Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reviewer Time: James Long from "Speculative Horizons"


I am giddy and I am nervous. It’s October’s very last Sunday, which translates to several very important things. One, starting next week I won’t be able to slack as much as I used to. Two, I am starting my Halloween Week event, which will be both a blast and a horror to stage solo. Third, it’s SUNDAY AFTERNOON SEMI-LIVE with your host Harry Markov and his ever so popular feature “Reviewer Time”. This week’s guest is James Long, respected blogger, reviewer and founder of the British hit blog “Speculative Horizons”.

Pardon for the talk show babble, I am on a Saturday Night Live rush and it reflects a tad too obviously. Let’s get started with the introductory commentary. “Speculative Horizons” has been around for almost two years and although it stems from around the same time I decided to create “Temple Library Reviews” he has a sweet gig with a steady stream of followers and has managed to garner 100, 000 already. James apparently has been doing something right to get such Internet attention in this dynamic environment as well as getting invitations to book parties hosted by respected publishers such as Gollancz. So let’s look at what can be the cause for “Speculative Horizons” to be as hot spot for speculative fiction readers.

First and foremost there is the green on black look, which I find slick, quite easy on the eye and atmospheric for the purposes of hosting a blog dedicated for speculative fiction, but I am more or less biased on the matter, since green is my favorite color. Then there are the reviews. I have to say the reviews pop up sporadically, judging by the content per month ratio, but as they do pop up they are pleasant to read. His reviews are conversational, unstructured and of medium length, but they reveal a lack of constraint, which is their strong point. Readers catch on that James knows what he is talking about and it’s that ease that draws the reader in or at least what drew me in. It’s clear that James is passionate about the genre and the books and it shows in his work, which makes it irrelevant how many reviews he posts weekly. Though I do want to read more of his opinions on certain titles.

“Speculative Horizons” is not defined by its reviews, but for the subtle British humor [I hope I am not the sole human to think so] and the diversity in news and information output. There have been several instances, where I’ve learned or was introduced to certain events and occurrences solely through my reading on “Speculative Horizons”, which in the dangerous and highly competitive discipline ‘review blogging’ is an appreciated advantage to be taken seriously by both readers and the publishers, who supply the books.

My personal recommendation is to add this one in your Google Reader, even if it is already packed inside. For more on James, check this interview at Ubiquitous Absence hosted by Peter William.
_____

Harry Markov: I bet you have kept up with this feature so you know that the first few questions are always personal, so let’s get straight to work. Who is James Long, when he is not in charge of the awesome “Speculative Horizons”?

James Long: He’s an international spy/playboy that divides his leisure time between his private yacht moored in Monaco, his Beverley Hills mansion and his Knightsbridge penthouse suite. When he’s not saving the world from cat-stroking evil geniuses, or receiving massages from a host of scantily-clad Scarlett Johansson lookalikes, he secretly blogs about fantasy books. When no one’s looking, of course.

Alternatively, he is a regular guy that works the 9 to 5 grind like everyone else, and spends his lunchtimes blogging about the fantasy books he reads on his daily commute.

You decide!

HM: I am a big fan of lists, so I want you to list me three fun facts that your readers probably would never ever guess about you.

JL: 1) I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings.

2) I burned down the town of Trebon.

3) I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my – hang on, sorry…got confused there. Can’t get that blurb for The Name of the Wind out of my head…

Let’s see.

1. I was once hauled out of English class and berated by my teacher for reading my Space Wolves army book (a Games Workshop publication) in class instead of a ‘proper’ book. Our usual teacher was away, and a chap called Mr Henderson was taking the class. Unfortunately, Mr Henderson’s born-again Christian beliefs didn’t quite correlate with a book about muscular, bearded men that enjoyed killing things with chainsaws and guns. I was told in no uncertain terms (in other words, he screamed at the top of his voice) that my book was “perverted rubbish.” It remains, to this day, one of my finest genre-related moments.

2. I’m vegetarian and love animals, though admittedly the vegetarian gig is a pretty recent development – I’ve only been veggie for three and a half months. It’s going pretty well so far, only one minor wobble in the first week when I threw a strop because I wanted a chicken curry. I sulked for approximately fourteen minutes and thirty-two seconds, then ordered a vegetable curry instead. I would say that I own two Devon Rex cats, though I rather suspect they own me.

3. I cannot drink significant amounts of any kind of spirit. This is the legacy of getting horrifically drunk on the contents of a liquor cabinet whilst around a friend’s house at the age of 14. I think I puked in pretty much every single room of the house. When my mother came to pick me up, my friend offered the heroic explanation that I’d “eaten a cheese sandwich” and that “maybe it didn’t agree with me.”

To this day, I steer well clear of spirits – beer and wine all the way!

HM: When and how was your passion for reading sparked and what was your path to discovering the pretty rad world that is speculative fiction?

JL: My parents used to take me regularly to our local library and really instilled in me a love of reading. I’d read two or three books a week as a child, and was diagnosed as having the reading ability of a 15 year-old when I was just 11, so I was able to move on to more advanced material pretty fast.

My first taste of speculative fiction was a series of books called Tim and the Hidden People, about a young boy that finds a magic key and gets involved with a race of ghost-like people. They just took me to another place completely; it was total escapism. The stories were very imaginative, but even better were the wonderfully moody illustrations that just oozed atmosphere. I guess this sparked a love of the mysterious and mystical in me, a taste for the fantastical. This spark lay dormant for a few years, until one day when by chance I bought a book called Return to Firetop Mountain (book 50 in the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks). No idea why I bought the book, I just saw it in a catalogue and for some reason I wanted it. A good thing too, since it utterly blew my mind. Before I knew it, I was hooked on this tale of adventure, treasure and monsters in which I got to decide what happened. I devoured many of the other Fighting Fantasy books, before eventually moving on to Brian Jacques’s Redwall series of YA novels. Then, on a friend’s recommendation, I bought Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara and read it in three days, loving every moment. It was too late to turn back now, not that I wanted to. I read the rest of Brooks’ novels, and then moved on to the likes of Feist, Jordan, etc, becoming more and more immersed in the genre.

HM: What was the inspiration behind the conception of “Speculative Horizons” and how did you decide on this form of blogging in the first place?

JL: For several years I enjoyed discussing fantasy books online in various forums, and when the blogs took off I enjoyed following them and the debates they often started. The more I saw the bloggers enjoying themselves and gaining increasing exposure and support from publishers, the more I started thinking that it was something I’d love to have a go at.

I knew the fantasy blogosphere was already quite crowded, but I was always confident I could produce a blog that could offer something a bit different from those already out there. I also saw it as a chance to give something back to the genre, which had given me so much enjoyment over the years. Plus I needed a creative outlet and a challenge, and this just fitted the bill completely.

I didn’t really have any sort of plan, I didn’t do that much research – my only real desire from an aesthetic point of view was to create a blog that looked quite striking and memorable. Otherwise, I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants for the most part, learning as I’ve gone. It’s certainly been a fun education.

HM: What’s the part of review blogging that liberates you from the mundane troubles and makes it worth the time and effort and what part frustrates you the most?

JL: The knowledge that people all over the world are enjoying the blog and enjoying books that I’ve recommended – honestly, this is the why I blog in the first place, and it feels great when someone emails me and says “I picked up book X on your recommendation, and really enjoyed it.” I actually received an email from a US soldier, serving in the Middle East, who told me that my blog was a daily read for him. I got a massive kick from that – it really brought it home to me how much some people enjoyed the blog. As long as folk are enjoying the blog and picking up some useful recommendations, I’ll keep blogging!

As for the other side of the coin…there’s not really anything that frustrates me about the blogging. It can be a drag at times (some reviews take quite a while to write) but generally it’s a lot of fun. There’s plenty of things in the genre itself that I do get frustrated by, such as the small minority of fans who whine and bitch about delays to books, and think it’s acceptable behaviour to email Pat Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin and call them ‘fat fucks’ or whatever childish prattle they bandy about. All those people need two things – a finer understanding of how writing/publishing works, and a damned good slap.

HM: Not so long ago Kristen from “Fantasy Cafe” posted an interesting article on the seven deadly sins a bibliophile can commit. What are your personal book sins? *mhm*

JL: Well, I’m glad to say I definitely don’t commit sins 3, 5 and 6 (marking of pages, skim-reading and revealing spoilers). I am obsessive about keeping my books in good condition – my girlfriend once spilled water over one of my David Gemmell books, and I’m still annoyed about it five years on. More recently, I was distinctly unimpressed when I pulled my copy of The Painted Man out of my bag to find that the overripe pear I’d also been carrying had imploded all over it.

I never skim-read – too afraid I’ll miss something important. And some books are so detailed and have so much depth, that it’s almost a crime to skim-read and miss the bulk of the detail.

Spoilers are a pet hate of mine – one sign of a bad review is a reviewer who reveals spoilers. It’s just not necessary – tell me about how good the book is, not what happens!

I don’t think I’ve ever destroyed a book deliberately (1), though I did accidentally ruin my friend’s illustrated copy of The Sword of Shannara – the binding is screwed, so it always opens on the same page (a picture of Paranor). He wasn’t happy.

I am a bit of a book sloth (2); there are books I’ve had sitting around in my spare room for quite some time. Due to the amount of books I receive, I must admit it’s hard to maintain order on my collection (4). I’m also guilty of judging books by their covers (7) but then I think almost everyone is.

HM: This is a fairly new question I plan on keeping in the general template for awhile so here goes. As a reviewer do you go through all lengths to finish a novel or do you drop it after it feels too much to read?

JL: I’ll always give a book a fair chance to grab me, but if it’s not happening then I’ll put it down. My reading time is precious to me, and I don’t see any point in persevering with a book that is boring/annoying/not working for me. Sometimes it can be tough – I had to put down Vellum by Hal Duncan even though I didn’t want to (I just couldn’t hack it). If I don’t finish a book though I’m careful not to write a ‘review’ since I believe to properly review a book you need to finish it. Instead, I’ll just explain why it didn’t work for me.

HM: I am hooked on these cover art battles and am totally a believer that the cover is essential for the novel as the story, since it can spark the initial chemistry between a reader and a novel. And I basically enjoy novels harder, when their cover art is not to my liking. It’s prejudiced and I am trying to overcome it, but what about you?

JL: Cover art is vital. We live in a disposable age, where we want and expect things immediately. We spare each book perhaps an initial glance of – what, a second? It’s massively important therefore that the artwork is striking. I’m no different – I’ll pick up books that catch my eye and ignore those that don’t. Of course, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I think most of us do.

HM: Have you ever wished to be one of the authors reviewed on blogs and have a long career with novel after novel?

JL: Absolutely, it’s my ultimate goal. I’ve wanted to write a fantasy novel since I was fifteen and have been working on various projects ever since (all of which were abandoned, mostly for being shit). I’ve learned a huge amount over the last ten years, and have had a few short stories published here and there. I’ve been lucky enough to have some established authors in the genre give their feedback on my more recent work, and they were very encouraging, which was extremely promising. Watch this space, I guess… ;-)

HM: We discussed how you started your blog, but what about your goals and plans? I mean in the course of its development it surely must have overcome several changes and now what do you want to achieve with this pet project?

JL: Well, the blog recently passed 100,000 visits, which is certainly a milestone. I do feel that I’ve managed to build a reputation as a creditable blogger and that Speculative Horizons now sits nicely alongside some of the other excellent blogs out there. So I guess the plan is to just keep plugging away and see where it takes me – it’s worked pretty well so far! One thing I’m keen to achieve is the same level of quality content – I’m anxious to avoid the blog becoming an endless succession of giveaways and other repetitive material.

HM: I think you are one of the more read review bloggers [just a personal assumption] and as such have you ever had weird fan mail?

JL: I do get them now and again. The one that sticks in my memory was an email from one gentleman who enthused about how he liked to collect vintage/nostalgic DVDs. He rambled on at great length about the Moomins and Bagpuss. He then offered me a Sinbad the Sailor DVD.

Needless to say, I didn’t take up his bizarre offer…

HM: Oh and a bit connected with the last. Have you had certain perks manifest now that you have run your blog for almost two years? Perhaps an author has recognized your name or your blog’s? Something like that.

JL: Well, I receive more free books than I know what to do with – that’s the main perk for a bookaholic like me! It’s always exciting to come home to find a package on the doormat when you have no idea what is inside.

Other than that, being invited to events like the Gollancz Autumn Party is extremely cool – a sign that I’m being taken seriously as a critic, which is gratifying. And it’s also an indication that publishers like Gollancz value the contribution of us bloggers, which is nice to see!

But as I said above, the best thing is just being reminded how many people enjoy the blog and value my recommendations. Makes it all worthwhile.

HM: What’s the story archetype or trope that will always keep you entertained no matter how many times it is done and on the polar end what is the one trope or story that will bug you out no matter how many twists are presented?

JL: I must admit I’m partial to the odd quest or two – I think that’s a throwback to my younger years playing Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It’s quite romantic really, a group of companions venturing forth on a dangerous journey…

On the other side of the coin, I hate it when you have a ‘dark lord’ who is basically evil for evil’s sake – that’s just bullshit. I want to see the antagonist given a motive, a reason for their personality and actions. I struggle with pure black and white representations, simply because the real world is far more confused than that, and for me fantasy is at its most potent and relevant when it reflects this.

All things considered, I think any familiar trope is useable, so long as the author attempts to do something a bit different with it. The Sword of Shannara is often derided as a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings, but one saving grace is the final confrontation between Shea and the Warlock Lord, in which the sword doesn’t play the role you expect it to. Little things like that can make a big difference.

HM: You are British and in Britain I am not so sure whether you do the whole Halloween deal, but I am curious whether you have something similar or do a British Halloween of sorts.

JL: Sure, we love Halloween in the UK. Probably not to the extent that our American friends do, but we have parties and do the whole fancy dress thing. Which is fitting really, given that our Celtic ancestors used to celebrate Samhain (the precursor to Halloween) in the British Isles thousands of years ago.

I normally carve a Jack ‘O Lantern and spend the evening safely behind closed doors, sipping pumpkin beer and eating chocolate! J

HM: I bet you have heard about the FTC regulations the US government has issued targeting review bloggers. What is your take on all of this and the potential effect on blogging in general?

JL: Since it doesn’t affect me, I haven’t really read much about this new policy. From what I understand, the general consensus seems to be that it’s not so much of a big deal – a minor irritation more than anything. I can’t see it damaging blogging in any drastic way.

HM: There has been some talk of sexism in the industry with female authors being ignored in anthologies. I didn’t think it was much of an issue really, because I enjoy female authors, the ladies have been bringing home impressive quantities of awards and history will most certainly remember names like Ursula Le Guin and Mercedes Lackey. But still what do you think?

JL: Well, there was a bit of a storm a few weeks back over that horror anthology from the British Fantasy Society that failed to include any female authors in the volume; a lot of people were unhappy about that and rightly so. But it’s hardly evidence of some sort of institutional sexism – it was just a mistake, and one that ample apologies have been made for.

For the record, my favourite female fantasy author is probably J. V. Jones – the first two books of her Sword of Shadows series are excellent, though I’ve not read the third yet.

HM: And also as Damien G. Walter has asked not a long while ago: Are we Post Sci-Fi?

JL: I’m not convinced. No doubt that fantasy, horror and SF films dominate the top-grossing films lists – genre is mainstream these days in the film industry. Books are a different matter; I still think that defined boundaries remain very much in place, and that the prevailing attitude of much of the mainstream towards genre is one of disdain. Sure, some authors like China Miéville and Lev Grossman have made progress in blurring these boundaries and perhaps changing the odd attitude here and there, but such progress is slow (and not helped by the numerous pulpy, derivative crap published every year in the genre). In literary terms the genre is still largely regarded as the black sheep of the family, and part of me quite likes that. But at the same time, I’d like to see the genre’s more superior novels get the credit they deserve from other quarters. We’re certainly not living in a post Sci-Fi age as far as the Booker judges are concerned…

HM: Please finish with your own words.

JL: I think I’ve rambled on quite enough already! I’ll just finish by saying thanks very much to you, Harry, for inviting me to take part in ‘Reviewer Time’ – it’s been a lot of fun. And for those of you reading this who haven’t checked out Speculative Horizons, please feel very welcome to do so! J

4 comments:

PeterWilliam said...

Hey, gotta dig the James Long. Now, if I can just exercise enough stealth to get these spirits in his tea! ;-D

Harry Markov said...

@ PeterWilliam: You evil, evil person. How can you be so devious?

[need help?]

ediFanoB said...

I read Jams's blog more or less regularly. So it was a pleasure to read this interview. Thank you James for your answers and thank you Harry for playing around with the of the questions. You make every interview unique.

Harry Markov said...

@ Michael: I try to in order to keep interest up. :) Glad that people appreciate the effort and this one is a good interview. James is a likeable guy.

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