The swings and roundabouts of book recommendations

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?

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30 Responses to The swings and roundabouts of book recommendations

  1. Bernadette – You’ve raised one of the questions I’ve been asking myself lately. Like you I bump up against my share of books I just don’t finish for the same kinds of reasons that you didn’t finish that debut by “the next Peter Temple.” I get cross about it, but in the end, I think I’d rather toss aside twenty “duds” and find one or two really good ones than not try. Or maybe I’m just too tolerant. I don’t know about that.
    I do know that it’s very hard to break into the market, even if one has talent. I empathise with authors who are trying to do that, so I do at least want to give people a chance. And sometimes I’m richly rewarded. Of course, if you ask me after I’ve just (not) finished three “duds” in a row, I may have a different answer. Oh, and please let us know would you when you get the patent on the internal ring-o-truth-o-meter? I want one. Thanks.


  2. Andrew Nette says:

    I find the issue of what is and isn’t a good book so subjective that I can’t get cross when I purchase or am given something that turns out to be a dud. I draw my recommendations from a wide variety of sources, including your blog. I also research certain genres, like noir, for previously published books I may have missed that I might like. No one source is a hundred per cent reliable, even my most trusted sources recommend things I don’t like. I reckon you have to develop a good bullshit detector, especially about anything you read on the web, Another of my pet peeves is the way a lot of reviewers are afraid to be critical of books. Authors almost seem to get offended by bad reviews, even though it is just part of the game. That makes it hard to discern the good from the bad.


    • The issue of critical reviews is an interesting one Andrew. I was trying to think of the last time I saw a critical review in the mainstream media and I can’t remember a time – they seem to gush or say nothing, it’s a little more common to find critical reviews on the web but only by a little.


  3. Kerrie says:

    I think I am probably a bit more tolerant of lesser talent than you Bernadette, or perhaps it is just that my critical faculties are not just as razor sharp as yours. Most of my reading comes from recommendations by others, but I also take notice of books that win awards or are short listed for them. Book group reads are usually chosen by someone who genuinely wants to read them, or who has read and enjoyed it.


  4. Kerrie says:

    Some of the debut books are really just that, and I have picked up some new authors whom I think have potential and are just not yet at the quality level of a seasoned writer. I find myself thinking “if XX was writing this he/she would have avoided this clumsiness”. I don’t know what the answer is – they won’t get any better if we don’t read them. However, I do find that few are so bad that they are totally unreadable.


    • You’re right about that Kerrie that new authors won’t get better unless we read them, and I am generally more forgiving of debut writers. And even the one I gave up on probably wasn’t unreadable, but iI thought it pretty bad and I kept imagining a review I would write if I finished the book…I couldn’t think of anything positive I would be able to comment on so I decided to stop and reading and avoid having to review it at all


  5. Kathy D. says:

    I would keep on plugging away and trying new books, authors, including debuts. How else can one find the gems? However, since I have a very tight budget, I’d go with library books or used books for those I wasn’t sure about trying — or share with other readers. I wouldn’t pay the prices for new books in Oz, too costly, especially if one isn’t sure about a book.
    And read book reviews to see if a book is your cup of tea.
    I get suggestions from trusted reader friends. One suggested Sjowall/Wahloo years ago and I finally started their books. He also suggested Camilleri’s books, but until I saw how popular his series is at various websites, I didn’t get into it. Now I’m worrying about what to do when the series ends: Reread them is my answer.
    And I also look at award nominations, but I don’t choose based on that. I read book reviews.
    Also, I read this and other websites which tell the truth about books and give honest appraisals.
    Usually I wholeheartedly concur with well-written and frank reviews. I often get interested in a book if I read 2 or 3 good reviews, and I know what I like.
    I have found taste in books is subjective. My friends have very different preferences in their crime fiction, including on level of violence, wild plots, tolerance of supernatural stuff, action-packed thrillers, cozies, suspense or whodunnits, historical fiction, humor (or not), tolerance of sexism — or not! I loan books and have to keep track of everyone’s tastes. People can have extremely different likes and dislikes on books. It’s incredible.
    But most of what is recommended by friends or on this blog and 4 or so others usually works out.
    Some opinions are different just because of taste, like Fred Vargas or Barbara Vine or thriller writers or whomever. But aside from that, the blogs are superb places from which to get book ideas.
    I’m looking forward to my year of reading, in addition to global mysteries, books by women from Oz.


  6. Sarah says:

    An interestting post. I think a lot of my reading comes from recommendations but if I don’t then like the book I would tend to consider it not to my taste rather than a problem with the recommender. I know that I’m fairly fussy. That said I know which reviewer/friends have similar taste to mine. However for the really good books that I have read, these are often self discovered and come to without preconceptions. The book I’ve liked most recently is Chris Womersley’s Bereft. This has had mixed reviews but I hadn’t read any when I read the book (the ARC came through the post) and I really enjoyed it. The same with Fred Vargas who I discovered when I picked up her first translated book on a ferry to France.

    I’ve been in 2 books clubs and I agree with what you say about them. Their value for me is that they stop me reading purely crime and I get to talk about books with likeminded people.


  7. Maxine says:

    I have found that the proportion of books I have read and liked has sharply increased since about 2006, when I discovered blogs like It’s a Crime!, soon followed by Crime Scraps and Euro Crime. Internet searches for blogs by crime-fiction and other readers are good I have found, as I put the blog into my RSS reader and can soon take it out again if it is clear that the blog is reviewing books I don’t like the sound of. There are a lot of good book-review blogs that don’t always review crime but throw in the odd crime or crimeish novel and these are often slightly outside the titles I’d usually hear of (eg Farm Lane Books, Readign Matters or JoV’s book pyramid – there are lots of others which you probably follow too (I seem to have about 40 of these in my reader subscriptions!)

    It is hard to strike a balance between “safe” vs “new” because if one just sticks to “safe” one runs out of things to read! I try all the translated crime fiction published in the UK each year, so long as it is not obviously something I’ll hate or too expensive as the US-only translations tend not to be discounted, unlike the UK translations. I read the Euro Crime and Reviewing the Evidence reviews as they come out and have picked up a few there. I have to say, though, I am finding that a very large proportion of the “new to me” (untranslated) authors are writing very routine, predictable and unstylish books. If they are also long, that’s a bit of an issue. There is a lot of dross coming out of the UK and the US, I am finding (I can’t say for Australia as we don’t get many of your books over here).


  8. Maxine says:

    PS I have joined a few email lists too but I find either they are polluted by authors doing BSP (Goodreads – you can only set up your blog to post there if you are an “author”!), or they are in an unfriendly format that I can’t easily absorb quickly (4MA), or both (Dorothy L).

    I’d join a local face-to-face book club if I could find one that isn’t full. But I am a bit wary as I don’t want to “have” to read books that I don’t want to read or that I find awful after 50 pages.


    • Maxine I stopped getting the DorothyL emails for that reason, I’m still subscribed to 4MA but most days I delete all the messages unread. Occasionally if I am on hols or there is a discussion of a book I’m interested in I will sample the messages for a few days then it’s back to deleting in bulk, I find it too US-centric and too crowded to follow the list more closely than that.


  9. Rob says:

    This is why I still like to browse in the bookshop and read the first ten pages or so to start to get a feel for whether I am going to like the book. Blind buys or ARCs are much more likely to lead to disappointment. I’m all for experimenting and trying new authors. A combination of blog reviews and shop browsing usually sees me okay. The Noel Mealey book above sounds like RJ Ellory’s A Quiet Belief in Angels – unrelenting misfortune and grimness. I’m sure it has it’s place in the market, just not with you! Someone at the publisher clearly thought so.


  10. Maxine says:

    Agreed with the first sentence of Rob’s. Stupid as I am, I have only just in the past two days sussed out that before I buy a Kindle book I must read the first few pages which you can do on all I’ve looked at so far. This has stopped me buying quite a few, and probably would have stopped me downloading/buying quite a few that I have read and found disappointing (mainly terribly written and very cliched/predictable).


  11. Kathy D. says:

    I agree here that a lot of what’s published in the States isn’t worth reading. My library’s new fiction shelves are full of those, including unreadable “best-sellers.” However, reading these terrific blogs, such as this one, cause me to have to hide my credit card at my neighbor’s house.
    It’s finding the books over here. It seems like there is always a lot to read, even good books.


  12. Barbara says:

    I think there will always be some duds getting through to a reader like me because I’m willing to take a chance on an unknown quantity. But I occasionally find a real gem that other bloggers I follow haven’t discovered and I treasure those. Mostly though, I take my reading advice from the bloggers I follow.


  13. Keishon says:

    I know my tastes and stick to authors who are consistent. As for debut writers, I don’t mind trying them because there’s always a risk involved when reading a new writer in that chances are you’ll either love it or hate it and I am more forgiving. I don’t do very much in between. I get most my recommendations from friends and trusted bloggers. I strongly disagree with the notion of gush when it’s good and say nothing when it’s bad. If I paid my money for it, I will tell you how I honestly feel about it. I don’t bullshit around on that. Ever.


  14. JoV says:

    I get my book recommendations from blogger who raves about it. Life is too short to wade through awful books. Although I applaud and am grateful for those did, I can’t see myself wading through the pile to find a gem.


  15. Im not convinced that the gems are worth wading through the crap for. As for where I take my recommendations from friends, some blogs, The FIrst Tuesday Bookclub, Radio National Bookshow, Spectrum in the SMH and palces like that


    • I hear that the Radio National book show is not continuing this year Becky, that will be a big loss as I always listened to the podcast and got ideas for what to read.


  16. Amy says:

    Tough question! Most of what I read is from recommendations of bloggers like you…yet I do explore (online) for new books and browse through titles I’ve never seen. Since I’ve been actively reading blogs, my outright purchases have gone down, possibly because I have many arcs to read, but also because I get a clue in advance what is a dud. Sometimes I read a title that someone else doesn’t like, just because it sounds like a good fit (we aren’t all alike!). It varies, I suppose.
    Overall, the purchases I do make are much more satisfactory than before, when I used to spend a fortune on duds. I bought blindly. I really can’t imagine how I justified the purchases before! I look at some on my bookcases that cost dear $$$ and I haven’t the slightest urge to read, or pass on.
    BTW, reading a Jo Nesbo right now…lovely.


  17. Amy says:

    After I thought of this, I thought it relevant to add that my IRL friends really don’t give me viable book suggestions! So few people are readers, anyway, but those that I hang out with have completely different taste. The vast majority of enjoyed titles is from virtual strangers, really. Kind of weird, when you think of it.
    And I did an IRL book club before….yikes. It turned into being all about the food served and gossip. LOL


    • Maxine says:

      Actually that’s a very good point Amy. Before the internet, I got recommendations from “real life” friends and did not like a lot of them. Now I get far fewer as I’ve found friends on the internet who share many of my reading tastes and I find lots to try there. I do occasionally try a book if someone raves about it but as you say, fewer people seem to be readers nowadays, compared with other leisure activities. Can’t imagine why.


    • LOL Amy my IRL friends are mostly pretty hopeless too when it comes to recommendations, though I do have two that are readers who sometimes have overlapping tastes…but the book clubs…oh dear…definitely all about the food and gossiping and choosing the most ‘worthy’ book


  18. Kathy D. says:

    Well, I’m happy today. The Boundary and The Brotherhood just arrived, the latter from Amazon in Britain. I got Kerry Greenwood’s second Corinna Chapman from the library, along with a book by Anne Zaroudi (new to me) and Deon Meyers’ Trackers. So I’m set. (And, finally, the library had a few books worth reading).
    I slugged through 1222 by Anne Holt (library loan). I am glad I read it. It was worthwhile, although at times I got aggravated. Some sections were very perceptive and well-done. Others, including some of the characters, I just skimmed through.
    If the library has it or a friend does, I’m willing to try it and give a book a chance. But it will be a DNF if I don’t like it.


  19. Bill Selnes says:

    Bernadette: I find books through:
    1.) The Merchant of Menance newsletter from the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in Toronto;
    2.) The New York Times reviews of crime fiction;
    3.) Reading blogs such as your excellent blog; and,
    4.) Browsing around bookstores reading a few pages.
    I look at reviews from persons I have found reliable for recommendations but do not actually read the reviews until after I have read the book.


  20. Belle Wong says:

    Ever since I went through The Great Decluttering a few months ago, my book buying/reading habits have really changed – basically, I have gone almost completely digital. This has changed my book-choosing process somewhat. I still rely heavily on reviews on trusted book blogs like yours, but if a book that I’ve added to my list isn’t available at my library’s ebook lending site or is too expensive for an ebook (I consider an ebook that’s priced at more than the print book to be too expensive), I’m not inclined to get it unless my library has a paper copy in its stacks. In the past, I’d be far more likely to order the paper copy of the book from the local bookstore – in fact, I used to have the bookstore’s page up in my browser along with my library’s site.

    I’m also relying on my library’s ebook lending site a lot more heavily now. I like that I can borrow a book electronically, and if I don’t like it after reading the first few pages (I have a very low page count threshold before I decide a book isn’t really for me) it’s so easy to just swipe the book and return it (so I can go browse some more – my library only permits five ebooks taken out at a time). So I’ve found some books through browsing my library’s site that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, although so far, I haven’t stumbled on anything spectacular that I hadn’t heard about from a trusted source already.


    • I am so jealous of your decluttered life Belle, though I’m going to be doing the same thing this year so I have it to look forward to. My library has only just started offering eBooks for loan and there aren’t many available yet but I am hoping this will be a good source for me in future…the idea of trying a few pages then sending it back if it doesn’t appeal sounds wonderful – kind of takes the pressure off of recommendations 🙂


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