Sunday, 11 December 2011

Turning the tables #1 - Staffer's Musings

Over the past year I’ve been given the very welcome opportunity to get the word out about Prince of Thorns by doing interviews on blog sites ... lots of blog sites. Some questions have become old friends, some arch-enemies, and occasionally a new one will pop up to surprise me.

In any event, a twitter exchange inspired me to turn the tables and interview some book reviewers for a change. After all, we’re interested in the human story, right? Whether it be the story behind the pen that wrote the book, or behind the keyboard that writes the reviews we keep coming back to. Well, some of us are anyhow!

The twitter exchange that sparked this began with Justin Landon who writes Staffer’s Musings, and so Justin is my first victim, even though his blog is quite new and in fact he’s never interviewed me, so I’m not actually turning the tables on him. J  Serendipitously,  Justin’s blog happens to be one of my favourites, with a good blend of thoughtfulness, candour, humour, and the added bonus of a well-read host.

The first 6 of these questions are ones that have been asked of me in interview, re-targeted on book-reviewers. The last 6 are mine.

1. So what's the 411 on Justin Landon? Tell us a bit about your background? (Question stolen from Pat’s Hotlist – I don’t even know what 411 means)

I'm 30. I've got a 2 year old little girl, and a beautiful wife who I totally deserve (if you're not buying this, my wife doesn't either).  I work in the American political system during the day, and body build by night.  If I'm not doing either of those things I'm dadding, reading, or writing.  As I'm sure you can tell I make the Dos Equis beer commercial guy look like a real bore.  I realize British people may not get that joke, but I don't get any of their's so that's ok, right?

I grew up in California, and transplanted to Washington DC after college.  It's been a difficult transition as nine years later I still don't own a coat... or rather I choose not to take ownership of the ones people buy for me.  I am an only child; so, and this sounds way sadder than it is, books were my siblings from real early on.  When mom and dad had an adult (not that kind) party at the house, I stayed in my room reading.  I also conned my parents into allowing "I'm reading" to be a worthy excuse to avoid chores.  They also put books in the category of "even if we're broke as shit, we'll buy you as many as you want."  Smooth talker, right?  You can see why politics appealed me.

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

Couple reasons.  I'll give you the "important" stuff first.  I review every book I read and I finish every book I start.  That means I don't skip over books that don't start off hot, and I don't avoid writing reviews for books I didn't like.  I think that's important.  The reason I read reviews wasn't just to find good books, but to avoid bad ones.  I also make a point to review current year stuff, especially things from debut authors because that's where I believe I can most help readers make prudent decisions with their money.

Another niche I try to fill is unique interviews. Most bloggers do interviews.  Unfortunately, a ton of those interviews are done before the blogger has read the book.  I don't get that.  My goal with interviews is to dig into the author's book.  Why did they do something that way?  What were some of the themes they were going for?  If the book failed in some way, why?  I think those are far more fascinating interviews than "tell me about your book".

Two other things: I don't do movies or games and I don't do a lot of news.  There are gads of blogs and sites out there that will do both of those items better and more timely than I ever can.  I like to think of my blog as the color guy in a sports broadcast.  I'm not here to tell you what's happening, but how and why. 

3. What inspired you to start a review site?

I always considered myself a writer.  I was into the journalism thing in high school and college.  I've started a few novels here and there (never got very far).  Then sometime in my mid-20's I stopped writing for myself.  I suppose that had something to do with the fact I was writing thousands of words every day at work.  Either way, I wanted to write again -- and this was a great way to force myself to do it.

I'd also mention that 12 months ago I was told that if I continued playing basketball I would need a full knee replacement at 40.  Prior to that I spent 10-15 hours a week on the court in addition to my other workouts.  With that time freed up I found myself reading a lot more.  100 books a year is an expensive hobby, so I'd be lying if the review copies weren't a nice bonus to the whole gig.

4. Where do you get your ideas for new books to review from?
You know, availability is probably reason 1(a).  Not very glamorous is it?  I'm not quite like some of the more established blogs that get pretty much every title the publishers put out.  Other than possession I tend to lean more toward debut authors (as I mentioned) and things that trend away from the norm.  This year I felt like I could close my eyes and point to a title in Night Shade Books's catalog and I would end up with something that was a perfect fit for my reading aesthetic.

5. What's your favourite book and why?

Tough one.  Impossible really.  If we're talking about speculative fiction... Hyperion by Dan Simmons.  A writer at the height of his power, with a tremendous narrative construction, meets a philosophical space opera.  It's just incredible.  I wish the whole series held up as well.

My other choice would be a 10-book series, which might be cheating.  Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is the most significant work in fantasy since Tolkein.  To explain why would exceed my word limit (self imposed).  I wouldn't recommend anyone read it until they've got a good chunk of fantasy reading, and literary reading, under their belt... but it's worth it.

My favorite book ever is Pafko at the Wall. A novella by Don DeLillo which went on to the prologie for his novel Underworld.  To me, it's a taste of America through the game of baseball.  It's perfection.

6. If music be the food of love, what do you think book reviewing is and please explain your answer? (Question stolen from the Falcata Times)
Is this the SAT exam?  I'm having flashbacks.  Let's see... If music be the food of love, then book reviewing is the masturbation of reading.  Anyone who writes reviews, and thinks they're worth reading, is committing a certain amount of creative masturbation.  There's really no other way to describe it.  Instead of writing something of my own, I'm breaking down someone else's work.  It's like running in place.  Don't get me wrong, it has value... but so does masturbation.

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?

It depends on who it is, and why they love it.  I mean I love Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.  If I reviewed it today, I would be forced to eviscerate it.  It's just not a very good book to a 30 year old, well read person.  For a 14 year old nerd?  It's better than sex (I didn't have a reference point then... obviously),

There's another reviewer out there.  He runs the blog Dazed Ramblings.  He doesn't like very many books.  For example, he loathed Low Town by Daniel Polansky and panned it on his blog.  I quite liked the book.  Does that bug me?  A little.  Except I agree with almost every point James made in his review.  The negatives just didn't bother me as much as they did him.

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?

This is an interesting question because I think most of the negative reviews you received had a lot to do with this.  People reacted negatively to Jorg and his actions and that reaction reflected their opinion of the book.  I would say that eliciting that reaction is what made Prince of Thorns so great.

I did once back off on a negative review because I felt like there was a readership for the novel, it just wasn't me.  That was David Chandler's A Den of Thieves.  In hindsight, I wish I'd panned it.  It probably would have done more for his sales than a dozen glowing review, right?

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

Nope. I've been lucky that all the author's I'm friendly with have written good books. I'm a little nervous about that moving forward. This was probably most tested with Mazarkis Williams's debut, The Emperor's Knife. He and I had talked for months on Twitter and SFF World Forums long before I ever read his book. It was hard to say negative things about his novel a) because I liked him and b) because it was still good despite some problems. Ultimately though, I had to write what I saw in the text.  People should go read it, by the by.

As for having problems with an author's political views, or personal statements... well I wouldn't have anyone to read or review if I paid attention to that stuff.  I completely disagree with Brandon Sanderson's position on gay marriage, and I'm also sick and tired of seeing authors talk about Occupy What-have-you in glowing terms.  I read books and enjoy them, or don't... that last thing I have an interest in, or time for, is ripping someone for their personal views.

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?

A great novel satisfies on every level - characters, story, structure, prose.  But how many great novels of there?  For me, the most important thing is characters.  I need characters that don't begin when I pick up the book and don't end when I close it.  If I can become attached to character, even if the story is weak or the prose is pedestrian, I'll be hooked.

That said, there's nothing better than cracking open a genre book and seeing a unique narrative structure (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) or beautiful prose (The Night Circus).

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

I like to pretend.  I always say writing is easy, ideas (storytelling) are hard.  I've got a half-dozen stories going right now that I'm trying to find my way in, none of which are particularly inspiring idea wise.  I recognize that if I ever want to write for real I need to treat it like I've treated every other goal in my life - dogged determination.  I haven't missed a workout in four years.  If I could bring that mentality to writing, I think I could be successful.  I'll keep you posted.

12. What are your goals and hopes for Staffer's Musings? 

Good question.  I started it to give me an opportunity to write for myself again.  So my hope is that it gets all those juices flowing again.  As for the blog itself, I hope it becomes a place that genre readers can come to find reviews that don't just talk about whether a book tells a good story, but talk about how it tells the story and why the author might have chosen to tell it that way.  I hope people who've read the books will come read my reviews as often as people who haven't.


  1. Cool interview! I was really interested in seeing your favorite books, Justin. I think that answer tells me more about a reviewer's tastes than any other question.

    I love this series, Mark. I can't to see the next vict-, guest.

  2. The problem with using reviews to "find bad books" is that opinions are blatantly, wildly subjective, and the minute you use another person's opinion to make your choices, you could be missing something you would love. I would rather try a book and not like it than miss out on a book that would have made my day if I hadn't let someone else scare me off of it.

    Although critics find bad reviews tremendously fun to write, I have honestly never found them all that useful to read, though the really scathing ones sometimes do have a use in that they call attention to controversial books and perversely boost their sales.

  3. Very cool to turn the tables. This reminded me of a well known review site whose reviewer once totally nailed it for me. But over the years our tastes must have developed very differently. Today he rather seems bored and bitter to me.

    Ever wondered what people who read book review sites think and how they judge them? :)

  4. Great interview. Although now I'll probably make sure I close the door when I write reviews. Justin has convinced me it might be awkward if someone catches me. :P

  5. I remember that there have been two blogger who did a kind of Q&A. I think it is a good idea to get more information about the people behind blogs.

    And as Teresa Frohock mentioned, the list of favorite books tells a lot about the person.

    I break into a sweat when I only think about this question.

  6. This idea for revenge was brilliant, Mark! Very well done, and really interesting. It's cool to have an insight into the minds of those we trust when buying our next reads!

    Looking forward to the next installment!