Book Whisperer Elizabeth Held Recommends Her Favorite Books with a Strong Sense of Place

Book Whisperer Elizabeth Held Recommends Her Favorite Books with a Strong Sense of Place

Monday, 5 July, 2021

Recommending books to other readers can be fraught with peril, but writer Elizabeth Held pulls off this feat with aplomb. Her weekly newsletter What To Read If adroitly pairs books with current issues, buzzy trends, plot points, character types, and more.

In addition to clever book recommendations (with breezy, spoiler-free descriptions), Elizabeth also chats with authors about their books in a way that makes you feel like you’re in the room with them to join the friendly conversation. Why not add a little bookish sunshine to your email right here — and explode your TBR with her book recommendations below. — Melissa


You’re the writer behind the brilliant What To Read If newsletter. Is there a book that you’re eager to shove into almost anyone’s hands… a book that works for just about everyone?

I love helping people find the right book at the right time. My two go-to recommendations are Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe and Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

neighborhood kids posing with mural honoring members of provisional irish republican army in west belfast, northern ireland
Neighborhood kids pose with a mural in West Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo by

Say Nothing is a nonfiction book that reads like a thriller, focused on the Troubles in Ireland. Keefe brings the characters, time, and place alive through his reporting and writing. It’s my go-to book recommendation for nonfiction readers, true crime fans, amateur historians, and anyone who just really loves good journalism. (Editor’s note: You can hear David talk about this brilliant book in our podcast episode Ireland: It’s Not Good, It’s Grand.)

Daisy Jones & the Six is a novel written as an oral history chronicling the rise and fall of a famous ’70s rock band. It’s a fictionalized take on Fleetwood Mac’s time recording Rumours — a famously tumultuous time for the band — and one of my favorite books of the past few years. All of the characters have such distinct voices and personalities that shine on the page. I can’t rave enough about the audiobook, which features a full cast — including Jennifer Beals and Benjamin Bratt— and allows the documentary style to shine.

You grew up in upstate New York. Do you have a favorite book that captures your home territory?

I’m a huge fan of Matt Witten’s Jacob Burns mystery series, set in Saratoga Springs, a 30-minute drive from where I grew up. They’re surprisingly funny, and Witten captures what it’s like to live in a small upstate New York town where it can feel at times that everyone knows everyone. Whenever I’m homesick, I order a pizza, turn on Billy Joel, and crack open one of the Jacob Burns books.

new york state capital building in albany, new york
New York State Capitol building in Albany, New York. Photo by Will Eye.

For a historical look at upstate New York, readers can’t go wrong with William Kennedy’s classic Ironweed. Set in Albany, the state’s capital, during the depression, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is as much a character study of the city as it as a novel.

A slew of new books set in upstate New York just came out, including Wild Love by Lauren Accardo (set in a bookshop), The Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (contemporary fantasy), and The Project by Courtney Summers (YA thriller), that I’m looking forward to reading while visiting my parents.

You’re currently living in Washington, DC. What book do you recommend for people who want to get a feel for the Capital?

This is tricky; I think it’s rare for authors to nail D.C. Many books tend to focus solely on the political part of the city — see the nonfiction book This Town by Mark Leibovich and Jennifer Closes’ novel The Hopefuls). But I tend to love the books that focus on the District as a city, rather than an extension of the federal government.

washington monument and reflecting pool at twilight in washington, dc
Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool seen from the Lincoln Memorial at twilight in Washington, D.C. Photo by Sean Pavone.

Two of my favorites are Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, a short story collection about African-American life in D.C., and Chocolate City by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove. Chocolate City is a 600-page tome that chronicles our nation’s history through the story of race in D.C. It’s long, but well worth the read.

You also run a romance book club. Can you give us some romance titles that also have a very strong sense of place?

To build off my answer on D.C., I love Mia Sosa’s The Worst Best Man, which is set in a Maryland-suburb just outside D.C. It was so much fun to read about restaurants and other places I recognized in a book that already brought a smile to my face.

I’ll also recommend Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn for anyone itching to get to New York City. The book’s characters fall in love while taking long walks across the city. I read this book at the start of the pandemic last year, and it transported me outside my D.C. apartment into New York’s distinct neighborhoods.

Hot weather has arrived. Do you have a favorite book that really evokes that dreaded hot, swampy feeling of summer? And how about a book in a cold-weather setting as an antidote?

D.C. is built on a swamp, so I know that hot, sticky feeling well. But humidity is the worst, so instead, I’m going to recommend a book featuring dry heat, the appropriately named The Dry by Jane Harper. The mystery, set in Australia during a devastating drought, puts a fresh twist on classic mystery elements. I devoured it.

red sand of australian outback with lightning in the sky
The Australian outback. Photo by

And if you need to escape the heat, check out Ruth Ware’s One by One, an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery set in a snowed-in ski resort in the French Alps. Both the setting and the plot gave me chills!

You recently fell in love with the notion of literary thrillers. Got a title or two to pass along to our readers who love ‘character-driven mysteries with strong writing at the sentence level’?

So many, but I’ll limit myself to Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, a twisty mystery set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and Tana French’s Dublin Murder squad books.

You have such good taste in memoirs. Are there one or two you love that are very grounded in a particular place?

Cape Cod is practically a character in Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game, as is New Orleans in The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. I love how both of these books use their settings as storytelling devices — they’re not the backdrop of the story, but vital parts of it.


Elizabeth Held

Elizabeth Held is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She grew up in upstate New York, so she thrives in D.C.’s mild winters and melts during the swampy season. She writes a weekly book recommendation newsletter and runs a romance book club. Follow her on Twitter here.
Elizabeth Held

Top image courtesy of Alejandro Barba/Unsplash.

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