Over the last year I’ve spent a lot of time on reading recommendations and other ways of finding books to read. For all sorts of reasons, I’ve had spurts of reading wa-a-a-ay out of my regular sunny uplands.
One of the few cheering things at the moment is how willing people are to share recommendations – new books, favourite books, books their children love….
Of course, recommendations aren’t the only route. I find a lot of my experiments by following some byway that takes my fancy. I must tell you how I found the wondrous Goblin Emperor sometime.
But it’s interesting how many people are keen to talk about books these days. Much of my new reading came from recommendations I found just about anywhere, from three dimensional reviews on book blogs, to someone enthusing in passing on social media.
Even the odd Buy-Buy-My-Book tweet has sent me off to call up a sample to try.
Word of Mouth
Possibly the most intriguing reading recommendations came literally by word of mouth. They were just passing comments in conversation. All socially distanced, of course. No more sitting over a glass of wine at a cafe and talking books. Many were from friends and fellow writers but also sometimes they came from total strangers.
In these lockdown days I find that I have quick, oddly meaningful chats with pretty much anyone I interact with, while mostly Saving Lives By Not Going Out.
My guides have included all sorts: assorted neighbours (Where The Crawdads Sing); a nice woman by the supermarket soups (The Testaments i.e. The Handmaid’s Tale Part II); a guy delivering books from my publisher. He asked what I wrote, told me he didn’t read that sort of thing, suggested I try Dance With The Enemy. (Fabulous title; but the sample demonstrated a high nightmare risk. I passed.)
She was very nice about it but I think she was a bit disappointed. The street isn’t as pretty as Travers’s home in the movie. The house is more austere, too. It doesn’t even have a garden in the front.
But at least she had the feeling of walking the pavement that her heroine had trod before her. (She recommended Ghosts Don’t Get Goosebumps – haven’t tracked it down yet but it’s not a title I shall forget.)
Maternal Recommendations and Finding Books to Read – and Write
About ten days ago I signed up for a virtual one-day un-conference on Georgette Heyer (great stuff by the way; catch it, if you’re a fan) to celebrate the publication of a new book of essays on Heyer. It’s on my virtual TBR pile already.
One of the things that fascinated me was how many of the speakers and participants said that they had been given their first Heyer by their mother. It was heartwarming but it still surprised me.
I adored my mother and she was one of my best friends to the end of her life. But trust her reading recommendations? Nah, not a chance.
She offered and I turned down These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer, because from the first ten pages it seemed to be about a boy. Also Madam Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart, because it was in the first person and at that stage I hated “I” stories. And Gone With the Wind, which I really hated because Scarlett was a spoilt pincher of other people’s boyfriends and Rhett Butler was a predatory black-marketing spiv.
I came round, in the end, of course. At least to the first two. Still not a huge fan of GWTW.
Unintended Consequence of Maternal Reading Recommendations
This was Margaret Irwin, and the novel was Still She Wished For Company. There’s a fabulous review of it at Vulpes Libris. Incidentally, that’s one of the book blogs where I nearly always find something I want to read.
This is an unsettling, edge-of-dreams sort of ghost, sort of time-slip story. There are a couple of practical heroines. But the wonder is the spine-tingling hero, formerly of the Hell Fire Club, now in hot pursuit of the genuinely supernatural. And he can’t quite reach the heroine.
It’s a very short book and I don’t think anyone could find the ending satisfying. Endlessly intriguing, certainly. The start of a whole universe of possibilities, without doubt. But never satisfying. Extravagantly, imaginatively, addictively NOT satisfying.
It still makes me itch to write something from the same part of the forest but with a decent ending, every time I read it.
Reading Recommendations I Trust
I mean there are people whose recommendations are always interesting. Elizabeth Hawksley. The other LIbertà hivies.The late great Jacqui Bianchi, who turned me onto Diana Wynne Jones. Anne Gracie and Anne McAllister who made me read C S Pacat. Fantasy writer Sandra Unerman, who steered me to the fantastic Franny Billingsley and whose own Spellhaven is a delight.
But am I certain sure that I will enjoy what they recommend? That I will climb into bed with it and pull the covers over my head until I have finished it and willingly wander into dreamland? No.
Recommendations start you on a path. They might take you somewhere fabulous you didn’t know you wanted to go. But there’s only ever a chance that will happen. No certainties.
Probably a better chance than Amazon algorithms, mind you.
Pretty much the same chance as you get when you set off on your own road, sideways hopping as ideas occur to you.
Finding Goblin Emperor with the help of Miss Climpson
Picture me, late at night, all my book samples are disappointing and I’m playing with the laptop. I come across Lord Peter Wimsey on Youtube, the episode in Strong Poison where Miss Climpson pretends to be a medium. This is the Edward Petherbridge Lord Peter, you understand, the one where he really has got a silly face, a haunted soul and delicious mockery of himself and the world.
I admire her energy, her intelligence, her professionalism, running her typing agency. I envy her heartfelt faith. And I particularly like the way she accepts spinsterhood as a state which offers its own opportunities.
What’s more, unlike both Harriet Vane and his author, Miss Climpson is not in love with Lord Peter. Her portrayal in this TV adaptation, gloriously played by Shirley Cain, is absolutely spot on.
Moreover, I’m half in Lord Peter’s world already. I wonder if anyone else is a Climpson fan.
I turn to Google.
And find a wonderful discussion piece on “Miss Climpson, Spiritualism and Lord Peter as Mephistopheles” by “truepenny”. It is seventeen years old and it is a bright, distant island of hope to my landlocked, locked down soul.
Who, I wonder, is truepenny? Could she possibly be an author? Of fiction?
I click on her profile link and find she has two names. Googling both, I find I might just as well have gone straight to Bookfinder or Amazon. For both are authors. And of fiction. Wonderful! My next reading decision is made.
And thus I found my way to Katherine Addison and The Goblin Emperor, a lovely, kind, hopeful story, a book to make your eyes sting and your heart glad. Love it to bits. Definitely a Keeper.
So one day I will write something for Miss Alexandra Climpson because a) she deserves it and has done so for a long time, b) I’m grateful to her for all the clues on my path through Book Forest and c) she keeps the best company.