Sunday, July 28, 2013

Amazon's Price War and Dust and Shadow by Lindsey Faye, Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole

First, a note on Amazon's latest drama:
Shelf Awareness  --
Amazon's 'Declaration of War'

Yesterday quietly began discounting many bestselling
hardcover titles between 50% and 65%, levels we've never seen in the
history of Amazon or in the bricks-and-mortar price wars of the past.
The books are from a range of major publishers and include, for example,
Inferno by Dan Brown, which has a list price of $29.95 but is available
on Amazon for $11.65, a 61% discount; And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled
Hosseini, listed for $28.95, offered at $12.04, a 58% discount; Lean In
by Sheryl Sandberg, listed at $24.95, available for $9.09, a 64%
discount; and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, listed at $17.99,
available for $6.55, 64% off. A notable exception is The Cuckoo's
Calling by J.K. Rowling, using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, which is
discounted 42%.

The discounts are far below the usual 40%-50% range sometimes offered by
Amazon, warehouse clubs and other discounters and are more typical for
remainders than frontlist hardcovers. In some cases, the hardcovers are
priced below the Kindle editions.

"It's an open declaration of war against the industry," said Jack
McKeown, president of Books & Books Westhampton Beach, Westhampton
Beach, N.Y. Like several people familiar with Amazon's move, he
speculated that Amazon has been "emboldened" by the Justice Department's
victory against five major publishers in the e-book agency model case as
well as Wall Street's acceptance of continued losses by Amazon for now
in the expectation of retail domination--and major profits--eventually.
This last point was seen most recently on Thursday, when Amazon's
quarterly results included a net loss and were below Wall Street
expectations but did not provoke the usual rush to sell, as is the case
with most companies whose results are disappointing.

Another possible reason for Amazon's boldness is its apparently cozy
relationship with the Obama administration--whose Justice Department
pursued the agency model case, which mainly benefited Amazon. This
relationship will be highlighted this coming Tuesday, when the president
will give another major speech on the economy and aiding the middle
class at, of all places, the Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga, Tenn. This
is roughly equivalent of going to a Wal-Mart and calling for more of the
kinds of jobs it offers. --John Mutter
Though this is frightening news, I am of two minds about it. I know that Amazon has put a great many indie bookstores out of business, but it has also brought business into the Seattle area and other areas of the country. Plus, since I buy a lot of books each year, it is inevitable that I will have to buy some of them at places like Amazon and Barnes and Noble, because I can't afford to pay the higher prices at Indie bookstores for all the books that I want. That doesn't mean that I don't buy books at my favorite indies, because I do, but there are times when the only way to find a particular title or twelve is at Amazon for 50 percent off. I know that I should just do without the books, rather than put more money in Jeff Bezo's pocket, but I am tremendously selfish when it comes to having lots of reading materials, so I just try to get as many books as I can from places like Powells and Island Books, and pray that somehow, Amazon's rapid growth will eventually slow to a crawl and leave some of the indies still standing.

I just finished a book that I bought on a whim called Dust and Shadow by Lindsey Faye, which was a Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper story, set in 19th Century London. Though she's obviously young, Faye has Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing 'voice' and style down to a science. I forgot, at times, that I was reading a modern-day writer and believed I was reading one of Doyles detective stories. It was also clear that Faye has done her homework, and all the little details of the era, how people talked, what they ate, even how they spent their days and what their newspaper articles sounded like, were all impeccably drawn with what can only be termed loving care. Though I don't know what Holmes would have made of the Ripper killings, I find myself persuaded that Faye's belief in who dunnit, and why, to be more than plausible. Though the ending was a bit messy, I also found it logical and fascinating. I don't want to give away the ending, so I'll just say that if you're a fan of the greatest detective ever to live on the page and in TV and movies, you will love this mystery novel. A solid A, and I sincerely hope that Ms Faye continues to grace the public with more of her well tempered Holmes and stalwart Watson. Oh, and I have to mention that while other authors have done unspeakable things to Sherlock Holmes and his legend, among them marrying him off to a chit of a girl much younger than he, and not as smart, though twice as arrogant, Faye stays true to the Holmes and Watson that A Conan Doyle created and breathed life into for so many years. She doesn't try to update him, like the loathesome movies with Jude Law as a weak and watery Watson and sleazy Robert Downy Jr as Holmes, nor does she propose that Holmes was really Watson's beard, or that they were both just crazy. Faye's Holmes is brilliant, incisive and a thoroughly wonderful gentleman.

I also finished a marvelous book called "Letters From Skye" that was reminiscent of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" in it's wit and charm and fine epistolary storytelling.  A young woman on a Scottish Island reaches out during WW1 to an American serviceman, and a delightful correspondence develops that leads to love. But of course, families and previous commitments get in the way, and the protagonist's daughter launches an investigation of her own during WW2 through letters to her own beloved soldier. There have been lots of books lately told in letters and emails and notes and twitter-bits, but this book doesn't fall into the trap of using the letters as an easy way out of telling the story. The prose in the letters is sublime, and reads exactly as letters of the time must have read, complete with idioms and slang and whatever fears and hopes and dreams people of the era harbored. I literally could not put it down. I loved the characters and the heartfelt letters. Beautifully done, and totally riveting, I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in historical romance, literary fiction or 'chick lit' with a bit of meat on its bones.  Another solid A, again with hope that the author will provide us with more of her work in the future.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dull Minds Are the Enemy, and "Big Girl Panties" by Stephanie Evanovich

"The enemy of the black is not the white. The enemy of capitalist is not
communist, the enemy of homosexual is not heterosexual, the enemy of Jew
is not Arab, the enemy of youth is not the old, the enemy of hip is not
redneck, the enemy of Chicano is not gringo and the enemy of women is
not men.
We all have the same enemy.
The enemy is the tyranny of the dull mind.
The enemy is every expert who practices technocratic manipulation, the
enemy is every proponent of standardization, and the enemy is every
victim who is so dull and lazy and weak as to allow himself to be
manipulated and standardized." --From Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom
Robbins, who lives in Seattle, WA.
I love Tom Robbins quotes, he always knows just what to say when you think the world has let you down. I also loved "Jitterbug Perfume" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas." Just by his presence out here in Western Washington, he makes the Pacific Northwest a cool place to reside.
Also, I think this trailer is brilliant, and I look forward to seeing this movie starring the fabulous Emma Thompson, my favorite British actress, the day after my birthday (it opens on December 13).
The first trailer has been released for Saving Mr. Banks
the "true story of how the ultimate classic," based on a children's book
series by P. L. Travers, made it to the screen, reported.
Directed by John Lee Hancock, the film stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
and Emma Thompson as Travers. The supporting cast includes Colin
Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose
Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths and Kathy Baker.
Saving Mr. Banks has a limited release December 13 before opening
nationwide December 20.

I just finished Stephanie Evanovich's "Big Girl Panties" and I must say that I was surprised at how easy it was to read and how much fun it was, especially in light of the protagonist, Holly, having to lose weight to get a man. That kind of storyline usually pisses me off, and it also hacks me off when the author always makes a big deal of the protagonist only eating junk food in mass quantities to get fat in the first place. There's never any mention of the fact that you can eat regular healthy food and still become overweight and/or obese. 
However, the book goes on to make some serious points for correctly pointing out that some women, even with exercise and diet, will always be pudgy or voluptuous, or carry around an extra 20 pounds. The author also notes that it is sexy to be voluptuous and juicy and that there are a number of men who dig the curves on women. I know that my husband, even when he was just my boyfriend, loved my curves and he wasn't the only one who found me sexy, even at a higher weight. The book also points out that food is not the enemy of weight loss success, and that treats every now and then are healthy. They also have a great take on exercise, making the point that weight training to gain muscle will make you tighter and appear leaner, and that women don't usually 'bulk up' when they work with weights like men do. But muscle does help the metabolism burn calories. 
The male protagonist, Logan, who is a personal trainer (he meets Holly on an airplane and decides to take her on as a project to transform her "ugly duckling" into a "swan") comes off as kind of a tool, and there are several times in the book where I wanted to kick his ass. Fortunately, he matures and becomes a fairly decent fellow by the end of the book, someone worthy of Holly's affections.  
Though Evanovich doesn't make the mistake that Wally Lamb did in "She's Come Undone" by portraying all fat/larger women as having been abused, usually sexually, as children or teenagers, she does have Holly come from a cold and distant family, with parents who are hoarders and a brother who is only interested in how soon she can be enslaved to take care of her parents now that they are seniors. Apparently Holly also had few friends in school, and ended up marrying in college just to get away from her needy, soul-deadening family.
My problem with this is that not everyone who is overweight and obese is a victim of abuse or a rape survivor. Sure, there are those who are, but it is ridiculous to assume that fat is a byproduct of sexual abuse. There are women who have health problems, women who take medications that cause obesity, women who are genetically inclined to be larger, women who have thyroid or other hormones out of whack. There is no one reason that fits all the fat women out there.Also, there are as many smart and kind and talented women who are fat as there are ones who are thin. You can't assume that a larger woman is some no talent, uneducated back woods mama. That is a stereotype, a cliche that needs to be removed from our lexicon. Fat shaming helps no one.
Anyway, I'd give "Big Girl Panties" a B+, within a whisker of an A, and I'd recommend it to all women who have worked with perfect bodies in the gym and always wondered what it would be like to get some horizontal exercise with one of the hot young personal trainers. 
I've also read "Belle Epoque" by Elizabeth Ross and Kersten Gier's "Sapphire Blue,"which is the sequel to her fine "Ruby Red" of last year.
Belle Epoque is the story of Maude Pichon, a young, plain woman who is hired as a companion to a beautiful young woman as a 'foil' to highlight her beauty by contrast. There is a whole group of women who are all hired because they are considered plain or ugly, who are rented out by Monsieur Durandeau to various wealthy aristocrats in Paris and London during the debut season so that they will appear perfect and get the right husband, ie someone rich and aristocratic/royal. What is great about this book is that Maude grows to realize that there is beauty in all of the women she works with, and that they all have talents and dreams that are worth pursuing, regardless of their looks. While there are strong sexual themes that run throughout, I believe this would be a good book for the YA audience from age 13-18. Girls tend to be their own harshest critics, and I believe this book, which shows that young women of any type can achieve their dreams, would provide some great contrast to the airbrushed and photo-shopped models and actresses that grace the covers of magazines with looks that are impossible for normal human females to achieve. A solid A for this book, which I'd recommend for teenage girls everywhere.
Sapphire Blue was more coherent than its predecessor, with a stronger plot and a more intelligent heroine, who is finally on her way to solving the mystery of the Circle of Twelve. Though Gwen is at times rather a brat, she shows signs of growing up and taking responsibility for her actions or inactions in this novel, and by the end readers are excited about her progress and ready to read the final installment, Emerald Green. A B for this one, and I'd recommend it to readers of the first book, "Ruby Red."

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Lexicon by Max Barry, Hunted by Kevin Hearne. Monica Guzman and a Great Quote

“Books are everywhere; and always the same sense of adventure fills us. Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.
Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” - Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting.

I am Facebook friends with a young and talented digital journalist named Monica Guzman. She has recently had a baby and has also given birth to some great articles about where the internet and the world of real books collide:

GeekWire columnist Monica Guzman was filming her baby's
"small, assisted zig-zag steps" between the shelves at the Ravenna Third
Place Books, Seattle, Wash., when she
"looked at him and said something surprising: 'I hope bookstores still
when you're old enough to read.' Immediately I checked myself. Did I
mean that? Yeah. Apparently I did."

Admitting that for years she has "subscribed to the practical notion
that e-books are probably the future," she decided she had "been missing
something. Something books and bookstores have that digital itself can't
replace. Something I've sensed and respected more in the last few months
than I have in years. In a word, weight."

Subsequent trips to the Harvard Coop,
Cambridge, Mass. ("I don't know why I've hesitated to acknowledge the
reverence I feel when I open the door to a bookstore and step in. All
those words. A few steps in and you're surrounded.") and Seattle's
Elliott Bay Book Company ("The more I
think about it, the more true it seems: Bookstores are not just
exhibitors of merchandise. They are temples to human thought.")
confirmed her insight.

While not ready to abandon the digital book world completely,
Guzman wrote: "I never would have predicted this, back when I
started reading so much on my Kindle, but I like going to bookstores now
not just to discover books I haven't read, but to make contact with the
books I have read and to share a space with great stories. The bookstore
in my pocket is easy enough to use. But it's not this easy to feel.... I
do hope bookstores stick around. But not out of a preference for
bookstores or for printed books. I just think we need a place where, in
our rush to condense and contain, our biggest ideas can be bigger than

Happy Birthday, Elliott Bay, Seattle's Oldest Bookstore!
On Sunday, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash., celebrated its 40th
anniversary with a large party in its beautiful space. Speakers and
guests included owner Peter Aaron, senior book buyer Rick Simonson, ABA
CEO Oren Teicher and founder Walter Carr.

This week I finished what I believe is the sixth book in Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid Chronicles, and I was also fortunate enough to attend his Q And A session and book signing at the University of Washington Bookstore, where I dropped $85 buying A Liaden Universe Constellation, an anthology that Hearne contributed to called "Unfettered" and Max Barry's science fiction tome, "Lexicon."
Let me start by saying that Kevin Herne is freakin' adorable. I doubt he'd like to hear that, because it doesn't sound sufficiently manly, but it is nonetheless true. He's a round, bald, short guy with sparkling eyes and an incredible wit and sense of humor that practically mists off his body like heat waves off the roads in Phoenix, Arizona, his home state. You find yourself wanting to give him a big hug and kiss him on the cheek and take him out for a beer and a burger within minutes of meeting him. He's got a natural sweet nature, I think, and he uses his kind and gentle demeanor to obscure what I believe is his brilliant mind and amazing storytelling abilities, which make him something of a superhero, in my mind. Add to that fact taht until recently, he was high school English teacher, and you have enough material for a Neil Gaiman graphic novel or, at the very least, a Joss Whedon Podcast!
Anyway, here's the blurb for Hunted :
For a two-thousand-year-old Druid, Atticus O’Sullivan is a pretty fast runner. Good thing, because he’s being chased by not one but two goddesses of the hunt—Artemis and Diana—for messing with one of their own. Dodging their slings and arrows, Atticus, Granuaile, and his wolfhound Oberon are making a mad dash across modern-day Europe to seek help from a friend of the Tuatha Dé Danann. His usual magical option of shifting planes is blocked, so instead of playing hide-and-seek, the game plan is . . . run like hell. Crashing the pantheon marathon is the Norse god Loki. Killing Atticus is the only loose end he needs to tie up before unleashing Ragnarok—AKA the Apocalypse. Atticus and Granuaile have to outfox the Olympians and contain the god of mischief if they want to go on living—and still have a world to live in.
What was exciting about Hunted was that now we have "Clever Girl" his apprentice in her fully formed Druid role, and we have the death of Atticus' protector, the Morrigan, so while most of the Greek and Roman gods want Atticus dead, there's also a good number of the Norse gods who aren't too fond of him drawing breath, either. So there's lots of running and fighting and action throughout the book, but there's also an added feeling of "Oh crap, Atticus, how the heck are you going to live through this?"
Readers are fortunate that Hearne is so deft at weaving great moments and hilarious dialog among the action/fight sequences, however, so we still learn about Atticus' past life, and more about the gods and goddesses and their motivations for what they do, as well as how their legends came to be. The cover blurb on all of the Iron Druid Chronicles states that Atticus (and Oberon his Irish Wolfhound) may be the heirs to the Harry Dresden (and Mouse, his Foo dog) Throne of science fiction heroes. I don't think that there is any doubt about it, I believe that Atticus is the logical heir to Harry Dresden's crown, and in fact, I think if the two characters ever met (and wouldn't that be an awesome tale?!) they would get along like a house on fire, and kick all kinds of arse together before settling in for a nice evening of swapping stories.
So "Hunted" gets an A, and a deep desire for the next in the series to come out ASAP, because I find myself increasingly needing my Atticus and Oberon fix, and hopefully for another visit from the charming Mr Hearne.

Lexicon by Max Barry was an amazingly fresh novel that posits a future society in which an underground organization has found a way to train people in the ability to use words as weapons/ Of course in such a scenario there's an "atomic bomb" word that is called a "bareword" which, when 'detonated' will compell people to do whatever the wielder of the word tells them to do, including "kill everyone."  The protagonist, a street hustler teenager named Emily gets tapped by the organization as a potential agent because she has the ability to persuade others while being able to keep herself from being manipulated to as high a degree by those with more training. She falls in love with an "Outlier" named Harry who is one of the rare people who can't be influenced or compromised by words, not even the atomic bomb word that Emily gets ahold of and deploys in a town in Australia, killing all three thousand inhabitants. But who is really behind this experiment with a 'bareword'? And who can Emily trust? Her teacher Eliot? Her beloved, who has forgotten who he is? Because this novel is written like a science fiction spy thriller, I wasn't expecting it to be as deep and thoughtful as it was, and I wasn't expecting to be as chilled and creeped out by how plausible all the scenarios of destruction and mental manipulation seemed. Perhaps because I've been a journalist for nearly 30 years, and words have always had great importance and meaning to me, but the idea of the government using all the data they collect on us via the internet and loyalty cards and cameras and cell phone taps, etc, to manipulate the public into doing what they want society to do made me rather green around the gills with paranoia. For someone who obviously loves and revers the written and spoken word, Barry uses a bit too much profanity for my taste, yet I found myself respecting him privacy more for having read his very short bio and his witty acknowledgement section, which gives next to nothing away about the author's life.
This book deserves a solid A and should be read by anyone involved in the media or in any form of government.