YOUR BUSINESS IS IMPORTANT TO US

It’s an epidemic, a pandemic  — of bad service.

Do you remember when the customer was always right? I do. It wasn’t that long ago.

Customer satisfaction and service was the norm until approximately 2002, at which point everyone — more or less simultaneously — decided to save money by “automating” customer service, eliminating it entirely, or shipping it overseas to be handled by people who speak heavily accented English and don’t know anything about the products they are supposed to be supporting. That was when you and me, the customers, the ones who spend our limited, disposable income on their products or services, became unimportant.

outofserviceThat was the year when we all became not worth the effort of answering a question, or supplying documentation. The gold standard for customer service became … nothing. These days, after slightly more than a decade of working out the details, most organizations do not offer any service to their customers. At all.

The overall attitude is “do the least you can — nothing, if you can get away with it. All customers are liars and thieves. Treat them as such.”

Customer disservice. I think I’m permanently pissed off. Even thinking about calling a customer service department gets my blood boiling. I’m shocked if I’m treated well. Delighted, but shocked.

SO WHAT DO I HATE?

Recorded phone solicitations that interrupt your sleep, meals, conversations, and the show you’re watching. Calls that display on caller ID as familiar phone numbers, but they’ve hacked your data or bought it from someone from whom you bought something.

waiting

Fake charitable organizations, many supposedly in support of breast cancer research or some other form of advocacy. Who take your money and use it to line their own pockets.

“Surveys” that are nothing but scams to collect your private data for sale and misuse.

“Discount cards” for every shop you go to, all of which are a way to collect your personal information so they can sell it. Because you may not be worth much as a customer, but your buying habits sell for big bucks.

Voice-mail systems at doctor’s offices with so many options you can’t recall the first option halfway through the message. The recordings go on and on, until you are ready to scream. Worse, you have to listen to the entire spiel every time you call. The message starts with “Please listen to this entire message before making your selection. Our menu choices have recently changed …” Recently was 10 months ago … or a year or more. You can sing along with the recording because you’ve heard it so many times.

CustServCartoon

Many places no longer offer any option of speaking to a live person. Try to find a live human being at your electric company, cable provider, or credit card company.

Our electric company had customer service. Today, if you can find their phone number, a recorded message will tell you to visit the website. Online. Not quite what you need when the power’s off. Make sure you have their actual phone number on your device. You can’t look it up online when there’s no electricity because if there’s no electricity, there’s also no cable or WiFi.

If your whole life is online, it’s over when the power goes out.

Death cust serv

Assuming you can worm your way through voice mail and finally push the magic number to connect you to a live agent, you hear: “Your business is important to us …” followed by Muzak and a 40-minute wait on hold. Better yet, it’s the long wait, followed by a disconnect and dial tone.

96-Waiting-Worcester

Bad (automated) service is particular noxious when it’s a local company. You know both office workers are probably playing games on Facebook while you listen to their 5-minute voice-mail message. All you wanted to do was ask on which night they are open late. By the end of the message, you no longer care.

THERE ARE STILL SOME GOOD ONES OUT THERE 

Amazon and Audible. Audible is an Amazon company now, but they always had terrific customer service. The more I deal with Amazon, the less I want to deal with anyone else. They are proof getting service does not have to be a nightmare. Trauma need not part of all interactions with vendors, medical facilities, utilities, or other corporations.

AT&T is good. Not as good as Amazon, but you can eventually get a real live person who knows what they are doing. And oddly enough, Medicare and Social Security. Though you may need to wait on hold for a while, you will get a live person in the end — and they will speak your language. They will stay on line with you as long as it takes. Credit where it’s due. These underpaid public servants try hard to help you.

L.L. Bean has wonderful customer service. Land’s End is good too.

To everyone else, I offer a big raspberry and a Bah Humbug in honor of the season.

AFTER THE END COMES RENEWAL: EARTH ABIDES

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

I first read this book 40 years ago. It wasn’t new then having been written in 1949, yet it has stuck with me, despite having read thousands of books since.

Earth Abides is sometimes referred to as “the original disaster” story, but it isn’t a disaster story at all. It is, as the title suggests, a book of renewal and hope.

Although events are set in motion by a disaster — a plague that starts somewhere, no one is sure where — and kills off most of the population, that’s only the beginning of the story. A few people are naturally immune to the disease. Also, anyone who was ever bitten by a poisonous snake and survived is immune.

The remnants of humanity find each other and form groups, then tribes.  They repopulate the earth, creating a new society that has bits and pieces of what had gone before, without much of the baggage of the past.

The book was re-released in a 60th anniversary edition a few years ago, including a newly recorded audio version that has an introduction by Connie Willis.

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover editi...
Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover edition of Earth Abides. Cover illustration by H. Lawrence Hoffman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot count the number of copies of this book I’ve owned. I buy copies of it and lend it to people. It’s theoretically on loan, but the books are never returned, so i buy another copy.

The book is a bit preachy, but George Stewart is a lot less preachy than Anne Rice and I agree with him.

And, what seems ordinary today was revolutionary 63 years ago.

The book holds up well. Technology has moved on, but because technology is insupportable on a depopulated earth, it makes no difference what had or had not been invented. It is all useless without supporting infrastructure.

You can’t drive cars without gasoline, use phones without service. Our satellites might continue to circle the earth, but who would send or receive their signals? After our batteries go flat, it’s over for technology.

The world ends, the world begins. Earth abides.

Ish and Emma are the “mother” and “father” of the new tribe. Ish, in Hebrew, means “man” and “Eema” means “mother” which I am sure is not coincidental. It’s a wonderful story that suggests the human race has the ability to not only survive, but reinvent the world and be better than we are.

If you haven’t read this book, read it. It’s available on paper, for Kindle, and from Audible – an excellent recording with a fine narrator. I recommend it.

I love this book. I read a lot of science fiction, or used to … but I’m finding most of the new offerings in the genre bleak, to say the least. Hope is as scarce in recent science fiction as the visions of the future are barren and grim. Everything seems set in some version of an ugly, dystopian future emphasizing the worst traits of human nature. Granted we are flawed and there is much evil amongst us, but I don’t necessarily want to dwell in that wasteland.

Earth Abides is exactly the opposite. It is timeless — and rich with hope.

Ever After, Kim Harrison – Fantasy Comfort Food of the Literary Kind

When I began reading Ever After, by Kim Harrison — on the day of its release — I read it first on Kindle. Next, to get the full flavor, I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Marguerite Gavin. Oh my. I just sank into it, the same way I sink into my bed … with a sigh of sheer delight. How good it felt to be home again.

Home again? In Cincinnati? When I’ve never been to Cincinnati and probably never will be? Where witches consort with vampires and pixies and a powerful elf rules the political world? Where you can hire a werewolf as a body-guard and you must take care to avoid demons and banshees?

Yup, Cincinnati. I feel like it’s the home town of my wistful soul, a world that somehow makes more sense than the reality in which I live my real life.

It’s been a difficult couple of weeks and I realized … I need a fix. I need to go home to Cincinnati and visit the gang at the old church. I started listening to it again last night and of course, I loved it as I have each time before. Maybe I’ll reread some of the earlier books I haven’t read in a while because there’s a new book in the series coming out and I want to be psyched. Like I wouldn’t be :-)

I have loved every book in the series, though I have loved the last three or four even more than the first group. The characters have matured, come into themselves, their powers. They are grabbing hold of their destinies, moving into their futures.

One of the signs a book may deserve  the label “classic” is when rereading it is — no matter whether it’s the first reread or the 10th — is like reading it for the first time. Maybe better. I was barely past the first few paragraphs when I realized it was as if I’d never left. I was back in the Hollows, home in magical Cincinnati and the church where Rachel, Ivy and Jenks live. My friends were waiting for me.

Ever After was new all over again. I relived the adventure, relishing each twist and turn of the plot, each character’s development. I was happy for Ivy, finding her own life at long last but sorry not to have her with me on this journey. Glad that Jenks was still involved and Biz is coming into his own. Delighted with the direction of Rachel’s relationship with Trent, sad at the loss of beloved characters. Bemused at the changes and growth in the world of demons as they evolve from caricature bad guys to people with memories of better days, their own private griefs and joys.

I keep discovering new layers to the story. This is a great book. I know it’s genre urban fantasy but it is far superior to most of the stuff I read in any genre. The consistent, careful development of characters and plot are outstanding. Kim Harrison never drops a stitch. Knowing  something about Kim Harrison’s process has given me a better understanding of how she achieves this remarkable, near-perfect construction. It has improved my writing. Following her blog is a good thing for writers. She is unusually forthcoming about how she does what she does. I continue to be fascinated by how excruciatingly precise she is, how very careful. No wonder there are not lapses in continuity, no strange leaps in time. She is careful, organized. Compared to my writing style, she’s downright anal compulsive and probably why she is able to keep such a high standard of quality. I don’t have that kind of dedication. Which is why she is a best-selling author and I’m not.

If you’ve never checked out her blog and you write, I highly recommend it. She answers questions about anything other than the details and plot of upcoming books.

She is an extremely focused and precise writer. She plans every detail of the plot, every twist of the story. No “off the cuff” writing. She doesn’t depend on obvious answers nor use genre clichés.

There’s nothing raw or unfinished in any of her books. Ever After would be a fine novel be any standards. If it weren’t urban fantasy, it would be good literature.

In my opinion, most of today’s creative authoring is happening in fantasy and science fiction. General fiction, of which I have read a great deal recently, has become drab and unimaginative. Very little new territory is being explored in “serious literature.” If you want to read something that’ll knock your socks off, visit another genre.

Kim_Harrison_06lrI have heard a lot of complaints about the popularity of science fiction and fantasy, that people don’t want to read anything that doesn’t have supernatural creatures or time travel as part of the plot. But those who complain might consider the paucity of good books coming out of “main stream” fiction. It doesn’t have to be dull, but it so often is. And bleak. And depressing. It’s no wonder that many of us don’t want to go there.

The thrill of reading isn’t gone but it has just moved to a different part of town. Read Jim Butcher‘s Harry Dresden series and check out Kevin Hearne‘s Iron Druid. Discover Carol Berg. Pick one of her books or series; you can’t go wrong. Move right into the book world with Jasper Fforde‘s Thursday Next series. If you haven’t already read it, Stephen King’s 11-23-62 is one of the best books of the decade — maybe any decade — and it’s pure science fiction.

Try some of Connie Willis‘ works. This is an area of fiction where creativity is running rampant. You’ll find books to entertain you and fill your mind with ideas. And you won’t be bored, not for a moment. There are lots more wonderful writers waiting for you to discover them. It’s not a whole world. It’s many worlds and they are all yours to explore.

Ever After is a very satisfying read. Magic, love, passion, battles. Complicated relationships, love in bloom, hope, loss, and danger. I mourned the fallen, exalted for the living and dreamed about the future. It’s not the only good book I’ve read recently, but it sure is among the top few.

If a witch, an elf and a demon can come together to save the world, anything is possible.

All of the Hollows are available as paperbacks, on Kindle and as audiobooks.

Returning to the Dresden Universe — Cold Days in Audio

Including spineListening Cold Days again took me back to a world I love. James Marsters is a wonderful narrator. Marsters has become the voice of Harry Dresden. One book used a different narrator and fans were up in arms. I wasn’t quite as bothered as some, but I prefer Marsters. He strikes that perfect balance to enable me to see the story in my head. My own movie.

I am a Harry Dresden and Jim Butcher fan, so there’s no way for me to discuss any of these books with even a semblance of neutrality. If you also love the series, the enchanted world of Harry Dresden and Jim Butcher … I’m with you.

In the last Dresden book, “Ghost Story,” Harry was neither entirely alive nor quite dead. It was a difficult excursion for Harry’s fans. I liked it well enough, though it was different from any previous Harry Dresden adventure. I was sure it was an important bridge to the next phase of Harry’s world and I was right.

“Cold Days” is more satisfying. Although Harry gets pulverized (as usual), I’m consoled knowing Harry will survive what would kill an ordinary mortal. He has, after all, already survived death. Earlier books ended with more resolution than the last few. Now, each book is an episode in a continuing story line. “Cold Days” brings Harry back in the flesh. Changed, less careless of life having lost it … but as Winter Knight, he is powerful in new ways. This is just as well because his foes are stronger than ever and they aren’t going away.

Jim Butcher is a clever. He extracts Harry from impossible predicaments in which he faces horrendous odds, then adroitly uses these apparently hopeless situations to move the story in a new direction that will become the next book. Nothing is superfluous. It’s all part of a giant jigsaw puzzle, a piece of the full picture to be revealed in a subsequent installment.

I love the Dresden universe. My world has more than enough evil to keep an army of wizards busy, but the evil on this plane is likely to consist of grey bureaucrats, smarmy politicians. Fighting them is like trying to punch a hole in jello. You can’t beat them; they have no substance. Harry fights evil for me. He takes his lumps and then some, but he’s out there fighting for justice, even when it seems he’s taken a wrong turn. Despite appearances, Harry is never bad, though he is stubborn, too wedded to his own opinions. He’s a poor listener and does not heed advice, a combination that has cost him dearly.

Harry is changing and growing. He’s painfully (in the most literal sense) aware of his mortality and fragility. He knows he’s made terrible mistakes he can never set right. He’s not cocksure anymore. He has become more of a planner. He is less inclined to charge headlong into danger unless it is the only course. Mindless violence is no longer his default setting. All to the good.

I’m sensing a climactic conclusion to the series coming. I wish the series would go on forever, but Jim Butcher has said it will be 20 books and a trilogy. I’m not sure if the trilogy is part of the 20 books or in addition to it. I keep meaning to ask. Maybe I’ll just wait and see.

I hope — by now — the next installment of the Dresden Files is nearing publication. I’ll be waiting and ready to read when it comes around! Meanwhile, if you haven’t gotten to this one, don’t miss it. It’s rich, complex and I promise it will grab you and take you for a ride you won’t forget.

Midnight Riot, Ben Aaronovitch (2011)

London probationary constable Peter Grant hopes to become a detective, but his tendency to be distracted by details that others think are unimportant has landed him in the Case Progression Unit. That’s where the paperwork gets processed and where the biggest danger is a paper cut.

While collecting evidence from a crime scene, Peter finds an eye-witness who appears to be a ghost. This brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale. Nightingale is in charge of the secret police division that investigates crime involving the undead, magic, various deities or anything else that could be classified as weird.

Nightingale has always — and always turns out to be a long time indeed — worked alone, but incidences of the strange and bizarre seem to be increasing around town. Enter Peter Grant, the distractible cop with a natural ability to “sniff” vestiges of magic and the first official apprentice wizard in the history of the division.

I starting reading this on the recommendation of one of my readers. I’ve never been led astray by a reader’s recommendation and this was no exception. The is the first book in a series in which there are three books to date, but hopefully more to come.

I read a lot of mysteries and a lot of fantasy. Peter Grant is much more of a cop than he is a wizard, though that will probably change as the series progresses. In this first book, despite a strong magical theme, it is also a real cop thriller. There’s a lot of wonderful description about the life of a constable in the London metropolitan police. There’s even more background about growing up as a racially mixed, working class kid in London. Like whipped cream on a sundae, the book provides rich detail about everything from the social interaction of Londoners on the underground at rush hour, to architectural disasters and bomb craters … and the gods and goddesses who care for the streams and rivers of London. Lots about them.

Aaronovitch’s writing is witty — sometimes downright funny — and intelligent. His ironic humor keeps the book moving along at a brisk pace. Peter Grant feels very real. I feel like I’ve met him, would recognize him at a party. He’s got a history. He’s smart and intuitive, but also human. He makes mistakes and learns from them. He actually works at his job.

I didn’t just read the book, I also bought it from Audible and have listened to it twice. Once for the fun, and the second time to pick up details I might have missed first time around. There is a lot of detail. There’s humor, danger, magic and then there’s mood. Wherever Peter Grant goes, you are treated to a description so thorough you can pretty much see the whole thing … smell and taste it, too.

If you like audiobooks, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is a marvelous narrator. He has the knack of making the book and its characters come alive but being non-intrusive so you see the book in your mind and don’t notice the narrator at all. This is exactly as it should be when the narrator and the books are perfectly matched.

I’m enjoying the second book even more than the first. Peter has begun to have more self-confidence, both as a police officer and as a wizard. I can sense where the series is going and I’m glad to be going along for the ride.

If you’re looking for a new series, this is a good one! I have a feeling it’s going to get even better as it matures.

Rereading Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart

Cover of "Earth Abides"

When I first read Earth Abides by George R. Stewart more than 40 years ago, it wasn’t newly published, but it was new to me.

Unlike many other books I have read and forgotten, Earth Abides has stayed with me. I’ve returned to it many times in recent years, but there was a period of almost 30 years when I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere. Nonetheless, I could recall it with remarkable clarity. It was especially remarkable considering the thousands of books I read every year. That I could remember this one book — not to be too punny — spoke volumes. It turns out that I was not alone. Many people found the book unforgettable, including many writers. George Stewart’s masterpiece became the jumping off point for an entire genre.

Earth Abides is a “foundation book,” one of a handful of books that you must read if you are a science fiction fan. It is frequently cited as “the original disaster” story. A foundation book it most definitely is, but classing it as the “original disaster story” rather misses the point.

Earth Abides isn’t merely a disaster story or post apocalyptic science fiction. Above all it is a book of rebuilding, renewal and hope. The event that initiates the story is a disaster, a plague resulting from either a natural mutation or something escaped from a lab that runs amok. Whatever its origins, it kills off most of Earth’s human population. As has been true of plagues throughout history, a small percentage of the population is naturally immune. Additionally, anyone who survived a rattlesnake bite is immune.

The plague is the back story. The front story of Earth Abides is how humankind copes with the tragedy as scattered remnants of people slowly find one another, form groups and gradually create a new civilization. Through marriage and the pressures of survival, groups become tribes. Simultaneously, the earth itself revives and finds a new balance.

Most diseases of old earth are eliminated by depopulation. New generations are wonderfully healthy. Along with physical disease, mental illness, archaic religious and outdated social structures are shed. New human generations have no memory of institutionalized bias and prejudice and the color line becomes non-existent. There is much that needs doing in this new world, but there’s an infinite amount of time in which to do it.

Ultimately, earth will be repopulated. But gently … and hopefully, in peace. The reborn world will contain bits and pieces of what went before, but without its demons.

The book was re-released as a 60th anniversary edition in 2009, including an audio version with an introduction by Connie Willis.

Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover editi...
Cover of the 1949 Random House hardcover edition of Earth Abides. Cover illustration by H. Lawrence Hoffman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last time I read it was immediately after it was re-released. Four years has given me time to be surprised by the book all over again. Be surprised by how much Ish — the main character — changes over the years, how much he grows and matures. How his belief structure adapts to new realities, how much more open his mind becomes. It’s a rare transformation from a literary point of view. Few characters I’ve read have transformed as much as Ish does in Earth Abides.

Earth Abides was published in 1949. In some parts of the U.S. and other countries, the issues with which the book’s characters grapple are still very much alive. They shouldn’t be. We have moved on but only to a point.

The technology stands up surprisingly well because it’s essentially irrelevant. All technology disappears, so it doesn’t matter how advanced it used to be. When the power goes off, it’s over. The world goes back to pre-technological. It has wind, water and sun. Books remain, so knowledge exists, but in stasis, waiting to be rediscovered and deployed. Meanwhile, earth abides.

The world ends, the world begins. Ish and Emma are the “mother” and “father” of the new tribe. Ish, in Hebrew, means “man” and “Eema” means “mother” which I am sure is not coincidental. It’s a wonderful story that suggests the human race has the capacity to not only survive, but reinvent civilization and make a better world.

Earth Abides is timeless. As is the Earth. There’s an entire site dedicated to George R. Stewart – The EARTH ABIDES Project. Definitely check it out!

It’s available in every configuration including Kindle, Audible download, audiobook (CD and MP3), hardcover and paperback. There was time when it was difficult to find, but it seems to have found its way back. I have owned at least a dozen copies of Earth Abides and keep an extra copy tucked away to give to friends who haven’t read it yet. I’m glad.

It remains among my top five all time favorite science fiction novels and if you haven’t read it, there’s no time like the present. I have a spare copy, just in case.