Dear Reader: book recommendations

So, one of my good friends (who is also a regular reader of my blog!) asked me for a book recommendation. His request was pretty general:

… what’s the best book you’ve read in the last 5-10 years that you think I should read?

I’ve been carefully considering what I should recommend, and, of course, like anything else, I am COMPLETELY overanalyzing this… I mean, it’s not every day you get asked a question like that. And that word… best… best could mean so many different things. Most entertaining? Made me think about the world differently? Changed my opinion about something? Had excellent writing? Kept me up all night reading? All of the above?

And then there’s the hardest part… How can I pick just one “best” book?

After further questioning, I’ve come to understand that this request is part of a larger scheme invented by my friend… he decided he would allow each of his friends to recommend one book for him to read — and he’d have to read that book. So many times I recommend books to people, or buy books for gifts, and I almost never know if they are even read, let alone enjoyed. But this time… this time he has to read what I recommend. That’s a bit heady…

Of course, the first thing that came to mind as I’ve been over-thinking this, is that I’m primarily a “genre” reader (I think he knows this… he does read my blog…). So, anything I pick as “best” is unlikely to be the type of book that would win some sort of Pulitzer or something. Maybe a Hugo or a Nebula, but it’s definitely not going to top any true literary critic’s “top five” list.

I could use this opportunity to make someone (anyone) finally read Sassinak…. Don’t think I haven’t considered it. I have. But I’m not sure my friend would love it as much as I do. Hell, even as much as I love that book, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s the best book I’ve read in the last five to ten years. It’s comfort food for me. And comfort food is always good, but it’s rarely where you take someone on a first date.

So, not Sassinak… what then? This is when I turn to my trusty book shelves on Goodreads. I’ve been tracking my reading in Goodreads since the beginning of 2008. I tracked my reading in notebooks before then, and I could go back and look at those for inspiration, but those are a little harder to search. I think seven years of reading is probably enough. It’s pretty much halfway between the five and ten year time horizon suggested in the question. It’s as good a place as any to start. So, let’s have a look at my “read” shelf on Goodreads and see which books I’ve rated as five stars since 2008…

In no particular order (and only including full-length books, but not including any re-reads) these are the books I’ve read in the last seven years and marked as five stars on Goodreads:

  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Suddenly Royal by Nichole Chase
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
  • Swim: Why We Love the Water by Lynn Sherr
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Graceling and Fire (the first two books in the Graceling series) by Kirstin Cashore
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (yes, I first read this book in 2009)
  • Momentum Is Your Friend: The Metal Cowboy and His Pint-Sized Posse Take on America by Joe Kurmaskie
  • Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning by George Monbiot
  • Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Lock In by John Scalzi
  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Looking over this list, I’m sorely tempted to assign him a Jane Austen book to read (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park would be my top three). I mean, it’s not that often that you can force a guy to read Jane Austen… and I’m pretty sure that once you’ve read Jane Austen, it’s pretty hard not to see what all the fuss is about (and no, the fuss is not about the romance, though that’s good, too).

Several of the others are young/new adult books (Moribito, Graceling, Fire, We Were Liars, Fangirl, Eleanor and Park, Suddenly Royal…). I read a lot of YA/NA books, and I think many are just as good, if not better than, many of the adult fiction books I read. But, not all adults think that way. If my friend were someone who would never ever read YA, I would use this as my one chance to introduce him to the genre. But, I am fairly certain that he’s not a literary snob. So, I am going to resist recommending these favorites.

Glaciers is a particularly “Portland” book, and could be a really good choice because my friend lives in Portland. But, it’s really short… And it’s not my absolute favorite out of this list of books.

Similarly, Where’d You Go Bernadette has a very “Seattle” feel. It’s hysterical and fun and I loved it. But, it’s probably not the right book to recommend to this friend.

The Night Circus is excellent, and one of my all-time favorites, but my husband (who has very similar tastes to my friend) just can’t get into it no matter how many times he’s tried. So, I’ll hold off on recommending that one this time.

Unless you love the water, you probably won’t be that into Swim. And unless (like me) you have a ridiculous soft spot for novels told in the form of letters exchanged between a pair of characters, you probably won’t be that into The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Momentum is Your Friend is a non-fiction, memoir-type book about a guy who rides his bike across the country with his two young boys, one on a tandem trike and the other in an attached bike trailer. I remember really loving this book when I read it, and it’s a book I think my friend would enjoy because he lives in Portland, likes to bike, and has two young boys. But, this is the kind of book I’d buy as a gift for someone like my friend… not something I’d recommend for him to read because it was the best book I’d read in the past five to ten years.

Several of the others (Left Hand of Darkness, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hr Bookstore, Lock In, The Bone Clocks, The White TigerQuiet, Heat…) are books he’s likely to have already read, or likely to pick up on his own without my pointing them out to him. I will say that The Left Hand of Darkness is probably the best book on that list, and I would be more tempted to recommend that one if I didn’t think he’s probably read it already.

This process of elimination narrows my list down to four contenders.

  • Blue Remembered Earth
  • Ready Player One
  • The Dog Stars
  • The Sparrow

I’ve narrowed it down to these four because they are all sci-fi / fantasy books that I’m not sure my friend would stumble upon on his own, and I know he likes sci-fi and fantasy novels.

And at this point, I’m torn…

I really want to pick Blue Remembered Earth, because it’s such a good book, and it’s the first in a series, and I’m pretty sure it’s a new author for him, and one that he’d enjoy. It’s a smart book with a solid grounding in hard science. If I had to pick one book to introduce him to that might set him off on a very productive reading binge, this would be it.

And yet…

Ready Player One is a really fun book, full of pop culture references that someone like my friend might really appreciate. This was one I read and passed on to my husband to read and he also loved it. Plus, they’re making it into a movie…

Then, there’s The Dog Stars, which is one my husband read first and passed on to me… it reminds me a little bit of a book that I know my friend likes called Earth Abides… except this one is better. I’m sure he would like it (if he hasn’t read it already). But my husband should really be the one to recommend this when it’s his turn… (even though he’ll probably recommend The Martian… I haven’t read that one yet, but based on what I know, I think it would definitely be the kind of book my friend would enjoy).

My friend already reads a lot of sci-fi, but for people who don’t really read a lot of sci-fi and want to try it… or for people who like to explore philosophical and moral issues, The Sparrow would be my strongest pick. It’s a good “intro to sci-fi” book because it’s an excellent “first contact” with aliens book, plus it’s somewhat more literary because it explores a lot of sticky moral and religious issues in addition to just being a good, creative, action-packed story. But, I feel like this is a cheater recommendation because one of our mutual friends actually gave me this series as a gift. She was the one who recommended it to me. So, it’s really her recommendation… not mine. Plus it was published well outside the five to ten year window, even if I only just read it a few years ago.

What do you think? Should I pick something he’d never pick up on his own (like a Jane Austen book) as my recommendation? Or should I go with the hard sci-fi book by an author he probably hasn’t read anything by, but might enjoy (like Blue Remembered Earth)? Or should I go with something that’s just crazy good pop-culture referencing, action-packed fun (like Ready Player One)?

I’m going to take another day or two to consider. Feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts…

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