Choosing what books to read can be a curly problem. Of course we all have favourite authors whose new works we look forward to with much anticipation and I suspect most of us also have a few trusted sources of recommendations too. For me that’s a handful of book bloggers and a couple of friends whose opinions I trust. I don’t have a chart for this (yet) but I’d guess about 65-75% of my books come via one of these channels (old favourites and recommendations from trusted sources) and the vast bulk of them are good reads. Many are excellent.
The last 25-35% of reading is much more of a hit or miss affair. These are books I read because they fit some esoteric reading challenge, or someone outside my trusted circle has forced them on me, or my book club has chosen them for our discussion. About a year ago I also made a conscious effort to read more Australian crime fiction, especially by debut authors. The books that come to me via these channels are far more likely to end up with lower ratings or, as my leisure reading time reduces, as unfinished.
Sometimes, like right now, I wonder whether it is worth bothering at all with books that come via these less failsafe channels. I could certainly keep myself well supplied with excellent reading by only using the first category of recommendations entirely skipping the challenges, the book club selections and the debut novels from Aussie writers.
This weekend for example I gave up on a book by a debut Australian author that made me really cross about the state of publishing. The book’s blurb claimed it to be ‘in the tradition of Peter Temple’ which, frankly, set the warning bells ringing. I know it probably wasn’t the author’s doing but surely publishers know the dangers inherent in comparing a brand new writer to such a highly respected author whose last book won the country’s major literary (not genre-based) award. They are big shoes to fill and the odds of a debut author managing the task are pretty small so it really is setting the book up to fail. Even disregarding the frankly ludicrous comparison though I found this particular book harder going than leisure reading ought ever to be. By about page 100 the protagonist had been the subject of sustained child abuse at a notorious orphanage, drafted into the Army for a tour of Vietnam (where an American soldier’s brains ended up in his hair), lost his wife to a terminal illness which he nursed her through, lost one son to a drug overdose, lost complete touch with his other son, become an alcoholic, been demoted from his job and posted to the back of beyond. My internal ring-of-truth-o-meter (patent pending) broke at this point and I decided that even though I’d paid full Australian retail price for the book I wasn’t going to waste another minute on a book in which the main character had experienced too much to make him even vaguely credible. Besides all that eye-rolling was playing havoc with my contact lenses.
Why bother with these debut authors I grumbled to myself? Why not just read the books recommended by those I trust and let someone else wade through the crap?
On the other hand there’s Y.A. Erskine’s THE BROTHERHOOD.Out of the 178 books I finished last year it came in at number 2 on my list of favourites for the year. It is an outstanding book and the only reason I read it was because it was a debut crime fiction novel by an Australian author, just like the book described above. I had not seen a single other review for it when I bought it and I just don’t think I’d have come across it via any other channel and that would have been my loss.
So is it true that what you lose on the swings you make up for on the roundabouts? I suspect the crap to gem ratio from this second, almost random channel of books is pretty low (again I’ve no hard data but I’d guess 1 book in 20 or 25 is very good). Should that be enough?
I haven’t really decided on an answer yet. I shall try to be more philosophical about choosing not to finish a book that’s not good even if I’ve pad hard-earned cash for it and will continue reading at least some books via these random channels (though I’ve cut back severely on reading challenges this year and have become more selective about which book club choices I read). But I do like the idea of finding the occasional undiscovered gem.
What about you? What are your trusted sources for book recommendations? Do you only read books that come via these sources or do you have some random channels that provide hits and misses? Do the misses bug you a lot or are you accepting of the idea that their presence makes the hits that much more valuable?