Sunday, September 27, 2009

A comment posted to the Observer on the subject of postal strikes

In response to the Observer piece about the effect the postal strike is having on eBay sellers.

I've been selling online for six years, on a variety of sites, and this is the first week I've ever received two "where's my stuff" messages in the same week. I don't know if this strike is more disruptive than previous ones, or simply less well publicised. Items arriving late can be a worry when they're sold via eBay, because of the impact negative feedback can have on your visibility there, and because the black art with which eBay generate and use DSRs is so lacking in transparency. I also sell things at, and prefer the clarity and transparency of the system there - no DSRs, no complicated four-part star ratings, just a simple pos/neg/neu and a factual comment. Best of all, the feedback can be changed as the situation develops, so an irate customer who's book's held up can go back later and switch a negative to a positive when the situation's resolved. Buying and selling online involves a great deal of trust on both sides, and we all have moments when we think the worst and suspect we've been had. So any system that allows one to rethink, and adjust, that initial reaction seems good to me. Things like postal strikes will always be with us. Or disruption due to weather, acts of God, or acts of man. A seller's reputation should not be open to damage by such vagaries.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A book review of sorts - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

It's probably a strange idea to review a book so long after reading it. It might be a little odd to take the time to review a book I found so utterly unintelligent as the bad, but some sort of warning seems only fair. It's probably most strange to review a book I haven't read. And not just one book I haven't read, but lots of non-specific books I haven't read. But hey, we're not scared of strange, are we?

The Good
Some time ago, a few months I suppose, I read The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway. I read a lot of books, so the mere fact that this has been nagging away at the back of my head saying "write something about that" is significant. It's good. No really, it's very good.

The cover blurb promises many marvels. It promises a story of "...among other things - love and loss; of ninjas, pirates, politics; of curious heroism in strange and dangerous places; and, of a friendship stretched beyond its limits. But it also the story of a world, not unlike our own, in desperate need of heroes - however unlikely they may seem." And if that all sounds like your idea of fun, then go ahead, because it delivers.

The story is beautifully structured, giving just enough knowledge to keep you this side of desk-chewing frustration, but withholding more to keep you turning pages. You don't know where it's going next, or how it's going to get there, but you really want to be along for the ride.

Nick Harkaway achieves the first essential, he makes us care about the characters. He does it without schmaltz or sentiment; he simply draws interesting, flawed but likeable people, and lets us get to know them as we rattle along.

The Gone-Away World is full of ideas - challenging, amusing, and scary in turns. It doesn't fit into any pre-packed genre, but doesn't feel like a patchwork quilt - the different turns all work, and the ninjas a pirates do need to be there, unlikely though that might sound.

The Bad

I love a good, old-fashioned whodunnit. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, and Patricia Wentworth have been my staple reading for many years. So when a few like-minded readers recommended the Agatha Raisin stories I was naturally keen to find myself a new author. The first one I tried was The Potted Gardner. I read it, reported back that I'd found it dull, stifled my disappointment, and moved on. Then recently another came my way and I wondered if I'd been harsh. Or perhaps the book I'd chosen had been written before the author got into her stride? I say "her", I haven't been interested enough to discover the sex of M C Beaton, but I'm guessing from the sex of the main character and the nature of the writing.

And so, this week, I read Agatha Raisin and the Fairies of Fryfam. By this story I think it's safe to assume that Ms Beaton has reached whatever stride she's aiming for, and I feel confident in asserting that I just plain dislike her books. Sorry ma'am. Agatha Raisin is possibly the most unpleasant, and unlikable, amateur sleuth of my experience. Described optimistically in the text as prickly but charming, she's rude, tactless, gossipy, jealous, insincere and hopelessly dim. And she couldn't detect an elephant in her fridge.

The Fairies of Fryfam has no discernible plot. Somebody unpleasant gets bumped off (not, alas, Agatha Raisin). The murderer(s) (I can't believe I'm bothering to disguise this to avoid spoilers, but one has standards!) is or are immediately apparent, and the only thing left to hope for is that he, she or they will go on a rampage and wipeout the village. In the meantime some sub-MillsandBoonesque romancing takes place in a rather coy and clumsy manner. I only made it to the end because it's so slim as to make not finishing look just too wussy to bear.

So, if you want an enjoyable classic whodunnit... buy The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and save yourself the pain.

The Ugly

I don't know who first said "don't judge a book by its cover", but there's something about the phrase the really bugs me. As a metaphor for life, it's fine if rather clich├ęd now, but taken literally... pah! Of course you judge a book by its cover. How else are you going to cope with the thousands of titles that confront you in a shop or library whenever you visit?

And so we get to... the ugly. I don't buy ugly books. I have several times picked up a paperback with a scary picture of a strange looking boy... but I've never brought myself to buy it, because the scary boy would be in my house then. I can't even remember what it's called now. Perhaps you recognise the description. Those staring, wide-open eyes that tell you to put the book down and back away right now?

The opposite works for me too. I will sometimes buy books I'm dubious about, simply because the attractive packaging has sucked me in. I think the jolly pastoral scenes that adorn Agatha Raisin stories have a lot to answer for. Interestingly, I read about The Gone-Away World before I ever saw it. Would I still have bought it if the cover had been poorly designed? I honestly don't know, but there's a possibility not.

I don't believe that new authors have much say on how their babies are dressed for the public. But if you reach that thrilling moment of being consulted about your cover art... ask somebody shallow to look at it for you, they'll choose pretty over meaningful and your sales will climb.

Happy Reading,
by Kimbo! xx