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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Book Nine

Our ninth novel this year is The Bookman's Promise, the third in a series by John Dunning. In each novel Mr. Dunning has seemed to move further from the obvious crime and detection plot. If a series had been planned from the start, perhaps part of the plan was to offer a pretty straightforward mystery with the first novel, drawing in as many readers as possible, and then pulling them along into new territories, stretching the genre. In this third novel there isn't even an obvious crime until page 117, a full quarter of the way through the book, which is late for a mystery.

In the opening pages, Janeway is giving an interview that sets the stage for the rest of the story. The last paragraph is a fine summation (one can just hear the voice-over):
"So we have a mystery here as well as a valuable book," and it all began then. Its roots went back to another time, when Richard Francis Burton met his greatest admirer and then set off on a secret journey, deep into the troubled American South. Because of that trip a friend of mine died. An old woman found peace, a good man lost everything, and I rediscovered myself on my continuing journey across the timeless, infinite world of books.

The bookman's promise is to a dying woman: to find her books, which were schemed or stolen from her. Again we are treated to lots of information about, and scenes from, the book world. There is less a sense of a crime being solved than of a puzzle being pieced together. One thing we particularly enjoy in Mr. Dunning's writing is the way he regularly presents unpindownable feelings in his protagonist. These have the strong sense of intuition, every good cop's best friend, yet for Janeway his feelings or hunches or suspicions just as often lead nowhere. There is a fine flavor of veracity to this, rather than the traditional detectives who always have a sudden, correct hunch that Mr. Mustard did it with Miss Marple in the Conservatory.

Of course Janeway is on to a mystery that involves a stunning woman, this one whose appearance he likens to a Gibson girl. And why not? Mr. Dunning's Janeway mysteries are a plain paper wrapper short of biblioporn. At every turn Janeway is encountering the most ravishing editions of the most desirable books. Every touch is sensual ecstacy, and the urge to possess is primal. Every book is fine, crisp, and high-end, with lots of margin. "You get hot and the books won't stop coming." He experiences a euphoria that is like a drug high. And when all his acquisitions are made, Janeway says, "I want to fondle my stuff." In the second novel, he has a five-way encounter with four hot Ayn Rands that leaves him lost in rapture. He will always choose a book over a girl, but the girls are usually fascinated by the world of books and want to learn everything he wants to teach them. We have even read between the lines that Janeway's next adventure is going to be titled The Bookman's Wet Dream.

There is one thing that is unsettling about the protagonist, and we have touched on it previously: Janeway has a dark side. In the two previous novels, he has spent time skirting the law, and sometimes stepping outside its bounds, in his pursuit of the truth or the killer or the missing book. This time he turns brutally vengeful, though not without reason. Mr. Dunning makes sure to give his protagonist the proper cause, along with the doubts of conscience that enable him to remain sympathetic. We can accept this, and even recognize that it is part of what makes Janeway a well-rounded, complex character, unlike the bad guy in this book who is nothing more than a goon. The incongruity comes at the end, when Janeway solves the puzzle and sees the entire thing in living black and white. Janeway's world is painted with a full pallette of grays--he gives himself plenty of wiggle room to do things that are just a little wrong because it's all for what he considers good; when someone else asks him to grant them the same wiggle room, just a little gray sympathy, Janeway can do nothing but wish he could.

This was another entertaining novel, and as strong as the two previous ones. On top of the mystery there is a good deal of history--setting aside the eroticism of the books, we might call this a mystorical novel. The next installment is on the pile, and we will read on.

This we give three (out of five) pipefuls.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Navigating Through a Sea of Books to Safe Harbor

At the risk of losing some business to our competition, we would like to direct your attention to Half-Price Books. This store started out with two small collections in 1971, and now is all over the United States. One location recently opened along one of our common travel routes, and so we stopped. After all, just a visit to a bookstore, without any obligation to make a purchase, is among the necessary acts of devotion for every booklover. (Although Saint Duckett smiles more favorably upon those who do purchase.) We had all to do to escape without more books than we brought.

The concept is any kind of printed or recorded matter for half-price. They have a liberal buying policy. Consequently, no two of their stores are alike. One brings in one's books or records, drops them at the buy counter, and then shops. In the mean time, the friendly staff appraises the books, and then calls one over to make an offer to buy. Somehow they know just what to offer to be sure that it will not exceed what one is actually going to spend in the store. (One can actually sell books and receive cash without having to buy anything, but this was not our experience.)

We overspent because the Silent Partner does not have the willpower to resist a purchase of any kind. We could easily have walked out with twice as many books as we brought, but instead limited ourselves to two: one for a fellow book lover, and another for ourselves. We will soon be making plans to return to the store at a later date with more books to sell, and without the Silent Partner.

The book we came away with was on the clearance shelves for one dollar: The Sea Chart: The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational Charts, by John Blake.

This is a map of the world drawn by Nicholas Desliens in 1542. Though not all of the world was known in England at that time, this map is striking in its unfamiliarity. When and why it was accepted that north would always be up, or at the top, we don't know. Apparently neither did Desliens: once we invert the map, the world familiar to us reveals itself.

For some reason old maps and old books make a nice couple. Another volume we snatched up at a sale a while ago is a large beautiful edition which we are unable to name or describe, as it is entirely in Russian. The language does not detract at all from the appeal of the maps and charts. We own less than a handful of these map books, but they are terribly attractive, a melding of text and image. Musical scores have much of a similar appeal, if they are in manuscript, even when they are also in a language we cannot read, though understand perfectly when heard.

The Sea Chart ends appropriately enough for us with the chart made by Frank Worsley locating the Endurance by astrological fix in the ice that trapped and carried it back away from the South Pole in Shackleton's ill-fated expedition of 1914-15.

Half-Price Books has the space and scope of a Barnes and Noble or Borders. It is certainly a used-book superstore. And they buy books from their customers. All that's missing is a fireplace and a coffee shop. Go there armed with a full arsenal of credit cards, or an iron-clad will.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

See What Condition My Condition Is In

As political correctness expands it sway over modern society, we are told, and rightly so, that every person has value. We must find a place, not only for the whole, but also for the bruised, the sightless, the limbless, the ageless. (It seems somewhat odd that while believing people can continue to be productive workers at an advanced age, we have also decided that children cannot be productive workers at ages they once were--someone should stand up for the children's right to work!) People are no longer disabled or handicapped, they are challenged, or differently abled.

In the world of books, one hears all the time that value is predicated to a large degree on condition. Conventional advice is to purchase only those books in superior condition. In the Bookman mysteries we have been reading, Cliff Janeway is regularly remarking on books that pass through his shop that are in pristine condition. Results from major auction houses tell repeatedly of books that would have been knocked down for more, but for a torn dust jacket, a moisture stain, or some other flaw. But Janeway's philosophy predominates:
Never buy a bad copy of a good book. The better the book, the more the flaws magnify. Condition, condition, condition ...

How does one begin a decent collection on a strictly limited budget? Why not purchase those books that have been marked down for quick sale, because they are missing a flyleaf, or have badly shaken boards, or battle-scarred leather binding? One will then have the book, and when one's means have increased, the flaws can be treated, turning a one dollar investment into a five hundred dollar value.

Many collectors believe that a book found once will be found again, and so pass at the first chance if it is not of superior condition--but not all. Roy Meador has said, "I have never been a collector eager to pass up important firsts simply because they are past their prime or even look as if they are doubtful survivors of earthquake, hurricane, war, pestilence, and an evil dog-earer with a highlighter fetish." Dr. Minor Myers, Jr. collects anything from the eighteenth century, and he doesn't fret over condition. Using a symphony as example, he says if he finds only one part of the orchestral score, "You buy it anyway; you don't ignore it because it is incomplete." Henry Ryecroft was also not averse to owning the raggedest and wretchedest volume.

We have volumes exquisite for their photographic plates, despite a detached upper board. We have examples of the most luxurious margins in books that shiver and shake. We have one of a ten-volume set, and nine of a ten-volume set, awaiting the glorious reunion with their kin. Our most cherished volume of Dracula is a battered paperback, because of it's family provenance. The pleasures of collecting books are myriad, and to limit oneself to value only condition reduces those pleasures to a lonely one. When we look beyond condition, we will find that every book, like every person, has value.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Book Eight

One of the things we have been working on at the bookshop is starting a readers' club. Wednesday night was our first gathering, meant to work out the details and establish some procedures--a literary spring training. The first book the club discussed is the eighth book we have read this year: Morrigan's Cross, by Nora Roberts.

If not for this club, we might never have read anything by Ms. Roberts. This book was chosen because it was recently released, it was available in paperback (which lowers expenses), and it was a popular author who we expected to appeal to many. Unfortunately, the book was a little blah.

The story is obstensibly about an epic war between a group of six, chosen to save the world by the goddess Morrigan, and a horde of vampires. This book is the first of three books published simultaneously, billed as the new Circle Trilogy. It begins unlike the typical romantic fare we expected from Ms. Roberts. The plot, however, proves to be incidental to the subplot, which, not surprisingly, is a love story. And though this subplot does not follow the usual romance formula, there is nothing new to make it interesting.

The destined lovers who usually fight against their destiny and one another until finally falling headlong into one another's arms are in this novel eager from the start to be together. The tension might be meant to arise from their circumstances, coming from different times and places, but that has been done better before by others--just as the glamorous modern-day vampire who has lived for centuries, the martially artistic female vampire slayer, and the female root of all evil have been done before. The book struck us as wholly derivative, the story not compelling, and the characters uninteresting. It's nothing really new, just more words from the "#1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 150 novels." We suspect she owns a writing factory that employs twenty Chinese children to novelize the ideas she supplies, in exchange for poverty-level wages, no benefits, and a badge that bears the official Nora Roberts seal.

Regular readers of Ms. Roberts will likely enjoy the book. One of our readers reported that Ms. Roberts follows her own established formula in each book of this trilogy. Obviously she has a large and loyal fan base. As the book blurb tells us, she is "indisputably the most celebrated and beloved women's fiction writer today." Perhaps such indisputability encourages an author to fall into a rut, churning out the precise books her fans expect. When readers hear the term "bestseller," we hope they no longer think quality or merit are part of that designation. More often than not, the chief characteristic of a modern-day bestseller is the lowest common denominator.

Shape-shifting, time travel, and the undead require a suspension of disbelief: no problem. One thing that kept jarring us out of our suspension of disbelief was the constant shift in point of view. This did not bother all of our readers. As a writer it stood out to us, and though we have no quibble with an author doing this, Ms. Roberts simply did not do it well. The shifts were not smooth. In some cases the choices seemed arbitrary. This is likely a reason we found it impossible to identify with and root for any character, because we were never really inside any one's head for more than part of a scene. Exercising control over point of view, and selecting only certain characters through whom to tell the story would have made for more compelling fiction. But why put forth that much effort to revise a novel when it will sell millions of copies despite its failings? What incentive is their to improve one's writing, to perfect one's craft? Some authors may have the luxury of taking a month to tweak a sentence, or a day to find the precise word; Ms. Roberts has a deadline to meet, or her 152nd novel won't be out next month.

We also took issue with the philosophy of one of the major characters on what boils down to women's equality. The witch was never happy how she was being treated by her male comrades. When manual labor and heavy lifting were required, she asserted her "privelege of being female" and kept her hands clean; then when the men tried to protect her from being killed, she was furious that they would expect her to stay out of the fight; then when she wakes from a bad dream, she scurries away to "the one place, the only place, she felt safe," in the arms of the man she loves.

The brevity of life was conveyed well in the book. Through dialogue, thoughts, and specific scenes Ms. Roberts underscores how precious life is, and how short, and how painful that can be. If Morrigan's Cross interests you, don't be put off reading it by us. No crucial plot elements have been divulged, and there is even one twist that surprised us. And, after all, we have been thoroughly rejected by Jove Books, and Berkley Publishing, and the Penguin Group (individually or collectively or whatever), so who are we to take them and Ms. Roberts to task. We would be remiss, however, if we did not heed the author's message about the brevity of life and better spend our time reading anything but another of her novels.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

No Gnus Is Good Gnus

Several new and exciting things coming together, keeping us busy. As details are finalized, the projects will be made public. For now, here is the first:

Should I stay or should I go? We recently considered a new storefront which had become available in a larger town. The potential for foot traffic was greater. So were the costs, as well as a longer and more costly commute. And we've already built a loyal core business at our present location.

Last year we produced a couple advertisements for radio. At the time, because of other commitments, our shop hours were not good, and we thought it better to hold off on an advertising campaign until they became better. Once hours had opened up again, we had suffered a bit of a loss, and the radio ads were no longer in the budget. We opted for a low-tech, low-cost, more direct approach.

Instead of spending money on moving the shop to a new location, we have decided to use some of that money and run the radio advertisements. Our initial campaign will run for thirteen weeks, at which time we will reassess the response and content. They will rotate during the week on the afternoon Clearinghouse show on WLPO.

If you can't pick up the powerful 1000-watt broadcast in your area, you can still listen to the first commercial here and the second commercial here.