Review: Guns of the Dawn

Guns of the Dawn
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was nothing like the book I expected from the blurb. I had expected a fast-moving adventure, featuring a young woman who discovers that she isn’t fighting the war she thought she was, and then having to do something about it. Although that description technically fits, it really doesn’t convey the right impression.

Emily Marshwic is a young woman of a slightly-impoverished gentry family. She does the usual young-women things, including keeping alive a long-running feud with her father’s enemy, who is unfortunately now the mayor of the local town. When neighbouring Denland kills its king and invades, the usual thing happens. First the volunteers go to the war, then the conscripts – first, male, and, finally, one woman from each household is required to go to war.

And so Emily ends up in the first tranche of female recruits, is given fairly minimal training, promoted to ensign, and arrives on the front equipped with musket, sabre, and her father’s pistol.

It takes quite a long time for the book to get this far. Even more time is spent on Emily learning her business as a soldier and a junior officer. I found myself thinking that the story wasn’t really about Emily – she was just the focus for it. The story is about the war, its progress, and what war does to those left at home and those involved in the fighting.

It also has much in common with a coming-of-age tale – Emily starts out as a fairly typical (though rather outspoken) young woman of good family; she ends up as a competent soldier and officer in the army. We get to watch the change in slow-time, as she grows into a new person with a different place in society.

So far, so good. However, nothing special. If you want to read about war from the soldier’s perspective, try All Quiet on the Western Front. If you want to read about a woman soldier, read The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

For me, what took this book from a solid four-star tale – competent, entertaining, well-written and so on, but without that special something – to five stars, was the very end. I saw the events of the final scene coming, but that did not make them any more satisfying, or any less what the book needed to acquire that special something.

And I wonder how much the author has read of the English Civil War – King Luthrian reminded me very much of Charles I, particularly at the end.

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Technology: Winners and Losers

A Dodo

History is full of winners and losers, and it’s particularly obvious when dealing with technology. Take video recording, for example. Does anybody remember Betamax? I remember borrowing video cassettes when I was a kid – the shop had lots and lots of VHS tapes, and tiny little section for Betamax. Pretty  soon you couldn’t get Betamax at all (although if you really tried, apparently you could – as Sony only stopped making them this year). I did hear that Betamax was actually better technology – it just didn’t take off. Now, of course, the VHS has been replaced by DVD, and the last manufacturer of VHS tape players stopped making them.

E-books are an example of a technology that was somewhat slow to take off until Amazon brought out the first Kindle device. As a person who started reading e-books on a PDA with a battery life about an hour and a half, I desperately wanted a Kindle when they first went on the market – but unfortunately, I couldn’t have one because they were only on sale in the USA. Now, they are everywhere – and I’ve said before that I think they will eventually completely replace mass-market paperbacks. The market for paper books will probably continue, but only for presentation and collectors’ editions.

But the advent of e-books also brought with it additional sub- technologies. When e-books first became available, there was an assumption that the time of a book as being simply words on a page – whether that page was electronic or paper – were drawing to a close. Books would be enriched with audio, and video, and probably a bunch of other enrichments too.  And that is what the company Booktrack thought too: they develop soundtracks for books that include background music and sound effects, just like a film. The technology never really took off, and possibly one reason was because the only way to listen to the soundtrack with via their app.  Another reason may have been that in the early days, most people were reading on dedicated e-Ink book reading devices, which may not have had audio capability. Now that more people are reading on smartphones, this raises the possibility that Booktrack were simply ahead of their time – were they to start up now, would they do better?  Since they are still going, will they manage to popularise their technology? Or will it die, a technology that simply did not fill a need? It happens: look at the Google Glass. While in the abstract, it’s kind of cool to think of having your own heads up display, in reality it probably makes you feel a bit silly, not to mention getting you thrown out of restaurants. I expect the Google Glass will make a reappearance, but probably aimed at security services rather than the general consumer.

At the other end of the scale, you have Pokémon Go. A game that involves people walking around in the real world, looking for imaginary monsters. Most people stop doing that at about the age of five. Yet, it’s become a global craze. People are getting mugged, falling over cliffs, and crashing their cars because they are paying more attention to hunting Pokémon than to the real world around them. Who would have guessed that the game would take off to such an extent?

It makes me glad that I’m a writer.  No matter what the technology – whether audio or visual, dead tree or electronic – people will always want stories. The way in which they consume those stories might change, but the story’s the thing.

Review: Bellwether

Bellwether
Bellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago, and it became one of my favourites. I read, and enjoy, a lot of books – but only very few get filed on the “favourites” shelf.

On re-reading, a number of years later, the story hasn’t lost anything. In fact, I probably enjoy it even more now than I did then, being older and more cynical.

Sandra works for Hi-Tek, researching trends. She wants to find the origin of hair-bobbing. She also wants her mail correctly delivered, her photocopying done, and her stapler returned.

Bennett also works for Hi-Tek, under the impression that he has moved away from studying chaos. He wants some macaques so he can study information diffusion.

Flip attends at Hi-Tek, in the sense of: “Do you work here?” “No, I just attend.” She is the cause of chaos in other people.

It’s quite difficult to describe this book, because there actually isn’t a great deal in the way of plot. In some ways, it almost operates like the nineteenth century roman a clef in which ninety percent of the fun is that you know who the characters are supposed to represent. In the case of Bellwether Willis takes the whole book to poke fun at people who mindlessly follow trends without even known that they’re doing it, and at corporate-management-jargon.

This book was first published in 1996, and so certain aspects are rather dated (e.g. one character’s cellphone, which keeps going out of range, and the computer equipment) but the story as a whole has stood the test of 20 years. Given the subject matter, that’s rather depressing – but not surprising.

Anyone who has worked for a large company will immediately recognise Management (who is never named!) who comes up with a new acronym every week and is incapable of telling the difference between people who sound good and those who can actually do their jobs.

But the main portion of the book is about trends – good ones and bad ones. Why do people flock to a particular pursuit, or thing, in droves – and then abandon it a short while after? Everyone can probably think of a few (e.g., Pokemon Go, at the moment – with people getting mugged, or crashing their cars, because they’re playing the game and not paying attention to their surroundings. Or even wandering into landmines). But to some extent, these trends are (mostly) harmless, if rather irritating for those not caught up in them. But Willis also points out that other things are also trends: intolerance of a particular group being one. It used to be Jews. Now it’s Muslims.

Ultimately, I think Bellwether is one long (amusing!) rant by Willis about the ridiculousness of people who blindly follow what’s “in” – and about the very real damage that people can do by simply following the crowd. What would society be like if people stopped just following, and actually stopped to think?

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Shelf Love Challenge: Why do I read the books I do?

IMG_0877

My TBR pile!

This month’s question is: Why do you read the books you read? Why do you gravitate towards certain genres and/or authors. How do you pick the next book you will read?

So, why do I read the books I do?

Good question. It’s something I’ve never really thought about – my favourite genres are fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. My least favourite is literary fiction. Or poetry. The only poetry I really like is limericks.

I suppose I graduate towards genre fiction because I tend to prioritise plot and characterisation over beautiful writing; I can see why other people go all gooey over a well turned phrase, but it’s not my thing. Plus, I like magic, and as soon as you add a wizard it’s fantasy regardless of what else is going on.

When it comes to detective stories, a line from one of Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey books comes to mind: Lord Peter says to Harriet Vane, who is his wife and a detective story writer, that detective stories are “the purest form of literature we have”. He goes on to explain that in detective stories, good (almost) always triumphs over evil. Detective stories provide a vision of justice that we all hope is true, even if we fear that it isn’t. For the duration of reading the book, we can pretend that good always triumphs, the bad guys always get caught, and karma bites.

Science fiction and fantasy, even though they might seem very different, are actually very similar: both deal with worlds that don’t exist. The difference is that science fiction often explains very carefully how the handwavium works, and fantasy just says, “it’s magic; live with it”.

Sci-fi and fantasy therefore get an undeserved bad press because it’s all made up stuff, therefore not real, therefore not relevant. This ignores the significant problem that the characters in oh-so-respectable literary fiction aren’t real either. Sci-fi and fantasy deal with exactly the same problems as any other form of fiction, just with more dragons (or spaceships). Furthermore, because the setting isn’t constrained by reality, the author can set up the world to showcase a particular problem or situation. JK Rowling did this very well with the Harry Potter books. She set up a wizarding world full of unfairness and inequality, and then made Harry and his friends face up to all of it – bullying and the realisation that you can’t always trust adults in the first book; war, sacrifice, larger issues of inequality and the power of a corrupt government in the final books. Would it even have been possible to have dealt with these themes in a non-fantasy book? Even if it were possible, what kind of book would that turn out to be?

I suppose, then, what I also love about Science Fiction and fantasy, is that they usually end with hope. Even if the good guys don’t have it all their own way, even if the outcome is decidedly ambivalent, there is still hope for the future. There is still hope that, in the end, good really will triumph.

So, how do I pick the next book I will read?

The first thing is, Is there a book by one of my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet? I do have a few authors whose books I’ll pretty much always get as soon as they’re published.  Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, to name a few. For these authors, I’ll drop everything and read their latest offering.

Beyond that? It depends. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling: after a hard day, I can’t cope with anything emotionally demanding. So I’ll go straight for the mind-candy – those books that are just fun to read. Otherwise, I tend to read in phases. I’ll read a run of fantasy, then a run of detective fiction. Right now, of course, I’ve joined the #ShelfLoveChallenge so another factor is When did I get this?

One thing that doesn’t factor in, or hasn’t until recently, is recommendations. Until now, the only person I know who is really into reading is my husband. Although we both read voraciously, and we both read science fiction, our taste in books doesn’t actually cross over all that much. But I’ve recently started interacting more on Goodreads and Twitter, and it’s nice to make contact with other readers.  Not only is it nice to discuss books in general, but I’ve had some good recommendations – long may it continue.

So, if you’d like to link up and talk books, I’m, on Goodreads, and on Twitter. Drop me a line and say hello!

And here’s a link to my #ShelfLoveChallenge page.

Review: Bushido, the Soul of Japan

Bushido, the Soul of Japan
Bushido, the Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is short, and accessibly written (provided you view ordinary late nineteenth-century writing as accessible).

When reading this book, it is important to remember two things:

1. It was written in 1900. The approach and the ethics therefore reflect the attitudes and society of the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first.
2. It was written by a Japanese man who had seen the fall of the feudal system, to explain Japanese and, particularly, samurai culture to Westerners. In fact, it was originally written in English and only later translated into Japanese.

Some people have criticised this book for its ethics in general – but I think this is unjust, as it’s a book of its time. Although there are parts which do more than merely raise eyebrows, it is only fair to the book, and to the author, to acknowledge that our ethics are a century away from Nitobe’s. It is unfair to expect a nineteenth-century Japanese man to have exactly the same moral values as twenty-first century Westerners.

Others have criticised the book for its very intent: to explain Japanese culture in terms that Westerners could understand. Again, it’s very easy to criticise from our twenty-first century internet-enabled Western point of view. If we want to know about Japan, or any other country, we can look it up on the internet in a few moments. In fact, nowadays, it’s very hard not to know at least a little about other cultures unless you deliberately shut yourself off.

It was different at the end of the nineteenth century: Japan had only just emerged from its isolation, and not only was its culture strange to the Western world, but most societies were much less multicultural than they are now, so people were less likely to have encountered a culture other than their own.

Thus, Nitobe discusses Bushido with lots of Western and Christian comparisons and examples, because these are what will make sense to his chosen audience.

The result is a very interesting book.

Nitobe himself was born in 1862, so he was eight years old when feudalism was abolished, and ten when the carrying of swords was forbidden. This not only gives Nitobe a unique perspective, but also means that when the book was written, many Japanese people would have remembered the feudal system. To them, it was not some foreign (or even barbaric) practice – it was their own culture. It was normal.

So with this book, there is a strange mix of explanation and defence. Nowadays, it’s shocking to read the story of an eight-year-old samurai boy being order to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide by disembowelment) and actually doing it. But under bushido – and to Nitobe, who seems to have been of the samurai class himself, or close to it – the story emphasises the strength of devotion to duty, and courage, of even samurai children.

The attitude to women, too, is shocking nowadays. However, it’s important to remember that since this was written in 1900, the attitude to women in the West wasn’t much different. Admittedly, young girls in the West weren’t given daggers in case they needed to commit suicide to protect their honour – but then, neither were boys. If you read much about the life of women in the West during the late 19th century, you do wonder who had the better deal: the samurai girl in feudal Japan, or the middle-class young woman in London.

All in all, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book – and not the least because it’s not written as a scholarly study by an outsider, but by a man trying to explain (and, in some senses, justify) his own culture. It therefore has the result of telling the reader perhaps more about feudal Japanese society and culture than even the author intended.

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Review: Last Argument Of Kings

Last Argument Of Kings
Last Argument Of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be. Joe Abercrombie’s skill as an author cannot be overstated. The plot moves swiftly, the language is clean, yada yada. He’s a great author.

What I enjoyed most about Last Argument of Kings, though, was the characters. Joe Abercrombie writes “grey” characters like no-one else. Is Logen Ninefingers a good man forced into fight after fight, or is he really a homicidal maniac? Is Sand dan Glockta a good man in a bad position, or is he a sociopath? Even the minor characters are notably ambivalent. Whether this is Abercrombie deliberately playing with fantasy tropes (the wizard isn’t as benevolent as all that either), deciding that he’s tired of characters who can be neatly sorted into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, or just deliberately making sure that his readers never know quite what to think, I don’t know. Just as you think you’ve got it worked out, Abercrombie has his characters do something that shakes your certainty: this is not fantasy where the characters have the luxury of easy decisions, and they then have to live with the consequences.

But this is another thing one notices about many fantasy novels: after all the dust has settled, the good guys retire to live a life of peace and prosperity, and everything is pretty much OK. Abercrombie, again, doesn’t have much truck with that. We’re talking war, people. We’ve all watched the news. When it’s all over, do we really think everything goes back to normal immediately? War is not glorious: it is messy and tragic. Good people die along with the bad. Nobody, as Glockta says, gets what they deserve in life. And everybody has to live with what happened, with the gaps in their lives and their property. And, of course, in their morals. What happens to your own personal morality if you have to do appalling things to survive, and to achieve your goals? What if you’re threatened and blackmailed? Yes, we’d all like to believe that we’d willingly die before compromising our most basic morality, but would we really? When it gets down to it, how many of us would choose someone else’s pain rather than ours?

Abercrombie also has a master’s touch when it comes to poisoning chalices. I don’t think anybody ends up with an untainted chalice, although some of the poisons are pretty subtle. (The closest, though, is Glockta himself. I was really, really happy about the way that turned out.) There is one instance, done very subtly, where you think… wow. A combination of perceptiveness and ruthlessness on the part of one character, obliviousness on the part of another, and a species of living hell on the part of a third. You’ll know it when you get to it, but, really, what Abercrombie giveth with one hand he taketh away with the other. And vice versa.

This book could be adequately subtitled: Be careful what you ask for: you might just get it.

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In which I lament my lack of self-control – Kindle Oasis vs Kobo Glo HD

Kindle-and-KoboIt’s official. I have no self-control. Breaking strain of a KitKat.

I have bought a Kindle. Not just any Kindle. The most expensive Kindle on the market. The Kindle I said I would definitely never, not ever, buy. Because it was far too expensive to justify. And stuff.

In my defence, it was my birthday, and the far-too-expensive Kindle was partially paid for by birthday money from my husband and my parents, and birthday money – should you be lucky enough to be financially stable – is meant for buying frivolous things that you can’t otherwise justify (like Kindles), not ordinary stuff like socks.

I always said, I would never have a Kindle. I was a Kobo girl. I don’t have anything against Amazon (how could I, when Amazon made it viable to be an indie author?) but Kindles never tempted me – they were too big, too clunky, especially compared to my three Kobos. The big Kobo is waterproof; the little Kobo has a 5″ screen; and the Kobo that is just right is a 6″-screened piece of elegance, far nicer than any Kindle I’d seen. And half the price.

Up until now.

Up until Amazon brought out a Kindle that is more than 30g lighter than my late, lamented Sony PRS-T1.

I’m a gadget girl. Other women, or so I read, love buying clothes and shoes. I can be in and out of a clothes shop in under 30 seconds, trailing my poor husband like the tail of a kite: “Do keep up!” On the other hand, when he sneaked off to PC World without me, the cad, we had Words. Not that I wanted anything there in particular; I just wanted to look. So I completely understand the desire to spend half the morning looking at clothes and then not buying any. I just do it with electronics.

But… Kindle.

First Impressions

I bought the WiFi only version; not only am I unlikely to be so desperate for reading matter that I will need to buy a book where there is no WiFi, but in the unlikely event that that happens, I can use the personal hotspot function on my iPhone to provide WiFi. So, no need to pay the extra £80 or however much it is to get the 3G version.

It is slightly shorter than my Kobo Glo HD, and slightly wider, so it’s kind of square. There’s a wider non-screen part on one side, for holding, and that’s where the buttons are.

The case, which also contains half the battery, is a nice bit of kit. It just clicks into place, guided by magnets. There’s no fiddling around trying to get bits lined up – it just finds its own way. There is also no audible “click”. Very nice. There are also magnets in the flippy part of the case, so that when you fold it back underneath the Kindle for one-handed reading with the case on, it sticks there.

Setting Up

Setting up was very easy. It arrived already knowing who I was, so it connected to my Amazon account straight out of the box, as soon as I input the house WiFi password. It automatically connected to Goodreads too, but you can disconnect it, or change the account to which it connects, in the Settings (settings>reading options>social networks).

You can also connect your Kindle to your Twitter and/or Facebook accounts, which I have not done.

The Reading Experience

The on-off button is at the top, with the micro-USB port, if you hold it in your right hand. If you hold it in your left, they’re at the bottom. A nice touch is that the Kindle detects which way around it is, and flips the screen so that you can use it right-handed or left-handed. The buttons also flip, so the top button is always page-forward, and the bottom is always page-back. However, if you prefer, you can go into “settings” and swap them over so that the top button is “back” and the bottom one is “forward”. I’ve done that, because I have small hands and I had to stretch slightly for my thumb to hit the top button.

Comparison to my Kobo Glo HD

Neutral

  • The first thing I noticed is that the Kindle doesn’t have a traditional bezel – the reading screen is not recessed. It’s flat, with a sort of “bumper” around the very edge of the device. So, on the one hand, crumbs won’t get stuck on the edge of the reading screen… on the other, they’ll get stuck against the bumper instead. I do like the flat screen of the Kindle – it looks so much smarter and more modern – but there is still that crumb-trapping potential, so I’ll mark it as “neutral”.
  • The Kindle has two buttons for page turns; I never missed page turn buttons on my Kobo – but these buttons are nicely placed for one-handed reading.  I think I might mostly use the buttons, but, again, I was always perfectly happy with my no-button-touch-screen Kobo.
  • Strangely, without the light on, the white screen background on the Kobo is slightly whiter than than on the Kindle. But with the light on full brightness, the Kindle’s contrast is better than the Kobo’s. So, the Kindle screen appears to go from “not as good as the Kobo” to “better than the Kobo” depending on screen brightness. I always set my Kobo’s light at 9%, but the Kindle’s light needs to be set higher.

Kindle Wins

  • The Kindle Oasis is a pretty, pretty thing. It makes my poor Kobo Glo HD look thick and clunky in comparison.
  • Speed and responsiveness. I think the Kindle wins here. Mind you, I never felt that my Kobo was slow – but the Kindle just seems to be that bit snappier.
  • The Kindle is lighter when held without the case, and I can feel the difference. I can imagine that long periods of reading will be far more comfortable with the Kindle. This is possibly not just to do with the absolute weight – because the Kindle is only about 50g lighter than the Kobo (although that does, admittedly, work out at the Kindle being only 72% of the weight of the Kobo) – but also the distribution of the weight. As most of the weight of the Kindle is in the side closest to the hand, it feels even lighter than it is (law of levers, principle of moments, etc).
  • Integration with Goodreads. This is probably not an issue unless you actually use Goodreads. I do. So I’m thinking that this might be a major advantage for me. Let’s face it – we’re all a little bit lazy (some of us are a lot lazy). If you have to change to a different device to post that really great quote, you just don’t bother.
  • Amazon store. We all know that Amazon has more choice, at lower prices, than Kobo. Plus, I like Amazon’s store better.
  • Kindle app integration. This is one of those little luxuries that I never missed, reading on a Kindle, but I’m probably going to kind of like. There are those moments when you don’t have your primary reader – and if you read a book you bought from Amazon, it will sync across your devices. Not like my life is ruined if I have to go and find the page – but it’s nice not to have to.

Kobo Wins

  • The Kobo has many more fonts, and much more choice when it comes to setting up your font size and line spacing exactly how you want them. Compared to the Kobo, the Kindle is very limited indeed.
  • Kobo allows you to customise your homepage much more: it has a series of tiles which you can dismiss or move around. You get tiles for the last couple of books you’ve been reading, the last few books you added, and so forth. This is a better layout, I think, than Kindle, which uses a third of the screen real estate for recommendations. Kindle gives you an option to disable the home screen completely, so you just get your list of books. However, I quite like having the book I’m currently reading front-and-centre, and a link to my Goodreads want-t0-read list. But if I don’t want recommendations, I have to go without the other features of  the home page.
  • Kindle does not have a dedicated space for your currently-reading book: the big slot that looks as if it ought to be actually changes to whatever book you did something to last – whether that is reading it, or adding it, or whatever. Unlike Kobo, which does have a dedicated space for the last two or three books you were reading.
  • Kobo seems to be better at side-loading books. I have a lot of non-Amazon books, which I side-load with Calibre. When loading hundreds of books onto my Kobo (as I do every time I get a new device), the Kobo has taken several minutes to digest them, but not as long as the Kindle. The Kindle looks like everything is fine, but when you try to search for the new books shows “not yet indexed”. Looking on the internet, indexing sometimes takes hours or even days. 

Verdict

I am going to keep the Kindle, and it will become my primary reading device (and so I should hope, at that price).

For me, this was my first Kindle, so I get the “Kindle experience” for the first time, and I would not have bought the older Kindles: they are all bigger and heavier than my Kobo. The lightness of the Oasis was a major factor for me.

However, many of the things that push me in that direction are not completely related to the Kindle Oasis itself – more to its essential Kindleness: the integration with Goodreads, the link with the Kindle apps. I do really like the lightness of the Oasis, and its flat screen, but my Kobo was perfectly good. More than good – the Kobo is a very nice piece of kit in its own right.

Moreover, the Kobo has a nicer and more useful homepage, as it always shows the book you last opened, and you can rearrange it pretty much how you want.

So I’d say… unless you want an Oasis just because you really want the best Kindle out there, it’s a lovely piece of kit but ultimately not worth the price as a reader. But something that many reviewers seem to forget is that practical utility is only part of the reason why people buy a product. It’s like cars: a Toyota Aygo and a Porsche Boxer are both relatively small cars that will get you from A to B. But people still buy Porsches, because they don’t just want sensible transport – they want a luxury experience. The Oasis is like the Porsche of readers: expensive and luxurious, but if all you want is something to allow you to read ebooks, not the one to go for. If you’re a serious reader, and you want the luxury, and you’re more concerned about the physical form factor than having the ability to set up your text exactly how you want it, then the Oasis will give you what you want.

Writing a short story

pen-and-paperI’m a member of the New Street Authors writers’ group, and at the last meeting, someone had the bright idea of producing a group anthology. One short story from each of us. Of course, we said. Great idea, we said.

OK, write a story by the end of July. Subject: New Street, Birmingham.

Ah.

My writing has always tended towards novels, just like my reading. I’ve never been much for short stories. However, short stories are useful for an indie writer – they’re good publicity material, if nothing else. Write some, publish and price them free – and people can try your writing out, risk free. Plus, short stories can be fun – if you’re writing (or reading) in a series, short stories are good to explore ideas or secondary characters that are never going to get their own novel, for one reason or another.

But writing short stories is different to novels – and even though my number of novels currently stands at <1, I know that.

Firstly, you can’t use the same kind of idea. Novels sprawl. Anything more than 50,000 words is a novel, which gives you an awful lot of room to play with. A short story is generally accepted as under 7,500 words. You can’t just take a novel-type idea and chop bits off until it fits. You have to find an idea that is naturally <7,500 words long. This is a good thing. Think about all those ideas that you binned because there just wasn’t enough there to make a novel: those are short-story (or novella) ideas. This does not mean that they are necessarily less good. Think Fabergé. Just because it isn’t a Tintoretto that covers an entire wall in the gallery doesn’t make Fabergé’s little jewelled eggs any less art. They are small and perfect in every detail. That’s short stories: an idea that is exactly the right size, perfectly delivered.

Secondly, if you worry too much about word count as you’re writing your first draft, you’ll never get anywhere. That’s pretty much the same for novels, but with short stories the pressure to keep your writing tight is greater. With a novel, you might cut thousands of words when you edit your first draft. With a short story, every paragraph, every line, counts, and it induces a sense of paranoia. But that’s for later. Just get the damn thing down. Worry about word count later. Apart from anything else, the first draft often shows you that what you thought was going to work, actually doesn’t. Write now. Fix it later.

Thirdly, everyone knows that novels take ages to write (“ages” being anything from about a month to fifty years). Not until you try to write a short story do you realise that the same thing is true of short stories. It may only be 7,500 words, but it’s probably not going to be something you can knock out in a day. Accept it, and keep typing.

Right… back to the carnivorous worms.

Review: The Victorian House

The Victorian House
The Victorian House by Judith Flanders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was excellent.

This is not a book for people who are already knowledgeable on the topic of domestic daily life during the Victorian age in England. Flanders does, however, manage to combine an informative overview with a considerable degree of entertainment value – especially if you read the footnotes, were most of the humour is.

I read this as research for my novel (which will be finished within the next year or so). My novel is set in a Victorianesque world, and this book was excellent for background. Flanders does not get bogged down in detail, but she does manage to get the ‘feel’ of the period very well indeed. One thing that particularly struck me is the sheer filthiness of the cities (particularly London, as the largest city) – Flanders does not just say “it was filthy” but demonstrates by discussing little adjustments people had to make, like not putting out a white tablecloth until a short time before the meal, or it would go grey. This level of atmospheric pollution is something that we just don’t have to deal with in the UK any more, so it’s hard to imagine without the examples Flanders gives.

Another interesting area is the illustration of how limited many middle-class women’s lives were – again, something that we find it difficult to appreciate from our twenty-first century standpoint. We might intellectually know that the Victorian period was probably the one in English history where women’s rights and status in society reached their lowest ebb, but Flanders provides illustrative facts, including that since women were supposed to spend their lives catering to their families (particularly the men), pretty much the only way for a woman to get some time to herself was to be ill – which provided a cast-iron excuse for retiring to one’s bedroom and closing the door. It provides an interesting alternative viewpoint on the fragile Victorian lady – women’s health was generally poorer than men’s because of their poorer diet and lack of fresh air and exercise, but being a professional invalid definitely had its attractions for any woman who wanted to escape the endless round of service to others. This was something I hadn’t even considered before, and it’s the sort of thing that shines a light from a different angle and makes everything suddenly look different. One example Flanders gives is Florence Nightingale, who spent many years as an invalid – but managed to drive huge changes in public health by writing from her bedroom. Would she have been able to do that work if she had – as society expected of a woman – either got married and spent her life looking after the husband and kids, or moved in with a relative to act as an unpaid housekeeper?

This kind of little detail often gets missed from the big histories, and it’s vital for anyone who wants to reproduce the world (or something like it) because it is important for how people lived in their day-to-day lives. Writing big plot events pushes the story along, but writing the background detail makes it feel real.

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Ebooks on the way down? I don’t think so.

The Bookworm, a painting by Carl Spitzweg

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg

The Guardian has published yet another article prophesying the demise of ebooks:

…Now the official Publishers’ Association confirms the trend. Last year digital content sales fell last year from £563m to £554m. After years on a plateau, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn.
They have been boosted by the marketing of colouring and lifestyle titles, but there is always a reason. The truth is that digital readers were never remotely in the same ballpark. The PA regards the evidence as unmistakable, “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital.” Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen…

Well, speak for yourself.

I can only speak for myself, too, but my experience is exactly the opposite.

Firstly, to me, a book is not a physical object: it is the author’s words. If I bought a paper book and all the pages were blank, I wouldn’t say “Well, it’s the feel of it in my hands that’s important, isn’t it?” – I’d demand a refund.

I’m not the first person to think this way: Ray Bradbury said it before me, in Fahrenheit 451At the very end, Guy Montag is introduced to the people who, by memorising a book, take on the identity of that book, with the aim of preserving the author’s words for future generations. These people are not hoarding paper copies: they’re hoarding the actual words, to be set down in physical form later, when it’s safe.

Further back, the Indian sacred texts, the Vedas, were transmitted via oral tradition for centuries before they were written down. In the Guardian‘s view, then, these books are not “real books” because they are not set down on paper.

I was an early adopter of ebooks, on the grounds that was cheaper to re-buy my paper novel collection in ebook format than to buy a new house, and that was the choice with which I was faced (either that or go and live in a tent in the garden, because getting rid of some books was clearly not a viable option). My first “ereader” was a PDA with a battery life of about an hour. Any serious reading had to be done with the device in the charging cradle, and even a technophile such as I had to admit that this method of reading was never going to challenge paper books.

Then e-Ink came on the scene, and I bought my first ebook reader, which was a very expensive (by today’s standards) iRex iLiad. It was wonderful: it was light, it was portable, and I could have as many books on it as I wanted. And its battery lasted more than an hour, goodbye PDA.

And so I bought books. My dealer of choice was BooksOnBoard, and I bought so many books that they made my account a “trusted account” so there were no daily limits – I was spending over £100 at a time, replacing my thousands of novels with electronic books. Of course, I could have scanned the paper books and converted them that way (and for those I couldn’t get digitally, I did), but scanning a paper book is only the beginning of the process. Even with good OCR, you have to go back and fix the mistakes. It takes hours, and even if you “pay” yourself a stupidly low hourly wage, it’s still massively cheaper to buy a new, retail e-copy.

Nearly ten years later, my ebook conversion project isn’t finished – but there are only a handful of books left to do.

So, in my little n=1 study, purchases of ebooks have dropped dramatically from the early days – but this is not because I’m less interested in ebooks, or because I’ve returned to paper. My initial ebook-buying frenzy was the result of conversion of my existing library to digital; I’m now on the plateau, buying digital to add to my library. So of course my purchasing has slowed down.

I still buy a lot of books – more than I ever did before digital. I don’t have to think “where will I put this?” because my book reader has a capacity of thousands. I can buy, download, and be reading in seconds or minutes: buying a book doesn’t take hours or days. Plus, many books are cheaper now, so I can afford more of them. Digital is the high-volume reader’s dream come true: infinite bookshelf space, low prices, and a massive choice.

I don’t think that I’m unique amongst readers. I would bet that a good proportion of the initial sales figures of ebooks was readers like me, re-buying books they already had on paper, in a format that they could read on their new reading devices. Now that initial phase is over, we’re back to “normal service has been resumed” in ebook-buying land – or, more accurately, “normal service has begun”.

Likewise for reading devices: in the beginning, everyone who wanted to read digitally had to buy a book reader. The only alternative was desktop/laptop, and that’s not really viable. Now, the initial distribution phase is over: everyone who wanted a book reader has got one, and new sales are increasingly often going to be existing customers replacing their old readers (and not everyone will do that every year) or new customers (children/young people getting their first reader). Additionally, there are new ways of reading ebooks: affordable tablet computers have arrived. The first iPad was released in 2010, and it was as expensive as a top-flight bit of kit might be expected to be. Nowadays, the price of an entry-level tablet computer has dropped: you can buy a Kindle Fire for under £50 – which is cheaper than the entry-level Kindle, at £59.99. Of course eInk book reader sales have dropped – not only has the initial rush subsided, but there are now options that just weren’t available in 2007 when I bought my iLiad.

People considering the difference between ebooks and paper should also consider those people who can’t read ordinary paper books. The obvious population are partially-sighted people. My husband is a teacher, and one of his students (years ago now) was partially sighted. She couldn’t read ordinary-sized text, and the only large-print books available were those aimed at older people: Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, and so on – hardly calculated to appeal to a fourteen-year-old girl. My husband showed her his iLiad, and she was instantly entranced. Here was a way for her to read the same books her friends were reading: every book could be large print. Her parents bought her a reader, and later thanked my husband.

Then there are the people for whom manipulating a paper book is difficult. What if you only have one hand, or no hands? What if you can’t manage the weight? Book readers are light, and they can be held and the pages turned with only one hand. Or they can be propped up and the pages turned with only a touch.

On the other hand, Amazon has now opened two physical bookshops. Why would they do that if paper books are dying? I would suggest several reasons:

  • I think paper books are dying, but they are doing so very slowly. Paper will be around for a number of years yet, and Amazon is not the sort of company to let any business opportunity slip through its corporate fingers (and let’s not forget, Amazon sell paper books too).
  • Physical browsing is different from internet browsing. Cookies and algorithms show you the books the system things you’ll like, and that’s often a good thing; I’ve made some great discoveries that way. But browsing the shelves of a bookshop can introduce you to things you would never have encountered otherwise. Plus, just browsing a bookshop is fun.
  • Amazon also sells its electronics – Kindle, TV, Echo, etc – in its physical stores. Being able to inspect these gadgets in person before buying is much more important than with books. Despite what the Guardian says, if you’re buying a novel, you’re buying it for the story (which you can still check out online with the free sample), not the great typesetting and the cream-tinted heavy paper pages. (Or maybe that’s what Guardian journalists do buy books for. Miaow!)
  • Amazon is the biggest bookseller in the world: it can afford to open, and if necessary subsidise, a few physical bookshops.
  • If I were a paranoid person who thought that Amazon was really out to destroy the bookselling industry, then I would think that this was the next stage in Amazon’s campaign. After all, people who buy books from an Amazon physical bookshop are still buying from Amazon. And if they’re buying from Amazon, they’re not buying from Barnes & Noble, or Waterstones, or whatever the alternative is. Guess who wins?

So what are my predictions for the ebook market, if I think the Guardian is wrong?

  1. Paper will be the format-of-choice for non-fiction for the foreseeable future. The ease of flipping back and forth, and the indexing, make paper a good choice for non-fiction. Unless, of course, e-textbooks become more like mini downloadable websites, to be used mostly on tablets. I don’t think (at present) eInk is the best choice for books that one typically does not read start-to-finish as the page turns are just a fraction too slow.
  2. Paper novels will be around for the next few years – at least 5-10, and probably more. Moving from paper to digital is a big change, bigger than moving from vinyl to downloads (via cassettes and CDs) was for music. Books have always been physical objects, unlike music. It’s much easier, psychologically, to move from buying a music CD to downloading, because the experience of music doesn’t change; you put your music-format-of-choice in the player, and away you go – it still comes through your headphones or speakers in the same old way. Books are different: it’s a big culture change to move from rows of paper objects with pretty covers on your shelves, to electronic files on your computer/reading device. So the change will be slow, but I think it will happen. Eventually, the many practical advantages of digital will win out over sentiment and habit.
  3. The mass-market paperback is going to be the first victim. The combination of bigger profit margins on ebooks and the rise of indie publishing will result in smaller print runs of mass-market paperbacks, and then a move to print-on-demand as print runs become too small to be viable. This will be seen first in indie publishing (where print-on-demand is the norm already) and small presses. Eventually, the larger publishers will go print-on-demand too.
  4. The hardback will stick around for a lot longer. The hardback is the format of choice for occasions when appearance counts: gifts; presentations and prizes; and reading posh literary fiction on the train.
  5. Paper novels are unlikely to die completely for the foreseeable future, if only because there will be the die-hards (like those who swear vinyl is better than digital for music) who want paper and will provide a market for it, even if at the print-on-demand level.
  6. The dedicated book reader is here to stay. Occasional readers will probably read on their smartphones or tablets, but high-volume readers are more likely to want a dedicated device that is light, has excellent battery life, and doesn’t make their eyes ache.

Time will tell which of us is right!