I interviewed Linda Hill about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into her blog, Linda’s Book Bag – a review publication with a history of winning prizes. It won the Bloggers Bash ‘Best Book Review Blog’ in 2016, followed by yearly awards from RNA Media, Bloggers Bash, Feedspot, Sarpedia and Reedsy, right up to Feedspot’s ‘Top 100 Book Blogs You Must Follow’ in 2023. Linda talked about her early life and books, how she operates as a blogger and her educational and personal guiding lights.
Leslie: What began your lifetime interest in books, what has sustained that interest, and what’s the story behind you launching Linda’s Book Bag?
Linda: Gosh that’s a question with quite a convoluted answer. I’d like to say I was always a voracious reader but in fact I have terrible sight and was a late reader because no-one had realised I needed glasses. My sister is almost 9 years older than me so she read to me and I didn’t really need to do it for myself. At 8 my reading age was 6. By the time I was 9 and had got glasses my reading age was off the chart as it finished at age 15! It was an absolute miracle to realise those fuzzy shapes had definition and meaning.
However, some of my earliest memories are around reading, especially with my Dad reading ‘The Robin Family’ from Woman’s Weekly to me and one of my cherished possessions is a photo of Dad holding me at the village fete where I was dressed as Little Bo Beep so there’s a bookish connection there too!
I also used to stay with my godmother in the summer holidays where I had access to a library, devouring several books a week, which was impossible in the isolated village where I grew up. We didn’t even have many books in school as it was so small. There were 15 of us in the entire primary at one point. We had few books at home because my parents couldn’t afford the luxury so I cherished hand-me-down Enid Blyton books. I would spend all my pocket money on Paddington books too.
Once I got to secondary school my English teachers inspired me and opened up an entire world of reading. I’m still in touch with my English teacher of the time, Mr Rhodes, and see him and his wife regularly a couple of times a year.
The book that most inspired me at this time was Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. It was as a result of this text, read in the summer between O and A’ Levels, that got me completely hooked and led to me studying English and European Literature for my first degree, and then to teaching English and becoming an English consultant and inspector many years later, taking me all over England and to work in Paris and New York.
Once I decided that life was too short to work, I joined a University of the 3rd Age reading group and thought I might as well give blogging a go. That was back in 2015. I’d reviewed for Hodder and written teacher resources for their keystage3 children’s books and had been on the review panel for LoveReading.co.uk for a while, so a blog struck me as the next step.
Leslie: Tell us about the personal routine that goes into Linda’s Book Bag, how you keep a schedule, and what you’ve learned about book reviewing over the years you’ve been running it.
Linda: Ha! The thing I’ve learnt most is that ‘No’ is a very tricky word to use! I try so hard not to take on too much but it is sometimes impossible to keep to that intention. I accept a book with every intention of getting out a review on or around publication but life has a habit of throwing difficulties into the mix that impinge on my blogging time. Currently I’m dealing with some big health issues for my Mum who is 89 and no longer able to drive, or indeed walk far, so I’m doing far less blogging than previously.
That said, I am obsessive about meeting deadlines and I think it’s essential not to let authors, tour organisers and publicists down if I’ve promised something. As well as two paper blogging diaries – one dedicated to blogging and the other as part of my usual diary – I have a dated weekly spreadsheet that has a traffic light system with red for ‘needs reviewing or setting up’, yellow for ‘draft but not finalised’ and green for ‘ready to go, including scheduled tweets and Linda’s Book Bag Facebook post’. I also add a gut reaction mark out of 100 for any book I’ve read so that I can identify my books of the year and allocate the stars needed in places like Goodreads and Amazon.
I would also say that I don’t write negative reviews. If I haven’t enjoyed a book I keep quiet. Partly this is because I’m a blogger, not a critic. Partly it’s because there is enough negativity in the world and who wants to be part of that? And finally, it’s because a book I might not enjoy might be perfect for another reader. After all, I can’t eat oysters as they make me horribly ill, but others love them!
I try not to blog if I’m away as, although I try to check each blog post several times before it goes out, I am a terrible typist and errors can creep in. When I’m away I’m often without internet access and correcting any mistake is too tricky. The night before a post goes out, I read it all through and check any links are working.
On the day a post goes out my blogging routine is to add the link to other Facebook groups and Instagram and then to share the posts of as many other bloggers as I can fit in. If the book is already published, I then add my review to Goodreads and Amazon. I check social media regularly and respond to author comments if I find them throughout the day.
Leslie: What personal qualities have you found helpful in your work as a book reviewer?
Linda: Integrity. I pride myself on being honest, on writing reviews from my heart and on doing my best for authors when they appear on my blog. I’m also a hard worker and you need to be to blog. Whilst it’s inevitable that some words and phrases are part of my blogging lexicon, I never cut and paste from my other reviews. It takes time to read the books, effort to craft a review that conveys my thoughts effectively and considerable time to respond to emails and set up social media for the post, and a blogger needs to be dedicated to do this. During the first Covid lockdown, for example, I was receiving over 200 email requests to appear on the blog every day.
Leslie: There is a world of book reviewers with their own websites, podcasts and specialisms. Can you tell a few characteristic stories about the book review circles, friendships and events you’ve been part of, please.
Linda: There are almost too many to mention. I’ve been privileged to have made real life friendships amongst both bloggers and authors and have met countless new people as a result of blogging. I’ve been lucky to win awards and to be part of my local literary festival where I get to interview and host authors and I’ve given talks about blogging to festivals and WI groups. I’ve been invited to parties and book launches, been featured in both local and national magazines and I am now a regular reviewer for My Weekly magazine online. I’ve even had my own writing featured in a couple of books and have featured as a character a few times too!
The abiding link here in all these experiences is passion for books and a love of reading. There’s a real generosity of spirit in the bookish world that I adore and love being involved in.
Leslie: What have been the benefits that Linda’s Book Bag has brought you?
Linda: It’s quite hard to define. Aside from the things like awards and events mentioned above, I think the overwhelming benefit has been the fantastic world that has opened up in front of me. Blogging has brought new authors and books to my attention that I might never have discovered. It has given me a sense of belonging in a world that feels all too fragmented and I truly appreciate every friendship I’ve made, every book I’ve been sent and every event I’ve had the pleasure to attend.
It’s not all benefit though! Blogging has been horrendous for my bank balance. And the irony of that is, most of the books I buy I’ve either already read and enjoyed so much I want to support the author by buying a copy or I never actually read them and they languish on my shelves because I’ve been too busy trying to read and review the books I’ve been sent!
Leslie: What have been your guiding lights as a former English teacher and educational consultant? Can you describe their similarities and differences to your guiding lights as a book reviewer?
Linda: I’ve mentioned integrity already and I think kindness should be at the heart of whatever I do. Even when I was a dreaded OfSTED team member I didn’t sign up to the attitude that smiling and being friendly, even if you have a hard message to convey, is wrong. One of the consultancy moments that sticks in my mind is when I was assessing schools in New York. It was expected that there would be a motto or mission statement and the one that has never left me was from a school in the Bronx – simply, ‘Be Nice to Each Other’ and I think that works in any aspect of life. A sense of commitment and being well organised are essential too.
Obviously, as well as approach, there are people who have been guiding lights. There are so many writers and bloggers whose work I admire. Ironically, I rarely mention individuals as I am afraid of forgetting someone in the process.
And slightly off the wall here, Sir David Attenborough has been a guiding light. He’s a fine example of someone who has a well communicated passion and doesn’t let age diminish his activities. As my sixties whizz past I think that’s a very commendable approach to take!
Next week I interview Fousseny Traore, environmental activist and human rights defender from Mali.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.