Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Judging Books by Their Covers

     How much does a book’s title affect your decision to pick it up? Or its cover illustration and design? The plot description on the back or flap (which most likely was not written by the book’s author)?
     In an ideal world, every book would be judged not by such superficial matters but by a careful sampling of the text ‑- the first few pages at least ‑- but there are far too many books. Without an eye-catching title or cover, most of us wouldn’t even pick up a book. Even then, if the description sounds bad, boring or too derivative, I put it back down immediately.
     I’ve just started reading a book titled “Midnight Riot” by Ben Aaronovitch. It’s an urban fantasy novel about a policeman who investigates supernatural crimes (a review blurb on the cover says it’s kind of like Harry Potter grows up and goes to work for the police. No, it’s not, and the author would probably cringe at the comparison). The cover shows a silhouette of a male figure, with no indication if it’s the book’s hero, villain or some other character. I would probably not have bothered to pick it up except that I read a review of it under its British title, “The Rivers of London.” That title piqued my interest, and the review made the book sound more interesting than did the blurb on the book. I found the cover illustration of that edition more interesting as well.
Why was the title changed? I suspect either because the publisher was afraid it would have less of an audience if it advertised the fact that it takes place in England (after all, those Harry Potter books barely sold any copies, right?) or because they didn’t think it sounded enough like a fantasy book. In my opinion, “Midnight Riot” sounds even less like one.
     Even more egregious can be cover illustrations, especially on paperback reissues. I have declined to buy or read books based on the cover, even when I know it to be a good book. On occasion, I have manufactured a cover so I can bear to look at a book while I read it. I recall once, when I was in grade school, borrowing a book from the library, and finding myself unable to read it because the library had rebound it in ugly grey material. I returned it unread, and then borrowed the same book from another library where it was bound in orange.
     At least two favorite books of mine, which I bought in hardcover, had such hideous covers on the paperback editions that I could hardly bring myself to recommend them to others. Each sank like a stone and went quickly out of print.
     Then there are the books that poorly, ineptly describe the plot of the book on the dust jacket or cover flap, or, even more irritatingly, DON’T describe the plot at all, instead just wax rhapsodically about the beauty and originality of the author’s work. Maybe, but if it doesn’t tell me what the plot is, I’m unlikely to give it a try.
With “Midnight Riot,” the Harry Potter line upset a couple of Amazon reviewers, who consequently gave it a bad rating. Maybe they still wouldn’t have liked it, but they felt the comparison raised expectations the book failed to meet.
     I haven’t finished the book yet, so I don’t know if I’ll recommend it, but compare the cover and description of “The Rivers of London” ( and the one of “Midnight Riot” ( and see which you prefer. Then let me know.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Off the Beaten Path

During my recent vacation, I ventured outside of Macomb County to check out a so-called “steampunk” bookstore in Farmington. Named Off the Beaten Path, it certainly is that. Rather than a bustling commercial mall, it’s located in what appears was once a medical courtyard mall. I assume rent was cheaper there, or the space fit the owner’s ambitions better. Whatever the reason, it’s a charming independent bookstore, cozy and friendly, featuring science fiction and fantasy books, including steampunk, as well as children’s, young adult, mysteries and a few graphic novels. The stock isn’t huge, but neither is it chintzy, and there’s a selection of used books as well.
The store also carries some steampunk fashion accessories, such as hats, glasses, goggles,  music (yes, there’s steampunk music) and tiny model airships. There’s also a café area, featuring soup and caffeinated beverages and some baked goods.
If you come by during the day, you might have the store and a salesperson to yourself, but in the evenings there are often events to draw in crowds, including a knitting group and games, and occasional performers. It's worth a visit.

 Off the Beaten Path Bookstore & Café
23023 Orchard Lake Road, south of 10 Mile Road, Farmington or 248-987-2934

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Books to look for: 'Zanesville' by Kris Saknussemm

Review: Zanesville: A Novel
By Kris Saknussemm
(Villiard Books, 2005)
     There are so many books published every year that it is easy to miss some, even most. Many times I don't even learn of an author's debut novel until several other books have been published. The World According to Garp was John Irving's fourth novel, but there was little awareness of his first three until "Garp" took off.
     Which brings me to Zanesville, Kris Saknussemm's first novel, published in 2005. I may have seen it on the bookstore shelves before, but it didn't register on my radar until a review of his latest novel, Enigmatic Pilot, appeared in Locus magazine. That review referenced back to Zanesville because they take place in the same skewed universe. The second book expands on a few paragraphs in the prologue of the first. Both are science fiction, though "Zanesville" was marketed as fiction in the Thomas Pynchon-Tom Robbins-Kurt Vonnegut mode. That also means it's not a terribly easy read, but rewards the effort.
     Another reason it may not have registered with me is that, in my opinion, Zanesville isn't a very good or descriptive title. Maybe Saknussemm felt it reflects the theme of the book or is a metaphor, like Roman Polanski's film Chinatown (in which very little of the film actually takes place in Chinatown). Zanesville is mentioned in the book, but it’s not the locus of action.
     Zanesville takes place in a dystopian future America where the Vitessa Corporation runs almost everything. Into this world a man appears with no clear memory of his identity or knowledge of the world in which he finds himself. He soon discovers that he has scars on his back forming the message "FATHER FORGIVE THEM F" on his back that seem to burn, figuratively and literally, at times of emotional distress. DNA tests suggest he is a former porn star and religious cult leader who died 30 years earlier, or possibly his clone. He goes on a quest or tour of important sites in that man's life, meeting people and discovering more details of the world, and exhibiting seemingly supernatural powers. He's attacked by Vitessa Corporation minions, makes and loses many friends and, in the end, he finds some answers, but the stage is set for sequels. The overall work is called "The Lodemania Testament."
     Unfortunately, those sequels are probably far in the future. It's taken Saknussemm 5 years to complete a second volume (Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True), a prequel, and he may expand further on that period before he looks again to the future.
     The book is divided into seven parts, each prefixed by a quotation (my favorite is by Nietzsche: "Madness is something rare in individuals -- but in groups, parties, peoples, ages, it is the rule"). The 62 chapters are all titled, sometimes a descriptive phrase, sometime word play, sometimes just amusing.
     You probably won’t find this on the shelves at most bookstores (I did see a used copy at Second Story Books in St. Clair Shores, and the Suburban Library Cooperative has at least one copy in its system). However you can read an excerpt here at a dedicated website for the book, still up and running, that also has other features that nicely complement the book. Recommended.

     NOTE: When I checked on Aug. 10, 2013, I couldn't find the the dedicated website for Zanesville, so it may have been shut down in the intervening two years. Pity.