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The Books of December and the year’s roundup

December is almost over, so I’m publishing the last of my monthly book reviews and totting up how many books got read this year. I won’t be doing this again next year, as I have other projects lined up, but it’s been fun for me to do. What was YOUR book of the year?

Let’s start with the few books of December – the Festive Season meant travel to relatives, and that reduced the reading time (which is a fair trade, to be honest!)

Hard Contact – Karen Traviss

I’ve read all of the clone commandos series by Karen Traviss, and despite her definite anti-Jedi stance, I like them. This is my attempt to make sure I read the whole series in order.

Miss Buncle’s Book – D.E.Stephenson

I picked this from the paperback section of the library, assuming it to be a modern book written in a classic style. The story is light and fun, with the eponymous Miss Buncle writing a book to earn some money when things get tight. An unimaginative lady, she writes honestly about the people she sees around her in the village where she lives, and when the book is published the outraged villagers are out for the blood of the author “John Smith”. I was amazed to discover this book was actually written in 1934.

Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D.James

Reading the book in advance of seeing the tv show, I was pleasantly surprised by the authentic voice of the author. I read “Pride and Prejudice” not too long ago, and thought the writing elegant but still engaging and PD James has done a creditable imitation while bringing her own expertise in matters of murder mystery to bear. Captain Denny has been killed in the grounds of Pemberley, and the dastardly Wickham has been found with bloodstained hands, crouching over the body, Can his guilt be in doubt? How should Darcy proceed? A worthwhile murder mystery, even without the Austen angle.

Hellgoing – Lynn Coady

It’s easy to see how this collection of short stories won a significant award. They’re tight, well written tales that draw the reader in, but stop before the story reaches a resolution. At first I was angry that each tales cut short, but then I realised the genius of it – providing the ending  brings out the differences in readers. Some want an upbeat ending, some a realistic outcome. Few will agree with the writer’s view. By leaving the ending to the reader’s imagination, all are satisfied. Not a trick you can play twice, but the quality of the writing and characterisation proves this author knows her craft.

The Reading Year Roundup:

November

Books read – 16

Favourite book: The 100 Year old man who climbed out of the window

October

Books read – 16

Favourite book: The Purloined number

September

Books read – 8

Favourite book: How to tame an out of control writing project in 20 steps

August

Books read – 11

Favourite book: The Android’s Dream – John Scalzi

July

Books read – 14

Favourite book: Joyland – Stephen King

June

Books read – 9

Favourite book: Warm Bodies – Isaac Marion

May

Books read – 13

Favourite book: Revenge of the Vinyl Cafe – Stuart Maclean

April

Books read – 11

Favourite book: Shada - Gareth Roberts

March

Books read – 11

Favourite book: Zombies V Unicorns

February

Books read – 7

Favourite book: The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi

January

Books read – 10

Favourite book: I shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

GRAND TOTAL: 131 books read.

Neil Gaiman on libraries, reading, and daydreaming

Damian Trasler:

This is (I think) my first ever reblog. I always enjoy Morgan’s posts, and anything Neil Gaiman says is worth listening to, but when this includes talking about the value of LIBRARIES….I”M IN!

Originally posted on The First Gates:

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Neil Gaiman visited China in 2007 for the first ever, party-approved, Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention.  He asked a top official what had changed; in the past, these genres had been disparaged.  The official said his government had realized they were good at making other people’s inventions, but they didn’t invent or imagine new things themselves.

“So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google,” Gaiman explained, “and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.”

Gaiman told this story while giving the 2013 Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries.  The Reading Agency is a British charity that supports libraries and literacy programs, with the mission of giving everyone “an equal chance in life…

View original 417 more words

The Book Before Christmas

WP_001457‘Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse.
They were slumped in the lounge, all watching tv
Some crazy show claiming to be “Reality”
Then a child sneaked a present from under the tree
She ripped off the wrapping with undisguised glee.
Her face fell and she sucked in her breath with a hiss,
She turned to her parents and said “What is THIS?”
They turned from the TV as one just to look:
She held out towards them a beautiful book.
“It’s a book.” said her Dad, “Who on Earth gave you that?”
“I thought Santa would bring you a scarf and a hat…”
“It says it’s from Granny.” said the girl with a frown.
“She always gives presents that let people down.
But what does it DO? Does it play tunes or shows?
I can’t even see where the power lead goes.
There isn’t a screen or some buttons to press.
I can’t think of anything I wanted less.”
Her mother was smiling, her thoughts in a whirl.
“It’s the same book that I had when I was a girl!”
She took the book with trembling hand
And stroked the title “Storyland”
She flipped the pages, smiling wide,
Rediscovered the pictures bright , inside.
“Dad,” she said, not turning round,
“Would you turn off the tv sound?”
When silence fell, but for clock’s chime
She smiled and started “Once upon a time…”
While the TV showed silent, unwatched car chases
They travelled together to distant places.
They escaped the press of the digital age
And lost themselves in words on a page.
And though the book took them far, far away,
They were all home in bed before Christmas Day.
Technology’s great, though it moves on so fast
And tablets and iPods don’t seem built to last.
But consider this Christmas the books that you’ve read
Till the pages were tattered and the words in your head
So familiar to you, you need barely look.
Then give someone you love the gift of a book.

How I learned to love my Kindle Fire again.

I’m well aware that this entire post could be filed under “First World Problems”. There are more important, tragic and sinister things happening in the world than my struggles with my tablet. For more news on that and, more importantly, how you can HELP, visit The Red Cross Website

My Fire was featured on the cover of my first e-book, "Coffee Time Tales" (Now re-covered)

My Fire was featured on the cover of my first e-book, “Coffee Time Tales” (Now re-covered)

I’m not usually an Early Adopter. My family has a bad history with technology, and it’s not safe for me to get the latest gadget until it’s become the household staple for everyone else. However, a couple of years ago, I asked for a Kindle Fire for Christmas.

I didn’t have much need for a tablet (I’m still not sure there is a NEED for tablets at all – they’re essentially fun devices, not work tools) but I had recently added the Kindle app to my phone and was enjoying it. How much better would it be on a bigger screen? The Fire came with the ability to play videos and music too, and access the web, plus there were all the apps and games it promised. This would be better than a regular Kindle, and cheaper than an iPad.

But at that time, you couldn’t buy one in Canada. Lucky for me, my Sister-in-Law lives in the US, and I got my Fire for Christmas. It had all my kindle books waiting for me, and it did access the internet and play videos and movies… But there were some things it couldn’t do. Or rather, it WOULDN’T.

A small selection of the movies and shows I can't purchase...

A small selection of the movies and shows I can’t purchase…

Because I wasn’t in the US, and didn’t have a US billing address, I couldn’t access the “Purchase tv shows and films” part of the Kindle. I couldn’t buy music from the online store. I couldn’t buy apps from the Amazon appstore. I could access third-party apps, but the sites offering these seemed dodgy, and more than one arrived along with a virus warning or something equally shady. I couldn’t go to the Google Play store, because you need to install the Play App, and that comes from the Amazon appstore which I couldn’t use…

"Tribute" looks nice on the Kindle bookshelf, and you can just see "The Great Canadian Adventure" behind it.

“Tribute” looks nice on the Kindle bookshelf, and you can just see “The Great Canadian Adventure” behind it.

None of this stopped my buying new ebooks (including my own!). I used the web on the kindle and took it on holidays as an additional entertainment centre with the pre-loaded movies and songs. I had audio books on it. But time and again I tried to find solutions to the locked areas of the Kindle – could I root it? No, I’m not tech-savvy enough. Could I get a US credit card billing address? No, that sounds too much like fraud. All I could do was wait for the day when Amazon decided Canada warranted an appstore of its own.

When that day came, I eagerly visited the appstore and purchased a few things I had been missing. Angry Birds, Netflix, the important things in life…. But although I got confirmation that I had bought them, and it said they were delivered, they did not appear on my Kindle Fire. I had no idea why.

Eventually, I had enough and risked hitting the “Factory reset” button. I wasn’t sure if this would help, but my various attempts to delete and re-install the Amazon Appstore app had caused all kinds of trouble. Miraculously, it DID work. When I rebooted the Fire after the reset, all the apps I had purchased were available for me to install. I still couldn’t use the appstore app, nor could I buy music or video from the dedicated stores (They’re still the US ones, still require a US billing address, and I can’t find a way to change that), but I could visit the appstore online using the web browser and purchase anything I liked.

It feels like my Fire has got a new lease of life. Though I haven’t gone nuts in the appstore, I’m sure I’ll find some apps that will add to my experience and help me in my work – maybe something for adding notes to pdfs for my script reading. I don’t regret the years without the extra access – I read many, many great books on the Fire, and enjoyed the movies, music and audio books I put on there. It’s been a useful addition to the household tech – but I’m glad it can do more now.

You can download the Kindle app for your PC or phone from HERE and you can find my Amazon author page with all my e-books HERE

Playwriting and intellectual snobbery

A couple of articles turned up in my social media streams this week that related to writing plays. The first was this one,  a letter from a playwright to the actors that perform his plays. The article had been reposted with a series of victorious comments underneath, of the order of “Yeah! That’s the way! You tell ‘em!” and so on.

I read the article and felt a little discomfited. From a certain point of view (as Mrs Dim helped me see) the author isn’t saying anything outrageous. He’s saying that, in writing the play, he believes he has included all the information the actor needs to perform the piece as intended, that there’s no need for interpreting or improvising, and certainly no need to add or remove lines. The actor should enjoy the process of discovering the character through the clues in the text.

I get that.

But the comments below the piece were a little more….virulent. One in particular lambasted actors for taking liberties with his work, and announced that this was the reason he simply HAD to direct every first production of a new piece.

A year or two ago, I went to a reading of one of my plays. It was new, it was untried, and I wanted to hear it read aloud. The actors were people who had performed my stuff before, and they were NICE. It was a cold read, but it went well. At one point, the dialogue prompted some giggling , until one actor pointed out it read a lot like a Harlequin romance (Mills and Boon, for the UK readers). I smiled but felt a little sick. That wasn’t supposed to be over-the-top dialogue, it was supposed to be deep and affecting.

A Little Bit of Holiday Magic

(I didn’t write this one..)

My point is that there’s only so much that you can put into your script as the playwright. The episode above showed that my dialogue might have needed a modifier (“Read this as though it’s serious!”) but more likely it just needed re-writing. You can take the Pinter route and put in every pause and beat the actor must take, you can underline the parts that need emphasis and you can dictate the colour and size of the props. But what does that leave for the actors and directors? Are they simply a vehicle for your words? I don’t think so.

I get ideas for stories, and some of them are plays. I write a script that is my best attempt to communicate the story that I see in my head. It’s never going to be exact, because, as the professor who lives down the road never ceases saying, we’re using language developed so monkeys can tell each other where the best fruit grows. I put my ideas, my visions, on to the page, and the director and actors bring to life THEIR version of that vision. There’s going to be a huge amount of overlap, but the two will never be exactly the same.

Two different productions of "A Time for Farewells". Different, but similar...

Two different productions of “A Time for Farewells”. Different, but similar…

I’ve directed my own plays before. It was a lot of fun, and very scary, and I discovered that I couldn’t get things to be exactly as I imagined them even when I took the actor’s place and declaimed the line for them, so they could hear the intonation.

In “On Writing” Stephen King likens writing to telepathy. He asks the reader to imagine a table with a red tablecloth, on which is positioned a small cage. He points out that, despite him writing the book possibly years previously and thousands of miles from where the reader sits, they are thinking of  the same image as he is, although there will be small differences. The shade of red, the size of the cage, the design of the table…all small differences, but fundamentally the same image.

This is how I view my plays. I sit at my keyboard and imagine a scene. Years and miles later, that scene is brought to life with minor differences, remaining fundamentally the same.

Screenwriters like to complain about the recent fad for crediting the Director with the whole film, pointing out that it hasn’t always been this way, and why should it be a “An Alan Smithee Film” if all he did was tell the actors where to stand when they recited their lines? Well, I think it’s just as unfair for the playwright to expect to gather all the praise for a production, or wield all the power. The script is vital, yes. It should be as complete as possible in terms of communicating what the playwright sees, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be a binding document. It’s the place where the story begins.

(She’s the one in the middle…)

The other article that came to my attention this week was headed “Now Amanda Peet thinks she’s a playwright”. It was just as juvenile as it sounds, a person sounding off at Amanda Peet for daring to write and perform in a play when everyone knows she’s a screen actress. The comments here were much more balanced, with many people taking the same view I did – if she wrote a play and got it published or produced, then she’s a playwright, what’s the big deal? Others were obsessed with the unfairness of someone with acting and theatre connections shortcutting the “proper” route of misery and rejection to get straight to having her work onstage in a big theatre.

The truth is, if any of us struggling writers had an “in” to our favoured arena, we’d take it. Uncle in the film business? Here’s my screenplay. Dad works in publishing? Here’s my novel. Cousin runs a theatre? Here’s my latest play. Brother-in-Law was on reality TV show? Here’s my sympathy.

It’s not wrong to use connections. It may not seem fair, in that it’s not something everyone can do. But JK Rowling didn’t have any connections, just a good idea. EL James didn’t have any connections, just the right idea at the right time. Yes, this means that some people have more success than others who have more talent or ability. That’s sad, but it doesn’t always follow that someone who uses their connections to reach the audience has nothing worth saying. I’d like to see Amanda Peet’s play. I know the ones I read and review tend to be better when the author has had some experience onstage themselves, so I’m sure hers would be interesting. I’d love the chance to talk to her about it. And, you know, while we were talking about stage plays, perhaps she wouldn’t mind looking over this new script I’m working on…?

In fact, the latest script I’m working on turns out to be a sequel to the moderately successful “The Kitchen Skirmishes“. All being well, this new play (as yet untitled) will be published in the new year. Unless Amanda Peet can fit me in somewhere earlier, of course…

Sounds Wonderful

Audible logo

I’m a reader. Always have been, always will be. I read at night and at the breakfast table, on my breaks at work, and while I’m waiting for Middle Weasel to finish Ringette practice.

But there are some times when it’s not practical to have your nose in a book. When I go running, I’ve found that reading is a hazard to those around me, as well as myself. When I’m ironing, it’s tricky to manage the iron, the garment and the book. Tasks like cleaning the bathroom floor become very tricky.

So it was that a few years ago I became a member of Audible.com. I’d amassed a reasonable collection of audio books on cds, but switching them back and forth between the car and the household cd players had resulted in scratches and lost discs. I was looking for a better solution. Audible have a big range of audio books, and their app can be downloaded to phones, pcs, and tablets. I have it installed on my phone, on my desktop, my kindle and my netbook. I pay a membership fee each month, which entitles me to one free book each month.

The mathematicians out there will be pointing out that my book is not, ACTUALLY free, because I’m paying my monthly membership. And that’s true, but the membership is a flat rate, and it’s often less than the regular price of the book I choose to purchase. Along with that, there are special offers available to members that turn up often, like $4.99 deals, or “Buy one, get one free” offers.

My app told me yesterday that I now have 61 books in my library, which made me think about my most recent acquisitions. There were two books that I bought and listened to quite compulsively. Normally, as I’ve said, the books are background to a dull task, but these two were so engrossing that I used my phone as a portable sound system and listened to them as I walked the dog, drove to work and did the shopping.

File:Anansi Boys.png

The first was a book I had read years before. Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys“, read here by Lenny Henry. (Find the book on Amazon HERE ) In my memory, it had taken on the sinister tone of “American Gods”, a book I’d read much more recently. When it came up on Audible, I began to listen and suddenly remembered how much I had enjoyed it. It was FUNNY! The story has serious moments, even some gruesome ones, but the telling is delightful, the characters far out of the usual way, and Lenny Henry achieves the miraculous in delivering believable voices for people who range from young women to middle aged men to ancient crones. The magic in the story fits well into London and Saint Andrews, and best of all, the ending is more than satisfactory (I have a deep-rooted distrust of ambiguous or downbeat endings).

Wool | [Hugh Howey]

This, then, was a book I knew once but had forgotten. But a recent offer gave me the chance to try a book I had heard about, but never read. Hugh Howey’s “Wool” had sparked a lot of interest because it began life as a self-published short story, then pressure from friends and readers brought about the novel, which sold so well online that it became a “real” book, then a NYT bestseller. I had resisted getting a copy, because, frankly, it sounded dull. “Wool” as a title made me imagine it was about the wool trade. I’m sure you could write a “Sarum” style history of the wool trade in Europe, and have exciting characters and helicopter chases and so on. I’m sure reviewers would have to work quite hard not to use the phrase “Spins a yarn” when writing about it.

Luckily for everyone, this is NOT what the book is about. “Wool” is actually about the inhabitants of a Silo. They have lived in the silo for generations, knowing that the air outside is toxic, and that talk of wanting to leave, or criticising the silo can get the expelled, forced to clean the sensors that provide the only view of the grim world beyond. Life in the silo is sparse, but bearable. The story begins with the Sheriff, who has served many years, suddenly expressing his desire to go outside. His wife went mad three years before and was sent outside, and now he wishes to go after her, even though her body is clearly visible through the sensors, slumped dead on a nearby hill.

This sounds gloomy, and the truth is that the story IS grim. There are many secrets and conspiracies in the silo, and the good people who rise to the challenge brought about by the Sheriff’s decision don’t always come out of things well. At times I was worried that a bad ending would mean I had listened to the whole story only to be disappointed. However, despite the tension and the grim nature of the events, I think the story ended well, and I’ve since discovered there are sequels – this is the first of a trilogy, but it works well as a standalone tale.

Thanks to audible, I have a great library of stories, read to me by some terrific narrators. The fact that the company is now a subsidiary of Amazon may put some people off, but I don’t mind – Amazon publish my e-books, after all. It also means that I never forget my Audible login, as it’s the same as my Amazon one these days. For someone who hates to be without a book, it’s a great alternative.

I have not been paid by Audible or Amazon for this piece. Although, you know, if they DID decide to pay me a bunch of cash, I wouldn’t say no….

Dear Microsoft (an open letter)

I’ve been a Windows user since Windows 95. Though I’ve had the chance to work on Macs and enjoyed them, they’ve never been the logical choice for my home computer. I’ve written dozens of plays and a few ebooks on PCs, and I store all my music and photos on one.

Like of a lot of people who are users but not programmers, I hate upgrades. I want my computer to be fast again, want it to work without making all those groaning noises, but a new machine will always mean a new version of Windows, and I’ll have a steep learning curve again. This time it was the big step from Windows Seven to Windows 8.

The salesman was good, and encouraged me to get a touchscreen machine. This would make navigating the start screen much easier. He enthused about the various features of 8, and how they were fun and intuitive.

I don’t want to complain about the setup of 8. It was easy to find the way to revert to desktop and have the machine look very like my old computer. What I want to talk about is the issue of choice and control.

In the early days, a big feature of Windows was the ability to customise. You could choose your colour scheme, your background, alter your screensaver, rename folders…. It was as if you were in charge of your machine. Windows provided the architecture, but you could arrange the interior and exterior of your house as you saw fit.

As I went through the setup process for Windows 8, I began to wonder whose machine this was. I couldn’t assign my own password for sign in, I had to sign in with my Windows Live id. The only use I have for my Windows Live id is confirming that it is ME buying the new application or music or whatever. But YOU, Microsoft, want me to use it to tell everyone everything about my life. You want me to have a profile, to automatically link up to Live every time I want to play a game and broadcast scores and “achievements” across the web.

Sometimes, I play games. But when I do, it’s because I want to play a game. I don’t want to send that news to my friends and family. I would love the ability to play these games without being connected to Windows Live, but you know what Microsoft? You’ve made it so that some of these games won’t save my progress unless I’m signed in. If I want to play the game without starting from the beginning every time, I have to sign in to Windows Live. And that makes me think this isn’t MY game, this isn’t MY computer, it’s yours. Your rules.

I live in Canada, and my parents live in the UK. We talk by Skype every week, and it’s great for them to see my family as we grow and change, and wonderful for us to see them. Setting up Windows 8, I was asked to activate the Skype app. And then I was told I would have to change my Skype password to my Windows Live id sign in. Have to. Because this isn’t MY computer, this isn’t MY application, it’s YOURS.

I understand that some people do live their lives on the internet, that they fill out every section of their profiles on Facebook, post pictures of every meal and update their location wherever they go. I understand that some people want the validation of their friends being told their high scores, or that they just bought a certain track. I don’t mind that kind of functionality being built in to Windows. It’s wonderful that we live in a time where these things are possible.

What I would like is the control. The option to opt out. Just a radio button somewhere that’s easy to find, something that lets me choose what I update others about, when I play games and where I save progress.

I’d like this to be my computer again.

An open letter seems a little daft, a little desperate, but I’ve tried approaching large companies like Microsoft and Amazon with general comments before. Their Customer Care sections are not set up for queries and comments like this. If you find a “Contact Us” page, your comment is subject to a series of drop down menus that gradually filter you out of the system unless you’re looking for a technical or financial answer.

I don’t expect Microsoft to answer me, or change the way they work. Like many other big companies, the service they offer their consumers is geared towards providing them with more information to generate more business opportunities, not provide a better service for the customer. As time goes by, I’m sure newer versions of Windows will appear that have many, many more “options” that cover the fact that we’re being gently herded into fewer and fewer actual choices, and handing over more and more control and information.