Tuesday, June 23, 2020

What to Read

Reading: How do you decide what to read? Word of mouth? Reviews? Browsing in bookstores? Etc. And what’s the most important factor in your decision?

Terry answering the question:

A few years ago, I was an Edgar judge, which meant having to read a carload of books—some of which were books I would normally not have chosen. I was generally an eclectic reader, but I discovered that I could expand my reading horizons even more.

Never a fan of cozies, I discovered cozies that were smart and clever. I had been wary of the trope that so many cozies have of an everyday person, usually a woman, upon finding out that a friend or relative had died in mysterious circumstances thinks, “I should investigate!” No matter how this gets tweaked, it rarely works for me. But not all cozies are created equal. Some have protagonists with perfectly legitimate reasons for prying, and are well-written.

On the flip side, many hard-core thrillers didn‘t appeal to me because they feature a god of a man with no personality and his adoring women (who invariably have green eyes and red hair). And they kick butt again and again in increasingly preposterous circumstances. But nope, I found out there are thriller writers who write nuanced stories with real characters.

So how do I go about finding the ones in either extreme or those in the middle that will appeal to me?

1)    Word of mouth. There are certain writers I’ve learned to trust. If Timothy Hallinan tells me to read a book, I read it, knowing his standards are high and I’m likely to agree. Steph Cha’s book Your House Will Pay is not a book I would necessarily have picked up, but I did so because Tim raved about it early and often.  Same with Kristopher Zgorski, a reviewer I trust. Even then, I pay careful attention to the review, because not everyone loves everything.
2)    Awards. Some argue that a lot of awards are popularity contests, and I suppose some books that get nominated for awards are chosen because their authors are high-visibility. But I don’t think voters are fools (at least not in the writing world—but I’m not going there). I read a lot of nominated books, and find some gems I might never have otherwise read. That’s how I discovered Abir Mukherjee, Carol Goodman, Angie Kim, Sujata Massey, and Steve Hamilton, to name a few.

The Edgars are nominated by committee rather than by popular vote. Before I served as a judge, I thought the Edgars were suspect because the books were chosen by a handful of people. Through serving as a judge, I found that those who take on this onerous task take their responsibilities seriously. This year’s crop of Edgars is no exception. I have read almost every nominated book and found only two that I didn’t care for. And even then, they were well-written, just not to my taste. Most of them are outstanding, and I have touted the books widely.

3)    Knowing the author’s work. That speaks for itself. I know when Deborah Crombie has a book come out that I’m going to find it nuanced and well-written.
4)    Being on a conference panel. I usually try to read a book by each panelist, although I have to admit I often will read the first chapter on Amazon before I commit. That’s how I became a fan of Rachell Howzell Hall.
5)    Hearing authors speak on panels or in bookstore readings. The latter are especially useful for discovering independently-published authors. I would never have picked up a book by Heather Haven if I hadn’t found her to be ridiculously funny at a book event. Her books are hilarious. Same with Cindy Sample.  
6)    Bookstore recommendations. My local bookstore has mini-reviews in some of the books. I read the reviews and often buy the book. This is especially true of popular so-called literary books—although I recently bought one that made me really sorry I had trusted the reviewer. I also love to browse, and will sometimes buy a book because of the description and/or the cover.
7)    New York Times Book Review. That’s how I almost choose the non-fiction books I read. And their reviews of “literary” books sometimes prompts me to read the book.
8)    Special circumstances. Since becoming aware that writers of color are routinely under-published discovered,, under-estimated, under-reviewed, and under-appreciated, in the last few years I’ve gone out of my way to seek out those writers and not only buy their books, but spread the word when I enjoy the books. That doesn’t mean I find every book I read in that category to my liking. But it does mean my world has been expanded by reading about cultures and  outlooks that I don’t experience.

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