Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Simba's iPad Survey Is A Bit Misleading

In the past few days I’ve come across a news story about about the percentage of people who use the iPad to read an ebook. Simba Information conducted a nationwide survey which found that 35% of iPad owners have never used it to read an ebook. Simba’s spokesperson tries to make this sound like a shocking statistic, especially with the statement that “over a million iPad buyers haven’t used the gadget for e-books shows that not all new gadgets equate to a new e-reader.”

What?! You have an iPad and haven’t read a book on it?

This is a load of carefully concealed hyperbole and makes me wonder who is behind the survey and about ulterior motives. We could easily take this report and turn it on its head saying, “65% of iPad owners have used the iPad to read a book.” This is a higher percentage than the number of adults in the United States who said they have read a book in the last year.

The problem with this survey is that it engages in making an implied comparison, which is, “While 35% of iPad owners haven’t read a book on the iPad, 100% of Kindle, Nook and Sony Reader owners have used their device to read a book.”

What makes this statistic so laughable is that the the Kindle, Nook and Sony Reader (and a slew of other devices) are dedicated e-readers. These devices do one thing really well- let you read ebooks. The iPad is a platform that happens to have an app (which you must download from the app store) to read ebooks, but also lets you to read email, surf the web, play games, listen to music, watch movies, and on and on.

Maybe Simba should also conduct a study to inform us that “100% of physical book readers have used an amazing device to read. It’s called a book.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

From Whence Do Those Relics Come?

To whom does the past belong?

Historic landscapes around the world, once virtually littered with archeological treasures, are being looted at an alarming rate, particularly in the American Southwest. Do these artifacts belong to those who find them, to museums, or to the past? Craig Childs, in his book “Finders Keepers,” argues that these artifacts might be best left where they lie, unless the only way to protect them is in a museum. Even then, he scrutinizes museums methods of acquiring and storing these artifacts. He relates stories of how unscrupulous museum directors knowingly turn a blind eye to the questionable provenance of an item and worse yet, of so poorly storing these items that they may eventually rot away in storage spaces.

While Childs uses examples of artifact looting from around the world, he concentrates the story in his own backyard- the Four Corners region of the Southwest, centering on Blanding, Utah. Having worked with and interviewed many of the people involved in digging up and selling archeological artifacts, he tells the story of how many of these people were caught and prosecuted by the Federal Government, and how many of them don’t see a problem with selling these artifacts for personal gain, while others committed suicide rather than be prosecuted.

Childs addresses the issues of archeology, looting, museums and Native American tribal rights with a thoughtful and respectful approach, giving you his thoughts, while acknowledging that he doesn’t hold all of the answers.

“Finders Keepers” is a fascinating, true story of history, archeology, passion and greed.

Get your copy at the Campus Store and receive 30% off. Reg: $24.99 Sale: $17.49

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What Is Happiness, and Where Do I Find It

October's Book of the Month "Hector and the Search for Happiness", while technically a novel, is also an exploration into what makes people happy- a self-help novel, if you will.

Hector is a psychiatrist who is at a crossroads in his life. He is single, working in a profession where people who seem to have everything are constantly unhappy, and he is unsatisfied with himself. He decides to take a trip around the world, meeting old friends and new acquaintances, trying to understand what makes people happy.

From Paris to China, Africa to the United States, Hector makes observations and speaks with people, making a list of about what makes them happy. Along the way he spends an evening with a beautiful woman, befriends a drug lord, is kidnapped by a third world gang, and shares his findings with a world renowned professor.

Hector and the Search for Happiness” is an international bestseller that is part novel, part self help guide. Optimistic and simple, it is a book that highlights what you may already know about being happy, but might have forgotten.

Pick up your copy at the Campus Store and save 30%. Regular price $14.00. Sale Price: $9.80.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hot Mysteries In Ice Cold Northern Michigan

September’s Book of the Month is a duel selection, introducing readers to the fictional northern Michigan town of Starvation Lake and big town, turned small town newspaper writer Gus Carpenter. “Starvation Lake” and “The Hanging Tree” are the first two books of a fascinating new mystery series written by Bryan Gruley, the Chicago Bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Gruley brings the things he knows well to these stories- newspapers and hockey- and winds them together with quirky characters, dark secrets, and small town gossip boiling over with both love and hate.

“Starvation Lake” introduces Augustus “Gus” Carpenter, a journalist who has recently left the Detroit Times under circumstances that he would rather forget about and has gone to work for his hometown paper, The Pine County Pilot. The twice weekly paper normally reports the goings on in town- city council meetings, store openings, Cub Scout meetings- but Gus, the once big city reporter, sees journalism differently than reporting on only the things people want to hear. When the snowmobile of former hockey coach Jack Blackburn, who died when it broke through the ice on Starvation Lake, turns up on the shores of another lake five miles distant, Gus begins to question the history of Blackburn’s death, and even Blackburn himself. Figuring out what actually happened pits Gus against nearly the whole town, where everyone would rather let sleeping dogs lie.

In “The Hanging Tree,” we see Gus resign himself to settling back into life in Starvation Lake, the town he tried to escape by going to college and getting a job as a reporter for the Detroit Times. His old girlfriend, now deputy Darlene Esper, has left her husband giving him the opportunity he squandered years before while his problems at the Detroit newspaper seem to have gone away. It’s not where he’d thought he’d be, but it’s better than where he could have ended up. Unfortunately Gracie McBride, Darlene best friend during their teen years and Gus’ second cousin is found hanging in a tree in an apparent suicide. Gus suspects that there is more than meets the eye and although the town wishes he would leave well enough alone and let Gracie rest in peace, Gus can’t do that. Especially when he discovers a connection between Gracie, big shot lawyer Laird Haskell and the new hockey rink that Haskell is trying to build to replace Starvation Lake’s old, run down rink. Gus left Detroit, but it appears that crime from Detroit is following him all the way to Starvation Lake.

Well written and suspenseful, Gruley has given us two great reads about Gus Carpenter and Starvation Lake and I certainly hope he gives us a few more. Towns like this always have secrets floating beneath the surface.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Don't Call This "Just Another Vampire Story"

When the publisher rep for Random House suggested I read "The Passage," I was a little put off by her description. All I needed was another corny vampire novel in my massive stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table (at times I'm afraid the pile will come crashing down in the middle of the night and bury me alive). I began with a promise to myself that if this book was corny, light, and went nowhere fast, I was going to put it down and start something else. Four days later I had finished the nearly 800 page volume. It was that good. I think those of you who like suspenseful, post-apocalyptic novels will love this one. And...

If you are not afraid of the dark, you soon will be.

When the army secretly engineers a virus to create a super-soldier, things go wrong- horribly wrong. Instead of an invulnerable soldier, they end up with mutated human subjects that have a taste for raw meat and blood, particularly human, are blindingly fast, and are deterred only by bright light. As the experimental subjects escape the secret compound in Telluride, Colorado, they begin either killing or infecting everyone they come in contact with. Within days, the entire state of Colorado is under quarantine, and weeks later, the entire United States has been cut off by the rest of the world.

Fast forward...

One hundred years after the outbreak a small group of uninfected people eke out an existence, protected within a fortress of towering walls and bright lights that turn night to day. They have established harsh rules and order to keep them safe from the "virals" (just one of the names for the mutated humans that roam the earth). But their order is thrown into chaos when a human teenager appears outside the walls of the compound, seemingly unaffected by the virus. Added to the appearance of Amy, several of the compound residents discover that the technology that keeps the lights on at night is failing and they don't have the equipment to repair it. A group of compound residents is determined to find out where Amy came from and if there are any more uninfected human alive out there. But, to do that, they must leave the safety of the compound and journey back to where it all started- Telluride, Colorado.

Dark and entertaining, "The Passage" will have you wanting to turn the page and dreading what you will find there.

"The Passage" by Justin Cronin is an amazing story driven by great characters and page turning suspense. Halfway through 2010, this is my favorite book to date.

"The Passage" is available at the University Campus Store during the month of July for 30% off, or at our online partner, Powells Books.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

You Don't Always Get What You Think You Want

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for "a reliable wife." She responded, saying that she was "a simple, honest woman." She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving her a wealthy widow, able to take care of the one she truly loved.

What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own. And what neither anticipated was that they would fall so completely in love.

Filled with unforgettable characters, and shimmering with color and atmosphere, A Reliable Wife is an enthralling tale of love and madness, of longing and murder.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Two Books, One Great Author

This month, rather than write a a review of "Last Night in Montreal," which I've already done, Emily Mandel has graciously agreed to tell us a little bit about both "Last Night in Montreal" and her new book, "The Singer's Gun." Both books are available at the University Campus Store.

1. Last Night in Montreal

I began writing my first novel in Montreal. It was winter and I was cold all the time. Last Night in Montreal isn’t autobiographical, except for the parts about what it’s like to be an anglophone in Quebec, but it’s still in some ways a very personal book: I’ve never taken a writing class, and Last Night in Montreal is the novel I wrote when I was figuring out how to write a novel.

I think of that book as forming a sort of bridge in my life: when I started writing the story, I was a dancer in Montreal. I didn’t think of myself as a writer; I was going to auditions for contemporary dance companies and looking for drop-in dance classes to take. By the time I finished the book I was living in New York City, I hadn’t danced in two years, and at some indefinable point I’d begun to think of myself as a novelist.

In Last Night in Montreal there’s a character, Lilia, who travels endlessly. She’s based on no one I know, but by the time I arrived in New York I’d lived in three cities, two countries, and a dozen apartment shares in the previous two years, and it was interesting to write about a character even less geographically settled than I was. I wanted to write a portrait of the city I’d just come from; I know that the Montreal in Last Night in Montreal is capable of annoying life-long Montrealers, and I understand why, but it’s absolutely true to my experience there.

The years when I was working on my first novel marked a transformative period. I was settling into my new city, beginning to think of myself as a writer, getting married.

We honeymooned on the island of Ischia.

2. The Singer’s Gun

Ischia: an island in the Bay of Naples, some distance northwest of Capri, a tranquil place where whole towns shut down over the off-season. Fishing villages and resort hotels ring the coast. Most of the tourists are German. The sea is bright blue, the beaches white. If you’re the kind of slightly morbid person who imagines dark plotlines running through everything (in other words, a writer) it’s the sort of place that seems beautifully sinister.

I was thinking a lot about weddings and honeymoons in those days, having spent months planning both of the above, and at a cafĂ© table in the piazza in the town of Sant’Angelo I was thinking about a story I’d heard recently about a couple whose relationship hadn’t survived the marriage. The story was that he’d realized it was a mistake during their honeymoon; they divorced, amicably, six months later. (What’s surprising, not to digress too horribly, is that I’ve heard two very similar stories since then. It’s apparently not as uncommon as all that.)

An idea I’d been thinking about around that time, and that I’m still thinking about now, is that it should be theoretically possible to base a novel on almost anything, no matter how random or how slight. I read an interview once in Salon Magazine with Michael Ondaatje, in which he was asked about the genesis of The English Patient. He said in the interview that the book began with three images: a nurse with a patient, a man stealing back a photograph of himself, a plane crash in the desert. It should be possible, I thought, to write an entire book based on the single image of a man leaving his wife on their honeymoon.

In this respect, the writing of The Singer’s Gun was identical to the writing of Last Night in Montreal. I begin with no more than a wisp of a premise, a few disconnected images or a single particularly striking sentence, and keep writing until it turns into a book. (I don’t recommend this process, incidentally; I don’t think I can work in any other way, but I strongly suspect that it’s easier to finish a novel when you know where you’re going in advance.)

Every premise raises questions, and it’s in answering these questions that the plot is formed. Why, for example, would a man leave his wife on their honeymoon? Perhaps if he were being blackmailed. In The Singer’s Gun, Anton Waker arrives on the island of Ischia and is forced by his criminally-inclined cousin to perform one last job for her. Anton’s spent the past few years struggling to carve out a life for himself in the legitimate world; but his first job was a partnership venture with his cousin Aria, selling fake passports and social security cards to illegal aliens in New York—and if he doesn’t perform this final transaction for her, she’ll tell his new wife that his Harvard diploma is a fake.

Various interests and worries attach themselves over time: passport fraud, human trafficking, the architectural salvage industry, identify theft, the New York City water supply, figureheads, the fragility of family, until what began as a sort of private stunt (“I bet I could write an entire book based on a single vague premise!”) has taken on a life of its own and expanded into something with much more depth.

There are some similarities in atmosphere and theme between the two books: disappearance and reinvention, immigration, plots that hinge on criminal mysteries, a touch of noir. It’s impossible for any writer to evaluate their own work with any trace of objectivity, but it seems to me that Last Night in Montreal is a much more lyrical novel than The Singer’s Gun—perhaps, in the manner of first novels, a little self-consciously so in places—and it’s driven as much by sheer atmosphere as by plot mechanics. The Singer’s Gun is a harder, faster piece of work, plot-driven and perhaps somewhat more precise. I tried my best to make it bulletproof.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Renaissance Art, History, & Mystery

In this exhilarating cross between The Da Vinci Code and The Birth of Venus, an irrepressible young woman in 15th-century Italy must flee for her life after stumbling upon a deadly secret when she serves as a model for Botticelli...When part-time model and full-time prostitute Luciana Vetra is asked by one of her most exalted clients to pose for a painter friend, she doesn't mind serving as the model for the central figure of Flora in Sandro Botticelli's masterpiece "Primavera." But when the artist dismisses her without payment, Luciana impulsively steals an unfinished version of the painting--only to find that someone is ready to kill her to get it back.

What could possibly be so valuable about the picture? As friends and clients are slaughtered around her, Luciana turns to the one man who has never desired her beauty, novice librarian Brother Guido. Fleeing Venice together, Luciana and Guido race through the nine cities of Renaissance Italy, pursued by ruthless foes who are determined to keep them from decoding the painting's secrets.

Gloriously fresh and vivid, with a deliciously irreverent heroine, The Botticelli Secret is an irresistible blend of history, wit, and suspense.

The Botticelli Secret is available at the University Campus Store during the month of April for 30% off the regular price (sale price, $10.49), or is available at the regular price through Powells.com

Monday, March 8, 2010

A New Voice in Southern Literature

On a summer night in 1931, in a small Alabama coal town, Tess Moore is sitting in her favorite place in the world- the porch of her small family home, overlooking an old stone well in the yard. Someone, thinking they are not being watched, creeps into the yard, removes the heavy cover from the top of the well, and dumps what Tess thinks is a baby, down the well.

Although, her family does not believe her at first, her story is born out when the baby is brought up from the well bottom. Thus begins a chain of events that causes Tess, and her older sister Virgie, to explore the composition of their small town in more depth, learning kindness and compassion along the way. Tess comes to understand hatred and racism, community and family, and life and love during the midst of the Great Depression.

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips is exceptional Southern literature, reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, yet with a voice and style distinctly her own.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Story

Finding good books to read is a little harder than it sounds. I often pick up a new book to read, only to put it down again, disappointed in the writing, the story, or the characters, or occasionally all three. Perhaps I'm a little harsh when it comes to judging books, but there are just so many books out there, that when you find something bad, there is no point in reading any further. But, when you discover something really good, you wish that it would go on and on.

"The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley is one of those discoveries. It is one of those books where the writing is so well done, the story so magnetic in its appeal, and whose characters are so intriguing, that you savor every page, then hope the author is going to make this a series (which he is). What I found so interesting is the main character is not one that would normally captivate me the way she did.

Flavia de Luce is a precocious eleven year old who loves her father, misses her dead mother, detests her two older sisters, and has a penchant for chemistry, particularly poisons. When a series of mysterious events ultimately leads to the death of a visitor to her family home and the implication of her father in the murder, young Flavia takes on everyone, including both police and perpetrator, to prove her fathers’ innocence. Using wit and wisdom beyond her age, Flavia takes the reader on a journey across the English countryside and through her father’s troubled history.

"The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" is truly one of those stories that is a joy to read. Filled with mystery and humor, Bradley has created one of the great new characters of the mystery genre.

"The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" by Alan Bradley is available at the University Campus Store (30% off during February 2010) or through our online partners at Powells.com in both a paperback edition and a signed first edition.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Swan Thieves, aka The Time Thieves

I haven't written a blog post for a few months- that's how long it's taken me to finish the last book I was reading. Ok, maybe not that long, but it kind of felt that way.

I just finished reading "The Swan Thieves" by Elizabeth Kostova, whose debut novel, "The Historian" was a runaway bestseller. In fact, "The Historian" was the first debut novel to hit #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers list. While "The Swan Thieves" will undoubtedly finds its way to this and other bestseller lists, my feeling is that it will quickly find its way off those same lists.

"The Swan Thieves" is primarily the story of two men, Dr. Andrew Marlow and Robert Oliver, as well as love, art and obsession.

Robert Oliver is a brilliant artist who is remanded to psychiatric care after attempting to slash a painting with a pocketknife at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.. Andrew Marlow is the doctor who attempts to treat Oliver, but runs into a major problem- shortly after his commitment to the hospital, Oliver gives Marlow permission to speak with anyone about him, then refuses to speak anymore.

Day after day, Oliver draws and paints pictures of the same beautiful woman whom Marlow is convinced holds the key to helping Oliver. As Marlow tracks down and speaks with Robert's former wife and girlfriend, he becomes nearly as obsessed with the mystery woman in the paintings, causing him to straddle the lines of professional ethics. His search for answers, ostensibly in his patients behalf, lead him to travel up and down the east coast, to Mexico and then to Europe.

"The Swan Thieves" is an impressive story that has alternating chapters with historical elements, discusses art, particularly Impressionism, contains a mystery at its core, and deals with love- love realized, love lost and love that was never meant to be. Having said this, "The Swan Thieves" also contains some near-fatal flaws.

Kostova is a wordsmith who has an love of description, which, much like her character Robert Oliver, who was sidetracked from a bright career by his obsession, her story is often sidetracked by obsessively over-descriptive prose. The story arc is interesting, but could have benefited from an editor unafraid to assert some editorial control, allowing the same story to be told in three to four hundred pages rather than the nearly six-hundred page tome that it is. I often got bored and distracted, having to put the book down, as the story seemed to be progressing to nowhere (while reading the first 200 pages of "The Swan Thieves", I started and finished two other books).

The other problem that continues to stalk Kostova, as it did in "The Historian," is the inability to provide a satisfying ending. The climax of the story comes very late, wrapping up the story in an weak and insubstantial denouement. I already understood why Robert Oliver attacked the painting by about page 300 and all the final pages did was confirm what I already knew. As in "The Historian," the story overpowers and supplants the ending, making the book worth the read even with a disappointing ending.

Just be warned, a casual read this is not. "A" for effort, "B" for the story, but a "D" for the long-winded telling.