Friday, 30 December 2011

Turning the tables #4 – Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist

So my last interview of the year is with Pat of the eponymous Pat’s Hotlist:


This is one of the oldest and best known fantasy book blogs on the internet! Pat’s Hotlist has what we call in the writing game 'a very distinct voice', and that’s a big plus in a field where new book blogs are springing up daily. The site’s longevity is result of persistence, but its popularity is all down to the content.

Pat gave me his interview sheet way back, and the first question of my own Frankenstein’s Monster of an interview I stole from the first question on his. When he sent it to me it read:

So what's the 411 on Peter Orullian? Tell us a bit about your background?

… Peter having been interviewed immediately before me. In fact, when I sent my replies back Pat very kindly enquired if I wanted to add any more, presumably because Peter had done such a good job on his interview and my answers looked rather scrappy in comparison J and such pointers to newbies are genuinely appreciated. Peter’s replies occupied nearly 2000 words more than mine!

Pat has missed out the infamous Falacata Times (quite possibly a good choice given some of the pathways it’s led us down recently, Justin Landon!) but I’m sure you’ll find the answers provided very interesting. I found Pat’s answer on plot vs prose to be particularly enlightening.

Anyhow, enough from me, with great pleasure I turn the tables on the estimable Mr St-Denis! On with the questions!



So what's the 411 on Patrick St-Denis? Tell us a bit about your background? (from Pat's Hotlist)

Well, I fell in love with the genre when I first read Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight during my first year of high school. That sets us back to 1986. Man, I ain't getting any younger, that's for sure!

And the rest, as they say, is history. I've been an avid SFF reader ever since. After countless TSR offerings, I "graduated" to David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, Stephen King, and many others.

Interestingly enough, in a genre that's supposedly 99% crap, over the last 25 years I've always found terrific speculative fiction novels to read. Given this literary background and the fact that I was an active poster on various SFF message boards in the good old days of the internet, the transition toward becoming a blogger/reviewer seemed kind of natural.

Why should we read your blog? Convince us?

After nearly 3700 blogs posts, over 300 book reviews, innumerable news and articles, hundreds of giveaways, I don't know how many interviews, and millions of readers, there is nothing I can say or do to convince people to read my blog. The content is there. Pat's Fantasy Hotlist is what it is. Some will love it. Some will hate it.

That's the way love goes.

Thankfully, there are more lovers than haters out there. . .

What inspired you to start a review site?

I'll quote a portion of the answer I provided for a similar question I was asked in my very first interview (http://fantasylibrary.blogspot.com/2007/10/interview-with-patrick-st-denis-of-pats.html): Well, the funny thing about my blog is that it was never meant to exist for more than a week or two. I have a very short attention span (whether it's with girls, tv shows, bands, etc), and unless I'm hooked from the very start I will lose interest fairly rapidly.

Truth be told, I had never before shown any interest whatsoever in creating a website, or in reviewing books per se. After all, I had never written a book review in my life. Hence, there was no urge within me to create what became Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.

If you want to blame someone for my polluting cyberspace since January of 2005, then your scapegoat should be my friend Pat. He created what became the most popular political blog in the province of Québec, and ranked as high as number 2 in Canada. One day at work, he was telling me that I should consider doing the same (in retrospect, he was probably hoping that I would join him in the political sphere). But even though I use a computer every day to accomplish an assortment of tasks, I'm a terrible computer-illiterate. Aware of that particular shortcoming of mine (he would in all likelihood point out several others, if given the chance!), he explained how easily a blog could be set up and then run. Claiming that even I could manage to get the hang of it was really saying something, so I decided to give this blog thing a shot!

Thus, on January 5th 2005 (if memory serves me right), bored out of my mind and for want of a better idea, I sat down in front of my computer. And instead of downloading porn or midget sex clips, I resolved to discover if creating a blog was as easy as my friend made it sound. To my dismay, it was. In the space of a few minutes, the whole thing was up and running. The problem was that I now needed to give the blog a name and a purpose in order to continue. Which threw me off-balance, for I simply wanted to see my template on my computer screen.

Racking my brain for inspiration, I suddenly remembered my friend John Fallon, the actor/producer/director/critic, who created what became the most popular horror website in the world (http://www.joblo.com/arrow/). We lost touch for a few years, but I recalled when he told me that he got into that because no mainstream critic reviewed horror movies seriously. A couple of years went by, and all of a sudden he found himself on top of the horror movie entourage. The studios now fly him on location to meet and interview actors and directors, etc. He attended two Playboy parties and countless film festivals around the globe. Note to all the editors and publicists who will read this interview: I am willing to forsake a year's worth of ARCs if you can get me into a single Playboy party!:p I mean, come on, throw me a bone here!

Back then I was still relying on Amazon.com reviews for the most part, which also featured brief PW and Kirkus pieces. But none of those reviews satisfied me, for none of them elaborated on facets that interested me. Most of the time, those reviews consisted of a short version of the cover blurb, with a few extra sentences thrown into the mix. I remember being irritated a whole lot by that sort of reviews at that particular time, which compelled me to turn this new blog into my own little fantasy book review site. Since nobody seemed willing to explore themes such as worldbuilding, characterization, pace, yada yada yada, I decided that I would give it a shot. In addition, with so many websites and blogs focusing on the negative back then, I wanted to share my love of the genre with fellow readers and raise awareness in all the good things fantasy and science fiction have to offer. This has remained the blog's objective since Day 1, and I would like to believe that I've achieved my goal.

Where do you get your ideas for new books to review from?

There are various sources, to be sure. I'm on several mailing lists, which means that I receive a shitload of books every week. Well over 600 novels in 2011. I give each of them a quick glance, sometimes read the cover blurbs, and once in a while a book will pique my curiosity. When that happens, it goes on my "maybe" pile.

I've worked with a number of editors and publicists for a few years now, so they kind of know what I'm usually into. When they get in touch with me to discuss the possibility that I might want to check a certain title out, I'm always willing to listen.

Then there's the hype coming from SFF publishers. Advance reviews sometimes create a lot of noise, which in turn might catch my interest and make me want to see what the fuss is all about. That's how I actually became interested in Prince of Thorns, by the way.

Like most readers, I also have my own trusted reviewers. When a number of them all write positive reviews of a work, it usually makes me want to read it too.

What's your favourite book and why?

I don't have one, as it is impossible to put my finger on a single book that blew my mind in a way that trumped all the others.

In no particular order, here are those SFF titles which rank among my favorites: George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, Steven Erikson's Memories of Ice, Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven, Ian McDonald's The Dervish House, R. Scott Bakker's The Thousandfold Thought, Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind (even though it's not speculative fiction), and the list goes on. . .

Everyone says they understand that people's tastes vary, but not everyone truly accepts that. If someone adores a book you hate ... does that give you any pause, emotionally or mentally?

Not at all. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but I'm smart enough to know that enjoying or disliking a novel is a very subjective process. The qualities I use to praise a book might be the exact same facets of a work that another reviewer will use to savage it.

Early on, I sort of thrashed a book that did absolutely nothing for me. About a week later, a reviewer I had come to trust implicitly gave that same novel a rave review. As a matter of course, the opposite has happened quite a few times as well.

Again, that's the way love goes. That's why you never see me defending divisive authors such as Hal Duncan, R. Scott Bakker, or Steven Erikson on message boards. I happen to love what they do. That others don't doesn't make me lose any sleep. And yes, it's possible to like Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and R. Scott Bakker. Live with that, bitches. . . ;-)

Do you ever hold back when you might want to villify a book, or put a more positive spin on it in an attempt to be even handed and not colour the review too much with your personal reaction?

Reviewers would like to believe that they are thoroughly objective, but one can never truly be 100% objective. Most online reviewers are huge genre fans, and hence they sometimes get overexcited regarding certains authors and titles. It comes as no surprise that I have my own preferences and favorites, and in my excitement I may unconsciously overlook or downplay certain aspects of a work that casual readers may well find off-puting. And yet, I do my damnedest not to let this happen. But as I said, no matter how much I try, I'm persuaded that it doesn't always work.

Like most SFF fans, I read for the love of it. And as fun as it can be to occasionally villify a book (my review of David Bilsborough's The Wanderer's Tale (http://fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com/2007/06/wanderers-tale.html) is still remembered fondly in certain circles), but in the end it's simply a waste of my time. So two years ago I elected to stop reading a novel that does nothing for me after about 150 pages or so. Which is why you rarely see truly negative reviews on the Hotlist anymore. Life's too short to waste on crap. As a matter of fact, I'd rather raise awareness and spread the word about what's good out there.

Your question brought to mind a correspondence I exchanged with Gollancz editor Simon Spanton in 2008 which came to be known as the Hype Files (http://fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com/2008/06/hype-files.html). My lukewarm review of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains caused a bit of a backlash within the SFF online community, and Spanton and I discussed the nature of hype. And I did elaborate on the fact that sometimes our overexcitement can color our reviews:

I think the hype regarding TSR remains comes from within SFF readers, at least a large part of it. It's Richard Morgan, for fuck's sake, and we want him to blow our minds! So we are already predisposed to be "influenced" by any positive buzz. Heck, people on message boards were getting excited about the damned book last summer, a full year before it was even released. We didn't even know what the novel would be about, and yet we were jumping up and down in anticipation.

When the advance praise from Joe and Darrin came, we were all salivating! Then the blogger reviews went up, and things reached a new level of excitement. I'm not saying that those bloggers wrote false or exagerated reviews. But I think that in their excitement, they may have, consciously or unconsciouly, overlooked some of the story's shortcomings. I'm guilty as charged of having done that in the past concerning titles that I was really looking forward to, and I was called out on it. Nothing wrong with that. We are only human, after all, and sometimes we really want some books to be so damn good. Just to give you an example, though he wrote a glowing review, [name withheld] came out and said that TSR had nothing on Altered Carbon and Black Man. I believe that, had I read it when you initially sent me the ARC, I would probably have enjoyed it more. As it is, all those positive reviews made my own expectations go up a few notches (and they were high to begin with), and in the end no novel could have met those expectations. . .

We, as readers, in a way create and magnify the hype. We want this book to be great, and when reviews keep telling us that it is, well we just keep hoping for more, and more. So I'm not saying that you and the folks at Gollancz did anything wrong. Man, you're riding that wave for all its worth, and so you should! We rarely so such a buzz for a book, especially when you're not named Martin, Gaiman, or Jordan. So I see nothing wrong in the way you guys played your card. And I don't think anyone of those bloggers can be blamed of anything but overexcitement at the thought of finally reading that new Morgan fantasy book.

Personally, I never try to hold back when the time comes to villify a book. But there is a way to do it, I guess. And in the end, no matter how you try to sugarcoat it, a negative review remains a negative review. For instance, I like Brandon Sanderson. He's a big fan of the genre and a standup guy. I started blogging the year his debut was published, and I reviewed Elantris, did an interview, and interacted with Brandon quite a bit back then. When the first Mistborn volume was released, I said that Sanderson was the brightest new voice in the genre. Unfortunately, the next two Mistborn installments really did very little for me, and I was forced to write my reviews accordingly. In a way I felt bad, for I genuinely like Brandon Sanderson. But I had no choice but to be honest with my readers. The same goes for Steven Erikson's Crack'd Pot Trail.

As far as putting a more positive spin in an attempt to be even handed in a review, though I can't provide any specific examples, I'm pretty sure I'm guilty as charged from time to time. . .

Does your personal opinion of an author ever sway a review in any direction?

No. I let the novel stand on its own merit.

Every time I'm perusing a message board and see readers bitching about Terry Goodkind, Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, or John C. Wright, and see them go on about how they'll never buy/read any of their books again, I can't help but shake my head and marvel at the silliness of it all.

Terry Goodkind is a dumbass and a crackpot. About as bad as they come. But that's not why I don't read and review his books anymore. It's just that he writes crap. Period. I would still hate his books if he was the nicest human being out there. . . Sadly, he's not. . .

Are you all about story, or does the beauty (or otherwise) of the writing count for much? Or more broadly - what is it, between the covers, that's most important to you?

I'm a plot kind of guy. Always have been and always will be. To me, it's the story that matters. In my opinion, this is what captures the heart and imagination of readers.

Decades later, people are still talking about Tolkien's LotR because of Frodo's tale. J. R. R. Tolkien may not have been the greatest of authors, but he was a great storyteller. The same thing goes for Robert Jordan. I'm convinced that fifty years from now, people will still be reading and enjoying The Wheel of Time. Some have called Jordan a pedestrian writer and that may not be far from the truth. And yet, he's a top notch storyteller. Millions of readers have fallen in love with Rand, Matt, Perrin, and company, with millions more to come.

To me, it's all about the storylines. The beauty of the writing can enhance the overall reading experience, true, but it remains a secondary aspect that can never satisfy me if there is a subpar plot to begin with. Lyrical prose is all well and good, but the absence of a good and multilayered plot will kill any novel for me.

What is it that's most important to me? Well, the way I break down my reviews is a good indication. For speculative fiction titles, the facets I'm most interested in are worldbuilding, characterization, depth of the plotlines, and the pace. In light of all this, the quality of the prose remains important, for it can break a novel. If the ideas are unreal but bad writing kills the execution, a book can be nothing but shit. Yet in an of itself, the quality of the writing can never make me appreciate a book if there is an absence of an interesting plot. Which is why I could never finish Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. . . This one made me want to open my veins. . .

What are you goals and hopes for the Hotlist & how does it feel to be read across the globe?

Truth be told, I no longer have any hopes or goals for the Hotlist. I guess it's safe to say that Pat's Fantasy Hotlist went well beyond my wildest expectations. I've never been able to really get used to this. Thousands of visitors from 105 countries accounting for millions of hits, all to read the drivel I put up on an almost daily basis. It's unreal!

I have my share of detractors, of course. Honestly, I have more than my share, or so it seems sometimes! :P And yet, whatever the haters might say, the Hotlist today is basically everything I ever wanted the blog to be when I began doing this. Reviews, news, articles, interviews, giveaways, etc. I'm cool with the fact that some people can't stand my little corner of the intrawebs. Trying to please everyone has never been an objective of mine. But Pat's Fantasy Hotlist is exactly the sort of blog I'd like to read.

After nearly hanging them up and retiring at the end of last year, I'm not sure just how long I'll keep blogging. But as long as I'm having fun, what the heck!?!

My motto has always been "Wasting technology since January 2005!" Seems that I've achieved a lot since then with the Hotlist, not the least of which was getting a character based on me getting butchered in George R. R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons. When an asshole of a knight known as Ser Patrek of King's Mountain gets dismembered by a giant after having his head smashed to a pulp, who needs a Hugo award?

I'm sure you realize I've always been doing this for the right reasons.

I'm still dreaming of the Playboy Mansion, though. . . ;-)

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Turning the tables #3 - Civilian Reader

So, next on my interview hit-list is Stefan Fergus who runs the excellent Civilian Reader blog:


It's hard as a reader to tell which blogs are well frequented and which aren't. Especially as much of the post-article commentary goes down on twitter these days rather than in the permanent comments sections. This said, it feels to me that a lot of good work goes into the CR blogsite and it deserves a larger audience (however large or small it might be right now).

This is a true turning of the table as Stefan interviewed me ages ago in what may well have been my first ever interview:


There are a staggering 60+ other interviews on site, with a nice index so you can hunt down your favourite. 

Gratifyingly Stefan also sweated his answers, but the results I think you'll agree are well worth reading!


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So what’s the 411 on Stefan Fergus? Tell us a bit about your background? (from Pat’s Hotlist)

I’m 28. I’m British, but the UK has never felt like home. I’ve lived in twelve countries, so Britain was just where I was shipped off to school. I didn’t like it at all. I like to think of myself as a functional nerd.

Wait, twelve countries? Oh you big fat liar! That’s no way to start an interview! Just name them – don’t think about it – just roll the names out right now, Mr Smarty-Dodeca-country-phile....

In order(ish) - Thailand, Peru, Colombia, Spain, Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, Morocco, USA, Turkey, Japan, and Britain (England and Wales).

Because of school, Britain sort of fits in a number of places/times, but is where I lived for all-but-one of my ten years of university - my second year was abroad, in Japan - so I tend to count it as the latest country.

Hmmm. We’ll call that one a draw. Moving on... I’ve heard it’s Dr Smarty-Dodeca-country-phile?

I’ve spent altogether too long at university, and have just finished a PhD this year at Durham University, and have managed to time it just right for when there are apparently no jobs available! Go me. So, I’m currently homeless and unemployed, but want to live and work in New York – the only city I’ve ever felt at home in.

I’m fascinated by American politics and history. I love books, rock and metal music, movies and certain TV shows. I love telling people about them, too. I’ve watched the complete The West Wing series eight times.

My dream is to be a successful, published author who also writes journalistic pieces on the side. And I would really love to own a dog.


Why should we read your blog? Convince us?

Why should you read my blog? Hm. That’s a tough question. Because it would be really nice if you did? No. Well, yes, it would, but that’s not a very good reason.

I think you should read it because you’re looking for long, in-depth reviews of genre novels and that’s what I try to offer. One of the things I like the most about the online reviewing community and format is the length and quality of the reviews out there. When you see Waterstone’s Books Quarterly magazine, and they have what must be a 20-30 word review of a book... How does that help anyone? By the time you’ve finished telling people what the book’s about, you have enough space to say “It’s good” or “It’s bad”. That’s just not enough to make me want to buy a book. I wanted to write longer reviews that looked at not just what the story was, but what else was going on in the novel. Most importantly, however, I wanted to write about whether or not the novels were well-written, entertaining to read, and offered something more, because that’s what interests me. So far, people seem to like that...

Also, you should read Civilian Reader because of the author interviews, guest posts, and myriad other posts. I try to get as much up there as I can, and also to keep things varied. Hence the recent inclusion of a blizzard of comic reviews, which is something I’ve only just recently got back into (and thank you to Steve Aryan for giving me some pointers about which comics to check out). More important than reading Civilian Reader, though, is telling all your friends about Civilian Reader! It’s not Fight Club, it’s actively encouraged that you talk about it...


What inspired you to start a review site?

I started the site mainly because I didn’t have anyone else to talk to about the books that I was reading. And I tend to want to talk about things I’m passionate about. Incessantly. Most of my life, I’ve read the novels and series that were considered uncool or whatever, so reading was always a very solitary thing for me. That’s something I’ve really liked about getting involved in the blogging community and other social media – connecting with other people who know more about this stuff than I do, who are willing to share their thoughts on everything genre-related.

It also felt natural, in a way, because before reviewing books I spent most of my time listening to and reviewing rock and metal music. Although, that was done as a fanzine, named after a Terry Pratchett reference: MWRI – “Music With Rocks In” (Soul Music). It was quite fun, for the most part, as I got to meet lots of bands I liked, got into gigs free, and got quite a lot of free music. It started to get a little tedious, however, as albums started to blur into one big, loud mess of noise. If I reviewed one album positively, I would get sent ten albums that were carbon-copies of it. This just took the magic away from that New Album Experience that I love so much. Also, with the emergence of MySpace and YouTube, there just didn’t seem much point in reviewing music anymore – if you want to know what a band sounds like, go to their website, or YouTube channel, and you can hear for yourself!

As for books: I’ve always been a reader, and have always had at least one book on the go. As I started to read more at university – both fiction and non-fiction, I found more stuff I wanted to talk about but nobody to talk with. So, into the blogosphere I went. The blog started off with both fiction and non-fiction books, because I was always reading one of each. I’ve always been someone who likes to write about things. I wanted to keep writing, and my university courses didn’t really offer much opportunity to do it, so after I was introduced to blogs by a journalism professor, I thought I’d found the promised land!

It’s also been really great having a distraction from my work: if you look at the rate of posting, those months when the blog seemed busiest are also the months I had deadlines for my PhD chapters. I needed a way to switch off. This is also why I started reading more fantasy novels and fewer thrillers (my favourites were always US political thrillers).


Where do you get your ideas for new books to review from?

Lots of places. I check out publishers’ catalogues when they come out, read synopses, make a note of anything that sounds interesting, and then head to Google to find out more, pencil in publication dates if necessary. If I have a working relationship with the publisher, I might ask if they have any spare review copies up for grabs.

When I first started, I was just reviewing authors whose work I was already following, so people like Dan Abnett, John Sandford, Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Richard North Patterson, Terry Pratchett, and Richard Morgan (whose Market Forces was the first book I ever reviewed, for Durham Uni’s Palatinate newspaper – the editor butchered the review completely, which is why I never reviewed for them again). The longer I did it, though, the more authors I’ve added to the “Must Always Read” lists.

Then publishers started sending me stuff, and that was a whole different ball game! The fact that publishers send me books for review has also been a huge help in discovering new authors and their novels – just this year, for example, new finds include Ernest Cline, Drew Magary, Brad Beaulieu, Chuck Wendig, Myke Cole, and lots of other debut authors. Some of the greatest finds of the past few years have been randomly sent to me by publishers, and I am enormously grateful for that. Sometimes I get sent utter dross, of course, but I like to focus on the good ones...

I pay attention to a number of book websites, too, which usually helps me discover some of the less-well-publicised authors, or authors who aren’t published in the UK (Mad Hatter’s Book Review is great for this – I think I’ve found and bought more new books based on things I’ve read in Michael’s posts than anyone else’s). Justin’s “Staffer’s Musings” site has also been a great source of recommendations for releases from the smaller US presses – specifically Night Shade – as well as being funnier than mine, so a good read in itself. And, of course, “A Dribble of Ink” and “NextRead/GavReads”, which were the first two book blogs I followed.

Some recommendations have come from other authors, too – for example, I wouldn’t have heard of Mazarkis Williams as early as I did if you hadn’t told me about him, and Kelly McCullough I discovered because Doug Hulick mentioned him at some point. I probably wouldn’t have got to Peter V. Brett this past month if Myke Cole hadn’t ordered me to do so (very good call, that one). Twitter has been a real boon for recommendations, too – it’s a fascinating social media, but one through which I’ve learned of hundreds of new authors, and met some great fellow book-lovers.

And, of course, browsing bookstores. There are very few things I like more than wandering about a bookstore looking for new releases and previously undiscovered gems.


What’s your favourite book and why?

I don’t think I have a single “favourite” book. It largely depends on my mood at any given time. Favourite authors would be easier, I think. Fantasy? Scott Lynch, Terry Pratchett and Mark Charan Newton. Sci-Fi? Dan Abnett, Aaron Dembski-Bowden and Richard Morgan. Fiction? James Clavell, Tom Wolff and Ethan Canin. Thrillers? John Sandford, Vince Flynn, David Baldacci and Kyle Mills. Horror? Anne Rice. Have I missed any genres? For all of them, it’s because they write novels that are entertaining, gripping and have depth.

But that leaves out so many other great authors whose work I love unmentioned... Too many to list here, of course, but take a look at the reviews I’ve done – so many awesome authors, especially in fantasy.

If I absolutely had to chose just one book? James Clavell’s Tai-Pan, which was the first “proper” book I read. To this day, I think my dad regrets giving it to me before we went on a family holiday, because I spent most of the time indoors reading it...


If music be the food of love, what do you think book reviewing is and please explain your answer? (from the Falcata Times)

This is a rather weird question... I have no idea how to answer it. For me, reading and reviewing books is therapy, stress-relief, happiness and contentment. But I’m quite the introvert, so I guess this makes sense. Book reviewing is, also, giving back I think. If an author has written a novel that has struck a chord with me, I like to think that reviewing it might influence someone else to check it out. A pay it forward, sort of thing. Fuel for creativity? Inspiration? I dunno.


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Everyone says they understand that people’s tastes vary, but not everyone truly accepts that. If someone adores a book you hate... does that give you any pause, emotionally or mentally?

Not really. What may give me pause is if I’m indifferent to a novel, but someone I respect reads it and likes it, then maybe I’ll rethink my indifference and give it a try. If I then don’t like it... well, I tried. I often love things many people around me don’t, so it would be a bit weird if I didn’t accept that people have different tastes.

Sometimes I wonder about some novels that get glowing reviews and generate almost frantic buzz before they’re published – there are a couple of authors in particular, but they shall remain unnamed. I don’t understand the hype. I’ll read the novel, think “ok” or “meh”, and then check my RSS feed and see loads of glowing, gushing reviews proclaiming it to be the best thing written ever! I sometimes end up wondering if I’ve read the same book as these other reviewers.

At the same time, I find positive reviews of books I don’t like very interesting to read. I like to compare reviews, after I’ve written mine, to see what other people got out of a book compared to what I took away from it. Sometimes, it will make me rethink something that I didn’t like, but sometimes it has made me wonder if I read the same book as the other reviewer... I tend not to read reviews of novels I am either reading at the time or intend to read.

Funny reviews from other people make me think I take my blog too seriously. Which is probably true.


Do you ever hold back when you might want to vilify a book, or put a more positive spin on it in an attempt to be even handed and not colour the review too much with your personal reaction?

I was thinking about this the other day. I don’t like tearing books to shreds, because I don’t think there’s any value to it. That’s not to say there’s no value to criticism, as there clearly is when it’s constructive. But when I’m reading a book that I think is utter crap, I really don’t want to waste any time reading it, and certainly don’t want to waste time writing about it. It’s not why I started the blog.

This means I tend not to finish or review books I don’t like – I don’t think it’s fair to review a book I haven’t finished, and because I have limited time, I don’t want to waste my time reading a book I’m not enjoying. I don’t consider myself a “critic”, so I don’t think there’s any responsibility for me to point out bad books. I’m only interested in reading and reviewing books I enjoy and get something out of, and then telling other people about them. That doesn’t mean I will ignore weaknesses to novels I really like – there are very few novels I’ve had no problem with.

There have, however, been a couple of instances when I’ve put a slightly more positive spin on a book because I feel that my negative impression has been influenced by one particular, minor thing – often something small that can bug the hell out of me. Take Grisham’s The Associate as an example – really like his writing, blitzed through the novel at the expected pace, but it’s based on one of the flimsiest premises ever, and that ruined it for me. My review pointed it out, but also pointed out the quality of prose, pacing and character construction.

Usually, the positive spin will just take the form of downplaying something I don’t like, and focusing on the things that I did like. It’s usually not hard, though, as it’s safe to say that if I finished the novel, there’s plenty about it that I like. That being said, there are a couple of reviews that I’ve written that I feel put a negative slant on a book I actually thoroughly enjoyed! Atlas Infernal by Rob Sanders is one of them – I thought it had some problems with execution and certain passages of over-long exposition and description, but re-reading my review when I sent Rob some interview questions, I was surprised at just how negative the review seemed. Thankfully, Alyssa now reads all my reviews before I post them, and points out when I don’t make sense or seem to contradict myself.

Balance is something I aim for, because that’s what I look for in reviews (and journalism as a whole). Wholly positive or wholly negative reviews are, in my opinion, mostly useless as they don’t feel honest. Hyperbole drives me nuts, and will put me off a blog and a book very quickly. (That does not, of course, mean I am immune to using it myself. Do as I say, not as I do...)

Typos annoy the hell out of me, too, so if a novel’s full of them, expect grumpy criticism.


Does your personal opinion of an author ever sway a review in any direction?

Up until recently, this was never a problem, as I’d never met any authors. I was stuck up in Durham, where nothing interesting ever happens, chained to various desks typing away at my thesis. Events and conventions were always scheduled around deadlines or teaching requirements that I couldn’t get out of, so I never had to worry about that. That being said, now that I’ve left Durham, I’ve noticed a few more events in Durham and Newcastle happening...

So, when I liked a book, I liked it and it never occurred to me that I might be swayed by my opinion of the author as a person. There have been a couple of interactions with authors – when requesting an interview or something – when things haven’t exactly been as I expected, but I still read and review their work. One or two interview responses have been disappointing, but I usually put that down to the author’s time constraints, rather than any disinterest in doing a good job. I discovered one author has political views so very opposite to my own, but I still enjoy his writing, so still read and review them positively if they warrant it.

I met three authors in the past couple of months, however, and have been wondering about whether or not my opinion has been swayed. I don’t think so, though. In these recent cases, it was more that I was meeting authors whose work I really enjoyed, rather than meeting an author and therefore enjoying their work. There have been a couple of instances of striking up a good rapport with an author via twitter or email, only for me to then dislike their novel... That always makes me feel a little awkward, but the author hopefully never realises that I never reviewed their book...

If an author is super-friendly via twitter or email when I’m sorting out an interview or guest post, then that can certainly make me more inclined to try their books, but I usually contact authors after I’ve read their work, so again the timing would suggest otherwise. So far, my interactions with authors haven’t yet translated into any conscious effort to make them happy with a positive review.


Are you all about story, or does the beauty (or otherwise) of the writing count for much? Or more broadly – what is it, between the covers, that’s most important to you?

Story is, of course, what brings me to the novels in the first place, but a good premise poorly executed... So, writing style is extremely important to me – I’ve spent far too much time over the past ten years of university reading fusty academic papers and books, so why would I want to do that in my free time? A good prose style is, therefore, very important to me. That’s not to say that I need the prose to be stylish. The best prose is frequently straightforward and simple. Esoteric words and turns of phrase, while certainly a pleasure to read when done well, are not essential to creating superb fiction.

A great prose style can lead me to forgive some perceived issues or flaws with a novel that I might have. If I’m really enjoying reading a book, because the prose is fluid and well-crafted, the humour well-placed and so on, then I won’t get so annoyed if there’s a deus ex machina moment, or an instance of unrealistic happenstance. I suppose, what I really look for is clarity in the prose.

It doesn’t have to be ‘literature’ or ‘literary’ for me to like it, though. I tend to think the best writers do not aim for “high” language, and instead write in a natural style. Some of my favourite novels would never be considered literary (or, for some people, considered at all), but I love them because the story, characters, writing and everything else just fits together perfectly. Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s novels are a perfect example of this: they’re tie-in fiction, so many people will disregard them out of hand. But, I honestly think he is one of the best sci-fi writers ever. Blood Reaver was, as far as I could tell, as near to perfect as any novel I’ve ever read. His style is so good, his attention to detail fantastic, and he manages to instil such an interesting and engaging level of nuance into characters that are, effectively, metahuman terrorists that you end up loving them! The same goes for Scott Lynch’s two Locke Lamora novels, which I loved reading (and really must re-read at some point).

I don’t come at novels looking for critical analysis. If it’s written well, then I think everything the author wanted it to do will come through. Those are the novels I like the most. Sometimes, when I read reviews online, I wonder if the reader likes the book because they think they should like it, or if because the “right people” like it, and therefore if they don’t then there’s something wrong with them.


Do you write yourself? If so what’re you working on?

Yes, I do. (Are there any book bloggers who don’t dabble in writing at the same time?)  University work seriously got in the way of writing fiction for the past four years, but I’ve been planning on one series for about six years. I even started a website for it, but everything’s changed so much, I’ll have to start that again at some point when I make some proper progress on the writing.

I’m working on a series of secondary world fantasy novels. Rather than a medieval setting, it’s in an industrial-revolution-style age, and the stories I’m trying to write are inspired by the United States’ experiences in China and with the Chinese in the 1850s-1910s, with other themes drawn from my own readings and understanding of various periods of American and Asian history. It’s possible that the stories might veer into steampunk territory, but it’ll be secondary to the overall story if it does.

I have the world and political structures mostly fully formed in my head already, but I’m struggling with the story arc for the individual novels. I made some good progress yesterday, actually, when I figured out some important, vital agendas and motivations as well as plot-points. The first novel is a blend of fantasy and thriller: an investigator is tasked with solving a terrorist attack on a government building, and by following him we are introduced to the world and society of the most powerful nation in this world. If you know anything about the history of the Chinese “coolies” in America during the construction of the railroads, then you get an idea of what one caste’s lives are going to be like. I’m playing around with a lot of my favourite things about fantasy and history, so it’s been really fun to plan.

At the moment, though, I’m struggling with the micro-elements of the novel, even though 90% of the macro-elements are set. I think writing my PhD may have robbed me of my ability to just sit and write. I think it’s turned me into an “architect”, to use George R.R. Martin’s phrase – I need targets to hit before I can sit and write. I also have the Fear of the Blank Page. Once I get started, I’m sure things will flow, but at the moment, I’m self-sabotaging by wanting to write something amazing right away, and convincing myself that I can’t do that...

It used to be very different. When I was in my teens, I would always sit down and write out some short story about this or that. Often fan-fiction, I suppose you’d call it, set in the Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 settings, because I’ve always liked those. Some of them were laughably terrible! The others were just seriously unpolished. I always did well in creative writing assignments at school. Because we lived abroad for most of my life, there were frequently no other kids my and my sister’s age, so we had to rely on our own imaginations – so we read a lot, and I wrote things and disappeared into my own little worlds as well. I wonder if people thought I was slow, the amount of time I spent staring off into space with a small smile on my face...

After I finished my A-Levels, I wrote about 40,000 words of a rom-com novel, which a friend said reminded them of Mike Gayle’s lad-lit novels. Looking back over it, it’s so obvious that I was influenced by whatever I was reading and watching at the time, so it’s a bit of a mess. I do still like some of the jokes in it, though, so I may try to re-use them elsewhere. I’ve also written the first few chapters of a vampire novel that is so blatantly inspired by Interview with the Vampire; a hitman screenplay inspired by the Sinister Dexter comic strip from 2000AD...


What are you goals and hopes for the Civilian Reader blog & how does it feel to be
read across the globe?

My hopes for the blog are that it keeps going and growing. I want to always be able to keep posting book reviews, author interviews, guest posts, and comic reviews. I will never stop reading and thinking about books, and I love to write about the things I love, so I can’t see it stopping anytime soon. If I ever manage to get a proper job, though, the rate of posting will probably drop, but it’ll never stop. It would be nice to get some more writers to contribute stuff, maybe.
When I first found the Revolver Maps widget for blogs – which tracks where readers are by plotting a point on a map – I thought it’d be interesting to see where readers were, and imagined the UK and maybe some of the US getting blotted out with red dots. I had no idea I had readers all over the world! That was an amazing surprise, I must say. A bit intimidating, but amazing at the same time. Who would have thought someone in the Federated States of Micronesia would read my blog? On busier days, it’s kind of fascinating seeing the dots flashing – during the South Africa World Cup, a fan was checking the blog frequently, and their hits corresponded with times and locations of England games. Very weird. And, I suppose, a bit stalker-ish for me to have spotted that...
Traffic to the site’s built slowly and steadily, and I’m really just happy anybody reads it. I’m also happy that more people are leaving comments on reviews and interviews. It’s meant to be a conversation, so it’s great when other people join in. Ultimately, if it makes people buy books, notice authors I like, or get interested in any of the things I’m interested in and writing about, then it’s doing what it’s supposed to do and I’m happy with that.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A year in numbers!

 So being among other thing a man of numbers (an unkind soul might call me a statistician because I got my PhD in an obscure corner of statistical analysis) I've made a little montage of the figures that characterise Prince of Thorn's reception this year. The picture is self-explanatory and main reason for this blurb is to explain the white space below, without which the image would over-ride the Blogger niff-naff to the right of the screen with messy results!
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Friday, 16 December 2011

Turning the tables #2 - Fantasy Faction

Welcome to the 2nd turning of the tables - in fact really this is the first true turning since this episode's victim has actually interviewed me:


My subject this week is Marc Alpin, to whom I was able to apply my one-size-fits-all interview (not something he did to me, but rolling out the same questions each time is a common interview style & one I'm adopting out of cussedness). And I've been pleased to see Marc assailed by the same host of 'are my answers too long?'/'how will people take this' doubts that an interviewed author (i.e. me) has to struggle with.

Without further ado let us grill Marc Alpin, Overlord of the excellent Fantasy Faction site:


1. So what's the 411 on Marc Alpin? Tell us a bit about your background? (from Pat's Hotlist)

Marc Aplin is a 24 year old male who has brown hair, hazel eyes, an athletic build and... wait, this is a speed dating application, right?

No? Mark Lawrence? Interviewing Fantasy Bloggers... Oh, in that context... I guess I'm not your 'typical' fantasy fan. I only started really getting into Fantasy books after getting injured cage fighting a few years back.

When I trained in Martial Arts I was constantly surrounded by people who pretty much lived and breathed martial arts. For years, pretty much all I did was train, eat and talk to my friend about Martial Arts.

Then though, as I said, I got injured. I lost touch with a lot of those friends and because I had so much spare time, I needed something to fill it. Something exciting, something that could keep me hooked for hours and hours a day - it just turned out that this was fantasy books.

As for Fantasy-Faction? Well, as I've already said, Martial Arts is a very 'group' orientated hobby. As much as I loved reading Fantasy books and that certainly filled the hours I'd usually be training, I missed the social aspect. So, I looked around for 'community' style fantasy sites and I couldn't really find one that suited 'me' and what 'I' was looking for... that's when I thought I'd set one up!


2. Why should we read your blog? Convince us?

Fantasy-Faction isn't 'my' blog. I might have set it up, but essentially it belongs to the community and everything we publish on there comes from the community, from our forum members and our Twitter followers.

Essentially, that is what Fantasy-Faction is; a community. Anyone who has literary talent can write an article for Fantasy-Faction. We publish one article a day on average. This article might be about writing Fantasy, it might be a book review, it might be an interview with an author (such as yourself) or it may be an in-depth article on a certain genre convention. The diversity of our contributors means that we have a huge variety of content going up throughout the week and I'm really, really proud of each and every article/interview/review that we publish.

Logging on to google analytics now, I can tell you that we had 1238 visitors on Fantasy-Faction yesterday. So, that proves to me that we are doing something right and I hope that those reading this will pay us a visit and also become part of the community 


3. What inspired you to start a review site?

I think I covered this already in question 1. But, just to reiterate... I think that although 'the act' of reading is solitary and should remain that way - the eventual interpretation of the novel and the process the mind goes through when filling in the blanks in regards to what happens after the book has finished or what was left unsaid should be a communal one.


4. Where do you get your ideas for new books to review from?

To be honest, because we have so many people contributing to Fantasy-Faction (around 35 now I believe), I just read what I want to read. This might be a classic such as Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, etc or it me be a hot debutee such as Douglas Hulick, Elspeth Cooper or some guy I heard about last year; Mark Lawrence!

I believe that if you write a good, thought provoking review - people will read it. There is a misconception amongst bloggers that visitors to your site only want to read about 'new books'. Of course, they do want to read about new books, but also, if you have the personality and the ability to really judge a book, analyse it and show your visitors something they perhaps missed when they read it or make them see the book in a different light, they will be rewarded by reading your review of the classics.


5. What's your favourite book and why?

Wow. That is a very, very hard question. How much do I get sent via paypal if I say: "Prince of Thorns"? Certainly, Mark your book is up there with the best things I've read in the last few years.

I don't think there is such a thing as 'the ultimate book', because the way that 'reading' works is that you as a reader will connect to a book completely differently than 'I' as a reader will connect to a book. This is because, when an author writes a book they are injecting certain attitudes and values that they have into their work and your reaction to these attitudes and values will inevitably affect how you respond to the book as a whole.

That is of course on the deepest level possible, but even things like characters, setting, time period, etc - if you look at your character Jorg for example Mark... A dark, self assured male - a young, female reader might struggle to connect with him. That of course doesn't mean you are doing something wrong as an author, it means that the young girl is unable to connect to the book, nothing more and nothing less.

I think then, if I had to pick one book that really made me think 'oh wow' and a book that I think resonated with 'me' more as an individual more than any other book in the entire world ever has... it would be 'Beyond the Shadows', which is book 2 of 'The Night Angel Trilogy' by 'Brent Weeks'. The character reminded me a lot of myself and he asked the same personal question that I often asked about my own life. I guess the fact that he is an assassin who takes pleasure in killing people might concern your readers (I guess I should emphasise... I have to homicidal thoughts!)


6. If music be the food of love, what do you think book reviewing is and please explain your answer? (from the Falcata Times)

I think book reviewing is to books what movie reviews are to film. To a certain extent they can make or break a book... I know that is wrong, but to give you an example: I won't read anything with a score of less than 3 on Goodreads generally. That actually goes against my theory that what you read is down to individual tastes and preference, however, I think Goodreads provides a decent enough cross section to say that if 1000 people read a book and the majority of them agree it is 'alright' then I should probably concentrate on the books that thousands of people think is 'good' or even better 'excellent'.

In regards to how reviews can support a book. Well, I think that a good review will give readers a sense of what they can expect and tell them whether they should spend their time reading it. The review should also connect to the reader in a way that has them thinking about the book in ways they might not have should they not have read your review. This is especially true if you have an active user base like Fantasy-Faction. Because Fantasy-Faction is full of people who have already read the books we review (even the ARCs) we have to write reviews that are appropriate for people who have already read what we are reviewing. This means we cannot simply retell the book, we have to look at the underlying messages within that book and what the author is saying beyond the words on the page.


7. Everyone says they understand that people's tastes vary, but not everyone truly accepts that. If someone adores a book you hate ... does that give you any pause, emotionally or mentally?

There are two sides to this: taste and the readers’ ability to connect. Taste is the easy one. What do you like in books? Usually there will be a genre preference. For myself, that preference is fantasy, simply because that is what I like reading about. People who are nostalgic, typically do read fantasy. People who like to dream, think of the past, wish they were knights killing dragons and such. That's me...

How much you enjoy a book will depend upon how easily you connect to the protagonists and what is being said. I quite like the whole darker style fantasy vibe that we have going on right now because I can connect to that.

However, I remember before I read fantasy a few years back, there was a trend of publishing books about young girls who suffered abuse. I read them, but never really found them enjoyable because I couldn't connect with these young children experiencing pain. If I was to review them I'd probably give them 2 star type reviews, however, people with children are in a better position to feel the 'shock' factor of a child being hurt or someone who themselves suffered abuse will probably give them 5 stars as they will connect and 'feel' the hurt with the characters.

So yes, once you connect with a book you can begin to feel emotions as a result of it and it is this emotional experience that makes reading a book far more enjoyable than a film. If that connection is never made, you will never enjoy the book and I think that is why book reviews vary.


8. Do you ever hold back when you might want to vilify a book, or put a more positive spin on it in an attempt to be even handed and not colour the review too much with your personal reaction?

Perhaps I should have mentioned this in my last answer, but there are times when I think: "How can you say that?" and something about a review truly angers me, sometimes even offends me. As long as the language and the structure of the novel is sound, you will really have to justify yourself giving a bad review. And in fact, I think a reviewer should really, really think hard about themselves and what they are writing before they publish it.

Why do you feel this way about a book? What about YOU makes YOU dislike this book? Is it the authors fault?

I very, very rarely publish a bad review. My personal feeling is that if a book is a two star read, I probably didn't enjoy it enough to write anything that a visitor to Fantasy-Faction is going to want to read and so I just move onto the next one....

Someone else can give their thoughts and feelings on it because obviously it just wasn't for me.


9. Does your personal opinion of an author ever sway a review in any direction?

Tough one. I'd like to say no, but, essentially that is not true. Having studied Literature for a while now I can tell you that knowing about the author/context of a piece of fiction will greatly affect how you read a book.

There are a lot of different ways you can approach a book and how much you know about why it was written, when it was written, what was going through the authors mind as he put those words down on that page will affect your judgement, even if you don't know it. The limitations of Practical Criticism (reading a book without context) are that you don't really understand why a piece was written and without knowing that you cannot answer the question: did they pass of fail.

Again, I chose your book because I am talking to you Mark. You look at Jorg, he is an obvious lashing out at those whiter than white protagonists that I would presume you read about when you were younger (not that you are old or anything :P). Now, without understanding the fantasy genre or perhaps not being well read in it I might turn around and say, well, how on Earth can I support this guy with his dark intentions and dash back off to read about that gallant knight in shining armour who is off to rescue that princess.

So, if you speak to a reader before reading their work or at least recognise what they are trying to do (say by reading a blog post) it will be easier for you to recognise why certain things happen, accept them and enjoy the book more because of them.


10. Are you all about story, or does the beauty (or otherwise) of the writing count for much? Or more broadly - what is it, between the covers, that's most important to you?

Mark Lawrence, Patrick Rothfuss - beautiful, beautiful prose.
Brent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson - Unbelievable stories.
I enjoy both as long as there is enough of the other to support them. The four I've mentioned above all have great stories and a certain beauty to their work that I really rank up there with the best around today.

There are authors though, who write beautifully but just don't have enough substance to their stories to really, really impress you. Daniel Abraham would be one example... some of the best, most captivating prose I have ever come across and yet his story didn't offer enough intrigue to have me diving for book 2. Steven Brust has a great, great story, but the language in his early books feels a bit monotonous at times and you find yourself pulling yourself through the novel in order to reach the end.

I don't think you need both in abundance in your novels, but I do think that you need to do either both relatively well or have one that is so good that it covers you for the other if there is something lacking there.


11. Do you write yourself? If so what're you working on?

I most certainly do write! I don’t consider myself a writer though. I envy people such as you Mark, those of you already at the level I aspire to reach. In fact, I curse you under my breath as I read through my work and think “for f**k sake!”.

I am currently working on a novel. Something Brandon Sanderson wrote inspired me... he said that the day he decided to be an author he realised that he’d have to write novels and probably the first few would not be any good or see the light of day. I thought about when I used to box... my first few fights sucked... but then, the more I had, the better I got and I presumed that would be the same for writing. Rather than just thinking ‘one day I will write a novel’ I just decided to write a novel and then should it suck, move onto the next and ensure it is better.

So... the one I am currently working on is set on a world that in the prelude is not all that different from our own.

This world has reached a state in which they have completely rejected their God. They don’t believe in him and have reached a stage where they are in mutual agreement that he does not exist. Then, one day, God appears. He says to his people that he recognises they don’t want him and shall from this day forth take no further part in their lives.
The demon realm delights in the fact that God with no longer be around to provide salvation to the world’s inhabitants – however, before he leaves he seals the demon realm in such a way that no entity may ever pass between them. The demons sit and watch as the world falls into a rather unexpected state. Although God is gone, things don’t really seem to change all that much.
Humans still go about their day jobs, living relatively normal lives, but the world has fallen a little flat. Although no one believed in God, there was always that sense that there ‘might’ be something after death. Now, when people die, souls just begin to float around the world such as butterflies flutter about a field. They have nowhere to go and no way of communicating with the living world and their constant hovering around reminds people of their imminent death and the fact there will be nothing for them after dying.

We now fast forward a couple thousand years. We see that the demon realm has found a loophole in the binding that God placed on them before he left. They managed to throw into the human realm objects that have been enhanced with their own demonic forces as well as a scroll that gave humans the secret of souls. The humans have now learnt from this scroll how to harvest the souls that float around and use them to enhance their own abilities. Evolution has seen three distinct lines of evolution come into existence: Blades, Necromancers and Elementalists.

So far only one of the objects that the demons threw in has been found and the man that holds that object has placed himself on the throne as King. It is rumoured though that there are many, many more and of course, who could resist the hunting of an object that could result in them taking the throne?


12. What are you goals and hopes for Fantasy Faction & how does it feel to be read across the globe?

I am so, so proud of how Fantasy-Faction has turned out. I remember talking to the guys from Ranting Dragon (another blog site) about a year back when we were getting about 25 hits a day and saying something like: if we ever reach 100 hits a day I'll be ecstatic. For the last 2 or 3 months we have been getting at least 1000 hits a day and there was one day a few months back that we got 7000 hits in a single day!!!

I always remember a day when my teacher had us in the school playground and said 'there are 1300 people out here today'. Now, whenever I see figures, I always compare it to that... so when I saw 7000 it just blew me away.

Where do I see Fantasy-Faction going? Well, we have a lot of exciting projects in the works. The biggest one is that we are looking to launch a writing competition next year and an anthology of 12 short stories that we hope will represent some of the finest unpublished writers from around the world. Hopefully they will be supported by a couple of recognisable authors too 

What we will focus on though is bringing our visitors a new article every day that will provoke their thoughts, entertain them and enhance the reading experience.