Thursday, 31 January 2013

Bookworm News (January 2013)

Promise me
Like any other bookworm, I also enjoy buying books as gifts, whether it's for Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays, or 'just because'. Premium gifting brand I Promise has now shifted the concept of gift-giving to the written word in a different way, by allowing busy gifters to choose written promises to be sent to a loved one in a beautiful bundle. These can be personal to you, or chosen from I Promise's 1000-strong list. Given that it's the thought that counts, I will definitely be considering this as a beautiful, heartwarming gift the next time I'm stuck for ideas.

First Chamazon, now...Japple?
Amazon's latest adventures in China have got them into a couple of scrapes recently, so I'm watching with bated breath to see if Apple does better in Japan with its recent ebook venture. Even though Apple's other products, such as the iPad, are already popular in Japan, ebooks have never really come into this until now, as they had trouble getting the necessary permissions and agreements together. Now Nasdaq is reporting that Apple will be competing with Amazon and Google, who already have a presence in Japan, by selling around 80,000 ebooks: roughly the same number as these other major retailers. Somehow I have more trust that Apple will do this properly: any wheelings and dealings that I have ever had with their customer care have always proved them to be excellent, and I am sadly hearing about more and more blunders recently to do with Amazon's after-sales service. However, let's take my derision with a pinch of salt: in spite of my earlier pledge at the beginning of January, my automatic reflex to purchase from Amazon continues unabated, with me having placed 4 physical orders and 2 ebook orders since the start of 2013...

Thriving profits boost bookshops
In case I needed further encouragement in my above quest, it seems that our American friends have also voted with their feet and are now discovering (or rediscovering) their local literary emporia: in November, bookstore sales rose by 3.3%. That said, however, many bookstores (such as the UK's WHSmith) also sell many other items, including confectionery, stationery, music, and magazines - so perhaps what this says exactly about current reading habits is a little more difficult to quantify. 

a 24-hour bookstore in Taiwan
Moonlighting and e-lending
The notions above of ebooks graduallly encroaching upon our reading habits, and the increased interest in this in Asia in particular, come together in two more pieces of news. Publishing company Macmillan is launching an ebook lending service which will initially consist of 1200 titles, with a generous lending period of two years. Beginning with mystery and crime novels, it is the CEO John Sargent's belief that "this pilot will provide books especially desired by library patrons". Whether Macmillan will follow Amazon and Apple to Asia in this project remains yet to be seen, but another exciting new venture lies in the opening of a 24-hour bookshop in Beijing. Taiwan and Hong Kong already have successful round-the-clock bookstores, so theoretically there's no reason why this shouldn't work. I'm just surprised that this concept hasn't already taken off in Britain given the high density of 24-hour shops that currently exist, and given that the frequent integration of coffee outlets into British bookstores already means that the concept lends itself well to a 24-hour licence. 

While not much of a crime fiction lover (although I have been known to enjoy a bit of Ruth Rendell and Paul French from time to time), even I can recognise the significance of Agatha Christie's Go Back For Murder, in which protagonist Carla tries to clear her mother's name in relation to a murder case, finally taking to the stage this year for a UK-wide tour. Having already stopped in Windsor, Cheltenham and Malvern, the production also promises to visit a variety of other locations, including Southend, Bath, and Stoke. The tour doesn't end until mid-July, so fans of the queen of crime have plenty of time to bag tickets.

Classic culture vultures
The world of academic research is never easy at the best of times: eggheads toil away for years on niche subjects in return for what can seem at times to be pitiably little recognition, and then on top of this, their books can be prohibitively expensive even if published by mainstream printers. It is to be hoped, then, that the University of Liverpool's recent acquisition of several of the University of Exeter Press' lists (Medieval Studies, History, Archaeology and Landscape Studies, and Classics and Ancient History) will heighten accessibility to the latest research. Liverpool plans to digitise many of these texts for the first time, while Exeter focuses on streamlining its offerings in the humanities (including local history, film history, and performance studies). The Liverpool acquisition takes place with immediate effect, and with luck will curb some of the eye-watering fees that can burden the world of academic publishing.
Une librarie française à New York?
The French embassy in the US is considering whether or not to open a French bookshop in New York City, and is seeking views from consumers and teachers as to whether or not this would be a valued service in one of the world's most multicultural metropolises. The store would offer paper and digital books for sale at reasonable prices, which I hope would encourage even the cash-strapped to improve their language skills. However, in a land where the most in-demand foreign language is arguably Spanish, I'll be very interested to see the level of enthusiasm for this new project.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

An Imperfect Life (Rosemary Okun)

--The blurb--
"With these poems, the author leads us [...] through the hills and valleys of what she refers to as “an imperfect life”. Despite having traveled the world, she has never forgotten her roots and her loyalty to those who matter most in her life. Now she offers this legacy of [...] thoughts and feelings spanning two centuries."

--The review--
It's perhaps fair to say that poetry is not usually of mass-market appeal. Despite Britain having a poet laureate, poetry being firmly established within the UK's educational curriculum, and many establishments across the world offering poetry readings and events, poetry often takes up a small space in bookshops, and rather than being devoured like novels, poetry books usually sit on shelves in people's homes to only be dipped into every now and again. This is in spite of the internet being flooded with amateur poetry and writers' forums, inspiring the feeling that anyone can have a go, which perhaps helps to build up false hope given the currently dire state of many creative industries, including poetry-writing.

This arguable saturation of the market means that it is increasingly difficult for new writers to stand out; lamentably, it appears that as a writer, Rosemary Okun does not achieve this through her debut poetry collection, An Imperfect Life (which is sold by Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other major retailers).

Firstly, the redundant title (don't we all have imperfect lives just by the very nature of what the human race is?) does not inspire further investigation. Those who do embark upon a more detailed perusal of its pages will find poetry that is ultimately no different to a lot of amateur poetry being produced today. While it is clear that writing about her difficult relationship with her mother and her clashes with her religious upbringing has been helpful to Okun herself, it does not stand to reason that just because one individual finds it therapeutic to write of their feelings and experiences, others will automatically find the style of these expressions outstanding or the content revelatory. Poetry in its purest and most high-quality form should show a consistent mastery of language, innovative imagery, linguistic clarity, and the ability to hold a mirror up to the reader's own life and show them something new about themselves. Okun does not do this with any degree of regularity.

This is not to say that gems of phrases do not exist at all within An Imperfect Life. Okun does have a flair for personification ("dull thoughts marching slowly") and the marrying of the artificial and natural (as she does in the assonant phrase "still buildings rise honeycombed"). Occasionally, genuinely creative moments of insight occur ("I'm not a magician/I can't bring me back"). The cover of An Imperfect Life also does not do justice to the rest of the original art shown within, which was all painted by the author: interplays and mixtures of colour, light and shape are the real joy of this collection, and are often truly breathtaking, making the reader feel that this is where Okun ought to have pursued her creative career.

However, the appreciation of poetry is in the end subjective. What does little for one person may move another. And in a market where the walls are ever tougher to climb over and the knocks on doors are answered less and less, it is not perhaps for anyone to tell anyone else that their dreams are not worth pursuing.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

--The blurb--
"Amidst the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement, three Mississippi women quietly start their own revolution with a book, some toilets and a chocolate pie. Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver...There's Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son's tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they'd be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell..."

--The review--
Given that the highly successful The Help was published in 2009, it would appear that there are still some readers who are a little late to the party (including this writer). However, latecomers should not delay further - Kathryn Stockett's début novel deserves immediate attention. Even if you read nothing else in 2013, make this vibrant and moving opus a priority.

The novel's frequent changes in narrator could be confusing or frustrating, but instead serve to keep up the novel's pace and heighten tension in a positive way. Stockett's mastery of dialect, humour and malapropism is evident from the first pages, and this also keeps the reader hooked. It's perhaps inevitable that such dexterity is not consistently sustainable throughout the book: its weaknesses are that Mae Mobley sometimes speaks with far more perspicacity than is realistic for a three-year-old, that the friendship that purportedly existed between Hilly and Skeeter is insufficiently developed, and that the chapter on the Benefit is redundant (as its happenings could have been told just as easily in half the space through other characters' direct and overheard speech). However, this ultimately does not detract from enjoyment of The Help overall.

Stockett generally controls and develops the relationships in the novel effectively, reinforcing the bonds between Skeeter and Aibileen so that they go from strangers to friends in a realistic and heart-warming manner. As third protagonist Minny is drawn in, and their plans become even more intricate, the reader too becomes increasingly involved, making the unfolding of the trio's story addictive. All characters, without exception, are vivid and human, as well as taking on multiple dimensions so that no one group or person is clearly designated as hero or villain. 

Setting, lifestyle and history is also deeply ingrained in the story-telling, meaning that from Stuart's Confederate shrine of a home to the iced tea and grits prepared lovingly by Aibileen, the reader is left with a more developed understanding of the culture and circumstances in which the plot of The Help is enshrined. It's possible that the ending is a little rushed; however, by this stage readers feel so engaged in the characters' cause that the denouement is simply able to wash over them. The endings to each character's tale provoke mixed emotions, but are wholly appropriate after all that has gone on. The fruits of Stockett's meticulous research are well worth her efforts as readers shut the book with a sense of significance, satisfaction, and the desire to immediately reread (while waiting, of course, for Stockett's next book).

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Embassytown (China Miéville)

--The blurb--
"Embassytown: a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerser, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts - who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes. Catastrophe looms. Avice knows the only hope is for her to speak directly to the alien Hosts. And that is impossible."

--The review--
Dystopian literature has a strong history, and any newcomer on the scene has a hard nut to crack. However, with positive coverage in several high-quality publications such as the Financial Times, China Miéville's Embassytown, published in 2011, is doing a great deal to bring this writer to the fore: Miéville's reputation has been building up gradually, with his first novel being published in the year 1998. The Guardian even went as far as to aver that Embassytown would be nominated for the Booker Prize. So how far does this novel contend with established dystopian classics such as The Handmaid's Tale, The Time Machine, and Brave New World?

All of the initial signs are promising, with Miéville raising questions from the book's very first moments. What is the embassy of the title? Who are the shiftparents? What is the voidcraft and the Arrival Ball? What is the edge? Confusing yet enthralling, Embassytown is packed with fantastical and charming oddities, such as string septets. Imaginative, rich, and full of possibilities for future rereads, Miéville cleverly combines intriguing new aspects with hints of familiarity: the "thumb-sized vespcams hunting for images to transmit" without doubt carry echoes of the surveillance society in which some people argue that we live today. To begin with, the novel is poetic yet lucid; we are lulled by the author's clever use of alliteration, and simultaneously unsettled by the content. Continued questions make us keep reading; we want to know why communication will be difficult for the principal characters, and what the meanings of Miéville's foreboding neologisms (miab, yawl...) could be. The language of the ambassadors and hosts also proves a masterful creation that ultimately constitutes one of the novel's highlights.

However, as time goes on Miéville fails to build on the aspects of society that we already find familiar. One of the hallmarks of good science fiction is the writer's ability to build on the reader's fear that one day this could be their world; however, Miéville focuses more on the realm of fantasy, and many of the bizarre constructions and the characteristics of the people that make up Embassytown go unexplained. Even though characters and situations are developed, readers are left with too many crucial questions unanswered for these to be fully effective or moving. This is not usually a characteristic of well-written science fiction; it is possible, however, that readers who are better versed in reading a wider range of science fiction will benefit more from Embassytown and be better able to read between the lines.

While the author could have the chance to take his place in the dystopian fiction hall of fame, Embassytown would need far greater clarity for this to occur (which could be resolved if Miéville slackened his writing pace, as he currently seems to publish novels relatively frequently). However, the earlier comment about rereads still stands; the novel is so rich in detail and ambition that it's possible that readers' questions may be answered upon further inspection.

other novels by China Miéville
King Rat (1998)
Perdido Street Station (2000)
The Tain (2002)
The Scar (2002)
Iron Council (2004)
Un Lun Dun (2007)
The City and The City (2009)
Kraken (2010)
Railsea (2012)

Monday, 7 January 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Is The Amazon Bubble Bursting?

Amazon clearly didn't use their noodle when trying to launch the Kindle in China
To say I've been a little peeved with Amazon recently would be putting it mildly. This is a great shame, as I've been a very happy customer of theirs for many years, including as college librarian during my time at Oxford. Even without that post, I've usually placed an order at least once a month, whether it's something for work, or just something that's grabbed my interest. Whatever I've needed - whether an obscure Stella Gibbons book or something to help cure my fear of driving - Amazon has been there. And it has many other departments whose surfaces I haven't even scratched yet, such as Sports, and Clothes.

One of the departments of which I was a satisfied user until recently was their MP3 department. Uploads were quick and easy and I felt confident that I was buying legally, with part of my money going to people who had made the music. Even once I moved to France, I continued to use the Amazon UK MP3 site with abandon. However, I recently got a pop-up message denying my purchase on the basis that I lived in France. I then tried to purchase via Amazon France (at Amazon UK's suggestion), which also denied purchase due to geographical restrictions. This is extremely frustrating: I enjoy a wide range of (sometimes slightly off-the-wall) music, and one of the reasons I have used Amazon is its ability to always find what I was after. Other retailers barely leave the Top 40, which is no good for someone like me.

Further investigation revealed that other users had also had this problem, and many suggested solutions (both legal and illegal). I don't like to use iTunes, as I don't currently use an iPod, having opted for a Creative instead (plenty of non-Apple products have problems playing iTunes tracks). However, luckily for me, there are plenty of other legal ways to get music, including Legal Sounds and FairShare Music.

But even though many acknowledge that this is not Amazon's fault, being a problem caused by the record industry, this hasn't made me feel entirely favourable towards Amazon, and along with other news, has caused me to take my custom elsewhere. Amazon have a reputation for innovation, and have a knack for coming up with ideas that people will actually use, such as the installation of Amazon lockers at certain Staples stores in the US, where customers can pick up their purchases from a secure location. I also certainly don't despise my Kindle, which has given me the gift of portability and new books in an instant (a more detailed review of the device, as well as the Kindle Fire, is to follow). 

However, Amazon's recent tax evasion strategies (you know, the ones that have been splashed all over the news recently) and the constant whisper in the background that they are killing independent bookstores (and even the entire publishing industry thanks to their incredibly low prices) are beginning to leave a certain bad taste in my mouth. This is also exacerbated by Amazon's latest antics in China. On December 13th, it gaily announced the opening of its Kindle store there, which would initially sell ebooks for users in China to read on the Kindle mobile app, with a view to launching the Kindle before the end of 2014. However, Amazon clearly hasn't used its noodle and has got itself into hot water already (groan): Cnet reports that Amazon did not in fact secure appropriate authorization to sell ebooks in China before going ahead. According to Chinese press and publication law, Amazon needed to obtain at least one of four licences in order to do this, and instead of doing this independently, just borrowed one from a partner. Can everybody here say oops?
This series of gaffes and criticism could possibly cause people to take their business elsewhere. Independent bookstores still proliferate in London, the US, and Paris, with many having a long history, proving that they too are able to move with the times. Such outlets also offer people a choice: I do worry about what will happen to my Kindle books when or if I ever go for another e-reader in future.

Amazon is still big business, though, and all of those little independent bookstores must feel like very small fish in an exceedingly large pond, especially with such a shark coming up behind them, flashing its black and yellow teeth at every turn. (A wasp, I suppose, would have made a better metaphor, but hey, we're here now - let's stick with it.) So what will the world do? And what will I personally do?

Of course, it isn't possible to make meaningful predictions, even if you happen to be an expert in economics or in the publishing industry itself. One reason for this is the fast pace at which technology moves: ten years is a long time in technological terms, and I can't even remember if Amazon figured so strongly in my buying habits as we entered 2003 (when I was midway through my sixth-form years - eek!). Who knows where the world will be buying from in 2023? For now, though, I don't think it would be realistic to say I will stop buying from Amazon completely. I have, though, already begun to wean myself off them when it comes to buying music, and will try to do this more in future for other media also, out of my love for books, music and film, and my appreciation of the sheer work done by those who make them.