Barnes & Noble Should Spin Off the Nook Before It Sucks the Company Dry

The Fool Brothers, David and Tom

Now, courtesy of a couple guys in the financial world I have followed for years, here’s a potential solution to the Barnes & Noble problem that makes perfect sense.  The following is a small part of an article on the Motley Fool website of January 29:

Across the company’s close to 700 stores, comparable sales fell 3% last quarter. That’s an indication that some, but not all, of the stores are failing to live up to their expectations. Adding to that picture, comparable sales actually increased about 2% if you strip out the underperformance of the Nook from the quarter . Once the weaker stores are closed, the company should be able to generate more income through the higher-performing locations. Now the caveat: Unless the company gets its act together, the extra income from retail is just going to get swallowed by the Nook division.

[…]

The Nook needs to be spun off, posthaste. Right now, Barnes & Noble is running two companies. One of them sells books and makes money. One of them makes e-readers and loses money. The Nook is an excellent product, and it probably has a bright future, but right now it’s just sucking up resources.

I, like most casual observers, have been guilty of assuming that the Nook might actually save Barnes & Noble from extinction.  It appears that Barnes & Noble strategic planners believe (or wishfully hope) that the same thing will happen.  But maybe, as the Fools point out in this article, it’s exactly the other way around and the Nook needs to be spun off as a whole separate company – possibly giving both businesses a better chance of survival.

(The Motley Fools are brothers David and Tom Gardner.)

Resurrecting Lazarus, Texas

Simply put, if you are like most of us, reading Resurrecting Lazarus, Texas will make you feel good.
Coming-of-age novels, I suspect, have universal appeal because they remind us of our own struggles to reach adulthood in one piece.  We cannot help but see a bit of ourselves in well-crafted fictional characters trying to survive the emotions and temptations of adolescence long enough to successfully move on to the rest of their lives. We tend to root for those going through what we ourselves have already experienced.     
Author Nathan Barber so seamlessly combines high school basketball and the best elements of coming-of-age novels here that even non-sports fans will find themselves heavily invested in this story about a naïve coach from Houston and his new girls basketball team. But the teens are not the only ones coming of age here; their coach, as well as their town, will do some growing up.
Coach Gabe Lewis, short on varsity coaching experience, sees tiny Lazarus, Texas, as his last chance to snag a head-coaching job for the coming basketball season.  Little does he know, however, that the high school’s principal and its athletic director hire him mainly because he is a warm body they can get cheap – they could not possibly care less about the girls or their basketball season. In West Texas (as in the rest of the state), football is king, and no other sport comes all that close to it.
Nathan Barber
Coach Lewis and his girls will have to overcome numerous obstacles during the season, including the team’s own low expectations, the complete indifference of the town and fellow students, the aggressive hostility of other school athletes and coaches, and an emotional trauma that comes close to killing the whole community.  It is time for the girls and their rookie coach to show what they are made of – by coming of age in a very public and inspirational manner.  But can they pull it off?
Resurrecting Lazarus, Texas is one of those Young Adult novels that will inspire both its younger readers and their parents. As expected, the novel is filled with life-lessons, but those lessons are buried neatly inside an intriguing and inspirational plot – no heavy-handed lecturing. That approach should appeal to teen readers and parents, alike.

Barnes & Noble Likely to Close One-Third of Remaining Stores

The latest from Barnes & Noble is that the chain plans to close as many as one-third of its stores over the next ten years.  If that ensures that the company will be able to maintain a substantial physical presence across most urban areas far into the future, book lovers will ultimately applaud the decision.

According to this Los Angeles Times article:

The chain will end up with 450 to 500 stores in 10 years, down from the 689 physical stores it has now, according to Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail group.

That evens out to about 20 stores shuttered yearly over the period, Klipper said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Over the last decade, Barnes & Noble has balanced an average annual closing rate of 15 stores with 30 openings each year through 2009.

I live near two Barnes & Noble stores – one is 10 miles north of me and another is 6 miles west of me – and if only one of them survives the store purge, I will be happy enough.  Having spent a good bit of money, and a whole lot of time, in both the stores, I can easily predict which is most likely to make the cut. That I am already willing to drive to the store farthest from my home rather than visiting the one closest to me, tells the tale.

I have long been outspoken about what is happening in publishing and bookselling today.  And I have come down hard on the side of brick and mortar bookstores and physical copies of books (that I cannot for very long resist calling tree-books – sorry about that).  But, bottom line, I am a realist.  I know that the publishing industry is being changed in ways that will become the new norm. And that is not a bad thing.  E-books and e-readers have their place, and as someone who has always embraced new technology, I am happy about that.  I have owned an e-reader for years and have all the e-reader apps on my phone and iPad.  I do get it.

But when someone like Kim LaCapria, who describes herself as a woman who has achieved international fame and fortune as a writer,” comes along and wants to ridicule people like me, it’s game on.  We are not “luddites” or “book huggers,” lady, nor do we need “to get a grip.” 

Our internationally famous and wealthy writer friend (perhaps she is a legend in her own mind) does seem to struggle a bit with punctuation and recognizing sentence fragments when she writes one, but she sums up her sarcasm this way:

 For time and resource strapped readers, the death of the physical book opens up a world of possibility that even ten years ago barely existed, and we should, all of us, express gratitude that books have been once more made accessible to anyone with a smartphone and access to the Kindle Top 100 Free list.

So please perspectivize the Barnes & Noble closing news outside the feeling that “real books” are “warmer” or somehow more authentic. They are not, and this whole elitist idea that a more level playing field for publishing and the ability to wake up the morning of a new release with the title waiting on your device is somehow not the most awesome thing that has happened to books since libraries.

So, folks, if you can live with reading the garbage that generally populates the Kindle Top 100 Free list, you should be happy.  Just don’t expect to get many bargains prices on those new bestsellers on the morning they are published and delivered to your e-reader.

Another of my favorite bits of Kim’s Inquisitr.com piece (in which she seems not to understand the difference between “actual” and “actually”) is this one:

And while book fans — a vocal bunch who seem to spend more time posting sanctimonious graphics on Facebook about bookophilia than they do reading actually books — are not too pleased with the news, it is probably actually more a positive than a negative for the publishing industry.


How dare you sanctimonious book fans do such a thing?

Kim, your argument is not necessarily a bad one.  But the tone in which you deliver it is so distracting that you are wasting your breath if you really want anyone to take that piece seriously.

Get a grip.

Tenth of December

“The best book you’ll read this year.”
  That is a particularly bold statement for a reviewer to make in early January, but it is exactly what the New York Times had to say about Tenth of December, the new short story collection from George Saunders. That certainly grabbed my attention – especially since, to that point, I had never even heard of George Saunders.  Saunders, the author of several previous short story collections, it seems, is hitting mainstream public awareness in a very big way.
There are ten stories in the collection, each of them memorable in its own way.  Most readers, I suspect, unless they encounter the stories in a self-contained unit like this collection, would not guess that they had been written by the same author.  The stories are that different from one other in style, tone, and theme.  Included, are darkly futuristic stories, stories written from the points-of-view of children, stories about class differences, and stories of despair and redemption.
Saunders tells ten stories in 250 pages, and the longest story in the book accounts for 60 of those pages, with the shortest being only 2 pages long.  So, on average, the stories are just over 20 pages each – but what stories, they are.  They might be short, but they tackle life’s big questions, especially those pertaining to morality, life and death, and what makes each of us tick.
The book opens with a story called “Victory Lap,” in which a timid teenager struggles with the real-time decision of whether or not to go to the aid of the girl next door as she struggles with an intruder. Should he get involved or not?  Will anyone ever know if he just walks away and pretends he never saw a thing? The boy’s hesitance might be shocking, even a bit disgusting, but by story’s end, Saunders has used his skills to, at the very least, turn the young man into an understandable – and sympathetic – character. In the process of reading “Victory Lap,” one even begins to question how he might react in the same situation.
George Saunders
Some stories work better than others, of course, but I suspect that each of the ten will be the favorite of some percentage of the book’s readers because the stories speak to the reader in a very personal sense. My own favorite is the book’s title story about a little boy whose real and fantasy worlds almost seamlessly blend together.  Yet, against all odds, in a chance encounter with a stranger, the boy gives a terminally ill (and suicidal) man reason to carry on by calling upon the inner strength the man had long forgotten he ever had.
Eight of these ten stories strike me as being somewhere between very good and outstanding. Tenth of December may, or it may not, turn out to be the best book I will read in 2013. It is way too early for that – but I do thank the New York Times for bringing it to my attention as, otherwise, I would almost certainly have missed it (proving that sensationalistic headlines are not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose).

The Heat of the Sun

David Rain’s debut novel, The Heat of the Sun, is an unusual and ambitious one: an updating of one of the most famous fictional romances of the twentieth century, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.  As the opera begins, in 1904, an American Naval officer is marrying a young woman in Nagasaki, Japan. The officer returns to the United States soon after the wedding without knowing that his Japanese bride carries his child.  The young woman bears a son but, for complicated reasons, ends up taking her own life. 
Rain picks up the story in America a few years later – where the child, completely unaware of his personal history, is being raised by his father and upper class stepmother. Coincidentally (and the author is not at all bashful about asking his readers to suspend their sense of disbelief for the duration of this novel), Ben “Trouble” Pinkerton will soon meet another boy whose father played a role in Madame Butterfly’s sad fate.
Woodley Sharpless and Ben Pinkerton meet in the boarding school to which their parents have relegated them and form an attachment that, despite long periods during which they lose contact, will be the longest and most enduring friendship of their lives. Together, more times than not, the pair will play roles in some of the key events of the twentieth century – everything from experiencing the Roaring Twenties in New York City to involvement in the Los Alamos Project that would ultimately almost destroy Trouble Pinkerton’s city of birth.
David Rain
The Heat of the Sun is a wild ride, but readers willing to suspend judgment pertaining to the plausibility of the plot’s several chance-meetings between its main characters are going to enjoy that ride immensely. The author presents his story within an operatic framework: with sections marked, Overture, Act One, Act Two, Between the Acts, Act Three, Act Four, and Curtain. Each of these sections marks the passage of a number of years and a major of changing of circumstances for our narrator and other of the book’s main characters.
David Rain is an Australian author whose mother was English.  He now lives in London where he teaches writing at Middlesex University.  He numbers Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald among his favorite authors, and there are shades of both in his debut novel. The novel also reminds me a bit of John Irving’s work and, bottom line, The Heat of the Sun is one of the more imaginative debut novels I have encountered in a while.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

This is the British cover of The Heat of the Sun.  I think it gives the book a totally different “feel” going in and think the American cover is more representative of what’s inside the book.  Which do you prefer?


Top Ten Favorite Books: Alan Gurganus

Alan Gurganus, as far as I was concerned, came out of nowhere in 1989 with his wonderful Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  Little did I know that Gurganus had previously published several chapters of the book in places like The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The North American Review.  All I knew was that a novel about the “widow of the Civil War’s last surviving soldier” was something that sounded perfect for me, someone who consistently enjoys Civil War fiction.  So I jumped all over it – and now have a fairly valuable first edition copy of the novel on my shelves.

In Lucy Marsden, the 99-year-old widow referred to in the novel’s title, Gurganus created one of my all-time favorite characters.  The woman, as we say in the South, has a mouth on her.  Today, I consider the book to be one of the most underrated novels of the eighties, and I still recommend it to friends every so often.  And, at least to this point, everyone who has taken my advice has love Confederate Widow as much as I do.  This 718-page whopper is quite the reading experience.

Alan Gurganus

Which brings me back to Alan Gurganus.  Honestly, I don’t know much about Mr. Gurganus other than that he is a North Carolinian novelist, short story writer, and professor.  I doubt that this list (taken from The Top Ten, edited by J. Peder Zane) of Mr. Guranus’s Top Ten Favorite Books will tell us much about him, but you never know:  

  1. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. The stories of Anton Chekhov
  3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  4. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. A Death in the Family by James Agee
  6. Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
  7. The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde
  8. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  9. Emma by Jane Austen
  10. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
And, do read Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All if you enjoy Southern humor and irreverent historical fiction – don’t be put off by the Civil War focus – and let me know what you think of it.



Book Trailer of the Week – Truth in Advertising

I received a review copy of John Kenney’s Truth in Advertising just a couple days ago, and the book’s trailer has me wishing that it would work its way up to the top of the stack a lot sooner than it probably will.  (Watch for the author at the end of the video.)

So, through the eyes of an all-over-the-map, fake focus group, here’s a quick look at Truth in Advertising:




(19th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase)

Lincoln’s Battle with God

The common perception of Abraham Lincoln is that he was a man whose lifelong, deeply held Christian faith gave him the courage to prosecute a long and bloody war to right one of mankind’s greatest wrongs: slavery.   The facts, however, tell a different story about Lincoln’s long journey, a journey that, although it ultimately may have arrived at the same destination, involved numerous sidetracks and obstacles along the way.
As Stephen Mansfield notes in Lincoln’s Battle with God (A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America):
            “He was a complicated soul, an innovative mind, and an oppressed spirit.  He was raw and earthy and poetic.  He could be ambitious and enraged and cold…  We can hope to understand.  Yet never can we confine him; never can we seek to make him conform.”
Abraham Lincoln is, after all, a man who sporadically attended church services but never officially joined a church.  During his presidency, he often spoke of God and made Biblical references in his public addresses, but almost never mentioned Jesus Christ directly.  Many of the people of New Salem, Illinois, those who knew Lincoln longest and best, remained skeptical about his supposed Christian faith right up to the moment of his death.  And because Lincoln was such a vocal anti-Christianity advocate when they knew him, who can blame them?
Lincoln simply could not keep his personal convictions private – he never missed an opportunity to ridicule a preacher or to express his religious doubts (privately or publicly) to the more pious of his acquaintances.  Citing an old Winston Churchill saying that, “a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject,” Mansfield stresses just how obsessed Lincoln was about debunking organized religion.  His resulting anti-religion reputation cost Lincoln many a vote during his political life when preachers specifically asked their congregations to vote for his political opponents.
Stephen Mansfield
But Lincoln was a tortured soul from the beginning, and his journey would be a long one.  His mother died when he was nine years old, leaving the boy in the care (if you can call it that) of a wandering, but demanding father who saw his son more as slave labor than as a member of his family.  And it did not help that Mr. Lincoln was a Christian of the most hypocritical sort, helping to nip the boy’s budding faith in the bud. 
Through the years, Lincoln would lose others close to him, including two young sons, and would suffer from regular (and sometimes near suicidal) bouts with depression.  And just when America was most severely tested, Lincoln was forced by his incompetent Generals to redefine the presidential role of Commander-in-Chief, a role for which he was not prepared.  By war’s end, Lincoln had come to believe that God was playing a direct role in what was happening on the battlefield, that the country must pay a heavy price for its past sins before God would allow the killing to stop.  Although his evolutionary religious journey, almost complete, was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, the man who died in Washington was far different from the one who lived in Illinois.
Lincoln’s Battle with God is an eye-opener, particularly as regards Lincoln’s days in New Salem – a reminder that the real Abraham Lincoln is no less amazing a man than the mythical one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapters 57-63

Moby-Dick Big Read, Chapter 57 Illustration

The early chapters of this seven-chapter section of Moby-Dick are largely devoted to explaining more of what goes on in the typical whaling ship of the period.  Chapter 57, for instance, is devoted to the various carvings on whale teeth and rendering of whale images that the sailers devote so much time to during the crew’s downtime.  Chapter 58 describes sailing through a yellow sea of brit, the “minute, yellow substance upon which the Right Whale largely feeds,” and Chapter 60 details the make-up and proper handling of the line tied to the harpoons that bind a wounded whale to the small boat chasing it.

That chapter (“The Line”) is a reminder of how dangerous a job these men were taking on for so little pay.  Probably because I recently watched a film version of Moby-Dick, I find that coiled rope line to be one of the scariest aspects of nineteenth century whaling.  A man unlucky enough to get in the way of that whiplashing rope (only 2/3 of an inch in diameter, according to Melville) could easily lose an arm, a leg, or even be cut in half.

In Chapter 59, Ishmael describes the excitement on board ship when it appears that Moby-Dick has finally been sighted.  Eerily, when the four chase boats get close enough to see what is ahead of them, the creature turns out to be “the great live squid, which, they say, few whale-ships ever beheld, and returned to their ports to tell of it.”  No, this is not going to end well for our boys.

Chapter 61 (“Stubb Kills a Whale”) is the one that rips all associated “glory” from the whaling process and paints it in terms that make it all seem so very real – and so gruesomely bloody.  I doubt that anyone can read the following paragraph without be a bit horrified at the picture of a harpooned whale’s final moments:

“And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking, agonized respirations.  At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frightened air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea.  He heart had burst!”

As expected, George Cotkin’s  Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick offers interesting observations and speculations regarding this section of Melville’s masterpiece.  Perhaps, because of the paragraph I quoted just above, what strikes me most, however, is Cotkin’s explanation of the evolution of nineteenth century whaling techniques into those of today.  Today’s whalers have the tools that allow them to harvest whales rather than hunt them and hope to actually take 5% of the ones they chase.  Simply put, the whale does not stand a chance of escape today once it has been chosen for harvesting.  (The need for whaling is beyond me, but I am willing to listen if someone wants to argue a pro-whaling case.  Just comment, below, and we’ll begin the conversation.)

With an exception or two, the Big Read narrators do an exceptional job on this group of chapters.  One female reader, however, sounds as if she is reading from inside a hollow pipe, and another one reads so slowly and methodically that I felt much as Ishmael must have felt just before he fell asleep high up in the crow’s nest – leaving Stubbs’s whale to be spotted by men on deck the Pequod.  My “soul” almost escaped my body while Marcia Farquhar droned on…and on…and on…

Dear Life

Dear Life is my first experience with Alice Munro’s fiction – but it will not be my last. 
Munro was born and raised on a “fox and poultry” farm in Ontario and she now lives in Clinton, a little town of approximately 3,000 residents about twenty miles from that farm.  Pure and simple, Munro is a short story writer – even her one novel, Lives of Girls and Women, is in the form of a group of interrelated short stories. Dear Life, the thirteenth original short story collection that she has published since her first in 1968, is her first since 2009’s Too Much Happiness.  Interestingly, all of her stories seem to be set in the region of Canada in which Munro grew up and lives today. 
The stories in Dear Life are not so much plot driven, as they are character driven.  They feature strong, but complex, women whose lives are often changed or pushed in entirely new directions by spur of the moment decisions or chance encounters.  The reader is reminded that even what appear to be the simplest of lives are not ever so simple to the ones living them.
Strong as the women of Dear Life are, when it comes to men, many of them seem to be attracted to the “bad boy” type – and they usually suffer the consequences.  One woman, married and the mother of a little girl, has a sudden fling with a younger man while on a train trip to Toronto to housesit for a friend; a middle-aged woman living alone on remote, broken down farm takes in a soldier who decides to jump off a train near her place; an elderly woman runs off when her husband’s equally elderly old flame re-enters his life; and a rich woman has a long affair with a married man whom she figures out way too late. 
Alice Munro
In addition, this fourteen-story collection include stories about little girls and one about a confused old woman akin to the kind of tale often found in the classic “Twilight Zone” television series.  The collection’s final four stories are set in a separate unit of their own, and are described by the author as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.”  These four stories are intriguing snapshots of incidents, one must suppose, that are based on something from Munro’s own life, but rather surprisingly, they do not carry the emotional impact of the earlier stories. 
Dear Life is an excellent introduction to Alice Munro’s fiction, to her unforgettable characters and the sheer power of her stories.  She is not a novelist but, somehow, her best stories read like mini-novels, and they say as much about the human condition as will be found in most full-length novels. 
Alice Munro is a true short story master.

Book Chase Is Six

Another year is done.  Book Chase officially turns six years old today.  Honestly, I can’t believe I’m still doing this and having so much fun in the process.  And that’s thanks to the amazing feedback and participation that you guys add to the experience.  So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for being such a big part of my last six years.

Now for the traditional recap, the boring numbers (I’m deep at heart just a number cruncher, I guess).

Six Years of Book Chase means:

820 Book Reviews
137 Posts about Bookstores
204 Posts about Authors
456 Posts about Book News
172 Book or Country Music Related YouTube Videos
95 Posts about E-Books
115 Posts about Libraries
72 Posts about Audiobooks
50 Posts about Avid Readers

2,087 Posts in total
10,557 Comments
210 Regular Blog Followers

Top Ten Search Terms Leading Someone to Book Chase:
sarah’s key
sarahs key
book rating system
british library
lynndie england
pride and prejudice and zombies
juliet hulme
porno  (because of my review of a book called Johnny Porno, I hope)
paddington bear
virgin suicides true story

Book Chase Is Read Most in These Countries:
United States
United Kingdom
Canada
Netherlands
France
Germany
Australia
Israel
Russia
Denmark

My sincere thanks go to all my fellow book bloggers who keep me so inspired by their great work, and to all the readers, authors, publishers, libraries, and bookstores that have been such an integral part of my life.  Year Seven starts today…

Why Does Barnes & Noble Hate Me?

A Book Lover Watches the B&N Brand Sink Before His Eyes

I love Barnes & Noble.  

I hate Barnes & Noble.

And I think that Barnes & Noble feels exactly the same about me.

Why else would the last major bookstore chain still standing work so hard to ruin the experience of actually visiting its physical locations?  

Looking for a newspaper, especially one not local?  Forget it…long gone.  Want to spend an hour or two browsing the store’s bookshelves but find it difficult to stand for such an extended period of time?  Forget it.  All those little corners with nice chairs to rest in for a moment are a thing of the past.  Even more disconcerting is the fact that it might not take two hours these days to browse the shelves of some B&N stores because the number of physical books being shelved seems to be dropping by the month – with more space than ever before being devoted to the Nook e-reader, games, movies, CDs and DVDs, puzzles, toys, etc.  

But the biggest culprit on the list is the Nook.  One of my local B&Ns has carved out a hugely wasteful amount of empty space around its Nook display area – with a whole corner of floor space having become just an empty spot behind the artificial wall built for the display area.  That is space that could be used to shelve a few hundred more books…but that’s no longer important enough to B&N strategic planners to distract from the ever mighty Nook.

Barnes & Noble management has decided to put all the company’s eggs into one big Nook Basket.  They have, it seems, decided to live or die with their e-reader and, at this point, it is beginning to look like they are going to let it kill the company.  B&N was late coming to the e-book game (as was, for that matter, any company following Amazon’s Kindle) and the competition from new vendors and gadgets is increasing every quarter.  Rather than growing market share in the e-reader arena, B&N will be very lucky to hold on to a percentage of the market anywhere close to what it holds today.  iPads, mini iPads, smart phones, tablets, smaller and lighter PCs, and new competition from dedicated e-readers (along with Amazon’s dominance of e-book sales) makes it almost certain that Nook and e-book sales will not be the magic pill that saves Barnes & Noble from the fate suffered by Borders.

Barnes and Noble management, please listen up for a second.  You are not Amazon and you never will be.  Your best chance to build the company is to make the experience of shopping with you something that a book lover cannot find anywhere else.  Make sure that a visit to your bookstores is something the consumer enjoys and looks forward to repeating.  Sell books and Nooks, but don’t go digital at the expense of those of us who want to shop for tree-books we can carry home, read, and place on our own shelves.  Give me an experience I can’t get on the Internet.

Offer more in-store author tours, display more new titles from publishers of all sizes (including indies), urge your excellent on-floor staff to talk books with customers (and listen to what we want from you), push the book club concept by providing meeting space (like many of your stores did in the good old days), and bring back those chairs and benches, for a start.  

You are not going to make it by trying to compete so directly against Amazon.  You are not Amazon, and we don’t need another Amazon.  Those guys can probably afford to give away Kindles (I keep expecting them to do exactly that one day) because of the way they dominate sales of e-books.  You can’t afford to do that, so do something different.

Remind your loyal customers of why we used to spend so much time in your stores.  We want to love you again – but we want our love returned.  Frankly, about the only thing that I really enjoy when I visit my local B&N stores anymore is looking through the “Bargain Books.”  And, even that small pleasure has been diminished greatly by one store manager’s decision to cut those titles to a bare minimum (meaning that I drive farther to a B&N location that has twice as many marked down books on display).

Real book lovers are pulling for you, B&N…as are publishers who are already in enough trouble on their own.  They need your shelf space desperately.  Can’t you guys get together and make this thing work?

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Most avid readers are, I suspect, at least somewhat fond of that fictional subgenre in which the world of books is intricately incorporated into the storyline.  When this is done well, there is no greater reading pleasure to be found.  And there is something out there for every reading taste: literary fiction, mysteries, thrillers – and in the nonfiction field, true crime titles about book thieves, forgeries, and the like. 
Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is a worthy addition to the genre – a novel at which booklovers will definitely want to take a look.
Young Clay Jannon, the book’s narrator, is a recently unemployed San Francisco web-designer who is not having any success finding a new job.  Clay, like so many of us, gets online with good intentions and specific goals in mind, but finds himself, hours later, wondering how he managed to waste so much time aimlessly browsing the web.  Most importantly, he remains unemployed – and has no new leads – at the end of each day of his “job search.” 
So, when he stumbles upon a “help wanted” sign in the window of a 24-hour bookstore, Clay is all over it.  After a quick job interview (that largely consists of climbing a tall ladder to the store’s top shelves and acrobatically retrieving the specified volume) Clay is installed as the bookstore’s overnight proprietor.  But, as Clay soon learns, this is no ordinary bookstore.
First, he is lucky if he sees more than one customer during any given night.  Second, the only books actually for sale are kept on just a few shelves right at the front of the store.  Third, the several thousand books housed on the bookshelves that line the bulk of this tall, narrow bookstore are only there to be loaned, one-at-a-time, to specific customers (a rather strange lot) who exchange a previously borrowed book for a new one. 
Something is up.  And Clay wants to find out what it is. 
Robin Sloan
Soon, using his programming skills, intimacy with the Internet, and a select group of similarly skilled friends, Clay begins to unravel the mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  And, what a fun ride it is – especially if you love books, conspiracy theories, and unlikely quests.
Interestingly, the world created here by Robin Sloan is one in which even the most adamant advocates of the printed book and those who ardently embrace the digital world of e-books do more than just co-exist. The story focuses on a “best of both worlds” scenario that results in the discovery of a basic, but beautiful, simple truth about life.
Sloan’s writing style lends itself to a relatively quick reading of this little book, and that’s not at all a bad thing because most readers will be eager to solve the book’s inherent mystery.  I should note, however, that one of the book’s side-plots did, in my estimation, more to slow the story’s momentum than to add anything useful, or all that interesting, to the story.  Most readers, though, will easily forgive this.

Author John Harvey Gets a Makeover

One of my favorite crime writers, the U.K.’s John Harvey, has just had a complete makeover over at Random House.  Get a load of these gorgeous new covers for John’s backlist:

In order to get the real impact of these new covers, just click anywhere on it to see an enlargement of the entire image.
John Harvey
Especially when I was primarily buying all my reading material in paperback, I used to really love it when a publisher did something like this.  It is, as the publishers are probably well aware, another incentive for a book collector to buy an entire series or run of a favorite new author’s work.  I still think this kind of thing is something that e-books simply cannot match or compete with.  Most e-book covers are “cheapened” by the amateurish cover art with which they present themselves to the world.  Tree-book publishers should take advantage of that oversight.

Even Mr. Harvey is excited about this.  As he says over on his blog,Just terrific. Font, image, everything. Happy writer, happy man!”

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

Ashley Clements is Lizzie Bennet

OK, this looks like fun.  Are you ready for a modernized, vlog-style (video log) retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?  Don’t be too quick to write it off, because the sample episodes I’ve watched are quite clever…and funny.  


Each YouTube episode runs somewhere between two and five minutes in length – and the good news is that this thing started almost a year ago, so you won’t have to wait for new episodes to be posted for quite a while.  (I think, based on what I see at lizziebennet.com that there are 78 episodes to this point.)  Heck, this thing even has a few of “spin-offs” – and, from what I gather, some of the “characters” participate in various social media outlets – to its credit, so Jane Austen fans should be set for a while.

Per, Wikipedia, these are the spinoffs:

The Lydia Bennet

This spin-off of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries chronicles the adventures and mishaps of the youngest Bennet sister, Lydia. The blog is only maintained whenever Lizzie and Lydia are separate from one another and Lydia cannot appear on the main blog. Lydia begins the videos when Jane and Lizzie are staying at Netherfield. Lydia goes to live with her cousin Mary (Briana Cuoco), who at first is unhappy with Lydia’s presence but the two bond as friends. Lydia resumes the blog when Lizzie is visiting Charlotte and has several adventures with Mary and Jane. After Lizzie and Lydia’s fight in episode 73, Lydia uses the blog to vent her frustration at Lizzie as well as chronicle her adventures while Lizzie is at Pemberley, including a trip to Las Vegas on New Year’s.

[edit]Maria of the Lu

Charlotte Lu begins her new job at Collins & Collins. Her younger sister Maria Lu (Janice Lee) begins a video blog to record her internship with the company.

[edit]Collins and Collins

Mr. Collins’s company produces instructional videos in the series “Better Living with Collins and Collins.” The first, and currently only, video in the series is “Troubleshooting your Illumination Regulator,” in which Maria Lu shows how to operate a light switch and how to fix potential problems with light switches. The second and yet unreleased video in the series is called “Changing Bulbs: A One-Person Job.”

To get you started, here’s Episode 1.  The dedicated website has a link to “catch up on the story from the beginning,” that will save you a bit of time searching for the individual episodes.

Hit Me

Keller is back – and he’s up to his old tricks.  Still living in post-Katrina New Orleans with his wife and little girl, our supposedly-retired hit man has more time on his hands than he would like.  The legitimate construction business that did so well for him following the devastating hurricane that was Katrina is now on the skids.  Keller’s good friend and business partner has taken a job with another construction outfit while Keller happily spends his days with his family – and his beloved stamp collection. 
But Keller really hates to tap too deeply into his savings and, because he has spotted some stamps he would really love to add to his collection, when his longtime partner in crime calls, he is ready to listen.  Dot, like Keller, has been forced to create a new identity (and life) in order to avoid the repercussions of their last escapade, but now she is ready to earn a little extra cash.  The timing of her call could not have been better.
Before he knows it, Keller has accepted, survived, and highly profited from five assassinations that take him to Dallas, New York, a Caribbean cruise, Colorado, and Buffalo – where someone is willing to pay big bucks to have a 14-year-old boy killed.  And, believe it or not, you’re going to be rooting for Keller the entire time.
Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block, probably best known for his Matthew Scudder novels, is one of the more prolific writers out there these days.  Hit Me is, in fact, the fifth book in what Block calls his “Keller’s Greatest Hits” series.  The first three books are short story collections, the fourth one (which I loved) is the first novel in the series – and this new one feels at times more like a chronological presentation of short stories than a novel.
I say this because some of the same details about Keller’s background, personal habits, stamp collecting philosophy, etc. are included in several of the book’s “chapters” and each new unit is formatted more like a short story than the next chapter of a novel.  The book’s title page is clearly marked as “A Keller Novel,” but its content most definitely lends itself to publication as individual short stories, as well.
Keller and Dot (and now Keller’s wife, Julia) are memorable characters.  Now that Julia has come to grips with her husband’s choice of occupation, her role in future Keller novels and stories offers Block endless possibilities.  But the relationship between Dot and Keller is still one of the best things about the series.  The two death merchants, whose communication happens exclusively via telephone, exchange the kind of jokes, wordplay, and one-liners that keep them, and their readers, from falling into too dark a mood about what they are plotting.  That Dot’s humor is mostly of the “groaner” variety, and that Keller often pretends not to get it, is part of the fun.
(Stamp collectors, and those even a bit curious about that world, will be pleased with Block’s attention to this part of Keller’s background, as well – others, maybe not so much.  I am in the “pleased” group.”)
These Keller books are fun, and if dark humor is your thing, you will definitely enjoy them.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Oh, Great…World’s First Public Library with No Books

So here we go again…another example of a bookless library that caters to the lowest common denominator in the name of being “cutting edge.” According to the Mail Online website, “The world’s first public library with no books…is scheduled to open this fall in San Antonio, Texas.” And the misguided fool who designed it, Nelson Wolf, is quoted in the same article as saying, “If you want to get an idea what it looks like, go to an Apple store.” Well, excuse me for being both unimpressed and underwhelmed by that mental picture, Nelson.

 

The plan is to turn a 4,989 square-foot county building into a sleek, modern space that will have 100 e-readers available for circulation and to take out, 50 e-readers for children, 50 computer stations, 25 laptops and 25 tablets.

County residents will be able to take out books on any of the devices in the library, take out one of the 50 e-readers for a period of time or bring their own e-readers to the library and load books onto their own devices.

Take a look at those numbers for just a second: 100 e-readers available for loan to patrons, 25 laptops, 25 tablets, 50 computer stations, and an additional 50 e-readers dedicated strictly for use by children.  And all of 10,000 e-books to choose from (big whoop).  So the entire facility (I refuse to call this atrocity a library) will service a grand total of 250 people at a time…counting the walk-aways who take e-readers home with them.

Of course, there will be wifi for walk-ins who bring their own devices.  But why would they want to do that when they can already download library e-books from home anyway?  

 Does no one realize that “cutting edge” is a two-way sword and that not everything need, or should, be cutting edge? Stupid, stupid, stupid…another Starbucks-without-coffee being funded by public tax dollars.

Moby Dick – Starring William Hurt and Ethan Hawke

I am almost 50% of the way through the Moby-Dick Big Read now (in number of pages, if not in number of chapters, read) and until last night I was still having a hard time “humanizing” the Captain Ahab character.  Oh, I understood his reckless motivation for this particularly whaling trip and all that, and I genuinely liked Quee-Queg, Ishmael, and some of the other characters, but the novel still did not seem real to me.  I just could not picture what life on a cramped whaling ship of that era must have been like.

So when I stumbled upon Encore’s 2011 film version of Moby-Dick late last night, I knew I had to immediately sit down and watch a few minutes of it.  Before I knew it, late as it was (ah, the beauty of retirement), I had watched almost all of the 90-minute Part 1 of the movie.  And now, I am re-inspired and anxious to get back to Melville’s novel – and the rest of the movie.

Although the movie is billed as a “reimagnined” version of Herman Melville’s novel, it works quite well – at least during the 75 minutes I’ve watched so far.  Strangely, this film version creates a relatively major character by the name of Elizabeth, the loving wife of Captain Ahab.  She is attractive, patient, and as loving a wife as a man could want, a good mother to their young son (who appears to be about eight or nine years old).  She is concerned that her husband is not physically ready for another voyage and asks Starbuck to look after him just as the Pequod sails off to meet her fateful battle with Moby Dick.

This is a beautiful movie and it gives a good sense of what it must have been like on the stormy sea and within the confines of the crew’s below-deck quarters.  I recognized some of the key scenes in the movie as being very closely lifted from the book, but other scenes were not familiar to me at all – especially the opening one.  These, I suppose, are more of the changes made for this “reimagined” Moby Dick.

Honestly, I’m not sure where my sudden interest in Melville and Moby-Dick has come from, but now I want to, at the very least, sample each of the other film versions of Moby-Dick that have been created over the last several decades.

And, lastly, the movie’s official trailer:

Starring: William Hurt (Ahab), Ethan Hawke (Starbuck), Gillian Anderson (Elizabeth), Charlie Cox (Ishmael), and Raul Trujillo (Quee-Queg)

The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century

Harry Turtledove introduced me to the whole alternate history genre way back in the early nineties with The Guns of the South, his brilliant take on the American Civil War.  Turtledove is all over the alternate history map with books that even include aliens invading Earth during WWII, and the like, but my other favorite of his, Ruled Britannia, sees William Shakespeare using his writing skills to motivate the populace to overthrow their Spanish oppressors.  It is only fitting then that Mr. Turtledove is the editor of this collection of some of the alternate history stories considered to be the best ones written last century.
The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century includes fourteen stories (one of which is 100 pages long) that offer “what if” re-imaginings of everything from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, to George McGovern’s Vietnam-era election victory over Richard Nixon, to Shakespeare lost in the New World and living with an Indian tribe, and on to more commonly-themed tales involving a German victory in World War II and a Southern one in the Civil War.
Harry Turtledove
The longest, and oldest, of the stories (“Bring the Jubilee”) dates to 1952 and the most recent (this collection was published in 2001) was written in 2000 – with the majority of the tales having been first published in the eighties and nineties.  Some of the more recognizable author names are: Harry Turtledove, Kim Stanley Robinson, Larry Niven, Greg Bear, Poul Anderson, and Ward Moore. 
My personal favorite is one of the more oddball ones in the collection, a story by Nicholas A. DiChario called “The Winterberry,” in which John F. Kennedy survives the head-wounds he suffered in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  It is a touching tale of innocence, family love and loyalty, and overwhelming sadness.  Even if you never read another alternate history story, I think the ones like this one – the non-military themed ones – will appeal to most any reader.  And, who knows?  You just might find yourself intrigued enough to read others in this fun genre.

Michael Chabon’s Top Ten Favorite Books

I have been reading Michael Chabon since 1988 (I just pulled my first edition copy of Chabon’s debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh off my shelves to check the date) and he continues to keep me entertained and make me think.  Chabon, the author, is simply an interesting man.

Back in 2007, for a book called The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Chabon picked his personal Top Ten Favorite Books:

  1. Labyrinths by Jorge Louis Borges
  2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
  3. Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
  4. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  6. Tales of Mystery and Inspiration by Edgar Allan Poe
  7. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  8. Paradise Lost by John Milton
  9. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  10. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
I’ve noticed that many of the writers have chosen books that at least somewhat resemble their own writing style or preferred themes.  That’s a little harder for me to spot in this particular list because I’ve only read four of the titles (Numbers 4, 5, 9, and 10) myself.  
I misplaced The Top Ten at least two years ago, maybe longer, so it was a nice surprise when the little book turned up tonight.  In addition to the Author Top Tens, there are a few other interesting composite lists in the book.  Like this one:
The Top Top Ten List 
  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov
  10. Middlemarch by George Eliot
This list is based on the individual rankings of the 125 writers who provided Top Tens for the book.  It is ordered by allotting ten points for every first place ranking a title received, nine for second place, eight points for third, etc.