I’ve just finished reading the new Jimmy Perez mystery, set in Shetland, by Ann Cleeves. It’s called Red Bones and it’s set in spring – each of the Shetland Quarter is set in a different season of the year. I’m planning to review the book for Tangled Web UK, but suffice to say that I very much enjoyed the fluency of the writing, as well as the wonderful way in which Ann evokes the setting. A gift for evoking place - above all, for portraying rural communities in depth – is one of Ann’s great strengths as a writer.
I’ve mentioned before that Ann is a friend of long-standing and one point that sometimes crosses my mind is whether it’s legitimate to review books written by personal friends. I began reviewing crime fiction, for a magazine called ‘The Criminologist’, back in 1987 – having learned, from reviewing legal books, that it was a good way of expanding one’s library at little or no cost. I enjoyed reviewing, and in those days I was not a published novelist. But of course, as one publishes more and more, inevitably (and happily) one gets to know more and more fellow writers. Does this mean that one should stop reviewing their work?
I don’t think so. Where practical, it’s a good idea to flag up to readers of the review that the author of the book is someone known to the reviewer. This is what I try, in most cases, to do. But to do it every single time would become wearisome for readers – it would seem as if the reviewer were showing off how many people he or she is acquainted with.
I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer to this sort of dilemma. My own approach is to try to be both honest and positive, whether or not I know the writer in question. I would not wish to hurt anyone’s feelings. But where I sense weaknesses in a book, even one written by a good friend, I would be likely to allude to them in a review, whilst striving to highlight the positive aspects of the book. And if I really did not like a book, then almost certainly I would not review it. This approach suits me, not least because I’m a passionate crime fan, and I’m naturally predisposed to enjoy crime novels - whether or not the writer has ever crossed my path.