Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Delicate Art of Book Recommendation - Lucy Coats

Tricky things, book recommendations.  I get asked for them a lot.  Mostly, it's people wanting something for their child to read, and that's fine, I can throw out a few excellent titles (old or new) at the drop of a hat for almost any age.  I've even put a starter library together for a young godchild, which I'm adding to as the years go by.  I try to keep up with the children's book industry - after all it is my job to know what's current, what's hot, what's good (not necessarily the same thing).

But what about when adults ask me for recommendations for them?  If they're friends, I generally know what their tastes are, so you'd think it would be easy.  But it isn't.  I've had enough spectacular failures with friends to know that.  "Oh! You didn't like it? I'm so sorry!" I say, in that very British way of apologising for something that isn't really my fault.  Tastes differ, as every author knows who has got a five star review on Amazon next to a one star. I'm quite wary about recommending titles to complete strangers at parties or on trains or planes (yes, I've been asked for bookish recommendations on both of those), although a chance to conduct a discreet interrogation on what people have enjoyed before is always a fun way to pass the time.

But what about me?  How do I find good adult books to read, ones which I might otherwise have missed? Well, there's the Twitterati route.  If there's a continuing buzz from the book bloggers around something I haven't heard of, I'll always take a look, and sometimes buy.  That happened with Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and Erin Morgernstern's The Night Circus, both of which I found via Twitter and loved.  I also follow Amanda Craig's reviews very closely, as I know that she and I share similar tastes in fantasy. The other source of good recommendations for me is fellow children's book authors.  If they write kids' or YA books I like, I generally find that they'll read adult stuff I like too, even if it's something I had previously been resistant to.

Take the genre of science fiction, forinstance. I've always been pretty resistant to the majority of that (apart from a couple of titles) - which is strange for someone who loves fantasy so much.  They aren't that far apart in the realms of the imagination, but the idea of spaceships and machines and all that technology has never really appealed to me.  But then Kath Langrish, (author of the brilliant West of the Moon trilogy), suggested I read someone called Kage Baker.  Well, but...Kage Baker writes science fiction.  "You don't like science fiction," said one little voice in my head. "But you do trust Kath," said another.  To cut a long story short, I tried Kage Baker.  It was a lesson to me not to judge and dismiss a whole genre just because it is labelled a certain way, and I have certain preconceptions about it.  I enjoyed Kage's series of Company Novels more than anything I've read in a long time.  They're witty, complicated, intricate books of charm and complexity which made me laugh, think and cry (sometimes all at the same time).  They mix historical past, familiar present and scarily techo futures in a way that woke up my brain and set it dancing in whole new rhythms.   Because of that one recommendation from Kath (for books I'd never have considered otherwise), I think I might have to look at more science fiction now - as if my reading pile wasn't high enough already.  What next? Can anyone conquer my really truly visceral hatred of the adult horror novel? All recommendations welcome!

Lucy Coats's Greek Beasts and Heroes series is out now from Orion, and her new picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is coming from Bloomsbury in March 2013.
Lucy also blogs at Scribble City Central, where she is currently running the Fantabulous Fridays A-Z, a series of specially commissioned pieces from different childrens' and YA authors on mythical beasts and beings from all cultures.
Lucy's own website is here


Katherine Langrish said...

I'm so glad you liked them! They are indeed wonderful! And yet, certainly, I wouldn't expect everyone to like them. Goes to show how 'good' and 'bad' aren't really helpful labels.

I started reading selected titles by Stephen King in a similar way. I don't like horror. BUT - Joanne Harris was raving to me about his book 'From a Buick 8' - so I read it because I trusted her - and loved it. I now like about half of King's output. The other half is still too much like horror for me...

Saviour Pirotta said...

Great post, Lucy. What a brilliant idea starting a library for your godchild. I'm going to do the same for mine. If you want to give adult horror a whirl, try Stephen King's early novels, especially Salem's Lot, The Shining and The Stand, which borders on fantasy.

adele said...

Very interesting post, Lucy! I always know which of the recommenders I can trust and who knows my tastes. I also read reviews and can tell a fair amount about a book from discussions on amazon. But nothing beats a personal enthusiasm. Re Horror..well, there are certain Stephen Kings, though not others, which are great. I love Salem's Lot and Carrie. And there's a tremendous novel by Thomas Tryon called HARVEST HOME which I hope is still in print and which made a very big impression on me when I was young!

Lucy Coats said...

Oh lord! Can see I shall have to give Stephen King a go. And will look up Thomas Tryon. Thank you all.

Charlie Jones said...

It's really interesting to read about this. I'll hold my cards up straight away and say that I'm from a new website which tries to address this same problem.

I found that I would be sent books from publishers which I would NEVER have picked up myself. However I discovered not only great new titles this way, but even whole new genres (like graphic novels for example)! Our website shows a stream of other users' book activity (when they add books to their virtual shelves, or review something.) This means that people can stumble-upon new titles every day.

For me the most important thing is to give things ago. Steer clear of sticking rigidly to a certain genre and every now and again try reading a type of book which would never normally consider. Think about the 'Fifty Shades' wave which is swamping the world; would all of these readers even have picked up a book like this before?

We try to help people discover something new. To help people find what they like, but also to find what they didn't yet know they'd love.

Anyway, if anyone wants to come and have a look, the address is

Thanks :D

Jess Ferro said...

Great post! Have you tried Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian? It's not completely horror but has elements of it, and also combines some fantasy with history and is just a wonderful read! Although it's a bit long... However it's the only book that I actually recommend also listening to the ABRIDGED version of the audio because cast of voices they chose is really incredible!

Lucy Coats said...

Oh! This is such fun! Thank you, Charlie, your advice is very good. The trouble is that I think we all get stuck in a genre rut, which is hard to break out of. And for me, personally, I have such a humungous reading pile of books that I have to review or read for work purposes that leisure reading tends to be what I know I like already, because that's easier. I'll certainly take a look at your website, and am sure others here will too.

Jess, I'm off to look at E Kostova right now. Sounds like this might be the audio book to while away a long journey down to Cornwall. Thanks to you too.

madwippitt said...

Yes, one of the joys of having a godchild is the selection and giving of books, and comparing notes on them later! And for his brother too, of course, so he doesn't feel left out ...

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