Monday, August 17, 2009

Reviewer Time: Kristen from "Fantasy Cafe"

This edition of the “Reviewer Time” comes delayed, since I took a weekend trip to a place, where sleeping topped my priorities and Internet was not a commodity. Intro aside I have a very cool guest lined for my commentary and discussion. Her name is Kristen and she runs the sleek “Fantasy Cafe”, where long thoughts about speculative fiction titles run free and coffee can be found everywhere, at least virtually.

Right before I started “Reviewer Time” I became Kristen’s reader during a spike of free time on my hands and an attempt to reconnect with the blogging scene. “Fantasy Cafe” is my kind of place. It’s visual and yet simplistic in its task to stand out, much like the much beloved black cocktail dress, but instead martinis Kristen serves a coffeehouse atmosphere in a pill version. Just looking at that drawn silhouette with steam coiling, projects a very calm feeling over me. I attribute this to my narcotic dependency on the stuff, but as I say ‘details, details’. As a blogger Kristen is really wordy and I love it. You can comment at any time and expect a very long reply in return with the feeling that you have known and talked to her before. I am usually very compelled to start discussions with her and can barely restrain myself in that regard, when I have the time at hand.

Kristen’s flirtation with length easily affects the length of her reviews as well, which spawn well over five paragraphs. When a blogger puts an accent on length there are more negatives than positives and penning a longer than average review is a tricky business. Mostly one can just drag and thus tire and/or bore the reader completely, while another possibility is for the review to become too overwrought and complicated. As far as “Fantasy Cafe” goes reviews manage to keep the spark of interest well and alive, while the style is conversational and quite comfortable for the length. Needless to say the depth is also there without treading too much in over-analysis.

Technicalities aside I think Kristen has managed to achieve her special something. I speak of that unique trait you can’t pinpoint, but you can sense it and it leads you back to this blog in spite it competing with possibly countless others for attention in the book blogging scene.

This was my commentary slash review and now it’s time I let Kristen speak for herself a bit more with my default quiz.


1. We usually know so little almost to none about the people behind the reviews, so I think it’s appropriate to kick off this interview with some personal questions. Who is Kristen in the life outside “Fantasy Cafe” and what does a regular day look like for her?

A typical day for me begins with stumbling out of bed and cursing whoever decided that the world should abide by the laws of morning people. I spend most of my day at a marketing firm where I program database-driven websites. After I get home in the evening, I go through my feed reader and Twitter and get caught up on what I missed while I was at work and eat dinner. Then I usually read, write in my blog or watch a DVD with my husband. It’s pretty much an average day, despite the popular perception that bloggers are the coolest cats on Earth. Or maybe I’m the only one who isn’t.

2. In the fun spirit of list-making, please tell us three things that people would probably never ever guess about you.

1. I’m in a YouTube video that has nothing to do with books. A camera was harmed in the making of this film.

2. I kick ass at pool. Even while wearing an eye patch.

3. Even when I was about 7 years old, I preferred darker tales. I can remember reading the original Hans Christian Anderson story of “The Little Mermaid” and loving it. A few years later, when the Disney movie came out, I was very disappointed that it wasn’t at all like the real fairy tale – everything wrapped up far too neatly. I guess my taste in stories hasn’t changed much since then.

3. Now to go nearer known territory. What’s the origins story behind your site?

Basically, I discovered book blogs when I was looking for new fantasy books to read and decided to start one of my own. I was hoping to get to discuss reading with other fans and brush up on my writing skills since I hadn’t written much since college. Although I considered it briefly, I doubt I ever would have actually started my blog if my (at the time) fiancé hadn’t encouraged me to do so.

4. There is a lot at stake in the process of naming a blog. It determines the direction and general vibe. How did you come to “Fantasy Cafe” [where does coffee come up for you?] and also how did you become attracted to the genres you read and review?

For me, the perfect afternoon is reading a good book with some sort of coffee-related beverage, preferably some sort of latte. I primarily read fantasy; hence, the name “Fantasy Café.” Looking back, I kind of wish I’d stuck to a more general bookish name since I’ve discovered since then that I like science fiction a lot more than I thought and ended up reading and reviewing close to 50% science fiction books last year. Plus I do enjoy reading outside the genre, although speculative fiction remains my favorite.

Looking back at my early reading habits, I always liked speculative fiction, although I had no idea what it was called at the time – they were just all books to me and not compartmentalized into any particular category. I just knew I loved Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, and fairy tales. As I grew older, I tended to read more general fiction and classics. Then when I was in college, I read Lord of the Rings and started looking for more fantasy books. When I found George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series soon after that, I was hooked and have been ever since.

5. Now let’s rewind to the beginning in a barrage of questions. Did you feel it was easy? Was it easy to supply enough books and how were you received at first?

When I first started my blog I was in the middle of moving, so finding time to read and write was difficult. For quite a while I didn’t write much, but I started making it a habit to write at least a little review on every book I read. At first, not many people did stop by, but that’s not surprising since I’ve never been good at promoting myself and never really tried to do so. As I kept writing, more people found me, though, and some of them even started contacting me about reviewing books. Better yet, I’ve found a community of great people who are always willing to give some great reading advice and have discovered a lot of great books just by asking for recommendations on the blog.

I tend to purchase books at a far faster rate than I can read them, so having a supply of books to read is never an issue. And my Amazon wish list is still 6 pages long…

6. What’s your approach to writing reviews, your signature so to say that makes you different from all the others? Can you give a tip or share something insightful about the craft?

I’m trying to do the same thing with reviews as many other bloggers – share my love of reading and write the type of reviews I’d like to read – so I’m not really sure what is different about my own reviews. I tend to follow a similar structure to make it easy for people to skip around to the parts they are interested in – the beginning is about the book and where it relates to other parts in a series if relevant, the next part is a plot summary, then comes my thoughts on what I liked and didn’t like, and its concluded with a brief summary of what I thought of the book. If I can find an excerpt from the book, I post that at the end as well. I’ve come to consider my reviewing goal to be not to convince readers they want to (or don’t want to in the case of negative reviews) read this book but to provide enough information that readers can get a good idea of whether or not it is the type of book they want to spend their time and money on. But I still can’t help gushing a little if I really love a book.

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

I have no reading schedule. Most of my reading is done on the weekends since it is when I have the most time. Sometimes I read in the evenings but I usually don’t end up reading that much during the work week since the night flies by, and before I know it, it’s time to go to sleep again so I can get up for work the next day. I’ve always loved reading, though, so I find the time to do so where I can. It is difficult, though, since I’m not a particularly fast reader to begin with, so I’m lucky if I get through one book per week.

Finding time to review is even more difficult since I am a perfectionist and it takes me at least a couple of hours, usually more like 3 or 4, to write a single review. I’ll think it over a lot, ask myself if that’s really truly what I thought or if I can think of examples that contradict my initial reaction, reread and revise until I’m satisfied with it (or at least somewhat satisfied since I’m rarely truly satisfied with one of my reviews). As in many things, alcohol helps.

8. 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?

I’ve certainly written negative reviews before, of both books I’ve bought myself and ones that have been sent to me to review. It can be a very tough thing to do, especially if you have corresponded with the author who seemed like a nice person and really wanted to be able to say you loved their book. I just do the best I can to explain what I didn’t like and why and mention anything positive I have to say about it. If I really didn’t like the book, that can be tough to do, but I try to at least explain the reasons I didn’t enjoy it so others can have an idea of whether or not they would have the same reaction. After all, I’ve disliked some books that other people have loved and in the end a review is just one person’s opinion.

When I do negatively review a book sent to me, I don’t worry about ruining my relationship with the publishers. I feel badly about it and I dread sending them the link to my review since I’m very much the type of person who likes to please others and avoid conflict. The cases where I feel the worst is the aforementioned case of if the author contacted me about the book and I didn’t like it. I worry about hurting somebody’s feelings far more than I do that no one will want me to review their books anymore – if they did decide that, I still have a stack of books I’ve bought myself that’s at least a mile high. It’s too bad, but if they don’t want honest reviews then I’m not the person they should come to anyway.

9. Now, how do you think you and your blog have grown from your first post up until now? Did the formula ever change and can you describe the path of your evolution?

I think it’s grown a lot. At first I didn’t write that much, and I wasn’t quite sure how to go about reviewing so it took a while to figure out how I wanted to do them. In the beginning, I avoided plot summaries altogether because I was afraid of spoiling parts of the book. Eventually I decided it would be better to include at least a little bit about the plot, but started separating the plot description and my thoughts so people who didn’t want to read about the plot could skip over it. I’ve also found the amount of reading I do has increased each year as I’ve gotten more involved in reviewing.

Also, I think the reviews have improved and am glad that the old ones are now buried under the newer ones. (Of course, they are still all listed in the big review index, but I still like to pretend those early book reviews don’t exist.)

10. Apart from enjoying reading the written word, have you ever had any writing aspirations of your own?

Once in a while I think about how much fun it would be to write a book, but I’m probably more enamored with the idea of writing a book than the actual process of writing. I did write a lot when I was in elementary and middle school, so perhaps if I could just find the time, I’d find I loved writing.

I do dream a lot about being in the publishing industry, particularly copy editing since I’ve always been good at that. Promoting or working on somebody else’s book appeals to me more than writing my own.

11. Which are the authors you favor and have had most exciting times with and on the opposite spectrum, which are the ones you couldn’t connect with and avoid since?

My top two favorite authors at the moment are Storm Constantine and Sarah Monette. They both write dark books with truly memorable characters, and those are my favorite types of stories. Some other authors I’ve liked so much I want to read everything I can find that they have written are Elizabeth Bear, Carol Berg, George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Robin Hobb, Ann Aguirre, Catherine Asaro, Neil Gaiman, and Iain M. Banks.

I wouldn’t necessarily avoid another book by an author whose work I didn’t connect with, especially if I heard they had greatly improved with practice. The author whose work I am most hesitant to pick up is William Gibson (I know Neuromancer is a cyberpunk classic but I just could not care about anyone in that book or what happened at all).

12. What are your personal pet peeves when it comes to the speculative fiction genres?

My pet peeve could apply to any genre, but it tends to happen an awful lot in speculative fiction. It’s the never-ending series, the kind that is supposed to be finished in x number of books, then y number of books, and then you hear this is really the last book - the series is finished. Or rather, it is “finished,” since someone decided there needed to be more books in the series and another endless round of books starts. This is fine in cases where there is actually enough story to go into all those books; it’s just the times when it seems like books are being churned out because they sell well that bothers me.

13. Is there a tendency for these pet peeves to resolve?

It would be nice, but I doubt it. Selling books is a business and as long as readers are buying, those books will continue to be published. And we readers are often stubborn folk – if there are still books continuing the story begun in a beloved series, it can be hard to just give up hope that just maybe this latest installment will be the one to recapture the magic of the earlier ones.

14. 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.

If someone wants to self publish their book, that’s their prerogative. I’m sure there are some books that have been self published that are very good, but I’m not likely to read any of them. There are already tons of books I’d like to read and I’d prefer to narrow my options by sticking to those that someone else has believed in enough to put some effort into getting it on the bookstore shelves. Plus I get really annoyed by typos and grammatical errors, so I’d prefer to read books that have gone through the complete process of editing and proofreading (not that all published books are free of typos – I’ve read a few that looked like they were just printed immediately without being checked for errors).

15. 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.

I actually find it quite humorous that so many people claim they don’t like science fiction yet many of them do enjoy Star Wars or The Matrix or any number of other films that fall under the speculative fiction umbrella. It’s my belief that there is a misconception of what exactly science fiction is – people often think it’s full of space aliens or men from Mars and it’s silly and cheesy and like all those bad movies that appear on Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes. If somebody likes a movie or book they take it out of the science fiction or fantasy category in their head and just think of it as good. When that happens they never allow science fiction/fantasy to become what it can be - a fascinating, inspiring, or insightful place to set a story.

16. 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?

It’s quite silly to dismiss a whole genre when it’s just like anything else – a mixture of good and bad. Perhaps one has tried it and hasn’t found any enjoyable books in the genre, but that’s no reason to look down on other people just because they have different taste. It seems as though people just like to feel superior and want to look for a genre to bash so they can believe that even though some people look down on their reading choices, at least they don’t read xyz type(s) of books. And if someone judges it without having actually read it – you never know unless you try it! The cheesy covers always put me off of reading urban fantasy, but after reading some great reviews of some of these books, I started reading some this year. I’m grateful for those reviews since I would have missed out on a lot of good books, including one of my new favorite finds of this year – The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs.

17. I am not sure what a closing question sounds like at this topic, so you are free to some some closing words on your own regarding reviewing.

Your questions were pretty thorough, and I’m sure I answered in more detail than is necessary so I don’t have anything to add. Thank you so much for having me here at Temple Library Reviews today!


Thea said...

Fabulous interview and answers! Thanks Harry and Kristen :)

Harry - "Fantasy Cafe” is my kind of place. It’s visual and yet simplistic in its task to stand out, much like the much beloved black cocktail dress, but instead martinis Kristen serves a coffeehouse atmosphere in a pill version. Just looking at that drawn silhouette with steam coiling, projects a very calm feeling over me."

I completely agree. Fantasy Cafe rocks and is one of my go-to blogs to get the skinny on a lot of titles I otherwise would probably never have heard of. And the design is lovely too.

Now, Kristen - what is this YouTube video?! Heh.

"I do dream a lot about being in the publishing industry, particularly copy editing since I’ve always been good at that. Promoting or working on somebody else’s book appeals to me more than writing my own."

I wholeheartedly agree :) I would LOVE to be an editor or buyer or promoter of some sort. *sigh* A girl can dream, right?

Thanks guys for the great, insightful interview.

orannia said...

Thank you so much Harry and Kristen :) That was a fabulous (and very comprehensive :) interview!

Harry Markov said...

Thea, as always it's a pleasure to see you comment and read. I appreciate your input and Kristen is an awesome interviewee. :)

Orannia, thank you for reading. :)

Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks for providing us with a way to get to know Kristen better. Hers is always one of my must-visits.

Harry Markov said...

Your welcome. :)

Kristen said...

Thank you for having me as a guest, Harry. It was a lot of fun doing the interview and your commentary on my blog made my day when I read it. :)

Thea - Thank you! Wow, now you made my day. That is so nice to hear.

YouTube video? What YouTube video? *whistles and walks away*

I'm sure it's not nearly as interesting as it sounds, although it is true that a camera was destroyed. We did a video invitation to our open house at work once. It was my job to tell someone the Internet was down yet again, to which they got to throw a temper tantrum resulting in the death of a camera.

A girl can definitely dream - I would so love to be an editor or promoter or anything that meant I got to spend my time with books all day.

Orannia - Thanks for stopping by!

Tia - Aw, thanks, that's nice to hear too! You guys are all awesome!

Carl V. Anderson said...

Great interview, thanks Kristen for the honest and insightful answers, it was a lot of fun to read.

I was saying 'hear, hear' when it came to your pet peeve. There are so many books that I just avoid because the series seems like it will never end. I gave up on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series about 3 books in. That was pre-internet days (or it was for me anyway) so there was no way for me to determine if it was ever going to end. I got to where I would go in the bookstore, pick up his latest book, and thumb to the end to see if it had a 'This completes book whatever of the Wheel of Time series' hoping to see 'This concludes the Wheel of Time series'. And now he has passed on and the series is still not complete. It is ridiculous. I have friends who know I'll love George R.R. Martin's series, but I do not want to commit until it is finished. And while I wish him a long life, he is no spring chicken nor looks like the most healthy chap.

I love the name 'Fantasy Cafe' but can see how you might feel restricted in what you write about if you are reading and reviewing other genres with any kind of consistency. The nice thing about that though is that it gives fans of fantasy a chance to see books in other genres that they might end up really enjoying.

I wish you continued success. I don't get over to your site as often as I probably should, but I've enjoyed it when I've been there in the past. You do a fantastic job with it.

Harry Markov said...

Carl, I have yet to embark on a very long series that never seems to end. My major achievement in that category is reading all HP books, though it was known that they end at number 7. I plan on reading the classic series like the Dark Tower and Malazan Book of the Dead, simply to have my fundamentals covered.

Kristen said...

Carl V. - Thank you very much for your kind comments and well wishes!

I don't plan to finish The Wheel of Time, either. I've read all the books that are out other than the prequel, but the main reason I stuck with them was I had friends who read them and wanted to know what they were talking about. At this point, I've found it hasn't really held my interest enough to keep going.

I try not to let the name restrict me too much, and tell myself that if I found it in the same section of the bookstore as the fantasy books, I might as well review it. Normally I don't review any non-SFF books I read, but that doesn't happen often anymore anyway. There are a few I've been wanting to read, though, and I was considering just calling it a non-SFF review and reviewing it anyway if I do. All fiction books are a kind of fantasy anyway since they are the product of someone's imagination.

Harry - I haven't read the Dark Tower yet either (or any Stephen King, which is kind of shameful since he's the closest thing I have to a local author). Although I've started the Malazan books, I haven't read them all. I read the first 3 and they were good, but they all took me so long to get through that I've been hesitant to start the next one since it will take me a month just to read it. The two novellas I read were quite the opposite - I got through each of those in about an hour, even being a slow reader.

Harry Markov said...

There are too many novels I need to read to help me develop my own sense of writing, as I have too many WIP as in novels and I wish to know how other people did it, so that's why I am still not on these series. Plus I started reviewing before I could just read for pleasure. :) Putting deadlines on things is definitely challenging.

Donna said...

Really enjoyed this interview's Q&A. Quite a few of the answers here made me feel much better about being a newbie at blogging. Fantasy Cafe is one of the first blogs I visited when I first started following book blogs. Thanks!

Kristen said...

Harry - It is definitely very difficult to find the time to read all the books out there. There are so many.

Donna - Thank you for your kind words! I am glad to hear some of the answers made you feel better (although I admit I'm curious about which ones now).

Donna said...

Hi Kristin - Mainly your answers 5 through 9, most especially 7 & 9. Sounds similar to my history of blogging, so maybe I have some hope yet. :)

Donna said...

Sorry, I meant "Kristen", I have a niece with the same name as you and she spells her name "Kristin". ;)

Harry Markov said...

Thank you for stopping Donna and don't worry, it's never easy or smooth when you start. :) Glad the interview helped you.

Kristen said...

Donna - That's all right, my name gets misspelled all the time. Being called 'Kristin' is pretty minor since I've had people think my name was everything from 'Krista' to 'Kristine.' ;)

It's always good to hear you're not the only one, and I'm glad to hear you say you can relate, too. :)

Harry - No, it's certainly not easy to start a blog. And it's become more time-consuming that I'd ever anticipated, although I certainly think it's worth it!

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