Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Happy Holidays!

We're all off this week but we wanted to wish you Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Reading Experience

This is going to be more of a description of my reading experience with Greer Gilman’s Moonwise. The basic story is simple, but experiencing the text is utterly magical. This is why fantasy is my chosen genre. Reading it transports you, the prose effects a wonder that strikes at my heart. And this book did that so well that I am going to talk more about that than anything else. If you want a book review go find one at Amazon. If you want to find out what it’s like to read Greer Gilman, read on.

Moonwise is Greer Gilman’s first book, originally published in 1991. It won the Crawford award in 1992, and was nominated for the Tiptree and Mythopoeic awards. It was released in hardcover by Prime books in 2005 and reissued by Wildside books in 2006.

I know she wrote this book over the course of 10 years on a typewriter with no outline, and no plan for it. For this, the work was well edited (though I did find a few line errors). I know going back through this much text and making sure everything is in the right place is difficult to say the least, and the business-savvy side of me screams of inefficiency, but I only have the most respect for a mind that can successfully wrangle with that.

I’d heard so many great things about Gilman, and I’d seen her participate in various panels at Readercon and Boskone. She is a brilliant folklorist and wildly creative woman. But after hearing her read, or more accurately perform (from another of her stories), I just had to read her books. But it was hard to find through my normal channels (used). So I was thrilled when I found it at Readercon last July and was able to have it signed.

So, with great anticipation I finally picked it up, appropriately, in September (the story takes place in fall and winter). But it’s December now. Yes, it took me a long time to read. The prose was just as dense and challenging as the literature I studied in college. I took my time with it, savoring the lines, references and double meanings like I savored those of Dickens. Even though I read it cover to cover and followed the arc of the story, I can’t help but think I’ve missed a lot of...something in the writing.

Suffice it to say, I wasn’t instantly in love with the book. It had a slow, kind of boring start with a few dead ends and little hope of clews. And I didn’t expect the story to be what Farah Mendlesohn describes in her book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, as a “portal quest” story, in which the characters go through a portal from the normal world to another. Moonwise started in contemporary times with two girls, Sylvie and Ariane, who see the same world I see.

I prefer my fantasy untouched by the modern world. I usually don’t like contemporary fantasy stories as much because the main characters are my filter to the world, and I’d rather see it through the eyes of a native than someone like me.

Yet, I can hardly say Sylvie and Ariane are like me. Although they are denizens of the 20th century, if I met one of them in person, I might describe them as otherworldly. They were a promise of what was to come: enchantment, folkloric references and skillful world creation. These things charmed me and kept me examining page after page.

After the story got going, Gilman always keeps the suspense and tension up. One way she did this was by making the world never comfortable. I’d pity the characters and wonder at their survival. They were always freezing and wet and sleeping on rocks, or even when they found a welcoming home, it was bad news and holding out the suspense and dread of what is to come.

I’ve finished this story once, but I know I’ll come back to it and go find her other books. With its wonder, it has wakened sleepy and tired spots in my brain that I had forgotten, it has opened up new parts of my brain, and it has filled them with possibilities--nature abhors a vacuum.

This blog entry is cross posted at Wandering Around the Words.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I heard about the Calibre ebook management software before and decided this would be a good time to examine it. My main reason for reviewing this now is that I want a simple, easy to use piece of software to manage ebooks (mostly free ones I downloaded from Project Gutenberg). But now it's not just about managing my collection on Windows, Linux, and Mac, but also on my brother's Samsung NF210 netbook.

I feel compelled to start this review with a caveat -- I primarily use Linux. Even though Calibre is an open source, cross-platform program, things on Linux are inevitably going to work and look differently than on Windows. The Windows version of this program looks a lot different (and nicer) on Cindy's netbook. My experiences with this program are far different than hers because it appears the Linux version of Calibre is not very well maintained (at least not in Fedora or Ubuntu repos).

Features and Metadata

If nothing else, I figured this would be a good program to manage metadata about my book collection. Simply put, this program has a lot of features. What I like the most is that it supports every ebook format that I know of -- I can add PDF files, epub files, mobi files, and even CBZ (comic book) files all in the same database, and have all my metadata stored in one place.

For those new to this concept, "metadata" is all the information about the media. In the case of books, this means author, subject, title, ISBN, cover art, publisher, etc. Once you've indexed all that information, you can do fancy things like searching for author name - and not only get books that person wrote, but books they collaborated on as well. You can search for all titles in your collection from the same publisher, or all books in a series (very helpful when you have a series by multiple authors).

Once all of your books have been added to your Calibre collection, the default library view they present to you is a spreadsheet list. This interface is adequate, but I think some sort of panel view would be a better, more intuitive choice (I'm thinking about the faux bookshelf look in the iBook app).

Many of the fields are what you would expect: Title, Author, Publisher, and Series (so you can easily find all those Harry Potter books). Other fields on this spreadsheet view are just strange. The size of the ebook on disk is useless because many users don't have a clue what this means, and even if they do, Word Count would be a better metric to reflect the novel's length (since page count doesn't apply to most ebooks). Date - is this the publication date or the date I added it to the database? Because it actually appears to be the date of the file on disk (maybe... it might be another date, it's not very clear).

Another odd choice is the "rating" field that all media managers inevitably include. I've seen this in the XBMC / Plex / Boxee world as well, where they pull the average user rating from IMDB. In this case, I assume it's trying to pull the value from some book rating site. I'm as confused about this as I am in my movie collection software (XBMC). I mean, the file is in my collection because I like it. Why should I care if the average rating is a 10 or a 2? I bought it because I like it and I couldn't care less if the rest of the world hates it.

One choice that felt strange at first was "Tags" -- this appears to be where they store the genre information. I think this terminology is something that is growing on me. I never did like having to pigeon-hole things into preset genres. Being able to create and add my own tags to books feels like it will be a much better solution in the long run.

Calibre has a feature that allows you to build your database on one computer and then have that computer act as a server for others. Using this feature supposedly lets you access your ebooks from anywhere in the world. But there's a caveat - the computer with your collection has to be on all the time, and has to have Calibre running. I personally have a few computers that are on all the time anyway, so it's not a big deal for me. But most people don't leave their computers on 24/7, especially when they are going away on a trip.

There are a few other features in this program that I won't use, but that's not to say they are bad. This program supports a lot of e-reader devices and can apparently handle batch conversions to each format they need. So if you downloaded a hundred epub ebooks from Project Gutenberg and needed to convert them to mobi for your Kindle, this program can do it. Having built-in support for syncing books to your device is a very cool feature, and they support quite a few devices. But I don't have an e-reader device, so I can't really review how well this sync works.

Calibre also provides a feature for automatically pulling news from the Internet, compiling an ebook out of the articles, and syncing that to your device of choice.

The Reading Experience

All the library and metadata organizing features in the world won't save an ebook reader with a poor reading interface. The first book I tried to read was an epub file, which is the format everyone is trying to standardize on. This program just does not render them properly. Reading text is impossible when lines overlap each other. Clicking the preferences button on the sidebar results in a crash (but one that thankfully does not kill the whole program). So much for that. I know the file is fine because FBReader displays it without any issues. Mobi (Kindle format) files work fine. Some files (like PDF format) open with external programs, so those all worked as well.

One button click puts you into full screen mode, which is especially nice on smaller screens (like netbooks). Re-opening a book you started to read automatically forwards you to the last place you were. This is a nice feature, but would be even nicer if it worked. The problem is that the program does not remember the size and location of the reader window it opens. So while it does scroll to the place you left off, the actual line placement is wrong because you end up having to move and resize the window.

The Netbook Reading Experience

I'll re-state my caveat: I was using the Linux version.

The actual reading experience on the netbook is similar to the desktop, but smaller. I really don't foresee any problems with reading ebooks on this device. Text is clear and you can adjust the font size as needed (assuming the properties options work when you install it - they worked on my netbook but not on my desktop).

My biggest gripe so far with this program has been with some of the choices in the library screen. And that same library view is the deal-killing problem on the netbook's screen. You have the file list in the center, a sidebar with information about the currently selected file on the right, and another sidebar on the left for showing the tree of sorting options (for doing things like filtering by author or genre tag). And that doesn't leave much room in the center for that file list. In fact, I got so frustrated just trying to see what was there that I didn't have the patience to add any files to my collection on the netbook. I previewed the default "how to use Calibre" ebook that the program ships with and then I quit.

Having a netbook spin of this program that is made for smaller screens would be a very good move. As it is now, every screen has icons that are so huge on the little screen that every button toolbar spills over into a popup section. And because they don't have a traditional text title bar (File, View, etc), this becomes a major issue when trying to navigate the program on a small screen.


My original draft of this article was quite scathing. There were a lot of things about this program that I didn't like and I spent way too much time focused on them. I'll try to discuss those issues here without going into too much depth on them.

I personally don't like how this program copies books I add to the library into another folder on my hard drive. I've already established an organization system for my ebooks and would rather just have a program that links to the files without trying to reorganize them. In addition to that, adding an option to store those links and the metadata in a real SQL server would be a huge plus in my book. Most users won't care about either of these issues though. Not everyone has eight machines to synchronize and share files with.

But one thing every user should care about is that this program is set up to handle multiple formats of each book -- so you can download an epub, convert it for use on your Kindle or Nook, and keep all versions in your library. This is another feature that would be nice if it worked. I have four copies of my brother's book, Purgatory Beckons - PDF, epub, mobi, and Palm PDB format. Instead of grouping them all under one entry, Calibre imported four different entries, one for each format. And there does not appear to be a way to merge them into one entry, even though it did correctly scrape the title and author name for each entry. That means I have to delete all but one and then manually add the other formats to the remaining entry. This is a minor annoyance if it happens once, but anyone who has a huge collection of books in multiple formats should be aware that the import process may generate more work for you.

I had another problem adding files to my library -- Calibre attempts to automatically pull metadata information from the Internet. Normally, this is seen as a great time-saving feature. The problem with pulling metadata information from the Internet is that, regardless of the media you are getting information on, the quality of the metadata is inconsistent. Random people from all over the world build the databases you are pulling info from. So you get all sorts of interesting choices - like Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger" being listed as an "Adventure". Getting info on Bram Stoker's "Dracula" sets the title of the novel to "Dracula by Stoker 345" and the author to "Dracula". In short, the problem is that the metadata servers are being populated with bogus, misformatted information. Don't even get me started on the plot summaries - they often consist of major spoilers sprinkled with sentence structure that requires a decoder ring.

The metadata editor in Calibre is not bad, but it's missing one important feature: it does not display the filename of the book you are updating. This is a huge problem when Calibre grabs the wrong metadata. How are you supposed to know what a file labeled as "Title" by "Unknown" is? How are you supposed to figure out what went wrong and what files are missing from your database? You have to actually open the book to see what it is, which can take a while when you have a lot that are wrong. Just adding one tooltip or the filename somewhere in this dialog would make this experience a lot better.

In Summary

The fact that Calibre is not even at a 1.0 version is promising. As happens with most open source software, this program has faults. But in time most (and hopefully all) of those faults will be fixed. If you don't have a program you already use to manage your ebook collection, download this and try it out. If you have an actual e-reading device, then this program could make managing and syncing your collection a lot easier. This is a program to keep an eye on as it brings new meaning to the term cross-platform -- with support for multiple operating systems as well as multiple ebook readers.

Calibre is free software, so if it sounds interesting you can get a copy at

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Jeb's Lament

This is a piece of flash fiction I wrote a while ago. Hope you enjoy it. :)

Jeb's Lament

Okay, I admit, it's been a while since I've been in a fist fight. I've been in fights, sure, but most people around here use weapons. This was plain, bare-fisted mayhem. Been a few years since someone picked a fight with me. So you can imagine my surprise at being knocked to my knees with the first hit, a quick jab thrown mid-conversation. I don't see myself as a glass jaw fighter but this guy's sucker punch sure as hell made me feel like one. I used to be able to hold my own in a fight. I'm not used to losing arguments. But there I was, kneeling on the wooden planks of the dock, watching the blood from my busted lip pool beneath me.

"C'mon!" said a voice from above me. "I'm not through with you yet."

Ah condescension, that I'm used to. Nobody considers I might be a better fighter than I appear to be. Like this guy, Jeb, at least twice my size and obviously trying to prove he's a tough guy. He stepped forward, moving a little too close. I inhaled, letting saltwater air fill my lungs, invigorating me. I tensed, and in one smooth motion I rose to my feet and drove my fist into his chin. I heard something crack, who knows what - his jaw, my fist, his teeth. Probably all three, considering the throbbing pain in my clenched fist.

One of his drunken friends laughed. "You asked fer that Jeb. Hoo-rah whatta hit!"

Jeb stumbled back and shook his head. "Motherf..." he slurred, then fiddled with his jaw. "Frak."

I edged closer, forcing him to stumble back another step. And there it was, the sun shining in his eyes from above the cliffs behind me. He squinted and I took advantage of the opening. I spun around, building momentum, and drove my foot into his chest with an authoritative thud. Sound of wood shuddering from the impact of his backside ceased his friends' laughter.


Even the ocean seemed to pause for a moment, crystalline waves poised like serpents ready to strike at the sand.

Jeb clutched his chest like he was trying to reorganize his lungs. His friends stared, mouths agape. Every beat of my heart pounded in my chest, sending needles of pain to my lip.

Then the sharp tinny sound of a bell rang out from the ship coming in. I needed the dock cleared.

"So," I said. "You gonna move that boat now?"

Jeb grumbled something incoherent, so what was I supposed to do?

I kicked his head, knocking him out, and turned to his friends. "Move that boat, then get this jerk out of here."

They glanced at each other, then nodded in unison. "Yes ma'am."