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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Monthly Roundup – March 2019

March started well and generally felt productive, undoubtedly helped by my anticipation and then enjoyment of a weekend in Brighton which I wrote about here. The long train journey flew by thanks to a good choice of book – The Choke was published by Gallic last Thursday. Click on the cover for more information, and on the title below to read my review.


The Chokeby Sofie Laguna, published by Gallic Books

I posted thirteen book reviews this month: eight novels (two translated); one anthology; two short story collections; two non fiction books. Of these, two reviews had been written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

I started March with a write-up of a literary gig with a difference. For the first time I had been invited to sit in front of the audience – to give a talk on book blogging, including how authors may get their books reviewed. Novel Nights is run for and by writers in Bristol and Bath. I have attended several of their events in the past and knew they were a friendly bunch but it was still a somewhat terrifying experience. As well as writing about the event I posted the notes I prepared, for those who may be interested in the detail of my talk.


Novel Nights in Bristol with guest speaker Jackie Law
Book Blogging 101

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses announced their shortlist at an event in Norwich early in the month which, unfortunately, I was unable to attend. I did, however, write about the books and publishers in the running for this innovative prize. Unlike many literary awards, the RofC charges no fees, covers many expenses associated with attending related events, and financially rewards all presses that make the shortlist. It also brings fabulous books to the attention of readers.


Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019: from longlist to shortlist

My coverage of the longlist continued with a guest post from Peirene Press and my review of Sweet Home, which deservedly made the shortlist.


Guest post by independent publisher, Peirene Press
Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine, published by The Stinging Fly

The winners of the prize (there were two this year) was announced last Thursday at an event held in Foyles’ Charring Cross Road branch. I was delighted to accept my invitation to attend and will be writing up the event next week. You may read the Guardians’ coverage here.

On then to my remaining reviews posted this month. The books were quite a mixed bag as I was attempting to get ahead on new and forthcoming releases in anticipation of taking a few days away from my blog at month’s end. I had fallen behind with other writing commitments so last week was largely devoted to improving this situation. I also needed to step away from the online world at times due to the angry encroachment of current events.

So, let’s talk about books.

I had reservations about these two titles but was still glad to have read them both.


Tempest: An Anthology edited by Anna Vaught and Anna Johnson, published by Patrician Press
A Chill in the Air by Iris Origo, published by Pushkin Press

I picked up two YA fantasy fiction titles. The first led me to read the second, an interesting exercise in observing how a young writer develops.


The Near Witch by V.E Schwab, published by Titan Books
City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab, published by Scholastic

The next two books were originally reviewed for Bookmunch. I enjoyed them both.


Mothers and Daughters by Vedrana Rudin (translated by Will Firth), published by Dalkey Archive Press
Music, Love, Drugs, War by Geraldine Quigley, published by Fig Tree Press

Other fiction enjoyed included an historical novel based on true events involving the author’s family, and an innovative short story collection.


A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther, published by Salt
Above the Fat by Thomas Chadwick, published by Splice

For those, like me, who have spent time in Berlin (or as a taster for those who haven’t yet), this book is a recommended read. Its sense of place and exploration of why a place becomes important to an individual is hauntingly evoked.


Built on Sand by Paul Scraton, published by Influx Press

One book read stood out as a turkey. I know there are many who will enjoy the rich, historical descriptions – it just wasn’t for me.


Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), published by Pushkin Press

And amidst some strong contenders, my book of the month is one you should all go and read when it is released in a few days time – outstanding writing as well as being witty and accessible.


The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, published by Doubleday

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Monthly Roundup – February 2019

February was a good month as I had my three children home from university for varying lengths of time. They were all here together for less than a day but we still managed a family meal out – good fun. I also kept up my local walks and gym visits which slows down my reading but keeps my mind in a more settled place.

I posted reviews for 13 books. These included 11 fiction (3 translated) and 2 nonfiction. I had no poetry to review, something I hope to rectify soon.

Of note this month was a feature I ran on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. It included a number of fascinating guest posts provided by publishers on the prize longlist alongside reviews of the books that made the cut and which I had not yet read. As with last year, the titles considered for the RofC prize are amongst the best literary fiction published in the past year. It has been a pleasure to discover books that too often fly beneath the radar of most readers. I will be watching with interest to see which of these titles make the shortlist, the announcement of which, unfortunately, I am unable to attend. The logistics of travelling to Norwich proved too much of a challenge for me at this time.

You may click on the link below to read my post and on the book cover to find out more about each title.


Guest post by independent publisher, Henningham Family Press
Dedalus by Chris McCabe


Q&A with Istros Books
Doppelgänger
by Daša Drndić (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth)


Guest post by independent publisher, Splice
Hang Him When He Is Not There
by Nicholas John Turner


Guest post from independent publisher, Fairlight Books
Bottled Goods
by Sophie van Llewyn

As I had a guest post from Charco Press from last year but they still kindly sent me their longlisted book I wrote my own update on them before posting my review.


Spotlight on independent publisher, Charco Press
Resistance 
by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn)


Guest post by independent publisher, Peepal Tree Press

The Republic of Consciousness Prize organisers have created a podcast, not a medium I was previously interested in. I wrote about this here – Random Musings: Literary Podcasts

Not all longlisted publishers that I approached got back to me, and some who responded have yet to provide me with their book or other content. There may therefore be more of these posts to come next month.

I have now read 8 of the 13 books – those I already had on my shelves and those kindly provided by publishers. I am currently reading my ninth from the list which I received this week.

 

Alongside my RofC feature I posted book reviews for other titles read, with an even greater than usual emphasis on small press output.


Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, published by Pushkin Press
Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), published by Peirene Press


Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin, published by Henningham Family Press
A Place of Safety by Martin Nathan, published by Salt

   
My Oxford by Catherine Haines, published by New Welsh Rarebytes
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, published by Atlantic Books

I also posted two reviews that were originally written for Bookmunch.


Godsend by John Wray, published by Canongate
Cure by Jo Marchant, published by Canongate

 

Next month includes my husband’s birthday so there may be a short hiatus on the blog as we plan to travel to Brighton to celebrate. My determination to seek balance in my pursuits this year rather than become a slave to schedules is going well.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Monthly Roundup – January 2019

Remember when I wrote last month that I would no longer post a monthly roundup? I changed my mind. Feedback suggested that some of you found these posts useful so, instead of abandoning them altogether, I will be trying to find a way to make them more interesting.

My month started with a short holiday during which I read two books but posted no reviews. This hiatus resulted in me being already behind on my Goodreads challenge.

Another challenge I set myself this year was to get out more and enjoy the countryside where I live. I vowed to dispense with the self-inflicted pressure of reading to a schedule that last year led to days spent indoors trying to catch up. I aim to enjoy running this blog which may now result in fewer reviews but a happier writer.

Thus I posted reviews for only 9 books in January of which 7 were fiction (1 translated) and 2 non fiction (1 translated). I reviewed no poetry. Can publishers please send me some poetry to review?

Let’s look at the books.

I struggle to find crime fiction and thrillers that I truly enjoy reading as so many of them merge in my memory and are predictably formulaic. Sarah Hilary provides the exception. Yes, her Marnie Rome series are all written to the same structure but her use of language and exploration of issues provide literary fodder. I took this early proof on holiday (it isn’t out until May) and devoured it.


Never Be Broken by Sarah Hilary, published by Headline

Another early proof I took on holiday was a debut by Tramp Press publisher, Sarah Davis-Goff. I read her dystopian thriller in anticipation of meeting the author at the one event I attended this month – the Headline New Voices Roadshow in Bath.


Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff, published by Headline

I was keen to attend the gig having enjoyed watching what the debut authors I met at the previous year’s event went on to attain – in the case of Guy Gunaratne this included a Booker longlisting amongst other accolades. I will be interested to see what lies in store for this year’s cohort.


Gig Review: Headline New Voices of 2019

Back last May, when I attended the Greenwich Book Festival, I met Louise Candlish and had since been eager to read her latest book. My local library has copies but they were always lent out when I visited. Then I spotted on Twitter that Louise and her publisher were marking the publication of the paperback by leaving signed copies in coffee shops around Hammersmith, near where my daughter lives. I sent daughter on a mission to track one down and she was successful – Yay!


Our House by Louise Candlish, published by Simon & Schuster

Another thriller that I am happy to recommend, a dystopia set in a future England, is published today by a small press I discovered last year.


Wolf Country by Tünde Farrand, published by Lightning Books

I was also pleased to review new titles to be published by two of my long time favourite small presses – both of these are fabulous reads.

   
Mothlight by Adam Scovell, published by Influx Press
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, published by Bluemoose Books

I have reviewed several titles for Bookmunch of which one has been up on that site long enough for me to pull it across to my own blog. This work of translated fiction was excellent – one I am happy to recommend.


Katalin Street by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix), published by MacLehose Press

My non fiction reading included a translated memoir focusing on a Jewish survivor of Nazi Germany


No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel (translated by Stephanie Smee), published by Pushkin Press

Another non fiction title reviewed was by an anthropologist, about his ethnographic field trip to Indonesia. This one didn’t really rock my boat.


Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley, published by Eland

The month also brought the announcement of the longlist for my favourite literary prize, which I was privileged to help judge last year.


The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Longlist Announcement 2019 

Looking forward, I plan to read more titles from this list as I have only come across three of them to date. Next month I will be posting a few guest posts and Q&As from the presses that made the cut.

Finally, I was a guest myself when Mrs Bloggs invited me to join her for afternoon tea over on her book blog.


Afternoon Tea with Mrs Bloggs

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated.

Monthly Roundup – December 2018

And so we reach the end of another year and my final monthly roundup. I have decided not to continue with this feature in 2019 as I am unconvinced it adds value. Do let me know if you disagree.

I hope you have enjoyed the festive season and found time to read many good books. I posted reviews for 14 titles in December, thereby bringing my total for the year to 167. This was down on 2017 but I console myself with the thought that I attended more literary events this year and provided detailed write-ups of these alongside my reviews of the titles being promoted.

I publish my books of the year around mid December that anyone interested may purchase them as Christmas presents. 15 books made my books of 2018 list, with Little by Edward Carey coming top by virtue of being a fantastic read and offering wide appeal. By posting my list before the year ends there is a risk that a deserving title will be missed as I do not, of course, cease reading. And lo, this was indeed the case. In the week before Christmas I read an astonishing work of fiction. Ezra Maas is original and compelling – read it and question everything.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James, published by dead ink

 

December was a month when I tried to make inroads into my vast TBR pile, particularly the books from small publishers who send me generous quantities of ARCs to review. I found those I picked up a mixed bag.

Fiction

 

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar, published by Pushkin Vertigo
The Teahouse Detective: The Old Man in the Corner by Baroness Orczy, published by Pushkin Press

   

Trap by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates), published by Orenda Books
The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), published by Orenda Books

   

The Book of Alexander by Mark Carew, published by Salt
Liminal by Bee Lewis, published by Salt

A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold, published by Unbound

Short stories

Quartier Perdu by Sean O’Brien, published by Comma Press

Poetry

Sincerity by Carol Ann Duffy, published by Picador

Non fiction

In the Restaurant by Christoph Ribbat (translated by Jamie Searle Romanelli), published by Pushkin Press

 

I then ended my reading year by starting on my 2019 ARCs, introducing these with a post about the books I have on my New Year pile and those I am looking forward to in the coming year.

I managed to review three upcoming titles over the festive season.

Fiction

   

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, published by Atlantic Books
The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey, published by Lightning Books

Poetry

Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson, published by Jonathan Cape

 

I will be starting the New Year with a short holiday away with my boys and have no reviews scheduled as our destination offers limited internet access. After this brief hiatus expect more reviews and event write-ups, both here and over at Bookmunch where I am pleased to remain a contributor.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated. Here’s to a happy and good book filled 2019 for all.

Monthly Roundup – November 2018

However many times I start a new month thinking I will grant myself more space for other pursuits, I get caught up in reading and my time is gone. I have so many good books impatiently waiting on my TBR pile – this remains such a delicious non-problem. Looking at my stats for November it does at least appear to have been productive. I reviewed twenty books on my blog which means, for the first time this year, I am on track with my Goodreads challenge. I also attended two fabulous author events in Bath, probably my last in 2018 as I eschew the festive season crowds.

Early in the month I noticed some discussion online where bloggers were bemoaning the lack of shares by authors and publishers of their posts. Over the years I have watched a small but steady trickle of bloggers bowing out as the pleasure of the pursuit has waned. This got me thinking about why I devote so much time to producing content that I hope supports those who provide us with books. I process my thoughts by writing them out so put up this post on Writing, reviews and sharing on social mediaIf writers, and that includes book bloggers, wrote for the plaudits many would not persist.

When I say ‘provide us with books’ I don’t mean the free review copies of books that publishers send out to bloggers such as myself – that is another regular accusation from those who do not seem to understand our motivation.

I did go to the library this month as I was eager to read the Booker Prize Winner, Milkman. I enjoyed Anna Burns’ first novel many years ago and was delighted to see an author from my country of birth win this prestigious award.

I also put aside time to read those books on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist that were languishing on my TBR pile. I would have liked to have seen Murmur win that award.

As you can see from my links to November’s posts below it has been an eclectic reading month – just how I like it to maintain freshness and interest. I have also made a concerted effort to read books that have been on my TBR pile for some time, alongside the newer releases scheduled.

 

Fiction

  

Slip of a Fish by Amy Arnold, published by And Other Stories
Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions

  

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, published by Tinder Press
Milkman by Anna Burns, published by Faber & Faber

  

The Blue Salt Road by Joanne M Harris, published by Gollancz
Aftershock by Adam Hamdy, published by Headline

  

The Longbourn Letters: The Correspondence Between Mr Collins and Mr Bennet, by Rose Servitova
The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy, published by Canongate

 

Translated fiction and short stories

  

And the Wind Sees All by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery), published by Peirene Press
The Cake Tree In The Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), published by Pushkin Press

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), published by Peirene Press

 

Short Stories

  

Our Dreams Might Align by Dana Diehl, published by Splice
Flare and Falter by Michael Conley, published by Splice

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, published by Bloomsbury

 

Poetry

the uncorrected Billy Childish, published by Tangerine Press

 

Children’s fiction

  

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (20th anniversary edition) by JK Rowling, published by Bloomsbury
Sunny and the Ghosts by Alison Moore, published by Salt

 

Non fiction

  

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard, published by Profile
Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World by various authors, published by Pushkin Press

Chicken Unga Fever by Dr Phil Whitaker, published by Salt

 

Literary events

One of my fellow book bloggers commented recently on the number of excellent book events I have had the opportunity to attend. I concur, and these two were special, as you can read in my linked posts.

  

Markus Zusak in Bath
Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

 

With the arrival of December we enter into the festive season with its lists of books to buy and best books of the year – more on that from me in due course. I am also compiling a list of those books I am most looking forward to in 2019. Whatever else may be going on in the world, our reading pleasure continues to be well catered for.

If you are considering buying books – they make the best presents and are so easy to wrap – do please support your local independent bookshop. For those like me who dislike crowds remember many bookshops also sell online.

Or you can buy direct from the publisher – for the small presses especially this helps hugely as they struggle to cover costs selling through the mega site that shall not be named. If you click on the covers of the books above you will be offered further information on each book and how to buy it.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated.

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.