Hollow man or hollow reviews?

imageMadrid, Pamplona, Côté d’Azur, Paris. Assassination of a Prime Minister during the Franco era, hostages at a British embassy, a plane crash killing hundreds of people, Basque terrorist group ETA. A shady American analyst who teams up with a glamorous MI6 agent.

Sounds good? The Hollow Man, by Paul Hollis, has all the ingredients of a cracking spy/thriller/suspense novel, based on a true crime. It was also one of the winners in the 2014 World’s Best Story competition.

So why am I ambivalent? Well, I thought the beginning dragged, and I was confused. It’s not difficult to confuse me but if I can manage the complexities of Le Carré, I’m not totally stupid. And I can usually cope with Deighton, Greene certainly, Fleming, and the less well-known John Lawton. I’d also add the very good Ratcatcher novel, self-published by Tim Stevens, which is a much more recent spy/thriller book but a fine read.

The book starts with the ‘analyst’, known only as Doc, observing people. One of these is the Spanish Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco. The historical record is that responsibility for his assassination in 1973 was claimed by ETA. His car was blown sky high on his return from mass.

But Doc is also observing or trying to find some mysterious figure called Chaban. Doc’s pursuit of Chaban is what the story is really about, but it took me a while to work that one out, via various detours and red herring characters and situations. Chaban was responsible for the embassy hostage murders, and Doc sees visions/a ghost of a young girl who was killed there.

It’s one of these ‘we need to prevent something but we don’t know what that is’ sort of novels.

Not only do we have the true assassination of Carrero Blanco woven into the story, we also have the aircrash of Turkish Airlines flight 981 north-east of Paris, in which all 346 people on board were killed in March 1974.

Hollis does bring fact and fiction together in a clever and convincing mix. But why, in a thriller/suspense novel, do we have Fodor-style travel guide excerpts telling us really interesting snippets about the local environment? It’s a thriller, a suspense novel! Get on with it, for goodness sake, instead of detouring with the travelogue.

Pause for Madrid travelogue photos …

If I want to know about bridges in Paris, I have a fine book about them. I don’t want to get excited about what’s coming next, to then pause and have to read about the Pont-Neuf.

Having said all that, I did keep reading, and it got better as it all moved on, seemed to make more sense and gelled together.

Worth a read? Yes, especially if you like travel info interspersed in your thriller ;) Good story overall? Yes, just could have been tighter, and with less passive prose. I’d say it’s fairly lightweight in the scheme of these novels despite some vicious kickings and beatings.

And, one of my real gripes. Using foreign languages, eg French, Basque and Spanish in this book. Should the author translate literally or try and convey the sense in another way? Or, should authors not use foreign languages apart from Si, Oui, Jah, Sim, etc? For another post, perhaps.

Paul Hollis
Paul Hollis
Hollis has lived in twelve states of America and worked in all fifty, but he fell in love early with seeing the world on someone else’s money. He has lived abroad for nine years and worked in forty-eight countries, spanning five continents.

Book provided through ireadbooktours.

Which brings me onto:

What on earth is a good book review? Is there such a thing?

A few authors and bloggers have written to me about book reviews. Some weeks months ago, I started writing a post, but dead dogs took away the urge for blogging. So I never did finish it.

But it was about how to write book reviews. Because it seems, the world is an expert on it. Every week or so, someone tells us how to write book reviews. Some authors love to tell reviewers how to write really nice helpful reviews. No nasty negative words. Oh. No.

Yeah. Right.

Let’s be clear. There is no one correct way to write a book review. Easy. Or maybe there is:

A reader writes what they want to say.

However, if you are being paid, or you take part in blog tours, you may have to follow guidelines and criteria.

Here are, the three basic book review formats:

1 I love this book it’s great. (Written by friends and family on Amazon). I hate this book it’s horrible (hopefully not written by friends and family or, who needs enemies?)

These comments may or may not be genuine, but they don’t actually tell the reader anything about the book.

2 The other extreme. The ‘reviewer’ goes to great length to retell the story. Why? FFS why? We don’t need to read your précis skills, we need to read what is good or bad about the book. And for goodness sake don’t include every spoiler under the sun.

A précis is not a review. A review does not need a précis. It just needs, ‘this book is historical fiction involving time travel from the C21 century wherein our heroine slays dragons and meets the love of her life, who may or may not be a dragon’. Or something similar. But don’t tell us the plot and the flipping ending.

3 Criteria. In this, the reviewer assesses the quality of writing against set criteria. It’s more analytical and a good reviewer can appreciate good writing even if they don’t like the story.

But any review can involve any combination of this mix. And, to be fair, who sets the criteria?

My reviews

I review differently, depending on where I am reviewing.

On my blog, I like to make it personal, add photos, and hopefully a different perspective that is more than just a book review.

When I reviewed Bridges of Paris and The Artisan’s Star, I gave my views of Paris and Florence, with an insight into my travel experiences in France and Italy.

I don’t do that when I am doing paid-for reviews on an international website. I assess the writing against criteria, make editorial notes, and receive a nominal payment for some, not all books.

Criteria are: quality of prose, formatting, plot, character development, pacing, ending, cover, but not, I liked/didn’t like this book. That’s irrelevant.

If/when I review on GR or Amazon I try and keep it short. Good or bad because …

Who really wants to wade through loads of self-important prose? Apart from the author, if it’s flattering.

And onto individual paid-for reviews. A bit like paid-for beta readers. Another source of controversy.

There are two types of paid-for reviews. The I-will-pay-you-to-say-my-book-is-wonderful type, and the I-will-pay-for-an-honest-review-from-a-reputable-source. Kirkus for example. Or, as Amazon is cracking down, why not include it in the ‘editorial reviews’ section of the author’s information?

It’s wrong to say all paid-for reviews are advertising/promotional blurb. They aren’t.

There is nothing wrong with paid-for impartial, objective reviews. In olden days, authors submitted their print books to newspapers and magazines. Sure, authors didn’t pay for the review apart from the cost of the book, but actually, the reviewer did get paid.

Kirkus currently charges between $400 and $600 for a book review. Kirkus editors get paid. Same principle, just these days, an author has to front up the money. No free lunches any more.

Meanwhile, if you review books, I say, write what you want. Just make sure you are honest.

Top photo is of Atocha station in Madrid. It features in the novel. It also featured in a terrorist attack in 2004. Yes, I was using Atocha at the time …

60 comments on “Hollow man or hollow reviews?

  1. For a moment, I was debating about trying to leave a comment that incorporated all three book review types. :)

    You’re spot on about book reviews. Quite frankly, I’m indifferent about them myself. Except type 2, those people are inconsiderate because they spoil books without even including a decent spoiler alert.


    • I probably have written a mix of all three reviews, but really, there is no need to be precious and prescriptive. That’s my point.

      You like it, don’t like it. Fine. If you want to say why, even better. If you have nothing better to do than rewrite the book, that’s your issue. If you want to be objective and use some criteria that’s ok too. Just, don’t say one review is better than any other.

      Plus, less is always more, which immediately negates 2. And I certainly try and avoid spoilers. What value is a book review that ruins the ending?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I miss the days of newspaper reviews of books by experienced paid by the paper reviewers. Used to be my favorite sections. Some were better than others. Some had niches and certain opinions that showed through, but a consistent reader knew them and filtered the piece with that knowledge. And you could pick to follow one or another as a trusted source. Such power those reviewers had. Celebrity status – feared, yet courted by publishers and writers.
    Then came those who probably worked for less and had lesser skill. And newspapers themselves are in decline. (The cutting of serious reporters and experienced writing staff certainly had a role in that) Now anyone thinks they are able to review a title. I mostly ignore reviews on Amazon, and pay more attention to bloggers I have read for a while.
    World has changed in so many ways. Enjoyed the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. To be honest I am a bit ambivalent about book reviews. Guess I prefer those in the papers. Btw just finished my best read of the yesr The Garden of Evening Mists. If you have not read it, Google it. 5 stars.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Who really wants to wade through loads of self-important prose? Apart from the author, if it’s flattering.”
    This made me laugh out loud. Guilty as charged!
    I always enjoy reading your reviews. The mixture of analytical and personal gives them real integrity (and makes them very entertaining). Please don’t change.
    PS I’ve just downloaded Ratcatcher on your recommendation


    • Oh. Maybe I should write long boring reviews on Am in future? Seriously, I just switch off to loads of gushing crap. I want something short, sharp and punchy.

      I like writing reviews on my blog because I can create something. Layer my experience, my thoughts, the book, the plot, it has its own short shelf but unique life. I can’t do that on Am or GR, but here, for a short while, I can give a book review a life as I see it. I want it to step out of the pages, even if it’s not pretty, or even if it’s dull.

      Ratcatcher is similar to Deighton, as near as. I wrote a review back somewhere. Stevens managed to get it published in Estonia which I thought was impressive, with a cracking cover for that version.

      Thanks for your comments about the reviews, I enjoy yours too. Bit more serious than mine though ;) No, that’s wrong. Different style …


  5. I have written quite a few reviews, though i have a tendency to back up assertions by quoting – comes from training many years ago in what was called practical criticism. I would never review a book about which something good could not be said.


    • I think that’s a fair comment. Eg, the plot/story is good and the writing is appalling?

      No point quoting these days. People can’t read too much you know? Bouncing off to something shorter and sharper and sweeter and shittier? :)


  6. Aaarghhh, I detest précis type and gushy 5 star reviews. I go straight to the lower stars, short reviews and work along from there. I enjoy being part of the Goodreads community so regularly add reviews but rarely more than 3 sentences or 3 stars.
    That said, I love your style which takes book reviews to a whole other level… for me it’s not about the book but about the generous Roughseas treatise:)


    • LOL Elladee. Blushing! Book reviews on my blog tend to encapsulate what I’m thinking. In this case, I was tearing my hair out when I got to a travel snippet piece of info! Oddly, I’ve just read a (very good) memoir which did interpose factual info ie history about WW2, but in that context, it added to the story. But there again, it wasn’t a thriller. I am toooo slow at writing up on Goodreads. I allocate a few stars and that’s mostly it.


  7. I like your book reviews. You are honest and I think that’s important. :D

    This book sounds like some of the movies I’ve seen. You start watching it but can’t quite get why and you keep on watching it in the hopes that you will find out. :P

    Great review and loved the photos. :D

    You and Snows must have a great day. ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have only read a few of your reviews, and each of them has been quite different — and therefore, really enjoyable. If you were to say the same thing each time, or approach every book exactly the same way, I’d be a fair bit less impressed. If and when I write book reviews, they are usually for my own remembrance — and even though I document them on my computer, I often forget WHERE on my computer, and therefore can never find them again. My reviews are basically for my own purposes too — in order to record what I’ve read and what I enjoyed or didn’t. My favourite reviews are for books I enjoyed. Or really hated. Those in between are just so so.

    I participated in a library summer reading “club” for adults last year. All we had to do was read a book a week, and submit our name and phone number at the end of the week, and a few names would be drawn each week to win a book of our choosing from a rolling trolly filled with books of all kinds. Apparently there weren’t too many readers, because in the four weeks I entered I won 3 books! Loved it.

    But what I loved even more was the option of writing a book review of each of the books we had read. These reviews were compiled in a binder that was left in the library for months after — and when I had a chance to look through it, discovered that some of the readers had taken care to write really insightful reviews. Several books sounded like ones I’d enjoy. So I wrote them down, and determined to read several. Never did, because that list got lost somewhere in my stacks of paper. My loss :( Record-keeping is not one of my strong suits.

    BUT one day I will discover said list and head back to the library.

    So… I am very happy when you post a review, because I am introduced to new and potentially exciting (or not) new reads. And I also always learn something new from your posts. Thanks.


    • Hi Diana

      I do put some thought into how I am going to approach a review, over and above ‘this was good/bad/indifferent’, partly for the very reason you state. I think book reviews can be quite dull, and I read many book reviews on blogs that don’t get a response. While some authors and review co-ordinators say the review should be about the book (obviously) and not about the reviewer, I disagree with that. The whole idea is to pique the potential reader’s interest, and to do that one needs to make it stand out, one way or another. If you put something personal into it, whether it’s style or an anecdote or whatever, then it’s more likely to grab someone’s attention. Dylan, who commented above, writes good reviews from time to time. By which I mean all his reviews are good, not that he only writes good ones from to time, he writes reviews from time to time. Phew, and this from a journalist! But it’s not surprising as he’s also a good author (I recommend his books if you like dystopian crime/thriller/some politics/slight sci-fi, even if you don’t, they are a good read).

      Books that are bad are probably the easiest to review :D I remember writing one about a vampire/werewolf job by Ellen someone (famous but not so much that I remember her surname) which one of my (journalist) readers said was a good example of how to write a review of a poor book. Scroll down to Once in a Full Moon if you want to read it: https://roughseasinthemed.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/world-book-day-in-gibraltar/
      and the comment is the first one, luckily.

      I’ve never written reviews purely for myself, but then again, I’m used to writing for an audience. Training I guess. Your reading club sounds interesting, especially winning the books :) Well done. The nearest I got to that was the Red Cross coming round with books when I was in hospital and urging me to take four or five :) After all, what else is there to do in hospital for a non-television watcher? Great excuse to lie around reading.

      I too have jotted down authors’ names and lost the bits of paper. Which is a nuisance as they were authors I hadn’t read and sounded interesting. It’s good to discover new authors who write good thoughtful contemporary fiction.

      Thanks for that. I try and limit the number of books I review on here (although not the number I read) and also broadly bear in mind the types of books my readers like after I carried out a poll. Don’t know if you took part in that. Hmm. Might remind people about it. Or rerun it.


  9. Speaking of ‘travelogue’ … reading Dan Brown’s «Inferno» felt like that. I was used to his, more fast-paced novels, so this one was a let down. Was going to put it away, held out though, and in the very last chapter it picked up. I don’t know whatever got into him …


  10. “And onto individual paid-for reviews. A bit like paid-for beta readers. Another source of controversy.” – I had no idea such a thing even existed! My initial reaction was one of scorn, however, if done for a genuine review, it may not be so bad an idea. Unless the person you pay hates it. Hahahaha.

    “Meanwhile, if you review books, I say, write what you want. Just make sure you are honest.” – Absolutely. I always like it when someone picks out a line they like in my poems, or tells me where it sent them in their mind, connections, highs, lows. Did they cry? Did they laugh? All such information helps me, because it broadens my understanding of how my writing is perceived. If I actually ask for the full whack, good and bad, then that’s what I want. (This has yet to ever happen and sonmi is curious as to when such a cold day in hell will occur) *laughs*.

    This has me thinking of composing my own post on the subject. I may need to check if I’ve already written one mind you. The brain is not what it was.

    – s upon the Cloud


    • There are paid-for reviews and paid-for reviews … So Kirkus, for example, is also a publicity machine. To get a good Kirkus review is quite an achievement, but it comes at a price as mentioned above. The site I work for doesn’t charge for reviews per se, it’s an application for ‘approval’ on their list of good books. But you can still have the review if you don’t get approved (approval requires four or five stars). Importantly what that does is circuit the Amazon stipulation about no paid-for reviews because technically it isn’t the review that’s being paid for. If I do a paid-for review (ie for me) the author gets a report which is what they are paying for …

      Must remember to make notes on your poems and provide thoughtful feedback in future.

      I see you managed your review post. Short and to the point.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. That reminds me… something I forgot to mention to you about BIA… they’ll be Spanish conversations too… no griping about my language, or else! :D


      • Lmao… not a chance! I won’t be translating anything. Bear in mind, however, it will be Mexican dialects, not Spain’s. It’ll be as I remember it.


          • True, It’s kind of like American to British English if that makes any sense. ;)

            That’s right… Carro… not sure it should have two r’s though since the don’t roll it, but anyway… :) They simply put an o on the end of a lot of English words, or a (it’s the masc/fem thing that they have a hard time letting go of.) :)


          • Carro (LAm) acc to my dictionary. Anyway otherwise it would be confused with caro, muy caro. You mean like the difference between perro and pero? Anyway, your Spanish, from wherever, is always in good hands with me cariño. I’ve probably watched too many Latin American soap operas to learn Spanish! 🎶 Gata Salvaje🎶 * does quick song and dance * 💃🏽


  12. I’m always sceptical of reviews because reading is such a personal thing. I’ve learnt to trust certain people’s judgement but that s quite limiting. That sad there’s nothing better than reading a review, then the book and agreeing with the reviewer. Finding a compatible reviewer is like finding a great new author. Oh and speaking as a new indie author, I think gushing five stars have a lot to recommend them for ego polishing purposes…., though any reviews are welcome too.


    • I used to really enjoy browsing through the weekend papers (especially as work paid for them – press office) and choosing which new books to buy the following Saturday. Mostly it was a synopsis of the story, but I enjoyed the personal commentary too. It’s a bit like reading the news, you just need to read between the lines.

      I think Dylan writes good reviews, not that I’ll ever get round to reading any of them as I have a flat full of unread books, my neighbour passes all his on to me so that he has a clean tidy flat, not one overflowing with books. But a well written book review, whether favourable or otherwise, can be a good read.

      Five stars may be good for the ego, but as EllaDee says above, many of us only ever read the three star and lower ones. Five stars are dished out far too easily. I think four is a pretty good award, and three is perfectly commendable.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I’ll confess to not being a fan of writing on Am and GR. unless there are few/none reviews, it feels relatively meaningless, and for the amount of books I read, it takes a lot of time. Clicking a star is easier. Writing a review is time I could be spending doing something else. I could spend all day writing flipping reviews and it ain’t going to happen. I much prefer to write something on my blog than churning out a few meaningless pars on Am that few will read. Hell, I only read a handful of reviews so what’s the point? Unless you want to get on bookbub with over 500 5* reviews on Am etc etc. The crazy review situation has to change but it won’t be just yet.

          Liked by 1 person

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