How I Recommend Books

My whole life, I’ve always had two titles: The Reader and The Smart One. That’s how my peers saw me, my family, acquaintances, adults who watched me grow up. My label as The Smart One eased up in college, where I was surrounded by people who were equally as smart or far smarter. (If you ever want to feel blissfully mediocre, be an English major and get into a conversation with an engineer.) But I still am and probably always will be The Reader, and I’m okay with that.

I’m still teaching people not to start talking to me in the middle of a book, and I’m still promoting reading the book before watching the movie. (It’s shocking how few people do.) It’s all part and parcel of the Reader gig. My absolute favorite part of being the designated Reader of my various social circles has to be my dual role as Book Recommender. I love it when a coworker turns to me and goes, “So, read anything good lately?” or when a friend texts me and says, “Am in a B&N. Have $20 to spend. GO.”

Recommending can be a tricky business, because I have SO many amazing titles sitting on the tip of my tongue, but one thing you learn very quickly in reviewing is that taste is subjective. The dramatic contemporary issues book that makes me squirm might be my friend’s cup of tea, while the high fantasy that I adore might make them want to claw their own eyes out. It’s one thing to lift up the book you’re reading at the moment and tell them about it. That’s not making a specific recommendation; it’s just sharing information. Recommending is (or should be) tailoring specific choices to fit the tastes, mood, and current desires of the recipient. It’s a little bit art, a little bit science, but never willy-nilly.

If you came to me for a recommendation for the first time, there are questions I would ask you. The first one, invariably, is:

What do you like to read?

For fellow bloggers and reviewers (and librarians and teachers, etc.), this question is often helpful. They’ll often give me specific examples, complete with genre and age category. “I primarily enjoy YA and MG lit, especially spec fic that deals with time travel. You know, sci-fi, parallel universes, etc.” Of course, we reviewers often like so many things that the helpfulness is soon diluted by the numerous examples. “I like YA and MG lit. Spec fic (fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, post-apocalyptic) the most, but I also like sweet, meet-cute contemporaries in those and Adult. Oh, and cozy mysteries! And paranormal! Especially urban paranormal. And…”

For those not actively engaging with the publishing industry, this question tends to be more of a primer to get their brain juices flowing. I don’t ever ask for age categories, because too few actively seek out YA or MG lit, though they’re often open to it if I suggest a title. Also, I almost never reader adult lit, so I wouldn’t be helpful there anyways. They also often don’t have the proper vocabulary to outline what genre they want, so I just let them ramble and try to define what they like in their books.

What don’t you like?

A lot of times, if a recommendee can’t articulate what they like, they can more easily tell me what they don’t like. I hear things like “I don’t like it when it’s somewhere not real. All those weird names and magic and stuff,” or “Nothing scary. I don’t like scary books,” or sometimes even specifics like “I don’t like when the narrative is in first person. I don’t want to be in their heads, y’know?”

The first few times I recommend a book to someone, I do my best to avoid their dislikes. They’re trusting me to find them an awesome book, and I want to respect that trust. However, once that trust has been built, I will attempt to gradually shift the boundaries of what they think they like. Though they may not become diehard fans of whatever genre they previously loathed, oftentimes a stellar novel will convince them to be more open in the future.

What did you read last that you liked?

This is the question that works better for non-bloggers. Some may have to think really, really far back, but they can usually pick out a specific title that they enjoyed. I often ask them what it was about the book that they enjoyed. Was it the world? The action? The romance? The tricky protagonist? The life-and-death stakes? What kept them glued to the page? These questions are especially useful when I’m not familiar with the titles or authors they mention. And even if I have read what they’re talking about, I don’t want to assume I know why they like what they like.

Sidenote: I almost never ask this question of blogger types. I get waaaaay too many titles.

What’s available?

This is a blogger-type only question. Most often when a blogger asks what to read, it’s because they have a wall of choices staring them in the face. Their problem is too many options, not too few, so sending them off to the bookstore or library won’t be helpful. If I know what they have, then I know how to guide them.

What are you in the mood for?

Sure, you like twisty plots and daring escapes, but is that really what you’re in the mood for? Or do you really feel more like a light and happy beach read? Or maybe the book version of a B-movie horror film to leave you jumping at shadows? If a recomendee is looking for a book for right now as opposed to a list to pull from later, this question is paramount. The majority of readers, be they book guzzlers or occasional dabblers, read according to mood, at least partly.

What are your limits?

Of all the questions, this is the one that is the most necessary, as opposed to the most helpful. Once I have titles narrowed down in my head according to taste and mood, this is the last question I ask before making my recommendation. Everyone has their limits when it comes to objectionable content. What flies for my coworker would not necessarily be appropriate for my fourteen-year-old sister, and a book I might recommend to one friend I wouldn’t dare attempt for another. For instance, when I try to interest my parents in my favorite books, I know that my dad is more likely to accept violence and language than my mom, but neither of them will accept the level that would be okay for some of my other friends.

So I try to ferret out what will be tolerated and what won’t. Is violence okay? What do you consider to be “violent”? Is it okay as long as it isn’t gratuitous? What about language? Nothing above a “damn,” say, or is the f-bomb your limit? Does it matter if the profanity in question is situationally appropriate? (Ex: I loathe finding f-bombs in my books, but I can’t really argue with its appearance in Code Name Verity, which takes place in a Gestapo prison in WWII France.) What about romance? Is kissing okay? (Sometimes it isn’t for moms asking for their kids.) Making out? Fade-to-black, super-discreet sex?

I don’t want to give someone a book they’re not comfortable reading, even for the sake of a good story. I’m not willing to damage the trust I’ve received like that.

The Master Spreadsheet

Sometimes, I find a wonderful thing—a non-blogger reader who is willing to try anything and everything I put before them. Sure, they have their likes and dislikes, but they’re indiscriminate when it comes to finding a good story. Mood is really the only thing that drives them. As long as the story is solid and the writing’s good, let ’em at it!

For these wonderful people, I keep a spreadsheet with all the books that I love. They’re not bloggers, so I don’t expect them to wade through reviews on my blog. Indiscriminate readers also tend to be very slow readers, since they’re driven by mood. They’ll pick up the book as it suits them, devour half the book, then set it down until they have time again. This process means it can be weeks before they finish and longer still before I find out how they liked my recommendation.

On my spreadsheet, I have six columns: Title, Author, Genre, Comments, Sequels?, and Comments from [Recommendee]. Title, Author, and Genre are there for common sense organizational reasons. Comments means comments from me; it’s where I do my own (very short) flaily blurb on why I liked the book. In the Sequels? column, I note whether the book in question has sequels and whether they’re all out now or if they’re coming soon, that way the recomendee remembers to go back and read the rest. And in the final column, Comments from [Recommendee], my recipients can give feedback on what they did and did not like in the book so I can offer further suggestions.

A screenshot of one of my spreadsheets.

Now you know. I take my position as The Reader very seriously, and being the resident Book Recommender is a treasured task. I fully believe the saying that a person who doesn’t love books merely hasn’t met the right one. If I can take fifteen minutes to find you that right book, well, I think that’s time well spent, don’t you?

What about you? How do YOU recommend books? Also, if you answer the questions above in the comments, I’ll send you a rec!

19 Responses to How I Recommend Books

  1. Audrey @ The Book Analyst July 9, 2014 at 12:31 am #

    This is very scientific… I love it! I used to have a friend that I would recommend books to all the time and I ended up tagging books on Goodreads with her name so there was a shelf of books waiting there when she needed a recommendation. That worked out extremely well because it’s hard to think back and remember books but in the moment, I would know it was a book she would like and I would mark it as soon as I finished it.
    Audrey @ The Book Analyst recently posted…Top Ten Tuesday: Blogging ConfessionsMy Profile

    • Shae July 9, 2014 at 9:17 am #

      Ooh that’s such a great idea! I wish I could do that. (My spreadsheet people don’t use GR.)

  2. mara July 9, 2014 at 8:14 am #

    Can you send me a rec? I like YA epic fantasy, somewhat snarky characters, and strong secondary characters. I dislike paranormal/urban fantasy and romance as anything but a subplot. I’m in the middle of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I’m trying to get over a Hunger Games hangover, so anything of that vein is good. Sex and language stops at PG-13, any other objectionable content is fine.

    • Shae July 9, 2014 at 10:51 am #

      Sure! Let me think about it and I’ll give you a list. Here in the comments, via email, or elsewhere?

      • mara July 9, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

        Could you do it by email? Thanks!

        • Shae July 9, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

          Sure thing!

  3. Jessica July 9, 2014 at 4:07 pm #

    A recommendation? 🙂 I love YA and MG books, mostly contemporary, Historical, and Fantasy, But I’m pretty open to trying any Genre except Horror, I’m easily scared with things like that. And I don’t like whiny main characters most of the time. (Though there are always exceptions.) The past few weeks I have been reading a lot of Historical books, but I have been wanting a good Fantasy, too! As far as content, violence is fine as long as it’s not too descriptive, and if it is, not a lot of it (And it really depends on what kind.). And romance I prefer it tame, I don’t even like fade-to-black scenes usually (But kissing is fine!). Language is fine, as long as it isn’t like ten curse words every page.

    I look forward to reading what you recommend! 🙂
    Jessica recently posted…Top Ten Blogging ConfessionsMy Profile

    • Shae July 9, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

      Yes, ma’am! Here or by email?

      • Jessica July 9, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

        I don’t think you have my email, so here would be fine! 🙂

        And thank you! 🙂
        Jessica recently posted…Top Ten Blogging ConfessionsMy Profile

        • Shae July 10, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

          Roger! Let me mull it over and I’ll get back to you. 🙂

    • Shae July 12, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

      Okay, so, apologies in advance if I recommend things you’ve already read. I have a hard time remembering what I’ve pushed on whom without my spreadsheets. I’ll focus on historicals and fantasies, since that’s what you like most.

      YA Fantasy: The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner (ALWAYS), the Grisha series by Leigh Bardugo (warning: fade to black in final book), the Fire & Thorns series by Rae Carson (warning: fade to black in final book), Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, The Kiss of Deception by Mary Pearson, the Provost’s Dog series by Tamora Pierce.

      YA Historical: Seven Daughters and Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy, The Falconer by Elizabeth May, the His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers (warning: fade to black in each book), Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (strong language in a few sections but not throughout), Leviathan series by Scott Westerfield, Etiquette & Espionage series by Gail Carriger, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel, A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier.

      MG: The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Time Fetch by Amy Herrick (half fantasy, half sci-fi), the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones.

      Fantasy and historical recs are some of my faves. 😀 Enjoy!

      • Jessica July 13, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

        Thank you so much! 🙂 These all look very good, and I have only read a few of them! I’m going to the library to get a few tomorrow! Thank you again!!!!!!! 😀
        Jessica recently posted…Waiting on Wednesday: Lucky MeMy Profile

        • Shae July 13, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

          Can’t wait to hear what you think of them! 😀

  4. Alexa S. July 13, 2014 at 10:24 pm #

    I feel like you deserve an award, “Expert Book Recommender”, and a tagline “Will not steer you wrong”. I’m good at recommending books to people I’m close to, but otherwise, it’s touch and go. I admire your methods and bow down before your mastery 😉
    Alexa S. recently posted…Infinite Sky – C.J. Flood (Review)My Profile

    • Shae July 14, 2014 at 10:44 am #


  5. Lauren Spieller July 14, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    This was fantastic! I give recommendations a lot, and the system is going to come in handy.

    So, if you have time, I’d love a recommendation. I read a lot of YA, so something off the beaten path would be great!

    What do you like to read? Primarily YA, though I love Adult Historical Fantasy
    What don’t you like? I’m not into straight romance, hard sci-fi, or paranormal stuff.
    What did you read last that you liked? I *loved* CODE NAME VERITY.
    What are you in the mood for? Hmmm….something incredibly fun and magical. I want a really off the charts wonderful fantasy, or maybe something incredibly thrilling and fast paced. Maybe (ideally!) both.
    What are your limits? No dog deaths, please.

    Thank you in advance!!!

    • Shae July 14, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

      Hmmmmmm. Off the beaten path is always hard to figure, since that means different things for different people. Some places to start:

      Fantasy: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner (if you haven’t read it and its series, do that NOW),
      The Girl of Fire & Thorns by Rae Carson (plus sequels; VERY well-written),
      Seraphina by Rachel Hartman,
      Stolen Songbird by Danielle Jensen (oh the swoons!)
      A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn (gorgeous prose, v. different)
      Terrier by Tamora Pierce (I know this author is super popular, but this series tends to be less so, sadly)
      The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas (not exactly well-written but lots of fun)
      Beauty by Robin McKinley

      How To Lead A Life of Crime by Kristen Miller,
      The entire Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter (fast-paced and FUN)
      The His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers (NUN ASSASSINS; note: saints and spirits and stuff, so paranormal-ish?)
      Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen,
      Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
      The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
      All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill (some science, but I think it’s accessible)

      Like CNV: Uh, read Rose Under Fire, if you haven’t already. Be prepared for major feels. I honestly have a hard time rec’ing anything for CNV because it’s SO DANG GOOD. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak gave me similar feels, though. Also, though I didn’t enjoy the book personally, Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson has the same literary quality.

      Also, I don’t know what you consider paranormal, but two books with ghosts that I strongly recommend are Constable & Toop by Gareth Jones and The Year of Shadows by Claire Legrand. They’re beautifully written and so dang fun.

      If too many of these are ones you’ve already read, let me know and I’ll go diving into my memory banks for some preblogging reads.


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