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Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

Most of y’all know I’m a longtime reviewer for Shelf Awareness (best. gig. ever). That usually means I get a delicious stack of print advance copies to try out every month. But due to the pandemic, my last stack of physical ARCs arrived in mid-March. (Shortly after that, the stay-at-home orders came down, and many publicists and editors – including mine – couldn’t get to their offices to distribute books.)

Since we usually read two to three months ahead (those books I got in March all had pub dates for May, though some of them have been pushed back), we had to shift to e-galleys quickly. I was (am) not a fan of this idea: I love physical books, their heft and feel and smell, and I also don’t want one more reason to scroll on a screen. But my sister has lent me her long-disused Kindle Fire, and after several weeks of denial/procrastinating/avoiding reality, I finally have it set up for digital reading. (I’m requesting books through both Netgalley and Edelweiss, and the experience in both places has been mostly fine.)

It’s not as good as a “real” book, and I’m still reading physical books when I can: either rereading old favorites or working through my long-unread stacks. But the e-reader experience is much better than scrolling through files on my laptop, and it means I can still do the freelance work I love.

Like so much of life under quarantine, it’s not what I would have chosen, but here we are. I am (simultaneously) frustrated, trying to make the best of it, and intensely grateful that these are my problems.

Are you reading digitally in these strange times – or do you normally? Any tips?

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murder magpies book mystery judith flanders

It’s no secret around here that I love a mystery – especially a British one. In addition to classics like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, I can appreciate a modern-day British detective with a sharp eye and a crackling wit. Bonus points for nosy amateur sleuths with enjoyable supporting characters (because I love a good ensemble cast).

Lately, I’ve found all of the above in Samantha Clair, whose adventures in twenty-first-century London are more Dorothy Parker than Miss Marple, but nonetheless highly enjoyable.

Sam is the sarcastic, red-pen-wielding protagonist and narrator of a newish mystery series by Judith Flanders. An editor at a London publishing house, Sam is both keen-eyed and curious by nature. She gets caught up in her first case when one of her authors, who’s also a friend, goes missing. Sam can’t help poking her nose into the investigation, and almost by accident, she ends up in a relationship with Jake Field, the no-nonsense detective inspector. (Their romance has always struck me as a bit odd, if only because neither of them seems particularly keen on the other for quite a while. Maybe they’re just understated? But four books in, I’m convinced they like each other now.)

As she pursues the various cases that come her way, Sam doesn’t quit her day job – which is a good thing, since Jake would probably tell her not to. But that also means we, the readers, get an inside glimpse into life at Sam’s office. There’s a lot of juggling paperwork, a little bit of reading new manuscripts, a lot of sweet-talking difficult authors and a lot – a LOT – of office politics. There’s also, sadly but truly, a hefty dose of office sexism, which Sam fights on the sly with help from a few female colleagues and her whip-smart assistant, Miranda.

Outside the office, there are Sam’s neighbors, Kay and Anthony, who live upstairs with their adorable young son, Bim. Mr. Rudiger, the elderly hermit who lives on the top floor, never goes out but knows everything that goes on in the building, and I’ve enjoyed watching his friendship with Sam develop. And Sam’s impeccably polished solicitor mother, Helena, who knows everyone worth knowing and irritates Sam to no end by frequently being right about everything, is a great foil for her daughter.

Sam’s wry first-person narrative makes the series; it’s like going out with a sharp-tongued friend and hearing about her adventures over a drink (or several). These stories are not quite literature on the level of Sayers or Christie, but they’re a lot of fun.

If you’re an Anglophile, a publishing geek and/or a mystery lover, you might enjoy Sam’s adventures: smart and well plotted with a hefty dose of snark.

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the bookstore lenox ma

A few weeks ago, Publishers Weekly interviewed Claire Messud about her new novel, The Woman Upstairs.  The interview emphasized the fact that Messud’s main character, Nora, ventures into “unseemly emotion” territory more commonly explored by American male authors: rage, obsession, deep dissatisfaction with her life. Women in literature are often allowed to be mildly frustrated, to want more from life, but apparently Messud’s main character goes far beyond that. (Full disclosure: I have not read the book.)

Which is perhaps why Messud got a bit tetchy when the interviewer asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Messud responded. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” She then rattled off a laundry list of well-known characters and authors – mostly male – whom no one in their right mind would want to befriend.

You can feel her frustration, and I don’t blame her. Books by women tend to get pigeonholed as either “women’s fiction” or “chick lit,” with bright, fluffy covers even when the story within is much darker. We’ve advanced past the days of Jane Austen publishing anonymously, but women still have a long way to go to gain equality in the publishing world, as they do in most other spheres.

However, it was Messud’s next remark that stopped me in my tracks.

If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

I agree with Messud’s second sentence above. We do read to find life, in all its forms and permutations, which are unbelievably numerous and not all pleasant or tidy. I have read my share of deep, harrowing, complicated books that left me wrung out, brokenhearted or simply unsettled, and most of those books had something important to say about the human experience, whether their renderings of it were enjoyable or not.

But I do read to find friends. I have done so since I was a little girl, reading Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Christy, the Little House on the Prairie books, and several American Girl series over and over again. These are all books written for children, it is true, but in my adult life I have also discovered many book characters whom I consider friends, or with whom I would like to be friends, were it possible across the time/space divide.

I believe it is perfectly valid to read to find friends (as long as you also have actual human friends). I read, in part, to reassure myself that there is still beauty and light and hope in the world, and those qualities are often embodied in the characters with whom I would love to be friends.

I appreciate that Messud’s frustration likely stems from the fact that no one would have asked that question of a male author. The question shows the reductive thinking often applied to fiction by women, and I concede that a character’s likeability often has little (or nothing) to do with whether he or she is valid, real, alive. But I want to say – as I clutch my favorite books to my heart – that I’ve made many friends between the pages of books, male and female, human and nonhuman, likeable and otherwise. And that is as real and valid and true a book experience as any other.

What do you think about Messud’s comments? Do you read to find friends?

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I love books. (In case you didn’t already know.) I love reading them, talking about them, lending them to friends, receiving them as gifts or loans from friends, checking them out of the library, smelling them, flipping through them, writing about them.

I go through them pretty fast, so it’s nowhere near practical for me to buy all the books I read – hence my ardent adoration of libraries, and of borrowing books from friends. But I love to buy them when I can. And like a good reader/writer/bookworm, who doesn’t want to see the publishing industry go under or switch solely over to e-books or be totally monopolized by Amazon, I try to do most of my buying at local indies. (Most notably, my beloved Brattle – for used books – and the Booksmith, with occasional forays to Concord. And, okay, I sometimes still order occasionally from Amazon.)

I was sad to hear Borders had filed for bankruptcy and is closing more than 200 stores – though a tiny part of me cheered for the indies who will (I hope) see more business from this development. Mostly I worried for the future of the book industry in general – as lots of publishing professionals have said, fewer bookstores means fewer places to sell books, for everyone. And I’m sad for the communities in which Borders is the local bookstore, similar to the way in which Barnes & Noble is the (only) bookstore in my hometown.

However, I’ve been heading down on a semi-regular basis to the Borders near Copley Square, to scope out the deals at its closing sale. On my most recent visit, I scored three trade paperbacks for $23. This was after picking through shelves of disorganized books, shoved into crooked lines under scribbled-over signs with discounts larger than the section names. And though I was glad to score a deal, I felt a little like a vulture, picking over the remains of a carcass.

There’s something here about the devaluing of books in general, and supporting the big chains because discounts are attractive (which is the exact reason The Shop Around the Corner closed in You’ve Got Mail), and also something about not having the budget to buy nor the room to store all the books I’d like to own. I can’t quite articulate all the layers, nor am I seeking to condemn anyone for where they buy their books. (And I know some folks love their Kindles and nooks and iPads, though I am such a paper book fanatic that I don’t want one.)

But seeing the unruly shelves and the crossed-out discounts (replaced by higher discounts) and the empty space on the second floor, cordoned off like a crime scene with yellow Caution tape, really got to me. It felt like taking part in the dismantling of the store, though I know Borders’ problems go well beyond my ken. Nevertheless, I won’t be going back there. I’ll be more committed to doing my book shopping at the Booksmith and Brattle and other indies I love – because while I was sad to see this Borders close, I think I’d cry if any of my favorites had to close up shop.

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