Prejudice – A Writer’s Responsibilities

Let me start by making it very clear that this post conveys my personal opinions!

There’s a long tradition in fiction, especially genres like fantasy and science fiction, for racial and species-centric prejudice to show themselves boldly, and usually as something acceptable.  The question in my mind is: is this something which needs to be reconsidered by authors?  Any right-minded person rejects racial prejudice.  In fact, they should reject any such blind prejudice.  I believe that many authors are as opposed to racism as the majority of the population is.  How, then, do they justify the prejudice in their own writing?

We’re all familiar with tales of alien encounters where the first reaction of Humanity is to either enter into warfare or to at least assume a “militarily ready” posture.  Equally, we know of fantasy tales in which other species are cast as wholly evil, creatures to be destroyed at any cost.  There are fewer tales of genuine harmony in relations with non-humans, even when some species are cast as allies.  There is always an undertone, a dark history, of conflict between the species.

If the writer intends to use such bad relationships to attack racism or speciesism, fair enough.  To attempt to bring light into the darkness is laudable.  Sadly, it is also very rare.  I’m no less guilty than others.  I’ve written my share of pieces where these unhappy prejudices are used, even if they aren’t a part of my own personality.  It’s just so easy to do, to follow the tradition.

Surely, it is our responsibility to change this?  Our villains can be cast as unusual specimens of whatever race or species they are of.  We need not write of our many rational species as being intrinsically good or evil.  If such thinking does appear in our work, then shouldn’t it be balanced by our heroes giving voice to, at the very least, doubts about the assertion of intrinsic evil?  Can’t our best characters declare their understanding that the evil-doers are either unwitting pawns of extraordinary individuals or not representative of their entire species?

It would be most unfortunate if an alien species judged all Humanity by the likes of Hitler and the millions who followed him, through their own badness, fear of the cost of not following, or blind obedience to authority.  The threat of genocide in such circumstances would be all too real.  If we dislike that thought, shouldn’t we, as writers, attempt to suggest that Humanity, as a species, should be ready to welcome others in peace?

~ Steve

Population Control – Groaning Shelves

BookcaseSince childhood, which is now lost in the mists of time for me, I’ve been something of a hoarder collector.  It started, as you’d expect, with things like toy cars, soldiers and animals.  It wasn’t very long, however, before I began to find it impossible to part with books that I enjoyed reading, or which were useful as sources of reference.  By the time I was into my teens, I had a bookcase all of my own – four shelves in a three foot high affair.  Within a short two years, this was nowhere near enough!  I was now using a wall-high, wide-shelfed bookcase as well.  In fact, both were groaning under the burden of books, with several of the shelves on the bigger bookcase having their contents doubled up.

It’s still true that I can’t part with favourite books.  Only once, many years ago, did I ever thin out my collection – and I’ve regretted it ever since.  Now, however, we’re definitely suffering from a space problem.  There simply isn’t the room for all our books (Jenny’s also an avid reader) along with our other interests and the inevitable items we’ve been given or otherwise made or obtained as a result of having had a family.  We’ve got real overpopulation problems!  We have bookcases filled with books, DVDs and even videos.  We have books piled in stacks or lying in clusters in various places.  The situation is serious, but the thought of disposing of treasured books actually hurts.

Our own situation has, however, given me cause for thought.   At one time, our local town was a haven for numerous second-hand bookshops.  Now, I can think of only one in a neighbouring town.  Most second-hand books come from charity shops, with that peculiar blend of over- and under-priced volumes.  Most of these seem to offer a good outlet but I couldn’t bring myself to pass any of my books on to them.  I’ve seen unsold books being bagged up as nothing more than trash!  Also, most charity shops here, in Britain, have become very commercial – raising prices for many items to a point where some actually exceed the “new” price for items.  We had always seen such shops as a way for those on, or below, the “breadline” to be able to afford things that were otherwise beyond them.  With the raised prices, more and more people are losing out.  That seems to be contrary to what charity shops should be about.  Consequently, we now avoid them most of the time.

Now that Jenny and I both have eReaders, her Kindle and my kobo, we face new choices.  We can obtain only new works as ebooks or we can mix in some old favourites.  I’ve opted for the latter.  I often have difficulty holding physical books, especially larger tomes.  Getting the ebook versions allows me to enjoy those books without difficulty.  We’re looking at a happy situation, where we can also add to our reading matter without increasing the population in our home!

As I see it, there are many people less inclined to hoard their books.  They are frequently found to be great users of public libraries.  If such folk obtain eReaders, then they have a golden opportunity to be generous.  If you can part with books you own, then it must be possible to get them out to folk who can’t afford to buy books for themselves, especially those with children or the elderly or infirm.  Authors (and publishers) may not thank me for the suggestion, of course, but being sensible, they aren’t going to lose anything!  I’m talking about giving books to people who can not spend their precious funds, needed much more for food, clothes and other mundane living costs, on new books.

I really wish that I had the heart, and courage, to follow this suggestion myself.  If, however, I’ve inspired you and others to do so, then perhaps my sin can be forgiven me.

~ Steve

Feeling Cheated – DRM and ebooks

As I mentioned in my last post, I was given a kobo mini eReader for Christmas.  I was also given some cash.  I thought about it carefully (so I believed) and decided that, as shopping locally is difficult, I would get my wife, Jenny, to buy me iTunes gift cards.  The plan was that iBooks are generally in ePub format so would suit the kobo.  With the gift cards activated and registered on iTunes, I hunted down C S Lewis‘ “Space Trilogy” and purchased all three books, though I thought they were rather pricey.  I then copied them to the kobo, only to discover that they wouldn’t work!  I had fallen foul of that vile invention: DRM!

DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is a copy protection system, of sorts.  In fact, for ebooks, what it does is stops you from being able to reading your ebooks in the way you choose.  I could read these three volumes on my iPod, but as that has top remain plugged in to the mains or a computer, that really wasn’t what I was looking for!  If I had bought paperbacks, I could take them wherever I wanted and read them at my leisure.  I simply wanted to do the same with the ebooks on my kobo.  DRM ensured that I couldn’t make that happen!

I don’t apply DRM to my own works.  I have a strong dislike of it, whatever media it’s applied to.  If I’ve paid good money for something, then I expect to have certain rights.  I expect to be able to read ebooks in the way that suits me.  There’s a big difference between the iPod Touch screen and the kobo mini eReader screen.  Apart from the obvious size difference, reading on the iPod isn’t possible in string sunlight.  Then there’s battery life.  With wifi turned off on the kobo, the battery will last a very long time between charges.  The iPod drains very quickly in comparison.

Apart from the fact that many ebooks from mainstream publishers are overpriced, the application of DRM is a limiting factor which must surely impact on sales, which also impacts on the author’s income.  There is nothing like such protectionist systems to encourage the “black hats” to break the encryption and then “share” the cracked items with all and sundry.  If DRM didn’t exist, then piracy would, I’m sure, be greatly reduced.  Eliminating DRM and asking a more reasonable price would encourage far more people to remain firmly on the legal route for obtaining ebooks.

~ Steve

The kobo mini eReader – and a bit more

Well, I hope everybody has enjoyed the last couple of days.  Our Christmas Day was very quiet, just myself and Jenny this year.  Boxing Day (more properly, St. Stephen’s Day) was a bit more busy as we visited our daughter and her family – which exposed us to two grandchildren and several other people, who were in high spirits!

To the matter of this post’s title.  I was delighted to receive the kobo mini eReader from Jenny!  I’d used an iPod Touch and an old iPhone for reading ebooks, but it was less than perfect, especially with the battery running down quickly.  The kobo was another matter entirely!

kobominiThe mini eReader comes packaged as simply as possible.  You get the eReader and a usb cable, plus a couple of leaflets and the normal guarantee information.  Personally, I believe that the usb cable is too short, giving little chance of having the eReader at a distance from the computer.  You have to connect using the usb cable to charge the device.  I haven’t tried any other method – I have a mains adaptor which allows Jenny’s Kindle and my iPod Touch and iPhone to charge quicker but I’m not sure that’s safe with the kobo, and I can also charge some devices through a usb port in our car but I’m again not sure it’s sage for use with the kobo.  Apart from the length of the usb cable, it’s a pity that the user manual doesn’t come in paper form with the eReader.  I eventually found it as a PDF on the kobo site and it provided information that’s actually quite essential for effective use of the device.  I can only assume that it’s not included as a means to maintain an economical price.  The eReader’s screen is protected by a transparent film but I found that this started to hinder use of the device after an couple of hours or so.  I’m not sure whether this means that commercially available screen protectors would be worth getting for the kobo.

Your first task on receiving, or buying, your device is to attach it to a computer using the usb cable.  This, of course, means that you either have to have a computer yourself or you need somebody with one to help you!  Having connected devices, you are then guided through downloading and installing the kobo desktop app.  You really need Adobe Digital Editions too!  You need to register with kobo, so you’ll need an email address, even if you don’t have a computer yourself.  The rest of the setup procedure is quite simple and is accomplished fairly quickly.  If you have a Facebook account, you can connect to it with your eReader, so you can post to your timeline when you are reading particular books.

Unlike the Kindle, the kobo mini eReader is a touch screen device.  The “home” screen is quite nice, with access to the device’s settings much better than the system used on the Kindle, in my opinion.  There’s a limited set of options available on a single tap, plus more advanced options as an offshoot of that.  I did find it rather odd that the four “extras” were buried in the advanced settings menu.  Then again, having used the built-in browser, it’s not a big deal.  The web browser is probably the worst aspect of the device!  At normal zoom, it flickers and is almost invisible. That was quite a disappointment.  The home screen also displays the health of the battery and any wifi signal strength.  The top of the screen offers options of “Reading” or “Bookstore”, with the former automatically selected and the latter leading to the kobo bookstore.  From “Reading”, you can opt to enter your library, go to kobo’s “Reading Life” record of your activities, or synchronise the device with your computer, either via the usb cable or, if you have the facility, by wifi.  From “Bookstore”, you can opt to “Discover”, Browse or Search, plus there’s an opportunity to browse current offers.  If you have placed books in your Wishlist, this will be indicated right at the bottom.

On the “Reading” screen, tapping on the Library option offers you the opportunity to browse through all the books you have loaded, any newspapers or magazines, any previews you’ve downloaded or go to your list of library “shelves”.  These shelves are set up by you.  They allow you to organise your books more efficiently. I tend to just use author shelves, but you can use whatever system you prefer, and the books may appear on more than one shelf.  Using shelves is certainly advisable if you have a large number of books on the device.  “Reading Life” has two options: Reading Stats or “Awards”.  The latter reward you for being active on kobo, allowing you to collect “badges” or “trophies”.

On the “Bookstore” screen, “Discover” permits you to access a list of similar books to what you’re reading or a list of books recommended for you by kobo.  “Browse” lets you do so by using Categories, Reading Lists or a selection of Free ebooks.  “Search” is obviously your opportunity to search either the kobo bookstore or your device’s library.

When you open a book, the screen starts uncluttered.  Tapping on the left takes you backwards, on the right takes you forwards.  Tapping the centre brings up additional options and information.  The top left shows the Home icon so you can leave the book  (opening it again will return you to where you left off) and the top right shows any wifi signal, battery health and the standard setup box.  Along the bottom, the left shows what percentage of the book you’ve read and the right offers four icons giving access to reading options.  First, an open book icon, accesses a menu of “Table of Contents”, “Annotations”, “Search in Book”, “Definition” and “Translate Word”.  The table of contents pops up in its own screen and allows quick navigation.  Annotations gives access to any notes you’ve made or highlighted passages.  Definition accesses the dictionary and Translate Word does what it says.  Next, the double-headed arrow icon pops up an information box on your location in the book and a slider to let you navigate faster.  The double A icon lets you change font, font size, line spacing, margin sizes and paragraph justification.  The final icon, a spanner, accesses miscellaneous general options.

I think that’s enough detail about the mini eReader.  A little exploration and experimentation is worthwhile.  I’d prefer to go on to some personal observations, now.

The eInk  display works very well, except for the web browser.  Light isn’t an issue, other than when it’s very dark.  Not being backlit, you will need a light of some kind in a dark room.  My device froze a few times, without obvious cause but perhaps because I was working too fast for it, forcing me to remove the back cover and use the reset switch hidden under it.  The power slider is OK, but could possibly do with having a ridge or ridges at one end.  The touch screen is just sensitive enough.  All in all, I like the kobo mini eReader!  The weakest part of it all is the kobo desktop app.  You can add ebooks (in the right formats) from any source to the device.  This is a fact which kobo make much of.  Unfortunately, the desktop app doesn’t recognise anything unless it’s obtained through the kobo bookstore!  This means that the synchronisation is rather pointless in some respects.  Your library, and any shelves, will differ from eReader to desktop unless you only shop through kobo!  You can use Adobe Digital Editions to add ebooks from other sources, but it still won’t update the kobo desktop app library.  Personally, I regard this as a major failing that kobo need to fix as soon as possible.

I’m happy to recommend the kobo mini eReader.  It’s just the right size – not too small and still pocket sized.  Like the original Kindle, the eInk display works well in almost all circumstances.  Using it is simple and the display is easy on the eye.  It isn’t all-singing-and-all-dancing, but it’s exactly what it should be for any serious reader.

~ Steve

A Merry Christmas!


We would like to wish all our readers who celebrate the season a
Very Merry Christmas.

For all others, we wish you Peace and Health.

We look forward to bringing you all more blog posts and ebooks in 2013 and hope that you will not only stay with us but that you will also tell your friends and families about us.  Hopefully, some of you will have received eReaders, books or vouchers for books/ebooks, to further enhance your reading for years to come.

For now, please enjoy a safe, peaceful, and healthy future.

It’s Christmas Eve, When Hope Shines Bright

Yes indeed, it’s Christmas Eve and all should look good, for tomorrow and the future.  The first thing I’d like to do is to wish all readers of this blog a Very Merry Christmas, with fun, friendship, family, peace, god health and good fortune.

In fact, for us, things are more complex.  A brother-in-law in hospital with serious health problems, who won’t see Christmas outside the hospital, which is miles from his home.  My father-in-law in a care home, at least temporarily, because of numerous falls and lost vision.  My own father, whose health has been precarious for a while now and who has also lost his sight, following an operation that was supposed to make it better!  And, of course, there’s my own health problems.  That’s been going on with a certain emotionality on my part, with memories of the sister I lost a few years ago and who I shared so much time at Christmas, when we were Children.

I’ll admit that two of these have had a considerable impact on me in the last few days.  I’ve been very susceptible to the kind of emotionally charged movies that are so often shown at this time of year, which is difficult for me in the sense that I always used to suppress my emotional reactions.

Memories of my sister, Gill, were triggered by a combination of a piece I wrote on Wattpad and the fact that we saw her on her last Christmas, not long before we lost her.  That was a rather magical occasion at the time.  While we were there, our visit was interrupted by callers.  Gill’s eldest daughter and many friends had gathered outside the house, all in Victorian costume, to sing Christmas carols to her.  Extremely moving.  I won’t pretend that we had a perfect relationship.  In fact, Christmas was one of the few times of year when we weren’t at loggerheads.  That doesn’t mean that I didn’t love her dearly!

My father’s condition is, obviously, of deep concern to me.  His health has been failing slowly, since my mother passed away several years ago.  He was a keen fisherman, much respected as such and often skippering a 45 foot charter boat for sea fishing parties.  He had to give that up some time ago, which came hard.  He is also an avid reader.  For many long years, he read favoured books that he obtained from the local library.  He wasn’t a keeper of books, just a reader.  In recent times, it’s become harder for him to get to the library and finding his preferred books has also become much harder, which has driven him to buy second hand books, and keep them if he enjoys them.  Now, he is giving away some of those books, because the print is too small.  If I believed that I could persuade him of the benefits, I’d try to get him an eReader with lots of books on it, as he’d be able to read any of them thanks to the ability to adjust font sizes.  I can’t recall ever seeing him without some books to hand.  The thought that he is losing that is painful.  The fact that we are also rather alike, in many ways, tends to make me wonder somewhat about my own future.

We tend to think about what we hope to gain at Christmas.  In youth, of course, we have that sense of invulnerability.  As the years pass and we lose family and friends, still we cling to the subconscious sense that such things only happen to others.  In advanced age, we’re not entirely deserted by a kind of blind optimism.  We all know folk who look on frail friends as “poor old things” even though those friends may be years, or even decades, younger than themselves.  Perhaps we need to devote at least part of our Christmas thoughts to being grateful for the things we have, or have had, rather than to things we want.

~ Steve

Reading Again – At Last!

After far too long, I’m finally able to read again.  Whatever was blocking it before has obviously eased off.  What am I reading?  Well, I’m actually re-reading Phoenix Squadron by Rowland White.  I’ve only read it once before, after which I loaned it out.  I kind of lost track of it after that, but it reappeared a few days ago.  I’d been wanting to read it again for a while.

Phoenix Squadron by Rowland White - Amazon UK

Phoenix Squadron by Rowland White – Amazon UK

Phoenix Squadron is an account from British military aviation history.  It concerns the vital part played by HMS Ark Royal and her contingent of Buccaneer jets in the days leading up to independence for what was then British Honduras, now Belize.  The former colony was small and without anything that could be truly regarded as defence forces.  Neighbouring Guatemala, supported by El Salvador, was then (1972) determined to gain Belize, but they wanted to do so while Britain still held it.  It was typical military-political thinking.  Taking on a “great power” would be received by the world with more sympathy than invading a weak neighbour.  The fact that Britain only had a small contingent of ground troops stationed in the colony didn’t signify weakness in the same sense as a total lack of armed forces.  Rowland White doesn’t confine himself to a simple retelling of these events, he paints a full picture of everything leading up to them.

Rowland White is a writer I admire.  He not only carries out a phenomenal amount of research, including interviewing those who were actually involved, he assembles it all into a truly thrilling story that conveys the events magnificently.  Like Vulcan 607, which I’ve also read (and reviewed), this is a book that absolutely anyone can enjoy, if they take the trouble to read it!  You don’t have to be an enthusiast first.  All you need is a desire to be entertained and drawn along on an incredible ride.  I’ve read fiction and non-fiction military works and, for me, none match the quality Rowland White achieves.

I’m so glad that this book has returned to my keeping.

~ Steve

While the writer writes…

I guess most authors have a fairly set routine for when they’re actually writing.  I’ve certainly seen comments about how to set up to get the best results in terms of working.  One of the most common guidelines is: “Have a clear workspace with no distractions”.  If that’s essential, then I have to record myself as a total failure.

I have limited mobility so I tend to live most of the time in one location in the house – my sofa!  To hand, is my computer and printer, set at my side with the screen angled towards me.  The room, our lounge, is of course full of plenty of distractions, the television being the biggest.  To avoid feeling entirely cut off from the world, I have the TV on pretty much continuously.  A lot of the time, I select favourite programmes, which means endless cycles of repeats, but I’m also a fan of cricket and NFL (American football), and occasionally I have soccer on.  So, I sit here with the computer and TV both on.  The landline ‘phone is also in the room, along with my mobile ‘phone.

While I’m writing, then, the TV is happily keeping me company.  Does it impact on my writing?  I guess it does, but only when something new is happening on it, which is much rarer than you’d think.  Many writers have music playing while they write, to keep them relaxed as much as anything.  I regard having the TV on in much the same way.  If the room was in total silence (actually unlikely as we live beside a major road), I would soon become depressed sufficiently for total lethargy to set in! I need to know that the world exists outside, even if I’ve become absorbed by what I’m writing, to a degree that makes me less than responsive to outside influences.

More, my workspace tends to be cluttered!  That’s been true since I was 18 years old (several decades ago) and first started working in an office!  I surround myself in the things I either need access to (my medications, for example) or which may act as temporary activities between writing sessions, plus any research materials that may prove useful.  So, I definitely don’t have a clear, uncluttered, quiet, workspace!

One thing is good.  We very rarely have visitors.  While I generally don’t write while Jenny (my wife) is at home, regarding that as being rather rude, if I am driven to do so, I know that I can.  The arrival of visitors would most definitely block any writing activity.  Fortunately, I’ve never been overly sociable, loving the comfort of my own home and not needing more than my family, so I don’t actually feel as if I’m deprived by the lack of visitors.

To add to the scene, I will smoke my cigarettes while I write, consumption varying wildly according to the degree of concentration.  If I’m able, I’ll also have a drink handy at times, usually a mug of tea or coffee.  I don’t imbibe alcohol, partly because of the medications and partly because I have very little desire to do so.  In the past, I enjoyed drinking wine, sherry and port, with a few odd drinks besides, but I can’t recall ever having drunk anything alcoholic while writing.

Of all these things, my medications have the biggest impact on my writing, other than periods when my health is particularly bad, by dulling my mind and making me sleepy.  I may not have my workspace clear and carefully organised, but it works for me.  I guess what I’m trying to convey is that aspiring writers should take all advice into consideration and then use or discard it as best fits them!  They should, above all else, feel comfortable.

~ Steve

Beacons of Knowledge

A book is not just a collection of words.  Even a good dictionary is more.  It’s a beacon, leading us into the unknown.  It casts light where there is darkness, and brings knowledge where there was ignorance.  It isn’t enough to simply read the words.  We must be able to understand them, to let them teach us.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about an encyclopedia or a work of pulp fiction.  There are things in any book that we have no knowledge of, things peculiar to that one book.

The mind  is a marvellous thing, but it demonstrates its remarkable nature only when it is properly fed.  The expansion of the mind can only happen through education.  That education can be experiential, experiencing actual events or places, or it can be acquire through the efforts of others.  Movies, TV programmes or a teacher giving a lecture can open up whole new vistas.  Books, however, can provide greater depth and broader range.  There is no limit to what a book may contain.

When you really think about it, it’s a magical process.  We can take words and use them to recreate anything.  Indeed, we can create whole new realities.  Realities that can be utterly convincing.  Equally, we can convey facts that relate to everything, from events from the ancient past to the most complex scientific theories.

Literacy is a most precious gift.

~ Steve

Darkness in December

There can be few people who haven’t heard the dreadful reports of the school shootings in Connecticut. This awful news hits the world as many Chinese are also rocked by a similar attack in a school there, by somebody wielding a knife. These events are unimaginable for most of us. How such things can happen is beyond comprehension. What drives a person to such an act of wanton slaughter? I dare say that we’ll learn more as time passes, but the fact remains that these terrible events have taken place and too many lives have been taken, so much potential wiped out. It is only natural that our hearts grieve.

For many years, the approach of Christmas has been received with mixed feelings by myself, for one. December sees far too many tragedies, and too many linked to criminal behaviour. From the family whose home is burglarised, depriving them of the gifts they may have barely managed to afford, to acts so heinous we can’t truly comprehend them. Homes are consumed in fires, traffic accidents steal lives or leave behind crippled bodies, people lonely beyond endurance commit the ultimate act of violence against themselves and commit suicide. These tragedies occur through accidents or acts of criminality, and sometimes in a combination of both, such as drunk drivers who bring their own form of criminal violence against random strangers. Of course such things happen at other times of the year, but they always seem to build to a crescendo in the run up to Christmas.

What does it say about us? The same tragedies every December. The ruination of a time of hope and love in the blink of an eye. We implore each other to behave better, to be more careful, to be more caring of others. And every year, without fail, the pattern is repeated. The sense of personal invulnerability we all enjoy is utterly false. Personally, the thought of losing just one member of my family or a friend is unbearable. Others must feel the same. How many of you have been driven to hug your children as news of another tragedy has struck?

It troubles me. The night before last, I fell asleep on the sofa. I had the most vivid, memorable dream I can remember in ages. In that dream, it was a day of happiness, in which I was with a very young grandson, exploring a heathland. That grandson was named Tom, though I have no such grandchild. The happiness, however, turned to nightmare when I couldn’t find Tom. In the dream, I covered miles, from heath to shopping centre, trudging despairingly along major roads, always hunting. Not once did it occur to me to call the police or anybody else. The nightmare was wholly mine! And when I woke, the nightmare unfinished, I was still grieving for a lost child, a child who had never been real. Later, the dreadful events that unfolded in the real world seemed to somehow hit me more strongly because of that nightmare. I could probably figure out the causes of the dream, but it strikes me as a very strange coincidence with real events.

So many children, of all ages, were lost. I will grieve for them, in my own way. I won’t, however, expect the losses to bring changes. Next December will have its darkness, as always.

~ Steve