Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Books I Read In January

'The Affinity Bridge' by George Mann
This has classic elements of a steampunk novel set in 1901 it features a mad scientist, crashing airships, automatons and a sword stick with an electric charge.  There is a pairing of an experienced investigator and his young female assistant very much in the Steed/Peel mould.  There are even zombies in East London.  It romps along very well, doing what steampunk does best mixing issues around Victorian society with stories reflecting on the impact of the steam technology on that society and the people within it.  There are some great adventure scenes climaxing on an airship over London.  The stunning scene is when Queen Victoria is revealed to be still alive, ten months after she died in our world, as a result of life support technology.  One oddity is that electricity seems to be readily available but lighting is still all gas both in houses and on the streets.  This seems a little anomalous given that air travel and cybernetics are far advanced on our history and yet lighting lags behind the situation as it was in 1901 in our world.  There is no explanation for this.

The key problem, one that might be connected to the gas light issue, is the lack of editing.  This is ironic given that Mann is a very experienced editor of science fiction magazines and other writing.  I think his standing may have meant that those he lists as helping him gave him a very light touch in terms of critiquing his work.  One problem is the constant switching of points of view, sometimes between three people in a single paragraph.  This is something that any creative writing tutor would emphasise as needing to be avoided.  Yes, you can have different perspectives but they need to be handled carefully to avoid confusing the reader.  Another problem, especially in the first third of the book is simply how many cliches that Mann uses.  Surely he has a more extensive vocabulary to allow him to stay away from so many hackneyed phrases.  Another aspect is the repetition of words in the same sentence or consecutive sentence.  An example comes at the start of Chapter 6: 'It was not yet eight, but she expected that Newbury would already be sitting at his desk, reading the morning newspaper as was typical of his morning routine.' [My emphasis].  This is not wrong, but if I did not know the author I would think s/he was far less experienced than Mann seems to be.  Possibly the worst example of this lack of checking and the proper application of a 'fresh pair of eyes' is the use of 'hanger' when Mann means 'hangar'.  This leads to some comic elements when the heroes are shown around a vast hanger.

I liked this book as I am a fan of steampunk.  However, with more care and attention it could have been better still.  Maybe younger readers are less concerned about these niceties.  Yet the strength of a story comes from people being able to engage with it, follow what is going on and not keep running up against tired phrases they have heard so many times before.  A revised edition of this book would be worthwhile recommending.

'Hannibal: Clouds of War' by Ben Kane
This is the third book in the Hannibal series and features events during the 2nd Punic War (218-201 BCE); a conflict I have fought on 'Rome II Total War' hence this book being bought for me.  It focuses on three characters: Quintus - an upper class Roman now serving in the light infantry; Aurelia his sister and Hanno - a Carthaginian friend of theirs who has fallen in love with Aurelia.  This approach of having people on both sides of a conflict is a common one for war stories and there is nothing wrong with that.  However, given that for most of the book they are in different parts of southern Italy and Sicily this tends to lead to a fragmented story.  This is not aided by the fact that even for the stories of the three leads, what is shown is episodic with jumps when they are suddenly in a different city or involved with some new activity.  The episodes in themselves are well portrayed and gripping.  Kane does not baulk from the horrors of war and the impact on innocent people caught up in it, not just the soldiers.  With his knowledge of the times and the locations he conjures up the settings and the dilemmas very well.  However, the book overall is less than the sum of its parts and once you have finished it you feel that you have read a series of related though not connected short stories.  

It is not a bad book but can leave you feeling dissatisfied.  Furthermore as is the tendency with these long series you feel that each book beyond the first and the last is like a chunk of the story.  It is like a stick of rock with the slice between one book and the other simply coming down arbitrarily.  This seems to be acknowledged by Kane himself as in his Epilogue he outlines what happens to the characters after the events shown, rather than showing that to us as he could easily have done.  Clearly it is to get them into position for the next book based in Spain.  The edition I have has a compliment from Wilbur Smith the veteran historical author.  Kane would benefit from reading and learning from more of Smith's books.  Smith is a populist author, but does manage to weave the stories of various characters together very well and bring the books to a proper conclusion.  Kane may be being applauded but he certainly needs to keep working at his craft if he is going to produce books that are as effective and enduring as Smith's.

There is a good glossary of terms in the back of the book.  As regular readers know I like thorough historical notes.  Kane may take note of what I have been advised if he brings his books to being e-books and have dynamic links to the relevant notes from the text and back again.  What is utterly unnecessary is Kane's showboating in the Epilogue.  I do not feel he needs to tell us what happens next to the characters; he could have handled that better in the narrative.  Certainly he does not need to go on about where he has been and his wonderful travels in the Mediterranean and elsewhere in Europe.  If we did not have faith in his knowledge then we would not read the book.  Thus, his travelogue just jars.  I do not know his background but he seems to be compelled to tell us how much better his life is than ours.  He forgets the bulk of the people reading his book do so to escape from their mundane lives and the fact they cannot afford to gallivant around the places he mentions.  Yes, acknowledge people but do not laud what is effectively a closed shop guild to block out other aspiring historical authors.  Excite the reader with descriptions of places and people, do not make them feel small.  This is something Kane could also learn from Smith a bit of noblesse oblige.

Again, not a bad book, but one that could be better,  Editing has died as an art and this means that books now often have elements that readers are not keen to pay money for.  If you want to talk about your travels put it on your blog, do not bulk out your books by saying how wonderful you and your mates are.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

My Books Creating Some Interest On The Internet

This posting is a bit of an ego-boost for me.  They say only sad people search themselves on the internet.  However, this blog has long been a tool to help me cope with life and all that it throws at me.  As can be seen from previous postings, I love writing books but am often exasperated by the feedback people give me that seems to dismiss me for being 'wrong' (as opposed to have 'wrong' opinions) or portrays me as having failed simply because I have not included something specific that they want.  I wish people would write to me here rather than condemn me on Amazon.

A recent reviewer on complained that some of my stories were dull.  That is a fair point.  I do not agree but I accept for him they may have been.  Then he complains that I do not have dynamic links from the stories to the historical notes at the end.  This is a challenge with e-books.  People cannot put their finger in at one page and flick forward to the end of the book.  I was able to put such dynamic links into the five books concerned the evening that I read that comment.  If he had emailed me directly then I could have done it sooner.  People forget that you can amend and republish an e-book in 12 hours, sometimes even less if you are a regular publisher.

I suppose that most people do not want me to correct their error, because there is a tribe of reviewers who thrive on bringing down authors.  It is a hobby in itself.  It reminds me of all these 'errors' programmes about movies and television programmes, which show tiny mistakes that you never even notice when watching the original programme.  Some people have been great and written to me with updates or corrections and I have amended the book immediately.  However, most prefer to use any slips as a tool to condemn a book.  One word wrong on a single page in this society is enough for an entire 200-page book to be condemned as useless.  I know it makes them feel good and powerful but it means e-book authors face a much harder time than authors of the past, despite the fact that ironically, they have far greater power to amend errors.

Out of boredom, I decided to see if anyone was talking about my books in other contexts aside from the Amazon feedback sections.  In my alternate history books I outline that one of my goals is to stimulate debate about the possibilities in history and that I am happy if people disagree with me if they are discussing the topics.

This is the longest debate, about Japan becoming an ally of Germany in the First World War which comes from my in 'Other Trenches': 

They are not overly enthusiastic about my ideas, though it is rather presented as me saying this would happen rather than discussing the feasibility.  Some of the contributors see Japan before the First World War as a puppet of the British which is a mistaken impression.  This was the whole reason that Britain broke decades of behaviour and went into an alliance and with a country that no Power had considered a potential alliance partner.  The relationship only lasted 20 years.

The commentators also seem to miss how stretched British naval forces were in that decade with the fear of German naval power, though the fear was greater than the actuality.  They see no reason why the British would not try to restrain Japan in 1895 though this is exactly what they did in 1921-22 over the Shandong Peninsula and with warming relations with the USA they dropped Japan very quickly as an ally.  Yes, Japan did not have the strongest navy in the world, but in the North Pacific and against the forces the colonial powers could muster there, it was strong, especially if aided by the Germans.  This strength had been proven against Russia, though the commentators dismiss the naval strength Russia itself held before 1905.

This one is discussing the war between Italy and Greece in 1940-1 but mainly points to the chapter in 'Other Roads III' about the German invasion of Bulgaria:!topic/soc.history.what-if/zwZjrwRqDK4 

A couple of other people have said they have read my books:

Stig Haugdahl stated on Twitter he had read 'Other Trenches':

 In August 2014 someone calling themselves 'Deceptively Calm' gave me a nice review: 'Just finished "In other trenches" by a guy called Rooksmoor. A great collection of WW1-What-ifs, intelligently explored. Not fiction, just alternate history. I've already bought the sequel and am eyeing his books on alternate 19th century scenarios as well.'

I suppose all of us seek some supportive words. I get frustrated when someone attacks my books for being something that I never even intended them to be.  I have had to put up big warnings about the essays not being fiction.  Even then some feel that because I do not insist on a particular outcome I am somehow dodging what alternate history should be about; one even insisted I be removed from the alternate history category.  It is clear that they want me to be dogmatic so that they can be dogmatic back and dismiss my ideas.  A debate is harder to contest and they do not get the satisfaction of showing me what an idiot I am.  Book writing and reviewing has become a combat sport.

I am interested in how I often get turned from 'Alexander Rooksmoor' into simply 'Rooksmoor'.  Perhaps the blog name contributes to that, perhaps again it is characteristic of the pugnacious nature of online debate which so often turns to epithets drawn from physical violence, particularly rape.

P.P. 24/03/2015
I saw that a US reviewer, W.K. Aiken had posted a nice review of 'Route Diverted' which I felt 'got' what I have been trying to do and not simply complaining that I have not written the book that they want to write.  Though I do feature real people in the stories, I have deliberately sought to avoid the little coincidences which make me as an avid reader of 'what if?' to groan.  I want to treat the reader in a more mature way:

"Mr. Rooksmoor is a unique writer in that he does not take the usual "It's Alternate History!" tack when writing AH. Most writers will work twisty little ironies and whatnot into their prose - not a bad thing, mind you, just a common feature of the genre - and keep poking the reader with the "coincidences."

Mr. Rooksmoor has a much more subtle touch, relying on the existing knowledge of the reader a) that what is being read is fiction and b) of what really happened. He then takes a "slice of life" from whatever alternate reality he's created and lets the reader fill in the gaps. The narrative is more of a glimpse into what would be happening over the hill, around the bend and in the next town, away from the action on which Tsouras, Conroy or Turtledove would be focusing.

It's an intriguing approach and a nice contrast, but certainly more for the experienced AH maven.

Imagine Jerome K. Jerome's "Three Men In A Boat" written from within a 240-year-old Commonwealth. How much would be changed? Having the advantage of "OurTime" perspective, the differences would be intriguing but the scope would be minute."

I would say that most of the scenarios have a far broader perspective than just a single book.  I like to note that small changes had the potential to affect millions.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Less And Less Control Over What My Computer Does

As noted last month, I was facing the deterioration of my laptop after 3.5 years.  Over the Christmas period it got worse, regularly overheating (despite cleaning out the fans) and consequently crashing.  With the sales on, it seemed like an opportune time to buy a replacement.  Knowing that this one is unlikely to make it far into 2018, I spent one third of the money I spent on the last one, so it will not be such a pain when I have to dump it.  The trouble is, now I buy a laptop and it is on Windows 8.  So much stuff is buried far deeper than in the past.  I battled even to change the wallpaper on the main screen.  Everything I do I seem to have to log in and re-log in and verify myself.  Even to play the Mah Jong matching tile game, which is free, I now have to establish an account with Xbox.  I also had to receive a code to my mobile phone, just to play a simple, free game.

What makes it worse is that it is not simply Microsoft which is asking me for verification at every turn, but because I bought a Hewlett-Packard computer, their facilities are constantly on to me to link to its provision often in contradiction to what Microsoft are peddling to me.  They have no appreciation of how I work, they want to connect everything in the way they see best.  This has long been my concern with computers, that these days, the systems patronise you rather than offer the facilities you need, they try to get you to fit to their approach.  With Windows 8, I had to disable a score of apps that I have no desire to use and had to work to put all the stuff I like, such as Word and work packages like Excel and PowerPoint into a place where I could reach them easily without having to dig through recommendations for a New Year diet or trips to places that I could never afford.  There needs to be a setting which recognises - 'this person bought a cheap computer at a sale price, thus he does not have the income to afford all this stuff we are shovelling at him'.

Back in the 2000s if I bought a computer, I bought a tool.  Now what I have bought is a billboard, constantly piling me with extra things I might want to buy and locking my identity into everything.  I got sick of this and so have established an entirely anonymous account unconnected to anything else.  This, however, then bars me from playing the Mah Jong matching game.  The trade is constantly, 'you can only have basic functions if you allow us to keep shoving advertising at you'.  In the 2000s, I paid about the same amount of money and was left alone.  Is such advertising necessary to fund the cost of these machines?  What is tiresome is that I spend more time disabling all these facilities than I actually do working on what I want to work with.  It is as if I have bought a car but on the way to work I have to go by a route chosen by someone else so that I can stop at shops along the way that I have no interest in.  Just wait until the 'updates' start and I have to switch on my computer so that it can simply play with itself for 30-60 minutes apparently 'updating' something that looks identical when it has finished.  Sometimes it deigns to allow me to focus on what I want, but that is never within the first hour of being on.

The other thing is Cloud storage.  The hacking of such facilities is well known and yet I am constantly being pummelled to put my documents and photos into Cloud storage.  Microsoft, Dropbox and Hewlett Packard have all offered me totalling around 5TB of Cloud storage.  Why on Earth would I want to us that?  I am not rich and having bought a laptop I see no reason to go out and also get a smartphone or a tablet.  I would get one not all of them.  Typing novels on a phone is a waste of time; searching for an address when on the move is something different.  However, we are encouraged to see every tool as universal, rather than seeking out the best for what we want to do.  Again, the companies feel they know better than us how to live our live - am I the only one for which that is dystopian?  I am not a teenager and so I recognise that I might be out of step with current trends and indeed have no interest in current fashions in technology.  Then again, I am not a man who would buy a car because it looks good, I buy a car which I hope will work well and is safe.  Companies seem to forget that dull people like me make up the majority and many of us do not even want to try to look cool.  For me a computer is a tool not a lifestyle choice.  If Sony can be hacked, what hope do I have that my Cloud-stored materials will be safe?  If Hollywood celebrities can end up with their photos everywhere, people could send mine around without a second thought.

Memory sticks are leaping on almost on a monthly basis.  Three years ago, I got a 4GB for £29 (US$45; €37) now I can buy a 32GB memory stick for £20,  Yes, you can have memory sticks stolen or you can lose them, but for work stuff, my fiction, even photos, even if I want to use them on different devices, why risk using the Cloud, when I can have them all on a tiny piece of metal affixed to my keys?

What I am seeking, perhaps foolishly, from computer and software companies, is to be treated like an adult.  I want a tool that does what I want it to do.  If I want extra, I can make that choice in time, I do not need to be advertised to every time I switch on.  Indeed, I think they do not recognise that how in so many people it instills hostility to the very things they are promoting.  I want tools on my computer that I can use without going online.  There seems to be a fantasy at Microsoft and Hewlett Packard as with many companies that the internet is universal and always available.  They clearly do not work in the average office let alone try to use it in a cafe.  Having to incessantly connect even to use mundane products, slows the whole process up.  We have long put aside the concept of the 'information superhighway' and know at best it is a B road.  However, these companies seem determined to fill it up with ice cream vans seeking to sell you the latest gimmick. 

Each time I buy a computer, I seem to spend a larger amount of my money on getting things I do not want and finding access to what I do want harder than ever.  Perhaps in an era when utility companies charge you in advance for energy or water you are never going to use, I should not be surprised that as a consumer, despite the apparent 'choice' it is ever harder to get the right tool for me.