I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information including RA for All's EDI Statement.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Herring Sellers Apprentice

I have been reading a lot of mysteries lately; here's another one.

The Herring-Seller's Apprentice by L.C. Tyler is an intelligent cozy. It is also a mystery about writing a mystery book. Overall it was funny and interesting but the ending was a little too cute.

Here are the details. The Herring-Seller's Apprentice came out in England in 2007, but was not published here until 2009. There are 2 narrators in this novel, Ethelred, a middle-aged, mid-list mystery writer, and Elsie, his chubby, but fashionable, agent.

The mystery comes in the form of Ethelred's ex-wife ending up missing, and then apparently murdered. Ethelred is still her next of kin and executor of her estate, but he doesn't seem too interested in solving the case. Elsie, however, is more than eager to learn. Ethelred makes his living off of his skill with the red-herrings in his mysteries, hence, Elsie wants to learn from him and become the herring-sellers apprentice.

The case unravels with the appropriate number of twists and turns. Ethelred's missing wife seems to have bilked a number of people out of some money, so the story has plenty of meat to sustain it. However, as I mentioned above, although the ending is resolved, and we know what happened to the dead wife, the final chapter (narrated Elsie) is still slightly open and a bit too cute for its own good.

Since this is a mystery about a mystery writer, there are many allusions to how mysteries are written, the characters comment on changes in typeface, and the entire novel is supposed to be one of Ethelred's books. This would be a big appeal factor for readers.

People who like books about writers and/or books will enjoy this work. Also, fans of contemporary, cozy, British mysteries are a good bet here. This book is also fast paced with many interesting and eccentric characters. Finally, this mystery is so absurdly funny at times that you literally laugh out loud; for example, the hapless Ethelred also writes steamy romance novels. The entire thing is very tongue-in-cheek; which a reader will either love or hate depending on their preferences. Personally, I liked this part. But remember it is British humor. .

Readalikes: Felony and Mayhem Press, who published this novel, specialize in literary mysteries. They do a good job of marketing their mysteries by offering their own readalikes. On back of this book, in a box under the summary blurb, is the following statement: "Who's Likely to Like This? Fans of truly intelligent cozies."

On their website they offer another option for readalikes in their British category list. These books are described by the publishers as "set in or around the UK, these feature the highly literate, often witty prose that fans of British mysteries demand." Use this link to read their suggestions for similar works.

Also, the sequelto The Herring-Sellers Apprentice, Ten Little Herrings, will be out in August.

Other readalikes that may appeal to fans of The Herring-Seller's Apprentice would be Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crimes Series, which are funny, cozy mysteries featuring nursery rhyme characters (Jack Spratt is the lead detective).

On NoveList, I also found a list of mysteries called "Fatally Funny," compiled by Kimberly Burton, which contained The Herring-Sellers Apprentice. Other titles on the list that share a few other appeal factors with this novel are Ultra Violet by Nancy Bush, Goodbye Ms. Chips by Dorothy Cannell, and the Spellmans series by Lisa Lutz.

In terms of nonfiction suggestions, after reading The Herring-Sellers Apprentice, many readers may want to know more about what it takes to write a good mystery novel, or about being or getting a literary agent. Click on the links to find suggestions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Do We Love Scandinavian Crime Novels?

With the airing of the Kurt Wallander stories on PBS this past spring and the hotly anticipated release, tomorrow, of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire, many people who write about books are asking why we all love reading these terribly dark crime novels.

Here is an article from L Magazine which sums it up quite nicely. So if you love these novels with their heinous crimes and frozen landscapes, check the article out.

Although I am a fan of many of these novels, as a well trained RA, I know that every reader reads a different version of the same book; so why I like them may not be why you do. This article gives me even more reasons as to why someone will love these books.

If you are a librarian and not a fan of these titles, go to the article and see why people do enjoy them. You don't have to like them yourself to be able to identify which of you patrons would.

Graphic Novel Reporter

The people behind BookReporter.com and Reading Group Guides, both sites I use frequently, have started Graphic Novel Reporter.com. They have reviews for all age levels, feature articles with best lists and book discussion guides, and a blog with up-to-date GN news.

As I have been posting recently (here) the number of graphic novel resources are finally making strides toward catching up with the demand in readership.

Keep an eye on Graphic Novel Reporter.com for more content and GN news.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Case of the Missing Servant

I received a pleasant surprise when I picked up The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall and was introduced to Vish Puri, a 51 year old accomplished private detective and owner of Delhi's Most Private Investigators Ltd.

I was alerted to this title by the publisher's heavy advertising blitz in a few of the book buyer electronic lists I subscribe to. And, am I glad I picked it up. Puri, is a detective in the classic sense of Sherlock Holmes, but he uses very modern technology to solve this complicated case. I loved how the book was modern and old fashioned, all at the same time, much like the city of Delhi and the country of India itself is portrayed.

Here is the background and plot. Puri, known as Chubby by his family (he is a bit overweight) and Boss by his staff, has a loving wife, a few grown kids, and a very successful detective agency (he has even won an international award for his skills). Mostly, Puri and his staff work for the father's of engaged women to surreptitiously check into the background of the potential husbands. However, when a prosecutor in a different city who is known for going after corrupt political officials is accused of killing his missing servant, Puri and his crew try to clear the good man's name and find the missing servant. Oh, and someone is trying to kill Puri too, but his mom is on that case; Puri is too busy to worry about it.

This is a fast paced mystery with interesting characters that will appeal to fans of old fashioned, Agatha Christie type mysteries; Puri even has a monologue which wraps everything up, explaining the entire case and all of the various motives. But it will also appeal to fans of more modern mysteries. Puri and his crew use a lot of technology in their investigations, and an employee even makes fun of his boss's long wrap up monologue.

Which leads me to another appeal. Although most of the book is from Puri's point of view, his mom (Mummy) who is doing her own investigating throughout the book and a few of Puri's employees have their turn to drive the story through their point of view. This stylistic choice helped to keep the pacing up. By the way, Mummy is a great character. I can't wait to read more with her. VIsh Puri will be back, and I will be waiting to read the next one.

Readalikes: As I mentioned, this novel reminded me of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie mysteries.

Also, check what I had to say about The White Tiger when I read it. Although The Case of the Missing Servant is not as "literary" as The White Tiger, I was surprised by how similar the two books were in terms of theme and overall message about modern India's contradictions. So check this other post for more readalikes about India.

A few other mysteries I would suggest that like The Case of the Missing Servant have a strong sense of place, a modern, old fashionedness, and compelling investigators are:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: The Year of Magical Thinking

This week, my group met to discuss Joan Didion's 2005 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction, The Year of Magical Thinking. The plot as described by the folks over at Reading Group Guides is:
...a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage --- and a life, in good times and bad --- that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later --- the night before New Year's Eve --- the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma.

This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.
My group is made up of women from their late 50s into their 80s. Many of them have lost a spouse, 2 most notably during the years in which they have been part of the discussion group. Both felt that The Year of Magical Thinking was the best book about the grieving process they had read. The entire discussion was like a giant therapy session; in a good way.

Some general comments we had about the book.
  • She hits grief right on
  • You can tell she writes for a living, the words were beautiful
  • It is a compelling read even though it is a serious subject
  • The use of humor was very "healing."
  • She effectively used the passive voice; it worked because you are not in charge with illness and death.
  • With a death or illness of a loved one, it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor
  • When a couple is as close as John and Joan were, it is hard to go on; this book gave her a reason to go on.
  • Didion puts death on center stage in this book. You cannot hide from it.
  • She wasn't writing about John, she was writing about herself.
  • This was not a tract about the mourning process, it was personal, full of honesty and isolation.
We talked about Didion's use of repetition throughout the book. We all thought it was realistic. While you are grieving you do repeat things. It is comforting. The repetition leads her to healing.

One of our members works in the funeral industry, singing and playing for funerals. However, she pointed out that this book was odd to her. All of her work on funerals is within the context of faith and this book was not about faith at all. Didion refers to religion but she does not confront her husband's death in any religious context.

We also discussed where the turning point in Didion's grief was. When does she stop thinking that her husband will come back and accept he is gone for good? We decided that when she went back to work, covering the Republican primary, in her own city, where her memories of Dunne were the strongest, that she was going to be fine. She re-entered her own world. And by the end she has come to terms with the fact that she is a widow.

Readalikes: People may want to read Didion and Dunne's works after reading The Year of Magical Thinking. Others may want similar memoirs by writers about their marriages and the death's of their spouses. Two very good ones are About Alice by Calvin Trillin and An Elegy for Iris by John Bayley.

Joan Didion has also adapted The Year of Magical Thinking into a play. It will be staged here in Chicago in January and February of 2010 at the Court Theater.

Some bittersweet fiction about long relationships such as The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer would be good suggestions.

Note for next month, we will be meeting in the 4th week of August instead of the third to discuss Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Belated News: Thriller Awards announced

With all of the excitement of ALA I forgot about Thriller Fest 2009, the annual conference when the International Thriller Writers give out their awards.

Here are the winners:
ThrillerMaster Award: David Morrell
In recognition of his vast body of work and influence in the field of literature

Silver Bullet Award:
Brad Meltzer
For contributions to the advancement of literacy

Silver Bullet Corporate Award: Dollar General Literacy Foundation
For longstanding support of literacy and education

Best Thriller of the Year:
THE BODIES LEFT BEHIND by Jeffery Deaver (Simon & Schuster)

Best First Novel:
CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing)

Best Short Story:
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN by Alexandra Sokoloff (in Darker Mask)

For a complete list of the nominated authors including previous year's winners and nominees, click here.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What I'm Reading: Netherland

One of the best reviewed books of 2008 was Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. It just came out in paperback and all of the advertisements reminded me that I had not read it yet. Well, I have read it now, and, all I have to say is, I wish I had skipped it.

I felt bad about this, like I missed something. But no, I got the whole thing that it is a take of on The Great Gatsby. But, although I enjoyed Fitzgerald's book, I did not love it enough to care about the connections here. However, there are many readers for whom this would be an appeal. So, to help those readers, I found someone who did love this aspect. Here is a good essay from Fresh Air on why this novel does work as a tribute to The Great Gatsby.

Here is the basic plot. A guy named Hans (our narrator), is a Dutch citizen living in England with his wife and kid. He is a oil industry analyst and she is a lawyer. They move to NYC and are living near ground zero on 9/11. Hans' wife and kid go back to England after the attacks and Hans stays in NY.

Here's my first problem with the book, the issues between Hans and his wife make no sense. She is not developed as a character and their marital discord has no resonance. I had no idea why she left her husband and have even less of an idea of why she got back with him.

The story follows Hans' time living in NY in the Chelsea hotel. He does encounter a group of foreigners (West Indians and South East Asians) who play cricket every weekend in Staten Island. Through his association with the cricket club he meets Chuck Ramkissoon. Hans get swept into Chuck's world of shading dealings and his dreams of building a grand cricket stadium in Brooklyn.

The reader is told at the beginning, as Hans is looking back on his time in NYC, that Chuck will be killed. So as I read, I was excited to find out what happened to Chuck, who, as the book slowly builds, becomes more and more a part of Hans' life. But then....nothing! Hans finds out Chuck was murdered and the police say if will never be solved. The End?!?

This books was full of promising details that don't pay off; details about cricket, the interesting occupants of the Chelsea hotel, and Chuck and his life. I love details in a book, but they have to pay off. This was very frustrating to me as a reader. Take Kate Atkinson's wonderfully detailed Behind the Scenes at the Museum. This book is just as complex and "intelligent" (a word used by Publisher's Weekly to describe Netherland) as Netherland, but it all pays off in Atkinson's work. She rewards you for paying attention throughout with a satisfying conclusion, that uses all of those carefully built in details in the resolution of the plot.

Maybe that is my problem with Netherland, I simply found it too amorphous. It had no definite style, and, as a result, the jumping around in time and Hans' penchant for losing his train of thought, did not work for me as a reader.

Readalikes: Obviously, I would give Netherland to fans of The Great Gatsby, or any readers who are fans of the re-imagining of a classic book. Personally though, I much prefer the pairing of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Finn by Jon Clinch, which retells Huck's story through his father's eyes.. I wrote about reading Finn here.

If you want to read another well received book from 2008 with a Western European perspective, I would suggest The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Frenchwoman, Muriel Barbery.

Two other universally praised books of the last year that I have read and loved were Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Both of these would also be good readalikes for Netherland.

Netherland is marketed as "the post-9/11 novel we have been waiting for." I would argue that we already had a better one, 2007's Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

Readers may also want to explore more books about cricket, the Netherlands (the country), and post 9/11 New York after reading this novel. You can use the embedded links for listings of further reading.

I just want to end by saying that this just goes to show you that not everyone will like every book. And, just because a book seems to be universally praised, does not mean you HAVE to like it too.

Keep Reading!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Entertainment Weekly Starts a Books Blog

On July 14th, Tina Jordan, the Books Editor at EW, began a book blog on their site called Shelf Life. She promises to write something about books each day.

I subscribed to it on my Google Reader and will keep an eye on it.

So far besides the Twilight Graphic Novel article I linked to here, she has also posted an interview with the author of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.

Looks promising.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

See full size image
The runaway success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which I have written about here and here) has inspired the publishers to try again, this time with sea monsters.

As reported in Early Word, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is taking Jane Austen's text into a world where terrible monsters lurk in every lake and pond. Our heroes must find love and stop the monsters.

Not convinced that sea monsters are as compelling as zombies? Watch this video clip the publishers made and then try not to rush out and pre-order the book. I dare you.

Graphic Novel News

There are a few interesting items in the Graphic Novel field to report.

First, Marvel Comics and Doubleday have announced that they are going to allow the graphic novel version of Stephen King's The Stand to be released in regular book stores beginning in January of 2010. This should be a high demand title at just about every public library. And, it might be a great crossover title that introduces the graphic novel format to new adult readers.

Todd Allen did an interesting study of Graphic Novel penetration into the library market for Publishers Weekly this week. Despite the dearth of main stream reviews for graphic novels, libraries are still getting them. Hopefully this report will encourage publishers of graphic novels to market to libraries better. It is hard for us to get graphic novels without having to physically drive to the book store or comics shop and go on a shopping spree a few times a year. With more reviews in trusted sources, we can better serve the high demand we have for these titles.

And, if it weren't popular enough already, Stephenie Meyer just announced on her website that she is working on a YA Graphic Novel version of Twilight. This report from Early World also has the link to an exclusive peek at the forthcoming book in this week's EW. As of yet, there is no publication date for this sure to be best seller.

And to round out this Graphic Novel news wrap up, here's a link to this week's New York Times Graphic Novels Best Sellers list.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

ALA Report: Random Thoughts and Comments

While I was at the ALA Annual Conference, I was constantly jotting down notes. I have pulled out a few of the more useful thoughts to share here.
  1. Although I LOVE Neil Gaiman, is it really worth the money of the tax payers of Berwyn, IL for me to stand in line for 2-3 hours to get his autograph? Instead of waiting my turn to get a personalized, hand-drawn picture and signature from one of my favorite authors, I just stood near him for a short time, staring, and definitely not stalking.
  2. But, it is worth the money of those same taxpayers for me to roam the exhibit hall floor looking for free copies of novels by new or little known authors and to wait in 15 minute lines to get free copies of books by said authors signed for the library.
  3. I saw many of my former students wandering around the convention center, many of whom were coming on their own time. I was heartened to see them all taking the initiative to spend a day on the exhibition floor in order to better themselves professionally.
  4. When you are at any conference, try something new. Go to a class or a seminar in something outside your field of expertise, or visit a booth that has nothing to do with your line of work and ask some questions. You will have a chance to see things in a new way.
  5. Don't forget to visit the Poster Sessions. They are interesting and inspiring. Kathy and I saw a great one by Catherine Ingram of Elmhurst (IL) Public Library entitled: "Face Out- Marketing Your Collection on the Cheap." We left it throwing around many new ideas.
  6. Junot Diaz may have won the Pulitzer Prize, but he definitely needs a better assistant, since he stood us all up. His excuse? He had the day wrong. Hey, Charlaine Harris made it.
  7. Finally, I loved the chances I got to talk with dozens of librarians from all over the country and the world.
If you have a chance to go to any library conference I suggest you go and see for yourself how helpful it can be.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

ALA Report- From the Book and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Readers' Advisory

Beginning with this year's annual conference, RUSA will now have an annual RA Research and Trends Forum. This year it debuted as the RUSA President's Program. If this program was an indication, we will be very lucky to have such a wonderful RA specific program offered at every conference from now on.

This year's program featured three speakers and was entitled "From the Book and Beyond: Interdisciplinary Readers' Advisory." Here is the link with more details.

First up was Nathan Altice, a musician , digital artist, and adjunct professor of sound communication at Virginia Commonwealth University. Altice talked about the brain, technology, and musical appeal. He focused his talk on Pandora, the for-profit (but free to end users) Internet radio station where users can create customized play lists based on computer generated recommendations.

Pandora makes it recommendations based on the "Music Genome Project." A group of musicians and music professors got together and analyzed thousands of songs, creating 400 plus appeal terms (click here to see them all). The founders of Pandora then created a proprietary algorithm that matches the appeal terms with certain songs; creating "listen alikes."

I was familiar with with Pandora, having used it and been amazed at how well it does, but I had no idea how it worked until now. Altice's main point was that this works only when people and machine work together. To paraphrase him, humans are best at assigning meaning and the machines can do the computations, "the digital muscle needs human intervention."

Altice's program made me think about how we make suggestions to readers. Generally RAs shy away from computer driven recommendation engines. But ones for books like Gnooks, do serve their purpose at times. For example, I use Gnooks when I have no idea where on the literature map an author is. Click here for a literature map on Charlie Huston to see what I mean. The point is, there is a human/machine interaction that makes these recommendation engines at least worth taking a look at. Also, I found the discussion of how Pandora breaks down appeal and then applies it in a mathematical way very intriguing.

From music, the discussion moved on to Steve: The Museum Social Tagging Project and a presentation by its founder Susan Chun. Basically, this project has taken many of our country's museum's digital collections and opened them up for the public to describe them. Chun, who at the project's start was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, was noticing there was a huge semantic gap between the catalog records and how regular people describe (and as a result) search for materials.

T0 make a long story short they wanted to see if allowing social tagging would help users find art more quickly, change the ways users engage with the museum, and help museum curators understand what their visitors see? So they let people start assigning words to their pictures online. They found that 88% of the users tags were relevant. But now they are trying to sort out the "noise" of too many tags. They are also working on a way to determine whether or not a specific tag is useful.

I was keenly interested in Chun's findings because in our library system, we have begun the switch to a new interface for our catalog (Encore) in which library patrons will be able to start tagging books. The hopes are for it to have the same success as Steve, replacing outdated subject headings like cookery with the more likely term, "cooking," to be tagged by end users. I will continue to follow the Steve Project as we get closer to beginning our own system wide social tagging project.

Finally, Nora Rawlinson from Early Word: The Publisher Librarian Connection came on to talk about the results of a publishing industry study (the Codex Study) as to what makes people want to pick up a particular book. Notice she didn't say what made them buy it. The publishers first need people to pick up their book before they can move toward making a purchasing decision. She then took each reason and talked about how libraries can use that information.

The top reason (63%) was that it was by a favorite author. Libraries have this covered with our standing order author lists and our extra copy plans. But, Rawlinson did mention that this should remind us to always ask readers who their favorite authors are.

Second place was a tie between the Genre of the book (48%) and the Flap Copy (48%). Genre is no shock to librarians. We all have genre collections, but the Flap Copy importance was big news. Usually publishers give that job to the lowest person on the totem pole, but now they are starting to take flap copy more seriously. She even gave us a few examples of flap copies that are beginning to contain readalikes (for fans of...). Librarians should learn from this more journalistic writing style in selling books to readers.

The findings rounded out with 29.4% going for Cover Art and Design and 23% who were drawn to the book's title. (Obviously people could pick more than one thing.)

Rawlinson wrapped up with a few final thoughts. When we are buying for the library should we consider book jackets, and how? Libraries could use flap copy for shelf talkers to draw out books lost in the stacks. She also suggested that librarians read some of the ugly covered books to see if they are worth reading. If they are, we could jazz up the covers or put shelf talkers right on the books themselves.

As you can see it was a very thought provoking program. As an experienced Readers' Advisor, I liked how this program made me think outside of the box. Can't wait for DC next June.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ALA Report: Things That Go Bump in the Stacks- Part 2: The Authors Speak

Part 2 of my report on the RUSA sponsored presentation, "Things That Go Bump in the Stacks: Whole Collection Readers' Advisory for Paranormal Fiction," will focus on what the authors on the panel had to say. (Click here for part 1)

Just real quick, in case you didn't use the links to each author's home page in the previous post here they are again. Charlie Huston writes noir fiction. His paranormal series follows vampyre Joe Pitt in NYC's underworld. Marjorie Liu writes paranormal romances and thrillers with international settings and ethnic or multiracial characters. As she said, her books have just about any kind of paranormal creature in them. And finally, unless you are living under a rock, you should know who Charlaine Harris is.

The moderator, Neil Hollands, gave each author a chance to begin with a general comment of their use of the paranormal in their novels. Liu began by describing her Hunter Kiss series. She said that she throws in a lot of paranormal in order to hit many appeal points for her readers. But the key, she said, at least for her readers, is that she merges adventure and romance with the paranormal.

Huston talked about Joe Pitt, his vampyre, fixer for hire in NYC's underworld. He says that his readership skews male and leans toward, "the socially alienated disaffected young man." He also noted that although their is a romance elements to the Pitt books, they are not romances in any way. He said he basically writes hard boiled, pulp noir novels, that have a paranormal element. He also wanted to make it clear that he has a dirty mouth and that these are "vulgar" books with lots of "splatter," and f-bombs.

Harris used her first chance to speak to talk about how her books sound milder on paper than they read, and they have "naive" cover art, which betrays the violence and seriousness found in the pages between the covers. She described the Sookie Stackhouse books as romantic and hard boiled. She also said of paranormal fiction in general that since the offering can run the gamut of appeal to readers, this becomes both the charm and the weakness of the field right now.

Holland's first questions to the panel was: Who are your readers? What appeals to them about the paranormal? And, how can librarians steer them to you books?

Huston is alarmed by what he called, "too young readers." But then he thinks about what he read as a teenager and feels a bit better; his choices were very inappropriate and he turned out fine. His readers again tend to be the "disaffected young males," but he has, as he put it, "readers all over the gender map." He also commented on a 71 year old reader for whom the Joe Pitt books inspired him to go back to writing his own poetry.

Harris said you can tell a lot about why the Sookie books appeal to her readers based on what part of Sookie's problems they are interested in. For example, some are fixated on who Sookie will end up with romantically; others are focused on who she should be with, and still others are most concerned about Sookie's larger personal growth. I found this comment very useful as an RA; now I will be able to better gauge what readers like about Harris' books and steer them to their next good read all the more accurately

Harris also wanted to point out that although her books are fun to read, they do have an overarching message about the acceptance of people's differences. If you don't get the message as a reader, she is also fine with that, but that message of tolerance is there, and readers really enjoy that aspect. (For the record, I am one of those readers)

Liu listed her main themes as tolerance and faith in yourself and others as something her readers seem to enjoy. And again, she agreed with the other authors that she does find that her more mature books do have some too young readers.

Hollands then asked the panel to comment on their use of real world issues in their paranormal novels.

Huston said he didn't mean to do this, but he found when he chose to write about an underground culture of vampyres that needs to hide, there were different political views that emerged within that culture. For instance, there are those who claim their culture needs to hide from the regular world, while other argue that they should try to pass in the larger world, and still others who are searching for a "cure" for their vampyre-ness. He also said that as a writer of fiction, what you write is always informed by the real world.

Hollands then made the observation to Harris (and to many chuckles from the knowledgeable group) that she sure puts Sookie through a lot in the books. Did you realize that would happen, and is it getting harder to write the Sookie books now?

Harris began her answer with one of her favorite stories. It took her agent 2 years to sell the first Sookie book, so Harris did not really plan out the series because there was no sign that she would ever get to publish even the first book. Once the first book was finally published, it won the 2002 Anthony Award for best paperback mystery. While on stage accepting her award, Harris saw all of the editors who passed on Sookie (some with not very nice comments), and she briefly considered sticking it to them, but instead took the high road.

So, she repeated, she has not outlined this series. She just sits down and writes them. She said she is in a contest with Jim Butcher over who can take more punishment in their books, Sookie or Harry Dresden. After the last Sookie book, Butcher emailed her that Sookie may be winning. She also apologized for killing Sookie's Gran in the first book, but, she also told us, "Gran had to go for Sookie to have any kind of sex life." So far, Harris noted, people seem fine with Sookie getting a major blood transfusion in each book, as long she she keeps going.

Hollands then turned to Huston and commented that Joe Pitt is a nasty man, driven by anger, yet somehow this awful person seems sympathetic. Are you trying to do that?

Huston laughed and said, "Neil, the fact that you find Joe Pitt sympathetic says a lot about you." But seriously, Huston reminded the librarians in the audience that Pitt is not the vampire who just kills pigs or bad guys to get the blood he needs, he also kills innocent people. Also, Pitt is not sympathetic to all readers. He is first and foremost a hard-boiled detective who people hire to get a job done; to keep their own hands clean. Huston commented that he actually tries to write Pitt as unsympathetically as possible, but more often than not, Pitt does kill the people who need to be killed.

Hollands brought up a new line of discussion by saying, "readers have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief to get going with a paranormal story."

Harris jumped in on this one with comments that I loved. For any fictional form, she said, you cannot completely and accurately recreate reality. It is still fiction. So, she does not see her work as any less realistic than any other fiction. "I write books that are entertaining and a little bit disturbing. People need that."

Liu agreed, noting that as a writer it is your job to sell your story no matter how unrealistic it is.

And Huston added that, "I didn't write vampire books to get non-vampire fans to read it." Which led him to talk about the fact that he never gets comments by his vampire loving fans about getting anything in the vampire world wrong, but he does get tons of comments when he describes a NYC subway station wrong. Also, he had an editor that wanted to take all of the scenes where Pitt is smoking in a bar out of the latest book because you can no longer smoke in NYC bars. Huston refused because as a hard-boiled detective, Pitt needs to smoke where ever and whenever he wants. This led him to comment, "you can get over the vampire stuff just fine, but the smoking in bars is a problem?"

Hollands asked the authors what books they think are most similar to their own?

Huston began by stating again that the Joe Pitt books are really noir/hard-boiled stories, so he thinks that James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler are the most similar to the Pitt books. He admitted that he really does not read much paranormal stuff himself.

Harris writes quite a bit about what she is reading on her blog. She said she wants to steer people to good books and she will note the violence level in her reviews. But she thinks that the works of Patricia Briggs and Kim Harrison are good bets for Sookie fans.

Liu suggested reading Emma Bull, Charles de Lint for good urban fantasy, and Christine Feehan and Sherrilyn Kenyon for paranormal romance.

Hollands then let the group know that Liu, along with other paranormal writers, was featured in the May 2009 issue of Locus Magazine giving recommendations of their favorite paranormal writers.

Hollands let each author wrap up by telling us what was coming up for them.

Huston told the group that the final Joe Pitt novel will be coming out in October. It will have "lots of death." In January or February he will publish Sleepless which is not paranormal, but is a speculative crime story.

Harris will publish a collection of previously published Sookie stories in October. She is currently writing Sookie 10 and is in the process of signing a contract for 3 more Sookie books. She is also part of an upcoming compilation called Death's Excellent Vacation, which will have stories of paranormal characters on...you got it, vacation.

Liu will have a story in a collection of feminist fairy tales called Never After coming out this fall.

That was the end of the formal program. Overall, I found this presentation extremely informative and helpful. I will use much of what I heard here to help many different patrons.

Thanks to all of the authors for agreeing to appear in front of a group of librarians at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning. Also, thanks to Neil Hollands and RUSA for putting the program together.

ALA Report: Things That Go Bump in the Stacks Part 1- The Appeal of Paranormal Fiction

So begins the first of my reports on the programs I attended at the American Library Association Annual Conference.

On Sunday morning I went to a program sponsored by RUSA (Reference & Users Services Association: a division of ALA) entitled, "Things That Go Bump in the Stacks: Whole Collection Readers' Advisory for Paranormal Fiction." Here is the link describing the program as well as all of the resources and handouts.

This was a panel discussion with three popular paranormal authors, Charlie Huston, Charlaine Harris, and Marjorie Liu. If you are unfamiliar with these authors, use the embedded links to peruse their very useful homepages.

The panel was moderated by Neil Hollands of the Williamsburg (VA) Regional Library. Hollands is also the author of Read On...Fantasy Fiction (LU).

Hollands began with a great overview of paranormal fiction by explaining that although it encompasses almost every genre, the overall grouping of paranormal fiction and urban fantasy is useful to explore because all of the books do share common elements. Paranormal fiction, Hollands explained, blends contemporary fiction with an alternate paranormal world. It can appear in any genre, not just horror. Again, click here for the list of Hollands' suggested paranormal titles (broken into genres).

Hollands then talked about how paranormal fiction got its start in horror fiction, but that horror novels were different in one big way. In horror, traditionally, the paranormal characters are less sympathetic; they are the "bad guys," the biggest threat to the heroes. In today's paranormal fiction, the paranormal characters are not only sympathetic, they are quite often the heroes of the story themselves.

Hollands argues that the shift in horror fiction which led to the popularity of today's paranormal fiction came with Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire, which made the vampires sympathetic.

Obviously I found these statements quite useful in my work deciphering horror fiction for librarians. And I plan to explore this much more closely in my research. Thanks Neil.

Moving on from horror, Hollands talked about the modern classics of what he is calling paranormal fiction. He noted Tanya Huff's Blood Price as the first key work. Authors like Jim Butcher opened paranormal up to more men. He also cited Kelley Armstrong and Charlaine Harris' obscenely popular Sookie Stackhouse books as influential.

Since the new focus in RA is to include a "Whole Collection" view, Hollands also talked about the popularity of paranormal TV shows today.

Before opening up the discussion to the authors, Hollands summed up the appeal of paranormal fiction very nicely with 11 key appeal points:
  1. Paranormal fiction puts magic in the real world, and, as a result, it is an easy entry point to fantasy
  2. There is a lot of genre crossover
  3. Specific or all paranormal creatures themselves are appealing to certain readers
  4. Many of these novels have strong female leads
  5. They tend to appeal to women and men
  6. They also appeal young adults
  7. They all have a contemporary setting and style
  8. These books have a lot of humor (even amidst some violence)
  9. There is a great deal of sexuality here
  10. Lots of fast paced action
  11. And most importantly, although these books have fantasy elements, they are all grounded in real world issues. The most common of which is the idea of diversity and tolerance of those who are different.
Look for part 2 of this report to see what the authors had to say about the paranormal fiction they are writing, who their readers are, and what those readers find most appealing about their works.

Monday, July 13, 2009

ALA Report Post Coming Soon. In the Meantime...

I have not been posting because I have been spending my days at the wonderful American Library Association Conference. I will be writing up 2 posts about programs I went to that pertain to RA issues specifically, and at least a third about random things that are worth sharing.

In the meantime, I wanted to remind everyone that our brand new Saturday Book Discussion Group at the Berwyn Public Library, "revisiting greatest hits from discussions past," begins this Saturday with My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Click on the link to get details. If you've read the book and are in the area, stop by.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

New Blog by a MA Public Library

A few days ago, Laurie, an RA from the Brockton (MA) Public Library asked me to check out their new blog. I am always excited when librarians embrace new techniques to reach their patrons, so I dived right in. Here is a link to their blog.

Laurie and a colleague appear to be focusing on writing about the books they are reading and providing patrons further avenues of exploration for each title. Nice work guys.

This brings up 2 good points. First, all of you librarians out there should be writing at least a little about what you are reading. This helps you to remember what is best about a book, for which readers it will most appeal, and allows you to begin drawing connections from one book to another. This will only make your job easier and help your patrons get better leisure reading suggestions.

At BPL, along with my blog, our entire RA staff is required to write something about the books they are reading and at the very least suggest 1 possible readalike. We post these on Shelfari. You can click here to see our group shelf; and here for my shelf.

The second point Brockton PL's new blog brings up is that at its heart your library's RA service is driven by your patrons. It is an intimate and extremely local service. From one state to another, even from one town to another, the types of books, their settings, genres, and topics that are most popular will differ. This is why it is nice to see library blogs from other parts of the country. We can all see what people are reading and talking about somewhere else, and maybe it will spark us to suggest something totally different for our patrons.

So go on over and check out the Brockton Public Library's blog; maybe it will inspire you to start one of your own. And, feel free to contact me and pass on your book blogs. If I get enough responses, I will compile a permanent archive of library book blogs.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

RA Programs at ALA Conference

You may have noticed that I am actively advertising for the American Library Association Conference beginning this coming weekend right here in Chicago. As a Chicagoland librarian, I am very lucky that this conference comes through town every 4 years or so.

This year there is quite a bit going on for those interested in providing cutting edge RA service for your library patrons. In fact, Cindy Orr over at RA Online's blog posted a very nice consolidated list of the RA specific offerings.

I am most excited about the RUSA President's Program, led by Neal Wyatt. From the RUSA Blog:
The program, which will be held from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Monday, July 13, is the inaugural session of the Readers’ Advisory Research and Trends Forum, a new RUSA initiative where ideas, best practices and creative possibilities are actively engaged and deconstructed in order to contribute to the advancement of RA service. This year’s theme—how appeal is an interdisciplinary concept that applies to music, art and books—will be addressed with program content that covers multiple perspectives on the topic, including service implications and collection building.
The Adult Reading Round Table is also a sponsor of this event. I will be working at ARRT's table during the program, so come by and say hi. You can click here for more details on this program, which will be held at the Hyatt Regency and does not require an extra ticket beyond basic conference registration.

The ALA conference also brings many authors to town. I am hoping to catch Michael Connelly, Junot Diaz, and Charlaine Harris among others.

Over 12,000 librarians are expected to invade Chicago this weekend. Maybe I'll see you there.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What I'm Reading: The White Tiger

I recently listened to Aravind Adiga's Booker prize winning first novel, The White Tiger and was blown away. I read a lot of books, but The White Tiger impressed me on so many levels. The imagery and descriptions were vivid enough that I literally felt, smelled, and heard the action. Adgia presented a believable story about the contradictions of modern India, a place where the old caste system butts heads with modern capitalism on a day-to-day basis.

What I enjoyed the most was how Adiga chose to tell his story of modern India. Our narrator, Balram Halwai spends seven nights recording his life story on a tape he is ostensibly planning on sending to the Prime Minister of China in anticipation of his trip to India. Balram is literally speaking to us, sharing his experiences, but also the experiences of those around him. Also, I listened to this book, and since it is written as if it is an audio recording, it worked very well as an audio book.

Before I begin with some plot details, this book has a big limiter. Balram tells us early in the book that he killed his boss and is unrepentant about it. He tells the reader this important information right at the start, and some readers may be turned off by a main protagonist who is an unapologetic killer. However, in this reader's opinion, Adiga builds Balram up so well throughout the novel that I kept thinking that maybe he lied, and he really didn't kill his boss. I wanted to believe in him so much. Personally, in the end, it was not an issue for me, but it could very easily be a huge issue for some readers.

Balram's life begins in the country as a poor boy. Through his natural curiousity and unwillingness to accept his lot in life, he gets a job as a second driver for a rich land owner. After black mailing the 1st driver, Balram gets promoted and is sent to Delhi with the land owner's son, Mr. Ashok. From what I can tell, Mr. Ashok's main job is to bribe politicians so that his family does not have to pay taxes. Balram drives Mr. Ashok around Delhi and learns the ways of the city. He begins to resent the caste system and Mr. Ashok's ways. He realizes he will never be a free man unless he kills Mr. Ashok.

After a brutal murder scene, Balram escapes with a bag of money and his nephew to Bangalore where he uses all he has learned working for Mr. Ashok to start an extremely successful start-up, running a taxi service for the call center workers. It should also be noted that Balram knows his actions will cause the death (read: murder) of his entire family back home.

The bulk of this book takes place in Delhi. Balram explains the people and places of this chaotic city. He describes the ways of the rich, their servants, and the poor on the streets. We see the traffic, confusion, and "democracy" of modern India. The level of detail is amazing. Yet the story moves swiftly.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted though. There are real problems and tradegies described here. But it is an authentic experience. There is more dark than light here, but some good does shine through. Despite all he has done, it is hard not to like Balram. I literally laughed out loud at times. But you must always remember, he may not be the most reliable narrator.

Readalikes: Those who liked the movie Slumdog Millionaire and/or the novel which the movie was based on, Q and A by Vikas Swarup will enjoy The White Tiger. Conversely, those who were turned off by the extreme poverty and and general "unfairness" in Slumdog Millionaire, should stay away from The White Tiger as it could be described as Slumdog Millionaire on steroids.

Two books I have read and written about that are excellent readalike options for readers who enjoyed the Indian setting are The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. My account of our book group's discussion of The Inheritance of Loss has quite a few more readalikes, including nonfiction options.

When I was searching for readalikes for The White Tiger on NoveList today, I noticed that the book discussion guide for the novel suggests trying Ralph Ellison's American classic, Invisible Man. This suggestion intrigues me. I think it would be an excellent choice for readers who wanted to read more about forgotten people.

The contradictions and problems of modern India often remind me of the current situation in China. In fact, The White Tiger itself draws this comparison. A good suggestion for those who enjoyed The White Tiger, and are willing to exapand to a Chinese setting, is The Banquet Bug by Geling Yan.

Finally, in my years of serving leisure readers, I have found that the list of Man Booker winners is a readalike category onto itself. For most major awards this is not the case, but for some reason, people who like one Booker winner, seem to like them all. Here is a link to past winners.