Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I must admit, I’m a bit at a lost over this whole e-book revolution and the buzz it’s constantly generating on the web.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fifty-year old woman who doesn’t know how to use a computer and doesn’t have internet.  I’m typing this on a laptop with all the bells and whistles, and I live in a household that subscribes to cable internet which is the fastest option available in our area.  Thanks to one of my roommates, we even enjoy a flat screen tv, X-boxes and the PS3.  We also have MP3 players, and two of the people I live with have smart phones.  Only one of us has an e-reader, and I don’t think that’s going to change in the near future.  Here’s why:

First, e-readers are expensive.  The three name brands of the moment are the Kindle (made by Amazon), the Nook (Barnes and Noble) and the new IPad (Apple).  Three other companies sell mass market e-readers: Sungale, Sony, and Irex.  The cheapest is Sony’s Pocket Edition, $199.  The Nook and the Kindle are both available for $259, and the IPad is $499.  Sungale’s is $199 as an outlet item from Best Buy, and the Irex is $399.  Now, I will grant you that the IPad is actually a full computer on which you can do a heck of a lot more than read books.  So for the rest of this discussion, I will ignore the IPad.  I’m also going to ignore the Irex (as the most expensive dedicated e-reader) and the Sungale, as BestBuy.com does not offer a lot of information about what kind of item this is.  Is it a recondition reader?  Factory reject?   I don’t know.

Next, e-books are released in multiple file formats, and no e-reader on the market reads all of them.  Sony’s Pocket Edition reads two formats: .epub and .html.  The Nook reads four formats: .epub, .pdb, .pdf and .mp3.  The Kindle reads four formats as well: .azw, .mobi, .txt, and .mp3.  Newer additions also read .mobi, and .pdf.  If you haven’t noticed, there is no format all three of those readers agree upon.  In fact, the Kindle is the only reader on the market that can read .azw.  So, with its limited functionality, I’d pass the Sony Pocket Edition by and shell out the extra sixty bucks for the Nook or the Kindle.  With this comes the realization that from now on, my e-reader has determined which major store I can get my books from.  Neither Barnes and Noble nor Amazon state on their websites which format their e-books are in.  I’m going to take a wild stab in the dark and say that BN is publishing in .epub and that Amazon is publishing in .azw, but I don’t know that.  So if I buy the Nook, I’m locked in to BN.  Same with the Kindle and Amazon.  No more shopping for the lowest price between competing stores, unless I buy both e-readers.

Now, how many e-books would I have to buy at a discounted price in order to pay off my e-reader?  Both the Kindle and the Nook are $259 (a coincidence?  I think not).  I’m going to assume that most people who have e-readers are reading New York Times Bestsellers on their e-reader.  Amazon offers these titles from $5.50 (Steig Larson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to $14.99 (James Patterson’s 8th Confession).  Most are $9.99.  Barnes and Noble’s spread is between $2.50 (Jayne Rylon’s Kate’s Crew) to $14.99 (David Baldacci’s Deliver Us from Evil).  There is no standard price on BN, but my rough unscientific impression is that most books are at Amazon’s $9.99 or lower.  To even things out, let’s say for argument’s purposes that the average price of a bestselling e-book is $9.99 across the board.

The print editions for New York Times Bestsellers (Hardcover) are between $14 and $20 on BN with member discount.  Let’s ballpark it to $17 on average.  Amazon lists the same titles from $9.99 to $17.  We’ll wave a magic wand and say that the average is $13.50.  So, at Barnes and Noble I would have to buy 37 e-books at $9.99 to make up the difference of the $259 initial buy of my e-reader.  That’s a whopping total of $629 without tax.  At Amazon, with the given assumptions, you’d have to buy 77 e-books at $9.99 to make up the initial cost of the e-reader.  That’s $1039 total, without tax.

Granted, I’ve made a lot of assumptions about price, and I haven’t factored in shipping and handling, or the fact that both BN and Amazon offer e-titles for less than $9.99 and also give you free books from time to time.  I haven’t factored in the cost of accessories for either reader.  I also haven’t factored in the fact that my local library offers e-books for timed download (the file expires and removes itself from your reader after a specified date) for free.  (Yes, my library circulates e-books.  Niffty.)  But if I’m going to download a book from my local library, why not just get the print edition?  I still haven’t paid for the book other than through a millage that I’m already paying regardless of whether I use the library or not, and I won’t have to buy the e-reader.  Huzzah!

Oh, and if you were wondering, the library millage is about $50 - $75 a year on an average value house.  On the same assumptions as earlier, if I buy only NYTBs, I’d have to buy 4 ($54) to 6 ($81) books in one year from Amazon to equal that amount.  From Barnes and Noble: 3 ($51) to 5 ($85) books.  Now, if you’re worried about getting a book the day it comes out, libraries are likely not for you.  But then, neither is Amazon’s e-book store, since it’s still having negotiation issues with the major publishing houses.  But libraries offer you a) the cheapest books and b) the ability to not dedicate huge amounts of physical space in your house to books you’ve read only once.  Oh, and did I mention you’re likely already paying for them?

And one more thing.  These e-readers?  They only read books, or play audio books.  My library also lets me check out movies and TV shows (in VHS, DVD, and BluRay) and CDs as well as books and audio books (in tape, CD, MP3, and digital download).  The library also circulates materials that are out of print, and are thus unavailable in e-book format right now.

The moral of this: save your money and leave the e-readers alone until they either a) dramatically drop in price, or b) become something more like the IPad, which is more useful.  Until then (and even after then): support your local library.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review: Changes

Changes by Jim Butcher
The Dresden Files #12

Not many SFF series last to book twelve.  As far as I know, this is the second longest running urban fantasy series behind Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, installment #19 due out this summer.  (Ok, the Dresden Files are often categorized as contemporary fantasy because the main character is male, and not female, but to me this is taking feminism a bit too far.  We have a detective story with vampires, werewolves, wizards, faeries, and everything else mankind has dreamed up set in modern Chicago.  It’s urban fantasy.)  Several of the entries in the series have hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, and I would not be surprised if this one did as well.

For those of you who must be living under a rock, the Dresden Files follows one Harry Dresden, Wizard through his many adventures as a wizard with a private investigators license.  Belonging to the ancient order of wizards known as the White Council, Harry’s a bit too modern and rebellious to do that whole secrecy thing.  So he advertises his business in the phone book:
Harry Dresden – Wizard
Lost Items Found.  Paranormal Investigations.
Consulting.  Advice.  Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or
Other Entertainment.
Surprisingly, he does get enough business to make ends meet.  He also does consulting work for the Chicago PD’s Special Investigation’s Department, which is made up of the CPD’s misfits who get to deal with all the weird shit no one can explain without sounding like a trip to the psych ward is in order.

One issue I’ve had with the last few installments of the series is that they were beginning to feel stale.  These are the people Harry can count on for help, these are the people who are going to let him hang, and these are the bad guys.  There wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of forward momentum building, so that the reader could go ‘in the next three books, I can expect this bad guy to be gone and that issue to be solved,’ etc.  They felt almost like the boring middle season episodes in tv shows.  Yeah, they’ll give you information and build character and world development, but in the end you’ll walk away and hope that next week’s episode has a bit more flash.  Changes is a season finale.  Not series finale, mind you, just season.

As one can infer from the title, this book is about changing up the game.  The first book, Storm Front, takes place roughly ten to twelve years before Changes, and in that time Harry’s been able to put together a decent routine of solving murders, killing vampires, and saving puppies from poo slinging monkey demons.  Well, the poo has really hit the fan in this book, even for such a great poo dodger as Harry.  Harry’s old lover from the beginning of the series returns, with news that his heretofore unknown child by Susan has been kidnapped by the nastiest vampires on the planet, and she needs his help to rescue her.  After being fiercely mad at Susan (who wouldn’t be?), Harry gets down to business.  We see the return of a few old characters that have been off the map for a few books, some friendly and some decidedly not.  Harry and company have always been a bit harsh on the real estate, but this book is epic on the destruction scale.  There’s also an almost Shakespearean body count at the end.

My one complaint was that the buildup in this book was a bit slow for me.  Harry has a set list of people he calls on for help in every book, in fairly similar order.  Sure enough, he did so in this book, and the results of the team building were pretty predictable.  So while I appreciated the clue finding and piecing together of information, it was too broken up by non-interesting bits that likely could have been just as effective in summary.  But, who knows, clues to future books may have been in there, we’ll just have to wait and see.  Hopefully, with the amount of changes in the book, the format of the next few books will change up a bit.  Harry should be dealing with different sets of problems, and have different tools at his disposal.  If you like the Dresden Files, this one is a must read, or you’re going to be VERY lost in future installments.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

House of Mystery Vol 3: The Space Between
by Matthew Sturges

I must admit, before working at a public library, I didn’t read graphic novels.  The few I had been exposed to via friends were mostly manga aimed at teens, which I didn’t particularly care for.  However, graphic novels are incredibly difficult to stay away from in my library, and eventually a series called Fables by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges caught my eye, and I decided to give it a try.  I loved it.  Eventually, the library started collecting House of Mystery, which is also by Matthew Sturges and for which Willingham does occasional stories.  I decided to bite.

This is the third, and newest, collected edition of the series.  It’s put out by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics, is based on the ‘classic’ series of the same name.  The comic centers around the House of Mystery itself, which is located somewhere in the Dreaming.  The House occasionally changes its look and rearranges its interior on a fairly regular basis.  The House serves as a crossroads, or a way point, between worlds.  People from various worlds know which door to open in their own world to find themselves entering a bar area in the House of Mystery.  There, for the price of a story, they may eat and drink with people from worlds they’ve never seen or heard of.  The bar is tended by Harry, who cannot leave the House.  He has no memory of what his life was before he awoke in the House.  Harry is joined by Poet, the cook, Cress and Fig the barmaids, and Ann the bouncer, all of whom also cannot leave the house.  In between patron stories, the underlying plot of the book is about what the House of Mystery is, and how can the five main characters escape it.  We know that every once in a while a bar worker will leave, but we don’t know why or where they go after they are taken away in an old fashioned coach.

The Space Between focuses on Harry’s back story, the ability to cross over between worlds, and establishes villains.  In the earlier two volumes, we had been offered glimpses of something called the Conception, and in this volume that’s filled out a tad more.  We also get our first look at Cain, who was the original proprietor of the House and has been mysteriously absent in the first two volumes.  In explaining crossing over, we get a better idea of who Fig is, since we know from earlier volumes that until becoming stuck in the House, she crossed between worlds fairly regularly.

Over all, I’m enjoying this series.  I find the five main characters and their regulars interesting.  My favorite (and I don’t assign favorites very often) is Ann, who is a red headed, saber swinging female pirate captain.  We have yet to actually see her need to bounce anyone out of the bar, but she is the major fighter in the group during the obligatory action scenes.  Fantastic.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Review: Changeless

Changeless by Gail Carriger
Book Two of the Parasol Protectorate Series

Changeless by Gail Carriger is the sequel to her debut novel, Soulless.  I initially heard about Soulless at staff in-service day from one of the librarians I work with (I myself am not a librarian), and I put the book on hold to read later.  Three months later, it finally made its way to me, and I devoured it.  I eagerly anticipated Changeless, so much so that I actually bought the book.  Processing at my library is slow (on top of budget cuts) and so this book is still “on order”.  I couldn’t wait.

The Parasol Protectorate Series is a steampunk comedy set in an alternative 1870s London that includes werewolves and vampires.  While Soulless was a historical romance spoof, Changeless is a mystery with gothic elements.  It picks up three months after the events in Soulless, and continues to use Alexia Maccon née Tarabotti as its main character.  Most of our cast of heroes from book one are still around, though some of them are there in limited roles, with one or two additions.

The mystery in Changeless is that something in London has caused all supernaturals to lose their abilities.  IE: werewolves and vampires become normal, and ghosts completely disappear.  As part of her new duties on the Shadow Council, Queen Victoria tasks Alexia with finding out what is going on, and hopefully put a stop to it.  Alexia dutifully sets off with entourage (because women in the Victorian age, married or not, never travel without an entourage) to solve a mystery amidst a healthy dose of comedic relief.

Overall, I very much liked the book.  Changeless greatly expands the world Carriger built in Soulless, answering some questions about supernaturals and how that side of the British Empire is governed.  However, much of the book is world set up, rather than plot set up.  Carriger has admitted that Soulless was initially intended to be a standalone novel, but that she was encouraged upon its purchase by Orbit (a subsidiary of Hatchet) to expand it into a series.  So while Soulless introduces the main premise of the world and the main characters, Changeless is the one that really feels like the foundation for a series.  Some of the comedic subplots also bloat the book to a larger size than I’m used to for a mystery of this relative simplicity.  Not that that’s a bad thing, it just feels like Carriger is using Changeless to shift gears, and her forthcoming third novel Blameless (September 2010) may be where she fully finds her stride.  If you hate cliff hangers, don't read the last chapter of Changeless OR the included excerpt from Blameless.  For myself, September is going to be a long four months away.

I’ll issue the same warning with Changeless that I did with Soulless: this author is not afraid of big fancy words.  If you don’t have a large vocabulary, have a dictionary or thesaurus on hand while reading.  Don’t let that scare you off though, as Carriger’s wordplay is, to me, one of the biggest selling points of her work.

Due to Amazon e-book pricing negotiations/wars, you might have problems getting Changeless in the Kindle Store.  As of this posting, you can only pre-order the e-book version.  However, you can buy Changeless from Barnes and Noble in e-book format for the same price as the Kindle Store and get it today (yay for healthy competition in the marketplace).  Or, you can be anachronistic like me and buy Changeless in print format, possibly for less than the e-book depending on where you buy your print material.

My review of Soulless, the first book of the series, is here.