Monday, November 20, 2006

Mad Monday: Quick News, Quick Reviews #44, #45, #46, #47

Got stuff to do, but a couple of important notes before I dash.

* I did succeed in honoring America Unchained! on Saturday. The ALP got up early to restock our coffee supply from local favorite Gorilla Coffee (gotta have Flash to see their site), which is not only locally owned and operated, but roasts the beans locally, and stocks only organic, free trade coffee. Hooray! We later went grocery shopping at our local Key Foods/Pick Quick; I did a smitch of research and found that apparently, Key Foods is a New York co-operative supporting local groceries like Pick Quick. Sounds good to me. We both need some new clothes, but decided we could wait on visiting mega-chain Old Navy until another day. I admit clothing stymies my ethical shopping impulses, since the only local places seem to be boutiques way out of my price range. I suppose I should just go back to the thrift-store shopping of my high school days. Anyone else got stories?

* The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) has unveiled the new format for the fall trade show! It's now the Booksellers Sales Conference -- a name that reveals a focus on education and pick-of-the-lists. As electronic ordering has become more prevalent, trade shows have become valuable to booksellers more for education than as a chance to place orders with reps, though they still value the chance to meet face to face and especially to see the great stuff the reps are pitching for the next season. The streamlined new fall format will highlight those two aspects, making the event more attractive to booksellers and thus to publishers as well.

As a bookseller I'm psyched about two days of learning about the best that publishers and NAIBA have to offer(and not feeling guilty that I' m not placing orders). NAIBA Prez Joe Drabyak has declared this the era of the Citizen Bookseller -- the frontline staff who actually put the books in the hands of customers. That's an exciting, galvanizing phrase if I've ever heard one, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the idea develops. I'll be talking about this much more as the date approaches.

Oh, links: click here for the revelation in Bookselling This Week, and click here for the article in Publishers Weekly.

* Quick question: do you all care whether I buy the books I review or receive them for free? There's a big ol' flap going on about this issue (bloggers receiving free review copies), kicked off by this piece on MetaxuCafe, and stoked by Ed's ranting (see bottom of his post to links to other bloggers sounding off). To me it seems like a bit of a tempest in a teapot, but maybe that's because I get free books as a bookseller and as a blogger and it seems fairly normal to me. But in case you wondered, yes, I do sometimes get books for free. A lot of the time. In fact, I get far too many books to ever be able to review them all. So why would I give a good review to a book I didn't like just because I got it for free? Perhaps only, as the original writer suggests, if I were an inexperienced blogger dazzled by swag would it be an issue. Ah. Just for the sake of interest, I'll reveal where I got each of the books I'm reviewing today. Curious whether you're interested.

Okay, so here they are, the quickie book reviews -- though these were all so good they deserve more space.

Book Review #44
VAMPIRE LOVES
by Joann Sfar
(First Second Books, June 2006)
I've been on a Joann Sfar kick since his amazing visit to the bookstore a few weeks ago, and by the time I finished this one it had an awesome original drawing and signature inside the front cover. I picked it up for free at a graphic novel seminar at NAIBA in the fall. While I can't say I loved it as much as KLEZMER, it was still fun times. It's an episodic story of the romantic life of a rather neurotic vampire, who tries love with a tree nymph, a fellow vampire, a witch, a phantasm, and a mortal, among others, all complicated in the most contemporary of ways. Ferdinand the Vampire is the opposite of gothic (though he meets Goths); he's more like Emo. My favorite four panels show a sad Ferdinand floating away (his preferred means of locomotion), saying sadly "I don't want to see anyone." He hits his head on a tree branch with a "BONK!" His friends (the Tree Man and a detective) rush up, saying "Oh, the poor thing!" "He knocked himself out!" A third character then observes, "That's what happens when you stare at your shoes while flying." It's the perfect emblem of Ferdinand's plight: his immortal powers do nothing to spare him from angst. The ending is rather abrupt and inconclusive, but unless it ended with a marriage how else could a tale of modern love be ended, or rather interrupted?

Review #45
MARGHERITA DOLCE VITA
by Stefano Benni
(Europa Editions, November 2006)
Holy cow, this is an amazing book. It's New Fabulist, anti-capitalist/consumerist, witty and youthful, contemporary and terrifying. It's eerie and charing and hilarious. Margherita is a teenager in semi-suburban Italy, content with her slightly oddball normal family, until the del Bene family moves into a newly built sleek black cube next door. Soon everyone is dissatisfied with their lot and seduced by the glamourous del Bene's, and only Margherita is left to protest on behalf of magic, dirt, and authenticity. Things get weirder and weirder so you think you're expecting anything, but the ending is still a shock. And it's one of Europa Editions' beautiful trade paperback originals, a lovely thing to hold and laugh over and ponder and cherish. I was sent a comp copy by a friend at Europa who is crazy about it and prosletizing incessantly, and I'm grateful to him. I'm amazed at the wittiness of the translation from the Italian, but not surprised -- these guys do good work. This is one to read -- it's that whole serious-literature-that's-actually-fun genre that I love. Do yourself a favor and find it, buy it, read it, and tell me what you think.

Review #46
THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS
by John Connolly
(Atria Books, November 2006)
It seems to be a run of books with magic in them, and I've been eating them up. This is one I picked up from the publisher's table way back at the last NAIBA trade show, and finally got to it, much to my gratification. It's the story of David, who's unhappy after his mom's death and his dad's remarriage, and finds himself in a haunted fairy-tale world seemingly created from the old books that talk to him from his shelves. In a way it's the fairy-tale equivalent of the movie SCREAM, where a character who knows all the rules finds himself in a story he has to stay one step ahead of. But this is an extremely dark version, even for the Brothers Grimm -- it made sense when I realized Connolly's usual beat is the harshest of violent crime thrillers. There were moments when I was frustrated that all of the good magic seemed to be absent from David's story, leaving only the fears and the tests and the impossible tasks. But there's a reason for that, as it turns out, and David's maturation in this alternate reality is convincing, and a bit saddening. Because it's a story of growing up, not in rosy terms, but in hard ones -- realizing what has to be given up, what will be asked of a responsible adult, and what the rewards may or may not be. I was riveted all the way through, and finished with a lump in my throat and a lot to ponder. Fans of Phillip Pullman or Ian Rankin alike will find much to love in this one -- it may be a fairy tale, but it is by no means a children's book.

Review #47
THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU
by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury, October 2006)
Magic, indeed! I was wild about Susanna Clarke's literary magical history JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL from the moment it came out, and I was very grateful to my friendly neighborhood Bloomsbury rep for sending me a copy of this one -- I've been longing for more of Clarke's alternate England for years. This is a collection of stories set in the world of JT&MN, though only tangentially connected. Jonathan Strange makes an appearance in the first story, and it will help if you have read the novel to understand the references, but all the other stories are literate little fables that stand on their own. This, too, is a magic with some darkness in it -- Clarke draws on the very old British tradition of fairies, who are enchantingly powerful, beautiful and fascinating, but also completely amoral and unpredictable, prone to stealing wives and babies and discarding them on a whim, and as likely to embrace you as to cleave you in two. It's the best of legend with the best of contemporary character development and narrative subtlety -- no one writes magic as well as Susanna Clarke. I savored these stories one at a time, like truffles, pausing in between to save them longer. The illustrations by Charles Vess are also charming, and haunting, like this wonderful addition to the world of Susanna Clarke's England.