This interview was conducted by and first published on Bookblast.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Belfast during The Troubles. My parents grew up in working class families and were determined to ‘better themselves’. When my older brother was eight they bought a newly built, three bed semi-detached house and moved from the central area of the city to what was then its outskirts. They still live there today.
My sister and I were born after this move. My brother left home when I was six so I never really got to know him – he now lives in Australia. My sister and I both passed the 11+ exam and attended an all girl state run grammar school before going up to the local university. We continued to live with my parents, although I did move into student digs for around six months after yet another row about my behaviour – aged twenty I was staying out beyond my curfew and drinking alcohol. I suspect we all wish I could have afforded to stay away, but my part time job wouldn’t cover the rent longer term.
Belfast felt parochial, cut off from what we referred to as the mainland due to the violence. We were expected to attend church and conform to a code of conduct that demanded we put on a front to the world of chastity and sobriety. It always felt that what I was seen to be mattered more to my parents than what I was or aspired to.
Despite this I look back on a largely happy childhood. Certainly at the time I felt loved. My determination to leave Belfast and to be myself stems from the frustration of being guilt tripped into conforming to a wide range of strictures I didn’t agree with.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
My father is a great reader. His hobby when I was growing up was chess and he would regularly order hardbacks, despite my mother’s disapproval of the expenditure, about the grand masters and their games. He also had a large collection of Penguin classics and modern classics that I longed to read. When I eventually left home he allowed me to take some of them with me.
I was bought many children’s books – Ladybirds, Enid Blyton, Frances Hodgson Burnett, C.S. Forester, Conan Doyle, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I discovered Tolkien when I was a teenager and then (aargh!) Jeffery Archer, James Clavell and a few of the classic writers not studied at school. I made a brief foray into romantic fiction, a genre I now avoid.
I used the local library and, when old enough to catch the bus into the city, scoured the charity shops for anything that looked interesting. I have always been an avid if not discerning reader.
Books that changed your life?
The Famous Five made me long for adventure. Laura Ingalls Wilder had me believing I was capable at a younger age than my parents would allow. Damage by Josephine Hart has a line that still resonates – ‘Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.’ I worked hard to get away from Belfast and eventually I did. I survived the years that others tried to mould me to fit their ideals, but the scars inflicted continue to ache in a way my younger self hadn’t anticipated.
What made you decide to start a book blog? How long have you been blogging?
I started my blog in early 2013 as a space to write through some personal issues I was facing at the time. It morphed into a book blog about eighteen months later. I had no idea that book blogs existed until I started to post reviews. It has grown from there to a point where it is what I do.
What’s the name of your blog? How did you choose it?
From the start I called my blog Never Imitate, from a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson – ‘Insist on yourself; never imitate’. I added the strap line ‘Trying to avoid society’s pigeonholes’. These seemed to fit my aims in life, to be myself rather than someone else’s idea of what I should be.
I have a sister blog where I occasionally write flash fiction which I call Dreams and Demons. My dreams and demons are the inspiration for much of my creative writing (spoiler alert, it isn’t very good). That blog’s strap line is ‘Can you hear the silence?’ from Bring Me the Horizon’s song Can You Feel My Heart. Another line in that song is ‘I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim’. All of these ideas speak to me and act as a reminder that impactful writing doesn’t always come from what may be well regarded by the self styled arbiters of these things.
What is your selection process when choosing a book to review?
I like to support the small independent presses so tend to prioritise their publications. Having said that there are certain authors published by the larger presses whose books I will seek out. I have a review policy on my blog which I hope helps publishers understand the books I am likely to enjoy. My TBR pile is vast.
Sometimes I simply feel like reading a particular book. I decided to stop taking part in blog tours at the end of last year as I wanted to regain the freedom to choose the order in which I read the books I am privileged to be sent.
What are your main criteria for evaluating a good book?
It has to be well written. The structure, language and flow should be seamless. When reading I shouldn’t be noticing any of this but rather be caught up in the story. The pace needs to keep the reader engaged but not overburden with unrelenting crises. Suggestion is better than explanation. Readers do not need to be spoon-fed.
I look for good character development. Not a lot needs to happen if those involved are presented in an interesting way. If a character is introduced I expect there to be a reason, and for them to be fully formed.
I am always disappointed when my reading is snagged by clunky or clumsy prose. Plot threads need to earn their place. A good editor can usually sort this.
After that I need to enjoy the reading experience. This is highly subjective so I will always try to explain in my reviews if I couldn’t engage.
What motivates you to keep blogging about books?
I want to tell other readers about good books that may fly beneath their radar. So much quality writing is published by the small presses yet they rarely make it to the best seller lists. If my reviews tempt just a few readers to buy or borrow a title then that can make a difference, not just to the reader but to the author and publisher.
What one piece of advice do you wish you’d had when you first started book blogging?
Be more discerning about the books you ask for. It takes time to read a book and write a review so try to select only titles likely to be enjoyed. Book bloggers are not under contract. Their reviews are an act of goodwill. Although I try to read every book I am sent this is not always possible and that’s okay.
Is it possible to earn a living from blogging?
I believe some people do this, but rarely through book blogging. I have been offered payment for particular services and have chosen not to get involved. My blog is my space and I want to run it in a way that suits me. I guard my autonomy fiercely. I hope this adds credibility to my reviews.
What book genres are your favourites, and your least favourites?
I particularly enjoy literary and experimental fiction. Prose can be as stunning as poetry if well written. I often seek out shorter books that pack a punch, that say more between the lines. There are of course some amazing longer books, such as Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young.
I avoid romances as they annoy me. Characters do not need to be beautiful to be interesting. Sex does not need to be described in detail. Happy endings are rare – life is more complex and messy than that. Books may offer an escape but I look for at least an element of relatability.
How many books do you read each week?
Generally around three although this depends on the type of book. Non-fiction tends to take me longer. I read less over the summer months as family life makes more demands on my time.
What’s your most popular blog post?
A fun little post about teddy bears! I wrote this before I started book blogging and it is still viewed on most days. My most popular book review is for How To Play The Piano by James Rhodes. I followed his instructions and taught myself to play in order to write it. For fiction it is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone followed by The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon. This was an interesting question to answer as I don’t normally check such stats.
What do bloggers bring to the book publishing ecology which press reviewers do not?
Press reviewers are courted by publishers as the exposure they offer is valued. To an extent this is also now happening to some of the bigger book bloggers. Most bloggers, however, are writing without the rewards of limited edition snazzy proofs, promotional days out or invites to exclusive parties. Their reviews may be shared on social media but not with the excitement a publisher displays when a book they are promoting appears in the mainstream media. I think this makes bloggers less partisan, less prone to being swayed to favour a book because they have got to know those who produced it. This distance is of value to an ordinary reader who simply wants to find their next good read.
I am aware that my particular interest in the small presses has led to me meeting many of those involved in creating their books. They don’t court me – they have no marketing budget for that – but they know who I am.
Fewer people are reading the mainstream media so bloggers impact is increasing as their reviews appear in Google searches. Some are easily as well written as those in the press.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I am content with where I am and consider myself fortunate to feel this way. I wonder if others’ desire to exist in a different time is a mis-remembered nostalgia, something that has fed into our current political problems. I am grateful for modern medicine, for greater tolerance of difference and equality for women. There is still a way to go, but England now is so much easier for me to live in than the Belfast where I grew up.
Your favourite prose authors?
Margaret Atwood. Also John Boyne, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Faulks, Joanne Harris, Marcus Sedgwick. There are plenty of other authors whose individual books I could select, but those listed have written titles I have consistently enjoyed.
Your favourite feature films?
Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Peter’s Friends, the Wallace and Gromit films, Paddington.
Five favourite bands?
I don’t listen to much music, usually preferring silence. Bands I select for background at family events would include some early Muse or Athlete, the Maccabees, Stereophonics. For myself I would occasionally play Pink Floyd, especially on vinyl, or Chopin’s piano concertos.
Your chief characteristic?
Awkwardness. I still cringe at the thought of things I said or did at social events years ago, which I doubt anyone else even remembers. I have to force myself to go out into company from time to time.
Beyond that you would have to ask someone who has met me. We see ourselves from the inside out so it can be hard to judge.
My daughter says that my chief characteristic is organisation and that I am a planner who likes everything to follow a routine and know what’s happening in advance. This can result in an element of awkwardness at social events.
Your bedside reading?
I don’t read in bed. I rarely read in the evening. I am a fairly early riser and like to write first thing in the morning before settling down with a book.
Insist on yourself; never imitate.