Bad design: Relying on images for words

A featured deal on the Kobo eBook site looks like this (this is not clickable and the deal may have ended ten years ago by the time you see this, so apologies if this was your most-anticipated book ever and you can’t buy it at the price shown):

Seems fine, right? Now imagine if for some reason the site wasn’t rendering the image of the book properly. Here’s the same ad, with the book cover obscured:

No big deal, right? But let’s say you don’t have time to click the Learn more link when you see it, so you make a note to check later. But later the ad is no longer in rotation. Still no big deal, because you made a note of the title of the book–oh wait, you didn’t, because if the image doesn’t display, the text has no mention of the book title anywhere. Whoops. And this is applied inconsistently as well, as here’s another featured ad from the same page and it does mention the title in the last paragraph:

This isn’t world-ending bad design, of course, it’s really more of a nitpick. Still, an ad for a book should perhaps mention the book, no?

Bye bye books

This past weekend I gathered up nearly all of my paperback books–four cloth bags and a cardboard storage box in all–and dumped them into a book donation bin.

The majority of books I had already read–in some cases decades ago–while others were bought on a whim and then forgotten, unread and still in pristine condition. Most of the books were in near-perfect condition, actually, only the ones I loaned to friends were worn. My 43-year old copy of The Exorcist was definitely showing its age, though, with the cover taped on and the pages yellowing and getting a bit foul [devil/possession joke here].

On the other hand, some other books nearly as old almost looked brand new, because I was a very careful reader. Why, I cannot say. Looking at my bedroom, you would never have said I was a neat kid. And yet my books were treated like treasures. I suppose in a way they were. I read all the time when I was younger and the last few years I’ve rekindled [Kindle joke here] my love for both novels and non-fiction.

So why did I toss nearly all of my books away, keeping only a precious few, like signed copies or reference guides that are still relevant? Because I am determined to strip away the clutter in my life, and the books hold no sentimental value for me, though some had pretty snazzy covers. Most of these books I’d read long ago and were stuffed away in boxes and bags. It’s been many years since I had a bookshelf, and given the, shall we say, uneven quality of the books I indulge in, I feel no great need to hang onto them or display them for all to see.

And so off they went, to find homes elsewhere. I don’t know if someone will want to read my 1980 paperback copy of Salem’s Lot (I finally read the eBook version in October 2011), but it’s in darn good shape if they do.

In the meantime, I have less clutter, both in the condo and in my mental space. It feels good. The de-clutterfest will continue this coming weekend.

The big review of books: 2015 Edition

In 2015 I read 36 books and one short story. Actually, I read a lot of short stories but only one that was purchased standalone (“In the Tall Grass”).

I once again saved a tree by reading 100% digitally, primarily via a Kobo H20 ereader, an iPad mini (which unceremoniously died midway through the year) and my iPad Air (which did not unceremoniously die but is used primarily for reading in bed, as it’s a bit too big for me to enjoy carrying around for book reading). The iPad reading was done via the Marvin ereader app. Kobo and Amazon’s Kindle apps are both seriously lacking in features vs. their ereader counterparts, possibly to drive sales of said ereaders.

I reviewed the majority of books on Goodreads and the reviews break down as follows on their one to four star scale (Goodreads does not allow half stars):

Five stars: 1
Four stars: 15
Three stars: 8
Two stars: 2
One star: 1

For the most part I enjoyed the books I read last year, with 23 of 27 reviewed netting at least three stars. Even the pair of two-star novels (Swan Song and The Gate at Lake Drive) both had their strengths and I don’t regret reading them.

The five-star was a re-read, Stephen King’s On Writing. As I wrote in my review, it’s the seamless fusion of writing primer and memoir that lifts this book from being very good to great.

The one-star review is for The Store, Bentley Little’s semi-satirical take on a Walmart-like store chain that takes over small towns for nefarious and profitable purposes. I’d never read Little before and have no idea how representative The Store is of his style, but it left me unwilling to investigate any of his numerous other The _____ books. The utter banality and formulaic writing made this the most eye-rolling read of 2015 (Swan Song would be the runner-up, see my review for a few examples).

I’ve settled into a bit of a pattern with my book-reading over the past few years, with my selections falling into these groups:

  • a couple of Stephen King novels, typically a mix of a current title and an older one or two I haven’t read. I read five this year, so I went a bit King-crazy. I have no regrets. I say that even having read Dreamcatcher.
  • a couple of science fiction, fantasy or horror classics dating back to the 19th or early-to-mid 20th centuries. Only two this year: Lord of the Flies and Alice Through the Looking Glass.
  • a smattering of current novels or books spanning my usual interests: science fiction, horror, weird stuff (UFOs, etc.). This was the bulk of my reading.
  • books by established authors that were on sale. These are usually old or lesser-known titles, like Arthur C. Clarke’s (excellent) The City and the Stars, an outrageously ambitious first novel.
  • a handful of books by new authors (or at least new to me) that were on sale, typically published by small presses or self-published. I’m always hoping that I’ll find a new author to follow but usually end up either disappointed or ambivalent. The best of these was probably Sarah Lotz’s The Three.
  • a few re-reads. I re-read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency again and did not regret it.

And now here are a few of my 2015 Reading Awards:

Favorite book of 2015: Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)
Favorite re-read of 2015: On Writing (Stephen King)
Most depressing book of 2015: Idiot America (Charles P. Pierce)
Best Stephen King book I read in 2015 (not counting On Writing): From a Buick 8 (yes, you heard me–the story is simple but is strangely charming)
Most disappointing classic: Swan Song (Robert McCammon). I don’t understand why this book is rated so highly. It’s not bad, it’s just very average. I would say I’m a picky reader but I love enough junk to know that’s not true.
The “Well, that was…interesting” Award: Given the Circumstances (Brad Vance). I figured it was time to read a gay romance. For the first half of the book the two main characters dance around each other (they are massive/studly NFL and MLB players, of course) then when they finally have sex it’s rendered in enough detail to qualify as a medical dissertation. It felt weird (that’s what he said). It was essentially story story story EXPLICIT HARDCORE SEX story story EXPLICIT HARDCORE SEX story story EXPLICIT HARDCORE SEX story fin. Maybe all romances are written this way and I never knew because I’d never read any. Now I know and well, it was interesting.

Books, now with their own exciting page

Now that I am reading more I have moved my list o’ books from the Errata page to their own page, cleverly titled Books. It is available from the menu at the top of the site.

I’ll be adding more reviews and converting some (or all) of the existing ones to link to my Goodreads page, making it my Officially most Used Social Media Site™.

Book review: Majestic

Since it was just recently reprinted ans I missed it back in the day, I read Majestic, Whitley Strieber’s ‘true fiction’ account of the Roswell Incident. It’s partially epistolary in nature, as some chapters are told directly from the memoirs of the (fictitious) character of Will Stone, an ex-CIA officer who was deeply involved in the Roswell crash recovery and subsequent cover-up and who ultimately confesses the secrets of what happened to a reporter for The Bethesda Express (in 1989, the year the novel was originally published). The remaining chapters are told from the first person perspective of the reporter as he recounts the stories he is told and the material he uncovers in his research.

The story starts out fairly grounded (ho ho) but as it moves beyond the initial discovery of the crashed disk it gets progressively weirder, with Strieber projecting the behaviors of the ‘visitors’ from his book Communion onto the aliens. Said visitors go on to seriously screw around with the minds and bodies of several people, some of them actual historical figures. The government stuff is handled believably, with everyone up to the president appropriately freaked by the potential an alien invasion could have — and the orders to both shoot first and cover up the whole thing not only works perfectly for conspiracy theorists, it’s plausible as something the government would probably do in such a situation.

My biggest disappointment with the story is probably in regards to the details of what is found. There are several scenes with scientists and military men gathered to discuss findings and propose strategies but the emphasis is clearly on the military side of things, leaving a lot of potentially interesting bits on the alien technology only hinted at.

Still, this is a short and breezy read. For those looking for a (fictional) take on Roswell, it may be worth checking out. Just be prepared for more emphasis on trippy happenings and less on government shenanigans as you get further in

Book review: My Work Is Not Yet Done

Thomas Ligotti’s My Work Is Not Yet Done is a book that was recommended by several readers on Quarter to Three and I’m always willing to try a new author, so I gave it a go recently. The experience was a bit confusing, not because of Ligotti’s prose, but rather the borked formatting of the Kobo ebook version I was reading, which presented incorrect jumps to the wrong chapter or section. Fortunately the table of contents worked properly and I was able to complete the book without going totally mad.

The heart of the book is a short novel in which the protagonist faces off against seven other ‘swine’ in an office where he correctly figures himself the lowest of the low. He ultimately plots revenge against his co-workers via copious amounts of gunfire but when he suddenly finds himself with supernatural powers he plots out more (extremely) grisly and imaginative ends to the people who demean and mock him. The story is told in the first person and the time spent in Frank Dominio’s mind is at turns fascinating and amusing but ultimately without reward. None of the primary characters in the story are remotely likable.

Ligotti does a good job keeping a consistent and clear tone with the narrative. You may not like Dominio but you will understand him and the frustrations he feels, even as you remain unconvinced that he is not just, as he fears he will be remembered, a kook. More broadly, My Work Is Not Yet Done serves as a philosophical statement on the corporate realm, its inhabitants constantly referred to as swine, its goals and purpose consistently derided. The frank exchanges between the characters in their numerous meetings are simultaneously amusing and depressing.

I enjoyed the craft of the story more than the actual story itself. I’ve not read Ligotti before and have heard this collection may not be fully representative of his work. He is a fine writer but My Work Is Not Yet Done is unrelentingly bleak. The sarcastic, droll observations of Dominio lighten the tone but only slightly. Still, I can’t deny Ligotti’s imagination and skill, so I may seek out some of his other work.

Just not right away.

13 books read — scary!

I’ve just finished reading my 13th book this year (scary!), appropriately it was Stephen King’s latest short story collection Just After Sunset. I had read “Stationary Bike” in a previous compilation (and it remains a favorite) but the rest were new to me. As always, some stories resonated more than others, a few seemed more like scenes or mood pieces than stories proper but the highlight for me was the one previously unpublished entry, a story called “N.” that delves into madness (and monsters) in a way that would fit perfectly in the Cthulhu mythos. I’m recommending the collection on the strength of that one alone, though there are several others that are nicely done. If any complaint is to be made it’s that none of the stories are particularly creepy.