sell to me, but I have a friend who works in a chain bookstore and they hand-sell all the time.

    As far as books in dangerous locations, I agree with Nora Roberts’ Black Hills, and would add her Northern Lights as well – takes place in Alaska.

    As well as hand-selling, another tactic I enjoy from a bookstore is a newsletter. I get a couple from independent bookstores, where the owners/managers take a lot of time to write a newsletter with a description of upcoming releases, plot descriptions, and quite a few personal reviews/recommendations. I’ve added quite a few books to my “to buy” list this way.

  28. 28

    Fantastic new feature! I love this whole idea. Handselling is definitely a lost art—at most chain bookstore, I find myself doing more to help other customers browsing the romance section than the employees ever do. I recently met another great handseller, though, at a used bookstore in Port Clinton, Ohio! Annette turned me on to some great authors, and I think probably sold more copies of MY book in a single day than the nearby big box bookstore.

    As for dangerous locations—what’s that oooold Linda Howard that takes place in a jungle? Is that HEART OF FIRE? I must have read that one fifteen times when I was, oh, about fifteen…

  29. 29
    Tina C. says:

    I love books set in rural locales where the landscape is dangerous, and going off alone without preparation can kill you – like the frozen north, the exceptionally hot tropics, that kind of thing.

    Have you tried the Jade Del Cameron mysteries, by Suzanne Arruda?  They are set in Africa, just after WWI.  The heroine was raised in New Mexico and went to France to be an ambulance driver during the war.  Though suffering from PSTD from her experiences, Jade is the epitome of intrepid

    The first book, Mark of the Lion explains how and why she ends up in Africa.  I liked the first book the best, though the others were good, too.  Don’t mind the Editorial Reviews on the Amazon page—I feel like they damned the book with rather faint praise and I suspect it’s because it has a romantic subplot.  (I draw this conclusion due to such phrases as:  “romances a man twice her age”; “conclusion is a tad predictable”; “not as captivating” as a book about Africa by some guy who probably didn’t go for that romantic nonsense.)

  30. 30
    Cat Marsters says:

    The books that I have loved most have been ones I’ve picked up as not really like anything else I read – Jasper Fforde’s books are a great example of this.

    Yes, but his books aren’t like anything else at all! They are totally awesome though—a world inside books, where the characters are real people, and the books are constructed like movie sets, and the heroine polices them, both from the inside and out.  Absolutely wonderful.

    But not pertinent to the question.  I’m sure I must have read tons of books like this—let me think. What immediately sprang to mind was the Aussie outback.  Janet Gover’s The Farmer Needs a Wife is set in various rural parts of Australia.

    Oh and if you fancy a historical, Loretta Chase’s Mr Impossible is set in 1820s Egypt, where just about everything was deadly.

    And I know there was a Sherrilyn Kenyon set in Alaska, if you want paranormal.  Dance With The Devil, I think.

    I have recollections of the Aussie outback being a staple setting for old Mills & Boons but can’t think of any titles. The desert of some invented Arabian country is also a strong memory (just think: you’re stranded in this inhospitable climate, you’re dehydrated, it’s getting dark, a snake scares you into stumbling and twisting your ankle, and just as all hope is lost a tall man in a white robe gallops through the sand and sweeps you into his arms.  Mmm).

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