Speaking up for Oxfam and for those who seek to do good

I don't like to post negative opinions here, but I have got pretty cross at Susan Hill's latest broadside, against Oxfam bookshops, in her Spectator blog. Some of the comments to her post are, in my view, quite ugly. (There are some more enlightened points of view at the Bookseller's website, including some comments by me.)

Susan Hill does not like Oxfam bookshops because she says they are putting good independent and antiquarian booksellers out of business. She likens them to Ottakar's, a bookshop chain which, according to her, checked out small towns for the presence of a thriving independent bookshop, and then opened up nearby, putting said bookshop out of business. She does not bother to reconcile this accusation with the fact that Ottakar's itself went out of business.

Further, she does not like Oxfam bookshops because she says that they are unfairly competing with local charity shops, such as hospice shops. This is certainly not the case where I live, where the local hospice charity shop does a roaring trade despite an Oxfam bookshop, an Oxfam "normal" charity shop, a Fara (Romanian orphans) shop and a cancer charity shop all in walking distance. 

Ms Hill is very rude about Oxfam, damning the whole organisation on the basis of a couple of anecdotes on the level of one of its staff having a four-wheel drive in a poor country. She is also incensed at the organisation's stance in global warming, a fact in which Ms Hill does not believe on the basis of flawed arguments by the likes of Nigel Lawson. I refer both of them, and anyone else, to the facts and evidence about climate.

As is probably evident, I disagree almost totally with Susan Hill's diatribe. Oxfam is doing basically good work, raising money to help those less well off than me, Ms Hill, and most other people lucky enough to be born in affluent countries. If Oxfam can raise money for a good cause by selling second-hand books, good luck to it.

There are problems in the bookselling trade and challenges to the book publishing industry. But don't blame Oxfam for them. And I see no reason to believe that Oxfam is putting other charity shops out of business, either. They are all trying to do good, and I admire them all for it. We should be applauding them, not lambasting them.


Reading books and blogs in 2009

My favourites among the books I've reviewed in 2009 will soon feature on Euro Crime, but in the meantime, here are my reading statistics for the year:

I read 105 books in 2009.

Of these, 42 were translated into English from other languages.

Of the 105 books, 51 were by women, 54 men.

40 of the books I read were by authors new to me – and of these, 30 (to my knowledge) were debut novels.

I published 81 book reviews this year, mostly on Euro Crime or Petrona. I wrote 16 more book reviews which are in the press at Euro Crime. The remaining 8 books are unreviewed, either because I didn't find enough to like or because I read them on holiday while I was offline from any form of electronic input medium for a couple of weeks.

All my book reviews are archived here, categorised by genre and country of author.

Turning to blogs, I discovered four new blogs in 2009 which I enjoy reading very much, and commend them to anyone who has not yet discovered them:

Confessions of a mystery novelist by Margot Kinberg*

View from the Blue House by Rob Kitchin

Big Beat from Badsville by Donna Moore

Crime Watch by Craig Sisterson.

* Additional commendation for consistently thoughtful posts and a friendly, active discussion salon.

Of the blogs to which I already subscribed before 2009, I'd like to mention some of my favourites (criteria are at least 2 posts a week):

Crime fiction:

Crime Scraps (Norman)
DJ's Krimiblog (Dorte)
Do you write under your own name? (Martin Edwards)
Euro Crime blog (Karen)
It's a Crime (Crimefictionreader)
Mysteries in Paradise (Kerrie)
Reactions to Reading (Bernadette)**

[Added later: International Noir Fiction (Glenn Harper)** ]

** Additional commendation for consistently excellent book reviews.

Reading (any genre):

Random Jottings (Elaine)
Reading Matters (Kim)


Comment Central (The Times: Hattie Garlick and Daniel Finkelstein)
Debtonation (Ann Pettifor)
Don's Life (Mary Beard)

I love lots of other blogs, many of which provide interesting links to external sites, but the above-named are the ones that consistently provide engaging (to me) content on a regular basis (I've excluded a few favourites that would have been included but which don't post very often).

Join Dorte’s Global Reading Challenge for 2010

Globus_2 Dorte of DJ's Krimiblog has had the great idea of a global reading challenge to collect reviews of books written by authors from all the continents, during 2010. She's set up a global reading challenge blog in which each continent has a separate post. To enter the challenge (which has three levels), all you need to do is to add a link to your blog or website to this post. So far (3 Jan), 45 people have signed up, including authors of books, bloggers and others.

To participate, when you review a book, simply post a link to your review (using "Mr Linky") at the global challenge blog post for the continent relevant to the book's author. Thus, a collection of reviews grouped by continent/country will be built up over 2010, to provide a great snapshot of books from each region.

As of today, the leading continents are Asia (two linked reviews of books, one from Japan and the other Turkey) and Australasia (two linked reviews of the same Australian book!). There is one linked review for each of South America (Brazil), North America (USA) and Africa (South Africa). Europe and Antarctica are waiting for their first links to reviews.

Sign up for the global reading challenge here. (Any genre of book, fiction and non-fiction, is eligible). This post contains the details of the three levels of challenge.

A last (?) look at some overdone topics

On this last day of the year, I thought I'd ask myself (and you) which topics have cropped up on blogs and the internet just too much during 2009, and which you hope not to have to read about any more after tomorrow (2010)? My fervent wishes are for silence on the following overexposed subjects:

  • Dan Brown (any aspect).
  • E-books "versus" print books (they can coexist).
  • Disputes about whether there are serious problems that need to be faced concerning global climate. (There are serious problems, let's move on from arguing about that and look at how to address them.)
  • Moaning about Barack Obama's policies on health care, Iraq and the global financial crisis. Constructive comments are fine, moaning is just tedious and repetitive, especially on book blogs!
  • Articles about Swedish crime novels which assume the country's entire output is limited to Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Sjowall/Wahloo.
  • Assumptions that all or most Scandinavian crime fiction is "gloomy" and uneventful.
  • Directionless moaning about Google/Microsoft/Facebook/Twitter [insert company name] taking over the internet and invading everyone's personal privacy.
  • Finally, though I don't want total silence on the topic, I hope we don't have to read excessive debates about digital rights management/format for books, or too much about the Apple "tablet" (the all-singing, all-dancing device that will at a stroke render e-readers, portable computers, phones, music players, and every other mobile device redundant…..hmmmm).

It isn't that I exactly mind any of the above topics (except possibly any discussion involving Dan Brown), it is rather that I have seen/scanned/part-read just too many identical articles about them. I'm always open to reading anything by anybody if an original point is being made, but it just isn't interesting to see yet another derivative post or newspaper piece about an overhashed (is that a word?) matter.

Happy about computer and blog

I'm very pleased with my new computer (PC), a Toshiba Satellite something or other. It was half the price of the computer I bought a couple of years ago, and does more. Such is the world of computers. It has Windows 7 installed, including IE8, and I love that compared with IE6 and IE7. (I have not quite worked out how to stop its security obsession which means I can't use bookmarklets very easily but I'll get there on deactivating all its many controls, eventually.) Mainly, it is so quick compared with IE7 (or something), and IE8 has nice features (nicked from Firefox) such as the favourites bar across the top of the screen so I can get to all my favourite places at one click.

I'm also very pleased with SixApart/Typepad, suppliers of this blog for a very reasonable fee. (A few dollars a month.) All year Typepad have been upgrading their software in a big way, introducing many improvements and social features to their blogging platform. (One of these is a free microblogging service, which is fun – why not try it?) The other day the SixApart people wrote a post to ask users what they thought of the improvements and calling for suggestions. What the heck, I thought, and wrote a comment to thank them, saying that all I wanted now is a way to integrate my RSS reader into my blog sidebar so that my blogroll is dynamically updated as I add and drop subscriptions. I follow a lot of blogs and am a bit impatient about dropping them when they are tedious, so it is a bit of a drag keeping Petrona's blogroll vaguely up to date. Imagine my delight when two of the support people at SixApart emailed me to explain how to import Google Reader blogs into Typepad blog sidebar widgets. You can do it for the blog itself (as I've done) or as a real-time service in which the latest posts on the blogs show. I have so many blogs in my blogroll that the second option would take up far too much space. I am now very happy in that when a blog goes dead or dead boring and I remove it from the reader at a click, it vanishes from the blog at the same time. And equally, when I find a new, fascinating blog and add it, it appears on the blogroll!

Thank you Typepad for this great service – really, the customer service aspects of Typepad are beyond compare, I am consistently impressed with the helpfulness and patience of the SixApart support team. And I thank myself for finally dipping into my savings and buying this new computer. I had been telling myself I could not do it because the old one wasn't old enough – but the fact that the Norton antivirus ran out and wanted another ton of money from me for next year made me finally act. A nice person in John Lewis showed me this Toshiba (with a half price Microsoft Office thrown into the deal) and the rest is history, Internet style (ie the computer is now a week old).

Hobbyist and professional bloggers

I keep reading interesting posts on blogs and online newspapers, but can't get enough into any one of them to do more than to post a link/comment at Twitter. However, a few highlights from them:

The Huffington Post says that very few individuals in the book publishing industry are blogging, because companies don't like it. Apparently crime-fiction author Jason Pinter (The Mark, etc) was an editor at Random House and lost his job because of his blog – or so states the Huffington Post. Yet the same day, I read a PW interview with Rebecca Ford, who runs the (US) Oxford University Press blog and Evan Schnittman, the company’s vice president of global business development, who maintains his own publishing-centric blog, “Black Plastic Glasses.” A well-run blog benefits a publisher by promoting authors, the brand and encouraging debate, they say. Quite. It doesn't seem to me that there is much of a shortage of publishing blogs.

The Guardian technology blog weighs in on the just-announced US FTC plans to regulate bloggers. It is still unclear to me what exactly is planned  – and enforceable, across international boundaries. According to the Guardian, it is their relationship with advertisers that bloggers must disclose. But this isn't how many book bloggers are interpreting it, according to various discussions about what do do about declaring receipt of free review (advance-reading) copies of books and bound proofs that publishers send (often unsolicited) to bloggers. Other bloggers are, rightly, questioning how to declare a relationship with a Google ad box with automatically generated content. Frank Wilson collects some unsurprisingly negative coverage of the plans over at Books, Inq. Ed Champion puts it well in a comment to that post: "If the FTC wants to rake in some cash and keep media clean, they're better off going after the big boys, not the legions of hobbyists who clearly aren't blogging for lucre."

'Life sentences' are people who everyone knows one thing about. Dan Quayle, for example, cannot spell potato (that's my contribution). Some nice examples here. And on the same blog (Nicci French) - Murphy's law or Mruphy's Lore: bad grammar or misunderstood irony?

I barely watch any TV, let alone daytime TV, so my heart fell a bit when I saw in my RSS reader that the Guardian is running a series in which they ask readers who are at home during the day to submit reviews of TV programmes that they watch. I should not be so quick to form an opinion: this review of a programme called Pointless is rather good, even though it is a game show and (therefore, of course) I have never seen it. Chalk up another win to the "hobbyist" bloggers!


Dinner with the Criminal Minds

CMheader_VP The Criminal Minds: a virtual panel is a great blog with a great publishing strategy. Each week, "seven crime fiction authors respond to a question about writing, reading, murder and mayhem" – so a different person writes a post answering the same question each day of the week. For the week of 7 September, the question concerned who you would invite to dinner, what would be on the menu and what would you discuss? Here's a post on the topic from Rebecca Cantrell, author of the Hannah Vogel series set in 1930s Berlin (which I have not yet read, but thanks to the generosity of Norman (Uriah) of Crime Scraps, hope to do so soon). Norman's review of A Trace of Smoke and his interviews with the author can be found here.

Rebecca Cantrell's meal and guests have a distinctly German theme. I, on the other hand, would probably go for sushi or a Thai meal as I so rarely get the chance to sample those cuisines. The guests, though? You're allowed three, and assuming they have to be people you don't actually know, I'd choose Viggo Mortensen, J. K. Rowling and Ian McEwan (that did not take long to decide!). I wouldn't need to do any talking, just listen (and, occasionally, watch of course.) Maybe you'd like to answer the dinner-guest question on your own blog or in the comments here.

The Criminal Minds blog/panel is well worth subscribing to if you don't know it already – as well as the themed posts you can also email questions to the seven authors, and it looks as if you can win prizes for writing good comments. It also reminds me that I've been meaning to try a novel by one of its bloggers, C. J. Lyons (great dinner companions!), as I like medical thrillers, so I'll add one to my list. (Currently running at about 500 books, and that's not counting the couple of hundred actual ones I have on my shelves waiting to be read.)

Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. is now on Twitter

Breaking news: Frank Wilson of Books, Inq. is now on Twitter. Follow him here or via @Booksinq .

A beautiful poem by Frank, Wayfaring, is up on his blog today -  you can also hear him read it in a podcast.

Welcome to Crime Watch and Lab Literal

I welcome to new blogs to the merry world of the internet. One of them isn't that new, actually, but I've only just become aware of it. It's called Crime Watch, and is Craig Sisterson's news and musings on New Zealand and international crime/thriller writing. Craig is a features writer and crime-fiction reviewer; in fact he is already writing for Euro Crime – here's his recent review of Mark Billingham's Bloodline – I just shortsightedly hadn't noticed that he also has a blog. You might enjoy his excellent feature on an old favourite of mine, Ngaio Marsh. (Is she the most famous NZ crime-fiction author ever?)

The second blog, Lab Literal, really is new – born yesterday, when Bill Hanage kicked off LabLit's new blog – or as he puts it, "Spurs supporters look away now". (That's no problem among some residents of Petrona Towers though others have a quiet nostalgia for the team featured in Hunter Davis's The Glory Glory Game). If you want to know a bit more about the blog, and LabLit (dedicated to the culture of science in fiction and fact), visit here.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Craig and Bill. I've subscribed to both blogs in my RSS reader, and might even get around to updating my sadly cobweb-covered blogroll one of these days.

Sunday Salon: enchancing the reading experience

TSSbadge3 Clare Dudman, on her blog Keeper of the Snails, writes about the ways in which the internet can enhance the experience of reading a book. In addition to her list, there is an interesting group of suggestions in the comments discussion, as well as a debate about whether the pleasure of reading is best limited to the book itself, rather than including secondary activities such as looking up the location of the setting on Google maps.

For me, the main way in which the internet enhances the reading experienceis to use the plethora of online book reviews. If I am deciding whether or not to read a book, I might search for the title/author and then skim reviews on blogs or other websites (eg newspapers) - but not read them very thoroughly as I don't want to know too many details or opinions at that stage. After I have read the book, however, I very much enjoy reading other people's review of the book to see other perspectives on it  - and, if there are online comments for the review I'm reading, I like reading those and perhaps joining in the discussion.

Our Friend Feed crime and mystery group (which anyone is welcome to join – if you are quick you can be the 100th subscriber as we reached 99 this morning) is an extension of this process. Links to reviews of books are posted, either automatically or manually. The stimulating book-focused discussions that develop, either at Friend Feed or at the linked article, can either persuade me to read the book (or not to read it!), or bring out aspects of it that had not previously occurred to me.

The internet is so good at enabling one to discover books and to read them, either by visiting good book websites (my favourite is Euro Crime as I am becoming increasingly taken with translated fiction) or by general searches. Buying the chosen book online is also a huge advantage on the old days (pre-Internet) of traipsing round bookstores and not finding a desired title in stock (but being tempted into buying other books in the process, of course). Although Amazon does feature "customer reviews" of books, I don't usually find these as useful or engaging as the reviews I read on blogs (particularly the blogs I regularly visit) or via an internet search, which identifies newspaper or magazine reviews as well as reviews on blogs I didn't previously know about. So I tend to use Amazon (or other bookselling site) mainly for the purchasing function and not for the reviewing/recommending option.