Category Archives: reading

The new E-reader!

As I said in a prior post, it’s a Sony PRS-T1. “PRS” stands for Personal Reading System, but I don’t know what the “T1” means. I reckon they should have put a friendly name on top of it. They own (or owned) the name “Bookman” so that is an obvious choice.

But no. Instead we get a model number.

Anyway.

The e-ink display is fabulous in most respects. It looks just like paper (which is the idea) and looks best in full sunlight. The only niggle I have is the way it refreshes, which includes a full reversal of the image. There is a technical reason for this, which I don’t understand quite enough to explain, but it slows the page refresh down considerably. I’m hoping that the next generation of e-ink, whenever it appears, will greatly improve this. But the current screens are extremely readable.

The touch interface is less wonderful. There is a significant lag before a touch is registered and responded to. And swiping to turn a page is cute up until it mysteriously decides you haven’t lifted your finger off and starts paging forward like crazy. This is a known bug but it’s unknown whether it’s a software or a hardware issue. For both of these reasons, I have been using the hard page change buttons.

I have read two whole books on it now, plus a magazine. The books were G’day LA by Tony McFadden and Write the Fight Right by Alan Baxter and the magazine was Aurealis #45. It was possible to get lost in the books whilst reading them and that’s a win for the overall ebook reading experience. I had tried reading all of them on my PC and it just wasn’t possible to get into them like that. So that’s a win for the e-reader.

Putting ebooks on it is very easy, too. It presents as mass-storage over USB so copying the file over is easy. And it rescans when you unplug it so it finds new stuff anywhere. But the very latest Calibre has a plug-in to recognise it and update the reader’s internal database, which makes things a lot quicker. I haven’t delved into the Collections mechanism yet, but I suspect that that is just a matter of time.

The home page shows the most recent book you have been reading, which is good, but it also shows the most recent three books you added, which is not so useful. I want to change that to the last three I viewed, but it doesn’t support that. That’s a collision in expectations of how it will be used. Worse: the online Sony Bookstore also doesn’t work for Australia, yet, which is a case of horribly bad timing on Sony’s part. This, of course, makes the WiFi capability thoroughly useless. Amazon has worked very successfully to make the Kindle system coherent and seamless – I am disappointed a large company like Sony cannot do the same, but sadly not surprised. (Sony missed so many chances with MiniDisc and digital music.)

Despite that, I’m glad I bought it. My next step is find a proper cover for it. I’m currently using the packing pouch it came in, but that’s not designed for that and is fast wearing out. This will help be able to hold it more easily. Overall, it’s a good purchase!

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I gave in. I ordered an ebook reader.

Remember when DVDs first came out?

The problem with any new read-only entertainment technology is that there is always a chicken-and-egg situation. How many DVDs did you have before you bought your first DVD player? Or did you buy the player first and looked at it for a week before you bought any titles? I think ebook readers are a bit like this. It’s all very well being excited about a electronic gizmo, but the thing is for reading books and so when do you go on your first ebook buying spree? Before you buy the reader, or shortly after you’ve got it home and charged?

(Admittedly retailers of ebook readers have kind of recognised this problem and tend to ship them with a couple of “free” books. The ereader app on my smartphone came with Jane Eyre, The Art of War, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, A Tale Of Two Cities, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and several others. Something for everyone, or so the theory goes.)

One of the main reasons I haven’t leapt into ebook readers is that it’s difficult or expensive or both to buy some of the older titles I know I will read and re-read and would kinda like to have easily available. Classics like The HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, just to take a semi-random example that I actually went looking for.

But what I’ve discovered in the last few months is that it is new titles that are driving takeup of ebooks. Publishers are converting backlists, true, but this is a long, slow process. I originally approached ebook readers with a mentality of shifting from physical books to electronic, somewhat akin to the many people who “bought everything again” when shifting from movies on VHS to DVD. However, this is not going to be possible for a long time, perhaps never.

One of the really big advantages to the rise of ebooks is how much easier it is for writers to self-publish and to do giveaways. Ebooks traverse the Internet so much easier and cheaper than a book in the post and since I’ve started becoming involved with writers and writing groups, I’ve suddenly started acquiring ebooks. Sadly, I’m finding ebook readers on PCs are all terribly mediocre. Even some of the open-source ones. The idea of a dedicated ebook reader has therefore become attractive – even moreso since Woolworths started offering Amazon’s Kindle in-store. Someone has clearly realized that there is a substantial portion of the book-reading population that won’t buy one sight-unseen. As a result, Kindles amongst commuters are much more visible in the last month.

I nearly bought a Kindle myself, in fact. But I always knew it was going to be my second choice, because I much prefered the touch-interface on Sony’s ebook readers. I also don’t really like embracing Amazon’s platform, for much the same reason I won’t buy any Apple iDevices. However, the WiFi-only version is in short supply (it’s cheaper, you see). And Sony are between models, with the older ones impossible to find.

And then Sony quietly announced pre-orders for it’s next model, the PRS-T1. So I ordered one. It’s due to arrive on or before the 16th of October.

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A writer’s inspiration.

It’s been too long since I posted. And, really, a blog is supposed to have regular content, after all. Well, I think my sub-conscious is trying to tell me something.

I discovered yesterday that I had bought four books within two days. Four non-fiction books, none of which were inexpensive. Why did I do that? Even though I love reading, I haven’t bought new books in quantity for years. And then they’re usually fiction. Part of this is because I am still enjoying access to my existing book collection after some years with it packed up in boxes. Part of it is because there are other things I need to spend money on, like food, rent and electricity.

But I’m also trying to be a writer of fiction. And writers need inspiration.

Fiction writers also research. It was out of curiousity that I went looking for reference works in a local book store last Saturday, although I was also looking for a gift for my father. What I found was a book exploring human armour down through the ages. This appeals to me. Purchased. Then there was a book about wierd science stories, specifically about some of the lesser known chemical elements. Again, this appeals to me. Purchased. And then I saw a book about the history of the place I live in, including old photos and even maps. Win.

That’s three. The fourth? I buy a coffee at StarBucks most mornings on the way to work (yes, I like it) and I noticed a few weeks ago that Howard Schultz had published a book about Starbucks and was selling it through his stores. Which makes sense, really, rather than or perhaps as well as normal bookstore distribution. I had seen it for sale for several weeks and after my purchases on the weekend I realized that I really was curious enough to buy this. Actually, I realized that if I was still curious about it when it disappeared off the counter, I didn’t want to be put to the trouble of finding it. So, it was purchased.

I realised later that all of these books are for feeding my inner writer. I write hard fantasy and that needs good research as well as good story telling. It’s all very well re-reading a favourite author and hoping you’ll be able to copy his or her style, but you need other story-telling styles as well, of only for the contrast. And I’ve read enough fiction where the research is plainly inadequate – to a mere reader, no less – that I don’t want to make that mistake myself.

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A Master Story-teller at work.

Sir Terry Pratchett has been around a while. The writer of the world-famous “Discworld” fantasy books has more than forty novels in this universe.

I have been re-reading them in publication order and have gotten most of the way through. I’ve just finished “Monstrous Regiment” and there is little doubt that this is one of Sir Terry’s standout books. He has moved through at least three major shifts in writing by the time he wrote this one and the result is a well polished novel asking questions that don’t get in the way of a story.

In this novel, Sir Terry revists a topic he seriously explored in “Small Gods”. Namely, that of how much believers confer power on a god. In that book, it was Om who had but one believer left, Brutha, and the novel was a story of that one believer’s journey. The god and his one believer managed to get tangled up the highly ambitious Vorbis the Exquisitor who only believed in his own power. In “Monstrous Regiment”, Nuggan has lost all of his believers. So instead, the Borogravians pray to the long secluded and likely deceased Duchess. This means she has become the unwilling intermediary for him. And since most of the prayers she hears is about the survival of the essentially devastated country, the Duchess eventually finds a way to influence events.

But “Monstrous Regiment” is also about a topic explored way back in “Equal Rites”: that of gender equality. We know from the outset that Polly is a girl masquerading as a boy in order to join the army. What we don’t discover until later is that the little ragtag bunch of recruits is all girls. And then the wonderful reveal in the climax that the army is riddled with women, all hiding that fact from everyone else. And just Polly discovers at the end that Seargent Jackrum is, in fact, a grandmother, not a grandfather.

It is in a kind of coda to the story that the army makes it entirely okay for woman to join, which is actually fairly progressive thinking for the Discworld. Especially so for a country out towards Uberwald. However, Terry has been experimenting with this for some while, particularly with Angua in the Watch in Ankh-Morpork. It helps that Sir Samual approves of this and this is probably why he’s not surprised at Polly, either. Actually, the appearance by Sir Samuel, acting in his role of watchman of the world, is appreciated and highly effective. Without him and his humble watchman’s skills, Ankh-Morpork is just as capable of making such problems worse as better. In fact, he is rather essential.

(It was also interesting see Angua put in an appearance without the narrative shifting to her point-of-view. I wonder how much Terry wrestled with that decision.)

However, “Monstrous Regiment” is not just about the power of belief and gender equality. It is also a story about patriotism and army-life and sheer bloody-mindedness and bullying and propaganda and … The book covers a lot of ground and does it well. As only a master story-teller can do.

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Okay, so now I’ve finished "Twilight".

I shall say at the outset that this is a book I am probably not going to read again. After seeing all the vitriol about Stephanie Meyer’s writing and not really believing it, I had decided that I really should read it myself. That said, I’m glad I did read it.

I guess the best way to describe Twilight is that it’s like a cake that hasn’t been mixed properly nor baked long enough. There are numerous nice passages and the whole is still fairly tasty, but there are lumps and raw pieces that don’t really work. Meyer has captured the feel of narrating a fairly self-obsessed senior high-school girl who basically falls in love with an extremely dangerous person. I strongly suspect that this is the main reason it has become so successful, especially with high-school girls. It is essentially a forbidden love story, only quite why it is “forbidden” is that he’s a vampire.

Meyer should be lauded for trying to come up with a new twist on vampires. This is where the much-lampooned “sparkle” comes from. On the face of it, it seemed like a creative idea. Except that it’s painfully obvious that it really only allows Meyer’s vampires to be out and about during the day. The problem is that modern literature and mass entertainment is awash with vampires and making them sparkle in the sunlight rather than burn just looks silly. You simply have to come up with a much more innovative take on them if you want to go in a new direction.

Meyer’s writing is also fairly easy to read. It doesn’t torture prose. Things move fairly slickly and the dialogue is very readable. This is the other reason for the book’s success. It is, quite literally, a page-turner.

But there are larger problems in the work. A good writer can describe a setting, bring out characterisation in the players and advance the plot all at the same time. Most of the time, Meyer struggles to do just one of these competantly. So, you find a couple of very annoying chapters in the middle where Bella and Edward are basically doing twenty questions at each other. Or a cadre of supporting characters who are very little more than names and genders. Meyer tries to create some different reactions to Bella for some of them, particularly early on, but she stops there. A particularly bad case is how the vampires ignore and look down on everyone — until Edward takes Bella home to meet his ‘family’ and then everyone is more than happy to know her and include her in their lives. In fact, this must have even been obvious to Meyer because she has Alice (another vampire) explain to Bella why they’re going to such lengths to protect her from James (a predatory vampire from another clan). I didn’t find it convincing.

The resolution of the climax also feels a bit deus ex machina. The setup was actually quite good, putting Bella in an inescapable position, in some part from her own idiotic choices. It says a lot about her that I was almost happy at the prospect of her death, but there really weren’t enough clues that Edward’s family would, in fact, turn up in time to save the day.

All in all, it was more work than I would have liked to read it. There was a great story idea and some elements where well chosen. However, the execution is very ordinary.

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Don’t Panic!

Do you know where your towel is?

May 25 is Towel Day. It celebrates the life, death and work of Douglas Adams and his very famous work The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

It’s also a day for some wonderful quote-sharing.

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I’ve succumbed… to Twilight.

Stephanie Meyer has a reputation for execrable writing. I’m sure you know who I mean. People criticise her prose readily. Yet, several of her books have major movies made from them. And the books sell well. Really well.

So they can’t be that bad, can they?

That’s why I set out to discover for myself.

Contrary to my expectations, the actual writing flows well. It doesn’t trip up the reader. There are no horribly complex passages. It is an easy read and it has very good pace. That said, it’s not terribly intellectual, either. You would be unlikely to learn new words from Meyer’s writing. It is very ordinary, unpretentious writing. This may well be an important contributing factor to Twilight’s popularity.

However, now I’m a few chapters in I almost want to smack Bella upside-the-head. But, then, she is, like, 16 or something. I actually know girls that age and they are not hugely different from Bella. It just seems worse because it’s in a book. And it’s in first-person perspective. So everything is filtered through her world-view.

Maybe the later books (which I’m currently not intending to read) have worse writing.

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