Random Musings: Who am I writing book reviews for?

Readers. I am writing reviews for readers. I hope to inform and thereby assist in their choice of books to purchase or borrow from a library.

But it’s not that simple. I review many books from small presses. Every title they publish is a financial risk. No book is going to be liked by everyone so it is vital that each book finds its appreciative audience. Reviews and the related buzz on social media matter, to get the word out that a book exists.

Then there are the authors who have poured so much of themselves into their creations. A negative review can hurt.

I don’t wish to hurt anyone.

But I am writing for readers. If I am not honest in my opinions then there seems little point in what I do.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been reading and then reviewing a book from a small press I do my best to support. They do sterling work and are well respected. I have read every book they have published and regularly sing the praises of many of these. I have purchased them for friends.

I was excited to receive the proof and eagerly set aside the time needed to read it. The book is big in size and scope so demanded a greater than usual commitment. The structure is unusual and it gradually became clear that the subject matter was negatively affecting my mental health. In crafting my review I took great care to be fair in my criticism and also to convey the style of writing. However depressing I personally may have found it, there will be readers who enjoy other aspects of its wide ranging ruminations.

I posted my review. I was politely requested to take it down until closer to publication, preferably after this date.

I am feeling conflicted.

In the hour the review was up I received a comment that it was ‘perfect’. This particular reader, who has pre-ordered the book, was looking forward to reading it for himself. I took from this interaction that I had in no way put him off. This is good.

I have since heard that another reader, who had shown interest in the Tweets I was posting as I worked my way through the pages, has requested a copy of the book. This is what I aim to do – to generate interest in a title.

I posted my review many weeks ahead of publication. My understanding is that pre-orders matter so this did not seem out of order. I have done it many times before.

I write for readers. What of those who may not enjoy the style of the writing? What of those who may be upset, as I was, by the clear depiction of how unremittingly awful the human race is? It is hard not to feel, although this was denied, that had my review been glowing there would not have been an issue.

Taking the review down for the time being was my choice. I remain unsure if it was the right thing to do. I understand the points made in the polite request but am concerned I feel too close to retain the detachment necessary. I fail readers if I do not provide an impartial opinion. I am wary of reviews from authors opining about books written by their friends.

Here is a short list of things publishers could clearly state to help reviewers if a proof is being sent out well ahead of publication.

  • May pictures be shared on social media?
  • May early, short impressions be voiced?
  • After what date may a full review be posted?

I have no problem adhering to the same guidelines as other reviewers. I would have a problem if I were asked to act differently depending on my opinion. This is not what potential readers are looking for.

Blogs are not magazines or newspapers. I have no predecessor or editor to advise me or check my content. On one occasion I expressed an opinion in a review in a way that a journalist acquaintance contacted me to warn, in as friendly a manner as possible, could be problematic. I appreciated this voice of experience and changed my wording. It did not compromise the gist of the review.

The growth of blogs and shrinking of newspaper sales has changed the way readers seek out information. I work hard to provide useful content.

It is thanks to authors writing and publishers producing books that we readers have the vast choice and variety of literature to enjoy. I am grateful for every book I am sent.

I will not enjoy them all. Negative reviews can be useful if written with care.

My blog is my space to write and I feel fortunate that readers regularly seek out my musings. I value my autonomy.

I am writing for readers.

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Book Blogging 101

What follows are the unedited notes I made in preparation for my Q&A as guest speaker at Novel Nights in Bristol, which I wrote about here. The questions were sent to me in advance of the event and these answers were intended as prompts that I could talk around, depending on how the evening went.

Much of what I include in this longer than usual post was covered in my talk, albeit in slightly different form. The rest will, I hope, be of interest to some.

Thank you for inviting me. My name is Jackie Law and I run the Never Imitate book blog. I created the blog a little over six years ago and have been a book blogger for the past five years. I post regular book reviews, write-ups of literary events, author and publisher interviews, and the occasional opinion piece.

I created my blog as a space to write. Within a year I realised that the short fiction pieces I was creating were weak and lacking in originality. Feedback suggested I was better when writing about events and facts, sharing my opinion, so I started to write about the books I was reading. It was only then that I realised book blogging was a thing.

This made me think about where I wanted to go with my writing and I decided that the world did not need my stories but would benefit from discovering some of the fabulous stories already created by others.

My blog has grown and developed from there.

It has opened up to me the world of publishing and the challenges faced by authors who need to get their books on the radars of readers. I am not a publishing insider but my efforts have led to some interesting invitations and glimpses of the workings within that world.

 

Process and getting started as a blogger / how it works. 

How do you get started as a book blogger? 

Have a think about what you want to achieve. There are many, many book blogs out there. Decide what you wish to offer your readers.

For example, the Shots blog fashions itself as an ezine and promotes crime fiction and thrillers.

The Tripfiction site features books with a strong sense of place. If you’re planning a holiday you can search their reviews for books set in your destination.

Most book blogs feature reviews, event write-ups and author interviews. Some author run blogs also offer advice and information for writers.

Go online and familiarise yourself with what is out there. Note what you like and dislike – about the way a blog looks, ease of navigation and writing style.

Sam Missingham is a freelance publishing professional who runs Lounge Books. She provides links to book bloggers on her site which may be a good place to start.

The mechanics of setting up a blog requires a few decisions such as:

  • Which platform do you wish to use – the most common are WordPress or Blogger;
  • What theme do you want to use – page structure, colours, font, use of photographs, widgets (sidebar links);
  • Your blog needs a unique name. You may wish to open a Twitter account, Instagram and Facebook page to match this – creating a brand.

These things are not essential. My online presence grew organically over time so I have used a variety of names – Jackie Law and Never Imitate, my twitter handle @followthehens, my email name zeudytigre – and I have coped with the mix. If I had known at the beginning what I know now I would have stuck with one name to help build recognition.

Once your blog is set up you need to start sharing your posts across social media. Follow other book blogs that you enjoy reading and share their posts too. Interact with them, perhaps commenting on their blog or on Twitter.  Growing a following takes time, effort and patience – like making friends.

Don’t get hung up on the stats – follower numbers, blog hits and so on. Produce good content, be supportive to others, and growth will happen

 

Do you buy the books to review – if you’re sent them does this impact on what you choose to read? 

I still buy books but far fewer than before I was added to publicists’ lists as a reviewer. I currently have well over 100 unread books on the floor by my desk, at least half of which I have purchased.

Even with this backlog, I use the library if there is a book I want to read that I haven’t been sent. I am a reader first.

On how I choose what to read next, if I have asked for or agreed to take a book then I will do my best to review it before publication. If I am sent a surprise book because a publicist thinks I will enjoy it then it goes on a separate pile and I dip into that when I have time and inclination.

The books I agree to take I expect to enjoy so am eager to read them all. The remainder I will filter based on what I feel like reading at the time.

 

What is your selection process? How do you choose what goes onto your blog?

I have favoured publishers – mainly the small presses that put out maybe 3 to a dozen books a year such as Galley Beggar, Influx, Dead Ink, Charco, Peirene, Bluemoose, Belgravia, Salt. I read any book they send. This list is growing as I discover more small presses – special thanks here to the Republic of Consciousness Prize lists.

There are also authors I favour. I currently have early proofs of the new Joanne Harris (The Strawberry Thief, a sequel to her best seller, Chocolat), Polly Clark (Tiger) and Alison Weir (Six Tudor Queens series). I’m hoping that I will be sent copies of the new Jan Carson (The Fire Starters), Sinéad Gleeson (Constellations) and Anna Hope (Expectation). Later in the year I would love to receive the new Erin Morgenstern (The Starless Sea) but expect there will be high demand for this.

These are all new publications. Sometimes I simply want to read a particular book so will do so.

There are times when I feel guilty at the length of time I have had a title waiting to be reviewed so will read that. It is disappointing if I finally get to a book and don’t enjoy it. Maybe that was why it languished for so long.

 

How do you find out what books are coming out? 

From publicists and Twitter mainly. I follow and interact with those producing the books I am likely to want to read. I am sent catalogues and newsletters but mostly ask for proofs offered by email or on social media.

I am a contributor on another book blog – Bookmunch. They get books I may not hear about elsewhere and have different contacts within the publishing industry. I get quite a few of the non fiction titles I review through them.

 

Do you get paid for your time?

No. Be aware that, as an author, you do not need to pay for book reviews. There are people out there who offer that service – to link authors with book bloggers for a fee – but by interacting on social media you can find plenty of bloggers willing to review for free.

Another thing I will mention is the blog tour. This is a popular way of ensuring a succession of reviews will be posted each day over a week or even a month. Publicists organise blog tours for new releases or outsource the organisation of tours to freelancers. Authors can also contact these freelancers direct – this is a service you would need to pay for.

Blog tour organisers hold lists of bloggers willing to take part in tours along with the genres of books they enjoy. A tour will typically include reviews, interviews, guest posts and extracts from the book being promoted. Bloggers on the tour will share each other’s work.

Whilst this may sound great – and I know of many publishers who believe tours have value, which is why they pay for them – I also know of readers who ignore blog posts on a tour as they are publicity vehicles and therefore likely to be overwhelmingly positive. Readers – buyers of books – want balanced opinions.

I used to take part in blog tours but stopped when they became ubiquitous. I prefer to carve out my own space  – I named my blog Never Imitate for a reason – and decided to regain autonomy over what I was reading, to recapture the pleasure and remove the stress of reading to a schedule.

Many book bloggers enjoy being a part of tours as it is a way of bringing them, the authors and publicists together. It helps raise their profile as well as that of the book.

 

What benefits have you found to being a book blogger?

Mainly personal satisfaction as a writer. I feel I can offer readers more value as a reviewer than I could as a novelist – I can draw attention to a good book that already exists.

I also enjoy the social side – going to author events at bookshops, attending publishing events, writing these up on my blog, feeling a sense of belonging in my small corner of the literary world.

Although I do not know them personally I am often recognised by authors or publicists when I introduce myself – by my name, blog name or twitter handle. It feels good to be welcomed.

Also, of course, there are the books. I get sent proofs, sometimes months in advance. I have been quoted on covers and inside which is always pleasing. I am one of many but it is still satisfying to be told our work is appreciated.

 

The context of book blogging within publishing – how important is it? What is the situation at the moment? What influence do bloggers have? 

The audience for print media – newspapers and magazines – is shrinking as more people turn to the internet for news and features. Bloggers share their work on social media and it pops up in search engines – my blog gets a lot of hits this way. We are growing in influence. There are, of course, a huge number of blogs of varying quality but many offer content at least as good as in traditional media.

The important thing is to find your niche. I tend to concentrate my efforts on strong literary fiction and non-fiction from the edges. I have attracted an interested audience for that product. When I recommend something my regular readers will consider if it could be for them.

Other bloggers read best sellers, romance, crime fiction – and have found their audience for these genres.

We are told by publicists that we have influence – parties are held from time to time where we are offered wine, access to authors, and advance reader copies of their books. I can provide no figures but publishing is a business and I don’t imagine I would be sent books and invited to parties if publishers did not see this as financially worthwhile.

At a prize event I attended last year, Elly from Galley Beggar Press mentioned that reviews are hugely useful and that she sees spikes in sales when these appear in key publications. When asked if reviews were really so important in driving sales the consensus amongst the publishers present was that what is required is visibility. It is to do with readers spreading the word, such as happens on Twitter when reviews are shared by the wider book reading community.

I was told by a journalist on the Guardian books desk that they receive more books each week than the pared down staff numbers can unpack. Many remain in their jiffy bags. The reach of the book blogging community – who share each other’s work – is being increasingly harnessed.

 

Questions aimed at authors

For authors wanting books to be reviewed what advice can you offer? 

Make contact with book bloggers on social media – although don’t go straight to direct message. It is irritating when following back a writer on Twitter results in them pitching their book within a day.

Share posts. Comment on blogs. Follow widely, not just the blogs with many followers but those whose reviewing style you admire.

Observe the sort of books the blogger enjoys – for example crime fiction bloggers may not want to review your romance. Find bloggers who give positive reviews to books like yours.

Once a blogger knows who you are, that you are willing to support their work and that of other authors, quietly offer your book for review. No response probably means they are busy so don’t chase.

There are Facebook groups that link authors with bloggers such as Book Connectors. I am no longer a member but believe it is still a place to seek out connections.

   

You don’t review e-books. In your opinion, is it harder for authors who are digital first to get reviewed? 

There are plenty of bloggers who read digital. Netgalley is a popular publishers’ resource. It depends on the reviewer.

I am certainly not alone in requiring hard copy. This is another aspect to check when getting to know a blogger on social media.

 

Do you distinguish between self-published, indie published and traditionally published authors?  

Yes, I no longer review self published books or any book published by a press that asks for a financial contribution from the author – if I can find that information, it is often kept opaque.

Around 120,000 titles are published each year in hard copy – 10,000 each month. I can’t read them all, I need a filter and use publishers as gate keepers.

In the past I have accepted books from self published authors. Many, not all, felt raw, lacking in a final polish to remove snags, enabling the reading experience to flow.

This is not just a problem with self published work. Traditionally published does not necessarily mean that the book has been edited, proof read and produced to make it the best it can possibly be.

I’d add that some books from the big publishers have been so highly polished that they appear to have lost their edge, become generic. This suits many readers but I look for innovation, perhaps some experimentation, as well as depth and a damn good read.

I have got to know the publishers who release only books whose quality and content I expect to enjoy. This is important as I don’t want to spend time reading a book I’m not going to then want to encourage others to pick up. Neither author nor publisher benefits from a negative review.

I am writing reviews for readers, they are my key audience. It is the reader who may spend their money buying the book.

 

How you work with publishers and how you work with individual authors. 

I try to avoid working directly with authors. Their book is their baby and if I don’t fully enjoy it, any criticism may be taken personally.

Sending me a book costs money. When I have accepted a book from a self published author there is a cost to them and then an expectation that I will read it in a timely manner. I still have books on my TBR pile that I thought I would get to a year ago.

Last year I received an irate message from an author. I had told them I would likely review their book within a given timescale and had failed to achieve this. No publisher has ever chased me in this way for a review. Sometimes life intervenes and, as a reader, I don’t always want to pick up a particular book – it is not right for me at that time. This can affect enjoyment and therefore what I write about the book.

Of course, I understand why the author felt let down. I want to avoid the pressure and guilt of failing to read or disliking an author’s work. Working with publishers feels less personal.

Other book bloggers I know do work directly with authors and enjoy the personal interaction. We each run our blogs in different ways. We are not paid so it has to be enjoyed or why do it?

Check out a blogger’s review policy and read their posts to see if they could be a good fit for your book.

How I work with publishers is I ask to be put on their lists for a particular book or perhaps any book they think I might enjoy. Sometimes the book has been offered to bloggers on Twitter, sometimes I am emailed by a publicist. I am known by my favourite publishers and by some of the publicists at the bigger presses. I feel privileged to be sent a lot of books.

 

Questions aimed at bloggers 

Remaining independent. How do you balance the line between saying what you think and being diplomatic. 

I write for readers – my reviews are not academic literary criticism. I will always try to explain why if I don’t like an aspect of a book.

One benefit of having written fiction myself is that I understand how difficult it is, the time and effort involved. I admire anyone who can produce a novel. Even if I don’t happen to enjoy reading it I will bear in mind that getting a book as far as publication is an achievement.

Remember, all reviews are subjective – they say as much about the reviewer as the writing style or story.

I have a review policy on my blog. Its purpose is to try to avoid being sent books I am unlikely to enjoy.

I post a review of every book I read so not all are positive. No reader will like every book they read and no book will be liked by every reader. When I do like a book I continue to recommend it, not just around publication. I do monthly and annual roundups. I share anything positive about the book I find on line. I become its advocate.

 

Any writing tips for blogs? 

Decide what you want your blog to say and who your target audience is. Are you offering advice for writers, reviews for readers, pitfalls on the road to publication, interviews with those involved in bringing books to readers?

Find your niche. Seek out interesting content. Provide variety.

Write each post well. Pay attention to spelling, grammar, structure, flow. My posts are typically 500-1000 words long and take 2-3 hours to write. Blogging is a commitment – decide if it is for you.

To maintain momentum write what interests you in a style that you enjoy. Book bloggers come and go because their initial enthusiasm wanes when they do not feel appreciated after 6 months, even a year or two. It can take longer to build a following and initial expectations of numbers and engagement may be unrealistic.

I enjoy what I do and the world it has introduced me to so I make a conscious effort not to get hung up on the numbers, the stats that show site hits and followers. I do this for readers, authors and publishers but also for myself.

 

How do you build an audience for it?  

Share widely on multiple social media platforms. Interact with other bloggers – share their work too. Let the publisher know when a post goes up and hope that they share.

Only tag an author if the review is very positive!

I use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook reluctantly. I put my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I am in a group on Goodreads who like the same sorts of books as I do and sometimes share my content.

Find your tribe and nurture contacts. Be yourself.

Random Musings: Writing, reviews and sharing on social media

All writers derive pleasure from their work being read, appreciated and shared. Once published – whether on line or as hard copy – work goes out into the world where it is at the mercy of readers. Responses can be difficult to predict.

As a blogger I can check my stats to see how many people read, like and share my posts. With book reviews this is a long game. Search engines send traffic to my site long after a book’s publication.

I have noticed that some book bloggers complain if their work receives no feedback, especially if neither author nor publisher acknowledges or shares on social media. Whilst I readily admit to the warm, fuzzy feeling such a response generates, I do not consider it either a requirement or a given. When met by on line silence, despite tagging if the post is positive, I do sometimes wonder if my review has not been well received. Have my words not been read as intended? Has the post not been noticed amidst the noise of other activity? Was there better quality content to share on that day?

This got me thinking about why I share other’s writing.

Mostly it is because I happen to spot the piece on my feed, have time to read it and then want to share. This process can be more luck than judgement but the ‘want to share’ aspect is, perhaps, more reasoned.

A pithy or witty review can be a joy to read, whether positive or negative. I have shared reviews of books because I am impressed by the reviewer’s skill.

Certain reviews are better written than others (content, structure, grammar, punctuation). I have chosen not to share Guardian reviews of books I have enjoyed because the review is bland, lacking insight, or contains spoilers – a basic error.

I tend to avoid reviews written for blog tours as so much content created for one title can quickly become repetitive. I prefer social media where content is varied. I may wish to draw attention to the book at another time – a reminder that it still exists.

Everyone is entitled to run their social media accounts as they choose. Nobody is required to share any content – and that includes authors, publishers and publicists.

Reviews say as much about the reviewer as the book and most reviewers acquire a particular style over time. I sometimes share other’s review of a book I have read because the reaction is so different to mine.

Sometimes I spot a review for a book I loved and will share simply to draw attention to the fact that another reader loved it too.

Reading for pleasure does not require the literary deconstruction taught at educational establishments. Being informative in a review may be more broadly useful than admiration from the literati.

At events authors often comment that readers bring to the fore elements of their book that even the author hadn’t been aware of. If a reader doesn’t ‘get’ a book it may simply mean that an element important to the author didn’t resonate with that particular reader. This need not be regarded as a fault of either party.

Following on from this, I am conflicted when authors complain about bad reviews – not the plainly ridiculous such as:

“1*  Didn’t receive my copy, may not have ordered it”

I understand the hurt felt when something that has taken a great deal of time and effort to create is dismissed with what appears lack of basic understanding. Even so, no book is going to be liked by everyone and a review remains a personal opinion.

I should point out that I am always grateful when my posts are liked and shared. There are individuals who I regard fondly as they are particularly supportive of the book blogging community.

I suspect all writers experience moments of doubt when they wonder if the time they devote to creating their words is worthwhile. If writers, and that includes book bloggers, wrote for the plaudits many would not persist.

My Link Age Southwark Writing Competition Judges Interview

   

     
   

Earlier this year I was approached by Becky Danks, who I met through my involvement in the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, asking if I would be willing to join a panel of judges for a writing competition she was organising. I was happy to offer my services. The judges include a number of people I know through Twitter, and also Paul Ewen (aka Francis Plug) who I met at the Greenwich Book Festival. Each judge was asked to provide an interview – these make for interesting reading. Below I reproduce my offering.

The writing competition is open to all UK and Ireland residents, both adults and children. Entries may take the form of either a short story or poem, based on the theme of friendship and/or generations. The deadline is 11.59PM on 31st August 2018. Further details may be found here.

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Meet Jackie Law, judge of the short stories (children’s) category

JACKIE LAW is one of our amazing panel of judges kindly volunteering their time to support our charity writing competition. Belfast-born Jackie is a prolific book blogger reviewing books, interviewing authors and writing about literary events for her personal blog, Never Imitate. She has contributed to numerous online ‘zines and is a regular reviewer at Bookmunch. Jackie was recently a judge for the prestigious Republic of Consciousness Prize which recognizes innovative indie publishers and their writers. She now lives in rural Wiltshire with her husband and small flock of back garden hens.

Check out Jackie’s website. Twitter: @followthehens

 

How did you get into book reviewing?

I set up my blog as a space to write during a time in my life when I was struggling. Writing is an effective therapy and it helped me to order my thoughts. The initial posts were eclectic in content.

At this time I was also writing short stories – flash and micro fiction. Following some honest feedback from readers online I came to understand that these were not very good. I have always admired creative writers and my own attempts brought into focus their skills.

I wanted, needed to keep writing but decided I could provide more value to readers by supporting books already written. By writing reviews and building my social media presence I aim to increase the visibility of books, especially those that don’t have big publicity drives behind them. I decided to keep posting on my original blog as its ethos fitted my reading preferences. Although some of my reviews now appear on other sites, my blog remains my space. I value the autonomy this allows.

 

Describe your ideal literary-related day

I am privileged in having a degree of freedom to structure my days as I wish so many of them could be described as ideal. I like to rise early, make myself a cup of tea and check my social media accounts and the mainstream media for book related content. I share anything I think may interest my followers, including my own scheduled posts. If I have a review to write I will start on that – typically this requires two to three hours work. Then I read.

Late morning, I will try to leave the house for a walk or a swim. Both of these activities offer thinking time, essential in structuring my reviews. On my return I go back on social media and also check my admin – there are always emails to answer – before settling again to read or write.

My family return home late afternoon expecting to be fed so I give them my attention. Early evening I typically go on Twitter to catch up with what is happening in the outside world. I don’t have broadcast television but may watch an episode or two of a DVD series. I particularly enjoy adaptations of books, although I dislike it when the plot is changed. I go to bed early. I rarely read in bed.

 

What do you look for in a good story?

It must be engaging and flow so that I’m engrossed and not thinking about the writing but rather the world created. It must be believable – not necessarily possible or real but consistent. All characters should earn their place, be necessary for the plot, and have depth. Interactions should build on this and not just advance the reader’s knowledge of the protagonist. As a reader, I wish to be trusted to picture, interpret and understand. I don’t need long descriptions of clothes, food or, most especially, sex. Less is more. Most plots can be advanced without knowing every detail.

I look for originality in both plot and structure, for characters to be complex and genders written with equal care, as people not objects. I tend to avoid genre fiction as I find it too formulaic.

I want to feel emotionally invested while reading. I don’t need to like the characters but I want to care about what happens to them.

 

What reading/creative projects are you working on at the moment?

I have a huge pile of books to read, a mix of new releases and titles that I have agreed to review but haven’t managed to open yet. I feel terribly guilty when I agree to take a book and then it lingers unread. However, I won’t rush any book. An author has put effort in and deserves careful consideration.

I have a number of literary events lined up over the summer – festival panels, author talks and tours. I like to write these up in detail as readers have told me they enjoy the insights provided.

Last year I was on the judging panel for both the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize and The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. I thoroughly enjoyed the new experiences these offered. I am delighted to have been invited to judge this short story competition.

 

Who would you invite to a literary dinner party, alive or dead?

I would invite lesser known book reviewers, booksellers, perhaps a librarian – prolific and eclectic readers rather than authors. These people love books but have no axe to grind about other’s opinions.

There are groups on Goodreads – such as The Mookse and the Gripes – where cogent discussions of books, especially those listed for prizes, occur. I would like to sit quietly at the table and listen to that sort of conversation live.

Shadow panels for the big book prizes are often more interesting to follow than the official decision makers as participants are not afraid to express their opinions. I discovered when I was a judge that it is important to abide by the group decision even when individuals differ vociferously on the choice of contents of long and short lists.

I should point out though that I am a terrible cook so tend to avoid dinner parties!

Meet the writer behind my book reading hen avatar

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?
preti taneja bookblast diaryI 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 DayPeter’s Friends, the Wallace and Gromit films, Paddington.

pinkfloyd dark side of the moon bookblast diaryFive 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.

Your motto?
Insist on yourself; never imitate.

Random Musings: Book love and negative reviews

It has been a while since I posted a random opinion piece. This one percolated following a number of discussion threads on social media last week about book bloggers who post negative reviews. Some of the threads became quite heated and even personal at times. Umbrage was taken and participants were blamed for not behaving in a way others desired. It was all very unfortunate – at one stage a publisher became involved. My experience of book bloggers is of a supportive community. As numbers have grown I wonder if it has factionalised. Individual’s views will inevitably differ but infighting and its corollary, taking sides, is never good PR. We are, after all, trying to draw attention to the books, not to ourselves. At least that is where I am coming from.

I post a review for every book I read so, unavoidably, some will detail negative aspects. Whatever my thoughts I try to maintain balance. Few books are perfect and some flaws grate more than others. I will always try to explain why. The purpose of my writing is to inform readers. Even a book that I adore will not appeal to everyone.

I don’t have a problem with those who choose to post only positive reviews – their blog, their decision. What I object to is any attempt to force others to follow suit. The start point for last week’s discussion was the increasingly ubiquitous blog tour. As these are used as marketing tools – the organiser, although not the participants, is paid by the author or publisher – I can understand why there is pressure, even when not explicitly stated, to create positive posts. Most book bloggers will not have had a chance to read the book being promoted when participation is agreed. Suitable alternative content is not always readily available. Once again I felt relief at my decision to withdrew myself from blog tours at the end of last year.

Most of the books I now read are sent to me by publishers. Book post delights me and I am grateful for every parcel I receive. It can take some time to get to a title so when I post my review I will tag the publisher on social media. I do this that they may be aware that a book they have sent has been reviewed as requested. What they do with my words is up to them.

I only tag the author if the gist of my review is positive – few are entirely so because perfection is rare. If I have enjoyed a book I hope that knowing this will please its creator.

No reader, and book bloggers are first and foremost readers, wishes to spend time reading a book that leaves them dissatisfied. This is why I have a review policy – to try to limit books sent to me to those I will be happy to endorse. I derive pleasure from working with publishers to spread the book love but I am not in their employ. I neither ask for nor receive payment. My reviews and recommendations are willingly and freely provided.

Once I have reviewed a book I like to check out other readers’ opinions on a variety of sites. Whether or not we agree I will share many of these on my own social media timelines (although only rarely if part of a blog tour due to repetition – my choice). I enjoy reading reviews that are well written and reasoned; I want to know why the reader thought as they did. I will also share author interviews or related articles. Having read a book I maintain an interest and do my small part to increase visibility of the title.

The book blogging community has grown and its power is being recognised and harnessed. On this site, my site, I am more than happy to participate but I will not be shackled. I hope that the camaraderie amongst bloggers, and friendly relationships with publishers, can be maintained even if we do choose to run our blogs in different ways. Books are my passion, but I will not love them all.