Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary

Beezus and RamonaFirst, congratulations to Janelle, winner of the Hoppy Easter Giveaway here. This weekend might not be a post office run, but the weekend after probably will be! I really enjoyed reading all of your egg, Easter, and baby anecdotes; what a bright spot in the week!

Next, I think that giveaway marks the absence of about 50 books from my household. Between giveaways, borrowed books sent back to their owners, and the first round of distribution of “dubious books” to unsuspecting friends, I can see a small dent in the piles of books that don’t fit on the shelves. (Hey, it’s a health hazard!) I have four five in my current “deal with” pile, and I suspect that I’ll file two for later, read one, and just take a peek at the last two. After that, I’ve got ten or so books that are waiting for me to finish just the last chapter or so, and then--then!--I will have a dresser-top, and I can move on to the piles on the floor. This is exciting as I hate clutter and I like things to have a home. I’m grateful to have had so many great reads, but the time has come to redistribute the wealth.

Speaking of great reads, the back of my mind always holds a selection of books that I really, really loved between the ages of about five and ten. I remember reading stories about Ramona Quimby, and being excited that I had some idea about where she lived (within driving distance of my house). Because I felt so strongly about Ramona, I sometimes think less than kindly about Beezus, who is sometimes--in Ramona’s eyes--a pretty overbearing big sister.

While re-reading Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary (HarperCollins) recently, I was struck, as I often have been recently, by how times have changed. The more I think about it, though, I might have been frustrated by the disconnect between the new (and in my opinion, not as good) illustrations and the setting. Beezus and Ramona was first published in the 1950s, and reflects that fact; new illustrations showing a more modern mom and kids don’t provide the context that a kid reader might need to understand that this, that, or the other thing--well, it happened a long time ago. It’s okay that a book talks about things in the past, but it seems unfair to update illustrations without acknowledging that the text is the same, especially for younger readers. All that said, I guess I'm okay with a little creative misdirection--with updating a cover for a new generation, with encouraging readers to know and love and understand books that have staying power.

Aside from that, Ramona really is a pest in Beezus and Ramona, but that may be why I still like this as a companion to the Ramona books. After all, it’s all about point of view.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hoppy Easter Eggstravaganza Giveaway Hop

When I think of spring, I think of...





cherry blossoms

And Peeps, because it's time for Easter candy!

StorkFor this hop, in the spirit of baby everythings, I'm giving away a copy of Stork by Wendy Delsol.

To enter:

1. Leave me a comment by midnight on April 25 and share one of the following:
a) a funny story about where you thought babies came from when you were little
b) a funny story about something kids do/have done
c) a favorite Easter tradition
d) something good to do with an egg

2. I'll select a winner at random and post the winner/e-mail the winner as soon as I can sit down at a computer, and put the book in the mail in 1-2 weeks, when I next visit the post office.

3. You must be a follower to win (on your honor--I don't care if you check this blog every day, use an RSS reader, or use another follower system), and if you win, you must provide me with a U.S. mailing address.

Have a great weekend!

You can visit the other blogs in the hop at here.

Thanks to Inspired Kathy at I Am a Reader, Not a Writer and Yara at Once Upon a Twilight for hosting the hop!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sirens Conference Scholarship

I borrowed this post from here, with permission. To quote another staff member, "I'm not eligible, so one of you may as well go for it!"

Proposals are due May 7, 2011. Please help us spread the word.

Inspired by the daring adventures of women characters and compelled by brilliant works by women authors, Sirens is dedicated to women in fantasy literature. Our conference is part scholarly examination and part networking retreat, and we welcome academics, authors, professionals, educators, librarians, and readers to attend and participate. We also encourage all attendees, regardless of background, to provide perspectives on fantasy books by women, female characters in fantasy works, and how to support women in fantasy literature.

We are pleased to announce two scholarships for excellence in programming for Sirens, starting with the 2011 programming year.

Sirens will award the first scholarship, the Sonnet, for one presentation that focuses on thoughtful analysis of women in fantasy. The winning presentation must focus on fantasy works by women, on the analysis of women in fantasy works, or on topics closely related to women in fantasy. Papers (and lectures, talks, and other informative presentations), focused and analytical panels, and roundtable discussions are eligible for the Sonnet scholarship.

Sirens will award the second scholarship, the Song, for one presentation that best addresses the creation of fantasy works, particularly as it connects to women in fantasy. Workshops, afternoon classes, panels that focus on professional or artistic education, and roundtable discussions that focus on professional or artistic topics are eligible for the Song scholarship.

Entrants must be at least 18 as of the first day of Sirens in 2011 (October 6, 2011), and must propose a presentation for programming through the online submissions system at http://www.sirensconference.org/submissions by May 7, 2011. There are no educational or institutional requirements to be selected as a presenter.

Sirens will contact all presenters with an accepted proposal no
later than June 1, 2011, and provide them with eligibility information.

Sirens staff members (2011 and 2010) are not eligible for either scholarship; however, scholarship winners may become a staff member at a later date, may have been a staff member in 2009 or earlier, or may volunteer for Sirens in any given year. Those who are unsure of their eligibility may inquire at (help at sirensconference.org).

Information about making a proposal may be found at the Sirens website at http://www.sirensconference.org/programming/cfp.html. A series of posts on the Sirens blog with helpful information for preparing a proposal may be found at http://community.livejournal.com/sirenscon/tag/programming.

Entrants must submit their proposals online at http://www.sirensconference.org/submissions/. No mailed or e-mailed proposals will be considered by the vetting board or be eligible for entry. All entries must be original to the presenter(s).

Sirens will award one complimentary registration to the winning presentations for each of the Song scholarship and the Sonnet scholarship. Please note that only one registration is offered for each scholarship; if either scholarship is awarded for a presentation with multiple presenters, the group moderator must designate which of the presenters will receive the registration; if there is no moderator, the person who submitted the proposal must designate which of the presenters will receive the registration.

Should the winning presenter(s) have already registered for Sirens in 2011, the winner(s) may elect to receive a refund on registration, to receive an airport shuttle ticket and a Sirens Supper ticket, or to receive a credit toward one room at the conference hotel.

Neither scholarship is exchangeable for cash, and neither scholarship may be transferred. In the event that the winner of either scholarship refuses the scholarship or is unable to attend Sirens, the scholarship will not be given to another eligible entrant. Each winning presenter is solely responsible for any and all taxes due and payable upon scholarships.

Representatives of Narrate Conferences will review the eligible presentations for factors including but not limited to thoughtful analysis; quality of scholarship; relevance to the call for proposals; educational value for attendees; whether the topic is new to the conference or a necessary expansion upon previously-presented programming; and timeliness and relevance of the topic. Because the scholarships are intended to encourage high-quality programming proposals and recognize exemplary presentations, the judges may, in their sole discretion, decline to award one or both scholarships in any given year. Judging decisions are final and may not be appealed.

This scholarship is void where prohibited or otherwise restricted by law.

For questions about these scholarships, please write to (help at sirensconference.org).

Sirens is presented by Narrate Conferences, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to creating dynamic, innovative educational events. Narrate Conferences' mission is to provide unique interactive opportunities for scholars, students, professionals, and readers to discuss books, television, films, other media, and popular culture. For more information on Narrate Conferences, including its past and future events, purpose, and staff, please visit http://www.narrateconferences.org or write to (info at narrateconferences.org). For more information about Sirens, please visit http://www.sirensconference.org or write to (help at sirensconference.org).

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wake by Lisa McMann

Wake (Wake Series, Book 1)
First, congratulations to Alexis, randomly-selected winner of my Fool for Books Giveaway Hop.I really enjoyed reading all your "fool" answers. Loved ones, sugar (and chocolate), books, and puppies were some of the most frequent responses.

Next, Wake by Lisa McMann (Simon & Schuster - Simon Pulse) surprised me in a good way.

I admit it: I’m not particularly drawn to paranormal stories, of any subgenre, and I’ve had enough bad experiences to shy away from them, and Wake looked like a paranormal. I suppose it is a paranormal, even though my knee-jerk definition of paranormal is narrower than what’s really on the shelves. Even if my experiences aren’t bad, per se, I’ve always felt sort of cheated by ghost boyfriends, the inevitable turning into a vampire stories, the...I dunno, hairiness of werewolf stories. I’ve read some compelling books for all of the things I think I don’t like, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when I find a good read that challenges my assumptions.

Wake was a challenger for me. Janie Hannagan has pretty restless nights than can turn into restless days. If she’s near someone and they’re asleep, she gets sucked into their dreams--the embarrassing ones, the ones that are subconscious wishes and desires, the wish fulfillment, the nightmares. She can’t tell anyone, even her best friend, and she can’t remove herself from the dreams--and now, she’s not just an unwilling observer. She has to find a way to control the dreams, because she’s in a lot of danger and pain as a result, and she desperately wants to live a normal life, to go to college, to escape her somewhat lonely existence. And there’s a boy, but the boy doesn’t save her so much as he supports her in saving herself, so BOO YAH to that.

As the first part in a trilogy, Wake stands alone. It’s a relatively short book, coming in at around 200 pages, but I felt that was right for the amount of story in the book and to wrap up at a satisfactory spot.

I'm interested: Do you mentally classify paranormals as fantasy, science fiction, horror, or some combination of the three (or something else)? Labeling books is fraught with peril, of course, so I don't personally think there is a right or wrong answer, and I'm grateful that YA books haven't--until recently--been divided by genre in most book stores. Barnes and Noble, I'm looking (and glaring) at you for your recent changes.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Rebecca Black's "Friday" as YA Literature

(Yes, this is tongue-in-cheek, except for the exploitation parts.)

Most of you have probably heard by now about Rebecca Black, her video, how it went viral, how it got negative YouTube comments, and how she got a lot more attention--in national media, even--for doing it wrong than for doing it right. I don’t know all of the details, because I didn’t care to follow all of the story, but I’m struck by how much of Black’s experience parallels bad publishing experiences and bad literature. I could springboard from this post by editor Cheryl Klein about Taylor Swift’s songs as musical versions of YA lit, and from my grudging respect for Swift, who I think is a pretty good songwriter.

So, Rebecca Black made a video that has been referred to as a “vanity video”; she paid somewhere in the range of $20,000 to have “Friday” written and produced by a company called Ark Music Factory. The idea, I think, is that young singers think they need to have a video so that they can attract attention, maybe get a recording contract or work acting. Sort of like models having a portfolio, I guess, and probably building on (rare) successes like Justin Bieber being discovered on YouTube.

But let’s back up for a minute. The cost of this video was $20,000.

Let me total it up. I had maybe two total years’ worth of piano lessons as a little kid, as your parents encourage you to do when you have access to a piano. And let’s say that you’d pay small-town rates for basic lessons and musicianship for two years, at a rate of $40/month. That’s $960 to learn an instrument that requires one to grasp universal concepts of music like beat, rhythm, tempo, style, and reading and writing the language. Or, how about this: you put your child in band, choir, and/or general music at school, for at least six years, and you might have expenses of nothing to perhaps $500 a year, if you have to buy uniforms or rent/buy an instrument. Schools may not be particularly forthcoming about funds, but there’s nearly always money available for kids who simply cannot pay for class materials.
Okay. Then, I had maybe two years of voice lessons in high school. Let’s say that was another $960; on the high end, in a larger city, with a very experienced and educated and professionally trained teacher, I could have paid $2400 over two years, maybe.

I always maxed out voice lessons in college when I could, but I didn’t take them all five years I was at a top five music school. But let’s pretend I did, and let’s imagine that I spent $700 a semester, and spent another $500 for summer lessons.
Even estimating high, I come out with a cost of about half of what it cost for Rebecca Black’s video. That’s nine years worth of music and voice lessons; she might have split those funds between voice lessons (the basics, music, and performance) and vocal coaching (teachers who help you work up specific songs for performance). And you know, I don’t have any quibbles with a music video costing $20,000 to make, but for $20,000, I’d want a BETTER music video.

This is vanity publishing. It’s the predatory publishing that happens when you’re told that you can get a “reasonable publishing package” to publish, and that there’s nothing for you in the traditional publishing world, because those big meanies just don’t know your talent--and they’re not telling you hey, you need to write another draft, spend more time editing, go deeper into your story. And then it should take you just another $10,000 or so to get your book out into an adoring world! My biggest beef with self publishing is just that, that it’s so often a way to exploit people. (I’ve done some micropublishing, and editing and book design and formatting, and buying ISBNs and stuff all takes money, but not THAT much money.)

So, let me analyze the video.

First, even though I’m not particularly good at hearing it--and I don’t always care about it if I can--it’s obvious that the producers used a lot of a program called Autotune. You’ve heard it in action in Cher’s “Believe” and Jamie Foxx/T-Pain’s “Blame It,” likely all of Britney Spears’s albums, and most episodes of Glee. This is meant to tweak vocals and instrumentals to get them right on pitch. Even though you can keep recording a line over and over in the studio and patch together a perfect performance, I have to say that I can understand why someone might say look, I can’t quite hit that note today, or that take was perfect, but we muffed that one note, or we’re expected to turn out a perfect album for that no-talent pop star or we won’t get paid, and we don’t have time to just let that star get better, so let’s just fix it with Autotune and move on. That doesn’t mean that I necessarily respect it, mind you, but that’s a whole other post. This is ghost writing when you use it all the way through. It’s telling you that you’re a fantastic author, even though you’re not doing any actual refining of that story you have to tell.

It’s hard to tell where Rebecca Black’s pitch ends and Autotune begins, and it’s hard to tell what she’d sound like without it, but perhaps she could have made some singing progress with vocal coaching. Not everyone can sing well, but most people can sing with decent pitch and tone if they have normal hearing (a big component in learning to sing) and if they are exposed to music from a young age, particularly if they get to sing along. Most of us will never have that extra spark of charisma that makes us superstars, but singing for fun is nothing to sniff at. A vocal coach could have worked on tone--the way the singing sounds--or suggested changing the key. I would have taken the whole thing a little bit higher; most women are sopranos, even if they don’t want to be, and the song seems to lie in a bad place for Black, one which is comfortable for teen girls, but not always their best sound, or their best choice for every song, or even well-developed (I think that that she’s forcing her voice down, and adapting by making it pretty bright and nasal, and it doesn’t sound relaxed or fun). Like boys, girls are going through voice changes, just more subtly, and the producers should have had an idea of what vocal range looks like for the typical teenager. It’s not usually an adult’s range of highs and lows. Also, a vocal coach would work on breath control and volume for this song; the whole thing is about the same volume throughout, and it’s choppy, and then breath control helps with pitch. Finally, a vocal coach would also work on pronunciation, because there’s a difference between saying a word and singing it so that it sounds good.

This is a first draft, not a final.

But all of that aside, while the song “Friday” has some catchy bits, admittedly, it’s also a first draft of a YA novel written by people who are supposed to be professionals. Let’s break it down.

The Beginning
To make this easier, I’m going to use “B” for the heroine of the video. I don’t think Rebecca Black had a lot of control over the outcome and I don’t think it’s “her” product, so I’d like to add a layer of separation, however small, between her the person and her the product of the video.

The first bits of the video aren’t the worst thing ever. I don’t like the sketchlike animation of B (there’s a word for that in Photoshop, but I can’t remember what it is), and I don’t entirely understand why we’re going with a school theme if we’re not going to make a bigger contrast between the weekdays spent in school and the weekend spent out of it; I think there should be more school or no school at all. Focus on one idea! In addition, the planner notes are pretty cliched. I do like the upbeat nature of the beginning and the “yeah yeah” part, before the real lyrics start.

At the beginning of the video, “B” is just waking up. In a YA novel, this is a cardinal sin! Heck, in a lot of novels, cutting out that part where someone wakes up in the morning and gets ready for the day is a major improvement. There’s also use of B holding relatively still while everyone around her moves quickly (and I don’t know the term for that, either). That effect never comes back again. (Also, I am somewhat disappointed that they straighten her glorious curly hair after she gets out of bed.) The narration of waking up is not insightful, different, catchy, or particularly suited to the music, and I can’t help thinking that someone is wedging pre-written words to a different pre-written tune.

Already, I’m stuck on a major issue that I have with the melody. If it were more graceful, it would be recitative, a convention from opera where the singer’s melody is a lot more like speech, often with a lot of repeated notes in a row and then a rising or falling line as the words indicate. But here, it sounds robotic and dull, and that’s the problem with a lot of repeated notes in a melody--the music isn’t going anywhere. Your only option is to get louder or softer, and that’s not happening.

Next, B sings about going to the bus stop, while standing in front of a sign that says BUS STOP. Have you ever seen a sign that says BUS STOP? Because I haven’t. I’d love to see her moving, hurrying down the street, anything that matches the lyrics about people rushing around.

Then, her friends appear in a convertible. She seemed to be planning to take the bus to school, but then the car comes; are they picking her up because they feel sorry for her? (The actors show some initial enthusiasm that seems almost sarcastic, like “come over here and we’ll drive away,” before switching to a more bored, less interactive demeanor.) Just how good of friends with B are these kids? Does she need FOUR of them? Could several friends be combined into one or two?
B asks, “Which seat can I take?” Given that there are already four people in the car--actually, I’m not sure if she’s asking if she can get someone to move so that she can take shotgun, but if she wants an empty seat, it’s the middle in the back, and as the back seat riders don’t move over to let her in--she ends up in the middle--it’s clear that she’s not valued by her peers, as she gets the least comfortable spot.

The Middle
The narrative jumps, very suddenly, and we change to a not-very-well-developed scene of B, in a convertible, with different friends, cruising in front of a static backdrop of the moon. What happened to Friday? We’ve fast forwarded past what makes it such a contrast from the weekend. The friends are wearing party dresses, but B seems to be wearing a suit, again indicating that she doesn’t fit in so well. And, while it’s a typical music video trope, the back seat of kids is sitting on top of the seat, which concerns me as--and this bit isn’t a joke--I’ve known kids who died falling out of and off vehicles. Seatbelts on, please, especially if you’re on the highway, as B sings.

There’s a big authorial cheat here. B sings, “Fun, fun, think about fun, you know what it is.” I can’t figure out what that’s a reference to, though I’ll admit that the lyricist may have been trying to be inclusive regarding all of the forms of fun.

B again returns to her friends, singing that she’s got her friend on the right, continuing the theme of not being sure if she has friends, or a friend, or many. We see a literal representation of kicking in the front and back seat, and B asks again: Which seat can I take? She puts her arms around the girls in the back seat, indicating another shift in friend relationships.

The Final Act
At last the “fun” is revealed: a house party for teens! Everyone is dressed up, and B has arrived.

The narrative jumps in time again, as B ruminates on the days of the week. It was Thursday, now it is Friday. It will be Saturday and then Sunday, and no one wants the weekend to end. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this interpretation, but I do wish again that we’d had more conflict between the weekday and the weekend. (Personally, I find that Monday mornings are a cause for copious swearing.) We return to the opening scenes, looking at B’s calendar, which keeps a school theme, and the lyrics provide just a bit of contrast at last: the lyrics to go with Thursday and Friday are grammatically correct, but once we reach the weekend (Friday night, one presumes), “we so excited” and need not include a verb. This illustrates B's freedom from the structures and strictures imposed by the school system, and by adults.

I that there is a major structural error here--or perhaps a stroke of genius. An employee of Ark Music Factory appears in this video (and others by the company) to feature a rap which, even though it makes no sense, particularly when the man raps about seeing a school bus during what is clearly Friday night, far outshines B’s performance. The man’s charisma and ease in front of the camera makes B’s performance seem worse in comparison; it’s as if a first-grader wrote a chapter book, but chapter six is written by Neil Gaiman. At the same time, it’s the emotional climax of the story--B has hit rock bottom. Can she overcome the final obstacle and have a happy ending? There is only a minute left!

B is now at the party, on some sort of raised area, singing to the other partygoers. The man in the car reappears, and it seems he is now grooving to B’s sound. The chorus is the strongest writing and singing, and it just might work out for B. The partygoers all say “yeah,” accepting and encouraging her--and by the end of the song, they’re clapping for her. She’s saved the day. Or, at least, the Friday.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

NookColor Review; Blue Update

BlueLou Aronica let me know that Blue is available in e-book format for $2.99. That’s, like, thirty years off a paperback, so you can’t go wrong! It's definitely a great deal, given my feelings on e-book pricing (below, in the middle of the post.) See my interview with Lou here and review of Blue here.

Also, the winner of the Fool for Books Giveaway Hop...I need to generate one! Look for that in the next post. I sent myself a reminder to do that, so I will get on it ASAP.

Speaking of e-books, I thought it about time that I reviewed a gift I received: a NookColor.

The NookColor is one of Barnes and Noble’s e-readers. The original Nooks (with wifi or 3G) were e-ink devices that look much like a Kindle, and I actually received one of these, but I wanted the power of a NookColor as well as the ability to read things like picture books, so I used another gift to “upgrade” to a NookColor, which has an LCD screen. I believe the cost is set at about $299, but sales and promotions regularly bring them into the $250 range, and I expect the price to drop further. You might, as I did, spend a bit more for a case (handily protective, and some act as stands) or screen protector films, but as there aren’t any (or many) accessories available for the NookColor, an owner’s biggest expenses are probably going to be in buying books.

Anyway, I was a little nervous when I found out that I’d received an e-reader, period. Even though I’m interested in new technology, and even though I’d read lots of stories online and read a few e-books (via free phone apps for Kindle or via buying them from online independent bookstores), I’d clung to that idea of books, physical books, as something special, meaningful, for the ages. (I still think that.) I’ve shied away from buying files that, a few technology updates down the road, won’t be readable by newer devices--how many of you still have some great big floppy disks around that you can’t bear to part with? In addition, I hate the idea that eventually, or maybe shortly, I’ll end up buying software to jailbreak my books from their proprietary formats, so that I'm not tied to a bookstore's reader or application. My consolation was that this was a Barnes and Noble product rather than a Kindle, which is more closed-system--and as an Amazon product, well, let’s just say that I am increasingly worried about Amazon’s power plays and undercutting of other businesses.

In the Box
The NookColor comes with almost nothing in the (nifty, magnet-clasp) box. You’ve got the NC, a (proprietary) USB/mini-USB cord that does double duty as charger cable and file transfer mechanism, and (I seem to recall) a quick start guide; the manuals are onboard. In my box, I keep a copy of the extended warranty that I bought. I got the warranty because the NookColor has a backlit LCD screen, and I figured that it would be a problem to fix on my own, but beware--when I made my return and swap, I wasn’t informed that there was a price difference, and I might have turned it down, as it’s about a quarter of the retail cost of the device!

Turn It On
The NC is wifi only, meaning that some of the features only work when you’re around a wireless network. There are no 3G options available. I think you need that wifi connection to get going, so if you don’t have a router at home, you’d have to charge up and then go to a B&N to get set up. I’d be a little hesitant to do that without knowing more about B&N’s wifi network security. And, though it’s possible to use your desktop to transfer files (and the only way to transfer files like PDFs or EPUB files you’ve purchased from a vendor other than B&N), it’s a bit of a pain, and if the NC burps, your only recovery option is to re-download those files. As far as I know, there's no way to use applications from other stores unless you root your device, and you need a real computerTM and Adobe Digital Editions (or something similar) to transfer files bought outside of the Nook bookstore.

When you first turn the NC on, you go through a setup video. I need to find the instructions to make that play again, because--as there was no instruction manual to read and absorb--I started the thing up and started playing around. This was sort of a bad idea due to a particular flaw: when you have the charger plugged in, whether that’s to load files from your computer or to charge the unit (from the wall; the uptake from your computer isn’t enough to be practical), the touchscreen stutters and jumps and otherwise causes issues. It’s not impossible to use the NC while it’s plugged in, but it is very difficult to accurately enter passwords, turn pages, and so on.

And just as an FYI, some early purchasers of the NC had issues with the power cord/USB overheating and melting. This seems to have been solved, but I’d probably only charge up when I was awake and able to keep an eye on the NC the first couple of times, just to check. 

The Buttons
There aren’t a lot of buttons on the NC. There’s an on/off button that I almost never use except for airplanes and to reset the device; some web page that I visit has some sort of script that makes it very difficult to close a pop-up window in the browser. (I suspect this is Twitter's fault--it won't load as a web page for me now, too. I hope that’s resolved in forthcoming updates.) There are volume buttons, which come in handy, especially as the speaker for the NC is on its back, and if you use it in a case, it muffles the sound quite a bit. That said, this isn’t really a device you buy for its audio quality!

The other big button is the “n” button. It looks like an...n. It’s the “home” button, and touching it wakes the NC up from sleep mode and always brings you back to the home screen.

The Home Screen
The home screen is really three screens; you swipe your finger back and forth to see three panes’ worth of books and periodicals you’ve recently downloaded, purchased, or read. There’s a place at the top of the screen to go back to your current read, and an easily accessed drop-down menu to get to the last couple of things you’ve been looking at. 

The Tray
Along the bottom of the screen, in what amounts to the taskbar on a PC, are several icons you can touch to navigate or get information, even when you’re not on the home screen. There’s a little book-shaped icon at the bottom of the screen you can use to jump back to your reading, the time, an indicator of your wifi connection, and a battery icon (though not one that tells you the percentage of battery left; you’ll have to eyeball it).

Finally, there’s one touchable icon that looks like a U with an arrow in it, and that one leads you to the different NC features. This brings up a menu that lets you navigate to the B&N shop, your library, search, extras, the web browser, and settings.

The Shop
Perhaps interestingly, you can’t access the shop unless you have a wifi connection. That means you don’t load its menu, or the last cached version of the shop’s home--you’re out entirely. I’ve taken my NC to B&N to browse, but I found it clunkier and slower than just picking up books. I don’t know if there are any in-store specials--I think there are, and certainly I get coupons that I could take on the device to show a cashier--but you can read books for free for an hour in-store, I think; otherwise, there’s a free book available on Fridays, of varying quality.

Within the shop, you get a little home page with several horizontal panes, offering up specials, sales, new items, and recommendations (mine so far are not at all a match for my reading tastes). Then, you can “browse” sections, if what you like to read is in the section list, or search. 

For me, searching for specific books has been the most fruitful. The available selection is pretty limited; I’ve looked for books that I know are available digitally, and they’re not in B&N’s shop. Another issue, I think, is the algorithms. If I look in a section, I’m going to see the most popular items for at least the first couple pages of results, but these might not be good results. If I look at YA, I can easily get pages and pages of Twilight and other bestsellers, but I can’t discover new books, and if I’m not looking for the most popular few books subgenre, I might get very discouraged. The other problem is that the most popular in the shop subdivisions tend to be...awful.

I’ve worked on several self-published(ish) books--prepared for small audiences by a very small publisher using Lulu's tools (which is why I call it self-published-ish; the process is similar for me to what self-published folks are doing), nonfiction, all of the most likely indicators for success for such a book. I know that some folks are taking their previously-traditionally published books and using their e-rights to put together very nice self-published versions. But, still, I can’t recommend self-publishing for fiction writers who want to see the same success as their traditionally-published peers, and here, it’s because even if you have a truly professional cover, even if you hire (and listen to) accomplished editors, even if you have the marketing oomph to get out of the pile, you’re going to be lost in a sea of dreck, Amanda Hocking aside. ( I'm not talking about nicely-produced books; I'm talking about "I slapped this together in a weekend" books.) Folks trying to get in ahead of the rush are self-publishing some truly awful material for free or really cheap, and those free-$.99-$1.99 books are what people are taking a chance on. In any section, you’re probably going to pull up a large chunk of a) really awful, poor quality books, and/or b) books that you would not normally see in a section.

Anyway, the point I mean to make here is that I go to B&N expecting traditionally published books to take up most of the shelf space--this isn't where I'm looking for self-published items--and a lot of my searches end up in “Hmm, not what I was looking for.” The other point I mean to make is about pricing.

I think it’s important that we not assume that the pricing model for digital music transfers to the pricing model for e-books. (And while I’m here: “indies” in publishing does not mean self-published! It refers to independent, usually small publishers instead of big conglomerates, and to bookstores that aren’t chains or that have only a few locations.) $.99 for a track of music isn’t the same as $.99 for an entire novel. The overhead is different. The supply chain is different. The cost of paper is relatively small, and some of it gets replaced by the cost of digital storage/software/support employees when you transform books into bytes. If you’ve ever worked with products, you know also that a product’s cost must cover things like employee salaries and overhead keeping the lights on and, hey, let’s pay the author.

There are some neat pricing things that folks can (and do) do, like Lou Aronica’s promotion, or how a publisher might put the first book in a series on sale or out as a freebie, but don’t expect books to cost less just because they’re digital. 

And that brings me to my own needs and expectations--but first, back to the NC. When you view a book in the NC bookstore, you can see the price, often download a sample, see jacket copy and publisher information, see customer reviews (if there are any, and I don’t know how they get to be viewable or where they’re pulled from), and download the book on the spot. If you have gift cards attached to your account specifically for the NC’s use (and set up on via computer’s web browser, from what I can tell), your purchases should be applied to your gift card and then, when that runs out, to your default credit card, though there have been problems with that, and I’ve certainly had things be charged where I didn’t expect. Also, demand is outstripping systems supply, and it sometimes takes a long time for items to download, to be charged to your account after downloading, or to turn up an e-mailed confirmation receipt. I expect this to improve.

I wasn’t ready for e-books until I came to a point where I wanted more flexibility and portability for traveling, where my need to have digital rather than physical versions became a necessity (I have too many books right now and nowhere to put them, and clutter is upsetting, and I think I’m having health problems exacerbated by the difference between a dusty bookshelf and a dusty book hoard), and when there were many readily available books. I think those things are in place now. I do like to get a slightly better price for an e-book than for a hardback, and a paperback price feels about right; at the same time, I sometimes hesitate to buy a book that I might not like more than I would if it were a paperback. I probably need to make better use of free samples! The other hesitation comes from the ease of just buying and downloading and spending too much money, coupled with the first couple purchases that are like cotton candy--did I just eat air? E-books don’t feel tangible. Sometimes, I’ve gone into stores and found out that I paid almost the same price, but lost the niftyness of the design of the physical book; at the same time, I don’t really care about “extras” packaged with my book. I just want BOOK.

But when the books are great, they’re GREAT.

The Library and the Reading Experience
After downloading a book, or adding it via USB cable, you can find it in your library. As far as I can tell, you see things in reverse order of purchase. Some books show their covers; others don’t have them or the NC can’t handle them. I have heard that there’s a problem once you hit a couple thousand books in terms of things like seeing covers and being able to organize things, but I assume this will be updated eventually.

A section of the library is called Shelves, where you can create your own categories and sort books onto sections. One annoying, obvious, and (I hope) short-lived bug is the tendency for certain books to show up on shelves where you didn’t put them, though whether this is due to a problem with associating cover images to sections or a problem with allocating files, I don’t really know. There is no section for uncategorized, so it would be easy to browse your sections and not realize that you have a book in your library if you haven’t assigned it a “shelf.” Things like Google digital editions and some other files don’t keep their covers, or something goes wrong, or they never had covers, and the icons are so tiny that you might find yourself opening book after book to see what’s inside. There are similar “shelf”-like sections for periodicals and your own USB-loaded files, and a “LendMe” section for lending or finding friend-owned lendable books (with a very useless user interface, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to let it search my Google contacts for friends who might want to lend me something). I hear also that these self-created settings can’t be saved if you have to de-register and re-register your device, which is something that people are likely to have to do at some point, whether it’s to fix a bug or to loan to family. Also, beware of doing it wrong; I've heard stories of people trying to move books off their Nooks and deleting things in their account, which means that they can't access the book again--it's like throwing a book away versus archiving it in a box in the attic.

But on to reading. Right now, my eyes are pretty fatigued from too much computer time, I have to admit. I’m on a smartphone or a computer screen most of the day, and lately, I’ve been jealously guarding evenings and weekends away from having to look at things and think about and respond to things outside of stated commitment hours. At the same time, I haven’t noticed eye fatigue when using the NC unless I was already at the fatigue point, and there are some things one can do to reduce that while reading books--turn down the brightness, for example; make the font bigger; increase the space between lines; change the font; change the background color (with white on black good for some, and shades of gray another known anti-fatigue option).

Within an e-book, you can add bookmarks, jump chapters of content, look up words by highlighting them with a finger (and oh boy, I am lazy, and despite being a former spelling champ, I don’t know the meanings of a lot of words), and you can annotate files. But, WARNING: there is a limit to how much you can annotate a file, at present, before it won’t open, and you’ll have to find a way to erase your annotations using a desktop interface. Also, you can’t download, print out, or otherwise save your notes, so it’s currently a pretty useless feature. You can recommend the book to Twitter and Facebook, I think with a quote, even.

Also, the PDF interface, at present, is deplorable. You lose all these nice features and reflowingness and the like, and I don’t believe you can make notes. I haven’t tried reading any other file types on the NC, but it’s not yet worth it if I can’t track changes, if I need to; I know other folks who use theirs (NC and regular Nook) to download free stories, fanfic, and the like without too many issues, once they understand the limitations.

Also also, and I don’t know if this is a NC thing or an EPUB thing, but you have to hold the NC in portrait position while reading; you can’t turn it on its side for landscape/horizontal reading.  This isn’t a big deal for me because the NC is pretty light, at about the same heft as a regular, not-too-thick paperback, maybe one of 200-300 pages. That contrasts for me with an iPad: when I used one for about twenty minutes, I earned myself two days of weak, shaky, achy arms.

Another point about the reading experience that’s not so much about the NC is that I find e-books to not be as nicely proofread as their paper-based friends. Sometimes, it’s a scanning issue or a conversion issue; sometimes I think that these versions missed a round of edits. Words that were probably broken over the end of a line in the paper version show up in the e-version with misplaced hyphens in their middles. Less-used characters turn up as gobbledygook. Sometimes, it’s quite bothersome; other times, I can let it go as part of the game for now. The nicest book I think I’ve read in an e-version is Ninth Ward, which was not only nice to read, but nicely prepared.

I guess we read slower on e-readers than we do on paper. I read documents very quickly on computer screens--I am a master skimmer--but I haven’t noticed a big difference on the NC.

I don’t know what this actually searches; I haven’t felt a need to use it. It’s within-NC, though.

There is a small, small section of extras: a chess game, sudoku, crossword puzzles (this is the only game I’ve used, and it’s difficult to use because the touchscreen is dead around the extreme edges, which isn’t user-adjustable, and it’s hard to get your finger to touch the tiny square you want), a music player for music that you’ve loaded via USB, another portal to your picture files, and Pandora, the last of which is only usable if you’ve got a wifi connection, of course. I like Pandora, but it eats battery quickly.

That doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t; however, we’ve been promised that “sometime in the spring” we’ll have access to a B&N-curated app store, as well as a second firmware update. I only used my NC for a few days without the first firmware update, so I don’t know what’s up with that, but additional items like a calculator, calendar, e-mail application, and so on would be nice, especially as the NC is built on Android and theoretically is capable of running applications. For more on this, see rooting below.

Web Browser
Oh, the web browser. How I love it and how I hate it so very much.

Okay, so, most sites aren’t set up for touch screens. They have content all the way out to the edges, and it’s difficult to find a fingertip’s worth of blank space to use to scroll around. I find myself back buttoning a lot, and re-scrolling because I don’t remember to wait until an entire page loads, and I get taken back to the top of the page. As you scroll down, you can easily switch from portrait to landscape by tilting the device, and a floating button allows you to zoom in or out--but there’s no easy way to get back to the top of the page without scrolling allllll the way back up, and if you don’t go back to the top of the page, you can’t get back to the address bar or other navigation buttons. Hmph; I really hope this gets fixed.

In this version of the browser, there are other problems--something I visit frequently causes a menu (that pops up if I let a finger linger too long--again, not something user-adjustable) to get buggy; the only way to close it is to pick an option, and the quickest one is to view the page info. A restart fixes the problem temporarily.

Another issue I have is that while the browser handles most sites pretty well, there are a few it can’t handle well at all. Twitter is hard to use; the Blogger dashboard is nearly impossible to use, both the blog-reading, scrolly-window part and the editing/posting part, as is Google Reader, and NC time is prime time for me to try to catch up; CNN’s headlines get eaten in the rendering (and then it has no free scrolling space...). I don’t want to use mobile versions--of any site, really, but I’m tempted to in a few cases.

Finally, typing sucks. Period. If you have a reasonable password, you’ve got to have really nimble fingers and probably open up three or more keyboards within the keyboard function to type it in, and then I hope you manage to hit submit on the first try, or you’re doing it all over again.

But! Browsers get upgrades, and I expect some of these problems to disappear shortly. I really love it some evenings when I’m on COMPUTER NO mode, but I need to read some e-mails that my smartphone doesn’t handle well (truncation or poor handling of images). I’d never dare respond, but I like having a relatively large screen to browse on while I watch TV.

There’s not much to say here--it’s more or less as expected, though I often wish for a tray icon for brightness settings (or even a hardware button), and I definitely wish for user control of touchscreen sensitivity. I’d really like to set the sensitivity by application (more for e-books, less for the browser, perhaps a default for programs where I haven’t specified). 

What I Don’t Like, the Summary
  • Can’t get apps at all at present, even though it looks you should be able to do so, and the price point is high enough that more and better user control seems warranted
  • Getting books from vendors other than B&N is a hassle (which I understand from a business perspective, but I don’t like it)
  • The bookstore seems to have a limited selection
  • There are little bugs that add up to an annoying amount of bugs
  • The battery is not user-replaceable, indicating to a lot of folks that when it wears out, you’ll turn in your device for a refurbished one and probably not get your old one back (ew)

What I Do Like
  • Size/weight is easy to hold, fits in a pocket for some people
  • Brightness, font, color, and other adjustability to reduce eye strain
  • I can get books elsewhere, even if it is a hassle
  • Can root

That last one is a big one, and I may still do it even if B&N opens up an app store, though I’d really miss the NC navigation/pre-loaded programs and such. Essentially, you can wipe your NC and turn it into a 7” Android tablet, and then customize it however you want. This takes some expertise--I suspect just a bit more than I have--and the willingness to source (maybe pay for) all the applications and bits you need, right down to onscreen keyboards. This especially interests me because I could, potentially, make this my on-the-go laptop, as long as there was wifi. I have been keeping an eye on the RIM Playbook because of its ability to use a BlackBerry as an internet connection...but the days of tethering may be just about over due to provider consolidation, so, for a while, we’re at the mercy of rather than free-agent audience.

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