A Taste of Eastern Cuisine

I was emailed by someone representing the English editions of Chinese author Liu Cixin to see if they could send me a free e-book so that I’d review it here. The idea piqued my interest, but since his short story The Longest Fall (or is it long enough to be a novella…I’m not sure what the demarcation is) was available for free at the time, I decided to read that, instead, as a quick taste that would not have me feeling in any way beholden to them (not that I really would have, mind you).

Anyway, I found it to be quite an enjoyable little read, reminding me to some extent of Asimov in its efficient prose and explanatory dialogues, if perhaps a bit darker in tone. Of course, I don’t know how much of the style should be attributed to the translator, Holger Nahm, but I will say that he or she did what appears to be a very good job: there was maybe one or two minor glitches that looked to me like a possible mistranslation, but most of the time it seemed seamless to me; the only clues that it was originally in Chinese being most of the proper nouns and some of the political subtext.

I’m not going to waste your time talking a lot about the actual story, since you can read it yourself in about the same amount of time it will take me to write this post (probably only a slight exaggeration for the faster readers). Here’s the blurb:

It was an idea right on the thin line between madness and genius: Penetrate the Earth and build a tunnel through its core. Using nothing beyond gravity and inertia one could now travel from the eastern to the western hemisphere in less than an hour. The future of travel was not the sky, it was deep below the earth. It all came crashing down when its inventor was accused of crimes against humanity. With its creator a monster in the eyes of the world the tunnel has fallen into disuse, but now it will be used once more …

For me, it was a spicy little appetizer that has me interested in trying one of his novels as an entree. As it appears they are all available for free via the Amazon Prime lending library, I suppose I could further extend the metaphor with some crack about getting more for your money than a Chinese buffet…but I shall resist the temptation.

I Survived Frankenstorm

Unless you’re living the life of a hermit in a cave (and if so, how are you reading this?), you know that Hurricane Sandy just head-butted New Jersey and threw a round-house right hook at New York. I watched a raging torrent flow up my street Monday evening, but fortunately my apartment complex’s foundation is high enough that no apartments got flooded (as far as I know), and I’m on the 3rd floor in any case. However, I was without power from then until early this evening (Thursday), as was my place of work, too.

The good news: I own a Paperwhite Kindle, so reading in the dark was a breeze, and the battery life was excellent. (I used my old Kindle 3 during the daylight hours to distribute the battery load, plus I have a few games on it I could play as a change of pace.) Between that and having some time on my hands, I got a fair bit of reading done, so I hope to post at least a couple reviews here this weekend.

I sincerely hope all my readers who also were in Sandy’s path have come through as well as I have — though I suspect at least a few must have suffered much worse, and my heart goes out to you.

40 Years Later: “The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets”

As I mentioned recently, Lloyd Biggle Jr.‘s The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets is now enKindled, and I had a chance to re-read it this week after first reading it right around 40 years ago when I was in high school. I thought it held up pretty well all these years later, though it felt just a tad dated, perhaps.

The blurb:

The IPR Bureau (whose motto is “Democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny”) works to bring newly discovered planets up to the point where they have a planetary democratic government and then induct them into the galactic federation. Unfortunately, the planet Furnil offers problems. The continent of Kurr has a well-entrenched monarchy, and the citizens seem little inclined to change. In fact, they immerse themselves in art rather than politics…and have been doing so for more than 400 years! So what’s a poor IPR agent to do…?

It’s not just language and style that differentiates it from today’s descendants, but its size, too. In a time when novel writers seem to be compelled to write books that are at a minimum 600 pages long with at least 3 different major plot lines and more important characters than a standard keyboard; it was like a breath of fresh air to read a novel that barely fills out 200 pages, has only one plot line, and does not require a scorecard to track all the characters. Not being a speed reader by any means, I was still able to finish it in three evening reading sessions (a sharp contrast to Pandora’s Star, which was the last book I read and about five times as long).

I think “Trumpets” made a bigger impression on me the first time I read it, as at that time it was possibly the first science fiction book I read that was not about rockets, robots, and technology; but was instead more centered on social sciences, so to speak. The only descriptions of any detail about hardware were the descriptions of musical instruments (acoustic, not electronic), architecture, and paintings. Sure, there is mention of interplanetary travel, at least one “ray gun” makes an appearance, and a stealth airplane of sorts plays a role: but mostly it’s just people and, eventually, trumpets (for which I have a soft spot). If a quick, somewhat retro read sounds like fun to you, then I highly recommend it; while if you really prefer long tomes with intricate plots and character interactions along with verbose descriptions of scenes and science, you might find it too terse and simplistic.

“Pandora’s Star” a Good Reason for e-Readers

I finished Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star last night, and I guess the good news is that it’s the sort of book that would make me stay up way past my usual bed time in order to finish it. The only bad news of sorts might be for anyone who has not yet made the jump to e-books, as in paper form it’s about 1000 pages — the kind of thing that can give you hand/wrist cramps if you’re not careful. I also found it to be an almost refreshing alternative to a lot of current science fiction which seems to center around a relatively near future dystopias and/or virtual reality becoming more important than, umm…, real reality. Instead, Pandora’s Star supposes that some critical scientific and technological advances (in particular the ability to travel across interstellar space via generated worm-holes) have led to a relatively benign human society, perhaps somewhat matured by the fact that people are able to live for hundreds of years and thus developing a different perspective on life and assorted social issues.

That’s not to say that virtual reality does not play a part, nor that there aren’t societal problems — one of the main characters is a “serious crimes” detective, after all. Overall, however, there is a sense of not needing to fear the future; though like today we’ll still need to watch out for the rich and powerful (which generally go hand in hand) trying to become richer and more powerful at the expense of others. And, as any good sci-fi story of this sort demonstrates, we’ll need to look out for alien races who can’t just get along; not necessarily because they’re evil, per se, but because they may have evolved in a way where what we consider to be “right” makes no sense to them. In this sense Pandora’s Star harkened back to the so-called golden era of science fiction when many of its practitioners looked to the future with anticipation rather than with trepidation.

My only real complaints are that I found some of the underlying scientific and technological ideas to be more on the convenient side (for storytelling) than on the side of what I suspect is more realistic (the aforementioned wormhole generators, for one), and the ending was a bit of a disappointment for me, as it ended on a literal cliffhanger. Even though I knew there was a sequel (Judas Unchained), after reading a thousand pages, I want some sort of ending with a certain sense of resolution, even if I realize it’s not the end of the story. So be warned: if you read this book, you’re likely going to have to read at least another 1000 pages. (In fact, there are more books in the series, but my understanding is that the second book does conclude the story started in the frist, so you could comfortably stop there — or at least take a hiatus before coming back to the series later.)

“Still, Small Voice of Trumpets” Given its Voice on Kindle

I was pleasantly surprised today to notice that Lloyd Biggle Jr.’s The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets is now available for Kindle. I had actually just been checking to see if maybe any used print copies were available, after a thread on the KindleBoards forum made me think about it. At only $3.19, I quickly made use of the one-click-purchase button.

It may be a couple weeks until I get a chance to [re-]read it, but I wanted to post something here on the off chance anyone else might have read it way back when and be as interested as I am in seeing how well it holds up today. I guess it’s been about 40 years (!) since I picked it up in our local library and immediately found myself immersed in a fascinating story. It was probably the first science fiction novel I read that was more about societal and psychological issues than about technology and action — and it was about trumpets, too! (My degree is in Music Ed., and my performance instrument was the trumpet.)

I’ll report back here as soon as I get a chance to re-read it, and let those of you who now will be waiting impatiently with the proverbial bated breath (and hopefully not with baited breath) whether or not it had the same impact on me as it did four decades ago.

Sir Terry’s Back in Stride with “Dodger”

After the relative disappointment that was The Long Earth (which may have suffered from being a collaboration that just didn’t work), Terry Pratchett seems to be back in fine form with his latest novel Dodger. This is a departure from his highly popular Discworld series, instead being a dip into the historical fiction waters (or “historical fantasy” as he calls it, though it certainly is not a member of the fantasy genre), probably closest to his YA novel Nation, though perhaps not quite as YA.

The story takes place in Victorian London, where our hero Dodger, a young “tosher” who up until now made his living by scavenging in the sewers, starts by saving a damsel in distress and ends up interacting with numerous historical (and at least one fictional) characters, including “Charlie” Dickens, while looking to solve a mystery and make said damsel safe for good. Along the way, this reader, at least, learned a bit of history — being able to jump onto Wikipedia and Google on your e-reader can make this sort of book even more fun/educational. I found Sir Terry’s writing to be right up there with the best of his books, a welcome return from the much drier and less image-generating text of the aforementioned The Long Earth. Probably the only things that did not completely click for me were the title character being perhaps too good at too many things, and there being not much of an underlying theme: more of just an exposition on how the divide between lower and upper classes was probably greater back then.

Nit-picking aside, anyone who likes Victorian era historical fiction should enjoy this, as will any Pratchett fans willing to step outside of the Fantasy/Sci-Fi genres.

Kindle Paperwhite: Initial Impressions

I received my new Kindle Paperwhite yesterday evening (WiFi-only with “Special Offers”). Unfortunately it turns out mine is defective, but I have not seen anyone else reporting my problem yet, so hopefully I was just very unlucky. My problem is that the touch screen malfunctions whenever the power/USB cable is attached. When not attached it works fine and I quite like this new e-reader, so I’ll be having a nice chat with an Amazon rep soon to discuss an exchange.

I like the lighted screen and increased resolution, and the touch screen both feels and responds better than on my Touch (when no cord is attached!). While there is a bit of blotchiness (is that a word?) at the very bottom of the screen when the built in LED lighting is in effect, it does not extend up into the actual text of the book (or only very marginally so) and as such does not bother me, though I’ve seen other first-day customers displaying displeasure about this. (Unfortunately, my cheap point-and-shoot camera cannot provide a useful illustration of what I’m seeing on mine.)

The Amazon leather case cradles the Kindle snugly and with a minimum of additional bulk. If the Kindle is in sleep mode, it automatically turns on when you open the case (I’m assuming something is triggered by the magnetic clasp in the cover?). Since I have a “Special Offers” unit, it initially displays a full-screen ad at that point, but a simple finger swipe on the screen takes you to wherever you were when it went to sleep. Again, some initial responders are irritated by having to do this quick swipe after opening the case, and some have decided paying $20 to remove the special offers is worth it. For me, it’s no big deal, and I actually take advantage of the special offers from time to time.

I’ll have more info here soon (and maybe some photos), but I wanted to get my first thoughts posted. Overall it’s probably more evolutionary than revolutionary, though for those who like to read in the dark, it may, in fact, be revolutionary.

Pratchett Fans Save Money vs. Rowling Fans

As an interesting result of Harper -Collins discontinuing the use of the “agency model” for e-book pricing on Amazon, the newly released Dodger, by Terry Pratchett, is being sold for $9.99 despite having a $17.99 list price, whereas J.K. Rowling’s new (non-Potter) release The Casual Vacancy currently has a pre-order price (release date is 2012/09/27) of $17.99, with the dreaded “This price was set by the publisher” message; indicating that Hachette Book Group is still using the agency model and therefore not allowing Amazon to discount the retail price.

I’m therefore happy that as a big fan of Sir Terry I’m able to get a new release at a “reasonable” price (admittedly a very subjective opinion), but disappointed that my many friends who are Harry Potter fanatics either have to shell out almost twice as much for Ms. Rowling’s latest, or wait until the price drops (presumably either whenever the paperback is release, or if/when Hachette decides — or is forced — to abandon the agency model pricing). A potential down-side I see for Rowling and Hachette is that since this latest novel is a foray into a new, non-Potter and apparently non-YA subject, many fans may be waiting for reviews before considering shelling out $17.99; and if the reviews turn out to be not so hot, well….

2012-09-28: From this article, it may be that you J.K. Rowling fans will not have to wait for the paperback release in order to get a better price on the e-book version. If the author is correct, Hachette may be switching back to a “normal” retail model within the next month or so, allowing Amazon and other retailers to sell it at whatever price point they choose.

Looks Like ‘Agency Model’ Pricing Is On the Way Out — I Hope

As noted by an observant member in a KindleBoards.com post, it appears that Harper/Collins is no longer using the dreaded ‘agency model’ for selling books through Amazon. In case that means nothing to you, five of the “big 6” publishers had adopted this model whereby Amazon was purely a distribution agent of their e-books, and as such Amazon had no discretion as to what price could be charged. You can tell when this is the case when the details about a Kindle book on the Amazon site include text to the effect that “this price is set by the publisher.” Poking around Amazon.com now, it seems that verbiage is no longer there for Harper/Collins titles, and I see books where the sale price is less than the list price, implying Amazon now has the freedom to decide how much they want to make (or even lose) on each title.

Presumably this is all largely a result of the collusion talks/settlement/judgment/whatever that the US DoJ had with Apple and those 5 publishers; and ideally in the long run it will mean lower prices in general for us readers.

No Audio on “PaperWhite” Kindle?

From the ffeature list and comparison chart for the new PaperWhite Kindle, you can see that it does not support audio of any sort (no speakers, no headphone jack), the same as the bottom-of-the-line Kindle.

Since I do not use my Kindle for anything but (visual) reading, this does not matter to me. However, if you like to listen to the occasional audio book or use the text-to-speech feature available on other models, then you may want to wait and see if the PaperWhite display technology will make it into any audio-enable Kindles.

On a side note, I find this audio omission a bit surprising, based on the lengths Amazon went to a couple years (?) ago to get Kindles accepted by educational institutions, eventually leading Amazon to include an audio option for the Kindle’s menu system as an accessibility feature. Perhaps they are no longer courting that market, or maybe only with the Kindle Keyboard — or the Fire?