Thursday, 7 March 2019

World Book Day

Today is World Book Day, a day that is designed to encourage children to read and be enthusiastic books. Obviously this is very much something to be applauded, as increased literacy and appreciation of books can only be a positive.


As with most things these days, commercialism has taken over. Now the focus is on buying a costume (handily provided by all the supermarkets) for the day and dressing up, with the actual books only mentioned in passing. I would guess that the majority of children who have dressed up have no idea who they are supposed to be or what books they are from.

Not only that but money has been spent on a costume that will probably only be worn once. When this started, we made the costumes. I remember making an Ace of Diamonds (from Alice's Adventures In Wonderland) from a pillowcase, cardboard for stiffening and a red marker pen. Now they are expected to be bought. Wouldn't it be much better to spend that money on a book instead?

These days it isn't so much World Book Day as World Dress Up Day. So although the idea and intention is a good one, it has become subverted and is rapidly losing its meaning, much like Halloween over the years.

So when our youngest participates we will send her to school with her favourite book, not an outfit. Because today is about books.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Phil's Law

What I term rather immodestly as Phil's Law goes something like this:
When you see a single book, in a bookshop or a library, that is from a series it is usually the second one from that series. It is almost never the first one
On first glance this seems pretty obvious. If there is more than one book in a series then the likelihood of seeing any one book is in ratio the number of books in the series. So a trilogy has a 33% per cent chance of each book being seen.

But my experience is that there's about a 60% chance of seeing the second book, 25% the third and 15% the first. Which just seems strange. And the chance of finding more than one book (especially from trilogies) seems out of proportion too, with a single book being much more likely. If a bookshop stocks books from a series would it not make sense to at least have the first one for people who want to start there?

There are rare exceptions here. Series that I found the first book of first include The Innasmorn Saga by Adrian Cole, Low Town by Daniel Polansky and The Pilgrims by Will Elliott (all fine series by the way).

Sometimes the book is a higher one in the series; I read The Lord of the Rings 'backwards' when I first read it; Return of the King then The Two Towers then The Fellowship of the Ring. I sometimes wonder if this has had a subtle effect on the way I perceive that series.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Amazon's Review Policy

With its position of huge market dominance in the book industry, for both traditional publishers but even more so for the thriving independent and self publishing authors out there, Amazon can be the making or breaking of a book.

Central to this is the Amazon review system. Read a book and liked it? Rate it highly on Amazon and sales will increase. Rate it poorly and there will be a negative impact. Reviews are everything when buying books online, and until recently Amazon had a decent platform for doing this.

I review books all the time - lots of books, both ones I'm currently reading and ones I've read over the years. All freely and in my spare time because I enjoy books, promoting reading and supporting authors. And I post all of these reviews to as many places as I can - Goodreads is the primary resource but I copy the text out to Amazon UK, Amazon US, Waterstones, Kobo and Barnes and Noble sites (provided they carry the books). Spreading the word is the best way to boost book sales. My review ranking is pretty good and I have a lot of 'helpful' upvotes on my reviews.

But now things have changed. I live in the UK and so all of my transactions are naturally through the UK Amazon site, both for convenience and also because if I try to buy through the US site it encourages me to use the UK one. But now Amazon have decided that in order to post reviews to the US site, I need to have spent $50 on the US site in the last 12 months. But I can't because I'm in the UK.

So despite the fact that I can post my reviews quite happily in the UK, and I definitely spend more than $50 a year with Amazon as a company (as a Prime subscriber and other purchases), I can't post reviews to the US site any more. So that means that my opinion as a normal reader of a book isn't being seen by potential purchasers, which hurts both Amazon and of course the authors and publishers themselves.

So why have Amazon done this? I suspect there was some aspect of trying to curb fake reviews - either positive ones for poor products or damaging ones for those of a rival - and this approach no doubt won approval pretty quickly because there was also the added bonus of getting people to spend a little more.

However, it seems to me that this has done nothing to address that and indeed has probably made it worse. Sure you'll reduce the number of frivolous or spam reviews, but as the reviews are moderated anyway that's never been a big problem. But the biggest culprits of fake reviews is business, not individuals, and for most business $50 in order to post a few fake reviews to boost their sales (or remove sales from their competitors) would be money well spent. So they will still keep posting them.

Meanwhile the voices that really count, the average consumer, have now been reduced. Those who don't routinely buy from Amazon are now discarded, their opinion clearly worthless to Amazon when in fact their opinion is the one that counts the most. And for people like me who live in a different country and are just trying to help by posting honest reviews it hurts most of all because there's nothing we can do about it. Is my opinion to be discarded simply because I don't live in the US? That's protectionism to a whole new and unacceptable level.

So what Amazon has done is made their reviews less trustworthy at a stroke whilst also damaging their core business of books and publishing at the same time. Congratulations Amazon.

Why not count purchases made from Amazon as a whole? Why not look at people's review record to see if they are fake or not? Why not? Because Amazon don't care.

Monday, 4 June 2018

New Kobo Woes

After being reduced to one shared eReader in the household (a Kobo as it happens) after the getting-on-a-bit 5 button Kindle finally gave up, I invested in a Kindle Touch and Kobo Touch so we are back to full strength with 3 in the house.

The Kindle Touch was fine, no problem at all. The Kobo, because it was starting from factory settings, insisted on putting the latest firmware update on.

Apart from changing the front screen and some other bits of the interface (which I know a lot of people don't like but honestly as long as I can read books on it I don't care about it trying to sell me content every time I go to the home screen) one change caused me a bit of frustration. It may hit you so here is the problem, what has caused it, and how to get around it.

The problem manifests itself when trying to read a book. All the books show in the library, with front covers, sizes, everything looks normal. But when you open the book it is just blank - and the Kobo marks it as 100% read, as if the book is empty even though it clearly isn't.

The cause of this is that the default font for books has changed from Georgia to 'Publisher's Chosen Font'. This means that if your eBook doesn't specify a font (and my experience is that very very few do) the Kobo essentially displays it with no font, therefore no words appear. The whole book fits on one page so therefore it's 100% read.

Reportedly Kobo are working on a fix for this. But in the meantime the books can be recovered by setting the font for each book back to Georgia. With the blank page up, go to the settings menu (tap at the bottom of the screen on my version), select the character/font settings (the two As) and change the font to Georgia (or indeed any other one in the list of your choosing). The content will now appear and book will be as if the update had never happened.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

My Books of 2016

2016 was a great year for the books I read; I was rarely disappointed with the quality particularly of electronic publishing which is definitely getting stronger. My actual reading time was severely squeezes though so I didn't get through as many books as I would have liked.

As usual it was hard to whittle the ones I read down to a final shortlist but here it is. All of these got 5 star reviews by me on Goodreads but they are very different books, hopefully this list will inspire someone to pick one (or more!) of these up and give them a go. As usual my reviews are spoiler free so feel free to look at those for more details on any of the books.

A Certain Threat by Roger Burnage

The age of sea battles with mighty sailing ships is always a stirring one and it's a great era to set a novel in. This is the first of a series of stories about James Merriman, an officer in the Royal Navy who is given command of a ship to investigate smuggling off the coast of North Wales and the disappearance of a coast guard cutter.

The action takes place on land as well as at sea as Merriman's family live nearby and are able to provide assistance with his enquiries. But being ashore does not equate to safety for either Merriman or his crew. As they get closer to solving the mystery of the missing cutter and apprehend the smugglers, the stakes are raised ever higher.

Burnage does a fabulous job with this work with the history and details meticulously researched lending every word a certain weight and authenticity that is hard to establish. This book has it all, from a central mystery that needs to be solved, historical descriptions and terrific action scenes.

See my review here

Asbury Park by Rob Scott

Sailor Doyle is a police detective recovering from his previous case which took its toll on him both physically and mentally. Despite being a national hero he is disgraced within the force and with his wife. In an attempt to rebuild his health and his life he moves with his family to the New Jersey shore.

But something or someone doesn't want him to rest easy. A dead body spoils an early morning breakfast. He has to thwart a gunman at a local school. And he is haunted by strange marks and the song Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd.

Is something going on? Is there a rational explanation for the events Doyle witnesses or must he rely on the supernatural for answers? Or has his mind finally tipped over the edge into madness?

This is a tricky book to categorise, and that is one of the reasons I absolutely loved it. It is not a true detective story, although there is a lot of detection in it. Neither is it a simple ghost story. It is neither one nor the other and is one of those books that if you read it expecting it to be pigeonholed then you will miss the point of it. It is neither one thing nor the other, which is a great thing because this story could not have been told any other way. A joy to read, if a dark joy. And Wish You Were Here still sends shivers down my spine when I hear it.

See my review here

Bells On Her Toes by Diana J Febry

Asbury Park might not fit into the detective fiction mould but this book certainly does, and fits very nicely indeed. Set within the insular and suspicious world of horse racing, Detectives Peter Hatherall and Fiona Williams  must investigate a murder faced with often open hostility from those in the sport.

There are suspects and red herrings galore, and the deeper Hatherall and Williams dig the more connections they find and the more dead ends and closed doors they encounter trying to pursue them.

They story is as twisted and complex as the premise of the book is pleasingly simple. This is a classic 'whodunnit' complete with suspicious characters and shady dealings creating plenty of distractions. The characters are also good, with the detectives themselves being very human, with their own failings and frustrations evident as they fail to find the culprit and time ticks by.

See my review here

Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet by Chris Connolly

Felix Noonan, a poet from Sheffield who was to 20th Century poetry what William McGonagle was to the 19th. Felix Noonan, Britian's official Second World War Poet. Felix Noonan, who rubbed shoulders with many of the most important figures of the time but seems to have been subtly removed from any official histories. If he didn't exist you'd have to invent him.

Starting from the exploits of his famous boxing grandmother, through his hard kocks upbringing in industrial Sheffield to international fame if not actually fortune, the biography tells the tale of one of Sheffield's forgotten sons. A slight volume, its 95 pages still manage to capture the essence of the man and his poetry.

This book is subtly satirical and very amusing, managing to avoid any temptation to push any of the jokes and references too far, remaining by and large just about on the side of plausibility whilst still being wildy absurd. Every page is perfectly pitched, guaranteeing a chuckle at his childhood diseases or his irrational spats with Hollywood stars. If you want a book guaranteed to put a smile on your face this is the one for you.

See my review here

Guns Of The Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky is most associated with his Shadows of the Apt epic series but this is a  stand alone novel which showcases his talents as a writer.

Denland and Lascanne, former allied countries, are now at war following the overthrow of Denland's monarchy. Lascanne is desperate for troops. Having already conscripted all the able bodied men, now whole swathes of women are being drafted. Emily Marshwic is from a noble family and volunteers for service. First hand she experiences the terror, waste of war and the randomness of those who are killed and those who live. She soon discovers that not all enemies are in front of her and not all friends are behind her.

This is a long book but it's just brilliant. The setting is a sort of pseudo-Napoleonic era with magic thrown in. The descriptions are really evocative, especially of the confusing mayhem of the battles or the relentless filth and grime of the swampy front lines. War is hell, and the depiction here shows that is not only in terms of death and injury but also on the damage caused to societies as a result.

See my review here

Kings Or Pawns by JJ Sherwood

The first of a series, this book takes the usual fantasy staples and gives them a good shaking up. Elves are the main focus here but rather than being wise and caring they have become corrupt. The main Elven city rules by way of a council which has removed all real power from the king and instead only seek to line their own pockets, making all decisions to the benefit of their own (often illegal) business interests.

When the king dies, his son is determined to take the council on, but at every turn their devious and manipulative behaviour leaves him just as impotent as his father. Meanwhile a civil war has broken out and the elves' top general, Jikun, is frustrated not only with his enemies tactics but with the council's unwillingness to help him.

I was expecting a fairly straightforward fantasy story from this but the reality is of something much greater; the political intrigue is as gripping as the battle scenes and the new king Hairem is in a fight every bit as real as Jikun's. The characters are so well described as well, Jikun in particular having some serious flaws made up for by being a brilliant general.

See my review here

Liberator by Nick Bailey and Darren Bullock

Liberator aims to do one thing and it does it extremely well: Be a huge amount of fun to read. It's loud, it's violent and it's darkly funny.

Set in a future of big corporations spanning multiple worlds, one company kidnaps the daughter of the owner of another for leverage. However she was once a member of the Liberators, a mercenary force who have essentially disbanded and are no longer a threat to anybody. With nobody else available, the remnants of the Liberators must get themselves back into action.

With a diverse cast of characters this is a real ensemble piece and as the first of a series it's easy to see how the actual members of the squad can change between books to provide just the right mix of mayhem and banter for each adventure.

The story is told well, in a fast and furious style with flashbacks to explain who the various members of the team are and how they interact with each other. This is a summer blockbuster of a novel.

See my review here

Old Friends and New Enemies by Owen Mullen

When an old friend of Glasgow private detective Charlie Cameron is found dead and he decides to investigate he is soon drawn into the dark and murky world of organised crime. And when an old flame also appears he is in real danger of losing perspective - and that means he is in real danger of losing his life.

This is a punchy crime thriller that turns over Glasgow to show its underbelly, and it's not a pretty sight. Cameron is an engaging lead and the characters he meets are at turns amusing, businesslike or just plan dangerous. As a reader he can be very frustrating as he gets sidetracked by the personal nature of the case but this just makes the moment when cold realisation hits him of how much trouble he is in so much more realistic.

Gritty and with a touch of noir this will keep you guessing if the old friends or the new enemies are the biggest threat.

See my review here

Stop The World by Sherry Mayes

One of the powerful features of books is their ability to put you into someone else's mind, into their life. Sometimes these are heroes, or villains. This book puts you in the place of someone who has lost all hope.

Jody has it all, popular at school, a beauty queen, a perfect family. Then one car accident removes all certainties from her life and plunges her into a pit of misery.

This doesn't sound like a bundle of joy to read but it is exactly that. Yes there are dark passages when Jody realises she can no longer be the person she was but the point of this book is the slow climb upwards that takes place and the personal insights she makes, which anyone can relate to even without being such extreme circumstances. When she is at her most self pitying you want to slap her. When she is reaching out you want to hug her.

The writing is excellent and Jody makes for an insightful and amusing self-documenting narrator. The cast of characters in her orbit are very real. This is a book I will remember for a very very long time.

See my review here

Unknown Reality by Kurt Chambers

There are plenty of books that pose the question: is what we think of as the 'real world' really real or is it a Matrix-like construct that we inhabit? For any other author the idea itself would be enough for a whole story but Chambers uses this simple and trusted plot device as a jumping off point for a tale that very much goes beyond it.

Once again he uses a girl as his main character, following his aim to get teenage girls reading quality fantasy and science fiction, in the shape of 11 year old Chloe. The reader follows her through shocking revelations at the start of the book and then her subsequent adventures as she tries to make sense of what is real and what is not, all when she just wants to go home.

As usual Chambers takes something that is a fairly standard story template and weaves it into something modern and interesting.

See my review here

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

'Tis the season - for rhymes

The Christmas season is full upon us, but why on earth does everything suddenly have to rhyme? Adverts are the worst culprits, forcing all their wording into tortuous rhymes and half rhymes without any real attempt to make it scan - or even make sense.

I blame Clement Clarke Moore, the author of Twas the Night Before Christmas which in itself is pleasing enough but hardly the the most poetic piece of writing. This seems to have given any advertising agency free licence to do their own version of this for their Christmas offerings.

Let's be honest, the original is pretty twee in itself. Doing a substandard version of it (and they invariably are) really isn't going sound pretty and indeed they don't, typically involving a few words with their pronunciation tortured to breaking point to make them fit, or grammar or sense abandoned just to get the required word at the end of the line.

I'm guessing that between Twas the Night and the rhyming couplets that abound in Christmas cards, this kind of thing is seen as acceptable and in some way part of the spirit of Chrismas. But as with most things, if you can't do it properly don't bother to do it at all.

There are any number of excellent poets out there who I'm sure would be happy to have a commission for something that is actually poetic and captures the Christmas spirit far more effectively. But they have an annoying habit of actually producing poetry not just forced rhyming doggerel.

There's no wonder that people say things like "I don't like poetry." This time of year is ideal to get some quality poetry heard but instead they get this instead.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Book Review: Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet

Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet (ISBN 978-0-9570526-1-1) is a self-published work avaiable from The Besotted Wretch bookshop in Sheffield. And what a terrific book it is.

Telling the life story of 'forgotten' local poet Felix Noonan, a poet who wrote his verse in a thick Sheffield dialect (there is a quick foreward explaining word usage and pronunciation), hoping to do for the distinctive South Yorkshire accent what Robbie Burns did for the Scottish one.

Telling the story of his forebears sets the scene, starting with his boxing champion grandmother Kitty and his mother Henry (named when the rather punch drunk and confused Kitty was convinced she was having a boy) and their adventures which ultimately resulted in the production of young Felix. The story then follows his life from gruelling hardship of industrial Sheffield until his rise to fame as Britain's nominated poet for the Second World War. Now a perons with a reputation he manages to get involved with many of the great people and events of the 20th Century.

Reading this book is an absolute blast. It's one of those that you can just pick up and read more of with a big grin and the occasional chuckle (if not out loud laughter, followed by a rather embarrassed check to see if anyone else in the room noticed). The style of writing is confident and tells the story as straight biography without a trace of irony, no mean feat. We are told for instance that as a child Felix suffered from poor health, in particular "mumps, cholera, flu, scarlet fever, a bad back, polio, consumption, Athlete’s Foot, measles and chilblains".

Excerpts from his poetry abound and are well worth reading (possibly including a quick refresher from the foreward). The excepts from Noonan's Poetic Places, a sort of thumbnail sketch of a tour of Britain in poem form are particularly fine. For example for Weston-super-Mare:

If da likes a sunneh beach else visitin a fair
Da could doo a damn sight wess dan Weston-super-Mare

Or my personal favourite, the terrific Anglesey rhyming couplet:

If yoo should cross ooer t’Menai Bridge get readeh for a shock

There are also quotes from other famous literary people of the time who apparently met or mentioned Felix but strangely the passages were edited out of their works before final publishing. There are tales of his hounding by the FBI and the McCarthy anti-communists in America and of his search for his routes in Ireland. There are a veritable Who's Whom of cameos such as Brendan Behan, George Orwell and Alan Ginsberg.

All of it is terrific stuff, told with a lot of brio and tongue firmly in cheek. This is a firm favourite of mine and will be a book I will be re-reading from time to time. It might be said that if there hadn't been a Felix Noonan, someone would have to invent him.

Felix Noonan, Sheffield Poet is available from The Besotted Wretch bookshop, 329 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield S7 1FS and if any trip to Sheffield was not already a great day out, why not make it even better than popping in and buying a copy and browsing the other books they have for sale?