Welcome to my weekly series – Book Reviewer Interviews.
I believe that book reviewers hold valuable insight for us writers and their answers to my interview questions make intetesting blog posts.
Please welcome my new book reviewer friend John Green and author of the blog Illuminite Caliginosus
John, thanks so much for sitting in my interview chair. Please tell us about yourself.
First one’s always the hardest. Lessee now- born, raised and still living in Brooklyn, NY. Wanted to be either a baseball player or paleontologist when I was little. Ended up joining the Marines instead, traveled the globe and can’t really say a bad word about my tour. To paraphrase Malcolm X: the plan was theirs, any mistakes were mine.
Worked for Virgin USA for over thirteen years; had a blast and met a lot of good people and had some great experiences. It was like getting paid for hanging out with your friends! If there ever was such a thing as a good retail job, that was it.
The last few years I’ve been in the Sports & Entertainment field; blogging and reviewing was something I kinda fell into, and I really enjoy doing it. I’ve met a lot of good and… interesting… people during my online career.
I’m also a member of Amazon’s Vine program and a former Top 1000 Reviewer on the site.
Been an avid & voracious reader all my life; I was that nerdy kid who’d always get “volunteered” to enter trivia contests, spelling bees, etc, and I always had to take something into the bathroom with me to read (once upon a time that wasn’t always seen as a good thing. Neither was being nerdy). One of these days I’ll finally finish my own novel and then get to see how the other half lives.
What made you start reviewing books?
During my time at Virgin USA I was the Magazines Buyer for the NY stores, getting my hands on more books and reading material than I’d thought possible (rubs hands gleefully).
**The store was located in the same building where Random House had their offices, and I was on good terms with the building guys so they always let me know when RH would dump out books. Discovered a lot of new authors that way- good, bad and ugly. I’ll always be proud to call myself a Dumpster Diver.**
**Our UPS driver, Joe, offered to grab a few books for me while he was delivering up there, and part of the stack he brought back included the first three books of GRRM’s Song of Ice & Fire- all hardcovers with original artwork.**
After Virgin USA closed I spent a lot of time on Amazon buying even more books. I got in the habit of sifting through the reviews for recommendations, etc, and picked up on a few individuals I felt I could rely upon not to steer me wrong, like EA Solinas, Chibineko and others. I’d always been the one my friends and family would go to for a critique because they knew I was hard but fair, and it finally occurred to me that I should write a few reviews myself- sort of give back a little and have my say. Next thing I know I’m making steady progress through the ranks and I wondered what I could do with this
How many books do you review a month?
It varies. I’ve slowed down over the past couple years; used to aim for maybe 5-10 a month, right now maybe half that. One of my goals is to clear out some of my TBR pile; I know- we ALL say that, but my work schedule affords me a lot of free time, so I have a good shot at it. I’ve still got stuff going back to the 2010 BEA I haven’t checked out yet.
What is your selection process for reviewing a book?
Nothing set in stone. The easy answer is “whatever catches my attention”, but defining that is the trick. I’m a very eclectic reader; I’ve always been chiefly into Fantasy/Sci-fi but right now I’m really into Steam/Diesel/Atompunk- though I haven’t seen much of the latter two so far. There’s also Lovecraftian Horror, which I think’s been under-appreciated but seems to be enjoying a renaissance now. Guess we can thank the oversaturated PNR/UF genres for that.
Both the blurb and the cover are key, of course- you never get a second chance at that first impression. There’s been quite a few eye candy covers that made me stop to check them out, only to get let down by the synopsis. So many books nowadays, especially in the YA genre, immediately drop the ball from sounding like carbon copies of each other that it’s hard to find anything worth investing time in. I swear you can choose ten, TEN, YA novels at random and the blurbs will all sound the same! How many Chosen Ones with Destined/Fated/Soulmates stories does the human race need? When’s the next Alice in Wonderland/Brothers Grimm ripoff due out? Will this end up being Gregory Maguire’s enduring legacy?
For me, it’s gotta be something at least a little different; whatever the genre it has to be something that makes it appear like the author actually had something to say- a story they wanted to tell and not just aping the latest trend to try and make a quick buck. And that gets harder to find every day.
A good one was Pagan by Andrew Chapman. It’s a PNR/UF/Horror series about vampires having existed for centuries but only certain agencies like the Catholic Church knew of them. All the books, movies, etc, served as misdirection and softening up for when they finally emerged and basically sucker-punched the entire human race. Some countries tried to make nice and assimilate them True Blood-style while others said F-that! Even the werewolves sided with humanity against the vamps. Made for a refreshing change of pace from sparkle-pires and woobie-wolves.
What is your book review process?
I always take notes while I’m reading, marking a passage or a page to go back to that merits attention- good or bad.
Every few chapters I’ll put it down and ruminate on what I’ve read and review my notes. Goodreads has a great feature where you can chart your progress while reading a book, post a comment about it and sync it to your Twitter account- it’s handy for sharing your thoughts on the book and when it comes time to compile your notes.
**I was doing this with a fantasy novel I was scheduled to review and the author saw it and got a good laugh over what I wrote. He even agreed with some of it.**
Grammar, spelling, punctuation and white space matter to me; more times than I’d like to remember I’ve put down a book for good because I’m unable to decipher it. I know ebooks always have formatting issues, but if I can’t even tell what language this is supposed to be in that’s on the author.
I once had an argument with an author on Twitter about this- it was the usual ‘how can you judge a book without finishing it’ crap. Well, if after fifty pages you still can’t spell, don’t know hyphens from commas after seventy-five and no clue about homonyms after one hundred, what else do I need to see?
Once I’ve finished the book it’s time to settle in, check my notes, consider the whole thing and start typing. I’ve yet to settle on a specific format, so I just write about the overall strengths and weaknesses, good points and bad points, citing whatever examples I feel are needed.
What do you think makes a good book?
Lol- how much time you got? These days it’s far easier to speak on what doesn’t, so how about we do both.
What makes for a good book: attention to detail. Internal consistency. Worldbuilding. It’s been said that the most important character in a story is the world itself, because everything happens in it and to it. So if I don’t get enough about the world and what’s going on with it, there’s a good chance I won’t be too vested in the story.
Some authors can overcome it. After all these years, Anne Bishop remains notoriously bad at worldbuilding, but she invests so much in the characters and maintains a narrow enough focus that the rest of the world never really comes into play. Even though you’re always aware of how much it’s lacking, it never impacts the story overmuch.
Others, like Laurell Hamilton, fail spectacularly at this. The premise of her Anita Blake series is waking up one day and finding out vamps, weres, etc, are real. This mythical date is never specified, but implied to be modern times- typical Urban Fantasy. Then you find out college courses are being taught about supernaturals and world governments have always known about them, but their presence has never impacted anything- no military developments, no improved police tactics (the paranormal division in her base city St. Louis is understaffed & underfunded), nothing about them has ever impacted the course of human history. This, of course, is to set the MarySue main character- a recent college grad at the start of the series- up as a font of knowledge & wisdom for the series, instead of the ones who taught her who have degrees and everything. Degrees in fields of study that supposedly never existed.
That’s actually par for the series; no one ever goes to the people who taught Anita Blake- whom they should already be well aware of- everyone has to go to a nobody like Anita. Who the hell would want the teachers when you can have the student? Not to mention why the hell are police being sent out to deal with monsters knowing next to nothing about them?
Plus there’s no logic in this series to the presence of weres. Lycanthropy, etc, is treated as an infectious disease- you can get vaccinated against it- but once infected, suddenly it confers all these mystical powers and abilities upon you. And you’re not supposed to be able to discriminate against them for having this condition, like HIV, but ignore the fact that they can rip you to shreds on a moment’s notice. Yet many areas subject weres to ‘varmint laws’- they can be shot on sight once a person is a known were.
I could go on, but you get the point.
Characters, not caricatures: I get that there’s only 36 Plots and the Hero’s Journey is gonna get recycled more than soda cans, but at least try to do something with all the tropes. Take the game Dragon Age: the elves in that fantasy world were much like the ones in LotR but were enslaved by humans at one point and are now second-class citizens clinging to the fragments of their once great culture and considered vagrants at best. Try to imagine the descendants of the elves of Rivendell living in run-down quarters of human cities, struggling to maintain their mostly forgotten heritage- the exploits of Elrond, Celeborn & Galadriel reduced to a children’s fable. Not only an interesting dynamic but a pretty strong allegory.
Also in Dragon Age, Mages are considered dangerous and are isolated from society into groups called Circles. Each nation has its own Circle of Magi, supervised under the sole auspices of the dominant religious authority- the Chantry. If it’s “determined” that the Circle Mages have gotten too out of hand, the Chantry can purge them with impunity and bring in a fresh batch to reform the Circle anew. And the mages spend their lives well knowing it. Can you imagine what life as an elven mage would be like? Things like that get me interested.
What doesn’t for make a good book: lack of editing, bad punctuation and grammar, poor spelling. An utter lack of originality and respect for the audience. Just because you’re writing a YA novel doesn’t mean you treat your audience like they’re Dick and Jane.
There’s a YA Fantasy novel that came out last year- The Witch Hunter- that was highly touted at the BEA and it was the second biggest pile of crap I’d read in 2015. To this day I haven’t even posted the review for it yet because just thinking about that book gets me angry: the MC/Chosen One was too dumb to draw her next breath unaided. How does it make any kind of sense to create characters that are supposedly the elite of their profession and the epitome of beauty and grace yet keep tripping over their own feet in a fight? It’s the literary version of that I Love Lucy scene where she’s at the top of the staircase, dazzling everyone in an elaborate costume and then almost falls down the stairs from the weight of her headdress.
I honestly don’t understand the insistence on treating YA heroines like this- and by female authors, no less. Is this some kind of Fifty Shades of Grey/Twilight thing, being the sexiest klutz in the world? It’s not endearing; it’s ridiculous and more suited for a romantic comedy than dealing with demons and vampires. And it’s practically a staple of the genre now. *sigh*
Authors also need to leave their personal agendas out of the books. One perfect example is Manda Scott, a UK crime fiction writer who wrote an otherwise very fine historical fantasy quadrilogy on Boudicca, the legendary Celtic warrior queen. Problem was as Scott’s an open lesbian and advocate of dream interpretation she practically clubbed you over the head with these themes all throughout the series. All the central & key characters were gay and even though it’s known that Boudicca was married with children, Scott created a lesbian lover for her and their relationship overshadowed everything. All the homosexual pairings in the books were between soulmates, etc, while most heterosexual ones, including Boudicca’s own marriage, were of convenience and because historically Scott couldn’t ignore them. I don’t think there was a single heterosexual relationship that survived the series, and there was no good reason for this. Plus the druids relied upon dream interpretation and such, so Boudicca was now kind of a Dreamer and Dreamers were never wrong- not in battle, not in anything… right up until when the Romans waxed them and suddenly it was all meant to be this way. The Dreamers just didn’t tell anyone.
Gotta be kidding me. Other than that it was great. ☺
Which 3 books have caught your eye recently and why?
I just signed up to review a book about a fledgling vampire who didn’t want to be one: The Young Vampire’s Survival Guide. He’s newly turned, has no idea what to do or how to control himself so there’s a body count building up and he’s drawing attention from all the wrong people. Stories like that- newly morphed characters that genuinely struggle to find out who and what they are, and have to deal with the consequences of their new existence- always draw my interest.
I also finally picked up Richelle Mead’s Soundless- always been intrigued by the idea of this story, an entire village living without sound. Even though I could never get into her other stuff I’ve been dying to read this one.
And I recently became aware of a book called One of Us- the story of a Anders Breivik, a Norwegian extremist who in 2011 became a domestic terrorist and killed over seventy people in Norway in an attempt to ‘wake up’ his countrymen to the threats of Islam and multiculturalism.
Are you a fan of a good plot twist?
Absolutely! Nothing like having the rug pulled out from under the characters to get me excited about the story and want to keep reading. But it can’t be arbitrary or just for the hell of it in a lame attempt at shock value- you can tell when that happens- they need to serve a purpose, advance the story. You don’t get enough of that anymore… or maybe I should read more mystery/thrillers.
How important is an opening chapter?
More than anything, it has to set the tone and give you at least an idea of what’s going on. I don’t need an encyclopedia about the impeding conflict, but it should be a starting point- introducing characters and a few particulars of the world itself. I’ve read a lot of books that just go on like the readers are natives, taking four or five chapters to let you know what’s happening. Working exposition into the story without turning into an As-You-Know-Bob infodump is becoming a lost art.
Best example of an opening hook I can give is from Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy- it’s what brought Star Wars up from your parent’s basement. Read the first chapter of the first book; if that doesn’t sell you on the story and the new characters, I don’t know what else to tell you.
How do you approach a review if you have not enjoyed the book?
Depends upon why I didn’t enjoy it. Plot, writing, pacing, characters- all get approached differently. You know books can be weak in some aspects and stronger in others- some factors simply carry more weight depending on the type of book it is. I’m not the type to just say ‘this or that sucked’- I’ll go into the gory details why. Even so, you always try to find something to salvage from it all, something positive to take from the experience. Few books are ever a total loss.
What do you think is more important – plot or characters?
Again, it depends on the type of book. An action-adventure novel is more plot driven while a romance is about the characters. Of course, the best stories strive for a balance of both. I’m not looking for a lot of emotional growth from Conan while hacking his way across Hyboria but I definitely need to see it from Daemon, Saetan, Jaenelle and Lucivar in the Black Jewels stories. And it has to evolve within the story; you can’t just handwave it with a few lines of exposition because it’d be too messy to deal with or you just want to get it over with and get back to the “good stuff”. Too many writers of all stripes try to get away with this.
Do you find it hard to forget a good book?
Of course! A good book is like an old friend; you can always rely on them when you need a lift. I’ve still got books older that some people I know, older than my nieces and nephews! I came across a fantasy trilogy I’ve had since the 80s- Bloodsong by Asa Drake- and couldn’t wait to re-read them. Books, movies, cds- those are snapshots of your life you can instantly go back to whenever you like.
**I did a blogpost about them and the author, Asa Drake aka C. Dean Anderssen, saw it and permalinked to it on his website. That was very flattering.**
Have any books made you get emotional? Any examples?
Nah- nothing’s ever gotten me that worked up and once I close the cover, I’m good. Now I feel like I’m missing out.
Do you have a large book collection at home?
Lol- remember what I said about dumpster diving before? Between that, what I’ve had since childhood, years of attending the BEA and whatever I buy I’ve probably well over a thousand lying around here, not counting my ebook collection. I’d be good for an episode of Extreme Hoarders!
If you are mid-way and struggling with a book – what do you do?
Set it aside and go do something else- play video games, listen to music, grab another book… so long as it puts that one out of my mind. Give it a day or two and come back to it. If it’s still a chore to deal with it goes down as DNF.
What is your biggest book reviewer success story?
I can answer this a few different ways, and it’s not what you’d think.
An author once contacted me for a review of her urban fantasy novel; I agreed, but ended up hating the book and told her so. After I posted the review a friend- Naomi Clark, who’s a UF author in the UK- asked me about it so I lent her the book, and she loved it! The two of them have since become buddies. I’m kinda proud of that.
A parody author, Sue Knott, quoted my review for her Hunger Games spoof as part of the promo blurb for it on Amazon. That’s another pretty proud moment.
I get a lot of comments on my Anita Blake/Merry Gentry reviews from people both who thank me for sparing them the pain of having to read the books and from those who wonder why if I think the books suck so badly do I keep reading them. Things like these are the real success stories to me- when someone appreciates or is stimulated enough by the review to respond, even to challenge it. Whether they agree or disagree, I’m happy to engage anyone about any review I write.
Even the author.
Thanks you John for an interesting and insightful interview.
So much to take in and think about here.
- Your passion for books came through strongly. I loved your phrase ‘a good book is an old friend’ – that’s how it feels!
- I get the impression you are firm but fair with your reviews. I think your reviews would challenge the author and this is a good thing. It sounds like you are up for a debate too!
- I agree that world building is really important in a book. It is something that can get overlooked.
- I need to read Richelle Mead’s Soundless – sounds interesting.
- Your interview answers make me want to go work on proofing and grammar.
If you want to get in touch with John please click here to his blog.
If you are a book reviewer and fancy being interviewed on my blog please leave me a message in the comments section.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/9611371@N03/7040599487″>Helmut’s House</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>(license)</a>