Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland (1994) and some thoughts on the BorrowBox app

My library, which I love, adore and think is completely fabulous, recently started using the BorrowBox system. With this system, library members download the BorrowBox app and use it to borrow eBooks and audiobooks. I'm always happy to give anything that increases my access to books a go (especially if I can access the books for free without leaving the house!) so I was pretty keen to try it out. There aren't many ebooks available so my choice was pretty limited. The first book I downloaded was Jennifer Love Hewitt's The Day I Shot Cupid but it was so terrible that even with my deep and abiding love of celebrity memoirs and/or lifestyle guides I could not get past the first chapter. I cannot emphasise how really really terrible that book is (Wikipedia tells me it inspired the popularisaiton of the term "vajazzling": decorating woman's pubic area with crystals. Shoot me now). Urgh.

However, I had more luck with my second title, The Marx Sisters. Mystery novels are one of my favourite genres. I love a world-weary detective, impelled to investigate a world of crime and corruption that confirms his or her dark view of humanity. I love the ability of good mystery writers to use murder as a way to capture entire characters in a few pages while setting these characters, who only briefly feature in the story as part of a murder investigation, against the backdrop of the personal life of the detective, which develops across a series. Some of my favourite series are the Kinsey Milhone Alphabet stories (I have W for Wasted sitting on my bedside table waiting for a day where I have nothing planned so I can spend the whole day lying in bed, drinking hot chocolate and devour it all in one go!) and the first 12 Inspector Lynley novels (seriously, stop at A Place of Hiding. I have read all of them and Elizabeth George spends all of her time in the later novels doing horrible things to the characters we have grown to love. I briefly reviewed the most recent one, Believing the Lie, on Goodreads [review here] and if my review can prevent one person from reading it, then I have done good). I also adore Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther books and very much enjoyed the first twelve or so Stephanie Plum novels. Because I have strong series loyalty, I'm always on the lookout for new authors and detectives so, when I saw this book was the first in a series that has been rated consistently highly on Goodreads, I was sold.

The book features two detectives, homicide detective Kathy Kolla and Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock. They are set the task of investigating the death of Meredith Winters, an old woman who lives in an odd enclave in London called Jerusalem Lane. In Jerusalem Lane, tensions left over from World War II still simmer within a diverse group of people including British nationals and German immigrants. It's an unusual part of London that seems to these detectives like a remnant from another time; a forgotten moment of London's history caught in a particular space. However, the property is in the middle of London and desired by developers with an eye for profit. Meredith held papers that may or may not have belonged to the great Karl Marx that were desperately wanted by an American academic whose career had stalled and Meredith's son was pressuring her to sell so he could liquidate her assets for his hair salon chain. It soon becomes clear that solving this murder is not going to be an simple matter.

The book was released in 1994 and it was really odd reading a police procedural without the technology that is so ubiquitous in crime stories today. There were fingerprint checks and a bit of mention of DNA testing but the characters communicated via fax rather than email and establishing the provenance of an academic at an American university involved writing letters rather than just visiting the university's website. In 1994 I was at high school and I remember having to find books in the library using a card catalogue so it's not like this past is completely foreign to me, but it is amazing reflecting on how far we have come in technologically in just under 20 years. However, despite this slightly jarring historical issue, I enjoyed reading this book. It is the first in the series so it does serve the function of establishing characters, meaning there's a bit more exposition than there usually is in later books but, importantly, it is interesting enough to make me want to read the later books. I give this novel three stars and, as soon as I can figure out how to return it electronically via the BorrowBox app, I will download the next one.

Concerning the BorrowBox app - it does seem to be really focused at audiobook listeners rather than ebook readers, because the range of audiobooks is much larger and has more recent and popular titles than the ebook range. I couldn't find any functionally to change the size of the text like you can with the Kindle app - it looked like the pages were fully typeset and fixed. This meant that the type was a little bit small on my iPhone but would be perfect for an iPad or other tablet. I will keep borrowing books from it because it is so convenient; but, based on its current catalogue, I might run out of books that I want to read sooner rather than later.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012)

A victim of the economic slowdown due to the global financial crisis, Clay Jannon is an unemployed marketing graduate. His one career job was design and marketing for New Bagel, a company run by former Googlers who developed a machine that would make perfect bagels that were completely identical every time. When it turned out that the market didn’t want perfect identical bagels, the machine was refigured to produce burnt irregular ones. New Bagel went under, the Googlers moved on and Clay started looking for another job.

With his job search hampered by the myriad distractions offered by the internet, Clay starts printing out job applications and walking to the park to read them. One day while walking home, Clay sees an ad for help wanted in the window of a 24-hour bookstore. He enters, applies, gets the job and immediately begins work as a clerk at Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. Mr Penumbra’s is a bookstore made in two parts – the used bookstore in the front of the shop and the Waybacklist, a collection of old books that have never been registered on any official book database, that go up the walls of the odd, tall space. In his quest to digitise the store, Clay uncovers a secret society that has been searching for answers for 400 years and, with his friends who each have their own quirky technological specialities, goes on a quest to find the answers.

These two instances, where the new (perfectly identical bagels, the internet, technology) is compared and contrasted with the old (imperfect bagels, the printed page, a bookstore) and then integrated is the key theme of this book and I think whether or not you like Mr Penumbra's will depend on how well you think this theme was executed.  I am honestly not sure if I liked this book or not. I think questions about the integration of technology with publishing and the book industry are interesting. I think the digitisation of books is good because it makes book more widely available, often much cheaper and has much less stress on the planet because we’re not chopping down trees to print them and then shipping the printed book all over the world. However, I worry that the models used by Amazon and Google mean that authors aren’t getting enough of the royalties for the book industry to remain sustainable (not a lot of use having models to sell books if no good books are being written!). I also recognise that a shift to a largely electronic book marketplace will result in changes in the labour market in that some jobs will be lost (printers, probably some designers and typesetters) and some will be created (digital distribution). I think this book acknowledges this tension and explores it to some extent but, by reducing it to a question followed by an unrealistic and cheesy conclusion, it dismisses the complexities of the argument in favour of a Hollywood ‘let’s all just be friends’ happy ending.

This book is very computer driven. I am certain that I missed a whole bunch of references to computer stuff that probably affected how much I enjoyed the book. I didn’t know which of the computer language/design things were real and which were invented for diegetic purposes and I didn’t care enough to look them up. Also interesting with this book were the references to Google. Clay dates a girl, Kat, who is a Google employee and devotee and the book is quite critical of the role Google play in the digital world. I was surprised that Google allowed their name to be used, especially in such a negative portrayal. In the digital/analogue binary that this book divides the world into, Google is just a digital modern-day cult; a more public version of the secret society that funds Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore.

I’m going to reluctantly give this book three stars. I would be hesitant to recommend it to anyone I know (bad) but it has given me food for thought (good), so I’m placing it right in the middle of the star scale. If you’ve read it and have thoughts, I’d love to hear them but don’t let this review in any way influence your decision to pick it up.