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February 19, 2008

One more and I’ll stop for the day, I promise. I was sipping some Starbucks Italian Roast from my Thermos travel mug when I read this article in The New York Times about product placement in fiction aimed at girls aged 8 and up. I feel like I should find this trend more disturbing than I do, but it seems more like a formalization of something that’s always been around anyways.

Of course, if an author radically reframes his or her narrative – undermining a critical plot twist or sidestepping a central theme, say — to get a mention of a specific brand into it, that’s bad. And if the story itself is just a crappy vehicle to squeeze advertisers, I suspect that the audience in question is smart enough to spot that and opt out of something that doesn’t offer any entertainment value.

I guess I just assume that kids are smart enough to know when they’re being sold to, which is pretty much constantly, so I consequently assume that they can make value judgments on what the proper ratio of content to pitch is.


Getting the milk for free

February 11, 2008

Apparently, HarperCollins is of the opinion that letting consumers enjoy content for free on the web will actually help sales. According to this piece in The New York Times, the publisher will be following in comics’ footsteps:

“‘It’s like taking the shrink wrap off a book,’ said Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. ‘The best way to sell books is to have the consumer be able to read some of that content.’”

They’ve picked five very different books to launch the initiative, including fiction for adults and kids, a cookbook, an election guide, and a book about sports. The freebies will be downloadable for a month at a time.

Neil Gaiman is playing along, and a certain comics hybrid is being cited as evidence in favor of the project’s aims:

“‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid,’ a children’s novel illustrated with cartoons, was published online three years ago at Funbrain.com, an educational Web site. But the physical book has spent 42 weeks on the New York Times Children’s Chapter Books best-seller list.”


Literacy and calluses

January 22, 2008

I’m still one of those strange geezers who relegate cell phone use to emergency road service and ordering pizzas, so I’m always a little puzzled by new and exciting uses for these items. The latest I’ve seen is covered in this piece from The New York Times on the increasing popularity of novels written specifically to be read on a cell phone. These digital, on-the-fly novels are apparently making the transition to print in Japan, and they’re making lots and lots of money in the process.

“Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time cellphone novelists, touching off debates in the news media and blogosphere.

“‘Will cellphone novels kill “the author”?’ a famous literary journal, Bungaku-kai, asked on the cover of its January issue. Fans praised the novels as a new literary genre created and consumed by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books. Critics said the dominance of cellphone novels, with their poor literary quality, would hasten the decline of Japanese literature.”

I mean, I can’t even add spaces and punctuation when I try to compose a text message.


Dead trees

November 4, 2007

I spend a lot of time staring at screens, so I’m always a little nervous when we head off on a vacation with limited internet connectivity and no television. In a place as beautiful as Zion National Park, it’s hard to care, and I always get a lot of reading done.

Best of the pile of prose was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Penguin Group). It’s all sloppy and raucous on the surface, but mythic and almost perfectly constructed underneath, and it’s got incredibly memorable characters. For a novel that’s ostensibly about a fat geek who wishes he could get laid, that’s saying something. But Diaz has apparently never met a digression that he couldn’t tweak into something intelligent and thrilling, and his protagonist’s nerdish obsessions are just part of the tapestry. I haven’t had much success with geek tragedy, but this book is an absolute thrill.

Not in the same league as Diaz’s book but wonderfully readable and smart, Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (St. Martin’s Press) humanizes those irritating culture wars that make us all froth. In it, a sex education teacher pays for a moment of frankness by having an abstinence-only curriculum forced upon her by an activist congregation and a craven school board. Then she finds out that a member of the congregation is the coach of her daughter’s soccer team. Freedom, faith and sex mash together in appealingly messy ways, and the characters are uniformly well-rounded and endearing. It’s nice to see an author strike a balance between “flawed” and “intolerable,” which Perrotta manages quite neatly. There are some easy marks in the cast, and the book is much funnier for it, but there’s an overall generosity to Perrotta’s approach that’s really rewarding. If it sounds like an HBO original picture, it probably will be at some point. Fans of the novels of Stephen McCauley will feel right at home.

And because you have to read some laughably improbable crap while on vacation, I was really happy that my partner had brought a couple of books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child along, The Book of the Dead and The Wheel of Darkness. They both star that most ridiculous of Mary Sues, Special Agent Pendergast, and they’re complete hogwash, but they’re amusing all the same. As in all Preston-Child novels, vague supernatural menaces and staggering authoritarian incompetence conspire to put hundreds of indifferently characterized extras at risk, and only Special Agent Contrivance can save them. How these two authors have managed to avoid being burned in effigy by whatever professional organization exists for museum curators I don’t know, not to mention any secret society that exists for the defense of narrative plausibility. But when your plane has been delayed for two hours and your mind is already running to thoughts of homicide and widespread mayhem, it’s good to have one of their books handy.

I read some comics too, but I’ll get to them later.


Monday linkblogging, etc.

October 22, 2007

J.K. Rowling has revealed that one of the characters from her Harry Potter series of books, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, was gay. It’s nice, but I’d have been more impressed if she’d actually revealed that in the text, ideally before the character died.

On the one hand, she seldom devoted any space to the private lives of the Hogwarts faculty unless it was essential to the narrative (Snape) or factored heavily into a thematically linked subplot (Hagrid and Madame Maxim). On the other, it seems like his one relationship was pretty punitively disappointing. On another hand, I still think poor Tonks was the biggest beard in the fantasy canon, and that anyone who thinks Sirius and Lupin weren’t totally in love is kidding him- or herself.

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While not everyone agrees on the tenor of that Tigra sequence from New Avengers #35, there does seem to be general consensus that Matt Brady’s Newsarama interview with writer Brian Bendis was the kind of tounge-bath seldom seen outside of the cozy, secluded nests mother cats create to welcome their newborns. Here’s one of my favorite responses, and probably the most comprehensive.

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So I don’t seem completely grumpy, I’ll like to two reviews of books published by Dark Horse that made me happy, both the books and the reviews. First is Greg McElhatton’s look at Kazuhiro Okamoto’s far-more-interesting-than-it-sounds Translucent, and second is Ken Haley’s praise for the first two volumes of Adam Warren’s better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Empowered.

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I love this sauce. I think it would be good on just about any kind of protein, and probably many vegetables as well. (Maybe someday I’ll point you to a healthy recipe. Don’t hold your breath.)

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Speaking of cooking, wow, I gave up too quickly on Kitchen Princess (Del Rey). I thought the first volume was pretty uninspiring, but I caught up with more recent installments via complimentary copies, and it definitely picks up steam. It’s still not life-changing, but there are lots of pretty pictures of food and some reasonably moving story material.


More like “Martyr”

October 7, 2007

I was really looking forward to Hero, Perry Moore’s novel about a teen-aged, gay super-hero. After reading it, I’m a little disappointed by some of the messages I took away from it.

  • Being a gay teen-ager really sucks. Okay, I can’t really argue with that one, because it very often really does suck.
  • Pretty much everyone will judge a gay teen-ager harshly based on their abstract reaction to the kid’s sexual orientation, no matter how responsible or talented or generally decent the kid is. Again, that’s not unheard of, but there’s not much in the way of balance, and it seems like all the authority figures (the basketball coach, the senior super-heroes, the protagonist’s dad) are cut from the same anti-gay cloth.
  • While gay teen-agers can’t expect to get the same opportunities and garden-variety consideration that are automatically bestowed on their apparently straight peers, they can get those opportunities and consideration if they work ten times as hard as their apparently straight peers, though they shouldn’t expect anything in the way of “official” support or encouragement. (On the bright side, the protagonist isn’t ultimately looking for approval or acceptance through his heroic activities. He just wants to do the right thing and make the world better.)
  • The intentions of the book are obviously good, but it’s so polarizing. Almost all of the straight people are judgmental or hypocrites or both, and I found that really depressing. It’s just not the way the world is.


    No, really?

    September 30, 2007

    I have a pet peeve, and I’m wondering if it bothers anyone else. Does it ever irritate you when a publisher puts “A Novel” on the cover of… well… a novel? Like, “Oh, thank heavens, I would have mistaken it for a cookbook that had been mistakenly shelved here in the fiction section if it weren’t for that thoughtful note.” It’s kind of like when a store adds “-pe” to “shop,” just in case nobody could figure out it was supposed to be quaint.

    It’s just me, isn’t it?