Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Sanctuary That is Jack Taylor

'Well, Mr. Taylor, they did warn me that you have a caustic tongue, but regardless, I'd like to engage your services.'

I let him hear me sigh, went, 'Let's hear it'

He cleared his throat and I wondered if he wore a cravat - they nearly always did. He said, 'My only daughter Jennifer was sixteen a few weeks back and, naturally, I got her a pony'


Ah, there's nothing better than settling in for a new Jack Taylor rip. I think that it took me all of 3 hours reading time to get through the latest Ken Bruen - Sanctuary - from my first break at work yesterday to 7:45 this morning. This seventh Jack Taylor novel is leaner and meaner than the previous six - clocking at just around 200 pages of double spaced, massive font - and would probably serve the reader better as a pocket sized novella. I've always thought these books should be printed as such - under-sized trade paperbacks that you can stick in the back pocket of your faded black jeans - isn't that how Jack himself would handle things? (I am not complaining, really, and this is no knock on Mr. Bruen, who has deity status in my house, it's just that 3 hours of reading is a hard sell at $24.95.) I'm getting away from the true point here, though: the book is substantially brilliant, as always.

Bruen's writing is so sparse, so visceral, that the short format fits the bursts of prose and sharp verbal jabs perfectly. A 400-page introspective Jack Taylor novel would maybe not pack as much of a punch, although the middle books in this series were much meatier and just as well-rounded. I much prefer to have my teeth kicked in for 3 hours (figuratively, not literally) rather than have Jack change his ways just to fit into a longer novel. I won't go into too much plot for this one - there are some major, major personal revelations for Jack in this - but I will say that Mr. Taylor is never fully free of the demons inside his head, even as he edges towards normalcy and sanity (as towards the end of the previous book, Cross) something horrible will always happen to him to suck him back down into the abyss. Jack is also waking up to the realization that he lives in the "new Ireland" - one of "non-nationals", new wealth, and ever changing landscapes. It seems that this revelation, coupled with Jack's lack of meaningful friendship in his life (or so he thinks) that is driving him towards leaving the land of his birth for the greener shores of America. Whether he ever leaves remains to be seen. Bruen has a wondrous way of exploring the choices and decisions Jack makes - even the bad ones, you can see coming.

"Here's the horrendous deal: an alcoholic can stay dry under the most trying circumstances. You'll hear people wonder that he didn't drink at the wedding/funeral/when everybody expected him to.

An alkie can stumble drinkless through all these minefields, and then one tiny incident, like a shoelace snapping or a carton of milk spilling, and wallop, he's off on the most almighty binge."

Jack sells himself short here - his "shoelace snapping" is a bit more life-altering than that. But I do love the handling of his unavoidable falling off the proverbial wagon - with humanity and grace, the explanation is clear. It's not that it is not Jack's fault - he readily admits as much - but that it is an inescapable fate for him, as there is only so much that his tortured soul can take. Do I drop everything when these books arrive because Jack's life makes me feel better about my own self? Why do we revel in his pain & madness?

Probably because he would just retort, to this sympathetic reading, with either a "Jesus" or a "Bollocks". My only complaint is the length - now what the hell am I supposed to read?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Borders Invents Handselling

About one year ago, the story broke that Borders, the trash heap of brick & mortar bookstores, had begun to employ the radical, experimental system of displaying books face out in order to increase their visibility to the customer. The company received glowing praise in an article written by Jeffrey Trachtenberg for the Wall Street Journal (see my post on the subject from March 2008) and harsh criticism from every indie bookseller with a pulse. (My friend & co-worker, Scott Ehrig-Burgess, finally got himself published because of this news item, in the form of a brilliant letter to the WSJ's editor. Again, see my previously mentioned post.) I thought that that was fairly insulting - the idea that Borders was the first bookseller to realize that books are printed with visually attractive jacket covers - but this week's "breaking story" is far, far worse in my mind.

In an AP story written by Hillel Italie, it is revealed that Borders also is responsible for making select books, such as David Benioff's City of Thieves, into huge national bestsellers simply by "handselling" them to their customers. For those of you unfamiliar with the term "handselling", think of every time you have been into a Borders or a Barnes & Noble and have asked a sales person for a book recommendation. If you have ever received a reply to this inquiry, rather than a blank stare, this would qualify as handselling. At least half of the books sold at independent bookstores are handsells, whether the staff literally puts the book right into your hand, or if they just talk it up enough that you seek it out yourself, or if there is just an impassioned, written recommendation sticking out of the book - this is handselling. My book reviews and recommendations on this website - handselling. If your corporate office decides that you need to place a certain title at your front counter, this is not handselling.

"...the idea was to select a few works favored by Borders national sales officials and promote them nationwide in the spirit of a local seller, from prominent placement to personally advocating ("hand-selling") books in the stores." (from the AP article)

Not handselling. Handselling 101: when our primary book buyer passed over the book, The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany back in 2006, I decided to order 5 copies for the store, since I had read it and loved it. I knew, without a doubt, that I could put this book in the hands of my customers - people who read and look to our booksellers for recommendations - and they would read it, enjoy it, and tell their friends about it. After selling over 400 copies in 3 years, it still resides on our bestseller display, with a written recommendation attached, for the times when I am not there, personally, to espouse on its many attributes. This is handselling.

Borders says its weekly market share for City of Thieves has been as high as 69 percent. Don Redpath, Penguin's executive director of national account sales for paperbacks, would not confirm that number, but said that Borders has had "an early and intensive impact on sales." 
(For the record, "director of national account sales" means that Redpath is the head of Penguin's sales force for the national chain stores, like Borders and B&N.)

City of Thieves was handsold to me by our Penguin/Putnam sales rep, Tom Benton, the recent recipient of Publishers Weekly's Sales Rep of the Year Award. Tom simply talked it up and I took a chance. He had actually read the book and gave a passionate speech about why he cared about it, why it separated itself from the rest of his list, and why he thought I should read it as well. Benton was also the sales rep who repeatedly sent me copies of Ron Carlson's Five Skies back in '07 until I read it. He also gave me a manuscript of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet last Fall. Forget for a minute that Tom is acting as a sales representative for a company - he put all three of these books in my hands simply because he knew my reading habits and that I would end up loving them and in turn handselling them to my customers as well. H-a-n-d-s-e-l-l-i-n-g. And he was right. Righter than right, as those were the best books I read in their respective years. And I don't care what sales figures the Borders executives throw around concerning City of Thieves - Benioff knows who butters his bread. When I met him last month, I apologized for only having 75 people at his Saturday evening book signing. He laughed, thanked me, and said that he had had a signing at a Borders or a Barnes & Noble somewhere else in California and only 5 people showed up. Five. The only explanation for this is that it occurred prior to the new "handselling" policy. As for the 69% market share: Borders has over 900 stores in the US (including their Waldenbooks, Borders Express, etc) and they're still only the second-largest book retailer nationwide. There is only one Warwick's. How much market share can we possibly take when the world is overwhelmed by chain stores? We've sold over 100 hardbacks and over 100 paperbacks of City of Thieves - I'm pretty happy with that. That's 200 happy people who have had their book needs met by hand-tailored bookselling.

Handselling books is at the fundamental core of bookselling. Recommending books that you have read and personally enjoyed should never be a matter of corporate policy. This should be the enjoyable part of work for the bookseller - how great is it to just talk about books all day? The Borders idea of the handsell is not having booksellers walking the sales floor, asking customers if they need help, tailoring book recommendations to their specific tastes - it is instead sending large quantities of certain titles to their stores, featuring the titles in large, colorful displays, and asking, at the checkout counter, "Would you like a City of Thieves with that?" Books are not hamburgers or checkout aisle candybars - there is something inherently personal about books. That personal element is the reason I write about books in my spare time. It is the reason you are right now reading what I have written. Booklovers have a personal stake in these items of paper, ink, and glue - they are more than just afterthoughts at the supermarket. Books are the reason some of us get up every morning - some days the only part I enjoy about my job is convincing someone that this book that I hold in my hands is The One. This is the best book you will read this year. This book will change the way you think, the way you read, the way you feel about all other books you have ever read before and will change the way you will read every other book for the rest of your life.

Each book we select leads to the next - they are not to be taken lightly or as simply part of the retail bottom line. True, Borders has a massive share of the book market, yet they are struggling mightily to maintain. Every time we read about the dire straights they are in, they bust out with a tried and true independent bookstore method for selling books. Maybe it is we who are on to something. Where is my AP article? Where is my feature in the Wall Street Journal? I crave not these these things - I will instead go back to quietly telling my friends about the incredible book I have just read. It will change your life...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Review)

"A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that will surely outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price."

The long-awaited followup to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind is finally on its way - due out on June 16th after almost five years of very patient waiting on readers' parts. SOTW was a huge grassroots bestseller in indies all over the country in 2004 - and remains so, actually, in my store at least, still anchoring down that bestseller display. The Angel's Game, the next of Zafon's books to make it into the English-reading market, came to me hot on the heels of the quintet of mind-numbing manuscripts I read in March and was a welcome recharge to my reader-brain. Translated into English by Lucia Graves, also Zafon's translator for SOTW - I cannot stress enough the importance of an expert translator for novels in translation. If you've ever read one brilliant novel by a Swedish mystery writer and found their next book to be clunky and poorly written, 9 times out of 10 they have different translators. Zafon's first book soared to unexpected heights in the hands of Ms. Graves - it read with a flow and sentence structure that really seemed as if it had been original to English. The Angel's Game is equally brilliant, both in translation and originality.

Here's the skinny: impoverished, orphaned David Martin begins his writing career penning pulp serials for the back page of the floundering newspaper, The Voice of Industry in 1920's Barcelona. What starts out as a whim on the editor's part, turns into a lucrative endeavor for all, with Martin developing a devoted following for The Mysteries of Barcelona among the masses. He receives praise from both his benefactor/father-figure, Don Pedro Vidal, as well as from the mysterious French publisher Andreas Corelli, who sends him cryptic, prescient notes at strangely opportune times. When he is released from the paper, he immediately signs a book deal to continue writing in the realm of the pulps and his pen name is met with wild success. He purchases the home of his dreams - "a huge pile of a house" - and cranks out the pulps, all the while beginning to write his decidedly non-pulpy magnum opus, The Steps of Heaven. When his unrequited love interest, Cristina, in the employ of Pedro Vidal, comes to him for assistance in secretly reworking Vidal's own failing novel, Martin begins a self-destructive path of writing two novels at once, day and night, with only one obvious outcome in store. When "Vidal's" rewritten novel becomes a huge bestseller, David's fails monumentally (even his own mother tosses it in the trash, unread), driving him into the depths of despair and self-loathing. Even Cristina seemingly abandons him, opting to marry the new literary darling, Vidal. As if the personal and professional failing weren't bad enough, David is met with physical failing as well, in the essential death sentence of a terminal brain tumor just behind his left eye. Hovering on the line between sanity and insanity, Martin seeks normalcy and companionship on a visit to his one true friend, the bookseller Sempere. (Booksellers are everyone's best friend, don't you know.) Martin desperately asks for help in saving his book - and essentially his own self - leading Sempere to bring him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

The Cemetery featured prominently in The Shadow of the Wind - a magnificent, secret labyrinth of a hidden library below the streets of Barcelona - and Martin's visit here is the heart of this new novel. Sempere brings Martin there to hide his book - in effect, save it - until someone else comes along to become it's protector. For every book you leave in the Cemetery, you must take one out with you, acting as it's protector for the rest of your life. For reasons completely unknown to him, Martin chooses a bizarre religious text called Lux Aeterna by an anonymous "D.M." Upon his return home, he receives an invitation to meet with the publisher Andreas Corelli, asking for Martin to consider a proposal for work. David, faced again with the desolation that is his life, instead falls back into his own private hell - living in a dream world of pain and misery. Seven days later, Lazarus-like, he awakens, realizes that he has nothing left to lose, and decides to meet with the enigmatic Corelli.

"I want you to bring together all your talent and devote yourself body and soul, for one year, to working on the greatest story you have ever created: a religion."

In return for his work creating a new religious text, Corelli offers David the promise to "give you what you most desire" and David awakens the following morning pain-free for the first time in months, his tumor seemingly gone. A disturbing series of coincidences then begin to pile up: after meeting with his pair of sleazy publishers, who have no desire to release Martin from his contract of pulp-writing, their office burns to the ground and both men are consumed by flame. Could Corelli be responsible? David then discovers that Lux Aeterna was written on the very same typewriter that he has been using - one he discovered, abandoned, in his home when he first moved in. Has he, in effect, been tasked with writing Lux Aeterna himself? What actually happened to the original D.M.? As the police begin to take an active interest in the deaths of the publishers, (among various other suspicious deaths and disappearances in David's orbit) David begins to realize the true manipulative nature of Andreas Corelli - could the publisher be something altogether otherworldy and sinister?

As the mysteries begin to surface and the suspicious circumstances that have come to comprise David Martin's life emerge, Ruiz Zafon's gift for remarkable storytelling begins to truly shine. The atmosphere of pre-Civil War Barcelona is rich and vivid, it's culture of literacy leaves the modern reader pining for such days. The clack of the typewriter, the smells of Sempere's dusty bookshop, the very idea of pulp short stories being printed in the newspaper - all are evocative of a lost era of literature and a culture surrounding the printed page. Even David's home is a living, breathing (perhaps "wheezing" is more appropriate) entity in Ruiz Zafon's hands - musty, dark, and filled with whispers of the past, it operates as a character with many secrets central to the tale. Perhaps there are moments where the plot is too labyrinthine - over-populated with twists and second tier characters - and some of the religious imagery and death foreshadowing is a bit heavy handed, yet every element ultimately has its purpose in driving the story towards its conclusion.

The further into this labyrinth David goes, the more the reader questions his decisions, motives, and his sanity. As the storyteller, David feels no need to justify himself to the reader - the tale is his explanation in itself - and offers a reasonable attempt at explaining his actions and motivations to the investigating detectives. But does the explanation matter if no one is actually who they say they are, even the narrator? Is everything we read fabricated to further David's version of the "truth" or is he just being manipulated by the sinister puppetmaster/publisher? Is he instead just stuck in a writer's hell, damned for eternity to write this religious text until "Corelli" is satisfied? Therein lies the brilliance to this novel - the questions abound, yet Ruiz Zafon never insults the reader by stooping so low as to fully, categorically explain the answers. You are left to find your own way out of the labyrinth - a pleasant fate for a reader to have to face.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Spivet Tuesday!

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen arrives in your local bookstore on this coming Tuesday, May 5th! Destined to be the best book of this relatively new year, I guarantee that it will blow your mind, warm your heart, and change the way that you think about the culture of the book as you know it. (See my full review right here.) It will change not only the way that you read a book, but also your perceptions of what a book can truly be - the heights that literature can reach. In this age of immediate, instant information, reality television, pop-up ads, and the God that is Google, Reif Larsen has created an island in the hurricane of modern life that acts as an alternative to the breakneck pace that is our world. Sit down, relax, and let Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet be your guide to the world for awhile.

Get out your diaries, mark your calendars: I am so firm a believer in the brilliance that is this book, that I will even go so far as to agree with Stephen King for the first time since Carrie exacted her revenge. Larsen scored a major coup for a debut novelist in landing a King blurb for the book jacket: Good novels entertain; great ones come as a gift to the readers who are lucky enough to find them.

As much as it shames me, I couldn't have said it better myself.
Check out Larsen's book site for more.