Claire King

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Word of Mouth: The Literary Sofa

Posted on: May 7th, 2013 by admin - 8 Comments

Second up in my series of posts on book bloggers is Isabel Costello, whose book blog On The Literary Sofa is a wonderful source of both book recommendations and fascinating insights from the authors themselves. Isabel is also a writer, so we occasionally get glimpses into that world too.

Isabel Costello 2

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Why do you blog about books?

For me blogging is a way of connecting with people who share my love of reading and writing, an extension of my favourite kind of conversation.  I enjoy spreading the word about good books, getting recommendations in return and talking to other writers.  My blog readers are great at joining in.  I’ve met so many interesting people online and in real life through the Literary Sofa.

We writers do like discussing other people’s books. Do you have an idea what proportion of your blog readers are also writers?

I get the impression a lot of them are writers.  Certainly most of those who comment are!

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How many books do you read per month on average and has blogging about them changed the way you read?

I read five or six books per month.  I don’t think blogging has particularly changed the way I read but now I’m plugged into the book world I’m more aware of new releases and much more selective.

Five or six books per month is amazing, I barely manage one! How do you fit in reading with writing and your other commitments?

I take every possible opportunity to read: on public transport, in the bath, late at night, so the hours add up.  I watch very little TV.

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Has reviewing books changed the way you write?

Blogging does seem to have had a positive effect on my writing – I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’ve finally started to get to grips with short stories.  If you’re an emerging writer and your blog isn’t articulate and well-written, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

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What are the high and low points of reviewing books for you?

I enjoy all aspects of reviewing, especially taking an in-depth look at the writing, which is often overlooked.  I relish the challenge of reviewing without giving spoilers – it’s hard but it can be done!  I only review books I think are worth recommending but I adopt a critical approach.  I aim to be honest and fair and that’s important to the credibility of any review – nobody takes any notice of a gush.

If anything I search harder for flaws if I absolutely love the book!

It’s frustrating that I just don’t have the time to read and review all the titles which interest me.

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What would you say is your taste in books? What makes a book good for you?

 My home terrain (in reading and writing) is the crossover between literary and commercial fiction.  I am hugely drawn to American writing.  The only thing I actively dislike is chick lit.  I strongly believe we all have a right to our own taste and don’t need to justify it.

Good writing matters the most to me and I and particularly admire novelists who can write beautifully about difficult subjects and emotions.  All reading is escapism if the writing is good enough to pull me in. If pushed, I would rank character above story but I rarely have to compromise because so many novels have all three elements.  A truly excellent novel will make me think and make me feel something.

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What is your point of view on the star rating system of book reviews?

 I find it very unsatisfactory so I prefer not to do it. For me the best books I’ve ever read would be 5 star and 3 stars would be a very decent appraisal.  I’m out of kilter on this but it doesn’t matter as I don’t review books anywhere but my own blog.

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Through your success as a respected book blogger you have become ‘known’ to editors at publishing houses. Whilst it’s always the writing that counts, it’s great to have that (I think). Would you recommend book blogging to other writers seeking to raise their profile in advance of submitting their work?

Thanks for your kind words, Claire.  I’d recommend blogging based on passion and enthusiasm rather than a specific agenda.  I never expected the Literary Sofa to take off so it’s been a fantastic surprise. I do believe that the writing is what counts for agents (publishers may be slightly more interested in an author’s profile), so my top tip for anyone submitting is to get your book professionally edited before sending it out.  I wish I had done that.

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Recommend me three books that have blown you away

These three novels tick every box in my answer to Q3:

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Fall on your Knees by Ann-Marie Macdonald

 

Many thanks to Isabel for her time and great answers.

Do also have a look at the other posts in this series, where I chat to:

Dan from Utter Biblio

Teresa from Lovely Treez Reads

Alan from Words of Mercury

- Lindsay from Little Reader Library

 

- Anne – Random Things Through my Letterbox

 

- Rob – Rob around Books

8 Responses

  1. [...] talking about the links between blogging and writing fiction.  Here’s a link to the interview if you’d like to read [...]

  2. Mike Clarke says:

    My question about book bloggers who are also authors (already published or hoping to be) is whether they’re worried about being critical of a book and then putting their authorial name against the review.

    There have been plenty of spats between ‘big name’ authors over bad reviews in literary history but I can imagine that bloggers might unknowingly excoriate (or even damn with faint praise) a novelist on a publisher or agent’s list with whom their own work may be under consideration.

    Or do book bloggers tend to decide to post no review at all if they’re unable to give at least three stars (or the equivalent) to a book. (And I don’t mean slagging off the Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, I mean a truthful review of a book that needs the support of book bloggers to build a readership.)

    • claire says:

      I’d love to hear what others have to say on this. In the early days of my blog I ran a series of reviews on Transworld books: they were running a summer event for a selection of their titles. I reviewed several, not all to my taste. One book which in fact I had really enjoyed – one of the Bryant & May books from Christopher Fowler – I praised, but also picked a few holes in the writing. Christopher actually came over to and left a very polite comment. I realized then that reviewing was not for me for two reasons. Firstly because I wasn’t really qualified to critique books the way they deserved, and secondly because I don’t want to say anything online that I wouldn’t say to their face. And I would never say to an established author ‘I really liked your book but I did think the (insert criticism of the plotting/narrative/etc)’ left something to be desired. So now I only ever review books I’ve enjoyed, and in any case not in my blog.

  3. Nina Bell says:

    When I was working on women’s magazines I queried why we only gave positive reviews – or at least never gave negative ones. My editor replied: ‘We have so little space to review books – there’s no point in reviewing the bad ones.’ And unless someone very well-known and over-hyped has written a really bad book, I’d agree. No-one’s taste in books is the same, and if you don’t like a book, I think it’s fine not to review it. Silence sends its own message, without embarrassing anyone.

    • claire says:

      That’s a great point. And so much better for most I think, to be known as a source of great recommendations than somewhere novels are taken to pieces.

  4. Pete says:

    There’s a real art to reviewing that I’ve decided I don’t have but I try to convey my enthusiasm for books I really like. Thanks to Twitter people including Isabel and Dan, I don’t think I’ve read a bad book in two years!

  5. Claire says:

    Joe at the Bristol Prize pointed me in the direction of John Updike’s guidelines for reviewing last night. Definitely worth a read: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/01/updike-on-how-t.html

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