What I’ve Been Reading

November 14, 2015

Long time, no posts, thanks to a wonky endocrine system that seem to be finally sorting itself out. I’m going to try and catch up with a few very brief notes about things I’ve been reading this fall. (I’ve already posted some mini-reviews over at Scandinavian Crime Fiction and managed a review of Tim Hallinan’s The Hot Countries for Reviewing the Evidence. (It’s another good one in the Poke Hallinan series.)

The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson – I’ve gotten to known the author thanks to Sisters in Crime, but this is the first of her books that I’ve read. It’s really unusual, a little Gothic, a little humorous, with a complex puzzle, strongly realized characters, aThe Child Garden fascinating setting, and a moving relationship between the narrator and her severely disabled son. Gloria lives in a tumble-down house lent to her by an elderly woman who lives nearby in the same care home as the boy. Instead of rent, Gloria must take care of a rocking stone, a large bolder trapped in a gap that rocks when you push it; the old woman is insistent that Gloria keep the rock secret and gently push it every day a certain number of times without saying why it’s so important. After Gloria finishes the day’s work as a “registrar” (a public official who keeps records of births, marriages, and deaths) she visits the care home and reads Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to her disabled son. (I doubt I’ll ever read those poems again without remembering how strangely ominous they are in this story.) An old school friend who left to attend an alternative school called Eden that briefly occupied the Victorian building that now houses the care home turns up abruptly with a strange story about being stalked by a troubled schoolmate who . . . well, it seems things have not gone well for the students who attended Eden, and Gloria is determined to find out exactly what’s  going on. Though I did have an inkling who was responsible for the disturbing goings on, I really enjoyed this story, particularly for the combination of the narrator’s Scottish voice and for the fiercely protective and tender relationship she has with her son. Kudos to the publisher, Midnight Ink, for a job well done. I think it would be grand if all publishers started their life as booksellers.

RubberneckerRubbernecker by Belinda Bauer  – A very good thriller with an unusual hero: a young man with Asperger’s who is fascinated by dead things, for reasons that gradually become clear as we get to know him. He follows his passion by taking a course in anatomy and physiology, joining medical students as they dissect cadavers. In another plotline, we learn about a man injured in a car accident who can’t communicate with his carers but grows increasingly concerned that someone means him harm. At times creepy and often suspenseful, I ultimately found the story touching and quite compelling.

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood – eh, what a mixed bag. I nearly put it down when I began to slog through a chapter that put us inside the head of a nasty psycho, but I was unhappy about it because the stories of the other characters living in a run-down rooming house together were intriguing. I finally settled on skipping the inside-the-head-of-a-psycho chapters and managed to enjoy the book on the whole. Given the well-drawn intricacies of a group of misfits living in an old house together with some disturbing things going on, it reminded me a bit of Ruth Rendell. I’d like to read more by the author if the killer moved a bit further away.

Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville – An unsettling, riveting story about two brothers, one of whom is jailed for killing his foster father; when he is released, he reconnects with his older brother in a needy, controlling, vicious relationship. When the son of the murdered man wants revenge, DCI Serena Flanagan tries to head off violence while remembering the original case and how it went wrong, accompanied by a social worker who thinks the wrong brother was locked up. Quite a tour-de-force. For some reason I enjoyed this quite a bit more than the author’s novels about the Troubles, perhaps because of the slow-burning tension in place of on-the-page violence.

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith – For some reason, it took me ages to put this book on my TBR. Reading a previous book in the series, Havana Bay, with my 4MA buddies prompted me to seek it out at last. I loved both books. Havana Bay is all hot and sticky and slightly exotic in a Cuba that has lost its Soviet anchor and is adrift. The straight-edged Cuban detective who still believes in the revolution makes a good foil for the rumpled, tired, disillusioned Arkady Renko. In the more recent series entry, Tatiana Petrovna is an investigative reporter who courted death in Putin’s empire. There’s some unforgettable scenery in the sandy strands outside Kaliningrad where strange things are afoot. As usual, Smith evokes the sorrow and strange, shabby beauty of Russia, where investigators like Renko are nearly as endangered as reporters. Weird and lovely, as usual.

Gallows Hill by Margie Orford – Another evocative thriller in a series set in Cape Town, South Africa, featuring a principled if Gallows Hillembattled cop and a feminist social activist who consults with the police on crimes against women. In this case, a large cache of human remains is uncovered on Gallows Hill, where executions were once held; but one of the skeletons is relatively new … These are good books, with a lot of action and two compelling lead characters, but the real star is South Africa itself, a complex and troubled country trying to reinvent itself.

That’s some of what I’ve been reading. Right now, I’m about a quarter of the way into City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a sprawling novel about New York in the era when the South Bronx burned, but it’s very long so I’m not sure when I’ll surface.


Sisters in Crime September Sinc-Up

August 29, 2014

Sisters in Crime has a blog challenge for the month of September. The idea is to respond to any (or all) of the following questions in a blog post:

  • Which authors have inspired you?
  • Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?
  • If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?
  • What’s the best part of the writing process for you? What’s the most challenging?
  • Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?
  • What books are on your nightstand right now?
  • If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

Then, tag another author whose work you think readers might enjoy and tweet your post, using the hashtag #SinC-up and including @SINCnational (or if you’re not on Twitter, you can email a link to webmaven@sistersincrime.org, who will publicize it for you). You don’t have to be a member of Sisters in Crime to participate.

I’m going to give this thing a whirl a little early to help kick things off with three of the questions and one tagged author.

If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

So, librarians do this thing they call “readers’ advisory.” I’m not very good at it, because I work at an academic library where the students don’t want my advice about anything they might do for fun. Still, it’s an area of the profession that has really blossomed in the past decade, and it would come in handy when formulating a response other than muttered profanities and insults. That would be not only diplomatic but only fair, considering how overwhelmingly male my own list of favorite authors was when began to read mysteries. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this. Let me just say I’m more aware of the imbalance now than I was then and am trying to make a point of discovering and reading women’s crime fiction, because there are a lot of terrific women writers out there.

The first task is to find out more about the reader’s tastes. For example, if I met myself from fifteen years ago, my old self would say “I like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Tony Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.” I’d say “Me too! Hey, have you tried Denise Mina? She has a great, gritty sense of time and place like Lehane. Or how about Margie Orford, who tackles the ‘grammar of violence’ in post-apartheid Cape Town, South Africa, kind of like what Pelecanos has been doing in his portrayal of our capital city M. J. McGrath has the same fine eye for landscape and an inside view of native cultures as Hillerman, and if you love JLB’s lush prose, you don’t want to miss Tana French, though I’d start first with Faithful Place; I think you’ll like the protagonist.”

Which male authors write great women characters? Which female authors write great male characters?

I’ll mention one of each. Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series has wonderful characters all around, but he’s particularly great at getting inside the head of the women in Poke’s family. The Queen of Patpong is an amazing act of imagination, tracing the life of a woman from northern Thailand who (like so many women) goes to Bangkok to become part of the sex trade. The dignity and empathy with which he treats the subject is amazing. Every scene that Poke’s adopted daughter, Miaow, is in is stolen by her. Again, it’s not just that he can imagine the world from a girl’s perspective, but also from the viewpoint of a girl whose early years were spent on the streets of Bangkok.

Kate Atkinson is another stunningly good writer and I find her Jackson Brodie completely real and convincing (and, yes, male). As with Hallinan, every character she writes about is drawn in complex, human, genuine terms. Brodie is not a collection of male traits; he’s himself, one of a cast of three-dimensional characters defined by a lot of things, not just gender roles, though of course the way they respond to gender roles further reveals who they are. I suspect that is the reason these authors can imagine their way into the life of someone very different from them. They don’t resort to cliches or types.

Okay, one more comment: a writer who delibrately used gender cliches and types to good effect is Steig Larsson. He reversed gender cliches and fooled around with popular culture motifs in a way that made them fresh enough to startle readers and playful enough to be engaging. Otherwise, it might have been a little tricky to get the masses to pick up a book that opens chapters with crime statistics and is titled (in the original Swedish) Men Who Hate Women. But everyone loves the Girl.

If you were to mentor a new writer, what would you tell her about the writing business?

The first thing I would say is I would be a terrible mentor; find yourself a good one and join Sisters in Crime because it offers a lot to writers who want to learn about the business and the dues are affordable (only $40!) Second, being an anarchist pinko, I would ask her what she wants from writing. So much advice out there has to do with self-promotion and validation through the soul-crushing metrics of money and attention. They’re soul-crushing because they induce a yearning that is inevitably disappointing. That’s how capitalism works! (Hey, I warned you about my leanings.)

I would encourage her to figure out what she loves about writing and hold onto that intrinsic motivation because the extrinsic kind is pretty brutal. Learn the basics of the business without paying too much attention to evangelists, either those who think anything that doesn’t come from one of the big five publishing corporations can’t be worthwhile or those who think self-publishing is the only road to liberty and wealth and anyone who chooses another path is a deluded serf. (So. Much. Macho. Posturing. Don’t get me started.) You have options, I would tell her; you don’t have to take sides. Learn the basics, find a few good sources of information to keep up with what’s going on in this strange business, and then focus on writing as well as you can. There is no platonic ideal of “writer” that you need to become. You just need to figure out who you are as a writer – and write your heart out.

lisa brackmannPart of this project is to tag a writer worth reading. I’m choosing Lisa Brackmann, author of two bang-up books set in China – Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she describes as “a lighthearted romp through environmental apocalypse”) – and a tense woman-out-of-her-element thriller set in Mexico, Getaway. They’re good, compulsive reading and you’ll never see the world quite the same way again. In fact, every time I think about replacing some worn-out piece of computer hardware I picture a scene in Hour of the Rat. She blogs in various places including her own blog, The Paper Tiger.


Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation

July 1, 2014

[Cross-posted from the Digital Reading Network blog, where I was invited to share some ideas – they have lots of interesting stuff over there, and tend to be far more scholarly and rigorous than me. I’m realizing I’m more of a dabbler and paddler than a deep diver.]

Last week, I discovered yet another way to share reading experiences online: Call Me Ishmael. It’s a somewhat self-consciously retro website launched in the US in early June that invites readers to call Ishmael and leave a voice message about “a book you love and a story you’ve lived.” Selected stories are published on the site’s main page, along with links to find the book in a library or buy it from a bookstore and a synopsis. The site says nothing about who created it, and its domain has a proxy registration so is equally mysterious. It is, at least, transparent about sales supporting the site, though the prominent inclusion of a library search link suggests it’s not primarily commercial in nature. For each story selected, a video is introduced with a key phrase:

Maybe I didn’t have a place I could call home anymore . . .

Shortly after getting an autism diagnosis, I was so focused on trying to fix the situation, and on how to get my son back, that I was missing the point entirely.

I know it’s about love & ‘blah’ but …

(I’m on a plane and) all of a sudden I hit a stretch of narrative that just totally wrecks me, and I start sobbing, and I mean like complete, shameless, snot-flowing-down-my-face kind of sobbing.

Each audio recording is accompanied by a transcription that appears as if from a manual typewriter using a battered Courier typeface. A video introducing the project includes the image of the phrase “sometimes books give meaning to our lives.” The letters then rearrange themselves: “Sometimes our lives give meaning to books.”

Unlike many social sites devoted to sharing reading experiences, this one invites the performance of reading experiences, but is unusually anonymous. We don’t know who Ishmael is. We don’t know who the people leaving messages are; they share intimate stories with the world from the safety of anonymity. In the past week, a new part of the site has launched where visitors can listen to galley calls, referring to galleys as pre-publication copies of books and as the part of a ship where food is prepared. They then can vote for whether the message should be transcribed or not, with ratings chosen from a list and confidential. There is also a call for volunteers to help transcribe messages for the site.

This site bears less similarity to book-focused social platforms such as Goodreads or LibraryThing than to PostSecret, an “ongoing community art project” which invites anonymous contributors to submit artwork on a postcard. These have been collected into books and exhibited in museums by its founder, Frank Warren. Like the PostSecret site, Call Me Ishmael offers a curious mix of archness, cultural aspiration with a populist flavor, emotional connection, and anonymous exhibitionism. Its premise deliberately shifts the act of reading from the kind of literary analysis learned in the classroom into personal self-actualization. Books are a therapeutic mirror; after we gaze into them, the stories they tell us are turned into stories about us that we can share.

This is the kind of reading that Oprah and Richard and Judy encouraged. When books are hard work, it’s because they contain secrets about our lives that have to be coaxed out and interpreted. Some literary scholars think this affective and personal response to reading can tell us valuable things about the reading experience (as Janice Radway famously explored with romance readers) or because it might be a useful bridge for students toward more nuanced critical reading. Rita Felski argues that enchantment as a quality of the reading experience is distrusted by her fellow literary scholars because it is associated with women readers and their supposed tendency to succumb to escapist fare while also being a crass kind of manipulation performed by profit-driven mass media concerns. She writes,

 While much modern thought regulates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. (76)

What interests me at the moment is not just what the act of sharing reading experiences tells us about readers and the role that books play in their lives, but how the technical platforms we use to share these experiences are mediated by both the commercial and cultural contexts of reading in the 2ist century and by the choices designers of technical platforms make. LibraryThing has both a different business model and ethos from Goodreads, and the way these platforms have been designed shape the ways readers use them to interact with one another and with the public. These underlying design features matter.

Trevor Owens has studied twenty years-worth of manuals to explore the ways coders’ and community managers’ changing assumptions about how and why people interact in online communities has influenced their platforms which, in turn, has influenced users. He points out that “online communities are governed by a logic of ownership, control, and limited permission (161) and he urges researchers to bear that in mind when using the record of these communities in research.

It’s important to ask whose voice is heard here? How do I know this is what it purports to be? What parts of this set of records are missing? Who constituted this collection of records, and for what purpose? Lastly, where might I look in this data for perspectives and points of view that differ from those who had the power to decide what is and isn’t kept? (169).

If we fail to consider the ways the platform shapes participation and expression, we are likely to read into people’s reading a kind of agency and freedom of expression that is constrained by the platform’s architecture and design.

As Lisa Nakamura puts it in a study of Goodreads,

Now more than ever, literary scholars must bring their skills to bear on digitally networked reading. Researchers who are versed in reading’s many cultures, economies, and conditions of reception know that it is never possible for a reading platform to be a “passive conduit.” For reading has always been social, and reading’s economies, cultures of sharing, and circuits of travel have never been passive.

image from Machines, Exposition universelle internationale de 1889, Paris, France by Detroit Publishing (LOC), courtesy of Pingnews


May Pick: Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley

June 6, 2014

This book by a first-time Irish novelist (who is not a first-time writer, as she is RTÉ’s Arts and Media Correspondent) was a first for me. I heard about it from a Quercus publicist, and thought I probably was out of luck having a US address. But she told me it was on NetGalley and would tweak things so that if I requested it, I’d get a digital review copy. Though I’m not a fan of reading devices and the rights readers give up (privacy, for one), I have grown accustomed to having a few books on my iPhone for emergencies. Yes, there are times when I let such things trump my passionate desire to reset the net and stop having the Internet turned into a surveillance-industrial complex. So I read this one on my phone and enjoyed it very much (though would probably have enjoyed it a smidge more on paper).

I wrote a review of the book for Reviewing the Evidence, which has recently published its 10,000th review! Holy cats! RTE’s editor has kindly allowed reviewers to repost reviews after they’ve run on the site. If you haven’t previously discovered that remarkable site for mystery reviews, do make a visit.

An added bonus for me with this novel is that it’s about online communities, the subject of my sabbatical research. Crowley does a good job of seeing both the good side of these kinds of digital communities and the potential for bad things to happen. Oh, yeah, privacy is at issue, too. You can see why it ticked all my boxes.

CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?
by Sinéad Crowley
Quercus, May 2014

from the May 24th issue of Reviewing the Evidence

Caring for newborns can be an isolating experience, and some young mothers turn to the Internet for company and advice. Set in Ireland after the property boom went bust, Crowley’s first novel focuses on a virtual community of isolated new mums and the investigation into the murder of a single mother found in a flat at a mostly-vacant ghost estate, led by a driven (and pregnant) detective.

 Guard Claire Boyle has a real puzzle on her hands. There’s no obvious reason her victim was murdered, and the company that let the flat where her decomposing body was found has little information about the tenant who stopped paying rent and vanished. The deceased seemed completely occupied by caring for her young child when not at work as a university lecturer. The night she left the baby with her parents to go out to “meet friends” for the first time since becoming a mother, she vanished. No sign of sexual assault, no theft, no clues to who killed her – or why.

 Meanwhile Yvonne, a transplant from London, is at home with a new baby, bleary with exhaustion and unable to get any help from her irritatingly charming husband, Gerry, whose job in television production keeps him constantly busy. She finds going out to baby yoga or other social events that the visiting nurse urges her to participate in draining and dispiriting. Instead, she relies on an online forum, Netmammy, where mums chat with each other under nicknames, dispensing advice, sharing good news and troubles, finding company in moments snatched while their babies are napping. When one of their number stops posting, Yvonne grows concerned.

 Between Yvonne’s chapters and those that focus on Claire Boyle’s investigation, postings from the Netmammy group are interspersed. At first these seem irritatingly shallow and chummy and a test of one’s patience for Internet acronyms. (“OMG” is the opening of the first of these passages, which are replete with references to DH, DS, and DD – dear husband, son, or daughter – and banal chatter about diapers and BF – breast feeding). However, these passages grow more and more informative and integral to the story. The participants’ voices begin to distinguish themselves and it becomes clear that the key to the mystery will be found in the group. The title, which seems a tacky and melodramatic hook, turns out to be a clever play on the seemingly trivial questions posted to an online forum.

There are a couple of moments when the detective makes choices that seem unlikely for a professional if handy for the plot, and though there are twists, some of the villainy is signalled a bit too clearly for seasoned crime fiction readers. That said, the story is cleverly assembled, the characters are well drawn, and the suspense nicely regulated to increase as the pages turn. The chatty sections are insightful about how a group of strangers who don’t even share their real names can get to know and care about each other through social media.

Yet the warning the book provides about how such innocent sharing can, over time, provide a far more detailed portrait of our lives than we realize is timely. Shortly before this book was released the former director of the NSA, participating at a public event at Johns Hopkins University, testified to the value of such aggregated information: “we kill people based on metadata.”

 


A Good Year for Mysteries

December 30, 2013

books1

I read some really terrific mysteries this year. Two are by new-to-me authors and several are by authors who have been on my top ten list in the past. The nationality of authors is fairly varied: two Swedes, two Danes, two South Africans, three Brits, one Irish, one book by a Norwegian set in the US and one Norwegian-set novel by an American. It’s not well balanced in terms of gender – eight male authors, four female (with two men and two women writing together). A new year’s resolution is to get around to reading more of the fine women writers in the genre in the coming year.

Here they are, in no particular order, with links to reviews . . .

Sundstol, Vidar – THE LAND OF DREAMS
A moody story about a Norwegian murdered in Minnesota and a forest ranger who finds connections between the murder and his family’s immigrant past. A touch a woo-woo, an occasional info-dump, but a book I really enjoyed. First in a trilogy.

Faye, Lyndsay – SEVEN FOR A SECRET
Second in a historical series starring Timothy Wilde, who (with his dangerous brother Valentine) try to help a mixed-race woman recover her family when they are abducted by slave traders. Evocative language and gripping history that we shouldn’t forget.

le Carre, John – A DELICATE TRUTH
A rather silly diplomat is called to Gibraltar to oversee a dodgy terrorism task force operation which goes wrong. Later he joins forces with an energetic young officer and a Welsh soldier to find the truth. At times parodic and bitter, but also impassioned and thrilling.

Kaaberbol, Lene, and Agnete Friis – DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
A young mother who has sought asylum in Denmark is caught up in violence that has its roots in the famine Stalin caused in Ukraine in the 1930s. Difficult reading at times, but unforgettable.

Stanley, Michael – DEADLY HARVEST
The amiable and principled detective Kubu investigates crimes that may be “muti murders” – in which young people are killed so that wealthy believers can gain power. The Botswana setting is, as always, a main attraction.

Miller, Derek – NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT
An elderly New York Jew whose granddaughter has brought him to Norway finds himself in charge of a small Balkan immigrant, pursued by violent men and his own regrets about war. Reminded me of Kate Atkinson.

Mark, David – ORIGINAL SKIN
An imposing, kind, and socially awkward detective in Hull investigates some brutal drug murders and a suicide of a young man with a peacock tattoo that perhaps isn’t. Brilliant writing.

Dahl, Arne – BAD BLOOD
Don’t let the gruesome opening put you off. This is an interesting take on the tired serial killer story, originally published in 1999 but strangely topical.

Herron, Mick – DEAD LIONS
Charming, oddball, busy, entertaining espionage story featuring an office full of losers. Herron is a terrific writer.

French, Tana – BROKEN HARBOR
A creepy, slow-burning fuse of a novel about a family attacked in their falling-down house in one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” but really about the trauma caused by the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger economy and the values it embodied.

books2

 


so long, Dutch

August 20, 2013

 

Elmore Leonard
photo courtesy of mtkr

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later – the man was 87 years old – but I was still sad to hear the news this morning that Elmore Leonard had died. He was a tremendously talented author whose books have brought me a lot of pleasure over the years.

He says in his famous Ten Rules for Writers that you should leave out the parts people tend to skip and avoid adjectives and other hooptedoodle.  A lot of people have taken his advice, but it doesn’t mean they can write like Dutch. He had such a great ear for dialogue and an eye for the telling detail and a way with getting it all down in words that fit together so well they were a kind of everyday, unassuming poetry.

He was funny. He knew how to pace a story. He could sketch a character in a few perfectly-chosen words. But the thing that I always felt set him apart was that he loved his characters, even the losers, the ignorant, and the lame. He had a big heart for this messed-up world we live in.

I read a lot of his books before I started to write down what I thought of them, but I loved Killshot and Rum Punch and Maximum Bob and Out of Sight and many others. (The scene about the photograph of Jesus in City Primeval still cracks me up.) I have a particular soft spot for what I believe was the first of his that ever read, Glitz. Here’s what I said about it over at LibraryThing when I reread it a few years back:

Vincent Mora is bringing in groceries when a slimeball demands his wallet. Instead of handing it over or playing the tough guy, Vincent wearily explains the obvious. You think I’d drive a car like that? It’s a cop car, asshole. Now go lean on it. Not smart; he ends up shot, with red wine and pasta sauce all over him. That’s just for starters. Add a beautiful Puerto Rican hooker, some goombas at an Atlantic City casino, a bad-tempered parrot, an ex-con nutcase who wants to look Vincent in the eye when he shoots him, a touch of garlic and simmer gently. It’s got what Leonard does best: a weird but quite believable bad guy, vivid settings, a cast of criminals who are treated with generosity even though they’re, well, pretty bad, a great female love interest, a sexy, cool, intelligent, funny, totally likable hero who doesn’t indulge in angst, but from time to time thinks about the slimeball who tried to mug him. Vincent ponders ways he could have handled it that wouldn’t end up with shooting and killing the would-be mugger. A tough guy who’s really bothered when he takes a life. I like that. Lots of humor, dialogue that’s absolutely right, a great sense of timing, a plot that keeps twisting … you can’t do better than this.


culture shock: when Goodreads and LibraryThing collide

March 30, 2013

It has been fascinating to see people respond to the acquisition of the largest book-focused social network, GoodReads, by Amazon, the largest book-focused anything. (In fact, it’s so large, books are just one of the many, many products the company sells, but bookselling was its first focus; the company has had a huge impact on both book culture and book commerce. This acquisition is one of many that have consolidated Amazon’s influence in the publishing world.)

gr

If you are deciding which site to use, Book Riot published a thorough and smart comparison of the two sites last July (see part 1 and part 2). I have been a LibraryThing member since about 2007 and started using it primarily to replace a kludgy homemade website where I had been posting book reviews. I tried out Goodreads soon after it launched, but didn’t want to maintain catalogs on two sites, and preferred the familiar layout and the business model of LibraryThing. (Rather than rely on targeted advertising and magic venture capital dust, it charges a small lifetime membership fee of $25.00 and repackages reviews and tags as an enhancement for library catalogs. The terms of service is actually very similar to Goodreads’, but I don’t think Tim Spalding would sell his company to Amazon, and I trust him not to turn my reading tastes into marketing opportunities.)

lt

For many Goodreads members, the acquisition came as a rude surprise and many who are concerned about the growing power of Amazon began to explore competitors. The response is very like the way people reacted when Google announced it was mothballing its RSS feed Reader: betrayal, outrage, anxiety about the size and power of a single corporation, and a crowdsourced scramble to find alternatives.  Once people have invested their own creative labor into a site, have woven it into their daily routine, and have established social relationships there, it’s a rude shock to realize that it’s not actually theirs at all.

This scramble to test alternatives has also exposed many of the things people want in a platform built around sharing a love of books – and what happens when groups and their established cultures collide.  Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s founder and owner of a majority share, started a discussion about what the acquisition means for LibraryThing. Along the way, many feathers were ruffled and some were soothed. Spalding wrote “I find Goodreads too pushy on the social side, too cavalier about user data and–on average–not as intellectual as LibraryThing can be.” Not surprisingly, some Goodreads members who were checking out the site took offense. In the ensuing discussion, some LibraryThing loyalists dug the hole deeper, while others tried to repair the damage. I’ve seen similar behavior in an online book discussion group in which members sometimes disparage another group in order to express what they like about the group they are in. Since these groups include overlapping memberships, feelings get hurt and members feel torn between the social codes of one group and those of another.

Both Goodreads and LibraryThing are a wonderful antidote to the claim that nobody reads and the book is dead. Both sites attract avid readers – millions of them – and offer opportunities to create personal book collections and share reviews. Both sites have extensive social features and ongoing conversations around books. Both involve members in volunteer work that improves the site.

But they have significantly different flavors. LibraryThing is more focused on individual members’ catalogs, drawing on book metadata from many sources, making it useful for those who collect pre-ISBN books or non-US, non-English titles. (There are over 700 bibliographic databases from which to draw data, including national libraries across the globe.)  Goodreads is much more social and contemporary and is designed to enable Facebook-like group formation and socializing around books.

Within each site, communities coalesce and thrive, but the threaded discussion at LibraryThing takes a back seat visually to the cataloging of books. LibraryThing is more like a library, with a major focus on cataloging, less on finding the next book to read (or purchase) – though it has a sturdy recommendation engine. The company also shares with libraries a healthy respect for privacy, a fairly knee-jerk attitude to freedom of speech, and a culture of transparency (up to a point, given it is a privately-held company with no interest in making its code open source). Goodreads is more like Facebook – funded by venture capital, very large, and reliant on the data its users provide to serve up targeted advertising and to gather a spectacularly large and detailed set of book-related data to monetize.

One other distinction that seems to have cropped up as these cultures collide is where authors and publishers fit in. Goodreads tolerates a lot of marketing and is much more attractive to publishers, authors, and … well, Amazon. LibraryThing has a welcome mat for authors and publishers, but there are distinct social boundaries that the community has set beyond which marketing and promotion is unwelcome. The terms of service states clearly, “”Do not use LibraryThing as an advertising medium. Egregious commercial solicitation is forbidden. No matter how great your novel, this does apply to authors.”

The discussions at LibraryThing about what the Goodreads sale means have been eye-opening, both because I’ve learned a lot about what other members get out of the site and what features it offers that I’ve never stumbled across, but also because of what readers say about their sense of community and what they want from a social reading experience. Some of these desires are technical (a mobile version, for example) and some are functional (preferring one type of social interaction over another) or aesthetic (with “dead salmon color” coming up a lot, but also graphics versus text and other design preferences).

But some of the differences are tribal, and those are the ones that are the most interesting to me.

EDITED to add: This LibraryThing blog post articulates what makes LibraryThing LibraryThing. The way it was composed is very consistent with the company’s nature – it was open to all members to contribute ideas (on a non-personal-data-gobbling site), and Tim Spalding did the final edit.