Saturday 14 January 2012

Turning the tables #5 – The Wertzone

Instalment #5 of my series of Turning the Tables. The last such for a while, ending as I started with someone who hasn’t interviewed me & very rarely interviews anyone. So, not turning the tables at all, except in the broadest sense. I did, however, want to interview Adam Whitehead of the long established and highly regarded Wertzone

since it’s a site I have a high regard for, offering reviews at a modest rate but all of them insightful and well considered & building into a huge review archive which is great to explore. Moreover, there’s no better place to go for news and views on George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, of which I’m a fan.

So, possibly for the last time, here come the Q&As.

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 Adam Whitehead? Tell us a bit about your background? (Question stolen from Pat’s Hotlist – I don’t even know what 411 means)

I'm a 33-year-old guy from Colchester, the oldest town in the UK. I grew up with SF and Fantasy from a young age: the first film I ever saw at the cinema was RETURN OF THE JEDI, and I grew up on a steady diet of STAR TREK reruns and DOCTOR WHO episodes, not to mention a lot of TRANSFORMERS toys and comics (first time around, when they didn't almost all look the same). I've been reading SF novels since the age of 9 and fantasy from a couple of years later, so the blog was a natural outlet for that interest and knowledge.

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

I'm interested in the genre of SFF, not the medium of books alone. More so than a lot of other blogs, I like to cover books, computer games, films and TV shows all at the same time, mixed in with a bit of news and commentary. I try to give more of an overview of the genre than just concentrating on books. I probably don't succeed as much as I'd like, but that's the general idea anyway. I also like to throw in some other personal interests (like my interest in history, World War II stuff in particular) to mix things up a bit.

3. What inspired you to start a review site?

I didn't have plans in that direction, but several people suggested it to me whilst commenting on books on, SFFWorld and other forums where I was active, so it seemed a natural development.

4. Where do you get your ideas for new books to review from?
I have a large stack of review copies sent to me my publishers over the past few years, along with newly-arrived books, old books on the shelves I read years ago that I might want to re-read, or books that I've heard a lot about from people but never gotten around to, so it's a mix. Sometimes I grab whatever's next on the pile and sometimes I have a planned reading schedule that I'll stick to (which usually lasts no more than a few weeks before it's disrupted by something new!).

5. What's your favourite book and why?

A tough question. I have a great, abiding admiration for Tolkien's The Silmarillion, but there's also the mystery and atmosphere of Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama or the stupendous climax of dozens of storylines in Martin's Storm of Swords. Overall I'd probably have to go for Peter F. Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction, for the interesting characters, the way he combines horror and SF together and for the monumental pace the book picks up as it goes along.

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)
If music is the food of love, then book reviewing is the zoo monkey of audience participation. As long as you're doing something people find entertaining and agree with, cool. The second you don't, the shit starts flying. Or something like that anyway, :)

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?

No. It just means tastes differ. I tend to value character and story above 'beautiful prose' but then there are those who value prose even if the characters are thin and the plots poorly-developed, or some other combination of factors. Sometimes people can read the exact same book and take away completely separate things. You also have to consider that everyone is reading books at different stages of their reading development: a teenager may have a different viewpoint to a cynical thirty-something (or a book that was cutting-edge in the Seventies might be considered tame today). Sometimes a book is so mind-bogglingly awful on every single level that it's hard to see why someone would like it, but that's a very rare occasion.

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?

Reviews are personal reactions, nothing more and nothing less, so that's not really possible. My most regular criticism is that the books I review tend to get positive-to-good reviews and I rarely rip a book apart. This isn't because I never read anything bad - quite the contrary - but if I'm not enjoying a book I tend to not finish it, and if I don't finish it I consider it amoral to review it, so books I don't enjoy don't get covered on the site.

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

I was having this discussion with an author who - on a personal level - I like a few months ago. I'd read and reviewed three of this author's books, one positively, one negatively and one in the middle. He was glad that I was honest enough to overlook any personal feelings about the author in order to deliver an honest review. Generally speaking, authors shouldn't want you to be dishonest in your opinions.

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?

I'm interested mostly in characters and by what they get up and how well they are developed. Also, as an old-school D&D player who's created several different fantasy and SF worlds, I'm intrigued by the furniture of world-building. It's not critically important, but the setting and how well it is defined is something I like, though not when it starts overloading the narrative. Prose is something I do rate, but generally I find that excellent characterisation can survive so-so-prose, but poor characters cannot be saved by beautiful prose.

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

I've tooled around with stories, but never to a great extent. I have a short attention span, and generally find that I can only work at something for a few weeks before I get burned out on it. That said, there are two concepts that have survived over the years. The first is an epic fantasy set in a world riven by religious discord. I liked the idea when I came up with it in the late 1990s, but a lot of other fantasy authors have covered the same ground over the years and I've had to rejig the concept a few times to avoid similarities with other works. Due to that, I suspect it will never see the light of day. The other thing is an alternate-history take on WWII based on the idea that Hitler is killed before he can declare war on Russia, allowing the generals to concentrate all their attention on the Brits alone. Again, there's a lot of alt-history WWII stuff out there, so I'd have to be convinced I had something really fresh and interesting before I really went to work on that. In the shorter term, I'm planning to get into writing non-fiction stuff about SFF, and already have a couple of projects in the planning stages (at least one of which should see fruition in late 2012, all going well).

12. What are your goals and hopes for the Wertzone? 

My biggest sense of achievement comes from getting people to pick up under-appreciated works: if even ten people pick up a Paul Kearney novel or a Robert Holdstock book or something they wouldn't have tried otherwise, then the last five years' work has been worthwhile. As for goals going forwards, it'd be great to find a way to make a living from the blog without bombarding people with advertising. If I can find a way of doing that, I'd be very happy :)


  1. I also enjoy reading the Wertzone and would like to second the notion regarding Paul Kearney. I would also like to encourage the Werthead to write good reviews of bad books. It's not about promoting good books while avoiding to possibly hurt an author or the readers of a particularly bad book. It's only the opinion of the reviewer and being honest also means not always being positive.

    Especially polarising books like the "Prince of Nothing" trilogy by Bakker are among the few rather poorly reviewed books on the Wertzone, too much avoiding interesting controversy and openly biased in the "but I like it" way and ending the review with a similar statement. I am pretty sure Werthead is smart enough to see the criticism put forward by those who didn't like the book/trilogy and handwaving it away was a bit disappointing.

  2. As I said, the main reason for not reviewing bad books is that 'really' bad books I tend to not finish, and reviewing an unfinished book is a dubious practice. Some kind of 'failure to launch' feature (like Pat sometimes invokes on his blog) could be an alternative.

    As for the Prince of Nothing trilogy (a fairly early review on the blog), the 'Bakker controversy' wasn't really pronounced back then. I reiterated in the review the problems with the work being cold, remote and overtly philosophical that many have expressed with the books, but I didn't find this a huge problem. That said, I will be revisiting the sequence for an upcoming article in another venue, which may look into the controversies in a bit more detail.

  3. Does a reviewer have an obligation to raise the concerns of other people in their review? I'm not sure that they do. Obviously if a work has a particular aspect that may be expected to be of concern to a significant proportion of their readership, it behooves them to mention it (which Wert did), but no more than that. Get too much into that and it stops being a review, and becomes a critical discussion; which is all well and good, but that's not what people read reviews for.
    Especially since a review is, by and large, meant to be non-spoiling and getting at the meat of the Bakker controversy would be impossible without going into details.

    I totally agree on the Kearney... It's good to see the internet banging the drum for authors who maybe didn't get the initial notice they probably deserved. See also; Daniel Abraham.

  4. I'm a big fan of the Wertzone, especially for epic fantasy recommendations. I discovered a ton of my favourite authors from Adam's reviews. Paul Kearney is amazing.

  5. I'm not enjoying a book I tend to not finish it, and if I don't finish it I consider it amoral to review it, so books I don't enjoy don't get covered on the site.

    Yeah, I couldn't review in good conscience a book I didn't finish, either.

  6. I picked up Mythago Wood a couple of years ago after reading your review (loved it!) and just bought the Kearney Omnibuses; in large part due to your review a while ago. Thank you.