Blogger Query – Val’s Random Comments

As the end of my holiday approached, I suddenly realised I had neglected to send out requests for my Blogger Query features and I’d run out of scheduled interviews. As a last resort and rather last minute, I tweeted out an SOS on Twitter asking whether one of the bloggers in my timeline had the time and inclination to do an interview for today. Valashain – or Rob as he’s known offline – came to my rescue and took time out on his Saturday to answer my questions. Rob is one of the only two other Dutch speculative bloggers I know and I love reading his well-thought out reviews, often of older works and science fiction, works I might have not heard about otherwise. And while he might have helped me out last minute, Rob’s been on my list since I started Blogger Query, as I was curious how he came to blog SFF in English. So let’s see what his answer was…

Let’s start with the basics. Who is Valashain?

Valashain, or Val a’Shain, or Rob Weber, is a thirty-something guy from the Netherlands. I hold a BSc in environmental science, something which colours my reading choices and reviews to an extend, but currently I am working for a semi-government institution that pays illness, disability and unemployment benefits. Especially that last task is a booming market at the moment. I own a house in the part of the Netherlands that is likely to disappear under the waves if some of the more radical climate change predictions turn out to be correct. [Ed. note: This might seem more specific than it is, as that’s a pretty large part of the Netherlands ;-)] It is currently for sale, however, I am not quite sure were I’ll be going yet when it does sell. In part, it depends on my lovely girlfriend, who insisted on being born about a 1000 km north of here.

What got you into blogging?

I started a Livejournal years ago to keep in touch with a group of people who are spread all over the globe. Sometime in 2005 I started posting a few thoughts on the books I was reading at the time. It started out as a paragraph or two but developed into quite crude reviews. In 2007 I took the plunge and offered my services to the site that was then called Fantasybookspot. It is still around under another name, but the focus of the site stated to drift away from books and in 2009 I decided to leave it and set up my own blog. It will celebrate its 3rd birthday later this month.

Why Val’s Random Comments?

Val is a name left over from my days in Wheel of Time fandom. I joined Tarvalon.net in 2002 and helped run that site until 2006. One of the rules of the site was that you had to use a WoTish handle and I have been Val ever since. When I decided to start my own book blog I considered several names. I can’t remember any of them, but they were all taken on blogger. After a while I decided to just use the name of my Livejournal so I could get on with the fun part.

What is your unique selling point? Interviews, humour, news coverage?

None that I am aware of. My approach is very simple, I try to review everything I read. Which is harder than it sounds. I missed one book last year and two, I think, in 2010.

What are your goals for your blog?

Life has thrown me a few curve balls lately, so I haven’t set myself any goals except keeping it going. At this time I have two long running projects going on, reading and reviewing all of Frank Herbert’s books not set in his Dune universe and reading and reviewing all of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels. At this pace, these are likely to take me another couple of years to complete. I don’t like reading books by the same author back to back. I am also taking part in a reading challenge this year, which requires me to read 12 books by authors who have won the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master award [Ed. Note: This is a lifetime achievement award given out by the SFWA]. Other than that is is more like a journal of what I am reading at the moment than an effort to achieve anything in particular.

One of the eternal book reviewer debates is to rate or not to rate? Where do you stand on the issue?

I don’t rate on the blog, basically because I feel I could never be consistent. Everything I read is put in the perspective of every I have read before. My tastes, opinions, and analytic abilities are constantly changing, growing, and developing. There are books I thought were very good years ago that, if I were to read them today, would get a lukewarm reception at best. There are also books that would have been way beyond me when I started out reviewing. A rating or a review can’t possibly be anything than a reflection of what a book did to you at a particular point in your life. It is nearly impossible to capture that in a thousand words, to try and reduce it to five stars is madness.

Negative reviews, yay or nay? And why?

As I said above, I try to review everything I read and it happens quite a lot that a book fails to impress me. Negative reviews show up on Random Comments regularly but what I call ‘meh’ reviews, books that I enjoyed at some level but didn’t have much of an impact, are more common. Not everybody agrees with me on this I guess, but to be able to get a good handle on what a reviewer likes and how much their tastes overlap with your own, negative reviews are just as important as the positive ones. I also think it doesn’t hurt to read a bad book once in a while just to put really good works into perspective. The cry ‘Life is too short to read bad books’ is misunderstanding what reading is about in my opinion. Occasionally being disappointed is part of the game.

You’re one of the only, if not the only, Dutch book reviewers I know and like me, you blog in English. Did this evolve naturally from the subject matter we review, since the availability of SFF in Dutch is so limited? Or was it a conscious choice?

It wasn’t really a concious choice. My Livejournal is in English, mostly because most of the people I tried to stay in touch with do not speak Dutch. Fantasybookspot was a site run by two American guys, so I didn’t really have a choice there. After that, I had gotten so used to it, that writing in Dutch didn’t really occur to me. I have written a few review in Dutch, but only two of those eventually made it online. Writing in Dutch is still easier for me, but part of that advantage is lost if you read the book in English. My vocabulary in English is limited, but I have gotten to the level where I know words in English that I wouldn’t know the Dutch translation of. Especially in genre fiction, which has a pretty peculiar vocabulary of its own, this can be a pain in the backside when you have to write about it in another language. I don’t envy translators in this respect.

The availability of SFF in Dutch doesn’t have too much to do with writing reviews in English but it has everything to do with reading in English. I am not a great fan of the archaic law that sets standard (high) prizes for books in the Netherlands. The rationale for this law is that it is supposed to ensure a wide variety of literature to be available in Dutch. I’m not sure about other genres, but in SFF this is clearly not the case. Most fantasy you encounter in a Dutch bookshop still consists of the epic variety or outright Tolkien clones. Science Fiction is non-existent. The two main publishers of Fantasy in Dutch aren’t too interested in local talent either. Pretty much everything is translated from English and to a lesser extend German and a handful of other languages.

Back in the second half of the 1990s, when I developed my taste for Fantasy, people like Raymond E. Feist and Robin Hobb were first starting to appear in Dutch translation. [Ed. Note: Don’t forget Eddings, I think he was one of the first as well.] I must admit that without these translations I probably would not have started reading those books. It didn’t take me long to figure out that what was on offer in Dutch was very limited. Starting to read in English is like suddenly having access to a whole library when you used to have to make do with a single shelf.

I began to have issues with the language in the Dutch editions too. The translations are often very stiff and lacking the creativity to deal with Fantasy’s peculiar vocabulary, or, and this appears to be an increasingly common problem, plain rush jobs. I’ll take the cheaper English original over a poor, expensive translation any day.

Are you at times as frustrated as I am with being so far away from where it is all happening? I mean we rarely get book signings here and all the good stuff seems to be happening on the other side of the Channel and the Pacific.

I’m not really someone who enjoys big crowds, I’m not entirely sure if I would enjoy attending a Con. I did attend a booksigning/reading session by Patrick Rothfuss a few years back and I have had the pleasure of meeting Thomas Olde Heuvelt (still unfamiliar in the English language world but one of his novels is being translated) and Scott Lynch in the wild. Those were all good fun. I would like to attend more events like that, but realistically speaking life would probably get in the way more often than not. Besides, the Internet is a great tool to keep informed and in touch. I don’t really feel left out but it is certainly true that if you do want to go anywhere, the cost and time involved can be a big obstacle. [Ed. Note: I still want a teleportation device for these occassions!]

How important are blogs to your reading choices?

Despite reading lots and lots of book blogs I would say they don’t influence my reading too much. I review a lot of older works on my blog and backlist titles are not very well represented on book blogs. It happens a few times a year that I decide to read a book solely based on the opinion of the reviewers I follow. When I do, it is usually a success though.

How do you think blogs and reviewers fit in the book business?

I have absolutely no idea. Maybe an extension of the letters people used to send to magazines? As far as publicity goes, I think it is pretty hard to get a handle on the huge numbers of book blogs out on the web for publicists or authors. Maybe the largest ones have enough of an audience to boost a book, but most are pretty small. My blog rarely attracts more than a hundred visitors a day for instance and I still get lots of review requests. Collectively, book blogs do probably have the kind of reach to make an impact, but how to effectively create the snowball effect to make a book go ‘viral’ (to put it in internet terms)? If anyone has figured out how to do this, they certainly haven’t told me.

What is your current read and what book are you most eagerly awaiting?

I have just finished Divining Light, a short story by Ted Kosmatka. [Ed. Note: The review for which is up already.] I’m also reading White Mars by Brian W. Aldiss for the WWend Grand Master Reading Challenge and The Apex Book of World SF 2 edited by Lavie Tidhar.

I’ve drastically cut the book buying budget lately, so I haven’t really been looking at what is scheduled in the next few months. Don’t want to get tempted. There are a few books I don’t yet own, but would really like to get my hands on, however. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, Ian Tregillis’ The Coldest War, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts and Fountain of Age by Nancy Kress come to mind. I would also be eternally grateful to anyone who can get me a copy of Cloven Hooves by Megan Lindholm.

Is there something else you’re obsessed with other than books?

Nothing that I would care to admit in public ;)

Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?

My filing system makes no sense to anyone but me. My bookcase is used way beyond capacity, all shelves are stacked at least double, a few triple. I’ve been pruning the collection some lately, since a move is likely in the near future. Books are great things, but moving them is not my favourite thing to do. [Ed. Note: Uhm, no, then they are most definitely a pain.] There are still so many that I basically resorted to stacking them as efficiently as possible though.
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Thank you for your answers, Rob! And it’s fun to see another Dutchie’s perspective on this blogging thing. And thank you again for stepping in and helping out on such short notice. If you haven’t visited Rob’s blog before, go visit him at Val’s Random Comments. You can also find him on Twitter.

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  • great interview! and I suddenly really wish I knew more about The Netherlands. As an American, it doesn't even occur to me to think about people blogging in what isn't their native language. Mieneke, please interview more international folks, i need my eyes opened far more often like this!

    Val, I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the Apex Book of World SF.

  • Val

    I really should stop reading collections they are such a pain to review :P Will try to get that one done before the end of the month.

  • @Andrea: Oh I have at least two more non-native English speaking folks on my list! I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.