Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott

Synopsis of the First 25 Pages

It's 1930 and Marion Seeley is in Phoenix, Arizona, left there by her husband, Dr. Seeley, who took a job with a mining company in Mexico. Dr. Seeley lost his license to practice medicine in the U.S. because of his addiction to morphine and hopes to kick the habit at his isolated posting. Before he left he set Marion up in a boarding house and found her a job as a filing clerk and stenographer in a tuberculosis clinic.

Marion is still an innocent though fraying at the edges as she watches her husband's descent. She was still living at home at nineteen when she married and had never set foot in a hotel, eaten in a restaurant, or seen a motion picture.

At the clinic, nurse Louise Mercer befriends her and begin educating her in the seamier side of the "nice" doctors. Soon she is a regular at the house Louise shares with her roommate Ginny. Ginny, who previously had been on stage in "bloomers and pointy shoes," has tuberculosis and Louise has taken responsibility for her care. Louise and Ginny are fast women, worldly and pragmatic about what it takes to get by.

On New Year's Eve, Louise and Ginny host a party where Marion meets Gentleman Joe Lanigan, the life of every party, every one's friend, and a ladies man. Gentleman Joe takes a fancy to Marion and her life makes an abrupt turn.

I enjoy all of Megan Abbott's books. Queenpin, an Edgar winner, with its Jim Thompson atmosphere, was one of my favorite books in 2008. Norman over at Crime Scraps reviewed Abbott's Die a Little and wrote something that is true of all of Megan's novels: "This novel made me think of the television series Mad Men in its meticulous recreation of a period in the quite recent past." Here Megan puts us eighty years in the past and uses language and observations to make the world real. She does this in a natural and unforced way.

Megan's use of language is lyrical and evocative. Here she describes Marion meeting the director of the clinic
..taking her small hand between his palms deep as serving dishes, as softly worn as the leather pew Bibles passed through three generations' hands in the First Methodist Church of Grand Rapids...

And when she meets Gentleman Joe you can sense what is in her future
A motion picture actor, that's what he looked like, with that burgundy felt hat and his broad-shouldered topcoat and shoes shining lick chrrch floors on Easter. a smile like a swinging gate and smelling strong of sweet tobacco and slivered almonds and wind and travel and far-off places.

The pacing and development of the story is appropriate to the period and the characters as we watch Marion go from an innocent young woman to one who finds an inner core of strength that she would never have thought possible.

Bury me Deep was inspired by, and shares several elements with, the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, known as the "Trunk Murderess." Abbott provides an author's note at the end of the book where she describes that case.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Questions about the Kindle

Rob Kitchin, a colleague from the Crime and Mystery Fiction room on friendfeed, asked the following about the Kindle:
Mack - three sets of questions. 1) does it allow you to back it up? What happens if you lose the kindle? Have you lost your entire library and all your notes? 2) is Kindle a logject? That is it records what you read, what you annotated, etc and then communicates that information back to Amazon? Some fairly useful info could be gathered that would supplement the tracking of buying/browsing. 3) can you, like a paper book, pass the book on to anyone else?

1) Amazon does have an automatic backup feature for the Kindle. Here is what the manual says:
Automatic Backup will backup your last location read, all of your notes, and bookmarks you make to on any of your purchased content. If you delete an item from your Kindle or your Kindle is lost, stolen, or damaged, you can automatically restore your annotations, bookmarks, and the last location you read by downloading the item from the Manage Your Kindle page on

You still have to have wireless turned on and choose "Sync & Check for Items" in order to perform the backup so I guess you can say that it is semi-automatic.

Also, when you plug the Kindle into a PCs USB port it becomes another mass storage device. It has a Documents folder containing the books and My Clippings file. Since you can download Kindle books to your PC then transfer them to the Kindle, there is no reason why you can't back them up to a PC. A responder on the Kindle discussion list told me they do this and I will as well.

Here is a screenshot of the documents folder as it appears on a PC.

The My Clippings file is a text document which means that you can open it in Word, Notepad, Wordpad, OpenOffice, copy and past bits of it to another file, etc. A friend sent me a newspaper article by highlighting it then copying it from My clippings to an email message.

This is an example of an annotation from My clippings.

2) Amazon certainly know what one is reading. I get Kindle reading suggestions based on my purchasing/browsing habits and the "people who bought this also purchased this." I started getting them before I received my Kindle. Now, does Amazon do anything with the annotations when they are stored on Amazon? I haven't seen anything that indicates that they make use of information in the annotations.

3) No, you can't pass a Kindle book on to someone else. DRM rears its ugly head.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Kindle -- First Report

My Kindle DX arrived last Wednesday. The photo shows it with a standard size hardback. The Steinbeck image is one of several that display when the Kindle is turned off. I picked the DX version because I wanted a larger display and a larger keypad for the sake of my arthritic fingers.

After this first section, I list the books I've downloaded so far then give a few general impressions.

I'm assisting a professor with Freshman Seminar this semester. The focus of the course is Sherlock Holmes and as soon as I received the Kindle I downloaded the The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

Saturday I sat down in the glider rocker with a cup of tea and the Kindle positioned on the story, A Case of Identity. Here's how the Kindle-specific bits of the session went.

Holmes spends a paragraph telling Watson that truth is stranger than fiction. I'll add a note to remind me if Holmes makes a similar observation in other stories. A little superscript number appears. Cool. Later on the page Holmes says "Depend on it, there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace." That's a nifty phrase, I'll highlight it.

Holmes offers Watson snuff from a box that was a gift from the King of Bohemia so we know this story occurs after A Scandal in Bohemia. I make a note of that. Chronology of the Holmes stories is interesting if frustrating and ultimately futile.

Watson comments on a ring Holmes is wearing. It's a gift for services from the reigning family of Holland but Holmes can't tell Watson the story. Is there a later story that covers those events? I'll search the book for references to Holland. Holland is mentioned seven times in the canon but no story to explain the ring. Wasn't there a story in Shadows over Baker Street where Holmes and H.G. Wells go to Holland? Turn on wireless, go to the Kindle store, hurrah there is a Kindle version of Shadows over Baker Street, download it. There it is, "A Case of Royal Blood" by Steven-Elliot Altman. I'll add a note since I can use it when I discuss pastiches.

Reflecting on the case, Holmes takes an "old and oily clay pipe" from the rack. Popular image of Holmes has him smoking a calabash pipe with meerschaum bowl - search the book, neither calabash nor meerschaum are mentioned, what is meerschaum anyway, turn on wireless and go to Wikipedia, OK meerschaum is hydrous magnesium silicate mostly used to make pipes. Search for pipe in the canon, 109 references, scan results to see what type of pipe Holmes smokes - brier-root (3), black clay pipe (7), cherry-wood (1), plus lots of generic pipe references but nothing that could be described as a calabash pipe. It looks like we owe the calabash pipe, like the deerstalker hat, to the movies.

While reading this story I added notes, highlighted passages, searched the text several times, went on the Internet and purchased a book, and looked up a reference on Wikipedia. It beat manipulating pen and paper and sticking post-it notes on pages, going to the computer to look up something, and going to book shelf to find another book that has something related.

If you take notes while reading and the book is available, the Kindle makes the process much easier.

The Kindle is also fine if all you are doing is reading for pleasure.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Collection of all his adventures; Nine volumes in one Book) $3.60. The Amazon blurb says that this volume is authorized by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate. There are cheaper editions but one reviewer pointed out that "the quotation marks are real typesetter's quotes, the dashes are proper em dashes" indicating that it was prepared with care and doesn't look like it was done on a typewriter.

The Penguin Book of Gaselight Crime: con artists, burglars, rogues, and scoundrels from the time of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Michael Sims. $9.99. I wanted this book to supplement my interest in Holmes. It has an excellent introduction and the first story (read in a restaurant at lunch) is most entertaining.

Shadows over Baker Street, edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan. $9.99. Short stories that put Holmes and Watson into the world of H.P. Lovecraft. This is another book I wanted to download to add to my Holmes collection. I will be teaching a class session on parody and pastiche and this is an interesting example of crossing genres.

Two-Way Split, by Allan Guthrie. $1.25. I've wanted to read something by this author for a while but, being a Scottish writer, his books don't show up in the book stores around here. Author/blogger Declan Burke suggested I start with this one. I felt bad that it only cost $1.25 but I'll have other opportunities to spend money on Allan.

Downloading a book is dead easy. Too easy. Must control myself from making impulse purchases. You can shop Amazon from the Kindle or have it sent to your Kindle from Amazon.

The resolution of the text isn't close to that of the printed page but is still quite good. The background is more grey than white but I've had no problems reading.

The screen isn't backlit so you need adequate ambient light. I also purchased an LED book light for that purpose.

I am able to use the tip of my finger on the keypad unlike my Blackberry where I have to use the edge of a fingernail. Fairly easy to make short notes.

The control buttons for previous page, next page, home, menu, and cursor movement/selection are on the right edge. I don't find that they get in the way when reading. I found that I knew where the buttons were and didn't have to take my eyes off the screen to highlight or start adding a note.

There is a lag moving the cursor around, changing pages, bringing up menus, pressing the selection button, etc. Annoying but not overly so.

I've taken the Kindle with me to lunch and to a bar while waiting for carry-out and found it more convenient than a book. The Kindle lays flat and you can tap the screen advancement buttons easily even with a sandwich in hand.

Unless I am downloading a book or going to Wikipedia, I keep the wireless turned off to conserve the battery.

I'll report more on my Kindle experiences as I add to my library.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith - My First ARC

First Impressions

Thriller author Roger Smith asked publisher Henry Holt to send me an ARC of Wake Up Dead, his next thriller. Mixed Blood, his first, is one of my favorite reads and I couldn't wait to finish Wake Up Dead before posting about it. As my British friends might say, I'm chuffed as little mint balls at getting my hands on an advanced copy.

As with Mixed Blood, Wake Up Dead is set in Cape Town, South Africa. The action moves between the white wealthy part of the city overlooking the ocean, the poverty ridden and gang controlled townships of Cape Flats, and Pollsmor Prison. I'll go more into the story when I write a review of the ARC but for now I'll say that it involves an American ex-model, her gunrunner husband, a mixed race ex-cop turned mercenary named Billy Afrika, an ambitious detective, and some really nasty gangbangers including one of the best psychopaths I've encountered in a thriller.

Roger's thrillers appeal to me on two levels. First, he writes a cracking good story. His characters are vividly developed, scarily so in several cases. The characters are not stereotypes and the author has given them personalities and backgrounds that enhance the action. There is extreme violence in the action but the story couldn't do without it given the setting and circumstances. The plotting and pacing make for a book hard to put down once you start reading.

The second aspect of Roger's books that grabs me is the setting, South Africa less that two decades after the end of apartheid. If you read past the action you find some hard truths in his writing. His books are fiction but when he writes about the sun and wind blasted remnant of apartheid, the dumping ground called Cape Flats or the conditions in Pollsmore Prison or the gangs, he isn't exaggerating. Those places, conditions, and people exist as he describes them. He shows us a part of South Africa that isn't flattering but you can learn something.
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