Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Could You Pass The Links, Please?

I'd call it a Carnival of the Publishers, but really this posting is just me sharing some cool and interesting links I have found through my daily RSS feeds:

For example, you should REALLY read this essay on Jim Huang's blog -- it will tell you alot about the modern world of publishing from the point of view of the bookseller. Solid stuff.

Here's the viewpoint of a published author.

There's talk associated with this entry on judging books by their covers. There's somewhat less commentary on this Huffington Post item regarding the brand quality as implied by the name of a publishing house.

There's a great discussion going on over at Reading is My Superpower regarding genre fiction, specifically speculative fiction. (See today's follow-up and be sure to follow all of the links in the entries.) At some point, Annie and I will need to sit down and talk about The Sparrow, one of the most harrowing pieces of speculative fiction I have ever read. She blogged about that title here. We might also get Quotidian Grace involved as she blogged about both that book and its sequel here. Some sub-genres however, specifically the Gor novels, make us feel a little uncomfortable, as the Grumpy Old Bookman covers here. Note those sales figures.

Pat Schroeder of AAP was quoted as length in this USA Today article but do bear in mind that AAP is a lobbying group and it is part of Schroeder's job to get quoted by the major news outlets. (Sam offered his assessment of her remarks. Tim of LibraryThing offered his input as well.) Most of the holes in the referenced survey or if you prefer the questions that one really wanted to ask about the survey are pointed out here by a sensible librarian. (I really am in a mood about the publishing industry this evening.)

Elaine over at Random Jottings was talking about comics (er, graphic novels) over here and about Agatha Christie's Miss Marple over here. Does she know about the graphic novels featuring M'seur Poirot covered over here? Agatha Christie's literary estate has been very busy keeping her name in the public eye....

Has anyone already linked to Critical Compendium? I first found it over at RickLibrarian. He's a smart man. He did a really interesting entry on the ALA Notable Books Lists.

And if you think that Google Book Search is the answer to anybody's prayer, you might want to read Paul DuGuid's article in First Monday entitled "Inheritance and Loss: A Brief Survey of Google Books". It got some serious feedback. And then some.

Did you even want to start on copyright issues?

As an industry, publishers feel that they are living under that Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." So yes, while I checked out for a while this month, it wasn't that I was completely cut off from the big wide world. This is, after all, where I work.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Reading Challenges

I'll go back and fill in links a little later, but these are my titles for the fall's crop of reading challenges. I want you to know I've been thinking about this to such an extent that I had a bad dream last night in which I mistakenly operated on the idea that there were only 29 days in August rather than 31 and I missed participation in *any* of these just because I hadn't posted anything in time. I kid you not.

First up, the Readers In Peril II challenge sponsored by Carl. I'll take the first peril, thank you, Carl!

Woman in Black - Susan Hill
Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
The Prestige - Christopher Priest
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Lewis Stevenson

Alternatives: (Thank heaven for Library Thing and tags!)

Mary Reilly - Valerie Martin
The Quincunx - Charles Palliser
Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (I think it qualifies as dark and scary)

Then I think I've assembled a rather interesting mix of straightforward and difficult material for the Outmoded Authors Challenge organized by Imani:

The Country of Pointed Firs - Sarah Orne Jewett
The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
The Man of Property - John Galsworthy (first volume in a series of novels that would be collected into The Forsyte Saga)
Bowens Court - Elizabeth Bowen
The Fireside Poets - Sampling of works by Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant and Wendell Holmes, Sr.
The Well of Loneliness - Radclyffe Hall


Something by May Sarton (vague, but I have read some of her work already and I need to think about what I've not read).

Finally, in a fit of something, I thought I'd see how far I get with Callista's Books to Movies challenge, because I am thinking about the challenge of translating print content into other formats a lot at work.

The Prestige - Christopher Priest
Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie
Journey to the Center of the Earth - Jules Verne

Granted, it's undoubtedly more ambitious than I can possibly manage in realistic terms, even with air travel to California factored into the mix. But the challenges are listed in the order of priority that I'll most likely give to them.

A Beautiful Blue Death [Review]

Title: A Beautiful Blue Death

Author: Charles Finch

Copyright: 2007; published by St. Martin's Minotaur, New York (ISBN 9780312359775; cover image from

Genre: Mystery/historical

Length: 320

Summary: Charles Lenox is a wealthy Victorian gentleman in his early forties; he has a preference for tea at his own hearth and seeks only to find decent boots that will keep his feet dry in the snows of London. He would really rather like an opportunity to travel, but something always seems to prevent his departure, usually a crime of some ilk. He's just cleared up the matter of the Marlborough forgery for the Yard but now, his neighbor, Lady Jane Gray, is seriously distressed regarding the death of an upstairs maid who was once in her employ. Prue Smith is dead; might Charles find out exactly how and why? Despite the inclement damp, he sets forth immediately.

The reader accompanies Lenox into various clubs of Victorian gentlemen and darker hang-outs of others, all in pursuit of the murderer. Is it Barnard, the financier? Is it either of Barnard's two depressing nephews, Claude and/or Eustance? Soames, an old friend, is a potential suspect as are the unknown Potts and Duff , all of whom are guests in Barnard's home at the time of the murder. Knives and poisons are elements of the mystery as well. Can Lenox work out the solution before some ham-handed inspector from Scotland Yard destroys the vital clue?

The working out of the murderer's identity in A Beautiful Blue Death is complex but almost of secondary importance to the book. This is to be expected of a debut novel in a new series; the focus is on establishing the particular personality of the sleuth as he goes about the business of solving the crime. As the book progresses, we see Charles emerge from the natural self-absorption of a confirmed bachelor to realize the importance of his relationships with those who are closest to him -- his brother, his neighbor, and his butler.

Characterization is good with slight touches of humor surfacing now and again. I particularly liked one moment when a grim housekeeper objected to the laying of a dead body on her kitchen table. The detective takes little notice of her umbrage but offers the assisting footman a job with a raise of 10 pounds if the man continues to be of service in arranging the body for an immediate medical examination. The extract I have chosen also gives a slight sense of the humorous tone.


If at twenty he had been single-minded and occasionally obsessive, at forty he had mellowed and now preferred to sit in front of a warm fire, reading the newspaper with a cup of tea in his hand. He had always loved his friends and his family dearly but took more pleasure in them now. He had always loved his work but allowed himself to be diverted from it more often now. It had simply happened that he had never married, and now he was a thorough bachelor, comfortable company but set in his ways and a good deal more snug at home than in the first ambition of his youth. Lenox hadn’t changed, in his own estimation; and yet of course he had, as all men do.

The tea tray sat on a small side table by his chair, next to a stack of books, several of which had fallen to the floor, where he had left them the night before. The servants had learned by now to leave his library as he left it, except for an occasional dusting. He poured a healthy cup of tea, took a large scoop of sugar and a splash of milk, and then turned his attention to the plate of toast. Graham had thoughtfully added a small cake, which was a rare treat. But then, it had been a trying day.

Also relevant: There is, in my opinion, a slight awkwardness on the part of the author in his selected narrative pov. You get some sense of what's going on in Charles's head, but never to a level of intimacy. It may well be in keeping with the formality of the Victorian period in which the story is set, but there were occasions when attention given to the precise external movements of a character seemed more important to the author than revealing the character's internal thoughts. I don't know that this was a particular flaw in the writing, but it was an aspect that kept me as a reader at more of a distance than modern writers usually maintain.

I liked Charles Lenox as a character. He's a trifle self-satisfied, but he's not pompous and he has the grace to feel sheepish following a mistake. I liked the degree of historical detail - adequate but not overwhelming. This is a good beginning and I'd certainly recommend it as a nice relaxing read. This could build nicely as a series.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Books Stacking Up Through August and into September

Just to keep life interesting, here's the list of the books that got added to my collection on LibraryThing this month:

  1. Out of the Deep I Cry - Julia Spencer-Fleming
  2. The Prestige - Christopher Priest
  3. The Prestige: The Screen Play - Jonathan Nolan
  4. The Woman in Black - Susan Hill
  5. A Beautiful Blue Death - Charles Finch
  6. Jane Austen in Hollywood, Second Edition - Linda Troost
  7. Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie
  8. Lost in Austen - Emma Campbell Webster
That constitutes two months worth of reading; given that I haven't finished some other stuff in my queue, one might say I'm well-equipped to face new reading challenges.

Walker's Ocean of Air [Review]

Title: An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere

Author: Gabrielle Walker (author's website)

Copyright: 2007; published by Harcourt, Inc. (ISBN: 978-015-101124-7)

Length: 272 (incl. Acknowledgments, Suggestions for Further Reading, Endnotes and Index)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Science

Summary: Writing about science is not an easy task. One must be specific and careful to state exactly the significance of a particular experiment, (which can turn any paragraph into dry dust) but one also seeks to communicate that instant of marvel and discovery experienced after exploring some question that no one has answered satisfactorily to date. An Ocean of Air is actually a marvelously successful attempt at presenting science, specifically what we know and how we learned the nature of the atmosphere that makes it possible for us to live on this earth.

The book opens with a prologue that recounts the amazing story of Joe Kittinger in August of 1960, a story I had never heard before either in science class in school or by reading volumes of science fiction. Walker writes: Captain Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr. of the US Air Force is the man who fell to Earth and lived. Nobody has ever managed to emulate his feat. His passage home from the edge of space, from thin air to thick, illustrates something extraordinary about our planet. Space is almost close enough to touch. Only twenty miles above our heads is an appalling hostile environment that would freeze us, and burn us and boil us away. And yet our enfolding layers of air protect us so completely that we don't even realize the dangers. This is the message from Kittinger's flight, and from every one of the pioneers who have sought to understand our atmosphere. We don't just live in the air. We live because of it.

Kittinger's calculated risk was only one of a series of experiments carried out over several centuries as human beings attempted to understand the ocean of air that surrounds us and supports our existence. Walker follows both amateur and professional investigators in their efforts to figure out the mysteries of air. Her entire book is a story of how science was and is done under diverse, frequently adverse, conditions. She follows idiosyncratic professors in Edinburgh in 1754, Irish physicians in London's Royal Institution in the nineteenth century, and British and Americans in Antarctica in the 1950's and 1980's. The stories are almost fantastical, even though the author touches on the familiar. We know of Galileo's excommunication by the Church for daring to suggest that the earth moved about the sun, but who knows on a common basis that Galileo spent his later years in prison investigating the weight of air. We hear of the Frenchman, Antoine Lavoisier, who further explored the nature of breathing and the rural West Virginia genius, William Ferrell, who first recognized the existence of jet streams. (Walker writes of Christopher Columbus taking advantage of easterly trade winds in navigating the Atlantic, but Columbus had no idea why the air moved the way it did. The explanation was developed by Ferrell.)

The most remarkable aspect of this book is that one never feels as if the author is talking down to the reader. Walker writes so exuberantly about the people who are taking these risks in the name of knowledge, that you are swept into the action and absorb painlessly the basics of the scientific concepts that they master.

Extract: Midgely announced his invention at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Atlanta in April 1930. He demonstrated the safety of his new gas with irrepressible showmanship. In front of a rapt crowd of chemists, he took in a deep breath of Freon and then slowly exhaled it over a lit candle. The candle went out.

Midgley's new chemical was an immediate hit. Together with its family of related chemicals (known collectively as CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons, so named because they contain chlorine, fluorine and carbon), it quickly became American's refrigeration of choice. Because it was so safe, Midgley's company agreed to sell it to all of their competitors, and soon it was universal in refrigerators across the land.

Also Relevant: It is the exuberant tone of the text that makes this book a tremendous read! JenClair wrote in some detail recently about this book and I think her experience was the same as mine. The author doesn't talk down to you, but writes most articulately about how gentleman-scholars managed to conduct experiments when glass was a precious commodity and how Susan Solomon, a modern scientist whose project in Antarctica was threatened by damage caused by forces of blizzards and winds to mirrors poised on a rooftop, actually went out in -40 degree winds to pull the mirrors back into safety. JenClair noted in her review some of the people who captured her attention in the book as did the Times critic, here. The Times critic sneered a bit at the tone Walker adopts in her story-telling, making a snarky reference to scientific-lite, but I think he was wrong in his disdain. Our scientific awareness is not generally the product of safely-enclosed institutional laboratories; it is formed by the thinking and daring of some amazing people and there are dramatic events in our history that might have been changed had those involved had just a tidbit of factual information. Walker wants us to know about the inquiring minds who have brought us so far and whose feats we should recognize outside of the average textbook. Science *should* be told with an eye to the dramatic; how better to appreciate how far we've actually come and how the knowledge was gained.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Update on Life

Family matters (immediate and extended) and a busy schedule have kept me from blogging for the past ten days. I hope I'll get something in this next week.

To be fair, some of it has just been distraction and lack of initiative. I'd like to excuse myself by suggesting that none of it is my fault. But that would REALLY not be true. Sigh.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sin in the Second City [Review]

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, and Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul

Author: Karen Abbott (biographical information; her MySpace page; a very recent interview.)

Copyright: 2007, Random House, New York, ISBN 978-1-4000-6530-1

Length: 356 pages (including bibliography, notes and sources, and index)

Genre: Non-fiction, social history

Summary: Sin in the Second City specifically discusses the rise and fall of the Everleigh Club in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. The Everleigh Club was one of the extravagant attractions of Chicago between 1900 when the high-toned brothel opened and 1912, when a crusade against vice and white slavery forced Chicago's power brokers to close it down. Woven into the story of Minna and Ada Everleigh, the sisters responsible for both the tone and the services of the Club, is the story of the reformers who seek to eradicate vice and the corrupt politicians who patronize the Club, accepting bribes in exchange for protection while publicly outraged by its presence. Abbott thoroughly documents this happy triangle. The sisters ran a clean, professional cathouse. The reformers sang hymns in front of the brothels themselves, weeping over the the young girls who fallen into these dens of sin and degradation . And the politicians took advantage of both sides.

The author clearly sympathizes with the Everleigh sisters' shrewd business sense while raising an eye-brow at the male-dominated society that alternately condoned then condemned the sexual exploitation. She enjoys the over-the-top events at the club, such as a royal patron who, while visiting Chicago on a formal state visit, visited the house of ill-repute at midnight and sipped champagne from a harlot's slipper. She notes the likelihood of whether Marshall Field, Jr. died by a gun going off while he cleaned it in the privacy of his bedroom or died in the parlour of the Everleigh Club. Decadence, wickedness and hypocrisy make for interesting bedfellows.

Abbott's writing style is snappy. The (real) people whose lives the author follows are vividly described. She captures the human foibles that infuse this particular history while unobtrusively suggesting that there are modern parallels.

Extract: The book's official web site has an excerpt available here.

Also Relevant: According to the interview I referenced above, Abbott researched her material for three years in preparing to write about the sisters and the effort shows. As she herself notes, there are times when the factual aspects of her story are more bizarre than any fiction could make plausible. Clearly the reforms that the ministers were so eager to bring about were necessary; tales of white slavery were not entirely urban myths. But the courtesans of the Everleigh House were better cared for than any other women in the profession at that time and in that locale. But as is so frequently the case, reformist zeal was more focused on bringing about the downfall of the high-profile madams rather than those less-visible panderers completely lacking in decency.

Abbott balances fairly well between recognition of the intelligence of these two women setting out to professionalize the world's oldest career and recognition of the undeniable abuse of young women who were drawn unwittingly into prostitution by promises of gaiety in the big city of Chicago. She never lapses into the arch offensiveness of the Wall Street Journal review whose author closed out his review of Sin in the Second City this way: much larger part it was killed by the change in social temper that came with the sexual revolution. Once nice girls began giving sex away, less-nice girls who charged for it were out of work. Nice girls, though this may not have been what they had in mind, thus contributed more to social reform than all the professional reformers and other visiting firemen in Chicago and elsewhere in the world.

Yeah. Right. What's that old saying? Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.

Never mind. Abbott does a good job in Sin in the Second City and the book succeeds at being both informative as well as readable.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Musings on Tell No Man

In my book collection on LibraryThing, you can find a title, Tell No Man, by Adela Rogers St. Johns. There aren’t many on LT who own the book, only four of us, and there are no reviews of it posted to the site. It was a best seller in 1966, the year in which it was originally published. I read it as an impressionable adolescent, but dipping into it some forty years later, it still is a well-told story.

Tell No Man centers on a young couple, Hank and Melanie Gavin, with another young couple, Colin and Sybil Rowe, providing a parallel sub-plot. Hank and Colin are service-buddies from their time in the Korean War. Hank, now a wealthy young stockbroker, married to Melanie, and living in Chicago, has a conversion experience following the suicide of a friend. He decides to go to seminary and ultimately follow a new career path in Christian ministry. The primary theme of the book is how one goes about the practice of Christian belief amidst the materialism of the ‘sixties culture. Melanie, his fashionable young wife, is wedded in the truest sense to Hank but has issues with his sudden change of direction, particularly as she herself has no faith in anything beyond her own fundamental competence. As I dipped into it again, I realized that this was one of the books that sent me off to read other books, such as C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce which is used as a plot device. Tell No Man is a fictional exploration of faith, but suffers from an ending which, even at age twelve, I was able to recognize as being unsatisfactory. I suspect, but have no proof, that the character of Hank was always intended to remind the reader of the Presbyterian chaplain of the Senate, Peter Marshall.

However, one of the most memorable incidents in the text is a discussion that Hank has with one of the characters when he tells of an experiment he tries with regard to reading the Bible. In the interest of approaching the Bible as a story rather than as sacred text, Hank goes searching for one that he can read the same way as he would an ordinary book, ie. no two-column formats, no footnotes or scriptural references down the middle or at the foot of the page. It's a problem for him to find one that matches his need. I remember being quite struck by that idea when I read the book initially because it was something I was aware of but hadn't quite articulated to myself. Most printed Bibles aren’t designed for purposes of extended reading. They are primarily designed from the perspective of the publisher who must keep an eye on production costs, particularly with regard to paper while balancing off any negative flack for changing the presentation of the sacred text. (You know that Bibles traditionally are printed on special tissue-thin paper so that the final printed volume isn’t the size of the thickest Harry Potter. Special ink, as well, to avoid bleed-through on the page. Very expensive process.)

All of this came up in my head during church this past Sunday. I was reading that confirmands were responsible for either having read through the complete text of the Gospel of Luke or watching it on a DVD before instruction started this week. I wondered briefly whether the students would just sit down and read it through rapidly in a traditional New Testament they might own or if, like Hank Gavin, they wished they might be able to sit down and read the Gospel in a more ordinary format. For all I know, the DVD is the new equivalent to Hank's expensive, readable Bible.

You may recall a few years ago the attempt by a publisher to package the Bible in a new format, specifically known as the Pocket Canons. I was all gung-ho until I read they'd had the temerity to abridge the Book of Psalms.

At any rate, have you ever given any thought to how the physical design and layout of a book contributes to the way in which you actually process the content?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Writing Warm-Up or Four Things Meme

Melanie of Indextrious Reader tagged me for this one. Trying to get the writing juices flowing this morning so we'll see if this works for me:

Four Jobs I've Held

Switchboard Operator - Thirty years ago, in between regular jobs, I was a switchboard operator for three days at an old institution of some sort in Washington DC. I'm talking about cords and plugs and flipping switches in order to transfer calls. It was pretty bad, even as temp jobs go.

Camp Counselor - During college, I was a camp counselor during the summers. That wasn't bad; it worked off all the weight I would gain during the academic year.

Secretary - Another job that we should be glad technology has made largely redundant. Executives should be required to type their own letters; it will keep them from surfing porn in the office.

Writer, Corporate Communications - All thinly veiled marketing. Press releases are the spawn of Satan.

Four Places I've Visited

Thailand (We lived there for two years when I was just 8 or 9. My brother was born there.)

The Netherlands (A very nice country; cab drivers would help you into the car and calmly ask "And where does Madam wish to go?" Suffice it to say that it was quite a change from the cabbies at New York's JFK.)

England (not long enough of a visit; if that company would hire me back today, I'd go on the sole condition that I be permitted annually to be in London for a week at a time. They had me doing crappy little one and two day jaunts.)

Germany (don't remember it; I was under five at the time)

Four Places I'd Rather Be

--Eaglesmere, PA (Lovely hideaway place, where Offspring #2 is currently working at the ETC School. Great opportunity for starstruck kids. I am absolutely serious when I say that they will get so much out of it.)

--London, England (see above; I desperately want the leisure to visit Persephone Books and the British Library and the Tate Museum)

--Chicago, Illinois (I'm reading Karen Abbott's social history, Sin in the Second City, which centers around a high-class brothel in Chicago at the turn of the century. Besides there's great shopping and great food in Chicago. I miss working the library meetings there.)

--Riding Amtrak (I like trains much more than planes.)

Four Foods I Like

--Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
--Vanilla Milk Shakes (along side the grilled cheese sandwich. Great taste sensation)

Those of you lazing about this August weekend may consider yourself tagged.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Innocence by David Hosp [Review]


Author: David Hosp (official author web site)

Copyright: 2007; Published by Warner Books, New York, ISBN 0-446-58014-7. (Review copy supplied by Hatchette Book Group USA)

Length: 416 pages

Genre: Legal suspense/thriller

Summary: Scott Finn is drawn into a case involving illegal immigrants against his better judgement. His is a one-man practice and he hasn't time or resources to devote to getting Vincente Salazar out of jail. Salazar was convicted of shooting a female police officer in the line of duty; attempts to clear his name and free him from jail will be received poorly by many, including some upon whom Finn depends in his professional life. By accepting the case, Finn, his private investigator friend, Tom Kozlowski, and Finn's law intern, Lissa, are caught up in a series of events ranging from spoken threats in an elevator to bloody, barbaric murder. Why is it so critical that an apparently innocent man remain in jail? Or was Salazar convicted appropriately with Finn about to engineer the release of a guilty man?

In Raymond Chandler's essay, The Simple Art of Murder, he commended Dashiell Hammett for writing "at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street." David Hosp is doing his best to write in that tradition. His plots require violent action as much as they require honesty about the flaws in our law enforcement and legal systems. The pace of the action is rapid; the reader is swept along. Characterization might not be handled with the depth found in reading P.D. James but, while on stage, these characters, first introduced in Hosp's Dark Harbor, have enough energy to maintain the reader's interest.

Extract: Available here. I will warn readers that I found the prologue (which actually precedes the extract in the book itself) to be fairly violent. Naturally, it presents the crime in context but some readers may find such an opening off-putting.

Also Relevant: Hosp makes a point about our legal system, articulating the points of friction that will inevitably exist in life, due to the limits of forensic science, the demands of society, and the emotional tensions experienced by victim, criminal and enforcer. Is Finn a modern Philip Marlowe, neither tarnished nor afraid? To return again to Raymond Chandler, he is intended to be "... a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."

The testosterone runs fairly high in this one; with some exceptions, the action is largely through the eyes of the male characters (good and bad). Female characters are tough and mouthy because the males are largely tough and silent.

Given that my personal taste runs to poison in a teacup or injury inflicted by a heavy pewter candlestick, I don't think that I'm quite the intended audience for Innocence. That said, I think there is an audience out there for Innocence who are likely to find it a satisfying read.