If Then Else – Hello, World

March 27, 2016

My latest work of fiction is now available as an open access book under a Creative Commons license. It’s a young adult story about a young coder whose brother is caught up in an FBI sting and arrested on a bogus terrorism charge. It was inspired by cases like it – a lot of would-be dissidents or coversimply disgruntled and unwary people have been persuaded by paid informants to say they would do stupid things that they wouldn’t have without official encouragement – and by the ways that we are all under unprecedented mass surveillance by both the state and by corporations.

Follow the link to download an ebook or PDF version for free or, if you really like print, you can order a print-on-demand copy via Lulu at cost. Lulu often has discount coupons to offset the price. Otherwise it will run you $6.29 plus $3.99 for shipping.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. I started it as a NaNoWriMo project, fueled by my increasing frustration about life in our modern-day panopitcon. It was improved by recommendations from my always-first reader to whom I am married, my agent, and an assistant editor who liked it, but not enough to get it past her publisher. As I wrote earlier this year, I decided the heck with trying to sell it. The fun part – writing – is done, so why not just release it into the wild?

So I did, using PressBooks to format the text in html, mobi, ePub, and PDF versions, which you can do with the push of a button.  Though you do have to pay something for this service, it’s a nice way to create a handsome book with a choice of styles. I decided to use Leonard, named for a favorite author of mine, Elmore Leonard. (Dillard is another favorite style – named for Annie Dillard – but this one seemed appropriate, and it is a bit more compact, which keeps the pagination and, therefore, the cost for the POD version down.) I also got useful support from Hugh McGuire, the creator of PressBooks, when I wanted to use a courier-style font for some of the text and wasn’t sure how. (Solution: monospace!)

In February I started to serialize the book via Twitter, chapter by chapter. And then – with a bit of delay because of various distractions – I wrapped up formatting and putting a print on demand version together.

By the way, my protagonist is big on privacy, and so am I. Here are some of the things I use to maintain some privacy online.

StartPage is a Dutch search engine that uses Google but doesn’t track your search history. (DuckDuckGo is also a good option, but I like being able to limit my searches by date, which is easier using StartPage.)

Privacy Badger is a browser extension that blocks non-consensual third party trackers. Sometimes you have to turn it off to load a page, but that’s super-easy.

uBlock Origin is an open source browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that blocks ads and trackers. Most people use AdBlock Plus, but their business model is problematic.

HTTPS Everywhere helps encrypt sites that have encryption available but not fully implemented. Encryption keeps mischief-makers from intercepting web traffic and routing you to places you don’t want to go or injecting malware.

Tor is a project to develop privacy tools online, including a browser and a complete operating system you can run on a flash drive. It works by routing your traffic through multiple servers, making it a distributed anonymous network.

Tunnel Bear is a VPN (virtual private network) application for computers and phones. It lets you conceal your IP address and location by routing your traffic through servers in another country.

I started collecting news about surveillance on a Tumblr last year – something I plan to keep up, if only for my own awareness.

For more expertise on privacy than I have, check out the wonderful Library Freedom Project.



Books I’ve Been Reading

February 21, 2016

014312658x-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_I found The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon to be powerful, disturbing, and difficult to read for more than one reason. The cover claims it’s a page-turner, but the only time I turned pages quickly was when I honestly couldn’t handle what the author was putting in front of me. Otherwise, it took me a while to commit to it because it seemed to be about a therapist accused of murdering his wife whose only ally is a patient who tries hard to be remote and unlikable. I tend to avoid reading stories that advance through transcriptions of therapy sessions because too often it’s a lazy device to provide insight into a character (usually a messed-up cop doing messed-up things who we’re supposed to sympathize with) and the first of these sessions made me wonder if I should be reading something else. But the second session had an irresistible hook in it for someone who likes crime fiction to involve social issues. The book is set a few years after Argentina returned to “democracy” after a brutal military dictatorship that made dissidents disappear violently and without a trace (sometimes seizing their children and raising them, perversely, as their own, passing on their distorted and vile worldview to innocents). During the time this book is set, the government has decided to put all that behind them by essentially pardoning everyone involved and giving them anonymity. The main character has been seeing the therapist to deal with the trauma of her daughter’s disappearance, in large part because she has no idea whether people around her who seem so benign may have actually tortured and killed her daughter. The novel provides an appropriately chilling sense of how dreadful that would be. It also provides a neatly tied-up and ironic ending that upends the idea that there is any way to give a story about this time and place a sense of resolution. There was a certain amount of sensationalism in the ending that felt off to me for reasons I can’t explain without a spoiler, but everything between the opening pages and the closing ones seemed brutally true – a kind of truth that offers no reconciliation, because there was none.


I very much enjoyed Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, winner of the 2015 Petrona 1250051487-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Award. Though I’ve enjoyed several volumes in her Thóra Gudmundsdóttor series, I was especially taken with her ghost story, I Remember You, where the author gives her penchant for the spooky and unexplained free rein. I’m not at all a fan of the horror genre, so I was surprised  how much I enjoyed that atmospheric story that has a mystery to solve, but puts the unexplainable first. In The Silence of the Sea, we get the best of both kinds of story. Thóra has to untangle the estate of a family who has vanished at sea – or presumably at sea. Nobody knows for sure, because the yacht they were sailing on has arrived on shore with its crew and passengers missing. As she pursues this task, trying to find out what happened so that she can sort out the affairs of the missing couple and their two daughters to take care of a third, much younger daughter left at home in Iceland with her distraught grandparents, we go aboard the yacht from its departure in Portugal out to the vast, empty sea, learning exactly what happened to each of the people aboard. It’s a kind of claustrophobic Christie-style mystery with supernatural effects, all of which have rational explanations for the mystery reader who hates jiggery-pokery, but with plenty of suspense and creepiness for those who think there’s more to it. The psychology of the people on board is intensely developed, the chapters in Iceland provide a welcome respite, there’s the social backdrop of a small island nation reeling from a catastrophic financial collapse, and the whole thing works quite well, along with a disturbing ending that’s . . . well, I’ll just leave it there.

1250055121-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_A third book that I read recently is Canadian and features a Muslim detective investigating a cell of radical Islamists and, along the way, the various ways that Canadians from different backgrounds negotiate creating a society together. It also probes the utterly different interpretations of Islam held by the protagonist, Esa Khattak, and a charismatic extremist. I reviewed  The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan for Reviewing the Evidence, reposting it here thanks to RTE’s generous policies.

Following her well-received debut, THE UNQUIET DEAD, Khan continues an intriguing series focused on a Canadian detective of Afghan heritage who heads a federal community policing task force in Toronto created to deal with sensitive cases in a multicultural nation. His experience in both homicide and intelligence work makes him uniquely qualified to investigate the murder of a Muslim man who was working undercover when he traveled with a group to a remote part of a provincial park, apparently to train for a terrorist attack.

Hassan Ashkouri, the leader of an ultra-conservative mosque, has created two cells of adherents who gather together to discuss theology, politics, poetry, and possibly creating mayhem. Among those adherents are a young disaffected Somali-Canadian rapper, his waifish punk girlfriend, and a crabby convert named Paula who is looking for meaning in her life (while being infatuated with the charismatic if scary Ashkouri). Soon they are joined by another young woman exploring Islam – Esa Khattak’s colleague, Rachel Getty. She has followed the murdered man into the heart of the mosque to find out who killed him – and why he had decided to disobey his orders.

The investigation is challenging, but it’s made far more difficult as an intelligence official, Ciprian Coale, withholds information and deliberately impedes Khattak’s work, thanks to a longstanding grudge and a suspicion that Khattak’s religious beliefs make him somehow less Canadian. (Some of the interagency complexity would be easier to grasp by reading the previous book in the series.) To complicate matters, Khattak’s strong-willed sister Ruksh has become engaged to Ashkouri, believing him to be a devout and honorable man. Khattak and Getty don’t have time to lose. Intercepts indicate that there will be some sort of attack to mark the new year.

Khattak understands the missing context that explains so much of current events: the history of colonialism, the repeated disappointments as democratic movements have been crushed, the subtleties of a religion misrepresented in the news and by Wahhabi-inspired demagogues, inflamed as western societies tilt toward bigotry and right-wing nationalism. While Ashkouri uses poetry a kind of code to conceal his plans, Khattak invokes it when thinking about how complex his world is:

The generations mislaid by decades of war, by centuries of struggle.

The splintered past, the crippled future, nothing to gain, less to give.

A bruised carnation planted in a cup . . .

A knotting of sinews and bone because you were never disconnected from what the ummah suffered, any more than you could understand the madmen who claimed to speak or kill or die in their name.

This mystery, like its hero, is cerebral, but develops tension as time grows short and Rachel’s cover grows tattered. Khattak’s nuanced understanding of his religion and of the present moment steadies him as he and his partner Rachel strive to serve “a nation of communities, bound together by the things they hold in common.”


You may or may not have noticed, all three of these books are by women; one is by a woman of color. My next challenge will be to expand the diversity of my reading, an issue Sisters in Crime is currently working on for its upcoming Summit Report. I think it’s going to provide both practical help for writers (and readers) who would like to see a publishing industry that is more reflective of the general population as well as a rousing argument for why reading (and publishing) diverse books matters. Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting links about diversity in publishing and am keeping an eye out for more.

Do you have mysteries by authors of color (or non-heteronormative authors or authors with disabilities) to recommend? I need to give my reading list more diversity.

Starting a Serial: If Then Else

January 17, 2016

I’ve started putting my latest project into the Pressbooks platform, which I also used for a collection of essays, Babel Fish Bouillabaisse; it’s a very easy WordPressy platform that does a nice job of creating both ebook, pdf, and html versions of a book for a reasonable price. (You can try it for free, but it comes with watermarking; or if you’re handy with code, there’s an open source version. If you want to avoid watermarks or work, it costs $99 per book, unless you wait for a sale, in which case it can be as low as $50. That seemed an incredibly affordable price for not learning how to set up my own.)

The new book is If Then ElseThere’s probably a better title for it. I just haven’t thought of it yet. It’s intended for young adults or adults who like to read this sort of adventure and don’t mind that the protagonist is a teen. The book grew out of my frustration – well, let’sitecoverhtml be accurate, my rage at the way the surveillance-industrial complex has taken over our world. It’s a weird convergence of Silicon Valley values (free is a low, low price; just make micropayments of personal information every time you touch a keyboard) and Big Brother collect-it-all arrogance. It’s telling that the government couldn’t implement its overreaching Total Information Awareness program in 2003. People objected to it even though they were scared. The 9/11 attacks were still a fresh memory, but the idea of a total surveillance system was scarier. Then a year later Facebook was founded and our feeling about personal data aggregation gradually changed. Yes, people were upset and angry when Edward Snowden revealed the scope and audacity of the government’s surveillance programs, but they also were growing cynical and resigned. The entire internet relied on spying as its business model, or so it seemed. Of course the government would tap into those giant data banks. How could they resist?

How can we resist? Or is it futile?

I don’t think it is, but it’s going to be a long and difficult fight to fix it. Meanwhile, I did what I usually do when I get angry: I started to make up a story, this one mixing the problem of privacy with the way that the FBI has frequently set up stings that coax not-very-clever people into saying and doing things that they would never have considered if not groomed by a paid informant. So that’s the genesis of this story – a kid whose big brother has been arrested on bogus terrorism charges decides to fight for his freedom.

I have some work to do yet, but a couple of chapters are out and more will follow shortly. I was going to wait until I made a last pass at editing, but then last week it was my mother’s birthday and I decided that was the right day to start posting.

My mom (who died a few years ago at age 95) was remarkable. She knew everything but often insisted you look it up anyway, just for practice. She knew foreign capitals and historical events and the meaning of Latin phrases, even though she hadn’t had a chance to finish high school. It was the depression, she was the eldest of nine children, and her father died when she was sixteen, just old enough to become the family breadwinner.

She read all the time – mostly mysteries that she brought home in great stacks from the library. She didn’t teach me how to read – nuns did that, and it wasn’t easy – but she taught me why to read. For that (and many other things) I owe her a lot. And if she were here to read it, I’m sure she would find every typo I miss.

So, here it is – chapter one and chapter two. More to follow. If you follow me on Twitter, I’ll be posting links there. In a few weeks, I’ll post a link here to download the finished book.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in privacy issues, there’s  whole resistance toolkit available at the Library Freedom Project. Also, you might enjoy The Internet With a Human Face, a talk by Maciej Cegłowski. It’s by turns depressing and hilarious, and ends with some good suggestions for change.


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. FanFiction.net 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.