A list, a list! My top ten 2015 books

31 12 2015

OK, so I like lists. But part of the fun of book reviewing is being able to look back over what you’ve read in the course of a year, point and laugh at the turkeys, and purr over the gems.

There have been some stinkers for sure, and I shan’t be sorry when publishers get bored of the current fad of sticking ‘girl’ in a title (and no, I didn’t think much to either Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, and the continuation of the peerless Stieg Larsson series has the feel of The Girl Who Scraped the Bottom of the Barrel). But remembering the good stuff – especially when it’s from some of the smaller publishers who don’t get the attention they deserve – makes it all worthwhile.

Unusually for me, there are a couple of historicals in there. But Manda Scott’s Into the Fire, which entwines a modern French cop’s case with Joan of Arc, is seriously clever writing. And I loved the 1930s theatreland setting of Curtain Call by Anthony Quinn (not the actor!)

Anya Lipska’s Polish fixer series continues to be one of my favourites, as does Elly Griffiths’ archaeology series set in East Anglia. As for Phil Rickman and his Merrily Watkins books, there’s always an unseemly tussle between me and my co-editor Linda to see who gets to read the new one first! John Connolly, meanwhile, is simply pure class.

There are three debut novels up there – Paul Hardisty’s thriller for new publisher Orenda Books, set in the Yemen; former submariner JS Law writing about what he know (the claustrophobic world of submarines) and YA writer Annie Dalton moving into the crime field with a strong cast of out of the ordinary female characters.

Speaking of which, Judith Flanders’ A Bed of Scorpions staged a late run for a place in the top ten, just edging out Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ One Under. I adored the second book in the series, set in the world of publishing and featuring a 40-something editor who’s never short of a snappy response.

So here are my top ten books of the year, in no particular order:

Into the Fire – Manda Scott (Bantam)

A Devil Under The Skin – Anya Lipska (The Friday Project)

Friends of the Dusk – Phil Rickman (Corvus)

The Ghost Fields – Elly Griffiths (Quercus)

Curtain Call – Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape)

The White Shepherd – Annie Dalton (Severn House)

Tenacity – JS Law (Headline)

The Abrupt Physics of Dying – Paul E Hardisty (Orenda Books)

A Song of Shadows – John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)

A Bed of Scorpions – Judith Flanders (Allison & Busby)


Trust me, I’m a reviewer …

3 11 2012

If you’re a crime fiction fan who spends any time on social media, you’ve probably been scraping your jaw off the ground at the shenanigans over sock puppet reviews where a number of big – and not as big as they’d like to be – names have been posting negative reviews of other writers’ books under false names.

Enough has been written already on the whole nasty saga. What I want to do, though, is to offer up some suggestions on how readers can find reviewers they can trust …

The fake review saga has undermined any credibility that Amazon reviews had – and that wasn’t much to start with. I feel immensely sorry for honest and thoughtful reviewers like British reviewer Maxine Clarke and John L Murphy, an American academic, who both continue to push a rock uphill by posting their excellent reviews to Amazon.

My illusions were shattered early on in my career about reviewing – my mildly negative comment about the vegetarian food on a Rhine cruise for a travel piece was doctored so the travel editor would continue to get freebies.

I’ve stopped reviewing for two other magazines where even faintly negative comments were excised. And when I edited ReviewingtheEvidence, I suggested a very prolific reviewer (four or five reviews a week) might like to find another outlet for her efforts, as she never criticised anything. And those of you on the crime fiction scene will know of another ‘reviewer’ who appears to read hundreds of books a month and has never found one she doesn’t like.

So how do you find publications and reviewers to trust …?

Don’t assume that a newspaper reviewer is automatically going to be better than a blogger. Far too much newspaper reviewers are authors who may not be prepared to give an honest review. A writer/reviewer once told me that they never write even faintly negative reviews, as they don’t want to turn up at a convention and find they’re on a panel with someone whose book they once criticised. My view on this? Give up reviewing once you’re a published novelist –  it’s more honest and comfortable all round and stops any conflict of interest.

There are some very good bloggers out there, but you are generally safer with a specialist review site where there’s a range of reviewers. Certain bloggers have got onto the free book gravy train and they suddenly become terrified this will dry up if they write negative reviews. I can assure them this isn’t true. Most publicists and authors are realists and know that poor reviews are an occupational hazard. If a blogger gets grief from a self-published author (and believe me, this happens a lot), then more fool them for reviewing self-published books in the first place.

I don’t attend conventions and have only been to a couple of meet-and-greets – my choice, I hasten to add. I was taught by a very grumpy old-school newspaper editor who warned about getting too close to contacts. I know other very good reviewers disagree and think I’m being over-paranoid, but it means I feel more comfortable as a reviewer.

And check the following when you find a publication you like the look of:

  • Do they review a good range of books? If they only review cosies and you prefer noir, then it won’t be much help to you.
  • Do they criticise? You don’t want wall-to-wall hatchet jobs, but you do want thoughtful and constructive reviews. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time all round.
  • Do reviewers appear to use their own names? One UK site uses initials, which makes me wonder what the reviewers have to hide.
  • Who’s reviewing for them? You don’t have to be a journalist to be a good reviewer, but it’s useful to know what a reviewer’s background is (see my comments above on authors reviewing …)
  • Do they have a stated policy – or do you suspect they only review books they like and quietly forget the duds? RTE, for example, states explicitly that they won’t review self-published books. Some reviewers admit openly that they don’t review books they don’t like – which is pretty unhelpful.

Ultimately, my best advice is to read widely. You’ll find gems that way – both books and reviewers. And when you find a reviewer you can trust, stick to their coat-tails. Good reviewers should be prized above rubies!

The most exclusive book launch ever

27 10 2010

Long ago and far away, one of the high spots of my year used to be the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. I’d skulk around the Town Hall towards the end of the summer, waiting for the brochure to be published. I’d then mortgage next door’s first-born to buy tickets. It wasn’t unusual for me to turn up at a dozen events.

Ironically, my ticket-buying decreased exponentially as my salary rose. An endless stream of politicians and celebrities seemed to outnumber the writers and actors we’d seen in the past. And I baulked at paying ten or 12 quid for 50 minutes of someone mentioning their book every 30 seconds. The final straw was the splicing together of a bloke who’d written a book on a plague in 19th century Hong Kong with some totally irrelevant woman from a drug company. And yes, guess who was sponsoring the event. Welcome to the corporate world of 21st century literary gatherings…

Last year I didn’t go to anything. This year I bought two tickets – and what good ‘uns they both were. Veteran TV comedy writers Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks (Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart, The New Statesman) were first up and proved to be genial and chatty company as they talked about their move from television writing to the stage.

The high spot, though – and here I declare an interest for a very dear friend– was Chris Stevens and Fenella Fielding, one of the stars of my youth. Chris’s new book, Born Brilliant, was out the following day. It’s a biography of comedian Kenneth Williams, and Chris had access to hitherto unpublished papers.

Most people remember Fenella from the Carry On films (particularly Carry On Screaming and that classic line “Do you mind if I smoke?” Cue smoke rising from the settee). And yes, she still has that glorious, husky voice and gorgeously striking looks.

They proved to be a feisty double act, who dealt with great panache with some fairly hostile questions from the floor. Clearly some people don’t like to hear that their heroes might have had feet of clay . . .

The book signing afterwards proved to be good value. Fenella is clearly remembered fondly by fans, who queued up to bring her little gifts and to get scrapbooks of cuttings autographed.

Afterwards, the three of us retreated across the road for a pizza where we were royally entertained by Fenella’s no-nonsense stories and dry wit. As Chris said, it was the most exclusive and best book launch ever . . .

Buy the book. It’s a riveting read.

Burying the hatchet

31 07 2010

My first editor was a morose sort of chap who used to intone gravely “there’ll be tears before bedtime” at moments of conflict or stress. But he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever had – don’t get too close to contacts, or it’ll compromise your ability to be impartial.

It’s once of the reasons as a reviewer that I’ve kept my distance from writers and musicians. I don’t go to meet and greets or signings, and tend to avoid conventions and writing festivals. It’s much easier to be honest about a book or an album if you’re not worried about hurting a friend’s feelings. That’s not to say I’d want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but reviewers who aren’t honest make me grind my teeth. I always want to shout: “You’re a reviewer, not a PR person for the author!”

In 25 years of reviewing, I’ve only written a handful of reviews where I couldn’t think of a single positive thing to say about the book or album. Usually there’s something good you can clutch on to like Linus and his comfort blanket to soften the criticisms.

Most authors are refreshingly pragmatic about less than glowing reviews and keep their thoughts to themselves. A few, though, send ranty or hurt and doggy eyed emails about how you’ve clearly misunderstood their opus and how everyone else liked it . . .

I have a prepared response now: “Thank you for your email, but I don’t enter into discussion about reviews I’ve written.” I mean, do they think I’m suddenly going to say: “Oh, silly me, I clearly can’t recognise classy writing when I see it, you’ve shown me the errors of my ways, so let me go and change my review . . .”?

I had a classic this week, with capital letters in the subject line and half a dozen pars of whining about my review. The irony was, I hadn’t completely trashed the book and had commented that I’d probably read something else by the author. I resisted the temptation to respond with the observation that if she thought I’d done a hatchet job then she’d have a surprise when she saw a totally negative review. I deleted the email without responding – it had the feel of a missive written to get something off someone’s chest. Maybe I should send her the bill for therapy . . .

It was in stark contrast to a very gracious email from an author whose first book I really hadn’t rated. She’d sent a polite ‘thanks for reviewing it’ note at the time and then got back in touch to say her second book was out, if I was interested. Coincidentally, my review copy had just arrived, so I picked it up, started reading and 100 pages in am enjoying it a great deal more than the debut novel.

When it comes to the next book from Ms Whiner, though, I shall be too busy watching paint dry . . .