I've long had illusions that I'd write a review of every book I read, however, since I read over 70 books last year and wrote a review for one or two of them that goal seems unrealistic.
Therefore, a new feature of Blankbaby is born: the best book of the month! Hurrah!
Last month (January 2013) I read a total of 10 books, all fiction. There were a number of good books in the running, but the best book I read that month was: The Dog Stars.
The Dog Stars is set in a world ravaged by a pandemic (an out of control super flu) which killed off lots and lots of the world's population. The story follows Hig whose wife and child died of the flu. Now he's holed up with Bangley who seems to have waited his entire life for something like this to happen. Hig isn't happy, but he's making a go of it with his trusty dog at his side and frequent trips in a small airplane to scout for dangers, and other survivors.
I won't recap the story since there are some surprising bits, but it is well written and worth your time. I will say, however, that while I thought it was a good book it is unfortunate that it contains some echoes of The Road. Why is this bad? The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is a brilliant literary achievement next to which most books would pale in comparison. Add in similar story lines and The Dog Stars just can't hold a candle to The Road.
That being said, The Dog Stars is good it just isn't great.
That's a picture of me 6 years ago (and many pounds heavier… sheesh. I think I'm fat now but I forget how much progress I have made!) at the Suburban Square Apple Store grand opening. How times have changed.
Not only have I lost some weight, and look much more handsome, I also don't like going to the Apple Store any more. The fine folks over at Macworld asked me to explain why, and the result was this: Why I dread going to the Apple Store.
Somehow I don't think this is going to be popular over at Macworld.
Whenever I launch an app on my Mac for the first time I immediately launch the preferences and change the default font settings. As I've aged so have my eyes, so I need to increase the size (the super high resolution monitors haven't helped my eyes, sure the picture looks great but everything is even smaller!).
And I generally change the font face to Calibri which might be among the great things Microsoft has ever created. I don't know why I love this font, but I do.
Good job, Microsoft typography team!
As a reader, and a person, I tend to fixate on things. I have spent days listening to the same song over and over again (one inexplicable example: A View to a Kill by Duran Duran), and countless hours watching episode after episode of TV shows.
When I stumble upon a new author (well, new to me) and find that I love his work I go a little wild. I read about the author, I follow them on Twitter, and I subscribe to their blog. Oh, and I read a bunch of their books too.
Thanks to my involvement with the Incomparable (a fine podcast filled with geeky delights) I've been reading all the Hugo nominated novels for the last couple of years (2011, 2012). Sometimes this makes me happy, and sometimes not so much.
The Dervish House by Ian McDonald was nominated for a Hugo in 2011, and so I knew I was going to read it. For some reason I thought it was a sequel to River of Gods, an earlier novel by the same author, so I picked that up from the library.
Wow. It was a great book, and it really set my expectations high for the Dervish House (which I found out had nothing to do with River of Gods). After reading the Dervish House I knew two things to be true:
I would read whatever McDonald publishes in the future.
The Dervish House would win the Hugo hands down.
I was only right about one of those things (Connie Willis won the Hugo for Blackout/All Clear which were the only nominees that year I hadn't read), but McDonald was certainly upgraded to an author whose books I buy no matter what they are about.
The YA problem
McDonald's novels are complex stories intricately plotted featuring characters in non-Western cultures (generally speaking). The neat thing about setting his novels of the near future in cultures that I am not super familair with is that it transforms me, as the reader, into "the other." I'm the one that is sort of an alien, as opposed to the characters I'm reading about in this science fiction novel.
Narrative complexity like this appeals to me, which is why I loathe Young Adult novels (YA, for those in the know). Since they're written for a younger audience a more straightforward story is needed, which leave out all the interlocking stories that seemingly have nothing to do with each other until that beautiful moment when it all clicks into place (at least in a well written novel).
When I heard McDonald was going to start writing a YA book I was nervous because I knew I had to read it, and that my bias against the genre wouldn't make it easy for me to like it.
That book was Planesrunner, the first in the Everness Series following the adventures of a teenage boy (what else?) as he tracks down his father through the multiverse. To sum up my thoughts of Planesrunner I offer you one word: disappointment.
Gone were the interweaving plots. Good bye to the myriad of characters. Hello straightforward story, typical YA hero, and fairly well trod scifi tropes.
The book read like a very well written episode of Sliders with a main character who is just like normal kids except he's a math genius who can cook (which is admittedly a nice touch).
I wasn't thrilled with it, but it was a solid book overall (though if it hadn't been written by McDonald I never would have picked it up in the first place).
Now the second book in the series, Be My Enemy, is out and I've just finished reading it the other day (I finish reading series that I begin, damn it!).
Happily, Be My Enemy is a much better book than Planesrunner. I'm not sure if that is a result of my lowered expectations (as set by Planesrunner) or if this book is just better. I tend to lean towards the latter since McDonald seems to be playing with some of the very ideas that made the first book a bit cliche in interesting ways.
At one point a character says something long the lines of, "This is an alternate universe, of course there are airships." That made me laugh out loud (LOL as the kids say).
The central premise of the series remains unchanged: our 14 year old hero Everett Singh must track down his father who has been shot into a random universe by mysterious agents of the Plenitude embodied by the main villianess Charlotte Villiers (who gives me shades of Marisa Coulter). There are 10 Earths that have discovered one another by inventing Heisenberg Gates which allow them to jump from one Universe to the next. In some universes this is a known fact, in others it is a secret.
The first book see Everett teaming up with an airship crew, and he is still with the same crew in the second book.
While the setup isn't all that orignal (special kid goes on quest, fights adults) the concept of Alters (introduced in the first book) is explored during the course of this book to great effect.
Given there are multiple universes it stands to reason that there are multiple versions of people too. The other versions of you in other universes are known as Alters. Everett is confronted with his own Alter who has been altered (see what I did there?) by a colony of aliens who, in the Alter's universe, live on the moon (the aliens are kind of neat, but I won't spoil them for you). Pressed into service by Villiers and her male Alter, the Alter Everett is made into a weapon to track down Everett and get the map of the multiverse.
Alter Everett is placed on Earth 10 (our Earth) to replace real Everett at school. Everett then decides he's going to rescue his family (well, mom and kid sister) before continuing to look for his dad. That doesn't go well, but we get to see Alter Everett power up his internal weapon systems and blast some stuff only to be outsmarted by real Everett (just before this fight Villiers reminds Alter Everett that he is just a tool, the real Everett is the important one).
After that battle a good chunk of the action happens on Earth 1 which has been quarantined for mysterious reasons. No one can jump into the world, with the exception of Everett and his airship buddies (who have his map of the multiverse that he figured out based on his father's work, and which the villains want) and his Alter (who gets there thanks to the moon aliens). The mystery of why this Earth was quarantined is pretty easily solved by a frequent science fiction reader, though McDonald does offer an interesting twist of a modern scifi chestnut (I'm really trying to avoid spoilers). On Earth 1 there's some chase scenes, characters trying to figure out the obvious, and a couple of twists that I didn't see coming.
The Alter Everett makes a critical deal towards the end of the book which will have a great impact on the third (and final?) volume in the series. I must admit I had a hard time accepting that anyone would make the deal he did (once again, avoiding spoilers) but he is a 14 year old who is being manipulated by people… so I bought it.
The writing is solid, with some glimpses of McDonald's true talent (I get the feeling that he was holding back since this is a YA book, though one could argue he is just stretching other writerly muscles with this series). There are a couple of false notes when McDonald tries very hard to write like a 14 year old would think/talk, like this: "His body felt out the different slopes and structures an slipperinesses of the roofs. Just like a real-life version of the Assassin's Creed video game." But those are few and far between (thank goodness).
At this point I'm surprised to say I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series. The first book left me cold, but my interest in McDonald's work convinced me to stick with it, and I feel like the pay off is going to be worth it.
A few words about the Kindle edition
I read the Kindle version of Be My Enemy, which is my preferred version of a new book that I don't have any real reason to own as a keepsake (some books are just better as physical artifacts, and older books tend to be way cheaper when you buy a used copy vs. a digital copy). For some reason Pyr, McDonald's publisher, delayed the reason of the Kindle book for 2 weeks. I have no idea why, but it was very annoying to me.
Furthermore, if you're going to delay the Kindle book you really need to make sure the ebook formatting is spot on. I was more than 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized the chapters were numbered. The chapter number graphic was so faint as to be nigh on impossible to read on my eInk Kindle's screen (and I have the fancy new Paperwhite).
If I’m to be completely honest, Be My Enemy didn’t blow me away as completely as Planesrunner did. That’s partly because it’s, well, a sequel. A sequel to an outstanding novel, granted, but still, some familiarity sets in. The surprise factor wears off, ever so slightly.
In softer hands these books could become a "monster of the week" series but here there are consequences, none more so than when Everett is punched in the stomach by an authority figure. This basic, personal violence is a reminder that this is not a game and that even a genius can't get through unscathed. I can't wait to see what happens next.
In Enemy, there's a lot more of what made Planesrunner great -- tremendous action scenes, cunning escapes, genius attacks on the ways that multidimensional travel might be weaponized, horrific glimpses of shadowy powers and sinister technologies.
I rarely venture forth from Center City Philadelphia, let alone the state of Pennsylaniva. However, circumstances conspired to force me to leave the Keystone state for a wedding over the weekend. As luck would have it Apple released iOS 6 with the banner Passbook feature mere days before I was to board my flight. Further proof of my luck: all four of my flights were on United, which is one of the few airlines who support Passbook at this moment (along with American Airlines and Lufthansa). How did it go?
Using Passbook isn't difficult, but there are a lot of steps you have to take to get your eTickets into it:
Launch Passbook and tap the "App Store" button.
Download the United app to your iPhone (if you already have the United app you just start here, but I didn't).
You might be tempted to launch Passbook again and look for a United entry at this point, but don't. You have to launch the United app, log in, and retrieve your reservation if it isn't associated with your United account (my tickets weren't for some reason, but that was easy enough to correct in the United app).
Once you have the trip in the United app you then must wait until you can check into your flight (usually 24 hours before the trip). Check in, using the United app.
When you check in you will have a couple options: you can just display an eTicket within the United app, or you can add your tickets to Passbook. Add them to Passbook and they show up as nicely designed eTickets (on my flight to CA both tickets showed up without a fuss, on my flight back to Philly it took some finagling to get my tickets back into Passbook. I had to "re-import" all my tickets for some reason).
There you have it, you can use Passbook to get onto your plane (and yes, the actual ticket has a QR code, which I've blurred out in the picture above)!
Now that your eTickets are in Passbook an alert shows up on your lock screen a few hours before your flight's boarding time. Swipe the notification and the eTicket is displayed with a QR code (if you have a lock code enabled on your phone this process does not require it. The eTicket is displayed without having to enter your PIN or password). One nice touch is that when your iPhone is displaying the eTicket the screen brightness is automatically set to the highest level (I usually keep my screen at 33% brightness) and then goes back to your setting when the eTicket is dismissed (by swiping upwards).
At the airport the friendly TSA folks and gate representatives all have scanners waiting for you. Just hold your iPhone, which is displaying your ticket, up to the scanner and wait for the green light that proves you aren't a security risk (the first time I scanned my ticket the scanner turned red and beeped loudly. I slightly panicked until I realized I had an exit row seat and they had to ask me if I was OK with sitting there… which I was). And that's it, you just used your $500 iPhone to replace a 1 cent paper ticket. Yay, technology!
Worth the hassle?
It seems to me that Passbook is a clever idea, but honestly having my eTicket with the QR code emailed to me (or just using the one displayed in the United app) would have been simpler. Once you get the ticket into Passbook it is a nice experience, but adding stuff to Passbook isn't intuitive. In fact, once I had my 2 tickets to CA in Passbook I didn't have the option to add anything else from within Passbook itself since the App Store button was no longer displayed.
"That's odd," said First Mate Bishop, "ships don't usually clang at this high a velocity."
He glanced at the readouts on his glowing control pod and frowned. Something was wrong, and though he didn't know what that thing was it was a big important thing, and it wasn't good. Not good at all.
"Captain, something's wrong."
Capt. Drake Belleweather looked at his First Mate with a mix of annoyance and calm. Belleweather was almost always annoyingly calm, which mostly accounts for his rise through the ranks of the Imperium. It certainly wasn't because he knew what he was doing; mostly he just winged it.
"Yes, I heard the clang. Most unusual that clang. I don't recall ever hearing a clang like that before. Get me engineering. They know about clangs and things, one imagines."
Engineering, which on the I.S. Confident consisted of one human, Lt. Carothers, and one robot, General Robotics Engineer Mark V, was well versed in any number of spacefaring related noises. Bangs, wizzles, zaps, sproongs, whispers of air escaping a once airtight space were noise in their repertoire. Clangs not so much.
When the whistle denoting an incoming message from the captain sounded Engineering knew what to do. Carothers answered the call.
"Carothers, tell me what the hell that clang was. We're rapidly approaching the planet surface."
"Ahh, yes, Capt. You heard that too? I thought it might have been Ned's servos grinding again."
I was off on vacation with Marisa for Labor Day weekend (we padded it by taking Friday and Tuesday off because we are awesome). Say Marisa likes to say we take "old people" vacations: we rent a cabin and read for awhile, go to thrift stores, and eat dinner early.
100 more pages to go. Slow start, but I just want to read the last 100 pages in one big gulp. Silly work, stopping me from reading!
84° Mostly Cloudy
3400 Spruce St, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Marisa and I had to go to a wedding yesterday. Now, I'm not the most social person in the world (shocker) and I'm even worse when I don't know many people I am supposed to socially interact with. At this wedding there would be almost no one I knew, other than Marisa, but being the good husband I was happy to accompany my lovely wife. She sweetened the pot, however, by promising me a visit to the Plymouth Meeting Mall during the 2 hour break between the ceremony and the reception.
A trip to some random mall generally wouldn't result in a placated Scott but this mall is home to an outlet of Ukazoo Books which sells both new and used books. I figured I would give myself a limit of $10 and see what treasures I could find (a favorite past time of mine).
We had no idea how fortuitous our timing was because it would seem that the Plymouth Meeting Ukazoo location is closing, and they were having a big clearance sale. Of course I'm sad to see any independent bookstore close, but that is balanced out by my insatiable desire for MORE BOOKS. I was struck, as we entered the store, by a certain melancholy which I last felt visiting the Borders that used to be in Center City Philadelphia during its last days of operation. The shelves are pretty bare, the staff is milling about trying to figure out what to do next with their lives, and I'm there looking for some cheap books like some sort of readerly vulture.
Anyway, not only were they closing (sad face), but we were visiting on the last day they were open (happy face). My plan to spend only $10 was thwarted by the particulars of their clearance sale: $5 for as many books as you can stuff into a brown paper bag (they provided the bag).
Let me tell you, when you're paying $5 for a bag of books your selectivity takes a hit. Marisa and I managed to find 35 books that piqued our interest, and crammed them all into one bag. 14 cents a book? Why not!
Out of the 35 I take credit for snagging the following 12 books:
Becky pointed out this WSJ article about TV Binge Viewing on Twitter, and it hit home with me. Oddly enough I just started watching the first season of Breaking Bad via Netflix earlier this week and finished it last night. Seems I'm not alone:
"Breaking Bad" is high on the list of TV shows that drive the most compulsive viewing, according to Netflix number-crunchers. Some 73% of members who started streaming season one of "Breaking Bad" finished all seven episodes. Seasons two and three were longer—13 episodes each—yet the completion rate jumped to 81% and 85%, respectively.
I plan to spend a good part of the weekend watching Season 2 (though when Marisa isn't around since Breaking Bad is one of those shows that I like that is TIM: Too Intense for Marisa. Other TIM shows include The Walking Dead and Dexter).
Just the other day I listed my recent book purchases and it is already out of date. On Sunday I headed down to Washington, D.C. to assist Marisa with a canning demo at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. The demo lasted for a couple hours, and while I enjoy supporting my lovely wife she didn't need me lurking about the entire time.
Luckily, there were bookstores to checkout in the very near vicinity.
It would seem that Kramersbooks is an institution in DC, and one that I had been hoping to visit for some time. A while back I happened to be in DC for a week attending some training. During the evening I would rush back to my hotel and work on a book I was writing at the time, but I plotted taking some time off to explore this lovely bookstore. Finally, the day I had decide to visit Kramerbooks was upon me. I had finished my training for the day, and stopped by my hotel to unload some stuff. Just as I was putting my bag down a terrific downpour started and lasted the entire evening. Needless to say I stayed in, and the bookstore had to wait until last weekend.
Over the course of the last few weeks I've found myself in a variety of situations in which I had the opportunity to purchase some books. If you know me I rarely turned down the offer to buy myself a book or two (in any format that I can get my grubby little hands on), so I thought I would share a list of books I've recently added to the Blankbaby Manor Library and from whence they came.
Raven Used Books
Marisa and I spent a few days visiting with our friends Becky and Eric in Northampton, MA. I always enjoy our visits because Becky and Eric are good people… and Northampton is home to a few very nice bookstores. Raven Used Books has a great selection of used books at reasonable prices, though I only ended up purchasing one book this time around (plus a t-shirt):
This Alien Shore: I read the Coldfire Trilogy and quite liked it (years and years ago though so I have no idea what they were about) so I thought I would give this book a try.
Broadside Books, just down the street from Raven Used Books, is a fantastic independent bookstore. I know there are differing opinions about whether one is obligated to support independent bookstores or not but I feel like I should buy a book or two whilst I'm there. Now, I'll only buy a book from the store if they have something I want (obviously) and if I feel like the store is worth supporting. Broadside certainly is, so I picked up a book there:
Marisa is a published author now (buy her book) and she's put together her very own book tour (I've found that few people care to meet the geek behind their favorite tech books, so no tours for me). One of the first stops on the tour, and the secondary reason for our visit to Northampton, was at the Odyssey Bookshop. Marisa's demo and signing was a huge success (they sold out of her book!) but sadly my shopping wasn't as successful.
The bookshop has two levels. Marisa's demo was on the second floor so as we walked in I scoped out what looked like a pretty good science fiction section. However, I was there to help with the demo and take pictures and not browse the wares. By the time the demo was over the store was closed, so I had to limit my purchases to a few books I saw on the second floor:
Maisie Dobbs: I'd never heard of the Maisie Dobbs series but the description hooked me.
A People's Guide to the Federal Budget: Becky, who hosted us in Northampton, helped write this book and I like to support my friends whenever I can (yes, friends, this is a passive aggressive reminder that you should feel free to purchase my books!). Plus it is probably a good idea to know how the Federal budget works and stuff.
I work at Penn (specifically the Wharton School) and I really enjoy it. I tried the whole corporate thing at Comcast and I just wasn't cut out for it (I totally told them it was me not them… but I think it was a tiny bit them too). There are many benefits to working at a University: lots of time off, being surrounded by smart people, and a lovely setting. Also, the students leave every summer and in their wake are many nice possessions that they've cast off. Penn, being home to many smart people, realized that instead of having the students throw away all the crap they don't want to haul home with them why not collect it all and sell it, and give the proceeds to GoodWill? Thus PennMOVES was born, and thus why I was awake at 7am on a Saturday and in a rather industrial building at 8:30am wading through a thicket of people.
The PennMOVES price list mentioned that all books were a dollar a pop, which excited me. I made a beeline to the books room only to fine that many professional book resellers had beaten me there. How did I know they were book resellers? They all had iPhones with scanners attached to them and were scanning every book they could find. The ones with high resale value were tossed into bags and the low resale books were tossed back onto the pile.
I wasn't interested in the high value books (i.e. textbooks) I just wanted some cheap novels, however, I worried that there wouldn't be much overlap between my reading interests and those of the average Penn student. I rummaged around the books for 30 minutes or so and managed to find a very good haul (and it only cost me $12):
On Writing: Stephen King's classic take on writing. Marisa already had a copy but for a buck why not?
The King's Peace: I am generally over fantasy but Jo Walton is one of those authors whose books I buy even if I am not interested in the genre (plus the price worked in the book's favor).
Cosm: It would seem that many Penn students who leave books behind aren't into science fiction, so I felt the need to buy whatever scifi books I found. Benford won out on this one (though he'll not make a cent off this transaction).
The City and the Stars: I haven't read all that much Clarke (2001 and some of the Rama books about cover it), and this seemed like an interesting book (and it was written at a time when a short novel was ok. Now everyone needs to write at least 400 pages).
Tastes of Paradise: This seemed like something Marisa would like, and since she was off looking at other tidbits in the sale I picked it up for her.
The Iron Lady: Having recently watched the movie of the same name I was intrigued by the book.
Murder for Christmas: I'm trying to educate myself in the mystery genre so why not read some stories by a master?
Yes, I realize how ironic it is to list all these books from rummage sales and independent bookstores and link to Amazon, but I also buy my fair share of books at Amazon. In fact, for some reason Amazon sent me a $37 gift certificate which I blew on the following Kindle books:
I'm a New Yorker at heart, even though I haven't lived in New York for several years. When I conjure up an image of a public library the image I see is the New York Public Library's main branch with the iconic lion statues out front.
That's why I enjoyed reading Charles Petersen's two part (part 1, part 2) story about how the NYPL is attempting to transform itself to meet the new needs of their patrons. It is such a huge organization, and many people assume the library is dedicated to one thing: books. Nope. Any library you visit isn't just a collection of books, but rather a repository of information staffed with people who make it their life's work to help you sort through it all.
Anyway, you shouldn't be wasting time reading this when the first part of Charles' great article is waiting for you.
People pirating books piss me off, but I love the library (in fact I was just at the Free Library of Philadelphia yesterday (proof) where I checked out three books). Sometimes I do wonder, though, if I should buy a book to support an author I like instead of making use of the library. The problem is, if no one goes to the library then in these days of budget cuts the library closes (heck, even though library usage is up some libraries are closed!).
It really, really, really helps me to be in libraries. Not all traditionally-published books get that privilege; most self-published books certainly don’t. So if you’re feeling at all guilty over checking my stuff out from your local library — don’t. Consider: you’re helping to keep me on their “buy” lists, especially in these days of rampant budget cuts, which means several hundred (if not thousand) additional sales for me.
I'm a tech guy, but I really try and emulate the mindset of a non-technical person when I'm writing, since they are my audience. That's why I find this quick review of a Polaroid Android tablet from Piers Anthony's Newsletter so fascinating. Piers, a successful and prolific author, isn't technical at all but his wife bought a $100 tablet. He's using it now and likes it, but you can just read this thoughts yourself:
My Sony Reader expired just as I was about to read the foregoing novel. That gave my wife a pretext to shop for something she had had her eye on, and we got a Polaroid Android Tablet Computer on sale for a hundred dollars. As I like to put it, I'm an old codger from another century, and slow to catch on to newfangled dinguses, but I rather like this one. Its Adobe Reader handled the .pdf manuscript, oriented the page to be upright regardless of my orientation; sometimes as I let the device tilt the page would spin around to re-orient. I can show the pages as they are, in assorted type sizes, or have them reformat and wrap to remain always on the page. The print is beautiful, easy to read. But I am unable to jump to my place in the book, or to return directly to the beginning when I complete it. So I had to page backward through the 373 page manuscript, one page at a time. This gets old fast. It does hold my place if I keep it in ready mode, but loses it if I turn it all the way off to save power. It will play songs, and I can read with musical background; it seems to have a fair roster of popular songs to start with, and we added more. But it can be a federal case to make it stop playing, and we have not found out how to make it play our added songs. It acknowledges their presence, lists them, but won't actually play them, instead playing only its own songs; it seems to think they are on the Internet. Would it be too much to ask that you be able to play a listed song by clicking on it? Or that there be an On/Off switch? If there is a Hell for programmers, it may have an On/Off switch for the tortures they undergo—that doesn't work. It will handle WiFi, but as yet I have not caught up with that 21st century stuff. So it's a novel experience, and I like it despite its frustrations.
I don't know what I would use a tablet for if I didn't have Wi-Fi.