For years now, I’ve had my tried-and-true sources for finding great books (you can find the post with those resources by clicking here). But lately, I’ve also been itching to venture a bit off the beaten bath–to get a little outside of my usual comfort zone and to maybe see what would happen if I asked people for titles that THEY would recommend to ME, not just titles that other people mentioned that I knew I would probably like.
Because here’s the thing—I’ve gotten pretty good at picking out books I’ll like from a list of titles, especially when those titles come from one of my favorite book bloggers. But what would happen if I let OTHER people choose what I read? If, when I reached out to someone, I said–“Hey, I’m looking for book recommendations, and I promise to read WHATEVER you tell me to.” Somehow, that changes the dynamic a bit! It then becomes a matter of me putting my reading life into their hands, so to speak, rather than always allowing my own judgment to have the final say.
So back in January, when I revisited my 101 in 1001 list to look for goals that I might want to change, I decided to change one of the items to “Read 5 books recommended by 5 different people.”
I spent probably an inordinate amount of time choosing who to ask–after all, I had promised that I would read WHATEVER they chose, so I didn’t want to be slogging through 5 books I would hate. On the other hand, I wanted to push myself out of my zone a little bit.
So here’s what I decided—all of the six readers are people who have similar enough tastes to me that I knew I probably wouldn’t receive any true duds. But then I broke it up more:
- Two of the readers were bloggers who are two of my go-to sources for finding stuff I’ll like for sure. The only twist on this was that rather than me just decide what I’d read based on their posts, I asked them specifically to look through my shelf on Goodreads and pick something I hadn’t read yet. Predictably, I got titles that fell well within my wheelhouse, almost all of which were already on my radar and that I’d been thinking of reading anyway (but now, with their recommendation, were books that I’ve now moved to the top of the stack!).
- Two of the readers are close friends who have known me for several years and with whom I’ve discussed books and reading tastes several times. I figured that I’d also get titles from them that were easily within my comfort zone, but that were perhaps not books I would have picked up myself without encouragement. Sure enough, while I had heard of all four of the titles that were recommended by them, only one was officially on my TBR list, and the other three were books that I would have needed to be pressed to read (but they were books I’d *thought* about perhaps reading someday).
- The last two readers were selected because I knew they were readers whose tastes were just different enough from my own that I could get stuff that would push my out of my comfort zone a bit (and I also gave them that specific request when I reached out to them for suggestions). The two official titles they gave me for the recommendations were, sure enough, books I never would have picked up on my own, but which I’m excited to check out!
It must be noted that only one of the six readers gave me just one title—everybody else insisted on some back-up options, ha ha. I think it’s a universal feeling that when someone asks you for a book recommendation, you want it to be a really, really good one, so you’ve got to leave yourself some wiggle room! (And, for the record, even though my 101 in 1001 goal says to just read 5 books from 5 different readers, I plan to read all 15 titles this year…or at least 14 of them this year (more on that below!))
Note: There are affiliate links in this post, which means I get a small commission on any purchases made, at no extra cost to you, which helps support the blog.
15 Book Recommendations
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
We’ll start with one of the picks that was out of my comfort zone, shall we? Although I’ve heard GREAT things about this title for years, I’ve always discounted it as being for me. For one, I’ve never had the slightest bit of interest in working in ANY part of the medical field, and the subject matter made me, well, a bit squeamish. My husband actually had to work in a cadaver lab when he was still in school, and I would kind of shudder every time he came home and told me about it. In looking over some of what my friends on Goodreads said about this title, I get the sense that this is a funny but overall fascinating look at the journeys that human cadavers take when their original owners are no longer in charge of their bodies anymore. The one thing that seemed to throw off some readers was that the humor was dry and sometimes a bit random/overdone. Seeing as how my humor is often so dry that many people in person don’t know if I’m joking or not, this might be right up my alley.
What the reader (Kirby) who recommended it said: “I didn’t think it sounded good at all but I ended up loving it so much! It can be sensitive subject matter to some though.”
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
Brene Brown has seemed to be EVERYWHERE for the past several years, but can you believe I’ve never read anything by her? I get the sense that her books are equal bits tough love, hard-won wisdom, and invitations to live a more authentic life, but seeing as I’ve never actually READ one, I have nothing to necessarily back up that claim, ha ha. My Goodreads friends overall had good reviews on it, saying that this is the kind of book to return to over and over and that it has a lot valuable insights about how to live an emotionally healthy life. The few people who rated it slightly lower (3 stars) said that the book could get repetitive or that it didn’t have enough concrete examples of what the practices looked like in real life, or that they just found it slow and not that interesting. Judging by the fact that I’ve actually pinned several quotes by Brown onto my Inspiration Pinterest board, I think I’ll probably enjoy this one.
What reader (Kayla) who recommended it said: “I am recommending the book “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown to you. I am actually currently reading it, and I love her and her work.”
Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry by Lenore Skenazy
This is one that I actually included in my parenting book round-up, just because it had come so highly recommended by my friend Katie (who, coincidentally, urged me again to read it when I asked her for book recommendations this time around, ha ha). Seeing as I’m a bit of a helicopter parent sometimes (I’m working on it), I think this is probably the exact kind of push I need to loosen the reins a bit, especially when it comes to letting my kids explore and make their own mistakes. The three readers I follow on Goodreads who’d read this title already all gave it 4 stars, and I appreciated one particular insight by one of them that clarified that free-range parenting does NOT mean lazy parenting, but rather how it’s an intentional framework to help your kid become a responsible adult. I think that this is one that, once I pick it up, I’ll probably finish within a few days.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
I’m no stranger to Pollan’s work (and have read two of his other books–Cooked and In Defense of Food, both of which I included in my book round-up for foodies), but as this is one of the books that launched him more into the public eye, I’m glad that I’m getting the push to read this one as well. (Besides, my eating habits have not been the best lately, and his stuff ALWAYS propels me to clean up some of the lazier areas of my nutrition…at least for awhile.) This book is an exploration of how food culture has changed drastically over time, and it’s also a call to action to return back to more “simple” ways of eating, rather than trying to complicate the process with a whole lot of labels and politics. Only two of my friends on Goodreads have read it (both of which gave it 4 stars), and one of them even wrote that “it’s not an exaggeration to say this book changed my life.”
This is a book that has been recommended by my Goodreads posse not just to parents, but to ANYONE who works with kids regularly, since it is a compilation of how all the latest research actually goes against what has traditionally been touted for years as the best way. Seven of my GR’s friends have rated or reviewed this, and it wasn’t given below 4 stars by any of them, so I’m excited to pick this one up! Some of the studies I’m already familiar with (like the studies that now show that blanket praise usually backfires and is NOT a good way to motivate your kid), but I’m fascinated by some of the other topics it covers as well (such as lying, sibling rivalries, etc.).
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
This was the first book recommendation I got back, and funnily enough, I had actually just picked it up from the library earlier that week and was about to start it. (I have since finished it, so I can give my after-the-fact thoughts on it as well!) Three of the five friends on Goodreads who had read it rated it five stars (all of whom are generally stingy with the 5-star rating, just as I am), and Melanie (who recommended it to me) cited it as her “very favorite book of the entire year” when she read it back in 2016, and this book was interestingly seconded by Suzanne, who was another of the six recommenders. Having read this one now, I can see why people love it so much–as I closed the book at the end, I’d felt like I’d been taken on a grand, sweeping adventure that had a little bit of everything, and the book’s characters had definitely nestled into my heart, as cheesy as that sounds. The only reason I didn’t give it the full 5 stars myself (I gave it 4.5) was that although I could see myself totally rereading this in the future, it did take me quite awhile to really get into it, just because I wasn’t equally invested in all of the different perspectives until I was about halfway through.
What reader (Melanie) who recommended it said: “Beautiful writing, gorgeous imagery, characters you can ache for and sympathize with (maybe not a good read if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant).”
All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner
Stegner’s book Crossing to Safety easily makes it onto my Top 5 Favorite Books of All Time (a post I really probably should attempt to write at some point, as daunting and impossible as it seems), and so it’s kind of embarrassing that I haven’t attempted any of his other work so far. This is another recommendation from Melanie, who probably has the most similar tastes to my own of anyone that I reached out to (and who I basically consider a book soulmate, ha ha!), and she’s actually the only one on my Goodreads list of friends who has read it. From what I can tell of the summary, this is the story of a retired literary agent and his wife, who retreat to a new home in California to put their lives back together after the senseless death of their son and to escape some of the chaos of the decade (this is set in the 1960’s). Stegner’s prose is stunning, and he has a total gift for making even the most mundane seem noteworthy and important, so I’m especially excited to give this one a try.
What Melanie said: “My favorite book ever, although I fear that in saying that it sets expectations too high. This is just one of those books I can keep coming back to in order to more fully understand the themes.”
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
This was a “backup” recommendation because reader Lyndsey noted that I’d already read two books by Hannah in the past couple of years (The Nightingale and The Great Alone), but as this was a book that was vaguely on my radar but not near the top of my TBR list, I’m including it on the list anyway. I loved The Nightingale and thought The Great Alone was a bit of a cheap shot/sucker punch kind of a book, so perhaps Winter Garden will be the tie-breaker on whether I should continue to read books by Kristin Hannah or not, ha ha. Winter Garden is the story of two vastly different sisters who come together to see their dying father, and he reveals that he’s going to tell them the true ending of the beloved fairy tale that their mother often told them as girls. In it, they learn shocking secrets about their mother’s past, which will change both how they view themselves, as well as the very foundations of their family. My Goodreads friends’ reviews were all over the board on this one (which I’ve found is actually pretty typical of Hannah’s work—she seems to be polarizing)–several people loved it, especially the fairy tale aspect of it, and others said that the story was slow and that the main characters were a bit unbelievable/unlikable/hard to relate to. If I was going to read another Hannah book, this would have been my top pick anyway, so we’ll see what I think!
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
This one was a recommend from Suzanne (one of my go-to sources for books, which I get from her blog), and she admitted — “not sure it’s totally your thing, but I found it just delightful.” What immediately appeals to me in the description of this (and in the reviews I saw on Goodreads) was that this is a lighter read with enough serious content to make it still interesting and thought-provoking. While *almost* across the board, my friends’ ratings of this on GR were high, there were a few outliers who said they found the book too slow to get into and really boring. Seeing as I don’t mind a slow plot (especially if the writing is good), I’m not nervous about picking this one up, especially as one of its main characters is a strong, independent woman who is hired to teach Latin in a small English town (uh, a language teacher? England? Yes, please!). My only fear? That it’s written on the cusp of WWII breaking out, which is a historical time period that I have read a LOT from lately (and with more to come on this very list!).
The Time In Between by Maria Dueñas
This story of a Spanish dressmaker turned spy during WWII is not something I would usually pick up on my own, but I’d heard so many good things about it that it was actually already on my radar AND my TBR list before Melanie gave me the recommendation. The majority of reviews from friends I’ve seen on this one are favorable, but a few have said that the dialogue is weak (maybe it’s a translation thing?) and that the story sometimes gets bogged down in political detail. I think I’ll have to plan carefully so that I don’t have a bunch of WWII stuff right in a row, however…
What Melanie said: “I got sucked into this book and it was really fun to read. The ending felt a little rushed but it was overall a solid story. The Netflix series was a great adaptation, but I think reading the book is worthwhile even if you’ve seen the miniseries.”
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
I reached out to Lyndsey (an old friend from college) for one of my “wild card” picks, and she came out with this title, which I’d never heard of before. I specifically asked Lyndsey for something out of my comfort zone, and this definitely delivers. It has a pretty high rating on Goodreads overall, and of the four friends of mine on Goodreads who have read it, three gave it 4 stars (and the other gave it 3). This combines two things I usually stay away from—series and mysteries–but I think Lyndsey made a good case for it by saying, “It’s really just a fluff book, but I picked it up to fill a category for my Book Nerd challenge last year and ended up really enjoying it. I thought the female protagonist was fun.” And the more depressing/heavy-weight books I’ve been reading lately (which have been a LOT), the more I think I’m in need of some serious “fluff” books, so I’m actually pretty excited to give this one a look.
I was on the fence about whether or not to read this retelling of the Greek story of Circe since I’d seen several mixed reviews, but Melanie made a decent case for it – “I loved this one, but it came after a string of books I had to slog through, so take my enthusiasm with a grain of salt (although my Goodreads friends also generally gave it strong ratings); the pacing is a little uneven, but it’s a story you can get wrapped up in as well as a book with themes to think about and discuss.” I’ve heard that in general, this one is more interesting if you’re more interested in or more familiar with Greek mythology, and since I’m not particularly in that camp, I’ll be curious as to how I find this one. However, this has a solidly high rating across the board on Goodreads (4.32 overall), so I’m willing to swallow my reservations and give it a shot.
Firstly, this isn’t an “official” recommendation, but it did make me laugh when Lyndsey said she almost gave this lengthy allegorical novel to me as her “official” recommendation but backed out because she didn’t want to be mean (this book is well over 1,000 pages, in case you’re unfamiliar with it). This is a book that I’ve been MEANING to read for well over a decade, but it’s one that is just so daunting to pick up. On the plus side? *Almost* all of my friends on Goodreads who have finished it gave this an extremely high rating (usually between 4.5 and 5 stars), and I have heard that it will change how you view some things forever, like the value of each individual. On the not-plus side? OVER 1,000 PAGES!!! Ha ha. This might be the only one of the 15 I don’t pick up this year, but it is one I hope to get the guts (and time) to pick up at some point in my life, so maybe this will be the push I need to maybe make “someday” sooner rather than later.
What Lyndsey said: “I almost made you read Atlas Shrugged for purely selfish reasons. I want someone to discuss it with! It was SO interesting. But at over 1000 pages, I thought that might be a little mean. Ha ha.”
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
Okay, I haven’t heard a bad review of this yet, and I listened to the author’s backstory of writing this on the What Should I Read Next podcast, and it sounded FASCINATING. Every person on my Goodreads friends list has given this one five stars with the exception of one (who gave it 4), and everyone seems most blown away about how this is based on the author’s ancestors’ actual lives. Basically, Hunter discovered after her grandfather’s passing that he survived the Holocaust, and then as she dug around, she was amazed to discover not only that just he had survived, but his entire immediately family, and that their journeys took them literally all over the world. The only reason I haven’t picked this one up is because I’ve been on the holds list at my library FOREVER for it.
What Suzanne said: “Simply a must read!”
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
I’ve actually owned this book for several years (like, close to a decade, I think), but I’ve never taken the time to read it, perhaps because I know it’s got a sci-fi base, which isn’t my usual jam. As I understand it, the main character is a boy who is hardly considered a human by his fellow beings because he was “harvested” — he was grown inside of a cow for 9 months and then cut out. Combining both elements of fantasy and sci-fi, this book has won multiple awards and seems like it would provide a lot of discussion material if read with a book club. Looking across my friends’ reviews on Goodreads, many of the reviews are middle-of-the-line for this one, but others say it was “definitely deserving” of all the awards it received. Interested to see what I’ll think! (Plus I’m excited to finally be able to check off another book from my read-from-my-own-shelves challenge!)
What would YOU have recommended to me? And what do you think of these titles I got? Any that I should move to the top of the queue?
P. S. Have you signed up to be on my email list yet? A few times a month, I share personal stories and exclusive content that I don’t share on the blog, including bonus book lists! If you haven’t opted in yet, you can do so by clicking here!