Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In the Book Reviewer Hot Seat: Elizabeth Bird

The hot seat is getting even hotter with Elizabeth Bird, aka Fuse #8! She's one of the top 50 reviewers on Amazon and has reviewed for School Library Journal and Kirkus among others! She's got Jody Feldman's Gollywhopper Games in her TBR pile, and so could you! All you have to do to enter is leave a comment before June 29th. Winner will be announced June 30th! Let's get started:

What's your handle? Well, the blog is called A Fuse #8 Production. So I end up signing much of my correspondence (correspondence, in this case, meaning comments on other blogs) as Fuse 8. The name hasn't any real connection to anything children's literary whatsoever. It's named after my car, but I've found that it sticks appropriately in people's brains, so I am pleased.

What kind of books do you review? I review children's books. Basically anything between the ages of 0-12. I have been known to make exceptions for teen and YA titles, however, if they are A) Necessary in terms of communicating with my co-workers (Sherman Alexie is a good example of this) or B) Graphic novels. First Second's line of GNs, for example, are infinitely reviewable.

Approx # of books reviewed? Uh-oh. Ever or on blogs? The difficulty in answering this is that I don't quite know. In terms of children's books I make sure to duplicate all of them onto Right now I'm #48 of the top Amazon reviewers with 1,458 reviews on there. That doesn't count my reviews on, where I put all my YA reviews. That just comes to 95. Then on top of that you have my professional reviews written for places like School Library Journal and Kirkus. I guess I'd estimate that I've done some 150 or so of those. So... a lot.

Where can we find your reviews? Well, everything ends up on my blog anyway, but not too long ago Kelly Herold of Big A little a created a Children's Book Reviews Wiki. You can find many of my aggregated reviews on my own little separate portion of the site at A Fuse #8 Production Collection of Reviews. I'm still adding them from my old blog site, so it isn't complete yet, but it's getting there.

Reading turn-ons: New takes on old tropes. Humor. Sentences that make me want to hit my knee in glee.

Reading turn-offs: Familiarity without a sense of anything fresh or new. Celebrities who think that writing for children is a piece o' cake. Poorly done humor.

Class of 2K8 books reviewed: Well, truth me told there were so many YA novels this year that I haven't had much of a chance to review anyone. I do have Gollywhopper Games in my To Be Read pile, though, so I think that I'll make that one the next book I read.

You won't be disappointed! But before you dive into Gollywhopper Games--let's dive into the questions! Tell us more about how you came up with your alias, Fuse #8! A little bit about how you got into book reviewing would be cool too.

Well, I came about it in a weird roundabout way. Years ago I had a car. A little 1989 Buick Century. It was my grandmother's, so you can imagine the state it was in around 2000. One day I drive it home, park it in front of my apartment, and take out the key. All of a sudden the locks on the car start going up and down and up and down and up. Clearly the vehicle is possessed and, worse still, it's shorting out the battery. Now I had just graduated from college and the last thing I needed in my poor poverty-stricken state was a huge car bill. But I dutifully walked it into a Richmond, Indiana garage. The fellow there hears my problem, reaches into my glove compartment, and pulls out . . . .Fuse #8. Turns out, the little fuse (once removed) solved all my woes. How does this apply to my blog, you say? Well, my husband's a bit of a filmmaker. Years ago he was looking for a good name for a production company. We tossed about a couple titles when all of a sudden I said "A Fuse #8 Production". That idea was squashed, but I liked the sound of it so much that I vowed to someday put it on something myself. When the blog idea popped up it was a perfect fit. And so it goes. Since then I've thought of more appropriate blog names, but this one will do for now.
As for reviewing, I came across it during library school. On a lark I had taken a children's literature course (I really wanted to be an archivist, originally) and part of the course consisted of learning how to write reviews of children's books. In fact it was so much fun that I started doing it on Amazon. As I kept reviewing I got better. Then I started to do it professionally. Finally I was doing it professionally for pay.

We're so happy that lark turned into much much more (and that your car was not possessed!). Speaking of school, let's talk grading systems, describe how you rate books in your reviews and how that translates to the reader?

Grading system. Hm. I don't do much of one on my blog. I know that some bloggers like to use "five star" systems and the like. I once thought about doing a "five fuses" thing on my site, but it was too much work. I do participate in grading on Goodreads and Amazon, though. Basically I don't give many low scores. Only if a book particularly offends me or I perceive it to be insulting to the child reader. Middling books that are fine if not extraordinary get 3s. Most books get 4s. They're strong but they just don't have that extra oomph to give them a 5. 5s are reserved for the cream of the crop.

That sounds fair, so how do you pick the books you review? Or are they picked for you? Do you ever read books that wouldn't normally interest you—and if so have you ever been surprised by what you've read?

When I review books for professional journals then I'm sent them in the mail without knowing what they will be. I can request specific titles if I'm looking forward to something, but I don't often get it. I pick my own books for review on my blog. Often I'll read quite a few books, but only review a handful. The ones that really stick out for me (for good or for ill) are the ones I write about. And yes, I'm often surprised by what I read. A book that everyone and their mother has enjoyed will sometimes comes across as horrid. Or I'll find a small unassuming gem from a small publisher that nobody's talking about. Small gems are my favorite things to find in a given year.

We love a good gem too! What are the best ways to find new books? Any advice for authors about getting their book noticed by reviewers?

Well, depends on what kind of reviewers you mean. Your publishing company will send out books to the professional journals, so no worries there. Sometimes they will also have a handful of ARCs or F&Gs that you may suggest be sent to one blogging reviewer or another. Be warned that just because you send a title, even autographed, to a blogger that does not guarantee a review. I suggest you look through the different bloggers out there, read their reviews, and find the ones that best suit your book. The last thing you want to do is send a YA novel to a site that only reviews picture books or a verse novel to someone who hates poetry. Interestingly enough I tend to pay more attention to a book if it's sent to me by an editor rather than the author themselves. If I'm not familiar with a writer, I trust that their editor knows enough to pick and choose what they send to me. Authors are always going to think their book is great. Editors are more choosy. I pay attention to that.

Great advice! So you get a book, but let's say you really aren't feeling it—will you make the ultimate sacrifice and finish it for the sake of the review?

Professionally I always finish a book. Always. And even when I'm reading a book for potential review on my blog, I do try to finish them. Once in a while the book is just so ludicrously terrible that I have to stop, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I'm so picky on what I pick up in the first place that I rarely put anything down on a whim. When I start, I like to see it through.

And if you really love a book—will you read it again? If so—what are some of the books you just had to read more than once?

In theory, I guess. But I just don't have time these days. Between my blog and my professional life as well as my library, I'm always reading several things at once. One of these days I'll get back into rereading. But for now it's just a lovely pipe dream. I can say sincerely that the books I have reread for fun have included things like Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury and 90% of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series of mystery novels. Oh! And A.S. Byatt. I've lots of her stuff read and reread. She's painful but I love her.

Do you have a basic philosophy on what should be included in a review—or does it depend on the book itself?

On my blog I have several rules. First of all, I almost never do a critical review of a first-time author's title. Professionally I'll do it, but there's no reason to do it blogwise. I'll change this rule if a big publisher's marketing machine has revved up or if they're a celebrity author. Then they're fair game. Critical reviews always contain some positive notes, just as positive reviews should always contain some critical notes. Unless, of course, the book is so good that you can't find anything you'd want to change in it. That happens sometimes too. And books that don't spark my interest one way or another usually sit on my To Be Reviewed shelf until the end of the year, whereupon they are donated to the library.

As for the book that did more than just spark your interest--tell us about the last time your jaw dropped open, you laughed, or you cried while reading a book.

Honest-to-god, this happened just the other day. I have an Advance Reader Copy of the Suzanne Collins novel Hunger Games. Collins is an author you may know from her Gregor the Overlander series. This new book has been getting rave advance reviews hither and thither, and I had a hard time believing it was as good as everyone said. So I pick it up and weirder still it's a dystopian novel. Dystopian novels, by and large, aren't that gripping. I say that, but this book grabbed me by the throat and would not let go. I do much, maybe even most, of my reading on the New York subway system. This book not only began to mess with my mind (I'd step onto the platform at my stop and suddenly wonder if hidden cameras were tracking my every move) but when a beloved character died in the book I began to choke up in front of every jaded New Yorker in my car. Come October, I'm gonna be highly recommending that everyone read Hunger Games.

Oh wow. Let's hope there aren't any hidden cameras tracking our every move! But speaking of books coming to life--is there any character in a book that you wish would come to life? Or any place you wish existed?

Hmmm. Always an embarrassing question to give to a children's librarian. I'm going to pass on the character question, not because I don't have an answer but because it truly shows my nerd colors in all their sickly green glory. I do wish, on some level that (here it comes) Hogwarts existed, but maybe just because I'd love to work in the school library. Now THAT's a dream job!

LOL, you're not the only one who's mentioned Hogwarts! What books do you find yourself recommending over and over and why?

Good ones, typically. Oh, but as a librarian I get the same requests over and over. "My son only reads Captain Underpants. What can I do to get him reading other books?" Or "Do you have anything exactly like Eragon?" But I have a few books I turn to over and over. They fit certain categories.

For people who want something so new it defies description:
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
For kids who want someone to bring the funny:
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
For tween girls who want something that looks old but is just right for them:
Shug by Jenny Han
For kids into ghost stories:
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
For kids who want something really really scary:
The Spook's Apprentice - Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney
My favorite fantasy of last year:
Faeries of Dreamdark - Blackbringer by Laini Taylor
My favorite graphic novel of this year:
Jellaby by Kean Soo

Great list! Okay, we're getting toward the end here, it's time for the Extra Scandalous Question! The blog readers need to know: really bad reviews—do you ever fear giving them? Ever had an author get upset with you? (It's okay—you can tell us, just don't name names!) And what advice do you have for authors who get a bad review?

Oh yes. Yes yes yes. I used to do more, back when I only reviewed on Amazon. In fact, I got a very angry email on Thanksgiving Day from a well-known author. It wasn't even for a new book but one of his older (and definitely not as good) titles. I could only assume that he was drunk since what major author cares about Amazon reviews on Thanksgiving Day? I wouldn't change my opinion but I did say that I'd write an afterword in which he could state his own views. He was contrite the next day (hence my drunk theory) and so it went. On my blog, no one has ever objected to a negative review to my face. I always remember who I've made them for, however, and I always keep one eye out at book parties just in case I run into them.My advice regarding bad reviews comes from Roger Sutton. He once said this about reviews and I don't think I could possibly say it better."I once read an interview with soprano Dawn Upshaw, who said that she never read reviews of her performances but trusted her husband to do so and share with her any excerpts that could be useful in making her a better singer omitting those that would make her head explode from vanity or dismay. You might want to consider this."

That is excellent advice! One last question: if they aren't scared off by all that bad review talks and an author would like you to review her book, what should she do?

An author should always e-mail me first, just in case I'm so swamped with submissions that I can't take the time needed to give the book proper attention. Also remember that I do not review YA these days except in very rare moments. If I like the sound of the book I'll pass on my address. Plus I never ever ever do a negative or critical review of a book an author has sent to me personally. Bad form that.
We agree! Thanks so much for stopping by the hot seat and answering all of our questions! Now you may crack open Gollywhopper Games!

Remember leave a comment, and you could win your very own copy of Jody's Feldman's debut book . Fuse #8 has yet to review it, but here's what another reviewer has said about Gollywhopper Games:

"Feldman includes truly despicable villains, unexpected kindnesses, and a surprise ending ... Nonstop action, appealing pencil illustrations, and increasingly difficult brainteasers will keep readers engaged, and readers will pull out paper and pencil to try and solve the puzzles as they work through the book." Booklist


Enna Isilee said...

Very cool. :)

Tabitha said...

Great interview! And thanks for sharing your list of favorite books!

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I'm also a huge fan of Jenny Han's SHUG.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I loved the Gollywhopper Games, too! I even have an autographed copy!

Anonymous said...

Great interview- I loved reading it!! :)

Lenore Appelhans said...

That is TOO weird - I was just at the book store with my chinese friend whose English is so-so and she picked up The Spook's Apprentice - Revenge of the Witch, started reading it and decided to buy it. And now I read this. I had never even heard of it before. I asked her if it was scary and she said "YES, very, very, very scary!"

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview!!

Grace L

The Compulsive Reader said...

Cool interview! I'll have to check out some of those books you reccomended!

Steph said...

Great interview, though I thoroughly disagree with the no-negative-reviews for author-sent books. I don't see how it's bad form to tell an author their book isn't up to par, whether they sent it or not. Makes no difference to me who sent it :)

Enter me in the contest, please!


Anonymous said...

Hm. I guess I've used bad form, myself.

Ah well! There's that subjectivity at work again! :-)

Great interview! I love the answers and learning all these great tidbits about Fuse!

daphne grab said...

i love the story of the fuse 8 name! awesome interview, betsy!

Unknown said...

I want to read Shug. It looks cute.

Good interview!

Vivian Mahoney said...

Shug is a really good book!

Thanks for letting us get to know Betsy better. Nice interview!

Kristin Tubb said...

I loved reading about how Fuse #8 came to be - especially the name! Ah, to be able to correct all woes so easily! :-)

Thanks, Betsy!

Breanna said...

Woo, go Fuse! Great interview. I love these reviewer interviews, they're great!

Please enter me in the contest, =)


Anonymous said...

Wonderful info, Betsy!
-Nancy Viau

Bunny B said...

Great interview :)
Sounds like fun reads!

Erin said...

I heart Fuse!! Loved hearing the story of how her blog got its name. And now I'm REALLY eager to read The Hunger Games.

Amy said...

Fuse 8- I've had a couple of cars like that! I love that you recommend Drowned Maiden's Hair!