Recommending Books

woman writing

“So what do you do,” this guy said, “when you discover someone you like—you really respected—loves terrible books?”

This was a gathering for university faculty, where some were friends, some colleagues, but a lot of us plus ones didn’t know anyone.

No one spoke, until his wife cracked, “I’ll bet he’s at home right now saying the same thing about you.”

After the laughter broke the uncomfortable moment, the guy said, “No really. Who can get through a page of Dan Brown’s leaden prose? His crap sense of history?”

The obvious answers came from all around, basically saying why argue with the millions Brown has earned in book and film revenues? No, but really, the public does have terrible taste, look at Love Story when we were young, made Dan Brown look like Shakespeare—what is bad prose—why can’t everyone see it—different kinds of readers looking for different kinds of things.

Pretty much everyone there was a reader, so the conversation waxed enthusiastic, no one completely agreeing with anyone else (except about Dan Brown’s prose) until it broke up into a bunch of separate conversations, but it got me thinking about how we recommend books to others.

bookseller 1818

These days, most of my recommendations come from either LiveJournal or Goodreads, with the occasional Real Life recco. I read a lot of reviews, both critical and from regular readers, finding that in most cases I give equal weight to both; I no longer accept assumed authority from literary critics, especially if I suss out assumptions that I don’t agree with.

Readers whose tastes seem to align with mine get read more closely, though it’s interesting how we can agree on this, this, and this, and then diverge wildly on that.

Then I thought about my own criteria for recommending books. This is something I’ve always done with enthusiasm, but when I was a teacher, I began thinking more about the hows and whys, especially in recommending books for students. What have they read? What have they liked? What level of difficulty have they demonstrated—are they visual readers or not?

bored readers

Sometimes I had to take into consideration parental requirements: this set of parents won’t let their child read anything with magic, that set is against fiction altogether, feeling that reading time should be strictly limited to the sciences, maybe history; a third set wanted to wean their kid off books with violence (yeah, good luck with that, but I did find temporary success with Gordon Korman’s humor).

Recently I mentioned in a conversation in someone’s LiveJournal that I’ve been looking for epic fantasy that is not grimdark or rapey, and got some recommendations. One of these,  Paladin, by Sally Slater, was so much fun that I turned around and recommended it to three readers who I knew wouldn’t mind somewhat airbrushed worldbuilding, a strong contemporary American voice in the other world, fast pacing, fun characters, a delightful heroine, and a vein of humor, with some horror in the monster fights.

And I was thrilled when all three liked it, and said they were recommending it to their friends. But I noticed that none of them picked up on my recco of Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords, which I said had similar sort of worldbuilding, a similar American voice and humor, a horrific monster fight, but fewer female characters and a higher violence quotient.

Tales of Wonder

I’ve seen comments that Regency romance readers are all alike, but wow, is that not true: there are those who only read Austen and writers of her period, loathe Georgette Heyer, and despise all her heirs writing now; there are those who love Heyer, can’t read period, prefer the Austen movies to her books; there are those who adore modern Regencies, don’t mind a big dose of contemporary language and the more sex the better, and the readers who toss the book as soon as clothes start coming off, because they want comedy of manners, and by the way, nobody who lived during Napoleon’s time would step outside without a hat, nor did they know the word “Okay.”

A few months ago I recommended something I thought was perfect for someone—but that reader soon came back with a resounding, Ugh, what made you think I’d like that?

In the discussion that followed, some interesting stuff came out about expectations going in, personal experience and emotional baggage, how books can read differently in different moods, as well as the usual suspects—prose, voice, characters, world, underlying assumptions, and tone.

The result of that discussion made me try vectors. For example, a couple weeks back, I was saying to a small group of longtime genre readers that if you liked Jo Walton’s Thessaly books and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles you should try Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning.  One took me up on that and just a day ago sent me an email with a resounding, yes, but another finger-waved me for comparing two authors who do utterly different things.


Sometimes it’s the tropes, or a combination of tropes, sometimes it’s the voice that makes me equate one book with another for a specific reader. Other times it’s similar settings, or plot arcs that I think they like. For a couple of friends, it’s chewy ideas.

One friend won’t read past the second page if she finds the prose clunky, even if everything else hits her checklist. Sometimes I end up qualifying: if you like the world building in this author, the humor in that one, the voice in this other book, and the prose of a fourth . . . that kind of picking and choosing is probably what the Amazon recommendation algorythms are based on: intersecting patterns.

But we don’t have computerized pattern-sorters in our minds. All we’ve got is experience.

How do you recommend books? Do you have a vector method? What are some of your successes?






Recommending Books — 42 Comments

  1. I had surprisingly good luck recommending, to a group of Amelia Peabody fans impatiently awaiting HE SHALL THUNDER IN THE SKY, the Liad books of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, and the Vorkosigan series. Since the Peabody fans weren’t already sf/fantasy buffs, I didn’t expect the enthusiasm that transpired.

    When it comes to reading something recommended by others, I have just bought PALADIN based on your recommendation. I weight it in your favor because I’ve read somewhere your favorable view of THE MEDAIR DUOLOGY, which was probably my favorite new read last year, even though I itch to tweak the manuscript just a little.

    • Oh, good thinking, pairing Liad and Vorkosigan together for the mystery readers who like Amanda Peabody!

      I hope you enjoy Paladin as much as I did. If you don’t, and you happen to think of it, let me know? I’m always trying to refine my patterning in reccos.

  2. Sometimes you can recommend a book to someone based on the plot (“if you like a book with these plot points and this type of character, then you’ll probably like this”), but if the style of writing doesn’t appeal to the person, they won’t like it. Or, conversely, you can think a book has a style of writing a person might like, but maybe the plot doesn’t appeal. And there are other elements that can bother–or entice–a person. Sometimes a book can have the sort of plotting or characters a person likes, and a great style, but the social messages may seem overbearing to one reader, where to another reader they can feel just right. The better you know a person, the more likely you are to hit it right, but even so you can go wrong if, for example, they’re going through something that makes them not want to read a sort of book they’ve liked in the past (or makes them more open to a kind of book they’ve scoffed at in the past).

    When people are *giving* me recs, I try to pay attention to what thing about it really struck them, because that’s often a guide.

    … Also, some people are just really picky about what they like and don’t like, whereas other people like a wide range of things. Easier to recommend to the former!

    • This is all true. And yes, about certain moods. I remember when my daughter had just gone off to boarding school and I was trying not to worry about all the things you worry about when your first leaves the nest, and several people insisted I would just love 84 Charing Cross Road as delightful and effervescent (I think it was that one) but it opened with two estranged, grief-stricken people having just had their teenage son randomly murdered. I set aside the book and took out a Jane Austen to get rid of the dreary impact of that emphatically non-delightful and effervescent opening, and dropped the book off at the library the next day.

      • Hah — I remember trying to read the Gormenghast trilogy while in my freshman year, feeling claustrophobic and desperately unhappy in a basement dorm room with a roommate I despised. I still haven’t finished it, and probably never will, despite the fact that I enjoyed the writing style and found it very (too?) atmospheric.

  3. To me the most heart-rending thing is when you recommend a much-loved book to someone you dearly hope (and indeed expect) will love it too, and then they dislike it for completely unforeseen reasons. Even worse when those reasons seem both arbitrary and inconsistent with their other reading tastes. But painful as that may be, there really is no way to argue somebody into loving a book when they’ve made up their minds they don’t wanna.

    I’ve had several books recommended to me by people I trust that should have been to my taste, if the prose hadn’t been so dreadful. I can’t relax and enjoy a book that I’m mentally line-editing in every paragraph, even if all the other literary stars (preferred genre, favorite tropes, sparkling dialogue) are in line. But when I mentioned the problem to the friends who’d read and loved the book (including some who are pro authors), they didn’t remember getting hung up on the style of the book at all.

    • Yeah, that has happened to me, too, re the last.

      Re the first, it’s very like matchmaking, isn’t it? These two people have so much in common, and they are drawn to each other’s physical types, and yet . . . they don’t have five words to say to one another.

      • And conversely, sometimes there’s a book in a genre you’re not particularly interested in, but somehow it charms you completely–just like when you meet someone who, on paper, wouldn’t be your type but who you click with in person.

          • You just never know with chemistry. In college, I met a young man in the kid’s section of the library. We were the same religion, spoke the same language, & he even admitted to enjoying kid’s books. We should’ve had everything in common, & it was cold, salty oatmeal.

            A few years later, I met a young man with whom I had nothing in common except for food and humor. Yet, one can build a good life around those; last week was our 25th anniversary. When you’re that different, you give each other lots of room, & lots of very cool stuff grows in that space.

      • 🙂 Back when we were courting I recommended a book to my not-yet-husband – and he told me later that it was fairly clear in the subtext that this was a test and that he’d BETTER like the book or it was all off. I don’t think he was entirely right – we have been married for 16 years now and we don’t always agree on the quality of the books we both read – he likes mysteries and I am more of a spec-fic fan – but we both enjoy books like, for instance, the Longmire series because we like the characters and the complexity of the context. But he suggested to me that because I liked those I might like the books of another well-known mystery writer (whose name I won’t even mention here…) and I bounced off THOSE so hard that I got bruises. He still likes him. And we’re still married 🙂 I think taste is so utterly subjective, and that’s GOOD because there’s always a potential reader out there for any kind of book so as long as a writer is able to find that audience all is good…

        • Thinking about boyfriends/girlfriends in terms of the books they’ve recommended is interesting. In the space of a year, I had three different guys recommend three very different books to me. I liked all three of the books! But I didn’t end up with the one whose book rec I liked best.

          • I remember similar circs–the books and the guys didn’t necessarily correlate for me, forty years ago– however I have a friend who married in the early sixties: her husband would not ask out a woman on a second date who hadn’t read Lord of the Rings (he bought each book as it came out in the fifties)

            They are still married all these years later.

            • I think it’s funny that my husband and I have very little overlap when it comes to books we’re reading, although we both read a lot. I read lots of fantasy, particularly fairy tales (current stack includes Sharon Shinn, Maggie Stiefvater, and a biography of Charlotte Bronte). He reads lots of action adventure type books, particularly involving spies and/or secret government organizations.

              We do like some of the same books, like Garth Nix’s Abhorsen chronicles, Harry Potter, Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid series, and classics like LOTR.

              I didn’t really realize until we got married that there was so little overlap. I’ll occasionally recommend a book I come across that I think he’ll like, but I don’t think he’s ever recommended anything to me. We just have such different tastes.

              On the other hand, we overlap very heavily when it comes to movies / tv shows, which works out quite well because we watch the same shows / movies together and then sit companionably on the couch reading very different books.

  4. When I find a book I really like, I usually post all over facebook to boost the signal. I can’t afford to buy all the books I read (100+ in a year), so I get them from the library, and I figure that boosting the signal is the best way to repay the author. But I only do that for a small handful of books, the ones that really blow me away.

    Occasionally I’ll recommend a specific book to a specific person, but only if I’m reading the book and it seems above average and something the person would like. (I’ve had really good luck recommending books to my husband, as he likes most of the books I hand to him, but not the other way around, interestingly. He basically never recommends books to me.)

    When it comes to finding new books, I have various friends on Goodreads that I follow. If they give the book a favorable review, I’ll take a look at the first few pages and if it interests me, I’ll pick it up. But I’m really picky with what I read, so even then (with readers that I feel I’m decently well aligned) I’d say I like the same books about half the time. You just never know what will click, either. Despite the fact that most of my friends love Neil Gaiman, I’ve never really clicked with his books. It’s like they’re missing some essential but unnameable ingredient.

    • I feel the same about Gaiman. Clever prose, but something missing. I wonder what others are getting that I don’t?

      I’ve been trying to post more reviews (except for five star burbles read like ad copy) at Goodreads, where I get a lot of my recommendations. I read all the reviews for a book, and can triangulate from there.

      • I agree about Gaiman. I get the impression that having started with graphic novels he doesn’t quite get all the detail verbalized that the illustrations take care of in the graphics. Good Omens which he wrote with Terry Pratchett is the exception. And I suspect that the detail polish was one of the things that Sir Terry contributed. They meshed in a very satisfying way.

      • There is some Gaiman that I love. I picked him up at Neverwhere and he had me there, all the way. I enjoyed Stardust but it felt a little THINNER – and then when Ocean at the End of the Lane came out I read it and it really felt as though he had phoned it in and it won all those awards and I am perfectly sure that if any other writer had submitted that novel to any editor worth their salt they would have been told to go away and practice some more. But because it was Gaiman – oh wow – stars and rainbows. And I HONESTLY could not see why, not with that book. But some of his short stories, on the other hand, are phenomenal. Have you read “Snow, Glass, Apples”? You’ll never see the name Snow White without shuddering a little, once you have…

        • I actually liked Ocean at the End of the Lane better than Neverwhere or Stardust.

          To me, though, Gaiman is much better in other formats. I really like the movie Stardust, adore the BBC radio drama of Neverwhere, and love Gaiman’s episode of Doctor Who (The Doctor’s Wife).

          • I was impressed by Sandman; someone has an astute comment either here or on my LiveJournal, where I echoed this post, about Gaiman and art, and how he’s best when illustrated. At least, the comment resonated with me.

          • To me, Stardust is clearly best in its Charles Vess illustrated form, not the separate novel — which speaks very much to the thought that he works better in collaboration with illustrators. But clearly some people thought Stardust would suffice without the art.

            I thought Coraline worked solo, though I chose to get the version with Dave McKean illustrations.

  5. Recommendations are so tricky. I’m a reviewer, but I tend to phrase my praise and criticisms in terms of what worked for me or didn’t rather than buy this book or don’t. If I’m working person-to-person, it’s easier, but I never offer actual recommendations to folks I don’t know fairly well. And there’s usually a specific trigger. Oh, a recent example! I recommended a YA to a reluctant YA reader based on geography, a sense of class consciousness and a shared appreciation for the fantastical across genres. Plus voice. But I would never be able to pick out those details for a passing acquaintance.

    Identifying the sort of voice people like is actually critical to good recs, I think. A voice someone likes can transcend all sorts of other problems and mismatches. But all the trope-love in the world can’t fix a serious book for someone who likes a comedic tone or a lack of intensity for us angst-bunnies. I have a little community of readers who love a touch of the absurd–we have in common 70s HPs, old skool historical faves and alien romance. Who knew those things go together, but fuzzy blue heroes seem to be appreciated by people who also rather ironically love sex on horseback. And I have a writer friend whose books I love, who I have a lot of books in common with, but who gives the most terrible recs. Turns out we love some of the same things for entirely different reasons.

    All that is to say: I think it’s more art than science.

    • That’s fascinating about the friend who has so much in common but gives terrible recs. And liking things for different reasons.

      Actually I think it’s amazing that the same text can be so radically different for different people.

  6. In library school, I actually took a class on reader’s advisory, which is what we call making book recommendations. I still find making recommendations to patrons difficult, though, because I usually have so little to go on to gauge their interests. They’ll give you a brief list of authors they like, and they can get impatient if you spend too much time digging into why they like those authors. But it’s those details that can really allow you to recommend something interesting that they would never pick up otherwise. With most patrons, I wind up giving the blandest recommendations, because they aren’t really willing to work with me to dig deeper into their personal tastes.

  7. I had the world’s easiest rec today. A librarian said she wanted to read a book I checked out. I commented that the author had written other books, which were in fact on the library’s shelves as we spoke. . . .

  8. I rarely give out book recs as I know my tastes and interests are outliers in my community, but I’m often on the receiving end. “Oh, Pil, you should read–some dreary sounding modern lit title,” that they truly believe I’d like because I’m so intellectual. Ahem. Meanwhile I’m deep into history or escapist trash of some sort.

  9. If I’ve really enjoyed a book I’ve read recently and I have friends I think might like it, I generally recommend based on what I enjoyed, but assure them their mileage may very.

    I do tend to read types of books, though, that most of my friends don’t read, so I don’t do a lot of recommending. 🙂

    • Waxing enthusiastic about a book you enjoyed and leaving it up to people to look at it or not, is one way to recommend without people feeling they are buttonholed into trying it.

  10. Explicit recommendations to my husband and daughter don’t often get anywhere. Leaving books scattered temptingly around the living room may 🙂 The tastes of the three of us overlap in the Dresden Files and in the J.D. Robb In Death books. Otherwise, I’m never quite sure. My husband leans more toward hard science than I do (though he was a LOTR fan, as was I, when we met 40+ years ago), but he enjoyed The Goblin Emperor and, even more surprisingly to me, the occasional Nora Roberts contemporary (mostly, I think, the ones with a lot of the hero’s POV – Northern Lights is the one I remember him being snared by). My daughter likes things that lean toward horror and I don’t, but we both liked Silver on the Road.