Saturday, January 31, 2009

Who says we're outdated?

According to Publisher's Weekly (or marketing facts), Amazon, unlike the rest of the world, has been making money. It would appear that the Kindle has been a lot more popular than expected (to the point where everyone's whispering about a second edition... Good thing I waited?). It would also appear that despite decades of people laughing at readers and telling them/us that books are outdated, the giant bookseller is kicking some economic butt.

...oh, what? The majority of the money came from media sales? Like, CDs and DVDs? Maybe a couple of books, though, right? And... oh. Electronics also brought in tons of money? Well. Books still contributed.

And so did I.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Back to literacy...

It's sort of coincidental that I found these three things in the last week, but they all tied together in my head and warranted a couple of dusty internet pages of the book-book.

First, I finished reading "Three Cups of Tea" last week. After reading the entire book, including acknowledgments and index, I felt that the book was really about as good as most people had said it was. It's not the most superbly written book ever, but the story is enough to warm the hearts of any book-lovers hoping to improve literacy stats worldwide. A man facing all manners of danger in order to educate young, poor, Pakistani children? In order to teach them to read? Quite inspiring, to say the least.

Then, a few days after I'd finished reading that, I saw this video. Such a similar topic (or, the exact same topic, different story) in such a short amount of time was enough to make it interesting. And indeed, these stories are quite interesting. Part of loving books is encouraging others to read as well. Sometimes that means teaching. Often, in fact.

And a few hours after finding that video, I found this slightly more local but effectively similar website. A nice idea for a charity, no doubt, but nothing out of the ordinary. It just ties in well with the entire theme: reading makes a difference in people's lives, but a lot of people can't read (whether because they have no books, no teachers, no standards, or no knowledge). I mentioned in the earlier post that I hoped to improve literacy stats in 2009. These three ideas might be a start.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gaiman and the graveyard

This entry is perhaps premature, but interesting nonetheless. Neil Gaiman, well-known author and fantasy genius, posted this in his journal:

"THE GRAVEYARD BOOK," said fourteen loud voices, and I thought, I may be still asleep right now, but they probably don't do this, probably don't call people and sound so amazingly excited, for Honors books....

"...just won..."

"THE NEWBERY MEDAL" they chorused. They sounded really happy. I checked the hotel room because it seemed very likely that I was still fast asleep. It all looked reassuringly solid.

You are on a speakerphone with at least 14 teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise and
good people, I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo.

Gaiman's fans will no doubt be happy about this honor, but it's also interesting on an entirely more selfish level. That is, my copy of "The Graveyard Book" is on the way and now it (sadly) won't have the medal print on the cover. Okay. The award is obviously interesting for more reasons than that (it appears my selfish needs don't dominate the universe). In the last couple of years, Newbery medals have gone to books with "meaning" and "importance". I quote because it's a bit silly. The honors of the year went to books about growing up poor (with Tupac), poetry about Cuba, and a roadtrip-like book. Newbery awards often go to books less good, more enlightening. Historical fiction, books about alienation, death, loss, racism. All topics, but some years the books are kind of sub-par. Not always, obviously. Some amazing books have won in the past. But still. It's nice to see another fantasy book take the award.

I'll give an official update following my actual reading of "The Graveyard Book". But it's still news.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A brave new world in 1984

I think I've mentioned already that I quite admire Mr. George Orwell as an author. I may have also mentioned in the past that the oh-so-famous "1984" is my least favorite book of his (that I've read so far). So sue me. It was the first Orwell I read, and though I liked it reasonably enough, it didn't particularly amaze me. My conclusion was simple: "1984" had a surprising, intriguing premise, but if ever existed a 300 page book in need of editing - there you go.

I read "Brave New World" a couple of months later. I loved it. Huxley wrote a book both readable, enjoyable, and thought-provoking. What more could a person wish for? I instantly ran a background check on both books and found that these were the two common "dystopia" books. With that, I learned a new term and entered a new world. It seemed that it was pretty normal to compare a lot of books to "1984". "Brave New World" less so. A bit more casual research told me that the older generations held "1984" in higher esteem, while the younger generations related better to "Brave New World". Cool, I thought. I fit it.

Then a few months after reading both these books, I checked out a simple teen read from the library, Feed by M.T. Anderson. It was a pretty nice read. When I went to review it, I found that many other reviewers characterized it as a "1984 for the young generation". Why? Because of its dystopia roots. Can I argue with that? No; I even acknowledged it in my own review. But something to these comments felt off to me: the insinuation that every dystopia novel is somehow based off of "1984" and "Brave New World" and is an attempt to modernize it.

I've encountered this situation a number of times now. Other teen (or otherwise) dystopia fiction books I read received similar critique (not necessarily negative, though). It baffled me. Here are books labeled as similar to completely different books simply because a small theme (that of a depressing, horrible future) is shared. "Feed" and "1984" have little in common beyond their dystopia qualities. One describes consumerism and corporate control while the other describes a totalitarian government. Some might see these as the same thing, but to compare these books on a literary level is a bit much.

It comes back to the same old argument, where one popular, strong contender overshadows any book perceived to be slightly similar. Not even book, actually. This can be applied to music, movies... just about any form of entertainment. "1984" is perceived as insightful, influential and relevant. Any book that fits this bill and takes place in the gloomy future instantly becomes the "new "1984"". It's a limiting, frustrating label (like almost all...).

Maybe I don't want this new dystopia book to be the "new" anything. Maybe it has no cheery uppers named Soma or freaky big brothers looking over my shoulders. Maybe it's a fresh idea that just happens to take place in a dystopia sort of world. This idea that every futuristic book that deals with moral dilemmas must be compared with "1984" is ridiculous. Not every book with similar inspiration roots as monstrously famous novels is necessarily a "remake", "modernization" or "ripoff" of the original novel.

Just a few more vaguely bitter thoughts.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gloomy and irrelevant library thoughts

I hate returning unfinished books to the library. There's something so pathetic to it. Not only is this a monumental failure, but I've renewed this specific batch three times, each time on the very last day I could (thus ensuring I'd have the books for just as long as possible). And still. I had to return them with checkout-date bookmarks still in place. It begs the question. Am I checking out the right books? I've had these four books sitting on my shelf for almost three months and managed to read two (count 'em). Of the two remaining, one I didn't even look at. I started to read the other and kept struggling to get into it. All four of the books were checked out on a whim (none great classics, each chosen for a separate silly reason). The previous batch of books I checked out didn't have full marks either - I didn't finish all there either.

Two possible answers: Either it's true that people lose their love of books after a while, or I'm simply not interested in reading some of the books I check out. I have a whole huge shelf of upcoming books to read and during these last three months I've read my fair share of books, just not the ones from the library. Which again leads me to a confusing dead end - why am I checking these books out in the first place?

A rhetorical question and some food for thought. Hopefully I'll pick better next time...

Friday, January 16, 2009

I'm running out of blood... please. Stop sucking.

I've read a couple of vampire books in my lifetime (mostly Amelia Atwater-Rhodes) and have watched a couple of vampire movies/shows (Joss Whedon), but one thing I will never claim to be is a vampire lover. In fact, I am the exact opposite. I am a vampire hater and the time for my angry rant has come.

A couple of years ago, a shiny black book titled "Twilight" came out. It was placed everywhere in my local Borders. I picked up the hefty book, read the back summary and rolled my eyes. I could see how this might appeal to some readers, but to me, it seemed like such a silly waste of money (20 bucks? Are you kidding me?). I figured if I ever got bored on a weekend and this was at the library, I'd check it out. Maybe. Unlikely. Anyways, I put it out of my mind, until about a year-two years later when someone warmly recommended it. And then another. And then another. All these recommendations came from friendly teenage girls and right then and there I could see the problem.

Amazon is my first-and-foremost guide for book-buying. I often determine whether or not to buy a book based on the negative reviews there. If a book has senseless negative reviews that cannot explain their hatred, I give the book a point. If the negative reviews are balanced, well-thought and honest, I dock the book a point. "Twilight" got docked a bunch of points right off the bat. A number of reviewers explained reasonably their dislike of the book. So once again, I put "Twilight" out of my mind.

And then the sequel came out. And then another sequel. Suddenly, the world was overflowing with vampire-mania. Again. Not unlike the post Harry Potter fantasy craze, suddenly everyone was writing about vampires again. There have been at least 50 relatively high profile vampire book publications in the last few years (numerous other low-profile ones that I couldn't find, I'm assuming), not including the endless amounts of sequels that follow these books. And here's the part where the rant gets ugly: all these books are the same.

Oh-kay, so here and there the character names are obviously different, but I think people are trying to drive a super-dead horse. Like I said, I've read a couple of vampire books and they all feel exactly the same to me - sexy vamp, lustful affair, complicated drama, and the deliciousness of sweet blood. Even the lord of the vampires, the Dark Lord Dracula, is like that (by the way, that book may drag on for a looong time but it ultimately rocks... there's something delightfully creepy to it). Of course I'm generalizing. Sure, I know that some of these books are good and special because of characterization and writing as opposed to plot, but plot is important to a story. It seems to me like publishing the same book nine times is seriously a bit too much.

Normally I wouldn't care too much. Except then, skimming book forums, I keep finding questions like this (rephrasing, mix and match of a number of different quotes):
Where to go after Twilight??? Need good vamp lit, something to make me WANT to read loved twilight what other vampire series next?
I'm generally not a fan of people reading only one genre (you can focus on one, sure, but limiting yourself is dumb) and then to stumble upon questions like this, where the reader wants more of the same... It is frustrating to say the very least. Reading summaries of the books recommended or read make my head spin. How many times can someone read the same book with a slightly different packaging?

I keep getting recommendation e-mails for vampire books due to one simple reason. A few years ago I read the quite enjoyable "Sweetblood" by Pete Hautman. Because this book deals with the very vampire obsession I'm railing against, it's tagged as a vampire book. As a consequence of this quite indirect connection, I've had the opportunity to read scores of vampire book descriptions and summaries. So yes. I'm sick of it.

Some readers like reading books that make them feel all swoony and lovely inside. This means there's a market for these kinds of books. Now, because there's a market, more and more people try to jump onboard, until the market is flooded. As it is now. I expect the craze to end in the next few years, but am still, once again, baffled by this obsession. It's understandable that people might really like the "Twilight" series. People are entitled to like whatever they want. But how, someone has to explain to me, does this lead to people loving similarly-plotted books even if they, pardon the pun, suck.

I just noticed that Mr. Hautman seems to address my point exactly (thanks!):
...consumers will (eventually) experience decreased selection, as when the big publishers decide to publish only vampire novels and How To Find A Job books.
Good books are always welcome, but please stop writing the same book again and again. I'm out of blood.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Hope you have a nice paperback for the flight!"

Some of my favorite places in the world are bookstores. One place it's always a joy to see a small bookstore packed away is at airport gates. It's hard to maneuver around the short bookshelves stacked high with the latest bestseller and mothers trying to keep their kids in check. Browsing is out of the question. You were dumb and forgot to bring a book. Now what? You pick up the top book on the stack and flip through it. Romance. Comedy. Current events. All the books have that hard, glossy look to them of "fresh new thing". There's the trusty stack of "Harry Potter"s in the corner, but you don't need that (it's at home, as it should be). So what are the options? Not much.

Flights aren't the greatest place to read the latest, greatest American novel, so you skip over that classic you've been meaning to read for years (later, Henry James, I promise). The latest war memoir is neatly packaged, but a hunkin' heavy book with a heavier price tag. That too is passed over. Your fingers skid along the bumpy titles. Here we go. Soft bendable covers along with light prices, plots and pounds. Cheap paperback "bestsellers" with little meat but lots of fluff, where the author's name is always worth so much more than the book itself.

This curious conundrum of the flight paperback is baffling. Is there something to flights that requires flat, easy reading? I've enjoyed some middle-quality books on flights without resorting to the flimsy bestsellers. And the books are often of the same genres - either sci-fi/fantasy or dark, thrilling romance. Sit at the gate and a large majority of the passengers (female, at least) will be reading the latest bestseller in the softly bending paperback edition. Covers are curled around the edges, pages are crumpled and smeared, and the reader kicks off their shoes and "enjoys the flight". What flight? The flight to simplistic dull novels?

It seems fairly odd. Is it a convenience thing (lightest books), a stingy thing (cheapest), or a social thing (who cares what quality book you're reading on a flight?)? It's weird. Many people feel comfortable buying books they usually consider "beneath them" on flights but nowhere else. We've created a separate reading culture for each place. The flight code implies that acceptable books for flights (for caj' reading, anyways) are the ones you would never read otherwise...

And I don't like it one bit. If you want a simple book for the flight, go for it. But I don't want a simple book. I want a good quality novel full of nice characterization, a filling plot, and pretty writing to make me jealous. I don't want tripe - I don't want trash. This strange sensation I get when I see five people reading the small silly book is frustrating and I would like it to end, please.

Seriously. Get the hardcover. It'll last longer.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Amazon review of the week

*Mild profanity warning

In a review of the book "The Forever War" (as of yet unread... hopefully that will change soon) by Dexter Filkins, "Jim Bethshares" wrote, giving a 1-star review (and this is the entire review quoted):
"for a writer to use the Lord's name in vain, is my signal to put the book down. for this reason i did not get beyond the first few pages."
In the comments section of this sole 1-star review of the book, "Justin P. Pritchett" wrote:
" your god damned review sucks"
The joys of the internet.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

ARCs swinging on vines

ARCs - Advance Reader Copies - are the subject of the latest, greatest discussion I stumbled upon on the forum today. I was reviewing a splendid book today on Amazon ("The Master and Margarita", Bulgakov, absolutely and 100% recommended!) when I decided to take a peek at the top reviewers. This page led me to an Amazon discussion about a reviewer. Boring. However, in the midst of the discussion, a new one about ARCs emerged. Some claimed that when publishers or companies send ARCs [free books], they're bribing reviewers for good reviews. A couple of reviewers brought up the Amazon Vine program as an example of publishers marketing through "bribes". One called the program a "scheme".

I'm a member of the Vine program. Sort of. I only just ordered my first books through the program and have yet to receive or read them. I presume I'll read them sooner than later because, yes, getting free stuff is fun and that's how the program works. That some people think I'm going to praise the book unconditionally because I got it for free is insulting. Really insulting, in fact.

The argument was that someone who gives a 4/5 star review for almost every book is clearly not doing so out of their own free will. They're being bribed for it. To which I say, "What?!" Obviously most reviews on Amazon are positive ones. It's much easier and significantly more satisfactory to write a positive review than one in which you're fairly apathetic towards the book. And some readers like a lot of books. You can enjoy a book thoroughly without it being a classic. I distinguish between my own quality control check and the star rating in my reviews. I'll often give something a higher star rating than it deserves (for various) and will usually allude to this in the review itself. I found that about 1/10 of my reviews are clearly negative/non-positive. I write more positive reviews because it makes me happy to recommend books I like to people. Plus, I prefer to read books that look good and often these books turn out to be, what can I say, good (worthy of 4/5 star ratings).

Should ARCs be given to reviewers? Sure, why not? There are no moral issues with it so long as the reviewer is an honest one. The insinuation that free items will sway the reviewers opinion is an insulting one. The discussion makes a good point that a reviewer should point out if they read an ARC, just to make it clear that they didn't take money issues into account and are presuming that stupid editing mistakes will be corrected in later editions.

So? Should reviewers (amateur, professional or otherwise) get books for free in exchange for reviews? Are there any moral issues I should be told about? It's a curious topic, mostly because there are clearly two starkly different sides to it. Quite surprising.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Publisher's Weekly - a way to make a day

Publisher's Weekly - oh, yes, that's that... magazine, right? The one that always has excerpts from its reviews on the back of books? Yes, indeed. The one and only. Until this week, all I really knew about Publisher's Weekly is that they always seem to say something about "smooth writing..." or "wonderful characterization...". Of course, all I knew about them came from the blurbs on the back of books.

I traveled on over to their website the other day out of pure curiosity. Turns out they're doing what I'm attempting a little better: they've got an online version of the magazine, some blogs, reviews, and overall book news. To say that the website isn't a find would be a complete and total lie. It's a pretty cool site. Sure, some of the bloggers (most, in fact) have been on vacation since summer, and yeah, the articles are a little one-sided, but not everyone can be as amazing as this anonymous child.

I found this video, which quite amused me. Partly because of the constant jumps around, like they're trying to make it super hip or cool, and partly because it's such a weird topic to have an online video about. Then again, talking about reviews... that's pretty cool and hip in itself. He used the idea of "getting in bed" a little too often and neglected to mention Amazon reviewers, but John Freeman managed to make me laugh. I'm not sure that's what he intended. Still a neat video. And by neat I mean neat for people interested in book reviewing. Except for a kind of random ending... E-mail? What?