Wearing Two Hats: Lucy Hounsom on Writing & Reviewing

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I love reading. I especially love reading fantasy. Voracious reading (and I mean hours spent as a loner teenager in my bedroom) sparked in me both a love of genre and also a desire to write my own stories. Little has changed since then. I still read predominantly fantasy and like to keep up with new releases. Initially I started writing reviews to use as material for my website; now I write them for Fantasy Faction, a brilliant site and the home of all things fantasy on the web.

I don't see myself as a 'reviewer' in an official capacity – rather as a reader publicly reflecting on a book I've just finished. I usually have to get a few dozen pages into a book before I know whether it’s something I’ll be comfortable reviewing. Not all books are easy to summarise critically. Sometimes they’re too clever for me and I hesitate to pit my powers of dissection against the author’s. Other times I simply can’t get an overall sense of the narrative. In some rare cases, I hold the book too sacred to subject it to cold scrutiny. My personal practice is never to review a book I don’t finish, as I feel it’s hard to express a rounded opinion when you’re not in full possession of the facts.

For those books I do review, I read in much the same way as I would for enjoyment, with one difference. I’m consciously on the lookout for obvious themes, or patterns of plot and character – things I’ll be able to weave into a subsequent review. I also own up to the heinous crime of folding down page corners, especially if it’s a long book. Returning later and trying to work out why I folded them down is all part of the fun.

Taking the time to think about a story, to recognise the aspects that made it enjoyable, as well as those that didn’t work, actually enhances your appreciation of a book, and of an author’s craft. The act of expressing a critical opinion hones an important set of skills – the ability to summarise and evaluate in a way other readers will find helpful as well as accessible.

Throw in the fact that I’m also a writer, and there’s another dimension to the reader-reviewer relationship. With some books, my inner critic just can’t take a break and starts pointing out unnecessary adverbs, pieces of info-dumping, repeated words, etc. – all the niggly things I try to iron out of my own writing. The same critic also picks up on the good stuff – brilliant metaphors, richly-drawn characters and deft plotting. Learning to recognise these things in other books helps to improve your own stories. Writing is such an introverted act, it’s important to spend time outside your universe, to see the world through another author’s (and their characters’) eyes.

The bottom line: when it comes to reader, writer and reviewer hats . . . well, they’re probably all the same hat. Perhaps with a different coloured band, or lining. Before this metaphor runs away with me, I’ll say that reviewing books can be a lot of fun as well as a useful exercise. Reviews mean that people care enough about a writer’s work to take the time to talk about it. As a writer, there’s nothing more I could hope for.

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Lucy's the celebrated author of The Worldmaker Trilogy, which began with the magnificent Starbornout in paperback on 28th January. The sequel is due later this year.

A sample of her reviews can be found below:

The Traitor by Seth Dickinson

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Smiler's Fair by Rebecca Levene

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Gaiman and Riddell