Whom God Would Destroy by Commander Pants

Whom God Would Destroy by Commander PantsWhom God Would Destroy by Commander Pants is a successful mix of mental health insight, religion, science fiction and the absurd.

The novel begins in a straight-forward literary tradition, like a trippy version of House or the short-lived series Mental. It’s interesting and populated by strange and quirky characters. In retrospect, I think Pants could have written a very good literary novel based on the themes in these early chapters. It’s like he thumbed through some of the stranger patient files from some sanitarium and strung them together with a single protagonist.

Instead, Pants mixes in a dash of absurd that doesn’t quite connect for … a long time. The absurd takes the form of Jeremy who is, or is pretending to be, God. Jeremy is a catalyst for Oliver, the novel’s main character, but the plot line winds up in danger of breaking Chekhov’s principle of drama.

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.

Then, like a psychotic break, Whom God Would Destroy turns into a full-blown science fiction novel. Interestingly enough, this part of the novel works too. It’s fun and off beat. (Orgasms, Aliens and Big Macs, oh my!) But where is this all going? It’s enjoyable but the pieces don’t seem to fit. And like a shoe string catch in the 9th inning Pants brings it all together at the end.

It’s an enjoyable climax but the pacing to get there was … odd. After the fact, I absolutely enjoyed the experience, but while reading it I couldn’t help but wonder how it would resolve. I like being surprised but there was no anticipation. I couldn’t see it coming. Part of the fun of a roller coaster ride is that slow clacking ride up the hill, right? I still might not know how far that drop is, but I know it’s coming.

Outside of the pacing, I thoroughly enjoyed Whom God Would Destroy. Pants creates a number of believable characters and then tosses them into an unbelievable situation. I learned a bit, pondered the nature of personality and self, and found myself grinning most of the time.

Be forewarned, Whom God Would Destroy is not for the politically correct or religious zealots. Pants is definitely from the same mold as Christopher Moore, a high compliment in my book.

Pants was kind enough to provide this copy to me for free and while I read it rather quickly I didn’t get around to this review for ages. So do me and yourself a favor and kindly go out and buy Whom God Would Destroy by Commander Pants.

Bite Me: Win The New Christopher Moore Novel

Bite Me by Christopher MooreThe good folks at HarperCollins and Wiredset have provided me with a copy of Bite Me, Christopher Moore’s newest novel. I’m a big Christopher Moore fan so I jumped at the chance to snag an early copy.

I’ve read nearly everything Moore’s written and reviewed a few of his latest right here on the Used Books Blog. You can check out reviews for A Dirty Job and You Suck to wet your appetite for more Moore.

Now, here’s where it gets good for you. I also get to give away two other copies of Bite Me to Used Books Blog readers.

Win a Free Copy of Bite Me

Here’s how you can get one. Simply comment on this blog post with:

  • The title of your favorite Christopher Moore novel
  • Why it’s your favorite Christopher Moore novel
  • Your current toothpaste brand and flavor

C’mon folks, this is Christopher Moore it has to be a little off beat.

Comments (aka entries) must be made by April 23, 2010. At that time I’ll review and qualify the comments (toothpaste flavors better be the real deal!) and then randomly select the two winners.

Don’t like the rules? Bite Me! (Too easy, I know.)

Enter today for your chance at a free copy of Bite Me by Christopher Moore. I’m reading mine right now.

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez

The Automatic Detective by A. Lee MartinezThe Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez is a smart, entertaining science fiction romp that satisfies even though initial brilliance fizzles into mediocrity.

Mack Megaton is a robot or ‘automated citizen’ of Empire City, who has evolved because of a freewill glitch in his programming. Mack’s not like other automated citizens since he was created by a mad scientist of sorts who was hell bent on taking over the world. The government and his psychologist keep a close eye on the nearly indestructible robot as he integrates into society.

The beginning sequences, as we are introduced to Mack, are simply fantastic. This isn’t your typical artificial intelligence type of of fare. It feels like a real look into what a self-aware robot might actually deal with as it evolves.

I dreamed. Not in the same manner of biologicals. My dreams weren’t confusing and symbolic. They were replays, tours of my memory matrix, dissections of every single nuance as my evolutionary program sought to adapt to better functionality.

The exploration of Mack’s personality, how he thinks and how he deals with the world are the best parts of The Automatic Detective. They alone make it worth reading.

Mack hesitantly intervenes in a dispute at his next door neighbors. Soon after, they disappear, he’s attacked by drones and his apartment blows up. Mack feels compelled to find his next door neighbors, particularly April, a purple-eyed child who took a shine to Mack. Of course, Mack wouldn’t mind a bit of revenge too.

This simple plot device puts Mack on a collision course with an assortment of mutants and other robots. At first, the action scenes involving Mack are interesting and fun. Mack calculates odds before smashing things and inventories damage by percentages. It’s a bit like what I think Spock would be like in the midst of ‘roid rage.

The problem is that once the decisive turn in plot is reached, the rest is paint by numbers with more brawn than brains. It’s not bad really, but it pales in comparison to the first half of the book.

It almost felt like two books, the first part an intriguing, intelligent mystery with a truly unique protagonist and the second part a Transformers 2 like sequence of action devoid of real thought. Did Martinez just run out of good material? Or did he get caught up in his own creation, birthing it and then just wanting to watch it run wild? Was Mack his Frankenstein?

I’m being hard on Martinez, but only because the first half of The Automatic Detective made me think I’d found the literary equivalent of a Hope diamond. So pick up The Automatic Detective and get ready to be entertained in a variety of ways.

The Lemur by Benjamin Black

The Lemur by Benjamin BlackThe Lemur by Benjamin Black is a tidy, atmospheric novel that delivers on a tense and satisfying who-done-it plot.

The story follows John Glass, an Irish journalist who is living a comfortable physical life in New York. But Glass isn’t really a journalist anymore. He’s essentially a kept man, living in a loveless marriage and embarking on the authorized biography of his father-in-law.

Though his surroundings are plush, his emotional and spiritual life are far from it. Glass battles self-loathing for the biography he’s been commissioned to write, and seems to be in a state of spiritual ennui.

Enter Dylan Riley, a researcher Glass is contemplating hiring. He looks, thinks Glass, like a lemur. But Riley isn’t as innocuous as the furry creatures you see at the zoo. No, Riley has already done a good deal of research and finds some dirt. It’s easy to see why Black choose the lemur.

The term “lemur” is derived from the Latin word lemures, meaning “spirits of the night” or “haunter”.

The next thing Glass knows, he’s being blackmailed by Riley for five-hundred thousand dollars, half of what Glass is being paid for the biography. Before Glass can get worked up about it Riley is murdered – shot through the eye. But relief turns to suspicion and fear as Glass realizes the blackmail and murder can’t be a coincidence. It’s someone he knows.

Black sets up the plot with a sure and quick hand. He does so without you really noticing and at the same time creates a superb mood for the novel. That’s where The Lemur really excels. It oozes atmosphere and emotion. Not through the characters but in the description of places and events.

You’re not really connecting with any of the characters, but they all make you feel things. The sense of boredom and repression made me fidget. The panic Glass has is palpable, reminding me of times when I felt close to being caught bluffing at poker. The guarded but intricate conversations Glass has with a fellow writer bring back memories of strong but short acquaintances you never forget.

Black paints these great portraits, allowing readers to connect using their own experiences to fill in the shadows and edges. Pair this moody introspection with a screw-tightening page-turning plot and you have a fine novel. Sure, it lacks the emotional depth that would make it great, but it succeeds on a number of levels.

Read The Lemur by Benjamin Black on a holiday winter weekend and you won’t be disappointed.

The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

The Big Over Easy by Jasper FfordeThe Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde is an entertaining, inventive read but doesn’t quite measure up to the Thursday Next series.

Reduced down to a simple scale, The Big Over Easy is very good, while most of the Thursday Next series (including The Well of Lost Plots) are great. Fforde is a victim of his own creativity.

The Big Over Easy is a mystery novel that follows detective Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crimes Division (NCD). Yes, he’s that Jack Spratt and in this alternate world nursery characters are real and live among us.

The NCD is under the microscope after Spratt fails to secure a conviction against the three pigs for death by scalding of Mr. Wolff. And now Humpty Dumpty has been murdered!

That’s the set-up and Fforde delivers with great nursery references (many of which I’m guessing I missed) and his usual absurd humor.

There’s nothing wrong with The Big Over Easy and yet, it’s not quite as inventive as The Eyre Affair, the first in the Thursday Next series. As much as I tried to simply enjoy The Big Over Easy for what it was, I couldn’t help but compare.

It didn’t help that Fforde draws at least one of his characters (Lola Vavoom) from the Thursday Next series into The Big Over Easy.

Comparisons aside, it’s a fun novel and yet again showcases Fforde’s ability to create a world populated with literary characters. This time it’s even more absurd because Fford draws on everything from a gigantic egg to a Greek Titan. Yes, Prometheus winds up living at the Spratt residence as he seeks asylum, escaping his daily liver pecking imprisonment.

The plot line of The Big Over Easy is satisfactory but nothing surprising. It’s a bit like a nursery version of CSI. That’s not why you read Fforde. Instead you get the clever newspaper excerpts at the beginning of each chapter and literary humor on nearly every page.

Read The Big Over Easy and become a fan of Fforde. Then read everything else he’s written.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Arthur & George by Julian BarnesArthur & George by Julian Barnes is an interesting blend of history, biography and mystery. Rich in description, Barnes is able to provide a compelling biography for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle through his relationship with the George Edalji case. In doing so, Barnes creates both a tense mystery and a personal account of a historic event.

Arthur & George succeeds on many levels. It is an intricate character study, a period piece, a mystery and a biography. However, it does fall short in some areas. At times Arthur & George takes a turn into Jane Austen like territory. The incessant honor, decorum and love themes became tedious. If that’s your thing, great, but it wore thin for me.

In addition, Barnes seeks to finish off his character study and biography which detracts from the natural conclusion of the story. In other words, there’s about 30 or so pages that seem superfluous at the end of the novel. Because of this, it took nearly as long to get through those final pages as it did to get through half of the entire novel.

But there’s far more to like than not in Arthur & George.

The portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle alone makes Arthur & George worthwhile. I don’t read many biographies but am thrilled when I get to learn about a historic figure in the context of a novel. Barnes does this with great elegance, giving the reader a real portrait of the famed author. In particular, Doyle’s views on religion are eye opening.

The other central figure in the story, George Edalji, allows Barnes to explore the period, from matters of race and society to industrialization and technological progress. Because George is a ‘different sort’ of person, Barnes can reveal and expose more about the time and surroundings. It’s a clever device that never feels forced.

Yet, the novel really works because of the mystery. It’s here that you’re turning the page, wondering in the back of your mind, ‘did George do it?!’ Doubting the protagonist in the story creates a pleasant friction and anxiety. You want to believe George, and for the most part you do, but somehow Barnes conjures doubt out of nothing.

Perhaps it’s the knowledge that Doyle is involved, and that a Sherlock Holmes story can be surprising. Whatever the reason, the doubt draws the reader further into the narrative. And when that part of the mystery is resolved, Barnes effortlessly transfers it toward another building climax. (I’m working hard here not to give anything away.)

Arthur & George will likely not appeal to the typical beach reading mystery lover. Instead, I recommend Arthur & George by Julian Barnes for those who enjoy history, biography and literary mysteries. Get through the over-wrought spots and you’ll find an enjoyable multi-faceted novel.

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job by Christopher MooreA Dirty Job by Christopher Moore is a quick, engrossing, macabre and hilarious novel. It is everything that Moore’s next novel, You Suck, is not. A Dirty Job remains original while still drawing on many characters from previous Moore novels. Where You Suck felt like a recycled paint-by-numbers affair, A Dirty Job feels fresh and is brimming with ideas and unique insight.

Moore is a master satirist and combines his satire with blazing creativity and a healthy dose of the absurd. Be forewarned, Moore is not for the easily offended. Nothing is out of bounds and he’ll regularly write the things you might be thinking but would never say.

A Dirty Job follows Charlie Asher, a recent widower with a young baby and a second-hand store to run. If this wasn’t enough, it seems that his wife’s death has changed him – and his daughter Sophie – into agents of … Death. Yes, Charlie is in charge of transferring the souls of the dead to new owners. The ‘soul vessels’ can be anything, from a cane to converse sneakers to breast implants.

Did I mention that The Morrigan – a trio of supernatural ‘sisters’ who take the form of large birds – are after these souls as well?

The battle between The Morrigan and Charlie is what moves the plot along. It’s the action/adventure portion of the novel. Moore does a fantastic job of bringing these creatures (and the Squirrel People) to life in gruesome detail. There’s a clear enthusiasm to these descriptions that makes it easier to read.

Charlie’s self-discovery of what he has become and his trips to retrieve the soul vessels give Moore ample opportunity for his uncensored social commentary. He aims at the natural inclinations of the Beta Male, goth girls, Internet relationships and other Bizarro Seinfeld observations.

Yet, A Dirty Job is more then just a smart action comedy. The main subject matter of death surrounds the novel. Death … is the topic of the novel. So, while you’re chuckling Moore is also telling you about how people come to terms with death. He provides a portrait of what it is like for a family to wait for the impending death of a loved one. There is a hard-edge of pain in the middle of A Dirty Job that Moore seems almost panicked to hide, which is in itself interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, A Dirty Job is not a downer. It’s Christopher Moore for Pete’s sake! So, grab a copy of A Dirty Job and hang on for a roller coaster ride of ‘eww’ inducing action and laugh out loud comedy with a chaser of thoughtful reflection on mortality.

Kindle Sales Theory is Flawed

Amazon Kindle Sales Bluff

In February, a Kindle sales theory was proposed by Citi Investment Research (PDF) using Sprint activation numbers.

Thanks to CIR Telco Analyst Mike Rollins, we have uncovered a key disclosure in Sprint’s September Quarter 10Q filing.  P. 42 in the Wholesale, Affiliate and Other Revenue sector.  Here’s the text:

“Certain wholesale devices are activated on the network by our wholesale partners prior to selling the device to the end customer, which resulted in approximately 210,000 such additions being activated on our network during the third quarter 2008.”

Additional sleuthing on Mike Rollins’ part suggests that there could have been 100,000 wholesale device activations in each Q1 and Q2 of ’08, and our combined view is that these wholesale device activations refer specifically to the Kindle.  Tie these points together with the knowledge that Amazon fully sold out its Kindle supply by mid-November, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Amazon sold approximately 500,000 Kindles in 2008.

I just couldn’t understand how one would think that all 210K were specifically Kindle related. I wrote to Sprint Investor Relations asking a very simple question.

Can you confirm that the wholesale device activations referenced are solely Kindle?

The other day, after a bit of persistence, I was able to get the following response from Sprint Investor Relations.

We cannot offer much additional commentary on this topic.  I can tell you that there are other data centric devices included in our reported wholesale and affiliate sub count than the Amazon Kindle.  Neither Amazon nor Sprint provides details on the number of kindle devices.  The comment below about the 210k devices at the end of 3Q08 references those that were activated but not yet in the hands of an end user.

This clearly states that the activations do not specifically relate to Kindle. However, it doesn’t provide any insight as to what percentage may be Kindle related.

The later comment regarding the device activations is odd. My question did not address this in any way, shape or form. Instead, this is a … spontaneous additional comment.

Perhaps it is a simple clarification but in some ways it feels like activations are divorced from the sales cycle. That the activations could be a supply number (for all devices) instead of being mapped to sales. Please share your thoughts here since I find the subject murky.

However, in light of this data, I believe the 500,000 figure is generous. I don’t blame Citi for trying to construct a sales volume theory. It is Amazon and Jeff Bezos who are to blame. Speaking to shareholders at the Seattle Art Museum, Bezos had this to say about Kindle sales.

I’m not sure we will ever reveal all the numbers. Our point of view is that there is a competitive advantage to keeping the numbers close. You may have to remain curious on that point and I certainly understand the curiosity, especially since I look at the numbers so avidly every morning.

I don’t find this a compelling argument and can only surmise that sales are weak. Otherwise, the impact Kindle sales would have on the business would be large enough to meet the materiality definition, and thereby be necessary to any shareholder report.

I understand that Amazon is in a fight with Google for the future of digital books and they want to play their hand like they’re holding pocket aces. But the player who consistently over bets is usually bluffing.

Fear and Loathing in Borders Books

Fear and Loathing in Borders Books

Due to the non-blogging contract, some Borders employees don’t feel like they can speak up for fear of being fired. I recently received an email from an employee at a store in Florida regarding a newly installed supervisor who posted the following by the time clock on July 4th.

Read Me

The past NO longer matters. It doesn’t matter who you are, how long you have worked here, or what your position is. If I do not feel that you are working hard meaning (selling make titles, shelving carts, cleaning the store, borders rewards, customer service, etc.) You WILL lose your hours and others will get them.  I have people calling every day asking for jobs that I can hire. I do like the crew that we have and I do not want to cut any ones hours, I do not want to lose anybody BUT no more mister nice guy.

There’s a lot wrong with this ‘letter’, but perhaps the biggest is the fact that it was done on July 4th. The fourth of July!

All major chains have employee issues. Not every employee is a model employee. Yet, a disturbing pattern seems to be emerging. Any advertising or eCommerce veteran knows that a small pattern of complaints on an issue may point to a greater problem. For every incident reported, there are often 10 more that are not.

Borders does not seem to be investing in their employees during their ‘turnaround’ attempt. So, Borders employees are angry and I hope that the non-blogging contract doesn’t squash the normal type of commentary that anyone should have about their life experiences.

Borders Non-Blogging Contract

Borders Non Blogging Contract

Borders employees are claiming that they are being pressured into signing a non-blogging contract that essentially puts a gag on any writing about new policies and procedures implemented by the distressed book chain. Here’s what one employee said.

Borders is now trying to get the employees to sign a non-blogging contract, and several employees have been fired or put on probation for writing and producing videos in response to the “make books” controversy.

It’s unclear whether this is simply a repurposed version of the current non-disclosure statement from the employee handbook or if it is something new and specifically targeted at online and blog activity.

This blog, specifically the Borders Books Employees Are Angry! post, has been a forum for current and former Borders employees to vent. Their experiences provide powerful glimpses into a changing corporate culture and a company flailing amid economic turmoil.

I haven’t been able to obtain a copy of the non-blogging contract. Yet it seems clear that something has been communicated throughout the organization that blogging about new policies is going to get you in hot water. While a typical non-disclosure agreement makes sense, I wonder how a non-blogging policy would work.

If I have a Facebook page and my profile says I’m a Borders employee, have I violated that contract if my update says I’m having a bad day at work? Do comments on a blog (like this one) count? Has an employee transgressed if their personal blog contains a poor review of a ‘make book’?

Is Borders also seeking out those employees who think the new programs and policies are great? If you don’t want people blogging about things, then wouldn’t that apply to both the bad and the good?

Even the hint of a non-blogging contract seems antithetical to today’s business environment. In a time when more companies are embracing new methods of communication, Borders seems to be going in reverse. Instead of making their employees evangelists for their brand, they’re frightening them into being drones.

Imagine if Borders employees were encouraged to write about the great books just arriving. The hidden gems, the stuff they’ve just read. Tweets about upcoming readings. There are so many ways you could make this work.

There is but one prerequisite, investing and empowering your employees. Based on the experiences of those commenting on this blog, Borders has done the opposite. So, instead of hearing about the excitement around Margaret Atwood’s newest novel, we’re hearing about corporate censorship.

What’s your opinion on a non-blogging contract?