By February 9, 2007 1 Comments Read More →

No Big Buts, Thankfully

So, as I cryptically alluded to a few weeks ago, I wrote a book: Cold Lessons. I used a pen name: Michael McCulloch.

Like any first-time author, I eagerly awaited the reviews, hoping they would be glowing, or at least not too brutally specific about my shortcomings as a writer. Unlike a lot of first-time authors, I have a pretty good vantage point in the book-reviewing biz, and I know how hard it is to get reviewed at all. Most first-time authors don’t receive any serious review attention, especially if they have a small book contract with a modest print run (and therefore don’t have a team of publicity people working on their behalf). Even though I’m a book reviewer — maybe especially because I’m a book reviewer — I don’t have any extra clout that will help me get my own book reviewed.

(Booklist did a nice profile, but, of course, can’t run review a book by one of its own. And, if I had written under my own name, there’s a school of thought that says rival publications — well, let’s just say there’s a school of thought. And because I didn’t write under my own name, who the heck knows who Michael McCulloch is?)

As a book reviewer, I have another unique quandary — if someone writes a bad review of my book, I’m kind of obligated to take it to heart. I mean, given the care that I put into my own reviews, I would be depressed if they were shrugged off with a simple, “He’s only a book reviewer, what does he know?” I’m invested in the concept of book reviewing, and it would be hypocritical for me to shrug it off.

(Unless, of course, the negative review was written by someone who obviously didn’t know what he was talking about.)

So, at any rate, my book went on sale in late January without having been reviewed by any of the other three pre-publication review journals: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Disappointing, sure, but not unexpected. I still held out hope for a review in my local newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, or maybe in one of the niche mystery publications that’s on my publisher’s mailing list.

(I’ll save the story of the eBayed galley for another day.)

Given that most general-audience reviews are timed to the book’s on-sale date, as early February threatened to turn into mid-February, I began to think that Cold Lessons would join the ranks of the unreviewed. My only review to date was by the indefatigable citizen reviewer Harriet Klausner. And while she diligently posted the review around the Web, let’s face it, a professional review carries more weight.

But then my hometown weekly, the Missoula Independent, informed me that they were running a review. It appeared online yesterday (“Lessons Learned,” by Joe Campana). Local paper or no, I started reading with the same kind of nervous anticipation that I am sure is felt by debut authors reading Booklist notices. After all, I’ve sat in judgment many times, but this was the first time my own work would be judged.

Actually, I kind of scanned the review, my eye jumping down the page, trying to make sure there wasn’t anything painful before I committed to reading it carefully. It looked really good. Some of the phrases that jumped out at me:

…you need talent, which McCulloch seems to have in abundance.

In a genre where imitation comes cheap and easy, McCulloch has written his very own book…

…an uncanny sense of humor.

I was starting to relax — in fact, I was starting to feel mildly euphoric. But still, I was waiting for the but.

(One of my favorite lines of movie dialogue ever comes from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure:)

Simone, this is your dream. You have to follow it.
I know you’re right, but…

But what?

Everyone I know has a big “but.”

Come on, Simone. Let’s talk about your big “but.”

But I got to the summation without seeing any big buts:

Though he’s just a rookie, McCulloch is a surprisingly restrained and un-intrusive writer. He doesn’t hit the gas pedal too hard, the plot never lurches forward but gradually eases into gear and picks up speed in all the right places. What you get in addition to a first-rate thriller is a character sketch of a nearly hopeless man stuck in a lonely town during its dreariest season. Having Missoula reflected back to us this way may not be cause for good cheer. But this town has given rise to another talented writer. And that’s worth celebrating.

Campana also invokes, in positive ways, James Crumley, David Lynch, James Welch, George Saunders, and The Simpsons. As I wrote in the Cold Lessons blog:

That would make for a pretty weird cocktail party, but it’s awfully good company.

The only problem I have with this review is that Campana didn’t write it for the New York Times Book Review. But with insight like his, I have no doubt he’s on his way.

Seriously, who knows if Cold Lessons will get more reviews. And if it gets more reviews, who knows if they’ll be positive. (And, honestly, it would be a better blog topic if it had been a negative review.) But today I’m batting 1.000, and it’s a great feeling. Hell, if I only get one review in my life, I couldn’t ask for a kinder, more thoughtful — and accurate, let me just say that — review.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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