Posted: February 14, 2010 in Reviewing the Reviewers, Uncategorized

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Reviewer, PJ Coldren

PJ reviews for many sites including; Meanderingsand, and

1. What really gets you interested in a mystery?

Character(s). Followed by good writing, followed by

competent plotting. I like reading about people I’d

(usually) like to know, people with a sense of their

own self, a sense of what’s right, an ethos they

adhere to. Having said that, there are many

fictional characters I’d be pretty uncomfortable

around (Vachss’s Burke, three out of four of

Charlaine Harris’s leading ladies, Sherlock Holmes,

etc.) and quite a few that I suspect would not be at

all interested in me (Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin,

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, any of the Dick

Francis menfolk, etc.). I don’t mind reading about

unpleasant people, as long as they come across as

real, not caricatures or cardboard.

Mysteries provide some certainty in a very uncertain

world, at least for me. Knowing that some form of

justice will prevail has kept me reading a book that

is viscerally unpleasant, although that kind of book

really requires the “good writing” component to be

strong. James Lee Burke comes to mind; Robicheaux

and friends can get very violent, but the words just

keep sucking me in. It’s easier for me to read Burke

than to hear him; I don’t know what about the human

voice makes the violence so much more real, but I

can’t listen to it. Perhaps it’s because I

subconsciously skim when I’m reading and I can’t do

that when I’m listening. Chelsea Cain’s first book

was like Burke in terms of the great writing keeping

me going in spite of the graphic violence. I’d be

disgusted by what I was reading, but I had to know

more, had to see what happened, had to learn more

about those characters.

I like a good puzzle, although I don’t read with the

intentional goal of solving the puzzle. That’s

usually a bonus for me.

2. What bores the hell out of you?

Data dumping. Long chunks of description. A

blatant, poorly disguised, political agenda (although

this tends to irritate me far more than bore me).

Reading the fourth book in a row with the same basic

motive for the crime. There was a time when lots of

people were killing other people to cover up the fact

that the killer was homosexual; got really tired of

that. Right now, coming out of England, I just read

two back-to-back involving Islamic/Muslim males who

are thought to be terrorists. I hope this isn’t the

beginning of another trend. Characters that are TSTL

(too stupid to live), and unfortunately these tend to

be female way more than male. The unfortunate but

obligatory and necessary telling of back story in any

long-standing series.

3. What clichés would you really like to see go

away? Alcoholic detectives. Police procedurals in

which the main character has done something stupid

and/or is the wrong gender and therefore spends the

whole book trying to redeem him/herself. TSTL

characters. Grown women who have romantic

relationships the same way they presumably did when

they were in high school. Grown men who treat women

as disposable and/or interchangeable. Any small

business owner having enough free time to solve more

than one murder. Ditto for any parent of a small

child or children. Totally unbelievable

techno-skills in thrillers. There was a Bourne book

in which a guy’s eye was transplanted so that the

corneal scan (or whatever) could be circumvented —

after a week the guy who received the transplant is

up and walking around as if nothing ever happened??

Puhlease. I know that there is much in the

techno-world that would boggle my mind, and I can be

convinced to buy into a lot of things, but there IS a

limit to that envelope.

4. What topics, themes, etc. would you like to see

more of in mysteries?

I can’t begin to imagine there is something out there

that isn’t being written about by someone. I’m

enjoying the growth of fiction that recognizes that

people, interesting and vital people, exist after the

age of 25. Who knew that “geezer lit” would have a

market? I’m learning a lot about all kinds of things

because of the growth of the “craft” mystery,

although I must say that I do sometimes wonder at the

sustainability of any particular craft as the focus

of a long series. Monica Ferris seems to be doing

this well, and there must be others. I like some

woo-woo, so this upsurge in vampire books has been

fun. Christopher Farnsworth’s BLOOD OATH combines

espionage with vampires in a very good way; I’m

hoping this is the start of a series. I am also

enjoying what I consider the broadening of the

historical mystery field. There have always been

historicals about famous people, or famous events.


example, is about Queen Elizabeth the First, when

Henry VIII is on his last wife. It’s fun to read

historicals that focus more on the non-famous and

their daily lives; Jeanne Dams had a wonderful series

that did this, until she lost her publisher (a

problem far too many mid-list authors have run into).

It is a trifle disconcerting to discover that

events that took place in my living memory are now

the subject of historicals.

5. What mistakes do you think authors make?

See #2 and #3. Other than that, I’m not sure I’m the

one to ask. As a reader of manuscripts (for a major

contest and for two publishing houses, as well as for

some anthologies), I find it incredible that authors

will send out a manuscript that needs to be seriously

proofread, that needs more than minimal editing. If

a writer doesn’t care enough to send their baby out

looking its absolute best, why should anyone spend

time reading it? Very counterproductive.

6. Do you write? Would you like to?

Yes, I write. What the heck do you think reviews

are? Cartoons? Do I want to write fiction, mystery

fiction? No. I don’t have the stamina, for one

thing. I don’t have the technical skills necessary

(plotting, dialogue, etc.). If I were to devote the

kind of time required to gain those skills, I would

seriously cut into my reading time, and that is

limited enough as it is. The trade-off is so not

worth it. I seem to have no trouble getting my

reviews in front of the public; the chance I’d ever

get a book published? Again, the odds aren’t with me.

7. Who are your favorites?

Authors? Oh Lord. This is such a tough question. I

read so many books, know so many people, and my mind

is like a steel sieve. Right now? I just read a guy

named Frank Tallis, writing about Vienna and Freud at

the turn of the century; I’m thinking of tracking

down the first three in that series. I like Alan

Bradley’s Flavia. I reread Virginia Lanier, Susan

Rogers Cooper. I am always amazed by Michael Allen

Dymmoch’s books and wish she‘d have a break-through

novel. Ditto for Nancy Pickard. I like Eric Stone,

William Kent Kreuger, Steve Hamilton, P.J. Parrish

(and not just because of the name thing), Charlaine

Harris (mostly the Shakespeare ones and the seeing

dead people ones). I think Monica Ferris is good. I

still reread Rex Stout, although my feminist nature

can get in a huff sometimes. I like Dick Francis in

spite of the formulaic nature of his work; I always

learn something from him, and his guys are just so

nice and still “guys“. I like Laurie King, although

I think she’s really taking Holmes and Russell pretty

far from anything Doyle ever did. I think Lonnie

Cruse is underrated. I wish Stieg Larsson had an

undiscovered backlist of at least six or seven books.

I wish there were more Tanya Huff mysteries. I’d

like some more Kathleen Taylor. I’d like to see more

Lee Martin, before she got religious. I wish Sharyn

McCrumb would go back to writing excellent mysteries.

I like some Grafton, but not all. I like Kit

Ehrman, Judy Clemens. I could go on, and on, and on.

8. Why did you start reviewing? It you really hate

a book will you still review it?

I’m honest enough to say that I got into it for the

free books. I don’t think there is a book budget big

enough to feed my habit; my current TBRead shelf is

six feet long and double-stacked the entire length on

one bookcase, and at least that many again in two

other bookcases. I can’t die because I still have

books left to read. I also thought it was a great

way to read authors I might not otherwise read,

either because I wouldn’t ever hear of them or

because my initial reaction to the title/cover/etc.

was not strong enough to get me to buy it. Reviewing

has forced me to read books outside my comfort zone,

thereby expanding that zone, to read for something

beyond pure enjoyment. This is a mixed blessing.

Now, I have to decide what it is about a book that

I’m not enjoying. Is it bad writing? Bad plotting?

Poor characterization? Is it a technical problem or

a personal reaction? I need to know the answer to

this so I can write an honest review. I have

reviewed books that I’ve really hated. What makes it

possible for me to do that with a clear conscience is

knowing WHY I hated it, and being able to express

that clearly, so that a person reading my review can

decide if that reason is meaningful to them. If I

can say that a book was well written, but the plot

was unbelievable – a reader who values good writing

much higher than believability might enjoy that book.

If I can say that the book was billed as “a laugh

riot” and I didn’t get the joke – a reader who has

been following my reviews (on RTE, for example) will

know whether or not their sense of humor has some

relationship to mine. If my reaction to a book is to

say that the characters are stiff and speak in a

manner not readily comfortable to read, and the plot

bore some relationship to a shot-gun apartment, with

the villain clearly written with a neon arrow above

his head – I probably won’t review it. That’s a

technical issue, at least for me, and I’m reluctant

to give publicity to something that’s really

dreadful. I can hate a book, and it can still be

well written. To not review it just because it isn’t

to my personal taste? That doesn’t seem fair, to the

author or to the reader. My taste isn’t universal,

and I shouldn’t presume that mine is the best.

Read more Reviewing the Reviewers here.

  1. Peg Herring says:

    Aside from being grateful for the mention of HER HIGHNESS’ FIRST MURDER, I also want to say this is a great look inside a reviewer’s mind. A “pure” reviewer who reads for love of reading and reviews from a desire to help others find good books, P.J. has a librarious mind (I made that word up). She recalls plots, characters, authors, and books in a way that amazes me, and she never thinks her opinion is the final statement on a book, even if it often should be.

  2. Joan Schramm says:

    An interesting and fascinating look at how an excellent reviewer thinks and works. It makes me rethink my own views on books and what a “good” read is. P.J.’s reviews are valuable because she can clearly articulate why she did (or didn’t) like a book in a way the reader can understand and relate to. She’s pointed me towards some real finds in authors I’d probably have never read on my own, and I hope she keeps reading and reviewing for a very long time.

  3. PJ Parrish says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, PJ…and not just because of the name thing. 🙂

  4. “Mysteries provide some certainty in a very uncertain world…” I could not have said that better. Reviewer Oline Cogdill has coined a term for books I think have come to be a genre of their own–family thrillers–exemplified by the likes of Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, Lisa Unger, Carol Goodman–and Nancy Pickard of the list PJ offers. Certainty in the uncertain world of domestic suspense is compelling for me indeed.

  5. I loved re-reading this interview with PJ, whom I have to thank as being a very early believer in my now-sort-of-soon-to-be-published book. And thank you, Tom, again, for this great column.

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