For the Love of Books is a series where instead of interviewing writers, I interview book reviewers, those people who give their opinions about different books and influence the buying patterns of thousands of readers. Most reviewers do this job because they really love books, which is why I like to talk to them.
Today I’m interviewing Kassa, well known blogger and book reviewer. We’re also privileged to have Kassa as one of the guest reviewers on this site.
I think reviewing is one of the most important and difficult jobs in the industry apart from publishing, (which includes editing and all the other associated functions) writing the books, and selling them. The job of a book reviewer is not to promote books that we think are lemons (I hope we don’t) and we’re expected to be truthful about how we feel about the books we review; if we are not, the readers won’t take long to spot this and will never believe us again because credibility is extremely important. Once lost, it can’t easily be regained.
Reviews are always a matter of opinion whether they are about movies, restaurants, stage shows, wine, books, etc. These opinions can vary from one end of the spectrum to the other and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that since every reviewer has different critical standards and brings his/her own personal life experiences to the table when he/she reviews a book. This is why it’s always a good idea to check out several reviews if you have the time, before you buy a book, or try to find a reviewer whose taste is similar to yours. Most reviewers are motivated by their love of books, are impartial, and if they have any biases they state them upfront, and they don’t expect anything other than “thank you” from the readers. Now on to my interview with Kassa:
Hi Kassa and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed in the For Love of Books series. Could you start by telling us about yourself.
Thanks for having me. I’m a pretty quiet, very private person in real life. I love to travel and have moved around the world all my life, living in most of the 50 states and even Europe. Thus the popularity of ebooks has saved me a fortune on moving fees as I’ve been a voracious reader from a very young age. I love my job as a cancer researcher and it keeps me supplied with smut.
Since you love books, what for you would be the perfect book, if there is such a thing?
No such thing. I couldn’t even begin to think of it since it’d depend on the mood I’m in – whether I want BDSM or sweet romance, angst or action, humor or something deeper, urban fantasy or contemporary, romance or literature. I think the closest thing to a perfect book is something that intrigues or entertains me each and every time I read it.
You have read probably thousands of books to date. Which are your top 3 favourites? Do you have a favourite author, someone who is an auto buy?
Top 3 of all time is near impossible. The three books I re-read every year are Dune, Ender’s Game, and Heart of Darkness. These three books are simply timeless classics for me and never, ever get boring or old. It doesn’t matter if I know the dialogue by heart, they’re still fantastic reads. I also tend to re-read the first In Death book and usually an old time Elizabeth Lowell when I want classic romance. They’re like comfort reads even if I roll my eyes.
Of course I have favorite authors but I no longer have auto-buy authors. Just because I love an author doesn’t mean I’ll love everything they do so even among favored authors I pick and choose what sounds interesting. Right now in the M/M world I’m likely to get things by Heidi Cullinan, Amy Lane, Nicole Kimberling, M Jules Aedin, Sean Kennedy, Marie Sexton, Ginn Hale, Jet Mykles, Hayden Thorne, and many more. Thankfully the genre has a lot of great authors to choose from. I just couldn’t keep up if I bought everything they wrote.
I know you love fantasy, urban fantasy, speculative fiction, and contemporary M/M romances (I might have missed a few). Of these genres or sub genres which would you say is your favourite and why?
Urban fantasy definitely. I love a slick city setting with a hint of gruesome paranormal. I may not believe in magic and magical beings but I love to read about the world where they exist. There’s something incredibly attractive about taking familiar settings and introducing something different and unusual. It elevates the story to something fresh and new with limitless potential but not something wholly unheard of and strange. You can relate to the story but there is a fantasy element that makes it entertaining and takes you out of reality. I also devour futuristic/post-apocalyptic fiction and think the creativity of reinventing life as we know it is incredible. I can’t say I auto-buy these subgenres but any book with these themes will definitely get a close look from me.
I asked another reviewer these questions and I’m wondering what your answers will be. What surprises you the most about this sub genre? Do you think the sky is the limit or are we going to reach the glass ceiling pretty soon and never progress any further? What do you think is the easiest and fastest way to screw up M/M romances?
What surprises me most is lackadaisical attitude. As if shoddy editing, poor covers, and clichéd tropes are simply ok because readers will buy anything. I don’t think there’s a limit in the genre since the only ceiling is imagination. There are authors every day putting out exciting, interesting, and fresh stories. They may start in conventional plots but the writing elevates the story and makes it interesting and rewarding again. As long as there are good authors, there will be progression in the genre. I think the fastest way to mess up an M/M romance book is to forget the romance. It sounds simplistic but it’s true. Too many books focus on other things to the exclusion of the romance (and a lot of sex does not equate to a lot of romance) and readers are left wondering why they didn’t get the book they wanted.
You don’t often give 5 star ratings on books, I assume because you don’t feel that there are that many books that deserve this rating. In all the time you have reviewed for the site, which I believe goes back to April of 2009, I think you have only awarded 5 stars twice (Lord of the White Hell Book 2 by Ginn Hale and Truth in the Dark by Amy Lane – both in the same week.) What was it about these books that made you feel they were special and deserved that accolade?
Yea that was a funny coincidence that I happened to read those books so close together. It never happens that way for me. Yet I knew they were 5 star books when I put them down and thought “OMFG that was awesome.” I literally stared into space when I finished both because they got to me and made me think so much. Ginn Hale’s series is phenomenal and even when I went back and read some of my favorite mainstream fantasy books I still wanted more of Hale’s world. I wanted to read nothing but that. That’s how I know it’s something special. With Amy Lane’s story, I cried in public. If a story elicits that kind of response, especially when I’m fighting it, it’s something incredible. I think a 5 star rating should be reserved for those incredible books, the ones that blow you away and keep you thinking, wondering, wanting to read it again and again. These are the rare books, not the usual ones.
What is it about reviewing that attracts you? Each of us does this job for different reasons. What’s yours, other than a love of books?
I like reviewing because I like discussing books. I like hearing if someone agrees that one hero is too stupid to live or would you really do that? I really wish there was more discussion amongst people who read the books and not simply a statement of agreement or disagreement. I also like reviewing because reviews have become more important in helping readers choose since there are way too many books right now. That’s awesome and provides choice but reviewing is now a great initial check on whether a book is worth your hard earned cash. For me reading reviews is just part of my decision making. I check out the author, publisher, subgenre, cover, and reviews in that order. I like that offering a hopefully balanced, honest opinion can help readers find great books and maybe avoid ones that don’t work.
You have a reputation for being a pretty tough reviewer. Why do you think there is this perception? Would it be your considered opinion that it’s deserved?
I think most people think that because I do so rarely give high marks. In this genre specifically it’s very common to find a book reviewed really well by many different reviewers or sites. I tend to be more critical. The majority of books I read are going to be middle of the road, average. I’m not afraid to be honest and call a book out on the problems I see. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book but I’m not afraid to say I thought a book was horrible or that, while thoroughly entertaining, it may be filled with issues. At the same time if I love a book to pieces, I’m going to gush. But I want the exceptionally good and bad books to stand out, while the rest are simply good for the genre.
I do however think the reputation is deserved. I’m happiest when I hear that I’m a “tough but fair” reviewer. The fair part is really essential to me as I don’t want to be seen as randomly panning books for no reason, or worse for the sake of drama. I never set out to be a tough reviewer but when looking at my averages, it’s pretty clear. I can’t really rail against it. I’m a critical reader so it makes sense I’ll be a critical reviewer. Unfortunately, the majority of books I read are not going to be great and keepers. I really think a high rating means a book is exceptional and the reader knows they’re getting something special. Not just more of the same so those books are going to be far and few between.
Do you personally think that since the M/M “world” is so small right now that we (reviewers/authors) have sort of an incestuous relationship? Is it your opinion that some reviewers may not tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about a book for fear of offending an author they really admire who writes that one stinker? [Every author writes a stinker at some point in his/her career]
Absolutely. I think there’s no question this is heavily prevalent and real influence in this genre. I simply don’t believe that everything an author will write is a 5 star DIK, yet judging by some reviews that is all you’ll find. That’s impossible so why do the reviews reflect that? You can still adore an author but find some of their work less than great. I don’t think reviewers flat out lie but there is a lot of pressure to write a “positive” review. Sometimes it’s simply that positive reviews – especially 5 star reviews – tend to get the reviewer a lot of good attention from readers and authors. Everyone likes the 5 star reviewer. Also reviewers generally don’t want to be mean and hurt an author’s feelings. It’s easier to soft pedal criticism and focus on the positives. Unfortunately this leads to some really confusing reviews, such as a glowing 3 star review or inflated reviews which claim the work is utterly fabulous when really it’s nothing like some of the author’s better work.
Reviewers shouldn’t be afraid to be honest because they’re writing for readers. That’s a big problem in that many, many readers and reviewers tend to get bogged down in the author/publisher promotion machine and think they have to cater reviews that will get linked, advertised, and promoted. That’s a nice side benefit if the reviewer likes the book but it should never be the purpose or the focus of the review. The best in my opinion is a balanced review with good and bad. Even a 5 star book has some flaws as nothing is perfect. Plus how can you appreciate a 5 star review unless you know the other end of the spectrum? By inflating the reviews as this genre has done, the really great books and reviews lose their meaning.
As you are probably aware, I asked some of the people who drop by the site to come up with questions they would like you to answer, so here goes:
TC Blue wants to know how you stumbled upon M/M romance and what was the first book in the genre that you read? Also, penguins, cheese, or both? *hee*(What does she mean? Is this an American thing that I’m not supposed to know)?
Like oh so many readers I came to m/m through ménage. I’d read gay literature and fiction for years but never really thought about erotica until the m/f romances I was reading started to get pretty explicit. While reading a very bland m/f/m ménage I decided I’d had enough. The girl was the typical spunky, beautiful, quirky one adored by both men but the real chemistry in the sex scenes was between the two men. Like so many to come before me I wanted to “ditch the chick” and went searching for those books.
The first m/m erotica book I read was suggested to me on Amazon by Carol Lynne. Well after reading that I was worried the genre was simply bad porn so I did a little digging around and randomly chose JL Langley’s The Tin Star based on good reviews. Never looked back.
Jay Bell would like to know if you have any particular pet peeve regarding gay fiction? Is there anything authors do that have you grinding your teeth? Is there an m/m theme you have always wanted to see but haven’t found in a book yet? (Why do I get the sense that Jay is looking for a plot bunny from you?
Well everyone has their pet peeves in fiction and I’m not different. There are certain themes and tropes that drive me up a wall or have me throwing the ereader. The thing in gay fiction that bothers me the most is probably hot sex cures all. While hot sex is pretty awesome and I have no qualms for it in my fiction, it’s simply eye rolling when great sex means true love, problems solved, murderers confessing, money falling from the sky, and a sudden love of kinky sex toys. There’s nothing worse than reading a story where the sex is like a Tigger bandaid, everything is wonderful again.
As for something I’ve always wanted to see, more urban fantasy detectives. I adore the Dresden files series and really wish there was something comparable in m/m fiction. I’d love an affable, likable hero that is not really that good at solving anything and always caught between a rock and a hard place but has some skill and ingenuity. Throw a little m/m love interest in there – instead of all the stubborn, bull headed chicks – and I’d be happy.
Amanda has a question: Because of the social media of today authors and reviewers can get to know each other and become friendly, so I was wondering if Kassa ever dreaded reading or writing a review of certain authors’ books because of friendships she has developed with them?
That’s a great question. I wouldn’t say I’m friends with many authors but I am certainly friendly with several. The friendly banter on social media is fun but I don’t let it influence my reviewing. If I can’t be completely honest with the bad books then I can’t review the good books either. At that point I’ll simply no longer review an author, which rarely happens. Of course I feel bad that a negative review may hurt someone’s feelings that I’m friendly with but often those authors disappear entirely when I write a less than flattering review. So I’ve learned not to take a friendly author as a serious overture of friendship and that helps keep the reviews honest and prevent any hurt feelings on either side.
Eden Winters would like to know how you began reviewing, and what book. Also, what has surprised you, like stories you already had some prior knowledge of, be it just through a blurb, that you changed your initial opinion of drastically with reading and analyzing? Do you write? If not, do you plan to?
Well I officially started reviewing in the m/m genre in Jan of 2009. I had already been reading the genre for years and thought I could offer something in reviewing. The first book I reviewed was a Drew Zachary book (a review I trashed mere months later). I just started to write reviews on the books I was reading at the time.
Sometimes stories will surprise me because I think blurbs are often misleading and wrong. They seem to either give away the entire book or highlight minor points and players instead of the major plot. So often I go into a story thinking one thing – that’s if I even read the blurb – and come away with an entirely different opinion. I will say sometimes stories turn me around. Bad cover art usually gives me a bad feeling about a book and I’ve had a few surprisingly wonderful stories come out of bad covers I took a chance on.
As for writing, I don’t currently write. I wrote a series of urban fantasy short stories (not m/m) but those will likely never see the light of day. I don’t aspire to be a writer and have a lot of respect for those that do write. I prefer to be entertained. I’m lazy!
In addition to books, your other major love (you probably have many others that I haven’t managed to ferret out as yet) is gaming. What is it about gaming that gets your motor humming? Typically, gamers are men, according to the latest stats, although more women are becoming addicted to this pastime. I did some research and it seems that – from a male perspective at least – the principal reasons guys get into gaming are: It’s fun; it kills time; gamers have always played video games since they were very young; they are an excuse for buying those giant televisions; competition; they like interacting with their online friends; and they get to save the princess or whoever else is in trouble. There are probably 50 more reasons I can find, but what I want to know is: Why are you a gamer? When did you start? How much time would you say you spend on average every month on gaming?
Well I’m a gamer because I love the graphics, the epic quests, the lore, and the fact that you never really win. It’s horribly addictive because the final carrot is unreachable. You’ll never really beat the game; you’ll only beat a small corner of the game. There are always more difficult versions and more complicated scenarios to attempt, so there are endless ways to improve and change your gaming experience. It really never gets old. There is a sense of accomplishment when you do something difficult and challenge your skills. Not to mention it is a very social interaction for me. All the games I play are with friends so we can chat about life while also killing things and making the pixels pretty.
I started many, many, many years ago. Actually I’ve played games all my life. I had a Nintendo growing up, though I tended to like the computer games better. When I was in college is when gaming kind of took a life of its own. I met a group of friends online in a text based RPG (White Wolf’s Vampire the Masquerade) and from there we’ve moved to a wide variety of games. I’ve known this particular group of people for almost 10 years and we’ve played just about every game out there. I have a Wii, PS2, an XBOX, and a tricked out gaming computer. With the ease of online interaction in games it’s no longer just a solitary game. Now not only is the game fun, but there’s competition among friends and that mutual egging each other on. These are friends that can chat about anything from a particular game mechanic to pressing issues in our lives. Plus you simply can’t underestimate the satisfaction of shooting someone in the face (virtually speaking) when you’re annoyed.
How much time do I spend playing? Ouch, way too much? I would say I spend easily 30 hrs or more a month gaming. It depends though, as right now I’m playing a lot of new releases and expansions whereas once that dies down I may play a few hours a particular month. Depends on how addictive a game is.
Which recreational pastime do you like best – reading or gaming?
I’d say they’re about equal. A great book or a great game can suck me in for days whereas a series of ho-hum books or gaming experiences will send me reaching for the other. The great thing about loving both is they tend to clear my mind and get me excited again. When I take a break from reading or gaming, I’m energized and wanting to do the other.
The boyz in the hot tub heard that you like the *ahem* hot male form with abs that you can grate cheese on. Billy who loves to run around naked, wants to know how he could be part of your stable or harem. (Word gets around Kassa)
Submit full frontal pictures, preferably with a boyfriend and I’ll get back to him. The pictures are of course likely to make the rounds among #smutclub members and wind up on many tumblr accounts.
I could ask you at least 25 more questions but I don’t want to tire you out Kassa or take advantage of your good nature. Thank you for this interview and the boyz are waving (I won’t say what they are waving) goodbye.
Kassa’s contact information