Archive for September, 2016

TT: World Famous in New Zealand

September 8, 2016

ALAN: You asked me how my experience of becoming a reviewer compared with other people’s. So I asked around.

Jan Butterworth is world famous in New Zealand as a reviewer. You can read her reviews here.

Jan Butterworth

Jan Butterworth

She says:

“I was offered a chance to review books when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand (SFFANZ) set up a programme with Hachette New Zealand many years ago. I don’t enjoy writing, but the chance to acquire free books was irresistible, so I put my hand up.”

JANE: Free books from publishers seem to be a powerful motive to start reviewing.  Now that I think about it, I’ve seen our local SF club use the same tactic to get people to write book reviews for its newsletter.

ALAN: I think it must be the starting point for almost everybody. The lure of free books is impossible to resist.

JANE: Above you say that Jan is famous as a reviewer in New Zealand, so she must have gotten over not liking to write.

ALAN: Absolutely! She really got bitten by the bug.  She says:

“After a few years of reviewing only fantasy, I decided to branch out to reviewing all genres, reflecting my reading tastes.  I set up a blog, loaded it with reviews I’d written to show my work, then started contacting publishers to beg for free books – I mean offer my services as a reviewer.  The main NZ publishing houses were receptive and offered helpful advice to gain more hits on my blog.   I’ve since built up a network of helpful contacts of book publicists and have a few reviewers I source books for in exchange for their reviews of them.”

JANE: That shows impressive initiative.  How does she approach reviewing a book? Are her techniques anything like yours?

ALAN: I think so.  Let me let her explain how she goes about it in her own words.

“I read the book, then generally summarise the plot (WITHOUT spoilers) and say what I thought about it.  If I have something negative to say, I try to sandwich it between two positive things, or, failing that, emphasize it is my opinion only and other readers will have different tastes.  Being honest seems to be appreciated by publishers and I’ve had some lovely comments from my blog readers.”

JANE:  It’s interesting that she emphasizes within her reviews that she is expressing an opinion. I think that’s very wise.

Tastes certainly do vary.  I know people who will read anything that has a sniff of vampires, while the same thing drives me away to the point that I need to be coaxed to try the book – even if it was written by an author I otherwise like or respect.

ALAN: I have similar feelings about military space opera.

JANE: Another thing that varies from reader to reader is how much a strong quality of a writer,(say,interesting characters) will compensate for a weak point (say, formulaic plotting).  The reviews I like best are those that are specific, rather than relying on generalizations like “excellent” or “terrible.”  Those don’t tell you anything.

ALAN: Yes indeed. It’s all too easy to say that you like or dislike a book. As we’ve said before, the challenge for a reviewer is to say exactly why those feelings are evoked. But even if the reviewers are not very specific, their opinions can still be valuable.

When I lived in Wellington, I belonged to a book discussion group and there was one person in the group whose tastes were very well defined, and which were diametrically opposed to my own. If he raved about a book, it was a virtual guarantee that I would hate it. And vice versa, of course. Once you understand that, a review that says a book is “terrible” can make the book sound very attractive indeed…

But sometimes there are toads.

JANE: Toads?

ALAN: Once when we were contemplating a pile of books that looked distinctly unattractive, someone said, “OK – whose turn is it to eat the live toad?”

Ever since then, among ourselves, we’ve referred to the more appalling wastes of paper and ink as toads. Sometimes they are live toads, sometimes they are dead toads. But they are always distinctly unpleasant to eat.

Some of the toads are self-published. But a surprisingly large number of toads come from professional publishers as well. It doesn’t matter who reviews a toad. Nobody can ever find any shred of merit in it.

JANE: So how do you review a toad?

ALAN: These days, I simply ignore them. I have better uses for my time. Jan has a slightly more professional approach.

“If a book is a dead toad I don’t finish it and state why. If I’m lucky I pass it off to another reviewer. Really rancid toads get a negative review and then are added to a pile in my office. I’ll do something with it someday, not sure what though.”

JANE: Writing that negative review, even if she doesn’t use it, probably helps her purge her mind of all the things she’d like to say but is too polite to share with the public.

But that’s a lot of writing for nothing.  I’ve been meaning to ask, how long is an average review?  Earlier, you mentioned a need to write tight.

ALAN: One advantage that both Jan and I have is that we publish our reviews on our own web sites. So we have no constraints on space, and our reviews can be as long as we feel they need to be.

However, in the past, I have written reviews for professional (printed) publications and they, of course, have very firm limits on the number of words they will allow you to use. Saying something deep and meaningful about a book in 200 words (or less!) can sometimes be quite a challenge. The famous advice to “kill your darlings” applies in spades, and much biting comment often has to be sacrificed. Which is probably just as well…

JANE: So given that both you and Jan are world famous (though only in New Zealand), will I find lots of your reviews if I search for you on google?

ALAN: You’ll certainly find references to Jan – though the first few links to a dog walking service in Massachusetts are nothing to do with her.

But, if you search for me, I’m afraid you will be overwhelmed with references to a completely different Alan Robson who really is world famous (in England, at least). He’s an English DJ, radio presenter, author and occasional reviewer. Amusingly, I’ve sometimes found books that I’ve written listed on his bibliography (though, to be fair, not on bibliographies prepared by him). And once, quite out of the blue, I received an email asking me if I’d be willing to review a book and talk about it on my radio show. So we’ve both been mistaken for each other. Hopefully he finds the confusion as entertaining as I do.

JANE: I’m sure he does…

I’m curious if any of our readers have ventured into reviewing in any systematic fashion.  Or, if not, why they avoid doing so, especially since it’s so much easier these days to get your opinions seen.  Any takers?


Paul Dellinger: Double Ace

September 7, 2016

I’ve known Paul Dellinger for well over twenty years.  We share a strange and arcane relationship – we’re pen pals.  Yes, that’s right.  We write each other real letters pretty much every week.  When e-mail became more common, we made a conscious decision to continue with snail mail, but now we tend to e-mail during the week as well.

Paul's Short Fiction Collection

Paul’s Short Fiction Collection

Recently, Paul has published two books:  Secret Invasion and Fuzzy (co-written with Tom Angleberger).  From my privileged position, I know that both novels have interesting backstories, so I decided to interview Paul and make him share information about not only the novels, but his long and interesting career as a professional writer.

JANE: So, Paul, I always start interviews with the same question.

In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.

Which sort are you?

PAUL: I guess I’m in the first category. In grade school, I would draw comic-book-style stories using stick figures. Eventually I managed to draw actual people, although never well enough for real comic books, but I churned out a considerable number of (probably derivative) stories in spiral art notebooks (color by Crayola) until, and perhaps even after, I began writing prose, some of that even being for my own amusement. It wasn’t until after high school, after college, and during an Army stint that I thought about submitting anything for publication.

JANE: Have you ever done anything in the illustrated story line?

PAUL: No, not professionally, just for my own amusement. Well, I did do some topical cartoons for our college newspaper, making light of some aspects of campus life. I sometimes did that via “humorous” columns in that paper.

JANE: So you did live up to the childhood dream.  That’s cool!

What was your first fiction publication?  How soon after did the next one follow?

PAUL: My first was a short story, “Rat Race,” in the Jan., 1962, issue of Cele Goldsmith’s Fantastic, while I was in the Army. A journalism instructor at the Army Information School told me about the existence of a book called Writer’s Market, which had (as you’ve already guessed) markets. I handwrote the story in a spiral notebook, typed it up after hours at the West Point Information Office, and it sold. The next one? Not until ten years later!

JANE:  Wow…  And I thought my about two year gap was tough!

You were a professional reporter for about forty years, if I remember correctly.  How did having a job that involved writing on a daily basis impact your ability to writer fiction?

PAUL: In some ways, it was actually detrimental. After spending all day and sometimes night covering events and turning them into news or feature stories, the last thing I felt like doing at night was more typing. (And it was typing early on, not keyboarding. I go all the way back to typewriters.)

But it did help with being able to meet deadlines, and having experience stringing words together in readable fashion. Somehow it took me longer, though, to write fiction than to write factual stuff.

JANE: I also find non-fiction comes faster for me than fiction.

If I remember correctly, most of your published fiction has been short stories.  Some of these are collected in Mr. Lazarus and Other Stories.  Many of your stories are influenced by two of your other great interests – old SF movies and old film Westerns.  Can you tell my readers a little about what they’d find in the collection?  Who is Mr. Lazarus anyhow?

PAUL: I’m not sure who Mr. Lazarus is myself. I came up with the concept of him in the second magazine story I had published, as someone who turned up to convince its protagonist that there was actually a vampire in his vicinity. I brought him back some years later in a similar capacity for a werewolf story, which was set at West Point. All of us who were stationed there joked that, one day, we’d write a “See Here, Private Hargrove” book about some of the stuff we went through in the Army; this was as close as I ever came to actually doing it. And then, when it seemed to fit the story, I brought Mr. Lazarus back a few times after that.

I once had a vague plan of pinning down exactly who/what he was in a book where someone is trying to track him down, and interviews different people who have encountered him. The interviews would be the short stories about him, which would work, since they are all in the first person. But I haven’t gotten around to that yet. I may need a few more “interview” stories to fill out a book-length, first.

JANE: I’d definitely read it! I liked the Mr. Lazarus stories quite a lot.

PAUL: As for what’s in the collection: the Mr. Lazarus fantasies, some science fiction of various kinds, and only three stories where my childhood every-weekend-viewing of a western movie had any influence: one about a character who could have inspired the Lone Ranger (“Anglefire”), one in which H. P. Lovecraft meets silent movies (“Dark Riders of the Silver Screen”), and one where some DNA from a popular movie horse has been cloned in a future where actual horses no longer exist (“Horsepower”).

JANE: You’re also a playwright, both for stage (Rat Race) and radio (The Adventures of Hap Hazard).  How did these projects come about?

PAUL: “Rat Race” was an expansion of that first short story I had accepted. Barter Theater, aka The State Theater of Virginia, was offering would-be playwrights a chance to submit scripts in the summer of 1970. I stayed up into the wee small hours of many nights and early mornings converting the story into a play, adding characters and so forth. One night when I got home from a newspaper assignment, my wife told me the theater director had called. When I called back, it turned out the Barter people were interested in performing it. That turned out to be quite an experience, especially as I got to observe some of the rehearsals before it got on stage.

JANE: You took to the “stage,” so to speak, for “The Adventures of Hap Hazard.”  How did that work?

PAUL: “Hap” was a fun thing I did with my friend, Craig Allison, who worked at a local radio station WYVE and has a talent for doing a variety of different voices. We did three “Haps” of about 10 minutes each week for more than a year.

We got it down to a routine. I’d write a two-page single-spaced script, we’d run through it, then we’d record it with us, mostly Craig, doing the voices of the various characters. The first half would set up the plot by STENCH (The Society for Terrorism, Extortion, Nastiness, Crime and Horror; the James Bond movies were featuring SPECTRE at the time). Then there would be a commercial, and the rest of the show would get our heroes out of whatever the cliffhanger had been.

Originally, we had a third radio staffer playing the recurring villain and, when he moved on, we had to figure out a way for his voice to change to one of ours (we had him mangled in one of his own traps).

JANE: That sounds like loads of fun.  I got sincerely carried away with my questions, so we didn’t even get to your two recently published novels.  How about you let me keep bugging you next week?

PAUL: Love to! Thanks.

FF: Post-Con Reading

September 2, 2016

Bubonicon was fun, but it cut into my reading time.

Kel Thinks "Fuzzy" is a Great Title

Kel Thinks “Fuzzy” is a Great Title

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Wolf Hunting by Jane Lindskold.  Reading a series backwards has a weird appeal.  It’s a fascinating way to see just how characters grow.

Monstress by Majorie Liu and Sana Takeda.  Comic book.  Issues 1-6.  Gorgeous illustrations and a story that became stronger as it progressed.

Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger.  Middle grade fiction.  A robot is sent to middle school for reasons that actually work in the context of the story.  I’d expected good middle school (because Mr. Angleberger is very good at that).  However, I found myself enjoying as SF as well.

In Progress:

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Audiobook.  Sometimes an audiobook is a great way to re-experience an old favorite because of the re-immersive element.

Wolf Captured by Jane Lindskold.  The backwards series reading experience continues.


Had a glitch with our download of Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, the audiobook, so I’m going to need to start this over when it’s available again.

TT: Inflammatory Question

September 1, 2016

JANE: So, based on what you said last week, there are absolutely no qualifications for becoming a reviewer other than a willingness to read books and then set down some opinions about them.  Would you say that’s a fair assessment?

Hot SF Reviewers and Critics

Hot SF Reviewers and Critics

ALAN: That’s a pretty good summary of the process. However, I have noticed that, while a lot of people have strong opinions about the books they have read, very few seem to be able to explain exactly why they hold those opinions.

It seems to be quite easy to say “I liked / disliked this book”, but correspondingly quite hard to give reasons. For many people, reading seems to be an instinctive or emotional process, rather than a rational one. And that’s no bad thing – a story is supposed to be approached on an emotional level. The people who go one step further, from the emotional into the analytical, are the ones who end up as reviewers.

JANE: That’s interesting.  Given that I’ve been an English professor, I have no problem approaching a work on both a rational and an emotional level.

How did you learn to do this?

ALAN: In my case I read a lot of reviews, criticisms and analyses. In England, I used to work at a university and the senior common room had a subscription to the Times Literary Supplement. I devoured it avidly. It had lots of (sometimes quite bitchy) reviews in it.

SF itself has had a lot very insightful critics – Kingsley Amis, Damon Knight, James Blish, Algis Budrys, John Clute… The list goes on.

JANE: But there’s a big difference between a critic and a reviewer.  A critic certainly can become a reviewer, but what’s tough for an author who is being reviewed is how many reviewers are viewed as critics, even though they have nothing to offer but their personal opinions.

Sorry.   I warned you I was going to be inflammatory but, when I became a professional writer, I started looking at the whole reviewing process in a different way.  There’s a lot of power in the hands of people with very little qualification to wield it.

ALAN: Yes, I agree. There is a big difference between a reviewer and a critic. A reviewer tends to express personal opinions (the emotional approach I mentioned above), often with little justification for them, whereas a critic tends to be more searching, more interested in structural flaws and strengths, in character development and setting and the ability to invoke a mood. Also the critic tends to look beneath the surface in search of what the work might really be about, over and above the window dressing of the plot. The work’s relationship to other examples in the field might be called into play. I try to write more towards the critical end of the spectrum, though I’m not sure if I always succeed…

The mainstream novelist and reviewer John Updike published a brilliant collection of critical essays called Picked-Up Pieces in which he developed six rules for writing reviews. I have always found these invaluable when it came to writing my own reviews (though I do tend to ignore the rule that says you should quote extensively from the piece under review).

JANE: Can you share these six rules?  I’d love to hear them.

ALAN: They are a bit long to state formally. You can find a discussion of them here.

But in summary:

  1. Try to understand the author’s intent.
  2. Quote from the work being examined so as to give a flavour of the prose.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with a quotation from it.
  4. Go easy on the plot summary and don’t give spoilers.
  5. If you judge the book deficient, cite a more successful example. Try and make sure that the deficiency is not with you rather than with the book.
  6. Do not review books you are predisposed to like or dislike. Review the book, not the author.

JANE: That’s interesting – especially the bit about books you are “predisposed” to like or dislike.  Sometimes, when I’m not sure about an author whose work is new to me, I pretend the book was written by someone whose work I like, just to see if that would change my mind.

ALAN: Unlike me, you have had extensive formal training in analysing texts. Your PhD thesis was about the novels of D. H. Lawrence, and you have also written a literary biography of Roger Zelazny. How useful has your academic career been when it comes to expressing your opinions about the books you read?

JANE: Actually, I’ve found my lit crit background very useful when reviewing books.

Often, I’m very aware of flaws: derivative plot elements, heavy-handed coincidence, clichéd characters, whatever.  However, I’ll test my rational awareness of these against how I felt about the book overall.  If my awareness of the flaw(s) didn’t overwhelm my overall enjoyment of the book , then I’ll give a thumbs up.  If, however, the flaw kept haunting me to the exclusion of all else, then my assessment would be a thumbs down.

ALAN: Can you clarify that with a specific example?

JANE: Sure!  A good example of this is my reaction to the works of Tim Powers, who we discussed back in 2011, here and here.

I enjoyed many of Power’s earlier novels, but my Lit Crit Brain was also aware of where he’d failed to carry through with some element or other.  Eventually, I realized that I admired Power’s willingness to take on almost impossibly ambitious stories, even if something might ooze through and get away from him.  Eventually, I realized I’d rather read a flawed Tim Powers’ novel than many other ostensibly unflawed but less ambitious works.

ALAN: I see what you mean. But doesn’t that level of critical awareness sometimes get in the way of the story?

JANE: Maybe.  I’ve been told I can be ruthless.  I remember going out to lunch one time with two very well-known SF/F folks, one of whom writes a high profile review column.  They were raving about a new work by an author who was burningly popular at the time.

I started pointing out the weak elements, how they were compensated for by flash rather than substance.  Eventually, the reviewer looked at me a bit stunned and said, “Wow!  You’re a tough one.”

ALAN: I’ve sometimes been accused of being a bit hard on some books as well.

JANE: But you are only one reviewer among many. How does your experience of becoming a reviewer compare with other people’s?

ALAN: Let me ask some reviewers I know and we can come back to this next time.