In this new series, I’m going behind the scenes (or, behind the page) with people who work in the book industry, whether professionally or in a volunteer capacity. This week, I’m chatting with Ashleigh Meikle aka The Book Muse about book reviewing. Grab a cuppa and have a read…
Tell me three ingredients in a good book.
- Characters I can connect with – whatever the genre, I like a character I can connect with over something we may have in common (or who just makes it easy to connect with them). I usually stay away from villain origin stories, and part of this is because I can never connect with or feel empathy for those who choose to harm the other characters – so the current proliferation of villain origin or ‘feel sorry for the villain’ stories feels a lot like victim blaming to me, ensuring that the people doing the hurting are the ones whose voices get heard the most – perhaps a lot like the real world, where victims are silenced so those in power can keep that power. (That’s an entire rant from me that I could back up with real world and fictional examples).
- A solid story – any good book needs a solid, well-plotted story, and in my years of reading and now reviewing, I have come to find that some authors – Jackie French, Kate Forsyth, Pamela Hart (just to name a few) – do this really well. I become immersed in their worlds, and they are three of my ‘I will buy without even reading the blurb’ authors. Their intricate, well written and highly researched stories are engaging, and I follow all three on socials, so I follow their writing and research process, and find out how they bring the history behind their stories into their fictional worlds.
- Believable writing – this probably ties into the second point but is pertinent and a little different. It encompasses ensuring that readers can believe that something happened in history, for example. We all know what we were taught, but the power of something like Jackie French’s historical fiction books is the amount of research she puts in, the notes she puts at the back that can help contextualise the history, and the role that historical fiction plays in exploring the cracks we miss out on during classes. For fantasy, it might be in the world building – making sure you’re created a world that readers can imagine themselves in. For crime, it’s ensuring that your sleuth can solve the crime, and knowing how technology might affect the crime solving. Making sure the way your characters act is true to their personality. A careful and cautious character is unlikely to throw all their cautious and careful plans out the window unless they have a good reason. I once read a romance novel that I felt was poorly written because it felt like the characters were two-dimensional, and not always consistent – this made me hate the novel. The way an author writes a character or plot, or even a single plot point, even the way they use historical facts can make or break a novel for me. Example: I once read an historical fiction set in Ireland in WW2 – and the character lived in Belfast, and from what I could tell was loyal to the Royal Family. At the time, King George VI would have been on the throne, and the anthem would have been ‘God Save the King’ – but the author wrote it as ‘God Save the Queen’ (whether this was missed in editing or poor research on the author’s part, I don’t know, but it definitely threw me out of the novel for a few chapters).
What was your book of the year for 2021?
Too many! I always struggle with this question, and try not to rank books, or even give them star ratings because I’m a more nuanced reviewer – it’s the way I do things personally. However, if I had to choose, I suppose it would be a few, because when it comes to these things, I’m quite indecisive and struggle to narrow it down:
- Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief by Katrina Nannestad
- The Song of Lewis Carmichael by Sofie Laguna
- The Right Way to Rock by Nat Amoore
- Digging up Dirt by Pamela Hart
- Michaela Mason’s Big List of 23 Worries by Alexa Moses
- The Golden Tower by Belinda Murrell
- Cuckoo’s Flight by Wendy Orr
- The Emporium of Imagination by Tabitha Bird
- The Last Reunion by Kayte Nunn
- Paws by Kate Foster
- Legends of the Lost Lilies by Jackie French
Which book are you most looking forward to for 2022?
- The Boy Who Hatched Monsters by T.C. Shelley
- An A-List for Death by Pamela Hart
- Time Catchers: When Souls Tear by Karen Ginnane
- Any Jackie French release
- Any Kate Forsyth release
- Silverborn by Jessica Townsend
- The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill – actually, anything that Sulari puts out!
- The Bravest Word by Kate Gordon
There are probably many others as well – too many to list! I must admit that there is a part of me that gets more excited about releases from Australia than America – I find books written by Australian authors more enjoyable and fun to read, but with American books, I find I don’t always find the same joy in them – I’m not exactly sure why, though.
Which book do you think everyone should read?
Now this is a question I’m never sure how to answer, cause whatever I suggest, there’ll always be someone who is upset in some way.
But if I had to choose one? Well, that’s very hard to narrow down. I’d have to go with The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth as it is beautifully crafted and shows how Germans who opposed the Nazis tried to work from within to thwart them.
What was the last book that made you cry? And laugh?
Oh wow! I really had to think about this one! I remember feeling very bereft when I read Last Dingo Summer by Jackie French (Book eight in the Matilda Saga) and my heart was broken into a million little pieces towards the end. After reading that, I was almost lost in trying to find a book to read that would help me heal. Jackie French books often make me cry, and she’s just such a good writer, that I try to suggest her books to so many people.
And laugh? The Macca the Alpaca books! I was helping with a friend’s kids who are seven and one when they were at our place for lunch, and I read the one-year-old some Macca the Alpaca to help her Granny settle her. Granny and I, and big sister had a laugh, but bubba had other squirmy, unsettled ideas. Maybe next time I see them!
Why do you review books?
I started reviewing books as a hobby, and to fill time whilst looking for work, but these days I do it for the love of literature, in particular Australian literature, and authors. As a result, I have tried to put a focus on Australian authors on my blog, given our small writing and bookish community, and feel welcome in our blogging and writing community here. That sense of community is also why I do it – we joke, we recommend, we support each other, and I’ve found such joy connecting with authors and helping them get the word about their books out there. I have also been using my blog as a portfolio for job applications and it has been a highlight in a few interviews, even when I don’t get the job.
So for me, book reviewing is a hobby, a job, and a way to showcase my writing abilities beyond fictional writing, and as I said, has caught the eye of employers and in a way, I feel can showcase my adaptability when it comes to writing about different things.
What’s a myth about book reviewing you want to bust?
I’m not sure if this counts as a myth, but the assumption that a book reviewer will read anything and in any offered format – and coupled to that the assumption that some requests have that the author is ‘sure this is the right book for me’ and then often don’t give the information I ask for in my blog policy. Assuming a reviewer will read any format, any book and will adore a book is something that can either make me feel like I have to say yes or turn me off. I’ve had some nice requests that follow my policy, then the odd one that can’t even be bothered to address me by name and just tells me the audience and genre, without a title.
Another myth I’d like to dispel is that we have time to read everything and time to get all the images etc ourselves – we don’t! It can take me a few days to a week to read a book (depending on what else I have going on), and for me, reading a paperback book is time away from work as a quiz writer, largely done on screen. So not only does it help having the images and info sent to me, but ensuring I have the correct links helps too. And the point about reading in paperback ties into my first myth about reviewers will read whatever format offered to them because it means free books. For me, reading is a joy, and whilst I love my quiz writing job, if everything I read was on a screen, it would all feel like work to me. It falls under the assumption that we all just use devices for everything, which possibly feeds into the book reviewers will read any myth format.
A third is that all reviewers will read unsolicited review books. Now, I used to read everything that came my way, until I learnt that I didn’t have to, and now only request what interests me. A few publicists know me and my style well enough now that when they do send unsolicited books, most of the time they’re ones I will read if I have time. Given we’re only human, I do have to set aside a lot of these at times or come to them if they look like my sort of thing when things are quieter. I can understand why publishers send them, but those who are outside of this world and assume we read everything we are sent (which possibly feeds into my above assumptions and myths that we’ll read anything and everything) may see this and think it’s how we work.
To avoid falling for these myths and disappointment, please read our review policies! And don’t be upset if we politely decline – it’s usually because we don’t have time, it’s not the right format for our reading life, or we don’t read in that area. I often find myself saying no to indie authors because they’ll get in touch just as I’ve received a lot from the Aussie publishers or my Aussie regulars, and I must prioritise what I’ve already committed to.
What makes a good book reviewer?
To me, a good book reviewer includes the pertinent information above their review and gives their own spoiler-free summary before heading into the review. A good review should focus on what the reviewer liked and what they think worked, but every now and then I get a book I don’t wholly enjoy or that doesn’t live up to what I expect. In these instances, a good reviewer would highlight what didn’t work and what could have been done better as well as what they enjoyed. Whilst this can rub some the wrong way, I feel being honest is a key thing to being a reviewer and I live by the ‘I’m not going to gush about a book I didn’t enjoy appeasing others.
There sometimes feels pressure to read and review certain authors, and review them in a certain way, especially if they are popular/widely read and heavily promoted. So I’ve started heading towards the quieter books, towards authors that are prolific but that we may not always hear about or from, and as often as I can, books that are not hyped in the lead up to publication. There is a gem in the hyped ones every now and then, but usually I only go for these ones if they’re part of a series I’m already reading. I think another good thing is to have a focus – whether that’s genre or nationality of author. I tend to focus on Australian authors and read a lot of kids and young adult books – with a smattering of others, but across a broad range of genres within that focus.
Do you ever skip to the end of a book?
Only to check the number of pages when setting up for a review or making review notes in case the website or publicity release doesn’t have the page numbers available, or to check how many chapters – but the latter is more for when I am quiz writing so I can work out how many questions I could get out of each chapter (between ten and thirty for the whole book) and to see which payment slot it fits into (based on page range). So for me, it’s not about reading the ending more than the mechanics of writing the review or the quiz.
What a fantastic insight to book reviewing. Thanks so much, Ashleigh!