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Monday, January 30, 2012

In Defense of E Books

E books. A lot of people are wound up, some because of the possibilities provided by a weightless, almost production cost-free book format. Others are concerned about a host of other things: tactual, aesthetic, olfactory, financial etc. Jonathan Franzen makes a few points HERE along with some other excellent writers. I am 100% behind every single statement there (so please go read them!)

I love books. I surround myself with them daily, their very existence feeds my soul. I love their smell, the weight a shelf of them adds to a room, the sound of paper moving under my fingers, all magic. I’ve been a bookseller for seven years and I plan to be one for the rest of my life, regardless of the seeming irrationality of that career path in this day and age (thanks to e books, according to some). I own an e reader and I use it daily, unashamedly. Here’s why:

1) You can’t tear, liquid mark, crease or generally “mess up” an e reader. If you do, it’s a machine you can replace. It’s not your first printing, signed whatever. If I broke a $150 machine, I could live with that. Not so much if I “broke” my signed Peter Beagle first editions.

2) Some books get re-read to death so many times it’s the “green” thing to do to get an e copy. Maybe this doesn’t apply to those who shun epic fantasy, but the third time I replaced my entire set of Wheel of Time, I started to feel like a treekiller (sadly, only the Robert Jordan fans got that).

3) E readers are bus friendly. Turn them on, turn them off, flip pages without moving more than a finger...which is all you generally have room to move.

4) Your local library probably lends books for e readers. If your objection is feeding the companies that sell the e books just go borrow them! You don’t even have to go into the library to pick them up, and even better, no late fees!

5) It is possible to make purchasing choices that reflect your love of paper books. My policy is to only purchase e books I own already in paper form. I have both respect and love for the publishing industry and there is truly no substitute for a paper book. The books on my e reader represent my “trapped on a desert island” list of favorites. Like many e reader users, I’m looking forward to the day publishers start to offer digital copies with the purchase of the paper copy.

E books are clearly a technology with traction and the entire book industry will eventually have to adjust to include electronic media strategies in their business models, like it or not. As a bookseller I can tell you this is a scary idea. However, as a reader, I recognize that e books are a great tool for me to read more books, more often. And even the scared bookseller in me can see that what is good for readers is, ultimately, good for the world of books.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review: Books Can Be Deceiving by Jenn McKinlay

Books Can Be Deceiving is (yet another) cozy I picked up over the holidays. This one is set in a library, and is written by Jenn McKinlay who also writes the Cupcake Bakery Mystery series.

Lindsay Norris is recently single and recently relocated to the coastal town of Briar Creek where she has been hired to run the local library. As if juggling schedules (and egos) at the library wasn't enough, Lindsay's friend Beth has a problem. Beth has been working on ideas for a children's book for years, and she thinks she's finally ready to share her work. Her boyfriend Rick, a very successful children's author himself, thinks it's a very bad idea- so bad that when Beth insists that it's time to show her work to a publisher, Rick dumps her. When Rick is found dead the next day, the police are sure Beth is guilty and Lindsay knows she's going to have to do some sleuthing to protect her best friend.

Characters: A McKinlay does a great job of offering simple but realistic characters to inhabit her cozy mystery world. Lindsay is likeable, smart and independent. Lindsay's friends are quirky without ever being over-the-top. The library has a staff member who disapproves of everything new and everyone young (we've all worked with that person somewhere in our lives!) and still, she becomes a real and sympathetic character as the story concludes. Of course the bad guys are a little hand-wringingly wicked and the New York City publisher is a big stereotypical snob, but their characters manage to be entertaining rather than annoying. Most importantly, Lindsay, Beth and Lindsay's love interest make a charming trio of main characters.

Plot: B+ I'd love to give the plot an A, since I was so involved in the storyline that I read the entire thing in one sitting, but there are some conceits to over used plots (Sorry, but I can't say more without spoilers) that were a bit stale. Still, it's been said that there are no new ideas, and I often think one of the marks of a really good author is that they make you forget you've read a particular plot device a thousand times.

Romance: A It's sweet, it's understated and he's a complete hunk. There are no uncomfortably descriptive scenes and in a break from many of the books I've read in this genre the main character doesn't spend half the book in a tortured internal dialogue over whether or not all men are un-dateable scum.

Accuracy: A- Overall, I know little to nothing about costal living (there's a sweet subplot about a lost love at sea and a lot of moving from island to mainland in the main plot) and I don't know a ton about Library work, but both areas of the book rang true from my limited perspective. The only misses, in my opinion, were in the  book publishing issues (again, without giving away plot I can't be more specific) where I think some liberty was taken to make Rick a man clearly deserving of a bad end. I really wish I could explain this fully, so if you read the book email me and we can chat about it!

As always, thanks for reading. I just received the latest story collection from Lawrence Connolly in the mail, this one a collection of horror. I hope to post a review some time in the next week so stay tuned!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: Mind Over Murder by Allison Kingsley

Mind Over Murder by Allison Kingsley is the first in the Raven's Nest Bookstore Mystery series. I have to admit that I didn't read the synopsis carefully before purchasing the book, I saw the word "bookstore" and added it to my stack. What I missed was that this is a paranormal cozy, featuring a main character that can read minds. I feel that it's only fair to point out that I'm generally not a fan of paranormal mixed into my cozies, and that probably had an impact on my enjoyment of the book as much as the writing did.

Clara Quinn and her cousin grew up together in Finn's Harbor, knowing that one or both of them would inherit the family "sense" and be able to read minds. While Clara moved away and tried to ignore her mind-reading ability, her cousin Stephanie (who did not inherit the family trait) embraced her dream of owning a bookstore. Now Clara is back in town, resolutely avoiding any discussion about her abilities, or why she has returned after years in New York City. When Stephanie and her store run afoul of the local busybody, and then the busybody is found dead in the back of the bookstore, Stephanie convinces Clara to use her powers to hunt down the killer before someone on her own staff is arrested for the murder.

Characters: B  The characters in Mind over Murder are your basic cozy-stock: Nice people, a few really nasty people (one of whom is of course the victim), a rebellious young shop employee and some very aggressive cops. One of the most important jobs for a cozy writer is to create a cast of characters who have motives to kill, and while it's easy to do, it's not easy to do well. This is definitely one of the strongest points I can make in favor of this book. The nice people are nice without being one-dimensional. The nasty ones have some level of complexity to their awful-ness. The real key to a good cozy is usually the main sleuth character. Unfortunately the entire book is written in third person and Clara's personality simply doesn't ever come across, making her an un-compelling character.  And we'll talk about the "Quinn Sense" in a minute here...

Plot: C Overall the plot was fairly straightforward and readable, but two things stuck out in my mind as very distracting from what was going on. As I mentioned above, the main female "baddie" is an aggressive, successful businesswoman. She's been making increasingly tempting offers on a local business and finally sweeps into town hours after the owner is murdered to announce she's taking over the store. This makes her a great potential murderer, especially when she gains an instant reputation in town for being rude and generally unlikable. As much as I hate to see the "she's a bitch because she's a successful single woman" stereotype playing out yet again, it's a popular stock character in cozies. However, the character intimates to Clara that she has made all her decisions simply so she could work in a store across the street from a handsome hardware store owner. Not only is that a pretty extreme thing to do (even in a cozy), no successful business woman would make their decisions based on possible future romance with a stranger. Since the majority of the plot hinges on this character's arrival and her reasons for being in town, I felt like this reveal somewhat deflated the tension prematurely.

The "Quinn Sense" was the most negative aspect of the book, and again, a lot of plot hinges on Clara's mind-reading so I found this to be a fairly large detractor from the storyline. The "sense" seems to have about the same power as some good body-language reading or a 101 course in psychology. Quinn senses that people are hiding things. She has feelings that she should look further into certain comments. She can tell (sometimes) when someone is lying. She has the exact same amount of perception that your average cozy sleuth has, except hers is apparently paranormal. I'm sure this is not the actual case, but reading the book I kept wondering if the "sense" was simply some very lazy writing. (ie "I don't know how Clara would know this guy was lying to her about having a girlfriend. I'll just make her psychic!"). Clara also doesn't want the "sense" and spend half the book trying to ignore, suppress or down-play the very ability that is eluded to in the TITLE OF THE BOOK!

Romance: A Much like many of the characterizations in the book, the romance was surprisingly satisfying. (On a side note, I read this book immediately after watching one of the GOP primary debates, and could not stop the love-interest Rick from looking like Rick Perry in my head. Very confusing.) Against my normal inclination I not only rooted for the poor guy to get Clara's attention, I looked forward to watching this sub-plot develop.

Accuracy: D Sigh. I know I'm very tough on books that take place in bookstores, because I work in bookstores myself. I'm sure that often bookstores just make a great staging area for  murder and the intricacies of a bookseller's life are irrelevant to most readers. In this case, I'm betting even the most non-retail enabled reader saw a few glaring problems. Clara doesn't actually work at any point. She is in the store, she is sometimes dusting or straightening. Clara doesn't put books away, she doesn't seem to interact with customers unless they are potential suspects, and most importantly, she spends the majority of her time sitting in a little coffee nook in the store snacking, caffeinating, reading and thinking. There is also a disturbing moment (disturbing for me, not for normal people) when Stephanie tells Clara to grab the new occult bestseller from the stock room because people have been asking for it. As the plot develops it becomes clear that this stack of books sat in the backroom for a period of time, even though people had been eagerly awaiting it. Again, I think the point of this little sub-sub-sub plot was to place certain people in certain areas at certain times. But all I could think was "There isn't a bookseller in the world who would keep a stack of books in their backroom when they could be selling them."

Overall, I wouldn't recommend this book to others, but I have to admit that I'll probably read the second book in the series when it comes out, to see if Clara's character (and her "sense") develop into something more readable. I believe that this is the author's first book, so while I found it lacking in some key areas, I think the strong writing in others could point to much better offerings in the future.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Book Review: Sentenced To Death by Lorna Barrett

Sentenced to Death is the latest book in Lorna Barrett's Booktown Mysteries series. the premise of the series is that a failing New England town has rebuilt it's main street and brought in specialty booksellers to line the streets (leading to the phrase that compelled me to read the first book: "Stoneham, where the streets are lined with bookstores and paved with murder!"). Now Tricia, the owner of the Mystery/Thriller shop, is also the resident sleuth, and the bodies of other shop-owners are piling up around her. Early in the series, Tricia's difficult, glamorous sister arrives in town, opens an eatery and later takes over the cook book shop as well. (Of course, because the previous owner was murdered!)

In Sentenced to Death, the Stoneham Founder's Day celebration is cut short when a small plane crashes into the stage killing the pilot and the events organizer. Tricia is convinced there's more to the tragedy than pilot error, but no one will believe her and she's forced to prove it herself. Meanwhile, a big company has been buying up stores on the street, and Tricia's assistant may soon be leaving her to run a store of her own.

Characters: B Tricia is an effective sleuth, even if she makes some very dangerous decisions that feel somewhat out-of-character. While Tricia's two shop assistants and her sister are strong supporting characters, the rest of the Stoneham residents are fairly flat props for the story line.

Plot: C+ While Barrett never strays too far from traditional mystery storylines, this book's premise feels like it was dredged from the file of stock murder plots. The aging, infirm pilot with a perfect flying record may have deliberately crashed his plane to keep his family taken care of. Like the festival organizer should have seen the plane spiralling to hit her, the readers can probably see this plot resolution coming. At the same time, Barrett's even-handed writing and well-placed red herrings make getting to the inevitable conclusion entertaining.

Romance: B I have always enjoyed the way Tricia keeps her few love interests at arm's length. (To be fair, I have to mention that the obligatory romance is my least favorite part of the cozy genre.) Ginny, the young assistant has had a few tumultuous romances that added flair to this and past installments. Sadly, Tricia's sister continues her ill-advised "romance" with the slick and somewhat shady real-estate agent in Stoneham and while each book presents her with a host of reasons to dump the chump, only in the most recent book does she seem to feel that it might be time to consider freeing herself from this loser. In this reader's opinion, Bob needs to go. Perhaps as the next book's victim?

Accuracy: B+ Barrett's portrayal of Haven't Got a Clue (Tricia's shop) belies some actual bookstore experience. While a store like this one probably wouldn't have the money or need for a three person staff much of the time, the fact that they are always shelving, cleaning and ordering books shows that Tricia is a competent boss and shop owner. In contrast, Tricia's sister (who is often there simply to move along plot points) seems to run both a diner and a cook book and cooking supply shop without ever actually being in either place (she's also writing a cook book series). While she is in most scenes that take place in her own eatery, she always seems to be there eating or complaining about her staff.

Book Review: Two Aurora Teagarten Mysteries by Charlaine Harris

I've been hoping for a while to get some photos up of the fantastic indie bookstores I visited at Thanksgiving, but in the meantime, I'll start review the slew of Cozy Mysteries I picked up. If you are not familiar with Cozies, go back to my previous post "How Female Friendly is Your Cozy?" for a quick summary of the genre.

Charlaine Harris is known best for her Southern Vampire novels (also known as the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries) which are now the basis for HBO's True Blood. Harris also writes some non-supernatural cozy series, and I've recently been hooked by her diminutive librarian-turned-sleuth Aurora Teagarten. Sadly, the first books in the series I read (the first, second and fourth of the eight book run) were so good that I enthusiastically passed them on to other readers without pausing to review them. I'm trying to fill in the gaps now, and recently read books five and eight: Dead Over Heels and Poppy Done to Death.

In Dead Over Heels, Aurora is enjoying married life when the body of Detective Sergeant Jack Burns is thrown from a helicopter over her property. When other people who she's had run-ins with start to turn up dead, Aurora and her friend and bodyguard Angel need to figure out who's trying to get their attention.

In Poppy Done To Death murder is a family affair. Aurora is on the verge of being inducted into the Uppity Women's Book Club when her step-sister-in-law is brutally murdered in her own backyard. Now Aurora has to fend off society gossip about her family while trying to find a killer and take care of a surprise guest who needs her help.

Characters: A+ One of the best reasons to read the books (much like Sookie Stackhouse's series) is the main character. She's feisty, she's down-to-earth and she's stubborn. Again, like Sookie, Aurora is from a long line of well-mannered Southern women, and her more outspoken tendencies are always a bit at war with the older, more traditional women around her. Aurora's self-depreciating asides and her common sense, no-nonsense attitude make the first-person narrative sparkle.

Plot development: A Harris is a strong plotter and her stories move along at a good pace. Readers like me who don't really care about the romance aspect of the storyline will enjoy the very secondary nature of those plots. The ongoing sub-plots of Aurora's young half-brother and her library job both work well to support the main plot and provide a cast of likable, fairly realistic characters.

Romance: B The only truly negative thing I can say about Harris' books is that her portrayals of romantic moments, and of relationships in general feels somewhat perfunctory and stiff. Aurora is far to independent a lady to ever focus fully on the men in her life, and it sometimes seemed to me that to obligatory romance sub-plot was placed in the book just to satisfy someone's idea of what needs to be in a cozy. Harris is wise to allow most of the more intimate moments to occur off-page as Aurora's wide appeal does not (in my humble opinion) extend to reading about her more personal moments.

Accuracy:A- This is my personal favorite aspect of reviewing any cozy mystery. I find that as a reader, I am jarred by a lack of realism in character reactions and in work-place events. I suppose this says a lot about me in some way, but regardless, there's nothing as distracting as character who runs a business but never seems to work, for example. Harris does a respectable job in most cases (you can't fault a cozy for having a few over-the-top stereotypical baddies, it's part of the genre) in character development, and while there are some questionable moments in the library scenes, Harris gets points for adding conflicts over scheduling, seniority and staffing levels as well as mentioning some of the more colorful characters typical to any library or bookstore. If you've ever worked in a library, you may have more to add on this topic than I can, but I was fairly satisfied with the level of accuracy.

Thanks for reading!