Saturday, 17 June 2017

Pity the Poor Reviewer, by Elizabeth Kay

A Sterkarm Tryst by [Price, Susan]
A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price
The first reviews I ever had were for a radio play, and it was a salutary experience. At twenty-eight my self-confidence was not of the highest order, and the column and a half of invective I had in the Times was devastating. Fortunately I had a middling review from The Guardian, and a brilliant one from the Financial Times, otherwise I might have stopped writing altogether, like someone I knew who never picked up a pen again. Rule one for a writer: develop a thick skin. It was good training for online reviews, though, although how objective I manage to be is another matter. I had two kids conducting an online battle for their favourite books, and rubbishing the opposing one. This can seriously affect your ranking. You also get reviews by people who clearly haven’t read it, and say something totally untrue. The one that most annoyed me was when someone complained of a blatant coincidence, and said that two people had “just happened to meet by accident”, when the whole reason they’d been in the same place was to seek one another out. Oh, it’s easy to whinge about what’s said about something over which you’ve sweated blood. But now the boot is on the other foot.
For the last three years I’ve written a regular once a month book review for a magazine. It’s really difficult to avoid the same phrases over and over again – page-turner, well-written, compelling, couldn’t put it down, original, not what it seems… but the main problem is that I’m meant to be recommending books. This means that I can find myself getting halfway through something, only to discover that it’s rubbish after all and I wouldn’t recommend it to my own worst enemy. It’s a time-consuming business, and some months I’ve found myself starting half a dozen novels only to give up on each one and try something else. It does make you concentrate on what makes something a ‘page-turner’ though. I allow myself different lengths of the book before I come to a decision as to whether to continue, and this aspect of reviewing may be of interest to authors. I will persevere with something for quite a long time if I’ve read and enjoyed the author before, trusting that the plot will come good. Usually it does, but not always. I allow probably the same or slightly less time for something recommended by a friend, who knows me, and isn’t likely to suggest a bodice-ripper with limited vocabulary. The next category is other book reviews. The big advantage of the Kindle is that you can do the ‘Look Inside!’ bit, and judge the standard of writing for yourself. The final category is the book you just happen to pick up in a bookshop, when the first paragraph can be enough to make you shudder or want to carry on.
The Hob and Miss Minkin by [Horn, Sandra]The Five Pound Pony & other stories by [Bush, Karen]             Bookshops aren’t what they used to be, though. The little independent ones, such as my local Barton's in Leatherhead, still have proprietors who care about quality and know their stock. If something is advertised as the manager’s pick, it will be just that. In the big chains the manager’s pick may well be the book that the publisher has paid the bookshop to like. Big chains, big business. Independent shops need our support, and can frequently get books you order by the following day. I also use the public library for my material – and asking a librarian which new books they reckon will be good choices is also worth doing. I’m lucky in having Electric Authors who give me a heads-up about upcoming or re-issued titles. I’ve recently reviewed A Sterkarm Handshake (just before the release of A Sterkarm Tryst, to get readers in the mood) The Five Pound Pony, by Karen Bush, and Hob and Miss Minkin, by Sandra Horn. And if that makes your blood boil in a kind of Nepotism! way, have a thought for the poor reviewer who gets sent one self-published book after another with no plot, no engaging characters, hundreds of pages and typos on nearly every page. Be warned. If you’re going to self-publish and send out review copies, you need to make it look as professional as possible.
            When The Divide was first published by The Chicken House I was astounded at the lengths they went to and the care they took to make sure that the book got noticed by the professional reviewers. Because even in the conventionally-published world, competition is very fierce. As my book started off in the cloud forest of Costa Rica, a few copies of the books were sent out in boxes, beautifully decorated with exotic feathers and flowers. The launch was at The Rain Forest CafĂ© in London and yes, the reviewers came. People who are self-publishing don’t have that sort of money, or those contacts, but originality is key. I’m waiting for the next book that will leap out at me, and not look like every other book in the same genre. Think about it. Reviewers can be jaded people, desperate for a bit of innovation and style as they read yet another blurb claiming the book to be ‘a gripping psychological thriller you won’t want to put down’. It doesn’t stop with the writing. Catching a reviewer’s eye can be game-changing.


3 comments:

madwippitt said...

Wow, what a lovely launch that was for The Divide! Love the idea for both the location and the decorated boxes of books - real attention grabbers for a terrific book!

griseldaheppel said...

So frustrating when people criticise your book not because it deserves it, but because they haven't bothered to read it properly. Grrr. I do hope you don't wade too far into a book before deciding you can't recommend it - far too much work, detracting from the time you need to read a book you can recommend! I often find it works the other way round, so that I'm totally gripped by an exciting story, only to feel the end doesn't quite come off. Either the author has set up something they can't easily resolve, or the plot - including a so-called twist - depends on a premise that is simply not believable. Funnily enough, literary fiction can be the worst offender here... Happy summer reading!

Katherine Roberts said...

I always feel frustrated when I come across a book secondhand in a charity shop (long out of print and/or returned from the main bookstores), and it turns out to be absolutely amazing.

It seems to take me years following first publication to 'discover' authors and books that I really love, so possibly that means not enough books are reviewed? Or reviewed too late and in the wrong places?

Full marks for redressing the balance!