Friday, November 01, 2013

Island Books 40th Anniversary, Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen and An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff

 Wow, it's November already? October was a busy month for me, as I attended the 30th reunion of my undergrad college, Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa, my husband was hospitalized for a dangerous infection and I attended the NW Tea Festival. I also found two new doctors and had a host of medical tests to endure. But throughout the month, books were by my side, ready to serve, whether I was in the midst of a Crohn's flare or waiting for another medical test, or flying high above cities to the Midwest. Now as we gear up for another busy month in my household, with a visit from my sister-in-law and my husband and son's birthdays arriving before Thanksgiving, I am taking some time to take stock of what books I have, what books I need to get as they come out this month, and what books I've read.  So herein are some news and a review, just to get things started.

 Amazon, the online behemoth, purchased Goodreads, and things have been a bit rocky with the book review site ever since. Now it appears that Amazon is putting its massive foot down and not allowing bad reviews to be posted on Goodreads. Interesting, but not surprising that Amazon is viewing the site as more of a marketing tool for authors, rather than a place for readers to find honest reviews of books.

Goodreads: Reviewers vs. 'Book Cheerleaders?' offers an overview of the dissatisfaction
of "a small but growing faction of longtime, deeply involved Goodreads
members" who object to new guidelines about what members can say in book
reviews, with many of them blaming the Amazon purchase earlier this
year. "They've staged a protest of sorts, albeit one that's happening
mostly out of the public eye. Their charge is censorship and their
accusation is, in the words of one rebel, that Goodreads and Amazon want
'to kill the vibrant, creative community that was once here, and replace
it with a canned community of automaton book cheerleaders.' "

The tension about the content of book reviews on Goodreads goes back
several years, which led the company to delete reviews from the
community reviews section that were primarily about "author
behavior"--rather than about their books. The conflicts often stemmed
from negative reviews that authors objected to. Then, in September, the
company tightened the policy, entirely removing such reviews from
Goodreads, including from reviewers' pages. The company did so without
first announcing the change, leading to a range of skirmishes that have
played out over the last several weeks.

The key problem, as Salon put it: "While many Goodreads members tend to
see the site as existing 'for readers,' and the spokesperson for the
company reiterated to me its stated mission 'to help readers find good
books to read,' the site also markets itself to authors as a place to
promote their work. Goodreads founder and CEO Otis Chandler told an
interviewer earlier this year, "We're in the business of helping authors
and publishers market their books to readers. And that's where we make
our money. We sell book launch packages to authors and publishers and
really help accelerate, build that early buzz that a book needs to
succeed when it launches and accelerate that growth through ads on the

"As for disaffected Goodreads members, they're learning a hard lesson
often overlooked by the boosters of digital utopianism: Sooner or later
people need to get paid, and sooner or later you get what you pay for.
Goodreads' staff may be small, but they can't run the site for nothing,
and attempts to monetize it could not be postponed indefinitely."

This is an amazing idea, and I laud this young man for allowing books to go into the world free, to all who want to read, but I don't think this is a sustainable book publishing model. Still, it's kind of cool that I had a student dentist at the University of Washington Dental School with the same name!
When Stona Fitch published his novel Give + Take through the Concord
Free Press in 2008, he didn't take the usual approach to getting it into
readers' hands. Operating on what he calls a "generosity-based" model,
Fitch gave copies of the book to anyone who asked for one, charging them
nothing (and even covering the postage). All he asked in return was that
recipients donate the money they would've spent to a charity of their
choice, then, once they were done reading the novel, pass the book along
to another reader.

It worked well enough that Concord has been able to publish books by
several other authors  over the past five years, including Gregory
Maguire (The Next Queen of Heaven) and Lucius Shepard (A Handbook of
American Prayer). The authors retain the print rights, so if there's
enough interest from another publisher, there's no obstacle to a
commercial edition that can introduce the book to a larger audience.
(Fitch eventually placed Give + Take at St. Martin's, and Maguire sold
his novel to HarperCollins.)

With printers, publicists and other book professionals donating their
services, Fitch has been able to produce small print runs--roughly 2,500
copies for each title--and continue to simply give it all away. Books
are available through the website, and Concord sends copies to
independent bookstores across the U.S. and Canada. How do customers
react to discovering they can walk out of the store with a free book?
"They're gobsmacked, I think is the proper word," said Erik Barnum,
sales floor manager at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt.,
where Concord's books are displayed next to the cash register. "We get
questioned a lot, as if there was something hinky about getting
something for free." That initial suspicion is frequently overcome,
though, as customers take the Concord book home along with their

I've been a fan of Nicola Griffith's since reading "Stone River" years ago. She's a marvelous writer with a clever wit and an ear for dialog and setting. I hope to find a copy of Hild to read this month. Here's Shelf Awareness' review:
Review: Hild
With the historical epic Hild, Nicola Griffith creates an alternate
reality, strange in its particulars yet utterly recognizable as human.
Through the preternaturally observant eyes of Hild--a child when the
novel begins--Griffith unfurls a vivid tapestry of nature and craft,
belief and myth. Inspired by the life of St. Hilda of Whitby, Hild is an
immersive experience, its exquisite language serving as a portal to a
distant time and place.

In the seventh-century Northumbrian court of King Edwin, his niece Hild
rises to prominence as a seer through the machinations of her mother,
Breguswith. In truth, the girl's "prophecy" is shaped by her
extraordinary intelligence and powers of observation, which enable her
to see patterns in the intrigues and political machinations of those
around her. But danger is constant, and Hild must continuously prove her
usefulness to King Edwin--or die.

Complicating matters is Hild's knowledge that Cian, her foster brother,
is in fact her half-brother--a lineage that, if revealed, could make him
appear a threat to the throne. Hild's challenges increase in complexity
as her strong sense of duty, combined with love and compassion,
repeatedly come into conflict with the demands of survival in the court
of the king. Seeing everything, Hild is perpetually a guardian of secret
knowledge--others' secrets, and her own.

Griffith brings a remarkable sensuousness to the setting, beautifully
evoking the lush physicality of the joys, hardships and sheer work
involved in a life so intertwined with the vagaries of the natural
world. The language is strung with unexpected gemlike turns of phrase:
women ride in a wagon "like coddled eggs," their boots "the colour of
owl breasts."

As a woman of power and influence, Hild stands out in her time, yet the
women in this world possess strength and complexity. While everyone
orbits the king, Breguswith operates so cannily from the shadows that
her effects on the court may be the most profound of all. Perhaps most
intriguing about the portrayal of women in Hild is the lifelong bond
between pairs of women, called gemæcce, who spin and card together
from childhood until death, through marriage, sickness and childbearing.
The relationship between gemæcce is as significant in its own way
as marriage.

Though it is the richness of historical detail that may be most overtly
noticeable, Hild is above all a story of love and friendship--and how
the preservation of those things demands sacrifice. --Ilana Teitelbaum

I worked on Mercer Island For 8 years at the Mercer Island Reporter, and I spent a large portion of my lunch hours and my paychecks on books at Island Books, Roger and Nancy Page's perfectly wonderful bookstore at the edge of downtown Mercer Island.  This weekend I plan on attending their 40th anniversary celebration, where there will be pie, storytelling, memories, camaraderie and great books, of course!  I love you, Island Books!

Happy 40th Birthday, Island Books!
Congratulations to Island Books <>,
Mercer Island, Wash., which celebrates its 40th anniversary this coming
Sunday, November 3, starting at 3 p.m. As owner Roger Page wrote to
customers, "The party is not going to feature a long-winded blustery
speech by the owner. It's going to be a get-together. A pie social. A
gathering of like-minded and wondrous people who have played parts large
and small in the long life of the store. You all. Old friends. Maybe
champagne will loosen tongues and raise spirits. Perhaps pie will prompt
laughter and funny stories. We will give out some gifts for those who
attend, some prizes for the clever, some cheers for those who have a
story to share. Join us. It will be a fun afternoon of friends. We can't
thank you enough for your support all these years."

I just finished a wonderful non fiction book called  "An Invisible Thread" by Laura Schroff.
It's the story of how Schroff, a well-paid advertising executive in NYC, stopped one day when approached by a young boy panhandling for money for food. The 11-year-old African-American boy, Maurice, was thin and wary, but clearly cold and homeless. Schroff asked him if he'd like to go to McDonalds to get something to eat, and he eagerly agreed, wolfing down the first hot meal he'd had in days. Thus began a 30 year friendship between a hard-working but well-paid woman and a very poor kid from a family of criminals and drug addicts. Schroff brought Maurice into her life, had him come to family holiday celebrations, bought him food, clothing and most of all showed him that he could have a better life than that of his druggie mother and grandmother. By making a difference in one person's life, Schroff found that he made a difference in her life, and he also helped some of his siblings lead a better life. An amazing story told in clear, honest prose, An Invisible Thread reads like good fiction, in that you can't put it down. So many non fiction books claim to be inspirational, but this book delivers on that promise, and still manages to be a good read at the same time. I'd give it an A, and recommend it to people like my mother, who love "real" stories that happen in real places.

I also read Rhys Bowen's "Her Royal Spyness" which is the first book in a series of mysteries starring a minor royal named Georgianna, or "Georgie" a clumsy and somewhat daffy young lady who is 34th in line for the throne of England. I'd read Bowen's Molly Murphy Mysteries, which are based in London in the 19th century, so I was prepared for something similar in this series, which is based in London in the 1920s.
Unfortunately, Georgie isn't quite as bright as Molly Murphy, nor does she have as much steel in her spine as the Irish heroine, who always seemed to have her psychic abilities come to the fore just when she needed them most, to solve a case. Georgie is cash-poor and her brother Bertie is something of an idiot, blustery and hen-pecked by his horrible wife, whom they call Fig. Inevitably, the mystery is solved, but there is a lot of bumbling and bungling that goes on in an irritating fashion inbetween the important events of the novel. Georgie doesn't seem quite so much charming as stupid, and her clumsiness is funny the first couple of times she falls or is tripped up, but by the 6th or 7th time, it's become annoying and ridiculous. I am unsure if I can bear to read the other two paperbacks that I bought in this series, so I am taking a break from them to allow my annoyance meter to back down before I try again with the second novel in the series, "A Royal Pain." I would give this mystery a C+, in hopes that the character gets better as things go on, or at least that someone clever and British shows up to help Georgie become a crack detective.

I read "Girls in White Dresses" by Jennifer Close for my Tuesday night book group at the Maple Valley Library.
There was a great deal of good "buzz" about this book, and I am sorry to say that all of it was completely unwarranted. This book is about three college friends, Isabella, Mary and Lauren, and their trials and troubles as they drink, whine and b*tch their way through life in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.None of these young women are even remotely kind, decent or fun, and they come off as pathetic most of the time. I can't imagine wanting to read beyond page 25, and I wouldn't have if I didn't have to finish the book because I lead the discussion in my book group. I didn't find their bungling of relationships to crappy men at all amusing, nor did I find their petty meanness toward one another and everyone else at all interesting.The prose, while clean, is bland and the plot bogged down by endless descriptions of hangovers and ill health from parties that no one seems to enjoy. This is one of the few books I've read that has no redeeming features to recommend. I'd give it a D, only because I feel sorry for the author at having nothing to write about but such joyless characters.

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