More off the Vine

This getting books for free deal is pretty fabulous. The latest offerings from Amazon Vine to come my way are American Lightning by Howard Blum - an account of the 1910 bombing of the LA Times building and The Bordeaux Betrayal by Ellen Crosby - the third installment in a mystery series. While I can't claim that the Vine is expanding my reading horizons (it's not like I'm suddenly addicted to, say, Fantasy Fiction) but it is introducing me to books and authors I might otherwise not have heard about.

The question occurred to me as I perused this month's offerings: what if a book I intended to buy was on the list? Would I take the freebie? Should I? I hope I'm strong will enough NOT to succumb to the temptation to the early and the free. It might be idealistic and probably not among the Amazon's goals for the program but I'd like to think that a side benefit for reviewers is the chance to be introduced to new authors. If I get a book for free I was planning to buy anyway I'd be depriving another reviewer the chance to learn about an author I enjoy. Isn't that why many people write reviews - to metaphorically grab a stranger by the lapels and say "you've go to read this, it's great"? Or, less occasionally, "Save your time and money, this one rots."

So far temptation has stayed away. There was that John LeCarre book but I wasn't really planning to buy it and it was more the likelihood of not finishing the book before it came out in paperback that kept me away.

More Proof the New York Times is Killing the Publishing Industry

Maybe it's not intentional. Maybe the hardworking men and women at the NYT actually love books. And, maybe, like a small child who nearly suffocates his/her new pet kitten out of love, they just don't know how to express that love.

Or, maybe they're just raving idiots.

Today, I'm going with the idiots theory because that's the only explanation for Let’s Face It, This Isn’t a Job for Supernanny. This is an intentionally hilarious story on multiple levels. For one thing it's yet another in a long line of instances where the Times brings us the news straight from the Internet. Because why go out and do some actually reporting when you can just sit at your desk and click? (Will Columbia's School of Journalism start offering courses in how to dramatically quote from someone's MySpace page. Based the emergence of this "technique" as the very bedrock of NYT's reporting it might be a wise move.) Courtesy of Craigslist the NYT brings us the story of woman who has bratty kids, aspires to be a writer and is insane enough to advertise for a nanny on the Internet. This woman treated potential applicants to veritable heart of darkness - her kids are "a pain", she doesn't want to feel guilty about shopping at Bergdorf - and her aspirations to be a painter and a writer.

That's what stopped me cold. The line about the woman "acknowledging her hopes, as she had in the posting, that perhaps she deserves a book deal."

This cretin deserves many things but a book deal isn't among them. This is a woman who is fortunate enough not to need to work outside the home who is totally willing to leave her young children all under the age of twelve and all in school in the care of a near stranger. She can live her life as she chooses and make life hell for as many nannies as she can get her hands on but A BOOK?

What on earth would the book be about? The tribulations of living on the Upper East Side and having a country house in Connecticut? How hard it is to have children that are in school all day and report to the nanny as soon as they hit their own front door? The difficulty of finding good help these days - there's a fresh idea! Some equally clueless editor at a publishing house saw this article and thought something along the lines of "how brave" and "won't this really resonate with women today" and is already prepping a book deal.

No, it's not brave and it doesn't resonate with 99% of the population. I say this as someone fortunate enough to be able to afford to shop at Bergdorf - this woman doesn't need a book deal, she needs a clue and a dose of reality. The publishing world needs to spend less time and money on stunts like this and more on nurturing real talent so that readers like me have a reason to buy.

No respect at all

When you're a true crime fan you have to inure yourself to a certain amount of disrespect. The scoffing at the genre by those who've either never read it or who look down on anything that doesn't meet their narrow definition of literature. I can shrug that off. It's the disrespect from publishers who are actually making money off the genre that bugs me.

On the one hand I'm grateful for St. Martin's Press's commitment to True Crime. They publish the gamut from instabooks to decent efforts to the occasional gem. So why are they doing such a relentlessly crappy job at digitizing their catalog? I could understand it if they refused to commit to e-books or the Kindle format but why make only half an effort? Why, in short, create e-book versions that read like galleys? Unformatted galleys, at that.

Safe Harbor by Brian McDonald has to be the absolute worst e-book formatting I've ever seen. Plain text files with hard line breaks are easier to read. One more weirdly broken capital "H" and I'm going to be feeling murderous.

Long National Nightmare Over

At last I've finished Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh. I've been trying to finish it pretty much since my Kindle became my constant companion. I'm glad I read it, even gladder that I finished it but what in the name of printers' ink was Chapter 8 all about? A whole section of ranting about Ireland and the Irish? How could anyone including Burleigh's editor have thought that this was a) something that would make the book better and b) a good idea? A big WTF all around.

Is it really possible the print version is only 500 pages? Did they use really small type? It felt like 800 pages, and that's without the notes and bibliography.

Please Don't Let This Character Recur

Just finished Careless in Red by Elizabeth George. As usual the pace and tension picked up considerably half-way through so the pages flew by. Havers showed up and she didn't get on my nerves once which made me realize that Lynley and Havers are at their best interacting with each other. Havers on her own pondering her own life is just plain dreary, not informatively literarily dreary but drab pointless dreary.

It's possible that Havers was so welcome because Daidre Trahair was around and becoming progressively creepier. I fear that Elizabeth George means Daidre to be strong, conflicted and mysterious and, ohgodletmebewrong, a new love interest for Thomas Lynley.

I'm going to try to forgo a rant about how tacky it is to have a woman get all turned on by a man who's wife has been dead less than six months. Really, I can do this. But I'm not going to give a pass on how wrong George gets this character. I have a low tolerance for characters who create their own problems, get all pissy about the problems existing, and are never held to account. Daidre hits the trifecta. First she pointlessly lies to the police, setting herself up for suspicion, then she gets all huffy because the police investigate her and, worst and finally, she gets all stalkery with Lynley. Let me be clear, she gets pissy because the police investigate her background but she goes trolling on the internet for information on Lynley after knowing him less than 24 hours. She hangs out in front of his hotel waiting for him to emerge - you know, stalking him.

She's repulsive all around: to the other police, to her "friend" Aldara, and to her family. She lies when a vague socially correct answer would do. Or, a simple, I'd rather not say, would be better. It never once makes any sense why she lies, for instance, about not knowing the deceased. "I've seen him around town" would have done just fine. For some reason Elizabeth George seems to think that Daidre's conflict - she was adopted and had a good life while her siblings and family did not - is very interesting. It's not. It's dead dull. And if she's thinking that the dull Daidre will make a perfect love interest for Lynley - who practically begs (twice!) for this cow to call him "Tommy" for some weird reason and, natch, the heffer refuses - she's not only indulging in some seriously bad taste she's losing sight of what made this series a success.

No, I don't mean that it's all about people being terribly upper crust in an American's idea of what the British upper class are like. It's always been about people who know each other and themselves very well yet never quite as well as they think. Adding a lying liar who lies into the mix won't spice things up, it will ruin the dish entirely.

Hell in a Pizza Hut

Calling Sharon Nelson trashy would be an insult to landfills everywhere.

Gregg Olsen starts Confessions of an American Black Widow as a standard police procedural: law enforcement is called to the scene of a fire at a fireman's house. Then they stumble across a body with an "unexploded head." You might think, as I did, that this was a good thing. It's not. It immediately alerts the police is that is in fact a murder. The action quickly turns to the past and the widow of the victim, the awesomely trampy Sharon Nelson.

Former preacher's wife, former good girl and current town pump Sharon is like Bette Davis's camp classic Rosa Moline (from Beyond the Forest) brought to life. Whether seducing every man in the zip code or setting up her step-daughter to be expelled from boarding school or just strutting around town in painted-on short-shorts, Sharon is a trip. Unfortunately, she's a trip to the morgue for two of her husbands.

It seems a simple story: girl raised by ultra-religious parents marries minister and then rebels against the strictures in her life. What makes Sharon Lynn Fuller Nelson (Adams) Harrelson's story more complex isn't just the murders, it's her relentlessness in acquiring a trailer-park version of the finer things in life. These include a Jeep, hot rollers, and romantic lunches at Pizza Hut. That's one of the first things that struck me in this story - for someone willing to resort to murder to get what they want Sharon set her sights a little low. But then Sharon doesn't come across as a deep or expansive thinker, she's more like a child distracted by a red helium balloon. If the town eye doctor looks like a better catch than her minister husband, Sharon goes after him. Then she goes after the eye doctor's slightly better off good friend the rancher. You get the picture. Then Sharon plum loses her mind over ... a "mountain man", which I can only assume is Sharon's personal code for "complete loser than I'm inexplicably attracted to." No job, living in a trailer, and in need of Viagra before it was invented, this is the man of Sharon's dreams.

In lesser hands, this would be a dreary tale. Gregg Olsen makes it a cross between a classic true crime investigation and, well, a camp classic. And bless him for it. If you're going to tell the story about a woman who thinks nothing of having the neighbors walk in on her having sex on the kitchen floor with a man other than her husband it helps to have a sense of humor, which Olsen has. He's hilariously droll at times, letting "mountain man" Gary Adams confide his love for Sharon's special sauce (no, he's not talking about McDonald's). Other times Olsen is a master at the throwaway bitchy remark like having Sharon wonder "Hadn't she pleased him in bed? In the woods? By the lake?"

Olsen does a fine job of presenting Sharon's story and the story of her numerous victims, he doesn't skimp on showing the human toll of her selfishness. He lets the people of the small towns in Colorado where Sharon lived act as a Greek chorus with more than a few sage remarks on human nature coming from ordinary working folks. And then there's Sharon. Telling strangers that she sun bathes in the nude or greeting dinner guests by letting them know what great sex she and her husband had the night before. And, bizarrely, using the local Pizza Hut for pivotal moments in her life. Apparently nothing goes with adultery or confessions to murder quite like a deep dish pizza.

This book is good solid true crime and its just plain fun. This is my first Gregg Olsen book but it definitely won't be my last.

Franchise Building

I love a good mystery series. Anything from Miss Marple to Erast Fandorin can have me forgetting everything else but the book. I can also see why publishers love a good mystery series, they mean a built in audience for every new book in the series.

Creating a first in an intended series is no doubt a challenge. The author needs to create characters who can remain interesting over the series, the mystery needs to be compelling enough to stand on its own and the groundwork needs to be laid for long term interaction between the characters. The balance between the recurring characters and the mystery has to be perfect. Some writers, like Agatha Christie, make it work by keeping the "detective" well-defined but not central to the mystery. Neither Jane Marple nor Hercule Poirot ever spent pages pondering their lives or the burden of finding the guilty. Others, like P. D. James, use the "detectives" and the mysteries as mirrors of each other. This is much harder to do.

Martha Grimes got it just right in The Man With a Load of Mischief but she's gone off the deep end with her last half dozen books with more than half the story being devoted to Melrose Plant or Richard Jury pondering their pasts. Elizabeth George usually gets it right too but for me a little Havers goes a long way. Of course, P. D. James is a master at it. Jacqueline Winspear got it so wrong at the beginning of her Maisie Dobbs series the first book played like a comedy.

My latest book from Amazon Vine is Our Lady of Pain by Elena Forbes, the second book in a series and it's off to a slow start. We have the murder and then ... we slow down and endure a family lunch with one of the detectives. Then the detective gets to the scene of the crime and he rehashes the family lunch with his partner. Don't these people have a murder to solve? Only 20 pages in and I've heard about the "squad" and their last case "The Bridegroom" and what the detectives are wearing and not a whole lot about the crime itself.

I'm keeping an open mind. It can't be easy to create a series without the machinery showing once in a while. And I am more of a Law & Order fan than an NYPD Blue sort - I want to learn about the detectives over time, I don't want them front and center - I'm hoping Elena Forbes is too.

Giving It a Wide Berth

That's what I'm going to do when it comes to reviewing books with political content on Amazon. I noticed a few weeks ago that I had a large number of negative votes coming from a small number of reviews.

I've been known to give a review an unhelpful vote when the review a) doesn't talk about the product itself or b) the reviewer unnecessarily attacks the beliefs of the author or other reviewer or c) it's just lame. I mean lame as in "I LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!!!" (that's the whole review) Ok, I rarely bother to ding the lame ones. Of course, I rarely bother to give an unhelpful vote anyway because I pay more attention to "helpful" votes when reading a review to help me make a purchase choice.

That's why nearly 50 "unhelpful" votes for one, admittedly short, review struck me as odd. It may not have been a great review but it wasn't terrible. It certainly wasn't bad enough to warrant 50 people stopping by and saying "My God, what a waste of time and space." I've seen truly wretched reviews that don't get 50 unhelpfuls. So what gives?

I think it's because the book in question is Decent Interval by Frank Snepp. It's about the "Fall of Saigon" (the "Rise of Ho Chi Minh City"?) by a former CIA agent who was there. I first read this book in college when I wanted to read a complete account of just what the Fall was. I was a child at the time and I remember some powerful images but I was too young to make much sense of it. There weren't many thoughtful books on the topic, which I found then and still find today to be quite surprising. For an event so widely covered at the time by 1985 few had attempted to make sense of it. Snepp's book was one of the few and it was highly controversial because Snepp was CIA and that usually involves a promise to keep secrets. Snepp was also quite critical of the US Ambassador and others on staff at the Embassy in his book.

He had his point of view but he also provided an insider's view of what it was like to be in a city about to fall to the enemy. That fascinated me. Whether I agree with his assessment, the politics involved or whatever else doesn't matter. What does matter is does Snepp tell me things I didn't know? Does he give me a better sense of what when on? Does he tell me things I didn't know? And, most importantly, does he make me want to learn more? The answer to all of the above is yes. Snepp doesn't come off as the world's best guy or even the sharpest guy in Vietnam, but so what? I can't remember whether he was pro-War or not. That didn't matter - I'll make up my own mind about Vietnam and any other event, thank you very much.

The content may be polarizing, I'll allow that. But the reviews of the content? Can it really be that any review that gives the book 4 or more stars is unhelpful to 50 or more people? Isn't that a little unlikely?

I see the same thing when reviewing fiction but it's not as pronounced - criticize someone's favorite or touch a sacred cow and watch the unhelpfuls pile up. It's just less extreme in fiction. It's mildly annoying to see a good review (and here I mean by someone other than me) have a ton of unhelpfuls just because of the opinion expressed. I can't be the only person who can appreciate a review that expresses an opinion contrary to mine.

But that's at the heart of it, isn't it? These votes aren't about helpfulness, they're about agreement and someone daring to voice a contrary point of view. That's probably why the voters in question wouldn't bother to read a book that offered a differing opinion. It's their loss, imho.

Don't even get me started about the negative votes on Amazon Vine products - that shit is out of control.

At least I've been reading

So I haven't posted much. Vacation, more work stress, etc but, thankfully also reading. Finished two books, make that three, and started a few more. One that I started that I've been putting off a little is Elizabeth George's latest Insp Lynley mystery. I haven't read her last two. The last wasn't a mystery and from the write-ups didn't appeal to me, and the one before, which was a mystery featured a serial killer. I don't get the whole serial killer appeal in mysteries or true crime. I like motives, real motives, not psychosis. To each reader their own, I guess.

From what I understand With No One as Witness killed off one main character and left another in a tailspin. That was unpopular but honestly I don't know what else George could have done. Her characters were getting a little stale. I say that with fondness but really, how much more could anyone have taken of Deborah obsessing over the fact that she can't have children or Thomas feeling oh so guilty about something. I think that's why I liked A Place of Hiding - most of that was limited and one of the characters pointed out to Deborah that her life wasn't so bad. Also, the mystery was satisfyingly twisty. And Barbara Havers wasn't on scene. I could do with a lot less Havers in any of these books.

Anyway, then George write a slice of life novel (or whatever) about the little urchin who shot poor Helen. And that, from what I understand, was even less popular. Well, bully for Elizabeth George if she wants to stretch her wings a bit. Not that I'm likely to ever read What Came Before He Shot Her but rock on anyway.

So now we roll into Careless in Red and Lynley is understandably a bit, well, insane (in a very upper class sort of way) but still has his wits enough about him to follow proper procedures when stumbling upon a dead body. Like most Insp Lynleys, this one starts slow but once all the characters have been introduced the plot hums along. Yes, everyone does think about everything verging on too much (turning on a light switch can send these people into long reveries about the past) and the MacGuffin that fascinates everyone this time around is .... surfing.

No joke, surfing. A change of pace from everyone being obsessed with World War 2 in A Place of Hiding and maybe because I went to high school in Florida, just a little giggle worthy. Half the town is either a surfer or vehemently opposed to everything surfing stands for. And who knew surfing stood for anything?

Then there is one of the main female characters - a large animal vet named Daidre. She has secrets. Or should I say SECRETS because her lack of apparent candor is noted by nearly everyone who comes in contact with her. Then there was an incredibly weird scene in which Daidre presumes to tell Insp Thomas Lynley that it's all ok that his wife is dead because she's in a better place, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. After knowing him for 2 or 3 days and after just admitting that she'd basically Googled him to get the goods on his background. If she's supposed to be his future love interest I swear this is my last Elizabeth George because who does this shit? You find out a stranger is recently bereaved and you ram your not too clear yet not exactly original spiritual beliefs on him!?! Calling the mess of tripe she offered up "spiritual beliefs" is too kind by half since Daidre avoids mentioning God or Allah or Buddah or Jesus or any other major spiritual figure and keeps referring to feelings. If a Wiccan wandered by during this speech I'm sure he or she would have advised Daidre to get a little structure in her beliefs already. A Unitarian would have giggled and told her to make a choice already. (Ok, I'll stop now.)

Enough complaining: I like the mystery, I'm glad to see Insp Lynley back with all his endless navel gazing and it's good to be spared Havers for a change.

A Very Long Haul

I'm still trudging my way through Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes. If ever a book challenged my commitment to judge a book on its merits and not on the beliefs and prejudices of the author this is the book. Burleigh is at his best when he's showing how secular totalitarian regimes adopted many of the trappings of religion and while they also co-opted the habit of devotion among their populations. He's also very good at taking a widescreen view so that Portugal, Mexico and Austria get the same attention to detail usually reserved only for the major Axis powers.

What he's a little too good at his grinding his axe. I guess if you see other authors making claims about history that you believe aren't represented by the record (like, say, "Hitler's Pope"), you could get a little cranky. But does he have to take it out on me? Does he have to randomly take pot-shots at Islamic leaders in his asides that have nothing to do with the action at hand?

I'll stick with it. I'm too stubborn to give up and my lifelong fascination with religions' impacts on societies is strong enough to see me through it. But the Cold War is coming and I really don't think Burleigh's going to be in a good mood about any of it.