June 3rd, 2011

Suzanne Brockmann, _Breaking the Rules_

Technically, this is Not a Review, because I've decided at the halfway point not to read further. I will also not be reading more books by Suzanne Brockmann.

This is an unusual situation for me. More typically, I get a romance novel I luuuurrrvvve and stop loving the author's work as I read _backward_ through her product. It's entirely possible that if I reread Brockmann's books that I have previously enjoyed, they would annoy me as much as this one has. And to be fair, I've been noticing something develop over a series of books -- this isn't a tremendous surprise.

Brockmann's Troubleshooters series in particular has a number of attributes attractive to a conservative audience: heroic military action, Manly Men, Sexy Women, blah, blah, bleeping, blah. This audience at times complains, because the Troubleshooters series _also_ has a number of attributes attractive to a progressive audience: gay romance, women who stand up for themselves and are capable in action themselves. This is all something I kinda like about Brockmann. It's an unusual and appealing mix.

Many of the books have included a ripped-from-the-headlines and/or crime-of-the-week feature: serial murderer, terrorists, batshit crazy fundamentalist religious community, etc. This outing revolves in part around Neesha, a young Indonesian girl whose mother died and she was sold to a brothel. As near as I can tell, this brothel is in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Neesha was there from ages 8 to 16 or thereabouts and access to her sexually was sold to a steady stream of customers throughout that time frame. Early, once a week or so. Later, a couple times a day or more. And the way the story is told, this isn't a handful of guys coming back repeatedly, but rather hundreds if not thousands of customers of the time she is in the brothel.

This defies belief. Go find me _anything_ even _remotely_ like this in the news. You won't. You can barely _find_ anything about international human trafficking to the US anyway; it's so rare the focus is now on domestic human trafficking (e.g. abusive dad makes his teenage daughter sell sex). Brockmann is asking me to believe that (a) there's a customer base for what this brothel is selling (b) it's possible to connect with this customer base without running into law enforcement (c) your employees (necessary to manage your resistant employees) don't rat you out (d) your customers don't rat you out (e) no one brags to the wrong person. And this all happens from 2001-2009 in Las Vegas in what is, as near as I can tell, a _single_ facility. This isn't a move-em-around scheme.

And then this 16 year old who escapes and haunts malls and other places and is trying to figure out how to get back to Jakarta to where her grandfather was 8 years ago is worried about being detected as an illegal. Really? Because she wouldn't -want- to be deported? I just do not get it. Brockmann seems to have compressed several Hot Button Issues into a single character in a way that does a disservice to all of the issues, and to the character. This is _not_ the first time she's combined Too Much into one character, but something about this particular combination just pissed me off.

I read the first half of this book really fast, because I kept hoping it would get better. If you've read this book and you think I've gotten some key aspect of this subplot factually wrong, I'd be interested in hearing about it.

I think I'm _more_ sensitive to this kind of unreality in the wake of reading _Popular Crime_. James made the observation that _every_ serial murderer in fiction was way more organized (in terms of ritual, staging, etc.) than _any_ serial murderer in reality: no overlap. This is not true of just serial murderers in fiction.

The Improbability of Timothy Brown

http://nymag.com/health/features/aids-cure-2011-6/

This is a great story -- a long one -- full of possibilities. A man who had HIV under control with retrovirals developed leukemia. The doctor who treated him picked a stem cell donor who had a natural genetic mutation that is very, very resistant to HIV. It took two rounds of treatment, but ultimately Brown was cured of both HIV and leukemia. Then it took even longer for there to be consensus that it was an effective cure.

It is expensive (altho less expensive that you might imagine -- if first line retrovirals don't work for you, the math looks good to me for going this round) and depending on which part of the leukemia treatment is the part that matters in terms of curing the HIV, possibly really amazingly awful. However, the approach does offer the tantalizing prospect of alternative strategies that might be cheaper, less painful and as effective.

The story is a political one. When retrovirals first came out and were shown to drop viral load in the blood so completely, it was believed by some that they constituted a cure. Yet they do not. In the wake of that drastic disappointment, opposition to the idea of a cure developed and that opposition is having to be eroded. There are also very real economic disincentives to developing a cure (pharma loves chronic and HIV is Chronic. A cure is NOT chronic.).

I recently read _Magic Slays_ by Ilona Andrews and I harbor a suspicion that the writing team responsible for that series is aware of this story. In this most recent entry, Our Heroine uses her blood magic to "cleanse" the Lyc-V infected blood of her ward. It's a difficult and dangerous and novel procedure that involves infecting Julie with the vampire virus as well. The effect at the end of the procedure is a Julie cured of Lyc-V, which no vampire virus to be found in her blood. I read that novel first (a couple days ago? I don't think I've posted a review yet) and only just stumbled across the HIV cure. But the parallel is quite clear. Very strange! And yet reality is stranger still.

ETA: I'm a little puzzled by the unbelievably limited coverage of Timothy Brown/"The Berlin Patient". As near as I could tell from the above link to New York Magazine, Brown's treatment for leukemia was _really standard_, with the exception of testing on donor matches to prefer ones with the right mutation. According to this (dug out of a wikipedia article on AIDS):

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122602394113507555.html

"In 1989, Dr. Rossi had a case eerily similar to the one in Berlin. A 41-year-old patient with AIDS and lymphoma underwent radiation and drug therapy to ablate his bone marrow and received new cells from a donor. It is not known if those cells had the protective CCR5 mutation, because its relation to HIV hadn't been discovered yet. But after the transplant, HIV disappeared from the patient's blood. The patient died of his cancer 47 days after the procedure. Autopsy tests from eight organs and the tumor revealed no HIV."

Obviously, if you can avoid treatment for leukemia, you want to. Equally, "cure" has a bad rep in the HIV community, and "gene therapy" has a bad rep for a variety of reasons as well. That plus the pharma-loves-chronic MAY add up to an explanation for why this approach is taking a while to get off the ground -- but it doesn't feel like enough. I think the real problem has to do with the way innovation happens and how it spreads. And this is one of those times where the path to a "thought leader" from where the innovation originated has too many wide gaps.

_Magic Slays_, Ilona Andrews SPOILERS

Seriously, spoilers. Not kidding around here.

This latest entry in the Kate Daniels series is about a terrorist organization (*sigh*). That's far and away the weakest part of the book, because the terrorists are very clearly depicted as completely irrational and cartoonishly evil as individuals and as a group.

Many threads continue from earlier entries in the series, so starting with this book is probably not a good plan. There are no major encounters associated with Roland (Kate's father) and his minions in this book, altho there's a little note at the end from Hugh and there is progress on that arc in terms of Kate understanding more about how her magic works. Julie, Kate's ward, runs away from school for the last time; the school doesn't want her back and Julie doesn't want to go back. The plan is for Julie to live at the Keep and attend school in the city; the idea is that the Pack can probably keep her safe.

Kate's business is going great in terms of new employees (Andrea shows up after being retired from the Order against her will); less well in terms of actually having customers. When the Red Guard calls asking her to find a missing guy and his missing magical cylinder, she's awful suspicious of the job but takes it anyway. On the way back from checking out the crime scene, Kate and Andrea run into Shane from the Order. As their investigation proceeds, they piece together an operation called the Lighthouse Keepers, terrorist organization with sleeper cells that intends to use the magical cylinder as a sort of neutron magic bomb: kill off everyone with any magic within a certain radius by sucking all the magic out and concentrating it in the cylinder. The Lighthouse Keepers want the world of Tech to be full time, which the cylinder very obviously will NOT get them, given the way it works, except maybe as a sort of island. It's a big hole, but nowhere near as problematic as the way the Lighthouse Keepers are depicted in general: cartoonishly evil.

The supes do figure it out in time, and work out their differences at least long enough to go stomp on the anti-magic crowd. This is yet another book in which Torture Works quickly, which is always annoying. I mean, I love violence (I'm not kidding -- why else would I read this kind of blood-porn?), but don't ask me to believe in the impossible. As noted in the entry about the HIV cure (<-- not fiction), there is a thread developing Kate's magic in which Julie -- infected with Lyc-V and guaranteed to go loup -- is saved by Kate doing a blood magic ritual that involves adding the vampire virus to Julie's blood and then cleansing the blood and putting it back in her. It's a clear parallel to Timothy Brown (and Ilona Gordon, half the writing team, has a biochemistry degree) and probably intentional.

Overall, however, the story continues to be about Kate's personal development. Her relationship with Curran strengthens as she seriously considers her fears that Curran is only with her to use her powers (really, she should be asking herself the reverse at least as much), rather than reflexively fleeing as soon as those fears surface. In the course of the investigation, she runs across old family on her mother's side who have a lot to tell her about what her mother was Really like and how Mom convinced Voron to take little Kate and run away with her -- and how Voron Really felt about little Kate and/or Roland and/or their hypothetical encounter. It's an interesting explanation for Kate's deep paranoia, and a plausible mechanism for Kate being willing to trust Curran and their love for each other.

I think a lot of people read Urban Fantasy to explore emotional terrain that can be difficult to access more directly. Some people do this more consciously than others. Some of us are constantly looking for patterns that map Urban Fantasy onto The Real World. In addition to the personal development themes that appear throughout many urban fantasy series, there's a lot of speculation about the various supernatural races and what they might map to in real life. This entry offered up a couple of tantalizing bits to add to that discussion: Julie's infection and cure and the werewolf trial. Julie's infection and cure point in the direction of "disease minority", which is probably way too simplistic to be plausible. The werewolf trial, however, points in a very different direction: ethnic communities dealing with integration into a larger, hostile culture and the younger generations of that community (particularly as the community integrates and the Old Ways get reshaped in very confusing ways) sort of cartoonifying tradition in a not-so-great way. Kate winds up playing a really interesting role in that community, trying to interpret mating in a way that preserves tradition without allowing it to be used oppressively.

I'll keep reading.

eBook Price Points

I really enjoying checking in at http://www.the-digital-reader.com. The biggest bummer about Mr. Hoffelder's blog is the guest posts. And one of the biggest bummers about the guest posts is Rich Adin. But every once in a while, the foolishness is too juicy to just ignore.

He starts out strong:

http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2011/06/01/on-books-changing-buying-habits/

His TBR list is growing and it is mostly filled with free ebooks. Enough of these free ebooks are enjoyable and satisfying to him to not discourage him from trying more, and the supply of enjoyable and satisfying free ebooks is large enough that he only rarely pays for an ebook. This makes justifying the purchase of an ereader (or multiple ereaders) dead easy, but he's wondering how authors and publishers can survive on free. Here's a little hint, because Mr. Adin doesn't seem to understand what's going on: "The first one's free."

Here is Mr. Adin's theory about what's going on. It's probably a pretty _good_ theory in terms of what's going on in Mr. Adin's head. I do not think it maps all that great to the rest of the reading public.

"A reader who gets burned once spending $14.99 on a poorly written, poorly formatted, or nonproofread ebook, especially when they are nonreturnable, is unlikely to be willing to spend $14.99 again in hopes that the next purchase won’t be a repeat sucker purchase. Instead, such a reader is likely to move down the price chain."

So here's the deal. Most people who are engaged in escapist reading are not particularly concerned about the quality of the writing, the formatting or the proofreading, unless they are so bad that it detracts from the narrative thrust of the tale being told. If there is no narrative thrust, the best writing, formatting and proofing in the world will not help. If there is narrative thrust, we'll plow through a lot of crap just to find out what happens. And, by the way, Mr. Adin, since the hint didn't work, that's how this whole free thing works. Convince me that this writer has what I want and I'll pay to get more of the same. Especially if it's a series, because I particularly want to know more about _these_ characters in _this_ universe.

EVEN IF people did care about writing/formatting/proofing, I'm at a loss to understand why someone would buy cheaper goods when confronted with low quality at a particular price point. Generally speaking, when I'm unhappy with the quality, I do a couple of things. I identify the miscreant responsible and make sure I don't buy more from them (Oldsmobile leaving the rings out of a 98 some time in the mid 1970s. No I will _not_ ever forget that, and I _will_ hold GM responsible for time and all eternity, because it was really clear almost immediately that this was not an isolated incident.). I try to find a trusted source who has assessed alternatives and use their experience to pick something better. And/or I move _up_ the price chain. That would be where "you get what you pay for" comes from.

Finally, Mr. Adin gets to the heart of the matter:

"I now scrutinize pbooks before buying because ebooks have made me more aware of poor writing and editing and less willing to spend money on such books — whether p or e. However, the closer the purchase price gets to zero, the more tolerant I am."

Let me tell you a story about my father and how he went from buying top shelf to bottom shelf. You know what? Never mind. Let's just say we hit a point in our relationship where I (not yet 21) would send him to the store to buy me a decent 6 pack of beer. The Alaskan Amber was selling, IIRC, for $6.99 for a 6 pack. He was happy buying 12 packs for $2.99 at the time. (Really, skunky doesn't even begin to cover it.) My dad and I had a long standing tradition of sharing drinks (since I was 2. You know, I think this might explain why my husband is so utterly certain that my parents are alcoholics), so I spotted him a bottle when he brought it home. He agreed that it was much, much, much better than the crap he was buying. But he also said there was no way he was spending $7 of his own money on a 6 pack when he could get it so much cheaper. This is an electrician who justified his position as a JW elder to spend thousands of dollars on wool suits, ties, dress shirts, etc. every year. An _electrician_.

If a young woman (I'm sure hoping I was 18 when this happened, altho I suspect I wasn't) is willing to spend an hour or two's worth of wages on a single six pack to get good beer, I'm pretty sure that same young woman will spend $2.99 (I believe that's Konrath's pick for sweet spot pricing on ebooks) to get the latest entry in whatever series she's reading, that she took a flyer on when the first book was available for free. Just because the old guy won't doesn't say a damn thing about the market for good beer.

ETA: I knew these two guys -- advanced degrees in computer science, smart guys -- who had a little routine they did. "What's the best beer?" "Free beer!" They both drank a lot of PBR. One of them played ultimate and had a routine involving 40s that was, I don't even know how to say it, breathtakingly stupid. I've tried some free ebooks, and some of them led me to buy the rest of the series (especially true when an entry in the series won an award and/or had truly amazing reviews by people I trusted); in general, really cheap/free ebooks have not been particularly enjoyable or satisfying for me. A lot like cheap beer.

eBook Discourse at Wired

I mentioned earlier that coverage of eBooks has taken a turn: the assumption now is that ebooks are done deal, it's just a matter of time. The skepticism has sort of been wrung out of the articles.

John C Abell at Wired's Epicenter is an example of this, leading with "There are no two ways about it: E-books are here to stay."

http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/06/ebooks-not-there-yet/

That's a juxtaposition: the headline is "not there yet" but the lead sentence is "here to stay". This puts Abell's remarks firmly in the category I've been labeling "minor carping".

Abell produces what CR would call "sample defects" if they were minor problems with a car, rather than errors in an article ("Amazon sparked the e-reader revolution with the first Kindle a mere two-and-a-half years ago" and, notably, "We rejoice at cutting the phone cord"). He produces a short list (5 items) that, if fixed, "there really will be no limits to the e-book’s growth".

The first item is: remind me to finish the book. Hmmm. Okay, _he_ may find the physical presence of a pbook enough to nag him into finishing reading it in a way more effective than finishing an ebook. That hasn't been my experience.

The second item is a problem for people who are buying ebooks from multiple vendors. There may be some problems here, but whatever they might be, they aren't anything worse than back in the day when we had cassette tapes and lps or cassettes and CDs, or VHS and DVDs or two sizes of floppy disk or whatever. It's a transition problem and not a particularly huge one. Software that works under one OS but not another. Etc.

The third item is truly amazing: he wants "a new standard, adopted universally, among competitors whose book tech, unlike paper, is proprietary" that will replace writing in the margins of a book. I'm not sure what to say about that. I know the people that care about writing in their books care _a lot_ about writing in their books, and that the people who believe that book should be virginal care _a lot_ about that, and that a lot of the rest of us are left confused as to what the fuss is about. Thinking this has some impact on selling books? Weird.

The fourth one is kind of funny in the wake of Rich Adin's argument that the price point for ebooks is free, and he doesn't pay for ebooks any more and if he does, he doesn't pay more than a tiny number of dollars: "E-books are positioned as disposable, but aren’t priced that way." Well, it sort of depends on the ebook, now, doesn't it? Anyone who finds it annoying to pay $13 for something that you can otherwise only get in hardcover (for the same, more or less, if not more) is just whining. Have patience, grasshopper. That price will come down in the coming months, as the paperback comes out. It's certainly better than what happens with hardcovers that are past their discounted days, but not yet replaced by paperbacks; those suckers cost full list.

Number 5, however, is why I blogged about this entry: "E-books can’t be used for interior design." Because having all that space for sculptures and art and so forth would just kill us, wouldn't it?