Oline H. Cogdill reviews mystery fiction for Mystery Scene magazine, the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Publishers Weekly, Tribune Publishing and the Associated Press. Her mystery fiction reviews appear in more than 300 newspapers and publication sites worldwide. She blogs twice a week at MysterySceneMag.com. She has received the 2013 Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America, the 1997 Pettijohn Award from the Sun Sentinel and the 1999 Ellen Nehr Award for Excellence in Mystery Reviewing by the American Crime Writers League. Oline was a judge for three years for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the mystery/thriller category and is a beloved lecturer at Sleuthfest.
JB: How did you get involved in being a critic?
OC: In 1990 I changed jobs at the newspaper. I wanted to do some writing so I asked the book editor if there was something I could review. He said he didn’t have anyone doing mysteries. I always loved mysteries. Even when I was nine I didn’t read Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys I went right to Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. The editor gave me five paperbacks, I reviewed them, the column ran and the next month he gave me more. A few weeks later that column ran and before I knew it, the column was running every week. I started doing between one and six book reviews a week then he moved me into hardcovers.
JB: Do you ever read for pleasure?
OC: I know someone who reviewed for another newspaper that got burned out and left the business but I find every book I read is a pleasure. I love it. If I didn’t I’d quit. I get so much enjoyment out of it. I take it very seriously. It bothers me when reviewers are amateurish and they don’t review in earnest.
JB: Book reviews are rampant on the internet. Who should readers trust with a review?
OC: We have gone into a crisis of ethics. Lots of unethical people are doing reviews. Some of the reviews are so bad, you wonder if they even read the book. People with agendas are posting critiques on Goodreads, Amazon and blogs where the reviewer just wanted a free book. Some authors buy book reviews to help boost their numbers.
I would trust reviewers with a legitimate newspaper or magazine. Tom Nolan at the Wall Street Journal does good reviews, as does Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times. There are some bloggers out there that offer good book reviews. Kristopher Zgorski at BoloBooks.com and Dru Ann of DrusBookMusings.com both do.
I once read a review where the reviewer had heard the author talk about his book while it was being written. As anyone who writes knows, you start with one idea, but you frequently end up with something different. Part of what the author had talked about was in his book, but the whole novel wasn’t about that subject. The reviewer had no idea about the creative process and gave a horrible critique for a good book because it wasn’t what he wanted written. Talk about an agenda!
JB: In our critique group we have a method of critiquing when someone reads a chapter. What’s your process in reviewing a novel?
OC: I don’t look at any other reviews out there until I’ve finished mine and filed it because I don’t want any outside influence. I read every word and I take notes as I’m going. If it’s not an advanced reading copy, I take the book cover off so I don’t have the author staring at me. I look for the plot of course, but more than that I look for how much it connects me with the characters. There are only so many plots out there. It’s all about what you do with the characters. I look for things that are fresh and original. It bothers me when established authors fall into a pattern of using a template where they just fill in the blanks. For that reason, I love debut authors and series characters.
JB: Last year at Sleuthfest you talked about how you liked author CJ Box and his Joe Pickett series. What is it about his writing that you like?
OC: There are two well-known authors who write mysteries about Park Rangers. I like how CJ Box looks at environmental issues and I like his writing voice. He brings a human aspect to his characters. The characters are complicated and their problems aren’t easily resolved. His hero is a family man who struggles with family issues and not having enough money. Almost everyone can relate to that struggle so it brings a human element to all of the action going on in the story.
JB: Within a year, half of the Tuesday Writers were agented and published or pending publication. The other half are getting close. What’s your best advice for those hoping to be published?
OC: Treat it like a job. It’s hard work to get published so be realistic. Once you get to that point, do your own publicity. Get involved with social media. Visit local bookstores and libraries and events associated with your story. If you write a children’s book about cats go to functions and libraries for children, attend a cat show. There is no magic formula. It takes a while, don’t be discouraged.
JB: Is there anything else you would like us to know?
OC: I pick up every book I review with the hope that I will fall in love with it. My Best of the Year column due out in the Sun Sentinel this week will show the most outstanding novels. Check it out to find some that you might fall in love with too.