Through A Reviewer's Eyes...

My Tuesday Talk Guest... A Historical Novel Society 
Indie Reviewer Richard Tearle talks about....

Purely on a whim, I applied, via Social Media, to a plea for reviewers of new books of historical fiction. Having always enjoyed reading about characters of history, I thought, well, why not? I soon found myself caught up not only in the stories that others had created, but the hoary problem facing all Independent (Indie) writers. Like many, I had assumed that Indie Publishing was either something akin to Vanity Publishing or books that weren't good enough for mainstream publishers. 

How wrong I was!

True, many such authors have had the humiliation of rejection, but publishers are busy people with schedules months, if not years, in advance. They can't take everything, no matter how good it may prove later to be.

Thanks to the wonderful Helen Hollick (author of two books about late Anglo Saxon England, an Arthurian trilogy and the wonderful Sea Witch Voyages) who is the Managing Editor of the Indie section of the Historical Novel Society's Reviews, I was given some basic guidelines on how to judge a book – with or without a decent cover. For a while I was also assisted by Janis Pegrum Smith, author of the Book Ark series. I plagued them both quite relentlessly when I was unsure about a style, a story or other points of order. So, I was learning how to read a book at the ripe old age of, well, retired, shall we say. Because of this status, I had plenty of time on my hands.

From the beginning it was a learning curve – I enjoyed the book, but was it a great one? I likened it to Nadia Comenici, the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 – if you give a perfect score, how do you score something later which turns out to be better? So I read – or rather – wrote – between the (guide)lines and added my own rules.

I would always consider that the author had spent blood, sweat and tears in producing their baby – often financing and publicising it themselves. Therefore every effort should be made by me to honour that commitment from the author by being fair. If a book simply wasn't good enough – in my judgement – then I should state why but in a constructive manner. If, on the other hand, a book was really well written, with a good story and strong characters, should I rush into things and automatically recommend it for 'Editor's Choice' (with the possibility of an annually awarded prize) or stop it just short of that declaring it as 'thoroughly recommended'? 

To distinguish, I try to find anything that might be wrong – an uninteresting cover (or one that obscures any blurb or other information), were there any typos, grammatical errors, basic formatting (any of the above in excess would be an automatic rejection – them's the rules) or any plot lines that simply did not add up. If it meets all the criteria so far, then I try and visualise it on the shelves of WH Smith or Waterstones: would it stand well in the company of established and more famous authors?

Impartiality is a vital watchword. Just because I happen to love tales of Vikings, Anglo Saxons or the later Plantagenets doesn't give me licence to give an automatic 'rave review'. Similarly, the Georgian period, Hanovarians generally as well as many other periods of history, whether British or other, which hold no interest for me mean that I cannot simply dismiss the book as 'boring'. I am reviewing the standard of writing, presentation and storytelling, not my personal preferences.

It can be hard sometimes. Nothing wrong with it, but just not captivating. The writer hasn't found his or her voice. And if I have to give it a poor review, it is not me who might get it in the neck from an outraged author, but poor Helen. Having said that, I have read some terrific books and, over the year or so that I have been doing this, the standard is definitely improving. Out of some 50 books I have received for review, I think I have failed to finish only four – and all of those for legitimate reasons.

There are good things, though. Through reviewing I have made quite a few friends who are authors and whose books I have reviewed favourably. And though it is unpaid, what better way to spend one's time than reading?

Richard Tearle
HNS Indie Reviewer

Helen: I assure you I did not add the flattering bits about myself! *laugh* Thank you Richard, it is very interesting to see our HNS Review process from 'the other side' 

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 either for Indie or Mainstream 
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  1. Enjoyed hearing your take on reviews and reviewing. I envision within each number for a rating a range, sort of what a teacher would do at school. A's are from 90-100, B's 80-89, etc. There are those which surpass even a high five in my opinion. But my reviews are more about my impression of what the reader can get from a story, as well as writing style, scene structure, character development and did it spark excitement in me. Thanks for your post.

    1. Yes Eileen we take impression, writing style etc into account as well, although it is very difficult rejecting a book when you have to be so critical - much easier to reject on grounds of poor formatting, typos and such!

    2. Thanks, Elaine: I had to reject a book recently that was superb in story and writing, but fell down badly on formatting. Fortunately the author understood, had it corrected and, although I did not re-review it, was able to put my review on Amazon and Goodreads, giving it a 5 Star there with a clear conscience. Here at HNS we take everything into account, which I think is fair to both authors and potential readers.


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