A tale of two semi-autobiographical novels

Hm, that title doesn’t roll off the tongue too well, does it?

One of the wonderful things about getting an ereader is the availability of out-of-print classic books. Project Gutenberg is a good source, but you can also find them at places like FeedbooksOpen Library, the Mobileread site and ManyBooks. It’s a chance to catch up on reading all those books that you feel you really should have read, but haven’t.

This month, I’ve read two books from Project Gutenberg which, on the face of it, might be thought of as quite similar. Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes, was published in 1857 and tells of the experiences of a Rubgy School student. David Copperfield was first published as a book in 1850 and follows the life of a young author, including his days at school in Canterbury. In both books, the character of the boys’ headmaster is an important one.

If I had not looked up the dates of publication, I would have said that the Hughes book was much older than the Dickens one. Its style and content is more formal, more didactic, more moralistic and much less enjoyable to read. Then I thought perhaps it was a difference in the age of the authors, but no: they were both in their thirties when their respective books were published. I’m not at all surprised that Dickens was so popular during his lifetime, and continues to be so today, while Hughes remains relatively unknown. It seems that Hughes was well aware of my concerns with his book, as he said (according to Wikipedia):

Several persons, for whose judgment I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added, that the great fault of it is ‘too much preaching’; but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn’t do so myself.

I think Hughes missed an opportunity here. If he’d made his book more enjoyable to read, then he could have got his message across to many more people without the necessity of preaching. As it is, I certainly can’t recommend Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

David Copperfield, on the other hand, is gripping, entertaining and often funny. At over 700 pages, it is a long read, but a satisfying one. My suspicion (as always) is that I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t read this particular classic, but just in case that’s not true, this one is a worthy addition to anyone’s free ereading library.

The covers on this page were taken from Open Library. The images are links to the Project Gutenberg versions of the book.

Book review: Smallworld by Dominic Green

My first free read of 2011 was Smallworld by Dominic Green, available free from Smashwords. Sci-fi is a little outside my comfort zone, and there were so many strange words in the first few pages that I began to wonder if I’d be able to continue reading. But I persevered, and I’m glad I did. The story concerns a tiny moonlet which is home to the Reborn-in-Jesus family, their various adopted children, a mysterious hermit and a Devil. The Devil has a habit of killing anyone who threatens the peace of the colony. The reason the Reborn-in-Jesuses have so many adopted children is because their parents were all killed by the Devil.

The novel has some great side-swipes at issues of genetic engineering (the McChickens), religious indoctrination, slavish exploitation of technology and the abuse of power in general. There are some laugh-out-loud moments: I liked this description of the state schools on other worlds, for example:

“Those schools incorporate electric shock discipline, chemical aversion therapy, and subliminal messaging.”
“Granted,” nodded the Pastor, “but it is not all good.”

There were a few minor typos and, in some places, I felt there was a paucity of commas. But nothing major. I will admit that the ending left me feeling slightly puzzled, but maybe I hadn’t been paying close enough attention.

I’ve come to the conclusion (after a whole week and a half of ereading) that there are two types of ebooks: those where you keep checking the page number you’re up to (and how much further there is to go), and those where you don’t care what page number you’re on, because you’re enjoying the book. Rather like being on a long car journey – if it’s a tedious one, you keep looking at the road signs to see how many miles/kilometres you’ve got until your destination. If the scenery is beautiful, you’re not so worried. At the beginning of this book, I was checking the page numbers, but by half-way through, I was enjoying the ride. Thanks, Dominic!

Libraries and ereading

I’ve been watching the rise of the ebook with interest over the last few years. When you’ve made a work available to the various ereader formats, you can’t help but get sucked into the ereading universe. I could easily see the appeal of carrying many books around on one small device and, having read a few books on my computer, I could see why an e-ink screen would make for a more pleasurable experience (not to mention the ability to comfortably read in bed or in front of the fire).

This was the Christmas when I finally succumbed to the fascination and acquired an ereader. As I’ve already explained in this blog, I’m not a big buyer of fiction books for myself – I rely heavily on the public libraries for my reading habit. One of the big advantages of an ereader was going to be the huge amount of free reading material that’s available online, through Project Gutenberg and services like Feedbooks and Smashwords. I was also excited by the possibility of renting more up-to-date ebooks from the two public library systems to which I belong.

Well, I was excited until I started examining their stock. One of the libraries uses Overdrive, which is run co-operatively as part of a big investment in Ontario libraries. The other uses NetLibrary. Here’s what they offer, in terms of content:

Audio fiction Audio non-fiction Ebook fiction Ebook non-fiction Total
Overdrive 4,202 1,060 1,185 139 6,586
NetLibrary 1,950 2,903 4,953

I don’t know how many books the physical libraries hold, but according to a 1990s paper by Moya K. Mason, the median number in Ontario libraries is around 35,000 books. So there’s a long way to go before the number of ebooks rivals the number of physical items in our libraries.

UPDATE: I’ve done a bit more digging and have discovered that the smaller of my two local libraries (the Overdrive library) holds 23,000 items, while the bigger library (the one that uses NetLibrary) holds 80,000. So it’s quite a significant difference in percentage terms, with the equivalent of 27% of the stock of the small library available in ebook form, but only 6% of the larger one.

Now, if I did a lot of driving, then the audio books would be great. But I don’t, and it’s quicker to read than it is to hear a book. The number of items of interest to me in these collections is therefore reduced even further (but obviously that will be different for many other people, that I’m happy to accept). It’s early days, still, and I hope that these numbers will improve over the coming months and years. I’ve provided them here as a benchmark for future comparisons.

I’d like to make a few observations on the usability of these services. Of the two, I found Overdrive more intuitive to navigate. As you can see from the table, I couldn’t easily separate non-fiction from fiction titles in NetLibrary. This is fairly fundamental – in most public libraries there’s a clear physical division between the two. But in NetLibrary I wasn’t able to simply divide up the stock in this way to get an estimate of the number of fiction and non-fiction titles. Unless you know what you’re looking for, NetLibrary isn’t easy to navigate, generally. Overdrive was definitely superior in this respect, with books browsable by popularity, as well as by title, author and category.

In Overdrive, I quickly found three books that I’ve been wanting to read. None of them were instantly available and there is a limit to the number of books that I can ask to reserve (three). In each case, there are between 12 and 23 people ahead of me in line. I’ve no idea what that means, in practical terms. There is a standard loan period of two weeks (this is the usual loan period for the equivalent real-world library, too), which can be altered to three weeks in the Overdrive system. But I don’t know if that means I’ll have to wait six to 12 months for the books I’d like, or if the system has more than one licence for each of those books, which would mean that they should become available sooner. Time will tell (and these physical restrictions seem bizarre, frankly, when we’re talking about a few kilobytes of data, not an actual book). At least there were some books that I knew I’d want to read. I didn’t find any in the NetLibrary collection (it doesn’t have copies of Stieg Larsson’s books?!), even when searching for the three books I’d ordered from Overdrive.

By means of experiment, I’ve also placed a hold on one of the ebooks I’ve ordered in printed book form from the library. It’ll be interesting to see whether it’s the ebook or the dead-tree version that arrives first.

I don’t want to see our public libraries closing, and I think that if they get their act together in relation to ebooks, then they’ll become relevant to a whole section of society that simply sees libraries as irrelevant to their current way of life. In a world where many ereaders allow users to buy the book they want instantly from the Internet, where is the appeal of waiting for a long, artificially-created line of people to download a digital file before you can (apart from the financial one)? And if the file isn’t even there in the first place, then they won’t take the time to look for one, next time. I know it’s early days, but this is key to the future success of libraries. It’s a chance they can’t afford to miss.

Book review: Snow Burn by Joel Arnold

Snow Burn by Joel Arnold

I came across this book via a review from Red Adept. I think I must have got it through a coupon (as I’m still leery of paying to read ebooks), and I see that on his blog Joel is offering to send a coupon for it to anyone who emails him.

It’s an enjoyable story – quite short, at under 30,000 words – but a pleasant way of spending a couple of hours. Particularly if you’re curled up in front of a warm fire, as I was, while reading about the two boys who are out camping in a blizzard when they rescue a dangerous escaped convict.

The characters are believable, the dialogue convincing and the story flows smoothly and well. I enjoyed the small digressions into ethical problems along the way. Things like: would you kill Hitler when he was a child, if you had the opportunity? One of the characters, Vince, firmly states that the answer to this should be ‘no’. His ethical views are tested by the murderous intent of the escaped prisoner.

Inspiration

How did you come up with the idea for your story?

It’s one of those frequently-asked questions that authors soon learn to come up with a pat answer to. I’ve only been asked it twice, to be completely honest, but just in case anyone out there is wondering, here’s the answer I’d give.

The second senior school I went to was a big comprehensive (over 1,100 students), although it only covered pupils aged 11 to 16. If you wanted to stay on after that you had to go to a different school for the last two years of education.

I would say that it was a ‘bog-standard’ rural comprehensive, but that isn’t quite true. For one thing, it’s one of the few schools in England that has its own farm, with cows, sheep, goats and chickens. I never got involved with the farm, as I didn’t join the school until the second year, and only the first year pupils had mandatory Rural Studies lessons. It’s something I rather regret, as I’m now living on a farm! But I digress…

The sparking point for The Roman and the Runaway came when I was in the last year of my time there. I was passing the office of the teacher who was the head of the fifth year. He was in charge of discipline for our year and there were a bunch of boys waiting outside to see him. I presumed they were in some sort of trouble and noticed, with interest, that one of them was the son of the teacher concerned.

I thought how strange it must be, to have an out-of-school relationship with someone who is in a position of authority over you like that. And how awkward for both of them when the son was in trouble at school. That was where the core of the story about Luke and Ned began. I began writing it in the November of that year, once I’d started at my new school, which involved a bus journey from the old one. That bus ride gave me time to think and to start writing.

On Amazon

When I first looked at using Amazon to publish The Roman and the Runaway, which I suppose was about a year ago, it seemed very complicated. I got a long way through the process before realising that I couldn’t complete it, as I didn’t live in the US. It also wasn’t possible to make the book available for free, as it is on Smashwords, so I gave up on Amazon at that point, thinking that eventually my book would get there through the Smashwords distribution system.

It was only recently that I found out that publishing on Amazon is now possible for non-US residents and that it is significantly easier to do so. Two days ago, I uploaded the book and set the price at $0.99. And this morning it’s on Amazon’s US and UK sites (it’s 71 pence in the UK).

 

Kindle edition

The whole process was a lot easier than I expected it to be, after my initial experiments last year. Now I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner!

Book review: Misery’s Fire by Kim Jewell

The books I’ve reviewed here so far have all been available from Smashwords. This is the first Authonomy book I’ve reviewed. As the books on Authonomy are not really published, but are on the way to publication, I’m not sure of the etiquette around this. But in the hope that I’m not breaking some unwritten rule, I’ll go ahead and review it anyway. One of the main disadvantages is that you can’t download it onto an ereader, but if that doesn’t bother you, read on.

Misery's Fire

Misery’s Fire is about 19 year-old Grant Williams, who wakes up in Hell after avenging the death of his sister in a fatal fire. Nothing that the demons of Hell throw at him is capable of causing him greater suffering than the loss of his sister, Misery, so they decide to send him back to earth to endure an alternative Hell: High School.

The descriptions of Hell and its activities drew me into the book straight away – I love the idea of the denizens of Hell being responsible for earthquakes, volcanoes and, er, potholes. Once back on Earth, Grant has to cope with a new body, four years younger than his old one, and find a way of surviving with no home, no money and no family.

I read the book at one sitting – I really wanted to know how Grant would manage to escape the clutches of Hell. The book is an enjoyable read and I’m sure there will be plenty of other fans of YA books out there who would also find it engaging.

Small pleasures

I’ve talked about Feedbooks here before. Design-wise, I think it’s one of the best-looking ebook sites, it’s easy to upload and update books on, and I do like their reporting on where ebooks are being downloaded from. The other part of the site that I enjoy is the ability to see users’ bookshelves. There’s something deeply satisfying for an ‘indie’ author in seeing their work on a virtual shelf alongside more established writers. This screenshot has my book on a user’s shelf near to works by D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and John Buchan (Jerome K. Jerome was just off the screen, too).

Feedbooks bookshelf

It’s a small pleasure, but a profound one. 😉

Plotting

A discussion on one of the KindleBoards forums/fora last week caught my eye. The original poster asked whether you need to have a plan before you start writing.

The responses (predictably) ranged from ‘yes I plan everything out in advance’ to ‘plotting kills novels’. Interesting. One of the respondents mentioned the Snowflake method, which I’ve just read up on and which sounds as though it might be useful.

Like most first-time novelists, I didn’t have a well-thought-out plot for The Roman and the Runaway. By the time I got down to writing it in earnest in 2007, I realised that I only had half a novel (part one of the book as it is now). Those were the scenes I had been carrying in my mind for the previous twenty years. It was another year and a half before I got past that road-block and was able to write parts two and three.

My metaphor for the process of writing the last two parts is that it felt like I was doing a brass-rubbing. The story existed but was hidden and I needed to work hard to reveal the details of it, which were revealed, line by line.

I’m working on a sequel when time allows (which is not often!). This story has a central idea and I’ve written a number of scenes (around 17,000 words) but there is, as yet, no detailed plot. I’m comfortable with that, because it’s my hobby and there’s no rush for this story to be finished. I can imagine that if I was writing to deadlines and had a publisher demanding to know where the sequel was, then it would be much more important to have those detailed plans in place and be writing to meet them.

Sounds a lot less fun, though.