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Rebecca Stott Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Rebecca Stott
Photo © 2004 Bruce Robertson

Rebecca Stott

An interview with Rebecca Stott

In three separate pieces Rebecca Stott discusses the real historical mystery about Newton's involvement in alchemy that she uncovered while researching Ghostwalk (2007); and The Coral Thief (2009), set in Paris 20 years after the Revolution.

In three separate pieces Rebecca Stott discusses
The Coral Thief and Ghostwalk

A Conversation with Rebecca Stott about The Coral Thief

The novel takes place soon after the defeat of Napoleon by the British Navy at Waterloo. What was it that drew you to this particular sliver of time in French history?

1815 was a remarkable turning point – a vortex in history. It was twenty years or so after the French Revolution. The French had established a republic and then Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to power, appointing himself initially as First Consul, then later Emperor of France. He'd been cock-of-the-roost in Europe for more than ten years, conquering one European country after another. He'd made Paris the centre of everything, politically and culturally, literally transforming the map of Europe. He and his men had plundered hundreds of palaces across Europe and he'd sent back all his spoils of war to Paris so that, by 1815, the museums, libraries and galleries in Paris were full to the rafters with paintings, rare books and unique natural history collections. Then all of that power came crashing to an end when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo; the Allied armies marched into and occupied Paris turning the city into a vast military encampment. Because Paris had been pretty much closed to foreigners for ten years, curiosity brought thousands of English visitors to the city. At the same time the French émigrés were coming back, many of them exiled or on the run. And now that Napoleon had fallen, the rulers of the Italian states, Prussia and Holland had sent ambassadors to Paris to demand their stolen treasures back, so the paintings and statues and collections were on the move again. It was a fascinating vortex. I wanted to send some people in there to see what it was like.

The book intertwines the story of Daniel Connor, a young English medical student, with Napoleon, as he makes his way to exile. Why did you decide to link the two?

Daniel Connor is a brilliant young medical student – ambitious, hardworking, a little bit self-regarding. For most ambitious young men at this point in history, Napoleon was a hero. He had shown what could be done with sheer nerve and intelligence and brilliance. But of course, for English men Napoleon was also the enemy, a potential invader. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, Daniel's life couldn't begin until Napoleon had fallen, so all through that summer and autumn whilst he's in Paris, falling in love, discovering breathtaking new ways of seeing the world and coming to see how old the earth really was, he was rising in his own sky at the same time that Napoleon was falling in his. Threading Napoleon's story through Daniel's story was a way of anchoring Daniel to history, a way of indicating the way that the lives of generations entangle. It also provided something of an evolutionary way of seeing time, not a single straight line but a series of overlapping arcs. The animals in the novel are important too – like the ostrich in one of the later chapters and the giraffe at the end. Everything, to use Charles Darwin's phrase, is ‘netted together'. I wanted to show history as a tangle of mutually entangled lives – not just Napoleon and Daniel's lives but also all the animals who had got caught up in history too – the animals transported across Europe by Napoleon's soldiers and brought into Paris to the menagerie in the Jardin. ‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,' Darwin wrote, ‘clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.' That's the kind of history I wanted to write. To take a moment in time and look at the tangle of mutually dependent lives, and to make that include the animals too.

You begin with an epigraph from one of Charles Darwin's notebooks. What does this mean to you?

Yes, the quote is from Notebook C which Darwin kept in 1838 after he'd returned from the Beagle voyage and was gradually working through the stages of his transmutation theory. He wrote: ‘Once grant that species [of] one genus may pass into each other ... & whole fabric totters & falls'. The entry marks a moment when Darwin glimpsed the enormous philosophical consequences of what he was working out. He saw that his species theory would threaten the religious and social premises of so much orthodox thinking and would perhaps even topple the social fabric. And of course that is what Daniel comes to see too through Lucienne Bernard and through the other students of Lamarck who come to Fin's salon. Lucienne knows that scientific knowledge can be stunted by politics and religion. She can see that the re-establishment of the King and the Bourbon government in France and the return of the priests will ensure radical and heretical scientific debate was silenced in Paris. The novel is about falling in many ways – falling roofs, falling people, falling orthodoxies. Some of the passion of The Coral Thief is about that – about fighting to be allowed to think for yourself, about the right to ask questions. Lucienne's passion is driven by that – she's not against religion or against the priests (she might even have some remnants of religious belief in her) but she wants to live in a world in which any question can be asked.

Two very strong scientific personalities figure into the narrative of The Coral Thief—George Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Who were they and what impact did they have on science of the time?

They were both famous all over Europe. Cuvier was a comparative anatomist with a great deal of power in Paris. He ran the Jardin des Plantes. He was on a number of committees and in many ways he dictated the development of natural history in Paris. He was a charismatic lecturer and a brilliant thinker who was developing comparative anatomy in extraordinary ways, but he was passionately opposed to speculative science in general and to evolutionary ideas in particular.

Lamarck was a transmutationist (an early exponent of evolution) and older than Cuvier. He was a Professor of Invertebrates at the Jardin des Plantes. He'd written a number of important books on the taxonomy and classification of shells but since the turn of the nineteenth century he had been working on evolutionary ideas. As a result, he had become associated with radical atheistic ideas and with dangerous speculation, though of course, like Darwin later, he didn't really write about religion, he was more interested in the origin of the earth and in finding mechanisms to explain the transmutation of species.

Cuvier's argument with Lamarck was not a religious one; it was just that he thought Lamarck's ideas were wrong scientifically and that whilst there was no proof for evolution, it was at best a ridiculous castle in the air. He did his best to lampoon Lamarck's ideas where he could, whilst also trying to retain an air of scientific neutrality and fairness.
When Lamarck died he was buried in a pauper's grave (his bones were later dug up and scattered in the catacombs under Paris); Cuvier was given a large tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery. That was no accident of history.

Why thieves and theft?

Theft is one of many things that fascinate me. The Coral Thief explores the nature of theft, particularly in Paris in 1815 when the city was full of ‘stolen' spoils of war. What does it mean to steal something that has already been stolen? I also love heist movies but there's usually a lack of development of character in them because character is sacrificed to plot. I wanted to see if I could write the equivalent of a heist movie with historically complex situations and people. Not sure if readers will think it works, but it was something I wanted to do. The novel is also about curiosity too, like Ghostwalk, and about how far people will go to find out something.

You have noted that the character of police chief Henri Jagot is modeled on Francois-Eugene Vidocq. Who was he? Were the police during this time quite as sinister as your character?

Vidocq is famous. Versions of him appear in several nineteenth-century novels such as Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and Balzac's Père Goriot. He was a notorious thief who had been recruited by the authorities in Paris to run their Bureau de la Sûreté. It was a brilliant choice because, of course, Vidocq understood how criminals worked and he also knew most of them. He was ambitious, ruthless and highly successful. He is generally held to be the first police agent in France and, because he later set up his own private detective agency, historians call him the first detective. He was also considered by most biographers to have been corrupt. But Vidocq was only one of many agents in Paris. Paris had been full of agents since the Revolution. Everyone was spying on everyone else, and the intellectuals in Paris were particularly closely watched. There's a brilliant essay by the historian Robert Daunton called ‘A Police Inspector Sorts His Files' which describes the working practices of one police agent in Paris during the Revolution whose job it was to watch a number of intellectuals. Daunton argues that it was in this atmosphere of constant surveillance that the concept of the intellectual was made. If Paris is an enormous web of intrigues and surveillance in 1815, which was what I was trying to describe, Vidocq/ Jagot is the spider sitting at the centre of it. He was also another collector – most of my main characters are collectors – he was cataloguing criminals whilst Cuvier was cataloguing bones and fossils.

What about collecting? Why is that so important to the novel?

In the 18th and 19th centuries it was of course highly fashionable for aristocratic people to have collections in their houses. People would specialize in collecting coins or shells or paintings or natural history or botanical specimens or snuff boxes, or perhaps they'd have a variety of all of these things. Cabinet makers made a fine living building exquisitely carved shelves and display cabinets for these objects. Agents travelled all over the world to procure rare and beautiful objects for the Duchesses and Counts who employed them. Those natural history collections were the predecessors of the modern museum. And the objects in these collections were objects to think with, to speculate upon, to talk about in relation to the great mysteries of nature. For Lucienne Bernard, I think, reassembling that coral collection of hers, started by her grandmother, was a way of countering the tragic fracturing of her history and her family in the Revolution, shoring up something against the ruins of all of that, trying to make a whole out of the broken parts. And that is something that a novelist does too, I think, assembling (in my case, historical) objects, some of them ‘stolen', to make a whole.

Much of the novel's action takes place in Paris' "Underworld"—how did you research that? I would imagine they didn't keep excellent records.

Journals, diaries, old prints, books, guidebooks, letters - hundreds of them. I'm lucky – I live five minutes away from one of the greatest copyright libraries in the world and that is where I work – often in the Rare Books Room, a beautiful room with long desks and people sitting reading manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. I found a guidebook to Paris for 1815 that tells you everything – where to get hats mended, where to buy the best cut flowers or a whole pig, how to hire a valet or a carriage, as well as a review of all the theatres and marionette theatres and wax museums. It made it all so immediate and vivid. At one point I had memorized so much that I felt I could walk down the Rue Vivienne, for instance, and point out all the shops on either side. Then I found a rare book which listed all the entries into the quarries and mapped all the quarry tunnels too. So pretty soon I could map Paris overground onto Paris underground. And there really were people living and working down there in the tunnels – an illegal mint that worked in the quarry system under the streets, and Knights Templar tunnels. Of course, actually going to modern Paris only helped me picture the Paris of 1815 up to a point. Modern Paris has been utterly remade and the labyrinthine streets I wanted to see were largely knocked down in Haussmann's redesign of Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. So Marakesh in Morocco and some small towns in Jordan seemed to me more useful as a way of imagining how parts of Paris might have been then: food being cooked in the streets, smoke, street sellers, people selling you things everywhere, the smells of coffee, lemons, fish, and the people: picaros, street entertainers, prostitutes. Another big problem was light – there was too much of it in Paris. There seems to be almost no where in modern Paris where you can walk in streets in darkness. But you can in Marakesh.

For all of the laymen out there, what is the evolutionary significance of coral?

Coral pieces were beautiful and collectable objects in their own right but they were also tools for the philosophers – clocks, ways of measuring time and ways of thinking about animal, plant and mineral definitions. Sea creatures like corals and sponges were important to natural philosophers at this time because they seemed to sit on the borderline between what was defined as a plant and what was defined as an animal. They also reproduced in strange ways. Corals were particularly difficult to classify – they looked like trees; they had flowers. But when they were taken out of the sea they went hard like rock. It wasn't until people started to look at them closely that they saw that they were actually animals – they had free-swimming young and they digested. Corals were also important in terms of time. Natural philosophers like Lucienne Bernard (and Charles Darwin later) worked out that certain islands and reef systems had been built by corals growing on top of each other over a period of thousands of years. So if you knew how quickly a coral reef grew and if you could measure or estimate the depth of a coral reef you could prove that the earth was much, much older than the church leaders claimed. So corals are silent, but they're also eloquent. I guess they had the same kind of fascination for me as the prism in Ghostwalk.

One of the main characters is a strong, well-educated woman. Were talented women active in science during this time period—or were they relegated to the sidelines?

Both. Active and relegated. Visible and invisible. Women were often the assistants to fathers, brothers, husbands, botanical or anatomical illustrators, managers of what we would call laboratories; they ran salons and organized conversaziones; they did calculations; they rewrote or edited scientific manuscripts; they translated; they labeled. But they were rarely credited. Sophie Duvaucel and Clementine Cuvier, Cuvier's two daughters, were very important to him and to his work. Lamarck also had daughters who kept everything going and managed his work. No doubt these women also had conversations with their fathers about the philosophical consequences of their work. And in the literary world too of Paris there were a number of women who were rocking the boat, living in unusual ways, sometimes even cross dressing – later George Sand the female novelist (Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin) went around Europe dressed as a man with her lover, Chopin.

Your two novels—first the national bestseller Ghostwalk and now The Coral Thief—have been linked to great scientists in history (first Sir Isaac Newton, now Darwin—even though he was only 6 when much of the novel takes place!) What is it about scientific discoveries and the (now) larger-than-life men who "made" them that inspires you to write fiction?

I guess because we've turned so many great scientists into icons and their life stories into myths and once that has happened other important people disappear into their shadow. But no scientist or philosopher exists in isolation. Newton didn't. As far as he might have wanted to keep himself away from the world and keep his head down, he actually depended on so many other invisible people. He was always connected up. But those people who brought him manuscripts and worked behind the scenes become more invisible the more we tell ourselves that geniuses like Newton were loners, lone geniuses, almost supernatural. Darwin knew he wasn't a lone genius. He knew how dependent he was on all the other little people who had the nerve to go into print about evolution before him. He gave them credit in a preface he wrote to On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. So Lucienne Bernard and her band of heretic thieves stand for all the invisible people behind the scenes who did the incremental work that, bit by bit, made evolutionary ways of seeing acceptable. The corals are like that too – the invisible architects of coral reefs, working away just under the water line.

Reproduced from with permission of the author.

A Note From The Author
The Beginnings of Ghostwalk.

In November 2003, while I was doing readings and publicity for my book on Darwin's early years (Darwin and the Barnacle, Faber, 2003) I bought a copy of a new biography of Newton in order to compare Newton's formative years with Darwin's.
The book left me with a series of questions about Newton's fellowship at Trinity, which he was awarded in 1667, five years after arriving at Cambridge as a young student: How had he been given a fellowship without particularly impressing himself on the college authorities? Had someone acted as a kind of patron? Unlike Darwin, who readily acknowledged his dependency on networks of fellow scientists in his early years, Newton appeared to be a legendary recluse. I found this difficult to believe – surely it was impossible for any scientist, then or now, not to be dependent on, and entangled in, networks of knowledge and power?
I checked a second biography for further information about the award of the fellowship which told me that Newton was "lucky" because there were extra vacancies that year in the fellowships, brought about by two deaths of fellows falling down stairs apparently drunk, the expulsion of another fellow for insanity, and the death of a fourth fellow from pneumonia caught from a night spent in a field apparently drunk. Was Newton really that lucky, I wondered. I marked the deaths with asterisks and a question mark in the book.
With some spare time in the University Library, I looked up the sources for these mysterious deaths in Trinity college, and found them in a diary written by an Alderman (city councellor) living in Cambridge in these years. He described the deaths in ways that suggested they were regarded as suspicious. There was a further Trinity death in those years between 1662 and 1667 – the death by drowning of a young boy in the River Cam, also regarded with apparent suspicion by the Alderman.
Then came the "what if."  What if Newton had been involved in some way in those deaths? What would that mean? It was an idle and speculative question at this stage. I also wondered what it might be like to be a historian who found evidence about those deaths and a possible link to Newton – what if you had a lead like that and reached the end of what was known, reached the end of the archives? What if you were really obsessed with knowing something but it was unknowable by conventional means? What would you do next?
A few days later I was supposed to fly to Spain to join a friend there for a few days. At 5 a.m. I cycled to Cambridge station only to be told that there would be no trains to Stansted airport for several hours. Just as I was about to go home, a mysterious man in a dark coat suggested that we share a taxi to the airport – a 45-minute ride. I agreed. As the taxi drove away I mentioned to him that I had read that there was a meteor storm going on up in the sky, which we unfortunately could not see because of thick fog. He was, he said, a meteorologist who was returning to Germany after a conference in Cambridge and yes, meteor showers were common in November, but meteor storms were rare and often extraordinary, even life-changing, to watch. He described the meteor storm as a series of tiny lines coming out from a still center in all directions, like wind blowing dandelion seeds from the seed head. Then he fell silent.
The image he described of the complex movements of the meteor storm worked as a kind of catalyst for all the ideas germinating in my mind over the previous couple of weeks: entanglement, love, the limits of knowledge, the tensions between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, obsession, the dangers of certain kinds of knowledge…
Between that conversation and arriving in Stansted I conceived the plan for the entire novel – or rather it came to me complete as if out of the meteor storm: a woman in red drowned in a river, the psychic, the neuroscientist, the double murder plot, the love story, the fatal entanglements.
When I arrived at the airport I wrote it all down on a scrap of paper which I later glued into a bigger notebook. The finished novel, which took two years to complete,  is almost exactly as it was conceived in that taxi ride during that invisible meteor storm.
Rebecca Stott
Cambridge, June, 2006.

A Discussion With The Author

Cindy Spiegel, publisher of Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, discusses Ghostwalk with Rebecca Stott

Cindy: You've written an incredibly ambitious novel with two mysteries, one contemporary and one historical, almost superimposed upon each other. And you've actually uncovered a real-life historical mystery surrounding one of the most revered scientists of all time, Isaac Newton. Will you talk a little bit about what you discovered and how you came to discover it?
Rebecca: Well, the novel came about just after I had finished writing a book about Darwin—his early years and the formation of him as a scientist before he became famous. I'd been very preoccupied with how a scientist comes to make himself, self-fashioning if you like. Darwin was very much in the world, very engaged with people and writing to people all the time.  Newton was a recluse. He came to Cambridge in1662 as a young man in his early 20s, and he didn't distinguish himself.  Although he was doing extraordinary things in private, nobody at Cambridge really knew what he was working on. But then in 1667, when he'd been in Cambridge for 5 years, he was given a fellowship.  And this baffled me.  How did he get that fellowship if his exam results hadn't been great? He hadn't networked the way Darwin had. 

So I dug a bit deeper and I discovered that in that year, Newton was lucky and the biographers kept talking about the fact that Newton was really lucky because there were more vacancies in the year that he applied for a fellowship than there had been in previous years.  The biographers talked about this peculiar luck that he had—that in that year, two Trinity fellows had fallen down the staircase at Trinity apparently drunk in the early hours of the morning. A third had been expelled from the College on the grounds of insanity.  A fourth had been found in a field and had died from pneumonia caught while he slept in the fields, again, apparently drunk.  So I took one more step and tried to find the original sources for these mysterious deaths.  I found them in a diary that was written in 1667 by an alderman, a city councilor, who was recording all sorts of interesting things about Cambridge.  But he recorded these deaths in a way that made it absolutely clear to me that he felt they were suspicious because he had written phrases like: "it was supposed that…" or "it was thought that..." What if Newton had been involved? What if he directly benefited from these deaths? What would that mean?  And then the next question came - what if you were a historian working on Newton's early years in Cambridge and you'd come across these deaths and, like me, had become convinced that Newton had been involved? What if there was no further evidence to support that speculation but you had this hunch?

If you were that obsessed with Newton, as biographers become—I'd become very obsessed with Darwin—and you had this hunch yet there was no way of proving any connection at all, what would you do next? If you'd reached the end of the archives; if you'd reached the end of what was knowable and provable? And then my story came out of that.

Cindy: Right, and Newton had the keys to the private gardens where they grew all of the deadly herbs, a further reason for suspicion. Alchemy seems really hot these days.  On August 1st, the New York Times published an article about it in which they wrote, "Historians of science are taking a new and lively interest in alchemy, the often mystical investigation into the hidden mysteries of nature that reached its heyday in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been an embarrassment to modern scientists ever since." In your novel you discuss how most biographers of Newton prefer to skip over his involvement with alchemy, to pretend it didn't exist, but the fictional historian in your novel, Elizabeth, is writing a book specifically about Newton's alchemy and she winds up dead, floating down the river Cam.  Can you talk a little bit about Newton and alchemy and why it's impossible to ignore Newton's interest in it?
Rebecca: It comes back to this tension again that the book is so centrally about between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge. For us, alchemy is kind of beyond knowing in a way. It's so secretive and so caught up in networks.  There were people who had been initiated into those networks of knowledge and others who hadn't been. You couldn't be an alchemist by yourself; you had to be initiated into alchemy, trained.  You had to learn certain kinds of languages as well. The alchemical texts, some very ancient that had been handed down partly translated, were passed around in coded language. And I do think that these days—the article you just referred to is absolutely right—historians are now not so embarrassed as before, but many of the older biographers whom I was working with wouldn't acknowledge that alchemy was terribly important to Newton's work. You know 1/6 of his writings—Newton wrote a tremendous amount—was caught up in alchemical knowledge in one way or the other and he believed that there were secrets to be uncovered, that the ancients had this great knowledge. They knew the secrets of nature in a way that had been lost and it was for each new generation to rediscover those secrets, which were embedded in certain texts in coded form. So that the work of alchemists was not just to play around with potions and furnaces and mixing all those extraordinary alchemical formulas together, but was also to decode texts and find the secrets and the links between one chemical and another.  In many ways the birth of chemistry comes out of that alchemical practice.

Cindy: You also discuss a theory in physics called entanglement. And you use it both as metaphor and also as a possible scientific explanation for the way the events in the novel seem to occur simultaneously in the 17th and the 21st centuries.
Rebecca: Entanglement theory is a really important part of quantum physics, and the theory (as far I understand it, and it is very complex) is that if you take two subatomic particles and they become entangled with each other—they're influenced by each other; they hang around each other for a particular period of time—if you move those two subatomic particles to opposite ends of the universe separated absolutely by time and space and then spin one one way, the other, wherever it is, will shadow it.  That seemed to me to be very much part of the central metaphor of the novel.  It's about the terrible entanglement that happens between two people in a love affair, but it's also about the entanglements of time. So that, for instance, this moment in Newton's life in the 1660s, in which those murders or mysterious deaths occurred, could in some way be mirrored in our time, that two moments of time could become entangled like those subatomic particles. And that's what I was trying to do with those two plots. They don't just mirror each other in some simple reflection, but a spin will spin here and now as well as in the past, and the historical past spins also in the present. What's extraordinary about entanglement theory is that those people who discovered it were so appalled by its seeming irrationality; it seemed so implausible, so unlikely, so unexplainable.  There are mysteries in quantum physics as extraordinary as alchemy. Mystery in science doesn't go away; it just reinvents itself. 

Cindy: And that's what I love also about your novel.  It seems to me that the best fiction does the same thing, that if you read a novel it somehow has this mystical power bigger than itself to change you and transform our lives, and entangle us with the characters and other worlds, to bring us beyond our own lives and make us think about our own lives differently.
Thank you, Rebecca.  I'm really honored to be publishing Ghostwalk.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Dark Earth jacket In the Days of Rain jacket Darwin's Ghosts jacket The Coral Thief jacket
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