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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Nineteen Minutes

I've been a Jodi Picoult skeptic for a while now. I think it started when I found a big table of Picoult books upstairs at my local Barnes & Noble and noticed how similar all the books seemed to be, how interchangeable. I knew Picoult's name from having seen it on bestseller lists and that made me curious enough to spend a few minutes going through the books on the table to see if I had been missing anything. I walked away empty-handed that day and didn't give Picoult another thought until I found the audio version of Nineteen Minutes at my local library. I always try to have an audio book going for when I'm driving or doing some mindless task around the house and a book about a school shooting sounded interesting so I decided this might be a painless way to sample Picoult's writing. I was hoping to find that my first impression of her books was wrong and that I had unfairly underrated her. It didn't happen.

Nineteen Minutes is the story of a New Hampshire high school shooting that resulted in ten deaths and the wounding of nineteen others, some of whom were left with physical disabilities and mental scars that would be with them for the rest of their lives. It is Peter Houghton's story. Peter Houghton, a sensitive boy with few social skills or friends, was always different in the eyes of his schoolmates. He was a natural target for bullies out to impress their own friends and his life was all downhill from the first day of kindergarten when his new lunch box was thrown out of the school bus window onto the highway where it was crushed by oncoming traffic.

By the time that Peter was a high school junior, the same group of bullies had been slamming him into lockers, punching him, verbally abusing him and otherwise generally intimidating him for as long as he could remember. After sixth grade, he had even been abandoned by the one close friend he had had up to then when she decided that she wanted to be popular and realized that her friendship with Peter was going to make that goal impossible to achieve. So when Peter snapped, he snapped big time, and deciding that it was payback time at Sterling High School he changed a city forever in just nineteen bloody minutes.

Nineteen Minutes is not a terrible book but it is a disappointing one because it could have been so much more than it turned out to be. Jodi Picoult offers nothing new to the discussion of school shootings, what causes them, or how they can be prevented. Instead, she deals in stereotypical characters and a sideshow romance that add little but pages to her novel. Rather than developing the characters of some of the bullies in the story to give insight into why some people get such great pleasure from humiliating those physically weaker than themselves, she offers up cardboard characters like Detective Patrick DuCharme whose constant one-liners give him more the personality of a stand-up comedian than that of a competent detective. She spends more time developing a romance between DuCharme and Judge Alex Cormier, the mother of one of the victims, than she does in trying to explain why school shootings have become so common in recent years. I did not expect, or want, a romance novel from Picoult but I got one.

Picoult's pacing of her story is disappointing because of the way that she so gradually builds up the suspense and mystery surrounding what happened on that fateful day only to end it all abruptly with somewhat of a surprise ending and a quick summary of what happened after the trial. Less time spent on an unnecessary romantic sideshow and more on a better written ending would have made this a much stronger book.

The audio version of Nineteen Minutes is read by actress Carol Monda who turns in a competent reading of this 18-disc recording. My only quarrel with Monda's performance is the "little boy" voice and cadence that she consistently uses for all of her male characters regardless of their age. That quirk made it difficult to take some of her characters seriously and may have contributed to my negative impression of Detective DuCharme.

Rated at: 2.5

Saturday, September 29, 2007

And Then You Die

Aurelio Zen is back after barely surviving a mafia hit (in Blood Rain) when the car he was riding in was bombed on a Sicilian highway, killing one of his fellow Italian policemen, and forcing Zen into an extended period of physical rehabilitation for the injuries he suffered. And Then You Die, Michael Dibdin's eighth Aurelio Zen novel, picks up where Blood Rain left off and finds Zen trying to cope with the boredom of a life in hiding as he continues to recuperate.

Zen, having been given a new identity by the Italian police, has been parked at a Tuscan coast beach resort to hide out and wait for the call to fly to America as a key witness in a mafia trial pending there. He is bored with sitting in the sun with wealthy Italians who have nothing better to do but tells himself that the four or five hours a day that he puts in at the beach are simply "office hours," part of his new job of blending in with the locals. But when men who seem to have been mistaken for him start to die, Zen comes to realize just how determined the mafia is to see him dead before the American trial and that the plan to keep him safe until then is a flawed one.

No matter where he is moved, it seems that the mafia is only one short step behind him. To make matters worse, although he misses his life in Rome terribly, Zen is depressed by what he finds there when called to police headquarters for a meeting with his superiors. Nothing is the same. He returns to his mother's empty apartment and is hit hard by how much he misses her. He is told that after the mafia trial he will be placed in a new job that will barely require his presence, a job that seems to have been created just to push him outside the department. His best friend is going through a domestic crisis and Zen finds that he really doesn't have much sympathy. He finds himself suffering a mid-life crisis just when he can least afford one.

And Then You Die is filled with characters who do not quite ring true and who inadvertently give the book a tongue-in-cheek tone that lessens the suspense of how Zen is going to cope with the succession of attempts on his life. It reads more like black comedy than as serious detective fiction. I suspect that fans of the Zen series will welcome the book as a worthy follow-up to the more serious one in which Zen almost lost his life, but that those new to the series will be somewhat disappointed in it. The book does not work particularly well as a standalone novel and readers would do well to read Blood Rain before they read And Then You Die.

Rated at: 3.0

Friday, September 28, 2007

Kimbooktu's Meme



I've been tagged by Bybee over at Naked without Books for an interesting meme that was created by Kimbooktu, so here goes:



1. Hardcover or paperback, and why?

I'd say that at least 80% of my books are hardcovers and that percentage is holding pretty steady. I buy most of my books with the intention of keeping them unless they turn out to be unfinishable or they bore me to death, so hardcovers have always been my first choice. I always aim for first printings of first editions and all but a few of my hardcovers are those. I do buy quite a few trade paperbacks when I find them marked way down at bookstores but I don't tend to keep those as a permanent part of my collection. Those usually end up getting traded on BookMooch or sold on eBay. I almost never buy the mass market paperbacks because I find them so difficult to read and I hate the way that they usually look so worn out after just one reading.

2. If I were to own a book shop, I would call it...

Book Chase...It would include both new and used books and would focus more on literary fiction than on those who dominate the bestseller lists because I find very few of those writers to be readable.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is...

"When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake - not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over." - Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

That's the opening of the Lonesome Dove epic, maybe my favorite book of all, and it perfectly sets the scene for McMurtry's story.

4. The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be...

Beyond a doubt, it would be Mark Twain. I can imagine the stories this man would tell and would hope for a long, long lunch.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except for the SAS survival guide, it would be...

Lonesome Dove because having Woodrow Call and Augustus McCray around would be like having two old friends share the island with me...and it's a big book with lots of stories and side-plots that make it easy to re-read multiple times.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that...

really works for the long-term. I've tried several book lights, for instance, that either don't provide enough light, or are a pain to work with, or just quit working altogether after a few books. I've given up.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of...

childhood. I grew up in a small town that had a very under-funded little library and most of the books I read as a kid were pretty old at the time. But now when I catch that odor, it's always a deja vu moment for me. On the flip side, I get the same feeling from opening up a brand new paperback and smelling the pages because it seems that I was either reading old library books or new paperbacks (when I finally saved up enough coins to buy one).

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be...

Augustus McCray from Lonesome Dove. Gus was a man's man but he had a soft spot for kids, knew how to treat women, and used his sense of humor to get his best friend to do the right thing. Robert Duvall was cast as Gus in the movie version of the story, and he was the perfect choice for that role. In fact, it was that movie that made me a lifelong fan of Duvall.

9. The most overestimated book of all times is...

the whole Harry Potter series. I think those books have their place, and I admire the successful marketing campaigns that sold millions of copies, but I just don't think that they are really all that well written and they seem very, very derivative.

10. I hate it when a book...

is written in such a pretentious manner, using obscure words as a first choice, for example, that it is a struggle to make sense of whole paragraphs at a time. I hate it when I consistently have to read a sentence three or four times just to get its meaning, only to find out that it really is just a simple aside that adds little to the story. Some writers seem always to be trying to impress literary judges and their peers more than their readers.

I'm supposed to tag five other bloggers for this meme but, since I was a little slow in getting to it myself, I imagine that some of you have already been tagged (these things grow like mushrooms). So rather than risk tagging someone who has already participated, I'll make this an open invitation to anyone who wants to jump in and share their thoughts: consider yourself tagged.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

U.S. too Dumb for Barnes & Noble Stock

I often read financial advice columns from around the country but I never follow the advice given about investing, or not investing, in the individual stocks mentioned. I figure that by the time the information hits newspapers or magazines it's too late to take advantage of it because all the "big money" has already moved and it's too late for the little guy. That said, I did find Malcolm Berko's warning about Barnes & Noble stock interesting because of the reasoning that he used to steer his readers away from purchasing the bookseller's stock.

Dear Mr. Berko: I'm considering an investment of $6,000 in each of the following three stocks: Barnes & Noble, Advanced Life Sciences and National Bank of Greece. My goal is long-term growth with moderate risks...

D.N.

Vail, Colo. Dear D.N.: Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS-$36.07) is a very poor choice. You don't want BKS in your portfolio because future revenue gains will be niggardly due to competition from video games, the Internet, TV and a declining literacy rate. Many Americans between ages 10 and 40 are infected with a genetic intellectual deficit. (We are observing a phenomena called "the dumbing down of America" and what Dan Rather calls "the dumbing down of the news.")

Revenue growth for BKS is suffering, and books that sell best are of the Harry Potter genre, which are basically bubble gum for the mind. Meanwhile, heavy discounting to attract buyers and competition from Amazon has crippled earnings. Net profit margins are getting squeezed and BKS expects to report lower 2007 earnings of $1.75 compared to earnings of $2.18 in 2006.
I have to admit that this rather strange combination of hard facts and editorializing put a smile on my face this morning. Mr. Berko seems to enjoy his work.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures: Stories


Author Vincent Lam studied medicine in Toronto where he is now an emergency room doctor. Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, a collection of twelve short stories about medical school and the personal challenges that young doctors face in their new profession, is his prize-winning literary debut.

Lam's stories focus on the struggles of four University of Ottawa students as they make their way from university, to medical school, and on to eventual medical careers in Toronto. Although the stories are not structured so that the end of one leads directly to the next, they offer clear insights into the lives of the four individuals as they progress from hopeful students to medical professionals.

In the opening story, "How to Get into Medical School, Part I," we are introduced to Fitz (short for Fitzgerald) and Ming, two university study partners in the process of gaining medical school admittance. Ming, the only female among the four main characters, and the most focused of them all, finds herself attracted to Fitz despite knowing that her Chinese parents will never approve of her relationship with anyone not of their ethnic background. Fitz finds himself struggling with both his studies and his love for Ming. The book's second story, "Take All of Murphy," introduces the always calm Chen and the overly sensitive Sri as they study human anatomy with lab partner Ming by dissecting the cadaver they have decided to call "Murphy."

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures is a frank look at the mental and physical pressures faced by four individuals as they progress from student to practicing physician. Each of Lam's stories is snapshot in time, a snapshot often taken at some critical point in the lives of one of the four as they struggle to make the right decision about some moral or ethical issue with which they are suddenly faced. The stories are somewhat uneven but, overall, they succeed remarkably well in creating four believable characters who work hard, but not always successfully, to overcome their human weaknesses so that they can be the doctors they once dreamed of being. Victor Lam reminds us that doctors, after all, are mere human beings, themselves not much different from the patients they treat, suffering the same weaknesses and frailties that we all know so well.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Pennsylvania Library Finds 174-Year Old Book among Sale Donations

Something like this is just unbelievable to me. How can anyone be so oblivious when it comes to books that they would donate a book that is almost 175 years old to a library sale? Was it not kind of obvious that this one bears little resemblance to a James Patterson novel?

The picture, at left, is of the book's author, Lydia Maria Child, who was 31 years old when this book was published in 1833. The fact that her book was rebound together with a slave's memoirs results in a very meaningful volume.


Volunteers sorting through donated books for a book sale found an abolitionist text and a slave's memoir, both dating back to the 1800s.

The books were discovered together last month in a single leather-bound volume that was clearly an unusual find, said Liza Holzinger, coordinator of the Bethlehem Area Public Library's book sale.

"When this appeared on my desk, I couldn't believe it," Holzinger said. "I was pretty impressed by it, especially after I started doing research on the topic."

The volume contained a first edition of Lydia Maria Child's 1833 book, "An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called African," and an 1840 second edition of "The Slave: Memoirs of Archy Moore."

Daniel Wilson, professor of history at Muhlenberg College, said Child's book was an early abolitionist text that received a lot of attention when it was published.
As a book collector, I have to cringe when I read something like this, but it is exactly the kind of thing that draws me to yard sales and flea markets when I have some time to spare.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Me and Dylan

Sorry, I stumbled on this today and couldn't resist having a little fun with it. Sad, I know...

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

From TimesOnline comes the interesting theory that boys are being scared away from reading certain books because of their "girlie" covers. As the article points out, it is difficult enough to get boys of a certain age to read books at all, so it is a shame that publishers seem to be further discouraging boy readers by exclusively targeting female readers for many books that would appeal to either gender.


Wendy Cooling, of Bookstart, a charitable programme that encourages children to read, said she was dismayed that publishers were now using gender-specific marketing for certain children’s books. Whereas girls were not put off boys’ books, which tended to have primary colours, few boys dared to be seen reading a pink or purple book, even though they might otherwise enjoy it.

“Publishers are getting the covers wrong. Some stories are perfectly attractive to boys, but they are needlessly put off,” she said.
Publishers, though, seem to believe that they are using the most efficient business model already, one that will result in the largest number of books sold:
Anne McNeil, the publishing director of Hodder Children’s Books, which publishes Saffy’s Angel, said: “Where books are about real contemporary characters rather than fantasy, we find that it is challenging to produce a cover which appeals equally to both genders – the danger is, you end up appealing to neither. Therefore we do tend to make a targeted decision, and are comfortable that this produces more sales.”

Marion Lloyd, publisher of Marion Lloyd Books at Scholastic, which publishes books by Philip Pullman, also defended the use of pink covers.

“Publishers are very conscious about what is a girlie cover and what is a boyish colour. We might look at a book and say ‘A boy would never touch it in a million years, but we don’t mind that if we can sell it to girls’,” she said.
But the last word goes to a critic of "pink covers":
...Amanda Craig, a children’s book critic for The Times, said that such attitudes risked undermining attempts to encourage more boys to read. “Publishers are quite lazy on this issue. They know that girls are more likely to enjoy reading, so it’s easier for them simply to target them. They don’t seem to realise that boys are capable of just as broad a range of reading as girls, once they get started,” she said.
I can see both sides of this argument, but as a male reader, I have to admit that there are plenty of titles that I might read if not for the books' covers. I do a significant portion of my reading in public places (coffee shops, bookstores, while standing in various lines, etc.) and there are many books that are so obviously aimed at female readers that I would not want to be seen reading from them. I suppose that proves the original theory..and that boys never grow up.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Are You Ready for Some Football? (Week 3)


With Houston's best receiver, Andre Johnson, missing the game due to injuries, I really didn't expect that the Texans would win this game against the Super Bowl champ Colts. Then, when our best running back left the game at the beginning of the second quarter with a knee injury, any chances of winning were realistically gone. But there were some great moments, like this return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown that put the Texans in a temporary lead of 7-0. So, despite me being under the weather myself today and not being able to attend the game, this turned out to be another fun football Sunday. Final Score: Colts -30, Texans -24.

Red Rover

I really expected to like this novel a lot. I'll go a step farther and say that I really wanted to like this novel - and that's probably why I'm a little disappointed in it. According to the New York Times, Red Rover is a very personal novel to its author, Deirdre McNamer, a story that she at first intended to tell as nonfiction but decided to flesh out as fiction in order to "to create a larger narrative context." It is a story about her uncle, a former FBI agent during World War II who suffered a mysterious death after the war. The local coroner gave conflicting opinions about the death and McNamer's family never really accepted the official verdict that the death was most likely to have been the result of a tragic accident.

Red Rover focuses on brothers Aiden and Neil Tierney, two young men who grew up in Montana in the 1920s, a time when it was not all that unusual that young boys would be allowed to explore the Montana prairies alone on horseback for days at a time. The Tierney boys never lost their love of adventure, and after Pearl Harbor each of them took a role in the defense of his country. Both men survived the war and returned to Montana after their service, Aiden as an FBI agent assigned to do dangerous undercover work in Argentina and Neil, as a pilot who flew B-29 missions in the Pacific.

Neil, the younger of the two, soon established a new life for himself in post-war Montana but Aiden, who returned an embittered man, appeared to be slowly dying of some mysterious disease that he brought home with him from Argentina. When Aiden threatened to go public with his grievances against the FBI, the agency sent an old friend, and fellow agent, Roland Taliaferro, to talk some sense into him. Roland's efforts to calm his friend down ended suddenly when Aiden was found dead, the victim of what appears to be either a self-inflicted shotgun blast or of some terrible accident. Neil Tierney refuses to accept either possibility and remains convinced that his brother has been eliminated at the orders of someone within the FBI. But, of course, life goes on, and it is only a chance meeting between Taliaferro and Neil in a rehabilitation center some six decades later that finally reveals the truth about Aiden's death.

Red Rover, a grim story filled with flawed characters, is told through flashbacks to 1927, 1939 and 1946, and flashes forward to 2003. The plot is, at times, difficult to follow and loses some continuity as new characters move in and out of the specific periods of time in which the story is told. But despite being presented in a dry manner, and with so many breaks in time that its choppiness distracts from the story its author wants to tell, Red Rover paints a clear picture of life in Montana during the first half of the twentieth century and is worth a look.

Rated at: 3.0

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Kite Runner: Coming to a Theater Near You




I'm really looking forward to the film version of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, especially after finding this peek at the movie via it's theater trailer. Take a look.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Just When I Thought I Was Catching Up


Just when I start to think that I'm making a little headway on the huge number of unread books I have accumulated, I step back for a minute to take stock and find that I'm still losing ground. This stack shows the books that have entered my life just since the beginning of September, twelve of them in total. As of this morning, I've completed ten books in September and I'm in the process of reading five others...still behind by two at this point. It's hopeless.

I must be one of the last people on Earth to read Case Histories, but I found a nice, cheap copy at Half-Price Books the other day and decided to finally add it to my TBR list.

As some of you might remember, I'm a huge fan of the writing of Joyce Carol Oates and have over 80 of her books on my shelf. I already had an ARC of The Barrens but found this band new hardcover at a great price and jumped on it.

The Monsters of Templeton arrived in the mail just a couple of days ago, an unexpected ARC that really looks interesting. I read the first three chapters last night and I'm hooked on the story already. This one won't be published until early 2008 and is set in Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame and the author's hometown.

I've never read Kathy Reichs but a neighbor gave me a copy of Bones to Ashes as a thank you for some house-watching that I did for him. It looks interesting and I'm curious to see what her writing is like.

I picked up The Landsman from Barnes & Noble the other day because it's another Civil War novel and because I couldn't believe the price on the thing. This particular store only had two copies on the shelf, both marked down to 50% off, plus and extra 10% off for members. I was also carrying around a coupon that gave me another 15% off on any item of my choice and I charged it on my Barnes & Noble credit card, getting another 5% off the price. I couldn't resist parlaying all those discounts together to buy a brand new hardcover for less than paperback price.

I've been hearing a lot about The God of Animals (mostly good) for a while and found this first edition copy on the bargain table at another Barnes & Noble location.

I read Ellen Foster a while back and I always enjoy reading Kaye Gibbons, so when I spotted this new copy of The Life All around Me by Ellen Foster I grabbed it. I think I paid all of $2 for it.

I had never heard of The Dogs of Babel before I spotted a copy for $1 but the premise sounds interesting so I bought it. It's the story of a man who becomes obsessed with teaching his dog to speak because it was the only witness to his wife's death. Now, you have to admit that's a different idea for a novel.

The Life of Pi has become a modern classic, and it didn't take very long. Now I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I haven't read it and have very little idea of what it's about. This copy will let me fix that.

What's So Great about America is not what it sounds like from the title. Notice that there is no question mark after the title. It's a statement, and this author proceeds to tell his readers exactly what is so great about this country. Every time that I go to a bookstore it depresses me to see all the negative books about this country and our government, so I bought this one as an antidote to all of those others.

David Baldacci is another of those authors whom I haven't read despite seeing his name everywhere that I look. I seem to remember that he was a favorite of Clinton's and that the President was pictured one time carrying a copy of a Baldacci book to the White House helicopter. I thought I would give him a try with this mass market copy of The Collectors because it's a book-oriented thriller.

Harry Turtledove has been a favorite of mine for several years because I'm a big fan of alternate history novels. I spotted this paperback copy of The Disunited States of America and bought it to see what Turtledove has been up to since I last read him. It's a book aimed at the Young Adult audience, so I may have made a mistake.

Good grief, it's even worse than I thought. I just spotted two others that I added to the list in September and placed in another stack. The Naming of the Dead by Ian Rankin is another Rebus mystery, a series I'm just now starting to read, so this was a natural when I spotted it on the bargain table at Barnes & Noble.

And, lastly, I received in the mail an ARC of Richard Russo's The Bridge of Sighs thanks to the kindness of a fellow book blogger who decided to share it with me. I'm looking forward to getting to it in October because it looks great.

So I've fallen behind by four more books, not two as I thought a few minutes ago. I suppose I shouldn't be too concerned because that's a bit better than I usually do. Having too many books is just never a problem.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Harvard Coop Considers ISBN Numbers to Be Their Own "Intellectual Property"

In the last few weeks, I've read what seems like dozens of articles from around the country that complain about the high cost of college textbooks and how little is offered for their repurchase by college bookstores. The articles all point out that students are required to spend hundreds of dollars on books each semester and that university bookstores face little, if any, competition when it comes to making those books available to students.

That's all starting to change now that more and more online sites are making the books available to students at discounted prices in direct competition with university bookstores. Naturally, the university bookstores are not happy about loosing what was a near monopoly position for so many years, but the new competition is definitely a good thing for college students and their parents.

University bookstores are going to have to adapt and find ways to compete with the online booksellers. No doubt about it. But at Harvard, the Coop seems to have slipped into panic mode instead of looking for legitimate ways to compete for the business of Harvard students.
Jarret A. Zafran ’09 said he was asked to leave the Coop after writing down the prices of six books required for a junior Social Studies tutorial he hopes to take.

“I’m a junior and every semester I do the same thing. I go and look up the author and the cost and order the ones that are cheaper online and then go back to the Coop to get the rest,” Zafran said.

“I’m not a rival bookstore, I’m a student with an I.D.,” he added.

Coop President Jerry P. Murphy ’73 said that while there is no Coop policy against individual students copying down book information, “we discourage people who are taking down a lot of notes.”

The apparent new policy could be a response to efforts by Crimsonreading.org—an online database that allows students to find the books they need for each course at discounted prices from several online booksellers—from writing down the ISBN identification numbers for books at the Coop and then using that information for their Web site.

Murphy said the Coop considers that information the Coop’s intellectual property.
Claiming that ISBN identification numbers are "intellectual property" seems to be a bit of a stretch, something that will probably have to be decided by lawyers if the Coop decision is challenged. But even if the Coop's contention about the numbers is shown to be incorrect, I would have to believe that they still can make the business decision not to allow customers to copy the numbers. If Coop management wants to risk the bad publicity and alienation of its customers, that's something they have the right to do.

Students, on the other hand, have the right to find the best deal on books available to them. Something like this incident is likely to make sure that more Harvard students do that than ever before.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Stolen Child

Not all fairy tales are for children. Some of them are best suited for the adults in the family, people who truly understand how something evil and unexpected can so suddenly come along and snatch away forever the best that life has to offer. Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child is one of those fairy tales.

Little did young Henry Day know when he decided to run away from home that he was being watched closely by a dozen hobgoblins who had been waiting for their chance to snatch him and substitute one of their own in his place. Using a combination of study, luck and their own special magic, these changelings are able to mold one of their own into such a perfect copy of the original that even parents and siblings are usually fooled into believing that nothing strange has happened.

This is the way that is has always been for the changelings. But times are changing, and much as any wild animal depending on ever diminishing forests for survival is finding it harder and harder to survive in the wild, by the 1950s the changelings are being threatened by the steady destruction of their natural habitat. Not too many years after Henry Day is taken into this band of perpetual children to wait his turn for recycling into the human race, a wait that can be as long as 100 years, things being to go downhill for the changelings.

In alternating chapters, Donohue tells his tale from the first person points-of-view of his two main characters, Henry Day (now known as Aniday to his fellow hobgoblins) and the changeling who has replaced Henry in his old life. Aniday, despite the fact that he can remember less and less of his old life as the years go by, can never quite accept his new existence with the tribe and feels compelled to learn about the family he left behind. The new Henry Day feels insecure in his own new life and becomes obsessed with finding out about the family he himself was snatched from decades earlier.

The Stolen Child is a nicely written coming-of-age novel wrapped around a story about the end of a way of life that had endured for centuries. Keith Donohue manages to make his cast of hobgoblins every bit as sympathetic as his human characters in this fairy tale that he has filled with lessons about life.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hold Your Nose Say Dominick Dunne and Oprah Winfrey

It seems a little strange that Dunne and Winfrey are now saying how terrible the OJ Simpson trash book is after each has directly contributed to its sales, Dunne by writing an afterword for the book and Winfrey by featuring the book on one of her television shows. The way that the two seem to be scrambling to protect their reputations makes me wonder if they are experiencing some negative feedback for having had anything to do with the "book."

According to Dunne, he "disapproves" of the book:
The revered U.S. journalist insists he didn't want to contribute to the book, but agreed to as a favour to his friend Fred Goldman after he won the rights to publish the hypothetical account of how Simpson 'murdered' his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Goldman's son Ron in 1994.
...
Goldman asked Vanity Fair columnist Dunne to give the book, which was released in America on Friday (14Sep07) an authentic overview, and the writer eventually agreed.

He says, "I'm not profiting. I didn't get paid... I didn't want to get paid, I didn't actually want to do it.

"I have not read the book, I will not read the book, I disapprove of the book.

"I sat with the Goldman family throughout the O.J trial... and we became friends and he asked me to do it. I declined at first. He said they needed my name.
And Winfrey chimes in:
Oprah Winfrey has called OJ Simpson's new book, "If I Did It", "despicable" and says she will not purchase it or promote it.
...
Oprah, while interviewing Goldman's father Fred and sister Kim, was critical of the family's decision to make money from the book they had fought so hard to keep out of publication just one year ago. She said: "I don't want to be in a position to promote this book because I, too, think it's despicable. I'm all for it being published, but I personally wouldn't want to be in a position to encourage people to buy this book," Contactmusic quoted her as saying.
Even Fred Goldman seems to be a little embarrassed (but not so embarrassed that he would kill the book) if his comments on Oprah's show are any indication of what he is thinking.
OPRAH was wrong when she claimed the Gold man family would get just 17 cents in royalties from each O.J. Simpson book sold.

According to the publisher of "If I Did It" - Simpson's controversial account of the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman - and the Goldman's literary agent, the Goldman family stands to make much more.

"I have absolutely no idea where that 17 cents came from," the agent, Sharlene Martin, told the publishing Web site, galleycat.com.
...
Ron Goldman's father, Fred, and sister, Kim, did not challenge Oprah's comment during the interview last week that "you all are not going to make a lot of money off of this book . . . you're getting 17 cents per book."

"Pennies," Fred Goldman interjected.

"That is a bad book deal that only gives you 17 cents," Oprah added later in the show.
Is Goldman trying to justify his decision to publish this book by lying about the amount of blood money that he's putting into the family's pockets? Sorry, Fred, but blood money is blood money whether it is $500 or $5,000,000. It is a shame that all three of these people made such poor decisions in the first place.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Crazies to the left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost It's Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve

Bernie Goldberg is a frustrated man and his new book speaks to, and for, the millions of Americans who feel the same as him about the current state of politics in this country. On the one hand, Goldberg sees a political party that has allowed itself to be dominated by some of the most hate-filled crazies imaginable. On the other, he sees a party that has lost the courage to stand up for its conservative principles and has, instead, adopted the same big government, big spending ideas that it used to complain about in others.

Goldberg's personal journey from the left side of the political spectrum to its right side has been a long one. He grew up in the Bronx during the 1950s surrounded by his blue collar family, friends and neighbors and only knew of Republicans because he read about them in the newspaper. Even as a junior high school student, he knew that he wanted to become a newsman and he became the first in his family to go to college when he enrolled at Rutgers to prepare himself for that job. After college, Goldberg was lucky enough to get his dream job at CBS where he became an important, and liked, part of the CBS news team.

But about 1980 Goldberg began to realize that he was more comfortable with the policies of Republican president Ronald Reagan than he was with those of his beloved Democrats. His slow, inevitable move to the right had begun. By 1996 he could no longer contain his frustration and he wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal about how television networks regularly slant their news broadcasts to the left. As a CBS insider he found that other insiders looked upon him as a traitor and that the op-ed piece was a bad career move. He left CBS News in July 2000 and wrote Bias, a bestselling book in which he discussed how liberals who dominate the most influential newsrooms in the country regularly slant the news in that direction.

Now Goldberg wonders where to turn next since the Republican Party has largely abandoned the principles that attracted him to that party in the first place. He sees a party that has decided that staying in power is more important than standing up for the core beliefs of its constituents, a party willing to outspend Democrats and to create an ever-bigger government if that will buy them the votes they need to win the next election. He doesn't see a dime's worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans anymore.

Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right is Goldberg's wake up call to a political party that has lost its way. He has had it. He's tired of hypocritical Republicans who are trying to outspend Democrats, Republicans too cowardly to fight race baiters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Republicans who have abandoned conservatism. Like millions of conservatives, Goldberg wonders who represents him in Washington these days. He still believes that conservatives are correct on the important issues of the day but here he wonders out loud whether Republicans are. He uses his sense of humor to skewer both parties for their mistakes and flaws, but he sees as his best hope for the future a Republican Party that comes to its senses before it is too late. Time will tell if anyone is listening.

Rated at: 3.5

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Are You Ready for Some Football? (Week 2)

The Texans were out of town this weekend but I spent a nice afternoon with my 85-year old father watching them on television as they whipped up on the Carolina Panthers 34-21. We were both quite excited as this is the first time in the team's history that it has ever opened a season by winning its first two games. Going back to last season, that's four in a row and eight of the last 15. Believe me, if you had been a fan of the Houston Texans during its first five seasons you would realize how remarkable the previous sentence really is.




An example of the kind of defense that the Texans played most of the afternoon, forcing turnovers and adding points to the scoreboard. Carolina did recover this particular fumble but had three turnovers.




I certainly don't expect to win next week when Manning and the Colts come to town, but it should be fun.

He Who Fears the Wolf

My reading has taken an unexpected (for me) twist in the last three weeks considering that I was completely unaware of Karin Fossum’s existence until mid-August. About that time, I read a review of the latest of her books to be published in the U.S., The Indian Bride, and was intrigued enough by the review to grab a copy of the book from my local library that same week. Now, just three weeks later, I’ve read all four the Fossum books that are available in this country, and I can’t wait for others to arrive.

He Who Fears the Wolf, like Fossum’s other Inspector Sejer mysteries, is perhaps more of a psychological thriller than it is a police procedural, and her work continues to remind me of British novelist Ruth Rendell. Fossum does the same remarkable job that Rendell does in creating unique, if deeply flawed, characters who often find themselves in desperate situations with no idea how they got there or what to do next.

When Inspector Konrad Sejer leaves home for the police station, he has no way of knowing that the two cases that will soon take over his life are developing while he walks along the downtown streets toward his desk. Already, a troubled young boy has rushed into another station to report the discovery of the body of an elderly murder victim and to say that he spotted an escaped mental patient on the property. And because he fails to follow his hunch about a suspicious looking man walking toward him and the bank that is just opening for business, Sejer narrowly misses stopping the bank robbery that he almost witnesses with his own eyes.

Not only is Sejer unhappy with himself for not acting on his hunch, he is embarrassed when his image appears on the bank’s surveillance tape walking out of the bank only seconds before the robbery happens. To make matters worse, the armed bank robber takes a hostage with him when he makes his escape. Sejer, who has been assigned to work both crimes, finds his investigations taking a bizarre twist when the tape reveals that the hostage taken in the bank is none other than the escaped mental patient he wants to question about that morning’s murder.

It may have been bad luck that caused the bank robber to choose an escaped mental patient for his hostage but his luck is going to have to change quickly if he is to survive that fateful choice. As the long day takes its course, both Inspector Sejer and the robber begin to wonder if the police will get to him in time to save him from his own hostage.

Karin Fossum serves up a surprisingly sympathetic cast of characters considering the mental instability of several of them, and she steadily turns up the pressure as her story winds down to its inevitable conclusion. But, as I’ve come to expect from her other Sejer mysteries, it is always wise to be prepared for one final surprise in the book’s final two or three pages. This one is no exception.

Rated at: 4.0

Saturday, September 15, 2007

OJ Simpson Odors


Even at this late date, some bookstore owners are apparently still struggling with the question of whether or not to stock OJ Simpson's repulsive spewing on their shelves. Do they pander to a group of people probably coming to bookstores for the first time in months, if not years, or do they take the high road and tell Fred Goldman that they won't be earning any of OJ's blood money for him? The big chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders have already made the decision to hold their noses and sell the book. It's the independents that are wondering what to do now.

At the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, the matter was put to a staff vote. By a margin of 7-6, the staff opted to carry the book. But owner Darielle Linehan decided she didn't want to make any money off the sale of the book, which was published yesterday.

"All proceeds from the sale of the book at our store will go to the House of Ruth," Linehan said, referring to the Baltimore domestic violence center that helps battered women and their children. "It's sort of a matter of principle that money from the sale of the book would go to something good.
...
Rainy Day Books near Kansas City, Kan., ordered just one copy of the book for people to thumb through if they're curious. But the store will not sell the book. Instead, customers will be encouraged to make a donation of equal or greater value to a local women's shelter.

"I see it as an opportunity to raise awareness of the issue of domestic violence," said Vivien Jennings, owner of Rainy Day Books. "I don't think anyone should profit from it, and I feel really strongly about that. I feel like it is blood money."

Book Passage in California, which has stores in Corte Madera and San Francisco, won't carry the book at all. Store managers wrote an explanation of their decision to be read to anyone who calls or asks for the book:
...
Several independent bookstore owners said they would carry the book but not promote it. They said they are not in the business of censoring books and are wary of not stocking a book based on their own personal objections.

"We just don't want to be part of a group that would restrict access to a book that is lawfully available," said Derek Holland, manager of the Tattered Cover in Denver. "We don't want to be seen as holding books back. It's for our marketplace and our readers to decide."
...
But where to shelve the book is another matter. If I Did It will be found in the fiction section of Baltimore County libraries. But Baltimore City libraries will shelve it under social science and history. At Book People in Austin, Texas, manager Bryan Sansone said the store has found another section it believes more appropriate for the book: true crime.
I spent about 90 minutes in my local Barnes & Noble store yesterday and didn't think to look specifically for the book while I was there. I assume that they have stocked it, but I didn't stumble across it and never thought to ask about it. Here's hoping that this pile of garbage never sees a second printing and that a substantial portion of the initial printing is returned to the publisher for pulping. But, in today's voyeuristic society, I don't really expect that to happen.


Previous Posts:

Have We Lost Our Minds?
Barnes & Noble Decide to Carry Simpson Book in Stores
No OJ Simpson Book in Barnes & Noble Stores
OJ Simpson's Blood Money

Friday, September 14, 2007

Book Marketing 101


I have written several times here about how books are marketed, particularly the way that they are placed in the big chain bookstores around the world, so I found this article to be interesting despite the fact that I have not read the book it discusses, "Eat, Pray, Love." It explains the process that one publisher, Viking/Penguin, uses to create a huge paperback bestseller through astute marketing techniques despite the fact that the book did not reach anything near that level in hardback.

The book's transformation from respectable-selling hardcover to paperback sensation was no accident. It came about after a series of calculated moves from Viking's sister Penguin paperback line, where executives worked to interpret sales patterns and create a marketing blitz to attract individual readers as well as book clubs.
...
The vast majority of books face a tough reality. New releases that fail to take off in the first couple of weeks -- when publishers often pay to place copies on stores' front tables -- are relegated to the back shelves.
...
In the case of "Eat, Pray, Love," executives at Penguin paid close attention to the hardcover's early reception. It was excerpted in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine and landed a favorable cover article in the New York Times Book Review -- both big plums for any author.
...
The title surfaced on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list at No. 12 for the issue dated March 19, and then fell to No. 15 the following week. On March 21, Ms. Gilbert appeared on NBC's "Today" show and the book again hit the list for another week.
...
"What you're looking for are books that didn't just ship and die," says Kathryn Court, publisher of Penguin Books. Hardcovers, in other words, that have already "seeded the audience." Ms. Court makes a point of sitting in on Viking's promotion and strategy sessions, where she looks for titles that have reordered well and whose sales are growing week to week.

In fall 2006, Ms. Court began to put a plan in motion. First, she decided that the hardcover dust jacket -- with its script lettering rendered in pasta, prayer beads and flowers -- was so appealing that she would use it again for the paperback. Penguin then threw all of its sales and marketing muscle behind the paperback release, set for Jan. 30, 2007.

Each month Penguin publishes 15 to 20 fancy "trade" paperbacks -- high-quality editions that are larger in format and easier to read than their cheaper, mass-market cousins. But it only really lends its weight to one or two. As a sign of its commitment, Penguin ordered a first printing of 170,000 paperbacks for "Eat, Pray, Love" -- more copies than the book had sold in hardcover, and very large for a nonfiction title. Price, too, was significant. The hardcover cost $24.95, while the trade paperback would be much more affordable, at $15.
...
Upon its debut, Penguin made certain the paperback would have high visibility in stores, promoting "Eat, Pray, Love" with freestanding 12-copy floor displays. That was a show of confidence among retailers, who reserve such prime, paid real estate for books with huge promise.

Penguin also invested in ads. In addition to targeting usual suspects like the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker magazine, it bought space in Yoga Journal -- a nod to the book's spiritual sensibility. The publishers' sales and marketing team focused on the book's progress in weekly meetings. The goal was to create so much buzz that the book would quickly become a New York Times best seller -- which it did.
...
Selling Ms. Gilbert, the author, was just as crucial. Unlike many writers who don't like touring and are uncomfortable in front of crowds, Ms. Gilbert has a sunny, upbeat personality that plays well on television and in personal appearances. Notes Ms. Court: "When the writer of a book is attractive, generous, and funny, booksellers end up rooting for her."
...
The author gained book-club traction. Her memoir was the No. 3 Book Sense Reading Group Pick for spring/summer 2007, which meant many of the independent bookstore members of the American Booksellers Association recommended it to their customers.

Such kudos are key to winning over retailers like the Tattered Cover. Based in the greater Denver area, it has three locations and sells to more than 100 book clubs. It also sends out a bimonthly email newsletter to 3,000 club members. Five years ago the retailer serviced only half as many clubs.

"It all feeds word of mouth, and that's what takes you from 5,000 copies to 50,000 copies to 500,000 copies," says Ms. Court. "We can't make people love a book."
And there you have a plan that works.

Book publishers are faced with the unenviable task of trying to produce a few "hits" that will help to carry them through all the "misses" that they publish each year. The sad thing for me, as a reader, is that the hits are not always the best books that are published in any given year. But rather than resent that fact, I am thankful that the hits come along as often as they do and that they make it possible for Penguin and others to publish as many different books each year as they do.

I have to keep reminding myself that it really is all about the bottom line and that publishing is just "big business" by another name. Of course, I never will understand the size of some of the advances that are paid to certain writers for their work, usually politicians like the Clintons and others, when there is little chance that those advances will ever be recovered by sales dollars. Maybe it's the prestige of publishing certain books or names that convinces publishers to make what seems like such poor business decisions.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Season of the Anti-Book


Sherman Young of Australia's Sydney Morning Herald is a little cranky today and, after reading his opinion piece there, I'm starting to feel the same way. Young is not at all happy with what he finds on the shelves of Australian bookstores and he knows that things will become even bleaker for the sale of "real" books as the holiday season fast approaches.


They may cause the cash registers to tick over nicely but actually they're antibooks, printed objects motivated by mammon rather than ideas. The key to an antibook is a hook designed to convince us to part with a few dollars. A hook that contains a life-changing promise, a movie tie-in, a catchy, timely premise or an author who is famous for just about anything except writing. Beyond the hook, there need not be much at all.

Antibooks may have the same physical form as books, but they don't contribute to book culture, a culture centred on ideas and a long, thoughtful conversation about life, love, politics, philosophy and what it means to be human
...
"We are a business," said Shona Martyn, the publishing director at HarperCollins, in The Australian last year. "We can't be any more sentimental than a business that is selling ice-cream or clothes."

Hence the antibook. In 2006, Spotless, a collection of house-cleaning hints, sold 238,000 copies and the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Book sold 150,000. These antibooks are not meant to be read all the way through, nor will they make any lasting contribution to book culture. But they sell.

By comparison, real books don't sell. A great Australian novel might move 1000 copies, a number which makes profit somewhat difficult. In the past, the books that mattered were always justified by balancing their lack of profit against blockbusters that did make money. These days, margins are slimmer, competition tighter and the need for every title to pay its own way is more common. As a result, fewer real books are being published.
Young makes a good point. What he sees in Australian bookstores is the same thing that I've seen more and more of in American and British bookstores, as well. Bookstores are limited by their shelf space as to how many books they can keep in stock and, of course, those books have to sell in adequate numbers to pay their way. Walk into any Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore and you will notice an ever increasing number of junk books taking up that space: celebrity biographies on the likes of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, books about television shows that were a waste of time even on television, Japanese comic books, books on conspiracy theories about everything from 9-11 to the Catholic Church, books telling us all how to live a joy-filled life in 10 easy lessons, books by half-baked Hollywood stars and comedians who have suddenly become political pundits, etc.

Slowly but surely, serious fiction and non-fiction titles are losing ground to the anti-books that concern Sherman Young. He has the right idea about fighting back a bit. Give books as Christmas gifts this year, real books...not anti-books.

Welcome to the Library

I don't think there's a sound in the world more irritating than that little electronic beep that a smoke alarm makes when its battery goes bad. Every twenty seconds or so comes that little chirp that you just can't ignore. It's worse than the sound of a dripping faucet in the middle of the night. Well, that's what woke me up about 4:45 this morning and it took me the best part of an hour to find that 9-volt battery that I just knew had to be here somewhere and to get that sound to finally stop (somehow, even removing the dead battery does not stop the chirping).

By then there was no way I was going to get any more sleep, so I started looking for something new that would put me in a better mood...and I found this great YouTube video created by the staff of the Seneca College library in Toronto. It's soothing, it's funny, and it's about a library. How cool is that?


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini's debut novel is simply a remarkable achievement. I suspect that most readers of The Kite Runner come to the book knowing relatively little about Afghan history prior to what has happened there during the last three decades, beginning with the Russian invasion and ending with the American ouster of Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's Taliban government. Hosseini begins his story in the early 1970s, prior to those events, and describes an Afghani lifestyle that was soon to be destroyed and replaced by a culture of repression and warfare that dominates to the present day.

Amir, the son of a powerful Kabul businessman, considers himself to be a coward. And, for the most part, he is correct. He senses that he is a disappointment to his father and has largely resolved himself to the fact that he will never please the man. But his father's affection for Hassan, the household's servant boy and Amir's best friend, is a painful and constant reminder of the distance between himself and his only surviving parent.

Despite their differences in religious beliefs and social status, and the fact that Hassan is Amir's servant, the two boys grow up more like brothers than anything else. Hassan becomes a fiercely loyal best friend to Amir, someone who protects him from the city's bullies and looks out for him in every way possible. Amir, on the other hand, can never really forget that Hassan is a servant boy and a Hazara, a minority loathed by the dominant Afghani culture for its differences in religious beliefs and physical appearance. When one day faced with the chance to save Hassan from being humiliated and physically abused by his tormentors, Amir's courage fails him and he runs, leaving his friend to his terrible fate.

Amir, unable to live with what he's done or to face Hassan again, compounds his lack of courage with a scheme that is destined to forever change the lives of everyone in his household, a scheme that comes to haunt Amir himself more than anyone else. Even a new life in San Francisco with his father after fleeing the Taliban takeover of Kabul is not enough to erase the guilt that Amir feels, and when offered a chance to do some good for Hassan and his family, Amir somehow finds enough courage to return to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to offer his help.

Khaled Hosseini tells his tale of Afghanistan's tragic history through the eyes of its people, citizens who are living ordinary lives with everyday problems and who are largely content with their world. His characters are sympathetic and believable, and their experiences and reactions to what has happened to their country give the reader a better understanding of life in that part of the world than any history book or news magazine will ever offer. The same can be said for Hosseini's depiction of the close-knit Afghan immigrant community that has settled in San Francisco, a group he describes so compassionately and so completely that he leaves his reader with a good feel for what the immigrant experience is like in a world influenced by today's politics.

The Kite Runner is one of those rare novels that it would be a shame to miss. So don't.

Rated at: 5.0

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Price of Books

People like us who buy a few dozen books every year are very aware that book prices continue to rise at a steady clip. I noticed just the other day, in fact, that those new mass market books that are being produced in a slightly taller size than the standard "paperback" are being sold for $9.99, a full $2.00 more than the old size. I judge the new size to be slightly less than an inch taller than the old standard, and I suspect that the large print font used in the new books has added a few pages to each book, but a $2.00 jump in price does seem a little much.

While agreeing that the price of books today is "crazy," the folks over at Three Percent (University of Rochester) offer a look at book pricing from the publisher's point-of-view.
In brief, a bookstore gets an average discount of about 45% off the retail price of a book. Of the remaining amount, 20%+ goes to the publisher’s distributors—more if you figure in charges for returns. Authors get 7.5%, or more, of the retail price on all sales, and most translators get 1.0%. That leaves approx. 35% of the retail price to cover salaries, production, marketing expenses, operating costs, etc. So, if a trade paperback lists for $15, the publisher gets about $5.25 per unit sold. And if a book sells about 3,000 copies (which is solid for a work of literature), that comes out to $15,750. And printing costs alone run about $6,000.
I haven't quite figured out how to make the math in this example work out, but the important point to take away from all of this is that the publisher, on average, nets about 35% of the retail price of each book and has to cover all costs from that margin.

It's also interesting to note that bookstores like Barnes & Noble receive a discount of approximately 45% on each book that they place on their shelves. That tells me that they don't make much of a profit on bestsellers since they sell those at a minimum of 30% off to all customers and at 40% off to those customers who hold one of their membership cards. On top of that, Barnes & Noble sends out occasional special discounts to club members for an extra 15% off of any one book in the store. I have often used one of those coupons to pay less than 50% of the retail price of a bestseller, meaning that Barnes & Noble must have sold the book to me at something below their own cost.

Bottom line: those of us addicted to reading dozens of books a year will always find a way to get our hands on them despite the fact that they are getting more and more expensive every month. We just have to be a bit creative by taking advantage of all the good deals offered by bookstores and by using all the book-trading services offered on the internet. It is highly unlikely that the price of books will ever cause us to read less.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Afghan

Frederick Forsyth's The Afghan is based on the problem that Western intelligence agencies have in fighting Islamist terrorism by infiltrating terrorist groups with agents who can pass for the real thing. It is next to impossible that they will ever successfully pull off something like that.

SAS officer Mike Martin could, however, very well be the exception to the rule and, when British and American intelligence people become aware that Al-Qaeda is preparing an operation that could overshadow even the events of 9-11, Martin agrees to take on the identity of an infamous Afghan being held at Guantanamo Bay. After training for weeks while a faked release and return of the Afghan to Pakistan's safe-keeping is arranged, Martin manages to convince Al-Qaeda that he is the real thing and that he has not been turned by his captors into an informant. The Afghan's heroic history of fighting both Russian and American invaders of his country, and his complete refusal to cooperate with his American captors at Guantanamo ensure that Martin gets noticed by Al-Qaeda's leadership and results in him being added to the small team chosen for their new spectacular.

Unfortunately Forsyth's methodical, step-by-step approach to telling Mike Martin's story kills most of the excitement and suspense that the reader expects from such a promising plot. Instead, with its scant character development, The Afghan reads more like a movie or television screenplay than the thriller it was intended to be, a novel easily pictured as a movie but one in which the reader seldom loses himself.

Forsyth creates a version of Al-Qaeda that is capable of pulling off the kind of plan with which fans of the Mission Impossible movies would feel familiar but one glaring hole in his plot remains unexplained. The Afghan is famous within Al-Qaeda circles as one of their most capable, fierce and loyal soldiers, a man who will fight the enemy to the death and who can motivate lesser men around him. Yet Al-Qaeda leadership is willing to sacrifice him in a meaningless role in which all he is given to do is stand around and wait to be blown up with the rest of his team. None of his skills are used and he is simply taken along for the ride, never even being told any of the details of the mission he is on. Of course, for sake of the book's story, it is necessary to have him there but his inclusion on the mission makes little tactical sense for Al-Qaeda's purposes.

The book's climax, coming finally after the long, detailed set-up, is over so suddenly that the reader never experiences the author's intended feeling of suspense and relief. Coupled with an epilogue explaining how the incident came to be perceived by those who worked to stop it, the ending is one of the book's bigger disappointments.

The audio book version of The Afghan is read by Robert Powell, a reader who naturally did well with the various British accents in the book but who had a real problem with American accents. Powell gave many of his Americans particularly gruff voices to distinguish them from their British counterparts but often lost his supposedly American accent in mid-sentence. His reading of the book is almost as straight forward as Forsyth's writing and adds little to the enjoyment of the book. This is one thriller that is almost certainly better read than listened to on CD.

Rating: 2.5

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Are You Ready for Some Football?

The NFL season officially opened up in Houston today and I spent the entire day at Reliant Stadium enjoying the Texans 20-3 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. As a result, this has been one of those rare days where I haven't picked up a book or even glanced at the internet or a newspaper.

There's nothing better than a new beginning, especially for a football team like the Houston Texans who have suffered through five miserable seasons since being added to the National Football League. We are now 1-0 for the season, have won three in a row (going back to the last two games of last season), and have won seven of our last fourteen. That doesn't sound like much, but this is a team that is now only 25-56 in its brief history.

I'd like to say that we've finally turned the corner toward football respectability but I'm not going to get my hopes up too high just yet. Thanks for listening. Now it's back to the world of books...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

E-Book Wars

Sellers of e-books and the devices necessary to make them as portable as the real thing have found it difficult to carve out much of a niche in the book market for themselves. But one thing that they have going for them is that most of the companies involved back the "open e-book standard," a format embraced by major publishers and the high-tech companies that produce the readers, that makes the e-books readable no matter which e-book reading device is purchased. That means that, as an owner of a Sony e-book reader, I can buy e-books directly from Sony, can shop for better prices from other e-book retailers, and can even find free e-books on the net that I can read using my Sony device.

That's all about to change thanks to the arrogance of one company, Amazon.com, which is on the verge of creating a format war that reminds me of the way that Sony lost the video recorder war to its competitors a couple of decades ago. Sony's beta recorders were the first on the market but were eventually forced from the marketplace by manufacturers of VHS recorders. Now Sony has backed an e-book format with its reader that is about to go under attack by a late entrant into that market place. Are they destined to lose again?

According to Brad Stone
of the New York Times, both Google and Amazon are set to enter the e-book marketplace and Amazon's plan includes marketing its on e-book reader, one that will be more expensive than the current Sony model but will offer wireless downloads and internet connection.
In October, the online retailer Amazon.com will unveil the Kindle, an electronic book reader that has been the subject of industry speculation for a year, according to several people who have tried the device and are familiar with Amazon’s plans. The Kindle will be priced at $400 to $500 and will wirelessly connect to an e-book store on Amazon’s site.

That is a significant advance over older e-book devices, which must be connected to a computer to download books or articles.

Also this fall, Google plans to start charging users for full online access to the digital copies of some books in its database, according to people with knowledge of its plans. Publishers will set the prices for their own books and share the revenue with Google. So far, Google has made only limited excerpts of copyrighted books available to its users.
...
Hopes for e-books began to revive last year with the introduction of the widely marketed Sony Reader. Sony’s $300 gadget, the size of a trade paperback, has a six-inch screen, enough memory to hold 80 books and a battery that lasts for 7,500 page turns, according to the company. It uses screen display technology from E Ink, a company based in Cambridge, Mass., that emerged from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and creates power-efficient digital screens that uncannily mimic the appearance of paper.

Sony will not say how many it has sold, but the Reader has apparently done well enough that Sony recently increased its advertising for the device in several major American cities.

“Digital readers are not a replacement for a print book; they are a replacement for a stack of print books,” said Ron Hawkins, vice president for portable reader systems at Sony. “That is where we see people, on the go, in the subway and in airports, with our device.”
...
Several people who have seen the Kindle say this is where the device’s central innovation lies — in its ability to download books and periodicals, and browse the Web, without connecting to a computer. They also say Amazon will pack some free offerings onto the device, like reference books, and offer customers a choice of subscriptions to feeds from major newspapers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the French newspaper Le Monde.

The device also has a keyboard, so its users can take notes when reading or navigate the Web to look something up. A scroll wheel and a progress indicator next to the main screen, will help users navigate Web pages and texts on the device.
Personally, I have to question the wisdom of Amazon's decision to market a device that will cost as much as fifty percent more than the Sony reader already on the market. It's true that the Amazon device offers a few bells and whistles not included with the Sony product, but by offering those extras Amazon is placing itself in direct competition with Apple and its iPhones. That's a losing proposition for any company.

This would all make more business sense to me if Amazon were going to sell e-books that are readable on the already existing readers. No one can compete with Amazon when it comes to price and their entry into the electronic book arena would be sure to drive the price of e-books down to a more reasonable level. That would be good for everyone. Customers would buy more e-books, Amazon would potentially sell millions of them, and Sony and others would sell more of the readers.

I don't think that e-books will ever really replace the old fashioned paper and glue version of books. E-book readers do not take the place of a single book. What they offer is the convenience of being able to carry several hundred books in a coat pocket, a multitude of choice available to travelers and commuters that is otherwise impossible. I use my Sony reader several times a week but I still greatly prefer holding a "real" book in my hands and turning its pages. That will never change.