Recommended Reading For Late Winter 2012


George R.R. Martin - Game of Thrones cover
A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One [Paperback]
A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One [Kindle]
By George R.R. Martin
1996 – Bantam, 720 pages

Of the many shows I am grateful to HBO for – SATC, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Big Love. True Blood, etc – I must now add their wonderful adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s
A Game of Thrones. But I am grateful not just for the pure pleasure all ten episodes afforded. It prompted me to read the novel, which is the first book in Martin’s sprawling saga A Song of Ice and Snow. And although my reading tastes do not usually include sword and sorcery fantasy, I confess to being even more riveted by the novel than I was by the show.

Long hailed as a classic in the fantasy genre,
A Game of Thrones was first published in 1996. Martin himself is often referred to as ‘the American Tolkien’ and the comparison is apt. The novel is set in a world sometimes touched by magic and where a season can last decades. Here ravens carry messages, giant direwolves inspire both fear and loyalty, and a 300-mile long wall of ice stands as the only barrier between civilization and the wild dangers said to lurk beyond it.

A Game of Thrones unfolds, the long-time peace that has held the Seven Kingdoms together is shattered through treachery and murder. Now three noble houses fight for dominance and the right to sit on the Iron Throne. It is a perilous time for as one character says, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” But while armies clash in battle and innocents are taken hostage, a far greater danger is stirring beyond that 700-foot high Wall of Ice that guards the northern wilderness. Here the Night’s Watch – rangers sworn to guard the wall from any and all incursions – encounter dangerous creatures once thought the stuff of legend.

This first book focuses on three families: the Starks, the Lannisters and the Targaryens. The story is told through the viewpoints of eight characters from these families, with each chapter bearing another character’s name. What I loved about the book is just as you become swept up in the tale of young Brann or Lady Catelyn or Lord Eddard, the chapter ends and another character steps into the spotlight. At first, you miss the previous voice but only for a page or two when you are once more caught up in the storytelling power of Martin’s writing. And given the length of the novel – over 700 pages – you have the pleasure of meeting these characters many times in the course of the story. However I must confess that I could have read an entire 700-page novel told exclusively through the viewpoints of my two favorite characters: Tyrion Lannister, the noble dwarf known as The Imp, and the fascinating Princess Daenerys Targaryen, known as Daenerys Stormborn. And it is Daenerys who closes the book in a scene that will knock your socks off.

A Game of Thrones is only the launching point for Martin’s ongoing saga, and it begins the series masterfully. Martin’s pace is sure, his characters memorable and his prose clean but richly descriptive. And he has certainly set the stage for the books to come. Toward the end of this first novel, a battle-hardened ranger of the Night’s Watch warns, “The cold winds are rising. Summer is at an end, and a winter is coming such as the world has never seen.” Given the strength and inventiveness of Martin’s writing, this is not only a warning of more dark adventures to come, but of books that promise to be as exciting and memorable as A Game of Thrones.

(Sharon Pisacreta, February 2012)

Cover of Paco Underhill's - Why We Buy - The Science of Shopping
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--Updated and Revised for the Internet, the Global Consumer, and Beyond [Paperback]
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--[Kindle]
By Paco Underhill
2008 – Simon & Schuster, 320 pages

The next time your significant other asks why the same stores keep appearing on the credit card bill, pull out a copy of Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy. This 1999 bestseller is one of the finest books out there to explain why we spend too much money in certain stores, but hurry to get out of others. If you don’t believe there’s a science to shopping, sit back and read this eye-opening guide to how retail really works.

Underhill describes himself as a retail anthropologist and urban geographer. As founder of the market research company Envirosell, Underhilll advises major retail corporations such as Wal-Mart and Starbuck on how to design a store’s environment to best convince customers to buy their products. Traditional marketing is no longer enough; advertising methods effective decades ago are now little more than white noise. Instead, Underhill’s years of studying the habits of shoppers have demonstrated that “an important medium for transmitting messages and closing sales is now the store and the aisle. That building, that place, has become a great big three dimensional advertisement for itself. Signage, shelf position, display space, and special fixtures all make it either likelier or less likely that a shopper will buy a particular item (or any item at all).”

Cash register receipts at the end of the day do not tell the whole story. Underhill once asked a top-level executive of a major retail chain what he thought the conversion or closure rate was in his stores (i.e., how many people who entered the store did, in fact, buy anything). The executive said he assumed that it was close to 100%, however Underhill and his company had been filming in his stores and the actual conversion rate was only 48%, meaning that over half the people who visited the store never cracked open their wallet.

Underhill’s methodology goes much farther than that however. He can not only tell a retailer what the closure rate is, he can show WHY shoppers are not buying in that store. One element that he measures is the percentage of shoppers who have any contact with a store employee, otherwise known as the interception rate. If the rate is too low, that store is in trouble because the more customer/employee interaction that occurs, the greater likelihood of a sale.

Why We Buy is filled with fascinating insights into how we shop and will make you re-evaluate every store you walk into. The book has chapters titled Shop Like A Man, How To Read A Sign, Cash/Wrap Blues and The Sensual Shopper. Some of his research confirms what we already know, such as the biggest complaint customers have is waiting too long in the check-out line. But Underhill shows that retailers repeatedly place the cashier in the wrong location in the store.

The book will tell you which area of a store is known as the ‘Twilight Zone’, a place most customers hurry past, paying little attention to any products, signs or employees stationed there. You’ll learn how important shopping baskets are – especially for women -- and why dressing rooms are bigger selling tools than advertising, mannequins and window displays combined.
Btw, if you’ve ever wondered if men and women shop differently,
Why We Shop shows that they do. For one thing, men look at price tags less often than women do.

And it was Underhill and his research team who discovered what they term the ‘butt brush effect”. If a sales item is placed close to a busy aisle, customers who stop to look at that item often find themselves jostled from behind by people walking past. When this happens, they quickly move on. Underhill first witnessed this in Bloomingdales where a tie rack scored the lowest sales rate in the store. It was also placed on a busy store thoroughfare, and his cameras caught customers being brushed from behind repeatedly. Once Underhill informed the store president of this, the tie rack was placed elsewhere and sales immediately began to climb.

What is amazing is how many obvious things retailers get wrong. A dog food manufacturer hired Underhill and his team because he didn’t understand why most of his dog food products sold well, yet sales of his doggy treat cookies were low. Underhill discovered that in all the stores, this manufacturer’s treats were being stocked on a high shelf, making it difficult for seniors or children – who were the main purchasers of the dog cookies – to reach the item. Then there are corporate decisions that seem absurdly wrongheaded, such as the national drugstore chain in Washington D.C. that kept a large supply of hair dyes and products for blondes, even though 95% of their clientele was African-American.

Underhill’s book is chock full of manipulative tools that we are exposed to every time we walk into a store, but pay no attention to. And some of his examples of retail strategy are quite amusing. In one instance, a convenience store was having a problem with too many teenagers hanging out in the parking lot. Nothing could get them to leave, not even a patrolling security guard. Then the store owner decided to pipe Mantovani music from loud speakers. The teens fled. So whether you regard shopping as a chore or a delight, readers will find
Why We Buy an intriguing examination of how retailers design their stores to lure us in – and how and why they so often fail.

(Sharon Pisacreta, February 2012)


Maybe it’s been awhile since I’ve read a current romance book, but I'd like to share some of my favorites in a “blast from the past” moment. You can’t go wrong with any of these authors. All have incredible writing strengths. LaVyrle Spencer is a heartbreaker with her characters’ emotions, and the lush setting descriptions are like opening a box of decadent chocolate. Jennifer Crusie’s plots and dialogue are fast, fun and witty. And Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ southern style charm will knock your socks off. If you haven’t read these books yet, don’t miss out!

Cover of LaVyrle Spencer's book Morning Glory
LaVyrle Spencer – Morning Glory [Paperback]
LaVyrle Spencer – Morning Glory [Kindle]
Love historical romance? Contemporary romance? Take your pick, because Spencer is a master of both. I chose one of my favorites, a WWII-era setting, because she sets up a truly marvelous conflict between her heroine, abused and pregnant widow Eleanor saddled with two kids, and the hero, ex-con Will Parker, who needs a job. You can bet the lack-of-trust factor comes into play, with lots of internal doubts and secrets being revealed over the course of the story.

Cover of Jennifer Crusie's book Anyone But You
Jennifer Crusie – Anyone But You [Paperback]
Jennifer Crusie – Anyone But You [Kindle]
I read this book while in my forties (shh) and what a hoot! The dog alone is hilarious, and Crusie’s laugh-out-loud dialogue will chase any winter blues.

Nina decides she wants a cute, perky puppy for her 40th birthday after dumping her husband and getting a new place and job. She’s lonely, and Fred – a basset hound rescue and definitely not cute or perky – turns out to be great company. But when Fred brings home the downstairs neighbor, Alex – ten years her junior and a hot ER doctor – Nina has to decide. Should she go with her head or her heart?

Why mess with reality when you can enjoy a fantasy escape like this book? It’s a keeper, perfect for Valentine’s Day, and better than some of the current movies out there if you need a romantic break in your humdrum day.

Cover of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' book Ain't She Sweet?
Susan Elizabeth Phillips – Ain't She Sweet? [Paperback]
Susan Elizabeth Phillips – Ain't She Sweet? [Kindle]
This is the first SEP book I’ve read, and while the ending was sappy beyond belief, it didn’t ruin the enjoyment. The set-up hooked me right away – Sugar Beth Carey, thrice married and totally broke, must find a valuable painting hidden in the old homestead. The problem is that most of the homestead is no longer hers, and she’s made enemies of everyone in her home town.

And once Sugar Beth comes face to face with the Englishman whose high school teaching career she ruined, she has to face the music. Colin Byrne is happy to oblige in setting up his own sweet revenge. Some readers may find Sugar Beth’s sordid past deeds a bit much, but watching her redemption come about and laughing at the spark-filled dialogue exchanges between her and Colin make this read well worth the time.

(Meg Mims, Jan. 2012)


Children’s Books for St. Patrick’s Day

School kids across America love to read holiday books – and right on the heels of Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Dr. Seuss’ birthday fun is St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone’s Irish at heart on the 17th of March—or whatever school day comes closest! And who can resist leprechauns, pots of gold and green shirts, socks, hair ribbons or other clothing?

cover of Natasha Wing - The Night Before St. Patrick's Day
One fun book mimics Clement Moore’s rhyming Christmas classic. The Night Before St. Patrick's Day, written by Natasha Wing – who has a series with other “Night Before” picture books – and charmingly illustrated by Amy Wummer, details the surprise and delight of Tim and Maureen after they catch a leprechaun – but will they find his pot of gold?

Cover of Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland by Tomie dePaola
Tomie dePaola, the popular children’s book author of Strega Nona and hundreds of others in his long career, wrote a non-fiction style book, Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland, which details the saint’s life and includes some of the legends. dePaola’s books are classics and his colorful illustrations are simple yet pleasing.

Cover of Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato: An Irish Folktale by Tomie dePaola
Tomie dePaola also wrote Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato: An Irish Folktale, which might also be a great choice for a St. Patrick’s Day holiday read-in – with green pajamas.

Cover of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Clover! by Lucille Colandro and Jared D. Lee
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Clover!, written by Lucille Colandro – who also has a successful and delightful “Old Lady” series going – and illustrated by Jared D. Lee, is a sure crowd pleaser. Children love the repeating swallows and building tension from what the Old Lady will attempt next. The twist at the end will make it a worthwhile story for the classroom, the library or at home.

May your stories be well received, may your throat not turn scratchy doing any funny voices, and may you have a wonderfully Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

(Meg Mims, Jan. 2012)

February - March 2012