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.)
One was even a visitor to London who asked me if I knew where PL Travers lived. I did. I escorted her thither.
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
One author recommended by my mother did make an impact. In particular I read one of her books over and over again, to mother’s amazement. It drew me deeper into my own writing.
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 fascinated me – but more important it drove me to writing. Mainly the bits she left out, I suppose.
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
Well, depends what you mean by 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
This is a true story. It may sound a bit barmy. Well, it happened in lockdown when, at times, I suspect I was not entirely sane.
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.
Now, I have always loved Miss Climpson.
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.
This is early in Lockdown One and the world has stopped. Tumbleweed is blowing along the swinging King’s Road. I have not talked to anyone face to face for days.
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.
So happy to discover someone else who doesn’t much care for Rhett Butler, Sophie. I am in such a reading slump. I’m looking for a book that will make me fall back in love with reading while I’m waiting for the new Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London out later this month. Definitely looking for something a little bit fantasy and there are a couple of enticing ones here.
Yes, there’s some great fantasy around these days, Liz. Hope you enjoy whichever you go for.
I found Where the Crawdads Sing through my online book club and loved it. I’m currently reading A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes about the women of the Trojan War. I’d earlier read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls on the same subject. Both are litfic but both are an easy read if very thought-provoking. Probably not at all what Liz is looking for, though. Have to admit that, when I need a fantasy hit, I tend to go back to Pratchett.
Oh, I love Natalie Haynes. Never miss her Stand Up for the Classics on Radio 4 if I can help it. I hadn’t heard of A Thousand Ships. Off to investigate now!
Many of my own more recent recommended reads have come from your good self. Often, they are reminders of old friends, often from Liberta. My parents just opened their bookshelves and let me at ’em, and I still love all the books I found there. Still got them, actually. One friend in particular and I shared exactly similar tastes and discovered authors together, A lot of the books I’ve turned to in lockdown have my name written on the flyleaf in her writing. Sadly she died much too young three years ago. Georgette Heyer I discovered all by myself in my teens, oddly enough, and PGW from a fellow student at college, also in my teens. She reduced the entire class to hysterics reading a passage from Summer Lightning. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. (Sorry – bit long.)
I’m with you every step of the way, Lesley. I too found PGW for myself. Neither of my parents got him at all. And Heyer too. Having rejected These Old Shades, the first one I read was Faro’s Daughter, I think. I loved Deb Grantham, especially the scene where she dresses up in a too-fussy dress with coquelicot stripes to convince Adrian’s family how Unsuitable she is. Made me hoot. (My grandmother had given me a shocking pink party dress with a frill at the bottom of the skirt and a sash. A sash! It clashed horribly with my ginger hair, too. So I could identify with all parties in the matter of coquelicot stripes.)
What a wonderful celebration of books and reading, Sophie. I’m now intrigued by a few of your mentions. Loved the Lord Peter Wimsey books and TV series. Agree completely about recommendations by word of mouth, both as a reader and writer.
Yes, they’re lovely and great fun to have, but they ain’t reliable, are they, Ros? Let me know if you find any of the books I mention float your boat. It’s so interesting to see how other people react.
Loved Margaret Irwin when I was young and very into historical fiction, but never read that one. Must look it up. Samples are the best thing on Kindle for me. I can download snippets and make sure that initial intrigue is carried through. I often catch potential ideas from Writing Magazine – got a list of fantasy based on myths and legends to check out sitting on my desk. Can’t remember how I found Jodi Taylor and her Chronicles of St Mary’s but she is an auto-buy. I was hooked by the title “Just One Damned Thing After Another” of the first one and hooked by the story and concept immediately. I found Pratchett’s discworld because I directed his Macbeth parody. The whole discovery thing is magic. My most recent is Robert Harris by way of Second Sleep, caught in passing on an Amazon email. Since read Conclave.
But sometimes, like you, I get dry periods where nothing seems to fit the bill as I scroll through my downloads. Frustrating.
I had no idea STP had written a Macbeth parody, Liz. How fascinating. I always remember the performance of it in Word Sisters, with audience participation from Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. Still makes me sick with laughter when I read it, even though I know what’s coming.
Yes Kindle samples are absolutely great. They’ve saved me a lot of time, not to mention my restrained my blood pressure, over the last few years.
Wyrd Sisters is the Macbeth parody. I directed it, but having read the book, introduced a couple of extra scenes which were missed out of the play. Nanny Ogg is marvellous. Incidentally, I rejected every one of the fantasy titles I had listed. Not for me.
How fascinating. Had STP written the whole thing and then put selected bits in the book? Or did you pull it together from Wyrd Sisters itself? Either way, I take my hat off to you. Wish I’d seen it.
Were the fantasy titles listed from this blog entry, Liz? Sorry if you didn’t care for them. So much is personal taste.
Not re Books to read, but i was at University in Edinburgh studying in the Law Faculty at the same time as Lord James Douglas-Hamilton and a Sayers-obsessed co-resident of University halls used to swoon over Lord james because he “was the epitome of Lord Peter Wimsey” She literally stalked him round the university to the extent of attending Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law lectures. Definitely not a Miss Climpson.
How funny! I wonder if that sort of thing happened to Edward Petherbridge? I think we may have a friend in common – I must get him to ask him.
I do remember hearing Dame Edith Evans saying that, when she was playing Millament in The Way of the World, dashing young men kept taking her out to supper, expecting her to be witty and combative and charming. And then they were so disappointed when they found she was dull! Mind you, I suspect that her definition of dull might not be quite the same as mine.
This is a gorgeous piece! If I can recommend a book that I never in a million years thought I’d enjoy, do download the sample of Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro – it’s dystopian sci fi and I’m loving it SO much! (It’s a nice long sample, so you get completely invested, then are forced to buy it!)
Ah, thank you, Jill.
And thank you for the recommendation of Klara and the Sun as well.I admire his books very much, but, ever since The Remains of the Day, his novels make me sad. And I’m trying quite hard not to get too close to sad until Lockdown is past. But I will certainly get the sample and travel hopefully!