Sunday, April 4, 2010

Big, Hairy Lab - Readers' Advisoring my Friends

Since I am not fortunate enough to work in a library…yet…I chose to work with my friends and family to see if I could Readers’ Advisor them. This may be the most fun I’ve had with an assignment ever. Not only did I manage to find a few things my friends liked, but my own to-read list doubled. I mainly asked everyone the same set of questions (tweaking where necessary), but I had good luck with getting great answers with them. Only one of these interviews took place in person; the rest occurred online. Below are the questions I asked of everyone, including examples and clarifications to make sure that I was being clear (since you can’t exactly talk it out when you’re discussing something via email). I also didn’t want to sound like I was making any assumptions or judgments, so I tried to include a wide range of topics in my examples, as well as a bit of humor.

What are the last few books/authors that you've read and *liked*? If none recently, do you have any all-time favorites?

What about those books most appealed to you (i.e. the relationships, level of detail, non-stop-action, humor, location/setting, the way the characters were written, etc etc etc...)?

Are there any types of books that you tend to read (i.e. mystery, romance, thriller, general fiction, sci-fi, memoires, non-fiction)? Are there any types you've been wanting to read, but don't know where to start?

Is there anything that you definitely *don't* like in books (i.e. bad language, sex, girly stuff, horror/gore, creepy clowns, etc.)?

Person 1

For my first attempt at Reader’s Advisory, I met a friend (we’ll call her Jo March, since she’s a writer) for lunch after church and we chatted about books. Since I’ve never done this deliberately (other than “this book is awesome and you should read it!”), I focused on what I knew (which is basically what I’ve read before). I asked Jo about books she really enjoyed lately and what it was about them that she really liked. She mentioned books by Karen Kingsbury and Francine Rivers, both Christian authors, and The Tea Rose, by Jennifer Donnelly. She enjoyed the relational aspect of many books, but did not limit herself to any particular style or genre. She wanted something to read to get her through the winter, possibly a series, maybe something historical.

I provided her with a list of titles that either had strong relationship aspects, were from a fun series, or both. To start I recommended Sarah Addison Allen for a good women’s relationships story – both Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen (she told me she wasn’t afraid of a little magic in her books). Jo mentioned that she’d tried the Harry Potter books at one point, but hadn’t managed to get through it – I provided the first book in the series because she was thinking about trying again. I also recommended a historical series from Angela Elwell Hunt, Heirs of Cahira O’Connor. She had mentioned a few Christian Fiction authors that she had enjoyed, and Hunt was a Christian author she hadn’t read.

So far Jo has read Garden Spells and she had this to say about it: "This was a very pleasant read for me! While I typically can read many genres, I particularly enjoy ones with dynamic and growing relationships. I love to see how people change with circumstances and how that affects their personal growth and how they relate with others in their life. I really enjoyed the mending of the broken relationship between Claire and Sydney. This type of storyline is always particularly satisfying to me. I also enjoyed how Claire not only held onto who she was at the core, but opened up to new things in her life as time went on. Her perspective broadened, and this made room for not only Sydney but also for love. The book was deep enough to keep me intrigued but easy enough to pick up several times a day at random moments. I finished it in three days and look forward to reading more from the author." (She’s a budding author, can you tell???) Harry Potter is still on her to-read list, but it was put on hold after rediscovering an old favorite which captured her attention. She’s currently reading the first in the Cahira series. But overall, she had a positive response to my book list.

Person 2

My next attempt was with a young man I’ll call Sgt. Pepper (because he’s a Marine and into rock star autobiographies). He had a very interesting range of book interests, from the afore mentioned rock star autobiographies, to The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism, to Siddhartha. Some of the things he said he enjoyed in a book were humor and a sense of the outrageous, but no romance novels, thankyouverymuch.

I found this to be a very interesting challenge. I’m more of a fiction reader, but Sgt. Pepper showed more of an interest in non-fiction, and the books he discussed sounded fascinating to me. But his interests also kept me from being able to utilize tools like Novelist or FictionConnection. Instead I used sites like GoodReads and Amazon to find titles for him. I looked for biographies and memoires that were related to Rock ‘n Rollers or first-hand tales of adventure and danger (based off of a book he enjoyed where a federal agent went undercover with the Hells Angels titled No Angel, by Jay Dobyns and Nils Johnson-Shelton). I also looked for books that had to do with the brain (because of Stage Hypnotism) and books of the strange or humorous.

I provided him with the following titles:


My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, by Jill Bolte Taylor
Crazy for the Storm: A Memoire of Survival, by Normal Ollestad
Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James & The Shondells, by Tommy James
Scar Tissue, by Anthony Kiedis
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D Levitt
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann


Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane
Drood, Dan Simmons
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith

My attempt turned out to be successful: “All of these non-fiction books look fantastic. Drood, and the Lincoln book both look really interesting to me as well.” He said that he was going to look for these at his library, but at the time of writing this, I haven’t heard back from him to see if he had read anything he actually liked.

**Update - I heard back from the Sergeant and he had a chance to read two of the books I recommended, My Stroke of Insight and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He enjoyed both, and even commented that after reading the Lincoln book, he may have to check out more fiction!

Person 3:

Next up was my undergrad journalism advisor – a newspaper man from the time when news still came on paper…which wasn’t that long ago. Let’s call him Jack “Cowboy” Kelly. Jack told me that he generally went for books on Nature, Christian Devotionals, Books about Books, Reference Books, Historicals, Legal Thrillers and Travel. He liked both Hemingway and Tolstoy. And he preferred books that were “insightful, well researched, and flowed well, and made me want to turn the page.” What he didn’t want from a book: Smut, Occult, and Nicholas Sparks.

Jack listed three books that he’d read and enjoyed: $20 per Gallon : How the Inevitable Rising Cost of Gas Will Change Our Lives for the Better, by Christopher Steiner; Scratch Beginnings : Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream, by Adam Shepard; and The Man Who Loved Books Too Much : The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, by Allison Hoover Bartlett.

Based on this information, I looked mainly for non-fiction titles regarding books and literature, informational and researched topics, and Christian devotionals, plus one fiction book that fit the “books about books” style. I recommended the following:

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner (I just saw the author on Bonnie Hunt, so it was fresh in my mind.)
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann (Another TV spot recommendation.)
The Library at Night, by Alberto Manguel
Latitude Zero: Tales of the Equator, by Gianni Guadalupi
Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, by Donald Miller
Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, by Shane Claiborne
The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next #1), by Jasper Fforde

The results: I missed the mark on the Christian books and the Lost City, and no comment on the Fforde novel, but the rest were fairly well on the mark. The first two were already on Jack's to-read list and he’s enjoyed other titles by Bill Bryson. He thought The Library at Night sounded “fascinating” and while Latitude Zero “would not be my first choice,” he said it did sound interesting. His final thoughts: “You did fantastic! I think the list is very insightful with just the little bit of information I gave you,” particularly since “we've not had a face-to-face discussion for years.” Again, at the time of writing this, I haven’t heard back on whether or not he’s had a chance to pick up any of these books, but at least he was positive about future options.

**Update: Jack hasn't had a chance to test out any of these books because he was reading religious books during the Lenten season, but apparently he was satisfied with my attempt, because he asked me for more recommendations. This time he was looking specifically for books about sustainable living and urban homesteading. One of the titles I recommended, Fresh Food from Small Spaces, turned out to be a winner.

Person 4

My next attempt was with a friend from high school, whom we’ll call Buttercup (because we once swapped Halloween costumes, her mother's vintage dress for my Egyptian queen ensemble, and I spent the night calling myself Buttercup - now she's get's that title, one because of the dress, and two because she could totally pull off the Princess title, she's that awesome). I had a hard time with this one – maybe it was because I thought I knew her tastes, but found out they weren’t what I remembered from ten years ago, or maybe it was because she has a wide range of tastes, but some limiting likes and dislikes that made it tougher.

Buttercup liked Twilight, but didn’t like Romance. She preferred books from a female perspective, but didn’t like Chick Lit. Mysteries, page-turners, crazy twists, and action made her Likes list, and too much sex and stories that build up to nothing made her Dislikes list.

Books she’s read recently and liked included Twilight, Shutter Island, and Water for Elephants. She also likes Michael Crichton and Stephen King, though she hated The Stand, and she also thought The Piano Teacher was incredibly boring.

To be honest, by the time I got to Buttercup, I’d spent all day looking up books for my other volunteers, and it was rather late in the evening. I was tired, over-booked (as it were), and stumped. I couldn’t find any Read Alikes from the regular sources, so I was back to digging through GoodReads and Amazon for my titles. I looked for things that would be more exciting, or maybe include some type of hunt, since she liked twists. I came up with the following list (which is pretty pathetic, when compared to my other tries):

Labyrinth - Mosse, Kate
One for the Money - Janet Evanovich
The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

All of these books were written from the female perspective, but other than the Evanovich title, none of the others were Chick Lit or Romance and I didn’t expect there to be too much sex in them. They also appeared to have adventurous plots, which I hoped would make good page-turners. I recommended Evanovich based on the class discussions about how funny they were and that they were fast reads. Oddly enough, one of these titles was a winner for Buttercup! She read The Thirteenth Tale and enjoyed it, particularly the ending because, “the author explains that she hates to be left hanging at the end of a book, like ‘what happened to him or her?’ so she basically said what happened to everyone BUT herself.” Buttercup also said that the other books looked interesting – I’m glad that even my poor attempt had some success. Either that or she was just being nice.

**Update:  Since writing this post, Buttercup has picked up and read Finger Lickin' Fifteen. She didn't mean to read this Evanovick series out of order, but noticed some of her books at the library and remembered that I had mentioned them. Buttercup picked up this one and thought it was very funny and appreciated that it was a quick read. Another winner!

Person 5 (this may take a while)

I can say this, because he’s such a good friend, but my final person was a giant pain in the butt. I don’t know whether to call him Bruce Wayne due to his interests, or Dennis the Menace due to the trouble he caused me in this assignment. Maybe I’ll split the difference and call him Dennis Wayne (or DW for short). When I was in the midst of working with him on this project, I thought I was failing repeatedly in finding something to interest him. But after looking through my notes again, I realize that based on his comments I actually did a bang-on job of finding titles for him, he just wasn’t in the mood for any of them at the time.

DW is a reader of Fantasy, Comics/Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Mysteries, Suspense, Sci-Fi, and Christian works. Authors he’s read and liked include C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, J.K. Rowlings, Alexander Dumas, Christopher Paolini, Tim O’Brien, and Donald Miller. He says, “I’m a big story person”; he wants a story that is engaging and has well developed characters. Humor and action are also preferable. In his “No” column was Twilight and he told me he preferred his fantasy stories to have dragons, orcs, and elves rather than vampires or werewolves.

In my first attempt, I recommended the following using FictionConnecton and GoodReads:

Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (first of three)
Dragon Champion, E. E. Knight (looks like this is the first of 5)

Fantasy, but more magic-on-earth style...
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Christian Sci-Fi/Fantasy:
C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy books - the first is Out of the Silent Planet.
Ted Dekker is another Christian author who does some sci-fi/fantasy.

He talked about some of these books, said they sounded interesting, but wasn’t too clear on many of them regarding why they weren’t right. For one, The Book of Lost Things, he said, “The book by Connolly sounds good but not really that interesting.” For the C.S. Lewis books, he said, “I have heard about it and it sounds rather interesting, but have not read it.” Well, that’s sort of the point, DW! This is where the initial hair-pulling began.

So I tried again. I asked him about other books he’s liked, and he listed The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, Last Sons by Alan Grant, Helltown by Dennis O’Neil, Inheritance by Devin Grayson, and The Three Muskateers by Alexander Dumas.

This time I tried to hit the Comics/Graphic Novels and recommended Neil Gaiman, particularly his graphic novel series The Sandman, of which Preludes and Nocturnes was first. I sent him some links to a few Graphic Novel and Comics book lists and I also found a short story compilation called Superheroes (which included a story by an author he mentioned, Dennis O’Neil) as something that could lead him to new authors. (Did I mention that he likes the Superhero-style comics?)

I then mentioned Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera as possible read alikes to Dumas, with the added benefit of sci-fi/fantasy elements, and The Princess Bride because the movie is awesome and the book is supposed to be funny and adventurey.

Again, my suggestions weren’t quite right, even though he’s read and liked some of them (which means I was on target, dangit!), said that some others “sound really interesting!” while others were even books that he’d “definitely want to read.” He’d also read most of the titles from the booklists I’d sent him. After saying how all of my suggestions sounded interesting, he then added, “I know this might be frustrating, but I have a weird taste in books.” This told me that while I chose well, he wasn’t going to read any of them. At least not right now. (I have now pulled out half of my hair.)

So I asked him what he was in the mood for. I didn’t get a response back from that question before I sent him a quick follow-up email with another book I'd just discovered for him. This one was The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero, by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. He did get excited about this one, and said he’d go look for it. SUCCESS!

After following up with DW, though, I found out that he actually went for the C.S. Lewis book, Out of the Silent Planet, that he was about 2/3rds of the way through it, and was enjoying it. This book was in my first attempt at a recommendation for him. That sound you hear? That’s my head banging against the wall. But he found a new book, and I’m happy that he’s happy. I am. Really.

To conclude:

I think I had a pretty wide-ranging Readers Advisory experience with this assignment. I had people who were super easy, super difficult (coughDWcough), people I didn’t hear back from, people who didn’t follow up, people who gave me a lot to work with, and others who gave me limited information. I actually worked with more than five people for this project, in case I didn’t hear back from some of them (I wrote about the ones that had the most information). Though he was a pain in my butt, I think I learned the most from my experience with DW. I had to really work for that one, and in the end, I think he has a lot of titles to turn to in the future, and I have a few titles in my pocket for the future. I also discovered that I did a better job at finding and recommending non-fiction books, which I don’t read (I’m more of a fiction reader). But overall, I thought this project was really fun and I hope to be an awesome Readers’ Advisor in the future.


  1. No need to hope. You are an awesome reader's advisor. Keep the RA desk open for business. You are so funny and smart -not to mention you make a perfect Annie Hall. You know fiction big time and you make RA tools sing. Someone give this woman a library job!

  2. *blush* Thanks! I really enjoy RA and this class rocked my socks :) I'm sorry to see it end!