My 2015 Top Ten and a 2016 Resolution

January 1, 2016

I’ll start with the resolution. Let’s get the craziness out of the way.

I’ve been working on a young adult novel that I like, but which isn’t the kind of thing that people in publishing call “commercial fiction.” It’s not literary fiction, either. It’s just this . . . thing about a young person whose brother has been unjustly accused of planning a terrorist attack and about the surveillance state we live in. On new year’s eve I took a deep breath and told Twitter:

tweet1In case you’re not a librarian or academic (or an academic librarian) OA stands for open access. All of my scholarship is available in some flavor of open access – all available for free online and most under a Creative Commons license. I’ve decided for a  couple of reasons to go that route with fiction, too.

Reason One: You have to be really good and really lucky to make it in traditional publishing. I read a lot of books and I’m grateful to the authors and publishers who feed my reading addiction, but I haven’t been good and lucky enough to break out, except in hives. Turns out I’m severely allergic to the business end of publishing. Why try to do something that makes you miserable?

Reason Two: You have to be really good and really lucky and willing to produce like crazy to make it in self-publishing. I can’t write that way. My muse is like a toddler taken for a walk. Forget about getting anywhere fast. Besides, I think our fetish for productivity is irreparably harming ourselves and the planet. So that’s out for me.

Combine my slacker tendencies and an allergy to the business of publishing with serious reservations about Amazon, the leading platform for self-published books, it makes sense for me to try something that fits my personal values better. More like the zine world – hand-made and imperfect and shared for love, not money. To be honest, most fiction writers are motivated more by love than money because hardly any make a living at it. But even so, productivity, sales, and frantic marketing efforts infuse the writing world and that’s what I want to leave behind. It’s inconsistent with my anarchist tendencies and my own mental health.

“Would anyone want to read it?” That was a silly question! Some of my Twitter pals said they would, because they are sweeties, but a piece of that new year’s resolution that I didn’t express properly is that I’d be happy if someone reads this story, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of actively competing for their attention. That’s part of the doomed economic model that’s making such a mess of things, including culture and the internet.

Here’s a bit more of my Twitter stream . . .




Happy new year to all. I’ll be using Pressbooks to serialize this thing and will be blogging more about it here later. I just solved a gnarly problem with the ending this morning! Now I just have to sort out all the other gnarls. All in good time . . .

But now without further navel-gazing, here are my top ten crime fiction reads from 2015. I read a lot of good stuff, but these stood out to me at the end of the year. The list could be much longer.

Kristina Ohlsson / HOSTAGE1476734038-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Don’t read this on a transatlantic flight. Swedish detectives team with intelligence officers to find out if a threat found aboard a full jet headed for New York is real and, if so, how to deal with it. They only have as long as the jet’s fuel lasts. The author worked in European counter-intelligence and her take on Swedish versus American intelligence practices was engrossing. I also was happy to have some police procedural aspects mixed in with the thriller aspects of the story.

0802123961-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Belinda Bauer / RUBBERNECKER
My mystery pals at 4MA chose this book for discussion, and I’m glad because I found it deeply entertaining. A young man with Asperger’s and a troubling fascination with dead things takes an anatomy lab course. Meanwhile, we follow the fate of a man gradually coming out of a coma after a car accident who unluckily witnesses the murder of a fellow patient. Nicely assembled puzzle that combines humor and emotion quite satisfyingly.

Jari Jarvela / THE GIRL AND THE BOMB1503946355-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
An engrossing psychological thriller involving a black teenager in Finland who wants revenge when her good friend, a street artist, is pushed by a security guard to his death from a building after he has been “bombing” train cars with brilliantly-executed graffiti. The story is told in two voices – that of the disaffected girl and of her chosen enemy, who wasn’t actually responsible, but who grows increasingly angry and defensive. Full of ethical issues and vivid characters – really good story, well translated.

1616954469-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Timothy Hallinan / THE HOT COUNTRIES
Yeah, I know. This series is always on my top ten. So sue me for being predictable. Visitors to Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok have previously met a group of aging ex-adventurers who hang out at an expat bar. They’ve been there long enough to know their way around the glittering city, but now getting around is getting more difficult. One of them, Wallace Palmer, is becoming increasingly vague and likely to misplace himself, forgetting where he lives and chasing after glimpses of a woman he loved who disappeared from his life many years ago. When a new expat joins them, flashing white teeth and an encyclopedia of factoids that he shares without a pause, they grow a little uncomfortable. Not only will he never shut up, he seems terribly interested in the whereabouts of their friend, travel writer and family man, Poke Rafferty. He seems to think Poke is hiding a treasure that he’s come to Bangkok to claim. My full review is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Martin Cruz Smith / HAVANA BAY0345502981-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Another 4MA group discussion book. Arkady Renko, with little left to lose, tries to find out what happened to an old enemy found dead in Havana Bay. Wonderful juxtaposition of a post-Soviet Russian’s experiences with its former ally, now struggling to manage on its own. Really fine. I dithered between this and TATIANA, which I also enjoyed, though not quite as much as the earlier book which, somehow, I had missed reading.

0062197738-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Laura Lippman / AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD
Fascinating story about a woman who decides to open her own business – as a “madam” providing services to D.C.’s elite after things go badly wrong with her pimp. When her cover story as a lobbyist for women’s employment is threatened, she has a problem, particularly because she doesn’t want her son to know what she really does. Lippman does a great job creating a character who is both vulnerable and tough as nails as well as brilliant at business.

Lisa Brackmann / DRAGON DAY754aa9e539cbb42597046596b67437641414141
The third and final Ellie McEnroe story in which the veteran of a confused and pointless war tries to find her feet in a confused and confusing China. Her cheerful, scary billionaire acquaintance, Sidney Cao, has a job for her. He wants her to find out what’s going on with his three kids (the one child policy is optional for the powerful) and in particular whether the American adventurer who’s hanging out with his youngest son is bad news. Readers of this trilogy will guess fairly soon: they’re all bad news. There are two strengths in this trilogy.One is the fascinating picture it provides of the New China, a place that’s aggressively under construction and chaotic after a seismic cultural shift toward consumerism. The other is Ellie’s voice – casual, unsettled, constantly searching for something she can’t identify, faced at every turn with a need to figure out the least bad of terrible options. She’s a fascinating woman and a nifty guide to a place that has changed beyond recognition. I’ll miss her (but I won’t write whatever Brackmann writes next).

125004474x-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Julia Keller / LAST RAGGED BREATH
A fine entry in the series featuring a tough, vulnerable prosecutor who wages war on the problems facing her beloved West Virginia county. This one asks us to remember the unnatural disaster of Buffalo Creek, when a mining company’s dam broke and their toxic sludge swept away a town, killing over a hundred people in minutes, but also to appreciate the work of miners made redundant by machines. I wrote a more detailed review for Reviewing the Evidence.

John Scalzi / LOCK IN0765375869-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
After an epidemic leaves millions “locked in,” conscious but unable to move, scientists develop a way to link their brains to “threeps” (androids); others affected are “integrators,” able to host locked in people who want to borrow a human body. Our locked-in hero joins the FBI (getting around with a threep) and is quickly involved in strange murder case in which it appears a murderer was an integrator hosting someone else when committing the murder. Sounds preposterous but it worked for me – the scene-setting was handled so efficiently it had a great pace. Scalzi primarily writes SF, but handled the crime aspects of this near-future story very well. Inventive and compelling. There’s also a highly-intelligent handling of gender issues that . . . well, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book which is the whole point. It would be a spoiler, but there’s a great analysis of it here. Scalzi is not only good fun, he’s wonderfully wise about the world.

0312621280-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Alan Glynn / BLOODLAND
This is a terrific conspiracy novel that is a bit challenging in that there are lots of characters and multiple points of view, but sharp writing, excellent plotting, and an appealing young Irish out-of-work journalist as a protagonist. He has a commission to write a biography of a silly celebrity but stumbles upon a multinational scheme to make money off a mine in Congo run by people who will dispose of anyone who gets in the way. Cracking read. Excellent narrative skill. Loads and loads of rage burbling under tasty ethical dilemmas. Yvonne Klein wrote a review at Reviewing the Evidence that explains why it’s far more than the bog-standard globetrotting conspiracy thriller. In fact, it’s very nearly its opposite.

Here’s to good reading (and, for me, more stress-free just-for-fun writing) in the new year.



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.

Reading and Writing Together Online: Exploring Wattpad

September 6, 2015

The internet has long offered opportunities to form communities around reading and writing, particularly in the form of fanfiction, which predates the internet but has flourished online. In the 1980s, Usenet groups and email lists were created that focused on fanfiction based on Star Trek and other popular entertainments. was launched in 1998 and remains popular, with sections for different fandoms such as Harry Potter (the most populated fandom as of August 2015), Dr. Who, and many anime and manga works. It retains something of the look and feel of early web forums.

Wattpad looks very different. It was founded in 2006, a year before Amazon released its Kindle platform, reading device, and store, and the popularity of ebooks surged. From its start, Wattpad has been designed to be a social platform for composing, reading, and sharing responses to stories, all of which are available for free, on the web of through an app. The platform was very much designed with mobile in mind, even though mobile wasn’t as ubiquitous in 2006 as it is today. Though it took a few years to take off, it began to catch the attention of the press in 2012 and now has an astonishing 40 million members worldwide. No wonder it describes itself as “the world’s largest community of readers and writers.”

Based in Canada, it has members across the globe who read and publish stories in more than fifty languages. It’s particularly popular in the Philippines, where the mobile version is reportedly the top-ranked mobile app. At this point it is a privately held corporation supported mainly by venture capital, though some relatively new brand sponsorships (in which Wattpadders are commissioned to write stories about new films, music, or products) may also be part of its business model. The product’s assets, like most social media platforms, is its membership and information about their interests and the popularity of the content they share. Unlike Facebook, though, it doesn’t have a “real names” policy and does not seem to be tying those metrics to other data sources, though it encourages sharing stories through social media and has recently developed a function for turning quotations from stories into graphics to share on Twitter. It’s hard to say how exactly it will make money, since the sauce is secret and the company is in that peculiar phase that new tech platforms go through that some people call “pre-revenue audience building.” Another term might be “magical thinking,” but who’s going to argue with the site’s impressive metrics?

According to venture capital researcher Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends report, as of May 2015 (see slide 63 of her presentation), Wattpad had 40 million unique visitors monthly, twice as many as last year, with 11 billion minutes spent on it per month (up 83 percent over last year), ninety percent of this busy activity via mobile phones. In each minute that passes, another 24 hours-worth of text to read is posted. But not all of the members are writers; a company official told Digital Book World last year that 90 percent of the members are readers, not authors.

Dubbed “a YouTube for stories” and likened to Instagram, it’s a youthful site in style and tone, but one of its most prominent promoters is Margaret Atwood, who sees it as democratizing of literacy. In a 2012 Guardian article, she wrote,

No one need know how old you are, what your social background is, or where you live. Your readers can be anywhere. And if you’re worried about adverse reactions from your teachers, your grandmother, or others who might not like you writing about slavering zombies or your relatives, you can use a pseudonym.

She does not see this kind of story-sharing as competition for traditional publishers, but rather a bridge to them. More importantly, she sees Wattpad as a path to literacy in an unequal world. You can’t always buy ebooks if you don’t have enough money – or, like many Wattpadders, aren’t old enough to have a credit card. Nor do all aspiring writers around the globe have access to writing tools and models to emulate.

Our generation in the west was lucky: we had readymade gateways. We had books, paper, teachers, schools and libraries. But many in the world lack these luxuries. How do you practice without such tryout venues? Without a piano, how do you learn to play the piano? How can you write without paper and read without books? . . . Wattpad opens the doors and enlarges the view in places where the doors are closed and the view is restricted. And somewhere out there in Wattpadland, a new generation is testing its wings.

Adventures in Convergence Culture

I joined Wattpad nine months ago and began to poke around. After exploring the social features and reading a few stories, I dusted off an old floppy disk with a young adult time-travel story I’d written in the early 1990s and posted it serially, as most Wattpad stories appear, one chapter at a time over the course of several weeks, to get to know both the platform and the nature of its interactions better. (I had to make a few changes, including a new opening from which the story could become a flashback. I have a feeling a huge proportion of Wattpad members weren’t born when I wrote that thing and wouldn’t recognize a floppy disk. Also, yes, it is deeply weird to read something you wrote so long ago envisioning a future with limited surveillance capabilities – hah, I wish! – but I digress.) I can’t say my experiment yielded much in terms of insight into the social life of Wattpad for writers. There is a lot of competition for attention and, as many members advise in various “how to do Wattpad” guidebooks, writers need to spend a lot of time engaging with others before they will be discovered, and I didn’t. But even with this limited engagement, I can make some observations.

First, the platform is great for writing. On a desktop, it’s a clean and intuitive interface that gives writers a distraction-free writing space. No, it doesn’t have all the features of Word, but most writers rarely need those fiddly bits. I found the clean, simple interface refreshing. The phone app can also be used as a writing space (if your thumbs are up to it), which is likely the most common writing method among younger members of the site who may not have access to a laptop or simply are used to composing on a phone. For me, the app enabled easy editing when I spotted a typo or missing word. The default setting for copyright is “all rights reserved” (which someone who uploaded Shakespeare plays carelessly left in place) but the platform also offers a variety of Creative Commons licenses.

Though the writing space is stripped-down simple, Wattpad offers ways to visually enhance a story. Writers can create and upload covers created DIY, by using a separate Wattpad app, or through a kind of barter system that I don’t thoroughly understand. Apparently some graphic arts-inclined members create covers for others and their work is acknowledged in dedications, which are frequently appended to chapters of stories to recognize other members. Writers can also add pictures or videos as chapter headers, and frequently do. Chapters are sometimes introduced or closed with a comment from the author encouraging suggestions, promising a timeline for the next installment, or begging readers to be patient because exams are looming and they won’t have time to post another chapter anytime soon.

The distance between readers and writers and between the story and the person who wrote it are deliberately blurred in this environment. There is a sense that works are in progress and readers and writers experience the unfolding of a story together. Writers also get a sense of affirmation when readers comment on their work or ask for more. Generally the comments are not the incisive analysis that writers would get from an editor or from comrades in a writing workshop. They tend to be short expressions of pleasure, responses to what’s happening in the story (“Whoa!!” “Nooooooo!”), or gestures of identification. (“That happened to me.” “That’s my birthday, too!” “My brother acts exactly like this guy.”) This seriality and intimate form of sharing owes much to fanfiction culture and is well depicted in Rainbow Rowell’s young adult novel, Fangirl.

There are metrics on every chapter and on your profile, constant reminders of how many people follow you, how many have looked at your stories, and how many comments and votes you’ve received. All of these pings of attention are meant to be positive. As one of the founders, Allen Lau, explained to Publisher’s Weekly, novice writers crave affirmation and so all of the cues give positive reinforcement. There are no downvotes here. Scanning through stories that I added to my library, I found virtually no negative comments. Instead, these notes are generally short, flippant, and supportive. Comments that don’t conform to community standards can be flagged by anyone for deletion.

Though it’s an amazingly cheerful and positive place, it is also part of the attention economy. Those visible metrics are a display of status, which creates a certain undercurrent of anxiety about getting reads. Comments to community boards are sometimes desperate pleas for readers or requests for advice about how to get more followers and reads. Popular writers, whose status is reinforced by being featured on the discovery page, get tens of thousands of views, or in some cases millions, or even as many as a billion views, as Anna Todd did with a series that riffed on the boy band One Direction, the kind of fanfiction celebrity that led to the insanely popular and ultimately profitable 50 Shades trilogy, a fanfiction based on Twilight. (As an aside, all three blockbusters seem to revolve around abusive relationships. I wonder what that’s about?) Whether Todd’s book contract or film deal will pay off is unknown, the kind of blockbuster bet that big entertainment likes to place. These days, both self-publishing and sites like Wattpad have become crowd-sourced slushpiles for traditional publishers. As for Anna Todd, who kept her (pre-edited) books freely available on Wattpad, the affirmation that she gets from the social features of the platform are a necessary part of writing. As she told a reporter for The New York Times, “the only way I know how to write is socially and getting immediate feedback on my phone.”

Some member/writers have been chosen to be “ambassadors” – moderators with specific duties that keep the community harmonious, but who are presumably paid only in the feels. There are also community sections of the site. Clubs are where members can talk about improving their writing, graphic design, the publishing industry, genres, or anything at all in “The Café.” There are also areas for awards, contests, #justwriteit (a place where members can commit to writing and get inspiration, rather like National Novel Writing Month), and a recently-launched section for writers on how to use the site and get writing tips. There is also a page of information on a new program, “Wattpad Stars.” It’s not clear how writers become stars, but this program pairs Wattpadders with brands, mostly entertainment industry heavy-hitters, but including Unilever, which promoted a facial cleanser to teens in the Philippines by commissioning a story in Tagalog by a Wattpadder. Though paid product placement is rare in traditional publishing, this venture is an interesting way to blend fanfiction’s love of engaging with commercial culture and the use of Wattpad by its members as a bridge from free sharing to more commercial pursuits.

My second major impression from using the site is that it’s a great place for readers, particularly young readers who enjoy fanfiction, romance stories, or young adult fiction. There are loads of other genres, too, but these seem most popular. You can discover books the hard way, by browsing genre categories or searching the tags authors assign their works, or you can click on the books covers that appear whenever you open the app – some new, some popular, some selected by Wattpad staff, some that appear, after you’ve chosen some stories, to be algorithmically chosen to match your previous choices. Each time you choose a book, you also get “you may also like” choices. All of these books are free, and they stay on your phone even when you’re offline. They are also often quite compelling to read and composed with narrative sophistication. Of course, there are stories that are full of clichés and rehashing of tired tropes, but that’s true in all kinds of publishing. What astonished me was how polished so many of the stories are.

Like users of the Kindle (which came into the world after Wattpad but, with Amazon’s enormous reach, ramped up much more quickly), Wattpad readers can experience instant gratification, the reassurance that they have something to read with them all the time, and a seemingly bottomless pool of books to choose from. Unlike Kindle, these books are free, and the social apparatus in which they are nestled is youthful, supportive, and ubiquitous. Amazon, generally a nimble company, tried late in the game to get a foot in the fanfiction door with Kindle Worlds, a place where writers can create and sell fanfiction – but only for certain willing brands, and only if they follow stringent guidelines and are willing to license some uses to the product they are riffing on and if they give Amazon world publication rights for the duration of copyright (meaning until long after you’re dead). It does not seem to have taken off in a big way. I suspect there are two kinds of “free” missing, here – free to readers and free for writers to do what they like.

What’s interesting at Wattpad is that it’s infused with the free-wheeling remixing and community-building spirit of fanfiction while also including mild warnings about copyright. Wattpad has had to remove copyrighted material, and cautions writers not to use copyrighted works in the images or videos they choose for chapter headings, but that warning is blithely ignored by many Wattpadders who remix and repurpose as if they were born to it – as, in fact, many of them were.

From the perspective of examining online reading communities, Wattpad is fascinating. Some of the socializing is unabashedly promotional. Writers engage in hopes that readers will engage with them. But a lot of it is the kind of informal chatter and friendship-building that revolves around shared reading experiences. I didn’t see any in-depth criticism or analysis, but that isn’t the point.

The point is sharing emotional responses to the work and the act of reading it: Love love love. Intense! Actual tears. Whaaa… did that just happen? Update pls. Having those reactions serially, immediately, and in the company of others within a web of social relationships is a very contemporary version of the decades-old practice of talking about books online.

Goodreads and the Commodification of the Reading Self

August 28, 2015

Goodreads is the Google of online reading communities, so huge it exerts a kind of gravity. It operates on the same business model of “free” – offering a service in exchange for user-generated and third-party content and massive amounts of monetizeable data. That data is also described as a member benefit. As of this writing, the site’s “about” page states “our recommendation engine analyzes 20 billion data points to give suggestions tailored to your literary tastes.” Wow, all that, just for me?

Well, no.

Currently Goodreads has over 40 million members who have attached over a billion books to their online identities.  At least I think so; it’s hard to know what exactly “1.1 billion books added” means when writers, readers, and publishers are all involved. One of the founders, Otis Chandler, has described how metrics can help publishers identify which books are going to be blockbusters through the influence of trusted readers and the viral nature of word-of-mouth recommendations on a massive scale. Recently, he unpacked how The Girl on the Train took off using Goodreads metrics, which in turn encouraged the publisher to spend even more money on promotion.

Colin Robinson has suggested that, as these vernacular  sites for book reviews replace professional book reviewers as taste-makers, midlist authors will lose out. The decline of the midlist is a long-running concern, with the Author’s Guild commissioning a report on the crisis back in 2001 (no longer available online, unfortunately). Since then, Chris Anderson’s influential theory of the Long Tail providing new business opportunities has been challenged by Anita Elberse, whose research suggests blockbusters are bigger than ever, with smart companies spending more to promote fewer works. A site like Goodreads mixes the Long Tail of books – more published today than ever in history – with the blockbuster effect, bolstered by big data metrics providing insight into readers’ behaviors that has never before been available to publishers.

Goodreads is not the first online book-oriented site designed for sharing reading experiences. LibraryThing, its geekier older cousin, launched in 2005; Goodreads went online in 2007. (I’ve compared the cultures of the two sites elsewhere.) It has a commercially appealing presence, a panoply of social features, a strong mobile app (which currently accounts for half of the traffic to the platform) and is welcoming to authors and publishers who use the site for both engagement and marketing. It has been so successful at attracting members who spend hours “shelving” books, writing reviews, sharing quotes, discussing books, and participating in contests, people’s-choice awards, and discussion groups that it threatened to eclipse Amazon customer reviews as a socially-mediated place to discover what to read next. A year after a 2012 dust-up with Amazon over restrictions on its API (with Goodreads member “librarians” scrambling to manually restore links to information that was getting lost in the transition), Amazon bought Goodreads. It had previously acquired a competitor, Shelfari, and acquired a minority interest in LibraryThing when it bought Abebooks and its holdings. That said, LibraryThing provides no information about members to third parties, including Amazon; Goodreads does and integrates members’ Amazon activity into members’ Goodread accounts as an opt-in feature. Though Goodreads lost some members when it was acquired by Amazon, it has gained far more, going from 16 million to 40 million members in the past two years.

Bullies and collective drama

Amazon has gone through public dramas over book reviews, from inadvertently exposing anonymous reviewers on their Canadian site, revealing authors praising their books and trashing other writers’ works, to deleting reviews by people who Amazon determines, though obscure and slightly creepy means, to be acquainted with the books’ authors. Goodreads reviews are widely perceived as being more trustworthy, but that hasn’t stopped drama erupting, sometimes with Vesuvian energy. A group of authors who felt they were being unfairly criticized banded together to fight “bullies,” with the author Anne Rice playing a high-profile role. In turn, readers have decried authors who they feel overreact to negative reviews, sometimes resorting to stalking and harassing readers who don’t give their books high marks.

At times, interventions made by Goodreads staff have created further strife, as when reviews and lists of books curated by members were abruptly  deleted to conform to a new policy banning ad hominem attacks on authors. As often happens on commercial social platforms, anger among users was partially due to the fact that they feel the content they created is theirs, when actually control over the content of the site remains with the corporation. Given that this site is in many ways a marketing platform for writers, including many self-published authors with few outlets for publicity, conflicts are inevitable if, at times, a bit ludicrous. Both readers and authors who I surveyed were sometimes wary about the potential for prickly author/reader interactions on the site, yet the site is unarguably successful for many readers who want to socialize with other book lovers.

Exploring Goodreads

Though I personally prefer LibraryThing because of its privacy policies and its reader-centered focus, I spent some time exploring Goodreads’ features, including joining a reading community devoted to mysteries, crime, and thrillers. (There are a lot of discussion groups formed on Goodreads. A group for moderators has nearly 1,500 members.) This group, apparently formed around 2009, has four busy moderators and over 12,700 members, with an increase of about a thousand in less than a year. Members propose and vote on two monthly discussion books and volunteer to lead discussions, rather like the practice of the 4_mystery_addicts group that I’ve previously described. Members also post items of interest, share reading challenges, discuss  and recommend books to one another, and organize “buddy reads.” Author self-promotion is confined to a small part of the group and is otherwise strongly discouraged.

Scanning through discussion threads, one sees the kind of relationship-building and affirmation that keeps an online community humming along peacefully. The group rules begin with “be kind and courteous to everyone and refrain from personal attacks.” They go on to ask members to hide spoilers with a Goodreads technical feature, stay on topic, and provide links to books and authors mentioned without relying on cover art, which may not be easily viewed on a mobile device. Several restrictions also apply to nominating books for discussion, including making sure the book is available to an international audience and that authors and their publicists may not nominate their own works or interfere with the voting process.

Goodreads offers groups functions for sharing photos, creating polls, and inviting friends to join. Members’ profiles are available, including information about whether a member is currently visiting the site and what book they are reading at the moment. It’s fascinating to see so many of the same practices used at this site as on the older Yahoo Groups formed for book discussions, but Goodreads is growing fast while traffic to Yahoo sites devoted to books seems to be falling precipitously.

The Double-sided bookshelf

Lisa Nakamura , a literary scholar and professor of American culture and film at the University of Michigan, has published a lot about race and gender in social media. Her insightful article about Goodreads published in PMLA in 2013, “Words With Friends: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads,” suggests that scholars should stop focusing so much on the differences between print and digital texts and instead examine discourse about reading books taking place online. Such sites use “bookshelves” to express identity in a public way, producing a public “reading self” just as displaying books on a living room bookcase does. She ties the identification of self with consumption to the history of the bookcase in American homes, drawing on Ted Striphas’s fascinating research that uncovered the marketing strategy that led Americans to use books as a marker of social status and taste in the early 20th century. (Both Striphas and Nakamura are compelling writers and critics, well worth reading.)

Nakamura points out how this consumptive display means that we, ourselves, are being collected.

Goodreads is an amazing tool, a utopia for readers. But by availing ourselves of its networked virtual bookshelves to collect and display our readerliness in a postprint age, we have become objects to be collected, by Goodreads and its myriad commercial partners. . . . Goodreads efficiently captures the value of our recommendations, social ties, affective networks, and collections of friends and books. Goodreads bookshelves are unlike real bookshelves not because the books are not real but because they are not really ours.

She goes on to contrast the joyful and seemingly democratic nature of these shared (but corporately-owed) bookshelves.

Goodreads uses algorithms to rank and evaluate books and organize them into egocentric networks. Seen in this light, it’s a folksonomic, vernacular platform for literary criticism and conversation—that most esteemed of discursive modes — that is open to all, solving the problem of locked- down content that pay-to-read academic publishing reproduces. On the other hand, open access to a for-profit site like Goodreads has always exacted a price—loss of privacy, friction-free broadcasting of our personal information, the placing of user content in the service of commerce, and the operationalization and commodiication of reading as an algocratic practice.

She urges literary scholars to pay attention to sites of social reading like this and the ways that commodification and vernacular criticism intersect. “Let us hope,” she concludes, “that reading’s digital future will include the kind of critique and unmasking of the technoimaginary’s hidden ideologies that readers and writers deserve.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Sharing Reading in 140 Characters

August 27, 2015

Twitter is kind of hard to explain to those who don’t use it regularly. Originally described as a “micro-blogging platform,” it’s often dismissed as a trivial pursuit. How can you possibly say anything meaningful in 140 characters? Why do I care what somebody ate for breakfast? How does this thing even work? What a useless time-suck!

In fact, the criticisms of Twitter are very similar to those made of blogging when it was new and, later, of Facebook in the days before it became as ubiquitous as it now is. In the most recent social media update published by the Pew Internet project, 71 percent of American adults who go online use Facebook; nearly 60 percent of all American adults use Facebook. Twitter has an outsized media profile because of its immediacy, but a much smaller user base, with only 23 percent of adult Americans who use the internet signing up. For more than three-quarters of the population, Twitter remains either irrelevant or a puzzle – or both.

Though  I created a Twitter account in 2008, I didn’t really get it. I learned how and why to use the platform while at a digital humanities THATCamp unconference in 2011. Attendees were encouraged to tweet about the concurrent sessions, and I quickly learned how to set up an application to watch several twitterstreams at once, including one from a university press conference happening at the same time. It was distracting and fast-paced, but amazingly fun and useful. Since then, most of the professional conferences I’ve attended have had a lively Twitter backchannel. At conferences, Twitter becomes my form of note-taking (at least if the wifi is able to handle the load; often it can’t.) At one conference I attended, a handful of us began to plan an unconference to address issues we wanted to explore further using Twitter, and that unconference actually happened as a result.

For me, Twitter is primarily as a serendipity engine, like browsing bookshelves or scanning an RSS feed. I follow around 500 people and organizations who share information that I find useful, often in the form of links. A majority of those I follow are librarians and academics, with a handful of journalists who cover things that interest me, as well as a smattering of people and groups who share my interest in crime fiction. Though I don’t even try to keep up with the flow, I check in daily and generally end up reading and saving links to news stories, scholarly papers, blog posts, or other resources that I may use later in research or teaching. Sometimes I engage in informal conversations, kicking an idea around with others. Sometimes I join scheduled chats about a topic of interest.

Twitter as a reading community platform

Twitter is a site where online reading communities form. It has hosted book clubs, as described by Anatoliy Gruzd and DeNel Rehberg Sedo in their article, “#1b1t: Investigating Reading Practices at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.” Early Word (a site that informs public librarians about forthcoming books) hosts a monthly “galley chat” where librarians share their responses to advanced reader copies of forthcoming books that they’ve read and recommend. A popular hashtag is #fridayreads, used to share what the Twitter members are reading. This practice was kicked off by Bethanne Patrick, whose Twitter handle is @TheBookMaven. Another popular hashtag appended to book-related tweets is #amreading.

BookVibe is a service that mines and analyzes books mentioned in the tweets of people you follow and sends a weekly update of their recommendations. In part, this seems an exercise by an entrepreneurial group of computer scientists to develop ways of extracting information from tweets, but it’s interesting that the tech company decided to focus on books. In their “about” page, the challenge of sorting books from chaff is described this way:

 . . . out of around 500 million tweets a day, traditional text matching search techniques would return around 10 million tweets a day that could be book titles, but the actual number of tweets about books is around 300,000 per day. Our technology handles these distinctions with very high precision.

The recommendations I get are a mixed bag, given the various interests of the people I follow, but they do tend to accurately identify books from the millions of short messages flowing constantly.

What does Twitter do for readers?

One of the things you can do on Twitter is create lists of Twitter accounts that you may not want to subscribe to, but will provide a site for serendipity when you want to see what a group is talking about right now. My Twitter account, for example, has been put on a number of lists other people have created, mostly library-related. I created a “bookfolks” list of fifty Twitter accounts that focus primarily on books and/or crime fiction. These range from tweets sent by Book Riot (a book-focused community website) and Shelf Awareness (a news service of sorts for independent booksellers and readers) to individual book bloggers or fans. Just to get a sense of whether my typical use of Twitter as a serendipity engine holds true for book-related tweets, I randomly chose a day to see what these fifty Twitter accounts send out within a twelve-hour period. It’s not scientific – I will leave such technicalities to computer scientists and digital wonks such as those at  BookVibe.

Scanning through the tweets of fifty accounts for a 12-hour span on August 26th, I found that the largest number of tweets were links that led to book-related news or entertainment. The next largest category were promotional tweets – one account in particular was primarily devoted to promoting self-published thrillers, linking to Amazon pages; another, less active account pointed out items on the market for book collectors. There were also quite a few unrelated tweets – ones focused on current events or politics rather than on books. Twitter users typically have more than one interest and their Twitter streams reflect that, just as other online book discussions include a certain amount of “OT” (off topic) chatter. A smaller number linked to blog posts or to book reviews, with a smattering of tweets about book-related events, humorous quips about books and reading, inspirational quotations, or information about crime film or television dramas. While this breakdown is unlikely to be entirely typical, it mirrors my personal experience with Twitter. It is, above all, a site for sharing links to items of interest to one’s followers, with an admixture of links or comments on unfolding events. (In this time span, a particularly grisly crime was dominating cable news and leaking into this Twitter stream.) Some of the tweets had attracted comments and started conversations. John Scalzi, a science fiction author who is also an active blogger and Tweeter, had half a dozen comments on one of his tweets. But most of the tweets in this small sample were either posts without comments or retweets of other people’s tweets.

I also experimented with twXplorer, a tool developed by Knight Lab at Northwestern University, a non-profit organization that helps journalists use technology for reporting news stories. Using this tool, I was able to look at terms and hashtags used by accounts on my list and more broadly on Twitter, with terms and hashtags sorted for up to the most recent 500 tweets. twXplorer also finds links that turn up repeatedly, but my searches didn’t produce any common links. This is likely a more useful feature for journalists following breaking news stories.

list analysis

Analysis of Bookfolks list


Analysis of #amreading


Analysis of #mystery


Twitter is a platform that encourages a new kind of online community, one based on affinity and interlocking interests (and, admittedly, for marketing), with a tendency to lead participants away from the platform to follow links to other sites. At times, it generates conversations that can involve multiple people and dozens of tweets, but following conversations can be tricky. It’s often used to host scheduled chats, with rapid-fire short messages posted to respond to prompts or simply conversing on a common topic for a designated hour. It is used by authors as a promotional platform, though (as in other media) the authors who engage in authentic engagement with readers are far more likely to gain a following than tweets that simply lead to an Amazon sales page. There are also informal but regular sharing of reading experiences using tags such as #fridayreads or #amreading. Readers, writers, libraries, bookstores, and publishers use Twitter for engagement.

The Ferguson (Missouri) Public Library, which gained an international audience of followers in the wake of Michael Brown’s death and the #BlackLivesMatter protests that followed, does a particularly fine job of engaging readers with prompts like “What is the best basketball book ever?” and “what fictional character is most like you? In what way?” All of the responses are retweeted, widening the circle of participants and creating a sense of community that expands well beyond the library’s service area. Scotty Bonner, the director of this small public library, is unusually proficient at using technology in innovative ways and gained an unusually large following in part because of being in the national eye, even participating in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” a signal achievement for tech-oriented people. This one small library provides an example of how individuals and book-related enterprises use Twitter in ways that create community around books, even within the platform’s 140-character limit.

Authors Interacting With Readers Online

August 20, 2015
Twitter connections mapped

Social Collider image courtesy of Channy Yun

Authors are often pressured to connect online to develop a reader base and promote their work. This puts them in the dicey situation of relating to people socially while also marketing their books. I was curious about how writers manage that balance and what they find rewarding or frustrating about interacting with readers online.

I created a short unscientific survey for crime fiction authors and distributed the link through a number of social sites where crime fiction authors participate: Dorothy-L, the Sisters in Crime Yahoo group, Twitter, and the crime fiction communities on Goodreads and Wattpad. Of the 33 writers who chose to participate, two were under 25 and eleven were over 65, with the largest number of respondents (16) between ages 45 and 65. One respondent preferred not to specify demographic details. Most respondents were women (27), with only five men participating. All but two or three of the respondents live in North America. (Two live in Europe; one chose not to specify a location.)  Fourteen of the respondents are traditionally published, 12 are both traditionally and self-published, four are self-published, and two chose “not yet published; I am evaluating options.”

Platforms of choice

I asked participants to tell me which social media they use from a list I provided. Of social media platforms, Facebook was the most commonly used, with 30 respondents saying they use it. This is not surprising. A recent Pew Internet report found that Facebook is far and away the most commonly used social media platform, though its membership growth is plateauing, while the less-popular sites Pinterest and Instagram have doubled their membership since 2012.

Blogs (including either writing posts or commenting on them) remain a major social tool for these writers, with 24 respondents involved in blogging, closely followed by Twitter (22). Email discussion lists focused on crime fiction were the next most popular medium, with 20 respondents participating in such groups. Slightly over half (17) used Goodreads, with far fewer using LibraryThing (3), not surprising given that Goodreads has a much larger membership and encourages authors to promote their work, whereas LibraryThing explicitly focuses on readers and their books. (There is an LT Author badge and regular author chats and book giveaways at LibraryThing, but the overall culture of Goodreads is more commercially oriented.) The four who used Wattpad were 45 or younger, including two respondents under 25. Only one respondent (over 65) reported using none of the social media options in the survey. There did not appear to be any particular patterns of use by age among these respondents except in the case of Wattpad.

When asked what makes particular platforms useful to respondents as writers, the most common response across the board was interaction or relationship-building. This was mentioned by eleven respondents as a plus for Facebook. Four praised email lists for this quality, and three felt blogs were useful for relationship-building. Some sites were valued as places where authors could express themselves, with Wattpad and blogs each having this quality mentioned by three respondents. Another reason respondents preferred various media was reach, where, again, Facebook (the largest of social platforms) was most frequently mentioned, with Twitter an also-ran. The sheer size of membership can be a factor. As one respondent put it, “I’ve found Facebook and Goodreads to be the most useful. They provide opportunity for a writer to get to know and interact with a large number of people from around the world, people who – once they get to know you – may purchase your books or at least recommend them to their own circles.” But several respondents mentioned that they found it hard to keep up with all the options and weren’t sure whether they were useful to their writing careers. As one respondent put it,

Despite the worldwide spread of the Internet, I feel I only reach a very few people through my social media efforts. Only a handful of people like or comments on my Facebook/blog posts. There’s so many blogs and so much “noise” on the Internet that it’s impossible to rise above the clutter.

Positives and negatives

I asked what authors liked most about interacting online with readers. When coding the results, the two most commonly-mentioned positives were socializing or meeting people (11) and getting affirmation (11). As one respondent put it, “this is a profession rife with rejection. I get validation from the interactions.” Two interrelated benefits were learning about writing and the publishing industry and finding out what readers like, both in one’s own writing and in crime fiction generally, with 12 respondents responding in one of these ways. Other qualities mentioned by at least two respondents were appreciating candor within a community, having fun, the immediacy of interacting online, low cost, and being able to belong to an affinity group.

My next question had to do with the downside: what is most frustrating about interacting with readers online? The two most-commonly mentioned problems were the time it took away from writing (7 mentions) and dealing with hostility or argumentative people (9). As one respondent put it, “The Internet can be a mean forum.” Most of the problems arose from disagreements over personal beliefs or political issues, but some irritation was caused by people criticizing a writer’s work or disparaging it because it included elements such as “bad” language or sexuality that they disapproved of. Five were bothered by the shallowness of many interactions. Five were troubled by lack of response to their comments or posts. Three mentioned that they were frustrated by not having any way to connect the time spent on social media with sales. As one put it,

there’s no measurable way of assessing impact/results . . . The lack of metrics dismays me because my time is not unlimited and my main job is writing.”

While social media platforms often include metrics (and even promote them), traditional publishers don’t provide up-to-date sales information, and even if self-published authors have current information, it’s difficult to correlate with time-consuming social interactions online. Another respondent wrote “I don’t blog anymore. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made for my career. 3000 words per month to a blog – 3000 words not directed to my next book.”

Additional thoughts

I closed the short survey with an open question: Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your experiences participating in social media? The conflict between the time spent on social media and writing the next book was felt by many respondents. As one put it,

Too much new technology to learn. Writing blogs can be time consuming for little results. Social media was leaving me too tired and with too little time left to actually WRITE! I put my energy now on my stories instead of social media.

Another said, “I spend far too much time on it. If you’re not careful, you can waste a good part of your day.”

The focus on getting attention promoted in many social media platforms was also a concern. As one respondent put it, “I’d rather be writing books than participating in online fashion shows.” But another respondent had mixed feelings.

Sometimes I feel like I’m simply adding to the social noise when I post anything, and maybe it would be better if we all unplugged. OTH, I live in a rural area with few opportunities for reader contact, and I do think the contact makes me a better writer.

For some, it was important to maintain a careful balance between being authentic and coming across as a heavy-handed marketer. (My previous reader survey bears this out – readers enjoy genuine interactions with writers, but are quickly turned off when they feel that the interaction is geared primarily toward sales). One offered advice about how to pull this balancing act off.

Don’t force it. Be cool. Don’t be a jerk screaming “buy my book,” every eight seconds. Give content, answer questions, be funny (not forced), pleasant and available.

Though one respondent reported seeing a spike in sales whenever she had a blog tour, another wrote, “It’s actually pretty hard to find readers on social media. Most of the folks I’m finding are authors trying to find readers.”

While a majority of respondents in these open comments reflected on how much writing time could be wasted on social media, some respondents said that once they overcame a learning curve and established a routine, they could fold communicating with readers online into their workflow. Learning best practices from one another also helped. As one respondent explained it,

I started early and have kept up. I’m glad I did. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but because I got in early I found a few really great people from whom to watch and learn. And it cost me nothing but time.

Of course, the lack of time was a major issue among respondents.

While authors are frequently pushed to engage with readers online to promote their books, these writers were thoughtful about the nature and value of their use of social media. Like readers, they value authentic interactions (and, sometimes, the affirmation readers provided), and seemed largely realistic about the limitations such interactions have for boosting their careers. Some have deliberately reduced the time they spend online to focus on writing the next book. Others enjoy social media interactions but still question whether they have the value that publishers often put on them.

A quick search online will turn up thousands of articles explaining how authors should (or shouldn’t) use social media, often in the form of listicles: five essential sites, ten rules for engagement, 100 tips . . . Just reading through search results can be exhausting. The lack of metrics that tie sales to interactions online, the amount of time it can take away from writing in a genre where a book a year is a minimum expectation, and the sheer volume of writers seeking attention can be daunting. This is particularly true given that building a presence in an online community takes time and overt marketing is met with (often fierce) resistance. But there are benefits apart from the sales aspect, particularly in learning readers’ perspectives on books and gaining a sense of connection and affirmation.

Thanks to the authors who took the time to share their thoughts and experiences. For writers who feel they’ve been pressed to do too much connecting, there’s a satirical piece by Heather Havrilesky in the New Yorker, “How to Contact the Author,” that illustrates the fraught aspects of being expected to develop close relationships with readers when carried too far.

Discussing Crime Fiction Online: Getting Personal

August 1, 2015
self portrait with books

photo courtesy of glulladuepuntozero.

I have been fascinated by the critical, interpersonal, and social dynamics of discussing reading experiences online for as long as I have participated in online reading groups. Though it’s a relatively new topic of serious study, I’ve found books and articles by scholars in multiple disciplines who have analyzed reading communities, online and off, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I’ve collected these references in a public Zotero group. I’m going to say a few words about how some scholars have approached this topic and then delve into my personal experience as a member of a variety of reading communities.

I suspect that literary critic and historian Janice Radway laid the foundation for inquiries into popular reading practices by exploring gender, the economics of book publishing, and collective reading experiences in her influential book, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984). In a sense, she gave us permission to turn critical attention away from texts to focus on readers and to their everyday reading experiences. Sociologist Elizabeth Long’s study, Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (2003) comes at it from another discipline. She examined book clubs as an increasingly popular if gendered social phenomenon. It’s telling that her fellow sociologists found her subject matter too bourgeois and feminine (i.e. trivial) to be of scholarly interest.

Since then a variety of scholars in multiple disciplines, including Ted Striphas, who considers how Oprah’s Book Club functions in The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. I’ve dipped a toe into the voluminous research on fan culture online and the ways that digital interaction is changing culture and our legal framework for understanding cultural materials as intellectual property. Henry Jenkins’s book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) does a good job of unpacking these ideas and includes an interesting chapter on how young fans have appropriated and interacted with the Harry Potter series. DeNel Rehberg Sedo has studied both in-person and online reading groups, including Twitter as a book club discussion platform. With Danielle Fuller she has written the book on mass reading events in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Lisa Nakamura sees in Goodreads a new way of exploring books; she argues that the digital traces of shared reading experiences is a more fruitful site for scholarship than the more common focus on contrasting digital and print textual formats. Nancy M. Foasberg has examined reading challenges posed by bloggers as a feature of contemporary reader engagement that can tell us something about how and why we read collectively.

Finally, two essay collections are particularly valuable: From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (2012) edited by Anouk Lang and Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace (2011) edited by DeNel Rehberg Sedo. They are brimming with fascinating insights.

Back in 2005, I added my two cents’ worth with a mixed-methods study of an online reading community that I participate in, arguing that these digital gathering places are valuable to librarians for their contributions to reader’s advisory, for the insights such groups provide into the reading practices of avid readers, and as a demonstration of the social nature of reading. It was fun to mix my personal passions with my scholarly life.

As I write this, I am exploring autoethnography with a group of far-flung colleagues to see how and if this methodology might be a useful tool for practicing librarians. Though I am still in the beginning stages of learning what autoethnography is and how to do it, it has inspired me to think about online reading communities in the first person, by analyzing my own experience in a variety of communities that have formed around discussions of crime fiction.


I was first motivated to seek out these communities not because I am an avid crime fiction reader (though I am) but because I had a contract for my first novel and got the impression (I cannot recall from whom – an editor? My agent? Something I had read?) that I should start building an audience by connecting with readers online. The only place I knew of to do this was Dorothy-L, the legendary Listserv-based email list founded in 1991. I joined (according to its archives, available to members) in the fall of 2001. It was surprising to revisit my posts from that time. I clearly wasn’t ready to out myself as an aspiring writer. My self-presentation was as a crime fiction fan and a librarian. My posts were mostly comments on books that I was reading and recommending or on my response to a book someone else had mentioned. I also commented with some frequency on what someone else had posted related to book culture (publishing, marketing, bookselling, whether reading was on the decline or not, and the like). At times, I tossed a question or challenge out to the group – what mysteries would you put on the reading list for a course on the geography of mystery? What overlooked writers deserve to be on the bestseller list? Sometimes an online community can seem a series of posts related only by a common interest, but the back-and-forth conversations collectively sharing knowledge of and fondness for the genre was the list’s greatest attraction for me.

Looking back, my posts seem both long-winded and a little goofy (intentionally). When I was responding to a topic that wasn’t about reading mysteries, I generally ended with an explicit attempt to redirect the discussion to be “on topic” – to sharing experiences of reading mysteries. I was apparently not only unready to present myself as an author, I tried to influence the community’s attention, directing it away from writing and publishing toward books and reading.  I’m not sure, at this distance, whether I was responding to group cues or if that focus was my personal preference – or both. There seemed a tension on the list about its purpose. While authors were encouraged to let members know about new books, I sensed some uneasiness that the list was becoming dominated by authors talking to one another while competing for readers’ attention.

One of the shortest messages I posted in 2002 was an invitation to a bookstore signing for my first book. Clearly, I was not at all comfortable with the identity “writer” and hesitated to call attention to that part of my life, even though I had joined ostensibly to make that identity known. Other members who were writers were not shy about reminding members of their status. In fact, the subject of how writers should present themselves was often under discussion. Members criticized “drive-by” authors who only posted when they had a new book to promote and praised those who participated as genuine people who were generous with their attention. Straddling the line between promotion and more authentic self-representation was often on my mind as I saw how members responded to negatively to promotional messages while warmly welcoming messages from favorite writer-members.

I posted fairly often throughout 2003 and into 2004. All this time, I was struggling to produce a second book in a three-book contract for an editor who didn’t like anything I wrote. (My original editor had left the house long before the first was published and my relationship with the editor who inherited my orphaned books was unhappy.) A message from March 2004, responding to a post about an article in Salon describing an anonymous midlist author’s misery, reveals something of my ambivalence.

I thought the article did one thing tellingly–reveal how personally everything about publishing can be taken if you’re not careful. I thought [the author’s] sense of frustration or jealousy that made it hard for her to enjoy reading or watching television because her own sense of failure was so in her face was something I’ve heard, though not so up front, from a lot of unhappy people.

I think an industry that involves people’s hearts and souls–and I think that goes for many editors and booksellers and readers, not just writers–is bound to get personal. You have to do it for the love of it and hope you can pay your bills. (Hey, if not, read some of those caper books and see if it gives you ideas!)

Meanwhile–why I’m posting from my desk at work–I’m reading this fascinating article in Behavioral and Brain Science–really!–about an experiment in which some researchers stripped names off published research and resubmitted them; a huge number were rejected. In the multiple responses to this article is one from a guy who did the same in trade publishing–submitted a Jerszy Kosinski novel that won an NBA to agents and publishers who said it was unpublishable trash. Which just goes to show you…. something. Maybe that we’re all human and we’d better not take the process too seriously. Or too personally. Or that one man’s trash is another man’s award winner.

Here I am acknowledging my identification with the painful aspects of being a writer who is struggling in a difficult business without explicitly confessing my own emotional state. Instead, I throw in a list-appropriate joke and turn to my academic librarian identity, drawing on a scholarly article to both bolster my point and deflect it from my own experience.

In the following month, I suspended my subscription to the list. It had actually become a source of pain for me. My writing career was not going well and the list seemed to me to have be taken over by irritating self-promoters with a grim desperation for attention. Dorothy-L had started as a forum for discussing mysteries, but from the start had allowed BSP – blatant self-promotion – because many members enjoyed forming relationships with writers in this informal space. When I first joined, I was pleased to see occasional posts by Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, and Charlaine Harris before they were routinely on the New York Times bestseller list. In this sense, it was not unlike a fan convention, where fans and the objects of their enthusiasm mingle. But it also had become a place where authors sought attention and squabbled with each other over publishing issues. I didn’t want to be exposed to so much anxiety and yearning for publishing success when I was experiencing too much of that emotional turmoil myself.


Besides, by then I had found a different community that was a more comfortable fit. I somehow got chatting with a Dorothy-L member offlist who recommended that I join 4_Mystery_Addicts (colloquially known as 4MA), a Yahoo group founded in 1999 that held regular formal group book discussions and sternly warned authors applying for membership that they were to be present only as readers, not as writers. BSP was strictly banned, as were links to self-promoting blog posts or surreptitious log-rolling among authors promoting each other. If somehow a promotional message slipped past the moderators, group members were quick to call it out. Contentious issues – politics and religion specifically – were also unwelcome unless they were intrinsic to a book under discussion. For me, this was a safe space where I could talk about mysteries without getting depressed about the process of publishing them. It was a place free of the frantic self-promotion that seemed to be making all the writers I knew miserable. Members had meaty, in-depth discussions of actual books, which was fun for me as a reader and informative as a writer.

I joined in June of 2003, and in the first two or three days felt lost. It was an incredibly busy group at that time; in that month alone, 3,713 messages were posted by some 600 members. There were inside jokes and abbreviations I didn’t understand. I was nonplussed when a dozen or more members personally welcomed me. I wasn’t sure what the protocol for responding was, and had an momentary sense of panic: how can I fit in here? How will I manage this avalanche of messages? Why are we talking about spandex shorts? (I can’t revisit that disorienting series of messages to confirm my memory. Unlike the Dorothy-L Listserv, Yahoo Groups had a storage limit at that time, and a moderator went through the archived messages and deleted any that didn’t relate to monthly reading reports from members  or book discussions to ensure we didn’t go over the limit.) But I stuck with it and it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of things.

There were regular prompts to share reading experiences and recommendations. There were three formal book discussions every month, and a process for nominating and voting for books to be discussed. There were lively discussions about life as an avid reader, including whether an oven could be used for book storage and how to deal with people who ask silly questions like “have you read all those books?” There were hilarious accounts of adventures on the 62 bus in Glasgow posted by a Scottish member, Donna Moore. Members often attended fan conventions and, whenever possible, organized meetups. Frequently photos of those gatherings were shared at the group’s site.

In February 2006, the moderators invited me to join them when one of the original moderators retired. It was an honor to be asked, but also a chance to see behind the curtain at all the work that went into keeping the group harmoniously humming along. All new members had to be approved. Members who were new or prone to posting problematic messages had to have their posts approved, one by one. If a conflict threatened to boil up, combative members were placed on moderation temporarily. Nominations for discussion books had to invited and collated, with a runoff poll created for the five top-ranking books. Discussion leaders (called Question Maestros) had to be recruited and polls created to collect readers’ responses to a book, with results posted to a database of books discussed that dates back to the beginning of the group. January was “moderator’s choice” month, so we had to decide which books to discuss and come up with discussion questions. Once a year, the moderators went through a byzantine process to select series reads that would offer members a variety of series to discuss. Each moderator has a distinct set of housekeeping duties and jointly discussed problems that come up from time to time – should this person be put on moderation? is there some way to liven up moribund discussions? Is this off-topic conversation going on too long? From time to time the Yahoo platform went through changes, with a particularly extreme transition in 2014 to the “neo” platform, which was rolled out piecemeal and with major functions broken – all of which required moderator intervention.

Apart from the mostly hidden work performed by moderators, I’ve been fascinated by the ways group members interact to affirm one another, maintain long-running jokes, celebrate happy moments, and comfort one another when there’s an illness or a loss.

Edited to add: Jessamyn West, who worked as a moderator at Metafilter for many years, has written a great analysis of what goes into moderating a site well at Medium. Another excellent discussion of moderation styles can be found in a paper by James Grimmelmann, “The Virtues of Moderation.”

Collective individualism

For a time, I belonged to a USENET group, rec.arts.mystery, established in the early 1990s. It was self-moderating in a fascinating way. USENET, which launched at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980, embraced the free-wheeling free speech ethos of the early days of the internet and was decentralized by design. Though the focus of rec.arts.mystery was crime fiction, politics and religion were not off-limits. Political messages routinely led to flaming hot arguments, but somehow the community of regulars used humor and a common interest in genre fiction to surround the combatants and keep the flames from burning the place down. In a sense, the members who were most active in sustaining the community and its anarchic values played a moderator role without having the technical levers most platforms provide. Unlike 4MA, there were no scheduled book discussions or prompts to share reading experiences. Rather, a core group of regulars kept up an ongoing loosely-joined conversation about books and everything else.

As USENET grew less easily available to the casual user, more devoted to sharing files than messages, members dropped off to seek another platform. Some carry on at Google Groups, a neglected corner of a very large company that has not been successful at developing social media platforms. Much of the diaspora settled on Facebook, where private or public groups can be created but the most powerful levers are trade secrets controlled by the ghost in the machine.

If these three online communities were likened to a fan convention, one might say Dorothy-L would be most like the interactions between authors and readers at the convention hotel bar, 4MA would be the fan-organized program, and rec.arts.mystery would be the free-wheeling conversations in the hallways among friends. In reality, these online communities intersect with the in-real-life fan communities at events such as Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Crimefest, and other volunteer-led crime fiction-focused gatherings. For members who couldn’t attend Bouchercon, the largest of these annual fan events, members of Dorothy-L routinely held a virtual party for those left behind.

Linked together

Another online reading community has formed around crime-fiction-focused book blogs. While many blogs belong to writers or groups of writers, readers also share their reading experiences through individual or group blogs. Comment threads often gather together readers who visit multiple blogs and form a loose-knit community. One of the most active weavers of these threads was Maxine Clarke, an editor for Nature who reviewed mysteries on her own blog and made a point of encouraging other bloggers by visiting and commenting prolifically. She invited me to a new platform for online communities, FriendFeed, where she had set up a crime and mystery fiction room.

FriendFeed was a social RSS feed reader. Individuals could synchronize multiple feeds and follow those curated by others, sharing and commenting on links of common interest, with the most recent material rising to the top of the page. In addition to allowing backchannel DMs (direct messages), members could set up rooms where groups could pool feeds and hold conversations. Once I got the hang of the platform, I visited daily or more often to see what was new. This community, unlike the others I belonged to, was not dominated by American members. The most active members were from the U.K. and Australia and my knowledge of the genre expanded as a result. Because of its immediacy, this room on FriendFeed gave me a sense of being always on top of the latest news about the genre as well as up-to-speed on the blogs that I formerly had followed more intermittently. Though the most extensive comments remained on individual blogs, the Crime and Mystery Fiction FriendFeed Room promoted a warm sense of comradery.

That community spirit was tested when (to my complete shock and dismay) a member posted the news that Maxine had died after a long illness. While she was generous with her time and attention, she wasn’t one to make personal things public. I had no idea she was in the last stages of cancer. I remember reading that brief message and trying to understand it. How could that be? I had already started planning to research online reading communities for my sabbatical and assumed Maxine would be there to share her instinctive and thorough knowledge of how these communities worked. Apart from that, I felt she was a true and close friend, and it was not only a heartfelt loss, but a reminder that there was so much that I didn’t know about people who I felt so close to. It’s perhaps a measure of the community that Maxine pulled together and nurtured that a remembrance blog was put together to commemorate her passion for the genre and an annual prize was established in her name. This prize, for the best Scandinavian work of crime fiction of the year, has a sterling line-up of judges (who meet, fittingly, at an annual fan convention to deliberate) and has gained so much respect from publishers that winners note the award proudly on their dust jackets.


Dorothy-L trundles along even as new social platforms draw attention away from pre-web community platforms. My impression, on rejoining the list in 2015, is that readers have continued to chat about mysteries while the most self-absorbed writers have gone elsewhere to promote their books. It could be, of course, that I’m simply less sensitive to writers and their discontents, having greater distance myself from my first unhappy publishing experience. (I have published three mysteries altogether, the last coming out five years ago from the smallest of the Big Five publishers. I still feel uncomfortable identifying myself as a writer, but I don’t feel a pressing need to perform that role.)

4MA has grown in membership but activity has declined. The draw of other platforms has probably had an effect, but the disastrous rollout of the new “neo” platform is my prime suspect; participation in Yahoo groups, which number in the tens of thousands, appears to have tumbled across the board in recent months. The moderators decided to drop the mid-month series read this year due to lack of interest, and though the group still holds two formal discussions monthly, fewer members participate. A member survey suggested that people still value the list, so we’ll muddle along, but it’s not the dizzyingly busy list it once was.

I haven’t remained as well connected to my favorite bloggers since FriendFeed was shut down. I had grown dependent on having a single point of contact and haven’t restored a habit of visiting blogs routinely. Though the group reestablished itself on Facebook (which bought FriendFeed years ago and apparently remembered just long enough to shut it down), I haven’t kept up with it because I object to Facebook’s business model. For the same reason, I have never been a regular member of Goodreads (owned by Amazon, now, and built on the big-data-collection model that Facebook uses to sustain itself). Yahoo is a similar offender, gathering far too much personal information from its members, but it appears to be so much less competent at it that I’m  lulled into acceptance. Of the two non-profit platforms I have used for sharing reading experiences, USENET has ceased to be a place where people gather to talk things over and is no longer supported by many internet service providers; the Listserv platform used by Dorothy-L continues to be widely used in academia, though that may be changing. The academic librarian lists I have belonged to for years are slowing down now that there are so many other ways to share news and discuss ideas.

Where will readers gather in future to discuss their experiences with books? I have no idea, but I’m convinced having spent a decade and a half chatting online about crime fiction on a daily basis, that they will, one way or another.

self-portrait in bookstore

photo courtesy of Cristina Souza

Readers Respond to Online Reading Communities

August 1, 2015

after a book talk

Because I wanted to get the perspective of crime fiction readers who use a variety of social media, from email-based groups to newer platforms, I posted an anonymous survey to Twitter, the 4_Mystery_Addicts Yahoo group, Dorothy-L, and to crime-fiction-oriented forums on LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Wattpad. (Since I invited people to pass it along, it may have also traveled elsewhere.) The survey was open between April and the end of July, 2015 and collected 197 responses. It’s not at all scientific – purely a convenience sample that skews toward communities in which I’ve participated the most. While these aren’t results from which generalizations can be drawn, they provide some insight into the experiences of a self-selecting group of individuals.

Those who responded were largely avid readers of the genre, with well over half reporting that they read fifty or more books in the past year. Over three quarters reported that half or more of those books were in the crime fiction genre. This isn’t surprising since the only site where I posted the link that wasn’t focused on crime fiction was Twitter. The vast majority of respondents read books in print (93 percent), with a majority also reading ebooks (69 percent). As quarter also reported reading audio books. The vast majority of respondents (83%) live in North America, with additional responses from Europe, Australia or New Zealand, and Africa. Seventy-five percent of respondents were women; half were aged between 46 and 65, a third over 65, and the remainder younger than 45 or abstained from answering the question. This does not necessarily reflect who talks about books online; the Wattpad community, which is particularly popular with teens, has over 40 million members worldwide.I suspect that i was more likely to get the attention of members of two lists that have been in existence since the 1990s and have some very loyal long-term members; I am quite new to Wattpad, and as one of the survey respondents points out, it takes time to get the acceptance and attention of a community.

Discovering books

I asked respondents how they discover the crime fiction they read, asking them to choose the top three methods from a number of choices. Discussion lists were the most common choice, with 57 percent including them in their top three. (Since many respondents encountered the survey on one of two large and long-running lists, this is both unsurprising and no doubt skewed.) Around 35 percent of respondents chose reading online reviews at website or blogs, participating on book-focused social media sites such as Goodreads or LibraryThing, or getting recommendations from friends or coworkers as among their top three discovery methods. Thirty percent of respondents included reading book reviews in newspapers and magazines as one of their top three, and browsing in bookstores or in libraries were among the choices of around 22 percent of respondents. Least often chosen were all-purpose social media such as Facebook or Twitter and “other.”

Discussing books

Most survey respondents discuss books both online and off. A majority (79 percent) say they talk about crime fiction with friends or co-workers. Though half discuss books on discussion lists, only 20 percent do so in face-to-face reading groups. Another 29 percent discuss books at Goodreads, with 22 percent writing or commenting on blogs. LibraryThing was a site for crime fiction readers for 17 percent of respondents. That said, about a third of respondents read discussion threads in online reading communities but rarely or never post. A bit over a third contribute sometimes. Only 20 percent say they contribute frequently.

Since this is not a representative sample of these groups’ members, these percentages are not particularly meaningful except to say that a significant number of people who are in online reading groups find them worth joining even if they don’t feel like adding to the conversation themselves.

Tell me more

I asked four open questions. The first one was pure nosiness on my part. I’m always curious about why people read crime fiction. I coded the responses, looking for patterns, and found that these were the things respondents said were most satisfying about reading crime fiction, with many responses including more than one factor:

  • The puzzle (or plot, or solving the mystery) was mentioned by 91 respondents.
  • Characters (55); another 15 said they particularly enjoy series because they are able to see characters develop from one story to the next.
  • Justice is served, the good guys win, or restoring order (37); another 14 mentioned that they like the fact mysteries have endings, that the ending itself offers satisfaction. Others noted that justice is not so easily come by in real life. As one respondent put it “I know the world is not like this, but I want it to be.”
  • Pace or engagement in a gripping story (27)
  • Setting or sense of place and/or historical period (24)
  • Entertainment, relaxation, or escape (24) As one respondent put it, “sometimes I just let myself float along, and enjoy the ride like any one else benignly looking over the shoulder of someone’s very worst day.”
  • The capacity of mysteries to explore psychological aspects of crime or human nature generally (21)
  • Learning new things (10)
  • Enjoying good writing (9) Some respondents noted that they prefer crime fiction to literary fiction because of its focus on telling a story. As one respondent put it, “[I] enjoy the absence of the self-conscious ‘writerly’ elements that detract from some lit-fic. Crime fiction writers (most of them0 seem to concentrate on the story and the characters rather than on themselves.”

One respondent offered a detailed analysis of the pleasures of the genre:

Although it’s true of all fiction, there’s a special quality of distillation to the atmosphere and characters in crime fiction, likely because there is so much that has to be woven into a very logical trail offering puzzle and resolution, regardless of the narrative voice. I enjoy that quality of focus, assuming it’s done with an understanding of real human nature. That all holds true no matter how far from actual reality or seriousness the tale may be placed. If it’s consistent within itself, it works for me. And, oh yes, the challenge/ and the resolution. Not just of working out what went down, for its own sake, but I also feel an enjoyable ‘contest’ with the author. Which is very likely part of how favorites develop. Someone can be a ‘good’ writer, but if I don’t feel that interaction, I don’t go back. Must be something about ‘being on the same page,’ so to speak.

I also asked what respondents liked most about an online community and what they found most frustrating. Coding the responses, these were the benefits of being in an online community. The number of responses are in parentheses.

  • Learning about new books and authors (95); many respondents mentioned the value of finding people with similar “reading DNA” whose recommendations were reliably a good match for their tastes.
  • Reading a variety of opinions about a book (55); many respondents found that encountering different responses was particularly worthwhile.
  • The social relationships that develop in a community (23)
  • Holding book discussions (13)
  • Being among fellow crime fiction fans (12)
  • Sharing their own reading experiences and recommending books to others (11)

Frustrations included

  • Competitiveness, aggressiveness, hostility, or elitism (24)
  • Messages that were primarily book or blog marketing (16)
  • Off-topic digressions (13)
  • Lack of participation or lack of response to postings (12)
  • Not enough time to keep up (10)
  • People who post too often or at great length – “list hogs” (8)
  • Lack of sophisticated commentary on books (8)
  • Feeling that online communication lacks the richness of face-to-face relationships (3)
  • Finding that the group has different tastes than one’s own (3)
  • People who give spoilers in their posts (3)
  • Learning about tempting books that are inaccessible to them (2)
  • Sense of being rejected by a clique (2)

Note that 23 people said nothing frustrated them, with several mentioning that it was easy to skip over messages that didn’t interest them.

Finally, I invited respondents to add further thoughts about sharing their reading experiences online. Some comments related to what makes a group work – or not.

To really feel a member, it seems you have to participate a lot.

Having a platform where you can comment without being bullied or ridiculed for your views is paramount.

I don’t share my experiences often because I am shy online . . . I did have an early experience with a group that doesn’t exist anymore in which someone was very rude to me for no reason other than that she didn’t like the author that I did.

SO funny – when it’s great, it’s fascinating and revealing and enlightening and reassuring. When it’s terrible – it’s like high school. The cool kids stick together and the new kids are sneered at.

Others spoke about what they see as personal benefits of being in an online reading community.

I think it’s a great avenue to share information and thoughts with a diverse, though anonymous, group.

Since joining LibraryThing 8 years ago, my ‘to read’ is ridiculously amazing . . . I just love having a place where like-minded readers frequent, I visit it nearly every day and the social side is just as much fun as the book information.

I particularly enjoy it when authors participate in the discussion and update us on new work.

The discipline of posting comments regularly has sharpened my reading and writing skills. Reading the comments of other expands my awareness and guides me to other works of possible interest.

I find that sharing and reading about reading experiences online is a time-consuming, enjoyable meta-activity. I’m embarrassed to admit that I read more ‘about’ books than I read books themselves. Perhaps it’s a way to stay connected with the genre during periods when I lack the serenity to enter fictional worlds

I love it. There isn’t always a real-life chance to get into the weeds with your personal criticism and experiences when talking with your friends or spouse . . . [at Goodreads] I’ve got a thorough database of my reading and can see not just the memories, but have discovered some unsuspected personal patterns!

I appreciate that the group I belong to is international so that the participants bring various backgrounds and culture to the table.

I have met so many friends through the mystery community and some that I have met IRL [in real life] that upon meeting you feel you already know them. Have also had the opportunity to travel to mystery conventions that I would probably have done w/o the enthusiasm expressed online.

In general, regardless of the platform, readers who responded to the survey seem to enjoy learning about books from one another and seeing a variety of responses to books as well as the social interaction among fellow crime fiction enthusiasts. The positives, at least in this self-selecting group, appear to outweigh the negatives. I am grateful to all who took the time to respond to my survey and provided such intriguing insights.

header photo ca. 1920 courtesy of the New York Public Library Archives


July 14, 2015

I’ve been circulating these links around the crime fiction neighborhoods of the web. As part of my study of online reading communities, I have a crime fiction author survey and a crime fiction reader survey. I’d love your responses!

I’ll be reporting the results here … eventually.

photo courtesy of David Hanrath

Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus – a review

June 28, 2015

Like so many adult readers, I’m expanding my reading exploration into YA literature. Some titles I’ve enjoyed recently include The Doubt Factory by Paul Bacigalupi, Adaptation by Malinda Lo, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King, (which is aMAzing).

In a way, this is my third return to YA, the first being when I actually was Y myself and a wise librarian pushed a bunch of good books into my arms, the second during my undergraduate years when I discovered a branch library for the education department and decided to do an independent study on trends in young adult fiction just for fun (which it was). Now there’s a lot to catch up on as this turns out to still be one of the most intriguing segments of the book industry.

So when I was offered the chance to read one of the University of Minnesota Press’s YA titles, I jumped at it. Here’s my review.

Enchantment Lake
A Northwoods Mystery
by Margi Preus
University of Minnesota Press, March 2015

When 17-year-old Francie gets an emergency summons from her eccentric great aunts, she abandons an audition in New York to fly (and bus) home to Enchantment Lake, where many of the residents on the side of the lake that can only be reached by boat have died unexpectedly in bizarre accidents. Francie isn’t a detective, but she played one on TV, and many of the residents of Enchantment assume, despite her protests, that she is a skilled investigator. What else can she do but try to find out what’s really going on? Who is behind the effort to build a road to the side of the lake that is home to long-time residents living in modest cottages – and is that why residents are dropping dead?

Though billed as a YA book, it’s really for the young end of the age spectrum and reads like an old-school Nancy Drew adventure, including the conveniently absent parents and a teen who in a matter-of-fact way has nice things, like a New York apartment and an established if precarious career as an actor. There is a lot of investigating, introducing a cast of local characters (in every sense of the word), but also a healthy dose of action and a (very) light touch of romance.In this otherwise light-hearted mystery there are the moments when Francie wonders what happened to her mother, who disappeared before Francie had a chance to know her. Those passages are a bit like walking barefoot on a sun-warmed path and feeling a momentary chill as you pass through a patch of shadow – only to step into the sunlight again. Angsty this is not, but it benefits from those moments of depth. The sense of place is also evoked nicely with bits of description that will evoke a sense of nostalgia in anyone who has ever visited a lakeside cabin up north and wishes nothing would change, knowing it will.

As an example: “From here it seemed as if the forest stretched on forever. North and north into the great boreal forests of Canada. On days like this, when the wind blew from there, the smell of endless pines and lakes and granite filled the air. She felt herself snuffling the scent like a dog does, filling her lungs with it. It was a smell that called up some primal part of her, her wild, natural self. Her real self, she thought suddenly.”

To be honest, though, what delighted me most about this book was its design – it’s gorgeous. The cover is a Wanda-Gag-inspired patchwork of flora and fauna that includes visual hints of the mystery. Every chapter begins with a small, unique image and a page number framed by tiny loon silhouettes. It’s an old-fashioned children’s mystery with an old-school attention to design that is all too rare to find in book production today. And, for all that, the price for the hardcover is no higher than a typical trade paperback. Kudos to the University of Minnesota Press which kindly provided me with a review copy.