A passion for books but not proofreading

Yesterday I received an email from AbeBooks which stated that I could save 48% on Stephan King’s Duma Key.

Duma Key by Stephan King

Stephan King? It seems that Abe’s ‘Passion for Books’ doesn’t extend to proofreading. Maybe I’m being overly critical but this is a company in the business of words, books and literature! You’d think that they’d go to greater lengths to ensure these types of errors didn’t occur. What would happen if TechCrunch had a headline that read ‘Steve Jubs predicts iPod success’?

I’d give AbeBooks a mulligan but they used that up a few years ago when they sent a message to their booksellers and accidentally referred to them as boobsellers. A very different business for sure.

Perhaps the AbeBooks tagline should be ‘Passion for ARCs‘ which notoriously have these types of errors. Or is my criticism too harsh?

Is Borders Books Going Out of Business?

Borders BooksAs recently reported, Borders book stores may be for sale after securing $42.5 million in financing to continue operations. However, the terms of the financing (12.5%!) may make it unappealing to prospective suitors. I’m not saying I could get $42.5 million, but 12.5% interest seems excessive in this setting, even amid the credit crisis.

So what’s going on at Borders and what does this really mean? As someone who lived and breathed this industry for three years I think this is, in some ways, a positive sign. However, it might be too little, too late. So how did we get here?

Borders had an astounding lack of vision, strategy and execution. They rested on their laurels and didn’t see the train rumbling down the track at high speed, high beams on and whistle shrieking.

I remember walking into Borders for the first time (longer ago than I’d like to admit) and being overwhelmed. It was big and it had books and music. That’s right, there was a time when Borders was a cut above Barnes and Noble, when you sought out the Borders location nearest you. It was cool and cutting edge. You wanted to buy books there.

Not so today.

Barnes and Noble responded with bigger stores, added music and partnered with powerhouse Starbucks for their cafe implementation. They made their stores inviting and implemented programs (author readings, expanded children’s sections) that would encourage people to stay longer. Their strategy is simple. The longer you’re in the store, the better chance you’re buying something. Trust me, as a new parent, the children’s section and train table in particular is a massive draw. And yes, I spend plenty on impulse purchases.

Barnes and Noble evolved and surpassed Borders in the offline market. At the same time, mass market retailers like Target, Wal-Mart and Costco began selling books and ate into the traditional bookstore market. And then there was this little thing called the Internet and the rise of Amazon.

Barnes and Noble may have been slow to fully realize their position on the web, but they understood the need to be a stand-alone entity. Borders on the other hand decided to ‘partner’ with Amazon. I don’t know the details of the arrangement but Amazon made out like a bandit and Borders was slow to realize they were getting massacred online. Amazon essentially swallowed the Borders brand online. (In some ways it would make more sense to put an Amazon.com logo on all the Borders stores.)

Our business development team at Alibris was often flummoxed by the lack of clarity at Borders and the glacial speed of their decision making process. Visits to the Ann Arbor offices were gloomy and depressing because of the inertia and vise-like grip on status quo displayed. Yet, there were signs of life, of rebirth. New blood with new ideas fighting to turn the company around.

The decision to sever their relationship with Amazon and build their own ecommerce destination was a turning point and the right move – just 8+ years late. They’re also launching a new concept store in the hopes of, once again, leap-frogging Barnes and Noble.

The financing comes from a hedge fund who also happens to be the largest stakeholder in Borders. Off the cuff, it seems a backhanded vote of confidence in the new direction. At a minimum they want to see the impact of a new website and the new concept stores. They want to see if Borders can catch up, though admittedly in the stiff headwind of a rocky industry and economic climate.

Last call! It’s time for Borders to put up, or be shut down.

Syrup by Maxx Barry

Syrup by Maxx BarrySyrup by Maxx Barry is as good as an icy cold Coca Cola on a sweltering hot summer day. In other words, Syrup is satisfying! It’s a fun romp that takes well deserved swipes at marketing, Hollywood, ambition and corporate ethics. Amid the social commentary is a romantic plot that, while a bit one-dimensional, is … well … fun. It’s not the romantic swoon you’ll get from Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, but more like … Sawyer and Kate’s relationship on Lost. Yes, it’s a TV reference, but it’s apt in my opinion, particularly given the role books are playing in that series.

Syrup follows Scat (formerly Michael George Holloway), a recent college graduate, who seeks to become famous. Really famous. Acknowledging his lack of acting ability he seeks to make fame and fortune in business and marketing. The premise is that everyone has at least three big ideas in their lifetime. Three ideas that, if pursued, can make millions of dollars. And it just so happens that Scat has one of these amazing ideas about a new brand of cola named Fukk.

Scat’s idea brings him into contact with 6, a beautiful, young, driven marketer at Coca Cola. No, that’s not a typo, her name is the number 6 and the back story to this unusual name is one of the more intriguing gems in Syrup. Barry doesn’t follow this thread, but I wish he had. Scat is immediately smitten and immersed into the shark tank of corporate politics and ladder back-stabbing. Fukk is a success but doesn’t make Scat millions. In fact, it creates an arch-nemesis, Sneaky Pete, who Scat and 6 fight together through the rest of the novel.

Syrup is composed of very short micro-chapters much like Steve Erickson’s Zeroville. This format lets Barry be creative and playful. You can feel his energy and passion for the story. He’s having fun and thereby, the reader is as well. The format also lets Barry sprinkle in bite size case studies like the following:

Pick a random chemical in your product and heavily promote its presence. When your customers see “Now wth Benzoethylhydrates!” they will assume that this is a good thing.

This is a tongue in cheek send-up which flirts with deeper issues like the difference between perception and reality, the friction between art and commerce and finding yourself. But Barry never delves into any of these areas in greater depth. They’re nearly offhanded comments or topic sentences to a potentially longer essay. Could he have done more? Maybe. Would it have worked? Maybe. Is it necessary to make this novel complete? No!

Syrup by Maxx Barry is fast paced and funny, a marriage of soap opera and satire that is a pleasure to read.

Outrageous Fortune by Tim Scott

Outrageous Fortune by Tim ScottOutrageous Fortune by Tim Scott is a rare blend of action, humor, absurdity, science-fiction and personal insight. You know things are going to be interesting when the first word of Outrageous Fortune is ‘Fuckers’, uttered by main character, Johnny X67. He has every right to be pissed. His house has just been stolen. But that’s not even in the Top 10 of strange things that Johnny encounters in this non-stop adventure.

The world that Tim Scott creates is a fantastic collection of interesting ideas, vivid imagery and incisive social commentary. On top of that he’s laid out a riotous action plot coupled with interludes of penetrating observations. I knew I was hooked when he described a city that had been divided by music genres. Such a brilliant concept I’m green with envy!

The Classical section is high-brow and well maintained with sound ordinances and large signs that chide the noisy with large flashing ‘shhhhh’ signs. In Jazz you have all sorts of strange free-form architecture but can’t be sure to get a decent pizza since they might be ‘experimenting’ with an ‘all olive’ phase. Or visit Compilation, the haven for those pale, boring souls who don’t have taste enough to identify with any one type of music. And stay away from Holiday Song, an area with perpetual snow and roaming, ho-ho-ho-ing Santas.

Scott takes readers on a fast-paced ride that reminds me of the movie After Hours and Brazil. It’s a desperate, funny, bizarre world where you (and the characters) are struggling to catch-up and digest what is going on. You don’t want to put the book down because you know something else is going to happen in the next few pages.

The only thing that distracted me was the mix of English and American phrases and places. Scott is English and that comes through unmistakably through his prose. However, the novel takes place in America in some sort of composite of Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Perhaps the cultural collision is intentional and part of the alternate reality Scott wants to create. I don’t know, but it jolted me out of the regular reading and flow of the story.

Amid the Monty Python meets Philip K. Dick prose are amazing reflections on relationships, religion, reality and happiness.

On relationships:

I watched her character shrink before me and I felt so helpless. The spirit I’d loved her for had turned into fear, so that she no longer thought she could cope with the world; was so scared of the thought of being on her own that she crushed the present, suffocating any joy from life, and turned everything into a battle for survival. I knew this was not right – not for us, not for people who had a house and food and friends. And the more she clung to me, the more we both drowned, sinking under an invisible sea of desperation.

On religion:

Now the emphasis was on seeking peace rather than clinging to spurious explanations for our existence – and once the focus moved toward peace, religion seemed to lose a lot of its hold over the masses. Religions never had been interested in peace that much, anyway.

On happiness:

What mattered was regaining who I was, because the pleasure of being alive is not pining for different lives, or different things, but just being.

For every talking elevator who tells bad jokes there is a literary gem. Tim Scott gives readers both sizzle and steak; swashbuckling science-opera and high-minded literature. Read Outrageous Fortune and then wait for Scott’s next novel.

Brasyl by Ian McDonald

Brasyl by Ian McDonaldBrasyl by Ian McDonald is a bloated, confused novel that obscures an otherwise interesting story. Reading Brasyl was a struggle and I had to fight off the urge to put it down nearly every time I picked it up. The novel is composed of three different stories, one in the past, one in the present and one in the future. The plot revolves around the nature of the universe, or in this case the ‘multiverse’, and how these different stories converge and intersect.

I have never read Ian McDonald before and I’m not sure I will again. He’s received a lot of praise and some nice awards. I can only hope that his body of work that made it difficult for an editor to take a red pen to Brasyl. I’m not a writer (well I am, but I don’t get paid for it) nor an editor, nor an ivory tower literati. However, I think I can spot poor writing when I read it – and Brasyl has it in spades.

The warm humidity help and amplified smells; the fruity, blousy sickliness of the bougainvilleas that overhung the fundacao’s fighting yard, the rank smokiness of the oil from the lamps that defined the roda, the honey-salt sweetness of the sweat that ran down Marcelina’s upraised arm, the fecund, nurturing sourness of her armpit.

That’s but a sample of the overblown prose that litters the pages of Brasyl. McDonald can’t help but attach not one but (at least) two adjectives to every noun. More adjectives do not make better descriptions! McDonald does this repeatedly, not trusting the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the blanks.

In addition, McDonald overuses native language. Again, it seems McDonald worked to put at least one native word per sentence. I’m not opposed to it as a rule, but in this instance it does little to enhance the story and makes it even more difficult to read. I know he’s trying to reach for Burgess or Gibson like dialects, but it simply never comes together.

McDonald also misses in his use of pop culture references. The mention of Mentos in Diet Coke is lame and far too ephemeral; the use of ‘alt dot’ is dated and misplaced; and the DJ competition scenes are unauthentic. Most of these are contained in the insipid, present day storyline that follows reality-programming producer Marcelina Hoffman.

The future storyline has some interesting elements, but they’re lost amid the prose and a flat romantic plot. Brasyl shines the most when in the past, following Father Luis Quinn and Dr. Robert Falcon into the Amazon. They are the most fully formed characters and their relationship is a strong point in the novel. It’s in this section that you get a (very) faint echo of the great Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

I can’t recommend Brasyl by Ian McDonald. It’s muddled, indulgent prose hides what might be an interesting story. Perhaps someone can comment on whether his earlier works merit reading.