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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (litterarius novum)

In Which We Discover A New Way Of Reading

Book.

Ah yes! I know what one of those is. I remember reading a book once, long ago. It was fun. Book – the word trips nicely off the tongue. It's almost as neat a word as the object itself. No other word quite works.

Koob.

Not quite right, let's try again. How about ookb? No – too Pratchettian as well as being hard to say. Those two terminal consonants just don't go together. You'll get a tooth rupture trying to pronounce them properly.

Obok.

No. That sounds too much like an Irish-Chinese vegetable. Obok choy and monosodium glutamate for tea tonight.

Kobo.

That's it!

Whitcoulls sell books. And they also sell Kobos. I bought one.

A Kobo is a rather simple-minded gadget for reading electronic books or ebooks as they are popularly known. An ebook is a computer file in a special format – there are various different ebook formats but one of the more popular ones is the epub format, and that's the one the Kobo uses.

The Kobo itself is about the size of a paperback book, though it is much slimmer, less than a quarter of an inch thick. It's very light and easy to hold and the screen is easy to read; there's no glare to irritate the eyes. It's a design quite elegant in its simplicity.

However as a geeky gadget it does have some distinct drawbacks, not least among which is the fact that almost everything the manufacturer tells you about the thing in the instruction booklet and on the Kobo web site is completely incorrect. Oh there are some nuggets of truth in the dross of the documentation. But mostly the documentation is a misleading, steaming pile of very unhelpful nonsense, which makes it rather difficult to come properly to grips with the device.

For example, the Kobo comes loaded with 100 "classic books" which appear to have been chosen by the simple process of waving a random number generator over the Project Gutenberg database. The documentation on the Kobo web site insists that these pre-loaded books cannot be deleted and assures anyone who cares that the Kobo engineers are working really, really hard, day and night, on the problem, and there might be a software update in a few months which will implement this feature.

It took me less than an hour of poking around in the guts of the Kobo to work out how to delete the pre-loaded books. Does that mean I'm significantly smarter than the entire team of Kobo engineers? I doubt that. It is much more likely to mean that, for mysterious reasons of their own, the Kobo engineers don't want anyone to delete the pre-loaded books and so they insist that it simply can't be done. This arrogant attitude doesn't fill me with confidence – any organisation that begins life by treating its customers like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and feed them lots of bullshit) probably isn't going to be around in the world for very long. So I strongly suspect that we will never see an upgraded, new model Kobo. The company simply won't survive long enough to address the shortcomings in its product unless it changes its "mummy-knows-best" stance on customer relations.

Anyway – let's begin my Kobo adventure at the beginning when I unpacked my shiny new ebook reader and read the accompanying quick start instruction leaflet. This leaflet is the only printed documentation supplied with the gadget. It told me to plug my new Kobo into my PC and strongly implied that when I did this for the first time a registration program would start to run. So I plugged the Kobo in and waited for the program to appear. Nothing happened. However the Kobo did show up on my computer as an extra disk drive and when I browsed around the files on it I eventually found the registration program lurking in a dark corner. So I loaded the program and ran it.

The program took me straight to the Whitcoulls web site and asked me to create an account so that I could spend lots of money on ebooks (something I have no intention of doing). The program also recorded information about me on the Kobo itself and, presumably, on a database at Whitcoulls. This information is used to generate the key that allows me to read Digital Rights Management (DRM) protected books on my device. DRM protected books are encrypted files which can only be decrypted and read by people who possess the proper key. If I purchase such a book, it is encrypted with my key and only I can read it. If I were to give a copy of the file to someone else, they would not be able to read it because their key is different from mine. At least that's the theory. In practice there are ways around this limitation, but frankly it's all too much of a hassle, and I can't be bothered with it. And quite apart from the practicalities involved, I have philosophical objections to DRM protected material anyway. Consequently I will not be reading any DRM protected books on my Kobo.

The only file formats the Kobo lets you read are epub and PDF. There is no support at all for common formats such as plain text or RTF files which, I gather, other ebook readers like the Kindle do support. This is mildly irritating. It is quite easy to convert text files and RTF files into epub format if you know what you are doing; but it's an annoying extra step which just adds to the irritation engendered by the device. Again, the Kobo engineers are reportedly working day and night to solve this "problem" so that they can start to support plain text and RTF files on the device. I'm getting more and more sceptical about the technical skills of the Kobo engineers. These kinds of files have a much simpler structure than the already supported PDF and epub files. I would have expected the Kobo engineers to have tackled them first, before they began to consider how to work with the more complicated formats on the grounds that you shouldn't try and run before you learn how to walk. But obviously I know nothing about how such things are developed. Nowadays they do things quite differently from the way they were done when I made my living as a developer. I don't think I could ever get a job as a Kobo engineer...

The first time I started to read something on the Kobo, I quickly came to realize that the reading software itself is extraordinarily primitive – there are only two ways to move around in an epub format book. You can go through it page by page, or you can jump straight to a chapter chosen from the table of contents and then start paging again. It would be nice to be able to jump to a given page number, but you can't. It would be nice to be able to search for words and phrases in the book, but you can't. And if you happen to have an ebook that doesn't have a table of contents (yes, they do exist) you are completely screwed because all that is left is the painfully slow paging method.

Reading a book serially like this is, of course, the way fiction is generally read. However non-fiction books, particularly reference books and text books, are best read non-serially with constant jumps to and from given pages (or even, in some cases, paragraphs within a page). Since this simply cannot be be done in any way, shape or form on the Kobo, the device is utterly useless for carrying reference material around on. I consider this to be a huge drawback. Doubtless the Kobo engineers are working tirelessly day and night to solve the problem...

Not only is the reading software extremely crude and primitive, it is also rather bug-ridden. On more than one occasion it has locked up solid on me leaving me no option but to reset the device and start again. Furthermore, you are supposed to be able to adjust the font size of epub books on the fly, and mostly (to be fair) you can. However there are some epub format files on which the Kobo simply refuses to resize the fonts at all, for no readily apparent reason. Again, the Kobo engineers have acknowledged that the bug exists and are working day and night to solve it even as we speak...

If you are willing to jump through a lot of processing hoops, it is possible to manipulate such a fixed font document on your PC in such a way that the Kobo will be able to resize the font after you load the book back onto it. But the method will not work on DRM protected material. Another reason, perhaps, for not buying DRM protected material in the first place. Doubtless the Kobo engineers have this problem well in hand as a high priority on their twenty four hour day development schedule.

Support for PDF files is even more primitive and is utterly pathetic. You can't adjust the font size other than by choosing to magnify the whole document and when you do that, it no longer fits on the screen properly. So if you happen to have a PDF document with an unreadably small font, you are completely screwed again. Furthermore you cannot jump around a PDF document at all. The software ignores the PDF document index and the only available navigation method is to go page by slow page through the whole book from start to finish. Software does exist to convert PDF files into epub files, but the results are variable and are generally unsatisfactory. So if you want to read a PDF file on your Kobo, mostly you are just screwed again.

Books that you are currently reading are put into the Kobo's "I'm Reading" list. This list quickly fills up (and so becomes very slow to navigate) as you glance through some book or other just to see if you are in the mood to read it. And once a book appears on the reading list there is absolutely no way to remove it again (according to the Kobo engineers) without reading the whole thing all the way through. Or, more accurately, you have to go to the last chapter and then slowly and painfully page through it to the end. This is an enormous nuisance, particularly for books which have 100 pages in the last chapter!

The User Guide says that you can cull the reading list by using the desktop software that you originally registered the device with, but that's a bare faced lie; you can't. If the book is one you loaded onto the Kobo yourself (as opposed to one that you bought from the web site), you can remove it from the list by deleting the book completely from the reader, but that strikes me as being more than a little bit draconian, and decidedly inelegant to boot. But I'm absolutely certain that the Kobo engineers are working night and day to fix the problem.

As it happens, after a lot more poking around inside the beast, I have beaten the Kobo engineers at their own game and I have figured out how to remove items from the list properly. Unfortunately the procedure involves connecting the Kobo to a computer and doing deep magic on its internal database. This is so tedious, laborious and error prone (if you have clumsy fingers that make unnoticed typos), that it probably isn't worth while. There might be a way to automate it; but if there is, I haven't found it yet. I will work on it day and night, just like a real Kobo engineer.

I spent the first few days after I got the Kobo learning everything I could about the epub format. Then I converted the two volumes of Trimmings From The Triffid's Beard into epub books and loaded them on to the Kobo. Oddly, I couldn't read them -- the Kobo claimed that the content was locked and it refused to display the books. A lot of googling later, I discovered that the Kobo assumes that any book with an apostrophe in the title has locked content. All I had to do was remove the apostrophe and then I could read the book in all its glory! That is just plain dumb – what were the Kobo engineers thinking of when they implemented that feature? Perhaps they were just very tired from their endless work schedule and let that little bug slip through unnoticed.

So what will I use the Kobo for? I certainly won't be buying any DRM ebooks to read on it. Consequently the only books on my Kobo will be epub documents that I have created myself from my own computer files and free books that I have found on the internet. Fortunately there are heaps of those available. I've already got a lot of Henry Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels from Project Gutenberg, for example. So I'm sure my Kobo will get a lot of use. But in its current state of development, it is not going to replace proper, made out of paper books in my affections. My Kobo is strictly for public domain / creative commons material that is otherwise unavailable. I hope that doesn't upset the Kobo engineers too much.

I read a couple of Hugo-nominated novellas on my Kobo. John Scalzi's The God Engines is an odd little theological story Tephe is captain of a ship which is part of a fleet travelling through space doing the will of their Lord God. Faith drives their society and faith drives their ships. Faith is a manifestation of war in Heaven – the God with the most followers will reign supreme. Lesser Gods, defeated Gods gods are The Defiled; they are slaves, chained and compelled to fold space around themselves so that the ships might travel around the universe to spread the word of God. Captain Tephe's ship is sent on a hazardous mission crucial to the well-being of his God. His faith will be sorely tested, his God may have feet of clay.

In some ways the story is a blatant attack on the stupidity of organised religion and a diatribe on corruption in high office. This message is uncomfortably close to the surface of the story and consequently the characters are reduced to little more than ciphers that posture and strut in order to make propaganda points.

There are some neat technological (or should that be theological?) speculations and Scalzi plays some nice science fictional games with his material, but overall I wasn't impressed.

On the other hand, Kage Baker's The Women Of Nell Gwynne's was brilliantly done. It is a clever, witty and utterly delightful steampunk adventure experienced by the distaff side of the Gentleman's Speculative Society. Nell Gwynne herself is the madame of the very sophisticated. high-class brothel that operates as a front for the operations of the GSS. She is blind, but manages to see the world quite well, thank you very much, through the brass telescopes fitted in her empty eye sockets. While investigating rumours of some anomalously advanced technology, the ladies arrange to have themselves hired as the salacious entertainment for an orgy at a country estate. Typical complications ensue; murders take place, secrets are revealed. It's all highly satisfactory and I loved it to bits.

My month contained several non-Kobo books as well:

With Blonde Bombshell, Tom Holt enters darkest Douglas Adams territory, and doesn't manage it very well. This is Holt's first SF novel – all his previous works have fallen firmly into the humorous fantasy field, but now he has attempted to write a humorous science fiction novel, with mixed success...

A bomb is on the way to destroy the Earth. It becomes uncertain as to the morality of its mission and decides to investigate further before detonating itself. The bomb has been sent from Ostar where the dominant canine race live in harmony with their pet humans (who they have trained to throw sticks really well). The director of the institute that launched the bomb has a human called Spot. The dogs want to destroy the Earth because the human music broadcast willy-nilly into space is disturbing their peace and quiet. And so a bomb which later develops a conscience is sent on a mission of destruction.

The bomb disguises itself as a literal blonde bombshell – Lucy Pavlov is the beautiful, talented, wealthy, CEO of PaySoft Industries. PaySoft is the revolutionary operating system that runs on every computer in the world. Unfortunately she doesn't know that she's a bomb. She's held that fact back from herself. But she does know that she's sexy and super talented. Plainly she's just Bill Gates vision of himself, only with different plumbing.

There is much observational humour on the human condition and the book is full of cultural references and replete with (usually rather juvenile) jokes about our interaction with computers. This is exactly the kind of thing that Douglas Adams did so well (and which Tom Holt does so poorly in comparison) The plot is (or perhaps more accurately the plots are) complex and intertwined and it is far from clear until very late on if, or even how, the threads that he weaves are going to come together. Indeed, I am far from convinced that they do.

This is very minor Tom Holt which suffers by comparison to similarly themed stories that other people have done much better.

Karl Marlantes' novel Matterhorn has been hyped as the definitive novel of the Vietnam war. It has been compared with Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front and James Jones' The Thin Red Line and even Norman Mailer's The Naked And The Dead all of which truly were definitive novels of the first and second world war respectively.

But in my opinion, Matterhorn does not deserve the praise that has been heaped upon it. I think that Joe Haldeman's 1968 and James Webb's Fields Of Fire were much better novels of that sad and sorry conflict in South East Asia. But having said that, Matterhorn does have its strengths...

The novel tells the story of Waino Mellas, a USMC second lieutenant and infantry officer, during the first three months of his thirteen-month rotation Vietnam. Mellas takes command of Bravo Company just as they are ordered into the jungle to carve out a fortress on the top of hill near the border with Laos. Once the fortress is complete, they are ordered to abandon it. And then, after the enemy claims the hill’s deep bunkers and carefully constructed fields of fire, they are ordered to take it back again, which they do though the cost is high and few of them survive the battle. And then, in a final irony, they are ordered to abandon the fortress again.

The futility of war and the behind the scenes politics that put the ordinary grunts into such untenable positions are brilliantly evoked. The soul searing nightmare of jungle warfare is described with an incredible skill that will soon have you examining yourself closely for leeches and signs of jungle rot. Seldom has that soggy, steamy, insect-ridden unpleasant green hell been so realistically portrayed.

But the characters themselves are just ciphers, one dimensional and unconvincing. Only the Negro soldiers who are politically active in the Black Power movement come briefly alive on the page. The white soldiers are hard to tell apart and Mellas himself, though he is a viewpoint character, shows few signs of real life – to me he seemed just a mouthpiece for the author's polemical (and somewhat na´ve) views on the war's cause and effects. I never felt any sense of identity with Mellas and therefore ultimately the book failed to be convincing and turned into rather obvious propaganda instead of the searing indictment that it really should have been.

Nemesis is the latest novel by Lindsey Davies about Falco the private eye (he calls himself an informer) in Vespasian's Rome. Falco's wife has given birth to a stillborn child and while this was happening, his father died of a heart attack. Doubly bereft (although he hated his father) Falco throws himself into a new case. Unfortunately it is a rather circumstantial and very vaguely stated case. Several of the weaker Falco novels never really define themselves very well and the plot (if there is one) remains mysterious. Nemesis is one of these novels – people come and people go for no very well explained reason. Arbitrary things happen. There are chases and confrontations and when the page count of the book is long enough, everything stops.

A Darker Shade Of Blue is a collection of short stories by John Harvey – probably one of England's most sophisticated and subtle crime novelists. The stories involve many of the characters he has developed in his novels (Charlie Resnick, Frank Elder et al) and so a degree of familiarity with them and their foibles is probably necessary in order to get the most out of the stories. However Jack Kiley, former professional footballer turned private eye has never appeared in a novel (more's the pity) and so the stories involving him are perhaps more easily approachable.

All the stories in the collection are smart and smooth and often grim. Harvey is a wonderful writer who can evoke a time, a place and a character with a few well chosen words. I absolutely loved this beautifully elegant collection.

Blogging is a uniquely twenty-first century phenomenon and many bloggers have gained a huge fan base for themselves. Now we are seeing a new publishing trend derived from the practice – selections of blog articles are being published as books perhaps in the hope of attracting a wider audience for the blog itself. Sometimes it seems to work – I'd never heard of Mary Beard until I picked up It's A Don's Life while browsing idly in a local bookshop. It struck me as intriguing and so I bought it and now I am a confirmed Mary Beard fan and I visit her blog regularly. Score one for the Don!

Strangely she isn't a Mafia overlord, she's a lecturer in Classics at Cambridge University and she has been blogging since April 2006. She is a sharp, humorous commentator on both contemporary attitudes and the classical world (and often she draws connections between the two – human nature hasn't changed all that much over the last few thousand years). To quote the blurb that attracted me so much:

What are academics for? Who was the first African Roman Emperor? Looting, ancient and modern. Are modern exams easier? Keep Lesbos for the Lesbians. Did St. Valentine exist? What made the Romans laugh?

All these, and many other topics as well, are explored with great wit and often at surprising depth. She lives and works in academia and a mischievous erudition illuminates almost everything she discusses. You can find her at http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/ and I strongly urge you to buy the book and to visit her blog regularly.


John Scalzi The God Engines Subterranean Press
Kage Baker The Women Of Nell Gwynne's Subterranean Press
Tom Holt Blonde Bombshell Orbit
Karl Marlantes Matterhorn Atlantic Monthly Press
Lindsey Davies Nemesis Century
John Harvey A Darker Shade Of Blue Heineman
Mary Beard It's A Don's Life Profile Books
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