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Book Reviews

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Made to Break

The nonfiction book that I’m reading right now is worth talking about well before I’m finished.

The book is Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America by Giles Slade. The book is a history of consumerism and the factors that led American inventors and companies to deliberately create obsolence in consumer products. Ok maybe that doesn’t sound like simulating reading but it really is.

The book opens with the shocking numbers of computers and cell phones that are discarded annually. For example, “in 2005 more than 100 million cell phones were discarded in the United States.” That’s 50,000 tons of still-usable equipment. The compact design of cell phones means that it is easier to throw them away than disassemble them, recycle them, and make new ones. All those phones, added to the number of discarded PCs, then the number of TVs are equal to a toxic time bomb according to Slade. “We do not have enough landfills to store and then ignore America’s growing pile of electronic trash.”

Good heavens.

The big scary numbers in the introduction captured my attention, but the real grabbers were in the upcoming chapters on what led to today’s present toxic state, all of which are a contributing factor to the climate crisis Al Gore talks about in the movie An Inconvenient Truth.

Basically mass production is one of our great problems. In the late 19th-centry when the economy changed from man-powered to machine-driven, company bosses stayed up at night worrying about that fact that they could over produce more goods than could be readily consumed. Rather than reducing production, they came up with ways to get people to consume more.

Slade gives a brief history of crackers—once sold in a barrel and then individually packaged and “branded” with guaranteed freshness—of King Camp Gillette and his invention of disposable razors, and other crazy stories.

It’s fascinating to think about the origins of branding and packaging, how clever we were at creating repetitive demand, how we sat around dreaming up ways to encourage disposability of things—some of which I greatly appreciate like sanitary pads and tampons, bathroom tissue and bandaids but also of consumer electronics,  automobiles and clothes.

Slade talks about the anti-thrift campaigns during and after the First World War, during the Depression, and after the Second World War, and how entrenched that thinking is today. He talks about the history of the automobile and the creation of the annual model change—change for style sake vs. change for improvement. The Academy Awards make an appearance in the story as an example of a marketing strategy to encourage repetitive consumption. The movie industry’s own version of the annual model change, as was the New York Times’ establishment of the bestseller list for books.

Slade’s story involves a lot of name dropping, but I love it. He’s got the history of autos and why we started painting them different colours, the history of light bulbs, the history of crackers (the National Biscuit Company, which we know as Nabisco), and the history of the radio and why RCA was adamently against FM radio (it was seen as a direct competitor to TV, which was not yet being marketed).

Made to Break is a wild read, and I’m only a third of the way through.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Anansi Boys Tops My Charts

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and it is my favourite book of 2006. I know there’s still a lot of the year left but honestly I can’t imagine what its contenders could do to knock it from the top of my charts.

Anansi Boys is about two brothers: Fat Charlie Nancy and Spider Nancy. Fat Charlie is totally embarrassed by his father, who seems to be a free-wheeling, lady charmer. Fat Charlie puts a whole ocean between himself and dad. He moves to London and is engaged to Rosie. Rosie finds out that he has a father and wants him invited to the wedding. Fat Charlie has no contact info for his dad so he has to call up a long-time neighbour, Callyanne Higgler. Turns out dad is dead and Charlie needs to come home to Florida for the funeral. While he and Higgler are cleaning out dad’s house, she mentions that Charlie has a brother and if he wants to talk to him he only needs to speak to a spider. Ya right.

For very funny, drunken reasons Charlie does happen to be talking to a garden spider and says hey if you see my brother tell him to drop by. Indeed the next day Spider appears and quite quickly gets Charlie in bed with another woman, gets him investigated by the police for fraud, steals his girlfriend, and has him making deals with the bird woman.

Turns out dad is a god and Spider has god-like qualities too. They each are A Nancy. Fat Charlie is a nancy in the British sense of the word. Dad is Anansi the Spider of the African/Caribbean folktales. Spider is a spin-off (ha ha ha). Anyway, this novel is magical the way that The Time Traveler’s Wife or Our Lady of the Lost and Found is magical. The magic and fantasy are part of the story, but the writing is not what people typically imagine when they think “fantasty writing”.

The Time Traveler’s Wife and Our Lady of the Lost and Found were previous years’ top favourites so I’m now starting to see a trend with my own reading that I never saw before. Thank you blog.

In short, if you have not read Neil Gaiman or The Anansi Boys, get out and read this book. It’s beyond fantastic.

Amazon.ca has an excerpt of the first chapter if you need to peruse of the writing. And here’s the Wikipedia entry for Anansi in case you’ve never heard of the west African trickster Anansi.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Value of Reader Programs

Sometime back in January I wrote about the book Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach.

I enjoyed the book and it has been fun watching it appear on store shelves and to see it reviewed, such as last weekend in the Globe and Mail.

I enjoy programs like M&S’s 100 Reader’s Club and Harper Collins’ First Look because they raise the profile of certain titles in my mind. I might have missed or ignored Daniel Isn’t Talking but instead it is like a beacon for me. I see it on bookstands and tell people what a great book it is, I read the reviews and then blog about it. I even read Marti’s blog. I find the insights into her life and her own son’s autism experiences fascinating—sometimes sad but there are moments of triumph that are great to hear about.

I appreciate that I’m not bombarded with books in these programs. I pick the Harper Collins’ books I want to read, and M&S selects a few titles a year that they want large groups of people to read: in fact on Friday I recommended David Bergen’s The Time in Between, which is the first book I read in the M&S club (May 2005 post).

These books stick with me.

As a book reader I love these programs. As a book marketer, I wonder how publishers measure the programs’ value?

I suspect publishers want to see sales lift for the titles in the programs. What I imagine, though, is that sales are not easily correlated to reader program activity. I fear is that publishers will abandon these programs because they perceive the program as a lot of work for very little pay off—pay off being measured only in sales.

So what are the costs? Here’s my imaginary scenario.

By my estimate there’s the cost of the advance reading copy, which could be anywhere from $3-7. Let’s use $5 for this example. Plus the shipping, let’s say $5 per title. Then there’s the admin stuff—staff to oversee the program, mail out the packages, post reviews, etc.—not a wild guess entirely but let’s say it takes one person 8 hours per month to manage the program and we pay them $15/hr. And, we’ll release 4 different titles a year to approximately 100 people each time.

Each title costs $5 + $5 shipping = $10 x 100 people x 4 times per year = $4000
Plus admin costs of $120/month x 12 months = $1440

Total cost to run our imaginary program would be $5440 per year.

Is that a lot?

If a new paperback costs retail $24.95 and we give the bookstore a 50% discount, then we earn $12.48 per title, but we have to pay for the printing, production and overhead costs, plus royalties to the author. Let’s guess our further costs are 50% of that so we earn $6.23 per book. We’d have to sell 873 copies of the book just to cover the cost of our reader program. That’s breakeven, no profits. Then considering the typical volume for a paperback in its first year—3,000-10,000 copies—you can see my fears about “is it worth it?”

It’s hard to guess at the real costs, revenues and profits so I’m open to corrections on the above math.

Regardless, I’d like to argue against only measuring the success of the program by book sales.

I believe that if the publisher can cover the costs of the program then the true value is in the branding of the reader program and the authors involved. Remember the books in these programs stick with me. I have recommended the titles to at least 10 friends. Every book buying survey I’ve ever read shows that book readers are more likely to buy a book recommended by a peer than because of an advertisement in the newspaper. So $5400 could buy a publisher one or two small newspaper ads or 100 people talking about a book they loved and the publisher’s reader program. For $5400, the publisher gets increased recognition of an author name, awareness of the book on store shelves, in reviews and interviews, and recognition of the publisher name.

Brian Quinn in his Thursday newsletter on sales strategies, “Selling the Sizzle” (MediaPost Publications), uses the metaphor of fajitas in a Mexican restaurant. He opens with “Have you ever been to a Mexican restaurant when patrons at the table next to you receive their sizzlin’ fajitas?” You can hear the sound. All eyes in the restaurant turn to check out the “crackling, smoking plate of spicy delights.”

Reader Programs to me are the sizzle in the publishing industry. The right kind of sizzle can mean sales but the huge payoff for the publisher is in brand awareness—increasing their portion of the market’s attention for their targetted books.

With an integrated marketing campaign—single message to multi-channels (book readers, reviewers, booksellers, teachers, librarians)—a publisher can significantly enhance overall brand awareness and relationships with key members of the book-buying population.

I think there is incredible value in the branding opportunities for authors and publishers. What do you think?

Monday, May 22, 2006

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest edition to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is perhaps the best yet. I finished reading it this morning.

The Lady Detective, Precious Ramotswe, is as charming as Alexander McCall Smith, who I once had the pleasure of meeting.

The series is often described as Miss Marpole in Botswana. It’s a good comparison, however, in Miss Marpole I recall the story being more about the mystery. In the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency the mystery is often secondary to the tales of Mma Ramotswe, her husband, her assistant, and the many secondary characters. It the mysteries of human nature that I find so charmingly related in this series.

As I mentioned, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies—the latest edition in the series—was the best yet. The first book was a great set up, books two and three were also great, then I felt like there was a mid-series lull. I decided to read In the Company of Cheerful Ladies because I still love the characters. It was definitely worth the read.

For more on the series and to read the first chapter of In the Company of Cheerful Ladies check out Amazon.ca.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Inspector Banks

Do you know Inspector Banks?

In February, McClelland & Stewart sent me a charming note about crime novelist Peter Robinson and his latest novel Piece of My Heart.

Now I’m not a mystery or crime reader. I don’t have any stuck-up, snobby feelings about mystery novels, I just associate mysteries with television series. I’m a huge fan of a certain Sherlock Holmes—Jeremy Brett.

I’m not sure why I’ve never taken to reading mysteries. Nevertheless, my contact at M&S assured those of us in the 100 Readers’ Club to take a chance: “I know some of you may be thinking that mysteries are not your cup of tea.” That was exactly what I was thinking, just at that very moment. But she continued to convince me.

Mr. Inspector has been sitting on my bedside table for some time now. I’ve been reading a shocking amount lately and just couldn’t get to him. But now, Quill & Quire is in on the gig to convince Canadians that they shouldn’t pass up Inspector Banks.

Quill says that Robinson is an international superstar. He’s a bestseller in Sweden, France, Italy—he’s made the New York Times bestseller list and the Sunday Times bestseller list. He’s also Canadian, formerly of Yorkshire but he moved to Canada in 1974 to study creative writing under Joyce Carol Oates at the University of Windsor. That last bit is what really sold me on Robinson. I’m not sure why those things seem important to me, but as one not familiar with mystery writers, the familiarity of names such as Oates and that Robinson lives in Canada make me more keen to open the book.

The name dropping that truly closed the “sale” for me was Otto Penzler. Otto is a well-known New York bookseller and editor. He is the crime guy as far as I’m concerned. And according to Quill, Robinson is working on a short story for an Otto Penzler anthology.

I get it. This guy is going to be great. Inspector Banks is going to be great. Here I go to read my first mystery novel.

About Piece of My Heart
There are two parallel stories: the murder of a young woman at an outdoor concert in Yorkshire in 1969 and the present-day murder of a freelance music journalist, who was working on a feature about the Mad Hatters, a fictional band inspired by Pink Floyd.

I’ll let you know how it all turns out. If you’ve read an Inspector Banks novel, fill me in on the details. I understand that Banks has aged through the series and I’d like the juicy background details.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Anosh Irani’s Bombay

Anosh Irani and Sheryl MacKayThis afternoon I attended a recording for the CBC Studio One Book Club. The guest author this week was Anosh Irani [seen in the photo with Sheryl MacKay in CBC Studio One]. Anosh published his first novel with Raincoast Books, The Cripple and His Talismans.

I was completely hooked on his writing the first time I read the novel, then I happened to get tickets to his play The Matka King, which was put on by the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver. What impresses me about Anosh is his ear for dialogue. The dialogue in his novels is especially engaging. It is witty and sarcastic and there’s a beautiful flow between the narrative and the dialogue. It’s not like some books where the dialogue seems completely structured.

Reading The Cripple and HIs Talismans was like reading an Indian Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A sense of doom hangs in the story, but it is mixed with strangely magical moments. There are passages in the book that are still vivid in my imagination. Magical realism from Bombay.

Anosh mentioned in the book club today that his new book is more realistic whereas The Cripple was more surreal. In an interview with John Burns in The Georgia Straight Anosh said that he’s looking to create a series of stories about Bombay that each reveal a different side to the city.

It was certainly clear today listening to Anosh speak about his childhood, his parents, moving to Vancouver and his writing, that there are many more stories to come. This is one author who is definitely on my radar. His new play, Bombay Black, is being produced in Toronto by Cahoots Theatre. If you have the chance to go, please let me know how it is. I’m hoping that the Arts Club puts it on here in Vancouver.

More about Anosh Irani’s The Song of Kahunsha
The Song of Kahunsha is set in Bombay in 1993 at the time of the violent clashes between the Muslims and Hindus. Ten-year-old Chamdi has left his orphanage for the streets of Bombay. He’s searching for his long-lost father and has no hope in hell of finding him, yet he is a boy filled with hope. The novel is his struggle with his new friendships, the enemies on the street and his own dreams. You can read the reviews and descriptions on Amazon.ca.

Also check out The Cripple and His Talismans. A fantastic read. And if you find it in hardcover, the design is beautiful. It is red cloth over board with embossed symbols on the cover.

More about CBC Studio One Book Club
Always enjoyable to see how the radio works. You can be an audience member by entering the CBC online contests to win a seat. Usually you have to write a snippet on why you want to attend. May 7 is David Suzuki. Watch for details on http://www.cbc.ca/bc/bookclub/. The book club is hosted by Sheryl MacKay of CBC Radio and John Burns of the Georgia Straight, and is recorded for broadcast on North by Northwest and other CBC Radio programs. Anosh’s recording should be on next weekend.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Book Review of Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

I just finished reading an advance copy of Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow. It is by Faiza Guene, a child of Algerian immigrants, who grew up in the public housing projects of Pantin, outside Paris. This is her first book and I believe she wrote it as a teenager, she’s now in university.

Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow was originally published in French and this is the translated version. There are a couple of references to North American TV that I hope are the author’s original references and not the translator’s attempt to Americanize it for a US audience. That aside, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow is a brilliant insight into the teenage mind, the mind of a girl who is bullied because of her not-right, bargain sale clothes, her learning skills, and her poverty. This isn’t just the story of an immigrant experience in the Paris projects, it’s the story of growing up and the displaced teenage years. I particularly enjoyed the Paris references though. The current student protests and the riots last summer make a little more sense to me—the volatility, the insecurity, the pressure of those on the fringe.

Laila Lalami of MoorishGirl.com reviewed it and said, “moving and irreverent, sad and funny, full of rage and intelligence. Her voice is fresh, and her book a delight.”

Here’s an excerpted quote from Amazon.ca
He thought I’d forged my mom’s name on the slip. How stupid is that? On this thing Mom just made a kind of squiggly shape on the page. That jerk didn’t even think about what he was saying, didn’t even ask himself why her signature might be weird. He’s one of those people who think illiteracy is like AIDS. It only exists in Africa.
—from Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow

I really like the cover of this book, check it out on Amazon.ca.

Friday, March 03, 2006

What’s Up in Canadian Publishing

As my friend John says, “it was a week from hell.”

Actually it wasn’t too hellish, it’s just that my dear friend is moving back to London, UK. I’m happy that she’ll be happy but I’m sad that I’ll be sad.

So for the sake of tossing down a blog post and moving quickly into the weekend, here’s a round up of the very interesting things going on in Canadian publishing.

Atwood’s LongPen
Margaret Atwood demos the LongPen at the London Book Fair. The LongPen is Atwood’s invention, which lets authors autograph books long distance. She’ll demonstrate at the fair by signing upstairs a book that is downstairs. Then her pen will cross the Atlantic and autograph a book at the Book Shelf in Guelph. Very cool. If anyone attends the event, please take photos.

That guy Craig Ferguson
Craig Ferguson, host of the Late Late Show has written a book. I’ve just finished reading an advance copy of his novel Between the Bridge and the River. Absolutely hilarious and quite beautiful. Craig Ferguson is obviously a smart guy. The clever and slapstick humour that works on The Late Late Show is present in the book, but at times I thought he was channeling Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The story is about two friends and two brothers. The friends are both Scottish and they’ve since grown up. One has become a late night tv evangelist, who gets blow jobs before he goes on camera to preach the word of the Lord. The other is a fuddy-duddy who’s just learned that he’s chronically ill. He decides to commit suicide in style, ends up in Paris, falls deeply and madly in love—which is where many of the most beautiful passages of writing are in the book—and, well, I won’t tell you if he goes or not.

The brothers of the story are also evangelists, but they start out in Hollywood. The sexually perverted brother is the talented brother’s agent. Things go horribly wrong, as they often do, but they find redemption in tv evangelism, and happen to invite the Scottish religious guy to one of their conventions.

Ferguson pokes fun at the Scottish, Catholics, Protestants, terrorists, Hollywood, religious fanatics, and pretty much everyone in the first chapter. Definitely one of my top reads of the year. It’s suppose to arrive mid-April but you can pre-order on Amazon.

New consumer website for independent bookstores
BookManager, which is an inventory system for many Canadian independent booksellers, is now offering bookstores an online presence, bookmanager.com. It’s a group website. About 50 stores have created pages. Customers can look up books and their availability, find info on local stores and place orders. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I think anything independents can do to “get in the game” is great. Maybe they should all come to the SFU Summer Workshop in New Media.

Boyden brings home the gold
Joseph Boyden won the Writers’ Trust fiction honour on Wednesday, cbc.ca article. The prize is $15,000. James just finished reading his novel Three-Day Road. It was actually my copy, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, which is shameful considering that I’ve met Joseph several times in the last 2 years.

That, my friends, is this week’s snapshot of Canadian publishing.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Beyond the Wardrobe: A review of My Mother’s Wedding Dress

If you like memoir, fashion and storytelling written like fiction, then you’ll enjoy reading Justine Picardie’s My Mother’s Wedding Dress. I received an advance copy through the Harper Collins First Look program. I was pressed to read the book quickly because I needed to get my review in by March 1 in order to remain in the program. I had about 3 weeks to read, which really wasn’t enough time for me considering I had other books on the go. Nevertheless, I came in under the wire and below is the review I submitted:

My Mother’s Wedding Dress opens with the fantastic story of a black mohair cocktail dress—a strange choice for a wedding dress, nonetheless, Picardie makes it seem like a perfectly natural choice given the circumstances. Picardie quickly sets the stage, filling the reader in on her family’s heritage, their immigrant experiences, and like a giant quilt—with short story fabric swatches from past dresses, uniforms and trousers—Picardie pulls together a beautiful and rich memoir.

Each chapter could easily stand on its own as a compact narrative of the memories that spin off from a single article of clothing. But together the pieces form a splendid and diverse wardrobe of remembrance.

I enjoyed this book very much. I think the cover is stylish and is certainly what drew me to the book in the first place. As far as book clubs, yes, if you have a predominantly female book club, this would be a good pick. There are many, many things to discuss: going to a new school, having grandparents from another country, sisters, fashion choices, cancer, politics and friendship. It’s good for a range of generations too. I’m 30 but I know my 40-50 something friends will enjoy the book. And my 20 something friends who read fiction and wouldn’t think of reading memoir would certainly like this book.

The book is out next month (March). And I recommend it as a good springtime read. Like plastic trousers and velvet vests, sometimes an impulse buy works out perfectly.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Book Review of Daniel Isn’t Talking

Daniel Isn't TalkingI’ve just finished reading Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach. There are lots of funny moments, educational moments, which I also enjoyed, and some craziness. I was initially quite skeptical about this book. The title is great, the cover is great (different cover on Amazon.ca—the version here, which I prefer, is the advance copy so we’ll have to wait to see the final one). I was skeptical because I seem to have encountered a lot of autism books lately. Each was fantastically well written and interesting.

Not Even Wrong by Paul Collins. A engaging portrait of his autistic son.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. Temple is autistic and (I think) has a PhD in animal science. The book is how to use autism to understand animal behaviour.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. A very funny novel about an autistic boy trying to solve the mystery of a murdered dog.

I was skeptical because I did not think Daniel Isn’t Talking was going to stand up to these titles. It does and doesn’t. Daniel Isn’t Talking is well written and by the midway point I did appreciate the characters, but at the beginning I just thought why am I reading about this crazy mother. And she stayed crazy through the book.

I didn’t like Melanie Marsh, Daniel’s mother. She is insecure, over protective of her children, in need of more than a little therapy, and she is driven to further madness when her son is diagnosed with autism. It is at the point of diagnosis where my sentiments about Melanie shifted slightly. She struggles and fights for her son, and I appreciated her tenacity and strength. She doesn’t take the “this is how things are going to be” diagnosis. She looks for alternative ways to help Daniel along. I still found her annoyingly insecure. I like strong willed characters. Her daughter Emily was my favourite character, as were Daniel and Andy (the Irish fellow Melanie eventually hires to help Daniel).

Overall, here’s my plug for the book:
Daniel Isn’t Talking is a comic, yet serious novel. It is as funny as Three Men and a Baby, but as serious as a self-help workbook. Melanie Marsh finds herself as an American in London with a stuck up, absent husband, a genius daughter and a recently diagnosed autistic son. Daniel Isn’t Talking is about stray nappies, misguided families, and the British stiff upper lip. It is also about a boy clearing his own path through life, and his mother’s struggle to show him the way.

Daniel Isn’t Talking should be in stores in April. As part of the McClelland and Stewart 100 Readers Club, I got to read the advance copy.