Today I Read…Dodger

Today I read Dodger by Terry Pratchett. dodger

Dodger is a tosher–he makes his living by searching the sewers of London for the small things that the more respectable folk up above misplace. Then one stormy night he comes across what may be the most dangerous and most valuable treasure of his life–Miss Simplicity, a beautiful girl being beaten to death in the streets. With the help of Mister Charlie (some newspaper man named Dickens), Dodger begins his transformation from a gutter snipe into a slightly better-dressed gutter snipe who somehow manages to defeat the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (only he wasn’t really that bad, he was just a tad confused, he didn’t really mean  to cut all those men’s throats), prevent international incidents (hang them, they’re not from London), and strangest of all, get the girl (not Simplicity of course, everyone knows she’s dead, but have you met Miss Serendipity? amazing resemblance, total coincidence, swear to the Lady). What’s a tosher to do, other than slip a few valuables in his pocket when nobody’s looking?

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As always, Terry Pratchett creates an unforgettable character who reacts to the world in the most logical way possible, which is of course completely unlike a normal person would. Dodger never sets out to have an adventure–things just happen to him, and he does what he thinks is best. And somehow rescuing a girl from being killed leads to preventing international incidents and being knighted by Queen Victoria. Dodger is a very honest man, since he has too few brains to lie–it’s just that truth is very much a matter of perception, such as in the case of Miss Simplicity and Miss Serendipity. Dodger is very much in the style of Pratchett’s Discworld series, only without the magic and set in something that might have been our world once. Unfortunately Victorian London doesn’t handle Dodger any better than Ankh-Morpok handled Dodger’s spiritual brother Moist von Lipwig.

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The housekeeper came in, casting a look of pure hatred at Dodger and, he was happy to see, one that was not much better towards Charlie. She had the makings of a moustache, from below which came a grumble. ‘I don’t wanna speak out of turn, sir. I don’t mind keeping an eye on another “author of the storm”, as it were, but I can’t be responsible for the doings of this young guttersnipe, saving your honour’s presence. I hope no one will blame me if he murders you all in your beds tonight. No offence meant, you understand?’

Dodger was used to this sort of thing; people like this silly woman thought that every kid who lived on the streets was very likely a thief and a pickpocket who would steal the laces out of your boots in a fraction of a second and then sell them back to you. He sighed inwardly. Of course, he thought, that was true of most of them – nearly all of them really – but that was no reason to make blanket statements. Dodger wasn’t a thief; not at all. He was . . . well, he was good at finding things. After all, sometimes things fell off carts and carriages, didn’t they? He had never stuck his hand into somebody else’s pocket. Well, apart from one or two occasions when it was so blatantly open that something was bound to fall out, in which case Dodger would nimbly grab it before it hit the ground. That wasn’t stealing: that was keeping the place tidy, and after all, it only happened . . . what? Once or twice a week? It was a kind of tidiness, after all, but nevertheless some short-sighted people might hang you just because of a misunderstanding. But they never had a chance of misunderstanding Dodger, oh dear no, because he was quick, and slick, and certainly brighter than the stupid old woman who got her words wrong (after all, what was an ‘author of the storm’? That was barmy! Somebody who wrote down storms for a living?). Nice work if you could get it, although strictly speaking Dodger always avoided anything that might be considered as being work. Of course, there was the toshing; oh, how he loved that. Toshing wasn’t work: toshing was living, toshing was coming alive. If he wasn’t being so bloody stupid he would be down in the sewers now, waiting for the storm to stop and a new world of opportunity to open. He treasured those times on the tosh, but right now Charlie had his hand firmly on Dodger’s shoulder.

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Sometime after, Dodger was seated at the long table in the editor’s office of the Chronicle, wishing he could be on his way to see Simplicity. Opposite him was Charlie, who was somewhat less angry now since, being a man of means, he had acquired another pair of trousers and sent the other ones to be cleaned. The inner wall of the office was one of those half-height affairs so that people passing by in the newsroom could see what was happening, and now, how they did pass by. And linger too, with every writer, journalist and printer finding an excuse to see the young man who, according to the magical telegraph of the streets, had wrestled to the ground the terrible Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Dodger was getting rather annoyed about this. ‘I hardly touched ’im! I just pushed ’im gently down and took the wretched razor off ’im, that’s all! Honest! It was as if he had been taking opium or something, ’cos he was seeing dead soldiers – dead men coming towards him, I swear it, and he was talking to them, like he was ashamed that he couldn’t save them. God’s truth, Mister Charlie, I swear I was seeing them too, come the finish! Men blown all to pieces! And worse, like men half blown to pieces and screaming! He wasn’t a demon, mister, although I reckon he may have seen Hell, and I ain’t a hero, sir, I really ain’t. He wasn’t bad, he was mad, and sad, and lost in his ’ead. That’s all of it, sir, the up and the down of it, sir. An’ that’s the truth you should write down. I mean, I ain’t no hero, ’cos I don’t think he was a villain, sir, if you get my drift.’

Then there was silence, somehow filled by Charlie’s gaze, in this polished little room. A clock ticked and, without looking, Dodger could feel the employees still taking every opportunity to look at him, the unassuming and reluctant hero of the hour. Charlie was staring at him, occasionally playing with his pen, and at last the man said, with a sigh, ‘Dear Mister Dodger, the truth, rather than being a simple thing, is constructed, you need to know, rather like Heaven itself. We journalists, as mere wielders of the pen, have to distil out of it such truths that mankind, not being god-like, can understand. In that sense, all men are writers, journalists scribbling within their skulls the narrative of what they see and hear, notwithstanding that a man sitting opposite them might very well brew an entirely different view as to the nature of the occurrence. That is the salvation and the demon of journalism, the knowledge that there is almost always a different perspective from which to see the conundrum.’

Charlie played with his pen some more, looking uncomfortable, and went on, ‘After all, my young Dodger, what exactly are you? A stalwart young man, plucky and brave and apparently without fear? Or possibly, I suggest, a street urchin with a surfeit of animal cunning and the luck of Beelzebub himself. I put it to you, my friend, that you are both of these, and every shade in between. And Mister Todd? Is he truly a demon – those six men in the cellar would say so! If they could but speak, of course. Or is he the victim, as you would like to think of him? What is the truth? you might ask, if I was giving you a chance to speak, which at the moment I am not. My answer to you would be that the truth is a fog, in which one man sees the heavenly host and the other one sees a flying elephant.’

Dodger began to protest. He hadn’t seen no heavenly host; no elephant neither – he didn’t actually know what one of those was – though he’d put a shilling on the fact that Solomon had probably seen both on his travels.

But Charlie was still talking. ‘The peelers saw a young man face down a killer with a dreadful weapon, and for now that is the truth that we should print and celebrate. However, I shall add a little tincture of – shall we say – a slightly different nature, reporting that the hero of the hour nevertheless took pity on the wretched man, understanding that he had lost his wits due to the terrible things he had witnessed in the recent wars. I will write that you spoke very eloquently to me about how Mister Todd himself was a casualty of those wars, just as were the men in his cellar. I will make your views known to the authorities. War is a terrible thing, and many return with wounds invisible to the eye.’

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Thoughts on a Kobo

Today I’m going to be reviewing the Kobo eReader. This won’t be too formal a review–it’s just my thoughts and observations after owning one for a while.

koboI’ve had the basic Kobo for a little over a year now. Initially, I was reluctant to get an eReader because I *like* paper books- the feel of them in my hands, the look of the cover, the excitement of reading the description on the back, flipping through the first chapter to see if I want to read it all the way through. How am I supposed to get an author to sign an electronic file? And I have so many books, that I’ve spent so many years collecting- I certainly don’t want to get rid of them.

But, as a (then) library student, I knew that eReaders were becoming more and more popular, and as a hopeful librarian I thought I should probably know something about them, and the best way to do that was to get one.

Hardware

In terms of the physical e-book, it’s pretty good. The size is in between a paperback and a hardcover, and the weight is fine. I added a red leather cover that looks like a book to mine which does add to the weight, but it’s still easy on my wrist. Since I keep mine inside the cover when I read, I can hold it like a book, which adds to the familiarity of the action.

One minor issue I do have is with the keypad. It’s on the lower right corner of the eReader, but even though I’m right-handed I hold books in my left hand, and my finger can’t stretch that far. It means that I need to use both hands to turn the pages of the e-book. It would make more sense to me to put the keypad in the center of the bottom of the device, so it would be easier to manipulate whether you were holding the book in your right or left hand. I don’t know if there’s a particular reason for placing it in the lower right corner- any guesses from the audience?

The power button is on top, it plugs in at the bottom, and the menu buttons are on the left. No problems with those placements.

The screen is decently sized, and it’s easy to change the size of the font if I have trouble reading a particular book. The e-ink style, of black letters on a grey screen, is easy to read in bright light. It can be difficult to read in dimmer light, but that is easily rectified by either turning on the lamp or buying one of the little clip-on lights they sell.

The casing has been fairly durable- as I said, I did buy a case for mine, but I tend to be a bit hard on electronics. The right-side part of the keypad seems to have sunken in below the casing slightly, but it does still work fine. It wipes off fairly well when I’ve spilled drops or crumbs on it. I do occasionally clean the screen with electronic/glass wipes, and anything stuck to it comes right off. All in all, the hardware is just fine and I’ve had no problems with it.

Software

I’ll be dividing the software into two parts: the Kobo Desktop software for my laptop, and the software actually on the ebooks.

Kobo Desktop

The Kobo Desktop software is really just a way to buy books, magazines and newspapers from Kobo and to put them onto your device. It has no options to manage the ebooks on your device. You can read the ebooks on your desktop, but only the ebooks you’ve gotten from Kobo. If you get ebooks from another source, Kobo Desktop won’t acknowledge them. In terms of searching for ebooks to buy, it is very difficult. There is no way to narrow down your search results. It’s easy to find anything that Kobo recommends or that appears on a bestseller list, but if you want anything specific or harder to find, you either need a very specific search term, or you’ll have to winnow through several pages including some very irrelevant results. Likely both.

For example, when I searched for “Rosemary Rowe”, I got 13 results, of which only 4 were correct. There was no way for me to specify that I wanted books by the author Rosemary Rowe- there was only the one basic search box. The other 9 results had no discernible connection–the authors’ names weren’t even close, the titles were wrong, and there was nothing in the descriptions that contained the words Rosemary or Rowe.

The books have a wide range of prices, starting from about $0.98 and going up, but the majority tend to be quite expensive, often costing as much as a new hardcover or paperback physical book. This part is personal preference, but I’m not paying the same price for an e-book as for a paper book–I’ve never bought an e-book from Kobo for that reason.

All in all, the Kobo Desktop is extremely limited and as I already said it’s really just a way for you to buy Kobo ebooks. If you want a really good, useful e-library management program, I can’t recommend Calibre enough- it’s free, easy to use, and lets you manipulate your ebooks however you want, from changing the format to changing the metadata to putting ebooks on your device. I’ll be doing a proper review of Calibre later, but it is actually specifically mentioned in the Kobo user manual.

Ebook Software

Kobo takes either epub or pdf files, both quite common. It holds approximately 1000 ebooks, and came preloaded with 100 free classics. You can search through the books on the device alphabetically by either title or author, but not by series. Since I like to group series books together and read them in order, I get around that by using Calibre to change the title to include the series name and number, eg. Hunger Games 1: The Hunger Games or HP 7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There’s also an I’m Reading page that you can use to shortcut to anything that you’ve recently added to the device or any book that you have open.

When reading the actual book, as I said the e-ink display is easy to read and it is simple to change the size of the font–just use the up and down buttons on the keypad to make the font larger or smaller. Right and left on the keypad turn the pages, or you can use the menu button on the left of the eReader to skip to specific pages or chapters. I find that turning the pages is a bit slow, but I read very quickly. Graphics can be a problem, since the Kobo doesn’t handle them well at all–there is one Sherlock Holmes story where he draws symbols to outline how he solved the mystery, but they aren’t shown at all on the Kobo version. The sharpness of the book covers tends to depend on the original image- since all the pictures are in black and white, there is little definition between what were originally colours.

One thing that is a problem is footnotes. The Kobo can’t handle them at all, so you have to find the end notes page and skip to it, and then remember what page you were on and skip back to it. This process is simple to do, but extremely slow and very frustrating if you have multiple footnotes that you have to read. In the case of Terry Pratchett, he tends to put a lot of jokes in as footnotes, so you either have to constantly interrupt your reading to slowly go to the footnote and back, or read straight through and read the footnotes at the end, when you have forgotten the context of each of the jokes. The Kobo is alright for most novels, since they don’t tend to include footnotes (Pratchett aside), but it’s not ideal for textbooks.

The internal dictionary is a bit limited- it is only in English, and has fewer historical words. This can be a problem since it does come preloaded with the classics, which can at times use somewhat obscure words.

I have found that my Kobo is useful in certain circumstances, primarily when I’m traveling or just out of the house. I always like to have a book with me- I even choose purses based on whether they’ll hold a book as well as the rest of my junk. The Kobo is slim, light, and reasonably sized, so it’s easy to carry around. If I’m close to the end on one book, I have several hundred more to choose from, instead of bringing a new book to start before I’ve finished the last or carrying two books, increasing the size and weight. I remember going on a trip for several days and bringing a backpack stuffed with books, and still running out of things to read–the Kobo is much more compact and carries many more books than I could in paper form. The battery has to be charged from a computer, but lasts a couple of weeks of long daily use, so I’ve rarely had a problem with that.

Even though I was reluctant at first, I warmed up to my Kobo quickly. The software could be improved, but by using Calibre I’ve gotten around the worst of my complaints, so I really don’t use the Kobo Desktop software at all. The sheer convenience of carrying as many books as I want, many of which I don’t own physically (and many of which I do) is wonderful. In addition, I have some items which have only been published as e-books, such as the Young Wizards New Millennium editions or the Derrick Storm e-novellas.

And of course, having an e-book makes it much easier to cut-and-paste the quotes that I include in my book reviews. I definitely don’t have the time to transcribe the more extensive passages that I sometimes include in my reviews.

So for sheer convenience, I love my eReader. For nostalgia, I’m still not getting rid of my paper books, and I do still read them. And I’ve still got that big pile of advanced reader copies from the OLA Super Conference to go through. Having too many books to read will always be my favourite problem, which is good considering just how big my to-read pile is right now…

Today I Read…Snuff

Today I read Snuff by Terry Pratchett, the 39th book in the Discworld series.

Commander Sam Vines of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch has been sentenced to a dreaful fate by a higher power–his wife, Lady Sybil, insists that he take a vacation. During the family’s nice, quiet, peaceful stay at their country estate, Vimes encounters a dead goblin girl, a chief constable who keeps pigs in the jail cell, snobby servants, snobby nobs, slavers, drug-runners, and the Wonderful Fanny. What’s a poor copper to do? Well, take his son Young Sam out on walks to collect poo, of course. After all, it is a nice family vacation.

This latest entry to the Discworld series  is as strong as ever (no, that’s not a poo joke. I’m saving those for when I read The World of Poo. No, that’s not a joke either; yes, that is a warning). The City Watch books are some of my favourite in the series, and I always did have a soft spot for Sam Vimes. All he wants to do is his job, and they keep making him be all respectable and noble and political and not making any bloody sense. No one does absurdism like the British, and Pratchett is a master at it.

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The awful racket was dying down by the time he drifted up to the linen surface. Oh yes, he recalled, that was another bloody thing about the country. It started too damn early. The commander was, by custom, necessity and inclination, a night-time man, sometimes even an all-night man; alien to him was the concept of two seven o’clocks in one day. On the other hand, he could smell bacon, and a moment later two nervous young ladies entered the room carrying trays on complex metallic things which, unfolded, made it almost but not totally impossible to sit up and eat the breakfast they contained.

Vimes blinked. Things were looking up! Usually Sybil considered it her wifely duty to see to it that her husband lived for ever, and was convinced that this happy state of affairs could be achieved by feeding him bowel-scouring nuts and grains and yoghurt, which to Vimes’s mind was a type of cheese that wasn’t trying hard enough. Then there was the sad adulteration of his mid-morning bacon, lettuce and tomato snack. It was amazing but true that in this matter the watchmen were prepared to obey the boss’s wife to the letter and, if the boss yelled and stamped, which was perfectly understandable, nay forgivable, when a man was forbidden his mid-morning lump of charred pig, would refer him to the instructions given to them by his wife, in the certain knowledge that all threats of sacking were hollow and if carried out would be immediately rescinded.

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It was often a good idea, Vimes had always found, to give the silly bits of the brain something to do, so that they did not interfere with the important ones which had a proper job to fulfil. So he watched his first game of crockett for a full half-hour before an internal alarm told him that shortly he should be back at the Hall in time to read to Young Sam – something that with any luck did not have poo mentioned on every page – and tuck him into bed before dinner.

His prompt arrival got a nod of approval from Sybil, who gingerly handed him a new book to read to Young Sam.

Vimes looked at the cover. The title was The World of Poo. When his wife was out of eyeshot he carefully leafed through it. Well, okay, you had to accept that the world had moved on and these days fairy stories were probably not going to be about twinkly little things with wings. As he turned page after page, it dawned on him that whoever had written this book, they certainly knew what would make kids like Young Sam laugh until they were nearly sick. The bit about sailing down the river almost made him smile. But interspersed with the scatology was actually quite interesting stuff about septic tanks and dunnakin divers and gongfermors and how dog muck helped make the very best leather, and other things that you never thought you would need to know, but once heard somehow lodged in your mind.

Apparently it was by the author of Wee and if Young Sam had one vote for the best book ever written, then it would go to Wee. His enthusiasm was perhaps fanned all the more because a rare imp of mischief in Vimes led him to do all the necessary straining noises.

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‘Can I help you, miss? And perhaps you’ll tell me your name?’

‘Jane, commander. I am endeavouring to be a writer. May I ask if you have any views on that as an acceptable career for a young lady?’

Jane, thought Vimes, the strange one. And she was. She was just as demure as the other sisters, but somehow as he looked at her he got the impression that she was seeing right through him, thoughts and all.

Vimes leaned back in his chair, a little defensively, and said, ‘Well, it can’t be a difficult job, given that all the words have probably been invented already, so there’s a saving in time right there, considering that you simply have to put them together in a different order.’ That was about the limit of his expertise in the literary arts, but he added, ‘What sort of thing were you thinking of writing, Jane?’

The girl looked embarrassed. ‘Well, commander, at the moment I’m working on what might be considered a novel about the complexities of personal relationships, with all their hopes and dreams and misunderstandings.’ She coughed nervously, as if apologizing.

Vimes pursed his lips. ‘Yes. Sounds basically like a good idea, miss, but I can’t really help you on that – though if I was you, and this is me talking off the top of my head, I’d be putting in a lot of fighting, and dead bodies falling out of wardrobes … and maybe a war, perhaps, as a bit of background?’

Jane nodded uneasily. ‘A remarkable suggestion, commander, with much to recommend it, but possibly the relationships would be somewhat neglected?’

Vimes considered this input and said, ‘Well, you might be right.’ Then, out of nowhere, possibly some deep hole, a thought struck him, just as it had many times before, sometimes in nightmares. ‘I wonder if any author has thought about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, the policeman and the mysterious killer, the lawman who must think like a criminal sometimes in order to do his job, and may be unpleasantly surprised at how good he is at such thinking, perhaps. Just an idea, you understand,’ he said lamely, and wondered where the hell it had come from. Maybe the strange Jane had pulled it out of him and even, perhaps, could resolve it.

‘Would anybody like more tea?’ said Ariadne brightly.

Terry Pratchett on books:

“If you have enough book space, I don’t want to talk to you.”

“A good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.” -Guards, Guards!   

The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned by no later than the date shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality.” –Guards, Guards!

“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.”    -The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

“Aziraphale collected books. If he were totally honest with himself he would have to have admitted that his bookshop was simply somewhere to store them. He was not unusual in this. In order to maintain his cover as a typical second-hand book seller, he used every means short of actual physical violence to prevent customers from making a purchase. Unpleasant damp smells, glowering looks, erratic opening hours – he was incredibly good at it.”    -Good Omens

“This was not a fairy-tale castle and there was no such thing as a fairy-tale ending, but sometimes you could threaten to kick the handsome prince in the ham-and-eggs.”    -Monstrous Regiment

“In theory it was, around now, Literature. Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.”    -Soul Music

“A lot of the stories were highly suspicious, in her opinion. There was the one that ended when the two good children pushed the wicked witch into her own oven…Stories like this stopped people thinking properly, she was sure. She’d read that one and thought, Excuse me? No one has an oven big enough to get a whole person in, and what made the children think they could just walk around eating people’s houses in any case? And why does some boy too stupid to know a cow is worth a lot more than five beans have the right to murder a giant and steal all his gold? Not to mention commit an act of ecological vandalism? And some girl who can’t tell the difference between a wolf and her grandmother must either have been as dense as teak or come from an extremely ugly family.”

“It looked like the sort of book described in library catalogues as “slightly foxed”, although it would be more honest to admit that it looked as though it had beed badgered, wolved and possibly beared as well.
— Ah, but has it been hedgehogged?”

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

“People flock in, nevertheless, in search of answers to those questions only librarians are considered to be able to answer, such as “Is this the laundry?” “How do you spell surreptitious?” and, on a regular basis, “Do you have a book I remember reading once? It had a red cover and it turned out they were twins.”    -Going Postal

“But there was more to it than that.  As the Amazing Maurice said, it was just a story about people and rats.  And the difficult part of it was deciding who the people were, and who were the rats.”  –The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

“The librarians were mysterious. It was said they could tell what book you needed just by looking at you, and they could take your voice away with a word.” –Wintersmith

“Books must be treated with respect, we feel that in our bones, because words have power. Bring enough words together they can bend space and time.”