The Ideal Bookshelf

I’m thrilled to welcome one of my favorite mystery authors, Sandra Parshall, as a guest on today’s blog. Her award winning series features veterinarian Rachel Goddard, a passionate, strong-willed character with hidden vulnerabilities. The writing is flawless, the characters three-dimensional and memorable, and whenever I’m in the midst of one of her books, I find myself haunted by the depths of the story, unable to get it out of my mind. If you are new to the series, you should read the books in order, beginning with HEAT OF THE MOON. Just be aware that you may not be able to put this book down.

Today Sandra offers some thoughts on the ideal bookshelf. Please join me in welcoming her to the blog.

Sandra ParshallWhile browsing the new books section of my neighborhood branch library, I came across a delightful book titled My Ideal Bookshelf , edited by Thessaly La Forge. For page after page, more than 100 writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative people talk about the books that have meant the most to them — the books that would make up their “ideal bookshelf” and represent who they are.

Which books changed their lives? Which made them the people they are today? Which books are their beloved favorites, the ones they read again and again? Each entry is illustrated with a painting by Jane Mount of that person’s ideal bookshelf.

Naturally, I went for the writers first. Robert Crais is a prime example of someone whose life has been shaped by reading. When he was growing up in Baton Rouge, he read “everything I could get my hands on” and picked up The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler at age fifteen because “the cover had this really hot chick on it.” Reading that book was the beginning of his love for detective fiction and his fascination with Los Angeles. It helped to make him the writer he is today. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human born on Mars who is a loner hero, further influenced Crais’s writing and his outlook on life. Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat, a collection of his Los Angeles Free Press columns about the television industry, spurred Crais to leave Louisiana for Los Angeles and begin a career as a writer for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice.

 Francine Prose has a shelf filled with the works of Anton Chekov, who “saved my sanity, or what was left of my sanity” during a “messy time” in her life. Reading Chekhov is almost a religious experience for her, uplifting in the same way as gazing at great art.

Scott Spencer’s ideal bookshelf ranges from Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer at one end to A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene at the other, with the works of Alan Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Bruce Jaye Friedman, Vladimir Nabakov and Doris Lessing in between. The volume that represents his youthful ambitions, though, is Evergreen Review. When he was growing up on the working class south side of Chicago, that literary publication gave him a glimpse of a “dazzling bohemia that I would one day be a part of.”

As the essays in My Ideal Bookshelf prove, the written word can also have a profound effect on people who have never aspired to be writers themselves. Tony Hawk, a professional skateboarder, has found inspiration in books as varied as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It”, about a shocking case of child abuse, and Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s account of the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica that kept a ship of explorers helplessly adrift in Earth’s harshest climate for six months. These books taught Hawk that the human spirit can triumph over adversity and turn life’s worst experiences into something positive.

My Ideal Bookshelf  is filled with such testimony to the power of books, and browsing only a handful is enough to restore the flagging spirit of any writer who doubts that sitting alone at the computer, tapping out words on a screen, is a worthwhile way to spend her time. Books can change lives, and by changing lives they can change the world. The beauty of being a writer is that you never know when a book, a paragraph, a sentence you’ve created will touch another human being’s heart. I was stunned when a woman told me that after reading my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, she understood her troubled relationships with her own mother and sister for the first time. Could any writer ask for more than that?

My own ideal bookshelf would be crammed with works that have affected me. I grew up in a poor family, a family of non-readers, so I can’t explain where I got my love of reading and writing. The public library saved my life by showing me a world beyond the dreary one I lived in and giving me hope that I could be part of that greater world someday. Like Crais, I read everything I could get my hands on, ranging from Dostoevsky to Graham Greene. The writers who most influenced me, though, were Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, not because they wrote about exotic places but because they showed me that my own life contained the seeds of stories worth telling.

Poisoned Ground 300Today, I can hardly believe that after all the years of struggling to break into print, I am sliding my own sixth published novel onto a shelf with five that came before it. It might not measure up to the groaning shelves of authors with twenty, thirty, or more volumes to their credit, but it’s the book collection that makes me smile with pride.

What books would you place on your ideal bookshelf to represent your life and the person you’ve become?


Sandra Parshall is the author of six Rachel Goddard mysteries, set in Virginia. Her 2006 debut, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her latest title is Poisoned Ground (March 2014). A longtime member of Sisters in Crime, she has served on the national board and managed the SinC members online community for many years. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a veteran Washington journalist, and their cats Emma and Gabriel. Visit her website at



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