evseymour

Word on the Wire

Tag: Book Reviews

STICKING MY NECK OUT…

It’s often said that we don’t know how to complain in this country. We either go all shouty and launch a nasty review on Trip Advisor or we slump into passive aggression and say nothing.  At the risk of being controversial, I’m about to talk about book reviews.

There used to be a time when book reviews only appeared in newspapers and magazines, care of professional critics. Fortunately, we now have a more level playing field that allows writers, who are not big names, to also have their novels written about and commented on. The growth in the blogger industry is truly phenomenal and hurrah for that.  Anyone and everyone can now write a review and post it.  This all sounds lovely and democratic.  However there is a downside.  Too often, nasty reviews can be posted with little or no thought to the consequences for the writer.  This also includes folk who complain about the packaging, delivery issues, or the wrong book sent to them.

Let me make it plain that I am deeply in favour of free speech. I’m not talking about the kind of review that offers considered criticism and feedback even if the review is ultimately negative. I’m talking about the nasty, the horribly dismissive one-liner, the vicious and arrogant. And no, this is not written as a result of one star reviews of my own work.   After eleven published novels, I’m  accustomed, if not quite hardened, to these. So what am I really saying?

A couple of months ago, I read a review of an incredibly popular and successful debut novel (that I haven’t yet read). The self-styled reviewer not only attacked the work but also attacked, in the most offensive manner, the writer, the writer’s agent and publisher as well as scores of readers. It appeared on a respected site: Goodreads.

Nobody put glass in this reviewer’s food, punched him (or her) in the face, or insulted him publicly in the street. And here’s the rub, the anonymity of the Internet can obscure the identity of those who set themselves up as Judge, Jury and Executioner. Rather chillingly, the reviewer I’m specifically referring to posted a child’s face as his (or her) profile. What this kind of reviewer wouldn’t dare say to a writer in person, allowed and emboldened him or her to go for it in print. Gone are the days when, if you read a novel and didn’t like it, you simply set it aside, and chose something else – something I do quite often.

While I accept that ‘if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen’, that oft trotted out phrase to anyone who works in the Arts, as if ‘creatives’ are fair game to receive the sharp end of anyone’s pointy stick, it’s worth stating a few things.

The reader might spend minutes posting a ‘Ha, take that,’ review on Amazon. The writer has spent more likely a year writing a story with all the commitment, energy, passion, determination and self-belief that entails. Even bad books take time to create. However much a novel is disliked, and for whatever reason, the author will need at least twenty-four hours and often a good deal longer to lift him or her out of the crushing depression that ensues as a result of a destructive review. As for readers who carp about stories of action adventure with villains and assassins and gritty themes, when they only enjoy romantic fiction, the classics or another genre, they confound me. Did they not read the book blurb before purchase? More charitably, I like to think they fancied something new and then found they didn’t like it. A bit like checking out whether or not they really do have a food allergy.

Now I’m not saying don’t write a negative review. In fact, I’m deeply suspicious of any novel that receives trillions of five star ratings that all say how brilliant the story or writer is. But if a reader wants to post critical comments, it would be wise to ensure that these are thought out, and not simply a personal rant as a result of getting out of bed the wrong side, or because life is unkind or, dare I say, due to the reader going through the private hell of having his/her own novel rejected. Respectable and respected bloggers and reviewers, and there are tons of them, recognise this. Often a decent reviewer that doesn’t fancy a novel will simply decline to comment. It’s not a noble calling to save someone else from reading a novel that you personally hated by being deliberately unkind.

With regard to novels that are traditionally published, consider this:   a book may not be worth your hard earned, (in many cases 99 pence.) You may feel cheated of time and energy wasted wading through the most boring drivel, with characters that are cliched and with distasteful or alien themes in your view.   But respect the fact, or at least give a little credit to agents and editors at publishing houses who receive hundreds of manuscripts a week. Novels aren’t accepted for publication because of the goodness of the hearts of those who work in the industry. They (mostly) do so to make money. Their judgements count and they are accountable to higher beings like accountants. If you disparage a book in the crudest of terms, you disparage many more than the humble writer. So, if you are thinking of writing a review today for a novel that you really didn’t enjoy, resist the temptation to verbally work the story or writer over.

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A GAME FOR ALL THE FAMILY

Reading can be a subjective business. Obviously, choice of genre plays a massive part, but there are subtle, sometimes even unconscious, decisions we make when selecting a novel: first person narrative versus third or authorial; written in the past or present tense – everyone brings their own preferences to the table. And, often, those decisions will govern our enjoyment or otherwise of a story.

In my day job I’m paid to be objective.   Personal taste doesn’t enter into it at all. So when I read for pleasure I admit I’m picky and, lately, I’ve become ruthless. If I fail to engage with, ‘get’ or even like a story or main protagonist within sixty or so pages, as painful as it is, I abandon it.   When I say ‘pain’ I mean it because, as a writer myself, I appreciate exactly how much work goes into the creation of a well-crafted story. But all’s fair in love and writing and I, too,recognise that my own work is not everyone’s cappuccino.

Back to my reading habits: even ‘next best things’ and books acclaimed by others have been quietly put away. It’s not a reflection on the story or the skill of the writer, but a reflection on what rocks my personal boat. This is a very long-winded way of me saying that, having dumped two novels to read for pleasure in the past couple of months, I selected one from my extensive pile of ‘unreads’ and one I’d meant to read a year ago: Sophie Hannah’s first standalone novel, ‘A Game For All the Family.’

The novel is described as a domestic thriller with psychological quirks. ‘Quirks’ implies something peculiar. Downright strange is nearer the mark and in the most glorious way for Hannah is genius at messing with people’s minds and I don’t mean simply the characters. After reading a twist that I never saw coming in the final pages (and I pride myself on spotting the big reversal) I needed to lie down in a darkened room. How the hell did she pull it off, I wondered. Oh, and I haven’t even started on the story within a story element.

Without spoilers, a basic précis is as follows: Justine Merrison is a burnt out TV executive in search of the quiet life in Devon, her one aim to do absolutely nothing, which proves to be a lot harder than one would think. Her teenage daughter, Ellen, settles in at a rather alternative school where she becomes best friends with George. Mothers are prone to rummaging through their child’s homework and Justine is no exception. To her horror, she discovers that Ellen is writing a murder story. So what? Except that the murder is set in the family’s new home.

Throw in anonymous calls from a stranger with threats to dig three graves – one for Justine, Ellen and husband, Alex – she rightly fears for her safety. With a lack lustre response from the police, it’s down to Justine to find not only the person endangering her family but the murderer in Ellen’s story. It’s a heart-stopping case of fiction meshing with reality.

Hannah captures the peculiarities of family dynamics with flair. Location ticked my personal box because, having lived in Devon for eighteen years, I know the area well, but where she really scores for me is her ability to persuade the reader of what seems, on the surface, something implausible. For feats of imagination and wicked psychological insight, she deserves her title as ‘Queen of Psychological Crime.’

 

‘A GAME FOR ALL THE FAMILY’ is published by Hodder & Stoughton

 

9781444776034

 

24/7

Talk to any writer, or indeed anyone, and you quickly get the picture: ‘We are all busy’. Occasionally, I get the horrible feeling that I’ll meet myself charging at me from the other direction. I write. I critique. I review. I blog. I tweet therefore I am. Not necessarily in that order. Oh, and I also have a life with a husband and an ever growing tribe, and friends. It’s what I do, how I tick and most of the time, I love it. If I didn’t, I’d change it. So where the heck am I going with this?

A week or so ago a writer went on Facebook to set out her stall on following bloggers. She wanted to make it clear that she will only follow those whose posts resonate with her, that if she didn’t follow, comment or whatever, please no offence is meant and none should be taken. I’m with her. And I’d take it a step further.

On occasion, I’ve followed back an author on Twitter only to immediately receive a direct message to download his or her work, with a request to read and review it.   This happened a lot when I wrote book reviews for the Cheltenham Standard. Fair enough. In our media savvy world, authors need to do their fair share of marketing. Nobody gets anywhere by being a shrinking violet. I get it. However if, after explaining that there might be a wait to read said ‘brilliant’ tome, (they are always brilliant) because at any given moment I might have twenty to thirty novels waiting in the wings, I’m ‘Unfollowed’, (or unceremoniously dumped) that’s just plain bad manners.   I’m also unimpressed by strangers asking me to ‘Like’ their pages, or whatever. Why would I ‘like’ something I have never read?   It may be harsh or I may be naive, but I find it a tad exploitative. And what is the point of having tons of ‘likes’ or suspiciously rave reviews from all and sundry? Don’t get me started on payment of filthy lucre to ramp up Twitter numbers – almost on a par with vanity publishing.

So, please don’t be offended if I don’t have time to immediately ‘jump to it’ and accept your kind invitation to read and comment on your novel. Don’t be put out that by, not ticking the ‘Like’ box on your Facebook page, I must therefore dislike.   I’m busy, sure, but if I review or ‘like’ a book, I really do take the time to read it first.

HAPPY 2015!

Like most people, I started back to work on Monday. Having skirted coughs, colds and other nasty little bugs during Christmas, I’m afraid that, happily for some, I began the New Year without a bang and without a voice. Undeterred, (I don’t feel particularly unwell) I took the opportunity to look ahead and sort out my book reading schedule for the Cheltenham Standard. I’ve mentioned this before but I seem awash with novels in all genres from lovely female authors, but very few from male writers. In the interests of balance for Cheltenham readers, I’d genuinely welcome newly released novels from the male of the species. I’m quite easy to contact through my website. http://www.evseymour.co.uk Gloriously, my first two reviews for the New Year will feature Colette McBeth’s sublime psychological thriller ‘The Life I Left Behind’ and Anne Zouroudi’s ‘The Feast of Artemis’, gastro-porn meets murder mystery. Both novels really made my Christmas reading a joy.
On the writerly front, I’m working on revisions for ‘Beautiful Losers’ for US publisher Midnight Ink. I’ve never worked directly for a US publisher before and what’s most striking is the ‘can do’ and upbeat approach. Within weeks of being signed, I received a handy dossier answering all the questions I might have thought of and a lot I hadn’t. Basically, I was given a step-by-step outline of what happens and when in the months leading up to publication. Editing is an elevating process whomever the publisher but I’ve discovered some intriguing differences between British and Americans. For example, Americans use double quotation marks in reverse for dialogue – imagine sorting that lot out over 400 pages – and some of my more English phrases are clearly bewildering to the average US reader. Nonetheless, working with a hawk-eyed editor is very satisfying. 2016 (the year of publication) seems a long way off, but I’m pretty certain it will shoot by. In fact, 2015 is looking pretty cool all round. I hope it’s the same for you too. To all my blog followers, readers and friends, here’s to you having a lovely, lovely, happy and healthy New Year!

CHELTENHAM ROCKS!

It would be heretical of me not to begin this blog by mentioning the Cheltenham Literary Festival, which runs from October 3rd to the 14th. My daily walk often takes me through Montpellier Gardens so I observed the park transform over the week leading up to one of the most fabulous and prestigious literary festivals in the UK, if not the world. This year, I watched with more pleasure than usual and a sense of ease, unlike last year when the sight of project managers made me faint. And no, this has nothing to do with the virility or otherwise of the mostly male crew, and everything to do with the fact that I took part in a panel on crime writing.  I suffer badly from ‘stage fright’, a revelation to those who know me and have seen me in action. Thankfully, I always rise above it. (In the early days when I was a new writer, I once memorably froze. My mind emptied of words, thoughts and pretty much everything else.) So, hand on heart, once I’ve wobbled to a seat, sat down and opened my mouth, nerves kick in and I’m articulate.

I’m not taking part in the festival this year, the highlight of my week then was the launch of the new weekly newspaper, the Cheltenham Standard. Invited with my book reviewer hat on, I, or rather we (other half) rocked up to Lily Gins and entered the crush. The mayor and mayoress were in attendance, Fiona Fullerton (ex-Bond girl and now successful property developer) appeared, and I got to talk to journalists on both the Standard and sister magazine, Cotswold Style, PR people, Press officers and folk from the Everyman theatre, and many more. It would be fair to say that, in a couple of hours, I met more movers and shakers on the Cheltenham media scene than I’ve done in two years of living here. One of the big highlights was getting my paws on the first edition of that week’s newspaper. I’d written a book review of ‘The Monogram Murders’ by Sophie Hannah who appeared at the festival on the same day as publication.   Which brings me to my main point.

When I started writing this blog my intention was to comment on books I’d read, creative writing and the arts in general. Time devoted to reading is now time also devoted to reviewing. Yes, I can report on the glorious return of ‘Peaky Blinders’ with the smouldering Cillian Murphy reprising his role as Thomas Shelby. I can comment on ‘Hell on Wheels’, a superior Western with one of the most original villains I’ve seen in ages in the form of the ‘Swede’ played by Christopher Heyerdahl, and the sublime BBC production of ‘The Driver’ featuring David Morrissey. But if it’s book reviews you’re after, check out the Cheltenham Standard website and follow the link. There, you’ll find, to date, reviews of ‘The Judas Scar’ by Amanda Jennings; ‘The Monogram Murders’ by Sophie Hannah, and if you check out tomorrow’s edition, ‘Vagabond’ by Gerald Seymour. Next up: ‘Silencer’ by Andy McNab.