When I found out I was going to take part in the SYP First Book panel for the Saltire Awards, I was naturally very excited – receiving six amazing books for free, assessing them and deciding on the winner over tea (or coffee) and biscuits with other bookworms? Yes, please!

I was already familiar with the process of critical reading, having done my BA in English language and literature. Reading with a specific purpose in mind –especially reading as a judge– is a strikingly different process that reading for pleasure. You can’t get carried away by the text so much that you lose all sense of objectivity; you can’t abandon the text halfway just because it isn’t working for you. Being a reader and a judge is a delicate balance because, at the end of the day, you will always be subjective, because you are always you.

SinceI am currently studying Publishing, I decided to approach the whole process as if I were a commissioning editor, and treat it like a fun exercise in maintaining objectivity. And in reading speed, seeing that I had a three-week window to closely read six books.Before I began, I set a few questions by which I tried to evaluate all six books: does it have a strong hook? Does it have a strong voice? Well-crafted characters? Does the text flow well? Interestingly, I found that all six books, from my most to my least favourite, did live up to these standards. Being able to say that “I don’t like this book, but it’s still a good book” was truly a first for me.

Due to time pressure, I chose to read the books two at a time, so that I could have some variety and hopefully speed up the process. I have to say, I picked the two most dissimilar books of the bunch to read simultaneously: Daniel Shand’s Fallow and Ross Sayers’s Mary’s the Name. Young Mary’s delightful innocencemade Paul’s voice feelall the more crude and hostile. It was like having two clashing voices echoing in my head, which was at times unsettling but also sort of amazing.

The two books that stood out for me were Beneath the Skin by Sandra Ireland and Goblin by Ever Dundas. Ireland’s book caught me by surprise: I didn’t expect I would enjoy a book with thriller elements, because I’ve never cared to explore that genre up until now. I decided that from now on I should probably be more open-minded; when a book is well-written it draws you in, regardless of genre. As for Goblin, she must have been one of the most peculiar characters I’ve ever encountered, but she was so multifaceted and so unapologetically herselfthat I could not stop reading her story. And crying. And smiling. It was kind of a roller-coaster, that one.

Overall, I had a very positive experience and when the day for the panel meeting came, I was looking forward to sharing my views and hearing what the others had to say. We enjoyed our tea (or coffee) and our biscuits, and after a very engaging conversation we reluctantly chose the winner – it was a tough choice. Now I can’t wait for the evening of the Awards to find out whether the judges’ opinion agrees with our own!