A Chat With Carole Barrowman: Professor, Writer, Book Critic

By Shannon Kirk

On Thursday, January 20, 2016, I was lucky to conduct a telephone interview of the lovely Carole Barrowman, professor of English at Alverno College, respected crime fiction columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and book contributor on Milwaukee’s NBC morning show, “The Morning Blend.” After our talk, I’ve determined that I need to be in Barrowman’s book club or one of her lucky students. I’m sure you’ll agree.

In addition to being a professor of English for the last twenty-seven years (how awesome is that?) and book reviewer, Barrowman is also a published author. Here is her author page on Amazon. But you can also go to your local indie bookstore and ask for her. In fact, please do.

She has co-authored a series of middle-grade books called Hollow Earth with her brother, the actor John Barrowman (who is fire-hot-ouch, but he’s taken, sorry folks), and a young adult series to launch later this year. Their latest book, CONJUROR, is available to pre-order in the UK. Barrowman also wrote an essay, Time is Relative, published in a Hugo-winning anthology, CHICKS DIG TIME LORDS. Boy, don’t we.

Anyway, Carole Barrowman, professor, writer, sister to a hot actor-writer, is a totally legit book critic. Also, more on this below, she’s in the camp of people who are not into negative reviews. And to spread frosting on top of frosting on our cupcake love for her, she prefers to review and support debut authors. All of this and she’s from Glasgow, Scotland. She’s pretty much a perfect human being, and I want her to be my BFF or my professor or one of the humans upon which clones are based in the future. Setting her impressive brains aside for a moment, have you checked out her cheeky headshot?

HEADLINE: IN A TOTALLY NOT SHOCKING DEVELOPMENT, GORGEOUS REDHEAD PROFESSOR/WRITER/BOOK CRITIC WITH A KILLER NECKLACE AND KEEN FASHION STYLE HAS NO MORE ROOM IN HER CLASS FOR NEW STUDENTS

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What follows is somewhat of a transcript—and it’s definitely not verbatim since I can’t type that fast and I didn’t record—somewhat paraphrasing, and some summarization of our conversation. A medley, if you will, of our chat.

Me: You’ve been living the life. Teaching and reading and writing at Alverno College for the last twenty-seven years. Also, you’ve been reviewing crime fiction. This sounds like the perfect life, like Heaven. So I’m wondering, can you imagine a life better than the one you’ve put together?

CAROLE BARROWMAN: (She gives a really nice warm laugh) Well, I can imagine a younger self, more athletic and less gray hair, but other than that, I’m pretty happy. Early on, I set out to follow my passions, writing and reading, and while it has not always been smooth, for the most part, I’m happy. No regrets.

Me: You’re a published writer who does book reviews; thoughts on that?

CB: In some ways, writing makes doing a review easier. Because I can understand how the author put a story together, and I’m a little more sensitive to how difficult it is to make a good narrative work. In other ways, being a writer makes it more difficult to do a review. [Because when a book is not working] I would rather not deal with it. I’m empathetic to the writer, and I’d rather not put my negative reaction to their work in my column.

Record Scratch

Stop

Portrait of serious young woman showing stop gesture

Let’s talk about that.

This is the part in the interview where we had a great chat about what I’ll call “The Great Negative Book Review Debate.” Some people are opposed to negative reviews and argue that there is no value in expressing one’s personal, subjective negative reaction to a book. Other people believe negative reviews provide value to consumers.

Carole Barrowman, book critic, is in the camp that does not wish to do negative reviews. “I don’t want to be that type of reviewer. I don’t want to do negative reviews,” she says.

Okay, I’m with you big time, but why?

“Because there are enough readers out there for all of us [writers].” Explaining further, Barrowman says she doesn’t want to “take up column inches” to tell people “what not to buy.” Instead, she’d rather say, “Here are six books that I liked” and give those books the coveted and very limited column space. “In my column, I only pick the books that I found are worth a reader’s time. Outside of [those selections], there’s a bunch of books that I didn’t enjoy as much.”

Barrowman did say that she is sometimes given a “stand-alone” book for review. And for these, if she’s really not into it, she’ll approach her newspaper’s editor and say the book is not worth the column space. If she does end up writing a review of such a “stand-alone,” she’ll work hard to find positive qualities and point those out, but also, she will delicately point out examples of how the writer may have fallen short of his or her goals with the book.

All in all, Barrowman would rather highlight the good pieces of a book. “If it’s so awful, I’m not going to take my time to write about it.”

Barrowman was clear on the issue of limited column space and how important it is to give that space to the many good books out there, especially from debuts, the ones really in need of positive public comment. “I give a lot of space to debut authors,” she says (and we debuts join in a collective chorus of THANK YOU x ONE BILLION THANK YOUS). As Barrowman put it, established and famous writers like Stephen King and Elizabeth George (who Barrowman loves) “don’t need the space as much as the young writer who is just starting out.”

Barrowman’s support of debuts is no secret. The word is out, and publicists and publishers know of her leaning. So what does this mean in terms of the quantity of books she receives at her home to review? Answer: literal towers and towers of books. “I receive about 8-10 ARCs or hardbacks every day,” she says. Barrowman knows her UPS and FEDEx delivery persons very well; they know where to leave her packages: in a book bucket by the door. (Note to self: get a book bucket and put it by the door because the universe will fill it with books every day. That’s what she meant, right?)

Barrowman sent me a couple of pictures from just one week of book deliveries:

mail 1

mail 2

These are pictures of just one week of deliveries. It’s a never-ending self-replenishing volume, calling to mind the infamous scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, in which Pee-Wee, explaining his torment in trying to solve a crime, says, “It’s like you’re unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting [repeated x infinity].”

Even though Barrowman is pretty damn awesome, authors keep on knitting and knitting new books for her to read, and she clearly cannot read everything sent to her.

So what is her culling process?

First, she considers the following factors:

  • COVER (Yes, cover absolutely matters. Yes it does. Yes it does. And don’t let anybody tell you it doesn’t.) According to Barrowman, she is looking to see if the cover “sets a right tone.” She’ll even consider the font, looking for the “impression I get” from a cover.
  • AUTHOR
  • SYNOPSIS
  • CRIME FICTION CATEGORY (procedural vs. serial killer vs. etc….) Here, she’s culling based on how many of any given sub-crime category books she’s already reviewed for the column. She’s trying to “cover the gamut” of crime fiction.

After this initial culling, Barrowman then triages those that make the cut, the “possibilities,” into piles sorted by the month of her column with the corresponding month of publication. For each month, she’ll pick 6-8 possibilities, trying to keep a good cross section of crime fiction and diversity of authors and publishers. For the next level of culling, she’ll read the first fifty pages or the first chapter and eliminate those that she does not want to continue reading.

ARCs and hardcovers that don’t make the cut are given away to a local women’s shelter and homeless shelter. “My house would be completely overrun with mysteries and thrillers if I didn’t share.”

In doing her second cull — the read of the first chapter — she’s looking for character details that capture her right away. She’s searching for all of the elements that make up a good book, and how well are they balanced in the first couple of chapters. And she describes herself as a “sucker” for a really good first line or paragraph.

Barrowman’s review style is straight-up “book review,” which is different, she explains, from essays about books. In her free time, she likes to read essays that really dig into books. Essays “are much deeper and analytical than book reviews.” But Barrowman does not read other book reviews or essays (or even blurbs) before she reads for purposes of doing her own review.  

Me: Is any of this easy though? What is the hardest review you’ve ever had to do?

CB: Thomas Maltman’s debut, LITTLE WOLVES. His book opens with a horrific spree shooting. [The day I sat to write my review] there was an actual terrible spree shooting. [I asked myself], how can I do justice to this beautiful book when people are inundated in real life with this horror…But the book is about how we need books and poetry to survive horror. LITTLE WOLVES has always stuck with me. But I did the review, and I think I did it justice…[The fictional horror with the real life horror] made my challenge as a critic so difficult. It took me a long time to write the review…But, I believe it tapped into something in me, which made it a better review.

Here’s her LITTLE WOLVES review:

LITTLE WOLVES author, Thomas Maltman, contacted Barrowman afterwards to give his thanks. So this made me ask: Is that okay? Can, should an author ever contact a review critic?

According to Barrowman, “It’s good to hear from an author if they want to thank a reviewer for a positive review. But never engage in a debate with a negative review, nobody ever wins in that situation.”

I ended the interview by sharing with Barrowman my review of her reviews.

kids

Barrowman’s style is direct, short, and packed with powerful review words. She doesn’t waste time reiterating the turn-by-turn plot. Instead, she does something I personally find quite valuable as a consumer-reader: She weaves into her review the atmosphere of a book. For example, in her positive review of THE EVIDENCE ROOM (Cameron Harvey), she wrote, “Among the cypress ‘dripping with Spanish Moss’ and the bayou’s ‘shoreline choked with pitcher plants,’ the compelling characters in this atmospheric mystery eventually must confront their shadows in unexpected ways.” And in her very positive review of NEW YORKED (Rob Hart’s debut), she wrote, “Ash’s mean streets smell like urine, he’s squatting in a rent-controlled apartment, his life ‘fits into a green duffel bag.’” This style of review is great and gives, in just a few words, the atmosphere of each book. Immediately from her review, I have an instant and deeper understanding of what’s under her carefully-selected words. I know that if I read THE EVIDENCE ROOM, I’m going to have that swampy, mystical feeling I get when watching Brad Pitt roaming around old New Orleans in the film adaptation of Anne Rice’s INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE or in reading MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL or when you’ve had too much to drink and it’s past the witching hour in Savannah and you have no clue what banyan tree park you’re in, why you’ve made the bad decisions you’ve made, and so you sit on a weathered bench under a weeping willow and wait for the moon to tell you which way to go. That feeling. I like that feeling.

After giving Barrowman my review of her reviews, I asked her, does she agree that she does indeed value a book’s atmosphere? Is that an important element to identify and relay when giving a book review? Yes, Barrowman agreed. “I want to give readers one or two things to trust me to recognize. Readers [of my column] tell me they trust my judgment. When it comes down to it, it’s really subjective. I try not to summarize plot. I’d rather give a sense of what it’s like to read the book. Atmosphere, tone, whatever you call it, is probably one of the hardest things for a writer, and when done well, I believe it deserves praise. And if I can put my finger on that for a reader, then it’s worth reading my review.”

It is definitely worth reading Barrowman’s reviews.

Shannon Kirk is the award-winning author of the debut psychological thriller, METHOD 15/33 (THE METHOD in UK, NZ, and OZ), which has garnered three starred reviews, won the National Indie Excellence Award for best suspense, and was selected by the School Library Journal as one of the best 17 adult fiction books for teens. METHOD 15/33 has been optioned for a major motion film and has sold into sixteen foreign territories. Ms. Kirk’s second novel (not a thriller), HEAVENS, will be published in June 2016. Read more about Shannon and her books and short stories at www.shannonkirkbooks.com and www.thegoatmancometh.com.

To order METHOD 15/33, click on the cover below:

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