The man holding a sword near Barnes’s throat was a creature worn down almost to the nub, like a pencil eraser with just enough pink rubber left to make one final correction.
Archive for the 'Books' Category
Last year, I posted a bit about the attraction of ebook readers. About six weeks after that post, my birthday brought me a Sony Reader Touch. I’ve been living with it and using it every day since then.
To recap, the things I want from an ebook reader:
- Good for reading fiction, and good availability of genre fiction in the right format.
- Good PDF performance for reading technical books.
- Solid device functionality.
I am, on the whole, very happy with my Reader. I spend a lot of time with it in my hands, and it does its job well, if imperfectly.
Physically, it’s an attractive, solidly built device. One of the attractions of an ebook reader is that it can make an 800 page book sit comfortably in one hand. For comparison, and a little irony, here’s my Reader sitting on top of a Monstrously Huge Fantasy Book that I bought on the same day:
I find the battery life to be well short of the advertised 7000 page turns, but I comfortably go a week and a half between charges. Charging is over USB, and unfortunately you can’t use it to read while it’s charging.
The display is the Touch’s strength and its weakness. eInk is good, and very comfortable to read. It’s nice and crisp and easy on the eyes, yet the touch sensitive layer on the Reader Touch is quite reflective, which adds some glare and reduces the contrast compared to other readers on the market which use the same display. This means you have to be aware of what angle you hold it at when reading.
That’s a problem, but one which I don’t find to be a big deal, and which for me was well-balanced by the functionality of the device.
To my criteria above, then.
For fiction, an attraction of the Reader Touch was the breadth of formats it can handle, the most important of which is ePub. You can get ePubs all over the web, including from Waterstones. It’s also a nice easy format to work with, and conversion tools from other formats are readily available. Many of the ePubs you can buy are encrypted using Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM system. DRM’s a pain, and largely evil, but ADE is a fairly painless and user-friendly system. The Reader supports it for ePub and for PDF. This means that while I haven’t been able to find everything I’ve wanted to read in an electronic format, much is available.
For technical books, the PDF support is pretty good. At the time it was the best option in the UK, although Amazon have just released the international version of the Kindle DX. I still have my eye on that. The Reader can reflow many PDFs to fit the screen, but you lose diagrams and layout (important for code examples). If you turn it to landscape mode, it can show half a page at a time of most technical PDFs. This is usable and readable, but not stellar. It’s also pretty much the state of the market, unfortunately. There are, however, a few forward-thinking publishers (like the Pragmatic Programmers) who publish ePubs. They’re great. More of that, please.
The Reader handles a wide range of formats, well. The touch interface isn’t necessary, and could maybe be traded for a higher contrast display if it wasn’t at the expense of format support, but it does make sifting through your library very handy. I still like the hardware buttons for page turns, though.
I’ve been looking at ebook readers for a few years, and it’s only now that there are a couple available that I would actually consider buying. At the time I bought the Touch, it was the best option for me that was available in the UK. The technology is still maturing, and the devices are still getting better. The Kindles are compelling, Barnes & Noble’s Nook looks interesting, and there’s a rumour that Apple will be announcing something relevant this evening.
For what it is, though, I’m impressed and content with my Reader, and I manage to use it comfortably every day. That’ll do for now.
Like VM, I have a tendency towards what different folks will call sci-fi, SF, SF&F, or even the slightly pretentious speculative fiction. I’ve also recently been convinced by audiobooks. When I saw and heard METAtropolis plugged in various places, I was never going to be able to resist, especially when I managed to grab it on sale for a mere four quid.
Five SF authors, none of whom I’ve read before but most of whom I had at least heard of, collaborated to dream up a near-future world where the concept of city has evolved into something essentially different but still recognisable; they each then wrote a novella set in this world.
The five stories are different and distinctive. All are good, with the second and fourth counting as great: Tobias Buckell’s “Stochasti-city” and John Scalzi’s “Utere Nihil Non Extra Quiritationem Suis”.
The stories explore some obvious themes for the near-future setting: environmentalism, the tension between micro-economics and global corporations, the impact and the lack of impact of technology, the clash between capitalism, socialism and altruism.
Most interesting are the ways the stories explore human community in a future where nationality and ethnicity appear to have become completely irrelevant: a massive environmentalist commune aspiring to true anarchy; a closed city-state, sharing open borders with similar cities around the world, where there is no currency and where your citizenship depends on your willingness to contribute; an invisible network of all kinds of people, sharing resources on the strength of a shared commitment; layered, technologically-enabled alternative ‘realities’ where individuals claim citizenship of countries that don’t even exist in the physical world. Some of the communities formed are pragmatic and temporary, some are formed of necessity and some are based around an ideal. All are fascinating and all are completely plausible.
Some of the best SF has a philosophical component, where imagination offers the freedom to explore ideas and ask questions that remain surprisingly relevant and immediate. I know the label of sci-fi will put many off, but this collection is interesting, thought-provoking and very accessible — why not give it a go?
Measuring personality is big business. You can spend a fortune in time and/or money filling in forms, answering puzzles and deciphering unwieldy four-letter acronyms all with the aim of categorizing yourself in an only semi-useful way.
Never having adequately got my head around Myers-Briggs, I hereby propose a new psychometric test:
Which Hitchhiker’s Guide is the best?
Answer the question by selecting a form or an individual book, and find your personality-type below.
- The radio show, but only the Primary and Secondary phases.
- You’re a traditionalist. You know that there are many new and supposedly wonderful things in the world, but it’s better to stick with what you know well. You may be of a certain age, and you sometimes miss the carefree days of your youth.
- The radio show, the whole thing.
- You wouldn’t describe yourself as a risk-taker, but your friends will say you’ve been known to take a chance or two. Of those friends, some will enjoy your sense of humour, while others aren’t so sure. You like to see things through to completion, and prefer to make a good go and get it done rather than be paralyzed by a futile search for perfection.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the novel.
- You like to know where everything is, and you value simplicity. The people around you have learned that you don’t handle surprises very well, but they’re perfectly happy to treat you kindly and look out for you.
- The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the novel.
- Quality matters to you, but sometimes you’ll let it slip in the name of excitement. Similarly, although you tend towards an analytical approach to life, you have been known to jump to some very unusual conclusions. It seems to have worked okay for you so far.
- Life, the Universe and Everything, the novel.
- You’re a little bit surreal in your approach to life, perhaps as a result of an experience with hallucinogens. Nonetheless, you know exactly where you’re going in life, even if no-one else does. This knowledge makes you a little bit smug, but in an endearing way.
- So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, the novel.
- You’re a bit of a hippy, and a romantic at heart. You wish for everyone to have a happy ending, but you know deep down that that’s terribly unlikely. Still, you hope.
- Mostly Harmless, the novel.
- The diametric opposite of Type SLATFATF, you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, life is suffering, isn’t it? You remember a time when you were less negative about everything, but you’re a little bit ashamed of that past self.
- The text-based adventure game.
- Given to extraordinary bursts of imagination, you still like to suffer. With a tendency to make life difficult for yourself, pain is a strange pleasure to you.
- The BBC TV series.
- You grew up on Doctor Who and like your entertainment made up in dreary cardboard. Slightly morose, you tend to just get on with things without getting terribly worked up about them. You are very probably English.
- The 2005 film.
- It’s nice to see some young ‘uns packing towels. Welcome to the family — just be sure to mind your manners, and don’t assume that you know what you’re talking about quite yet.
(A note on method: this is based on the forms of Guide that I’m familiar with. Given the uniquely multi-media nature of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s entirely possible that I’ve missed some. You now where the comment form is if you want to expand the test.)
There are a few kinds of fiction that I’m a total sucker for: SF and some gentler fantasy, things with zombies. And vampires — ever since I read Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire at an impressionable age. I’ve had the occasional awkward conversation (“Do you really think a good, Christian lad should be (reading|watching) that kind of thing?”), but my response is generally along the lines of, “It’s fiction. Fick-shun.” I don’t think it’s done me any harm. Actually, I think I’m well past due a re-read of Jim Butcher’s excellent Dresden Files. (I keep meaning to post about Dresden — there are some interesting things to talk about from those books.)
That’s the background. Here’s the fun.
A series of books I haven’t read, by Stephenie Meyer, is starting to make it’s way to film; the first, Twilight, has hit cinemas in the States and will do so here around the middle of next month. It’s about a girl who falls in love with a vampire, and it all sounds very teenager-y angst-y: just the kind of thing that gives YA fiction a bad name.
In the red corner we have the concerned Christians, represented by Jonathan McKee. (I used to follow quite closely what he wrote, but got a bit turned off when he relaunched his site and resources as The Source for Youth Ministry. The teeth were also a problem, although that shot shows them as a bit less extremely white than I recall.) Actually, I don’t want to slabber too much as what he’s been saying is generally of the “take care and make your own decisions” variety. I’ll never pretend that the media we expose ourselves to can’t influence us to a frightening degree (although I have a suspicion we get distracted by the bits that don’t pretend to be anything more than a good story and let a great volume of much more insidious material go past unchallenged), and that’s always good advice.
What I find amusing is the contrast between the counsel on McKee’s site and this outraged piece on io9.
Short version: in the blue corner we have a SF/fantasy blog up in arms over the books’ expression of the author’s Mormon morality:
The more you examine author Stephenie Meyer’s themes, the more obvious it becomes that her books are a thinly-veiled religious screed against teen sex.
Of course Meyer should be allowed to write her own values into Twilight and its sequels, but we are doing young readers a disservice by rubber-stamping these books without a forewarning of what lies within.
And it goes on.
Poor Stephenie Meyer. She seems a little bit out on her own.
There was some press last month when the first title, Murderdrome was rejected by Apple for “not meeting [their] community standards”. (My take: it’s definitely a grown-up comic, but not extreme by any comics standard.) Alongside, the writer and artist (Al Ewing & PJ Holden) have been working on a comic aimed at kids — EyeCandy (that’s an iTunes store link, by the way), which since then has gone live at the App Store.
While the content isn’t really my thing, it’s an amazing application that demonstrates how perfect the iPhone and iPod Touch are for this sort of application. The screen shows the artwork off beautifully, and the touch/accelerometer interface allows for brilliant and original interactions. If you have one of the devices, definitely go and spend 59p (or 99c if you’re so inclined) to have a play. Plus you’ll be supporting genuine innovation right here in Northern Ireland.
On the train up from Dublin yesterday evening, a friend of my wife asked for hints on where to start with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels — a daunting place to be, since, including the ‘children’s/young adult’ (whatever that means) books, there are currently 36 Discworld books.
While any one of them could probably be read satisfactorily by itself, the series falls roughly into groups as follows (by my estimation — I think I might differ slightly from the Wikipedia page linked above):
The Rincewind books (Rincewind is a wizard of questionable talent): The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Sourcery,
Faust Eric, Interesting Times, The Last Continent, The Last Hero (I haven’t read this one).
The Witches books: Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum.
The Death books: Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather.
The City Watch books: Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!
The Tiffany Aching books (nominally YA books, but that’s a load of rubbish): The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith.
The Moist von Lipwig books: Going Postal, Making Money.
The other books all generally stand alone, although characters from the groupings above make frequent appearances. Many of these books reference the development of a particular technology on the Discworld: Pyramids, Moving Pictures, Small Gods, The Truth, Thief of Time, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (YA), Monstrous Regiment.
That’s a whole lot of books. If I were starting again, where would I start?
Not at the start. I find (and from here on in this is all my own opinion) The Colour of Magic to be one of the very weakest of the Discworld books. The author hadn’t found his tone for this one: TCoM reads like it’s going more for fantasy than humour, whereas from The Light Fantastic the humour takes the lead.
That probably makes it sound like these books are just a laugh with nothing serious to say. I don’t think that’s so, but they have become known as a humour series. The best one of the lot (Night Watch) is a serious novel that stands very well by itself, and shows the Discworld all grown up and taken seriously.
But I’m getting sidetracked.
Your best bet is to pick any of the groupings above and tackle them in order of publication (the order in which I’ve listed them). My favourites are the City Watch and the Witches books, preferring the City Watch by a hair. More than any of the rest these two series are all about exploring their characters.
The Rincewind novels will give you a very good grounding in how the multiverse of the Discworld works, but that’s not essential for your enjoyment. They are a bit weaker, so you can wait to get to them. Moist von Lipwig’s tales are good, but probably not as immediately absorbing, and the Tiffany Aching stories, while excellent, follow on best from the Witches books. Pick up the Death books whenever you like — they’re a little weirder, but good.
Of the miscellaneous novels, my picks would be: Pyramids, Small Gods, The Truth and Thief of Time.
The only Discworld book I really didn’t enjoy was Monstrous Regiment, but I know those who loved it.
Those are my picks. If you disagree then you know where the comment form is. If you’ve never read the Discworld, then get cracking!
I’ve recently read a book about writing, and I’m currently about two-thirds of the way through a book about reading.
On Writing, by Stephen King, starts with a sparse but very engaging memoir before moving into a series of tips and bits and bobs of advice “on writing”. All the usual pearls are mentioned: practise, practise, practise; expunge all adverbs; write for the love of it; briefer is better (says Stephen King?); don’t expect to make any money, never mind a living (again, says Stephen King?)…
I would say that even if you have no intention of writing for yourself, and even if you have only the slightest curiosity as to what’s behind the curtain, you’ll enjoy a read of this little book.
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, by Nick Hornby, is a collection of columns written for The Believer. He’s giving me a growing list of books, classic and modern, to add to my pile, and doing so with a great deal of good humour along the way.
These two books have in common a deep conviction that fiction, literature, books, whatever, should be accessible, that there’s no place for any notion that reading is only for the posh. In the middle of On Writing I realised that somewhere in me I have this prejudice against Stephen King, even though any book of his that I have read has been great fun. These two books have combined to point out to me how ridiculous that prejudice is.
As Nick Hornby complains, reading’s supposed to hurt, isn’t it? Reading Stephen King (or Nick Hornby, for that matter) doesn’t hurt. It’s fun.
Where theatre, and then cinema, have moved from being looked down upon to being respectable, even cultural, books have fallen by the way. That’s a shame.
I’ve always read a lot, ever since I was able. I remember the first book my parents bought me because I asked for it. I think we were in Newtownards shopping. Either way, I recall defying warnings of car-sickness to read it on the way home. That book was The Owl Who Was Afraid Of the Dark, in big-print kid-friendly paperback. I think that was the book that started a lifetime’s habit.
These days reading is still my most common pastime, almost always for the pure pleasure of it, and it doesn’t hurt one bit.
What about you? Read anything good lately?
While in Santorini last month I took the chance to read a few books of varying quality.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon, is a whodunit set against an alternative history where the Jewish state was established in Alaska instead of the Middle East. Very enjoyable, even when it turns strange towards the end, mixing tales of pseudo-messianic prophecy with blunt political commentary.
Superpowers, by David J. Schwarz,is a fun tale about a group of college students who wake up one morning each having developed a different superheroic ability. An enjoyable yarn, well-told but ultimately unsatisfying. Again, the politics are a bit blunt.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay, is the first novel of the series on which the TV show is based. I’m afraid it did nothing for me (not, as you might guess, because I’m at all squeamish about the subject matter — more the shoddy execution of an interesting idea).
The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick was both fascinating and enjoyable. Less plot, more situation.
I have a long list of books that I mean to read. I’ve just started one of them (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, if you want to know). The last one I read was John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids.
I’d pigeon-hole it as SF/horror that is disarmingly well-written — Wyndham’s skilfull use of language emphasises the stark environment he describes.
I won’t give too much away (follow the link above to Wikipedia for all kinds of detail), but I’ll make this observation: writing almost 60 years ago, Wyndham hits many of the now well-known post-apocalyptic tropes (did he originate them?). Reading Triffids, I found myself remembering its echoes in 28 Days Later, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Land of the Dead… all kinds of others. I found it a pleasure to read a tale from before many of its key points became hackneyed.
There’s a paranoia that runs through the novel that at first felt a little dated, but quickly seemed to me to take on a new, modern relevance. No-one’s quite sure where the Triffids (man-eating, walking plants) came from, but genetic splicing by foreign government scientists is implicated. The disaster that leaves humankind vulnerable may even have been man-made, too.