Monday, May 24, 2010

An Interview with Reviewer PJ Coldren

1. Tell us your back story on being a reader and why
did you become a book reviewer?

I grew up with readers for parents, and could read
anything I wanted. I read anything and everything.
I remember reading No Star is Lost by James T.
Farrell when I was 11 or so, and wanting to read
Studs Lonigan by the same author. The librarian
wouldn’t let me take the book out, and when my mother
found out about this, she called the librarian and
told her to lend me any book in the library that I
wanted to read. If I was old enough to understand
it, there wasn’t a problem, and if I wasn’t old
enough to understand it, then there still wasn’t a
problem. I know, looking back, that an awful lot of
stuff in those books went WAY over my head; my
parents knew what I was reading and encouraged me to
ask questions. I also remember living for the day
when I could say to my mother, as she said many times
to me, “Leave me alone, I’m reading.” Her response,
as I recall, did not involve leaving me alone. At
least she understood my preoccupation.

I became a book reviewer because, as I’ve said many
times, it’s a wonderful way to get free books. My
discretionary income has never come anywhere close to
matching my “desired book” budget; being a reviewer
helps a lot. Yes, I read a lot of books I’d never
have picked out on my own. No, I’m not always
thrilled about that. However, in the long run, it’s
been very beneficial because not only have I read
deeper in the genre, I’ve read a lot more widely than
I ever might have, left to my own devices. Until I
attended my first Malice Domestic convention, over
twenty years ago, my mystery reading was limited to
Doyle, Christie, Stout, J. D. Carr, a little bit of
Sayers, and Erle Stanley Gardner. A good grounding,
but certainly nowhere near covering the basic food
groups of mystery.

2. Typically what book do you review?

That depends. I try to review ARCs first, so that
the review can be posted either just before or just
after the book comes out. I’ll admit to reading an
author I know I like before an unknown, but not
always. If I’ve just read three police procedurals
in a row, I’m liable to look for an amateur sleuth or
a thriller or something else that is not a police
procedural. If it’s been a gloomy, rainy, dreary
couple of days, I’ll probably try to find something
light to read. If my life is going particularly
well, that’s a good time for me to read something
dark, something noir, something where the ending
doesn’t necessarily make me feel good. I read, and
review, pretty much across the genre; there isn’t
much I won’t read. Sometimes a publicist will push
for their product to be reviewed quickly; if they are
nice about it, I may bump that book up the stack. If
they aren’t nice, it’s definitely counter-productive
on their part. I’m fortunate in that I actually have
quite a bit of leeway in what I review. I tend to
try new authors over big names, because the newbies
need all the publicity they can get and frankly,
James Patterson or Sue Grafton don’t need my reviews
to sell their books. I also get a kick out of
reading something wonderful that most people don’t
know about yet, and being able to spread the word.
My current word-of-mouth book is Blood Oath by Chris
Farnsworth. I’ve passed it along to four people, and
they all read very differently from each other, and
they all thought it was great and wanted to know
if/when there would be more. Happily, he’s working
on another one.

3. Tell us about reading books for Malice and what
it entails.

I volunteered to be a preliminary judge for the
Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press Best First
Traditional Mystery Novel Contest at the second
Malice Domestic convention, and I’ve done it every
single year since then. The process is pretty
simple. If you have a manuscript and you want to
submit it to the contest, you write to St. Martin’s
(I think) and tell them so. They send you a copy of
the contest rules and the name and address of a
judge. You look at the rules and decide if you are
still interested in entering. If you are, you send a
copy of the manuscript to “your” judge. I like to
get my manuscripts prepunched for a three-ring binder
but that’s a personal thing, not a requirement (even
for me). Some people have sent discs with their
manuscripts. I hope that doesn’t become the norm
because I really don’t enjoy reading a book on a
computer and I won‘t do it.

My process, which almost certainly is not the same as
that of other judges, is pretty straightforward. I
send an e-mail to the author when I get the
manuscript; the e-mail tells them I got it, I’ll read
it sometime after the deadline, and they won’t hear
from me again until sometime late in February. I
take all the paper that comes with each manuscript
(the release form, any info about the writers
previous writing credits, the letter that usually
comes from the author) and put it at the back of the
manuscript where I won’t see it when I start to read.
I like to come at a manuscript with as open a mind
as possible. Then I put the manuscript in a pile
with all the others. I’ll start reading sometime
after the contest deadline, which is usually the
middle of August. I put a divider of some sort
between page 50 and 51. If I zip past the divider,
that’s a good thing. If I stop at the divider . . .
I almost never finish that manuscript. I make notes
as I go along, usually on the cover page. These
notes help me a lot when I have to make my final choices.

When I finish the manuscript, it goes either in my
“short stack” or in my non-contender pile. After
I’ve read all the manuscripts, I take my “short
stack” and make my final decision about what to send
to New York. My “short stack” is seldom more than
five; there was one year that I didn’t send anything.
I usually send two or three. One is my selection
for the contest, one is my runner-up, and I usually
have one that doesn’t meet the criteria (it’s a
thriller, or a police procedural, something like
that) but I still think someone should take a look at
it. I’ve seen at least two of those get published,
and three others have won the contest. I notify all
“my” authors as to their status. Then, just like the
authors, I wait to find out who won.

4. Do you like discovering new authors and books?

Yes. Sometimes the fun is discovering someone who is
new to me, and I like that because it usually means
there’s a lot of backlist for me to enjoy. I only
recently read my first Jim Butcher, and had a great
time catching up on the series. The hard part now is
waiting for the next book. That’s always the down
side of finding someone new, especially someone truly
new. I just read Chris Farnsworth’s Blood Oath and
don’t want to wait a year or so for the next book in
the series, and then another year or so after that
for book 3. I wish more people could get their hands
on The Opposite of Life by Narrell M. Harris, out of
Australia. It’s a different, and well written, take
on the current spate of vampire books, and that’s
what I like about Blood Oath as well.

5. Tell us a little about where you live and where
you work.

I live in northern Lower Michigan, in a very small
town. We have one stop light, three bars, not many
sidewalks, and more than three churches. I work in
the next town over, about 15 miles from home, as a
Certified Pharmacy Technician in the local hospital.
I’ve been a Pharmacy Tech most of my working life;
it pays the bills, fulfills the need I have to do
something useful in the world, and I can leave it
behind me when I walk out the door. I’ve lived here
about 9 years, after living in Holland, MI for about
25 years. I grew up in New Jersey, mostly.

6. How much time does it usually take you to read
and review a book?

If my life is going perfectly smoothly and the gods
are smiling, I read on average a book a day. Some
books take longer to read than others, because of
content or length or quality of writing. Reality? I
have one book in my purse, and I read that at work
and wherever I’m alone and waiting for something. I
usually have a book on the bedside table, and that
tends to not be a mystery. I don’t want a bedside
book that will suck me in and keep me reading until
two or three in the morning. That book tends to be
biography, romance, science fiction, or non-fiction
of some kind or another. Sometimes I have a book
going in the living room, and that tends to be
mystery, but not something I have to review.
Reviewing? Depends. I like to get the review done
within a day or two, but life does tend to get in the
way. If the review is put off for too long, I can
forget enough of the book that I have to skim it to
remember what I wanted to cover in the review. I
don’t like to do that. Sometimes I can spend an
afternoon and write four or five reviews; sometimes
it’s a struggle to get one done.

7. How many do you review a month?

Never thought about it. Some months a dozen books or
more, and that can mean writing 2 or 3 different
reviews of the same book (one for, one for CrimeSpree
Magazine, one for Amazon, one for the Creatures ‘n
Crooks Bookshop on-line site). I don’t review every
book I read or I’d be doing nothing but reading and
writing. Again, it depends an awful lot on what else
is going on in my life.

8. What are some of your favorite books or series?

I reread Virginia Lanier, Susan Rogers Cooper, Rex
Stout, Dick Francis, and Michael Allan Dymmoch. I
enjoy Peg Herring, Chris Farnsworth, William Kent
Krueger, Steve Hamilton, Brian Gruley, Louise Penny,
Deborah Sharp, Stefanie Pintoff, Eric Stone, Monica
Ferris, Barbara D’Amato, Eugenia West, Alan Bradley,
Hank Ryan, Joanna Campbell Slan, Kit Ehrman, Beverly
Graves Myers, Leighton Gage, Margaret Fenton, Darryl
Wimberley, Kathleen Taylor, Jim Butcher, Lee Harris,
Tanya Huff, Jeff Cohen, Jeanne Dams, Laurie King,
M.G. Kincaid, P.J. Parrish, Lonnie Cruse, Victoria
Houston, Andrew Vachss, K.J. Erickson, and I know
there are writers I’m forgetting. As you can see, I
read a fairly disparate group of authors and
sub-genres. Non-mysteries? I grew up on all the OZ
books, lots of mythology and fairy tales, biography,
and then whatever I could get my hands on. I read
romance and science fiction/fantasy in my off hours.
I read whatever piques my interest.

9. What can we find you doing when not reviewing
books or doing something book related?

Working - three 12-hour days a week. Spending time
on Dad Duty. My father is elderly and frail, lives
across the street from where I work. I take him out
at least once or twice a week so he can smoke a
cigar, one of the few pleasures he has left now. The
only place he can smoke, especially in the winter, is
in my car. So I drive around while he smokes a Te
Amo or a Gurkha or whatever. I run errands for him:
groceries, prescriptions, etc. I bake; baking, for
me, is therapy. Well-nigh instant gratification, and
my friends and associates benefit, because neither my
spousal unit nor I want/need lots of sweet stuff
around the house. Bake sale? I’m here for you. And
sleeping. Sleep is good.

10. What is your favorite meal, movie, music, and
place to vacation?

Meal: really good filet mignon, sweet potato fries,
Movie(s): Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Casablanca, The
African Queen, Hopscotch, House Calls
Music: country, Tom Lehrer, the Moldau, classic rock
Place to vacation: wherever my friends and/or family are

11. In closing, leave us with a quote only a book
reviewer could give us?

“Go to hell, I’m reading.” Archie Goodwin, although
I can never remember which Rex Stout work it comes from

There’s a line in the second Tanya Huff book, Blood
Trail, where Vicki Nelson says something along the
lines of, “You know you’re having a really bad day
when you’re looking forward to the arrival of the
blood-sucking undead.” I’ve had days like that.


  1. I think that your mother had the right idea!

  2. That was great -- I think I heard you speak at CrimeBake last year. You lead a fascinating life!


  4. I sent an email to the spammer for what good it will do.



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