Judging books by their samples: a new approach to my to-read list

I have a really big “to-read” list on Goodreads (over 1600 titles) and it never stresses me out that this list is so long, especially as I own only a small amount of them. However, a list that long doesn’t always help with the “what should I read next” decision. Recently, I decided to download samples of thirteen listed books onto my Kindle. While on a plane trip last week, I read all thirteen samples in a row. Below are my initial impressions of each:

Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen

The sample describes a newlywed couple starting their new life in a ramshackle cabin in 1930’s Minnesota. The writing is good, but I wasn’t immediately invested in Emil and Eveline, the newlywed couple. Re-reading the full synopsis of the book reaffirmed my interest in it because it implies the story is more about the couple’s children who are separated in their youth but reunited as adults. Still to-read but no rush.

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

Sofia Khan is a young Londoner, the only practising Muslim in her immediate family, and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. The writing is very rom-com and at first I thought it was laid on a bit thick, but by the end of the sample, I was warming up to her style and to the character and was curious about where the story was going to go. Sometime soon, perhaps.

Youngblood by Matt Gallagher

In the prologue, the narrator reflects how hard it is to talk about Iraq to his family and friends and hints at a tragedy involving a woman left behind. After the prologue, there’s some interesting scene-setting, as the narrator – a junior officer in the U.S. Army – leads his platoon on a routine recon tour. A note of uneasiness is introduced in the form of a new staff sergeant who seems to be challenging the narrator’s authority. I didn’t like the prologue as I don’t care for the whole Something Bad Happened gambit being thrown in at the beginning of a book, but I liked the writing fine. So still to-read but no rush.

Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews

I dunno. I think there was a phase where I was more open to the world-building of urban fantasy novels. In my current reading tastes, I just find the whole Named Things and rule explaining shebang to be tiresome. So I’m thinking: Nah, but could be convinced by a fan of the book.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

When the author recalls reading aloud Wittgenstein and sending a passage of Roland Barthes to her lover, I’ll admit the word “pretentious” sneaked into my head. But when she describes having her friend Google her lover’s name to find the preferred pronoun, because she feels it’s too late to ask now, that level of vulnerability helped dispel my initial impression. Also when she marvels over the tininess of a three-year old’s clothing, I felt that here was a writer who would be accessible among all the philosophical trappings. I see the book is pretty short so Sometime soon, perhaps.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

A lonely widow asks her neighbor, a widower, if he would sleep next to her at night for the company. Honestly, the sample was so brief that I couldn’t get a bead on whether I would like the novel or not. The first two short chapters didn’t tell me more than I already knew about the book. The writing style is simple and spare, which could mean that it needs more time to work its power on the reader. Still to-read but no rush.

The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones

A young woman arrives in Alaska to take up a job and to escape from her past. Clearly another Something Bad Happened beginning of a book. And she’s also playing a little into the Naive Newcomer trope (thanks TV Tropes!), which is not my fave. But the Alaskan setting is intriguing, so I’m willing to continue with it someday, but I have my doubts.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

1939 London. In the span of this novel’s sample, a young privileged woman volunteers to help with the war effort, thinking she will soon be involved in intrigue. Instead she is assigned to help with schoolchildren. I liked the young woman, Mary North – very witty and charming, even if rather spoilt. The pace of the beginning was perfect and I was immediately drawn in. So this book has moved to the top of the list.

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

The sample includes a foreward written by Jaffe about how she came to write the book, based on her own experiences of being a young working woman in 1950’s New York City. In the foreward, Jaffe mentions that when the book was being typed up, the women in the typing service were calling her because they had only read the chapter they were assigned to type and couldn’t wait for the book to finish before finding out what happened next for the characters. And I’ve got to say, Jaffe gets the novel off to a rousing start with the introduction of Caroline Bender who is a newcomer to the working world but thankfully not a naive one, as she possesses a fair amount of natural savvy. There is another character introduced before the sample ends who is a little more clueless, but even she is not completely lacking in self-awareness. Also now moved to the top of the list.

Solemn by Kalisha Buckhanon

A young girl named Solemn lives in a Mississippi trailer park and the beginning hints that she saw a neighbor’s baby thrown down a well. The poetic writing style is a little rich for my tastes, but a re-read of the book’s description makes me want to continue with it someday, but I have my doubts.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

1937 England. The book centers on the Cazalet family, their servants, and other people in their orbit. The narrative jumps easily from character to character, and each person is well-drawn and distinct even in the short span of the sample. Have already placed on hold at the library.

Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart by Christena Cleveland

I’ve read some of Cleveland’s writing and have watched a great video of her and Richard Rohr talking about diversity in community. The sample doesn’t get much past introducing what the book is going to be about, so I felt like I hadn’t reached any meat yet. I was already motivated to read the book anyway based on my previous familiarity, so this book remains as a Sometime soon, perhaps.

Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future by Elizabeth Esther

In the beginning of this memoir, the author describes an example of what it was like to live in a family that preached the end of the world on street sidewalks around the United States. I feel lukewarm about the writing. I think you can tell it’s her first book? It’s like solid college writing, if that makes sense. Still, I remain curious about the story itself, so I’ll mark this as to-read, but no rush.


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10 responses to “Judging books by their samples: a new approach to my to-read list

  1. I hope you do read The Argonauts soon! I thought it was incredible.

  2. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. And even if it takes some time to read all those samples (maybe half a book’s worth of pages? in total?) then it’s far less than reading all the books themselves, when it sounds (at least in this group) as though not many of them are great matches for you. Your TBR numbers seem do-able. I’m trying to get mine into something-like-doable, but I continue to add faster than I investigate/collect/read. Oops.

    • I think it was maybe two hours spent in total? As I am keeping all except one of these books on my to-read list, this approach may not actually whittle down my to-read list. However, I think it will help identify the obviously ill-matched as well as the obviously right up my alley books. And also I found it really fun to read through the samples, so there’s that benefit too.

      It’s funny to think of my 1600+ list as doable. Most people think it’s insane.

  3. I love this! I was talking to a friend yesterday about how Goodreads should have some kind of special urgency tag in their to-read lists — I might add something like that to my own TBR spreadsheet, actually!

    I think Andi at Estella’s Revenge called this type of reading a “tasting menu,” which I love. It’s what I do pretty much every time I go to the library. I’ll come back with a huge stack of books, sit down with them all, and read a few chapters from a bunch of them in turn, to see which one catches my fancy.

  4. This is a great way to do it! I do something similar with audiobooks because I’m so picky about narrators, I don’t see why I wouldn’t do it with actual books!

    • I can understand being picky about narrators for audiobooks. I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks, but there’s been a few I had to stop because I didn’t like the narration.

  5. Pingback: Library Loot: when the holds come in! | A Good Stopping Point

  6. Girl at the End of the World sounds terrific!

  7. Pingback: Judging books by their samples Round 2 | A Good Stopping Point

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