Beautiful People go to Book Shops

Last night, I learned that Amazon has a particularly underhanded sales drive at the moment from Michael Marshall / (Smith)’s blog. This morning, I read an interesting article on the New York Times by Richard Russo that went into more detail.

I would heartily recommend that you read each piece, but the bottom line is that Amazon is offering its customers a discount on its (non-book) products if they scan the barcode in a bricks-and-mortar shop and compare the price. I must stress that this is not the case with books (at the moment), but nonetheless it does shepherd a bad day for meatspace* shops. By driving people to see the prices in shops and then compare them with online retailers**, and then giving them a further discount on the already lower price, people will stop shopping in these stores. The process reinforces that the most important difference between items is their final price. As quoted in Russo’ article, Ann Patchett states “I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it.”

I agree with her.

Whilst I’ve generally been a fan of Amazon, I have never been a major user. Mostly because it breaks Rule One of my budgeting system, but mostly because I don’t often browse it. I have used it to much success in the past in tracking down a fantastic film called Was Geschach Mit Harold Smith (at least, the German copy I was able to find through its affiliate sales) for milady.

I much prefer book shops, and always have done. I have always been a fan of browsing book shops, from the larger chains to the smaller independents. Each has their benefits, but both attract a certain calibre of staff that can recommend books to their customers – not because they think that it might be like a certain book that they’re currently looking at, but because they are readers. I would much rather a personal recommendation that brings me out of my normal thoughts than a recommended add-on based on statistics and analytics.

I worry that if Amazon continues to steamroll sales, a generation of readers will not know how a book shop smells.

* Yes, I slipped in some cyberpunk jargon. Note, this does not mean meat shops.

** Who do not have to pay for shop-front space, heating, public liability insurance, et cetera.

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Beautiful People go to Book Shops

“Dreamer’s Cat,” by Stephen Leather (Plus Secret Bonus Review!)

Since reading about ebooks in this month’s Writing Magazine, specifically Leather’s article, I’ve wanted to read Dreamer’s Cat. Partially because the publishing houses hadn’t touched it because it contradicted an establishing brand. Mostly because it sounded cool.

Leif Ableman, who writes and creates commercial Dreams and is one away from completing his contact and retiring, must solve some in-house deaths.

Leather’s one sentence pitch was better, but it isn’t here and I’m not fully awake yet.

I really enjoyed the story – it feels like a mix between Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and the early Michael Marshall Smith books (One of Us at its opening, Only Forward at its conclusion and some central parts). This is good company indeed, and the (e)book stands up well amongst it. I started reading it yesterday, had to sleep, and finished it in the laundrette where my clothes still dry.* The pacing is good and it builds well, and the Dream pieces are really interesting in their narration. I found myself reacting similarly to Leif’s response to the Dreams in my response to Leather’s writing.**

I found myself guessing the possible perpetrator part-way in (around 40% I believe) but that’s most likely because I have read so many similar books. Nonetheless, the denouement was exciting and enjoyable when it came.

The sci-fi elements were subtle and the only jarring exposition came from the lift’s prattling. If you could be persuaded to enjoy sci-fi, give this a go. It’s a simpler concept than Stephenson or Marshall Smith, and as such a great gateway.

SECRET BONUS REVIEW

This was the first book I’ve read on a Kindle. It’s not mine, but rather my mother’s. I found it odd to hold at first, but that was mostly because of my mother’s leather case, and so I sometimes page-turned by accident. Easily fixable though.

It’s too soon yet to fully judge, but my initial concerns were that the unfamiliar style would serve as a barrier to the story. Never mind that, for at one point I tried to turn the page as if it were a real book!

I like the fact that you can alter the typescript and size to suit. The progress bar is interesting (especially its session marker) but doesn’t quite equal the middle-point-cresting of a traditional book.

The jury is still out for me.

* By the time you read this they will have dried.

** If you’re reading, Steve, nipple?

“Dreamer’s Cat,” by Stephen Leather (Plus Secret Bonus Review!)

Michael Marshall’s ‘Killer Move’

Regular readers of mine will know just how much I read. Indeed, just like coffee, I’ve consumed so much that the active ingredients have a deadened effect on my constitution.

I haven’t cried at a book since I read the picturebook of Star Wars: Episode One to my brother when the film came out. I didn’t cry last night, when I read Michael Marshall’s Killer Move.

But I came close.

Like most Marshall / (Smith) novels, the ending is blinding. The last hundred pages of the book race on at a frantic pace, swerving with the twists and turns of the plot. Within the last ten pages, my stomach dropped right out. Marshall is a master of guiding his reader’s thoughts and feelings, and the ending is fantastic.

My focus on the ending is slightly telling, however.

The book is great, the plot strong. However, I did feel that it took a fair while to get into it. By around page sixty the action starts to kick off and a lot more strangeness arises. Looking back now, I feel those pages helped strengthen the ending, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy the opening scenes as much as I’d expected.

That being said, there is a sub-strand of the plot being simultaneously weaved which helps move things along. Marshall is an expert at multiple threading like this, and it builds an exciting premise. He is also great at getting the reader into the heads of his protagonists, either through first person or a sympathetic third.

The real gems though, as I always expected, was the descriptions and reflections on life, transience and identity. He pushes back that door into the private part of our self and our soul.

And I enjoyed the very subtle motif of pain(t).

Michael Marshall’s ‘Killer Move’

Size Matters

Those of you with a childish sense of humour* can stop chuckling now.

I have often thought about the importance of a story’s length, ever since reading the introduction to Michael Marshall Smith’s What You Make It. In fact, I hadn’t really read many short stories before then – that the National Curriculum prescribes so many novels and yet so few short stories, until only recently, is a matter for another post. I remember being amazed at the sheer power of the form, the succinctness and the viscerality. (Especially true of ‘Hell Hath Enlarged Herself’, which made me put the book down afterwards and just think.** Indeed, I have mentioned before that in fact, I think the greatest form for the horror story is the short.

Regarding short fiction – which seems to be undergoing a renaissance, at least amongst readers if not markets, as Nicholas Royle’s article today on the form suggests – I think that there is a lot to be said for the form in modern society. The short story is lauded for its ability / inclination to be read in an entire sitting.*** With so many distractions in today’s society, a story that is designed to be read in one fell swoop forces back the tedium of reality and its responsibilites. It doesn’t let you out – you are forced to maintain your suspension of disbelief until it is done.

There are a lot of fragmented stories these days. The way in which most people read novels. Television dramas – serialised and often interrupted by adverts. Even movies tend to be interrupted by people going to the toilet.

Do you prefer to read novels to short stories? What do you enjoy most about the short story form? What is your favourite short story and why?

Your turn.

* Thought clearly more than a child’s knowledge.

** Read it.

*** See Nick’s article/

Size Matters

Tom Fletcher’s “The Thing on the Shore”

The Thing on the Shore is Tom Fletcher’s second novel, published a few weeks ago by Quercus Press. It’s a pretty (bleak) looking book, covered in a spray of sickly green, and if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have heard the hassles I had to see it with my own eyes, let alone hold it.

I have always read a lot of books. Unfortunately, I read a lot of books at the same time, which can get in the way of them all. However, since picking up The Thing last Friday, I’ve only put it down when I’ve not been reading.*

This is a compelling book, and compared to his last, already better for this point alone – not that The Leaping wasn’t compelling, just that this was so much more so. To my mind, the pacing of the novel was far greater; Fletcher is becoming known for his ability to crank up tension, and rather than breaking as it did in his last novel, this steadily builds to its climax like a frenzied finale of a Michael Marshall Smith story.

I’d like to draw another parallel with Marshall/(Smith) in that Fletcher’s otherworld of the novel (the brilliantly disturbing dystopia of the Interstice or Scape) really feels like those of MMS’ early novels. I wonder if either author has read the other.

The Thing on the Shore is told in third person, albeit with a close and sympathetic narrator – it allows Fletcher to move between the abstract horrors of his tale while keeping the pacing perfect. Despite the ranging narrator, the same themes of green and whales (and later potatoes) continually surface. It felt a bit forced at first, but later grew into a sickening dramatic irony – especially since the reader is never quite aware of that which they would wish to tell the characters. It’s creepy, and it works.

My only criticism is of the novel’s explicit antagonist, the brilliantly sick Artemis Black.** Fletcher shows us the horror and the madness of the reality of this man and his power(s?) clearly and successfully, but I’m left guessing at an odd hollowness of the character. He has traces of Iago’s “motiveless malignity,” to quote Coleridge, but I’m hoping that we will be treated to another helping of Black in the future.

He still raises too many questions. I suppose the best villains should.

* Reread the start of that paragraph for clarity.

** That Artemis seems to have recently become a male name may be the topic of a future discussion.

Tom Fletcher’s “The Thing on the Shore”

A Confession

“That’s okay,” I say to the vending machine.

You see, the vending machine thanks us when we buy things from it. As in, actually, verbally, thanks us. Not just something written on the LCD screen, but actually out loud. I know!

My colleagues think little of it. A few of us have started replying to it though. It’s pretty funny, and gives us something to do on our tea breaks. We seem to talk more to the machine than to each other. Perks of the job, I suppose.

The thing is, though, ever since I read Paul McKenna’s I Can Make You Sandwiches last week, I’ve been seeing embedded commands everywhere. My theory is this. The machine isn’t thanking us for buying things. It’s thanking us for removing the items, like it asks. It’s thanking us for following its instructions. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs. The vending machine is conditioning us to do what it says without question.

I set the fire alarm off last week. PLEASE SET OFF THE SMOKE ALARM, it said.

Of course I blamed it on a colleague. Dave was new. He didn’t really need the job anyway, not like us. We’ve been here so long we’re almost part of the factory. He was fired shortly after that.

I don’t really feel as guilty as I ought to. I’m only telling you this because, well… The last command it gave was PLEASE DEMOLISH THE WAREHOUSE. Now, I’m not sure, but I think the timer’s getting pretty close to detonation right about now.

Look, I know you’re a kettle, but don’t tell anybody, yeah?

A Confession

On Loneliness

At the exact moment when I should have been closing my eyes and sleeping before having to get up (much, much) before midday for the first time in two weeks, I instead found myself reading (and finishing) The Servants by M. M. Smith. It is written in the same taut prose I expected, although it took me a while longer to be fully gripped by the story than I had found in his other novels. The ending cranks up to speed rapidly, in a manner that reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s writing, and seamlessly linked an (imagined?) alter-world with the harsh, bleak realities of the true.

The Servants tells the story of Mark, a boy of eleven who moves to Brighton with his mother and her new husband. It is a story of coming to terms with a changing life, and of the impact of moving.

The character of Mark appealed to a certain part of me, in that his situation was not all too dissimilar from my own on a number of ocassions. The book shows Mark coming to terms with living in a new location and finding things to do for himself, without any new friends. A recent count found that I have lived in at least ten different houses, in seven different counties, so this is definitely an experience I can empathise with.

This got me thinking about loneliness.

Since I first moved when I was three, and then again shortly after that when I was six, I’ve been used to completely relocating my life from an early age. As such, I no longer fear it; this was definitely convenient when moving to university, and then on subsequent career moves. A number of people I know commented on how difficult they had found the move, many of whom had moved away from a close-knit group of lifelong friends.

It has also allowed me to move to new areas with no contacts in that area twice in the past two years: I moved to Swindon to complete my PGCE year, and then to Newham for my NQT. Each time, I moved into a one-bedroom flat; I’d rather live alone than deal with the possibly frustrating kitchen antics of somebody else.

As such, I spent a fair amount of time in coffee shops and other public lounge locations. Partially for the free Wi-Fi, but mostly so that there’s a buzz of life around me while I work. I think it’s been being able to work like this that has helped stave off crushing loneliness at any point. It would force me into interactions with other people, and indulge my love of caffeine.

To be honest, the job requires constant interaction with people too, so that’s probably stopped me from getting lonely. I imagine that might not be the case with mundane office jobs.

On Loneliness