Monday, 29 September 2014

Thank You Jeeves

If anyone follows me on Goodreads, they'll notice I've been quite lax recently and not posted any reviews of books I've recently read which is unlike me so it's time to play catch up.

I've never read any Jeeves & Wooster books before, or anything by P.G. Wodehouse and I've long thought this is a gap in my reading landscape which needed correcting. So I did my research and discovered that 'Thank You Jeeves' is the first full length Jeeves & Wooster novel published, so opted for that one. There'd been lots of short stories written before, but bypassed them for now as I tend to prefer novels.

For anyone who's not heard of Jeeves & Wooster, they are the main characters in a series of comedy books by P.G. Wodehouse. Jeeves is an extremely efficient, intelligent and long suffering butler to Bertie Wooster an upper class English gentleman of average intelligence and below average common sense.

'Thank You Jeeves' starts off with Wooster annoying the hell out of everyone with his latest obsession of playing the banjo. He gets told to leave his apartment as he is regularly disturbing the neighbours, and much worse, his butler Jeeves hands in his notice as he can't stand the banjo playing either. Wooster thinks he'll manage fine without Jeeves, but is soon more in need of him that ever when his former fiance suddenly reappears in his life, and a series of scrapes and mix ups ensue.

I enjoyed my first foray into Jeeves & Wooster. The inevitable disasters which befall Wooster are comical, even a bit farcical, as are some of the ways he manages to get out of them, usually with Jeeves help (even though Jeeves isn't in his employ for much of the book). I got on with it a lot better than I do with most 'comic fiction'. Wodehouse writes really well, never quite falling into the downright silly category, and there is good description and setting, interesting characters and a plot that mostly hangs together okay. My only criticism of it was that perhaps it was a little bit long. Now it isn't a long book by most standards, less than 300 pages, but there were a couple two many plot twists and the joke was starting to wear slightly thin in places. I always find comedic fiction feels a little longer than other books as the plot doesn't carry the reader through in the same way, maybe that's just me.

So the slight length issue aside, I really enjoyed this. I will definitely read more Jeeves & Wooster, possibly by reading some of the short story collections. I can see why Wodehouse wrote so many, as Jeeves & Wooster probably suit this length of story best.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Kindle Unlimited Comes to the UK

This week Amazon launched their Kindle Unlimited service in the UK, so I thought I'd take it out for a spin and see if it is any good?

So what is it? Kindle Unlimited is a kind of Netflix (or LoveFilm/Amazon Prime Video) for books. Subscribers can read as many books as they want for no extra charge after they've paid their subscription from a large selection in the Kindle Unlimited library (over 650,000 according to Amazon). You can get a free 30 day trial, and then it costs £7.99 per month.

Other companies, such as Scribd, have tried the subscription book model, but Amazon has the whole Kindle ecosystem to back it up, with millions of people already reading on their devices and apps. There's also a tasty extra in the form of Audio narration on some books, with Whispersync for audio as standard on these.

Hey, back up a minute. Whisper-what? Basically Whispersync is Amazon's own system whereby if you are reading a Kindle book on multiple devices, it will automatically sync to the latest page you are on, even if you most recently read the book on a different device. This is really good for when you don't have your Kindle with you and want to read for a few minutes on your phone when in the queue. Providing you've got an internet connection (Wi-fi or 3G), it works flawlessly.

Whispersync for audio takes this a step further. Say you've got the Kindle version of a book and the online audiobook version from (another Amazon company), you can listen for a few minutes on Audio, then switch back to the Kindle version to read it. Ideal for driving to work when you just have to know what happens next.  Now most people aren't going to buy two copies of a book just so they can do this. This, in theory anyway, is the great thing about Kindle Unlimited. If the book is labeled as 'Kindle Unlimited with Audio Narration' you get the Kindle book AND the audiobook to read free as part of your subscription.

I decided to give this a go. I chose 'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel. It was marked as Kindle Unlimited with Audio Narration. So far so good. I clicked 'Read and Listen for free', which immediately downloaded it onto my Kindle. After loading up the Audible app on my phone I noticed that it had appeared at the top of there too (Although I'm not a current subscriber I have used Audible in the past - if you haven't you can download an Audible app for free from your device's app store). Superb. I started listening to the book while doing the washing up, then migrated to the sofa when I'd finished. Turning off Audible, I picked up my Kindle, selected the book and it immediately prompted me to go to the page I was up to from the audiobook. It worked flawlessly, as did switching back to Audible on my phone later. I was impressed.

That's all very well, but content is the key. Amazon says they have over 650,000 books in the Kindle Unlimited programme, but what does that actually mean? Well it has some impressive headline books including all the Harry Potter books and the Hunger Games trilogy. The reality though is that a large proportion of the books are either classics which would be free anyway, or self-published books from Amazon's own Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. What was also disappointing is that only about 2,000 books out of the 650k have audio narration bundled in free with it.

I was pleased and surprised though to see a good selection of books by Arthur C Clarke in the program. While these don't have free audio, you can add the audio for a discounted £3.99. For the digital and audio versions, this isn't a bad price.

So all in all this is not a bad addition to Amazon's range of services. While you can't search for a book and realistically hope it will be Kindle Unlimited, you can browse a wide range of books and can try lots of new and different books for free. You can also get free or cheap audiobooks as an add on, which can only be a good thing. Will I continue with Kindle Unlimited after the free trial? I'm not sure yet, but it is certainly tempting.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Five Star Reads? Choosing up book by its ratings

Not so long ago choosing a new book to read, particularly by a new or little known author, was pot luck. You might get a good one or you might get a real dud. Even established, popular or critically acclaimed authors are no guarantee you won't get an absolute howler. You looked at a book in the bookshop, read the blurb on the back cover and maybe if you were really dedicated the first few pages. That was usually all you had to go on though, unless there'd been a review in the newspaper or a friend was recommending it. Nowadays however there is such a wealth of information - books reviewed on blogs and websites, discussion forums for like minded readers, automated recommendation tools and more. One of the biggest and best resources to help choose a book though are the millions of customer reviews and ratings available on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. You can easily see what other people thought of the book, and what the average rating of a book gets. How much does this help you choose a good book though, and how can you best use this vast resource?

On its own, a random reader's review and rating might not be as reliable as a critics review. A critic will invariably go some way towards trying to offer a balanced review, if they are reasonably competent. An ordinary reader however reviewing a book on Amazon predominantly relates their own personal review, and their tastes might be very different from your own. What elevates reader reviews and ratings over critics however is when a large number of ratings are combined. This will include a large number of readers of all types with wide variation in tastes. Together, they will form an average rating that is arguably quite a reliable barometer of the quality and enjoyability of a book.

I admit that I often look at a book's rating before choosing whether to read it. Rarely will I start reading a book without a quick check and maybe reading a review or two. As something of a veteran peruser of customer feedback, here are a few pointers to help you better use them to determine whether you might enjoy a book.

  1. Safety in numbers. If there are only one or two reviews they aren't that reliable. Those reviews/ratings could be the author themselves, their wife, best friend, next door neighbour, you get the idea. Authors sometimes even pay people to write positive reviews for them. If there are a large number of reviews and ratings however, it is much harder for the author to influence and will likely contain mostly genuine reviews.
  2. Pay attention to negative reviews. These can often be more helpful then glowing five star reviews, as they will often explain why the reader didn't like the book. You can then sometimes judge whether you might me likely to dislike the same things.
  3. Watch out for irrelevant complaints. There are always some people, particularly on Amazon, who give a 1 star rating which has nothing to do with the actual content or story of the book. This might be a complaint against the website itself because of poor service, or perhaps because there was once a temporary glitch in the system which meant the book was mis-described. I've seen multiple one star ratings because a book was published under one title in a the USA and another title in the UK. People buy the book then are unhappy because they've already read it...
  4. Out of date/earlier versions. You sometimes get poor ratings for a particular version of the book, whether because of a poor binding or lots of typos and copyediting mistakes. This is particularly common with Kindle books. Amazon usually combines reviews for all editions/versions so these all get mixed together. Also, errors in early print runs and Kindle editions often get sorted out within a few months.
  5. Sequel syndrome. If an author writes a book and then writes sequels or later books in a series, then ratings tend to get skewed. The first book has a broad reader base, and this is likely reflected in the reviews and ratings. Sequels and later books in a series are likely to be mostly read by people who have already read the previous books in the series and are already 'fans' of that author or series. So ratings of later books are often higher, unless the author starts to disappoint their fans. 
  6. Not what was expected. The majority of authors write the same type of books each time, and their readership know what to expect. If the author then decides to do something a bit different, it might be very good, but could appeal to a different audience. This is often the case when an author, as most inevitably do, decides to write a children's or young adults book.
  7. Jumping on the bandwagon or sheep readers... Each year, there are a few standout successes in the book world, shifting books in their millions. It will probably be the book everyone's talking about at the office and reading on the train home. There will be thousands of reviews on Amazon, most of them giving it 5 stars. People just don't want to be seen bucking the trend and criticizing the 'in book'. 
  8. When the tough gets going... Some books are just hard work... Catch 22, A Brief History of Time, Ulyssess... Some reviews read, "On the fifth attempt I managed to get through this" and yet still give it 5 stars. If people really work at reading a book, they are almost compelled to look for the good in it, and don't want to think that their time and efforts have been wasted. They "know" it is good, so give it top rating even if they didn't enjoy or really even understand it.
  9. The critics review. This is most common with genre books. The reader likes reading literary and mainstream books and for whatever reason decides to have a go at a Tom Clancy thriller or some epic space opera. Then they'll say things like, "the premise was flimsy", "it was so unrealistic", "it was full of complicated made up things" or "Or I just couldn't empathize with the main character (a little green alien from the other side of the galaxy). No, you don't get it, that's not the type of book it is. Oh never mind...
  10. Look at other reviews by the reviewer. If they've written a bad review, but have reviewed very little else, then they could just be having a rant. If they have written lots of reviews, particularly of similar types of books and ones you like, their opinion could be worth a lot to you.

A final warning. Watch out for spoilers if you are looking through reviews. Most people do flag these up in their reviews so you can avoid them, but not everyone. So if you are the sort that can't bare to find out anything before you read the book, don't get too hung up on reading the reviews. Otherwise, they can really help weed out the duds and free up more time for reading good books you'll actually enjoy!

Friday, 5 September 2014

10 Books That Have Stayed With Me...

I've been nominated on Facebook to come up with a list of 10 books that have stayed with me for some reason. My interpretation of this is that it's a bit different to a 'favourite books list'. There's some great books that I've loved, but don't really stay with me. To get on to this list, it must have had a big effect on me and not been forgotten. There's a wide variety of genres on this list, both fiction and non-fiction, reflecting my broad reading tastes.
  1. 'Sarum' by Edward Rutherford. This is a giant of an historical fiction novel, weighing in at over 1,000 pages. It can be loosely described as the story of England from the end of the last ice age to the early part of the 20th century, quite a long time span! It follows the fortunes of several families through the ages. It is an episodic book, and there can be long gaps in time between each episode, but through the fortunes of the families in the book they all link together quite nicely. This is a book that really has stayed with me, and I've often talked about and recommended to people.
  2. 'A Time of Gifts' by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Travel book. In the early 1930s the author, aged 18, decided to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople (now Istanbul). This is his account of the first part of his journey. A lot of the book chronicles his journey across pre WW2 Germany, a lost world of sleepy villages, dark castles and a way of life stretching back hundreds of years. This world was wiped out forever by the World War 2. A Time of Gifts is widely considered one of the best travel books ever written in the English language.
  3. 'Cold Mountain' by Charles Frazier. Set during the American Civil War, it features Ada, a young woman struggling make a living from her small farmstead, and Inman a war veteran journeying back home to her. Simply one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read, really makes me feel like I'm there.
  4. 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline. Ostensibly science fiction, simply because it is set 50 years in the future, it is basically one huge nostalgia-fest for the 1980s, which I caught the tail end of growing up (I was born in 1980). Really fun book.
  5. 'Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is the best book where nothing happens that I've ever read. It is about an aging butler reflecting on his life. It sounds dull, but is utterly captivating and feels so real. I've only read this recently, but I think it will stay with me for a long time.
  6. 'On Writing' by Stephen King. Part memoir, part advice for wannabe writers. It cuts through the cr*p like no other book of its type I've ever come across. Through numerous clear outs and book purges it has remained firmly on my shelves for over a decade.
  7. 'Small Island' by Andrea Levy. An incredible novel set several years after the end of World War 2, about Jamaican immigrants to Britain and the struggles they faced. I was born more than 30 years after this was set, and until I read this I truly had no idea of the racial prejudice in this country in the post-war years, and what it must have been like for those immigrants, but this book showed me. Truly eye opening, and a great, fascinating novel.
  8. 'Cider with Rosie' by Laurie Lee. Memoir of growing up in a Cotswolds village. Very famous book which has been on many a school curriculum however I've only recently read it and loved it. Really takes you back to the dying embers of a bygone era.
  9. 'Jennifer Government' by Max Barry. This book might not make it into my list of absolute favourites, but it is a novel stuffed full of ideas that really make you think. It is set in a future where corporations are far more powerful than governments and employees surnames are named after the companies they work for. It's a book in the same vein as 1984 and Brave New World, but easier to read and more fun!
  10. 'Magician' by Raymond E. Feist. I read a lot of fantasy books as a teenager, but this was by far my favourite. Despite being 800 pages, I must have read it at least half a dozen times before I was 20 and thought about it a lot since. So as much as any books on this list, Magician has stayed with me.
So there it is, 10 books that have stayed with me. A mix of different genres, they won't all be everyone's cup of tea, but then it's my list... As part of this nomination thing, I'll be nominating 10 people myself to come up with their own list over on Facebook...