reviews

My Favorite Things

Posted by Always Write at 10:48 PM Tagged with: , ,
Jul 242010

I’ve been meaning to start reviewing some books and movies that I enjoy on this blog, which has so far mostly concentrated on e-book news, e-book readers, and changes in the publishing industry. While I’m still passionate about those things, I’d also like to help spread the word and review other books I’ve been reading and particularly good movies I’ve seen. Sadly, in finishing my latest book (and editing, formatting, promoting, blah blah), I haven’t had much time for reading, but I plan to get back to it soon.

Until then, I just felt like highlighting some of my all-time favorite books and movies (and a TV show thrown in for good measure). Perhaps these will give you a feel for my tastes and inspiration as a writer, or maybe they’ll just help you pick your next book or movie to rent. So, here are some of my favorite things:

Books

  1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, by Douglas Adams: I’ve read this series of books cover-to-cover at least 5 times. Hilarious, witty, irreverent, poignant, and sometimes just plain silly, this book always manages to make me laugh. Aside from writing about funny situations and ideas, Adams was the greatest at using language itself to make me laugh; he wrote about funny things in a funny way. Some of his dialogue was pure genius. I’m saddened that he left us far too soon.
  2. Lamb, by Christopher Moore: Another example of great humor writing, Lamb was so sacrilegious, it probably would have started a new round of Crusades, except it had all the zealots doubled over and howling in laughter. It chronicles “the missing years” of Jesus Christ’s young adult life, and tells the story of his childhood companion, Biff. A taste: as Moore re-tells the famous story of the adulteress (inviting “he who is without sin to cast the first stone”), Biff gallantly volunteers to see the nice lady home safely. Jesus gives Biff a disapproving look that probably only the Son of God can really pull off. As Biff sulks away from the departing woman, he laments that “it just seems like such a waste of a perfectly good adulteress.” Comedy gold.
  3. The Conqueror’s Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn: This series hooked me in with a stunning scene of first contact with an alien species — which served as inspiration for the start of Right Ascension — and continued to explore fascinating ideas regarding assumptions we’d make about a new species and how changes in ability or technology could radically reshape an entire civilization and their viewpoint. The first book is from the humans’ point of view, the second from the aliens’, and the third goes back and forth. Zahn’s characterization and the depth of the alien society he created made it seem as if he had visited this alien place and come back to report on it, instead of inventing it in his mind. I could just as easily recommend his Thrawn series (set in the Star Wars universe) or many of his other excellent novels.

Honorable Mentions: The Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and anything by Dave Barry.

Movies

  1. Forrest Gump: This is the movie I’ve watched more than any other. I probably saw it about 100 times in college, to the point where I could recite every line, and knew obscure trivia like dollar amounts or all the different ways you could prepare shrimp. Partially from overload, I haven’t seen it in years now, but I was still moved by the story and how the title character overcame obstacles and made his place in the world.
  2. The Shawshank Redemption: I was surprised to learn that this movie was based on a novella by Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. I found this movie to be powerful, moving, and it contained the perfect combination of outstanding acting (Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins), phenomenal directing, and a superb musical score. This may be the only movie I enjoyed more than in book form — which I’m sure was only possible because they fit all the essential stuff from the novella into the movie, which is impossible with longer novels.
  3. Gattaca: An underrated but intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction story about genetics and genetic testing gone awry. It explored questions regarding how much of our lives is determined by genetic factors, the morality of using genetics to screen for jobs or social status, and how the indomitable human spirit can overcome all obstacles (notice the parallels to Forrest Gump). Particularly relevant now as our understanding of science and genetics rapidly advances, this movie wasn’t so much sci-fi as “here’s a taste of some issues you’ll be dealing with in 5 or 10 years.”
  4. Serenity: Oh man, just don’t get me started on Firefly, the foundation for Serenity and the best TV show of my generation, which was cancelled in less than a season so they could squeeze in another version of Surviving the Amazing Apprentice Race with Real Kardashian Housewives. The TV series and movie were witty, well-written, and starred a great cast with phenomenal chemistry, led by Nathan Fillion, who I’m happy to see doing well on one of my favorite recent shows, Castle.

Honorable Mentions: Several of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies (and TV series), Top Gun (hey, all males my age liked that movie when it came out!), and Rain Man.

So, there you have it, some of my all-time favorite books and movies. Please don’t read too much into the exact order, the point is just that I very much enjoyed and highly recommend everything on this list.

Now that we’ve had the iPad for 10 days, I can give a more thorough review than my first one. Probably the best thing I can say about it is that it has kept us up even later than usual on more than one night … and that we’ve started calling it the “CrackPad.” Downloading apps, playing games, watching videos, and surfing the ‘Net becomes more addictive on the touchscreen, hand-held device. Aside from games, some of the apps are really useful, like the excellent WeatherBug app (that auto-detects your location and gives hour-by-hour forecasts, moving radar images, and pictures from nearby cameras), talking to someone on Skype is more fun than on a computer (too bad there’s no webcam), Shazam listens to songs playing on the radio and identifies them, and NetNewsWire lets me read my blogs and RSS feeds on-the-go. And my wife will no doubt be well entertained on her next flight.

On the down side, the iPad’s 24-ounce (1.5-pound) weight becomes quickly apparent when holding it–it really needs to be rested on a knee or lap, which can necessitate a hunching posture. It gets even heavier when you add a sturdy case, a necessity for something so expensive, slick, and fragile.

Of special interest to me is the question: How good is the iPad as an e-reader? And the answer is a pretty good one, but with some important caveats. First of all, I find it better for shorter reading (under an hour), as the backlit LCD screen is simply not as easy on the eyes as e-Ink displays or actual paper. And the weight is quite noticeable when reading, especially compared to my Kindle 2. However, color covers look gorgeous, and the iBook reading app is very well done. The iBook app mimics the look and feel of a book, especially when turned sideways to display 2 pages at once. It is simple to purchase books, arrange them on your bookshelf, open them, change font sizes, look words up in the dictionary, and turn pages. One note: while the cool-looking page turns (you swipe your finger and the slightly see-through page will follow the movement of your finger) are fun to play with at first, I very quickly desired the Kindle’s one-handed button press for page turns, which I’m glad to say you can do by tapping your thumb in the iBook app. It’s funny: people talk about e-readers mimicking books, but I already find turning pages too “cumbersome” now that I’m used to one-handed operation!

As for where to buy books: while the iBook Store is not as well-organized as Amazon’s, and doesn’t have as many titles (30,000 to almost 500,000), this ironically becomes an iPad advantage because you can use the iBook store and/or read Amazon books through Amazon’s Kindle for iPad app, which is also excellent.

As for the inevitable comparison to the Kindle 2, I’ll go point-by-point, roughly in order of importance to me (iPad advantages in bold, K2 advantages in italics):

  1. The iPad’s backlit LCD is like a computer monitor, not as easy on the eyes for long reading as the K2’s e-Ink or paper.
  2. Reading is very simple and intuitive–I’d rate this one as a tie with the K2, both are excellent.
  3. Weight (24 ounces) makes the Kindle (only 10 ounces) feel like a feather.
  4. The iPad’s $499 starting price is almost double the K2 ($259).
  5. The K2’s 2-week battery life is in another league than the iPad’s 10-12 hours.
  6. The iPad’s color screen makes covers and your “bookshelf” look great.
  7. Although I’ve become used to the Kindle’s “locations,” the iPad’s page count (and # of pages left in a chapter) is more intuitive.
  8. The current Wi-Fi iPads lack the K2’s free 3G wireless coverage. The forthcoming 3G iPad will cost at least $629 + $30 per month.
  9. The iPad starts with 16 GB of storage, while the K2 only has 2 GB. But both are plenty for thousands of books (the iPad will undoubtedly get filled with other stuff).
  10. You can attach the K2 to your computer via USB and drag-and-drop e-books into it. The iPad requires fussing with iTunes, which is a huge hassle when trying to connect to computers other than your own.
  11. Being able to purchase books from Amazon or the iBook Store may give you more options; however, most books should be the same price in either place.

In summary, it all comes down to what you’re looking for, and how serious a “reader” you are. It’s clear to me that the Kindle 2 is a superior e-reader. It’s much lighter, the e-Ink display is better for long reading sessions, it costs a fraction of the price, and the battery lasts forever. But the iPad makes a fine device to do a little light reading with from time to time. And, of course, the iPad plays games and movies and all sorts of legitimately cool stuff. But those cool things actually become a distraction as your “book” starts beeping and pinging at you when you get an email or Facebook update–the Kindle doesn’t do that. And, if you’re settled on the couch trying to escape into a good book, the lack of distraction can actually be a good thing.

UPDATE: No wonder we had been staying up later — according to researchers, using the iPad late at night disrupts your ability to fall asleep. (Luckily, e-Ink displays like the Kindle’s are safe.)

Apr 042010

You need something to read on your new toy, right?Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and we somewhat spontaneously decided on her birthday present the night before: an iPad. We hadn’t pre-ordered, so we stayed up all night and went to stand in line at the Apple Store at 6:30 AM. All went well, and we came home with a new iPad (Wi-Fi model) yesterday.

Many have touted the iPad as a “Kindle-killer” and the next big thing in e-book reading. Others say it’s just a big, overpriced Apple iPhone / iPod Touch. Others consider it aimed at a totally different market than the Kindle. So, my early thoughts (after only using it for a day):

So far, I like it more than I thought I would. It’s a good size for web browsing, pics, and stuff. And gaming on it is really fun (we did not have an iPhone or iPod Touch before). Now, we didn’t leave the house yesterday, so the size and weight and lack of 3G connectivity has not been an issue. And it’s still new and “cool” … will we still use it as much in a few months?

One big reason I like it is because the battery is impressive. Reviews said it gets 11-12 hours of movie watching, and with heavy use yesterday it lasted all day, probably 12 hours or so before we recharged it. That’s very good — although not Kindle territory.

As for reading books, I poked around on the Apple iBook Store (and was pleased to see Right Ascension and Declination show up on there, for just 99 cents each, on the day of launch!). I haven’t tried reading on it for any length of time (I’ve mostly been setting it up, downloading apps, and playing games). The bigger screen is nice, and a good battery is a plus, and the navigation seems simple (like the Kindle). Things like page turns, going to your library and picking a book, dictionary lookups, and changing font sizes are all easy and intuitive. On the minus side, it’s heavier than a Kindle and 12 hour battery life is a far cry from 2-week battery life. Also, there is no text-to-speech, as there is on the Kindle. And I still think it will be much easier to read on the Kindle’s e-Ink display.

Also, to compare apples to Apples (as it were, capitalization intentional), you’d have to compare the Kindle 2 (at $259) with an iPad 3G with wireless built in ($629 + $720 for 2 years of service = $1,349). So it’s really not in the same ballpark as a reader. Yes, you may be able to find other uses to justify the price differential, but I don’t really see them as direct competitors, even though the media is obsessed with the comparison.

Now, will people read on the iPad? That remains to be seen. I don’t really think so, although even a small percentage if there are tons of iPads out there could add up to something. I still think real readers will get a K2. I will say one downside for independent authors: Amazon is great at helping people find stuff with their “people who bought this also bought,” their genre best-seller lists, etc. But on the iPad, unless you’re one of their 5 or 10 “featured” big-name books, you gotta search for what you want. So, I wouldn’t expect nearly as many sales through the iPad as Amazon, since no one can “stumble upon” me … they need to be looking specifically.

Anyway, those are my early thoughts. I’m gonna take it down to my family’s place for Easter dinner tonight and see how it works on-the-go. I’ll use it for a while longer and try reading a whole book on it and give you my further thoughts in a week or so.

What do you think? Is the iPad a “Kindle-killer”? An overpriced, but fun, diversion? A laptop replacement? The future of all things? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts….

Jan 152010

As a new Kindle 2 owner, the first thing I did was research and pick out a case to protect it. About a week ago, I decided to try out the M-Edge Platform case and have used it since then. This case flips open from the top, and can be opened to serve as a platform to prop up your Kindle on a table for hands-free reading. I decided on it because (a) I wanted something that was rigid (as opposed to padded) to protect the screen, (b) I wanted something small and light, (c) I wanted enough room for a pen and small notepad, and (d) I like the hands-free reading idea. Oh, and I didn’t want to pay too much. I have to say the M-Edge Platform ($29.99) delivered what I was looking for.

First, a couple of pics from Amazon:

The case is essentially two rigid flaps hinged together at the top. When closed, a tab is slid into a hole to secure it. The tab takes a few seconds to insert or extract, but it closes the case securely and doesn’t seem like it would wear out like an elastic closure might. When you open the case, the top flap can be hinged backward and the tab can be inserted “in reverse” to create an A-shaped stand. This will hold your Kindle upright for hands-free reading (well, you still need to hit the next page button!). When opened and pressed flat, it doesn’t add too much thickness to the Kindle, so you can still hold it and read easily in the case, and you can reach the next page buttons on either side. I also appreciate that it doesn’t weigh too much, and I leave my Kindle in the case for reading.

The Kindle attaches with two leather (I elected the cheaper imitation leather model, but I am pleased with the feel of it) corner attachments at the bottom corners and two elastic attachments at the top. From pictures, I feared it wouldn’t hold the K2 securely, but it does, I have no worry of it slipping out. I don’t know if the elastic enclosures become less secure over time, however.

I also liked that there is a small pen loop at the top, and a business card pouch plus a thin pocket on the inside of the front cover. I like the idea of keeping a pen and small note pad to jot down writing ideas, but they add almost no bulk or thickness to the case. The inside covers are lined with a soft felt material.

There is also room along the left side of the K2 (and a pouch to slide the base into) designed to hold an M-Edge reading light (which I do not have). Some may not like that this causes the Kindle to be off-centered in the case, and it may be difficult for people with smaller hands to reach the left-side buttons, although I had no problems with it.

All in all, I have to say that the case exceeded my expectations, and I am actually a picky reviewer. The quality of the materials feels good (of course, it’s fake leather, but I’m fine with that… they do make a more expensive real leather version). It is about as thin and light as possible while still affording good protection, and it feels supple on the outside but there is a rigid core in the front and back covers that appears to protect the K2 well. The A-frame reading platform may come in handy, I’ve used it while eating lunch a couple of times, although I normally read with the case folded all the way back.

Essentially, the case did everything I hoped for it to do. Those of you who like to carry more than a pen, business card, note pad, and light with your Kindle (like if you want to bring the USB cord/power adapter or keys) may not like this device. And it does not fully enclose the Kindle, so it would not protect as well from dust or spills as the zippered cases. But, if your needs are like mine, I can heartily recommend this case and give it an A.

© 2010 David Derrico