Denise Mina

Gods & Beasts – Denise Mina

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Gods and Beasts is the third novel featuring DS Alex Morrow and follows her investigation into a pre-Christmas post office shooting and robbery.  While she tries to unravel the mystery, Alex just wants to be home with her new twin boys and husband.  Woven in is the mysterious young man who cared for a boy while his grandfather was shot, increasing amounts of police bribery, and a corrupt MP fighting scandalous allegations.

Mina is known for her deep, psychological crime fiction, and I expected Gods and Beasts to be on par or better than End of the Wasp Season.  I am afraid this newest installment fell a little short of its predecessor.  It is several pages before we even see Alex Morrow, our protagonist, and the lack of focus on her makes the book feel very full.  There are countless characters all involved in various schemes, and even I had a hard time remembering which names fit into which story.  The entire MP storyline could have been lifted from the book without a lot of bother.  It only sheds light on the major ending twist; a twist that could have been delivered another way easily.  Instead, Mina’s desire to delve into the political feels misplaced and could have been more powerful in another novel.

One thing that worked very well in Gods and Beasts was Morrow’s new motherhood.  Mina is one of the few crime authors I’ve read that has had her main character be personally successful.  In fact, during Bloody Scotland, Mina mentioned that she wanted “to write a cop who is very happy at home, just to be outrageous.”  Morrow’s desire to be at home, her appreciation for her “second-chance at motherhood”, and her desire to push forward in her life were quite refreshing.  She even admits her familial connection with half-brother mobster Danny to her bosses, just to prove she isn’t ashamed of who she is.  I loved that about her, the strength it must have taken.  DS Alex Morrow has shown one of the better character progressions in Scottish crime fiction, and Mina shows great restraint in not mucking it up for drama.

Gods and Beasts is still a fantastic read, even if it did have a high standard to live up to with End of the Wasp Season.  While it lacks the same depth in its criminals that we have gotten more often from Mina, she does bring a new twist to a genre that constantly redefines itself in Scotland.  Now if we could just have gotten rid of Kenny Gallagher MP, the story would be tight.

Rating: 7/10

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Bloody Scotland, Day 3

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Wild Girls – Denise Mina & Karen Campbell with Craig Robertson

While the tagline of the event sold it as a discussion of women and crime writing, it really became a discussion about crime writing.  Both Mina and Campbell actually seemed a little uncomfortable to discuss whether their gender influenced their writing (Mina stated that some days she forgets she’s a woman), and Campbell set out to write crime to humanize the police.  With both authors unwilling to dwell a ton on feminism, we got a great, fun panel with a wide amount of crime topics.

One topic they addressed that I found really interesting was that of power.  For both Campbell and Mina, publication is a form of power, and both feel that what they write shows how they choose to use the power they are given.  Campbell, a former police officer, chose to use her power to show that members of law enforcement were more than just instruments.  Mina has used hers to discuss and highlight social issues throughout each of her books.

But does the fact they are women influence our choice to read them, or the way they are marketed?  Off the bat, one distinguishing feature of the female writer is the fact that both Mina and Campbell have written pregnant detectives.  That representation of happiness, stability, and a home life to come are both uncommon in a lot of crime fiction.  And of course, being pregnant is a huge reminder of one’s femininity.  One audience member was brave enough to say that she might choose Mina or another woman writer over their male counterparts, but mostly because she expects more psychological depth from a woman writer.  And both Mina and Campbell said they have received letters from readers complaining of rough language in their books; language the reader didn’t expect because they are women.

Which led them to start talking about the use of Scots in their novels.  As an avid reader of all sorts of Scottish fiction for the last five years, I was intrigued to hear their views on this.  Mina, who is widely published in the States, mentioned that while her books used to have to be “translated” for American readership, they now are changing less and less.  Campbell has also had her fair share of arguments with her London based publisher, who at one time wanted to change the word “close” to “foyer”.  For those not in the know, a close is a sort of alley or entrance to a group of tenement flats.  It gets its name from being small, enclosed on all sides.  Somehow, Campbell’s publisher took her description and thought it was the same thing as a foyer.  It is an amusing example of how much language and word choice matters, even if readers might not be familiar with the word in question.

About this time, the discussion broke away into a broader discourse about crime fiction in general.  Campbell is moving away from the genre for her next book, but Mina has fallen in love with it and will stay put.  They both admire the genre for its potential for great narrative drive and the avid readership, but both admit that their placement in the genre is due to marketers.  They write the books that they want to write, and the publisher does what they need to do to sell them.

No conclusion was really drawn from either of these wild girls when it comes to women and crime writing.  While both agree they still see many of their colleagues using initials, pseudonyms, or gender neutral names to sell books, they themselves have not succeeded less because of who they are.  Mina stated that the only way to fix the issue was to keep putting a woman’s name on the book and let the contents sell itself.  Act like there is a problem and you create it.  While it might narrow the readership field now, both Mina and Campbell only want to write good books.

Book Signings

I went to book signings for Rankin, Gray, and Anderson and for Mina after her Girls panel.  It was an incredible experience to meet all of them, and see Mina for the second time.  I was potentially most nervous to meet Rankin (of course), in part because I decided to have them sign my Kindle and he was the first I handed it to.  When I showed it to him and asked if he would, he laughed and said he had seen it done in the States before, then asked where I was from.  I responded the States, and he, Gray, and Anderson all chuckled.  When I asked Mina to sign it (who did remember me a bit from a couple of years ago), she and I got into a good discussion about how eco-friendly they are and just what a great device eReaders are for an avid reader.  I do wish that I had had brought one of my actual copies for Rankin to sign, but having four of the leading Scottish crime writers on the back of my Kindle makes it awesome to read.

Ian Rankin at the top (with the Knots and Crosses), then Gray, Anderson, and Mina below!

This is sadly the end of my Bloody Scotland write-ups and experiences.  I hope they announce an event for next year soon, because I am already starting to get excited for another go.

Bloody Scotland, Day 2

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Touching Evil – Denise Mina, Peter James, Alan Riach

For 10:30 in the morning, this was a very lively discussion, in more ways than one.  The basis of the panel was to delve into the topic of evil and whether it really exists in a world of murder and crime.  It seems like they would all come to the conclusion that of course evil is real, right?  Wrong.  The panel consisted of top crime-fiction authors Denise Mina and Peter James, moderated by Glasgow University professor (and one of my many thesis sources) Alan Riach.

Riach opened the panel by introducing the two authors and having them read from their most recent books.  From there, he began the discussion of the different levels of crime in crime fiction, and how the author views it.  Mina, one who can be very gritty in her writing, piped up that as the author of the grit you don’t find it distasteful.  Because she is the one who wrote it, there is a sort of distance there that keeps it from shocking herself.  This comment may be informed by the fact that Mina does not really believe in the concept of evil.  She thinks that it is a word we use to avoid empathy with the perpetrators.  Evil is a social shut down so we don’t have to explore how we might also commit the crime.

In some respects, I do have to agree with Mina.  The idea of inherent darkness in the human condition has been extensively examined in Scottish fiction such as James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and the well-known Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Both authors would have you believe that evil exists within each of us, and it is a matter of the choices we make that can tip the scale one way or another.  Mina, as it seems, would agree with those findings, going so far as to not even believe in evil.  When James brought up a few examples of gruesome crimes, which he said he would definitely consider evil, she was still not swayed.  It is admirable for her to empathize, to feel sorrow, for those we might consider the worst men and women in history, and that empathy certainly translates into her writing.  Of course, you could tell that there were many of us in the Bloody Scotland audience that day that just could not agree with her all the way.

From there the discussion moved towards villains, and James pointed out that those villains that have endured in pop culture are the ones with whom we can empathize.   This led an audience member to ask if Mina or James felt that each book needs to have a real resolution, with the “bad guy” being caught at the end.  Both agreed that at least for them, the triumph of “good” versus “evil” is not as important as it used to be, especially in crime fiction.  The lines have blurred between the detective and the criminals they hunt, and while both do usually end the book with the mystery being solved, the arrest might not get made.

I found this whole panel very intriguing.  There were a lot of points made about sociopaths (James insists that with good parents, sociopaths can lead normal lives, that not all will become serial killers as media would have us believe), and some very interesting back and forth between the three.  A bit heavy for so early in the morning?  Sure, but definitely worth the time.

In the Beginning was Laidlaw – William McIlvanney with Len Wanner

Len Wanner and William McIlvanney

When I originally booked a ticket for this event, I thought they would be just discussing McIlvanney’s groundbreaking Laidlaw.  There were no mentions that the author himself would be the one leading the panel.  You can imagine my excitement when I got a promo email a few days before mentioning that he would be there.  I may have been more nervous about hearing from McIlvanney than Rankin.  And I didn’t have the guts to have him sign my Kindle, because really I want him to sign my heavily-noted paperback of Laidlaw.  That’s in the States.  Curse books being heavy and my ignorance of his presence at the panel.

For those who are unfamiliar, William McIlvanney was a popular literary writer who championed the Glasgow-area working class.  When he wrote Laidlaw, he not only inspired Ian Rankin, but he also laid the groundwork for Scottish crime fiction.  He is of course older, but he looks good for his 75 years.  The thing I found really endearing was that he was casually dressed with trousers that rode up exposing his pulled-high white socks and he carried first-edition copies of the three Laidlaw novels on stage in a blue grocery sack.  Like he’s just someone’s grandpa, not one of the most celebrated living Scottish authors.

McIlvanney shared some great stories about his life in a Glasgow bedsit (his former landlady was in the audience!), and his decision to write crime fiction.  Simply put, he made Laidlaw a policeman so he would “have to deal with the bad stuff”.  Simple.  No motivation for money or fame, but because it was a vehicle to explore the issues close to him.  He also wanted to reconnect himself to the contemporary, as his previous novel Docherty had been set at the turn of the century, and felt that a policeman could do that for him.

Perhaps the funniest thing McIlvanney related was his love of the crime fiction community, how generous they are and how they are full of praise for one another.  He said he never felt that welcome amongst other literary writers, and instead was always looking for the hidden knives in that circle.  An unexpected observation?  A bit, but not after having attended this festival.

To end the night, PhD candidate Len Wanner asked McIlvanney about rumors concerning another Laidlaw novel.  That was when McIlvanney told us that the books were going back into print, and Laidlaw’s voice was back in his head.  He didn’t promise anything, but he is considering work on a fourth in the series!  Great news for Scottish crime fans everywhere.

Are Authors Celebrities?

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Ian Rankin – I think this is the same picture he’s used for years.

Thinking about my impending visit to Bloody Scotland, I was imagining finally seeing (and maybe meeting) Ian Rankin.

For many reasons, that is a terrifying prospect.  For one, I spent a couple years of my life intensely studying some of his books, which is evidenced by all of my copies being heavily marked and littered with Post It flags.

Second, nothing I could possibly say to this man would not come off as extremely embarrassing.  Most likely.  As well as my initial meeting with Denise Mina went, I have to say I am about ten times as terrified/excited to meet the man behind Rebus.  The fear won’t prevent me from going to the festival (I did already book my tickets) or from seeing Ian Rankin speak, but I have to say that I will probably anticipate that Friday evening more than any other I could think of.  (Minus my own wedding of course.  Which happens to also be a Friday evening.  Luckily the Scottish fiance doesn’t always read these musings, which just might save our marriage down the line.)

All of this anticipation and hype got me thinking – Do we view authors as celebrities? Or do we look at them differently than we would a movie star?

I would have to say:  yes, we look at them much differently. We fall in love with their talent, not with their faces or ability to make us swoon.  Look at guys like Stephen King; great writer, but not the most handsome guy in the world.  Now think about the celebrity you find most attractive, like the Ryans (Gosling and Reynolds) or Chrises (Hemsworth and Evans) of the world.  When you think of these actors, you generally first think of how beautiful they are on a movie screen, second how talented they are.  Not everyone does that and yes, I admire many actors for their talent (Jennifer Lawrence or Gosling again), but as a very superficial society we do look at actors and judge them on how attractive they are.  After all, the ones that look like Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman are considered “character actors”, and hardly ever are given the lead in a blockbuster film.

This is what is so refreshing about the book world.  No one cares.  It might be an added bonus that your favorite author is good to look at, but how many authors are there in the world that really look like Nathan Fillion’s Castle?  I might not think every author who is loved deserves the accolades, but where our tastes differ we can all agree on the same thing – we love our favorite authors because of what they write.  Because they bring our favorite characters to life.  Or simply because they paint a picture with words so vivid that you almost forget what you are reading is fiction.

So, back to my main question – are authors celebrities?  No, not really.  Not in the traditional sense anyway.  You are not really getting to know them (as you can fool yourself into believing with the traditional celebrity), but you are getting to know their writing style, their talent, and maybe a little piece of their own reality.  You see the inner workings of their brains in a way that is so unique from any other art form, and yet they are all distinct from what they write.  It is actually frowned upon in the academic world when you bring an author’s background into the literary theory, unless there is just that unmistakable connection.  Whatever the author has gone through has been channeled into their work, without a doubt, but what we are reading is something wholly different from what they might actually believe or have lived through.

This is I think why it is almost nerve wracking to meet your favorite author.  You know that they are not the characters they write, and yet you sort of want to believe it.  So you stress, because you do not want to come out to a signing sounding like some nutter who believes the fiction is real, and yet you want them to know how much their work has touched you in whatever way.

And here’s the main question:  would you actually recognize your favorite author on the street?  Most of us would have to say no, unless your favorite author was J.K. Rowling, and I would have to admit even she might be hard to recognize in a crowd.  Question answered with this one, really.

End of the Wasp Season – Denise Mina

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The End of the Wasp Season coverI am sort of afraid that some people might think I’m a bit obsessed with Mina and with Rankin.  In my defense, they are well worth the obsession.  I swear, I do read other authors, but when a new Mina book comes out, I have to stop everything and read.

The End of the Wasp Season is the second in the DI Alex Morrow series.  Pregnant with twins, Morrow seems almost healed from the loss of her young son a couple of years before.  Though her coworkers think the pregnancy makes her frail, Morrow is more confident and enmeshed in her work than ever.  Investigating the death of Sarah Erroll brings Morrow back into the life of an old school friend, reminding Morrow of the past she tries so hard to forget.  Morrow must deal with her complicated relationship with her half-brother Danny, her pregnancy, and her sympathy for the victim that has landed at the center of this story.

DI Alex Morrow is potentially the most relatable cop coming out of Scottish crime fiction.  She does not consider herself above anyone else (a trait that Rebus sometimes falls into), does not think that she has skills someone else does not.  Morrow merely presses the issue, follows her gut, and feels for the victim.  It is unusual for crime fiction to have much sympathy for the person now dead.  After all, the bodies tend to be the impetus for the game, nothing more than a piece on a checker board.  Morrow, however, is sickened by the attitude her fellow officers have towards the disfigured body of Sarah Erroll.  She is motivated to catch the killer not as part of her job or to serve justice to the wicked, but to help provide closure to Sarah’s dangling existence.  The final push that leads Morrow to the killers is fueled by a simple video of Sarah sent to Morrow by one of Sarah’s friends.

Morrow’s anger has abated in this novel, and I like it better.  She maintains an edge, but the lack of quick anger helps to demonstrate the steps she has taken to move on after the loss of a young child.  Alex is not soft by any means, but she learns through her rediscovered friend Kay, her husband, and even through the murderer what a good family could mean to someone.  Perhaps “good” is not the word, but rather “accepting”.  Knowing who you are, where you come from, and accepting that could make all the difference in the world.

Now, to our killer.  Thomas is a young man whose thoughts can be terribly depressing.  His father is a large financier who has just lost everything.  The book implies a scandal of some sort, but like Thomas, we never fully understand what happened.  His father, Lars, confesses to Thomas that there is another woman he calls his wife, and he has another son and daughter the same age as Thomas and his younger sister.  Unable to cope, he made the trip to Sarah’s thinking she was the other wife.  He takes his friend Squeak with him, and Thomas is scarred because of what happened in that house.  Lars kills himself the day the boys kill Sarah, and Thomas is ushered home to his insane mother and equally mental sister.  He tries to act the adult, but finds he cannot cope both with what he has done and how his family behaves.

There are two things that are interesting about Thomas.  One, that he reminds me most of William McIlvanney’s murderer in Laidlaw.  The Glaswegian detective that kick-started the tartan noir, McIlvanney manages to make his own killer Tommy sympathetic.  You feel sorry for him, understand him.  There are few authors out there who manage to make you root, in a sense, for the killer.  Mina does that with Thomas (same name, ironically).  You delve so deep into his psyche and into his problems, that you see where he has been capable of what he has done.  There are, again, a lot of Jekyll and Hyde tendencies in Thomas, the normal boy making you pity the monster within him.

The other interesting tidbit lies in the mind’s ability to trick itself.  After all he has done and seen, Thomas tries tirelessly to wipe the images and actions out of his mind.  You as the reader wonder just how much he really participated in the act of Sarah’s murder, if his protestations to himself are all an act or if they are sincere.  He has never seen his sister’s mental illness because he did not want to see it.  He wanted instead to feel jealous of her and the doting attention paid her by his parents.  The mind tricks us to protect us, and that is the lesson that Thomas seems to learn, mostly, from his experiences.

Mina has again crafted a novel that is psychologically superior to most of her contemporaries.  Morrow is our MC, well-rounded, growing (not just in pregnancy, haha), and learning in her career.  She cares, and so it is much easier for us to care about her.  But Mina does not just give us Morrow as a narrator.  She gives us our victim, so that we can feel compassion for her.  Mina writes from Kay, Morrow’s school friend, so that we can see Morrow and the police from a different light.  And Mina takes us deep into the mind of the killer, but not leaving us feeling disgusted like so many other writers choose to do.  Instead, we feel pity for the boy who was never loved and cast aside by the father he so hopelessly tried to please.  Four fully-fleshed characters to narrate our story, each with a different one to tell, and each completely captivating.  This is why Mina excels and remains at the top of Scottish crime fiction – she makes us care about each and every character in her story.

Rating: 9/10 (I only take off a point because the book opens with Sarah’s view instead of Alex, and it was a little jarring for me.)

Format read: Kindle

Borders Buys

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As most of you in the States know, Borders is closing their doors.  While this is sad, it also means my personal library grew by several books.  Some I needed, others were merely impulse buys.  I like those kind.  Since these will mostly become my to-read books over the next few weeks, I’ve uploaded them here.

From bottom to top:

  • Poison Study – Maria V. Snyder (YA)
  • Slip of the Knife – Denise Mina (Crime, 3rd in the Paddy Meehan series)
  • Delirium – Lauren Oliver (YA, Dystopian)
  • White Cat – Holly Black (YA, Fantasy)
  • Friends, Lovers, Chocolate – Alexander McCall Smith (Crime, Scottish)
  • Extraordinary – Nancy Werlin (YA, Fantasy)
  • The Sherlockian – Graham Moore (Mystery)
  • Doors Open – Ian Rankin (Crime, Scottish)
  • The Black Book – Ian Rankin (Crime, 5th in Rebus Series)
  • Hide and Seek – Ian Rankin (Crime, 2nd in Rebus Series)
  • Chalice – Robin McKinley (YA?, Fantasy)
  • Violence – Zizek (Philosophy, and don’t worry, I will not review it here)
  • Top two are journals/notebooks. I am a sucker for those.
  • Not Pictured: Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman (Fantasy – this one had actually gotten put on a shelf, so it missed the picture, and I am too tired to retake it)
  • Also Not Pictured: Iron Witch – Karen Mahoney (YA, Fantasy – same reason as above)

Poison, Delirium, White Cat, Extraordinary, Sherlockian, Anansi Boys, and Chalice were all random buys.  Though I like Black, Werlin, Gaiman, and McKinley, so I have high hopes.  I have read the Rankins, but did not own the hard copies.  I actually like philosophy, and Violence can prove useful for the PhD proposal.  Mina and McCall Smith are also helpful for the PhD proposal.  Actually, I didn’t much like the first of McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club and the book here is the second.  Interesting from a studying point of view, but not really as a book.  And like I said, journals are just plain fun.  There’s also a good chance I bought a couple more books that got put away on a shelf, but if there were more I think I would feel a bit bad about how much money I spent.  I do think I’m done though, since Borders was empty of Rankins, Minas, and basically everything else.

Let’s hope at least some of these books turn out to be good!  And if not, they’ll look good on my shelf. Ha.

And thanks to ReadingFuelledByTea for this blog post idea.

Kindle, how I love you!

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When Amazon first announced the Kindle, I think I blanched.  After all, how could you replace the physical copy of a book?  It’s just so unromantic, too modern.  And yet, the idea grew on me.  I could carry hundreds of books in my purse, you say?  I could have my entire library with me, search the books, highlight things and search for those highlights?  As a student of literature, it was a very intriguing idea.

And then my amazing fiance got me one for my birthday.

I had no idea just how awesome it was.

Now granted, nothing can replace my library.  After all, I still love to read a physical copy of a book.  I also like to own the physical copies, because that small bit of pride likes it that people can see which books I own.  Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted the library that Beast gives Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  But until I can afford the mansion with the large library, I have to settle for a few overflowing shelves tucked in the corner of my bedroom.

And yet, now I can carry Belle’s massive library with me at all times.  The Kindle is lightweight, so it doesn’t add much to the normal clutter I carry in my purse.  It is also roughly the size of a normal paperback, but much skinner.  I keep mine in a protective case, just so my screen doesn’t get scratched by whatever could be lurking in my bags.  The other benefit is how long the power lasts.  I opened my Kindle on my birthday, at the end of June.  I did not have to charge it until the end of July.  And even though it’s had heavier usage in the last month, I only charged it for the third time a week ago.  So basically, the battery lasts 3-4 weeks, and that was with my WiFi on the entire time.  Pretty darn amazing.

Some people would say I should have just gone for a tablet, like Barnes and Noble’s Nook or all out for something like the iPad.  One, I just wanted to read books.  Because the Kindle is devoted to that function, it was perfect for me.  Two, if I went for the Nook or an iPad I would be charging it every other day, they are heavier, larger, and clunkier to carry.  Plus, with the Nook I would have to purchase from B&N, who are going to be more expensive and won’t have the same buying power as Amazon.  While the iPad does have a Kindle app (as does my android phone, so I can put books on there if I want), the glare would also start to kill your eyes.

The electronic ink of the Kindle is perhaps its best and worst feature.  Best because its no more painful or strains your eyes than a regular book would.  Worst because it does not have a back light, so you need some kind of book light to read in the dark.  While I of course own a few book lights, I do wish the Kindle would come out with an optional back light.  That way, you could turn it on only when you needed it.  Sure, it would run down your battery, but at least you would have the ability to read better on a plane or just in your room.  So Amazon, if you ever read this blog (here’s hoping!), optional back light function on the Kindle.  Default function to off.  Get inventing!

As far as the actual reading of the books goes, the Kindle is amazing.  I have never been one for reading multiple books at a time, but it is pretty easy to do just that on the device.  For instance, I can have a fun, beach-type read that I can pick up from time to time and flip back to the books I read for review here.  It saves where you are in the book, so you never have to navigate back, and it also saves you from using bookmarks (I always seem to lose mine, including one I got from the Sherlock Holmes house last year, and I am still gutted about that.  Of course, it is probably in one of my books, I just have to figure out which one.  Amusing. I should get Sherlock to find it.).  While I do miss holding a book and seeing the number of pages decrease in my right hand, Kindle does give you the percentage read.  It is better than having some arbitrary page number (Nook readers tell me this is what it does), because you’ll have no idea how many pages are in the book itself.

Enough about my love of the Kindle.  Well, just a bit more.  Some people, like myself, were afraid that the EReader would kill the publishing industry.  I think it’s actually thriving because of it.  Books can be offered at a lower cost to the publisher, giving them a higher profit.  And frankly, more people are reading.  Think about all those dead times you have – waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting in line at the DMV, or your morning commute (NOT if you’re driving, I mean public transport here).  You have the ability now to carry more than one reading option with you, on something small enough that it doesn’t become cumbersome to carry.  Now you can fill those dead hours with reading the new Ian Rankin, Neil Gaiman, or Denise Mina books.  Now that reading is easier and more convenient in this fast-paced world, more of us are making time to do it.  Even as an avid reader, I do find myself reading more often because of my Kindle.

Amazon win.

(You can also get magazine subscriptions, newspapers, and other more informative things on the Kindle.  I just go for the books, though.)