Friday, 6 July 2012

Friday interview with Amy Cockram

Photo credit: Deirdre McCulloch

I met Amy during A Levels - the girl who always had her nose in a book, and relished English lit essays. She now reviews books at her blog Stuff and Nonsense, which seems such an obvious step! I thought it might be fun to hear what goes on in the head of a book reviewer when they've got their hands on your book!


At school, I remember you were a voracious reader. At what point did you decide to write reviews and create a blog?
I spent most of my adult life being a student, and after that I wanted to relax for a while and read what I wanted. What started as relaxation became stagnation, and I decided I needed a challenge and somewhere to write. So I started a blog without, at first, an idea of what it would be about. It evolved quite quickly into being about what I was reading and my relationship with books because books are quite possibly the thing I love most in the world after my husband, my family, my friends and my cat. Oh, and chocolate.

Chocolate goes without saying on this blog. Do you review all the books you read, or do you choose the ones you’ve got most to talk about?
When I decided that the blog would be about what I was reading, I decided to write something about every book I read - which means even things that I felt a little bit ashamed of reading. I wanted it to be a complete and honest record of my reading. I decided that I would either write a blog post or, if I felt like I didn’t have much to say about a book, a pithy tweet.

What is your favourite genre, and do you read outside that for the purposes of reviewing?
I read crime novels most of all and, within that, I prefer the mystery and detection element to a straight thriller. There are some blogs out there that specialise in reviewing crime, and do that excellently, but I like to move between genres. If I feel like I have read a few similar books in a row, then I like to switch to reading in a different genre for a while.
I also have a bad multi-reading habit, so I am usually read more than one book at once, normally from different genres. I like to read something more literary alongside something for pure entertainment and switch between them.

Who’s your favourite author, and why?
I have a few favourite authors who I collect in hardback: for pure entertainment value Terry Pratchett or Janet Evanovich; for something a bit more challenging, Michael Ondaatje and Howard Jacobson.

If I have to pick a favourite, it would probably be Howard Jacobson. I discovered his writing when I was in my early 20s, long before he won the Booker. He’s everything that I want in a writer: passionate, articulate, thoughtful, funny and frequently a little bit filthy. He is a great chronicler of male middle-aged angst, and more than any other man he is probably responsible for my twisted view of the male psyche.

Which book would you recommend everyone to read at least once?
I don’t read short stories very often, but I love The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Tim O’ Brien was a soldier in the Vietnam War, and most of his writing refers back to the war to a greater or lesser extent. I don’t tend to like war writing in general, so please don’t be put off the book if you also think that you don’t like war writing. There is an element of black humour in some of his writing, but also moments of great insight and tenderness amidst the violence.

If you don’t want to read the whole collection, just read How to Tell a True War Story. It’s a brilliant piece of writing.

Do you read other people’s reviews to compare them with yours?
I try not to, as it only tends to make me feel less confident. I felt a few months ago that my blog was starting to feel a bit samey, and I read a book (Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist) that I didn’t feel sure about. I didn’t know what to write, so I made the mistake of looking up other reviews and only ended up more conflicted and less sure of myself. Since that experience, I might read reviews by other people out of curiosity after I have posted a review but I would try to avoid reading them before. In theory it is a good idea of read other reviews because you can learn from other people, but in practice it just gives me reviewer envy.

You’ve mentioned on your blog that publishers are sending you books to review. How did that come about? (I assume large publishers don’t just send books out randomly!)
If you love reading, then Twitter is a great resource. I follow quite a lot of publishing houses, and it is a good way to get information about new books that are being published. Through their tweets I found that there are some publishing houses who keep records of book bloggers and will send out review copies, so I sent them my details. Twitter is a good place for a book addict to make friends and find book gossip and competitions.

And finally, some of my followers have had bad experiences with either one-star reviews and no explanation, or bad reviews aimed personally at the author rather than the book. Is that the mark of a bad book or a bad reviewer?
I personally rarely write a bad review - mainly because I decided that my bookshelves are too overstuffed and my life too short to read everything, so I no longer force myself to finish something if I’m not enjoying it. I’m very aware that a work of fiction doesn’t spring from nowhere; it is created by another human being who has put a lot of time and effort into what they have made, and I have a great respect for that act of creation. So I would never want to write something which the author might feel hurt by.

I’m inclined to think that a one star review with no explanation or, even worse, a personal attack on the author probably says more about the reviewer than it does about the book itself. Of course not everyone will like the same things, but it is disrespectful to condemn a book as being a one star read and not be able to constructively justify why you didn’t rate it higher. No-one likes to hear criticism - I know I take it very badly - but it is even worse to be dismissed with no explanation. I can think of absolutely no justification for directing an attack at the author: it achieves nothing, and certainly wouldn’t help someone reading the review decide if it is a book in which they might interested.

You make a really good point about the reviews being aimed at helping readers choose books not for writers to sell more!

And with that, thank you Amy for visiting my blog today – I’ve found it really interesting to see books from another point of view, and I hope my visitors have as well!

Unfortunately, Amy is currently snowed under with books to read, and cannot accept books for review.

27 comments:

  1. I met a book reviewer a year ago at a dinner party.I went to his house the next day - every wall and surface was covered in books, some two layers deep.He read my book and liked it, which was great, then the poor man died suddenly.I hope that was coincidence, and I still haven't found an agent!

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    1. Oh no, Lizy that's awful. I hope you find an agent soon!

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  2. Agree with her thoughts on those one star reviews!

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    1. Amy's reviews are always very considered and detailed.

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  3. Great interview! And I agree, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED is a really good book. The writing just makes you think, you know? Glad I own that one!

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  4. Interesting interview - thanks for introducing us to Amy!

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  5. Thank you for interviewing me, Annalisa - it was my first ever interview (excepting job interviews, which are a lot less fun) and I was honoured that you asked me.

    And, Charlie, I'm so glad that you also like The Things They Carried. I haven't seen a new book come out by Tim O'Brien in absolutely ages, which is a great shame.

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  6. Annalisa, thanks for introducing me to Amy. Amy, I love Terry Pratchett too. I'm snowed under books!

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    1. I totally get the snowed under feeling!

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  7. I love that point as well. It's about the readers. Always. Period.
    Nice to meet you Amy!! :)

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    1. Yes, it's a good point to remember - that's why we write, after all - not to become rich and famous... well, it would be a nice bit on the side, but it's not the focus!

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  8. How interesting! Those are nice tips about Twitter... I've read some stuff by Janet Evonivich—an awesome author! <3 Thanks for introducing her to us, Annalisa!

    And nice to meet you through Insecure Writer's Support Group (: I looked over a bunch of your blog posts and nominated you for an award on my blog (if it's okay...lol). http://www.flamecycle.blogspot.com/2012/07/my-first-award.html

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    1. Wow - thanks Kendra! I'll stop by to check it out.

      I'm following a lot more publishers now :-)

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  9. Great interview, thanks! I will definitely check out that war book, it sounds really interesting. :)

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    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for visiting :-) It does sound like a good book, doesn't it? And when a reviewer recommends it, you know it has to be good!

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  10. Great interview. Love to hear how people take a passion and take it to the next level. :)

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  11. It's great to meet Amy and a very interesting post on what goes on inside a reviewer's head. Thanks for the post.

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  12. Great interview. It was great to meet Amy. It's great to remind us what reviews exist for.

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    1. Sometimes it's easy to forget when you're comparing the number of reviews you have to another author! *must stop doing that* lol

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  13. Hi Annalisa - seems Amy has wise words and the right attitude to writing reviews ... very interesting post to read .. cheers Hilary

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    1. And her reviews make great reading in themselves.

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  14. Great comments on how to review. I think too many people like to be negative (as we kind talked about on twitter) and all too often people just like to bash what's popular. Great interview!

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Please comment - I love a good chat!