Grey, by Jon Armstrong

A recent book caught my eyes in the bookstore the other day: Jon Armstrong’s second novel, Yarn, with a gorgeous cover and an interesting looking storyline. In the midst of deciding which book to get, two others won out, and it was returned to the shelf. Followup research showed that I should have gone for it, and further searches in nearby stores came up empty.

Over the course of reading up on Yarn, I discovered that the author’s first book, Grey, was set in the same universe, setting up Armstrong’s particular brand of fiction, labeled ‘Fiction-Punk’. Better still, the publisher, Nightshade Books, had an advance reader’s copy of the book up on their website, for a free download. (You can get it here.)

Grey is a quick, funny read, with a couple of caveats and assumptions to go along with that. Set in a near future dystopia, Michael Rivers is the son of a family member, part of the elite, in a world where pop culture and consumerism has run amok, in the most ridiculous fashion possible. While reading the book, I’m operating on the assumption that this book shifted more towards the satirical than rational. Rivers is a celebrity, and where reality television runs every day, with talk show hosts and talking heads talking nonstop to his own egotistical father who has a documentary filmed of his life as he’s living it, reediting it as he goes.

Fashion takes a front seat in this book, and Armstrong’s descriptions of the fashion of this world is a fun one. Despite the book’s title, there’s multiple colors everywhere, with people wearing some of the strangest things throughout, at least in the expensive and livable areas. It’s not an area where one will think about science fiction, but it’s clear that there’s a lot of inspiration taken from the costuming of numerous films here, and if anything, this film breaks the reader out of the mold that this book is merely a continuation of suburban America.

Despite the label ‘fashionpunk’, this book isn’t really about fashion: it’s a fairly acute look at the direction of a consumerist culture. Once the absurdity is stripped away from the book (mainly in the language of most of the characters), it’s a downright scary look at how things could be several decades from now. Some things remain very much the same: an obsession with celebrity and instant gratification, where companies live and die by their ratings and public perception, rather than their actual internal workings.

This is an entertaining book – one that was a bit of fun to read, although I do hope that Yarn (which I now have) turns out to be a bit better. The plot for this story was rather loose at times, and there are some elements (Michael’s origins – cobbled together from parts from his numerous sibblings comes to mind) where I thought there should have been more emphasis, and there’s a bit of wandering here and there as the book progresses.

But, Grey is an entertaining, with some very dark undercurrents to it, and some very fun parts (Who wouldn’t enjoy professional ironing championships in a fashion-oriented world?) as well. I’m even more excited about Yarn after finishing it.

Brave New Worlds

John Joseph Adams has distinguished himself in the past with outstanding speculative fiction anthologies, from Wastelands to The Living Dead and others. His latest volume, Brave New Worlds, is perhaps one of the finest sets of short fiction that I’ve ever read, with a stunning table of contents and authors to tell their stories of oppression.

Brave New Worlds is a complete turnaround from Wastelands, an anthology that looks at humanity after the demise of civilization. Here, the focus is on societies where government has not only remained, but strengthened to the point where the people themselves become the enemies of the state. It’s an incredibly frightening future, and one that feels far more relevant to today’s world than most works. The argument between Republicanism and Federalism is a familiar one to anybody who has tuned into the news over the past couple of years.

Indeed, this anthology came to me at a time of personal political crisis. The past couple of years have been ones of discussion, learning and thinking about the differences in political parties, and what these sorts of things mean at the end of day and down the road. The idea of an overly strong state that impinges upon the rights of its citizens is something that is undesirable to me, and what our country represents. Numerous actions taken by the government have had a speculative-fiction feel to it, such as the detainees in Guantanamo Bay and the kill order against a radical cleric overseas, to the authority of the Transportation Security Administration following some terrorist attacks. It is a frightening future, but one that also needs to be balanced against the idea of a libertarian world where little order or government control exists to keep people from killing or harming one another. As such, Brave New Worlds is scary much in the same way that Wastelands (of what I’ve read and heard of it) was scary: it exists at the other extreme end of the political spectrum.

There are a good number of fantastic stories here. The anthology starts off with Shirley Jackson’s classic story The Lottery and continues to tell a great number of tales such as S.K. Gilbow’s Red Card, where people are assigned by their state randomly to kill lawbreakers, Ten With A Flag by Joseph Paul Haines that sees citizens given rankings based on their potential and Geriatric Ward by Orson Scott Card, which sees people who have vastly accelerated life spans. One of my absolute favorites is Jordan’s Waterhammer by Joe Mastroianni, a tale of miners valued only as tools. Many of the stories here were fairly new to me: I’d either heard of them by reputation or read them once long ago, while there were also a fair number of stories that I have read before, such as Carrie Vaughn’s Amaryllis (published on Adam’s online science fiction magazine Lightspeed), Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report and Paolo Bacigalupi’s disturbing Pop Squad. There are few of the stories that I didn’t get into, such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin and O Happy Day! by Geoff Ryman, simply not suiting my own tastes for any number of reasons, but these were few and far between.

What impressed me even more than the excellent lineup of stories and authors was that the anthology didn’t feel repetitive. There are plenty of short stories and novellas that fall into the dystopian category, but one could have easily told story after story of an intrepid citizen standing up and fighting the power, so to speak. That certainly happens, in their own ways, but there’s a broad spectrum of stories to be told. Jordan’s Waterhammer is a story that I expected to see more often in the anthology, but stories such as Amaryllis, The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away (Cory Doctorow) and the funny Civilization by Vylar Kaftan (a choose your own adventure style story) shows a diversity in the story types, but also the morals and themes behind the stories. While Brave New Worlds is scary, it goes out of its way to demonstrate the numerous ways in which fascism can manifest itself in society, in any location.

One of my favorite stories here was Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which I first read in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. Of all the dystopian stories that I can think of, the story and the film both demonstrate the core themes for any type of dystopian story: which is the greater evil, protecting the people from themselves, or allowing them to come to greater harm?

One particularly striking story that helped define the anthology was Tobias Buckell’s story, Resistance, on an asteroid colony that adopted techno-democracy, where everybody can vote on every decision. When the time required to vote becomes to much, their voting habits are taken over by a computer, which in turn creates a leader for them, based on their desires. The story demonstrated to me that in all cases, governance is the product of we the people. Society can certainly back the wrong people, as history has seen from time to time, with figures such as Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, but rather than a universal evil, supporters remain, for whatever reason: fear, threads, naïveté or blind obedience. Despite the uproar online over the TSA screening procedures enacted around the holiday period, a majority of Americans supported them.

Brave New Worlds isn’t a book that’s appealing because I see some imminent threat of a governmental implosion or change (although some might view it that way), it is appealing because it recognizes and points out that fascism is a continual threat to society from a particular political philosophy of a strong state, while the opposite philosophy spells danger in much the same way – presumably what Wastelands will tell a reader. The threat is present within us all, through our overreactions and our indifference to the world around us, and for that, I think Brave New Worlds presents us with a stunning cautionary group of stories that shows the limits of what people will tolerate. As it stands, it remains an exceedingly relevant and poignant book that should be an essential addition to any speculative fiction fan’s personal library.

Books To Read in 2011

With the new year upon us, I’ve wrapped up my list of what I’ve read all of last year, and taken the books that I’ve got sitting on a shelf waiting to read for the next 365 days. I’ve got no illusions that I’ll get through this entire list in one year – there’s certainly books that I had planned to read in 2010 that I never got around to, but it’s a starting point, to be sure.

The Dervish House, Ian McDonald
I’m currently working my way through The Dervish House, a near future tale set in Turkey. It’s a dense, fascinating read, one that I’m trying to take my time with before finishing.

Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear
A man wakes up cold and alone on board a space ship, completely disoriented. I’ve wanted to get this book for a couple of weeks now, and it looks like a fun story, and I hope that it turns out better than Pandorum did.

The Habitation of the Blessed, Catherynne M. Valente
I thought this book was due to come out this year, but happily, I picked it up over the weekend. It’s a strange book thus far, a fictional take on a myth, and its rich story and prose is intriguing.

Grey, Yarn, Jon Armstrong
Yarn has caught my eye over the past couple of days from its gorgeous cover, and while reading up on it, I found that Grey, Armstrong’s first book, is available for free as an online read from Nightshade books. I can’t wait to read both.

At the Queen’s Command, Michael A. Stackpole
My last encounter with Michael Stackpole’s books was his ‘When Dragons Rage’ cycle was published a couple of years ago. This alternate history take on colonialism looks like a fun romp.

Shades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal
Kowal’s first novel has been described as a sort of Victorian story, with fantastic elements, and so far, I’ve liked what little I’ve read of it. It’s on the sidelines for the moment, but I look forward to picking it up again.

The Unincorporated Man, Dani and Eytan Kollin
I know very little about this book – I’ve heard little buzz, seen no reviews or talk about this book or its follow-up, but it looks like a neat read, and it’ll be refreshing to go into a book with little context or bearings.

Spook Country and Zero History, William Gibson
I read the first book in this loose trilogy, Pattern Recognition, earlier in 2010, and really enjoyed it. I’ve since picked up the two follow-up novels, and I’d like to get around to them at some point in the year.

The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood did a number on fanboys with her definition of science fiction a while back, which provides a good lesson in genre classification. Clearly, her books are speculative fiction, and according to a bunch of people, they’re really, really good.

Masked, Lou Anders
I started this last year, and never got around to finishing it. I’ll have to pick away at the stories over the year.

Nights of Villijumar, Mark Charan Newton
Another book that I started last year, but haven’t finished, Newton’s book is a good one thus far, but it’s been slow going, and I had to put it aside to meet a couple of deadlines.

Blackout, Connie Willis
Time-traveling historians. This book looks awesome to the military history masters recipients with a geek background crowd.

Machinery of Light, David J. Williams
David J. Williams has finished out his intense Autumn Rain trilogy with Machinery of Light, and I’ll be interested to see where he goes next with it. The first two were an experience, that’s for sure.

Kraken, China Mieville
I loved The City and The City when I read it last year, and Kraken, ironically, was a book that I was thinking of getting to first. No matter, this year will be the year. Hopefully, I’ll get it done before Embassytown comes out later this year.

Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious list of 16 books, in addition to the growing list of books that are coming out this year that I’d like to get to. If anything, it speaks to a goal to read more. Hopefully, I’ll be able to top my reading list of 43 books for 2010.

2010 Reading List

This was a great year for reading. A lot of excellent fiction was released, and I felt like I got a lot of good out of my year from the books that I picked up. Here’s what I read.

1- A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, Neil Sheehan (1-14)
This was a fantastic history on the Cold War, one that I wish I’d come across while I was working on my project. I’ve revisited it a couple of times since the start of the year for other projects.

2 – The Forever War, Joe Halderman (1-28)
This was a book that had come highly recommended for years, and I really enjoyed how it was more about people than guns and brawn.

3 – The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel (2-8)
During the Second World War, a team of specialists were dispatched around Europe to save art from the effects of war, the focus of this book. It’s a little uneven, but tells an astonishing story.

4 – We, John Dickinson (2-19)
This was a crappy book. Amateurish and poorly written.

5 – Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2-24)
I watched the movie around the same time, and I’ve long like Gaiman’s works. This was an excellent YA novel.

6 – Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, John Scalzi (3-4)
Scalzi’s Whatever blog is always an entertaining read, and this collection takes some of the better entries into a book of short essays. Thought-provoking, interesting and well worth reading.

7 – Shadowline, Glenn Cook (3-6)
With all of my complaints about military science fiction not being all that accurate or conceived of, Shadowline is one of the few books that have made me eat my words – there’s some well conceived ideas here, and this reprint from Night Shade Books was a fun read.

8 – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jeminsin (3-19)
N.K. Jemisin’s first novel came with a lot of buzz, and I really enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It’s a very different blend of fantasy than I’ve ever read.

9 – Spellwright, Blake Charlton (3-29)
Spellwright was probably one of my favorite reads of the year – it was fast, entertaining and thoughtful – a good fantasy debut, and I’m already eager for the sequel.

10 – The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee (4-21).
Karin Lowachee’s Warchild was a favorite book from my high school years, and I was delighted to see her back after a long absence. This steampunk novel is an unconventional one, and a good example for the rest of the genre to follow.

11 – The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams (5-17)
David J. Williams contacted me after I wrote an article on military science fiction, and I went through his first book with vigor – it’s a fast-paced, interesting take on military SF and a bit of Cyberpunk.

12 – Third Class Superhero, Charles Yu (5-28)
Charles Yu distinguished himself as a talented writer with his short fiction, and his recently released collection shows off some great stories.

13 – Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (6-1)
Bacigalupi goes to Young Adult fiction with Ship Breaker, an excellent read set in a post-oil world. He gets a lot of things right with this: the surroundings and trappings of the world aren’t always important, but the characters and their struggles are timeless.

14 – Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (6-8)
This much-hyped book was one that I avoided for a while, but I blew through it after I picked it up. It’s a fun, exciting read in the quintessential steampunk world that Priest has put together. I love this alternate Seattle.

15 – To A God Unknown, John Steinbeck (7-15)
Steinbeck’s book is a dense one that took me a while to read through while I was reading several books at one. It’s an interesting take on biblical themes and on faith itself.

16 – American Gods, Neil Gaiman (7-25)
This was a book that was a pick for the 1b1t movement on twitter (something I hope returns), and I was happy for the excuse to re-read this fantastic novel. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, and this time around, it was fantastic to have that reaffirmed.

17 – The Burning Skies, David J Williams (7-25)
The followup to the Mirrored Heavens, this book took me a while to get through because it was dense and intense. A decent read, but it proved to be a bit of a chore to get through.

18 – How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu (7-30)
This was probably one of the best science fiction books that I’ve read in a long time. It’s brilliant, well written, interesting and part of the story itself. It’s an outstanding take on time travel as well.

19 – River Of Gods, Ian McDonald (9-2)
I’ve long heard of Ian McDonald, but I hadn’t picked up any of his stories before now. His take on a future India is a fantastic one, and can’t wait for more of his stories. River of Gods broke the mold when it comes to western science fiction: the future will be for everyone.

20 – Clementine, Cherie Priest (9-3)
This short novella was a bit too compact for the story that it contained, but it demonstrated that The Clockwork Century is something that can easily extend beyond Boneshaker.

21 – Pattern Recognition (9-11)
William Gibson’s book from a couple of years ago, taking science fiction to the present day in this thriller. It’s a fun read, and I’ve already got the sequels waiting for me.

22 – New Model Army, Adam Roberts (9-22)
This military science fiction book had an interesting premise: what happens when crowdsourcing and wikiculture comes to warfare. The book is a little blunt at points, but it’s more thought provoking than I thought it would be.

23 – Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman (9-26)
An excellent anthology of short stories from all over the speculative fiction genre. There’s some real gems in there.

24 – Andvari’s Ring, Arthur Peterson (9-26)
A translation of norse epic poetry from the early 1900s, this book looks and feels like a book should, and is one of those bookstore discoveries that I love. This was a fun book that has roots for a number of other stories in it.

25 – The City and The City, China Miéville (9-30)
One of my absolute favorite stories of the year came with this book, my first introduction to Mieville. This murder mystery set against a fantastic background has some great implications that go with the story.

26 – Pump Six and Other Stories, Paolo Bacigaulupi (10-22)
A paperback version of Bacigalupi’s stories was released towards the end of the year, and I have to say, it’s one of the more disturbing reads of the year, but also one of the most excellent.

27 – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving (10-31)
I did a little reading on Washington Irving and found an e-book of this while I was going through a bit of a fascination on the gothic / horror genre. This book does it well. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do a bit more research on the author and his fiction this year.

28 – The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman (11-8)
The television show was an interesting one, and I finally was able to catch up on the comic that started it. They’re very close to start, but that changes after a couple of episodes. Some of the characters were spot on.

29 – Baltimore, or,The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola. (11-8)
This was a fun read: Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden both have some great storytelling abilities when it comes to horror fiction, and their take on vampires is an excellent one.

30 – Dreadnought, Cherie Priest (11-10)
Cherie Priest had a really good thing with Boneshaker, but Dreadnought was a bit of a disappointment. It didn’t have the same flair or feeling that the first book did, but it did do some things that I’d wanted to see in Boneshaker. It’s an interesting series, and I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

31 – Lost States, Michael Trinklein (11-13)
This was a fun book that I came across in a local store on states that didn’t make it. It’s a fun, quick read with a number of fun stories.

32 – The Jedi Path, Daniel Wallace (11-14)
While I thought this book wasn’t worth the $100 for all the frills and packaging, this is a really cool read for Star Wars fans, going into some of the history and methods of the Jedi Order.

33 – Horns, Joe Hill (11-22)
This was the other absolutely fantastic book that I read this year (reading it as an ebook and then from the regular book) from localish author Joe Hill. The story of a man who sprouts horns and a small, emotional story about his life. It’s an astonishing read, and one that will hopefully be up for a couple of awards.

34 – Doom Came to Gotham, Mike Mignola (11-24)
This was a fun, alternate take on the Batman stories in a steampunk world. Batman + Mignola’s art = awesome.

35 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (11-28)
36 – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (11-29)
37 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (12-1)
38 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (12-3)
39 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling (12-12)
40 – Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling (12-15)
41 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, J.K. Rowling (12-18)
I’m not going to talk about each Potter novel in turn, but as a single, continuous story, Rowling has put together a hell of a story here. Outstanding characters and storylines, and the works as a whole are greater than the sum of their parts.

42 – The Magicians, Lev Grossman (12-27)

The logical book to read after the Harry Potter series was Lev Grossman’s novel that can be described as an anti-Harry Potter. It’s a fun novel the second time through, and good preparation for his followup this year.

43 – Brave New Worlds, John Joseph Adams (12-31)

The review for this book is coming shortly, but I have to say, it’s one of the best anthologies that I’ve ever read.

On to 2011!

2011 Books

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
As 2010 closes out, there’s the inevitable looking forward to the new year. There’s already a small, but growing list of books that are coming out that has been percolating in the back of my head. Some of these are authors that I’ve never read before, some are ones from familiar people, but all looked interesting to me. Here’s what I’ve got thus far:

Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear

This is actually a 2010 release, but by the time that I buy it, it’ll be well into the new year. A man awakes on a far out spacecraft from hibernation and takes stock of his surroundings. It looks like a fast-based, stripped down sort of novel. Hopefully, it’ll be better than Pandorum.

The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John Volume 1, Catherynne M. Valente

I’m not usually moved by covers (There are some exceptions, like The Windup Girl), but this one looks interesting, and the blurb hasn’t deterred me at all:

This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit.

Spellbound, Blake Charlton

Spellwright, by Blake Charlton, was a fun read that I came across earlier this year, and from the early (and now cut section) look that I had earlier, this looked very interesting, and a cool continuation of the world that he’s set up. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Leviathan Wakes, James A. Corey

Another one where the cover grabbed me, this start to a series looks to interstellar space, colonies, and ancient secrets lost in the solar system. Looks like it could be a promising romp in science fiction. Blurb:

Humanity has colonized the planets – interstellar travel is still beyond our reach, but the solar system has become a dense network of colonies. But there are tensions – the mineral-rich outer planets resent their dependence on Earth and Mars and the political and military clout they wield over the Belt and beyond.Now, when Captain Jim Holden’s ice miner stumbles across a derelict, abandoned ship, he uncovers a secret that threatens to throw the entire system into war. Attacked by a stealth ship belonging to the Mars fleet, Holden must find a way to uncover the motives behind the attack, stop a war, and find the truth behind a vast conspiracy that threatens the entire human race.

Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi

John Scalzi’s an author that I’ve followed quite a bit over the past year, and while I haven’t read his followup books to ‘Old Man’s War‘ (have them, haven’t gotten to them yet), Fuzzy Nation is probably going to jump to the front of the list. It’s a reboot of a hugo-award winning novel, Little Fuzzy, something he doesn’t think has happened before. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Scalzi can put together a fun tale.

Embassytown, China Mieville

The City and The City is one of my favorite books that I read over the past year, and as he turns to science fiction and aliens, I’m confident that he’ll be putting a unique twist and look on the genre. In the meantime, I’ve got Kracken to read.

Bright’s Passage, Josh Ritter

I actually don’t know anything about what this book will be about. But, it’s by Josh Ritter, one of the best singer-songwriters out there, and if this is anything like his music, it’s going to be a very good read indeed.

The Magician’s King, Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman blew me away with The Magicians last year, and this followup to the book has me really intrigued. Where the first one could be described as the anti-Harry Potter, I have a hard time seeing how this one could play out. The ending moved to a bit more of a traditional fantasy novel, and if he can craft something in the same vein, that should be interesting indeed.

Unknown, Austin Grossman

Brother of Lev Grossman, Austin is known for his fantastic novel Soon I Will Be Invincible. Nothing much has come from the author since that was published a couple of years ago, but reportedly, he’ll have something coming out. I’ll be checking it out as soon as I get more information on it!
Of course, all of these books could be horrible. They could be brilliant. Time will tell, but I can’t wait to find out. Hype in any form is a dangerous thing for a book: it can raise expectations beyond what is reasonable, or it won’t be enough for a brilliant book to get off the ground. Things like cover art, while cool, aren’t the literature world equivilent of trailers, although they’re hyped up to be, and while I do love great cover art, it doesn’t always pay off by translating into a good book. Most of the authors on this list are ones that I’ve known and read before, although there’s a couple of newcomers. Fortunately, this is a small risk to take. I can buy a book based on the cover and advance reviews, and hope for the best. In some cases, it’s paid off. In others? I have a book that sits on my shelf, looking nice. Here’s to hoping that 2011 will be as good of a year as this year was.

Customers Aren’t Idiots

While driving home over the Thanksgiving weekend, Megan and I talked about our respective retail experiences. I had worked at Waldenbooks/Borders for several years, while she had worked at Borders, Fashion Bug and Weis, a grocery store in the Pennsylvania area. It’s not a stretch to say that we’re both fairly disillusioned with how things worked in each of the stores, but I don’t believe that the retail experience has to be bad for either the customer, or the people working there. There are certainly plenty of examples of places that are fairly decent to work for, and there were points in both of our stores where we felt that we enjoyed what we did.

The crux of the problem seems to lie in a band between the upper management to direct the strategic concerns for whatever company you’re working with, and the people on the ground level: the middle manager level seems to be the biggest issue, because it allows for the priorities, directions and strategy from the upper echelons to be interpreted, translated and carried out, and in each of our cases, this was where things went very wrong.

We both had several stories of how our individual stores had fairly competent people working in them: employees and sales people who genuinely wanted to sell the products that we were selling, with a number of additional requirements handed down from up on high. In my own experience, booksellers had the directions to not only greet a customer when they entered the door, but to follow them around the store to be available. If a person asked for a book, we were to lead them to the book, place it in their hands, and do the same for any number of recommended titles. At the register, there was the usual script of asking if the customer had a loyalty card (Rewards Card, sorry), and if they were interested in any of the numerous ‘key items’ that were located near the register.

If I was a customer walking into the store for the first time, I’d never return.

Stores that sell non-essential items like books, films, clothing and other related things generally mean that the customer isn’t pressured to buy something – they’re there voluntarily, rather than by necessity, and as such, the customer should be treated as someone other than a source of income for the company: stores such as Borders, F.Y.E., Fashion Bug and numerous others have the wrong approach by forcing items into the hands of customers. The difference that I can see here is in how the customer is viewed by the respective companies: rather than a sales focus, the people on the ground, in the stores should adopt a better customer service model that would allow them to accomplish the same goal without harassing the customers.

I cannot begin to count how many people refused, and have gotten annoyed, or even angry at me for asking if they had the Rewards Card. Several years ago, Borders began their rewards card system, which allowed someone with a card to accrue a certain percentage of their purchases for the holidays and for every hundred dollars, they’d earn $5 back. It’s a good system, and I can see the logic behind it: people who use a card will have an incentive to return.

The problem here comes with the requirements and quotas laid down by the company: with a finite pool of people to receive the card, the percentages of new signups will come down over a set period of time. The opposite reaction occurred: quotas went up, and several of my friends were fired as a result, for either signing up blank cards, using the same one over again, to keep up with the demand. Looking back, it’s a problem that existed within the company, without taking into consideration the human element: the program turned from something that enticed customers (and continued to do so for the people who did sign up) but also estranged those who weren’t interested in the card from day one. The card and the policy behind it failed to adapt to the changes in the environment: as more people signed up, better, more realistic expectations should have been set, and further goals for retention should have been examined.

The problem here, and with the instructions to place books in people’s hands, seem to have come from a company that looked only at the numbers, rather than the people who were coming into the store. While I suspect that such practices worked; pointing out books to customers will gain a couple of sales, and should be continued, this only further reinforced the idea that more aggressive policies will equal a resulting sales figure. That comes across to me as being extremely shortsighted: costumers, fatigued with pressure from an aggressive sales front, will go elsewhere, so that they’re not bothered or pressured into getting things that they don’t want. From where I stood in the company, it seemed as though the management on the district level used a heavy hand when it came to selling their products: push as much out through the door, rather than retaining a population of customers that would return to the store because of the selection of products, the attitude of the sales staff and someone who was satisfied out the door.

As an employee there, I had very little customer service training: no poorly acted videos, program, probationary period, with little idea of the goals and ins and outs of the company as it stood. Quality customer service comes with the people at the front, and the goals that were established for them. Essentially, we were the people handing over the books to the people who wanted them, with little interest in anything else.

There are other companies out there that have done things far differently: Apple, AT&T, Zappos and Netflix all come to mind, as their models are more oriented towards customer satisfaction, rather than sales. Through the job that I currently have, I’ve attended several webinars and read up on the subject, and it’s clear that any business – especially in an environment where consumers are more discriminating with their money. These companies, either in their stores, or over the phone (AT&T is horrid over the phone) are generally very good with their front of the line sales – this breaks down a bit depending on the issue, but for the most part, these places are ones that I’ve had fairly pleasant dealings with.

Such interactions, with people, rather than an anonymous sales figure or customer service representative are essential. People react positively within their own networks, and generally trust sales and information received from people who they know personally: this is one of the biggest strengths of using social media (and utilizing it well), because people will listen to their friends, and will talk about issues. The same logic can be applied in stores, with a customer sales person that works to make the customer happy, rather than simply filling the company’s bottom line. Essentially, information and innovation needs to move from the sales floor up, with a staff that has the latitude to work as needed, rather than from top down requirements. Store and company policy should be informed by the experiences that the employees see.

One of the reasons, I suspect, that the larger book stores are facing hard times is because they haven’t needed to understand this dynamic when it comes to their customers, because of their size, and as such, haven’t fostered a loyal following. People don’t tend to stick with the same stores out of loyalty: prices will help, but the experiences that a person has at any given store will help more. If they’re not satisfied, they’ll move to a competitor. As such, companies need to be able to adapt to the changes in the market place, and the changes in customer requirements. I suspect that sites such as have raised these expectations somewhat: having pretty much every item ever produced available, not to mention remembering what you purchased and searched for last time. This isn’t practical in a brick and mortar store, when it comes to stock, but what stores should be doing is focusing on creating a loyal base of customers, one that caters more to what they are looking for, with the intent on bringing them the best experience possible, and going about that in an intelligent fashion. The bottom line comes down to understanding the customer: they’re not idiots.

Understanding good customer service is something that will be essential in the future: companies that can’t adapt will simply fade away, while others, with more flexibility, will earn the money that the customers are willing to part with. At the end of the day, Megan and my experiences were similar: the front-line sales staff weren’t able to contribute or implement changes that were needed on our level, changes that could have contributed and translated to a better customer experience. It’s no wonder that some of these places aren’t able to compete.

Horns, by Joe Hill

A man wakes up to discover that he’s sprouted horns on his head overnight. Joe Hill’s latest book, Horns, starts off with a simple premise, one that unfolds into a wonderfully complicated and minimal story of murder, revenge and the inherent darkness that exists within people. At the same time, Hill brings out a deeply philosophical and intriguing look at faith and Christian allegory.

As Ig Parrish finds that people are influenced by the new additions to his head, the circumstances of personal tragedy (his girlfriend’s rape and murder, which he was blamed, but cleared of) begin to resurface as people begin to tell him their deepest inhibitions and secrets. As the story progresses, we are taken deep into the lives of each character, which fully explains and supports the events that send the story moving in the first place. The end result is a literary masterpiece that brings out a rich blend of horror and supernatural with a cast of fantastic and utterly believable characters. Every element, every mention of something comes to some level of significance to the story as a whole, and Hill brings out rock and soul music, personalities, and other numerous references to help support the story. This is a rare thing that I’ve seen, and possibly one of the best examples that I’ve come across where this is enacted and works: everything in the story supports the main premise and story as a whole.

Horns is wonderfully complex, yet minimal at the same time. The story jumps around from character to character and from the present to various points in the past, with a dedicated, focused purpose. Rather than wandering off to put together a story of epic proportions (and a story where a man grows horns on his head certainly calls for this), Hill burrows down and tells an intensely personal story, with a small collection of characters who’s stories intertwine around a central tragedy. This is storytelling at its best, where there are no arbitrary actions, but carefully crafted story. It’s a notable achievement, and I hope that Hill receives due recognition for this: it doesn’t happen all that often. The result is a superior, notable book.

This novel is one that left me disturbed on many levels. Rather than the horror being presented as Ig turns into a supernatural being, of sorts, the horror comes as Ig sees what people are capable of as they confess to him the darker thoughts that they’ve been harboring. At the same time, the events that put much of the plot into motion are horrible, terrible things, and in the way that the book is structured, the reader is conscious of what is likely coming, with a growing amount of horror. This is terror on a level that far transcends a monster or man in a mask: this is the horror of the inevitability of something coming down the line, with no way to alter its course.

Furthermore, there is a residual bit of horror in the ways that people interact with their faith. Hill puts together an interesting look at the relationship between God, Lucifer and People, with some interesting parallels and conclusions sure to piss off any devotee of Christianity, but not coming out as a lecture on philosophy: this is storytelling at its finest, and a story that is possibly one of the more important to examine in a critical fashion.

Horns is a stunning read, for the story, the characters and the allegory, which turns this into a novel holds up with some of the best books that I’ve picked up this year: easily comparable in quality to China Miéville’s ‘ The City and The City’ and Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’.