Tour’s Books Blog

May 17, 2013

Mystery Week – Confessions of a Serial Killer

Yes, I am a serial killer.  Of computers, anyway.  So once again I have a new computer.  And once again I am jumping thru hoops trying to locate all my favorites because my other laptop died before all the ‘favorites’ could be transferred.  SIGH!  The worst is getting the damn login page for this blog.  And once again I have only myself to blame.  SCREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!

Laptops are not meant to be dropped.  And I dropped mine twice.  Once it just slid off my lap and crashed into a large antique trunk – the trunk won.  The other time I caught my foot in a wire and yanked the thing so hard I wrecked two ports.  We won’t discuss the replacement keyboard I had to have installed because books – hard covers – toppled onto the open computer and broke off several keys.  Yes, yes, I know.  Laptops are not meant to sustain such abuse and if I went wireless it would be better, except for the book thing,  but using cables is more secure.  And faster.

In my defense, I killed several desktops at work as well, so it’s not just my absent-mindedness or clumsiness to blame.  Apparently, I have an issue with computers in general.  The one that lasted the longest was my very first desktop with 10 meg hard drive.  Yup, the whole thing worked of something exponentially smaller than simple game software today.  And I ran Lotus and a word processing package and a drawing package.  Somewhere along the way, the company standardized to Microsoft and Office.  The computers suicided at am alarming rate.  Or that was my story at work.  Since I went out on my own, the death rates have gone up.  Not unreasonable given the fact laptops are generally more fragile than desktops, and more easily abused.

With all these computer deaths haunting me, it’s somehow appropriate that I read 3 books featuring assassins.  In fairness, they did not go around killing computers – though the old Acer I was using was about to have a fatal accident at my hands due to my sheer frustration with it.  No, the assassins killed people, mostly BAD people.  Like John Cusack’s Martin Blank in Grosse Pointe Blank, ‘If I show up at your door, you know what brought me there’ kind of thing.

Well, I do enjoy good assassin books.  I read the Mitch Rapp, Gabriel Allon, John Rain, even the amusing Bombay Assassin books, so I enjoy the genre regardless.  I guess I feel a certain kinship with them, even though I only kill computers.  So here are some books reviews – and there were some hits and some minor misses.  (Pun intended.)

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041809-0228-favoriteboo1.png The Enemy

The Enemy by Tom Wood (formerly Tom Hinselwood) is book 2 in the Victor the assassin series.  Book one was The Killer, later retitled and republished as The Hunter with the author’s name shortened to Tom Wood.  The publisher delayed book two until after the re-release of book one with the title and name change.  FINALLY, they published book 2 with the now new author name, and the paperback hit the shelves this month.  So if you read book one a few years back, as I did, that’s why book 2 took so long.  It wasn’t the author’s fault.

At the end of The Killer (The Hunter), Victor ends up under the control of a top ranking CIA spook.  In book 2, he’s carrying out some hits as directed by his handler.  Like book one, you have several stories moving at the same time.  First is the action thriller story of Victor and his hits as controlled by his handler at the CIA.  Next is the twists and turns of double and triple dealing with the CIA and Victor’s handling of his his handler.

The story opens with Victor killing an assassin paid to take out an Russian arms dealer, Kasakov.  His handler sends him to pick up explosive material from a specific source so the material will then be traced back to person they want implicated in the assassination Victor will perform.  And things start going wrong.  And people start dying.  Including children.  Victor has a rule – no children.

As Victor moves from kill to kill on arms dealers, he runs across Mossad.  An Arab arms dealer does not die at Victor’s hands, but he and his whole family do die, in a bloody, horrifying way.  Finally, Victor is sent to kill the arms dealer he saved at the beginning.  But he finds himself in the crosshairs of another team.  He kills two and captures the third.  The trail loops back to the two men who blackmailed him into working for the CIA.  And just when you think things are settle, the book ends with the Mossad after Victor.

While no John Rain, Victor is an interesting character.  Wood does not have Eisler’s skill with prose or his first person style that draws you into the character, but he speeds things along with lots of plot twists and turns and Victor remains true to character, even though taking him out of character.  As an action thriller, it’s a good read and a worthy follow-up to the first book.  This book was purchased from Amazon for $8.99.

The Enemy gets a B- (3.8*) from me and a suggested read for fans of Mitch Rapp and John Rain stories.

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Now this assassin is not only female, it’s a story played for laughs by Jana Deleon.  Ms Deleon is author of a number of books set in various small towns in Louisiana, including her Mudbug series.  She used to write for now defunct Dorchester, but this series was done on Amazon’s self-publishing platform, CreateSpace.

Fortune Redding kills an Arab arms dealer when he buys an 11 year old girl for sex.  Good thing she was teetering around in those spike heeled shoes!  Escaping across the desert in a skimpy dress with a rifle barely bothered her.  Learning she had $10 million dollar bounty on her head and leak in the top levels of the CIA that fingered her – yeah, that was an issue.  But finding out she was being sent to a tiny town in Louisiana named Sinful to hide in plain sight as her boss’s niece, Sandy-Sue Morrow, a librarian and former beauty queen?  That shook her to the her core.  Still, Fortune should be able to inventory and pack a house over the summer while the real Sandy-Sue gets to jet-set around Europe at her uncle’s expense.

Her first day in Sinful, she insults the Deputy Sheriff, finds a little old lady at Marge’s house laying in wait, and has Marge’s ancient bloodhound dig up a human bone that washes in on the bayou tide in her back yard.  And she thought she’d be bored!  First the handsome deputy thinks she had something to do with the bone, then suspicion falls on Marie, the wife of a missing man and a friend of Ida Belle and Gertie – and of Sandy-Sue’s late Aunt Marge.

Fear not, the heads of the Sinful Ladies Society, AKA The Geritol Mafia, have things well in hand – even if it is only 7AM on Sunday morning.  Gertie has no intention of waiting for another person to snatch up Sandy-Sue Morrow for Sunday services.  There was a war to be won, and she might not know it, but Sandy-Sue was the newest recruit.  And Fortune proves herself when she wins the Sunday banana pudding dash – a weekly event where the Sinful Ladies Society and God’s Wives, their arch competition, for run to the local restaurant for dibbs on Francine’s much longed for banana pudding.  It was only made Sunday’s and only in small amounts and strictly first come, first serve.

While her old friend Marge’s great-niece isn’t exactly what she expected, the differences are all to good as far as Gertie is concerned.  Of course Gertie and Ida Belle aren’t exactly helpless old ladies either, despite their appearance.  A fact brought home when Ida Belle shoots a gator in the small kill zone as it runs to snatch Gertie.  That impressed the hell out of Fortune.  What scared her was Carter LeBlanc, the thirty-something deputy sheriff who kept catching her in various states of undress doing legally questionable things.

The hunt for the killer of Harvey Chicoron seems to center around his wife, Marie.  And it’s not just the law that wants Marie, so does Melvin Blanchard, Harvey’s nearest relative and a former guest of the state’s penal system.   But where ever Marie is, she’s not where Ida Belle and Gertie expected her to be.  They way they pull an all too willing Fortune into their plots is fun and Fortune’s first person narrative is engaging with laugh out loud moments.

Louisiana Longshot reminds me of a 1930’s screwball comedy mystery.  It was funny, interesting, with good, if slightly well worn characters.  What Fortune lacks in depth, she makes up for in wisecracks.  It scores a solid B (4*) from me as a humorous mystery.  You do have to read carefully to pick up the clues about who committed the murder, but the story is a lot more about Fortune and the Sinful Ladies Society.  If you’ve read and liked the Bombay Assassin series by Leslie Langtry or Agnes and the Hit Man by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, you’ll enjoy this one.  Recommended for those who enjoy off-beat humorous mysteries.  This book was purchased from Amazon for $10.79.

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lethal-bayou-beauty-jana-deleon-paperback-cover-art

Yup. After reading book one in the Miss Fortune series, I immediate picked up the recently released book, Lethal Bayou Beauty.  This picks up the day after the real killers of Harvey Chicoron are found out.  Once again Gertie and Ida Belle get Fortune out of bed.  This time for a disaster of epic proportions.  The GW’s, the Sinful Ladies Society arch rivals, pulled strings and got their proposal accepted for the main attraction at the Sinful fair – a beauty pageant for children in the surrounding area.  But it gets worse.  The old woman Fortune beat to the banana pudding runs the GW’s and her daughter is coming back to Sinful.  Pansy Arceneaux was supposedly trying for an acting career in Hollywood and, as a former beauty queen herself, will be GW’s representative to help the pageant.  They’ll be expecting Fortune to the SLS’s representative.  Fortune asks, “Can’t I just kill her?”  Alas, that isn’t a viable option – even though someone DOES kill Pansy after a disastrous first meeting and the next day attempt at making scruffy girls into pageant entries.  (Seriously, Fortune is soooo not suited for this.)  Suspicion falls on Fortune – so Ida Belle and Gertie take it on themselves to hunt the real killer with Fortune.

Once again, a farce worthy of Gracie Allen ensues.  New Orleans puts in a very brief appearance, but most of the action stays in Sinful.  Fortune manages to make a friend that isn’t on Social Security – Ally, the 20-something waitress from Francine’s.  Ally really likes Fortune and is grateful to have someone near her own age to talk with.  Sinful is kind of short young single females and males, both of whom tend to leave for places with more than 300 people.

Pansy Arceneaux was a less than savory person and she was foolish enough to keep a record of all her doings in a journal.  Thing is, Ally knows where it is, she just needs a way into Celia Arceneaux’s house.  As Celia’s niece, she uses her ‘good Christian’ excuse to help Celia.  The ‘girls’ already know Pansy owed the IRS huge back taxes for her ‘imputed income’.  They also know she was no actress, she was a call girl in California.  And she slept with most of the men in town, including the married ones.   She even took pictures.  Pansy was a murder victim waiting to happen – because she had one other bad habit ………… blackmail.

Once again, the book covers only a few days and manages to cram in a ton of action and laughs.  The clues are subtle, especially with the broad humor that is Ms Deleon style.  We do get some glimpses into Fortune’s childhood and what drove her to her profession.  There is also something else, Fortune thinking about options to her career choice – a small, but important epiphany.

Lethal Bayou Beauty scores another B (4*) rating with me, its short comings out weighed by the entertainment value.  As above, recommended for those looking for romp, not a serious action thriller.  The book was purchased from Amazon for $10.01.

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ToppedChef

You can’t throw a stick in the mystery section without hitting either a paranormal cozy or one with a food fetish.  I figure we’re running out of niches for authors.  We have caterers, chefs, bakers, chocolate makers, party planners, cookie bakers, wine and cheese people ……. jeeze.  Lucy Burdette made her entry into the genre with Key West based Haley Snow, food critic for Key Zest online magazine.  One of the not so nice things to do is write a bad review and Haley just wrote her first one.  When she arrives at work, local restaurant owner and politician Sam Rizzoli is in her Boss Wally’s office yelling about her review of his latest restaurant Just Off Duval.  He’s mad as a hornet and storms out threatening Wally and Key Zest.  But the day isn’t over and Haley is about to run into his again – on the set of Topped Chef, a competition for the next TV chef personality.

Turns out the whole TV thing is as awful as Haley thought.  She and one other woman, Toby Davidson author of a book on how baking helped her cope with the grief of losing her husband, are all but steam rollered by Rizzoli and Chef Adam Boyd, the chef owner of a highly respected and very expensive restaurant.  Toby is reserved and looks as uncomfortable as Haley feels.  Their opinions are belittled by by both Rizzoli and Boyd.  Picking the three finalists was done with plenty of put downs for them both.  Haley heads back to the houseboat she shares with the elderly Miss Gloria and their cats.  Tonight she has a date with the handsome Detective Nathan Bransford.

Haley sits in the restaurant waiting for Nathan, and he keeps calling saying he’ll be there.  But the crime scene is taking a lot of time and Haley eats alone.  Taking his steak and dessert to him on the pier lets her curiosity get fed, and hopefully will be appreciated by a hungry detective.  But the only thing Nathan is is mad she shows up.  So much for romance.  But she learns one thing, the dead man is Sam Rizzoli.

As with the previous books in the series, Haley shows an amazing lack of common sense at times, but at least they were few and far between here.  She does learn a lot about Rizzoli, none of it flattering.  Rizzoli had only one real interest, Rizzoli.  He had affairs with people of both sexes and ignored their marital as well as his own.  As a councilman he was only interested in things that would help further his own ambitions and bring him more money.  The suspect list was pretty much everyone who knew him.  And it’s quite little Toby who thinks something is wrong with Topped Chef – and one of the contestants is certain the fix was in from the beginning.  Then Toby gets shot at and wounded and Haley jumps off the pier to pull her to safety.

The resolution is interesting and Topped Chef, book 3 in this series, is the first one I actually enjoyed.  Yes, I still have some issues with Haley and her bad judgement, but here at least she displayed better judgement and more intelligence than in past.  Perhaps the best part was where she told Bransford to hit the road when he made excuses about his ex-wife.  Much better than mooning after that idiot lawyer Chad.  The writing is good, and the spirit of Key West with its good and bad sides come through.

Topped Chef get a C+ to B- (3.5-3.7*) rating largely because I still have issues with Haley.  The plotting and pacing was much better for a cozy.  The jaunts into emotional angst kept to a minimum.  The Randy Thompson character, a cross-dressing bartender and down home style chef contestant was good.  I hope we see him again from time to time.  I’d just be happier if Haley grew up more and showed more of a level head and less emotional nonsense over things.  She handled Bransford well at the end, but her reaction to his wife was kind over the top for someone she wasn’t really involved with yet.  How does she get so emotionally invested in near strangers?

Topped Chef was purchased from Amazon for $7.19.

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Old Flame cover

That Old Flame of Mine combines new and old with lead character Stella Griffin, a Chicago firefighter filing a temp job as Chief of a small volunteer department in rural Sweet Pepper, TN.  Stella caught her detective boyfriend in the sack with her friend and punched his lights out.  (Yes, I liked her immediately.)  That’s the new.  The old is the ghost of the former Sweet Pepper chief, Eric Gamlyn, that haunts the cabin the town supplied her for her stay.

Stella Griffin came to Sweet Pepper as a way to fill time while on recovering from getting injured at a fire – and trying to avoid suspension for punching out her detective boyfriend when she caught him screwing her best friend.  Arriving on a restored vintage Harley she gets pulled over for speeding.  The deputy looks at her like she’s a ghost and calls her ‘Abigail’, then literally runs away and takes off.  Weird introduction to the area, but at least he skipped the ticket.

Two months later, after a lot of hard training with local volunteers, they tackle a real fire set in an old barn while the town is there to watch them work.  The trial goes decently for a first try, but holding onto a hose under pressure takes skill and muscle and neither are developed quickly.  But Victoria ‘Tory’ Lambert takes exception to the harsh comments from some councilmen about how well the volunteers did.  One thing Tory wants is to have this fire department a success.  She lost her first husband in a fire and has a deathly fear of them.

Turns out her fear was justified.  Later that day Stella pulls Tory’s body out of the back of her closet as Tory’s beautiful old house burns down around her.  Tory is dead and Stella is convinced that fire was NOT accidental.  Stella finds herself at odds with an insurance investigator as he seems all to anxious to call this homeowner carelessness and an electrical short setting off kerosene lamps.  She’s convinced the fire was anything but accidental and Tory was murdered.

But surprises just keep coming.  Stella is run off the road and wakes up in a strange house with an old man watching her.  He claims he’s her grandfather.  Turns out, he is.  He’s also the local power broker, the richest man in town.  And his stepson is one sleazy guy.  But the shocks are not over.  Turns out all those strange things at her cabin have nothing to do with electrical shorts, the place really is haunted, by Eric Gamblyn, the man who built it, started the volunteer fire department and died in a silo fire years ago.  And now he’s talking to her.

That Old Flame of Mine is part cozy, part Ghost and Mrs Muir.  Stella is a good strong lead character, not another fashionista or bubble brain.  I found her very likable.  The cast has a full compliment of odd and unpleasant, along with the good folks.  The mystery is interesting and woven neatly into small town life.  The first book by J.J. Cook and first in the series.  It gets a B (4*) from me for solid writing, plotting, and pacing.  I enjoyed both the mystery and the characters that populated the story.

This book was sent to me by a fellow member of PaperBackSwap.

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May 4, 2013

The Never Ending Story of Amazon

Filed under: Editorial,General — toursbooks @ 5:20 pm
Tags: , ,

Start up companies are business soap operas.  The emotional highs, and tearful demise happen every day.  From the day Jeff Bezos started Amazon, its profit margins have been the subject of questions.  For years there were no profits, just huge losses, yet each time Amazon provided quarterly figures, the stock would jump.  Those were the good old days before ‘back to basics’ investing took the glow off start-ups and began asking, “Where’s the money?” It’s why people question new stock offerings so closely now – excluding that FaceBook debacle.

Amazon saves a lot of money by not having brick and mortar stores, but it has got a lot of warehouses in different states and employs over 20,000 to 70,000 people in their 40 US based fulfillment centers, depending on the season.  Actually, their order fulfillment operations are considered a benchmark against which others are measured.  Unfortunately, it also has a remarkably inefficient way of warehousing, picking, and packing orders.  It’s not unusual for me to order 3 books and get them from 3 different locations in 3 separate packages.  Now this is not pre-orders, this is in print books, often the same genre.  I questioned how they could make money even with the deep discounts small package carries offer large volume shippers and this week, I read an article about just that – Amazon Prime’s free 2 day shipping.

Amazon Prime isn’t cheap at $80/year, but you get free movies, cloud computing, can borrow a Kindle book a month free, and the biggie – free shipping.  Buy 40 print books a year, and that’s cheap when you consider other companies charge $3.50 for the first book and $1.95 or more for each additional book.  Now, as a PBS (PaperBack Swap) member, I ship a LOT of books via media mail so I know how much shipping that little mystery mmpb can be.  And how cheap that heavy box of hardcovers is by comparison.  A small cozy mystery between 250 and 350 pages will run under $3 first class and about the same media mail.  That 10 pound box of hardcovers will run about $6 media mail for 5 hefty books.  Parcel post would be about twice that or more.  Yes, you have the cost of the shipping envelopes or corrugate cartons and wrapping the books in plastic to protect from water hazards, but we’re talking under $0.50 in materials, so shipping one little mmpb is a break even and shipping those hardcovers you make a profit on the shipping costs.

Check the freight costs for UPS or Fed Ex and you’ll faint.  So yeah, I get Amazon’s switch to FedEx Smartpost, an efficient compromise between small package at door delivery and using the postal service that probably saved them millions.  But what it isn’t saving is their pick-pack operation and the number of packages shipped.  So they use bubble envelopes for a small number of shipments, but the majority are in corrugate cartons shrink wrapped to a corrugate pad.  One book per box.  I cringe on a big release day when I find myself with 10-15 individual boxes 80-90% with 1 lone book.  As a customer, I love the efficiency of release day delivery.  As a package engineer, I shudder at the waste and shipping cost for mmpb’s.

Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering how the hell Amazon can make money off of their Prime customers, stock analysts have been looking at their profits and think the stock is over-valued.  I’m no market guru, but when profit margins are 7-8%, the REAL cost of Prime memberships has to be questioned.  One analyst opined that Amazon would NEVER improve their profits margins as long as they kept the Prime program as it stands!  But changing it is a risk, especially when Books-A-Million is offering the same free shipping for $20/year.  So Amazon is looking at options of getting that cost under control – the reason behind the recent switch to FedEx Smartpost and the new locker system.  Smartpost is a compromise, one Amazon knows will result in delivery delays since the last mile is managed by the USPS, not a small package carrier.  The post office has cut staffing to the bone, so the surges on major release dates really strains facilities in many locations, including where I live.  Combine that with temporary summer or Christmas holiday help and you have chaos.  I already have to check my mail because I get so many mis-delivered first class items and parcels.  If it’s an immediate neighbor, I’ll walk it over, but if it’s on another street in the complex, I take back to the PO and they can find the proper owner. In five years of UPS delivery, I think one package went astray.  So Amazon has already traded down on the service ladder to get some cost efficiency.

The locker system is a whole different animal.  Now they are pushing the cost for the ‘last mile’ of delivery onto the customer under the guise of ‘pick it up today!’  Yup, makes sense for me to waste my time and gas running heaven knows where to go to some soulless locker and get my order.  But by pushing the cost of that last leg onto the customer, Amazon would save big time.  The lock system is still in process and its success is not a given.  People order books to avoid the hassle of going to the store, but driving to a locker really isn’t any different – and could be very inconvenient, especially during bad weather.  So this program is not a sure bet for success.

One of the options that Amazon seems loathe to consider is a more efficient is multiple order consolidation – combining  multiple orders from one customer into a single order for new releases.  The vast majority of my pre-orders are mystery and paranormal/UF in a mix that’s 70% mmpb and the rest split between trade and hard cover.  Now books with the same release date might enter Amazon’s sales catalog at different times, so I might 5 – 8 orders with product being released the same day.  It is rare indeed for these orders to be combined in a single box, but common for one order to arrive in multiple parts on the same day in some cases partly by UPS and partly by FedEx Smartpost!  Now anyone who has walked a warehouse knows how complex shelf placement gets, but instead of placing items by demand – obviously new releases will have a demand surge – they place them randomly by space.  There are people on bikes that pedal to the far end of warehouses to fetch goods.  Orders bounce from one facility to another based on inventory.  And that’s how I end up with over a dozen individual boxes from 4 different states on a major release date.  The cost of that is huge.

That’s also the reason Amazon is looking at a neutral stock rating, and some analysts are rating it ‘sell’ because they think it’s over-priced at $258/share.

Does this mean Amazon’s customer base is not growing?  Maybe.  Or maybe it’s just slowing as they saturate a market already crowded by electronic devices, holding back of their Fire tablet.  Certainly the number of prints books sold will be down as ebooks bite into that market more each year and the new generation of readers get more and more dependent on electronics for their entertainment.  And ebooks are VERY attractive since the goods are delivered wirelessly, take up only computer space, and there’s no packing or shipping involved.  I expect the profit margins are better for both publishers and sellers – but not authors.  What I did find surprising is the small drop in profit despite the attractively priced Fire tablet and overall increase in ebook sales ve print books.  Are shipping costs growing faster than they can be contained by the growth in ebooks?  Given fuel costs, that’s very likely.  That was reflected in a quarter percent or more drop in profits.  Something that really gnaws on some investment types, despite all the innovation and new toys, Amazon’s profits have flatlined.

Does this mean the days of Amazon Prime are numbered?  Or does it mean the annual cost will go up?  Or a change in service to USPS media mail, delaying the books arrival?  Amazon owns The Book Depository in the UK.  I buy there since they carry British authors hard to find in any US store, especially thriller, mystery, and espionage.  I do get free shipping, but it comes international ground.  I see some of those titles on Amazon – with 1 to 3 weeks delivery dates, meaning they source from Book Depository.  Is this something Amazon would consider in their US operations for Prime?  Or maybe just free shipping with standard ground delivery, 2-5 days with no guarantee of release date delivery?  Interesting questions, but so far, Amazon has offered few answers.  I have to assume the ‘price point roulette’ they’re playing with mmpb’s is one way to up profits.  But the loss of 4-for-3 still is inhibiting my buying fairly dramatically.  Maybe that’s the intent.  Push more customers to consider ebooks.  Of course, there will always be the risk of losing business, but is it PROFITABLE business?  Maybe customers like me who prefer print books are no great loss to Amazon’s bottom line.  Investing gurus seem to believe that Prime is the albatross around Amazon’s neck.  That’s not something they can ignore.

All this makes me wonder about the future of print books in general.  Libraries have cut way back on purchases as they deal with budget cuts and increase their ebook inventory.  It saves purchase costs, manhours, and space – all reductions in overhead.   Another interesting development is the quick sellout of copies of some books.  Now Amazon has to be the single largest retailer of books in the US, if not the world, but are they reducing their order quantities based on pre-release sales and allowing the books to go out of stock?  It happens more often then you might think.  It is a boon to used book sellers who can ask staggering prices for a print book.  Is this another cost containment move?  It seems so to me.  Or maybe small press publishers just don’t have the willingness to risk print overruns.  Neither do some larger ones.

Regardless, Amazon will need to improve their margins to get a ‘Buy’ recommendation on their stock.  It will be interesting to see how the next year or two plays out for Amazon Prime and their profit margins.  Who knew selling books could be a soap opera?

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