Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Cut Costs And Censor The News In One Easy Step

Just one of Steinmetz's famous alums
No less than Hugh Hefner got his start in publishing as a high school student at Steinmetz, toiling away on the school paper while dreaming of soft pornographic grandeur.

Finances being what they are these days, the Chicago Public School system that operates Steinmetz is strapped for cash and must look for ways to cut costs. There has been talk of larger classes, teacher lay-offs, and various other scare tactics meant to terrify the taxpayers into begging their representatives for an increase in the tax levy. The taxpayers realize that no one can squeeze blood from a turnip, however, and they've collectively shrugged their over-burdened shoulders.

What constitutes a removable offering at the high school level? Sports? Impossible. A school's pride and spirit rests in the exploits of its teams.

Music? Maybe. It's nice and all, but a student can get into college without ever once playing an instrument.

How about getting rid of the newspaper? If not for Hugh Hefner sending a generous grant to keep the Steinmetz Star in print, the rag would have folded long ago. That windfall is gone, and what better way to kill a story about the finagling going on with school start times that fly in the face of research showing high school students are worthless in the early hours when it comes to learning.

The budding journalists were all set to produce an investigative piece on the early start times that were being sold to the public as money saving. Some higher ups didn't like the questions being posed, feeling that they were being put on the spot by smart-ass kids who should have been more deferential to their elders who know ever so much more.

School Principal Stephen Ngo took action on behalf of bureacrats everywhere. He wielded his power and axed the article. It would not run.

And then he sent out an e-mail declaring that journalism was getting the axe as well. Not only would there be no school newspaper, but students with an interest in journalism could take that interest and choke on it. They wouldn't sit in another class to learn about reporting or investigating.

Censorship does not go down well at any level, particularly at the secondary school portion of education where college interests are formed. Just when the kiddies start to spread their little wings, no one wants to see their feathers clipped so they cannot fly.

Thus, Mr. Ngo was countermanded by CPS authorities above him, who hemmed and hawed and spluttered things about misunderstandings. No indeed, there was no plan to eliminate journalism. What Mr. Ngo meant to say was that the newspaper would become an online only publication because it costs so darn much to print it. Have to save money where we can! But we're not censoring. No, indeed, what gave you that idea?

English teacher Sharon Schmidt, the paper's advisor, claims that the school has the money to print the paper. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. You wouldn't expect a teacher to have complete knowledge of budgets district-wide, let alone be aware of all the machinations going on behind the scenes to pay bills and pensions with limited funds.

But that doesn't really matter. The fact that the school principal killed an article critical of the system he serves so loyally is enough to demonstrate an attempt to censor and then silence a group of students who have also learned that a free press is critical to a free people, even when that free press is a school newspaper.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Back when Lena Dunham's HBO series was a hot commodity, an acquisitions editor at Random House thought that WRECK AND ORDER would resonate with all those young women who never missed an episode. A twenty-something female exploring her sexuality, in an endless pursuit of the perfect orgasm? The makings of a blockbuster, right?

The television programme died a slow death while WRECK AND ORDER worked its way through the publishing process. Sadly, it has arrived when readers no longer wish to inhabit the world of a complete wagon.

Elsie, the protagonist, is a narcissist who is obsessed with sex. She should be a sympathetic character, what with a backstory of familial dysfunction and a history of abusive relationships. And she's a lost lamb, funded by her father's generous checks so that she does not have to actually work and support herself like an adult. Should a reader not feel sympathy for a character trapped in perpetual childhood?

She goes off to find herself and ends up wallowing in self-pity, too busy studying her own navel to notice that she's lodged her head firmly up her arse. She treats those around her with selfish disregard, and if you manage to stick around to read through to the end of this plate of shite and onions, you'll find that her experience among the downtrodden does nothing to improve her because that's what all the other ordinary novels do and this is literary fiction.

Don't waste your time on this one. The author can write, but there's more to creating a novel than an ability to string words together into coherent sentences.

Thanks to Penguin Random House for providing the review copy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Poor Investment By A Savvy Investor

You might ask why Sheldon Adelson would want to own a newspaper. He's made a tidy sum with his casino interests, and now he's said to have gone and purchased a local Las Vegas newspaper at a time when print is dying. Not exactly looking for much of a return on investment, is he?

Free copies of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in every hotel room
Could it be a vanity purchase? Some billionaires might buy an expensive sports car, or even a sports team. They are well-heeled adults buying toys, essentially, and who considers amusements as investments? A billionaire spending $140 million? Not breaking the bank on that transaction.

So we come to the next puzzler. Why would Sheldon Adelson want to play with a newspaper. Look at what it did to Charles Foster Kane. Who wants to end up alone, dreaming of a sled and no one around you knowing what it is that you're talking about with your last breath.
Speaking of Citizen Kane---

The average pundit is going to assume that Mr. Adelson bought the journal so that he could direct its editorial slant and promote the conservative causes that he is known to support with his financial might. So concerned are local, though liberal, politicians that they are demanding the new investors reveal themselves. That way, when the newspaper criticizes them or fails to support them when it's election time, they can blame media bias.

According to the research done by the newspaper in question, it is Mr. Adelson's step-son-in-law who put the deal together, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal isn't the only paper in the mix. There are indications that the Adelson group is putting together an entire portfolio, taking a page from Rupert Murdoch whose FoxNews arm is highly influential in the American political scene.

As was pointed out by James DeHaven, Howard Stutz, and Jennifer Robison of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Mr. Adelson is also a fervent backer of Israel, as is his wife. They are both donors to Republican campaigns, offering their financial might to help get conservative politicians elected. Are they going to use the newspaper as yet another weapon in their arsenal?

The pen is mightier than the sword.

No wonder so many are worried about a shift in the influence that a dying medium can exert on the older voter who is most likely to still take the daily paper and actually read it. Enough words extolling the virtues of one candidate and a billionaire could turn a voter's head. But don't all the other newspapers do the same? Is it only an issue when it's not your side that's gaining an ally?

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Stargazer's Sister: A Book Review

Caroline Herschel was the sister of a noted astronomer, and how appropriate is the prose in THE STARGAZER'S SISTER, floating just above the page, almost lighter than air. The story of the woman behind the William Heschel is told with a delicate touch that fits the Georgian era in which the main character lived.

You'll find no end of descriptions of stars, sky, meadow, tree, etc. etc., but it feels right. A woman who did a bit of stargazing herself should be shown to be aware of what is around her, exhibiting powers of perception.

Author Carrie Brown imagines a life and creates a believable world inhabited by poverty, stress and abuse. Caroline, or Lina as she is called, has little to look forward to in her miserable life, with a face scarred by smallpox scars. If not for her brilliant brother acting as her tutor, her future would be bleak indeed.

Thanks to her brother, however, she has a chance to shine like the stars (couldn't resist, sorry) when he moves to England to make his way. In need of a housekeeper he takes in Lina, who shapes her life around William's needs, and in the end she sacrifices the best years of her life to help him become a famed scientist. Then he gets married and she's cast aside like an old rag.

The story hints at feminism in its earlier form, with an unattached female gaining a little acclaim, but getting there requires slogging through the middle of the book which drags a bit. The ending tails off, as did Caroline Herschel's life, but overall the character is presented well and the book is entertaining. If you are looking for the more obscure sort of historical figure, you will find this novel an enjoyable read.

And thanks to Penguin for providing a copy through First To Read.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Get A Gift, Give A Review

In the past, giving away free ARCs of books has helped get some attention for our books. As a very small publisher, Newcastlewest Books does not have the financial power to run big marketing campaigns, so putting a few books in the hands of readers is an affordable way to market our offerings.

Here it is, we go, read it and tell your friends how much you enjoyed it. Maybe they'll buy a paperback or an e-book, and tell their friends. That's how word of mouth buzz is generated.

With SAINTS OF THE NEW IRISH KITCHEN ready to be born, we offered the copies well in advance, using the free book giveaway function provided by Goodreads. Goodreads, in return, selected the winners from the long list of entrants and our office manager made sure that the copies were sent off to the winners.

So how does Goodreads select those lucky recipients?

Of the five readers who entered, most have never given either a rating or a review.

For a publisher, it's a waste of time, effort and money. The book was given away in the expectation that the person getting it would read it, add it to their list of books, and then give, at the least, a rating.

If the person getting the gift does not give a review, what is the point?

Goodreads is owned by Amazon, of course, and you'd have to wonder if their so-called 'algorithm' is skewed. The more ratings a book receives, the higher it climbs on Amazon's site, and when you're trying to get the attention of readers overwhelmed with choices, you want to get up there in higher echelons of the search results.

Sean Gleason's debut novel may not have been something that the entrants wanted to read. Maybe some people just want free books that they can turn around and sell to a second-hand shop. Once the book leaves the office, the recipient is free to do what they like with it, of course, but can a person not at least offer up a polite thanks for the gift?

And that has been the rant du jour. Five more copies are going out to another batch of readers, the majority of whom are in Canada or Great Britain. Maybe we'll get a review or two there. At least that's what we are hoping for as we try to get our novels in front of a few eyeballs and provide a little entertainment for those who like their prose.