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Book Review: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan

“The Age of Kings is dead…and I have killed it.”

This awesome tagline adorns the cover of Brian McClellan’s  debut novel Promise of Blood, the first volume of the Powder Mage Trilogy, and aptly sums up the political theme of the book: revolution.

After a few false starts with novels I struggled to get into, I’ve taken to downloading free samples from kobobooks.com with the intention of only buying the book if sufficiently hooked. Promise of Blood passed this test with flying colours and I quickly bought the ePub so that I could continue reading. Read more

Book review: The Painted Man, by Peter V Brett

Thus continues my summer of catching up on my reading, especially those (mostly epic) fantasies that came out a while ago…

*** Spoilers ahoy! ***

The Painted Man tells the stories of three exceptional young people—Arlen, Leesha and Rojer—growing up in a world where demons rise from the earth’s core every night and try to kill humans. The only things that can keep the demons back are wards: painted or carved symbols. Arlen has a talent for drawing wards and wants to become a Messenger (one of the couriers who defy the demons, travelling from town to town); Leesha is a skilled herbalist; and Rojer’s music has an Orpheus-like effect on the demons. Their stories run in parallel for most of the book until they meet up towards the end.

Read more

Book Review: The Spirit Eater, by Rachel Aaron

This time last year I read and reviewed The Spirit Thief, the first Eli Monpress novel from Rachel Aaron. For some reason I didn’t review book two, The Spirit Rebellion, but I enjoyed both enough to continue with the series. In fact I picked up book three, The Spirit Eater, when I was having trouble getting into any of the new books I’d picked up—I thought perhaps it would be easier to slip into a story where I already knew the characters. Thankfully I was right, and Aaron’s book broke my reading dry spell! Read more

Friday Reads: Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie

While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law…

Warning: contains spoilers! Read more

Friday Reads: Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

Having left Camorre after the deaths of their fellow Gentleman Bastards at the hands of the Bondsmagi, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are running a new scam in the Sinspire, a high-class casino in the city of Tal Verrar. Unfortunately the Bondsmagi haven’t finished with Locke yet, and he and Jean find themselves working—decidedly unwillingly—for a Verrari warlord with an ambition to rule the city outright. Temporarily abandoning the scam they take up their new mission, starting with a crash course in seamanship and a new cover identity as the dread pirate Orrin Ravelle…

Warning: here be spoilers! Because it’s otherwise hard to say what I liked (and didn’t like) about the book. And hell, it’s six years old, so I reckon many of my visitors will have read it already anyway. Read more

Tech review: IRISnotes Executive smartpen

Note: this review is for the original (1.0) smartpen, which I bought a couple of years ago. A new (2.0) version is out with more capabilities, including iPad integration, but I haven’t made up my mind about upgrading yet.

IRISnotes pen and receiver
IRISnotes pen and receiver

The IRISnotes Executive is one of several smartpens vying for market share. Unlike most of the others, however, it does not use special (read, expensive) gridded paper, nor does it store the transcribed text in a heavy, high-tech pen. Instead it uses a normal-sized ballpoint pen with a infrared transmitter around its nib, and a receiver unit that you clip to whatever notepad or loose-leaf paper you desire.

Since a) I have small hands and b) I don’t want to have to buy a load of expensive notebooks on top of the pen, this makes the IRISnotes Executive an attractive choice. And since I have quite neat cursive handwriting, I find the recognition accuracy of the software to be pretty good. At least, it is when I’m writing non-fiction with lots of long sentences and standard vocabulary. It struggles a lot more with fiction, which is heavily punctuated and includes a lot of words the software doesn’t recognise, such as character names.

Let’s reinvent the wheel. And then make it octagonal…
Let’s reinvent the wheel. And then make it octagonal…

The biggest downside though is that the desktop software is clunky, unintuitive and poorly documented. Firstly it relies on a separate utility, MyScript Retriever, to transfer data from the receiver to your computer, which is not integrated into the IRIS software but must be run separately. Once you have transferred your files, you can then switch to the main IRISnotes Executive program, which is frankly over-designed, using a non-standard interface for no good reason. The Quick Start Guide covers the basics, but finding out anything else about the program has proved problematic. That red cross next to an uploaded file? I eventually worked out that it means the file is corrupted and can’t be imported, but there’s nothing about that in the manual, nor a tooltip to explain its function. Very frustrating!

The software runs on both Windows and Mac, although the MyScript Notes utility, which allows you to use the pen as a virtual tablet, is Windows only. I recommend you download the latest version of IRISnotes from the manufacturer’s website; however on the Mac at least, it keeps warning you that you are using an older version of MyScript and would you like to convert to the latest format. Well, yes, yes I would. But I wish it wouldn’t keep asking me!

My overall feeling is that this is a nice piece of hardware and a decent handwriting recognition algorithm that are badly let down by the desktop software. If you can stick with it long enough to get the program trained to your handwriting it may prove useful, but it’s not a toy for the impatient. And because it is weak on transcribing fiction, it’s not an ideal solution for novelists on the go. Which is a pity, because that’s exactly what I’m still looking for…

Web presence 101.7 – Goodreads

Goodreads is an online reading community that’s grown rapidly in the past couple of years, easily outstripping LibraryThing and other rivals. You can use it to help manage your book collection, post reviews and ratings, and join in online bookclubs. And if you’re a writer, once you have a book out (whether self-published or through a conventional publishing house), you can upgrade your account to “Goodreads Author”, which makes it easier to find out what your readers think of your book!

As I don’t get a lot of time for reading these days, I don’t have much experience of the reading side of Goodreads. I’ve added a selection of books from my shelves, though it’s by no means comprehensive, and I use it to maintain my to-read list. If you do want to add books to Goodreads and have a smartphone, they do a great app that includes a barcode scanner—it only works with fairly recent books that have the long ISBN numbers, but it speeds up the process considerably.

Once you have an author account, you’ll get a dashboard that gives you easy access to all your books as well as a bunch of widgets to use on your website plus other promotional tools.

Reader reviews

I’ve written elsewhere about why I read reviews, but whether or not you choose to read them I think Goodreads deserves a special caveat: do not trust the numbers! Because it’s a large busy site, they cache a lot of the statistics (total numbers of reviews and ratings, average ratings, etc) and you will soon discover that these numbers differ on different parts of your dashboard. At the time of writing, my dashboard says I have 77 text reviews but I can find only 75. Sometimes this is because people write comments in the ‘review’ field before they’ve finished and rated a book, and Goodreads doesn’t filter these out. And if a reader changes their mind about a rating, both values may be listed for a day or two. For the sake of your sanity, take the figures as a rough guide only!

Also, as with all reviews, don’t let the lower ratings get you down. You can’t please all the people even some of the time, and I’m sure you know of plenty of well-written and/or popular books that you didn’t enjoy, so cut your readers some slack. And sometimes those 1-star ratings are from people who haven’t even read your book—they may for example be attempting to “train” the suggestion algorithm by downgrading books that don’t look interesting. No fun for you, but luckily these people are in a minority.

Widgets

Goodreads have created a range of buttons and widgets that you can incorporate into your own website, such as the “Read reviews on Goodreads” button that I use in my little promo box in the margin of my blog. I advise caution when it comes to the interactive widgets, however; Goodreads is down quite often, which means your widget will be empty or even slightly broken-looking whenever that happens.

Other promotional tools

If you have physical copies of your book, you can arrange a giveaway before it comes out or up to six months after publication. In my case my publisher did it for me, in the US at least, and nearly 900 people signed up! Of course a great many of these unlisted my book when they didn’t win, but around a third still have it listed as to-read, so it’s definitely an effective promotional tool. Note that you can’t give away ebooks; I don’t know if this is to prevent the system being swamped with self-published titles (since most self-pubs are ebook only), or whether the abundance of free ebooks means they aren’t seen as a valued promo, but either way you’re limited to print copies and the expense of postage that entails.

Free tools include a Facebook fan page app and the ability to set up a Q&A group, but I’ve never managed to get the former to work and I have yet to try the latter. I guess I’m worried that, being a debut author, no-one would turn up, and it would just be me and the tumbleweed!

If you’re self-published you might also want to consider advertising your book, but I know nothing about this side of Goodreads.

 

In summary, Goodreads is a great site to connect with readers—just don’t let yourself get obsessed with the numbers!

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

Writing a novel on the iPad

When the iPad first came out, I dismissed it as a “toy” because it was clearly designed for the consumption of media, rather than creation. But more and more productivity apps were released, until I was forced to admit that it might actually be useful as well as pretty! Add in a battery life that was triple that of my laptop, and the iPad started to look like a practical device for writing.

The decisive moment, however, came with the availability of the Zaggmate bluetooth keyboard, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Suddenly I could seriously see myself actually drafting a novel on the iPad, even if I needed the power of Scrivener for later revisions. So, I decided I would use the iPad as my main device for writing my work-in-progress, The Merchant of Dreams (sequel to The Alchemist of Souls).

Software

In addition to the iPad itself and the keyboard, I’ve been using a number of key apps:

Notebooks

A plain text editor with the big advantage that it syncs easily with Scrivener via Dropbox (there’s a nice video tutorial to walk you through the process). You can sync just your Draft folder, or all the text documents in your project, and whilst Notebooks doesn’t allow subfolders within the Draft, each folder is transferred as a text document, so you can at least see where your chapter breaks fall (if you have them).
There are a few gotchas, principally that if you add formatting in Notebooks, the file is synced to Dropbox as HTML and then won’t import into Scrivener. On the plus side, any formatting changes you make in Scrivener are retained (in the Scrivener document) even though what you are syncing is plain text – which is pretty awesome!

Index Card

This is a corkboard emulator very similar in appearance to Scrivener’s corkboard, and it syncs with the synopsis fields in a Scrivener project. You can drag cards around, and they will be reordered in Scrivener after syncing. It has a few problems that make it less useful than Notebooks – it has no hierarchy at all, and it requires using a Collection in order to sync, which means that if you add new cards in Scrivener, you have to add them to the Collection as well before you can sync them to Index Card.

Carbon Fin Outliner

When I’m brainstorming a plot, I don’t necessarily want a one-to-one relationship between items in my outline and scene documents within Scrivener – a single plot point could require several scenes, or several plot minutiae might fit into a single scene. Hence I like to use simple notetaking tools for this stage. Outliner from Carbon Fin is very basic, but it does the job with the minimum of fuss.

iCardSort

I’ve only just bought this one, but it looks like an interesting alternative to Index Card and/or Outliner. Unlike Index Card, it allows freeform arrangement of cards on the corkboard, so I think it will be better for brainstorming.

With all this kit, I’ve found it surprisingly efficient to get writing done without a proper laptop. I still go back to my desktop regularly to sync Notebooks and keep a tally of my finished wordcount, but even that is far from essential, since I also have a copy of Numbers, the iWork spreadsheet app. I reckon the iPad can be considered a serious weapon in the writer’s arsenal.

Film review: Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides

This is, surprisingly, my first current film review this year. I’ve been so caught up in my novels that I hadn’t been to the cinema until now. This one’s pretty spoiler-free, I think – if you’ve seen the trailers or read any pre-release publicity material, you probably already know more than I reveal here!

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is, as its closing credits state, “suggested by” the novel of the same title by Tim Powers, reviewed on this blog earlier this month. This is a pretty accurate description, since all that has been retained from the book is the central conceit: that Blackbeard is searching for the Fountain of Youth to extend his life and continue his voodoo-enhanced reign of terror in the Caribbean. Since the first movie was also heavily inspired by the same book, there frankly wasn’t much left to pillage (without reprising Curse of the Black Pearl) – and it shows.

It’s not that there’s anything seriously, woefully wrong with the film – it’s not the random, almost incoherent mess that was At World’s End, but it lacks the sparkle of Curse of the Black Pearl. Whether that’s more the fault of the director or the scriptwriters, I leave to more analytical moviegoers to decide, but given that director Rob Marshall is a choreographer with more experience directing musicals than action movies, this was never likely to be the pinnacle of the Pirates franchise. On the other hand writers Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott didn’t give him a lot to work with – and in their case, we know they are capable of better. They wrote Curse of the Black Pearl, after all.

Again, part of the problem seems to come down to the impossibility of adapting the book a second time, and therefore being deprived of the narrative core that drives Curse. Without Will and Elizabeth to provide the romance element, the scriptwriters hit upon pairing Jack Sparrow with a previously unheard-of paramour, Blackbeard’s daughter Angelica (Penelope Cruz). But Jack’s character doesn’t suit angsty romance, and his chemistry with Cruz doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire either. So they tried tacking on a subplot about a young preacher (to me at least, a very obvious substitute for the book’s hero, John Chandagnac) and the captive mermaid. However the preacher, Philip, is such a minor character that for a long time you don’t even know his name, and so the whole thing feels thin and under-developed compared to Will’s life-long devotion to Elizabeth. Sadly, two weak romances are no substitute for one good one.

The pacing is not great either. The film feels a good half an hour too long – and not just because of the excess romance scenes. Some of the action set pieces (like the mermaid’s capture) are dragged out as if to milk every last CGI possibility, and the final obligatory battle between pirates and soldiers is interrupted by a typical piece of Captain Jack’s witty banter – except that the dialogue lacks the dazzling panache of the earliest scripts and so only serves to bring the scene to a grinding halt.

Overall it’s not a bad movie – if one had never seen the previous ones, it might even seem like a clever resurrection of the pirate genre – but Curse of the Black Pearl was always going to be such a hard act to follow that On Stranger Tides suffers badly by comparison. There are far worse ways to end a series, though, so unless Rossio and Elliott can pull something extraordinary out of their tricorne hats, I very much hope this is Captain Jack Sparrow’s last, still-entertaining gasp.