The Shaftesbury Book Reviewer Influencing Britain’s Bedtime Reading

Karen Cole is arguably Shaftesbury’s best-read resident. A primary school teaching assistant by day, Karen fills her spare moments with a novel in her hands. She’s developed a following as an online book reviewer, fairly critiquing the latest crime releases.

Karen Coles ploughs through three or four page-turners each week. It’s possibly more than most readers get through, even on holiday. Her skill for conveying the essence of a novel through her concise and kind reviews are getting noticed. But even before her blog was born, Karen was a bookworm.

“I think I’ve always read, even as small child. I can’t remember not reading,” said Karen. “I remember being told off for reading too much and being told to go outside, get some fresh air and do something else other than read. I think it’s always been a part of who I am.”

Karen’s literary interest started at an early age, but it was a desperately sad, life-changing event that prompted Karen to read so frequently. Her brother committed suicide.

“In the time after he died, I read a lot. It was solace. A way of escaping the pain I was in,” she explained. “I read all the time. There were books that really helped me. I wrote a review as a way of saying ‘thank you’ and it snowballed from there. It started gradually. I would do reviews now and then. Now I am writing them all the time. It was never planned. It came about because of what happened to me.”

Karen Cole

Karen created a blog that adapted a phrase she remembers her father using when she was a little girl. “My blog is called ‘Hair Past a Freckle’. Most people have probably heard the saying. If you’re not wearing a watch, you can’t tell the time when someone asks you to look at your wrist. I thought that it was appropriate because you lose time in a book,” said Karen.

Karen’s book blog fanbase has grown as she’s added more reviews each week. “I started it in 2013. It only really took off when I started doing it passionately, in 2016.” She doesn’t keep tabs on her blog reader statistics. “I think you can get too caught up in worrying about that and not enjoying the actual process of reading and reviewing,” she said.

But one recent blog entry generated a great deal of feedback. “I read and reviewed ‘Wanderers’ by Chuck Wending and that seemed to be quite a popular one. I think it was because he is being compared to Stephen King. It’s one of those books that probably has got a lot of buzz around it.”

Karen’s profile as a reviewer has been recognised and now she enjoys a special perk. “I’m sent a lot of books from publishers and authors. That helps, but then I do still buy a lot,” she said, almost apologetically. “I can’t resist the bookshop. Most hobbies cost something. If you go to football matches, you have the expense of that.”

Even though Karen buys books, more free review copies are arriving in the mail every week. “Publicists and authors are very generous and obviously keen to have their books read. The more you show that you are a reliable blogger, the more you are likely to be sent books. It is a two-way street.”

Karen doesn’t feel that she has to say good things about a free copy of a book if high praise is not warranted. “You’re never under any obligation. I don’t review the books I’ve not enjoyed. It takes me a few hours to write a review. If it’s on my blog, then I’ve genuinely really enjoyed it. It is a mark of approval,” she said. “There are people who will write about the books that didn’t work for them. I’m sharing the ‘book love’ rather than anything else.”

That said, Karen says most of the books that she receives are engaging reads and she rarely finds a novel that she starts but can’t finish. “I’ve not had a book like that for a long, long time. Because I’m offered so many, I’ve got very good at picking and choosing. I know what I like. If I did find it hard going, then life’s too short. I’d stop reading.”

I asked Karen, if we were transported to Waterstones in Dorchester or Salisbury, where in store would she head first? “I do read a wide variety of books, but it’s a crime thriller that catches my attention, always. I do read a little bit of ‘cosier crime’, the Agatha Christie type of thing, but that’s occasional scanning. I love psychological thrillers, action and espionage. There isn’t a specific thing that I am really drawn to, just as long as it has got a good plot. If it is an author I know, or if I’ve heard a good buzz about it, then I’ll pick it up and have a look,” she said.

I took this as an opportunity to ask the expert for some crime writer recommendations. “There are some excellent Scandi Noir novelists. Antti Tuomainen is brilliant, as is Thomas Enger. I read a book today by a Scottish author called Michael J Malone, who is just fantastic. There’s a Canadian author called Ausma Zehanat Khan and her books are great.”

Books are bulky and Karen is experiencing space issues at home. “It’s definitely eating into my living space. I do give some books away, but I need to clear out more. They are everywhere, as my husband would quite happily tell you,” she laughed.

Karen is able to get lost in a good book in all sorts of situations. She often multitasks while clutching a novel. “I’ll read while I am cooking the dinner. I’ll stand, stir the saucepan and hold a book at the same time. I read in the car. I just read any opportunity I can get.”

Although Karen isn’t paid for her reviews, sometimes her hobby can feel like a scheduled task. “I do a lot of what are called blog tours. I agree to read a book on a particular date. I have to be very careful to schedule it so that I don’t take on too many. It’s okay to say, ‘This looks a brilliant book, but I can’t fit this one in at the moment’.”

Karen attends book launches too, where she enjoys chatting with fellow reviewers. “I meet other bloggers, which is really nice. We’ve got a really strong community and we all support each other,” she said.

Karen’s passion occupies as much time as a fulltime job, but she says she can’t see reviewing becoming a full-time occupation. “There isn’t money in book blogging. It is a hobby you can be very passionate about but unlike some of the lifestyle blogging, for which there is a lot of money, the average author doesn’t make the minimum wage,” said Karen. “There won’t be money to pay a book blogger. I’m never obliged to do a review because it is a hobby.”

As Karen reads so many authors’ work, she has a unique insight into what writing styles work and why. She has begun working on her own novel. “I have started writing something but it’s very early days. I am not going to declare myself as anything other than a book blogger who’s tempted to do a bit more,” said Karen.

You can follow Karen at HairPastAFreckle72.blogspot.com.