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)


Maxine Clarke

19 12 2012

I was just thinking last night that I hadn’t updated this blog since last month when I addressed the thoroughly depressing topic of sockpuppet reviewers on Amazon. The piece mentioned two outstanding and honest reviewers who continued to post to that site.

And then I saw Karen Meek’s note on Twitter about the death of one of those reviewers. Maxine Clarke had been battling cancer for some time.

I regret that I never met Maxine in real life. But we’d chatted by email, on Facebook and on Twitter, and I loved our conversations. We had our media backgrounds in common as well as a passion for crime fiction, and would frequently bemoan declining writing standards in both fields! She wasn’t a great fan of Facebook, but would add typically astute comments to some of the discussions on my page.

Maxine was one of my favourite reviewers, and I enjoyed her blog, Petrona, thoroughly – there was always good conversation to be found there. She had a tremendous knowledge of crime fiction, and her reviews were always literate, honest and constructive. Everything she wrote radiated intelligence.

I remember a few months back discussing Tana French’s Broken Harbour with her. Maxine had loved it; I wasn’t so convinced, despite being a big fan of French. And I owe two great finds to Maxine’s enthusiasm – Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go, and David Belbin’s Sarah Bone series.

I’m going to miss her loads, as will the authors she championed and the readers who knew they could rely on her fair judgement.

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!