Tag Archives: highly-recommended

Amazon Kindle Fire HD 6″ – a review

Fire 6 picOkay, I am not an early adopter when it comes to hardware. If anything, I tend to wait until the inevitable bugs have been discovered, and ironed out before I give a new device a try. That is why I have never owned a tablet, and that is why buying a newly launched Fire HD 6″ is so out of character for me. That said, however, I love my baby Fire. 🙂

As I have never touched a Fire 7, I can’t compare the two. The best I can do is compare the Fire 6 to my old, very ordinary Kindle. Physically, the Fire 6 is the same length as my Kindle e-reader, but about an inch narrower, making it an even better fit in my small shoulder bag. Unfortunately, it is also noticeably heavier than the old e-reader. Given how much more it does, however, I’m prepared to forgive the added drag on my shoulder.

So what does the baby Fire do?

Well first and foremost, it displays everything in glorious colour. After two years of looking at the grey-on-grey of my e-reader, just turning the Fire on and looking at its colourful home screen makes me smile.

Now colour may not mean much to you out there, but it’s going to make all the difference to the e-cookbook I’m working on! Words may be a writer’s weapon of choice, but when it comes to cooking and recipes, one picture is literally worth a thousand words.

Of course it is possible to view pictures on an ordinary e-reader, but the effect is less than stellar. Have a look at the pictures below :

Fire 6 pics 2nd attempt grey sml

Fire 6 pics 2nd attempt colour sml

 

The first photo is from my old Kindle e-reader. The second is from my new Fire 6. Despite my lack of talent as a photographer  [I was battling flash glare and lost], you must admit the colour pic is easier on the eye!

The next huge difference between my e-reader and the Fire 6 is …playing as I type. 🙂 Yes, you guessed it, I’m listening to music! [Jo Blankenburg’s beautiful track, ‘The Realm of Levitation]

The sound quality is nowhere as good as what I get through the speakers attached to my PC, but I can listen to my music without ear-plugs [which I hate] on a mobile device that can do almost everything except cook dinner!

Apart from books and music, the Fire 6 can also download and play apps [but not Google apps], videos [haven’t tried, newspapers and magazines [haven’t tried], audiobooks, photos, documents [sideloaded from my PC], and surf the web [haven’t tried].

In case you’re wondering, the reason I haven’t tried so many functions is because I don’t have WI FI at home. To access any of the online content, I have to go to McDonalds and use their free hotspot. Given what I think of McDonald’s food, I don’t think I’ll be doing much online surfing until my current modem finally dies and I have to get a new one. In the meantime, I’ll be doing a lot of sideloading.

“But what is this sideloading?” you ask.

Sideloading is the ability to download content from the internet to your PC and then copy that content to your digital device. It’s not as convenient as using wi-fi, but it actually works quite seamlessly when you know how. I sideloaded a Word file to my Fire, as well as the working copy of my ecookbook, AND the Jo Blankenburg music track. I’m sure I could sideload a video as well if I wanted to.

Until I take screenshots of sideloading on the Fire, you can find detailed instructions on how to sideload content to a Kindle e-reader here :

http://wp.me/P25AFu-1ga

The pictures will look different but the process is essentially the same on both devices –

– connect the micro USB cable to the Fire

– connect the USB end to the PC

– open Windows Explorer and navigate to the folder containing the file[s] you want to copy to the Fire

– copy/paste the file to the appropriate Fire folder [or drag and drop it there]. In My Computer, the Fire shows up as an external drive, complete with all of its internal folders such as ‘Books’, ‘Music’ etc.

Once you’ve copied the file to your Fire, disconnect the device, open to the relevant folder, and your book/song/document etc should be accessible via a simple tap of your finger. Not bad for a tablet that cost just $149.00 AUD!

Oh, wait! Did I forget to mention how incredibly CHEAP this baby Fire is? Well it is, and the $149 AUD price tag was a huge factor in my decision to finally buy a tablet. Yes, I wanted one to test out my ecookbook, but there was no way known I was going to pay through the nose for the privilege. With the Fire 6, I really feel as if I’ve got value for money.

So was there anything about my new Fire 6 I didn’t like?

I can’t really say there was anything I actively disliked, but there were a couple of small niggles.

1. Despite having learned the  ‘swipe’ technique on my smart phone, I did not find the Fire as easy to use as it was cracked up to be. The main menu items worked as advertised, but once I went deeper, finding my way back was hard.

For example, opening up a book and reading it is quite simple on the Fire, but once I finish reading and want to do something else, I’m in strife because all the navigation icons have disappeared. I have to tap blindly across the top of the Fire until I finally hit the right spot and the menu/navigation icons become visible again.

If you are having the same problem, try tapping just below the front camera. The camera is that very small circle just visible on the top frame of the Fire :

Fire tap spot

2. Another niggle is the size of the battery icon. At 61, my eyesight is just not up to such a miniscule icon, and I have to put my reading glasses on to see how much charge I have left. As being able to adjust the font size is a huge selling point for me [so I don’t have to wear my glasses], this kind of defeats the purpose just a tad.

3. Last but not least is the lack of a true user manual. The Fire 6 did come with documentation, in multiple languages, but the instructions boiled down to one small page on how to connect and charge the device. If you need to know more, they provide the url for a support page. Not exactly great for Baby Boomers like me.

I did, in fact discover a handy youtube video that walked me through the main features of the Fire 7 [similar enough to make no difference] but I would have preferred a user manual I could keep on hand.

Aside from those 3 niggles, I have to say that I am 95% happy with my baby Fire. The features are great, the colour display is lovely and the price is spot on. These may not be important reasons for someone from the techie generation, but I think many people from my generation will find the Fire 6 just right for their needs. Highly recommended!

Meeks

 

 


Because We Are – a novel of Haiti

David Gaughran’s blog – Let’s Get Digital – is probably best known for his posts on self-publishing, and the publishing industry in general. I admit, David is one of my favourite go-to people when it comes to most things technical or financial.

However David also reads and writes fiction, and the other day he wrote a post about ‘good books’, asking if we could recommend any. In that post he named two books he had read and greatly admired. ‘Because We Are – a novel of Haiti’ was one of them.

because we are coverI have just finished reading ‘Because We Are’ by Ted Oswald, and I have to say David was right – this is an exceptional novel. It’s not perfect, but it worked in all the ways a good story should : it created memorable, well-rounded characters, transported me to a place I have never seen, and made me care about both.

The story is set in modern day Haiti, and follows the lives of two children  living in the slums of Haiti just before the big earthquake that took the lives of so many.  Libète is a girl of ten. Her best friend Jak, a boy stunted by chronic malnutrition, is also ten. They are out, playing in the marshes when they stumble across the bodies of a young woman and her baby.

The young woman has been ritually mutilated, raising the spectre of Voudou, but this is not some lurid, sensationalist story about the practices we in the West call voodoo. This is a story about murder for gain. It is a story about poverty and politics, degradation and courage. It is a story about real people living their lives as best they can in a world where smart phones and abject poverty exist side by side. But most of all it is an uplifting story about honour and honesty as told through the eyes of children. In many ways, their growth parallels the growth of a nation.

On a more mechanical level, the writing is lyrical, and evocative without being at all self-indulgent. The dialogue is excellent, peppered with just enough Kreyol [Haitian version of French] to feel authentic without making the reader work too hard, and the characters are vivid.  Even the minor characters seem to leap off the page, and there is nothing two dimensional about them. These are all the great things about the story. Sadly there are also a couple of  mechanical issues I found quite confusing, and both relate to the way the author handled flashbacks.

I have no inherent problem with flashbacks, so long as it’s clear what is current and what is not. In ‘Because We Are’,  the flashbacks to Libète’s earlier life are not immediately recognizable as flashbacks. This led to a lot of  ‘oh this is another flashback’ moments on my part. Each time this happened I lost my connection to the story.

The reason the flashbacks were so jarring was because the author often told them in the present tense – “The small girl takes a step down from the large rock.” This is not the conventional way of writing flashbacks, however I could have gotten used to it if only the cues had been consistent. But they were not. Sometimes the flashbacks would not be in the present tense but the current storyline would be.

These inconsistencies made the story harder to follow than it should have been. And yet… despite getting a bit annoyed at times, the story itself was so good, so compelling, it never occurred to me to stop reading. That, to me, is the mark of an exceptional story, and that is why I am reviewing it – because it is too damn good to dismiss for a few mechanical faults.

It’s not often I criticize a novel and then turn around and tell you to read it, but this is one of those times. ‘Because We Are’ is a gem. Read it!

cheers

Meeks


Half Way Home – a review

half way homeFor days now, I’ve been feeling the need to write another review, but none of the books I’ve read recently has had that little something extra that makes writing a review a joy instead of a chore. Many were interesting, and provided an enjoyable read, but if I were into rankings, they’d be a 4 out of 5.

Today I’m pleased to announce that Hugh Howey’s science fiction novel, ‘Half Way Home’, finally woke the delighted child in my head. You know the one, it’s that little voice that jumps up and down, pumps the air and shrieks ‘Yes!’ without any thought to dignity. Well, my inner child is bubbling with happiness at the moment, and like it or not, I’m going to tell you why.

‘Half Way Home’ begins with a rather dark soliloquy, some would call it a prologue, and right there I knew this novel would be brave.

In classical fiction, writers were allowed to  introduce place, time and characters gently. Modern style pundits however, are adamant that stories must jump straight into the action, hooking the reader in the very first paragraph.

Why? Because readers are supposed to have the attention span of a gnat. If you don’t hook them early, you will lose them.

Hugh Howey ignored that commandment, and that is why I say he is brave. The soliloquy/prologue is more than interesting in its own right, and I loved it, but I can see how it might not appeal to readers who just want to get stuck into the action.

The story unfolds in the first person, and we learn that the protagonist, Porter, is a colonist who was born when he was fifteen – fifteen years too early. Bear with me here.

Along with the other 499 fertilized eggs sent out from Earth, Porter’s development was suspended until the AI controlling the colony ship learned their destination was a viable planet. After that the eggs were allowed to develop, and the new colonists  spent fifteen years in vats, living digital lives while they learned the professions that would be needed by the new colony.

The technology and logic behind this vision of future colonization is spot on. When just reaching the nearest star system will take multiple generations, the most logical and cost effective way of reaching the stars is to send eggs rather than fully grown humans.

Unfortunately, the corporations sending out these colony ships are seeking to maximize their profits, so if the AI controlling a colony ship discovers its assigned planet is unviable, it aborts the mission. In this context abort means destroy. The ship, the eggs, and the AI itself are nuked to ensure no rival corporation can learn any patented secrets.

But sometimes things don’t go to plan.

The action part of the story begins when Porter and the others are decanted from their vats. They take their first real breaths in a world of nightmare. The vat module is on fire, and of the original 500 colonists stored in the vats, only 50 odd manage to find the exit in time. The rest die in the aborted abort. Apparently the AI began the abort sequence but changed its mind.

Why? And what will happen to Porter and the other survivors now? With all their supplies gone, they are naked and starving on a world that is very different to Earth.

Before I continue with the plot, I have to say a word or two about the world the author created. Imagine a forest where the trees are as big as skyscrapers, and the canopy is two kilometres high. Now imagine the size of the ‘bombfruit’ that falls from those trees, and the pony-sized caterpillars that chew on them. This is science fiction at its most inventive!

The rest of the story follows the lives of Porter, and the other survivors as they unravel the mystery of their birth. The plot is strong, and I did not notice any niggling inconsistencies that can ruin an otherwise good story. Nonetheless,  it is the characters who make it come alive.

As the survivors begin forming friendships, and relationships, we discover that Porter is gay, and like most fifteen year olds, he is bewildered by his feelings. He loves Tarsi, the girl who was born in the vat next to his, but he is attracted to Kelvin, a boy destined to be a farmer.

On the face of it, this eternal triangle should be trite, but the author never lets the relationships between the characters overshadow the rest of the story. This is not a romance thinly disguised as science fiction!

Porter’s secret feelings remain a side-note to the far more immediate needs of survival. In a very real sense they don’t matter. Who Porter is as a person, is far more important than his sexual orientation.

The whole issue of Porter’s sexual orientation was handled so well, I assumed the author must be gay. Wrong. If you read the acknowledgements at the end of the novel you will discover that Hugh Howey is a straight, married man with gay friends.

I’m female and straight, so I can’t attest to how accurately Howey portrays the thoughts and feelings of a young gay man, but I have gay friends too, and I think he does it well. More importantly, I believe Howey is a humanist who relates to people as people rather than as males, females or gays, and this comes through in his writing.

I’ve spoken at length about the gay element in ‘Half Way Home’ because it is one of the major themes of the novel, but it is not the only one. Uncaring corporate greed is another, and Howey pulls no punches in condemning it. I agree with him wholeheartedly, but… I think he could have been a tiny bit more subtle with the ending. It is a very uplifting ending, and I wouldn’t call it preachy, but I suspect ‘less’ would have been just as effective as ‘more’.

‘Half Way Home’ is not the novel that catapulted Hugh Howey to fame as an indie author, ‘Wool’ is the book which did that. Nonetheless I loved ‘Half Way Home’ because, for me, it had everything I look for in any novel – strong plot, strong prose, strong characters. But best of all, it had strong cultural and philosophical themes that made me think.

One of the reasons I love science fiction is because it allows authors to explore controversial themes in extreme settings that bring out the best and worst in all of us. We all believe we would be honourable and altruistic if push came to shove, but we are rarely put to the test. When we read good science fiction, it allows us to experience such extremes, at least vicariously. And it can make us question many of the attitudes we take for granted.

Having read ‘Half Way Home’, I intend to read everything Hugh Howey has written. Nonetheless, I am very glad I read this novel first. It has given me an insight into the thinking of the author, and demonstrated the calibre of his writing. I would recommend it to all fans of quality science fiction.

4.999/5


Ghost in the Machine – a review

A woman is sitting in a bar, waiting for someone, presumably her date, to arrive :

“She looked for anyone vaguely resembling Martin’s photo on Schoolbook. Nobody even came close.”

And there you have the two, short sentences that convinced me to buy Ed James’ ‘Ghost in the Machine.”

Like a lot of Kindle owners, many of my ebook purchases are fairly impulsive and this book was no exception. It caught my interest so I bought it. Only later, when I began reading it did I realise that this was a police procedural. And that it was set in Edinburgh, with many of the place names I’d grown used to from reading Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series.

And right there is the one real problem I have with the Ghost in the Machine – I can’t help comparing it to Ian Rankin’s creation, even though Scott Cullen, the young policeman in Ghost in the Machine, is nothing like Inspector Rebus. Or perhaps because he is like the person Rebus might have been in his youth, before disillusionment and alcohol killed his joie de vivre [love of life for those who don’t want to look it up] and turned him into such a complex and compelling character.

Sadly, Scott Cullen is not all that compelling. He is likable, and just as smart as Rebus, but he lacks the depth that makes Rebus someone who tugs at the heart strings.  I care about Rebus. I’m not sure I care about Scott Cullen, however as this is book 1 of the series the author may develop Cullen a little more in the later books.

So, the worst thing I can say about Ghost in the Machine is that it lacks the character development of one of my favourite fictional characters. Everything else, however, is excellent. The plot is tight and kept me guessing right till the end. The background feels authentic, and the cast of supporting characters often seem to be more vivid than the main character himself. The dialogue, too, is good. Every so often the author reproduces an accent in the dialogue, if it is particularly relevant, and I found it was just enough to add flavour without becoming difficult to read. Others may disagree with me on that one, but I loathe flat dialogue where everyone sounds the same.

Now to the big question : did I enjoy Ghost in the Machine?

The answer is a surprising ‘Yes’.

Despite the fact that Ghost in the Machine was written by an indie author, instead of a famous one, did not have the benefit of a professional editor [yes, there are a few typos but only a few], and did not quite have enough character development for my tastes, the story was such a good read that I intend to buy the next book in the series.

I’m also putting Ed James on my Watch List because he is a young author going places. Highly recommended.


Death of a Kingdom – a review

Good morning all! It’s Tuesday morning here in lovely wet Warrandyte. I’m sitting here listening to my new Two Steps from Hell CD called Invincible and all is well with my world so it’s time to do some serious stuff!

Some time ago I wrote a review of M. Edward McNally’s first book of the Norothian series entitled ‘The Sable City’. In that review I made a point of saying how much I liked his world building, amongst other things. Since then I have also nominated McNally as one of the five indie authors who have inspired me with the quality of their work.

When I began reading ‘Death of a Kingdom’, the second book of the Noroth series, I fully expected to enjoy it but I did wonder if McNally would be able to live up to the standards he had set in the first book. I’m very pleased to be able to say that he did. And then some!

Second books are a little like the second-born children in a family – by the time they come along the newness has worn off and their parents are expecting those smiles of wind and gurgles of delight so these second-comers are faced with a much harder life path to follow. Not only do they have to live up to the expectations raised by their older siblings they also have to find some way of distinguishing themselves as individuals in their own right.

In ‘Death of a Kingdom’, McNally has pulled off quite a feat. Not only is the second book as good as the first, it is actually better.

As I began reading ‘Death of a Kingdom’  I started to feel a growing sense of excitement. This book was different. The more I read the more I realised that this time I was going to be taken much, much deeper, not just into the world of Noroth and the lives of the characters but into the lives of nations as well.

The storyline is much more complex, going off in two separate directions. One follows Tilda and most of the original adventurers as they struggle with the aftermath of their trip to the Sable City while at the same time trying to help Claudja in her ongoing battle to save her people. The second follows the life of Nesha-tari, the half human, half Lamia servant of the great blue dragon Akroya. Both streams become deeply embroiled in the politics of Noroth.  Things are no longer simple. The lives of nations are  now at stake. And more. When the devil Balan appears outside of Vod’Adia and begins stirring the pot you just know that the story is headed towards truly epic levels.

Everything in ‘Death of a Kingdom’ is bigger, deeper, richer, stronger. It is meatier. If I were to compare the two books I would say that the first book, while delicious is just an entrĂ©e. Book 2 is a main course. This is where the story truly takes off. McNally introduces us to some new and very interesting characters who reveal layers of politics and intrigue never before seen.

Politics and intrigue almost always lead to battles between armies, huge, confusing, bloody battles and ‘Death of a Kingdom’ is no exception. Some of the battles in the book are fought for the best of reasons, others are fought for reasons the combatants do not understand. But in the heat of battle there is no time for questions of why. Those questions come later, for those who survive.

Everything I have said about the storyline of ‘Death of a Kingdom’ applies to the writing as well. It is richer, stronger and even more vibrant than before, painting scenes large and small with a confidence that was only hinted at in book 1.

This is true epic fantasy and I can hardly wait to jump into book 3, ‘The Wind from Miilark’. Whatever McNally has in store for me I now know that it is going to be big. Yet at the same time I have every expectation that the story will still retain the delicate balance between epic and human that has made ‘Death of a Kingdom’ so very, very pleasurable.

Roll on book 3!


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