Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A Nightmare Of Amazonian Scale

Available for pre-order at Barnes and Noble. Not Amazon in the US
Newcastlewest Books is preparing for the launch of our newest release, and as usual the bookselling sites online pick up our information from Bowker's catalogue.

It's all quite neat and tidy. We assign an ISBN, fill in the pertinent information, and the next thing you know it's popping up where it should. MERCY FIRST AND LAST, a brilliant piece of historical fiction, will drop on the 213th anniversary of Robert Emmet's death.

That Robert Emmet, yes, the hero of Ireland, whose adoration of Sarah Curran spelled his doom.

MERCY FIRST AND LAST is Sarah's story, and what a story it is. A fascinating family riddled with dysfunction, tragedy and sorrow, and to follow Sarah Curran through it all is the stuff that keeps a reader turning the pages.

At any rate, the page at showed the novel as available for pre-order, shipping 20 September 2016. So what better thing to do than submit the usual file that allows a potential buyer to sample the opening pages and peruse the covers? Done and done.

Then the book suddenly became unavailable, with an unknown date of availability in the United States, our largest market. Why, Amazon, why did the book abruptly lose an important and critical element? Pre-orders are key to generating buzz, especially with reviews appearing prior to the book being laid down. It's how publishing works.

Except when it's Amazon, apparently.

After several tries to get someone to help, and getting a response back that claimed I was trying to cancel a debit card (amazing, right?), someone at the Seller Support Center got back to me, all the way from India where English is not a first language.

Greetings from Amazon Seller Support,

Thank you for contacting us.

I understand your concern is regarding for PER-ORDER for ASIN:0996713123 which is available on the UK site. I have checked using our tools and found that this book is still not releases on site.

In researching ASIN: 0996713123, I see that this Books item is listed with a release date of September 20, 2016. This item is currently ineligible for listing on

Delayed shipment or pre-sales of Books, Music, Video or DVD products are not allowed on All items offered for sale in these categories must be shipped within two business days of the date the order confirmation is made available to you.

Really? Does this make the least bit of sense, considering the fact that previous Newcastlewest Books titles were available for pre-sale prior to the official sale date?

Of course it doesn't. But wait, there's more. I had the audacity to point out that the book is available for pre-order in every other country around the globe, and it would be helpful if the US of A was part of that book-selling world order. The cheek of me, to dare to make the comparison.

 I would also like to inform you that, on Amazon, sellers should not list or match against Books, Music, Video, or DVD products that Amazon designates as pre-orderable. BMVD Products offered through Amazon must be shipped within two business days of the date the order confirmation is made available to you.

So we've reached an impasse. Amazon has failed spectacularly, and their staff at the Seller Support Center can do nothing more than rattle off a set piece.

Looking to pre-order MERCY FIRST AND LAST? You can find it anywhere books are sold (like Waterstones, Amazon in CanadaAmazon in the UK and Ireland,,  available for pre-order everywhere except

Monday, April 25, 2016

Learning How To Write: The Real Life MFA

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut is considered one of America's finest authors.

So where did he earn his MFA, you might ask. Isn't that what it takes to get published these days?

The proliferation of MFA graduates getting publishing deals has expanded as the publishing houses search for ways to cut costs. Take on a manuscript from a professional writer and there's no need to bring in a staff of editors to polish the prose. That was fine for the good old days, when authors had a favorite editor to whom they gave all the credit for their success.

This is the 21st Century and there's not enough money for all that staff when the hedge fund managers are determined to recoup their investment in their purchase. Publishing is just another widget to them, meant to turn a profit. They could be noticing that sales are down, with fewer people buying books, but it's the economy, isn't it? Not enough entertainment dollars to go around? People preferring to spend on movies or video games or Netflix or whatever?

Back to Kurt Vonnegut. He studied writing at Chicago's former City News Bureau. Not exactly the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, is it.

He learned how to write by writing stories for publication in an industry that was fiercely competitive. A lot of budding writers wanted to get jobs at newspapers and it took a skilled writer to shine in a crowded field. Hunger being the best sauce, Mr. Vonnegut had to hone his craft, with his beta readers being those he sought to impress with his clever word play.

His story ideas came from real life all around him. He didn't write books about college graduates struggling to find love or meaning in New York City in the publishing industry, like so many budding writers of our modern era. He interviewed cops and coroners and bystanders and got the best education possible. Through experience and a pair of open ears he picked up on the nuance of human experience, a very important element to any novel.

Are we harming the publishing industry by leaning so heavily on MFA graduates?

Should an MFA program take its students and stick them outside of the university walls, make them work at hardscrabble jobs so that they learn about life instead of learning about the structure of a novel?

There are no Kurt Vonneguts on the shelves of new fiction these days. There are no fresh faces inspiring readers to use their limited resources on a book instead of another beer. Maybe it's because readers aren't all twenty-somethings trying to make it big in Big Publishing in the Big Apple. Books don't speak to them because the books aren't saying much of interest to the average reader.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

King Canute In Avondale

There are neighborhoods in Chicago where Hispanic gangs once roamed. These days, those same gang bangers could not hope to afford the rents on rehabbed apartments, let alone the mortgage on a million dollar restored mansion that once was cut up into cheap housing.

Gentrification is swallowing up neighborhoods, beginning with the artists looking for cheap space and soon followed by hipsters looking for artsy places to live. The next thing you know there's a Starbucks on every corner and Whole Foods is building a new store where a clutch of carnicerias and cell phones shops once stood.

Some residents of neighboring sections are taking action.

Not unlike King Canute, who once famously commanded the tide to not roll in, and showed to one and all that even he could not command forces of nature.

Diversity: Going, going, gone.....
With gentrification comes more property tax as land values rise on a tide of improvements. For all the chatter of sympathy from the aldermen, they really prefer that a place gets gentrified because the city of Chicago is desperate for funds. So what if the poor people are pushed out to the suburbs? Bring in the 20-somethings with their desire to work in the city and the income that follows. They spend their cash on food at the trendy restaurants in Logan Square or Wicker Park, unlike the poor residents who don't have enough to go around.

Housing activist Daniel La Spata wants to keep Avondale from going the way of nearby Logan Square. He wants to command the sea of change from sweeping over his territory, to keep the current residents in place and maintain low rents. Its all about a neighborhood's diversity, and those who were there first not getting the boot because they're not as rich as the barbarians at the gate.

What Mr. LaSpata cannot do is demand legislation that would prevent a property owner from selling to someone looking to rehab a place.

Not exactly possible in the United States. From the start, it was denigrated as a nation of merchants, chasing profit. It hasn't changed.

Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa talks about forcing property developers to include a few affordable units in each new building, but that does little when so much low-income housing is lost when someone buys up an old brownstone and converts it to a single family home.

Neither can he bar a landlord from fixing up his two-flat and then jacking up the rent, leaving the low-income resident to either pay more or get out. As it is, those who are trying to stay in the area are spending more and more of their funds on housing, a practice that is not sustainable. Eventually, you run out of cash and can't pay the electric bill or buy a few groceries, and then it's time to renew the lease and the rent's going up yet again. No other choice, in that case, then to go elsewhere.

That group of hipsters working in finance in the Loop can easily pay what a family cannot, and who is going to win out? There's no incentive for the landlord to keep the rent low while property taxes keep climbing and sales taxes are the highest in the country. Why should someone go broke so that a neighborhood can remain more diverse?

As long as the city remains an attraction to kids coming out of college, there will be pressure on housing. The poor will be relegated to pockets without access to the things that the young set want, like public transportation that gets them downtown.

King Canute showed his people that he had no power to hold back the sea. Avondale is no less vulnerable to the flood.

Monday, April 04, 2016

There's No Longer An App For That

Whatever you want to do on your smartphone these days, there's an app for it.

You can play games, any sort of game you like, or you can do productive things like schedule your time or sort documents or practice for the pub quiz if you're so inclined.

For a time, if you were keen on joining the Taliban, you could find an app for that as well. It was developed for the Android system, which may speak to the lesser popularity of Apple devices among the terrorists. But at any rate, you could find your Taliban content, in Pashto, right there on your Android device.

If you're looking to attract the younger set, you'd go with the latest technology, right? The Taliban may be run by a gaggle of old megalomaniacs, but they can see where the recruits are to be found. If the kids are all attached to their mobile phones, that's where you go to entice them to do something besides sit around wasting the day when they could be murdering innocent women and children.

Of course, having an app out there in the Google Play store means anyone can find it, not just would-be jihadists. The United States, ever vigilant against terrorist tech, uncovered the app and kindly asked Google to remove the app. It's bad enough that the thugs are tweeting and facebooking at will, getting their message out. The use of an app to play videos glorifying death and the Taliban is just not acceptable.

For now, there's no app for the budding Talibanista. He's just got to find his desired content elsewhere, which isn't all that difficult to do. In time, and probably not too far into the future, the Taliban will create yet another app and draw in a few more disgruntled youth before that, too, gets pulled. It's a never ending game, one where you don't have to buy more playing time when you're hooked.

Because once you're in, there's no getting out. Like any other criminal gang.

Friday, April 01, 2016

An Gorta Mor On The Rebound

Once upon a time, the Irish were starving. Literally starving to death.

Hundreds of thousands died in those dreadful days, the worst year forever labelled as Black '47. So where are the Irish today, 169 years on from the most devastating period in its history?

On track to become the most obese folk in the world, that's where.

Well done, Ireland! Top of the charts, on the rebound from the depths of hunger.

There's competition for the position, however. The UK is trending up in weight class, along with a few other countries who took in thousands of Irish fleeing An Gorta Mor. Could there be a trend, something for the scientists to consider? New Zealand, Australia, the United States; waistlines are expanding and buttons are busting as more and more become obese in these prosperous nations.

Sure food is readily available in these places, and in general the population has the financial means to acquire more nutrients than a body needs. Add to that the ability to buy transportation that lets a person ride in lazy comfort instead of walking, burning up calories, and it's more going in than expended.

But the people in France don't show this marked uptick in Body Mass Index. They're all thin as saplings. And the scientists can't quite understand why this is happening.

Blame the spuds.

The Irish survived on potatoes while farming fertile land, the fruits of their labors being paid to the landlord for excessively high rent. The spuds grew themselves so that the tenant farmers could focus their attention on the crops that kept a roof overhead. At the height of the famine, the nation exported a tremendous amount of edibles and all the poor Catholics could do was watch it sail away while they dined on potatoes and buttermilk if they were lucky.

They are still consuming spuds to this day, mashed and fried and mixed with cabbage on occasion. Maybe the French did indeed invent the chip but they don't eat much of it. They don't have a cuisine based on boiling things to a grey pulp, either.

Ireland can't escape the obesity epidemic unless its culinary offerings become more French, and how is such a drastic change to take place? You have your comfort food that you turn to, and it's something your mother or grandmother made, something she found comfort in as a child, and so it goes. When you find it soothing to down a portion of curry chips, washed down with a pint or two of Guinness, how are you ever going to find equal relief from life's stress in a salad?

The obesity epidemic is being driven by the descendants of those who once were starving. It's the history that's creating a problem, and you can't change history.

You can't really change people's eating habits, either. Not when they've been raised with that spectre of skeletal, raggedy children who would have killed for so much as a bite of that boiled bacon with all its greasy fat.

Eating like a bird, that's fine for the French. They have all that fashion in their blood, after all. Ireland and its diaspora have their spuds. It's no contest.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

High Dive: A Book Review

When first we meet Dan, he is undergoing an initiation into the Irish Republican Army. Interesting enough start to a novel, and one that sets up a series of character studies that form the skeleton of a novel. As a short story, the first chapter of HIGH DIVE works so well that you start thinking maybe you should read more short stories after all.

That first chapter is more prologue, perhaps, than essential opening to what is a story about the IRA attempting to bomb a British hotel at the height of The Troubles. Author Jonathan Lee takes his readers into the heads of a few ordinary people whose lives will be changed by the event, ordinary people who are far from political operatives. The collateral damage, as it were, in an act of war.

Moose Finch hopes to become the manager of the hotel where Margaret Thatcher will be attending a conference, the same conference that the IRA sees as a golden opportunity to destroy their nemesis and bring in a new government that would do something about the oppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland. His daughter Freya, finished with secondary school but at loose ends, is working at the hotel for the summer.

Along with Dan, the novel revolves around these three characters who live in quiet desperation, seeking meaning in an uncaring world. The prose is so lyrical that you might not be aware of what you are reading, floating along on a breeze of words. There is not a great deal of action in this book, but the tension hangs over your head as you move along towards the fateful evening when the planted bomb is set to go off.

Even if you don't know the tangled history of the IRA and Margaret Thatcher, you likely know she was not killed in a bombing but you don't read on to confirm that fact. You turn the pages because you care about the characters, fully formed individuals that are well-crafted by Mr. Lee. Once Dan has planted his explosives you know something will happen to Dan or Freya or Moose, three ordinary types who are looking for love and wondering where they are headed. You want to go along on life's journey with them to see who comes out the other end a wiser person.

At times the writing gets a little wordy and you may find yourself skimming over passages to get on to the more interesting bits. In general, the novel feels a bit like a collection of short stories linked together, rather than a single story, and dwells too long sometimes on a character's inner thoughts that drag on occasion. Other than that, it is an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

At The Edge Of The Orchard: A Book Review

James Goodenough is a hardscrabble pioneer who loves his apple trees. Those trees he lovingly tends are his last connection to the family farm back east while he tries to carve out a homestead in 1840's Ohio. His wife Sadie is a hardscrabble farmer's wife who also happens to be an alcoholic, shiftless and lazy, and fiercely jealous of those apple trees.

Tracy Chevalier paints a clear picture of a family on the brink, battling against nature and each other. The parental dysfunction drips down to the four Goodenough children as well, a pack of near-animals who are made to bear the brunt of the work while their mother sleeps it off.

Just when you get to feel some sympathy for this sad clan, and manage to plow through the author's decision to present Sadie's POV through a first person narrative that lacks punctuation because she's illiterate, you see, uneducated and that's showing not telling, right? So you're settled in to their story, waiting like the Goodenoughs for Johnny Appleseed to pay them another visit, when the narrative is taken over by their oldest son James.

The story is not told in a linear fashion, jumping ahead in time as James makes his way to California with his narrative compressing a few years into a series of letters that are never answered. You'll turn the pages to find out why he's on the move, and what he's running from after he puts Ohio behind him.

Like any Californian, he re-invents himself in a career as a tree man, collecting specimens for the wealthy elites of England who are avid collectors of exotic plant life. Lingering in the back of his tale, however, is his deep dark secret, one that will not be explained until his sister suddenly appears in California, long after James game up on ever hearing again from his family.

There is tragedy but then there is triumph, and an uplifiting ending that ties up all the loose strings.

All in all, the novel is a pleasant piece of fiction with a cohesive story.

If only the author had seen fit to show Sadie Goodenough's lack of book learning through a means easier for the literate to read. There's something about stumbling through a character's thoughts when you know that shed is a storage building but for Sadie it's her version of she'd. The technique proved to be a distraction that spoiled the otherwise smoothly flowing prose.

Fans of Tracy Chevalier will not be disappointed with this latest release of historical fiction.