26 September, 2011

Missed Review: Bonnie by Iris Johansen

I don't think I am going to be reviewing Bonnie. I'm not even sure I am going to read it. Quinn might have been my last Iris Johansen book, and like so many endings I didn't know it while it was occuring. I mention this only because I have reviewed several other books in the series and because I need to say something in relation to this book.

I was wrong.

During the reset of the series that occurred in Eve and Quinn, I formulated a theory that Johansen was going to bring out a twist ending. I could see the groundwork laid for the twist. With so many books behind her, so many changes made to the character of Eve, a twist seemed the only resolution that made sense. Again, I was wrong. The twist is that there is no twist.

Readers of Bonnie should get some resolution explaining the fate of Eve's daughter. To be frank, I used Amazon's Look Inside feature to preview the book. With some judicious keyword searches I was able to determine that the writing choices Johansen has been making of late, the ones that drive me the craziest, are in full display in Bonnie. Saint Bonnie continues her path to canonization as the story moves ever farther from it's working class roots. It appears that people who may or may not be main characters will die. Joe and Eve may or may not get another adopted kid to raise. Bonnie and her Bugs Bunny shirt will absolutely continue to heal the dead, soothe the afflicted, and elevate the existence of all within her glow. I'm not sure I can sign on for 400 or so pages of that again. Still, I am not one to bail on a deal be it stated or implied so for the third and probably final time...

I was wrong.

25 September, 2011

Review: Best American Comics 2011

Best collections are always a mixed bag. If the editor's taste lines up with yours, the volume becomes a lifelong favorite. If it doesn't, then it's a disaster. While I like Alison Bechdel, I don't love her. I was curious what she'd do as a guest editor, and the answer is a volume that leans heavily toward the type of confessional art that she does herself.

It's a style I like best when it works with issues larger than the cartoonist (Speigelman) and stays so tightly focused that tiny moments become epic (Allie Brosh).  My least favorite use of the confessional strip is when it focuses on a loser who feels himself above the other losers and puts himself in situations where no one can win. (I won't name names). I've never been a fan of Crumb or Pekar but I've a real weakness for some of the older narrative serials, circa 1920. So that's my taste. With those parameters understood, I have to give Best American Comics 2011 a solid B.

There were some very strong strips (Pham, Ware, and Sacco) strips that perfectly define what I don't like (Mutch), and strips that give a good example of being edgy for the sake of it (Hernandez). Looking back at the collection, there was a wide range of subject and style but in the reading it felt narrow. I don't know if that was due to sequencing or selection. I didn't close the volume feeling a strong need to seek out more work by any particular author, but it was an interesting look at the current crop of autobiographical comic artists.

23 September, 2011

Pirates In The Family

Tragic Scenes by meoskop
Tragic Scenes, a photo by meoskop on Flickr.

Among a certain class of race and income, E-Readers are becoming the new normal. Your grandmother might have bought herself a Kindle at the warehouse club, your Little League coach might have a Kobo tucked in the gym bag. Suddenly, almost overnight, seeing a paper book makes you stop and do a double take. These are not people who frequent the blogging community. Sites built by people who love books educate consumers on the market. I talk about a book, you buy it, you suggest it to someone else, they buy it. Blogging is one of the few places that trickle economics really works. (And I know people are buying. For some reason they like to email or tweet that sort of thing instead of leaving a comment. Tokidoki thread? Plenty of views, no conversation. Half a dozen "Hey, I bought that print after reading the review" private messages.) So you and I, we understand DRM and Agency Pricing and all the things that a new Kindle owner does not. 

Suddenly, Grandpa is a pirate. He has no idea. He's dead certain he isn't. He will argue with you six ways from Sunday that he most certainly is not stealing books, in fact he's paying for them! Grandpa does not understand the currently legal price fixing game that is Agency. He sees a toaster for $8, he searches until he finds it for $6. He buys it, he's happy he got a deal. He sees an ebook for $8, he searches until he finds it for $5 or $3 or maybe even free. He's happy he got a deal. He has no idea if it's legit or not. Grandpa thinks the big names are just trying to rip him off. Getting Grandpa to understand he's stealing is a lot harder than you may think. 

For the last nine months I've had a running argument with a Grandfather Of Five that I know socially. He loves his Kindle and he loves this search engine his friend showed him that lets him find books for free or even half price. It's great. He hardly ever buys from Amazon directly anymore, because these guys beat the prices! He used to be able to get good deals, but then Amazon 'got greedy'. I've been telling him he's either giving money to pirates or reading freeware. I tell him there are lots of very reputable booksellers out there whose names do not start with A or end with N and yet he is probably not doing business with them. "Listen, I know my buddy and you do not. No WAY this guy would lead me into anything shady. These are all legit things. He even gave me 1200 books to get me started from his personal library." And there was the opening.

I have told him about Agency, I have told him about DRM, but to him I am The Kid and this guy is The Buddy and The Buddy always trumps The Kid. Especially in New York. Prove me wrong, I say. Show me what I'm missing. Let me in on the deal. He knows I'm wrong, and he's going to show me. He brings me his computer. "He bought every one of these in the starter package. Take a look. You'll see, it's all stuff he bought. Some of this here is stuff I bought." I ask a few questions. I poke around. Most of the books are bestsellers. Fully half are Tea Party Patriot tomes. I can see why he and his buddy think it's impossible they've been dealing shady.  I tell Grandpa of Five I can not only prove he's been giving money to pirates, I don't even have to look hard to do it. A complete ebook library of J.K. Rowling's books without DRM created in 2010? "I paid ten bucks for that!"

To a pirate. 

When buying content is easy, when prices are fluid or make sense, Grandpa is not motivated to seek out his deals. He's not part of the die hard pirate culture, he's a sale to be captured. The more roadblocks put in Grandpa's way the more likely it is that he's going to go looking for an easier, cheaper source. His money and he are going to part ways, it's just a question of who gets it. Grandpa of Five does not believe that his Harry Potter proves the point. I'm putting some articles together for him on J.K. Rowling and a few other authors I found on his system. He's not going to be happy when the truth dawns on him, but he's going to be even less happy when he realizes his choice is abandoning the big six or breaking the law. Because if there is one thing Grandpa won't do, it's pay full retail. He's the reason God invented the Early Bird Special.  

20 September, 2011

Review: The Real Duchesses of London by Lavina Kent Revisited

 I rather wish there had only been two volumes of the Real Duchesses series. Initially, it seemed like a fun and fresh concept, the added aspect of female friendships made the novellas seem deeper than they were. While Annabelle, The American is not a bad story the hero is fatally flawed. The sustaining aspect of female friendship is given little to work with as the girls barely know Annabelle and her close friends reside in America. The revelation of the catalyst for events falls flat as well. Carrying on with the Kink of The Week theme established in the earlier books, we discover Annabelle might have some Naughty Schoolteacher in her soul. (File that under things I didn't care to know.)

Before I spoil the ever loving heck out of Annabelle, I'll take a quick pass at Elizabeth, The Enchantress. For me, the cool and collected Elizabeth has been a star of the series. Her ability to stay composed in the face of scandal has it's roots in her own scandal ridden past, a scandal level that seems fairly extreme. One wonders where her husband's heir was as she took the reins of his estate in her 19 year old hands. Removed from the reach of her comically uncaring uncle,  her husband off to parts unknown within days, Elizabeth masters her own destiny? I suppose. There's no KoTW here, unless you count a sex toy that makes a brief and somewhat anticlimactic (sorry) appearance. Elizabeth and Linnette (you may recall her as The Lioness) are forced to make nice, the women gather around in a show of solidarity, but the true bonds of female friendship are weaker yet. Perhaps the overriding theme of this series hasn't been KoTW, but rather Women Who Just Wanted To Be Wanted. For all her strength of character, Elizabeth folds like a house of cards when her husband shows up.

Annabelle takes the revelation of her husband's secret family as her cue to get busy with the sexxing. Sure she's sad and all, but how can they move past whatever it is unless they keep the lines of communication open (the same lines that never revealed he might be keeping two households)? Here we're going to go into spoiler land because Annabelle, The American has the same unrecoverable flaw that Elizabeth Boyle's Lord Langley does. This guy is an absolutely terrible father. An unredeemable creep of a father. He's not just a deadbeat dad, he's a deserter who moans that he couldn't stay gone. Why would I want rich beautiful caring Annabelle to end up with him? Do the only kids that count belong to the heroine? Is this some sort of postmodern second wife syndrome hero we're seeing these days? Remember when a hero collected all their bastards from the countryside and insisted on fathering them? Remember when they were careful not to be a baby daddy at all? How is parental desertion suddenly acceptable? I don't get this. The set up for Annabelle's man is that he knocked up a women below his class but he super extra loved her. Reader, He Married Her. These are legitimate kids. So his dad gets mad. Rather than man up and tell the Duke that he has a wife with a pair of kids, thank you very much (Actually, only one is legit. He married her between kids.) he allows himself to be sent off to some estate to do something.

When he returns, he has a young daughter and an infant daughter and a dead wife. His dad, the aforementioned Duke, tells him to keep his yap shut or the kids go to the workhouse. Again, his kids with his wife, who is dead because he left them behind. Like a coward. So does our hero snatch his kids up and take them to America? Does he tell his dad to stuff it and get a job from one of his society friends? No! He goes to America alone, where he plans on staying forever, and his dad agrees to educate the kids then places the older one as a governess. Right. So after raising her younger sister with her dad off living the life of a ducal second son in America (did he even appeal to his brother, the heir?) she (still towing her younger sister) enters into the workforce taking care of others children. Here she meets a boy and falls in love. He dies. Like her mom did. There's a baby (not hers) and she takes the care of it and her sister and moves forward with all the strength of character her father lacks. Meanwhile, he meets Annabelle and says "Hey baby, you're hot and rich and could have anyone. Let me tell you I don't love you so your self destructive side can come out to play." They marry and he plans to live in America for his whole life and raise fat happy babies. (Babies that count, I guess.) His brother dies, which makes him the heir, which brings him back to London where he still doesn't tell his wife about his first marriage or his children. Now he's all woe is me, I love my kids, I married you to provide for them, sob sob sob, but it's a lot of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and very little Actual Good Father. Suddenly his dad is all "Yea, when I found out at least one wasn't a bastard I kinda felt bad about this whole thing, but whatevs," Annabelle still doesn't meet her stepchildren, she's too busy consoling and sexxing up the massively entitled baby she married. At no point does she call him out on his child abandonment, despite being American. The guy is a complete creep. So's his dad. When his dad comes by with a halfhearted "Sorry I was a bitch and made your social life hell" Annabelle is all, that's ok. Let's start over! The woman has looks, money, and a family willing to take her back in her home country. What does she need these losers for?

And still I preferred Annabelle The American to Elizabeth, The Enchantress. While Annabelle's man is a weak willed loser, Elizabeth and hers were just deadly dull. I was forcing myself to click through the pages so I could say I did. In Elizabeth the identity of the other cartoonist is revealed. His motivation? "We don't know, he just always kind of hated us. It's weird." His fate? The proverbial plantation home in the Islands where he can be overlord of the non-white citizens around him. Yes, it is always so satisfying when a woman hating villain is given a home where he can prey on the less societally endowed women of the world. That solves everything. I clutched my pearls and cried tears of joy at his fitting comeuppance - a removal from society and all it's pleasures. I suppose my suggestion, after this excessively long opinion piece, would be as follows. Buy Linette The Lioness. Consider Annabelle The American if you have a high tolerance for child desertion. Skip the other two.

19 September, 2011

Review: In Total Surrender by Anne Mallory

This one's worth Agency pricing. We're talking about Lorraine Heath levels of awesome here. I think it may also be controversial. But we can get to that, right?

The opening had me a little off balance. I was afraid that our heroine, Phoebe Pace, was going to be a TSTL* naive Mary Sunshine type. (At one point I was deeply concerned for her mental stability.) Without giving everything away, I was wrong. So wrong. If Phoebe starts to worry you, give her time. She's worth waiting for. Phoebe's doing the whole "anything for my family" bit but not in a "I'm trading myself for my brother's debts" kind of way. She's more of a bill juggler. You know, like when you accidentally send the power company the phone company's check? (I think they got wise to that one.)  Phoebe's family owes Andreas Merrick quite a bit of cash, but she's thinking they can pay it back if a few events go her way.

Andreas Merrick is the potential controversy. The brother of One Night Is Never Enough's hero, Andreas gives new meaning to 'dangerous to know'. (He's a crime lord, it makes sense.) Taking the realistic outcome of the Merrick brothers background to the next level, Mallory makes it clear that Andreas isn't secretly a super nice and harmless guy. He kills people on at least a weekly basis. While it startled me, it works. We have so many dark, angsty, self made men in Romance Land that claw their way up, run gangs, control vast sections of London, and manage to do it all without hurting anyone. If you're a universally feared ruler of the streets, it's likely more than just talk. I can see some readers having difficulty accepting that Andreas isn't a nice guy. It's not a nice world he lives in. In his world, nice means dead.

So Phoebe wants to save her family business and Andreas wants to destroy it as a step on his path to revenge. (Those dark and angsty guys always have the revenge thing going on.) Poor Phoebe is caught in the middle with her company on one side and Andreas's enemy on the other.  I loved the power struggle between these two equally determined characters so much. I read a Lorraine Heath novel directly after In Total Surrender and I still say Anne Mallory has turned in one of the best books of the year. It's so good I even forgive her giving our super dreamy Andreas a definitely not dreamy family member. (We'll just pretend we've never seen that guy's picture, ok?)

In Total Surrender works on it's own terms but I think my emotional connection to the characters was aided by having read One Night Is Never Enough. Both Andreas's social awkwardness and Roman Merrick's flippant attitude are well established in the prior book. While In Total Surrender certainly explains both, I would read the two together if possible. I hope this book puts Anne Mallory where she belongs. She is on my short list of favorite historical authors. This has been an interesting series from Mallory, asking us as readers to accept that the dangerous hero is often a murderous one. It would be easy for her to spin a series off from the other side of the coin, people who have suffered as the unseen collateral damage of the brothers. I can't explain why women are attracted to men like these in life, but in fiction the Merrick brothers are certainly worth the trouble.

*Too Stupid To Live

18 September, 2011

Review: New York to Dallas by J.D. Robb

Does this really need a review? What are we -  33, 34 books out? (I guess we do because I find myself with things to say about New York To Dallas.) Disclaimer - I like Nora Roberts / J.D. Robb as an actual person. I think she is gracious, hilarious, biting, generous, all the things I look for in a person. I find her NR books hit or miss and her Eve series completely addictive even though I don't like Roarke. (I know. That's fine. Being a party of one never bothers me.) Some on Twitter wondered if the series could continue as it is with so many of the primary mysteries about Eve wrapped up. I say yes.

For me, Eve's backstory has gone to characterization. While I have been interested in aspects of it, I have not felt a compelling need for answers. Having the answers doesn't fundamentally change what I enjoy about the books. Still, taking Eve to Dallas was a smart choice. As the series has grown, so have the lives Eve becomes involved in. Sometimes I feel characters are getting shoehorned into a story they don't belong in, just so they can make an appearance. Putting Eve in Dallas relieved author and reader of that mental checklist. (Although almost the entire cast is at least name checked.) I agree that NYTD would be a reasonable place to tie off the character. Roberts works several years ahead of publication, so I imagine her editors know if she's done with Eve. My money says no. I think she was done with Eve's past, with having that shoe waiting to drop.

There is a character introduced fairly early in NYTD who made me sigh. I knew where we were going before we left the station. While the execution was well done, it's not the path I would have liked to see taken. The world is really not as small as it seems in NYTD. (That's been an issue for me in the past as well, there are only so many overlapping circles I find reasonable.) The core plot of NYTD I quite liked - a criminal Eve put away in her youth returns for a rematch in the prime of her career. He's lost his edge, she's gained experience, but he has the advantage of caring less about the lives in jeopardy. (One thing I really adore about the In Death series would be that it never fetishizes or eroticizes the psychopaths.) Parts of the story reminded me of details from the Jaycee Duggard story, but not in a Lifted From The Headlines way. Overall, it's a solid Eve Dallas tale, and one I think will not disappoint fans of the series.

On the downside, NYTD has a 'cofftea' moment. Eve picks up several new shorthand slang words, including one for analysis.  I was not the first to notice this, it fairly jumps off the page. (If the author wasn't Nora Roberts it would be a meme by now. I have never even considered doing such a thing to my laundry.) My new catchphrase for the year is going to be a quote lifted directly from the pages of NYTD. I just can't say it in front of any kids. Or at the laundromat. Possibly even in public (although we both know I will). Yet these sentences made it through all the eyes that stand between a prepublication certified bestseller and your hands. Goes to show.

14 September, 2011

Retro Review: Burn by Linda Howard

Are you as fascinated as I am by revisiting my past? No? Dude, what's wrong with you? Ok, well, since I am I bring you another review from the Blog Community I Completely Forgot About. I kind of recall writing this one. Unlike the last one. Maybe I was coming down from the Doxorubicin. (I'd say enjoy, but I don't think that's the right sentiment here.) Love the rating I gave Burn. Looks like I was bitter. (Let's not talk about it.)

Title: Burn
Author: Linda Howard
Genre/Historical Period: Contemporary
Grade/Rating: Not As Bad As Death Angel
Summary/Review: Titanic Meets Category Romance
Part of a Series?: Concentrate And Ask Again
Would I recommend this book?: I wouldn't knock it out of your hands and scream "RUN"

You know, if I hated Burn the title itself would write the review. Given the last few books Linda Howard has written, I think it's pretty brave to call a book Burn (especially since it has just about jack all to do with the content). Then again, given that her next book is called Ice, this might just be some publisher branding meme. Burn is  two stories at once, and it is neither great nor terrible, it straddles the fence of lost opportunity and tries not to fall off. So there are going to have to be spoilers, right?

We meet our heroine, Jenner (right away you know her parents are loons) as she struggles home from her dead end job at the meat packing factory. If you've ever been poor, working a dead end job, or exhausted while some good looking loser expects you to bring home the beer, you'll find that Jenner's exhaustion rings completely true. Here I got excited because for the first time in a long time Howard wasn't giving me a beautiful buffed gal living in luxury with a few problems on the side. Finally we were back in reality land with a hard working woman driving a beat down car and standing in the Michelob line on a Friday night. Prince Charming was due with his tool belt any second, right?

Wrong. Jenner wins Powerball. Sure, she calls it the lottery, but with a 300 mil payout, those of us on the Michelob line know what game she was really playing.  It stays interesting because Jenner sensibly panics and takes the reader through all the post win steps you never think about. Like it taking months for the money to show up, and most winners blowing it all on craft beer and hookers. But not Jenner, cause it's not even her beer. She finds herself an up and coming lesbian (no, really, and may I say a huge thank you to Howard for bucking the trend of introducing gay characters just to kill them or have them turn evil?) and invests that cash like woah. Meanwhile, everyone in her cobbled together life proves themselves unstable and desert her.

(Let's take a moment to examine the class warfare that's about to go into play. Before Best Pal uses her for money, and having lots of money makes her see that. But her After Best Pal uses her for a backbone, and that's ok. Being used for money BAD. Being used as an emotional crutch GOOD. Since Jenner never goes poor, she doesn't really have to worry about how her new BFF would relate to a meat packer, does she?)

Alright, so Jenner gets rich but not happy. She discovers that taxes suck and tax breaks are not as plentiful on the ground as she'd been led to think, and that having money is actually quite a burden on 

Ms Howard Jenner. Rich people are untrusting, but much nicer than you'd think, and charity functions are really all about charity. Now that these things are off her chest, we leave absolutely everything up to this point behind. Seriously, rip the first half of the book out and set it on fire, leave the book in the closet for a year, start over, and you'll find it makes as much sense as it was going to make. The long set up of who Jenner is and why she is and her change in circumstances are only there to place her on a boat. Jenner, who has always had trouble fitting in, but now has trouble from a place of money and is smart (since she doubled her lotto win with investments) and only lost 20% in the recent market crash (well done Ms. Howard! Jenner!) boards a boat while her Bestie does not! There, you've got all you'll need for background.

Ok, so in the second book, Jenner is held captive by one of those lawless dudes that Ms. Howard likes almost as much as her "barely wet" fast, um, expressions of love. And her condoms. Seriously, this guy (whose name I already forgot - I think it's Cael but I kept calling him Caul like it was some kind of hoodrat thing) has coworkers who pass condoms out to people they think should sleep together. Can you imagine? You walk by your boss and you say "Hey buddy, I saw how you and marketing were eyeing each other - Catch! I brought you crazy kids a prezzie!! Its got a vibrating ring!" Yea, there's employment security. Anyway, she meets him, he's kinda hot, he kidnaps her so he's not so hot, she thinks he might rape her so he's REALLY not hot, he makes it clear that he's aware of the power disparity and No Rape Will Happen In This Book, No Matter How Alpha I Am, and things settle down to the plot. This would have been a most awesome plot except the bad guy totally tells you everything bad he's going to be doing. And it's awesome bad. It's so bad you want him to succeed and the whole book to be about them trying to stop it and the slow unfolding of events and the aftermath on all of them who survive and how it affects them and.... right, well, not so much the way it happens.

They don't even figure out what's going on until the very last section of the book. It's all Julie and Gopher and Lido deck shenanigans while a kidnapping contract worker and his really wealthy but spiritually lost captive find their way to each other through her savvy intellect and his willingness to be seduced. Then suddenly, pretty much by accident, they find out the bad guy is wanting to go all Titanic so Celine Dion will write songs for him, and it's a rush to save anyone they can. Which is kinda awesome but way too short. And there's no clean up - it's Wow! We are in DANGER and then it's DANGER ON and then it's Danger Over, Six Months (or whateves) Later. They don't even float in the water and think about which person they'd eat if they got, like, really hungry and people had to be eaten. Or have to explain to the Coast Guard why Titanic is being recreated in warm tropical waters. 

It's not a bad read, it's kind of an enjoyable read in several places. As a whole, it's incomplete. I wouldn't buy it in hardcover but as a library book I'd totally do it once.

13 September, 2011

Review: Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies

Probably you should just go ahead and read the book. This was my short form review -

"I can't stand cancer books. I've done the cancer train too many times, both as bystander and patient. Most cancer books get it wildly wrong. Everything is either a bid for a false sense of control or a cheerleading session. Mom's Cancer gets it right. Cancer is a disease the whole family shares, a disease that doesn't end at the points you think it should, whatever the outcome. When I first flipped through Mom's Cancer I wasn't ready to read it. I don't think I'd give this book to someone at the beginning of Cancer Land. Now, a few years later, it's one of the most meaningful graphic novels I've seen. I think the pages on conversation subtext might be the best aspect of the book. Deeply personal and completely universal, Mom's Cancer is an excellent book."

Cancer Land is a weird place with not enough Peanut Brittle and way too many Molasses Swamps. You move around the board and hope you're going to get to the Gingerbread House, but it's an illusion. You never arrive. There is no Gingerbread House to be had. I had a Medical Meeting today (I take a lot of those, there are never refreshments) followed by an email from a 'Previvor' about 'Previvor Day'. I find the entire 'Previvor' concept deeply disturbing. Having been told they have a higher than average genetic risk for cancer, people undergo medical procedures in the hope that it will prevent the cancer from developing.  Or they join support groups. Or otherwise upend their lives because someday something might happen to them. My family would qualify as 'Previvors'. Of these 19 individuals, one has had cancer. So while I disagree with the 'Previvor' movement, I understand the concept. I'm certain the other 18 have their moments of concern. 

Like I said in the short version, Mom's Cancer is pretty dead on.  Hope you don't relate at all. 

12 September, 2011

Retro Review: Mastered By Love by Stephanie Laurens

When you've been reviewing as long as I have you can't be expected to recall every word ever written. I've done reviewing as a paying gig (not currently) as a hobby (that would be this) and as that person at the party who won't stop talking to you.  I've seen a million books and failed to be rocked by them all. Still, when a comment notification came up in my inbox I was surprised to find that not only did I fail to recall this 2009 review - I failed to recall being a member of the site it was on. (It's totally me though, my password and everything.) While it punches a little harder than I would generally swing on It's My Genre, Baby I am going to reprint it here because it makes me laugh. (My joy is your reason for existing, duh.)

Also, I think I was high. I believe I was doing a lot of Cytoxan in those days. (Kids, if it has the word Tox, like in Toxin, it's not going to be as much fun as you think.) Um, if you're Stephanie Laurens you might want to stop reading now. I stand behind really not liking the book, but I'm not wanting to pull the wings off butterflies or anything like that. Kthxbye. Oh no, wait, no Kthxbye yet. What is up with this cover? Is that the world's largest dental dam? She's naked and really happy - he's kind of on her hip bone - I dunno, it's confusing me. This color purple is the exact color of the book I once painted my nails to match so boys would notice me on the beach. Somehow I thought if my nail color and book jacket were in harmony, it would be hot. I wasn't the smartest kid. (I'm not sure this review is going to argue for my adulthood. Let's be real - I wrote part of it to the tune of Kidnap The Sandy Claws.)

Ironically (is it?) I get this reminder of why I stopped reading Laurens just as a Viscount Breckenridge arc showed up in my mail. Fingers crossed, kids. Fingers crossed.

Title: Mastered By Love
Author: Stephanie James
Genre/Historical Period: Regencyland
Grade/Rating: Is there a G?
Summary: An absolute chore
Part of a Series?: Bastion Club (Finale)
Would I recommend this book?: Oh hell no
Planning to read anything else by this author?: Not anymore.

OMGZ you guys I hated this book soooooooo much.

And if that was the entire content of my review, I'd have exceeded the quality of the book already.

I don't know - I think this book would be popular with a tween looking for a great deal of sexual description without having to be caught reading an erotic book. It has it all. Pages and pages of all. From 'she was sopping wet already' to crimson silk sheets and blindfolds, it's like a checklist of sexual cliche and excess description. She can summarize a major plot scene in two lines, decades of his life in three paragraphs, but its dozens of pages of sex, a few paragraphs to set up the next day, and then back in bed.

She forgot to include the romance. But it's not erotic either. It's just tiring. Like trying to be interested in a poorly shot porn video your friends made when you haven't slept in hours and don't really care. The prevailing feeling is how soon can I get away from these people? It leaves you emotionally fatigued and diminishes everyone involved.

There are GREAT building blocks here - a spinster running the dukedom, the sudden and unexpected death of the estranged father, an international plot centered on a master traitor and the cadre of spies who've been hunting him, (and honestly, by the time the spy is revealed you realize the only way he ever beat anyone was by their being bone stupid) and multiple base born adult children existing on their estranged brother's estate.

Why use ANY of that when you have crimson silk sheets? And you've decided to make your all powerful hero inept and bungling? His study of people, his abilities to guess what they will do before they know themselves, all out the window in favor of a generic Tru Hero Who Sux At Luv. And the mastermind behind all the traitorous acts of the entire series? A bumbling freak who talks to himself incessantly. Seriously, he CANNOT shut up. He spends a page and a half while he thinks the heroine is out cold deciding how to rape and kill her best - like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman as a deranged killer. THIS is the guy who outwitted everyone?? He leaves the most mindnumbingly obvious clue to their location, but it doesn't matter, because Our Hero And His Buddies are TSTL and with a force of at least - well - more than three - decide the answer is for most of them to hide outside and make no noise while the other approaches via Certain Death Trap alone. I can think of at least seven different ways to approach the situation that are less idiotic than the one they choose - but hey. That lets the heroine be drugged, assaulted, murder someone, and then go back to her party!!!! No harm, no foul!

Did I mention they were passing out TSTL candy like it was Halloween? Cause they were. Which made me think of Mr. Talky the Villain Of Self Soundtracking as the missing member of the Nightmare Before Christmas Trio -

Kidnap the Chatelaine
Take her to the mill
Throw her on the big stone slab
And monologue at will.

I'm breaking up with her. Meredith Duran and I have been flirting lately, I think it's time to offer her the spot on my auto-buy list. I hope Stephanie Laurens doesn't go all stalker on me, she needs to understand that when she does me like that I have to move on for my own self respect. I wish her luck, there's someone for everyone, right?

10 September, 2011

Review: Unclaimed by Courtney Milan

Do you think if I rolled around on the floor and waved my arms that Courtney Milan would rub my tummy? Because I have to tell you, I am so her bitch. Which is not to say that Unclaimed is perfection in a yellow cover. There's an editorial choice made near the end that I take issue with. (Everyone loves a reunion story, I suppose.)

Back to the book. Mark is the poster child for purity. This made me nervous because in my experience the guys with the purity rings are either A) lying, B) closet cases or C) destined to cheat on their RealDoll. (Did you see the episode of Dollhouse with the RealDolls and the golfing serial killer? I mean, all the icky rape culture implications aside, oh wait. You can't examine Dollhouse without them. Hm. Back to the book again.) Mark is D) None of the above! Mark Turner is Jonas Brothers famous for being a normal guy who just decided not to exploit women.

Jessica (I started to Google Jessica as a Victorian name but I got distracted by Rhenis as a cross gender name of unknown origin and ended up just trusting Milan. I mean, this is a series with a dude named Smite. If she wants a Jessica she can have a Jessica. It's probably even historically accurate.) is not as impressed with Mark's purity as the rest of London. (I don't think she'd be into boy bands either. Jessica strikes me as more of a bar rock kind of girl.) She hasn't been a virgin in a very long time, leading her to think that Mark is of the lying type. For the right bribe, she'll prove it. This leads to a WTF moment for me. It seems the Turner boys reclaimed their childhood home. Some serious stuff went down in that house but Mark decides to go back there to lay low. I haven't been in my childhood home in (cough) years and I still have nightmares about the place. I didn't have half of what the Turner boys dealt with so their affinity for the home confused me. But it's Mark's house, he can live in it. Flashbacks are his own fault. (Burn it down and salt the earth, I say.)

Aside from Mark and Jessica there are some really excellent side characters and a number of Smite sightings. (He's the cute Jonas Turner.) Also, a dog. Sort of. Mark has to deal with all the small town drama that his celebrity and her impurity bring with them while navigating his very normal personal desires. Jessica realizes she's been living inside a shell of herself, unable to see past her survival mode long enough to claim her own life back. I adored them, and I adored their story. Even with the sentimental bits and the weird real estate issue. Unclaimed is a love letter to morality for morality's sake and the power of siblings in our lives. Bring on Smite and toss me a tennis ball.

08 September, 2011

Brief Thoughts About Genre

Our New Overlords by meoskop
Our New Overlords, a photo by meoskop on Flickr.
I read all over the map, but the genre fences are strong for some. I was reminded of this by two events yesterday. In the first, a person I know well interrupted a conversation I was having with another reader.

"What? You're talking about romance?" Actually, Romantic suspense, but OK. "Oh, YUCK!"The person walked off, making the icky shudder faces well known to those acquainted with toddlers. I returned to my conversation. Now the first woman was uncomfortable. "I read other things too. I have a lot of Baldacci, I like history." I steer the conversation gently back to where it was, soothing ruffled feathers on the way. The subtext was "Please don't think less of me, please respect me." Eventually we get back on topic, but minor flashes of insecurity continue. I want to tell her it's ok to read books by women, it's ok to read books for women. It's ok to read something that isn't by men, about men, that isn't about punishing women or white women teaching black women how to rise to whiteness, or tragic or all the other things that are Acceptable Media when romance is not. She will say she knows. She will say it in the same tone a woman uses when you tell her that guy wasn't worth the tears "Oh, I know that" she says. But they don't.

The Romance Hater returns. I happen to know her favorite book is the Twilight Series and I steer the conversation into revealing that. Twilight has been made into a movie, it's been a bestseller, it's been on magazine covers, so Twilight is ok. My Romance Hater can love Twilight without the tarnishing brush of Romance because of it's elevation to Acceptable Media. (She also loved The Hunger Games, which is a dystopian romance at it's core, but is also Acceptable Media given it's adaptation into a film and it's YA status.) Her fervent love for these books, the things about them that appeal so strongly to her over other books she's read are not their romantic elements. They are not, because she does not like Romance. I don't know if that can create a lightbulb moment for my Romance Lover or not. I can only do so much.

Every book is a frog. Until you kiss it you can't know if it's a prince or not. Other people can kiss it for you but no princess ever got the crown by waiting for approval. Sometimes the frog can't be hidden by even the most determined elevation to Acceptable Media. Like an emperor without clothes, some readers find frogs in the most elegantly attired.

Yesterday a class of second graders had assigned reading. In the tale a young teacher is reluctant to accept a job transfer. She likes her school. She likes her students. She is happy there. Her husband has no patience with her judging the transfer without experience and drives her to look at the new school. The children were supposed to laugh at the teacher's misconceptions and cheer her discovery that new things can be better than the old, that new experiences can be worth exploring. The children were asked to identify the humorous elements of the tale. One student wrote "I don't think this story is funny. It is about a guy forcing a girl to go somewhere and do things she does not want to. That is not funny." The student went on to cite a passage where the husband orders the wife to get her shoes and get in the car as an example of his dominance and her submission. The frog in the story of male dominance overcame the student's ability to see redeeming aspects in the intended message of personal growth. For some readers, an elevation to Acceptable Media cannot overcome their personal response.

It's My Genre because I read it. Whatever I read, whatever media it falls into, the only genre that can ever matter to me is mine.

06 September, 2011

Apples To Apples: Why You Care About DRM

This is an easy one. I've assumed through this that you already understand DRM, or Digital Rights Management. In case you don't, we're going to break that down. See that candy? (Right now, I could totally go for one of those fat frogs in the lower corner.) Imagine you've bought a big old bag of it. Maybe you've been opening the bag and eating a piece here and there. Maybe you've been saving it up. Whatever, it's your candy and you want to eat it. Now imagine that you take a piece of candy out of the bag, put it on a plate, and someone hits your hand. "That's not your candy." Of course it's your candy. You bought it. You saved it. It's yours. "No, it's not." That is the DRM experience, right there.

When you purchase a book (or the right to read a book, actually) it is encoded with security software designed to keep you from giving the file to 100's of your closest friends. Because of that, you cannot change the format of the book. If you buy EPUB (for Sony) or AZW / MOBI (for Kindle) you are locked into that choice forever. Deciding to change readers means buying all of your books over again. Because of DRM, you may find yourself unable to read your books even with that reader attached. Forget a password, have a computer clock error, there are literally dozens of ways your candy will be taken from you. It's absurd. DRM is a far greater impediment to legal book purchasers than it is to book thieves. As long as people make money off DRM, then DRM will be suggested as a helpful tool to publishing, data be damned. Removing DRM is either Not Cool, Illegal, or A No Brainer depending on who you're speaking with. (This issue is going to fall under personal choice.) Adding insult to DRM injury is a little thing called Agency Pricing. We used to call it Price Fixing and it used to be illegal, but now it just means that publishers can charge you the exact same price for a book at every outlet. If a retailer wants to offer you a discount or incentive? Too bad. They can't. Want to buy the book at Target? They can sell it to you for a penny if they want. In e-book format? Full MSRP with no ability to resell or give the book away and no promise that DRM won't (at some point) keep you from reading it. Attractive, huh? Of course there are publishers who do not practice Agency Pricing, and there are publishers who do not use DRM (Carina Press, that means you!). You could stick to their books (or free books) and live a perfectly happy (if restricted) e-reading life. But we both know you won't.

I'm not going to explain DRM removal to you. That's on you to find out, should you choose to do so, because I don't need the legal hassles. I can give you an example of a situation where you might choose to remove DRM even if you feel you would never want to do so. There's a Kindle owner I know who was reading a multi book series. All but one of the books was for sale as MOBI. One volume was inexplicably unavailable. She could buy it elsewhere in EPUB, or she could download it from a pirate site. She chose to buy it in EPUB, strip the DRM, convert it to MOBI with Calibre and load it to her Kindle. She jumped through 5 hoops to make sure the author was paid and she paid a price far above a used or new paper copy. I promise you that was no deterrent to piracy. (Her kid said they would have just picked up the pirated copy since it was less hassle.) So let's assume that you have decided not to lock you (and your books) to one device. Keeping track of your books is light years easier with a program called Calibre.

Calibre is a means to store your books. Think of it as your virtual bookshelf. You can (on DRM free files, files with DRM cannot be changed) modify a cover, assign tags for easy organizing, rate the books or arrange them by series. Calibre will convert whatever format the book is in to whatever format you need it to be in. Step on your Kindle and break it in half? Calibre will convert the AZW file to EPUB for your iPhone to use until you replace your reader. Here is another place your choice of reader is important. Files from iBooks are locked into Apple's DRM tighter than tight. Hope you don't run into any technical problems (On a computer? When does that occur??) because those books are not currently strippable. If you order from Amazon, you shouldn't update your software. When Amazon improves their software they tend to also improve their DRM restrictions. New hoops for the paying consumer. (I just want to eat that frog, I don't want to play Frogger.) When it comes to freeing your file, the big A's are not your friends. However, if all of this gave you a headache, my advice is to go with a Kindle and don't buy more candy than you can eat in one sitting. Make a wish list of stuff you might want to read and buy one book at a go. (It will minimize your losses, even if it doesn't maximize publisher profits.)

Did we cover everything? If we didn't it's going to have to wait. I feel downright fragile from all this thinking. My Courtney Milan Fan Girl card and I are going to spend some quality time with Unclaimed. I'll let you know how that turns out.

05 September, 2011

Apples To Apples: Which E-Reader Should I Buy?

I think we've established that there is (at least not yet) One True Reader to rule us all. If you don't mind reading on a backlit screen and don't mind the weight, I prefer using my iPad. I only use my e-ink devices as backup. (It's sort of like having an extra  house key in your wallet.)

That said, I wouldn't buy from the iBookstore unless you are 100% sure you are selling your book reading soul to the iThings forever. (We'll get into why I keep harping on DRM in the next post, just know that I'm using my iPad with files from other vendors.) So, iPad for me for the win, but it costs a bajillion and three dollars, weighs a ton, attracts attention, and gives most people headaches. Back to the Other Ones. Obviously I didn't discuss Kobo, Nook, or any of the other readers on the market. (If someone wants to give me one I will be happy to share my thoughts. I already know I kinda hate B&N, so I doubt we'll be talking Nooks soon.)

I Don't Like Using My Computer / I Want To Use A Lot Of Audiobooks / I Like To Knit Cats - Probably the Kindle is going to work for you. (Do you really knit cats? Because I think a knit cat would be kind of awesome. I saw a knit dissected frog once and I was going to give it to my cousin as a wedding gift but... right. E-reading.) Kindle owns ease of use, you don't have to get a computer involved. The only reason you might want to rethink is if you're not willing to use a Kindle forever. Kindle is second only to Apple in aggressive protection of DRM. Unlocking Kindle books requires you to partially cripple your device. If you side-load your Kindle with other retailers books, you won't get the full benefit of the product. That's sad. Kindle is also a great choice for Audible subscribers and low volume readers.

Should I Wait For The Kindle Tablet? That's a price point choice. I don't think the KT is coming out swinging at the iPad, I think it's going for the Nook. Either way, I expect Kindle 3 is going to end up practically free when the KT hits. You might want to wait for that holiday price drop and decide if the KT offers enough Touch to tempt you.

I'm Richie Rich, Bitch / Status Matters To Me / I Want A Multi-tasking Unit - Go ahead, take your bed self out to the Apple store for a shiny new iPad. Actually don't. Buy a refurbished one directly from Apple. Every refurbished item I've gotten has shipped directly from the factory in China and looked brand spanking new. All of them perform like champs with the same warranty and a lower price. Throw Apple Care on there if you're nervous.

Should I Wait For iPad 3? No. Are you kidding? That's in March of 2012 and you're not the kind of person who can wait for things. Buy it now, sell it later and eat the loss. That's kind of how you roll.

I'm Not Ready To Sell My Soul / Baby Needs A New Pair Of Shoes / I Gotta Get Touched / All My Furniture Comes From Ikea - Don't bother reading on any iThing but the iPad. You'll just break your thumb and spend the money you saved on electronics in healthcare. Get the Sony PRS-350 and call it a day. You might have trouble finding one, honestly. The 350 had a better reputation for reliability than the 650 and given the somewhat fussy attitude of my 350, that's quite a statement. With the new models coming out, these are scarce but can be found for under $130. With the Sony you're gaining public libraries and better book ownership, but you're losing WiFi and 3G book loading. (For now.) As of yet, Sony hasn't been too interested in playing DRM reindeer games so liberating your purchased file isn't exceptionally difficult.

Should I Wait For The Sony T-1? Yes. While the full specs of the upcoming Reader haven't hit, the T-1 could break into the Amazon experience by offering their own version of WhisperSync and computer free loading. If the price point rumors are true, Sony may have realized that positioning themselves at the top of the price market wasn't working. You could end up much happier by waiting. I can't tell you how much happier, Sony isn't calling me. (If you see Sony, could you tell them Angela and I don't want our two dollars back. Just them.) Hey, Sony! Over here! Let's have a play date! I've got cookies!

Brokie McBrokerson Is In The House / Touching Is Not For Me / I Rock My Atari 2600 On Date Nights - The Sony 505 is a perfectly respectable option. While we're probably nearing the battery failure point on some more heavily used units, my refurbished one is still going strong. (Actually, I just kicked Baby to the big curb. That's right. Baby's living at my inlaw's place now. Somebody had to go! It's like the moonwalker at the fair - first in, first out.) if you can pick a Sony 505 up at a decent price, it's probably worth getting. If the price is low enough, it might be a good entry point into deciding if you want to deal with e-reading at all.

Should I Wait For More Information? How should I know? I can show you where the trigger is but you've got to decide when to pull it. I think that e-reading is here and it's here to stay. While I do know a few who have tried e and gone back to p (paper, that is) I know far more who have embraced the e and never looked back. Readers who were telling me just ten months ago that they would never read a book they couldn't huff are sniffing electronic cases happily. (Of course I say I told you so, are you kidding me?) The choice has to be yours. You've been hanging out here long enough. You're curious. Give it a go!

Tuesday(ish) - All About Calibre, or, What Is DRM And Why Won't You Shut Up About It?

04 September, 2011

Apples To Apples: Reviewing The Kindle 3

Are we still doing this? (How can we still be doing this?) Ok then. Here we are. Drumroll for the big dog in the fight, the Kindle 3.  The Kindle 3 is the reader you buy your grandmother. Ordered from Amazon, it's ready to go out of the box. Picked up at Target, it just takes a few minutes to authorize. The Kindle has some serious weight behind it, so let's talk about it's limitations first. The Kindle has a visual design only it's mother could love. Let's be real, it's ugly. Grey may be my favorite color but carrying a keyboard around at the bottom of my reader... all I can think to compare it to is tying a fanny pack on a chubby teenager. That keyboard is not doing Kindle 3's styling any favors. Adding insult to that injury,  the letters are going to wear off the keys fairly rapidly. Sony is correct to place the page turn keys on the base of their units. While the Kindle buttons are smoother to operate, having them on the sides is cumbersome. There's no great place to hold a naked Kindle. Although it is extremely light, I haven't found a position that is both stable and enables one finger swiping of the pages. Mostly I hold it in one hand, hit the button with the other. That's way too much effort for someone like me. (It's probably my tiny mutant hands, but I need some buttons rearranged.)

Other than that, Kindle could eat everyone else's lunch and still have room for dessert. Yes, it's cumbersome not to have Touch after experiencing it with other e-readers and yes, there are some serious limitations in the Amazon interface, but let's not kid ourselves. WhisperSync makes up for a lot. The selling point of the Kindle is that buying and loading books is ridiculously easy. This is true. You want it, you click on it, you have it. There's no need to get out your USB cable, there's no need to shop around. Click. Read. Done. Additionally, if you forget your Kindle on the bus or in your other handbag or at the office, just pull out your iThing or your laptop or whatever you've loaded your Kindle App to and resume reading where you left off. Click. Read. Done. Amazon doesn't need to make the changes that would ensure it's dominion when it already holds that power. No other reader can follow you from device to device at this time. For sheer ease of use the Kindle cannot be beat. While it's plastic case is more prone to breakage than other units,  Amazon's customer service handles that easily. Broke your Kindle a day before the warranty ran out? Odds are good you're getting a new one. Day after? I still like your chances. Amazon recognizes that the real value of the Kindle is not the unit you're holding in your hand but the consumer relationship between your wallet and their store. Suddenly remember you forgot to order Aunt Seraphina's 80th Birthday Gift? Use the web browser to connect to Amazon and hook that up before resuming your read. It may not be an elegant or quick browser but it just saved you from having to leave the Lazy-Boy.

Click. Read. Done. and WhisperSync are so attractive that I would leave the better designed Sony product behind if Amazon would make a few changes to it's software. Kindle files everything under The. While you can make collections, it's cumbersome and annoying to do so. Instead of a fetishist joy, building collections is a root canal. You know the longer you put off getting started the worse it will be, but you still avoid it. Making things worse is the lack of WhisperSync for non-Amazon purchases. Did you sideload your previously purchased (now unlocked and converted) Sony library to that Kindle? No WhisperSync for you. Amazon only wants to maintain the library you paid it for. (It's a little ironic that Apple and Amazon are currently facing off over whose closed system can be the tightest. Both of those guys need to loosen up so we could fit more money in their pocket.) The other thing keeping me from Kindle is it's lack of locks. With the Sony and iPad systems I know my companions are too lazy to get a USB cable out and teach themselves how Calibre looks. I can load a reader with the books they wanted, hand it off, and call it a day. While Kindle has the (awesome!) option to link up to six units to one account, it does not let me partition which Kindles see which books. This means your four year old early reader can accidentally download your Erica Jong collection. You can't buy Puppies On Parade without Uncle Joe noticing. You can't even have a special folder marked YOUR BOOKS ARE HERE for when your partner (who still doesn't want an e-reader) borrows your Kindle (again) and asks who needs 360 books in their Archive. (As we all know this leads to said partner researching How To Delete Books From A Kindle Archive and tossing half your books out in their effort to 'help' you find 'things' more easily.)

On paper, Kindle is the perfect lover. In the flesh, it's easy to notice Kindle needs to floss more. I'm not sure what's going to happen to mine. I could de-authorize it and establish a separate account for another user, but that creates needless partitioning issues for my computer and iThings. I could hand it off to another user and tell them not to even think about messing about with the Archive. I could give up Touch and accept only some of my books will be both WhisperSync'd and automatically delivered on release. I'm completely on the fence. If you plan on only buying from one source and you don't like sharing; if you think organizing your books easily is for sissies or buy only a dozen books a year, the Kindle will never make you cry. With it's ease of use for Audiobooks and insanely simple text scaling, it is a huge hit with the older members of my clan. It is not an accident Amazon is dominating this market, but they haven't done so in a way that makes me stop looking at Sony.

Points Of Awesome

  • No Cable Needed. WiFi or 3G Load Options
  • Elementary Interface
  • Customer Service Out The Wazoo
  • Backed By Internet's Largest Store
  • MOBI Also Sold Elsewhere
  • Insane Battery Life
  • Automatic Loading Of Pre-orders
  • Limited Loaning
  • Easy Gifting
  • Lightweight & Pleasant To Hold
  • Best Screen For Clear Reading
  • Built In Support For Audible Books

Points of Bummer

  • Keyboards
  • Cumbersome Navigation For Large Libraries
  • Lack Of Locks
  • Must Jailbreak To Lose Ugly Screensavers
  • Lack Of Support From Most Public Libraries
  • Ugly As Shame
  • Feels Kinda Cheap
  • Only Fully Supports Amazon Purchased Product

Monday(ish) - So What Do I Buy? 
Tuesday - Why Calibre?

03 September, 2011

Apples To Apples: Reviewing The Sony PRS-350

I don't care if it's sex or it's cookies - there are some things in life that are very hard to refuse if you've said yes in the past. Touching your e-reader is absolutely in that category.

My Sony PRS-350 was a true impulse buy. We were planning 6 weeks of travel with a location change every few days. Ordinarily I would have taken the iPad for myself and the Sony 505 for my companions. Events transpired (cue doom and gloom music here) in such a way that I found myself traveling with a lifting restriction. One pound. No more. The iPad itself weighs more than that, never mind adding my passport, the iPad case, my wallet... you get the idea. I decided to borrow a second 505 from my sibling. Because our lives are an O'Henry story, my sibling sold it to make rent. Enter the Sony PRS-350. It fit two criteria; it was lightweight and it was in stock. OK, three. I already knew how to use it. My intention was to sell it after the trip and take whatever loss there was as a rental fee. I still have it. It's (I would say my precious but I absolutely loathe Tolkien) in my handbag as we speak. During our trip I found that my previously beloved 505 felt cumbersome and outdated after using the iPad. Having to press buttons and choose from text selections and all of that was soooooo much work after the ease of the iPad experience. Between the included stylus (that it took me a week to notice, I'm slow like that) and the ability to search my books by cover, the Sony PRS-350 was kicking my 505 to the curb. While not quite as crisp as a Kindle screen, the PRS-350 offered much better resolution than my 505. (Previous touch editions were too fuzzy for my comfort.) Rather than having to buy a pricey cover for the 350, it fit easily into the larger of a Tokidoki for Sephora Passe Pouch set. A selection of which, and I know this will shock you, I already had.

Loading the PRS-350 is the same as a PRS-505. Sony made some welcome improvements to the Reader Store in support of the device but the basic mechanics are unchanged. This is a USB street. My 505 charger didn't work with the PRS-350, but Sony did sell a dedicated charger for wall use. The unit may be significantly smaller than the 505 but the screen is large enough that I never felt like I was reading on an iPhone. It seemed like a mass market paperback, easily held in one hand. While my initial impressions of the touch mechanism were that it was balky and less refined than the Apple experience, part of that was simply needing an adjustment period. By the end of the trip I was at ease with the touch mechanism and reading smoothly. (In many situations I did find it more comfortable to use the navigation buttons for page turns.)  Having mechanical controls as well is wonderful when you're in a situation that makes using the touch screen unwise (Powdered sugar happens, ok? It happens!) While initially concerned that the raised edge / curved edge design would make it uncomfortable to use (I'm a lefty) the fit was natural and well balanced.

Design is where Sony excels. Even with the removal of the 505's full metal case (the 350 is made of several materials) the unit feels solid and expensive. The slightly rubberized back reduces slip while the brushed front reduces fingerprints. These are units people thought about. Although the PRS-350 lacks the memory card slots of the larger units, there is more than enough memory for casual use. I loaded around 200 books to mine without filling it up. Aside from a lack of WiFi or 3G support, Sony's main downfall is it's hang time. If you want to delete the notes you made about a book (or anything else) the spinning arrows go on for far too long. Suddenly your beloved partner is some ancient relative screaming "I'm thinking, ok? Keep your pants on!" instead of rushing to meet your needs with the joie de vivre of youth. You may hover between fear that the system has crashed and the knowledge that if you don't wait it out you could trigger a crash where none was occurring. PRS-350 moves at it's own pace. Sometimes that pace suddenly slows to a crawl. The page refresh is not invisible, but fast enough that you quickly become accustomed to it. (Page refresh is when you move to the next page, the screen flashes dark for a moment then returns to normal with the new text.) My PRS-350 is playful. It likes to play a game called Hide The Battery Charge. Sometimes it will tell me the battery has drained and it needs to go to sleep even if I have just fully charged it. Nothing works until I plug it back into my computer. Within moments it laughs and says just playing. We good. Full battery on board. Hey, let's get a snack. While this is rare, it's only fun for one of us and that one is not me.

I believe this is what keeps 350 from overtaking the 505 in people's hearts. Still, because we've gone Touch we can't really go back.  Even with it's little quirks, the 350 shoved 505 out of my life. The crisper text, the ability to navigate by finger swipe, the note taking and highlighting ease all combined to make 350 my dominant travel reader. Then someone gave me a Kindle. WHAT WILL HAPPEN? (A really long and certainly boring review of outdated tech I still own, for one thing.) Oh, it's go time around here. With four readers sharing real estate on a desktop meant for a maximum of two, someone is going to hit the curb. It won't be iPad, he's the 800 lb gorilla in this gang. Also, Steve Jobs would beat me up. I know he's super sick and all, but that guy intimidates me. I'm pretty sure his turtleneck hides super secret weapons from the future. C'mon, iThings AND Pixar? No way that's natural.) Hey! This would be a good place for a segue! I know I said we'd talk the upcoming Sony T-1 talk today, but as it's an Android based unit and Amazon is talking about it's Android based Kindle upgrade, I think we're going to talk about them together and later. Probably under What To Buy. (I love spending other people's money. Ask anyone who's stood near me with a wallet.) Also, I asked Sony if they'd pretty please consider giving me one because I am super extra special and they didn't call me back. I think I had the right number. I mean, it's not like Nook answered or something.

Points of Awesome

  • Small Size Without Sacrificing Reading Experience
  • Lightweight & Elegant
  • Good Storage Capacity
  • Long Battery Life 
  • Touch, Not The Bad Kind
  • Note Taking, Highlighting
  • Custom Lock Screens
  • EPUB (Public Library) Compatible

Points of Bummer

  • Must Be This USB Connected To Use
  • Can Be Fickle
  • Super Extra Slow Compiling Issues
  • Discontinued Product
  • Lacks Flavor When You Lick It
  • Sony Charges $65 For A Stylus

Sunday(ish) - Kindle, All That Or What?
Monday - So What Do I Buy? 
Tuesday - Why Calibre?

02 September, 2011

Apples To Apples: Reviewing The iPod / iPad Reader

I understand there are people who read on their iPhones or iPods. I do not understand these people. I've read two books on the iPhone and both times I thought it was great for repetitive stress injuries of the thumb. If you're basing your opinion of e-reading on your iPhone experience, stop. It's not fair to either of you. Reading a book on the iPhone is akin to eating with a single chopstick. (You know, last night this dude was telling me that people used to hook up multiple Nintendo Gamecubes into a hybrid home computer. There are things you can do and there are things you should do.) When I was given my shiny iPad I didn't expect to be replacing my Sony 505. The iPad is cumbersome to carry around on errands, difficult to balance in one hand, and impossible to use in direct sunlight. I also expected it to cause eyestrain, headaches, a return of the Salem witch trials and psoriasis. (While I still don't know exactly what psoriasis is, the trials thing is totally happening!)

I'm a night reader. I do 85% of my reading in bed or on the sofa so not needing a light source made the iPad a much better option than the Sony 505. People in my home (who are very, very sensitive to peas no matter how many mattresses you lay atop them) claimed the click of the Sony 505's page turn was impossible to sleep through. Pretty soon I found myself doing most of my reading on the iPad and just leaving the Sony 505 in my bag for emergencies. Reading on the iPad is a whole entire thing. Depending on which model you purchase an iPad will either store half a gazillion books or a gazillion and three. The iPad also offers the previously undreamed of ability to display books in color. This means cookbooks, comic books, magazines, all sorts of media that isn't very exciting at scaleable e-ink greyscale is super extra sexy on the iPad (as long as you stay indoors, clean your screen fairly frequently and make sure any ambient light isn't causing your face to reflect into the center of the page). While the iPad is crazy heavy compared to other devices, it's roughly the same as an average hardcover book. The page refresh is faster and feels more natural than the page refresh of an e-ink device. You flick your finger and the page moves - your brain is used to that.

The first choice a reader using an iPad has to make is which app to use. There are more reading apps than there are petals on a dandelion. Kindle will transfer your Amazon e-books directly to your iPad with all of the glorious ability to browse by full color cover intact, but categorizing them can be cumbersome and annoying. iBooks will give you a fairly easy interface to categorize your books (again, full color browsing intact) but it isn't very elegant. Once you get your permissions to agree (if you're working with DRM) it's a decent no-frills option for your EPUB and PDF files. Don't confuse iBooks with using the iBookstore. The iBookstore is the single worst place to buy a book in the history of books, even including German train stations. The iBookstore is so bad it makes me think Apple wants to hurt me. Friends don't let friends shop at iBookstore. Even after I switched to reading on the iPad I kept buying books from other sources. (I don't even download free books from iBookstore.) Granted, the iBookstore interface has greatly improved since launch. Adding it to the iTunes store was tempting, but Apple's extra special DRM is more than I care to deal with. Books purchased in the iBookstore cannot be transferred to my Sony devices. Books bought from Sony or Amazon can be transferred to my iPad. Holy no brainer, Batman.

Picking your reading app is a lot like picking out your shoes. Put some on your feet and see what you think. For me, using Calibre to load my books and Sony or Amazon to purchase them has been the best solution. Frankly, I buy from Sony (or various publishers directly, or Books On Board) far more than I do from Amazon. The Amazon ease of use is offset by a weird increase in typos or editing errors. For some reason conversions to MOBI are less carefully proofed than conversions to EPUB. (Download a few dozen free book samples and you'll probably run across this.) Another pitfall with the iPad is everything else it can do. Hit a boring chapter? Suddenly you're on Twitter or surfing the internet or playing Tetris and it's an hour later. An abundance of choice can lead to a scarcity of consumption. Still, if iBooks were DRM free and I never needed to read outdoors, the iPad would be a strong contender for the One True Device. Browsing books by cover and turning pages with a finger flick is a very natural reading experience, making it easy to forget you are not holding a paper book.

Points of Awesome

  • No Light Required
  • Large Capacity
  • Natural Page Turns
  • No Buttons, Swipe With Finger
  • Supports Kindle via WiFi
  • Loads From iTunes
  • Color Screen
  • Large Format

Points of Bummer

  • Much Shorter Battery Life Than Alternatives
  • Cumbersome
  • All Those Distracting Apps
  • Super Sucky DRM Issues
  • Avoid Direct Sunlight (And Garlic)
  • Pricey McPricerton
  • Not Handbag Friendly
  • Causes Eyestrain In Some Users

Tomorrow - The Sony PRS-350 & T-1 Thoughts
Sunday - Kindle, All That Or What?
Monday - So What Do I Buy? 
Tuesday - Why Calibre?

01 September, 2011

Apples To Apples: Reviewing The Sony PRS-505

In the Apples to Apples comparisons I'm going to keep it pretty straightforward. Don't worry, we're not talking "This is based on Linux" serious, let's not get crazy. More of a "Here's how we use this bad boy" instead of "Sony 505 and I make sweet, sweet love while looking at pictures of puppies." (Oh c'mon. Like you've never sneaked a peek at the puppy cams.)

Sony  launched the E-Reader in the early 90's with the Data Discman. (I distinctly recall seeing it in the store and saying "Cha-yea-right. Who's going to read books on a screen?" This is why I am not living on my own private island. That and I never met Richard Branson.) You would think Sony would own the market, but some key choices put Amazon on top. (I'll get to all that when we talk Kindle.) The Sony PRS-505 has held up as the gold standard for E-Reading. Despite being replaced by multiple updated units, the 505 still commands roughly $100 USD on ebay. Consider it the fetish piece of current e-readers. While a generation behind the most current e-ink screens the 505 offers a reading experience close to a printed mass market book. (Let's not kid ourselves, some of those paper pages are downright fuzzy). This was the first e-reader with a high enough resolution to make me consider jumping into the e-book world. From a design perspective, this is the Mercedes to other e-reader's Yugo. Brushed metal cases are well fitted with smooth and responsive buttons. The two memory card slots (I have a 4 GB SD card in mine) are nicely recessed to avoid trapping dirt. The 505 can be finicky on occasion - mine has crashed twice. Both times a hard reset brought it back, but without connectivity a hard reset means waiting until you can access your computer to reload your books.

Here is the 505's Achilles Heel - The Loading of Books. Angela James of Carina Press has been open on Twitter about the Sony Reader Store software refusing to install on her Mac. A major editor for the ebook only branch of a major publishing firm can't use your software? That's a (major) problem. When I obtained my 505 it didn't support Mac. We had some growing pains at first. After the Mac update, it was pretty smooth. I don't find the Reader Store software particularly versatile. I found myself switching to Calibre for file management. (Let's make file management it's own entry, since that is like, omgsoboringIwanttodie and all. For the purposes of these posts you have DRM free files that you maintain with Calibre. Ok? Ok.) The Sony 505 requires a USB connection and the ability to navigate (with DRM) Adobe, the Sony Reader Store, and basic file loading. This won't work for your 87 year old grandmother who pounds on the keys wondering why the laptop won't change the television channels. (Not your grandma. She could totally sudo my root tree, I give you that. Some other dude's grandma. My bad.) Without DRM, it's plugging the 505 into your computer and having Calibre feed it lots of yummy noms. Until the memory runs out.

The PRS-505 has the attention span of, well, me. You're going to need that SD card. Once you are using an SD card any category of books (ie tags you've given your files - like That Junk My Sister Reads or Books Where Everyone Dies And I Cry A Lot) that is also being used by a book in your main memory will duplicate itself. This means you will have 3 books in Super Hawt Reads About Puppies listed and right below that the same category will have 1 book listed. This is crazy annoying when your partner opens the collection labeled Here Is YOUR Stuff On MY Reader Because YOU Keep Saying You Don't Want One LOSER and complains they can't find the book they just loaded. (Pro-Tip: It's in the collection on the next page, the one with the same name.) An easy workaround is to give up the storage in the main memory and put all your books on the SD card. Do not fiddle with the SD card. If you lose it on the bus and find yourself stuck in traffic without any books in the main memory you will cry silent tears of regret. People will think you're the crazy homeless person that rides all day and drop nickels in your tote bag. It won't help.

Ok, so we've loaded our 505 via USB cable from the computer, we've checked out our library books or purchased them from a friendly e-pub seller near us, we've organized them into easy to find collections and tossed a few pictures onto the 505 for custom screen saver action. Now what? Now nothing. You're done. The battery life on this thing is insane. You can charge the PRS-505 roughly once a month (sometimes less) via the USB cable or a wall charger. Sony sold a charger for way too much money so I use a third party PSP wall charger that works perfectly. I've dropped it, set things on it, tossed it to rattle around the bottom of my purse and handed it off to my kids. The text navigation is easy to use and the learning curve ends with Get My Freaking Books To Open Class (also called DRM 101). It's workhorse nature is why the 505 lives on after it's been taken out to pasture and shot as a product line. This is a well designed reliable reader. So why did I kick it to the curb? (Ok, the tween's backpack, but still.) Stay Tuned.

Points of Awesome

  • Reliable
  • Expandable Memory
  • Long Battery Life
  • Intuitive Controls
  • Many Public Libraries Support Format
  • Beautiful Design
  • Decent Page Refresh Time

Points of Bummer

  • Must Be At Computer To Load
  • Requires Adobe
  • No WiFi / 3G Support
  • Internal Memory Small
  • Loading From The SD Card Slower
  • Discontinued Product

Tomorrow - iPod or iPad?
Saturday - The Sony PRS-350 & T-1 Thoughts
Sunday - Kindle, All That Or What?
Monday - So What Do I Buy? 
Tuesday - Why Calibre?