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.