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!


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.


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.


  1. So is there a schedule of you doing these, Mark, or just everyone who interviews you first? :)

  2. @Paul - no schedule & Justin (Staffer's Musings) hasn't interviewed me ... I'm just hitting up random bloggers I read (which is biased toward those who snagged my attention with an interview request at some point) & I'll stop when it starts to feel old.

  3. Hi
    Just found your blog - love your comments above. I'm fairly new to this whole new blogging world but what I really love about it is when you find a blog site where you can really trust the opinions and it just leads you to so many new books - which is how I found your Prince of Thorns which I just finished reading and can't stop thinking about. So good! I eagerly await No.2.
    fyi - the Little Red Reviewer was the site I read about your book on (I get lots of good recommendations from there).