it’s not an ipad, but it’s not bad at all.

So Tamara brought her Kindle Fire along when she came up to Upper Cryogenica to house-sit. I got to play with it for a while (and watch an episode of Archer on it), and I was fairly impressed with the little thing. It’s handier than the iPad, and it does most of what I do with the iPad on a regular basis—browse the web, read e-books, do Facebook and Twitter, listen to music, and watch movies.

(My main bookreader isn’t the iPad, but the basic Kindle with the e-ink display. I prefer the look of e-ink to text on an LCD, and the readability in sunlight is kind of a big deal when you often take your e-reader along to the playground.)

The iPad is more capable, and the interface feels faster and more responsive, but I’d seriously consider a Kindle Fire if we didn’t already have an iPad. It’s definitely more portable, and covers 80% of the iPad’s functionality for most users. If there’s anything I dislike about it, it’s the shiny plastic bezel that picks up fingerprints like mad (and makes the device feel a bit cheap), and the limited storage space. Cloud or not, I want to have the option of putting a bit more than a few playlists of music and two or three movies onto my portable media tablet, especially when I travel to locations where Wi-Fi coverage may be spotty or expensive. Also, the 8-hour charge is a bit on the short side. On the whole, though, it’s a neat device and a perfectly cromulent budget tablet at less than half the price tag of an iPad. Only our ownership of an iPad is keeping me from buying one to supplement the e-ink Kindle.

a few words on harry potter, storytelling, and christianity.

A few days ago, I finally had a chance to watch the last of the Harry Potter movies, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″. The movies run the range from excellent (Deathly Hallows Pt.2, Half-Blood Prince) to competent (the first two movies, directed by Chris Columbus) to odd and head-scratchingly inconsistent with the characters of the novel in places (Azkaban). Overall, however, they’re a remarkable achievement because they manage to replicate in movie form what makes the books so unique: they progress and grow with the characters through seven years.

After I finished Deathly Hallows, I had the impulse to read the books and watch all the movies again from the beginning because I was sad to see the story end. This is what makes great storytelling to me–when you feel a nostalgia and sense of loss for a world that never existed except in your head and that of the author. it also reaffirmed my personal theory of storytelling: that a novel ultimately stands and falls with the author’s ability to make us care about the characters. Ideally, a good novel has both great characters and a great plot, but a novel with a humdrum plot can still be great if we care enough about the characters and the world in which they move. On the obverse, the best and most airtight plot will not save a novel with bland and uninteresting characters. If we don’t care about the people in it, the story becomes uninteresting even when the author is firmly in command of the plot and throws in narrative razzle-dazzle.

Harry Potter isn’t about witchcraft and wizardry. Those are the dressing on the salad, the tinsel on the tree, the swirl on the pastry. Harry Potter is about friendship and love and loyalty, about family and the nature of life and death, and about what’s truly important in life, the qualities that define us as human beings. That’s why the criticism of the series from certain segments of Christianity is not only misguided, but profoundly unfair. So much of the Harry Potter books could actually serve as Christian allegory (and far more effectively than C.S. Lewis’ heavy-handed pap in the Narnia books) that people who accuse Harry Potter of being the Devil’s work only show that they either don’t have a clue what the books are about (and many haven’t even read them), or that their version of Christianity is a particularly loveless and grim one.

I know that most Christians don’t have a problem with Harry Potter. Most of the Christians I know, for example, read the books and let their children read them, simply because they’re good entertainment that ultimately champions good values. But I have come to understand why some Christians reject the books, and why they’re invariably members of the inflexible and fundamental branches of Christianity. You see, the Christians I know and get along with have an understanding that books are a way to make us understand our nature and our place in the world, and that nothing is literal in fiction. They apply this attitude to the Bible as well–Jesus speaks in parables, the lessons of the New Testament are to be seen in context, and the spirit of the book is in the totality of its message.

There’s another kind of Christian, though, and they treat the Bible differently. For them, the important thing is that parts of it have lists of black-and-white rules, lots of “Thou shalt not” and so on. They are the ones who see the Bible as literal truth. What’s important is not the message or the intent or the spirit of the book, but the lists of printed rules that can be followed. They absolve the believer from having to apply their own judgment, from having to examine an issue from all sides and see it both in the context of human experience and the spirit of the book’s message. That would require having to attempt to understand the issue, when it’s much easier to hold it up against the go/no-go gauge of Leviticus et. al.  The Bible says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, Harry Potter talks of witches and wizards, ergo Harry Potter is anti-Biblical and therefore un-Christian. It doesn’t require understanding, or exercising judgment, or even reading the books in question. In reality, Harry and his friends embody values that Christianity claims as virtuous. They are kind, fair, loyal, and concerned with the suffering of others. They face evil with courage even at the risk of their own lives. Most importantly, they love each other and remain loyal to friends and family even in the face of persecution. Those are all professed Christian virtues, aren’t they? I mean, if you’re going to encourage your kid to read, isn’t that the kind of stuff a Christian would want their kid to read and like? When it comes to moral lessons in literature, you could do a lot worse than Harry Potter.

Do I believe in the literal truth of Harry Potter, that reading the books will make my kid turn to witchcraft? Not any more than I believe in the existence of God or gods or divinity in general. I don’t believe that I can point a wand at an object and make it levitate by saying “Wingardium Leviosa”. But I do believe in the power of love and friendship and beauty, the things that elevate us above just being meat–and those are the essence of the Harry Potter books, not wands and spells and witchcraft.

zombie borders, risen from the grave.

There’s a Books-A-Million in the location where our local Borders closed doors a while back. I went in there today for the first time—they opened a week or two ago—and the experience was a little eerie.

The place looks almost exactly like the dead Borders. I’m fairly sure they even recycled most of the signage in the store, because it has that familiar dark red Borders color. Everything is in the spot where it was in the old Borders—the kid books, the YA section, the magazines, the paper-and-pen stuff. They even reused the old cafe furniture for the new Joe Muggs cafe that’s now in place of the old Seattle’s Best Coffee. I swear, it was like stepping back in time a few months. The only difference I noticed was the Christian Fiction section, which is about four times the size of the one Borders used to have. Oh, and there’s now a two-aisle assortment of Bibles. Other than that, the assortment mirrors that of the old Borders…with the exception that the shelves of the Books-A-Million are fully stocked.

On the way out, I bumped into one of the managers, and I was surprised to see that the recycling of Borders stuff even extends to the managerial staff—she was one of the managers at Borders.

So it looks like we have our Borders back in West Lebanon. In a fashion, anyway.

neat stuff for excess currency disposal.

I spent the day plugging away at a new short story, putting a bookshelf together for Robin, playing with the kids, and talking to my family in Germany over Skype. (This was my mom’s first experience with the Interskypes, and the first time she has seen the grandkids since we came over with Quinn seven years ago, so she was a little overwhelmed.) All in all, it was a pretty good way to spend the day.

As announced, I have a few plugs for you—neat stuff I found on these here informational megaparkways that I think are worth the money.

  • For writing music, I’m greatly enjoying my latest find of Kerry Muzzey’s body of work. My favorite album of his is Music for the Body in the Bathtub, which is a dark, dramatic, and atmospheric soundtrack that forms sort of a narrative arc. It’s fantastic from start to finish. There’s also Trailer Music and Trailer Music 2, for more orchestral epic arrangements that are a little more varied in mood.
  • My Viable Paradise pal and critique partner Steve Kopka has a new kid novel out. It’s called Comet Jack, and it’s a cute and well-written story.
  • Local writer Jo Knowles’ YA novel Jumping Off Swings is on sale for the Kindle at the moment. Jo is published by Candlewick Press. I met her a while ago at a Q&A, and she’s a sweetheart and a fine writer. (I borrowed her storybook trick for plotting out novels, and it has served me well for the urban fantasy mystery I’m writing right now.)
  • Intertubes pal Carteach0 is holding a fundraiser to benefit the Wounded Warrior project. I know I’ll be putting in a donation. I’d love to contribute something to the fundraiser as well, but I can’t for the life of me come up with something that has value enough for people to want to bid on it.
  • Michael Z. Williamson’s new novel Rogue is now available for your purchasination. If you like good military SF, you’ll like Mike’s stuff. I really liked his novel The Weapon, and it looks like Rogue is a sequel of sorts. He was selling copies at DragonCon, and I’m too late to point you his way for that particular event, but Amazon is open 24/7.

That concludes the commercial recommendations for this evening. I may actually hit the hay early tonight, because we have visitors coming tomorrow, which requires bright-eyedness and bushy-tailedness on my part. Good night, imaginary Intertubes pals.

brief book review: “pike”.

Benjamin Whitmer’s “Pike” is published by PM Press’ “Switchblade” imprint, but it’s not a switchblade. “Pike” is a homemade knife, made from an old file, sharpened with an angle grinder in some shack in the Ozarks, with duct tape wrapped around the grip. Calling this novel “noir”, while technically correct, doesn’t come close to accurately classifying it. It’s like calling Alaska “pretty cold in winter.”

Another reviewer compared the feel of “Pike” to “Winter’s Bone”, and that’s a fairly apt comparison. Like “Winter’s Bone”, “Pike” is full of down-and-out characters leading hardscrabble lives, with no prospect at betterment or redemption–and for the most part, no desire for either. The protagonist, Douglas Pike, is a dangerous man who has lived a dangerous life–running drugs, smuggling illegals, killing people. When his estranged daughter overdoses, he is stuck with a 12-year-old granddaughter he doesn’t know. Feeling guilt over being part of the messed-up chain of events that led his granddaughter to his doorstep, he sets out with his friend Rory to discover how his daughter died. In the course of this, Pike collides head-on with Derrick Krieger, a crooked Cincinnati cop who is every bit as hard as Pike, and possibly even less redeemable.

This is not a Spenser novel, with occasional bursts of one-sided violence sandwiched between witty banter and gourmet cooking with smart and interesting friends (and I say that as a big Robert B. Parker fan.) The violence in this novel is harsh, sudden, and shockingly intense, exactly the way it is in the real world. Whitmer’s style is terse, clipped, and honed to a razor edge, almost reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy at times. Yet among all the bleakness, there are bits and pieces of…well, not exactly hope and redemption, but little hints of hope and maybe a future for some of the characters that doesn’t involve only abject hard-scrabble misery.

“Pike” is a literary punch to the gut, razor-sharp prose telling a tale with barbs and rusty edges, and it’s honest and dark and compelling. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

(Pike at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s.)

(The publisher has enabled lending for the Kindle version of this book. I can loan out my copy once, for 14 days. If you want to borrow “Pike”, ask me in a comment and I’ll loan you my copy. This requires a Kindle or any of the Kindle readers for the various platforms. First one to ask gets the loan.)

probably my last entry ever on borders books.

This article on the decline and fall of Borders—and the management decisions that were the direct cause of them—is a very good read, and a glimpse into the corporate mindset I’ve come to loathe after working under it for a while as a tech monkey.

The money paragraph deals with Borders’ absolutely bone-headed decision to outsource their online business to their competitor Amazon.com:

In 2001, Borders would go on to partner with Amazon.com, allowing the online book retailer to handle their internet sales for them, if you can believe it. There’s a photo of Jeff Bezos and then-Borders president and CEO Greg Josefowicz shaking hands to celebrate the partnership. Josefowicz has weatherman hair and a broad smile, and he’s beaming past the camera with the cocksure giddiness of a guy who thinks he just got rid of all his problems because he sold his dumb old cow for a handful of really cool magic beans. But when you pull your eyes away from Josefowicz’s superheroic chin, you notice that Jeff Bezos is smiling directly into the camera with keen shark eyes. His smile is more relaxed, a little more candid than Josefowicz’s photo-op-ready grin. It’s the face of someone who’s thinking, I finally got you, you son of a bitch.

In the last year, I’ve split my new book purchases evenly between hardcopy from the local Borders, and online and ebook orders via Amazon.com and B&N.  Now that Borders is history, and there isn’t a major bookstore left within 75 miles of here, it will be more like 90% via ebooks on my Kindle, and 10% via impulse buys at the local indie book store in West Leb. (What can I say? Getting books I want in 60 seconds via 3G while watching the kids at the playground really appeals to my Instant Gratification gland, and the Kindle is a slick device that makes it easy to haul around a stack of books.)

borders loot, and ZOMG the heat.

Our local Borders in West Lebanon started its Going Out Of Business sale today, and I was in the area with the kids, so I stopped by. Considering the circumstances, the staff were downright chipper.

The kids got a book each—a giant dinosaur pop-up book for Quinn, and a Winnie the Pooh picture book for Lyra. I got this:

Borders closing sale 003

That’s the latest in the “Knights Who Say ‘Fuck’” fantasy series, and four more Piccadilly graph-ruled medium notebooks. Borders was my source for the Piccadillys, which are perfectly serviceable Moleskine clones. With the current “Ah, Fuck It” discount at Borders, the medium ones are a hair over four bucks a pop, whereas the Moleskines in the same size are $12 and change. Luckily, I’m a packrat when it comes to paper, so I have enough Piccadillys of all sizes stashed away to keep me scribbling for a decade or so.

The minivan has a leak in the Freon system, which means that I got to do a three-store grocery run with two kids without a functioning AC today. The console thermometer showed 101 degrees while I was stuck in traffic on our shopping mile in West Leb, and it felt like driving the van through a giant pizza oven.

I was going to do something productive this afternoon, but after this morning, I just want to sit in front of a fan and chug ice-cold beverages for the rest of the day.

the end for borders.

And that’s it for Borders. All remaining 399 stores are closing, some possibly as early as the coming weekend.

The one in West Leb is going to leave a big hole in the storefront lineup on 11A (and, incidentally, in the book store variety around here—it was the only big bookstore in a sixty-mile radius, the next B&N being in Manchester.)

So long, Borders. I’ve written a fair amount of words for the last few novels there. Now I’ll have to find a new hangout for my weekly Dadcations…

old man’s war, the movie.

John Scalzi, who instructionated me greatastically at Viable Paradise XII, just sold the movie rights to his “Old Man’s War” military SF series of novels to Paramount Pictures.  Wolfgang Petersen, of “Das Boot” fame, will direct the first movie.

Good for him!  I hope he remembers his former students when he builds that solid gold mansion in Ohio with all the millions from the 10% of gross receipts his wife undoubtedly negotiated for him.

ruh-roh, borders.

Looks like Borders is going to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy as early as Monday or Tuesday.  They’ll be closing 200 of their stores, with an option to close 50 more if needed.  (Borders has 600-odd stores nationwide.)

We have aBorders locally in West Leb.  It’s where I usually spend a good chunk of my Saturday Dadcations.  Wonder if that one’s one of the 200 that will get the axe.

If you have a Borders gift card, now would be a good time to use it, I think.