Books that made a difference

women-writers-and-readersI was chatting with some writers a couple weeks ago, when one person began talking about the upcoming holidays, and mentioned having been invited to a book fair to speak on a panel about YA Books.

We got enthusiastic about recommending YAs—recent? Classic? Really old? What constitutes YA these days. Then she asked the group if they thought it was okay to go about recommending one’s own books, even though she’d been invited through her school as a teacher.

No surprise that four writers had four different opinions, but all pretty much agreed:

  1. Best is if asked upfront to talk about your books.
  1. If not asked, maybe ask if listeners like your genre, and if you see some enthusiasm, give your pitch.
  1. Avoid hard sell (or as our host put it, “Try to keep your pitch under an hour”), and if you’re there to talk about other books, talk about other books first, at least.


That led right back to recommending books, and what fun it is when it works. One person said that it was like matchmaking, awesome when the book you recommended means a great deal to someone. And you cannot predict when it will happen.

You can recommend Big Important Works and get mild enthusiasm or polite thanks, then recommend something you thought was pure fluff, and it turns out to be exactly the right book at the right time, and it made all the difference.

Then again, it can be the wrong book at the wrong time, too. Or just plain the wrong book, hitting a reader 180 degrees from how it hit you.

Everybody had some ouches to share. Not so much the meh response when you were so sure that Person A was going to adore Book X because they loved Book Z as much as you did, and for the same reasons.


No, the really awful reaction (just like trying to set people up) is when they come back with “How could you think that I would like that??” or “Is that what you really think of me? Do you know me so little?”


Well, we went through various disastrous reccos, then got back to successes, which was much more fun to talk about.

I thought I’d mention three of mine, in hopes other readers will share successful recommendation stories: what books did you match with readers that had a real effect in those readers’ lives?


My first success was in grade school, when a classmate admitted that she really wanted books about girls in history, and they were hard to find, especially ones that had magic. (She had just read Witch of Blackbird Pond, which was good, but had no magic-she’d picked out out thinking there would be a real witch. I told her she had to read Sally Watson’s  Witch of the Glens, which I had finished not long before, having checked out the library’s new copy.

Well, she read it in one night, just like I did, and I can still remember the big-eyed grin on her face as she crossed the blacktop toward me the next morning, as the kids milled around before the assembly bell. Scruffy, scabbed knees, limp dress half-grown out of just like mine, ugly Dutch bob haircut that she loathed as passionately as I loathed mine.

“What other books do you love?” she asked, and our words tumbled over each other’s in exclaiming love and hate for various books, before going back to talk about our favorite bits in the Watson. We were such kindred spirits, and for a time we passed notes about Scottish witches, and memorized the bits of Gaelic in the book. Alas, she moved away that summer, and I never saw her again. But that big grin of excitement and discovery has always stayed with me.

My oddest success was a recommendation to someone with whom I had absolutely nothing in common save a relish for Lapham’s Quarterly (which sadly, we can no long afford, but some day . . .) . This was the spouse of a friend I’d made when our kids were schoolmates, and we’d see one another at various school events. She was despairing of a gift for her spouse, who I knew was extremely picky, and only read non-fiction—no interest in fiction whatsoever.


I suggested Patrick Leigh Fermor’s  A Time of Gifts, a gloriously, splendidly written book based on Fermor’s experience walking across Europe in the early thirties, which he wrote up decades later, with the formidable wisdom and knowledge he’d gained. The husband actually wrote me a formal thank you note for suggesting it—and I found out later, that it was one of the two books he took into the hospital when he had heart surgery.

The latest one?

Depressed and anxious after the election, plus stress-making family news, last month a friend asked for space opera recommendations—nothing grimdark, preferable with a female lead, and banter as well as action.


Banter! My first thought was of Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire space opera series, the first of which can be found  here for 99 cents. Alisa Marchenko is a recently widowed mom, former space pilot in the now-finished war which has left the Empire and the Alliance planets in a shambles. She goes to claim her mother’s battered old trader—old engine, no weapons—and finds some surprises.

Well, the friend burned through them so fast that she was the one to tell me that the eighth volume recently came out, bringing the series to a close.

How about you?



Books that made a difference — 34 Comments

  1. I still remember that exact book cover for Witch of the Glen.

    I tend to just enthuse about things I’ve liked to others, no matter who they are. They, I suspect, apply their own judgment of whether they’ll like it or not. Sometimes I do read something that I think this or that person would like, but it is always tricky!

    • It is indeed! My best consistent luck was with students during the years I taught junior high. But kids’ tastes are simpler, and once I got a vector on a particular kid, their reading skills and interests, I could usually point them to something they liked.

      But I don’t remember any of them being life changing, though I did have a fifth grade girl who had recently been adopted from Russia, and was devastatingly home sick, cling to a series I happened to have translated into Russian. (By the end of the year, she was speaking English and had tight buddies. But that first Christmas was a tough one for her, all the more bewildering as it was hot here, no snow, nothing of what she was used to.)

      • Wow, yes, I can imagine that first year would have been tough!

        I think another reason kids are easier to recommend for is that if they’re readers, they’re more accepting of things so long as they’re in the general ballpark. I feel like as people age, they get more picky.

        • Kids could be picky too, sometimes for different reasons. Reluctant readers–kids not exposed to books at all until school, so they associated them with work–there was a whole different dynamic with kids; maybe one is seeing the start of people who end up anti book, which is a different direction than readers who have read so much of one type of thing they get choosier. But they are all a challenge!

  2. The less far you go from their normal tastes the easier it is to hit. Like introducing the Douglas Adams fan to Terry Pratchett or getting military SF for the miliary SF fan, only a new author.

    But of course that lessen the chances of widening vistas so they have a large selection

      • Yes! I’ve gone looking for recs before and everyone always suggests the usuals of the genre. Is there actually anyone into Douglas Adams who *hasn’t* heard of Terry Pratchett? The internet makes it so that you almost have to *avoid* big authors. When I ask for recs I want the gems that you aren’t going to find on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, the authors that aren’t going to show up on the genre essentials list.

        • Maybe not now, but that was one year’s Christmas present to a cousin.

          Last year Pratchett was a Christmas present, though; after, he bought his own first.

    • I didn’t read Pratchett for years because people always said he was like Douglas Adams, whom I find totally unfunny. Turns out that I love Pratchett and still find Adams unreadable. To me, they have nothing in common beyond the genre of “comic sff.” That being said, I normally dislike that genre and Pratchett is an exception.

      • Interesting–I liked Adams, Dirk Gently more than the Hitchhiker books, but I haven’t fallen into Pratchett’s books despite having read half a dozen. I wonder whether it’s more usual to like both or to find them mutually exclusive.

      • It’s been a long time since I’ve read Adams’ Hitchhiker books, but my memory of them is that they are generally absurd for the sake of being absurd. Terry Pratchett’s novels may have silly elements, but I think there is more depth in some of his books, including forays into social commentary. Maybe that’s the difference that leads some people to choose one author over the other, even though both fall generally into “comic sf/f”.

  3. I had the same reaction to The Witch of Blackbird Pond–but I’m a Connecticut native–it was one of my inspirations to learn more about witchcraft in Connecticut. I discovered that its PoV character was completely fictional, and nothing of the truly weird happenings during the Wethersfield witch hunt made it into the book. Instead, the plot followed the typical pattern of most “historical novels” about the New England witch belief–generally set in Salem, beginning with the mid-19th century. The heroic characters don’t believe in the reality of witchcraft, and the Good *enlightened* hero saves the innocent, falsely-accused heroine. In reality, one accused witch of Wethersfield, Katherine Harrington, was famous for fortune-telling and could read and write. She was an astute businesswoman who survived the panic and eventually got her land and business back.

  4. I’ve done okay recommending boisterous to a college roommate/best friend.

    Possibly the strangest recommendation someone gave me came from a middle school acquaintance. Not a close friend, and she had never struck me as s big reader, nor that academically inclined. She told me one day that she thought I’d like Tarzan of the Apes. I said, uh, okay, while thinking to myself, no way!

    It seemed so incongruous that I did pick it up and enjoyed it.

    I have so many books on the to- read shelves now that I pretty much ignore any recs from friends. I’m more likely to listen to a blogger that I’ve read for a while.

  5. Awareness of taste is certainly key. I do not recommend books to my wonderful and intelligent colleagues because they like contemporary/real life works and are always trying to get me to read them. Nuh uh. I am sure these works are terrific, but they are not for me. People don’t need to sneer at different tastes, but some people like to.

  6. Thank you! I hadn’t encountered Star Nomad before, and it’s just the ticket right now.

  7. I like Lindsay Buroker, but cannot find Star Nomad or the rest of the Fallen Empire series. Is it not available in ebook?
    If it is, do you know where I could buy it, or which publisher is selling it?
    Sometimes a publisher forgets to allow sales to the non-English ‘rest of the world’, and if I mail them about that they’ll tick that box for the booksellers; then in a few weeks I suddenly get to see and buy the book. But to do that I have to know the book exists, and which publisher to write to.

    • If you click the link in the post, it should take you to the USA Amazon site. She is an indie writer, her own publisher, so that might be it. Try her website, maybe?

  8. Yes, recommendations are always sticky. For myself, I’ve had the most success checking out suggestions by those who’ve enjoyed a cross-section of my own favorites. One of the most successful tools was a survey in which everyone tried to list their top 100 in fiction. (Top 10 is generally not enough.) Good (from my perspective) recs are also one reason I read this blog.

    I do have a tendency to give people copies of my favorites. Sadly, the enthusiasm isn’t always mutual, but two I particularly remember are a person who claimed to DESPISE fantasy, but who was converted enough by Robin McKinley’s ‘The Blue Sword’ to branch out, and another who found Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘Summer of the Great-Grandmother’ just what she needed when overwhelmed by a parent with dementia.

    • Oh, those are two excellent choices. (And yep, I’ve met people who were cold to both.) Glad you’ve gotten some good ideas from the blog! That’s what we’re here for.