Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What I'm Reading: The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, by Galen Beckett

You may pick this book up thinking "This could be a great combination of fantasy and regency romance." And for the first few chapters, you would be right; it's a Jane Austen parody/homage, with some excellent and surprisingly complex worldbuilding going on. But the author isn't really interested in writing a regency romance, so partway through the book we switch to being in a Bronte novel, and then later we switch some more.

I have the impression that the author wished to gracefully combine the elements of several classical authors, creating a complete story that poked fun, paid homage, and yet stood on its own. A difficult task, and I feel this book falls short of the mark. The changes in topic and style felt abrupt and jolting. A switch from third-person narration to first-person narration, even under a thin guise of being epistolary (the writing does not take the form of letters), is bound to jar my suspension of disbelief. Along with the changes in tone and writing style, I found that plot developments were often also rather abrupt. I sometimes had the feeling that characters and storylines were blundering along, not waiting for the reader to catch up. I felt a COMPLETE lack of emotional buy-in to a MAJOR plot development, and this caused some emotional distance from the characters. It was hard to live the story with them when I couldn't understand their feelings or behavior.

In fact, now that I think about it.....there's a large and significant portion of the book where I cannot figure out why it is there at all. In my opinion, the book would have been better without it.

All in all, this book disappointed me, because I felt like it was close to being great, but the elements just couldn't quite fall together properly. I suspect that the author had too many ideas for his own good, and he couldn't bear to set any of them aside for the sake of his narrative. It is clumsy storytelling, and since I read for story, that's a harsh criticism indeed.

There is a follow-up book, The House on Durrow Street. I will probably read it, in search of some kind of emotional resolution. Galen Beckett may parody Jane Austen, but he lacks the ability or inclination for true homage, because the emotional satisfaction of a Jane Austen book is ENTIRELY absent. Perhaps the second book will provide it.

Friday, April 15, 2011

All Things to All People: Large-focus versus small-focus marketing

There is a long-running, low-level debate in our library system about the target audience for our story times: should we design them for a specific age/reading level, or should we try to create broader multi-age appeal? Some people make the argument that by broadening the appeal, we are serving more children. Other staff say that these broadly-designed storytimes are losing their early-literacy benefits; since we can't design for a specific reading level, we can't focus on any particular skills, and the result is that we don't help anyone.

As I listened to my coworkers discussing this issue yesterday, I was struck by how well this debate applies to marketing as well. What works better, a "something-for-everyone" approach, or a targeted effort?

Something-for-everyone is a tempting path for library marketing because it is so true. A wide range of people use the library, and there's a wide range of people who don't use the library, who should. And yet, it is like nails on a blackboard to me when we start to create a new bookmark, and everyone starts (metaphorically) shouting out services that we ought to mention. "Put something about our new downloadable books! Add a bit about room reservations. Be sure to include this new grant-funded program we're running! Make it appeal to twenty-somethings, but also to seniors. Put in something about the small business resource center, because some of these moms might be business owners also!"


I realize that our print budget is tight, and that we would all love it if this one bookmark could appeal to all groups, and convey information about all our services. But by trying to cram in too many functions, trying to appeal to too many audiences, all we're really creating is confusion. Our marketing piece doesn't know what it's trying to say or who it is trying to tell.

How do we fix it? We target, and we simplify. We pick a group, like "Moms", and we tell them what the library can do for them. We tell them what a particular SERVICE can do for them. Then we have a piece that's truly versatile, because we know that wherever we take it or put it, when moms see it they'll think "Oh, that's for me."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What I'm Reading: Tolkien, Love, and Landscape

About three weeks ago, I finished rereading Lord of the Rings. Every time I read it I get something different from it, and this time I was deeply struck by the landscapes of the book. In the introduction, Tolkien talks about wanting to create a story that is deeply rooted in place, and for him the place was England. Tolkien's love for his land permeates Lord of the Rings; trees and hills and rivers and shafts of sunlight are described with caring (as well as careful) detail.

I think it's Tolkien's love for the landscape, rather than the physical features described, that makes me so inclined to picture Virginia when I think of Middle-Earth. Middle-Earth is described with love, so I respond by thinking of a place that I love. For weeks, Virginia has been infused with a fairy-tale glow; I see Middle-Earth in every mountain range, every gully. A city park takes on the green wonder of Ithilien. Central Virginia at sunset becomes the soft hills of the Shire.

For books one has loved from childhood, it can be hard to tell if your opinions were shaped by the books, or if you loved the books because they resonated with something you already knew or felt. But I don't think that Tolkien taught me to love landscape. I think that even in youth (and much more so today) I felt that Tolkien was illustrating something that was already deeply rooted in my mind and heart; a passion for the land around me.

Tolkien, for your many brilliances I salute you. Virginia, I love you dearly.