New Year's Eve

On the subject of stuff I liked over the past year, you can find out more of what I liked and others liked as well at fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com.

It's New Year's Eve, and about the time people back in Scotland are celebrating, I'll be fast asleep in bed, because it'll be about eight o'clock in the morning in Taipei when it's New Year in Western Europe. See you in '09.


half-price ebooks

If you're a reader of ebooks, you might be interested to know WH Smith's - a British chain of shops - are doing them all at half-price just now. That means you can pick up an ebook version of Stealing Light in epub format just now for three quid. It's drm-ed, mind. Over and out.


2008 in review

I've been a touch quiet around here, but that relative silence on the blog has translated into being just shy of the one hundred thousand mark on the third Dakota book in barely two months. This makes me happy. There's a long, long way to go, especially when it comes to revising the manuscript. I might be writing fast, but I can guarantee I'll be sweating words every day right up to the deadline in July.

I've noticed people have been doing stuff like best-of-year lists, so rather than be original and do something different I'm going to jump on the bandwagon.

Books that stood out for me this year include Cory Doctorow's brilliant Little Brother, Lewis Shiner's semi-historical novel about race in America, Black & White, and Dan Simmons' utterly superb sf/horror/historical, The Terror.

Best movie I saw was Iron Man, closely followed by In Bruges, a tale of two hitmen stuck in Belgium on a long weekend. The worst film I saw this year - and in fact, several years - was the latest Indiana Jones movie. They may be making more of them, but I won't be seeing them.

I enjoyed Batman Returns, but I spent a good third of it squinting at the screen and asking my other half, "what're they saying?" Although there were many tremendous and gripping scenes and Ledger's Joker was game-changing, some parts of the film were muddled and the sound a muddy mixture of too-loud special effects and mumbling actors.

Best gadget by far for me this year was the Sony Reader. If you don't believe me, I just can't explain it. Let's just say it makes the reading experience so desperately addictive you start jonesing when the damn thing isn't around to play with.

Music ... god knows. It gets faintly annoying when other blogs start posting about obscure indie bands out of some Brazilian favela, but the fact is I just don't buy or listen to anything anymore. The reason is very simple: I don't have the time. If I'm listening to music, I'm not doing anything else. I don't like music as background noise, because that's just so wrong. It's music. You listen to it, and you give it due attention.

And I would, if I had the time, and I don't. The only intrusion music makes on me at all these days is the stuff at somafm.com, whose 'drone zone' - mainly ambient, slightly beepy stuff heavy on the atmospheric effects - I sometimes have on in the background when I'm writing since it's more of an aural mood setting than actual music. If it starts sounding too much like actual music, it distracts me and I can't write.

Which is weird, because I bought myself a new acoustic a few months back, a small, cheap travel guitar. I used to play a hell of a lot of guitar, electric and acoustic, and there's a long, long story in that. But it's nice to keep my hand in with my Simon & Kilpatrick guitar stuck back in Scotland.

The major personal event for me this year was moving to Taiwan with my girlfriend and getting married. Some friends asked why I hadn't mentioned this fact already on the blog - we got hitched at the start of the month - and the reason is I don't see this blog so much as being about my personal life nearly so much as it's about my writing career. Blogs, after all, aren't the same as diaries. But that - along with living in Taiwan, at least for a while - was the most significant thing in my life this year.

In terms of writing, it's been my most successful year so far - onwards and upwards, as they say - with Stealing Light selling better than anything else I've had published, as well as being my first hardback publication. So all in all, a good year.


Sony Reader Six Months On

I wrote about getting a Sony Reader with an e-ink screen almost six months ago. It's a second hand 500, as opposed to the more recent 505, which is now more widespread. I bought the older, cheaper version because I wasn't sure if I would still be using it after six months. And it's only after that amount of time you can really be sure a device has really made that much difference to your life. There didn't seem to be much point in buying something that might wind up lost in a drawer by the time six months rolled around. So this entry is the six-months-later entry: did the machine make a difference to my life?

The answer is a very vigorous thumbs-up. I love the bloody thing, despite its many faults. God knows there are enough of them; it crashed from time to time, necessitating sticking a pin in the back to get it to laboriously reboot. Changing pages can occasionally also be a bit slow. It doesn't come near the stated 7000-pages-before-needing-a-recharge stated in all of Sony's advertising. And that's just the hardware. There are endless problems to do with file formats - .lit, .mobi, .epub, and .on and .on and .on. Books sold on ebook sites can frequently be outrageously priced compared to the dead tree version (the fault of the publisher, not the retailer). Many of them are DRM-ed, meaning software has been used to 'secure' the book so it can only be read on one device. Which in the case of the Sony Reader rather limited your options, since until limited upgrades were made available earlier this year, you were pretty much stuck with books sold through their own site with its woefully limited selection.

Because of this, I've had to download software that allows me to 'crack' books I've legally bought before I can even read them. I've worked my way through a nightmarish morass of incompatibilities, software issues, hardware issues ... oh,I could go on and on ... and there are enough problems, indeed, to send most sane human beings running screaming back to their tactile, bound hardbacks and paperbacks that never need to be recharged and are never going to prevent you from reading them because, well, you might be a software pirate, mightn't you?

And yet, it's still the greatest thing. The words are an absolute delight on the screen. It's remarkably like reading words on paper. The text is clear and sharp. The machine is stunningly sleek and portable. And my reading has gone through the roof; I've read more books in the past six months than I'm usually likely to get through in a couple of years, if that. I only realised after purchasing the device that many of my purchasing decisions previously depended on whether I had anywhere to put the books I bought, and whether I would need to buy more and more shelves to hold them.

That's no longer an issue, and neither is the number of books I've accrued since coming to Taiwan when it comes to my future return to Scotland, either. If I'd bought the dead tree editions, I'd have needed an extra (large) suitcase to carry them home. I read waiting in restaurants, standing in trains, sitting in waiting rooms; the Reader fits perfectly in my jacket pocket, and I can whip it out in a moment and start off where I'd last left in seconds. In fact, I now find it distinctly hard to go back to reading paper books. They seem large, and unwieldy, and difficult to hold. I am, in short, a convert.

I've made a point of being the first to describe the many discouraging issues concerning the technology. I suspect machines like this are really for the hardcore reader like myself; critics are right to point out these are not devices for the kind of people who might read one or two books in a year while on holiday. But for people who like to read a lot, they're an absolute godsend. More recent devices manufactured by other firms - such as the Cybook and Bebook - have solved certain difficulties concerning battery life and file compatibility, and all the newer machines apparently have much greater contrast and legibility. It's clear the technology is still evolving, and is far from reaching a plateau. There are many issues - not all positive - to consider in the future; the way in which many of these devices are effectively hobbled both by publisher and manufacturers, for one. But for the moment, for this reader here, I can safely say I've renewed my addiction to reading, and you can prise my ebook reader from my cold, dead hands, and not a moment before.