At the stroke of a pen….

As some of the more astute of you out there may have noticed, as well as being a short story writer I am also a book reviewer. It’s something I’ve not really touched upon here, except for posting the odd actual review I’ve written, so I thought that today I would tell you a little bit about how I got into it, and a little bit about my reviewing philosophy.

I actually started off being a CD and music reviewer, initially for my own Fractured fanzine in the early 90s, and much later on for a very small online forum and later still for two webzines, Heathen Harvest and Brainwashed. I left Brainwashed two years ago as I felt that the workload was beginning to tell on me. I carried on with HH for a while, but at around the same time I had set up FracturedSpaces Records and I had to choose between the two. However, I rejoined HH earlier this year (sadly, HH and FracturedSpaces are now both defunct), and also Hierophant Nox webzine.

And then about March time, Mathew F. Riley of Bookgeeks (who, incidentally, was one of the original correspondents for Fractured ‘zine) asked me to start writing for that website, specialising in genre fiction (mainly horror and contemporary fantasy). Finally, just about a week ago or so, Mark Deniz (of Morrigan Books) asked me if I would like to join the staff of Beyond Fiction (which, I must point out, is completely separate to Morrigan) , a new media review venture he was setting up, and so I said yes.

Transferring reviewing skills from music to literary endeavours is surprisingly easy. More to the point, I find it far more fulfilling than the music, which has prompted me to think quite a lot recently that this is what I should have been doing instead of running the record label, but that’s a moot point at this moment in time. Anyway, needless to say it’s got me putting aside time for reading again, an activity I’d been neglecting for far too long. It also meant that I was getting to read material that I wouldn’t necessarily get to in the normal run of things and I certainly wouldn’t even look at in a bookshop. Which, in my opinion, can only be a good thing.

As much as I enjoy reviewing books (and this applies to CDs as well, of course), it does have its pitfalls, ie. having to do write-ups on truly awful material. I had to do it with the music, as I had to listen to some ear-manglingly dire stuff. However, I am cognisant of the fact that whatever piece of music or book I’m reviewing has been created by someone. So, even if I think it’s a load of utter tripe, I try to at least be fair to them, unless it’s so bad that I can’t actually write anything good about it. In which case, I’ll find a way of not writing about it at all.

To me, what’s the point of being deliberately destructive? What if the book is something that the writer really feels proud of (it’s quite a feat to write a book, you know)? They’ve obviously spent a great deal of their time writing it, and have probably put their heart and soul into it. To deliberately mean and nasty about their work can be a heartbreaking experience for them when they get to read the review, so why set out to do it? Of course, there will be those times when you can tell that the author has absolutely no idea of any aspect of book writing ( especially if it’s been self-published through someone like LULU.com) or about writing full-stop. And there will always be people who think they’re unrecognised genuises, and won’t listen to criticism of any kind and dismiss you as being clueless). Then I think something has to be said.

I guess it’s a question of whether or not there’s a spark of talent lying behind what you’re reviewing, even though it’s not quite there yet. I look to give some constructive criticism, putting myself in the shoes of the person who wrote it. Luckily, I haven’t come across anything that dire …. yet (although there are a couple of books I’ve read excerpts from that genuinely shocked me at its sheer atrociousness, written by an old acquaintance who shall remain nameless, but fortunately I am never going to review). So, I haven’t had to getting scathing about anybody’s work so far. Inevitably I will at some point, I suppose, and then I really WILL have to get my thinking cap on.

A review of a good book, on the other hand, will practically write itself. A case in point is the one I did of Cate Gardner’s Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits and Other Curious Things, over at the Beyond Fiction site. Although I struggled initially with how to encapsulate her writing, once I got what I wanted to say it just flowed, needing only a few minor adjustments here and there. Those ones are a joy to write, because they’re so effortless. Write-ups of bad material can be a titanic struggle, especially of those which contain very little in the way of redeeming features. Then I get really angry or down, and have to wrench the words out of myself.

When all is said and done, however, I enjoy writing about books immensely. I am gradually learning what makes the difference between a good book and a great one, lessons which I hope to apply to my own writing (if ever I get any time to do any, that is!). Plus there’s the pure joy derived from just delving into someone else’s worlds and vision for a short while, transporting me to places that, until the book was written, were completely unexplored until the author pioneered a trail through it and mapped it out. Getting to meet the strange and the exotic is another bonus, as is seeing and experiencing lives through the eyes of others, and can often bring its own species of excitement to the mix. Books have always done this to me, however – and now getting to write about them is the best of any world.

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