Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reviewer Time: Colin from "Highlander's Book Reviews"

Another Sunday has arrived and I am keeping it punctual to present this week’s guest over at “Reviewer Time”. He is a relatively new blogger starting out on Blogger, but has moved on to bigger and better things like his own domain name. I give you Colin Leslie, although you know him as Highlander, from “Highlander’s Book Reviews”.

As much as I would like to keep my commentaries long and informative sometimes I hit on a blog, which I have not heard or have heard, but haven’t actively followed. This happens for a number of reasons, number one being limited time versus unlimited number of book bloggers popping up and about. Such is the case with “Highlander’s Book Reviews”, which leaves with a narrow assembly of things to say here. However after my introduction to the wondrous and all powerful Google Reader and my interaction with Colin I am on my way to building a tad more voluminous opinion. Colin is an awesome person to converse with and I for one plan on actively keeping contact with him, though I am not so sure that is such a positive thing for him.

So, I’ve established that I don’t have a very fleshed out opinion Colin or his blog and it’s time to cut with the interlude and say what I do know. For starters Colin is Scottish, which may be is irrelevant, but nevertheless is awesome. Among other things he is also a photographer and as you will soon learn in more detail from the interview he is a writer, which for me speaks tons. The man is clearly artistic in nature, knows his literature and that so far as an assumption has been confirmed from the reviews I have read. Free of any structure Colin’s reviews are organic in nature and do what they have to do; namely create an opinion in the reader whether the book discussed is or isn’t to his/hers liking.

As a closing summary of random things that have stuck out so far and stuck to my memory I will state that Colin has an amazing taste in horror and all the readers that feel like stepping out from their comfort zone or are just uneducated to what is out there in this genre I highly recommend visiting “Highlander’s Book Reviews”. Colin reviews anthologies or at least some of them the same way I do by breaking down them to several posts to add highlight to each story as individually as possible. Then there is the fact that he does supply the readers with the necessary news from the industry and the vast world of literature, so there are those bonuses. Digging through the archives I also found that he nominated for a blogger award for “Your Blog is Fabulous”, which earns some major extra points from me.

Anyway, “Highlander’s Book Reviews” is your quality gateway to horror and the creepy, so just go visit.

HM: As per the “Reviewer Time” tradition I kick start each interview with some bio touches. So dare I ask who Colin outside “Highlander’s Book Reviews” is?

CL: Well every time I look in the mirror I see Brad Pitt looking back at me but that’s because I taped a photo of him to the mirror years ago. He’s just an average, grumpy old man, just ask my wife and kids.

HM: I happen to have dug up through your About page and have fun some nice personal details about you, however I am fond of lists, so with no further ado name the three things that your readers will most likely never guess about you.

CL: I can play the banjo (badly).

I can dowse for water.

I’ve read the DaVinci Code.

HM: The Internet has also revealed that you got your daughter into the reviewing gig as well. It has to be exciting to have two review bloggers under the same roof. Do you help your daughter with her content and do you happen to read the same books from time to time?

CL: Hey, If only I was as good as my daughter. Sara runs Dragonfly Book Reviews and apart from a little technical help at the start it’s all her own work. She also receives far more review copies than I do!

I think the last book we both read was Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book” and probably the next one will be John Connolly’s “The Gates”. I am trying to get her to read more gory horror but for some, strange reason she doesn’t like it.

HM: A few interviews back Michael aka the Mad Hatter managed to fool me into believing he hosted his blog outside blogger. Now I think that the case with you is different. I hope it is, because I have been impatient to learn what is to maintain a site and own a domain name.

CL: I started off on blogger but didn’t like it, moved to wordpress but wanted my own unique email and domain name. Luckily enough I found a special offer on the net for a hosted site on Varihost and was able to register my domain name, get a decent email and have complete control over content and backups all for a fairly small sum. Now I know that most folk would see no reason to pay when you can have a really good free site but I prefer the control of a hosted site. I would highly recommend Varihost and no they didn’t pay me to say that...although if you are reading this guys....

HM: Technology aside let’s go back to your roots. How were you introduced to literature and how did you discover the amazing world of speculative fiction?

CL: I had absolutely no interest in books till I was about 12. After all who needs books when there are comics to read. For some reason though I picked up a copy of Henry Williamson’s “Tarka the Otter” (I was and still am interested in nature) and was hooked. Star Wars came out in ‘77 when I was 13 (yes I really am that old!!) and I got a copy of that book and from then on I read all the SF I could get hold of. My favourite writers were Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I soon moved onto The Lord Of The Rings which I read in one long session during the summer holidays.

Then in about 74 or 75 someone at school showed me a copy of James Herbert’s The Rats (actually I think they were particularly interested in the rude bits) and that was me hooked on horror. I like to think my tastes have matured somewhat but can’t help feeling a certain affection for Herbert’s gory, sex filled early work.

HM: What about blogging. I’d be interested to know how you learned about blogging and basically hearing your origin story that lead to the creation of your blog?

CL: Frankly it amazes me that books receive so little publicity. Sure Dan Brown and Stephen King can always raise a headline but where is a guy to go for an honest opinion of Tim Lebbon’s latest. So I started by browsing the web and found guys like Mihai (Dark Wolf) and Ben (Speculative Fiction Junkie) who were reading and reviewing the type of books which interested me but they still weren’t focusing on exactly the sort of thing I enjoy. I decided the only way to get a definitive review was to write it myself (incidentally I have always rated books, some kind of OCD thing probably).

With the help and support of those guys and others in the blogging community I managed to set up the site and then people started sending me books. Well that was me hooked, it wasn’t necessarily the free books that excited me but the preview copies and the contact with authors. To be able to email some of the guys who I rate as outstanding talents is a real joy.

HM: What’s the best part about blogging that makes it so awesome for you to keep returning to and at the same time have you ever had the urge to abandon your blog?

CL: I think I answered the first part already, the second part is trickier. People shouldn’t underestimate the commitment required here. Whilst I enjoy reading and reviewing it’s rarely easy (the reviewing part) and I feel a great sense of responsibility. This is an author’s livelihood we are dealing with and that means these things have to be done honestly and professionally. I also frequently see non-genre books that I want to read but feel a certain guilt if I’m not reading a book for review. So yes I have often thought of giving it up but then out of the blue will come a really positive comment or email to show that what I am doing has some worth and that keeps me going.

I try not to compete with anyone out there. There are folk who cover the genres in huge detail with multiple daily posts but I have neither the time nor the desire to do this. I am really just interested in the end result - the books. I do occasionally post news stories from a particular favourite author or something I have not seen elsewhere but otherwise I generally just stick to reviews.

HM: Browsing through your book reviews I have spotted a great preference in horror as a genre. Horror has a great variety of subgenres ranging from creature stories to ghost stories and psychological. What tops your favorite list and how do you judge the current state of the genre? I have heard that horror nowadays is not as flourishing as it used to. Perhaps that may be true for the movies, but what about the novels?

CL: First of all I try not to get hung up on categorising books into sub-genres. One of my favourite horror novelists is John Connolly but he is always shelved in the crime section. The bulk of this categorisation is related to marketing. There are few books that don’t have some genre crossover.

Having said all that I have a huge affection for the horror genre. I think at it’s best it has the power to describe the best and worst of the human condition in a way that few other literary genres can. My particular favourites are from the weird fiction strands. Lovecraft, Machen and Blackwood all wrote horror with very little gore, they address the deepest human fears, the animalistic survival instinct.

I am really worried about saying what tops my list these days as there are so many. I truly think horror is going through a bit of a golden age. The only problem is the reading public and most big publishers have not yet realised it. So look to the small presses and try some Tim Lebbon, Conrad Williams, Ramsey Campbell, Mark Samuels, Bill Hussey, Joseph D’Lacey and Thomas Ligotti. If you read them I guarantee you will gain a whole new appreciation for the horror genre beyond the cliche gore and sex that dominates the hollywood version. Instead you will get something deep, emotionally engaging, literate and yet still fun to read and that, in my mind, is what makes a successful book.

HM: Being a zombie nut job I would be crazy to pass the opportunity and not ask a horror reader this: do you like zombies or creatures of the dark in general? And would you know how to react once the things you read about put you on their diet.

CL: I didn’t realise you were a zombie Harry. Sorry to hear that, hope you get better soon. I am not a huge zombie fan. I remember reading somewhere that once a trope started to get parodied it was over-used and I think that is the case with zombies.

Having said that I don’t think a zombie could eat me whole, I’m a pretty big guy. At the very least it would get severe indigestion.

HM: Let’s get down to reviews now, shall we. How do you go about writing them? Some write down notes amidst reading, while others like to sleep on their thoughts after reading a novel. What’s your technical approach?

CL: There is no single approach, I think it’s all down to the book, it’s complexity and it’s power. For short story collections I always make brief notes at the end of each story. For novels though I generally don’t need notes. I will write down salient points or really striking quotes but generally I try to avoid anything which interrupts the flow of reading the book.

I then write the review as soon as possible whilst the information and my feelings are still fresh. I usually put it aside for a couple of days before redrafting and publishing it.

For most books this seems to work well. I don’t have a problem with anything that is really good or really bad but I do struggle with so-so books. I just find it hard to say anything worthwhile if the book hasn’t engaged me emotionally one way or another.

HM: What’s your reading schedule? How do you arrange your day to find time to read and review to keep up relative activity?

CL: Basically anytime I can! I tend to be an early riser so usually get an hour in before the rest of the household wakens. Otherwise I usually cram an hour in before going to sleep. When the house is busy and the TV is on you will often find me in the corner with an ipod some noise cancellation headphones and some MP3’s of Steve Roach. He creates ambient music which allows you to concentrate on reading but blank out the surrounding noise.

Other than that my ipod usually has some ebooks if I get a spare ten minutes here and there or even the odd audiobook when I am driving.

If I get a prolonged period of reading time, such as holidays, I will generally devour as much as I can but hold back some of the reviews. I always try to have at least one review in the bank.

HM: As far as reading goes, once when you have taken responsibility to read and review a novel would you finish that novel no matter what or would you drop it, if it becomes painful as hell?

CL: If I specifically ask for a book then yes definitely. If the publisher or author send me a review copy on spec then I will try and look at it but it can often take a while to reach the top of the reading pile.

By the way I strongly believe in trying to read self-published works. I know there is a lot of chaff with the wheat but it can be so difficult for these guys to get any sort of promotion and who knows maybe, just maybe there is a gem waiting to be unearthed.

I have a strict 100 page rule. If the author has not fully engaged me in the first 100 pages (good or bad) then, sorry, but that’s a failure and a waste of my time. There are far too many books deserving attention to waste time reading dross. If I don’t finish it though, I don’t review it. I will read and finish interesting but bad books. For instance I thought the Da Vinci Code was really interesting, the chapter construction, use of cliffhangers etc. all made it easy to read but I thought the prose was poor and emotionally it didn’t work for me. I finished it, could appreciate it’s popularity but I didn’t like it.

HM: Which author in your opinion has been under the radar for far too long and deserves more public recognition and for what reasons?

CL: I am going to cheat and name four only because there are four different reasons:-

1) John Connolly - sadly ignored by speculative genre fans as he is often miscast as pure crime. The Book of Lost Things was in my opinion as good as The Graveyard Book and his short story collection Nocturnes was a brilliant horror story collection.

2) Tim Lebbon - Everything I have read of his has been good and his forays into fantasy/horror or horror/fantasy prove that genre boundaries need not exist.

3) Thomas Ligotti - Mysterious, mercurial, highly intelligent. The heart of a horror writer the soul of a poet.

4) Mark Samuels - A direct ancestor of Machen’s writing style, Mark Samuels is cruelly absent from your average bookstore. Chuck out all those Dan Brown’s and fill up the shelves with Mark Samuels and we are one step closer to Utopia.

HM: Now it’s time for a “Reviewer Time” classic. Apart from enjoying reading the written word, have you ever had any writing aspirations of your own?

CL: Aha! I thought you would never ask. I used to write when I was younger but never went anywhere with it. I think blogging has inspired me though as I have recently started again. I have three short stories completed. I recently won a runners up prize in a short story competition. Another has yet to be sent out to publishers but, and this is breaking news Harry, I have just sold my first story. I can’t reveal the details yet but visitors to my blog should see more details in the next week or so.

All of which has inspired me to try more writing so it is definitely something I hope to develop in the future. Needless to say I will be sure to send you a copy of my novel for review when it is published!

HM: What is the kind of story that will always engulf you no matter how many times you see it done? Naturally, if you don’t have one, your latest trope obsession applies.

CL: Anything that touches on man’s roots in nature. Now that sounds like some wishy washy hippy stuff but I do believe humans have a deep rooted spiritual connection to nature and the various mythologies are the result. I love anything which touches on that connection good or bad.

HM: On the polar end, what is the current trope or tropes that annoy you beyond words?

CL: Vampire romance, if only because it has taken over the horror section in most bookshops and whatever it is, it aint horror.

HM: There has been a wee debate about ranking or not ranking, though that I think is old news in itself, but the topic is an interesting one nevertheless and worth asking people about a couple of time. What’s your standpoint on the importance of ranking for book reviews in particular?

CL: Basically I feel that not everyone has the time or inclination to read all of my review. The rating gives those folk an immediate summary and this may then lead them to read the full review. Call it filtering but I know it’s something I do with CD reviews. I often browse through until I see a score that looks interesting (good or bad) and read further. I don’t think it alters the reviewers attitude to the book one bit.

I do think there is a danger of inconsistency creeping in. I recently read a great book and gave it 5 out of 5 but then read a better one and found myself wondering where to go with that. It really shouldn’t matter though. The review should be fair and honest and the score should reflect the reviewers feelings.

HM:If there is one thing that these interviews have taught me is that review blogger society is as diverse and vast as it comes. I also wonder from time to time, whether we would need some sort of organization in order to agree on some elements and ground principles the same way our magazine and news paper colleagues do. At the same time I think that doing everything in a different way is the charm of the review bloggers are a phenomenon. What are your thoughts on my ramblings?

CL: Yes....erm no....err maybe. The wonderful thing about blogging is that it is entirely up to the blogger what they say but entirely up to the reader to judge the validity of that. I think that sets up a natural balance. Any attempt to organise it would only lead to resentment and one-upmanship. As Grouch Marx said “I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER”

HM: Well it’s curtain time, which means that the closing words are up to you. Hope you had fun.

CL: Well thanks Harry, I had great fun even if the vol-au-vents were a bit cold. I just want to say thank you to everyone in the blogging community and publishing world who has helped and supported me. I think the brilliant work done by some of the original bloggers in persuading authors and publishers that what we do is valid deserves recognition, maybe some kind of medal is in order.

Slainte Mhath!


Hagelrat said...

nice RT guys.

Harry Markov said...

Thank you Adele. :)

ediFanoB said...

Nice interview. Colin, you are only a few years (five) younger than me. It is good to read that I'm not the only "old" guy in the world of book blogger. Since I read THE LOCH by Steve Alten I want to visit Loch Ness and surrounding. No, Nessie is not the reason but the wonderful landscape.

I like your blog even I'm not a fan of horror. My daughter prefer to be a lurker. But she likes what I'm doing.

Ben said...

Excellent interview Harry! Highlander's Book Reviews is one of the best blogs out there and Colin one of the nicest bloggers around.

Harry Markov said...

@Michael: I always wanted to visit Loch Ness, just for the thrill of being in a place, where so many other people have been and enjoyed.

@Ben: That's the beauty of the web. Every blog is the best for somebody and I am excited to discover or get reintroduced to blogs I haven't encountered.

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