Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Kiwi crime reviewed in today's Nelson Mail

As many of you will know, one of the publications I review crime fiction for on an ad-hoc basis is the Nelson Mail, the newspaper for the region in which I grew up (the Nelson region at the Top of the South Island of New Zealand). It's a great region, and a very good regional newspaper as well. In fact, when I was contemplating making a move from law to writing a few years ago, my first newspaper freelance features were for the Nelson Mail (profiles of lesser-known but high-achieving sportspeople, rather than books or authors). It's one of the reasons I still contribute occasionally.

Today there was an excellent review of two recent Kiwi crime novels, Vanda Symon's CONTAINMENT and Paul Cleave's BLOOD MEN, in the Nelson Mail's weekly books section. I had planned on reviewing both of these for the newspaper (I hadn't told the books editor - I just contribute occasionally when I can), but I didn't write it - the review was by Jessica Le Bas, a Nelson-based teacher and poet.

You might think I'd perhaps be a little annoyed that another reviewer covered books I was planning to write about, but in fact I was very, very pleased when I saw the review in today's edition - because it was so thoughtful and well-written; a great example of how (in my opinion) reviewers should approach their task. For example, unlike the recent Otago Daily Times review of Kiwi crime novels (which had some interesting insight, but overlooked several things while trying to make a particular point), Le Bas looks beyond plot to talk about the quality of the writing, and the layers beneath.

"Symon does Otago justice, despite the murder and the drugs; it's portrayed with a sense of belonging," says Le Bas. "CONTAINMENT is a ripping good story, told in first person by the spirited Sam Shepherd, with a dash of colloquial humour and plucky attitude, sometimes reminiscent of Janet Evanovich's sassy female sleuth Stephanie Plum. It's fast-paced and addictive reading."

When she turns to Cleave's BLOOD MEN, Le Bas impressively looks beyond the occasional bout of brutal violence (something a few reviewers seem unable to do) to assess the quality of the book as a whole. "This is the most accomplished of Cleave's works, not for the writing or the story, which is always strong and original, but because BLOOD MEN has a new edge of complexity, a growing intelligence that comes with the reader learning not just about Edward Hunter, but also about the light and the dark side of the human psyche, about those faced with an inconsolable loss."

You can read Le Bas's full 700wd review, "Ripping good stories evoke place superbly", here.

When I came across Le Bas's review in the Nelson Mail today, I was pleased not just because it was great to see quality Kiwi crime featured in the media (which is good), particularly in a positive way (which is great), but moreso because it was great to see a reviewer that looked beyond plot summary and personal preference, to provide readers with some insight about the quality of the writing (which is excellent). It's something I aim for in my own reviews, although whether I always achieve this or not, is of course another matter.

What do you want from a book review, as a reader? What should be included in a book review? If you review books, what approach do you try to take? Thoughts and comments welcome.

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