Review: Bryant & May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

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Bryant and May are back in the twelfth installment of Christopher Fowler’s long running series which finds the detectives of the Peculiar Crimes Unit investigating a bizarre series of murders leading up to Guy Fawkes Night.  The problems begin when a London banker is accused of insider trading at the Findersbury Private Bank.  This causes bad publicity for the bank and enormous losses for its clientele but it is also connected to a more grievous turn of events.  As Bryant points out, “[t]here’s nothing more frightening than watching what people do when they start to lose money.”  In this case, they start protesting in the streets.  Soon these mobs become a flash point of social and political unrest and the protesters grow more vocal and violent.  When a homeless man is killed on the steps of the bank by a Molotov cocktail, it appears he is an accidental victim of the mob’s violence.  Bryant and May, however,  suspect otherwise and begin investigating the case.  When a second man is murdered with burning tar and covered in feathers it is clear they are dealing with the mysterious agenda of a twisted murderer.  And when the murders continue coming one a day, the PCU fear they will culminate in some horrific event on Guy Fawkes Night.

The plot has its share twists and turns and the reveal is ultimately satisfying but the real meat on the bone of the book is the social and political commentary provided by Bryant and company on the state of modern society.  As one of Bryant’s friends notes, this is a society where you see “the urban middle class destroyed, the working poor exploited, the vulgar rich elevated to eminence, the underclass demonised [and] the wasteland of celebrity held in veneration.”  But as much as Bryant laments society’s current problems, as well as the loss of many London institutions, it is clear he would rather live in this world than give up on it.  During the course of the book, the reader becomes aware that Bryant is suffering from a medical condition which he valiantly tries to hide from May and the PCU.  But he can’t keep it a secret forever and when he finally confesses his condition to his friend he also enumerates a bucket list that is both funny and heart-wrenching.  In the hands of a different author this book might feel like a light mystery given its cast of quirky and endearing characters, but Fowler’s prose is clever and his use of British history throughout give it an enjoyable heft.  The book can be enjoyed on its own but this is a series that is well worthing reading from the beginning.

Bryant & May and the Burning Man, Bantam, 416 pp., $26.00.

 

New Book Releases: The Age of Reinvention, The Short Drop and The Man on the Washing Machine

A short round up of some new releases this month include a tale of a 21st century Gatsby, a political thriller and a quirky San Francisco mystery.

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Famous New York attorney Sam Tahar is living the American Dream: handsome, successful and married to an elite socialite with two children, he appears to have it all.  But his success has been built on a lie he told many years ago.  While in law school he and his best friend Samuel both fall in love with Nina.  After Nina chooses Samuel over him he leaves Paris for America and adopts the life story and origins of his best friend.  When the three unite twenty years later Sam’s lie is revealed and his perfect life begins too unravel.

The Age of Reinvention, Washington Square Press, 416 pp.

 

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The fourteen year old daughter of a powerful United States senator disappears and an intense nationwide search is conducted to find her.  Despite the relentless national attention the young girl is never found.  Ten years later, the senator, now the vice president, has launched a campaign to run for president.  When new information about the girl’s disappearance is uncovered, Gibson Vaughn, a hacker, is convinced by the senator’s former head of security to help find the girl. Vaughn agrees and during his investigation uncovers a dangerous conspiracy deep within the senator’s family that threatens everyone.

The Short Drop, Thomas & Mercer, 397 pp.

 

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Theophania Bogart, a reformed party girl, escapes London after a high-profile family tragedy erupts and attempts to create a new life for herself in San Francisco.  She appears to have found the perfect hiding place amongst her quirky and eccentric neighbors but as soon she settles into her new digs a series of murders force her out of hiding.  When she decides to investigate, things quickly get complicated when she realizes she has unwittingly been helping a smuggling operation.  The police don’t believe her, even after she is knocked out and imprisoned, and to make matters worse, her best friend appears to be the prime suspect.

The Man on the Washing Machine, Minotaur Books, 304 pp.

 

 

 

 

Does the eReader and eBook Sales Decline Really Signal a Resurgence for Print Books?

Depending on who you ask, e-books and e-readers are either at the vanguard of a technological renaissance that benefits authors and readers or are slowly destroying the traditional publishing business and the livelihood of the authors that rely on it.  Another round in this debate was kicked off this fall with the release of recent sales data for e-readers and e-books and arguments have been made on both sides of this battle about the significance of the data.

The Decline in Sales of e-books.

Throughout much of 2015, publishers have noted a steep decline in the sale of e-books and, in September, the New York Times reported that e-book sales had dropped by 10% during the first five months of the year. The sales figures from this report came from the Association of American Publishers who collected the data from over 1,200 publishers.  This downward sales has continued and earlier this fall HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster all reported significant declines in the sale of e-books. The Times concluded that:

E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.

The decline in the sale of e-books has also developed, perhaps not surprisingly, with a decline in the sale of e-readers.

The Decline in Sales of e-readers.

In October, the Pew Research Centre published a report showing a significant decline in the ownership of e-readers.  The report, which was based on the results of a survey, showed that 32% of adults reported owning an e-reader in 2014 but this number had dropped to only 19% by 2015.  Pew attributed the decline in e-reader ownership to the increasing prevalence of smartphones and tablets rather than a decline in the consumption of e-books:

These changes are all taking place in a world where smartphones are transforming into all-purpose devices that can take the place of specialized technology, such as music players, e-book readers and gaming devices.

In the current technological environment, single purpose devices like the Kindle, are having a hard time competing with all-purpose devices such as smartphones and tablets.  This decline has become so pronounced that Waterstones, one of Britain’s largest bookstores, decided to stop selling the Kindle due to “pitiful” sales.  And on this side of the pond, Barnes & Noble reports that sales of it’s Nook device are down 28% so far this year.

The e-book Market

While e-reader ownership and e-books sales from traditional publishers are declining, it is not clear whether the overall e-book market is itself in decline.  While it is certainly possible this is happening, a number of arguments have been made that the overall e-book is at worst stable and at best growing. In reaching this conclusion, the significance of the sales data has been called into question on a number of different fronts.

First, a  decline in the sale of e-readers by itself does not necessarily equate to a decline in the overall consumption of e-books.  This is true, in part, because a dedicated e-reader is not required to read e-books.  Amazon has long had an e-reader app that can be used to view e-books on many smartphones and tablets without the need to own a Kindle or other dedicated e-reader. It is certainly possible to maintain a vibrant e-book market while dedicated e-reader ownership declines provided enough readers continue to buy e-books for their smartphones and tablets.

Second, after numerous stories were published about the decline in sales of e-books, it was quickly pointed out that this data only applied to the sale of e-books from traditional publishers and did not address the sale of e-books from self-publishers and many independent publishers. The sales of e-boooks from self-publishers and independents have remained steady and, in some cases, risen over the last year.  Still, hard numbers are not easy to come by as Amazon, the undisputed largest seller of e-books, does not release it’s sales data.

Finally, it has been argued that the sales of e-books from traditional publishers have likely been declining because these publishers raised the price of their e-books after the antitrust litigation ended.  There has been some disagreement about whether this was a calculated move by traditional publishers to force readers back to print books or simply a miscalculation by these publishers regarding the willingness of readers to pay more for e-books than Amazon had been charging.  In any case, one unanswered question is what happened to the lost sales from those traditionally published e-books.  Did those readers gravitate back to print books, transition to the self-published and indie market or simply keep their money in their pocket?

Of course, many authors would just like to reach the largest number of readers possible without regard to the format of their book and these authors see e-books as a way to extend their reach.  Others follow the e-book route because they are unhappy with the profit sharing offered by traditional publishers and still others do so because they have been shut out of the traditional publishing system altogether.  The result has been the creation of two different publishing worlds: one for traditionally published authors that rely on print books and, to some degree, e-books and another for self-published authors that rely entirely on the e-book format.

The question many would like answered is whether the digital publishing world is destined to chip away at the traditional publishing model until print books become a niche market.  In a society that has been programmed to want clear winners and losers, it is probably not surprising  that each side of this debate is now arguing the declining sales data supports their business model.  It is not certain, however, that a clear winner will be declared any time soon and it is possible that the best outcome for this fight might be something that is anathema to those seeking winners and losers: co-existence.

 

Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware employs the murder at an English country estate device to a mostly satisfying effect in her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood.  In doing so, Ware creates a crazy quilt of characters and a plot that is part mystery and part thriller.  The mostly likable narrator, Nora, is a crime fiction writer living in London who receives an invitation to attend a “hen” –a kind of bachelorette party– being thrown for Claire, her childhood best friend.  The hen takes place at an isolated country house and, as Nora has not seen Claire in years due to an unspecified falling out, the stage is set for some obvious drama.  Shortly after arriving, Nora learns that Claire is going to marry Nora’s ex-boyfriend and the discomfort level quickly ratchets up to eleven.  To make things worse, Nora soon realizes that Flo, Claire’s friend who organized the hen, is mentally unstable.  Add to this a landline that inexplicably stops working, nonexistent cell phone reception, a mysterious set of footprints in the snow leading to the backdoor of the house and an unloaded shotgun over the fireplace and it is clear that something very bad is going to happen.

Although In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel from Ruth Ware, she has experience in the publishing business and her knowledge is evident in both the structure and pacing of the novel.  Her prose is fluid and the pages fly by so quickly you will be tempted to read the book in one sitting.  Despite these strengths, the book is not without it’s problems.  You will almost certainly guess the murderer’s identity early on making you wonder why the narrator hasn’t figured this out too.  In the latter part of the book the narrator seems frustratingly obtuse about criminal investigations and engages in some behavior that feels suspiciously like plot manipulation.  These issues were not enough to make me want to fling the book against the wall in disgust but there was some serious eye rolling going on.  Still, the dialogue is sharp and although this is more a light mystery than a thriller, there are several moments of tension and outright fear that are well written.  Despite the plot problems I enjoyed this book in large part because of Ware’s writing and the interesting characters.  All in all a solid debut novel from an author I looked forward to following.

In a Dark, Dark Wood, Gallery/Scout Press, 320 pp., $26.00.

 

 

Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

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The Grownup is a melange of a classic Jamesian ghost story with a modern psychological tale reminiscent of Flynn’s prior novel, Gone Girl.  At 64 pages, the book occupies that no man’s land between short story and novella but manages to pack some very interesting characters into that short space.  First published in George R.R. Martin’s Rogues under the title “What Do You Do?,” it tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator who starts work as a beggar with her one-eyed mother before becoming a “therapist” that gives hand jobs to customers in the back room of a psychic’s shop.  She is a small-time, streetwise grifter that has a knack for reading people and then taking advantage of them. When her carpel tunnel syndrome prevents her from continuing to work as a “therapist,” she is forced to move to the front of the shop to work as a clairvoyant.   It is there she meets Susan Burke, a rich mother with two children and a serious problem.  Susan and her family have just moved in to Carterhook Manor, a creepy Victorian mansion that Susan believes may be haunted and may have possessed her stepson, Miles.  She hires the young con artist to cleanse the house and the woman agrees anticipating a profitable and easy job.

When the narrator visits the house, however, she soon suspects she may have underestimated both the ease of the job and the severity of the problem.  Susan’s psychological and physical conditions have deteriorated and her stepson, Miles, is far from a normal teenage boy.  The first part of the of the story builds nicely to some very disturbing scenes and reaches a frightening climax when the narrator finally realizes she is in over her head and tries to escape.  Problems with the story begin to surface, though, when the explanation for these hauntings is finally revealed.  Flynn takes the reader a little too firmly by the hand during the reveal and provides an almost clinical explanation of the events which only deflates the sense of horror built up to that point.  This results in a story that feels rushed and an additional twist at the end that feels less inventive and more like Flynn couldn’t decide between two different storylines.  And while the usual writing advice is to cut more rather than add more, I think the story would have been well served by the addition of another ten to twenty pages.  That said, I enjoyed the ironic fate of the narrator and Flynn does a good job of blending modern characters into the framework of the classic ghost story.

The Grownup, Crown Publishers, 64 pp., $5.99.

 

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House, a series of five horror vignettes connected by a house as mysterious and evil as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, is a creepy homage to classic haunted house stories. The first section, “The Right Sort,” was originally published via 280 tweets over the course of a week. Mitchell then wrote an additional four sections and the resulting story has now been published as a proper novel. In the book, the narrators of each vignette unravel the secrets of the Grayer twins and their mysterious home, Slade House. Every nine years someone is drawn to Slade House, either by invitation or in an attempt to solve its mystery. After entering the grounds through a small, black iron door found in a narrow alley, each character is enticed to travel deeper into the house by the promised fulfillment of some deeply personal desire. After that, they are never seen again.

Mitchell does an admirable job creating distinctive voices for each of the five narrators which range from a thirteen year old boy with Asberger-like problems, to a racist DI, to an overweight and lovesick college student. You don’t have to be a particularly careful reader to guess what will happen to the narrators after reading the first vignette but each tale has enough twists to make you question whether they will somehow escape this fate. One particular weakness of the book is that the climatic scenes of each section often feel at odds with the carefully choreographed tension and creepy atmosphere built up by Mitchell. This results in reveals and dialogue that seem as though they belong in a very different type of horror novel. The final vignette, however, does provide a modicum of a twist and should please fans of the storyline interwoven by Mitchell throughout many of his novels, including The Bone Clocks and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is not necessary, however, to have read those books to enjoy Slade House.

Before Banksy, Philippe Petit’s Famous Walk Between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center

Deep in Colum McCann’s epic saga, Let the Great World Spin, just past the mid-way point of the book, McCann unleashes his fantastic description of Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It is breathtaking and comical and unbelievable. Indeed, after reading this section I immediately wondered how much literary license McCann had taken with his blow by blow description of Petit’s feat. The answer: not much.

If you are unfamiliar with Petit’s remarkable performance you might understand my initial skepticism. After all, this is a man who strung a steel wire less than an inch thick between the two tallest buildings in New York, some 1,350 in the air and then proceeded to walk between these buildings eight times. And he didn’t just walk on this wire: he danced, he hopped, he knelt down on one knee and saluted the crowd below and, at one jaw-dropping moment, he laid down and stared up into the sky. The entire act took him 45 minutes and he did it all while holding a 26 foot long, 55 pound pole for balance.

Of course, thank god, there are pictures.

Here is Petite getting ready to start his walk.

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Taking his first steps.

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Fully committed now.

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And here he is lying down.

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Even by today’s standards, this remains an epic achievement. And for someone who gets woozy standing on a ladder while changing a light bulb, this is an incomprehensible act to me; it simply isn’t something in my arsenal of crazy. Which raises the question of why he did it. Petit’s explanation: “To me, it’s really so simple: life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion, to refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on the tightrope.” Whether you consider it brave or stupid, Petit’s fearless artistic expression is something any writer can admire.

There have been many books and movies made about Petite’s famous walk, including the Academy Award winning documentary Man on Wire (2008) and the recently released Robert Zemeckis film, The Walk, which is in theaters now.

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