Need Help Deciding What to Read?

Someone recently asked me how I decide what books I want to read. Good question, I thought. The truth is, I find choosing new books (and new TV shows, movies and everything else) exceptionally difficult. As a rule, I try never to immediately follow a sci-fi with another sci-fi or a mystery with another mystery but that still leaves me spoiled for choice.

Blurbs are, of course, useful pointers to give you a hint as to whether or not a story might appeal to you but just because a story has an interesting synopsis doesn’t mean that it’s been well written or that it will appeal to your particular tastes.

As you might expect, the internet is ready and eager to try to help. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of three websites that give you customised book recommendations.

Goodreads

Let’s get the most well known one out the way first.

To be honest, Goodreads is much more than just a website for getting book recommendations. It’s more like a social network for book-lovers. However, unlike Facebook, Twitter and all the other more general social networking sites, Goodreads allows you to build a library of books you have read, want to read and are currently reading. It will then give you recommendations based not only on what you have on your ‘shelves’ but also based on the reviews you give them. If you give a book a very positive rating, it will recommend more books like it and vice-versa. It will also organisation your recommendations based on genre. So, if you read a lot of sci-fi novels and a lot of murder/mystery novels, but never read romance novels, it will give you separate recommendations for sci-fi and mystery… but nothing for romance.  If you don’t like what it suggests, it’s easy to tell it that and it will adjust future recommendations accordingly.

It’s also easy to link your Goodreads account to Facebook, Twitter and WordPress and has a large enough community of its own that you can find plenty of other user reviews about each book.

The only downside I can find is that its recommendations can often be a bit hit or miss, so be sure to read user reviews before blindly buying the books it recommends.

What Should I Read Next?

If you can’t be annoyed with all the bells and whistles of Goodreads, you might want to give ‘What Should I Read Next?’ a go.

If all you want  to do is get recommendations based on a particular book you like, you don’t even have to register. Simply type in the title of a book you liked and boom! It’ll give you a long list of similar books you might want to try (when I searched for Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire, it came up with a whopping fifty recommendations – only three of which were written by the same author).

However, if you want to refine your search parameters, you can register with your e-mail address and make up a list of your favourite books. One you have done that, you can search based on some or all of the books in your list.

Another way you can refine your search is by choosing what it is about your favourite book that you are looking for in a new book. For instance, when I told it I liked The Final Empire, I then had the choice to search for books about courts and courtiers, woman revolutionaries, magic, heroes, imaginary places, etc.

Whichbook

Unlike a lot of websites I consulted on this matter, Whichbook does not simply try to find a book ‘similar’ to one you have already read and liked. Instead it asks you what kind of book what you want to read. There are two different approaches you can take to this.

The first approach involves using sliding scales to tell Whichbook exactly what kind of feel you’re looking for in a book. Do you want a long book or a short book? An easy book or a demanding book? One with lots of sex or one with no sex? Happy or sad? Safe or disturbing? There are twelve such sliders to choose from (though you can only use four at a time) by which you can specify exactly what kind of book you’re after and it will give you recommendations based on what you tell it.

Alternatively, you can ditch the sliders and ask it to search for books with a particular kind of main character (the choice of details includes race, age, sexuality and gender), a particular plot type and/or a particular setting (in which you can choose from any country in the world or ‘imaginary’). You can mix and match these details as you see fit and it will make recommendations accordingly.

Whichever approach you decide to use, each recommendation comes with a mini-synopsis to help you make a more informed choice. You can also make lists of books in a similar way to Goodreads.

The major drawback is that you cannot specify a particular genre or author you’re fond of.


I hope you find some of these suggestions useful. I’m always looking for new things to read and watch (I won’t lie to you; the main reason I wrote this post this week is because I was looking for something new to read myself) so if you can recommend any other good review or recommendation websites, do let us know in the comments section!

Until next time!

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Ink and Pixel: A Sibling Rivalry

Which do you prefer: traditional paper books or e-books? Perhaps you are a traditionalist who feels the magic of a good novel is somehow missing in an e-book, or perhaps you prefer the space efficiency of an entire library which (almost) fits in your pocket. On the other hand, you might share my tendency to read both without guilt or shame, recognising the unique joy of each one. Whatever your position, it won’t take you more than a casual search of the internet to discover that there are more people out there who share or oppose your point of view than you can shake a stick at – and some of them get pretty passionate about the whole thing.

Anyone who is an advocate of the traditional paper book will tell you that there is more to reading than simply consuming words. Reading a book is a whole experience in and of itself. The book which has not yet been read is neat, tidy and clean with a mild but intoxicating smell about its pages. There’s a delicate and almost virginal quality to an unopened book. Once it has been opened, its spine will never be quite that smooth again, its pages will never fully shut as neatly as they once did; yet it will bring you a lifetime of joy, if only you treat it like a lady (don’t go breaking its spine or using it as a coaster; ladies just hate it when you do that and so will your book). To the lover of paper books, the book is an almost sacred thing. Treat it properly and your future readings will be every bit as rewarding as the first.

Paper books also have the added perk of being undeleteable and pass-onable. A paper book is yours forever; even if the internet disappears, the electricity cuts out and you are forced to spend eternity in a cave, you can still read your book again and again (assuming you have a lifetime supply of candles). When you die, it can be passed on to your relatives with all the other items you care about (nobody wants to inherit an e-book reader you bought fifty years ago and there’s a bit of a question mark hanging over if and how your non-physical possessions can possibly be passed on). On a less morbid note, you can easily buy lots of books and wrap them up nicely and give them to me for my birthday. I received no less than eight books on my last birthday (my family know me well) but no one has ever given me an e-book as a gift. I’m not even sure if it’s possible(?).

Unlike paper, e-books really are just a collection of digitised words and that may mean that it cheapens the overall experience of reading for some. E-books are brutally efficient. You don’t get the sacred pleasure of entering the bookshop or library where you are surrounded on every side by an endless myriad of tomes to numerous to count; you don’t get that new book smell when you first open it; you don’t get to give it pride of place on your bookshelf like a trophy when you finally finish it; you can’t wrap it up and one must wonder if it was ever truly yours to begin with.

On the other hand, the more pragmatic reader might argue that with e-books, you get to carry the whole bookshop with you wherever you go; that while an e-book may lack the new book smell, it is also not likely to develop that fusty old book smell and that it is more space efficient not to clutter up your whole room with bookshelves (just ask my wife!). Books, they might argue, are nothing more than a convenient way to record a story but it is the story itself – not the smell of the paper or any other such nonsense – that really matters. Why, then, attach so much ritual to something as simple as consuming a story? It’s only a book! You don’t need to court it, marry it or pick out curtains with it! Just download the text, enjoy it and move on!

Another perk e-books have over their paper counterparts is that they’re often cheaper (most of the time anyway), assuming that you read enough of them to make it worthwhile forking out a hundred or so quid for an e-book reader. In that sense, value for money is somewhat relative to how many e-books you download and how often you actually read them. On top of that, there are plenty of e-books out there that are completely free if you have the patience to hunt for them and the wisdom to sift the wheat from the chaff. On the plus side, if you do accidentally download a really bad free e-book, at least you’re not going to be out of pocket. It’s easy to abandon an e-book you hate without guilt or remorse.

Personally, I’ve been able to find a place for both in my life. I am the proud owner of a Kindle Keyboard (which was very high-tech when I got it but is now starting to show its age) and the equally proud owner of more paperbacks and hardbacks than I care to count. I don’t know about you but I read for the story, not for the binding (or lack thereof). The convenience of the e-book or the familiar comforts of the paper book are both perks to be enjoyed, but neither matter as much as being stimulated intellectually or emotionally by a good story (that’s why I don’t like audio-books incidentally; it whizzes past too quickly and I like time to chew over the words I’m reading but that’s just me). Considering that e-books are a relatively new phenomenon, I can’t help thinking that this sibling rivalry between paper books and e-books is already getting really old.

To be honest, I don’t really care how a book gets presented to me. I just love reading.

To Judge a Book (Not By its Cover)

I was tidying up my desk yesterday (a roughly biennial event, so it’s sort of a big deal) when I struck gold: two vouchers for a well-established chain of bookshops. One was worth a whopping £30 and the other, £27. That’s almost £60 worth of book voucher just waiting to be spent.

Naturally I fired up the website of this well-established chain of bookshops as soon as I had completed the excavation of my desk and immediately hit a snag. I didn’t actually know what I wanted. I just wanted new books. Exciting stories, riveting stories, poetically crafted and well researched works of fiction. Unfortunately, that’s a little too vague for the average search engine to reliably cope with. I know what I like when I read it but… how do I know I like it until I read it? I’ve always had this problem with choosing new books, films or other forms of fiction.

It is wise, of course, to begin by whittling the choice down to include only your favourite genres. Most bookshops are organised this way anyway, regardless of whether you are looking online or in a physical shop. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, there’s a good chance that you’ll want to peruse almost all of the genres, which doesn’t really help much. You could, of course, always fall back on that age-old game of literary roulette called ‘Judge a Book by its Cover’. Alternatively, you could do what I do and ignore the categories the shop gives you and make up your own categories instead. Here’s a couple I like to use:

Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read

This category usually gets first priority when I’m trying to find something new to read. It includes all those authors that I, as a self-proclaimed bookworm, know I should have read but haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer that you can dislike anything you wish (even if everyone else loves it) but you just can’t know until you’ve tried… and some authors are just too popular to ignore completely.

For example, I claimed earlier in this post that I love the fantasy genre. Indeed, I do love the fantasy genre. I’ve read loads of fantasy and I nearly always enjoy it but in spite of this… I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read any Terry Pratchett. Naturally, therefore, when I had my surprise bookish windfall, I decided that I would address the lack of Pratchett on my bookshelf, instead of picking a fantasy novel at random. Since it is the first book in his ever-popular Discworld series, it wasn’t long before I had added The Colour of Magic to my basket.

Authors I Read Once Before and Liked

As well as fantasy, I am also a big fan of fantasy’s dour-faced brother, science-fiction. A couple of years ago, Isaac Asimov belonged in my ‘Authors I’m Ashamed Never to Have Read’ category until I finally read The End of Eternity, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Now that I’ve read one of his books, I have a golden opportunity to decide whether or not to write-off Asimov as overrated or to invite him back for a second audition. After all, the last book was maybe a fluke. Maybe Asimov is a one trick pony. Maybe I just won’t like anything else he has written. The first book I read filled me with optimism but caution is still advised in buying books from this category. There’s only one way to know for sure if you can ever truly become a fully-fledged fan of a particular author like Asimov: buy I, Robot and see if it’s half as good as The End of Eternity.

Authors I Can’t Get Enough Of

There are a few very special authors out there who can do no wrong. Every book they publish, I devour and enjoy. Part of it is undoubtedly down to the skill of the writer; a lot of it is perhaps also a matter of personal taste. For me, John Steinbeck is such an author. I first came across him at school when we read Of Mice and Men. I was hooked. Since then I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, The Wayward Bus, East of Eden, Cup of Gold, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, Tortilla Flat and probably a whole bunch of others besides.

This is a great category if, like me, you’re in credit with book vouchers and want to be sure that at least some of the books you order will be ones you know you’ll love. Just search for the author’s name and pick any old one. Joy is guaranteed.

Incidentally, I settled on The Red Pony for those of you who are interested.

Variations on a Theme

Sometimes the idea behind a story is more important than who wrote it. A couple of years ago, I read The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, which is an alternate history in which the Allies lost the Second World War. It wasn’t the most exciting book I’d ever read, but I still enjoyed it and the idea behind it made for a stimulating (if horrifying) fictional universe. Perhaps a different author might be able to put a different (or even better) spin on the same idea…?

Fortunately, most online shops include ‘more books like this’ recommendations. It didn’t take more than a few clicks for me to find and purchase The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville.

Gamble!

Some books do just have very compelling covers, don’t they? You’ve never heard of the novel or the author but still, something about it catches your eye. If you’re feeling brave, why not roll the dice on a brand new author who you’ve never heard of?

Of course, just because you’re taking a gamble doesn’t mean you can’t stack the odds of finding an enjoyable read in your favour. Do your homework before you spend any money. I remember I once overheard some horse-racing enthusiasts discussing at considerable length how they intended to bet and why. You should have this kind of mindset when taking a chance on a new author. Don’t just impulsively buy one based on the pretty cover alone; do your research. The internet and the newspapers alike are bursting with reviews on all kinds of fiction. Websites like Goodreads are especially useful for getting an idea of what hundreds of different readers individually thought about particular books and they will usually provide an average star rating as well.

Ultimately, every purchase is a gamble. Sometimes your favourite genre will disappoint you; sometimes the best-selling authors are over-rated; sometimes you will find a gem from an author or genre you normally hate. But just because every purchase is a gamble doesn’t mean every purchase must be a guess. With a well trained gut and a little bit of research, there’s no reason why you can’t find something worth reading every single time.