Sunday, July 5, 2009

Reviewer Time: Liviu & Cindy [Fantasy Book Critic]

It’s a very unearthly sensation to sit down in front of the keyboard and write a review-like representation of “Fantasy Book Critic”. Considering how book review blogs are very well becoming the hottest new thing to do on the World Wide Web, it’s strange for a newbie to point out the merits of having a first generation institution such as FBC on your link list. But then again I am doing the “Reviewer Time” more or less for the benefit of having the bloggers speak their minds.

So nervous banter aside, I can honestly say that “Fantasy Book Critic” embodies perfection as far as blogs from this caliber are considered. The original creator, Robert Thompson, has put together a site that comes off as professional, meticulous and organized. Perhaps I can best illustrate this with his reviews, the model of which is carried through by his contributors and heirs to his legacy, which were always segmented and highlighted the essential elements that build a book. This he and his contributors handled with great care for the reader’s benefit alone; I can testify it’s a process that steals a great deal of time and demands commitment and time management skills at the highest level. This paired with the reviewer team’s ability to incorporate conversational elements as well as scholarly air into the actual content of every review gives meaning to the time spent on the Internet reading FBC. If you are to take into account the number of reviewers with different tastes and interests, you are sure to be welcomed by a wide range of titles and genres discussed and presented. For a lack of a better definition or without falling into excessive gushing I would label FBC as a quintessential intellectual read, because it not only brings books to your immediate attention FBC manages to open your eyes to the mechanics involved in a novel.

Now that this has been covered, I’d have to say that everything else the crew does with Robert in mind comes off as profession and serious without boring. Each author interview delights with intriguing content and one can really learn how to ask the right questions and what topics would draw most attention. Then there is the steady stream of giveaways that can range from US and UK restricted to worldwide, which gives a chance to off-continental readers like myself to touch the English literary scene in an easier manner without involving Amazon and delivery fees. Next stop is naturally the necessary highlights and news that are always hot from the publishers’ and authors’ websites. However most notable is perhaps the monthly releases list that pops every beginning of the month and has turned more or less into a signature trademark for “Fantasy Book Critic”. For one thing as a follower of FBC you would have an idea what would come up in terms of reviews and for another you could also sort out your book-shopping list for the whole month. It’s practical and also very hard to pull off, if you want to be thorough. It just shows how much these people love what they are doing and care for their readers.

I can continue with the listing, but after awhile I fear I might fll into repetition with my praise or even worse, become tiresome for my readers. So I will just go with the interview. I managed to snatch Liviu and Cindy for a little chitchat. Robert, the humble guy that he is, explained how being ‘retired’ means not giving interviews. But I hope it’s still an enjoyable interview.

Harry Markov: Not much time has elapsed since I first started reading FBC and noticed that Robert had his helpers to keep everything going at the pace it did and still does. Needless to say I was and still am curious about the said contributors, since I know Robert rather well. Now I have the chance to get the answer to my question. So, who are you guys outside FBC and what's a typical day for you?

Liviu: I work, take care of my son after my work and his school and read a lot, both home and on the go since I am never bothered by noise.

Cindy: Outside of reading, I pursue a lot of interests. I play a lot of games online, and also with the Wii. I love Broadway musicals, and anything that has dance in it. I absolutly love ballet and jazz style dancing and even take occasional classes when I get the time.

HM: Official introductions now aside, let's get down to the offline personality mode and share three things that you believe no FBC reader or co-blogger would have never guessed about you and yes, the question is pretty much customary for me and my curiosity.

Liviu: I dislike dogs but love cats. I love wild nature but I dislike gardens, lawns and such. I harvested fruits and vegetables in my school years as part of the "patriotic duty of building a greater collective future".

Cindy: I collect teddy bears, they are pretty much all over anything I have in my house. I'm a major nut of anything British, I love their shows, books and everything over there. I love to watch Spongebob, that show makes me laugh every time I watch it.

HM: Rewinding the tape back and going back to your very first days at FBC, can you share the story behind your involvement? I am pretty sure Liviu was a keeper with his lightning fast reading ability that has earned him an eternal kudos from me, but nevertheless when it comes to FBC, I bet the readers would live a little Oprah moment of remembrance.

Liviu: I have been around the online sff scene since the early days of Usenet in the mid 90's, posted here and there, thought about doing a review blog but never did it seriously. I commented once in a while on FBC and had a dialog with Robert on sffworld and when he approached me about doing some reviews from the many books I was reading, I agreed.

Cindy: I had followed FBC for a while contributing with comments when I could. It was actually the blog that got me started with going to other blogs regularly. I had noticed Robert mentioned something about YA books becoming popular and not feeling like he could adequately review them. I emailed expressing that I'd love to help out, I explained my background in writing and all the reading background I had, and we went from there.

HM: Considering that FBC centers around novels from the fantasy-sf spectrum, it's evident you guys have a knack for spec fic. What I want to know is what pulled you in in the first place to become so involved with these genres? Everybody experience fantasy and sf in a different manner and it's this unique shade that I am searching in the answers.

Liviu: I read a lot of classics years ago but I was always attracted by "the future" and to some extent about "the past". I am very curious, get easily bored and for my first 21 years I lived in one of the worst hellholes on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain so literature and especially interesting literature was sanity. Ultimately I found sf the most interesting literature of our age and that has always been my first love for the past 20 years. I also like the weirder reaches of fantasy and selected historical epics or adventures, while for traditional fantasy I started reading more when the "new epic gritty" got started, but my interest in it ebbs and flows.

Cindy: I have always been really involved with reading and books that I love. I take part in the library projects when they come around and I'm friends with many librarians, as a matter of fact my aunt is a librarian. So from a young age I have been very active with my reading. I have always had a love for dragons and elves and such, so I found fantasy very intriguing. As far as fantasy goes, I find the amount of work that an author takes in creating new creatures, lands, customs and such so involved that it just pulls me in.

HM: By the time you all got on board FBC, the site has gained loyal readers and a certain dose of popularity as well. How did it feel to contribute to a blog like that at the beginning and did you adjusted well? Perhaps, you can add a small portrait of Robert as the great overseer, before he decided to step down. I know him personally as far as the Internet allows, so I can pretty much string great adjectives after his name, but everybody likes to hear straight from the horse's mouth so to say.

Liviu: I never gave too much thought to the "mechanics" of FBC before I decided to co-edit following Robert's retirement; generally I would talk with Robert about books, decide what I want to review and and try to do the best review I could, convey the essence of the book and why people would want to read it. Most of the books I reviewed for FBC were obtained by me (bought, library, authors who sent review inquiries to Robert and I liked their style), with some received as review arcs through Robert or as pdf's from the publishers. Robert would edit and format the review, ask the occasional question if anything was unclear and let me know when he would post it, while I would try and answer comments as much as I could. I would also check his lists of upcoming releases, suggest new books or new places to look for titles, tell him about the titles he may not know that I found impressive...FBC was Robert' site and I was happy to have a popular site to showcase my favorite books and authors.

Cindy: I never really thought about how popular FBC was or how much work behind the screen it took. For the most part, Robert would either recommend books, or I would mention a title and we'd work on getting it a spot on the blog. As far as adjusting to FBC, my first review took me so long to write because I was so nervous and it was rather lengthy, now that I look back on it. Now being a co-editor, I find it a lot easier to convey my thoughts and working behind the scense easier. Everyone that I work with has been very supportive and helpful with ideas and working together so it wasn't that big of an adjustment.

HM: To drop the more biographical elements of this interview and go into the technical aspects, let's go straight to the reviews now shall we. What is your guiding principle in writing a review, the specifics that act as a sort of signature? Also in the same train of thought, how much length should be invested into a review. Some people have speculated that perhaps length is the key to achieving seriousness and quality.

Liviu: I want to write the review I would like to read. First and foremost the review should contain a clear description with as few spoilers as possible of what the book is about, not a blurb or synopsis but the "essence" of the book. I like to know whom the characters are at the beginning of the book, what they do, where the book takes place, stuff like this that helps me decide how interested I am in it. Second I want the reviewer's personal opinion about the book, how the book read to him/her. So clarity, coherence and voice. I like to use excerpts only when the style of the book is essential to its enjoyment *and* short excerpts illustrate the style.

Cindy: Like Liviu said, I do not like to spoil any books so spoilers are a big no no. Even if there is something I didn't like about the ending and as much as I'd love to shout it from the highest building I try to make it vague so no one will have the book spoiled. I like to cover summary, and them my thoughts on the book. I'm very big into character development and converstaional, so a lot of reviews focus on that. However it really depends on the book, I just write what I found to be good about the book and what I feel could have been better or needed explaination.

HM: Working as a team implores some sort of organization in order to keep posts regular and in sync. Do you have special reading schedules and also how do you handle duplicated titles?

Liviu: We are at the beginning of the "FBC chorus" rather than "Robert the general" so we make it up as we go; we try to have reviews scheduled in advance and two weeks of content ahead done or almost so. We all have jobs, do this for love of books, do not get paid, so "real life" can and does intervene and it pays off to be organized.

Everyone reviews whatever they wish, the one general requirement is the book is recent/upcoming, while for books from 2-3 years past we tend to do exceptional ones that truly impressed us. We may do "classics" - with a flexible definition to include books published in 2002 for example - but no firm plans.

Regarding duplicate books - it's rare since our interests overlap only sometimes, but we can and do dual reviews - I did some with Robert, have one with Cindy - or we can have two different reviews of the same title, especially for big names like China Mieville or very notable books that got nominated for prizes and such; nothing to say why not.

Cindy: Like Liviu said the switch from one reviewer with a few contributors to a chorus is the big jump that we've made to FBC. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes for reading so there is very litle overlap. If there's a major title or one that a few of us wish to review we pretty much work together on the review if our opinions are the same, or we have sections where we can share our point. It never hurts to have more then one opinion.

What a lot of people don't know is there's a lot of emailing between us that goes on throughout the week. We share our plans for posts or what we see the week to 2 weeks ahead and work from there.

HM: In retrospect, have you ever done a negative review and how did you handle the situation? Every once in a while a book comes that doesn’t agree with a reviewer and there was a heated discussion revolving around negative reviews and what comes afterwards. Was there any fear of ruining your relationship with publishers?

Liviu: Sure I did some negative or so-so reviews - Fall of Thanes and City/City are some examples with Judging Eye an earlier one (more of not as good as expected than truly negative), not to speak of some capsules in my short story anthologies reviews; I know that authors spend a lot of time working on a book and I feel bad about "trashing a book", so usually I mark it as "not for me" and be as polite as I can; there are occasions when I get very annoyed that a book I find "for me and bad" got published instead of other potential ones that languish, so I would have a snarky line here and there on Goodreads where I keep a log of all my readings which are much more numerous than what I showcase on FBC.

I also buy/library most of my books including many review ones and I lived happily reading 200 books a year for almost 20 years now before the Net, FBC and all so I am not particularly concerned about my relation with publishers; sure I want to have a good relation with them and I consider Lou Anders from Pyr a great model for the online sff community, but I still do only what I want and the way I want it.

Regarding reading/reviewing - every book I read means another one unread, every book reviewed means another one un-reviewed by me; there is somewhere a (depressing) statistic about how many books people can read assuming lifespan x and reading rate y and I keep that in mind when deciding what to read/review. So FBC will have mostly "highly, highly recommended" reviews from me, by *my* choice and *my* reasons why I spend the time/energy reviewing. I simply choose those books out of the many I read or try to read.

Cindy: I like to review books that I enjoy, you won't see me reviewing a horror novel for example because I'm not into that so I don't feel it's just to review something I don't like. For the most part there is something positive to say about almost every book I read, but really a review should be honest, and if an author or publisher can't handle having slight negativities pointed out, I won't be that upset over it. I however believe there is a classy way to be negative, going on and on about how much I hate said book isn't doing it justice. I just say why I didn't feel it lived up to my expectations and what I felt it should be done.

HM: The foundations of FBC have already been laid down by the time you started contributing and now that this titan in the Review Blog field is in your hands, what are your plans? Will there be gradual or radical changes to the original formula?

My only rules are: review and showcase what I love or what I thought would love but disappointed me and explained why in both cases; that means more sf, more historical fiction, more weird stuff and less traditional fantasy from me, but hopefully the other contributors will make it up there; other than that, maybe an occasional topic of interest essay, an occasional discussion of sff awards, updates on our plans, and author/series spotlights for big-time favorites of mine that have not appeared yet on FBC.

Cindy: I don't think there will be able radical changes as far as FBC, instead maybe showcasing titles that wouldn't normally have gotten the spotlight is what I"m looking for. I like YA books so I'd love to bring more of those into it, I'd also love some more epic fantasy and such.

HM: So as we know some bloggers that review books and know enough about literature, have writing aspirations. Do you want to stand on the other side of the business?

Not for the foreseeable future but plans can always change.

Cindy: I used to and still play with the idea occasionally but it's not something I see happening in the next 5 years or so.

HM: Now when it comes to literature and reading as many books as you as a team have tackled, there must be established favorites and stay-away-from authors in your list. Can you for the sake of knowing name one author that has blown your perception of the genre in a good light and an author, who failed to deliver?

IM Banks has been the most influential recent (80's on) sff author for me; Charles Stross has great short fiction but his novels have almost always failed to impress me.

Cindy: I've read such a range of books that it's hard to say I can't really compare a YA book to an adult book. But James Maxey took my idea of fantasy and dragons to a completely new light.

HM: What are your personal pet peeves when it comes to your respective genres and also do you see a tendency for these pet peeves and cliches, because they usually are worn out from repetition, to resolve?

"Sf is dying" is a meme that keeps popping up here and there despite being patently untrue and it annoys me greatly. Bandwagon writing/publishing is something else that tends to be way overdone.

Cindy: I don't really have any pet peeves for fantasy, but I would have to say I don't like when the hero does everything right and not one thing wrong in a book. I sorta like it when they make real life mistakes.

HM: What do you think of self publishing? This is a very interesting topic as of late with the numbers of authors self-publishing on the rise and the treatment they receive not only from reviewers, but the whole book publishing community including readers.

Liviu: I have found lots of "independently" published gems - I prefer to call it this way since there are so many varieties of "self-publishing" today from old-fashioned "vanity presses", to micro-publishers to Lulu or Smashwords and similar sites where anyone can publish easily; interesting subject and excerpt that hooks me and I would and did read and/or review lots of "indies".

Cindy: I like finding that one "indie" book that is really good. I think self publishing to a point is great because it gets people out there that normally wouldn't be out there in the literary world. However, almost anyone can publish anything now a days, so I've become really selective and look for excerts of the book before reviewing because it could be not what I'm looking and hoping for.

HM: Do you think there are still areas fantasy has slipped that you would like to cover in other mediums? And how far do you think the fantasy/sci-fi culture will enter mainstream? This I ask because art purists denounce fantasy and sci-fi on a regular basis and yet they keep coming back full speed ahead.

Liviu: "Jazz became respectable, jazz became dead" is an (approximate) quote I love from a recently published interview with James Enge; I would be scared if sff becomes "respectable". Regarding mainstream, we are living in a "sf age" as even the possibility of this interview shows.

HM: Also there has been much denouncing of urban fantasy in pretty much the same vein mainstreamers give fantasy and sci-fi the cold shoulder. Where do you stand in this matter? I ask this because of my partiality to the genre and because genre vs. genre behavior has become frighteningly predominant in exchange between genre readers.

It depends on how you define urban fantasy - if you refer to gods, elves or wizards in modern NYC, I generally find it very hard to suspend disbelief; also the structure of most urban fantasy as mysteries with investigator/detective narrators puts me off since frankly I am not a fan of the mystery genre conventions, they seem too limiting for me. There are exceptions of course, but overall I prefer secondary world fantasy; nothing implied about quality and such, just my suspension of disbelief is usually stretched too hard by urban fantasy.

Cindy: I don't have a preference from urban fantasy, I believe it's all in how the author presents this type of fantasy. So really I go more for the writing style then putting labels on books.

HM: As another newly developed custom I leave the lat word for the interviewees to conclude their session with few closing words on their own about blogging, reading or anything they fancy.

I urge everyone to read as much as they can, discover and cherish authors and appreciate their work.

Cindy: Books are like food, everyone has their own tastes and likes and dislikes. If you don't like one type of writing check out a mystery, a biography, or a historical fantasy. I find it hard to believe when people say they can't find something "good" to read. There's millions and billions of books, just keep looking until you find what you like!


shaneo52 said...

Great interview! Liviu & Cindy, y'all a big stars now! Congrats,lol. FBC has been my favorite blog for quite awhile now.I hadn't realized until now how freaked out I was when I seen Robert was retiring, but Liviu & the gang have done an awesome job! A couple months ago I got into a scifi kick and somehow Liviu kinda became my mentor. He's always been real cool and has given me great answers to my questions and his recs. Thank God for people like Liviu & Cindy, Thanks y'all.

Fabio Fernandes said...

I must concur: excellent interview! Even though I swap e-mails with Liviu and Cindy, being part of the FBC crew, I didn´t know so many interesting things about them and their views. Great job, Harry!

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