Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: The Ghost Bride

THE GHOST BRIDE by Yangzshe Choo was represented by Jenny Bent.
The book club has been coming up with some odd selections this year, but I can't tell if it's because that's all that is available at the local indie bookseller or if some of our members have different tastes in books.

At any rate, THE GHOST BRIDE is a work of some genre I don't normally read. Is it magical realism? Is it a historical fiction fantasy? What does one call a fairy tale?

Li Lan is the daughter of a once prosperous merchant, and her mother is dead. Aren't most of the Disney princesses cursed with dead mothers? The setting is Malaysia during British rule, a time when the old ways were still alive. The reader has a chance to discover an interesting culture, but if you aren't in the mood for frequent explanations you will grow weary of the lessons. Which is why I took to skimming, in search of the meat of the tale.

This being long ago times, Li Lan is most interested in securing a marriage contract but her opium-addicted father isn't up to the task. The best he can do is field a request that she marry a dead man and be a ghost bride. Again, the author is delving into old customs and the concept is well explained and rather fascinating.

After that, the story devolves into dreams and ghosts and a fanciful tale of the afterlife, as if Orpheus had become a Chinese girl but instead of searching for a lost love she is searching for the answers to a murder mystery.

So in a way the book is a whodunit, but told from the perspective of the dead.

Li Lan must undertake a perilous journey outside of her body and cross over to the other side, so to speak, where she must avoid capture by strange creatures while spying on some dead characters who are plotting a revolt in Hell. There's the dire consequences right there. If she fails, all Hell breaks loose on earth. And then there is her body still at home, and she must return before she reaches the point of no return, in which case she will be really dead and not just in between states.

There is a late developing romantic angle that ties up the loose ends but still falls a little flat, even though it keeps with the element of fantasy.

I can't say I really enjoyed the novel but that has more to do with my personal preferences. To me, the story was silly, like an updated retelling of children's stories that don't translate well into adult fiction. There are those who like to escape into fantasies, however, and they may find this novel to be entertaining.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

No Birds Were Harmed In The Making Of This Film

Location scouts searched the globe to find a place that was unusual and not well known to the general public. The next 'Star Wars' film had to be shot against the right backdrop, but where on earth was that other-worldly place to be found in this world?

Cameras and crew arrived at Skellig Michael, a piece of Irish rock that was so isolated the monks went there to escape the distractions of life. Out there in the Atlantic Ocean, all windswept and perfect for quiet contemplation and prayer.

After the monks left, the United Nations went in and declared the place a World Heritage site. It's that special and that important, to be preserved for all and not just the Irish. Sure there's plenty of other sites to go around, but the UN is after protecting each and every one just the same.

Which is why Unesco is pestering the Irish government about this 'Star Wars' business. It's a Unesco heritage site and no one asked the UN if it was acceptable to allow an entire movie crew, with all their equipment, to set up camp and use the island for commercial purposes.

Not that they had to. But, it would have been nice. Just in case, you know. In case the Irish are incapable of managing the place on their own.

Tourists are allowed to take boats to the island and tour the remains of the monastery, but we're talking about hundreds of tramping feet in regard to the film. Feet and generators to power the lights and the accomodations necessary to feed and house all those people who walk about on said feet. And who's minding the grips and best boys as they set up lights? What if stones get knocked down in the process? Who will guarantee that nothing is harmed, not only the structures but the flora and fauna?

 Birdwatch Ireland is concerned that birds might be harmed in the making of the picture. To have such a crowd milling about, and the birds accustomed to privacy, what if the birds are startled and leave their nesting sites? Might they then fly in circles until they drop into the ocean? This being the breeding season for several birds that call Skellig Michael home, some birders fear that the birds will not breed because their nesting area is overrun with actors in costume. The presence of Jar Jar Binks would annoy many a bird into skipping the egg laying if only to avoid the annoying character.

Filming is scheduled to wrap up soon, and after the work is done, the government body responsible for minding Skellig Michael will make a tour and complete a thorough assessment. The Irish Film Board has already assured Unesco that things were arranged so that no birds or other objects were harmed in the making of the film, so stop worrying over nothing. The specific locations used by the film crew were selected so as not to disturb the birds or damage the structures.

The government will prepare a report for Unesco and you just know that the report will present a glowing image of an undisturbed area, with happy birds flying to and fro, the females sitting happily on eggs in untouched nests.

Might we expect Unesco to alter their requirements for the use of these sites? They leave it up to the locals to determine if the area will be suitably protected and don't ask for advance notice, but now they're making noise about not being informed even though Ireland wasn't required to so inform.

There just aren't enough layers of bureaucracy, apparently.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Provoked To Murder, or, It's Always The Woman's Fault

Shahzad Hussain thought that his estranged wife was having an affair so he attacked her and the man he thought was her lover.

So it's her fault, right?

That's how Mr. Hussain's legal counsel wanted the jury to see the issue when Mr. Hussain was tried for murder and attempted murder. The judge, however, did not paint the proper picture for the jury and now the whole thing has to be re-adjudicated.
The cousin made him do it

During the initial trial, Mr. Hussain claimed that he suspected his wife was cheating on him. The scene is quite muddy, what with Mr. Hussain and his then wife living with the other man in the same apartment. If he really did think the missus was having an affair with the flatmate, why not give the flatmate the boot or go find another place to live?

The jury may have wondered the same, but that isn't the question that plagues Mr. Hussain.

The party of the third part was his wife's cousin, and somehow related to himself as well. You might think that a meeting with the aunts and uncles would be the proper venue to hash out these sorts of differences, what with the marriage having been arranged by the family. The relatives were still living back in Pakistan and how do you discuss scandalous behavior over the phone where who knows who else is listening and then the neighbors get wind of it and before you know it the whole village is gossiping about you behind your back. The shame. The infidelity just couldn't be treated with such a lack of privacy.

Given that level of distrust, it is no surprise that the marriage eventually failed and the aggrieved wife left in 2010. Mr. Hussain clearly did not leave the woman alone after she demonstrated quite clearly that she was finished with her spouse and his excessive jealousy that bordered on paranoia. Again, the jury might have felt that he had no business stabbing her and the cousin nearly a year later, but Mr. Hussain is riding the provocation horse because the law does allow for action taken as the result of being provoked. In which case it's manslaughter, not capital murder, and the sentence is less.

The Court of Criminal Appeal has determined that the jury did not receive proper instruction on the nuance of provocation because the trial judge failed to adequately explain things.

Mr. Hussain has been granted a new trial, in which he will again attempt to demonstrate that it was he was provoked by his ex-wife's behavior and that was why he tried to kill her and successfully murder her cousin because he thought she was having an affair. It was her own fault, and he believes he can make a jury believe that.

It's a tough sell, because the jury will still be considering the rest of the facts surrounding the trial. Little details, like Mr. Hussain disposing of the knife in a bin after the attack. And then not calling the emergency services when he saw that the two victims were seriously injured. And then getting rid of his phone and sim card. When the gardai finally caught up to him, he claimed that he didn't know how the woman got hurt and she must have fallen on the knife.

Not exactly the sort of thing a jury wants to hear from a man proclaiming his innocence becsause he was provoked.

And the provocation? That was the cousin, telling Mr. Hussain that they were in Ireland and not Pakistan and people could do what they liked.

Mr. Hussain may want to insist on a jury comprised entirely of men because women are absolutely not his peers, but he will then discover that he is, indeed, not in Pakistan but in Ireland.

Then again, he's in the nation that locked up women for the crime of being attractive to men. That provocation excuse just might find an accepting ear.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Running Out Of Children

How many shootings this weekend in Chicago? The newspapers are keeping a running tab. That's how bad things have gotten in certain parts of Chicago.

Children are being shot and sooner or later there won't be any children left to shoot. Then what will the gangbangers do?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a solution to the problem.

He will bring in more children. Maybe as many as 1,000 illegal immigrants who have been showing up at the southern border with an understanding that they will be allowed to stay.

Chicago, Tegucigalpa, it's all the same
Those who favor the importation of children from Central America like to point out that the unfortunates are fleeing drug gangs and violence. Clearly these kids have plenty of experience, then, and would fit right in to the environment in Englewood and Woodlawn. When they hear the guns going off in Austin, they'll know just what to do.
"While we have our own challenges at home, we cannot turn our backs on children that are fleeing dangerous conditions," the mayor said."

It's like on-the-job training for these future victims of gun violence. The children from Honduras will be more than comfortable in an atmosphere that duplicates the one they know from home. Random gunfire, ricochets, the chance that they could be shot while sitting in a friend's living room....the only difference could be in the language.

Rather than house all 1,000 bodies in a single location, the mayor plans to spread them out in existing residential sites. Again, there is an overabundance of abandoned residential sites in Englewood, Austin, or just about any other drug-infested neighborhood in Chicago. It's just a matter of pulling the boards off the windows, replacing the fixtures that were torn out and sold for scrap long ago, and there you have it. Authorities seeking such parcels are looking for places where the kids can be housed without attracting a great deal of attention (read protestors whose tax money is going to pay for the housing, food, clothing, education, medical care, etc.), and no one goes to the shooting galleries on Chicago's south and west sides unless they have no choice. No protestors would show up there.

1,000 fresh bodies to replace the over 1,000 young people who have been shot this year.

That's one way to re-populate Chicago.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The House Of Cards Wobbles

Why is Amazon so absolutely determined to wring further concessions out of Hachette Book Group?

The answer has arrived, as investors knew it would, as soon as Amazon released its quarterly reports. The figures tell the whole story, and for those who grumbled long ago about the irrational exuberance that drove up the behemoth's stock price, they are having their day.

Jeff Bezos has earned enough out of his brainchild to buy up the Washington Post, but overall the company is losing money. You could go into business for yourself and sell goods at a low cost, but if that low cost doesn't cover expenses, you aren't turning a profit. Not that you want to turn much of a profit anyway, because that is what gets taxed and if you are lucky enough to have a clever accountant you'll draw a nice salary for yourself but never pay any sort of share to the government.

At any rate, Amazon has posted a net loss in the second quarter, despite an increase in sales. Investors were expecting a loss, given the costs to expand offices and distribution centers that are actually investments in future growth. The loss, however, was much more than anticipated.

There is a limit to how low you can price goods. A time will come when investors won't want to take a chance on you because you aren't turning things around as you should. People who invest in your company, the stockholders, start to thinking that they might lose their investment if you run the company into the ground and go into receivership or if the debt has to be restructured or if the company itself has to be broken up into bits and sold off to appease the creditors.

If you sell low, you have to buy low, or the system collapses.

There are economies of scale, of course, and Mr. Bezos has structured Amazon to take advantage. Hence, the notion of an "everything" store where the consumer enters and leaves with everything. Maybe you only came for the deep discount on the e-book, but there are so many other items there and you won't have to get out of your pajamas to make the purchase and that free shipping, well, it's a bargain. For Amazon, there are plenty of goods to be sold at a higher profit margin and that higher profit margin can make up the difference on the loss leaders. Because Amazon buys in such large quantities, they can pocket a portion of the discount they receive from the supplier and pass along a much smaller discount to the consumer.

Amazon needs to pay less for books so it can maintain its level of discounting to the end consumer while increasing its profits on every book sold. If it does not, that loss per share figure is going to stay stubbornly high, and investors are not enamored of corporations in which the loss per share does not decline over time.

The investors start questioning corporate decisions, like adding a line of smartphones to compete with Apple when Apple has such an enormous head start. And when investors ask too many questions at annual meetings, the board of directors gets nervous because their jobs depend on the votes of the stockholders and it's just as easy to tick 'no' on the ballot as it is to vote 'yes' on the retention question.

Besides the unexpectedly high quarterly loss is the advice for the third quarter. The operating loss is predicted to be far, far higher than it was for the same quarter last year.

A boycott of Amazon, if it takes hold, could very well tumble the house of cards that is already wobbling. Yet to give in to Hachette's demands would lead to a decline in discounts granted by the other publishers, and then the cost of doing business would go up instead of down.

Where will Jeff Bezos find the glue to hold his cards together?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Please Shut Up

Jeff Bezos as a Hindu deity.
Wouldn't it be grand to go back to the day when Amazon was just trying to become the world's largest bookstore instead of these modern times when it has morphed into an unwieldy, oversized monstrosity? Before it turned into Godzilla...or perhaps Lord Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.

Companies must grow to survive. Not unlike rats that must continuously gnaw lest their teeth grow to fatal lengths.

So Amazon grew itself, bigger and bigger, but as it grew it also developed greater power over the book industry. The bookstore that Jeff Bezos started has grown to such an extent that it is able to dictate terms to its suppliers, who know that Amazon is their primary market and to lose that market would be to seriously damage the bottom line.

The conflict between Amazon and Hachette Book Group is part of that growth strategy, in which Amazon can squeeze a little more profit out of its dealings with publishers. The publishers are pushing back, however, and the authors published by those publishers are very vocal about their personal displeasure with Amazon's tactics.

To which Amazon says, Authors, please shut up.

Those unhappy authors have formed a group called Authors United to provide a unified front intended to protect the authors whose books are not being pre-sold or quickly shipped by Amazon in Amazon's bid to bring Hachette Book Group, and then all the rest, to heel.

To make those united authors nervous about their future sales, there are some solid statistics to show them how very powerful Amazon really is. The numbers are something to think over when considering the influence that best seller lists have on book buyers and how many copies an author might sell.

Amazon introduced a book-borrowing service called Kindle Unlimited which allows subscribers (paying Amazon for the privilege) to download an unlimited number of books to their Kindles. The author gets paid after 10% of the book gets read, but they don't get their $9.99 or $2.99 list price. They get some portion of a pot of money that Amazon controls. The pot is as big or small as Amazon makes it, and all the authors who participate in the program get a share. Which, again, is as much as Amazon wishes to give.

Not a great deal for authors, but what of the best seller list that drives more eyeballs to your book? It is clear that Amazon is merrily manipulating the figures so that the books available via the Kindle Unlimited scheme are suddenly shooting to the top of the league tables. Not only are those who sell their souls to Amazon made to look good, but those who do not are getting left behind. In a way, Amazon is promoting those who stand to benefit the corporation the most, while those titles from publishers large and small who do not participate in Kindle Unlimited will be left behind.

Still the authors are barking about Amazon's tactics that smell just a little like censorship and book banning. Not cowed by the Kindle Unlimited maneuver, the authors have not gone quietly and now Amazon has taken yet another stab at quieting the masses.

Douglas Preston, who started the Authors United project, has reported recent contact with one of Amazon's executives.

What if, the suit from the corner office posits, what if Amazon went back to stocking Hachette books just like before, and Amazon would go back to paying the e-book royalties like before? But, and it's a big but, the profits that Amazon would normally turn over to Hachette as e-book royalties would not go to Hachette. No, all that money would go to a literacy charity. Grand, so? Charity? Literacy? Isn't it a beautiful thing altogether?

That way, the authors get theirs and Hachette gets nothing, and it won't survive long without money coming in to pay the editors and the assistants and the publicists and the people who clean the offices. Then they'll have to do what Amazon wants them to do, and isn't that all to everyone's benefit.

Everyone being only Amazon, however, and the authors aren't quite so stupid that they don't see that.

Please shut up, authors, Amazon says, and we'll turn these stones into bread for you.

And the authors response? Begone, Amazon. For it is written, you shall worship your publisher who took a chance on you and got your book out there to be read, and the publisher only shall you serve."

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Choose An Ending

Love many ways to begin. So many ways to end. Which ending would you choose for this one?

A rugby player heads out to a dance after a match. He's in a large group with his fellow players, battered and bruised, talking over a play or bemoaning a lost opportunity to score, when he sees a pretty girl without a partner. The dance hall is crowded on this lovely night in Dublin, yet this one girl stands out from all the rest.

He's feeling bold, our lad, and he dares to approach. He finds a few words to speak, something relatively coherent. Will she turn away? Will she mock him? Is he too muscular and large, too British?

None of it. She returns his opening remarks with words of her own, and before long they are having a real conversation. He learns her name. They dance, but not too close, this being Dublin in the 1950s when too much of that sort of thing could get a girl incarcerated in a Magdalene laundry for immoral conduct.

He must return to his home in London, but they exchange addresses and they write to each other. After a couple of years of that, he invites her to visit him in his home town, and she accepts. She buys a pair of tickets to the theatre, a treat to thank him for the invitation, and he plans to take her to dinner at some posh restaurant. He's working now, with the Metropolitan Police, and that's something a man can boast of when he's trying to win a girl's heart. A steady job, one that comes with a pension for the golden years, and he can afford some small luxuries for the woman he's courting.

Police business calls him away and there is no theatre date, no meal, no evening out on the town. That was the end of it, as abrupt as that. She never spoke to him again. Maybe he felt that she should have been more understanding, given his profession. Work comes first when a man has a position of authority and there is a heater case to be solved. What was she thinking, he wondered. Where did it go so wrong?

Michael Freer lost the love of his life and now, fifty years on, he is trying to find her.

He is searching Ireland for Bridie Fortune, with a hope of rekindling the old flame. He's a widower now, and maybe she's alone as well.

How does this story end? Will they be reunited, or will we see her chatting with her friends after Mass on a Sunday, rolling her eyes as she decries the cheek of the man, to think she'd ever want to see him again after the way he treated her, and she spent all that money for the ferry across and the tickets and then to go home with nothing? The humiliation, the shame, and now after fifty years he thinks it can all be forgotten? Not likely.

Or will this become a romance, with the couple reuniting at the same dance hall where they first met, but now the dance hall is a bingo parlor filled with geriatrics like themselves.

Maybe the story will become a tearjerker as Mr. Freet discovers that his lost love died years and years ago, a spinster perhaps. Or she's a nun, dedicating her life to God when she thought she was soundly rejected by man.

You write the story. You have the prompt. Take it where you want it to go.

Reality won't be anywhere near as entertaining as what you can concoct in your imagination.