The Cranky Old Reader

I'm a Goodreads refugee, looking for a new home. Old books for children, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and humor are my main areas of interest. I've little interest in books that were written after 1975 or so, and prefer books that are older still. There are, however, a few still-living authors that I respect.

Uninspiring, with a pitiful flaw

The Umbrella Conspiracy - S.D. Perry

It would be ridiculous to expect much from a novelization of a video game. A competently-told but pedestrian adventure story is about the most one could hope for. For the most part, The Umbrella Conspiracy does just that. But it's like eating a burger at a McDonald's: uninspiring. It's certainly not worth reviewing, except for one thing which demonstrates how low standards have gotten in publishing these days.

 

"...and faced a much smaller room, as bland and industrial as the first. ... So far, the basement levels had offered nothing more dangerous than a lack of decorum..."

Through the novel, the author stresses how luxurious the main mansion is. The basement is, in contrast, extremely plain. But the ignorance betrayed in using the phrase "lack of decorum" to indicate that plainness is rather telling. Decorum has nothing to do with decor (or decoration), as the author seems to believe - and as some editor presumably failed to realize. Well, technically both words share the same Latin root, but the meanings are entirely different:

    de·co·rum
    dəˈkôrəm/
    noun
    noun: decorum
    behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety.
    "you exhibit remarkable modesty and decorum"
    synonyms: propriety, seemliness, decency, good taste, correctness;

    de·cor
    dāˈkôr/
    noun
    noun: decor; plural noun: decors; noun: décor; plural noun: décors
    the furnishing and decoration of a room.
    synonyms: decoration, furnishing, ornamentation; color scheme
    Definitions from Google

Decorum pertains to behavior, specifically human or (at least) sapient behavior - not interior decorating. It just sounds as if it does. But for a supposedly professional writer to include such an error, and for an editor and publishing house to print such an error, is really pitiful.

Deeply enjoyable SF/mystery in a rich and tantalizing world

Vika's Avenger - Lawrence Watt-Evans

Lawrence Watt-Evans surprised me with this one. I usually prefer his light fantasy novels, although his rare forays into science fiction, cyberpunk/mystery, and even horror have usually been quite good. But Vika's Avenger is something a bit new for him: science fiction, but with a sense of depth and a richness of culture that put the book into that relatively rare category of SF with a fantasy feel to it (I'd put Zelazny's Lord of Light in the same category, and also Silverberg's Majipoor series). In its richness it's also a bit reminiscent of his Among the Powers (previously titled Denner's Wreck) and Nightside City, along with the sequel Realms of Light.

I really liked this one! It got harder and harder to put it down as I read. As with his best books, the protagonist is actually intelligent - not perfect, and certainly he makes mistakes, but for the most part he's bright and sensible. And those attributes pay off. In many genre books the protagonist misses the obvious, or does stupid things because otherwise there wouldn't be enough of a plot to pad out the book to a saleable length. That's not the case with Tulzik in Vika's Avenger. He's a believably bright and decent young man with a purpose.

And I have to praise the setting. The city of Ragbaan and its inhabitants are engaging, exotic, and rich, with tantilizing depths and hints of mystery: wonderfully complex, but not so complex as to be off-putting or confusing. I want to read more about Ragbaan, and given the care that Watt-Evans has lavished on this setting, I strongly suspect that he'll write more stories set there. I hope he does.

As for the story itself, it's a very pleasing combination of SF, fantasy, and mystery. It's not dark, although I wouldn't categorize it as light, either. It's just one of those extremely well-written books that carries you along and makes you wish there was more when you get to the end. I'll be reading it again.

Cooked with the Nook

My son and I got Nook Colors for Christmas a couple of years ago. His was okay. My first one was defective; it couldn't get online (wifi, the only option, didn't work).

So I sent it back for an exchange. The one that they mailed back had severe connectivity issues. Even literally next to the wifi router, it rarely got a signal - and when it did, the signal was incredibly weak. I took that one back to my local Barnes & Noble for an exchange, as I didn't want to wait for a return in the mail.

They exchanged the unit in the store. But now I was getting paranoid. So I tested it right there in the store, with their own wifi. And damned if that one couldn't connect, either! So they exchanged it yet a third time. The fourth Nook Color was able to connect to wifi and get a decent signal. But it was still badly made. Shortly after getting it home, I discovered that the case wasn't fastened together properly. Every time I held it firmly (for example, when using it to read), the case made an audible and palpable "click".

With three out of four Nooks having been so defective as to be unusable, I decided that I could live with the click. But it's not a quality piece of hardware.

Beyond that, I have three other criticisms to make: first, Barnes & Noble has been terrible about system updates. The Nook is based on the Android operating system, which has been updated many times in the past two years; the improvements have been remarkable. But in that same time, Barnes & Noble has released one, count them, ONE update. The OS is now so out of date that the most modern version of many apps can't run on the Nook Color.

Our Nooks can't even be recognized by my desktop any more - which means I can no longer side-load books, which was the only way that I could read e-books that I'd acquired elsewhere! I could root, of course, but that might jeopardize the few-hundred-plus dollars worth of books that I've purchased, or licensed, or whatever it is. To cap things off, the "Nook for PC" software on my desktop can no longer access my new purchases - even though my account is properly connected and I've synchronized over and over!

That said, I resent not being able to use the far more advanced and convenient input options and features of the latest version of Android. I write on my phone every day; it's almost as convenient as using the keyboard on my desktop. I never write on my Nook any more, and haven't for over a year.

Speaking of apps, the selection of apps that Barnes & Nobles allows for the Nook Color is absolutely terrible. Most of the apps that I use and enjoy on my phone simply aren't available for the Nook Color. And for others, the usual free versions aren't an option; for example, if you want to play Angry Birds, you must buy the pay version. There is no alternative allowed.

The web browser is likewise crippled. It can't display some sites, and others come up all jumbled. Trying to write a post of any kind via that browser is a nightmare. You're pretty much guaranteed to lose a lot of your posts, and the insertion-point jumps around randomly in some websites. You start typing, and then all of a sudden you find that you're suddenly inserting in the middle of a sentence three lines up! Infuriating.

Did I say three complaints? I guess there are four, although this is about Barnes & Noble's online store itself rather than the Nook proper: the selection of older books is incredibly limited. Over and over, I've searched for books; books that were very popular twenty years ago or more, but are rare or out of print now. They're almost never available for the Nook. If you want to buy the latest crappy bestseller, there's no shortage - but look for anything good that's not recent, and you're probably out of luck.

Even if they are available, prepare to pay through the nose. As I've written elsewhere, a book which I bought new for $1.95 in 1981 as a paperback in a brick-and-mortar store now costs $9.99 as an ebook - the price is the same from Amazon, as well. Is an ebook more expensive to make than a real, physical book? Are the costs of transmitting it online higher than the costs of printing, binding, shipping, and stocking it? I'm quite sure that the answer is "no" to both questions.

None of this is to say that the Kindle is better. I don't have one and won't buy one. I oppose what Amazon has done to books and ebooks, and will avoid doing business with them to the best of my ability. But at this point, the world of ebooks as I see it is a remarkably limited place, dominated by a ruthless monopoly. I can't say that it's an attractive prospect.

Robot Who Looked Like Me

Robot Who Looked Like Me - Robert Sheckley Phunsi is a young zebra who lives with his mother on the African veldt. His gift is speed - he can run so fast that he can't be seen. But when he accidentally runs into a cage and is trapped, he and his mother end up being shipped to a zoo in New York City.It isn't long before Phunsi escapes, and he soon ends up lost in New York - not just in the city, but the relatively pastoral parts of New York state. His adventures are many, ranging from a carousel, to a pet shop, to a farm, to the rooftops of New York City. On the way he meets many other animals, almost all of them with a story, song, or poem to tell. How Phunsi becomes a hero and finds his way home makes for a wonderful story.This book is perfect to be read to any child aged four or older, depending on their vocabulary. Since it was written in the 1940s, it does assume a more extensive vocabulary than some young children may have. A child who enjoys reading the Doctor Dolittle books would probably love The Adventures of Phunsi; it's roughly the same level of vocabulary and density of text.It's charmingly illustrated in black & white by the author.Unfortunately this book is incredibly rare. Copies can be found online for a reasonable price, but so far I have yet to meet or hear from anyone else who has ever read it. Except for my son, that is; I read it to him as soon as he was old enough, and we'll be reading it again soon. This book is simply a treasure.

To Reign in Hell: A Novel

To Reign in Hell - Steven Brust, Roger Zelazny A truly original take on Creation, from a semi-Biblical viewpoint - in other words, it's an imaginative take on Genesis from a very skewed angle indeed. This book has the honor of being the one I've loaned out most often AND the one that has failed to be returned to me most often. As a result I've had to buy many copies.I no longer loan it out, of course.

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus - Kurt Vonnegut I can't say that this is one of Kurt Vonnegut's best works. To be honest, it's rather more depressing than many of his other novels - and they're a rather depressing lot anyway! Unlike his Bluebeard, though, this book lacks a deeply moving and somehow uplifting ending. It lacks a sense of resolution...perhaps that's what Vonnegut intended. It probably is.But even so, Vonnegut retained his gifts as a writer. So although I found myself frequently feeling a little depressed by this book, I also couldn't stop reading it - and I'll eventually read it again.One thing that's almost shocking is the accuracy of Vonnegut's "future" (2001) America. Environmental collapse (from glaciers instead of global warming, but close enough), an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor, a desperate energy crisis, booming prison populations and the privatization of prisons, the wholesale purchase of American businesses and properties by foreign businesses, chronic unemployment caused by the demise of American industry, no healthcare for the poor...and that's just from memory, I know there was more. The seeds of all these trends were not only planted but sprouting back in 1990 when Vonnegut wrote this, but even so he paints a pitiless and frighteningly accurate picture.It's nice to see a few of his old favorite characters in the book; it gives a feeling of continuity. And he retained his wicked wit and imagination. It just seems that they were being overshadowed by the essential bleakness of Vonnegut's worldview - a worldview which, I fear, was only too clear.

Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom - David Wingrove This was, hands down, one of the three most vile books I've ever read in my life. It's not science fiction or Chinoiserie, as it pretends to be; it's torture-porn of the very nastiest sort. Apart from that, it's quite poorly written, and as science fiction it's grade "Z" at best.An absolutely disgusting book. I feel as if the author tried to molest me. I've never burned or destroyed a book in my life, and I can't bring myself to start now, but I will not continue reading it and I will never open its pages again.I wish I could give negative stars, because this book deserves thousands of them. Only Jack Chalker and one of the authors of the "Wild Cards" series have ever equalled the utter vileness of Chung Kuo.If you like seeing "heroes" discover bizarre new ways to torture and rape innocent characters, then Chung Kuo is the book for you. If so, I hope you'll seek therapy and stay away from children. The only positive thing I can say about the book is that the writing and characters are all so flat and lifeless that the details of the book didn't linger in my memory for too long. Except that even one SECOND was too long to have some of that crap in my head!

Kim (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

Kim (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) - Rudyard  Kipling One of my very favorite books, hands down. It never fails to leave me choked up when I reach the end.

Superstoe

Superstoe - William Borden An extremely funny work of political and sociological black humor. A group of eccentric and ruthless professors from middle America decide to take over the USA and reform it.The book is packed with clever, amusing ideas, some of which have filtered into popular culture - for example, although it was written before the Internet was developed, it portrays nationwide electronic voting on referendums via something very much like the internet.

JLA: The Tenth Circle

JLA, Vol. 15: The Tenth Circle - John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Jerry Ordway I'll keep it short and sweet: this "graphic novel" sucked.Ever read a comic book, and suddenly been embarrassed because you've suddenly realized that the writer(s) obviously never got the memo (released to the industry after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns) that comic books are supposed to actually be intelligent, and that they're now written for adults and not for particularly dim-witted teens? Ever suddenly felt ashamed and amazed that you were actually READING a piece of sophomoric trash?Then you know exactly what I went through with this one. A painfully stupid and cheesy vampire enemy confounds the good guys. And apart from the bad writing, I have to say that the art was rather pathetic, too. The lead vampire looked like something from a third-rate comic in the early 1970s, by an untalented artist who had recently seen Nosferatu.Avoid.

A brief note:

I've received a number of "follow" requests lately. Thanks, everyone, that's very flattering!

 

However, there are two issues that I must point out.

 

1. If you haven't reviewed any books, I will not "follow" you back until you do. I'm a GoodReads refugee; I've been burned, It's also not my first decade on the internet, not by a long shot (I'm actually working on my third decade on the net, believe it or not). If I don't know who you are and you haven't reviewed any books, I will choose the path of discretion and wait to see some evidence that you are a real, book-loving person.

 

2. If none of your books or reviews are in English, I'm afraid that I don't see much point in following your reviews. I can struggle through some languages, a bit, but I cannot read or enjoy non-English books. Nor will I be able to understand your reviews. That being the case, I'm afraid that my following you would simply be a waste. I honestly mean no offense on this point - I simply don't want to waste your time, and mine!

A statement, of sorts

This may be a controversial entry.

 

I object to the sale of GoodReads to Amazon. I did not put in hundreds of hours of unpaid work in order to enrich a bloated company which has caused untold harm and suffering to so many people. By all accounts Amazon.com has avoided paying their fair share of taxes, treated their employees like garbage, and they've devastated many wonderful book sellers, as well as the world of publishing.

 

I'm just one insignificant person, of course. But I will not accept being turned into a commodity. I am not for sale.

 

And so, I posted the following review on GoodReads tonight. Please go take a look; it won't take long. If you happen to be a GoodReads member and chose to "like" it, thank you. It amuses me, the thought that that review might become one of the more-liked ones on GoodReads.

 

I plan to write more reviews like that. And I hope others do, too.

 

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

eBooks and pBooks

To recap, a paperback (Robert A. Heinlein's Space Cadet) which cost $1.95 in a bookstore in 1981 now costs $9.99 in ebook form, both from Amazon and from Barnes & Noble. This is virtually double the cost, going by the rate of inflation - and that's ignoring the fact that an eBook has far lower costs of production and delivery.

 

The new paperback edition of Space Cadet now costs $14.99. Does this mean that the $9.99 ebook is actually a savings?

 

Well, according to the Inflation Calculator, "What cost $1.95 in 1981 would cost $4.85 in 2012."

That's a 768% increase over the 1981 price. Inflation increased costs only 248% in that period. So how can that $14.99 price be justifiable?

Both the ebook and the current paperback are scandalously overpriced. The fact that the ohysical edition is more than three times as expensive as it should be (under the most generous assumptions) doesn't justify the existence of an ebook version which is "only" twice as as outrageously priced.

That is, unless we assume that corporations are essentially beyond reproach, Godlike, above the reasonable expectations of mere customers. But even if one accepts that argument, that approach is ultimately a suicidal one for publishers. The trend has been to lower quality and raise prices. Has that increased their market? I doubt it. Ebooks have provided a temporary respite, but the publishing and bookselling industries have been dwindling over the long term. At these prices, that trend is likely to continue - and increase in speed.

There is no competition here, no free market - just a vast monopoly with multiple fronts for identically-overpriced wares. For vital necessities such as water and food, such monopolies can endure for decades. But for books? Books are vital for some of us, but only a small and dwindling percentage of the world population. The long-term effect of Amazon's book monopoly will simply be to accelerate the ongoing trend of illiteracy. Presumably Amazon plans to be well-diversified before books become a minor, niche product. One can only hope that they won't succeed.

JLA: The Tenth Circle

JLA, Vol. 15: The Tenth Circle - John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Jerry Ordway I'll keep it short and sweet: this "graphic novel" sucked.Ever read a comic book, and suddenly been embarrassed because you've suddenly realized that the writer(s) obviously never got the memo (released to the industry after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns) that comic books are supposed to actually be intelligent, and that they're now written for adults and not for particularly dim-witted teens? Ever suddenly felt ashamed and amazed that you were actually READING a piece of sophomoric trash?Then you know exactly what I went through with this one. A painfully stupid and cheesy vampire enemy confounds the good guys. And apart from the bad writing, I have to say that the art was rather pathetic, too. The lead vampire looked like something from a third-rate comic in the early 1970s, by an untalented artist who had recently seen Nosferatu.Avoid.

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus - Kurt Vonnegut I can't say that this is one of Kurt Vonnegut's best works. To be honest, it's rather more depressing than many of his other novels - and they're a rather depressing lot anyway! Unlike his Bluebeard, though, this book lacks a deeply moving and somehow uplifting ending. It lacks a sense of resolution...perhaps that's what Vonnegut intended. It probably is.But even so, Vonnegut retained his gifts as a writer. So although I found myself frequently feeling a little depressed by this book, I also couldn't stop reading it - and I'll eventually read it again.One thing that's almost shocking is the accuracy of Vonnegut's "future" (2001) America. Environmental collapse (from glaciers instead of global warming, but close enough), an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor, a desperate energy crisis, booming prison populations and the privatization of prisons, the wholesale purchase of American businesses and properties by foreign businesses, chronic unemployment caused by the demise of American industry, no healthcare for the poor...and that's just from memory, I know there was more. The seeds of all these trends were not only planted but sprouting back in 1990 when Vonnegut wrote this, but even so he paints a pitiless and frighteningly accurate picture.It's nice to see a few of his old favorite characters in the book; it gives a feeling of continuity. And he retained his wicked wit and imagination. It just seems that they were being overshadowed by the essential bleakness of Vonnegut's worldview - a worldview which, I fear, was only too clear.

The free ebook bait-and-switch

I own a Nook Color, so my experience is mainly limited to Nook ebooks and books that are compatible with that reader. But I suspect that my experience probably applies to the Kindle as well. If anyone can enlighten me on that point, I'd appreciate it!

 

Barnes & Noble technically allows free books to be read on the Nook. But their market does everything possible to force shoppers to pay for public-domain books short of literally holding a gun to their heads.

Search the Nook market for any classic work - A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, for example. It was published in 1896, and is therefore in the public domain. By default, pay versions are all you'll see on the first page of results. Scroll through another page or two, and you'll eventually reach a few free versions. But god help you if you download and try to read one! The text is utterly mangled, with a truly astonishing number of trash characters and formatting so tortured that the whole thing is effectively unreadable.

Yet the free copies on Project Gutenberg are pristine and perfect.

I was angry enough to write the following review of the Nook edition:

The verses get five stars from me;
The presentation, one.
A scandal t’is that OCR’s
So mangled Housman’s fun.
The headers cleave each verse in twain
The lines lie torn and rent.
How cruel to make him die again!
Needlessly violent.
But hope lives on, for pristine text
Of “Shropshire Lad” is free
On Project Gutenberg, the home
Of Housman fans like me.

This is not an isolated instance. Time and again, I've found "free" copies of public-domain works from Barnes & Noble that looked as if they'd been OCRed with 1980s technology, or else hand-edited by a deranged monkey. Yet the Project Gutenberg version is always virtually typo-free and far better-formatted. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Apply Occam's Razor: is it more likely that all the free Nook copies of public-domain works just happened to be screwed up, or could it be that they are deliberately mangled with the intent of forcing the reader to pay for copies instead?

 

Of course, it is possible to sort books in the Nook market by price. But that requires more technological knowledge or aptitude than the majority of the ebook-reading public seems to posses. The fact is that most people simply aren't that comfortable with technology. Sorting by price is something they aren't likely to be aware of, much less try. But even if they did, the free copies that Barnes & Noble offers ARE mangled. What other purpose can there be for that mangling except to force ignorant customers to pay for something that they can have for free?

Barnes & Noble is screwing their less technologically-adept customers. Is that ethical? Is that really what we've come to? Is lex talonis the only standard of corporate behavior?

 

Why not try treating their customers with respect? I'd suggest that the loyalty gained by not abusing their customers would produce MORE sales than they get from their current sleazy business practices. I, for one, am making every effort to avoid buying any new books from them.

It doesn't help that they're charging outrageous prices, either. As I noted in the previous post, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com are charging $9.99 today for a book that cost me $1.95 new in 1981 at a bricks-and-mortar store. Yet the cost of production and transportation of the ebook is virtually nil compared to that paperback. What justifies a 512% price increase? That's far more than inflation!

It's not necessary to screw your customers. There are publishers out there who sell ebooks at reasonable prices, or at least less-unreasonable ones. Baen Books, for example, sells a large number of excellent science fiction ebooks for $4-$6 each, in any format and without DRM. That includes quite a few Heinlein juveniles, although not the one that I referred to above.

Yet Baen Books manages to stay in business, while Barnes & Nobles had to be rescued by Microsoft and is generally agreed to be on their last legs. When will these companies learn?

Currently reading

Basic Roleplaying: The Chaosium d100 system (Basic Roleplaying)
Sam Johnson, Charlie Krank
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Rebecca Solnit