Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Roald Dahl on stamps? Scrumdiddlyumptious!

From Galleycat comes word that the Royal Mail issued Roald Dahl stamps featuring Quentin Blake's artwork. They're beautiful.

The stamps were issued on 10th January though and I guess that means I missed out on buying the First Day Cover.


And in case you didn't know, I've blogged quite a bit about Roald Dahl in the past, do check out my older posts.

Also can somebody tell me why my rant post about commemorative covers suddenly became the second most popular post? Did someone on a philatelic forum say I was being dumb on the internet or something?

Friday, 24 February 2012

J.K. Rowling's Next Book.

Wow. This is big news.

J.K. Rowling has announced she will be publishing a book for adults with Little, Brown later this year:
"Although I’ve enjoyed writing it every bit as much, my next book will be very different to the Harry Potter series, which has been published so brilliantly by Bloomsbury and my other publishers around the world. The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry's success has brought me, and with that new territory it seemed a logical progression to have a new publisher.  I am delighted to have a second publishing home in Little, Brown, and a publishing team that will be a great partner in this new phase of my writing life."

Thursday, 23 February 2012


Apologies for the constantly changing look and feel of this blog.

I'm currently experimenting with the look and feel and messing about with Blogger's template editor. I've yet to settle on something I truly feel reflects what this blog should look like so more changes in the coming days are likely.

For the longest time this blog looked very generic and I've always been wanting to change that and I now feel it is time to do something about it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Wonderful Simplicity of an E-reader

One other thing I did not mention in my Kindle Touch review was that I liked how it simplified things and made me concentrate purely on reading, compared to the iPad where I'd read for a bit, then wonder what's going in the Twitterverse or would suddenly feel the compulsion to check the history of instant noodles in Europe on Wikipedia.

That doesn't happen when I'm reading on the Kindle. The device disappears and I'm lost in the book, which is how it should be.

Librarian Bohyun Kim seems to agree:
The greatest problem I had with an iPad ‘as an e-reader’ was that aside from its weight and the eye-straining screen, I could not really concentrate on reading for a long time. I don’t know if this is a non-issue for others with stronger willpower. But for me, this was certainly a big problem. While reading, I would get easily distracted into web surfing, checking e-mails, and reading tweets and Facebook updates.  On the other hand, on this single-purpose device, it was easy to continue reading for a much longer time. Sometimes, I would have an urge to go online and do something else. But often I would just ignore the urge as I simply didn’t feel like moving.
Of course, you could just read a paper book instead but where's the fun in that?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

REVIEW: Kindle Touch

Ah, the e-ink reader. For years I've been wanting to try one out but never knew anyone who owned one. Then when I actually bought one for myself, all sorts of people (including my best friend who never thought it pertinent to tell me he bought one) came out of the woodwork and told me how they were enjoying their own e-ink readers.

In any case, for the longest time I was skeptical over the idea of reading e-books because reading them on a computer was uncomfortable both for my back and for my eyes and reading them on an e-reader was out of the question for me because they were being sold for outrageous prices. I had read about e-readers that used e-ink which used digital screens that were supposed to have the clarity and the sharpness of print on paper and how they were supposed to be comfortable to read on while having the benefits of being digital.

But alas, e-ink e-readers were expensive and I didn't know anyone who owned one. So for the longest time I stayed away from e-books and didn't see the need for them. My library of paper books was quite expansive as it was and I didn't need to invest in an e-reader for my reading fix.

Fast forward to early 2010. I had bought the first generation iPad for my wife so she could surf the internet while she breastfed our daughter. (She was complaining of boredom.) The iPad was being touted as competition for Amazon's Kindle so I tried using it as an e-reader. It was an okay experience. Okay, because the apps available to read e-books on it were plentiful, as were the books available for them. On the whole, I quite liked reading on the iPad and didn't really have problems with reading on it hours on end, like most people did.

There left one problem. And it was a major one for me. The iPad was just too damn heavy. One of the reasons I started reading e-books on the iPad was because I was becoming increasingly fed up with publishers releasing new books in large, bulky and most annoyingly, heavy hard covers.

The straw that broke me and my camel's back was the hard cover edition for Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. It weighs over five kilogrammes and is two and a half inches thick. Try holding that behemoth with one hand while standing in a crowded KTM Komuter train heading to Seremban at half past seven in the evening during rush hour. Not the most pleasant of activities, I assure you, even when there's a Murakami tome involved.

Back to the iPad. The iPad is only 680 grammes, which is a huge improvement over 1Q84 but the problem with the iPad is that it spreads its weight over a 10 inch screen and holding it one-handed on a crowded train can be quite tough on the wrist over a very short period of time. So while the iPad is a good e-reader at home, when lying on the bed, it falls short where I need it the most--the long emptiness of the span of time that is called the Train Commute to Work, also known as The Time Wot I Get All My Reading Done.

One day, finally, a colleague brought in to work a Kindle Keyboard (then known as the Kindle 3). I asked to take a look and I was ASTOUNDED!!! with the e-ink screen. So it was true what other people had claimed. E-ink screens really did look like paper. I couldn't believe my eyes. The other thing I couldn't believe was how light the Kindle was. I had imagined it to be as heavy as my iPad.

I contemplated getting one but the price was still too expensive for me. As if on cue, in stepped Amazon. They announced the ridiculously cheap US$79 Kindle and the $99 Kindle Touch. I knew this was the time to get one. I first thought of getting the $79 Kindle but after weeks of soul searching I realised I had so gotten used to the touch capabilities of the iPad, as well as the ability to simply tap a word to define it, I decided that the Kindle Touch would be the better option.

So I bit the bullet, coughed up about RM330 and asked my very same colleague who showed me his Kindle Keyboard to have it shipped from the US for me. Not a bad price, considering Kindle Malaysia asks for RM570 for it and they try to justify the extra cost by giving you a shitty case.

The iRiver Story HD, the e-reader that's being sold by MPH Bookstores and therefore the easiest e-reader to buy anywhere in Malaysia, is still a lot more expensive than my Kindle Touch and goes for RM499, and that's after they heavily discounted it after Christmas from its original highway robbery price of RM799.

The Kindle Touch weighs approximately 212 grammes and is lighter than a typical mass market paperback. I can hold it one-handed in a crowded train, in the loo, while copulating and while playing Wii Tennis matches, no problems. No wrist aches to be had. It features a rubberised back so your fingers do not slip while holding it and grips the Kindle. Very useful during intense, sweaty Wii Tennis matches, trust me.

At first glance, the Kindle Touch does not seem to have any buttons. The front features nothing but the screen, the word "Kindle" on the bezel at the top of the screen, and something that looks like a titchy speaker grille on the bottom bezel.

That titchy speaker grille is Amazon's bizarre design choice for a home button. I have no complaints though; it works as it should. I press it, and it takes me to the Kindle's home screen.

As for the home screen, it is spartan in design but it gets the job done. Many people have complained to Amazon asking for them to improve it but having used the Kindle app on iPad, I think the interface is better. Lots could still be improved about it (a better interface to manage libraries and books that are archived in Amazon's cloud service for starters), but I can live with what's available.

Navigation is done all by touch gestures. Some people prefer buttons to turn pages, but having never used previous iterations of the Kindle, I can't say I miss them. Touching the screen to turn pages back and forth, as well as accessing the dictionary and other menus is natural when you're simply touching or swiping the screen.

There is a slight delay between the time you touch the screen and the time the action you requested is performed but the delay is negligible and would probably only be noticed by users used to Apple's lightning fast iOS devices.

This is due to the technology the Kindle Touch uses for its touch detection. Unlike most devices with an LCD screen that detects the user's fingers directly, the Kindle Touch uses infrared beams that are shot out from the sides of the screen and monitors anything that interrupts those beams to detect finger strokes and swipes. The finger movement data collected from the infrared beams then have to be passed over to the CPU on the Kindle Touch, which then performs the action you requested, for example, a page turn.

If it was just a button, the page would have turned instantly. Even so, after using the Kindle Touch for a few days, the delay becomes unnoticeable and Amazon has released a firmware update that has increased the speed of page turns which drastically negates the complaints somewhat.

The e-ink screen is sharp and clear and obviously very good for reading. It is slightly recessed, thanks to the infrared sensors, and the bezels might cause some shadowing in bright sunlight. That is just a minor complaint however and speaking of sunlight, thanks to e-ink technology, I can bring the Kindle Touch anywhere outdoors and still be able to easily read it in bright sunlight, which is a huge contrast to LCD screens like on the iPhone or iPad.

Unfortunately, this also means the screen is not backlit, and when it's dark I tend to have trouble reading the screen. Reading in bed with the lights off is definitely a no-no and if you need to do something like that, you'd need to get a clip-on reading light or the Kindle Touch Lighted Leather Cover that Amazon sells.

Amazon makes it extremely difficult for Malaysians to buy e-books from them but it is not impossible. I'm glad I've managed to circumvent their region locks because once you get into the Kindle Store, a whole new world of books opens up for you.

Books that have zero to little chance of ever reaching Malaysia are now easily bought and I'm not talking about the obvious ones like Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses but also a lot of indie self-published books that you've never heard of but no less awesome than their mainstream, traditionally published compatriots. Newly released books are an instant one-click buy away. No more waiting for local booksellers to bring them in one or two weeks later (if you're lucky).

And while Malaysians are prone to disrespecting copyright, I am not of that ilk. I tend to buy my books and guess what, newly released e-books are at most $14.99, which is about RM45. Compare that to a newly released hard cover in Malaysia that ofttimes goes for RM79 to RM119. Older books go for a lot cheaper, though not as cheap as indie titles which go down as low as $2.99 and sometimes even $0.99.

The fact that Amazon makes it so simple to buy books from within my Kindle and for them to be able to make it so affordable (the Americans would like you to think that e-books by traditional publishers are expensive but they don't know how expensive it is here) has made me lose all interest in going to a normal bookstore. There, I said it. I don't go into bookstores anymore. Amazon has spoiled it for me and ruined the bookstores. Sorry, but I go where convenience is.

There's also a great secret feature in the Kindle that mostly goes unnoticed. Most people think once you get a Kindle, you are locked into buying books from Amazon. Not true at all. Thanks to a web browser that Amazon conveniently supplies with the Kindle, you can use it to visit other online book retailers, like Smashwords.

You could even visit free e-book websites like Manybooks.net and Project Gutenberg. And get this, you can download e-books from these websites directly into your Kindle, without having to use a pesky USB cable and plugging it into your computer. So no, you are not locked into buying only from Amazon with a Kindle. What's wrong with buying from Amazon anyway? They're the best bookstore on the planet, bar none.

There are other great secret features in the Kindle Touch that I found useful but that would have to wait for future blog posts. This particular review is already getting too long.

Those who think e-books are not for them, those who need to feel and smell the paper in books for them to enjoy it, well, I used to be one of them. But after owning a Kindle Touch, I think I can live without the feel and smell of paper.

A friend once asked me if I'd ever miss paper. I told her, why would I miss it? The study room in my house is a library with walls lined with bookshelves filled to the brim with hundreds of books I've bought over the years, some dating back to my childhood. No, I will not miss paper because paper will never go away, but it has to make space for the oncoming digital storm. Some might say the digital storm is already here.

The Kindle Touch has been the best purchase I have ever made. I thought I liked reading before, but the experience cannot compare to reading on a Kindle.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Currently Reading.

I am currently (actively) reading these books:

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

I loved Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and when I discovered he had written a book that's the exact opposite of that one, I pounced upon it.

Instead of a macro view of history like the previous book, Bryson instead takes us on a journey that documents the history of normal and mundane household objects, ones we usually take for granted.

What follows is an epic journey across most of the Victorian era with the occasional trip to the height of the Roman Empire and some other notable periods of time in human history. A good read, even if you have only enjoyed Bryson's numerous travelogues.

The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl's latest historical fiction will only be released on 21st February but I managed to get my hands on a preview copy.

The book is set in the mid-Ninteenth Century, during the initial years of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and follows the adventures of some students who are constantly harangued by their rivals at Harvard and by the general populace who fear them for using science "beyond human understanding."

It's almost steampunk-esque in a way and there are many weird happenings in the plot that almost takes the book to a fantastical bent. But I'm sure Pearl will keep things grounded... with science.

Expect a review soon.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Valentine's Special: Get Zombies Ate My Muslim Free!

Give the love of your life the gift of zombies! Muslim-eating zombies!

My short story e-book Zombies Ate My Muslim is free only on Valentine's Day and can be downloaded from Amazon's Kindle Store.

UPDATE: Offer has ended. Thanks to everyone who downloaded the e-book! Hope you enjoy it!

Crowdsourcing Your Novel.

I've noticed a lot of talk about crowdsourcing in the past week, especially with projects funded using Kickstarter. There has also been several threads about crowdsourcing novels on the Kindle Boards lately.

Today, an indie author I admire, Lindsay Buroker, wrote a blog post about the whole crowdsourcing thing. She explains a little about what crowdsourcing actually is and how you can use it to fund your own novel as well as how she plans to use it to fund her podiobooks. (Podiobooks are audiobooks delivered as free podcasts.)

A very good read, especially if you're an aspiring author wanting to self-publish and wondering where you could get some money to fund it.

I would like to add a caveat for those thinking to use Kickstarter to fund their projects. If you're outside the US, you won't be able to use it. (People outside the US can give money towards projects, but can't create projects themselves.) Instead, consider Indiegogo.com, which does allows people outside the US to use their site for funding projects.

Monday, 13 February 2012

REVIEW: Goodbye, Goddess by Breanna Teintze

Goodbye, Goddess by Breanna Teintze is a beautiful and well-written collection of high fantasy short stories that I would not hesitate to recommend to my friends.

I loved how even though the stories were self-contained, the world described in them seemed to be larger than it appeared and while the stories had a small element of "sensawunda" they really focused more on the characters rather than the fantastic.

One of my favourite stories in this collection was about a rogue mage who is reluctantly asked by some villagers to investigate a recent murder. It's at once a fantasy story, a Western story, a whodunnit, rolled into one and even has a big showdown in the end. Brilliant!

My other favourite story is about a village idiot who is asked to slay a dragon. The story is simple, but the loving care in which it is written and the humourous but logical way in which the dragon is ultimately vanquished makes this one memorable.

That's not to say the other stories in the collection aren't any good. Far from it! They are all excellent and wonderful reads and you owe yourself to check them out, especially when the ebook can be had for a very cheap price on Amazon or Smashwords.

For more on Breanna Teintze, check out her blog.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Thursday, 9 February 2012

REVIEW: Prehistoric Clock by Robert Appleton

Steampunk. Time travel. Dinosaurs.

These three things make Robert Appleton's Prehistoric Clock a book after my heart. And does it capture it? Does the book provide a fun and engaging story along with its interesting premise?

Yes. Yes it does.

And thank goodness for that. When I read the synopsis, I so wanted to like the book, but I worried it wouldn't live up to its potential.

Set in 1908, Prehistoric Clock is told from the perspectives of three main characters, Verity Champlain, an acting captain of an airship, Lord Garret Embrey, an aristocrat wrongly accused in a conspiratorial trial, and Cecil Reardon, the inventor who creates the time machine that drives the plot behind the novel.

Though Reardon's scientific experiments are sponsored by a shady organisation called the Leviacrum (which we are given to suspect also controls the British empire), he secretly builds a time machine which he intends to use to go back in time to save his wife and son from dying seven years earlier.

Of course, something goes wrong, and instead of sending Reardon back in time, the time machine sends a large chunk of London back in time. Not just seven years, but to the prehistoric age. Champlain's airship and Lord Embrey get caught in this time bubble as well, and not long after arriving in their new era, they unite to try survive and find a way back to their own time, but not without some initial misgivings.

The story starts by focusing on the survivors but as they explore their surroundings using Champlain's airship, the author pulls back the curtains just a tiny bit to let us know that this prehistoric land is hiding something much more sinister than just dangerous reptiles.

The characters are commendable. Verity Champlain is a no-nonsense female who knows how to gets things done and commands respect from her crew. She harbours a great regret, in that she wasn't around to save her beloved sister from a rebellion in Angola, a rebellion that incidentally, Embrey, along with his father and uncle, is accused of starting.

That provides some tension between the two and though Garrett Embrey maybe a toff, he is also tough, being somewhat of a seasoned gentleman explorer. Armed with two steam-powered pistols, Embrey is the typical macho hero of pulp adventures who can do no wrong. He is the lovable rogue of the story and there's nothing wrong with that.

Cecil Reardon starts out as somewhat of a foolish and selfish character, but we soon become sympathetic with him as the story moves along. What I really liked about him is that he becomes much more important later in the story than is let on, but I'll let you discover that one out for yourself.

Prehistoric Clock is a wonderful novel in the spirit of pulp adventures by H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs and is the first book of a series. If you love page-turning thrills with a dash of romance, here's a book for you.

But really, you should have bought it the moment you read "steampunk, time travel and dinosaurs".

Prehistoric Clock can be bought via the Amazon Kindle store. For more on the author, Robert Appleton, you can visit his website or check out his blog.

Currently Available E-Books

Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo
Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Kobo
Available from: Amazon | Smashwords | iTunes | Google Play | Nook