This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 3.
AD READ: The Truth Is by NoNieqa Ramos
You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
Today, Tamsyn Muir has chosen Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, and Keah Brown has chosen Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.
Tamsyn Muir is a horror, fantasy and sci-fi author whose short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Eugie Foster Memorial Award. A Kiwi, she has spent most of her life in Howick, New Zealand, with time living in Waiuku and central Wellington. She currently lives and works in Oxford, in the United Kingdom. Her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, follows the space adventures of a necromancer and a swordswoman as they compete in a deadly and magical trial of wits and skill.
GUEST 1 – Tamsyn Muir
My name is Tamsyn Muir and Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is my recommended. So the US title, because obviously Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a Danish book and it’s English translator title, there are two of them. In the US it is Smilla’s Sense for Snow, and in the UK or in New Zealand and Australia, the title I grew up with was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. So that’s a really interesting discrepancy.
Hilariously enough leading in from the title, when I first heard the title as a kid, because this book came out in the early ’90s, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, I got the idea or imagining that this book was maybe about a little granny who lived out in the woods and it was probably a really moody, cute book about the way she felt about winter. Yeah. Nothing could be further from the truth. Smilla is no granny, Smilla is a late 30s snow specialist who is investigating a murder mystery. This book is part of the Scandi new wave. It’s often called the first, sort of, the granddaddy book that started the new wave of Scandinavian noir.
I mean a totally different stereotype or feeling to what I was initially thinking with this Miss Smilla and living in this little cabin in the woods. It is an incredibly, I say grim, but it’s also a hugely empathetic look into the life of one of my favorite and most difficult women in fiction. I mean when I first started reading this and I thought about the fact that they called her Miss Smilla, I was like, “Wow, who would ever bother to title this book Miss Smilla? I’m not sure she’d like it.” And then by the end I was like, “Yeah, enough respect. I will call her Miss Smilla. I don’t think I’m on first name terms with her yet.”
I picked it up in an old bookstore. I’m particularly fond of my copy because it’s got on the fly leaf, it was intended to be a Happy Father’s Day present for someone. So Tav if you’re out there, your book in 1997 for Happy Father’s Day, it’s come to me and I love it. I hope he did like it. But yeah, that’s how I got it. I’d always had this curiosity about the cover and the immediate thing on my covers edition, it’s just a guy drowning. And this didn’t really jive with my understanding of this little lady out in the woods. So it really was a book by its cover this time round.
My experience with that first time reading it was almost unbelievably overwhelmed. So I’ve read it in translation, I do not speak Danish at all. So I have no idea about how Peter ‘s book reads in Danish. The translation is by Tiina Nunnaly, also as Felicity David, that’s her other name. It’s also not what I would have expected being stereotypical of Scandinavian noir. It’s an intensely beautiful book that assaults you with information in pretty much every single sentence. It’s one of those murder mystery books that you can read over and over and over again and just slap yourself by the end of it every single time thinking, “How could I have missed that? Wow!”
I don’t reread it as often as I would like. I come back to it about once every two years since I first picked it up and that was probably in my early 20s. I reread it… This January I was writing a book myself about a heroine, who I kind of like to joke that she’s Smilla’s daughter, except that she’s not. The entire point of Smilla is she has nobody. But I wanted to reread it to just for the sheer pleasure of seeing this unreliable, spiky mean narrator again.
I have known that I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about seven years old. It seemed to be to me like the one thing I could do. So I already read books from a technical perspective and I think that in my early 20s I started to get really interested in craft and the different ways in which people did things and books in translation as well. I did go on to read Name the Rose by Umberto Eco, and be really interested about differences in translation and the host text. But I was starting to get really multi self-important about like, “Okay, let’s see what I can take from this.” And I think I read it in the point in my craft where I wasn’t good enough to know what the heck he was doing. And I still don’t think I’m good enough now, but I know enough to know that like the huge gap.
I mean you cannot read Smilla and think about the craft because it is such a beautiful book. And again, it’s in translation. I wish I could read Danish so that I could know what was Nunnally and what was her. But all I can tell from reading the Nunnally translation is that it is gorgeous. It is exquisite. It has every sentence in place. If I was going to get pretentious, I would say that the book is in itself like a snowflake, just perfectly crafted, just mathematically precise but also very beautiful without being too stark or too sparse.
I haven’t found myself actually recommending Smilla to many people. I guess I’m just really afraid of what if they don’t like it. Because I mean, of course you’re going to recommend books to people. It’s not going to be their favorite book. But Smilla to me is so important that I always like ration her out. I think that I recommended her to about two people and it’s one of my best friend’s favorite books. And I remember very early on, I spoke mentioning it was a favorite, like, “Oh wow, okay, you must be my person.”
It’s a difficult book in so many ways. Because Smilla herself is fascinating and repellent. I’m like, “Please love Smilla. Smilla, so important.” But I also recognize the very real possibility that you’re going to hate her.
anybody who appreciates beautiful language, I feel that they wouldn’t be able to help it but be moved by Smilla. Anybody who appreciates a difficult heroine is going to appreciate Smilla. Anybody who likes a murder mystery, anybody who likes speculative fiction, because Smilla is also, as well as being noir does have elements of SFF.
It’s weird as heck. It’s unbelievably weird. I love it. It just gets weird at every reread and I don’t say that lightly.
I think that one of the wonderful things about Smilla is that it doesn’t… There are other books that are doing things that I would also proclaim as unbelievably weird. I mentioned earlier Name the Rose is a book that I feel reaches the same weird heights. Really Smilla manages to reach the same weird heights, I can’t tell who’s in the front line. But one thing I do love about the book is that when they wrote it, they broke the mold. It is totally unique. I have never read anything like it. Probably I’m about to get a million people say, “Well actually this book is trying to be like Smilla,” but as far as I have read and I tried to read as widely as possible, I have not found anything like it. Anything like her.
I do love the difficult characters, especially the unreliable narrators. A lot of them get on my nerves, I’m just like, “Oh, take it out. Just shut up, tell the truth for once.” But with Smilla, I’m so indulgent with her to the very last, I’m just like, “You do you honey, you do you.”
That was Tamsyn Muir, recommending Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg. Her novel Gideon the Ninth is the first in the Ninth House series, is published by Tor.com, and is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at tazmuir.
AD READ: Yale Needs Women by Anne Gardiner Perkins.
Keah Brown is the creator of #DisabledAndCute. She has a B.A. in journalism from The State University of New York at Fredonia. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, ESPNW, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire UK, among other publications. Her Debut essay collection, “The Pretty One” explores what it means to be black and disabled in a mostly able-bodied white America.
GUEST 2– Keah Brown
My name is Keah Brown, and Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is my recommended. This book is perfection. It’s about the first son of the White House named Alex Claremont-Diaz and his archrival, Prince Henry of Wales. Essentially, they’ve been archrivals for most of their lives. They go at it at this royal wedding and the paparazzi find out, and so it threatens both the relations between America and Britain, and so they have to spend time together. In spending time together, they find out that they have more in common than they think and they fall in love. It is just such a heartwarming and funny and just beautifully written book, that I think everybody should read if you love a good rom com and a happy ending with some bumps along the way. I just think it’s so smart and Casey really did a wonderful job of world-building and also making me feel so much for people who are so outside of my own experience.
I liked the cover because I’m a really big cover person. The cover is light pink, and Red, White And Royal Blue, so the name of the title each have the different colors and it’s like the two men on either sides of royal blue. Anyway, I saw it on Amazon and I was like, “This looks cute.” So I reached out to my agent, Alex, and I was like, “Can you get me an ARC of this book?” And he was like, “How did you hear about it?” And I was like, “I saw it literally scrolling Amazon and I was like, “That cover looks cute, I want to read it.” I was lucky enough to get an ARC before I came out and I’ve been obsessed ever since.
I think what Casey does really well is she puts you right in the middle of their lives. You don’t have to do all the… This is that, this is this, this is whatever, that sometimes slows down a book. I think she just puts you right into the action so that she builds the world around what you should already assume to know but makes you feel like you do already know it. You’re not asking a bunch of questions. I think it’s really smart how there’s such detail with place in terms of physical objects that allow you to feel like you’re in that room at the same time as the people that you’re reading about. I think that also helps move the story along really well because you jump from places in America to places in Britain and see these really big fantastical places that you could have read about before.
But I think what has done so well is there’s so much emotion behind the ways in which the characters see places. It feels like a brand new thing. You’re reading about these palaces for the first time ever in your life because there’s so much emotion behind the people who are occupying them. I think that’s so smart because it takes what could be seen as a run of the mill thing and turns it into something completely fresh and brand new. Because you’re seeing it in a different way that you haven’t seen before, and other places that are set in the same places, tons of fiction books set in America and tons of fiction books set in Britain. But just the way that she melds the worlds and with the people in the book is really smart. I think it’s really interesting that someone has this sort of talent to be able to do it as seamlessly as she does.
So in the book, spoilers, there are emails that are just beautifully crafted. They’re like love letters, but for the modern day. And I just wanted to touch on those because every time I read one in the book, I got so excited because they’re just beautifully done and you really feel how much they love each other as time goes on. You really feel how they grow, how it goes from curiosity like, “Oh, this could be my friend,” to, “This is the person I love and want to spend time with romantically.” And so I think that it was just really fresh and fun and smart. And there’s also this throuple couple outside of them that is just absolute perfection, and I hope that someone somewhere will allow Casey to explore that throuple, as well, in another book.
I think what was interesting for me was I was reading it just after I finished my own. Usually, I’m reading through simply a reader’s mind, but I think as a writer I could appreciate the ways in which Casey actually went about world building. But as a reader, I was just so satisfied because I felt like I was really being shown all these things that I had never had access to. And so I think in terms of world-building, it was just kind of like, “Okay, so this is a thing that you should kind of strive toward when you’re off to create your own book, your own fiction book rather, one day.”
I think now that I’m older, my fiction writing, I write a lot of really messy women, women who are complicated and they don’t have everything figured out and they don’t know what’s coming next and they don’t know how they’ll get there and they just have all these issues, but they have good hearts.
And so a lot of my nonfiction writing is like, I was once that woman. I mean, not necessarily as deep as some of the issues that I have with my characters. But I think I was once so obsessed with trying to figure out everything and trying to know everything, so that when I realized that I didn’t know everything and that I couldn’t possibly know everything, I was like, I’m free to write these characters that don’t have to be perfect and don’t have to be conventionally beautiful and don’t have to be this idea of what a heroine should be, because I like to write characters who are kind of lived in, that don’t have everything figured out and don’t know what’s what and don’t always have the finer things in life. Because I think that’s what excites me is falling in love with characters that you root for because they don’t have everything, and you root for them because there’s something deeper than what somebody might see on the surface. And I think because I’m starting to see that deeper thing in myself, I feel more able and willing to write characters that are messy and uncomfortable, but that still have hearts of gold that you root for because you see bits of yourself in them.
I really want to do a full-length novel, or four or five. So yeah, that’s definitely a goal for me. That’s why I was so excited to talk about this book because I think this book is almost like a masterclass in how to properly tell a story and keep your reader engaged literally from page one to the last page. And the fact that this is Casey’s debut is just wild to me because to have that much talent in your very first book and your very first piece of work and of this length is just unmatched.
I think that people can learn so much from romance stories in general. And I think sometimes, romance stories don’t get the credit they deserve because it takes a lot of work to take the sort of bones of like, okay, these two people are going to end up together. But how they do it is the thing that’s supposed to keep the reader excited, and how they get there and what happens in between and who they are, who they’re going to be by the end of the story is the thing that keeps, at least for me, romance such an exciting genre because there are so many writers doing romance and doing it well and making sure that people are seen and understood in the genre that wouldn’t necessarily be seen and understood 10, 15, even 5 years ago.
And I think you worry about that too because people have all these preconceived notions about what it means to write romance and what it means for people to have characters fall in love. But like I said, this book is just, I think that literally everybody who’s just a lover of a good story should be reading this book, because I mean, it floored me.
That was Keah Brown, recommending Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. Her essay collection The Pretty One, published by Atria Books, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @Keah_Maria.
Many thanks to Tamsyn Muir and Keah Brown for joining us and sharing some favorite reads.
Thanks also go out to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you’re hearing, please do drop by on Apple Podcasts to leave us a rating or a review. We’re always happy to see the feedback, and reviews help other bookish listeners find our show. You can find shownotes, including titles mentioned, at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us feedback, personal favorites, and suggestions at email@example.com.