Thursday 2 April 2009

Red Bones

I’ve just finished reading the new Jimmy Perez mystery, set in Shetland, by Ann Cleeves. It’s called Red Bones and it’s set in spring – each of the Shetland Quarter is set in a different season of the year. I’m planning to review the book for Tangled Web UK, but suffice to say that I very much enjoyed the fluency of the writing, as well as the wonderful way in which Ann evokes the setting. A gift for evoking place - above all, for portraying rural communities in depth – is one of Ann’s great strengths as a writer.

I’ve mentioned before that Ann is a friend of long-standing and one point that sometimes crosses my mind is whether it’s legitimate to review books written by personal friends. I began reviewing crime fiction, for a magazine called ‘The Criminologist’, back in 1987 – having learned, from reviewing legal books, that it was a good way of expanding one’s library at little or no cost. I enjoyed reviewing, and in those days I was not a published novelist. But of course, as one publishes more and more, inevitably (and happily) one gets to know more and more fellow writers. Does this mean that one should stop reviewing their work?

I don’t think so. Where practical, it’s a good idea to flag up to readers of the review that the author of the book is someone known to the reviewer. This is what I try, in most cases, to do. But to do it every single time would become wearisome for readers – it would seem as if the reviewer were showing off how many people he or she is acquainted with.

I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to this sort of dilemma. My own approach is to try to be both honest and positive, whether or not I know the writer in question. I would not wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. But where I sense weaknesses in a book, even one written by a good friend, I would be likely to allude to them in a review, whilst striving to highlight the positive aspects of the book. And if I really did not like a book, then almost certainly I would not review it. This approach suits me, not least because I’m a passionate crime fan, and I’m naturally predisposed to enjoy crime novels - whether or not the writer has ever crossed my path.


Uriah Robinson said...

I entirely agree with you Martin and as an ordinary reader all I want from reviewers is honesty. The fact that you would allude to a weakness in a novel written by a friend is a sign that we can trust your opinions.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Uriah, you can gather this is an issue I've been mulling over and wanted to share - and such feedback is very constructive.

Dorte H said...

It would certainly be unfair if you had to stop reviewing some of the best books just because as an author you meet more and more interesting writers.
It can hardly be difficult to come up with positive elements when it´s an Ann Cleeves book either - I am far behind, and have just read her second the other day, but I enjoyed it immensely. I finally got round to ordering your second Lake District novel the other day so I am in for another treat soon.

crimeficreader said...

Martin, you are raising some interesting points on blogs and reviewing recently and I am thinking of doing some research and writing an article about it, following some comments exchanged with a publisher's PR last week.

I think there is a need felt to be very careful with one's words when you have become a friend of the author. And I agree with you that the converse of always mentioning a relationship has the effect of flagging up "relationship" and can be counterproductive. Back-scratching is what comes to mind and can become obvious to readers.

I recently had the dilemma of whether to mention that I was named in the acknowledgements in a novel and decided against it. Why? Because it had no impact on what I thought of the novel at the end of the day. The nature of my work is to objectively review and that carries through into my thoughts on books. Like you, I don't see value in trashing a book and find it wasteful in the MSM, where it has been happening quite a bit of late. I wish they'd use the limited space they have to indicate to readers what to buy and not what to avoid. When such reviews are written by authors they always smack of jealousy to the reader. I wish such space was given to supporting a new author of good work rather than an opportunity to be negative about a bestselling author.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You are always a gentleman.

BooksPlease said...

I agree with you, Martin. I think it's best not to review a book you don't like - it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, everyone. As so often, I'm grateful for the generosity of those who comment.
There's a lot that can be said about reviews. But one thing that strikes me forcibly is that sometimes and in some respects, it's easier to review a book a long time after it was written than when it first came out. For instance, it can be easier to put a book in its historical context. But as an author, of course I'm very anxious to be reviewed now rather than posthumously!

Nik Morton said...

Whether it's a friend or an associate, I feel that the honest review should flag the relationship. However, that can't necessarily be the case on Amazon. Recently, I put in a review of a book I'd edited and flagged that fact on Amazon; due to Amazon's new draconian rules, whereby they will cut out ALL reviews by someone who refers to their book, even if relevant, prudence dictates omitting such connections.
I agree, a thoroughly negative review is not helpful; it should be balanced, though I have made one exception out of 77... The Gaudi Key, sad to say, but blamed the publisher more than the authors!
Nik Morton

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting point about Amazon, thanks.

Nik Morton said...

The Amazon review news came via this blog link:

http://writetype. blogspot. com/2009/ 04/amazon- deletes-authors- reviews-if- book.html

Basically you can't have any hint you're a writer in the review or you're banned.
Nik Morton