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Behind the pages: Nic Johnston shares insight into book reviews

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Following on from March’s National Book Day and last month’s staff recommendations for books to read, we delved into the pages of one colleague’s literary pastime.

Nic Johnston, our Deputy Human Resources Director, is a book enthusiast and reviews books in her spare time. Dialogue caught up with Nic about how she got into reviewing books and her advice for anyone interested in starting their own book review journey.

You review books in your spare time, can you tell us how you got into that?

I’m an avid reader but I’m very picky about what I read (it’s rare that I don’t finish a book, so I’m quite careful about what I start!). I therefore listen to lots of book podcasts, go to book festivals, keep an eye on reviews in the newspapers, wait with anticipation for the Observer’s debuts of the year in early January each year and check which books are listed for some of the big prizes (although I am highly suspicious of the Booker nominees). 

There is a website called Goodreads, which focuses on book reviews. Early reviews sometimes had a statement at the bottom along the lines of ‘with thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced copy of this book in consideration of an honest review’. So I signed up for Netgalley in 2019 and since then I’ve read and reviewed over 200 advance copies. 

Netgalley is a free service and publishers upload books daily. You request books which you would like to read and, if your request is accepted, a free eBook is sent to your Kindle or you can access it on an app. Dozens of books across all genres are put up every day, so you need to sift out the wheat from the chaff. I’ve received the last few Colson Whiteheads, Zadie Smiths, David Nicholls, Sebastian Barry etc. The understanding is that you leave a short review on Netgalley and I also post all reviews on Goodreads. 

The more you review, the better the chance you have of getting what you ask for, and publishers now contact me and proactively ask me to read books if I have previously enjoyed a book by that author. If publishers use a quote from your review on the marketing material, they normally send you a free signed copy on publication day. Authors are also keen to engage with those who do early reviews for them. 

Do you find reviewing books helps with your relaxation and wellbeing?

I tend to have two books on the go. One on my Kindle, which is a great way of switching off at the end of the day or at the weekend. I also normally have an audiobook to keep me going on long dog-walks. It’s a great opportunity to forget about work and immerse yourself in another world.

What advice would you give others who would like to try and review books themselves?

Reviews needn’t be long, and they shouldn't repeat the premise of the book, as the publisher will have done that in their synopsis. Other readers seem to be most interested in honest and constructive thoughts – what you enjoyed and what you didn’t enjoy – with thoughts on the characters, the plot, pacing and enjoyability. 

What are your book recommendations?

I could take up the whole of Dialogue with book recommendations!

If I was forced to pick a favourite genre, it would be crime literature, slow burn and well-constructed/written crime books. The Lost Man by Jane Harper starts with a man found dead at an old stockman’s grave in the middle of the Australian outback and unfurls into a fantastic family drama. I would recommend all of her books. Ditto the Irish writer Tana French and the always brilliant Kate Atkinson.

I’ve just finished You Are Here, the new book from David Nicholls, which is out on 24 April, and will likely be very popular off back of the adaptation of One Day on Netflix. It is about a pair of divorcees who start the coast-to-coast walk together.  It's genuine, warm and funny.

This year’s breakout debut, The List of Suspicious Things by Jennie Godfrey, about two schoolgirls in Leeds at the time of the Yorkshire ripper is a fabulous portrait of friendship and perfectly captures a community in a time of crisis.

For a wham bam page turner I would recommend Wrong Place, Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister. However, I would strongly urge people not to read any of the blurb, just dive in and see where it takes you. A couple of chapters in, you’ll have to pause and gather your thoughts.

The Slow Horses series by Mick Herron, is utterly brilliant. The so-called ‘slow horses’ are MI5 spies who have done something wrong but, as they haven’t done enough to be sacked, they are relegated to Slough House to do the most mundane work imaginable in the hope that they will leave. The dialogue is razor sharp and the characters are richly developed, although Herron isn’t shy in killing people off. There are eight books in the series (they should be read in order), the first four of which have been adapted by Apple TV and it’s one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. 

In terms of books which I really enjoyed listening to, and I think were enhanced by the audio version, Still Life by Sarah Winman – is the story of enigmatic Evelyn and eastender Ulysess, who encounter each other in Tuscany as WWII comes to an end. I can still hear Sarah Winman’s brilliant narration of her characters several years after I listened to it.

Taste by Stanley Tucci is his memoir told through food, with the audio narrated by Stanley. It’s a fantastic listen and will make you hanker after a negroni (and may have indirectly led to the creation of a campus cocktail club!).

Hungry by Grace Dent is also a food memoir and will strongly resonate with anyone who grew up in the ‘70s or ‘80s and often had mince for dinner.



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