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.
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?