Why We Need Book Friends

Recently, I finished Shannon Hale’s The Princess Academy.  This is a book that – despite it having been a Newbery Honor book – I never would have read without a recommendation from my friend, Julie Bartel.

Book Bunnies

Book Bunnies

For me the title, with its evocation of the cult of Disney Princesses, was a complete and utter turn-off.  Having seen Ms. Hale associated with the commercial tie-in “Ever After High” novels and the apparently utterly cute “Princess in Black” lower middle grade books, her name would not have been a recommendation either.

And, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy would I have been missing out.  As those of you who read my Friday Fragments may have noticed, I’ve been reading a lot of Shannon Hale’s works lately – up to and including several of the “Ever After High” books.  I have already given my young niece The Princess in Black for Christmas.  I’m seriously considering Book of a Thousand Days as a gift for another niece.

When I think about it, some of my favorite books are not ones I found myself but are books that were recommended to me by someone else.  I read The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater because two friends (Sally and Yvonne) separately mentioned loving it.  When I mentioned The Raven Boys to Julie and she started raving about it, I immediately got the book.  I am now nervously awaiting the final book in the four-book “cycle” – The Raven King.  I’ve loved the other three but, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere how a book or series ends is crucial to whether I continue to rave or whether I end up hating the story.

So what makes a good book friend?

First, I think you need to have discussed books enough to have a sense of each other’s likes and dislikes.

Years ago, I spent time with a woman with whom my taste in books rarely overlapped.  We both read SF/F, so we kept trying to find common ground.  One day we began discussing a book we’d both read and liked.  I could tell that she was as pleased as I was that we both seemed to have liked this one.  However, when we got to specifics, it turned out that the scene I’d like the most was the one she hated.  The ending, which I had really disliked, was something she thought was brilliant.

Funny…  Even when we liked books by the same author, the book I’d like best would be her least favorite and vice versa!

Second, a good book buddy doesn’t necessarily only read exactly what you would be reading anyhow.  When Jim and I started dating, he introduced me to Patrick O’Brien’s “Aubry and Maturin” sea sagas.  I never would have picked these up on my own, but I tried one and, for weeks thereafter, I would borrow two volumes from Jim each week.  Chatting about what Steven and Jack were up to became a regular element in our courtship.  We read the final books in the series together.

Jim also introduced me to Robert Parker’s “Spenser” novels.  Again, these were books I doubt I ever would have read without him.  I can’t say I liked them as much as I did the O’Briens, but that was all right.  I found a lot to enjoy, and our discussions of the elements that grated for me were a lot of fun for us both.

My good friend, Paul Dellinger, is enough older than me that his reading tastes were shaped by older SF.  Years ago, I went to him and asked for a list of authors and specific titles he had liked so I could expand my horizons.   In this way, I read a lot of books I would have otherwise not known to pull out of the herd.

When Roger Zelazny and I started corresponding, he began sending me books, sometimes by the box load.  Often he’d scribble a note in the front of a volume, telling me why he’d liked a particular book or why it was important to the field or, sometimes, that it was by a friend of his.  Eventually, I started telling him about books I’d liked, and he’d try them.  One of the last books Roger read – and enjoyed sincerely – was one of my recommendations: David Weber’s Path of the Fury.

Alan Robson’s “wot i red on my hols” column has opened my eyes to authors I would not have otherwise encountered, as have our frequent book chats on the Thursday Tangents.  More often than folks realize, I take note of books mentioned in the Comments on my blogs.  I may not get to them right away, but I do notice.  Titles I read because of Comments on my blog include Uprooted by Naomi Novik and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.

Third, if you’re going to be a good book friend, you need to be willing to gently and politely push the other person’s limits.  That’s what Julie did with me with Shannon Hale’s work.  David Weber insisted I read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, even after I told him I’d tried it and couldn’t get beyond the opening.  “So skip the opening.  You’ll love this book!”  He was right.

When Jim and I started seeing each other, Jim not only hadn’t read any middle grade or YA novels since he moved out of his teens, he actively avoided them figuring they’d be too “young” for him.  I kept offering him new YA books I loved.  Finally, he gave one a try.  When he realized that modern YA novels were where the sort of novels he’d always loved were now being published, he expanded his reading choices.  From there, he began to read middle grade novels as well.

Fourth, a key element in both finding and being a good book friend is remembering that no one’s tastes overlap precisely.  I’m pretty grumpy about books that require the main character to turn off his or her brain or the plot will stall.  My friend Sally knows this, so when she recommended Libba Bray’s “Diviners” novels, she said, “I’ll warn you that Evie, the main character, can be really, really annoying, but there’s a lot of other good stuff if you can deal with that.”

Equally, I remind myself that while I really love books with quirky characters (for example Marjorie Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke), Sally may be turned off, so I provide her a “possibly too quirky” warning when talking about a book I like.

Sadly, two areas that used to be good places to get recommendations outside of one’s immediate circle of friends have recently become less sure.  One of these are “best of” anthologies.  Some of these are, indeed, edited by people who go out of their way to read widely in the area in which they are claiming to be choosing the “best.”  The best of fantasy and horror series that Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling used to edit was a good example of this sort of collection.

However, recently I was shocked to see a market list (that is a list of places where writers can submit their work) that included several listings that were, basically, places where authors could send their work to be considered for a “best of” anthology of some sort.  To me, this isn’t “best of,” this is “Best of what we read.  Oh, a lot of that was what we were sent by people looking to promote themselves.”

Of late, awards have also become problematic.  No.  I’m not going to discuss the Sad Puppies controversy, except to say that it has drawn light to the serious problem of how easy it is to “game” certain awards.  For example, SFWA is constantly trying to find ways to limit “vote trading” or “campaigning” for Nebulas.  These days, I’m more likely to consider an award as a recommendation for a book if I know that the award was given by a panel or jury consisting of people who are knowledgeable about an area rather than by general membership of an organization.

So, who are your book friends?  Do you belong to a formal book group of any sort?  Do you use on-line reviewing sites like Goodreads or Amazon?  How about book blogs?

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12 Responses to “Why We Need Book Friends”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I do two online book clubs. Gail Carriger’s monthly book club. She’s a fun steampunk writer, not too serious and she differs from my taste enough that I read new things, but not so much that I dislike anything horribly that she has recommended.

    The second is Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf on Goodreads, with some sort of feminist element.

    I enjoy both of these immensely as reading is a dying art and there are very few left with which I can discuss.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      At least in my family and among my friends, reading is far from a dying art. I guess I’m lucky. One thing I’m looking forward to during an upcoming visit with some family is book chats with the kids — all teen or slightly pre-teen, an age about which people keep saying there are no readers. Oh, and the majority of these are boys.

  2. chadmerkley Says:

    My book friends tend to be right here on Jane’s blogs. Authors I’ve been introduced to here include Shannon Hale, Diana Wynne Jones, Diane Duane, Charles DeLint, Maggie Stiefvater, Janet Kagan, and I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting. Several of these folks are on my watch list for new releases. Between what Jane discusses and what all the other commenters mention, I’ve been introduced to some of my favorite books of the last few years.

    As Jane mentioned, tastes don’t always match exactly between people. There was one title on Jane’s recommended reading list that I couldn’t make myself finish, for example. But it would be a boring world if we all agreed all the time. As long as everyone is polite and kind about the disagreement, those differences are a good thing.

    Jane, it’s always fun to see the title of something I’ve mentioned show up in your reading, or in the comments. I think the two titles you mentioned above Uprooted and The Scorpio Races were ones I recommended. 🙂 A big thanks to everyone here for sharing so many good books.

  3. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I’m with you about being bored soon without a little disagreement Chadmerkley. Also it isn’t only having no disagreement that would make the world seem strange but with only daily perfection danger would be nonstop and adventures wouldn’t be as numerous. Earth would feel like a wide trap. Mainly because everyone’s anger would be uncontrolled with the issue of jealousy showing constant signs.

    SAFETY OR KINDNESS ACCEPTANCE IS TOTALLY VITAL… LIVE AND LET LIVE WE ALL WANT TO LIVE PEACEFULLY IN FREEDOM………….!

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    IT’S PATIENCE WE NEED NOT PERFECTION.
    PATIENCE AND PERSEVERANCE.

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    LOVE OTHERS FOR WHO THEY ARE NOT FOR WHO YOU WANT THEM TO BE, AND DO YOUR BEST TO SHOW LOYALTY. THERE ARE NUMEROUS WAYS TO FIND JOY. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS AREN’T ALWAYS LIKELY TO BE FOUND, THEY MUST BE FELT.

  6. Peter Says:

    I’m in agreement with most of your thoughts here, although I’d say the Hugos (like any popularity contest that draws its voter pool from a subset of a subset of the population) have always been problematic – or at least potentially so – just to a lesser extent than we’ve seen over the past few years. I also tend to give greater weight to juried awards, but like “Best of…” anthologies their value to me in a given year depends on the makeup of the panel/editors – there have certainly been years I looked at the Nebula shortlist and just shrugged. (As an aside, I generally find the lists of award nominees/shortlist a much more useful resource for finding new material to pile on the To Be Read Heap than the final winner. If nothing else, they usually present an interesting window into the current zeitgeist.)

    As far as book friends go (leaving aside actual friends), I’ve never been a fan of organized book clubs. Amazon is great for actually buying books, but I generally ignore the reviews (at least on books – I do look at them if I’m buying other products); similarly I use Goodreads to organize my collection, not as a source of reviews. I haven’t found any book review blogs that really match my tastes, but I have found a lot of good stuff from author’s blogs – this is a sort of special case of your first rule. Another source I’ve found useful is the /r/fantasy sub on Reddit (Reddit as a whole is something of a cesspit, but the fantasy subreddit is generally home to civil and interesting discussion.)

  7. The Other jmoore Says:

    _The Raven King_ is out! I am currently listening to the audiobook.

    Much of what I have read lately I learned about from this blog.

  8. Paul Says:

    I sometimes find books on your FF blog. I tend to avoid on-line recs from Goodreads and such (they don’t know my tastes; Amazon will very occasionally find something I’ll like based on my earlier purchases). Our local library has eight monthly book clubs and those provide plenty of books. Best is when I can find a bookstore (they are dwindling) and just hunt.

  9. CBI Says:

    Aside from my lovely bride and a young adult at church, I don’t have anyone who gives me recommendations–and vice versa. I do get some recommendations from blogs (this is a primary resource), and have also tried to catch more author’s readings at Bubonicon–for both recommendations and warnings.

    I tend to agree with Peter that an award list of nominees is more useful than the final winner. This is perhaps most true when a panel or homogeneous group is making the final selection.

    To continue with the Hugos as an example, I think that the nominees of last year and this year show a greater diversity than in the previous few years, reflecting the greater number of participants in the nomination process. If one ignores the results of the “No Award” campaign last year, the award ranking is also diverse. Since tastes vary so much, my expectation is that the nominee list will include some that I like a lot–as well as some that I don’t. For example, of last year’s novel nominations, I rated most in “good to excellent” range–yet there was one I stopped reading about a third of the way through. As I read this year’s nominees, I’m finding that they are shaping up similarly.

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