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Thriller writer Ian Jay on book reviewing

READERSVOICE.COM aims to collect a few interesting reading tips. Ian Jay is the author of the thrillers To Do or Die, and Echidna. He has also been a book reviewer for ABC Radio, Australia. I interviewed him about reviewing books, and how authors should keep a reviewer’s eye on their own writing.In late November he gave a talk at Women on Oxford, a writers group in Brisbane. They had another good speaker earlier in 2009, screenwriter Jason Tolsher. He gave some great writing tips at his talk. After his talk he gave me a list of screenwriting books, including some great memoirs by screenwriters, which I’ve listed here. First up, Ian Jay.

Most thrillers seem a little over-the-top. Ian Jay’s novel To Do or Die seemed plausible. This was partly because of the detail the author went into, to describe the life and job of Royal Australian Air Force flight engineer Derek “Macca” McKay. By the end of the novel, you felt like you’ve flown in a Hercules, sat in at a court martial, and stayed at a military prison. It’s like a memoir written by a flight engineer who finds himself in a lot of trouble. But there’s still a story, and an adventure.

Macca is part of an RAAF mission to supply medical aid via a Hercules, to support the New Guinea military trying to deal with fictional hotspot Costa Mauria. He finds some guns among the cargo, and refuses to continue on the mission. This starts a series of big problems for him. Eventually his downward trajectory leads him to an encounter with a strange secret government organisation. But it’s a good secret government organisation.
Author and book reviewer Ian Jay was a flight engineer and weapons system technician for the Royal Australian Air Force for more than 22 years, and he uses it to bring realism to the book. Along with the story you get a good portrait of an air force life, including family life.

Ian Jay also has done his share of book reviewing, on ABC Radio in Brisbane. But he hoped to do more writing now that he had finished his book reviewing show. Here are some of his thoughts on book reviewing.

READERSVOICE.COM: I read somewhere that the role of the book reviewer is to ascertain the author’s intention and say to what extent the author has achieved that objective. What do you make sure you do when reviewing?

IAN JAY: The process is as follows: I read the book from cover to cover (non-fiction books of a reference nature do not require this level of reading).
Once I’ve read it, I ask myself three questions: Does it entertain or educate?. It is a subjective question based on my opinion. For fiction, I must feel that I’ve been entertained.

The next question is about the construction of the book. This is objective and I consider the cover, the layout, the editorial and the overall quality of the publication.

The last question is: How does the book read?. Most critics might say that a book is “well written” but for me it’s the reader’s viewpoint I’m interested in. In this area I consider the characters, believability, 1st versus 3rd person styles, use of language etc.

After this I draft my review and forward it to my announcer.

RV: Do you read a lot of book reviews or literary magazines and get influenced by how other people review books around the world, or do you just have a style that works and stick to it?

IJ: No. I use the above method and stick with it.

RV: How do you balance the need to tell the truth about a book, with a desire not to discourage an author or hurt their feelings?

IJ: The good and bad as I see it exposed. However, there are ways of identifying negative aspects. I like to do it in a way that doesn’t offend and hopefully educates. Doesn’t always work out that way!

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