Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Civil War Over Amazon

Last week, Amazon announced its most recent quarterly earnings and they weren't so good. According to Publishers Weekly, there was a loss of $170 million mostly associated with the Fire smartphone and more students renting textbooks rather than purchasing them. Many readers on PW and other publications were quick to bash the internet giant. Some wondered if Kindles would eventually be shut down while others claimed the company's quarterly history indicates the end is nigh.

Some of the dislike toward Amazon is heightened by the company's ongoing battle with publishing giant Hachette. The group Authors United blasted Amazon for its hardball tactics, namely "refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors' pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books." It should be noted that I am not a fan of these tactics either and have made adjustments, specifically buying Hachette titles from independent bookstores while the negotiations are ongoing.

However, people have used the event to paint Amazon with a broad brush and in the grand scheme of things, I'm in the middle. I realize being in the middle isn't the cool position in our hyper-partisan society (Democrat vs. Republican, Coke vs. Pepsi, DC vs. Marvel, Mac vs. PC, the list goes on), but hear me out.

After heavy research of e-readers like the Nook, Kobo and the Kindle, I recently purchased a Kindle Paperwhite in part so I can read new releases at a much more economical rate. Previously, I had only purchased paperbacks, which typically do not come out until a year after the book is initially released, because that was the most economical option. Nielsen announced earlier this month that paperbacks make up 42% of sales, but ebooks make up only 23% and hardcovers 25%.

For readers that only read a handful of books a year, I totally understand the anti-Amazon crowd and their support of local bookstores. According to, if a person spends $100 at a local bookstore, $68 of that stays in the local area. If you shopped the same hundred bucks at a chain store, $43 stays in your town. Coincidentally, the difference, $25, is close to the average cost of a hardcover book. IndieBound also touts taxes being reinvested in the community. In the case of Los Angeles County, the sales tax alone is a whopping 9%.

I'm on pace to read 32 books this year. Let's assume for sake of the argument, that I bought all of those in hardcover at the average retail price. Based on figures from the School Library Journal, the average hardcover book cost is $27.20, which would total out to $870.40 in my scenario, not including sales tax. You might say, "Well, wait a minute, you said earlier you read paperbacks." Using the average price of a trade paperback, $17.84, the total cost would drop to $570.88. The School Library Journal did not compute ebook pricing, but they are even cheaper. I recently purchased Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, both shortlisted for the National Book Award, for a combined total of $13 on my Kindle.

Also consider that while 32 books may seem like a lot (and frankly, to me it is), the average Goodreads reading challenge has 52 books in it. So of the 658, 079 participants that are in the 2014 reading challenge, an average number are planning to read a book a week during the calendar year. I'd hate to see the book expense bill on those accounts.

My love for independent bookstores is well-known. Vroman's Bookstore, one of the best in Southern California, is 45 minutes to an hour away from my house (assuming L.A. traffic wants to cooperate). Despite sporting a Kindle, I will still make the long drive down the hill to Vroman's and buy a paperback in support of the local bookstore occasionally.

All in all, I'd relax and ease off the doomsday predictions regarding Amazon. The company's self-publishing platform has enabled thousands of authors like nothing previously while publishing companies from Hachette to W.W. Norton to Penguin Random House have teams of copy editors, jacket designers, and others to create beautiful works of art in written form. Independent bookstores are thriving meeting places and often have the best author Q&A. The three can and will be able to coexist well into the future.

What do you think about the Amazon debate?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Friends and family know I adore the writings of C.S. Lewis. Understandably, most people think of his Chronicles of Narnia series and rightly so, but my favorite Lewis book is The Screwtape Letters, a darkly comedic take on temptation. A co-worker, knowing I liked Lewis, had suggested The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow) as a perfect first-time Neil Gaiman novel.

This is one of those books that does better with as little of a plot synopsis as possible, so readers can visualize the novel's imagery in their own minds. The bare minimum is that a man returns to the street of his childhood home and remembers a series of terribly fantastical events involving a neighbor girl named Lettie who claims the pond behind her house is an ocean.

There are certainly strains of Lewis in the book, especially an antagonist that reminded me more than once of Narnia's White Witch. Between this character and Disney's "The Little Mermaid" villainess, it'll be near-miraculous if future generations of parents name their daughters Ursula. Gaiman's use of imagery echoes Lewis as well.

Like some of the other books I've read this year, "Ocean" unfortunately suffered from a serious case of fandom. Readers left comments everywhere, especially Goodreads and Twitter, that were so effusive in their praise of the book, that it put the novel at a disadvantage. If the axiom is "under promise and over deliver," this was the other side of that, but by no fault of the book or author themselves.

But that doesn't mean the novel itself was bad. Quite the contrary. It is a modern adult fantasy tale and a welcome change of pace from the usual bestsellers. Like Lewis, Gaiman uses fantasy to beautifully convey ideas that transcend age, but without Lewis' overt religious themes. Children can be exposed to the darker aspects of life and none more so than a particular scene the main character goes through involving one of his parents.

Overall grade: 3.5/5 stars. It wasn't the smash that fans made it out to be, but I'm definitely open to reading another Gaiman book in the future.

Two quick notes: I typically don't talk about a book's various editions, but the paperback edition of this book is gorgeous. Beautifully embossed typography on the cover and deckled pages that absolutely match the feel of the story. Also, the film rights to the novel have been purchased by Focus Features, the indie unit of Universal Pictures and Playtone, Tom Hanks' production company. Hanks will produce the film, but no word yet as to whether he'll be playing a role. Joe Wright (Atonement) has signed on to direct. No word yet on a release date, but the talent involved is a good sign for the adaptation.

Do you have a favorite Gaiman book?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Flatiron Books Launch

One of my first loves in reading is literary nonfiction. Rocket Boys, Band of Brothers, The Boys in the Boat, Friday Night Lights, just to name a few. So it is with a keen interest that I saw Macmillan, one of the big five publishers, launch a new imprint. Dubbed Flatiron Books after the famous Flatiron Building in New York, where Macmillan's headquarters happen to be based, the imprint is set to debut in the winter.

Macmillan explains the imprint as "committed to publishing intelligent fiction and nonfiction with commercial appeal by authors with distinctive voices." Based on that description, it seems like the imprint can be along the lines of Sarah Crichton's label at Farrar, Straus and Giroux or a much more selective Riverhead. Flatiron will be off to a good start with former New York Times and current Yahoo writer David Pogue debuting his book Pogue's Basics in December.

I purchased a Kindle Paperwhite recently and received a preview of the Flatiron sampler for Winter 2015 via NetGalley. Five nonfiction titles were previewed, but here were the three that stuck with me.

1) Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland (Feb. 24)
Journalistic nonfiction is right in my wheelhouse and this book is no different. We as a society tend to think of PTSD as the result of being in a war, but McClelland suffers the disorder after a 2010 trip to Haiti to report on the devastation post-earthquake. She delves into the history of the disorder and how it impacts her as well those she meets. At times it reads like a suspense tale, but I was impressed by the level of detail and openness she expresses. It was a gripping, albeit difficult read at times given the subject matter, but of the five samples Flatiron provided this was the best of the bunch and the one that immediately made it onto my to-read list. 

2) A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power by Paul Fischer (Feb. 3)
Part thriller and part world and cinema history, Paul Fischer's debut book chronicles the crazy but true story of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il's kidnapping of a South Korean director and actress in order to make better quality propaganda films. Fischer, a film producer who produced the documentary Radioman, Fischer explains Jong-Il as a petulant ruler who seeks worldwide acclaim for his films. Based on what we know of North Korea during his rule, his ambitions seem darkly comical but the means at which he aspired to achieve those ambitions were anything but. I have been going back-and-forth on adding this to my TBR, but would readily recommend it, especially to folks like a relative of mine who is both in film school and is interested in world history.

3) The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History by Robin Givhan (March 17)
I'm not a fashion maven by any means. I don't like shopping for clothes and I don't get the hubbub over fashion shows. Having said that, I know the names of fashion icons like Oscar de la Renta, who passed away this week, Givenchy and Christian Dior. Part of that is the result of watching the Oscars for years and hearing the inevitable "Who are you wearing?" questions on the red carpet. Givhan's debut book, based on the preview, was well-researched and almost felt like the fashion equivalent of an underdog sports story. The book focuses on a 1973 fundraiser for Versailles when American fashion designers managed to tilt the focus of the fashion world from Europe to the U.S. Occasionally, I like to read things outside of my usual interest areas and based on the preview, I would consider this one. I'd also recommend this to a few friends of mine who are more in tune with the fashion world.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Film Friday: The Year in Film So Far

Rather than do a Film Friday review, I thought I'd just take a look at what the film landscape has been like this year and what lies ahead as we get into the good season.

My top 5 films so far are as follows:
1) Guardians of the Galaxy
2) The Lego Movie
3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
4) Gone Girl
5) X-Men: Days of Future Past

The year has been dominated by the superhero genre, in part because of just how much better Guardians of the Galaxy and the Captain America sequel were than most people expected. The Lego Movie has been the surprise of the year so far. I went into it with minimal expectations and came out loving it. When a movie (or book) surpasses the expectation, I tend to give it a bump in the ratings. Would I give Guardians the Best Picture Oscar over Gone Girl? No. Did it exceed expectations more than Gone Girl did? Absolutely.

But as good as those five films are, we've had an unusually high number of films that were less than stellar. I went with friends to The Expendables 3 expecting nothing and found myself underwhelmed. Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Maleficent were easily the two biggest disappointments of the year. I thought Godzilla was just okay and unintentionally hilarious in some scenes.

Based on the upcoming fall and holiday slate, I fully expect my top 10 to look radically different come January. In terms of other book-based movies, The Fault in Our Stars is in the top 10, but Divergent missed the cut. Frankly, I thought Divergent could have been trimmed, but it was by no means the worst adaptation of the year. That honor belongs to Maleficent. Audiences can tell when a script or book is written scattershot (this summer's Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a textbook example of how not to create a superhero movie — and audiences promptly blasted it online for its shoddy plot). Guardians, Lego and Gone Girl were the total opposite and very well composed. Other factors I look at include the acting, the level of anticipation vs. the payoff and memorable dialogue. In these categories, all five of the top films delivered.

Comparative to last year, I think the quality is down. We had an amazing October last year (Gravity, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave were released in back-to-back-to-back weeks) after a decent summer. Because some films underwhelmed in public opinion this summer, the market feels more down than it probably is. I don't think we're going to get that same kick in quality we got this time last year until late November.

As far as upcoming films go, the schedule is dominated by Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Arguably the most important movie to come out of Hollywood in years and my No. 1 overall most anticipated of the entire year, the film could allow certain filmmakers to pursue original projects. Audiences like to rip the industry for running out of ideas and at times, that pessimism is warranted (Exhibit A: The Transformers series). If Interstellar is as good as it looks, audiences and the industry as a whole could get a lasting ripple effect of quality, original films that tout ideas and make viewers think rather than cater to the lowest common denominator.

Other films I'm dying to see are Unbroken and Big Hero 6. I'll do a more detailed look at the holiday slate as it gets closer, but now it's your turn: What was your favorite movie this year so far? Is there one you're looking forward to later this year?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Nominees Get Winnowed Down

The literary world's awards are being handed out or narrowed down this week. The Man Booker Prize was awarded Tuesday to Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf). The novel is a World War II-era love story set in Burma about an Australian doctor in a Japanese POW camp as the Thailand-Burma Railway is being built. Flanagan told attendees, "I never expected to stand here before you in this grand hall in London as a writer, being so honored."

When the Man Booker shortlist was announced, I predicted Flanagan's book as the likely winner and immediately added it to my to-be-read list. For more on Flanagan's win, go here.

Stateside, the shortlists for the National Book Award were announced this morning on NPR's "Morning Edition." Three of the five fiction nominees are on my TBR, including Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner), which I've had pegged as an awards contender since reviewers started buzzing about it back in the spring. The other titles that made the cut were Phil Klay's Redeployment (Penguin Press) and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (Knopf) along with Marilynne Robinson's Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press). Despite literature being a subjective art form, there has been universal praise for the fiction nominees from critics and readers alike. On Goodreads, Doerr's book ranks the highest with a 4.19 rating currently with Station Eleven and Lila not far behind.

The nonfiction side was missing my two TBR picks, Ronald Rosbottom's When Paris Went Dark (Little, Brown) and Walter Isaacson's The Innovators (Simon & Schuster). Instead, other works that mostly focused on contemporary topics got the nod. John Lahr's behemoth Tennessee Williams biography (Norton), Roz Chast's memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury), Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) explores modern China, No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt) looks at Afghanistan and The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright/Norton) made it to the shortlist. I'm not surprised by Norton's dominance and at this point expect Lahr's biography to be the winner but I can't say I'd be disappointed with a Chast win.

The winners will be announced Nov. 19. For complete coverage of the award's shortlist, go here.

My sympathies to Richard Powers, whose book Orfeo did not win either the Man Booker or make it onto the shortlist for the National Book Award. It was on the longlist for both. I was also pulling for John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van, but it also did not make the National cut.

Is there a book you're rooting for? Did it make the cut?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: Ready Player One

A book that has taken the reviewer community by storm in recent years is Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, a hybrid of "The Matrix," "Tron" and "Willy Wonka." The story involves a Midwestern teenager who spends his days in a virtual reality world called the OASIS because the real one has succumbed to catastrophe. He hopes for a better future by participating in the OASIS treasure hunt, created by the its deceased creator. After stumbling onto the first clue, it's a race against time, corporate interests and other players to find the treasure.

The primary characters are teens, but calling the novel another dystopian YA book would be selling it short because of its timely themes. People around the world want to escape into a virtual reality whether it be the Internet or the novel's OASIS. We create online profiles of ourselves, promoting our best qualities and doing our best to hide the less-than-good ones. There's also a running plot about a nefarious corporation trying to control the OASIS and given the ongoing furor of net neutrality, the timing is perfect. Cline delves into these ideas and wraps them in a fun action-adventure package rife with 1980's and early video game references. As someone who was born in the late 80's, I got most of the references, but some flew over my head. The plot and the worlds were very well-constructed and with a minor exception or two, there wasn't anything that seemed out of place or not cohesive with the overall storyline. There's also a romance subplot that serves the story well, but doesn't feel shoehorned in for the sake of having a love story. As a result, the book is accessible to a much wider audience.

Ready Player One is one of the better fiction books I've read in a while and is the best I've read this year. Grab a copy and enjoy the ride. Rating: 4/5 stars

As one may expect, a film version is in the works. Cline sold the rights to producer Don De Line and Warner Bros. after a fierce bidding war that included at least five studios and production companies. De Line worked on films like "The Italian Job," "Green Lantern" and "Pain and Gain." Cline wrote the first draft of the screenplay, but Zak Penn was commissioned to rewrite the script this summer and get it closer to a point where the studio can start hiring a director and begin production, according to Hollywood blog The Wrap. Warners' 2015 and early 2016 slate is mostly booked and considering the many effects that would be involved in recreating the OASIS, I can't imagine the movie version to come out any earlier than late 2016 or 2017.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Film Friday: Gone Girl

Marriage woes are nothing new to a novel, but Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl puts them in an even more sinister light. When I delved into the book in early September, I knew it was going to be a dark and twisty ride, but the characters are truly some of the more despicable I've seen on the page in recent memory.

Flynn is an excellent writer and wrote with a sense of authority on how the media would cover something like the disappearance of Amy Dunne and the accusations mounting against her husband, Nick. The details are impeccable, down to Rebecca, the crime blogger looking for a career-changing interview and the police detectives. Several of the side characters are genuinely likable, particularly Go and Tanner Bolt, Nick's sister and defense lawyer, respectively. Between the lead characters and Go, she is easily the sanest of the three and has dialogue reflective of what the reader would think or ask during situations.

One of the biggest problems I had with the book was that I never bought the characters truly ever loving each other. All of their interactions seemed to be skin-deep or making some funny and snide comment about a party crowd or society in general. Every married couple I know has some deep connection, whether it be through religion, shared interests, similar lifestyles, etc. I never saw that in Nick and Amy. As the book progressed, my predominant thought usually bounced back and forth between "These two should have never gotten together" and "These guys actually liked each other enough to marry?"

Overall, I thought the book was good, but not the rave that many critics viewed it as when the novel debuted in 2012 (just look on the paperback's back cover for the effusive praise). Again, as was the case with The Fault in Our Stars and The Emerald Mile, perhaps I came in with unrealistic expectations. I'd rate it 2.5/5 stars.

The movie is very well-made, a testament to director David Fincher and Flynn's screenplay. The dialogue is just as sharp as in the book and the characters are a bit more believable, especially the two leads. During the movie, there was never any point when I thought, "That would never happen" or "That's completely not from the book." In other words, the novel's adaptation nipped and tucked at sections of the book, rather than a full-scale amputation of key parts. I thought the movie also tried to make the connection between Amy and Nick pre-marriage stronger. I fully expect the movie to be in the Oscar conversation, especially Rosamund Pike as the missing wife, Fincher as director and for Flynn's screenplay. I do think it can get into the Best Picture race nearly on the strength of Fincher, Affleck and Pike alone, but I doubt it'll take home the trophy. I'd rate it 4/5 stars.

*Be advised, the rest of the review contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned.*

Despite the great twist of Amy framing Nick and her expressing how she would frame him for her disappearance and murder, the novel lost steam for me when Amy was robbed at the backwoods motel. Once that happened, I thought for sure she was going to head back to her husband, but since that happens three-quarters of the way through the book, the rest of it felt like going through the proverbial motions to get to the ending. I did not expect Desi to meet the horrible death of getting his throat sliced that he does (in the movie, it is a very gross and horrible death, whereas the book is less graphic in its description). Frankly, I much preferred the novel's way of handling it and that scene was a detractor for me in the film. Also, Rebecca and Betsy Bolt, Tanner's wife, were cut entirely from the movie. It would have been nice to see Betsy on screen to act as a contrast to Nick and Amy's shattered relationship. However, Tanner's classic line at the end of the book was directly transferred to the screen and got an uproarious laugh during the screening I went to.

Did you read and or see Gone Girl? What did you think?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Film Friday: Rocket Boys/October Sky

I was in sixth grade when my teacher, Mr. Harrison, encouraged our class to go see the film October Sky for credit. My dad, whose love for space exploration started as America leapt into the Space Race, went with me to the film in the spring of 1999. The movie stars a young Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern, who I was only familiar with because of her role in Jurassic Park. The film recreated the late 1950's beautifully, thanks in part to director Joe Johnston (he also contributed to the Indiana Jones series and directed two of my other favorite films, The Rocketeer and the first Captain America.)

The movie, at its heart, is about overcoming obstacles and challenges. Homer, played by Gyllenhaal, sees the Soviet satellite Sputnik fly over his mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia and it triggers the spark of an idea that he wanted to build rockets and go into space. Spurred on by his teacher Miss Riley, Homer  and a group of other boys set off to build rockets that fly ever higher. Of the other Rocket Boys, Quentin is the most memorable. But as with most lofty goals, there are road blocks along the way, particularly disapproving parents, a town that doesn't understand rocketry, and using materials that have a propensity to explode. Then, there are the successes...

Chris Cooper plays Homer's father wonderfully as a man who isn't a villain, but rather more like the dad in Mary Poppins, a man who doesn't understand why his sons wouldn't want to go into the mines he's loved working in or take up rocketry. Laura Dern is terrific as Miss Riley and the supporting cast is well-rounded. The score by Mark Isham is terrific, using a fair amount of string instruments as an ode to the usual sounds of Appalachia. Overall, a fantastic movie. Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

Fourteen years after watching October Sky for the first time, I picked up the book it was based on, Rocket Boys. It's a shame I didn't read it sooner because as good as the movie is, the book is even better. The memoir delves into events not in the movie (JFK makes an appearance) and creates an even better sense of the time and place. Essentially, the film is about not giving up your dreams while the book is more of a snapshot of a time and place that hardly exists anymore (the Coalwood mine closed in 1986). As a print journalist facing the new world of an exploding online media, I was reminded of what Homer's dad must have been going through seeing the town mine starting to decline and the new possibilities of technology Sputnik represented.

Some of the struggles in the movie are better exemplified in the book. In particular, a teacher refuses to teach Homer a higher math class because the school is only "a football and coal miner's school." Also, in the movie, Homer voluntarily works at the town mine for a period, but in the book, he is brought down to the mine to shadow his dad to learn engineering. As a result, the dad is even less of a villain-like character in the book. In reality, there were six Rocket Boys while in the movie, there were only four. Other side characters, like the newspaper writer who publicizes the boys' launches and some of the other high schoolers, are a delight unique to the memoir. The book is well-written and the attention to detail in recalling the era of the late 50's and early 60's is superb. Of the books I read in 2013, Rocket Boys was my top-rated and with good reason. Rating: 5/5 stars.

And to think it all started as a teacher's credit assignment. Thanks, Mr. Harrison.

Today marks the beginning of the Rocket Boys Festival in Beckley, West Virginia. Beckley is a town of about 17,000 an hour and a half or so northeast of Coalwood. For more details on the festival, click here. For more details on the Rocket Boys and where they are now, click here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What I'm Reading This Month

As always with the first of the month, I do a quick update of books on tap. For October, the unofficial theme is travel. In recent years, I've grown more and more interested in traveling the world and seeing different places (this despite being the pickiest eater I know). Travel makes us understand the world at large and how ideas and cultures converge, especially in a global economy. Here's a quick look at what I'll be reading through October...

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Random House): India is rapidly changing as a result of globalization and residents in a Mumbai slum are getting left out, but hopeful they will eventually reach the middle class. Boo's book won tons of accolades when it was first published, including the National Book Award for nonfiction and the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Broadway): Bryson and Paul Theroux have long been named the best travel writers around, so before I delve into Bryson's more recent fare like One Summer, I wanted to read one of his earlier books. After living in Britain for 20 years, Bryson and a friend attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in a more comedic take on the usual travelogue. Rumor has it that a film version will be released next year.

Travels with Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis (Simon & Schuster): When I first saw the trailer for Denizet-Lewis' book earlier this spring, I immediately added it to my TBR list. He travels all over the country with his nine-year old Labrador mix Casey and visit everyone from a stray dog rescuer in the Midwest to famed dog whisperer Cesar Milan in Southern California to a beagle-shaped bed and breakfast in Idaho. As a former dog owner myself, I'm especially looking forward to this one. Below is the book's trailer:

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Vintage/Knopf): This book is a bit outside my usual fare, but the book has received universal praise for its highlighting of women's issues around the world. At times, reading should challenge us and our world view. Kristof and WuDunn just released their newest book, A Path Appears, but I opted to read this one first. Half the Sky was made into a PBS miniseries as well.