Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Inside*, by Alix Ohlin

cover of INSIDE, a novel by Alix Ohlin Inside
Alix Ohlin (Twitter)
Knopf (June 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0307596923 / 9780307596925)
Fiction, 272 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (June 8, 2012).

Opening lines: "At first glance she mistook him for something else. In fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she'd been cross-country skiing on Mount Royal, she'd found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions; she'd come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days."
Book description, from the publisher's website: When Grace, a competent and devoted therapist in Montreal, stumbles across a man who has just failed to hang himself, her instinct to help kicks in immediately. Before long, however, she realizes that her feelings for this charismatic, extremely guarded stranger are far from straightforward. In the meantime, her troubled teenage patient, Annie, runs away from home and soon will reinvent herself in New York as an aspiring and ruthless actress, as unencumbered as humanly possible by any personal attachments. And Mitch, Grace’s ex-husband, a therapist as well, leaves the woman he’s desperately in love with to attend to a struggling native community in the bleak Arctic. We follow these four compelling, complex characters from Montreal and New York to Hollywood and Rwanda, each of them with a consciousness that is utterly distinct and urgently convincing. With razor-sharp emotional intelligence, Inside poignantly explores the many dangers as well as the imperative of making ourselves available to—and responsible for—those dearest to us.
Comments: One of the great attractions of reading fiction is getting inside a character’s head--it’s a level of access we rarely get to anyone’s thoughts and feelings other than our own, and it affords the reader an advantage over the characters. In her psychologically astute, emotionally resonant novel Inside, Alix Ohlin allows the reader to know her characters more fully than any of them will ever know each other.

The linchpin of Inside is Montreal therapist Grace Tomlinson. Recently divorced and preoccupied with one teenage client, Grace is skiing alone when she almost literally stumbles across a man in the midst of a suicide attempt. He survives, and she is drawn to him, leading to a relationship that blurs the lines between personal and professional. Her ex-husband Mitch, also a therapist, is attempting to move on, and despite living in the same city, he and Grace won’t cross paths again for several years. Meanwhile, Grace's charismatic young patient Annie slips away from Montreal and winds up in New York City, trying to pursue an acting career. She stumbles across someone, too--an uncomfortably familiar teenage girl--and finds herself recalling her old therapist.

While they are physically apart for stretches of the novel, Ohlin’s characters remain inside one another’s heads, and their stories have parallels and connections that they may never know about--although the reader, having that inside vantage point, will want to find them. Inside is a quiet novel, populated with beautifully-drawn, complex characters that get inside the heart as well as the head.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Talk: *The First Husband*, by Laura Dave

cover of THE FIRST HUSBAND by Laura Dave (hardcover edition) viia IndieBound.org The First Husband: A Novel
Laura Dave (Twitter) (Facebook)
Viking Adult (June 2011), Hardcover (ISBN 0670022675 / 9780670022670)
Fiction, 256 pages
Source: secondhand ARC
Reason for reading: Personal

Opening lines: “It feels important to start with the truth about how I got here. When everything gets messy and brutal and complicated, the truth is the first thing to go, isn’t it? People try to shade it or spin it or fix it. As though fixing the facts will make the situation less brutal and messy and complicated. Not more. But there’s no fixing this. The truth is that I brought it on myself. All of it.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Annie Adams is days away from her thirty-second birthday and thinks she has finally found some happiness. She visits the world's most interesting places for her syndicated travel column and she's happily cohabiting with her movie director boyfriend Nick in Los Angeles. But when Nick comes home from a meeting with his therapist (aka "futures counselor") and announces that he's taking a break from their relationship so he can pursue a woman from his past, the place Annie had come to call home is shattered. Reeling, Annie stumbles into her neighborhood bar and finds Griffin-a grounded, charming chef who seems to be everything Annie didn't know she was looking for. Within three months, Griffin is Annie's husband and Annie finds herself trying to restart her life in rural Massachusetts.
Comments: I don’t believe in soulmates, but I do know that sometimes two people will click very quickly, on multiple levels, and it feels like the most right thing in the world for them to be together--not just right now, but long term. My parents got engaged after three dates, and my in-laws after not many more than that. Having said that, I tend to think it’s a bit suspect when that click happens between people who’ve very recently come out of other long-term relationships; conventional wisdom says that these “rebound” relationships are supposed to be transitional ones, not end points. And having said that...well, the only people who are really in a position to understand a relationship are the people in it, and sometimes they can’t explain it either.

Laura Dave’s third novel, The First Husband, reflects--to some extent--the attempts of her first-person narrator, travel columnist Annabelle “Annie” Adams, to explain how she ended up married to a chef she met in a bar just days after her live-in boyfriend of over five years told her, on the advice of his “futures consultant” (a.k.a. his therapist), that he needed “a break” from their relationship. She finds it’s not the easiest thing to explain...and that sometimes understanding, particularly of the emotional variety, comes without--or despite--explanations.

I don’t totally agree with Annie’s opening statement that she “brought all of it on (her)self,” but as I became engrossed in her story, I could see why she’d feel that way (and I could relate, as someone who also tends to take a little too much responsibility for what happens to her). She was blindsided by Nick’s announcement that he needed a break from her, but realized on reflection that perhaps she shouldn’t have been. And she accepted that perhaps she and Griffin really didn’t need to know everything about each other’s past relationships, but didn’t realize how much those would affect their own future relationship. And while she’s willing to take responsibility, Annie gets surprised quite a lot.

But what surprised Annie frequently surprised me too, and I found that the surprises were a big part of what made The First Husband such a pleasure to read. Annie’s situation is indeed “messy and complicated” (if not consistently “brutal”), and it develops in ways I frequently didn’t see coming; I really appreciated that a story that summarizes as something pretty predictable rolled out as something different--beginning with the meaning of its title--than what I expected. It was also something more than I expected--more insightful, more amusing, and more sympathetic. The characters surrounding Annie were more developed than supporting characters in a first-person narrative often are; I think that if they hadn’t been, the feel of the novel would have been less messy and complicated, and it would have been much less effective--and less affecting, as well.

I don’t read “chick lit” much any more--partly because I’m getting a bit old to be a “chick,” and am getting more interested in somewhat more mature-sounding “women’s fiction” with protagonists closer to my age--but I’ve always preferred my reading in that vein with more depth and less fluff, and The First Husband definitely qualifies. Laura Dave is an author I need to catch up with; this third novel of hers is the first I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

Rating: 3.75/5

Other reviews, via the Book Blogs Search Engine

Monday, June 25, 2012

Authors Are Rockstars! Or, the Last Chapter of The Rock Bottom Remainders

El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, 6/22/2012
After 20 years of once-a-year togetherness, the Rock Bottom Remainders have called it a career, and played their last two shows this past weekend. The finale was a private performance for attendees at the American Library Association annual conference in Anaheim on Saturday night, but they played for a full house at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles the night before.

Rock Bottom Remainders autographed guitar
You might know the Remainders better through their literary efforts than their musical ones. Although their membership has shifted a bit over two decades, their final lineup included original members Dave Barry, Roy Blount, Jr., Matt Groening, Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, and Amy Tan, joined by Mitch Albom, Greg Iles, Mary Karr, and Scott Turow. Skewed toward vocals and guitars, they got additional musical support from Sam Barry (harmonica), Josh Kelly (drums), Erasmo Paolo (saxophone), and Janine Sabino (vocals).

The Rock Bottom Remainders final show, 6/22/12

The group was originally brought together by Bay Area musician/part-time literary escort Kathi Kamen Goldmark for a one-off performance at an American Booksellers Association meeting in 1992. Goldmark died of cancer last month, and her passing spurred the group to mount their final two-show tour.

Tall Paul and I saw the Remainders play at the LA Times Festival of Books in 2006. They were never the most musically-adept bunch--Bruce Springsteen described them as "almost as good as a lousy garage band," and their repertoire was mostly familiar boomer-era covers mixed with some clever originals. But they clearly had a great time playing them serviceably well, which made it just as much fun for the audience. When we read about the plans for their final show, we knew we wanted to be there--and we were, right up in front!

The Hollywood Reporter described the El Rey show as "somewhat ridiculous but very fun," and I think they nailed it. An excellent time was had by all, onstage and off. From their review, here's a sampling from the set list:

"The House Is Rockin'" (show opener)
"Paperback Writer"
"These Boots are Made for Walkin'" (featuring Amy Tan on lead vocal whip-wielding)

Rock Bottom Remainders: King, McGuinn, Iles, Pearson

With musical guest Roger McGuinn on some Byrds covers:
"Mr. Tambourine Man"
"I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better"
"My Back Pages"
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"

Featuring Mitch Albom, Elvis impersonator:
"(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"
"Jailhouse Rock"

Rock Bottom Remainers: Amy Tan, Mitch AlbomRock Bottom Remainders: Scott Turow, wearing a tattoo sleeve

"I'm a Big Best Seller" (an original blues by Greg Iles)
"Proof Reading Woman" (original by Dave Barry)

Rock Bottom Remainders original musical moment: Stephen King, Greg Iles

Near the end of the show, the full band dedicated their rendition of Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart" to departed Remainders Goldmark, Frank McCourt, and frequent musical guest Zevon himself. But not wanting to end things on a down note, they roared back with Stephen King taking the lead on "Surfin' Bird" and closed with Scott Turow (in multicolored clown wig) and Roy Blount Jr. on "Wild Thing." But every rock show needs an encore, and the Remainders, in the fine tradition of lousy garage bands, made the garage-band classic "Gloria" theirs.

Rock Bottom Remainders: Mary Karr, Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Kathi Goldmark's guitar

Rock Bottom Remainders: Scott Turow, Matt Groening, Stephen King

The Rock Bottom Remainders were author rockstars in a very unconventional way, and they'll be missed. But at least we'll still have their books.

Tall Paul got two songs on video with his iPhone. Here's one of them:

The Rock Bottom Remainders with Roger McGuinn, "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"

(More photos from the show are on Facebook.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

#BookExpo 2012: A Not-so-Bookish Highlight Reel

During my week in New York City for Book Expo America 2012, I developed a better understanding of the bloggers who go to events like BlogHer and don’t actually go to many of the functions at the event; they come to see the friends they only get to see off-line during these few days that bring them all together. When BEA 2013 comes around, I may be one of those bloggers myself; I felt myself on the verge of becoming one in 2012.

I didn’t spend much time at Book Expo itself this year, where the floor felt more crowded and chaotic than it did in 2011, and I shared the general feeling of disappointment with the BEA Bloggers Conference. But I really enjoyed my time in New York City, and that was largely due to the people I was able to spend it with and the things we did together.

BEA Adult Book & Author Breakfast, 6/5/2012

Not that there wasn’t bookish fun as well, of course! This was the first year I went to any of the BEA Book & Author Breakfasts. I went to both of the Adult ones--”adult” as in “not for kids” books, not as in NC-17 content, that is--and really enjoyed them. The food was nothing special, but the speakers were good--star fiction writers hosted by celebrity authors (as Barbara Kingsolver said at Tuesday’s event, these days it seems like the person least likely to get a book contract is a writer). There were books for the guests and, at Tuesday's breakfast, 3D glasses for everyone in the promo for Stephen Colbert's fall book, America Again.
Dawn of She Is Too Fond of Books
 (3D glasses modeled by Dawn. That really is just orange juice in the glass, I promise)

l-r: Danielle (@the1stdaughter), me, Beth KephartTuesday was a pretty good day for seeing people--and for zigzagging back and forth across Manhattan. After the breakfast, I met up with Danielle and Beth Kephart in the press room. Although Beth has a new book coming out next month, she was at Book Expo for the day not as an author, but as a reporter for Publishing Perspectives--I was just glad she was there at all, and wish we could have visited longer. But everyone had places to be, and my next stop was Grand Central Station, where I met one of my oldest and dearest friends for coffee and chat that had nothing to do with blogging or books. Ann is an Episcopal priest who is about to become Rector of St. Matthias Church in East Aurora, New York, and her new parish really is blessed to have her.

Main Concourse, Grand Central Terminalthe Little Shubert Theatre, 42nd Street, current home of POTTED POTTER

After a brief return to the Javits, I met up with Teresa and Memory for an early dinner before we went to see Potted Potter. This two-person show--one actor plays Harry Potter, the other plays everyone else--started in London and, after playing in Canada, is Off-Broadway through the summer. Its presentation of all seven Harry Potter books on stage in seventy minutes--including an audience-participation Quidditch game and a musical finale--is very, very funny and appropriate for all ages. It’s going to Australia in the fall, but will be touring back in the US next year--if it comes your way, go and see it!

Theater and Teresa seem to go together. Three nights earlier, just a few hours after both Kim and I had landed in New York, we went with her to experience Sleep No More, which isn’t a show you merely “see.” It’s a strange and fascinating piece of performance art based on Macbeth with a touch of Rebecca and a lot of 1940s film-noir atmosphere, and it takes place throughout its performance space, the McKittrick Hotel; audience members, all wearing white masks, follow the performers around, up and down stairs and in and out of rooms, and several scenes are usually going on simultaneously in different staging areas. We stopped at a diner after the show to get dessert and compare notes on what we’d seen, and we’d all seen something different. It’s really quite a head trip, and difficult to explain, so I'd recommend you read what Jenny and Teresa said about it when they saw it last year--Kim and I went along on Teresa's third viewing. It’s still hard for me to make sense out of it (two weeks later!), and it’s also difficult to forget it.

Registry Room, Ellis Island(I didn't keep my mask, and I'm between dogs right now. Too bad on both counts, or I could have contributed to the "Dogs in Sleep No More Masks" Tumblr....)

I went to Ellis Island with Teresa, Kim, and Lu on Sunday afternoon. We were meeting Karen and Memory for dinner afterward, but we arrived a bit early. Lucky for us that the restaurant was close to the Strand, and we had no trouble killing a little time there. (But since BEA week hadn’t even started yet, no one bought very much.)

Publishers hosted events all week long. I was invited to some of them, and despite the noise and hubbub that goes with most cocktail parties (and one breakfast), saw many of the people I’d hoped to see and had pretty decent conversations with some of them. I don’t feel like I met very many new people this year, aside from those I was introduced to by people I knew already, but I’m less bothered about that than perhaps I should be. I went to New York wanting to spend time off-line with people I was already friends with online, and with people whose company I’d enjoyed during BEA week in 2011 (in at least some cases, these were the same people). I had many chances to do that, and I’m very glad I did. I’m also very glad that Kim was my roommate this year, as I especially enjoyed rehashing things with her back at the hotel each night. 

Lower Manhattan, as seen from New York Harbor

I went to New York on the Saturday before BEA started and went home on the Thursday evening it ended. I was ready to be done with Book Expo, but not really ready to leave the city. I was born in New York City to two natives, but I didn’t grow up there, and before 2010, I hadn’t been back for more than twenty years. Now I want to visit every year if I can. I want to go back with Tall Paul, but until we can make that happen, Book Expo gives me a perfect excuse to make the trip to the city--and a fine framework to see some of my favorite people in the world, my book-blogging BFFs.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Talk: *This Life Is In Your Hands*, by Melissa Coleman

Cover of THIS LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS, via harpercollins.com
This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone
Melissa Coleman (Facebook)
Harper Perennial (2012), trade paperback (ISBN 0061958336 / 9780061958335)
Nonfiction/memoir, 352 pages
Source: purchased e-book (ISBN 9780062807355)
Reason for reading: personal (recommended by Kim)

Opening lines (from the Prologue): “We must have asked our neighbor Helen to read our hands that day. Her own hands were the color of onion skins, darkened with liver spots, and ever in motion. Writing, digging, picking, chopping. Opening kitchen cabinets painted with Dutch children in bright embroidered dresses and painted shoes. Taking out wooden bowls and handing them to my mother, Sue, to put on the patio for lunch.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
In the fall of 1968, Melissa Coleman's parents pack their VW truck and set out to forge a new existence on a rugged coastal homestead. Inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible Living the Good Life, Eliot and Sue build their own home by hand, live off the crops they grow, and establish a happy family with Melissa and her two sisters. They also attract national media and become icons of the back-to-the-land farming movement, but the pursuit of a purer, simpler life comes at a price. In the wake of a tragic accident, idealism gives way to human frailty, and by the fall of 1978, Greenwood Farm is abandoned. The search to understand what happened is at the heart of this luminous, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive memoir. Coleman’s searing chronicle tells the true story of her upbringing on communes and sustainable farms along the rugged Maine coastline in the 1970’s, embedded within a moving, personal quest for truth that her experiences produced.
Comments: It's taken a few decades for the "organic" lifestyle to work its way into the mainstream, but during the last ten years or so, the desire to eat foods that have been produced in a sustainable, low-tech way seems to have become much more widespread, and the producers and consumers of these foods don't seem to be viewed so much as crunchy, hippie-ish fringe-dwellers these days. Having said that, the movement has honest roots among crunchy hippie fringe-dwellers, and Melissa Coleman's family were some of the people who planted those roots (pun intended, for the record). In her memoir, This Life Is In Your Hands, Coleman takes readers to Greenwood Farm on the Maine coast, the pioneering community where her father worked to advance sustainable agriculture...and where her family imploded.

In some respects, Greenwood Farm would seem to be an idyllic place to experience one's childhood, particularly during the short and fertile New England summers. Melissa and her sisters could, quite literally, run around naked all day long, and they had the proverbial "village" of caretakers at hand in Greenwood Farm's "apprentices"--college and graduate students who came to work and learn from Melissa's father, Eliot, and who became an extended family. The less-than-idyllic part was that the Coleman children couldn't always count on their own parents. Eliot's first devotion was to the farm, even at, ironically, the risk of his own health; the girls' mother Sue was, all too often, just overwhelmed by the challenges of their everyday lives. The "pioneering" of the Colemans and their associates went all the way--they lived without electricity and indoor plumbing in small houses they built themselves.

I was quite intrigued by the fact that Eliot and Sue both came from fairly privileged backgrounds--particularly on Eliot's side, where there are some names straight out of the Preppy Handbook--and in choosing this "simple," "good" life for their family, they also chose extreme poverty. In some ways, there are similarities to Melissa Coleman's story and that of Jeannette Walls' family in The Glass Castle, but Melissa's parents chose to work a lot harder. Still, it's the rejection of a certain form of privilege that interests me, because in many ways, the products of the lifestyle that the Colemans chose instead remain most readily available to the privileged, even now.

But Melissa Coleman was a child during the years at Greenwood Farm, and it's her evocation of the wonders and feelings of childhood that make  This Life Is In Your Hands  such compelling reading. The adults in her life are frequently portrayed as seen through a child's eyes, which makes the effects on that child when they really don't live up to being adults that much more devastating. Without much exposure to other influences, children can be pretty accepting that whatever they know as "normal" is "the norm," but they may still have an innate sense of when the world around them feels wrong. Coleman conveys that well; reading her story, I had the feeling early on that things wouldn't quite work out, but I was completely surprised by the event that ultimately undid the family at Greenwood Farm.

An ultimately sympathetic relating of an unusually challenging personal history, This Life Is In Your Hands is a memoir worth getting into your hands.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

#BEABloggerCon: Rights and Wrongs and Missed Opportunities

I signed up for the bloggers-convention portion of Book Expo America 2012 insanely early--months in advance, even before it officially became the BEA Bloggers Conference--but I waffled for weeks over whether I’d actually attend. The Book Blogger Conventions in 2010 and 2011 were volunteer projects developed and planned by book bloggers. Purchase of the event by Reed Exhibitions/BEA early in 2012 held the potential for a more professionally-produced event, but the plans and programming announcements were raising more questions about what kind of event it would be--and who it was being produced for--than they answered. With just a few weeks to go until Book Expo, I’d decided that I’d most likely spend conference day at the Book Blog UNCON instead, which was clearly intended as a “for bloggers, by bloggers” gathering.

Bowling Green subway station, NYC
Not related to the conference at all (but I like the open-door symbolism)
Then I was invited to be part of a panel at the Bloggers Conference, and in the interest of adding one more blogger--as opposed to an author or publishing-industry pro--to the program, I accepted. Although I didn’t know any of the other panelists, the topic “Critical Reviews: Fine-Tuning Your Craft” sounded like one that belonged at a book-blogging conference. And I honestly was curious about how the whole event would go; although the BEA team seemed to be trying to make up for some early missteps with bloggers, it still wasn’t clear they had a handle on us.

Now that it’s all over, I think it’s safe to say that the BEA team would really like to have a handle on book bloggers--but this year, it felt like they just wanted to “handle” us. Book bloggers are diverse in their interests and methods, but I think that one thing we have in common is that we don’t really want to be “handled.”

I skipped the “Author Speed Dating” session at the 2011 BBC because I’m just not comfortable with face-to-face pitching, so I was less than thrilled with the fact that breakfast and lunch at the Bloggers Conference were constructed as “networking” meals featuring authors rotating among the tables. And I skipped them both. Candace alerted Jennifer and me to the “green room” for speakers and authors; as we were all panelists that day, we qualified, so we took our muffins and coffee back there and chatted until the morning keynote. Later, Sassymonkey and I ate our box lunches out in the hallway (as did quite a few other attendees).

There was a keynote and a general session in between those meals. Jennifer Weiner’s announcement as the morning keynote speaker hadn’t been entirely well-received, but she was one of the first authors to blog and is pretty social-media savvy, so I was cautiously optimistic about what she’d say to a group of bloggers. Unfortunately, too much of what she had to say didn’t really connect with the crowd, as it mostly concerned Jennifer Weiner. Although she stressed social media as a conversation, what she delivered was essentially a monologue.

The “Blogging Today” panel followed the keynote. The group of speakers was well composed: the moderator was ZoĆ« Triska, books editor for the Huffington Post, and the panelists came from publishing (Erica Barmash, editor at HarperCollins), social media (Patrick Brown, community manager of Goodreads), writing (Jen Lancaster, one of the first blog-to-book successes), and grassroots book blogging (Candace Levy, freelance writer/editor blogging at Beth Fish Reads). The discussion was lively, covering such topics as relationships between bloggers and publishers; blogger/bookstore partnerships and book blogs’ influence on book sales; diversifying and getting exposure for blog content; and social media channels. Plagiarism and ethics came up in response to an audience question. And although I can’t remember the question that preceded it, something Patrick Brown said continues to stick with me: book bloggers need to be careful about not just writing for each other. That’s something I talk about, but I probably don’t execute as well as I’d like to, and--aside from “inside-baseball” posts like this one--I want to do better. Community is one thing; an echo chamber is very much another, less desirable one.

The breakout sessions were scheduled after lunch, and if my panel hadn’t been at the same time, I probably would have been at the one discussing monetization. I run ads here, and I do freelance work on other sites, so I’m not opposed to making blogging-related money. Based on what I’ve heard from those who did go to that session, some money-making options seem to be more controversial than others, but I’ll leave it at that since I wasn’t there.

I chose the session on “building community” over the one on “demystifying the blogger/publisher relationship” in the second breakout slot. It was fine, but as someone who’s been doing this for over five years, I really didn’t get anything new from it. One concern prior to the conference was that the programming might not offer much to “veteran” bloggers who have been at it for three years or more; I'm not sure that was true across the board, but I do think this particular session might have been more valuable for less-experienced bloggers.

Thanks to Jenny Lawson’s appearance as the conference's closing speaker, I was not the most publicly-socially-anxious blogger in the building--but having said that, The Bloggess holds her own impressively well in front of a crowd (although the BEA Editors Buzz panel scheduled at the same time made for a smaller crowd than at the morning keynote). Lawson’s not a book blogger, but she does understand bloggers in general because she’s been one for years, and bloggers from all categories have embraced her emergence as a published author. While her connection to a book-blogging conference may have been a bit tenuous, she charmed most of the audience anyway (f-bombs and all).

inside the New York Public Library
Also not really related to the conference (but it's in a library!)
All in all, I think BEA’s first effort to pull off a conference for book bloggers missed more marks than it hit, and I think the mindset that it was “a conference for book bloggers” was the source of most of its problems. Although its total attendance was probably less than 10% of that of the Bloggers Conference, this was one thing that the organizers and attendees of the Book Blog UNCON totally understood; they were full participants who drove the content of the day, and not primarily an audience. Granted, it’s harder to do that with a larger crowd, but probably not impossible, as long as you understand your market. When it comes to bloggers, it looks like BEA isn’t there yet.

But I hope they can get better. I like the concept of a blogger gathering affiliated with Book Expo--librarians and booksellers have them, so why not us?--but the execution needs work. Here are my thoughts on where they might start:
  • Programming: I think I was less bothered than some by the fact that most of the panels weren’t completely comprised of bloggers, but there were definitely some sessions where the mix was off. I don’t think they all need to be BOOK bloggers, necessarily--I’m of the belief that despite differences in content, there are plenty of issues common to bloggers across the sphere--but more speakers and leaders from the world of blogging would be a step in the right direction.
I’m also not sure that the panel-on-a-dais, presentation-followed-by-Q&A format is the best setting for all the breakouts, as some topics work better in a small-group discussion or workshop setting, particularly if they’re more technical. This year’s Bloggers Conference didn’t have much tech programming, and it should have. I realize BEA shares a convention space with BlogWorld Expo East, but that’s a very expensive conference that’s not really geared to the small independent hobbyist blogger than most of us book bloggers are--and I believe that a conference for bloggers really should offer some nuts-and-bolts-blogging sessions. Ideally, those would include conversations/presentations concerning both blog content--writing, use of photos/graphics, etc.--and blog mechanics--platforms, SEO, and so on. (The small groups at the UNCON touched on some of those topics.)

As I mentioned earlier, one major complaint about this year's Bloggers Conference program is that it seemed much more geared to the relatively new book blogger (two years or less), but the bulk of the bloggers attending were more experienced and didn't get very much out of some offerings. I think the addition of more technical topics could helo address that. At the same time, there are some topics--social media and ethics, for example--that will never be out of place and remain significant to bloggers at all stages.
  • Networking: Yes, we come to conferences to meet others who do what we do and exchange ideas. The people who do what we do are BLOGGERS. Some may be authors as well, but most aren’t. And while I acknowledge my personal dislike for the whole “author speed dating” thing, I do think most book bloggers are excited about meeting authors--that is, authors whose work we know and read and are already interested in. In that respect, the keynoters were decent choices, and some of the authors at the networking meals met those criteria as well...but not all, or not enough, and that made some of the tables feel like uncomfortable pitch sessions. At a bloggers' conference, bloggers should get more opportunities to talk with each other.
  • Attendance: This is somewhat related to the "networking" thing and probably won't happen, but I'd like to see a cap on the number of attendees at a Bloggers Conference who are not primarily book bloggers, and perhaps a different pricing structure for them as well.
(Because she really wasn't happy with how BEA Bloggers answered her question "Where were the bloggers?", Kim has a few suggestions of her own for the next go-round.)

I hope that a BEA Bloggers Conference in 2013 will be better than the 2012 edition. In order to make that happen, Reed/BEA should solicit and utilize a significant amount of blogger input, and bloggers will have to keep our minds open and expectations reasonable. I think BEA Bloggers deserves a second chance to satisfy more of us--but if next year's event hits the same wrong notes, I'm not sure it'll get a third chance with me.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Salon: Books For My Father

Happy Father's Day to all of you dads--and your dads, and your kids' dads  too (if you're a mom)!

I've always appreciated the fact that I had two parents who read. My mother and father had different reading tastes, but they both spent much of their free time with books--and at the age of 83, my dad still does. There's always a stack of books on his kitchen table, and he volunteers two mornings a week at the Friends of the Library bookshop (where he sometimes gets first crack at choice new book donations).

My dad will read all sorts of books, but there are certain subjects that never miss with him, and I usually start looking for books on those topics in the spring, as Father's Day approached. This year, I've picked out these two as gifts for a lifelong New York Yankees fan:


cover of SUTTON (ARC)

Baseball books are always a home run with my dad (yes, I did that on purpose!), but he has other interests too. He was quite fascinated when I told him J.R. Moehringer's upcoming novel about Willie "The Actor" Sutton, "America's most successful bank robber" and a fellow New Yorker, so I'm letting him read the galley I brought back from Book Expo before I do. That's a Father's Day loan, though--I want it back! (Should I ask him for a report on it that I can post here on the blog?)

The Sunday Salon

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday Foto (Edits): Getting From Here to There

Less than 24 hours after arriving in New York City almost two weeks ago, I was on a Statue Cruises ferry with Kim, Lu, and Teresa, off to visit Ellis Island (although Kim and Lu stopped off to see the Statue at Liberty island first). My camera was with me, and it was a beautiful day out on New York Harbor. I was snapping pictures all along the way.

Some photo ops are setups, and some are gifts. Witnessing these sailboats passing Ellis Island in one direction while our ferry was going the opposite way was a gift; I took several in a series, and this is my favorite (one of my favorite photos I've ever taken, really).

Sailing by Ellis Island. 6/3/2012 (unedited photo)

I'll never be the Photoshop wiz my husband is--the software, like his DSLR camera, intimidates me--but I do like playing around with photo-editing tools. My new favorite is PicMonkey, which helped me turn my original photo into the one below (also original, but in a different way).

Sailing by Ellis Island. 6/3/2012 (edited photo using PicMonkey)

The edit was cropped, color/exposure corrected, and makes use of at least one Effects filter (sadly, I did not note which effects I used, but I may have combined a "Basic" and "Camera Look"), Frames (Simple Edge), and Text. When I "monkey" around with a picture this much, I usually sign it, especially if I really like how it turned out--and I'm pretty fond of this one!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

#BEABloggerCon: A (Self-)Critical Review of the "Critical Reviews" Panel

logo of BEA Bloggers Conference 2012
When I was invited to be part of a panel at the 2012 BEA Bloggers Conference, I accepted in the interest of adding one more blogger to the program. Although I didn’t know any of the other panelists, the topic “Critical Reviews: Fine-Tuning Your Craft” sounded like one that belonged at a book-blogging conference--if I hadn't been asked to participate in the session, I would have been interested in attending it.

(I was asked to join the panel just three weeks before the conference, and I’m quite certain I was at least a second--possibly third, maybe fourth--choice. I learned a few days ago that Jane Litte from Dear Author declined an invitation to speak at this session, and since I'd been watching program announcements for weeks, I'm guessing it took a while for the BEA planners to fill the fourth slot.)

The “Critical Reviews” panel had an excellent moderator in Barbara Hoffert, an editor at Library Journal; she and panelist Janice Harayda of One-Minute Book Reviews both have backgrounds in mainstream-media book criticism. Mark Fowler is an attorney who blogs (although not recently) at Rights of Writers, and seemed there to address the potential legal fallout from negative reviews--an interesting angle that engaged the audience, but one not obviously related to the idea of “fine-tuning your (reviewing) craft.” Having said that, the audience got quite involved with the legal discussion (possibly due to lawsuit anxiety?), and I think there would be interest in a larger focus on those issues in a future conference:
“Overall it was a decent panel, if a little law heavy. But obviously, there are a lot of bloggers interested in the law issues. It would probably be a smart idea to have a panel on blogging & the law at the next BBC.”
I was the only panelist from the “book-blogging community” as many of us define it--a reader first, who writes about what she reads. Unlike my fellow panelists, I wasn’t prepared to make any sort of presentation; to my mind, a panel discussion should be more conversational. However, when you’re not comfortable with public speaking, it’s probably not the best idea to wing it:
“And the only thing I remember about the panel is that Florinda had no prepared notes for the panel and that resulted in several very awkward moments where she was trying to articulate thoughts that just were not making it to the surface.“
The point I was having so much trouble articulating was that “critical” and “negative” aren’t necessarily synonymous--I got that part out, but struggled to elaborate on it, so I'll try to do it here:

To my mind, an informative, detailed review that gives examples of what works in a book--and what doesn’t--is a “critical” one, whether the verdict is positive, negative, or mixed. One of the great advantages bloggers have over traditional book critics is the freedom to express our subjective response in our reviews, but personally, I like to see that response rationalized at least a little (I need facts in order to make up my own mind), and I try to do that in my own reviewing. (If you don't see that happening in my "book talk" posts, please let me know and help me do better!) And I guess I didn’t completely fail at expressing that to the audience:
“Florinda...emphasized that critical or negative reviews should be 1) useful for the readers; 2) constructive, letting the author know where one thinks the book falls short; and 3) diplomatic.”
Janice presented some reviewing guidelines that fleshed out those vague statements, and offered them as a handout at the end of the session (you can also find them on her site). Her dozen tips get at what it means to review critically, regardless of whether your opinion of a book is good, bad, or “meh,” and I think these three are especially significant:
  • Aim to be fair rather than “kind.” A kindness to an author (such as failing to mention a serious defect in a book) can be cruel to readers who use reviews as a guide to what to read.
  • Criticize the book, not the author, if you don’t like what you’ve read. Focus on what’s on the page, not a writer’s character defects.
  • Give people enough information about the plot of a novel or the facts in a nonfiction book that they have a context for your opinions. Don’t give so much that your post turns into a book report instead of a review.”
I feel that this session didn’t fully realize its potential to be useful and perhaps could have been structured a little differently, but I think the general topic of review-writing was thoroughly appropriate at a conference for book bloggers. In fact, more technical content focused on the process of blogging might be very well-received.

But me, as a panelist? Maybe not so well-received, and I'm not sure I want another chance. Given my public-speaking issues, that might be best for everyone. There’s a reason I write on the internet, folks. Some of us belong behind the screen.

(My thoughts on the BEA Bloggers Conference as a whole will be ready to publish in another couple of days. I pulled this portion out to go up separately so that the post wouldn't be ninety miles long!)

(Re-posted with minor edits for phrasing/clarity at 8 AM, 6/14/2012)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: NYC Photos Unrelated to #BookExpo

I was in New York City for Book Expo America last week, but most of my best photos were taken at places that had nothing to do with that particular event. I've put up a bunch of them on a Pinterest board, but these are a few special favorites. 

Lower Manhattan viewed from a Statue Cruises ferry, 6/3/2012

Sailboats passing Ellis Island, 6/3/12

Statue of Liberty/Liberty Island, 6/3/12

The Chrysler Building, as seen from Lexington Avenue, 6/7/12

Bryant Park Carousel, 6/7/12

New York's a photogenic gal, isn't she?

(Edits were made and effects added using PicMonkey.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

#LifeAfterBEA: Featured Highlights of #ArmchairBEA 2012

I've finished the photo editing from my trip to New York City for Book Expo America 2012 and the BEA Bloggers Conference, but haven't put all of my thoughts and reactions into words yet, so while I'm working on pulling that together I wanted to highlight some of last week's words from Armchair BEA Central

The third year of Armchair BEA--the first as an official partner of BEA, which allowed us to offer on-site reports like never before--was by nearly all accounts a big success, with well over 600 participants signed up! But between the Twitter parties and the giveaways and the blog-hopping, you might have missed some terrific daily-themed content on the Armchair BEA site itself--or you may have been unplugged while participating in BEA events in person. Here's a taste of what the Armchair BEA team and their special guests brought to the party--please follow the links to check out more!

Getting the big BEA Buzz books with NetGalley:
NetGalley has always been a friend to bloggers—it’s been our pleasure to work with you for the past 4 years as the book blogging community has flourished, and we thank you for your enthusiasm for the site. It’s so rewarding for us and for our publishers to see blogger-led contests and read-a-thons like “NetGalley Month” and the year-long “NetGalley Reading Challenge.” For NetGalley and bloggers alike, we’re sure the best is yet to come, and we can’t wait to continue the journey with you!
Digital e-galleys and reviewing with Armchair BEA partner Edelweiss/Above the Treeline:
Getting a book to rise above the noise is really hard. There are so many titles published that the simple moment when you actually hear about a book, or even notice a book, is something of a miracle. There is something beautiful about the idea of a review or blurb of yours helping to propel a great book that you enjoyed over that monumental hurdle of relative obscurity. A good review can help make a title huge. Edelweiss can make it easier for you to discover great books, and allows you to proclaim your love for those books, and the very nature of Edelweiss is that your love for that book is proclaimed to other book industry professionals whose job is to reach out to readers, too, and in many and varied ways. This is a relatively new feature and I think its cumulative effect will be quite interesting to watch. Edelweiss users include bloggers, librarians, booksellers, radio shows, television shows, newspapers, literary magazines, specialty stores, grocery stores, professors, lecture circuits, etc., all looking to find those great upcoming books. It’s a pretty exciting thing.
Armchair BEA team members Pam, Emily, and Tif shared their diverse experiences with "real-life" blogger networking

I was Thursday's "guest" for the topic of "Getting Beyond Your Blog" (...and getting paid for it--sometimes):
But to get to the paid writing, you may have to be open to doing some unpaid writing for other sites...and you may have to be willing to write about topics other than books. That second point may be a tough one to feel OK about--I know I've struggled with it myself, because it's hard not to see it as "selling out." Having said that, as I've gotten to know more about the lives of real writers during the last four years, I've realized just how few of them are able to spend all of their writing time working only on their books (especially if those books are novels); being a working writer may include producing articles, corporate reports, and any other pieces someone is willing to pay for.
Pam's fearless predictions for the future of blogging ("just in case the Mayans are wrong"):
I see bloggers getting back to their roots. Caring less about ARCs and swag and more about being a legit place for people to find real recommendations for great books. There will be less IMM and more thought. (This may be more of a wish than a real prediction.) 
Bloggers are finally being considered more than just a simple marketing tool. Every day we are shaping the publishing industry. Be it a call to arms for a cover injustice or a plea for a wonderful book not getting the attention it deserves bloggers are an integral part of getting things done. I see bloggers accepting actual paying positions within the ranks of the publishing industry and using their knowledge to better blogger/publisher/author relations.

Teresa of Shelf Love attended the Book Blog UNCON and contributed a guest post on the experience:
I attended my first BEA and Book Blogger Conference in 2011 and had a great time. The greatest thing about it was the opportunity to meet and talk with other bloggers. In fact, as great as the panels during the Book Blogger Con were, what I really wanted was more time to exchange ideas with other bloggers. So when Jeff O’Neal, of The Reading Ape and Book Riot, put forward the idea of having a more interactive Unconference during BEA week, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

...Session topics included the state of publishing, close reading, social media, comments, reviewing, and the future of blogging. The bloggers in attendance represented several different segments of the larger book blogging world, including young adult, classics, and romance. Participants shared their own experiences with each of these areas, and the conversation was often spirited but never acrimonious. Bloggers sometimes disagreed about how they would handle certain situations, but participants didn’t attempt to convince others that their way was the only right way. Sharing and listening were the orders of the day. 

And Michelle crunched a bunch of numbers to report and analyze the data we received from the 504 respondents (!) to the Armchair BEA Blogger Survey.
The numbers do not lie. More than the books, it is the community which unites us and keeps us blogging. Not only do we learn more about the book industry from one another, we learn more about ourselves and the rest of the world. Together, we truly are making the world a smaller place.
We'll be asking for your thoughts on this year's Armchair BEA soon, so watch for the announcement of our post-event survey!

Meanwhile, let's delay #lifeafterBEA and Armchair just a little bit longer--and check out some pictures while we're procrastinating? I've created two new boards on Pinterest: one's pretty pictures from New York City, and the other features books, authors, and other sights at BEA 2012, like this:

Attendee at the BEA Adult Book & Author Breakfast (Tuesday 6/5) peruses promo for Stephen Colbert's next book (it's in 3D!)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *Drowned*, by Therese Bohman

cover of DROWNED by Therese Bohman (via IndieBound.org) Drowned
Therese Bohman (Swedish-language blog) (Twitter)
translated by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press (May 22, 2012), Paperback original (ISBN 1590515242 / 9781590515242)
Fiction, 224 pages

A version of this review was originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (May 29, 2012).

Opening lines: "The train is exactly on time as it pulls into the platform. My whole body feels listless as I stand up and get my bag down from the luggage rack above the window, There's something wrong with my seat, with the mechanism that's supposed to stop the backrest when you've reclined it into the position you want. I've been pushed backwards every time the train has accelerated, and several times during the journey I have woken up and discovered that I am practically lying down. I don't like reclining seats too far back, the feeling of them disappearing behind me always makes me think of a visit to the dentist."
Book description, from the publisher's website:Drowned, set in the idyllic countryside during a short-lived Swedish summer, gets under one’s skin from the first page, creating an atmosphere of foreboding in which even the perfume of freshly picked vegetables roasting in the kitchen becomes ominous.
On the surface, the story couldn’t be simpler. A single young woman visits her older sister, who is married to a writer as charismatic as he is violent. As the young woman falls under her brother-in-law’s spell, the plot unfolds in a series of precisely rendered turns. Meanwhile the reader, anticipating the worst, hopes against hope that disaster can be averted.
More than a mere thriller, this debut novel delves deep into the feminine soul and at the same time exposes the continuing oppression of women in Sweden’s supposedly enlightened society. Mixing hothouse sensuality with ice-cold fear on every page, Drowned heralds the emergence of a major new talent on the international scene.
Comments: In her debut novel, Drowned, Swedish author Therese Bowman offers something a little different from the crime fiction that her compatriots have been producing with such success for the last few years; it’s never entirely clear whether this story involves a crime at all. However, the sense of chilly dread that suffuses this brief (just over 200 pages), psychologically intense novel approaches thriller levels in places.

Marina is a graduate student visiting her sister Stella and Stella’s partner, Gabriel, in a small town during an unusually hot, sultry Swedish summer. She’s supposed to be working on an art-history assignment, but isn’t getting much done; Gabriel, a novelist, is similarly struggling with his current work-in-progress. Stuck at the house together while Stella is at work at the town parks department, something seems to be happening between them, but they don’t speak about it. There seem to be some things Stella won’t speak about either, and the secrets weigh as heavily on the characters as the late-summer humidity. Marina’s summer visit ends; the novel picks up several months later when she returns, after Stella has disappeared. In the short days of a cold, wet late autumn, Marina tries to sort out what happened to her sister...and what is still happening between her and Gabriel.

Drowned puts both its protagonist and its reader on edge almost from the beginning and never really allows either to become settled or comfortable. It’s an effective, suspenseful psychological mystery that will add some provocative chills to the summer-reading list.

Rating: 3.75/5

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sunday Salon: Back From #BEA2012, with Books!

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that my experience at Book Expo America 2012 might not be all about books. And I guess that technically it wasn't, since I cataloged slightly fewer books in a "Books from BEA" collection on LibraryThing this year than I did in 2011, but I brought back more than I'd expected to. And unlike last year, I actually did bring the books back home with me; they made my suitcase nine pounds overweight, but the excess-baggage charge still cost me less than shipping from the convention center.

I'll be working on putting together my thoughts on various aspects of the week--the expo, the BEA Bloggers Conference, fun stuff in New York City--during the next several days. There's definitely blogfodder; I just need to sort it out and get it written down. Meanwhile, would you like to see the books?

These came from the Adult Book & Author Breakfasts on Tuesday and Thursday. It was my first time attending these ticketed events, but I don't think it will be my last.
Books & galleys from BEA 2012: Book & Author Breakfasts
That one with the red cover is Michael Chabon's September release Telegraph Avenue, which was my most-anticipated BEA book, and I was thrilled to see it on the table on Thursday morning. But after hearing fellow author guest J.R. Moehringer talk about his upcoming first novel Sutton, about the bank robber Wille Sutton, I'm really looking forward to reading that one too (although I'm loaning the galley to my dad to read first, since he actually remembers Wille Sutton).

Books from BEA 2012--Expo
This is the fairly small number of books I got from Book Expo itself (full disclosure: one was appropriated from my roommate's suitcase, with permission, but she had obtained it at an Editors' Buzz session, so I'm counting it here). Two are signed, and meeting John Scalzi was  probably my best author interaction at BEA (thanks to name-dropping his friend Pamela Ribon and mentioning their panel at the LA Times Festival of Books in April).

These books turned up in gifts bags and at publisher events throughout the week:
Books from BEA 2012: Nonfiction from various sources Books from BEA 2012: Fiction from various sources

The gift bags also included quite a few other books that, for various reasons, I didn't bring back with me. BEA's charity partner, Housing Works, had a donation booth at the back of the Expo Hall to accept these, and I hope it did a great collection business last week!

My book purchases during this trip are not pictured or included in the BEA list. I only visited one New York City bookstore this year, where one of the two (just two!) books I bought was a Father's Day gift for my dad...but that bookstore visit was my long-overdue first one to the Strand, so it was rather momentous.

What books are you excited about this week?

The Sunday Salon

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Armchair BEA: Best Books, BEA 2012 Edition

Today is the big Giveaway Day at Armchair BEA Central! Those of us who are not hosting giveaways today (sorry!) have been asked to give up the names of some of our favorite books of 2012...books we’ve already read, and/or books being featured at Book Expo America this week that we can’t wait to read!

As it happens, three of my best reads so far this year have a BEA connection, even if it’s not to this year’s Book Expo:

cover of DOMESTIC VIOLETS by Matthew Norman, via Goodreads  cover of LET'S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED, by Jenny Lawson (via Goodreads)  cover of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green (via Goodreads)
Matthew Norman’s Domestic Violets was one of the hot titles featured at BEA 2011, so I’m counting it for this list.

John Green will probably talk about The Fault in Our Stars at the Children’s Book and Author Breakfast tomorrow, but it's sold out and I don't have a ticket, so I’m glad I saw him at the LA Times Festival of Books in April!

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, but it really did: Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess, gave the closing remarks at the BEA Bloggers Conference on Monday.

Last week, I confessed that the books themselves were not BEA’s prime attraction for me. 

cover of TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Chabon (via HarperCollins.com)
Having said that, the chance to be in the same room with my long-standing author crush Michael Chabon is only part of why I snapped up a ticket to the Thursday-morning Adult Book and Author Breakfast; I would dearly love to bring home a galley of his upcoming novel Telegraph Avenue, due out in September, if there are any to be had! That’s easily my “most-anticipated book at BEA.” 

I have a few other titles on my Books @ BEA list (and requested some galleys in advance when the opportunities came up--less shipping to do!), but they truly are few. Having said that, there’s still another day to see what ends up going home with me!

Whether or not you’re at BEA this week, what 2012 books are you most excited about?