Book review: All the Birds in the Sky

In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, the lead up to November 8th, I had been reading a lot of political history of the latter half of the 20th century. After The Donald won, I needed a change.

While I have often found modern SciFi a bit hard to get into, I steeled myself and asked a High School friend, Chuck Serface for a couple of recommendations. First up was “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders, ¬†which appeared on my Kindle as if by magic.

That night, when I picked up my Kindle at bedtime, I fell into a trance, reading the entirety of the first “Book” (the novel is broken into 4 “Books” in a fairly natural divisions). I usually nod off after 15 minutes or so, strong praise indeed.

Continue reading →

What I’m Reading – Lew Archer Novels

As a voracious reader, who primarily focuses on Science Fiction, I do branch out. One genre that I enjoy is the detective thriller. This penchant can be traced to my love of the Doc Savage stories of my youth, and has jumped into some more or less serious threads of what I read. From the flippant Stephanie Plum novels (a guilty, fun pleasure) to the work by J.A. Jance, I have enjoyed many a cliff hanger stories.

However, lately, I have become hooked on the Lew Archer novels by Ross Macdonald (pen name of Kevin Millar). Set in Southern California, and beginning shortly after the war, they stretch for 20ish years, and are lively depictions of the changes that the boom years brought to that part of California.

The principal character, Lew Archer, is a private investigator, a lone gun, whose marriage failed, and who hung out his shingle after being an LA Cop. Unlike the friction you find between many TV private eye’s and the police, you get the impression that the local constabulary appreciate, and respect Archer.

The stories often start with a missing person, or someone desperate for help, and the first person narrative draws you in, and holds your attention for 250 or so pages, almost always with a surprising twist at the end that keeps you guessing.

One thing that I enjoy about these stories is that they don’t telegraph the antagonist. You often are truly surprised in the outcome, or that the obvious villain isn’t the culprit, yet, the obvious villain is rarely unbloodied at the end.

One of the books that I just finished, The Wycherly Woman, was a classic example, where you thought you had it figured out, and then WHAM, it was a total surprise at the end. Additionally, this one was set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and having grown up there, it was a pleasant read about places I know well.

Millar’s writing style is crisp, his vocabulary is deep, and he does a fantastic job of engaging the reader in these page turners.

You could get wrapped up in a far worse series of novels. I have been through 10 or 11 of these, and have thoroughly enjoyed each one of them. Highly recommended.

Kindle Unlimited

I have a kindle, and I enjoy it. I haven’t always had a Kindle, I started as a Sony reader fan, and then an iPad user, but I succumbed to inevitability, and bought a Kindle.

I like it. I do prefer a eInk reader to a tablet, and today, you have to work really hard to live in this space and not use a Kindle.

I buy lots of books. Most are just throw-away pulpy fiction that I enjoy reading. Like the Doc Savage series (modern), or The Destroyer series. Mostly they are a couple of bucks, I enjoy them and delete them from my Kindle.

I have also borrowed a couple books via the Prime lending library. I wish I had something to say about that, but really, it is trivial to borrow, read, and “return“. Very uneventful.

Now I am struggling with joining Kindle Unlimited. Looking at the books included, much of the pulpy fiction things are there. So it would probably save me a few bucks (but not much, and I rarely spend more than $10 a month on those throw-aways.

But the convenience of Unlimited is tempting. Grab a book or 5, and try them. If they suck, you aren’t out any money.

The ethical qualm is how little of that $10 goes to authors. You have to read some percentage of the book for them to get any money, and the fee paid to them is low. Why should I care?

Good question. Unlike the average Slashdot user, I don’t subscribe that the near zero marginal cost of an e-book means I should pay pennies for it. I know how much effort it is to write, edit, and package even an e-book. I believe that the written words are the value, not the paper, ink and distribution costs.

Herein lies the problem. Kindle Unlimited appears to be a bad deal for authors. They are pressured to participate, but, like Spotify, the amount of subscriber or advertiser money that trickles to them is minuscule.

I prefer to spend the few bucks, have more of that go to the authors, and hopefully, they will continue to write things I want to read.

So, while Kindle Unlimited seems awesome, and a great deal, I will continue buying books, as I believe that will help the authors make a living, and thus not have to go back to a day job to put food on the table.

coda

Yes, I still use Spotify. However, I have bought many albums based on things I have found there. I find that if I really enjoy (read: replay songs) an artist, I will buy their album(s) to help support them.

What I am reading – Matt Drake novels

I have admitted to being a fan of the Doc Savage stories in the past. Fun, targeted at teenaged boys, and quick reading, they are the classic adventure stories. I read all 181 original stories, as well as all the modern additions.

I have been searching for a similar series of stories, and am currently tasting the Matt Drake series by David Leadbeater. Not really in the Doc Savage mold, but more of an Indiana Jones on steroids, searching for relics, and fighting with organized mobsters (governments or whatever) to save them from evil plans.

Good action, somewhat believable plots (as long as the idea of Norse gods being real and 500M years old isn’t too far fetched).

Not sure I will stick with the whole series, but it has started well.

1 Comment

A Guilty Pleasure – Doc Savage Stories

I thought I had written about this before, but apparently, searching my archives, I haven’t. Today’s the day I guess.

It is no secret that I have a voracious appetite for reading. It started young, when I was in High School, and was heavily Science Fiction oriented. It was escape from some reality, and I doubled down.

My introduction to Doc Savage came much earlier than that though In grade school, my dad gave me one of the paperback reprints for Christmas. I read it, but since i hadn’t developed a passion for the printed word at that point, I really just read it and put it down.

Fast forward until I got my first e-reader. I was googling around looking for things that were free (i.e. in the public domain) to load up on it, and I found a link to the 162 Doc Savage novels. Not sure where I found it, but I grabbed it, and loaded them up (later, I learnt that they were not in the public domain, but copyrighted, and owned by Conde Nast publishing. However they just sit on the rights and don’t make them available for purchase. Boo.)

I whipped through them quickly, enjoying the tales immensely. They were quick reads, they were written to attract the attention of a 15 year old boy, and unlike the comics and superhero stories, there was nothing magical.

Continue reading →

Author Appreciation: Robert Ludlum

My first introduction to Robert Ludlum's books was back in the 1990's. I was traveling a lot, and my girlfriend at the time tossed me a book she had finished, Ludlum's "The Bourne Identity)". Not my usual read (science fiction), but it was an absolute page turner.

I went on to read the rest of the Bourne trilogy, and a lot of the other works of Ludlum. Set in the cold war, most of the tales were of espionage, the craft, and the interplay between the east and the west. Gripping tales that didn't rely on gimmickry, or hokey plot twists. Solid tales.

Fabulous tales and entertaining reads in a way that Tom Clancy tries to achieve, but doesn't quite get there.

What prompted this bit o' nostalgia was watching the 2002 version of The Bourne Identity. The movie, starring Matt Damon, and Franka Potente is in every way as gripping and riveting as the original novel.

Naturally, the original novel, written in 1980, long before the internet, cell phones, and many of the accoutrements of modern society existed needed a bit of adjustment. And the producers did a fabulous job of adaptation, like due to the hand of Ludlum in the crafting of the screenplay, shortly before he passed.

Today, I am reading another Ludlum classic, "The Matarese Circle", a story of two top spies, manipulated into cooperating against all instincts by a common enemy. A fairly common theme, but the detail, the "dance" and the capitulation are 100% Ludlum magic.

Author Appreciation – Harry Harrison

I remember my first introduction to the works of Harry Harrison. I was in high school, getting into a heavy science fiction groove, working my way through some of the classics. A friend, Ken Rice, tossed me a copy of “The Stainless Steel Rat”, a collection of the stories about Slippery Jim diGriz, a criminal mastermind with an ethical bent.

I was hooked. The story reaches out and grabs your attention from the first page. A common thread through all of Harry’s writing.

The Stainless Steel Rat
The Stainless Steel Rat

I read all the Stainless Steel Rat stories (years later I learned that the parts were all stories published in the pulp Sci Fi magazines of the 40’s and 50’s)

Harry Harrison also wrote long form fiction, with examples being West of Eden, Make Room! make Room!, and the Hammer and the Cross trilogy. Respectable efforts, and worthy reads, West of Eden is one of my favorites of the Harrison library. A twist on planetary development, what if the Triassic extinction event didn’t happen? Would the boss species on the planet be reptiles? Would they have developed intelligence, science, and technology? A gripping tale.

I guess one of the defining themes by Harrison, one that endears him to me, is his subtle (and not so subtle) slap at authority. Whereas Heinlein wrote thinly veiled treatises to promote service in the armed forces, Harrison took the contrarian view. Bill the Galactic Hero was his counterbalance to the recruitment poster-like Heinlein book, “Starship Troopers”. Heck the entire Stainless Steel Rat collection was about nibbling at the edges of civilized behavior. Harry Harrison had that honed to a fine art.

Right now, on my Kindle, I am reading the Harry Harrison Megapack. A great introduction to his works, and at $0.99 it is a fabulous value to boot. You get a smattering of his short stories, two “book length” stories (Deathworld 1 and Deathworld 2), and a great feel for his style. Grab your copy today!

How Pop-Culture Ruined Me

I am reading a great book by Daniel Boorstin, called “The Seekers”. It is a book about the different philosophers throughout recorded history, and how they influenced civilizations, arose as the religions, and in general seeking the meaning of life.

The section I am reading now is about the Greek philosophers, particularly about Socrates. Great stuff, and I highly recommend the gook (and the series, including his book “The Discoverers”).

Enter: Pop Culture

Formative, bad pop-culture
Formative, bad pop-culture

In the way back time, I saw “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure“. It was one of those movies that was being spammed on HBO in the early 1990’s, so I must have watched it 10 or 12 times in a couple of months. Moderately entertaining, and mindless, it, like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was part of my watch list.

Don’t judge me.

However, reading a chapter that is focusing completely on Socrates, I find my self saying in my mind “So-Crates” like the characters in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

I am beyond help.

1 Comment

eBook Fun – Fixing fouled up books

As I have mentioned many times, I have been a long time satisfied user of my reader and ebooks. Certainly better than hauling around a lot of dead trees when I travel.

All good. I have been building a collection for more than 5 years now, from a variety of sources, many commercial, but also many of the free sources (Project Gutenberg) as well as some other sources for out of print books that are ahem less than legit.

Most of the commercial options are DRM encumbered, so that I can’t peek inside with impunity. But all the others are open books, so to speak, mostly ePub format. There are some great tools to work with.

Sigil – a WYSIWYG ePub Editor

Sigil is free, open source, and pretty solid. It will help you put together a book, and fix minor errors.

It is a good place to start to figure out the ePub format.

ePub are pretty straightforward HTML with some special attributes. You can do just about anything that you can put on a web page (within reason, no javascript or animations).

But you can tweak up the look and feel of the book with stylesheets, inserted graphical elements, and all the other tricks that you can use with web pages.

Calibre – An open source library manager

Of course, your reader probably comes with software to manage its files, You will find that it is pretty limited. Perhaps you have some old files in one of the dead or dying formats (.lit, .lrf, BBeB etc.) Additionally there are a lot of eBooks in plain text format or Microsoft Word format.

It is helpful to be able to shift formats, and to clean up some of the glitches.

Enter Calibre. An open source, multi platform (Mac, Windows, Linux) environment for managing your library. It groks all the standard formats, and converts between them seamlessly. It is extensible with plugins, and it can help you clean up books as well as transcode them. Additionally, it connects with several sources to get covers, meta data, and other tangibles to improve the user experience.

It can be used to take HTML files or word processing files (RTF or .DOCX) and turn them into eBooks in any format.

Being a powerful package, to get the most out of it, you really need to understand what it is doing, and how to optimize the settings. By default it does an OK job, but as in many cases, garbage in equals garbage out.

Some issues

Why is this a problem? Well, it is because a lot of the free or community books are poorly formatted to begin with. Also, some sources in general suck. Often, I will find an out of print book that was scanned and OCR’d. Often this is turned into a MS word file. Until recently, you needed to save that file as an HTML file and run it through Calibre.

Calibre uses some pretty heavy stylesheets, that mostly look OK. The ambitious person can customize them easily, if you know what you are doing. Of course not every reader can handle all styesheet formats, so it can be a trial and error process.

Of course, there are some things that really foul up any book. Anything output by Microsoft Word uses a class structure that is insane. If you see class=”msonormalxx”, you know that you are going to have an ugly book.

RTF files are not much better. They typically have a lot less funky classes that are tossed in, but the conversion does glitch in some spectacular ways.

ePub versus other formats

I have a pretty large colletion of the Microsoft ebook format (.lit) and the old Sony reader format (.lrf) that I convert to read. Both these formats can be problematic.

The Sony format leads to ePubs with some really whacky xhtml coding in them. Really ugly to try to clean up. Additionally, they have odd chapter breaks, and pretty non functional Tables of Content.

Fortunately, it isn’t too difficult to clean them up, but it is time consuming. You need a few tools.

  1. An HTML stripper. There are several options, but I use a simple app for my Mac HTML Stripper A reasonably priced utility. There are some free ones, but I like to support small vendors, and $15 is a good price for this tool.
  2. The HTML stripper will give you good plain text. You will need to reformat that into clean HTML. Fortunately, Markdown is a fabulous way to do this. I use Mou for the Mac (free, but do donate to them), and MarkdownPad on my PC. Again free, but the pro version has some nice extensions, so it might be worth spending the $15 to buy it (I have).

The clean up workflow

First I extract the raw HTML. I do this chapter by chapter. It is best to create an ePub with one source file per chapter. That makes for clean chapter breaks, and a well functioning table of contents.

Then I run it through my HTML stripper. That gives me clean text file. It will likely have odd numbers of breaks in paragraphs, and some other interesting things. Fortunately that doesn’t matter.

I then import that text into my markdown editor. Add a chapter title in h1 and then you have a nice complete chapter to drop back into the epub. (every markdown editor has a “copy to HTML” function. Works great.)

Lastly, I build a new epub using Sigil. Add meta data, a cover, and construct a table of contents, and you have a nice book.

But what if you want to read it on your Kindle?

Of course, the Amazon kindle doesn’t support the ePub format. So you need to convert it into either an .AZW3 or a .mobi format file.

Calibre to the rescue again. Trivial, and the defaults are pretty good for conversion.

And naturally, you use Calibre to transfer or manage your library on the Kindle (this is only for files you didn’t buy from Amazon). Works like a charm.

Coda

I got into cleaning up ebooks when my collection of old Doc Savage books. Circa 2008 I found a repository of them in Sony format (I had a PRS 700 reader then), and the 181 original Doc Savage stories were a joy to read.

But they convert poorly into ePub. When I lost my PRS700, and replaced it with the PRS 600, the support for .lrf files was removed. My only options were to convert them. Calibre converted them, but it did a lousy job.

The last few days, I have been using the workflow above to clean some of these books. It takes me about 35 mintues to create a crisp, clean, and standards compliant ePub from a completely ugly converted ePub.

A labor of love.

Having a new Kindle is giving me the motivation to fix some my my titles.

1 Comment

My history with e-Readers

I am a gadget person. I have always loved tech, and have often been on the leading edge of trends and an early adopter.

One category that I dove into head first was the e-Reader trend. I first stumbled across them in 2006, when Sony launched the PRS 500. I didn’t jumped then, but I had my eye on them.

At the time, I was traveling the better part of 50% of the time. Being a life long reader, and a SciFi junky, I was always hitting the used book stores and carrying 10#’s of book with me on my 2 week international trips. A definite burden.

Of course, the idea of an electronic book with a large number of books stored on it was a dream.

The first touchscreen reader, the Sony PRS 700
The first touchscreen reader, the Sony PRS 700

When Sony launched their second generation reader with the first “touch screen” reader, I pounced. I bought one of the first PRS 700’s, and loved it. I bought lots of books, and even found a fair number of public domain free books (the Doc Savage series was a good, quick read).

I probably put 500K miles of traveling with that reader, a constant companion. I probably had 500 books on it at any one time. It allowed me to have a wide selection of titles, including my favorite Science Fiction, some contemporary fiction, some technical references, and some classics. My tastes range widely.

Then one day in 2010, somebody decided they wanted it more than me. So I found myself without a reader.

In the interim, Amazon launched the Kindle line of readers, and a pretty wide selection of ebooks. The first Kindles were toy like, and pretty cheesy feeling (I had many friends with them). However all my books were in ePub format (the “standard” ebook format), whereas the Kindle used a proprietary format, based on the common “Mobi” format.

So I really didn’t consider the Kindle a suitable replacement.

Off to Best Buy and I went home with the successor to the PRS 700, the PRS 600. Still touch screen, and my library transfered over smoothly. One of the nice things about the Sony readers is that they allow expansion of the onboard storage with the Sony memory stick pro, and SD cards.

THe PRS 600 was a bit of a disappointment. The eInk display was fine, but the resistive touch screen made it full of glare. It also missed the built in LED light to read after dark, something that I did enjoy on the PRS 700.

I used the PRS 600 for a long time, until I picked up my iPad in 2011. It was a far better reading experience, and since all my library was ePub, it was trivial to use it.

It did have one other weakness. The battery sucked. It never gave me the expected lifetime for reading. I probably needed to charge it after 12 hours of reading. And it died early. By the end of the first year, the battery stopped holding a charge.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to find one, online, and it was easy to replace. But like the original battery, its life wasn’t great out of the box. Whether Sony had to compromise on the battery capacity, or whether there was some constant draw, it was a bummer to have the battery expire as quickly as it did.

Fortunately the arrival of the iPad, it pretty much was relegated to a drawer.

Enter the tablet for reading

In 2011, for my birthday, I splurged ang bought an iPad. While it didn’t have an e-ink display, it did have a great display, and I had no trouble reading on it. All my library moved easily, and I had tons of storage space.

Of course, the iPad lasts for 12 hours of reading easily, so long plane flights are not a problem.

But the display wasn’t as satisfying as the e-ink display. That and the constant distraction of email notifications, facebook, or even a quick hand of solitaire.

The iPad still is in my stable, but I have augmented it with a first generation Google Nexus 7 tablet. Excellent display on a 7″ tablet, and good book reader applications. As well, a really good integration with the Google Play store books. I have bought many books from there, so it was really convenient.

But its battery sucks really bad. I can get about 4 – 5 hours of reading before it shuts itself down. Ok if you can charge it every night, and don’t count on it for a long flight of reading. But that is a pretty big limitation.

Back to a Reader

As my travel schedule is going to ramp up this year, I know that I am going to want a reader for my books. I remain a voracious reader when I travel, so it is an easy choice.

There are still a few options out there. Sony still has a full line. Kobo is a smaller, open option. And naturally the Kindle.

A lot of players have come and gone. Barnes and Noble’s Nook line, while still available, is becoming a weak player.

So, I started looking into the Kindle. I still have a huge library of ePubs, but that is less of a detriment than it used to be. The Calibre package makes it child’s play to convert to different formats.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Amazon store has a great experience, and a large selection of books. And since I have been buying dead tree books from them for 14 years or so, they have a pretty good idea of my tastes.

I started slowly, with the Kindle app on my Nexus and my iPad. A couple of free books to start with, and I think I can live with their eco system. My Paper White Kindle should arrive any day now. I expect it to have a great display, with a backlight, and a seamless ecosystem.

Next up: a detailed review of the Kindle Paper White

Once I get it, I plan on doing a thorough review. I will get it setup, connect it with my Calibre library, and try it in a variety of scenarios.