All Behind the Book essays

A glamorous dinner party goes horribly wrong in Tess Little’s debut novel, The Last Guest. The host, ostentatious director Richard Bryant, ends up dead and all the guests are suspects. So far, so Agatha Christie, but Little draws from the novel’s setting in the Hollywood Hills to cinematic effect, using the tropes of classic film noir and more modern, surrealist thrillers to create something entirely her own. If you find yourself wanting to watch a movie after finishing The Last Guest, Little has five perfect pairings in mind. 


It would be impossible to distinguish all the influences on any novel—as impossible as unmixing paint or lifting brushstrokes from the canvas. But those that had the greatest impact will always loom large in the writer’s mind. My debut novel, The Last Guest, is set in Los Angeles, and so I often reached for films while seeking inspiration. Who could paint a portrait of that city without wielding the color and texture of cinema?

The Invitation (2015), directed by Karyn Kusama

The Invitation is a masterful, slow-burning character study that explores grief, survival and unravelling social norms. As a horror film, it largely differs from my novel, a murder mystery. But their premises mirror each other closely—a home perched in the Hollywood Hills, an intimate dinner party, the mounting tension and creeping dread. As I was writing The Last Guest, my thoughts kept returning to the winding road in the opening scene, leading the protagonist towards his ex-wife’s house and the horrific night awaiting him there.

Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch

Darker and more surreal than Sunset Boulevard, neo-noir Mulholland Drive was another film that sat with me as I wrote. The Last Guest is less of a dreamscape, more firmly rooted in reality, but the rich colors, underlying unease and ugly Hollywood truths of Lynch’s masterpiece were hanging over me nonetheless.

The Octopus (1928), directed by Jean Painlevé

If the 2020 runaway hit documentary My Octopus Teacher had been released before I wrote The Last Guest, it would certainly have provided inspiration for Persephone—the giant Pacific octopus who appears in the novel. As it was, I had to search for the creatures elsewhere, and found the silent, underwater films of French director Jean Painlevé online. In The Octopus, the strange anatomy of this alien animal is presented in black and white, tight close-ups giving a detailed study of how octopuses crawl, climb and jet through the water, how their siphons inflate to breathe and how their skin cells change color to camouflage.

Play it as it Lays (1972), directed by Frank Perry

Joan Didion’s spare, exacting prose has long served as an example for my own writing, and so too did Play it as it Lays, the film based on her novel of the same name. Protagonist Maria drifts through LA in an existential emptiness, taking long, lonely drives, much as my novel’s narrator, Elspeth, does. The sun is shining, as are the cars, the teeth, the oversized shades—but it all means nothing to Maria.

Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder

Any thriller set in LA will naturally be inspired by classic film noir, and Sunset Boulevard has everything you could want from the genre: a body floating in the swimming pool, a decaying mansion, directors and former silent movie stars playing themselves, even a chimpanzee funeral. While The Last Guest doesn’t feature an oil painting that lifts to reveal a cinema screen or a dead chimp, my own version of 10086 Sunset Blvd. does contain a pet octopus—and a projector screen that rolls down over its aquarium.

Tess Little’s sumptuous debut thriller takes as much inspiration from Agatha Christie as it does from its setting in the Hollywood Hills. Here’s what to watch after reading 'The Last Guest.'

In Joanna Shupe’s latest romance novel, A Scandalous Deal, aspiring architect Eva Hyde has found the perfect project to establish her reputation—a glittering, luxurious hotel in New York City. But her attraction to her employer, powerful businessman Phillip Mansfield, threatens to expose her identity and ruin her carefully laid plans. Shupe’s the Four Hundred series are some of the best new books set in the Gilded Age, and follow English noblewomen as they discover the intoxicating freedom and powerful men of turn-of-the-century America.

The Gilded Age might not be as popular a time period as the Regency and Victorian eras in historical romance, but it’s been a steady subgenre for years, offering readers a less restrictive, even more ridiculously opulent setting than the ballrooms of English high society. In this guest post, Shupe told us which five books she recommends for fans of the period.


Opulence. Innovation. Corruption. America’s Gilded Age had all this and much more. I have always been fascinated by this era because it is fraught with tension and conflict—perfect for romance stories! Here are five of my favorite novels set in Gilded Age New York.

 

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

What happens when you fall in love with a scandalous divorcée when duty and conformity are your entire world? This is the question Newland Archer must face when he meets the beautiful Countess Olenska in old New York. Wharton’s writing is divine and a true window into the high society of Mrs. Astor’s time. (When you are done with the book, go watch the Daniel Day-Lewis movie adaptation. That carriage scene . . . swoon!)

 

Lions and Lace by Meagan McKinney

When her wealthy family is ruined, Alana Van Alan is left on the doorstep of the man responsible, ruthless financier Trevor Sheridan, also known as the Predator. Sheridan’s Irish ancestry makes him think a Knickerbocker princess like Alana could never truly love him. The story gives some insight into the prejudices of the time, and the high society world building is outstanding. Warning, this is an old-school romance—but it’s one of my desert island keepers.

 

Deadly Vows by Brenda Joyce

Francesca Cahill is an amateur sleuth and socialite in Old New York and she’s about to marry Calder Hart—or is she? When she gets caught up in the hunt to find a scandalous painting, her future and her relationship are suddenly threatened. This is the final book in Joyce’s Deadly mystery series. While this one was my favorite, do yourself a favor and start at the beginning of the series (Deadly Love) because each book is fantastic.

 

Destiny’s Captive by Beverly Jenkins

Pilar Banderas is a Cuban rebel and she needs to steal a ship. Unfortunately for Noah Yates, his ship is the one she chooses. When he wakes up from being kidnapped, he’s tied to a bed (yes!), his ship is already at sea and he vows revenge on the pirate. This story is pure delicious fun from start to finish, with a feisty heroine and unique locations like Cuba, Florida and California. When Noah called Pilar “mi pequeña pirata,” I dropped dead from the feels. This book is a must-read for anyone who loves a sword-wielding heroine.

 

Duchess by Design by Maya Rodale

A desperate duke comes to Gilded Age New York to marry an American heiress and save his family. Instead, he falls for a spunky-but-definitely-poor seamstress. This is the first in Rodale’s Gilded Age Girls Club series and it isn’t available until October 23, but I was lucky enough to read an early copy. The story is delightful, with plenty of Rodale’s signature witty dialogue and clever details. I devoured this American twist on the familiar duke trope.

Author Joanna Shupe recommends five romances set in turn-of-the-century America.

Robert Repino’s War With No Name science fiction series began with an immediately compelling premise: What if animals gained sentience and rose up against humans? But the heart of the series lies in an interspecies friendship between Mort(e), a former housecat, and Sheba, the dog who was his best friend before the world changed forever.

With the release of Malefactor, the final novel, Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of the War With No Name series.


In the fall of 2009, I awoke from a strange dream and immediately began scribbling everything I could recall in my notebook. Groggy and working by the light of a Manhattan streetlight, I remembered an image of my old neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill. An enormous spaceship hovered directly above my parents’ backyard, with a metal gangplank extending from the hull to the grass. A strange energy pulsed from inside the ship. And all the pets and stray animals in the neighborhood suddenly, as if on cue, rose onto their hind legs in a comical but hideous impersonation of humans. At that moment, all hell broke loose. The animals attacked, dragging the humans from their homes, cornering them against cyclone fences and manicured shrubs. It was grotesque and liberating at the same time because, in my mind, I was among the animals, yearning for some kind of revenge, unable to ignore my instincts to kill and to protect my territory. By the time I was done, I asked myself what an uplifted animal would choose as a name. And without thinking, I wrote what felt like a nonsense word: Mort(e). I fell back asleep.

The dream could not have come at a better time. I was between my second and third failed novels. Book number three—a somewhat autobiographical work set in the Caribbean—was about to go out to agents, a miserable process that had already left me in despair the previous two times I tried it. I had come from the MFA world and had produced mainly literary work up until then, with a few short stories published here and there. And now, with this dream still rattling in my head, I had to ask: Could I change course and write a completely bonkers novel about a war between humans and sentient animals?

All my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

So, while novel number three began its journey through the meat grinder, novel number four—Mort(e)—came to life a few months later. By then, I had replaced the aliens with a hyperintelligent ant colony. Insects that are treated like pests would have a more coherent motivation to wage war with humanity, and would hark back to some of the weird B-movie entertainment that helped to raise me like Them! and Phase IV. That first draft opened with the aftermath of my dream, with the humans tied up and carted away by their new animal overlords. And from there, I let it rip, creating a war story with characters who find themselves permanently damaged by their pyrrhic victory over their sworn enemy.

But believe it or not, all of this was meant to be a love story. When I asked myself who the protagonists would be, the answer was simple. Before I was born, my parents adopted an orange and white cat named Sebastian when they moved into their first apartment. In the unit below lived another married couple, who owned a big dog named Sheba. My parents became such good friends with the couple below that they named them as my godparents when I came along a few years later. Sebastian and Sheba, meanwhile, had an adorable friendship, often falling asleep together on the landing of the steps that connected the two apartments. That experience may have convinced Sebastian that he was a dog. There is a scene in the novel in which the cat protagonist fiercely “protects” the house from a babysitter, which is word-for-word reenactment of an incident from my youth. My mom still loves to tell that story. And so, Sebastian and Sheba were the perfect couple to place at the center of the chaos of war.

While Mort(e) continued to grow, my previous novel crashed and burned. Though I found someone to represent it, the book languished for over a year on submission. Eventually, I had no choice but to part ways with the agent I had spent nearly a decade trying to find. Over five years had passed since completing my MFA, and everything felt like it was going backward. By then, all my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

As I tried to focus on the positive, I found the book changing as well. In later drafts, I deemphasized the spectacle of the premise in favor of the simple, platonic, interspecies love story. That’s been the backbone of the entire series, which I think made it attractive to a new agent and, eventually, to a publisher. The series now includes three novels and a spinoff novella. Somehow, as I moved on from a demoralizing period in my career, I was able to conclude the War With No Name on a relatively positive note with Malefactor, focusing more on redemption rather than revenge, and forgiveness rather than judgment. Frustration and despair may have given birth to the project, and even sustained it for a while, but what’s the use in that if it doesn’t lead to something better?

 

Author photo by Nicholas Repino

Robert Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of his War with No Name series, which follows an interspecies war between animals and humans.

Lexie Elliott’s new book, How to Kill Your Best Friend, is perhaps the ideal escapist thriller: a possible murder, a friend group practically bursting at the seams with drama and some very twisted secrets, all against the backdrop of a luxury resort on a gorgeous, isolated island in Southeast Asia. We asked Elliott to share more suspenseful novels with stunning settings.


Writers: We’re a strange breed, and none more so than crime writers. Give us a beautiful villa overlooking a secluded beach and we immediately wonder what might be buried under the palm tree or weighted down at the bottom of the ocean. A sun-dappled European city has us looking past the landmarks and museums for what might be lurking in the narrow alleys. The contrast between the light and shade of human nature is never so stark as when played out in the most seductive of settings, the kind of places where people come to relax and forget their cares. Two of my novels (my debut, The French Girl, and my most recent novel, How To Kill Your Best Friend) feature exactly that delicious contrast, and with that in mind, I bring you some suggestions for thrillers where the gorgeous settings almost steal the scene.

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Mongibello, San Remo, Rome, Venice, Greece: The locations in this novel read like a travel agent’s advertisement (though the first is admittedly fictional—Highsmith took inspiration for it from Positano, Italy). Readers will be captivated as the young, wealthy American trust fund socialites of the 1950s frolic through the radiant Italian Riviera, unaware of the twisted obsession growing in the heart of Tom Ripley. I discovered this novel in my teens and it awoke in me a longing (never quite lost) to travel to these beguiling destinations, where surely I would dress most fabulously to drink cocktails in the warm summer evenings at the bars of the most fashionable hotels and restaurants. . . . Highsmith unerringly captures the details of both the time and place, and it’s her depiction of the juxtaposition of the glorious sun-drenched locations with the darkness of the conniving, murder and betrayal carried out by our extraordinarily creepy antihero Tom that truly sets this novel apart. (Oh, and the 1999 movie, with Matt Damon as Tom and Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf, is excellent too.)

 

Pompeii by Robert Harris

The weather. The landscape. The opulent villas. The togas. Harris’ tautly accurate prose transports the reader to the heart of ancient Italy in the heat of late summer, with a tale of sleazy urban corruption, 79 A.D.-style, with a rigorously intelligent hydraulic engineer to guide us through it—all while trying to keep hold of both his integrity and his life. I defy any reader to finish this novel without a burning desire to immediately visit the ruins of Pompeii (though preferably without Vesuvius erupting at the time).

 

The Chalet by Catherine Cooper

Glamourous locales aren’t always warm: A luxury ski chalet in the snow-covered Alps also ticks the box (Champagne in front of the log fire, anyone?). Cooper’s descriptions of the beautiful, glacial landscape place the reader squarely inside a dual-timeline tale of twisted revenge spanning two decades.

 

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The queen of crime and the original luxury train experience: It's a match made in exotically located thriller heaven that spans both hot and cold climes. The opening chapters are set in bustling Istanbul, before the action steams along to snow-covered Yugoslavia. With Poirot aboard, and the train itself providing the “locked room” setting, you know you are in for a treat.

 

Author photo © Nick James Photography.

How to Kill Your Best Friend author Lexie Elliott shares four thrillers set in gorgeous locations.

Fairy tale adaptations are always popular with romance readers, but Charis Michaels’ new historical romance series has a particularly clever twist. While each Awakened by a Kiss book is inspired by a classic story, the characters are based on supporting characters such as Snow White’s huntsman and Cinderella’s stepsisters. Isobel Tinker, the spunky, take-no-prisoners heroine of Michaels’ latest romance, When You Wish Upon a Duke, is (of course) inspired by Tinkerbell.

If you’re in search of more enchantment after reading Michaels’ latest love story, here are five more fairy tale-inspired romances with the author’s stamp of approval.


Little known-fact: I used to work at Disney World. And not as a disgruntled teenager or Orlando local. I actively pursued a job at the Most Magical Place during my junior year in college. I forsook serious internships to drive four states away and join the Disney “cast.” Wearing a Mickey name badge and black leather Reeboks, I pointed tourists in the direction of Space Mountain. The experience did not disappoint; I left Florida at the end of the summer in a happy swirl of chlorine and pixie dust.

Perhaps the natural next step was to write historical romance. Romances are, in many ways, fairy tales for adults. My current series, Awakened by a Kiss, is dripping in pixie dust. The trilogy explores “whatever-happened-to” sideline characters from classic tales like Snow White, Cinderella and Peter Pan. The first book, A Duchess a Day, follows up on the Huntsman from Snow White. The third book, If the Duke Fits, will give the happily-ever-after treatment to a stepsister from Cinderella. But perhaps the book I’m most excited about is my current release, When You Wish Upon a Duke.

The heroine, Miss Isobel Tinker, is inspired by Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. After a chaotic youth spent cavorting around Europe, Miss Tinker has sworn off two things: travel and men. She works as a clerk in a travel agency and vows never to leave her safe, reliable life in London. (Best-laid plans.) When a dashing duke strides into the shop and makes an offer she cannot refuse, Miss Tinker is compelled to dredge up her latent language skills and serve as his translator. Hilarity, adventure and passion ensue, with pirates and geothermal pools and that oh-so-important happily ever after.

Fairy tale themes in popular fiction have enriched and captivated readers for decades. To help celebrate the release of When You Wish Upon a Duke, I give you five novels that take inspiration from the words, “Once upon a time . . .”

 

The Beast of Beswick by Amelia Howard

If you love a beastly aristocrat in need of redemption, look no further than this "Beauty and the Beast"-inspired Regency.

 

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

This contemporary romance combines Moyes’ beautiful writing with the timeless tale of a maid who falls in love with a prince of a rich guy.

 

The Devil’s Own Duke by Lenora Bell

Another Cinderella story, this is a reverse fairy tale. The hero is a working-class Cinderella and he comes up from the streets to marry a duke’s daughter. (This one’s not out until September 28, so preorder it now!)

 

Out of Character by Annabeth Albert

While not inspired by a specific fairy tale, this contemporary romance features a prince and frog wizard (in costume!). Friends-to-lovers takes center stage here, with a magical backdrop of cosplay and fantasy gaming.

 

Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

Few authors revisit a fairy tale like Eloisa James. Her Fairy Tales series spans multiple books, each one more magical than the next. My favorite is the Rapunzel-inspired Once Upon a Tower. The magic begins with the gorgeous cover and the story inside carries you away.

When You Wish Upon a Duke author Charis Michaels recommends five fantastic romances inspired by fairy tales.

In his debut book, Matt Siegel takes intel from nutritionists, psychologists, food historians and paleoanthropologists and weaves together an entertaining account of the food we eat. These 12 surprising food facts offer a taste of the weird, wonderful backstories you’ll find in The Secret History of Food.


1. In 1893, the Supreme Court had to rule whether tomatoes were a fruit or a vegetable. This happened not long after people finally decided that tomatoes weren’t poisonous (a belief that lasted for hundreds of years, owing largely to their botanical relationship to mandrakes and deadly nightshade) and that they weren’t used to summon werewolves (the tomato’s scientific name, Solanum lycopersicum, literally means “wolf’s peach”).

2. People used to think potatoes caused syphilis and leprosy. This was chiefly because of their resemblance to the impacted body parts of the afflicted. Now, of course, potatoes are America’s favorite vegetable, largely thanks to french fries. (Tomatoes are in second place, owing largely to their use in frozen pizza and canned tomato sauce.)

3. Vanilla isn’t very “vanilla.” While vanilla has unfortunately become a synonym for “ordinary,” it’s really anything but. For starters, it’s the only edible fruit to come from orchids, even though they’re the largest family of flowers. Vanilla gets its name from Spanish conquistadors, who named it after the Spanish word for “vagina.” It has to be pollinated by hand using a technique developed by an enslaved 12-year-old named Edmond Albius. And it’s the world’s second most expensive spice behind saffron.

4. The first breakfast cereals were intentionally bland. Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals were created in the 1800s by religious health reformers who believed sugar and spices were sinful and that consuming them incited bodily temptation, leading to such sexual urges as chronic masturbation and adultery—and ultimately resulting in eternal damnation.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Secret History of Food.


5. Our affinity for certain comfort foods begins in the womb. Research suggests many of our adult food preferences are influenced by flavors (e.g., vanilla) present in breast milk and amniotic fluid, which absorb flavors and odors from the parent’s diet. Meanwhile, other food preferences, such as people’s polarized responses to cilantro, go back even earlier to the genetic inheritance of specific taste receptors.

6. People used to believe personality traits and intellect were passed on through breast milk. As a result, early wet nurses were screened for things like breast shape, manners and vices such as day-sleeping and gambling addiction to ensure their milk was “child friendly.”

7. An entire ear of ancient corn used to be about the size of a cigarette. Over thousands of years, corn was selectively bred from a nearly inedible weed into the modern staple many cultures now depend on.

8. There’s a decent chance the honey in your cupboard comes from lawn weeds or poison ivy. And that’s OK. (Though there’s also a chance it’s not honey at all but a mixture of corn syrup and yellow food coloring . . .)

"Cinnamon, it was said, came from giant bird nests and had to be transported using rafts without oars on a treacherous journey that took five years and was powered by courage alone."

9. Fidel Castro was obsessed with American dairy. He spent decades funding the genetic manipulation of a dairy “supercow” named Ubre Blanca (“White Udder”) that produced four times the milk of American cows, was assigned a security detail in an air-conditioned stable and was eulogized with military honors and a life-size marble statue after her death.  

10. No one wanted to eat Patagonian toothfish until they were rebranded as Chilean sea bass in 1994. Now they sell for $29.99 a pound at Whole Foods. 

11. Spice traders used to make up stories about the exotic origins of spices so they could sell them for more money. Cinnamon, it was said, came from giant bird nests and had to be transported using rafts without oars on a treacherous journey that took five years and was powered by courage alone. Black pepper was said to grow in forests guarded by serpents that had to be scared away by setting the trees on fire, which explained why black pepper pods were the color of ashes.

12. The adage “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” isn’t really true. Rather, catching flies depends on a host of complex variables including the age, gender, sex drive, mating status, thirst and stress level of each fly—as well as the concentration of the vinegar, the time of day and the season. (Even then, some research suggests you’ll catch even more flies with beer or human semen, with one scientist calling semen “the crack cocaine of the fly world.”)

Everything you never knew about Patagonian toothfish, Cuban supercows and cinnamon sticks

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