Book Thoughts: Format (Or how I unexpectedly fell into the arms of physical books)

Being a great writer, as the adage goes, means being a great reader. Taking this to heart, I’ve recently I’ve decided to consciously put books as my “modus operandi”, especially on Instagram – but I’ve a fair few things to say about books as a medium and my experience with them as a reader. Therefore, I’ve decided to start a new series of posts here on my site where I discuss in a bit more detail my experiences as a reader, not relating to specific pieces of content and not relating to my own work, and I’ve decided to call it Book Thoughts

Book Thoughts by Richard Holliday

It’s been an interesting reading journey for me. I’ve always enjoyed stories but I’ll be the first to confess that my reading – in terms of the leisure reading I’ve done as an adult – lagged until one day in October 2011 when I received my Kindle 4. That device really supercharged and re-invigorated my latent and ever-present passion for reading because it made books very accessible, plus it tuned right into my appreciation of all things geeky. It’s a wonderful device. It’s coupled to pretty much the biggest eBook infrastructure available and it was a great investment.

For a long time since then I was pretty much a Kindle-exclusive reader – I recall in my heady youth of being 21 wanting to maximise the opportunity my Kindle had. It still has a lot of great advantages – portability, storage capacity, and the eInk screen is like paper (reading on the Kindle app for phone or tablet is very much the inferior experience) but better – and I read many great books using it. I quietly vowed to be a digital-only reader – eBooks are largely quite cheap and accessible.

black tablet computer behind books
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So how often do I use my Kindle now, I hear you ask? Virtually never. Well, maybe to read drafts of my own work and others but for actual fiction? Hardly at all.

What happened?

One word: University.

Quickly, especially when studying Creative Writing, the Kindle began to show some of the limitations of using it in a reference environment. This became a bit clear before I started at Kingston; I loaded my Open University textbooks onto it, which were well-formatted… but the Kindle is more adept to contiguous reading of books from beginning to end; the Kindle is quite unwieldy to flick backwards and forwards through titles on. For a Creative Writing class this quickly proved inconvenience. When a medium becomes inconvenient it’s time to look elsewhere.

Oh, and another two words happened concurrently with University that helped me go back to the future: Amazon Prime.

This service is truly wonderful and worth every penny – I could get cheap books, usually cheaper than Kindle, with only a few hours delivery! What sorcery! Many times over the course of my studies I’ve ordered books for pleasure or class late at night for them to arrive quickly the next day – and sometimes even the same day.

These books would largely be paperbacks – now I’d never really given up on paperbacks or physical books, it’s just eBooks on Kindle were so much more convenient. But one thing about Kindle eBooks, and eBooks in general is there is a different, if you will, feel to the whole experience – and I began lending out books from friends, unable to lend them back due to the digital rights management baked into all of my eBooks.

Some notable friends don’t even have Kindles or any other form of eReader, bar a smartphone. But for class, and considering they were now, thanks to Student Prime, cheaper and effectively as accessible as the eBook equivalent, there’s no real contest is there?

Well… plus there’s the fuzzier side to the equation: paperbacks (and physical books in general) are lovely to have. There’s something about being able to turn around from my chair and admire my collection of books – not all of which I enjoy or even like, but I own them as they form part of my reading fabric; one has to take from the books one didn’t enjoy something to learn from – that just doesn’t hit that same sense of quiet pride with looking at the list of titles on my Kindle. And even that, once you get past 10 or so “pages” on the main menu, that becomes laborious.

And when things become laborious, things get neglected.

library university books students
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But still, the point stands – I’m proud of my book collection and it’s always, steadily, expanding. I’m even rebuying books I have on my Kindle – The Fog, Ready Player One as two notable books I love – because the physical experience of reading a book is just something nice. It’s a little irrational but it’s just, if you like, a purer way of experiencing literature.

And that’s not just me being nostalgic – paperback and physical book sales have seen a resurgence in the face of eBooks, which seems odd given the theoretical advantages of the digital format. But, I guess, readers are romantics; getting your nose stuck in a paperback just has a different quality to that of staring at a screen, even one as wonderous and paper-like as eInk.

The feel of a paperback in your hands – and yes, I’ll admit, the scent of a fresh book – is just incomparable. I’ve found myself not only becoming a reader of physical books but a collector, furnishing my own private library of great reads. And that wholesomeness lies at the root of this truly irrational but fiery passion – books are to be read, studied and analysed, but also enjoyed.

Physical books still have that fuzzy, wholesome sense of wonder to them – they’re an object, a tangible thing to hold onto, a physical representation of ideas in their purest form, language, that’s so accessible – no batteries to worry about, or DRM to content with, or USB cable to lose, just bound, beautiful paper. I can proudly combine all the aspects of my reading life together – The Expanse via the Jack Reacher books while sitting proudly on the same shelf as the battered copies of Harry Potter I read when I was eight years old.

Throughout writing that last section I’ve had to consciously temper myself from typing paperbacks where I intended to type physical books. And that therein exemplifies my current crossroads, and evolution in my experience as a reader in the most literal sense.

For a long time, I considered hardback books as the realm of large, off-size, hard to handle books, usually non-fiction. Hardbacks, while very attractive, just never seemed very convenient for how I was reading. Considering earlier I called myself a collector earlier, this may seem strange… but as the majority of my fiction bookshelf is paperbacks of the standard trade format, why would I mix that up? Consider it a degree of OCD, the desire of uniformity, just being plain weird… a mix of the three?

reading reader kindle female
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Happily, I’ve rowed back from this in a pretty big way; for Christmas 2017 I received a copy of Artemis in hardback – it was a great book and, I must confess, the hardback wasn’t as… awkward to read on a physical in my bed or while I was out than I feared; if anything, its larger dimensions helped. And recently I acquired a library-bound hardback of Shift which was a bargain I couldn’t refuse.

But the pleasurable experience with Artemis – bar it being a fantastic novel – challenged my assumption that fiction hardbacks wouldn’t be the same. While hardbacks are generally m ore expensive, they’re also, crucially, usually the first editions available; with paperbacks usually, months behind. That long-held, irrational assumption that “hardbacks are for non-fiction books, paperbacks are for stories” was shattered while reading one brilliant book!

Overall… my journey through format has been interesting, especially considering I’ve largely gone from digital back to physical. But ultimately what’s important is that, regardless of format of choice, books and reading has never been so accessible.

Got any thoughts of own? How do you order to read? Be sure to contribute to the discussion!

Articles cited

The Guardian: Paperback fighter: sales of physical books now outperform digital titles

The Guardian: How real books have trumped ebooks

The Telegraph: How printed books entered a new chapter of fortune

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Review: Earth Alone (Kindle Edition)

Earth_AloneI recently picked this book up on the Amazon Kindle Lender’s Library and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Earth Alone builds the picture of a war-torn Earth shattered some years prior to to the start of the book by a surprise attack by alien “scum” from another planet and, I felt quite convincingly, builds a backstory around a war of attrition fought by the scum menace after a successful nuclear attack by humanity on the scum home planet. Earth Alone follows the story of Marco Emery, a young recruit in the Human Defence Force, the global military that aims to defend the planet from the scum attacks.

Firstly, I liked the rationale behind the change of alien tack – realising that wholesale levelling of cities results in nuclear Armageddon on their own turf, the aliens turn to the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ method of wearing humanity down. The alien threat is certainly portrayed as menacing and, while Marco and his cadet friends begin training, it’s always hanging like a black cloud above them. The effects of the scum attacks keep the characters focused – there’s reflections, too, on the personal impact of the alien attacks on Marco, the main character that he reflects on frequently.

So far, so Ender’s Game, which is by no means a bad comparison to make. Earth Alone does well, I feel, to make the cadets in this book significantly older than the small children who are drummed into battle in Ender’s Game. Taking adolescents into the military also brings its own (mostly hormone-fuelled) unique considerations, too, that the characters must contend with.

Marco, the protagonist, is portrayed as a bookish, quiet and mature-for-his age young man who clearly has a heart of gold, but too has limits and his own weaknesses. The rest of the platoon we’re introduced to each have their own characters – some appear trigger-happy and some thoughtful, while other boastful but underneath we see glimpses that they all share one characteristic – they’re all scared kids about to fight in a war that predates them, and their fear is rightfully placed. I feel Marco’s bookishness is a bit meta-aware (a character who wants to be a writer and works in a library, in a book can sound a few alarm bells) but it’s not too much that it impedes on the story; rather it does build up his character. However, maybe more graceful means of imbuing Marco with a sense of learnedness and culture could’ve been explored.

Daniel Arenson does a good job in writing a book that is a breezy and unchallenging read while bringing across the aspects of the character and action that’s needed. It’s certainly a competent effort, even if this book certainly resides in the shadow of Ender’s Game. The real hardship faced by the recruits and the journey of them – and of their commanding officers – is portrayed well enough, and the world the alien scum left behind is well-imaged. There’s a certain sense of humanity on the ropes, and on the defensive.

It’s quite clear early on that Earth Alone is designed as an introduction to a series, and I’m fine with that. The action is kept throughout, without too much introspection and it’s not a bad read, so I’d happily read on!

Buy Earth Alone on Amazon Kindle UK!

Short Story: Rescue at North Point

This story was inspired by a piece of the same name by my friend Col Price, who is a concept artist and art director who has worked in video games, TV and film for the last 20 years. Definitely check out his work! I submitted this story as part of a recent Creative Writing assignment for my course at Kingston University that scored a First; fair to say, I am extremely proud of this one! – Richard

Rescue at North Point
by Richard Holliday

Spittle mixed with dirty, salty air caked her hair as the wind whipped it into her face. Andrea winced, but looking down toward the waves that grew smaller and more distant under her with every second, she finally felt dry.

“We’re nearly there, Ms. Cross,” a voice, battered with static and interference, said abruptly into Andrea’s battered helmet. “The Ranger is standing by.”

With a gust a sheet of icy rain tumbling from the grey mass above Andrea was blown into her face. She winced instinctively and looked up. What little sun that penetrated smog-like clouds was blocked by the enveloping mass of the VTOL rescue ship Ranger that had plucked her from the gloom below.

Andrea clamped her eyes and the blood flowing through her veins began to warm core. The wind, so vicious and angry before, now merely rocked her gently in the harness.

A brook babbled innocently. Reeds gently ticked her face as she wriggled through. A young girl laughing, joyful and merry. The brook babbled and the reeds gave way to a pond, reflecting the sunshine from the cloudless sky in the crystal-clear water. The little girl ran along the bank of the pond, her blonde hair whipping with the gentle breeze. She never saw the root, jutting from the grass like a troll’s dirty hand, ready to grab her sandal and toss her into the water. What was clear and immaculate now threatened to envelop her, the sky turning black with every cough and gasp for breath…

Andrea opened her eyes. Whatever that was, what she faced now was reality. She put the dream about the little girl back in her mind, locked away. She fidgeted in the harness as it bucked and swayed and felt into her soaked uniform. The little locket was still there.

That one summer’s day led the girl to hate the water. For years the girl was told that water was the source of life. How could that be true? Water wanted me dead. Water hates me. Water must be conquered. Water is my enemy. Andrea followed it to the ends of the earth. Watching the last glacier dissolve into a surging mass of liquid. She remembered being there, hovering from a VTOL and cracking the ice herself with a titanium pick. That was part of her revenge.

“Are there any more survivors?” Andrea called toward the hoistman. The wind picked up, and carried her words out to sea. The hoistman remained motionless against the buffeting chassis of the VTOL.

“I said are there any more survivors?! The crew must’ve gotten…”

“No,” the hoistman called back. His irritation was clear over the static. “No-one else survived. They’re all dead. So shut up and hold tight if you want to see land again.”

A few hours ago she’d walked the rusting walkways that made up North Point. The undersea observatory had creaked and whinnied. A trickle of icy liquid fell into her hair. That was when it began. The trickle became a surge that punched through metal. It wanted Andrea. It wanted to make her pay, and pay dearly she would. The frothing mass that had laid all around North Point, eager to smash it to pieces and claim its mortal enemy, had waited to exploit the tiniest of flaws. Which it did. Nature always did.

The sea roared victoriously, gurgling into the hole below. Above, sheets of rain cascaded from the angular sides of the Ranger, forming a curtain of waterfalls that enveloped Andrea. Feeling entombed, her eyes closed again.

She remembered running along metal corridors that groaned underfoot. The fluorescent tubes bursting and flickering, sending sparks through a gloomy hell. Irregular movements as the undersea platform disintegrated, throwing her against walls. The screams of all those around her washed away. Trying to catch her breath on the ladder, but slipping on the cold rungs. Her bare knuckles turning white and, as the grey sky beckoned, a surge of water coming through the hatch, as if to say: “Not so fast. I’m not done with you yet.”

Andrea took a breath and looked down to see North Point disappear, the light of the service hatch flickering through the waves. A hand grabbed from the gloom above. The hoistman sighed with effort as Andrea’s soaked form fell onto the deck. With a final glance, she looked down to the sea. It was finally over.

© Richard Holliday, 2016

Update: If you’d like this story in Kindle format then visit my Short Stories folder where you’ll find it and all of my other stories!

Review: Divergent (Kindle Edition)

First of all, I received Divergent as part of an Amazon Prime deal which was pretty sweet, and I’d been mildly intrigued to give the series a go. I’d enjoyed The Hunger Games, which is a series of similar ilk prior to this. I’d had a few latent doubts about the Christian subtext that I had heard about but, putting those concerns aside, I found that Divergent largely excelled.

It is hard to discuss Divergent without also considering The Hunger Games. Both books are structured around a seemingly-‘normal’ young girl who finds herself at the forefront of a societal upheaval and a figurehead of the resistance against an oppressive and tyrannical government. Both books, too, fall squarely into a subgenre of post-apocalyptic or dystopian young adult fiction. I’ve received criticism for reading young adult fiction which I’d like to address: I don’t see anything wrong in my reading of this material, even if I’m 26 and “young adult” is a bit tenuous in reference to me personally. I’ll read whatever I damn well please and, if I enjoy it, I’ll enjoy it without concerning about judgment on its literary merit. I don’t subscribe to the belief that I should indulge in only ‘highbrow’ and learned literature; rather, I read books I actually enjoy. There’s nothing more to it than that, though this is a topic I will probably revisit later.

With post-apocalyptic fiction I usually enjoy a well-realised world and then observe how the characters react to it, and how that world reacts to them. With Divergent, the protagonist Triss is expected to choose a “faction” of society that she believes she most belongs to. There is no trial period, and choosing a different faction to that one was brought up in is a one-way street. The society in Divergent is geared around grouping people with similar virtues together to combat the notion of a wholesome human psyche being the catalyst for war. I identified with Triss’s angst and apprehension with being forced into a life-defining and irrevocable choice at the age of sixteen: in the UK, I was in a similar position about my future academically and it felt a lot like the world was ending, much as it does to Triss.

To aid the choice, every candidate undergoes an Aptitude Test (essentially Divergent’s equivalent of the Sorting Hat, for want of a better metaphor) which aids their ‘recommended’ faction based on the responses given to a hallucinatory simulation. Triss, naturally, doesn’t neatly fall into one category or the other and her ‘divergent’ status in society is quickly established as akin to being a dangerous thought-crime. I did struggle somewhat with the over-simplification of how society is divided in Divergent. I think dissecting society according to broad and singular virtues is somewhat simplistic, but the explanation of how general societal roles according to those virtues did click, and as the book progressed, the tensions between the factions and the challenging of the established status quo was interesting.

The science-fiction in Divergent did seem very lightweight, and for the benefit of the plot. I was somewhat sceptical of the injections that allowed the interface with technology to submerse the subject in a controllable, ultra-real simulation but these scenes did move the plot along where needed and gave an insight literally into the minds of the characters. In the latter stages of the Dauntless faction initiation that Triss undergoes, the confrontation of a simulated manifestation of one’s deepest fears was an intriguing look at – and also a quite overt confrontation and acknowledgement of – the candidate’s psyche and historical narrative. It was reminiscent of the segment of The Hunger Games wherein the psychotic episode of the Mockingjays in the Arena that preyed on the contestant’s deepest emotional identities to bring about madness. Divergent is considerably less brutal than The Hunger Games but deals with similar parallel themes – how can a society structured around such singular virtues function when those that don’t neatly fit into those expectations pose such a danger to that very framework?

Divergent was clearly a setup for the rest of the trilogy, which I have yet to read. The characters are nicely established, with Triss taking some pretty heartbreaking decisions near the hectic climax of the book that I am sure will shape how her character in the future instalments. I am concerned, however, that the series may take a turn akin to that The Hunger Games does, and that the heroine progressively becomes more angsty and resentful of the responsibility that falls onto her. In The Hunger Games, toward the end, I found this trait was dominating Katniss’ personality to the point where I found her quite unlikeable and ungrateful. In Divergent, Triss starts off trying to prove herself and vindicating her decision to choose against her birth faction while keeping her Divergent status secret. I quite liked the long-held prejudices between the factions – the knowledgeable Erudite being deeply distrustful of the selfless Abnegation – which flare up toward the end.  My thoughts are the system in the Divergent universe sets out with admirable aims but simply fails to take into account humanity’s innate ability and predilection to corrupt this system for individualistic or tribal gains (the parallels with a similar real world system that failed for just that reason are plain to see if you look…)

Ultimately, Divergent’s setting left me asking questions that I feel I need to read the rest of the series to answer. How did society in post-apocalyptic Chicago degenerate to the point where the faction system was deemed a necessary solution? And how will the apparent collapse of this system at the end of Divergent be handled? I’m sceptical of how Triss’s character can handle the responsibilities that her elite and dangerous Divergent status will encumber her with but, I will venture forward with the series across the year to see whether I was correct. Prose-wise, it was not a challenging read, and I did feel I was drawn in quickly to the pacey writing, making Divergent an easy read and one that rocketed along, though not without pausing at times to collect itself.

Buy Divergent on Kindle UK