New gadget – Kobo Elipsa

I’ve been looking for some time at the reMarkable tablet – a sort of note-taking device. However, there are two or three things about it which did not attract me to it, despite the rave reviews and the attractive appearance of the thing.

  • It’s basically a one-trick pony – you can write and sketch on it – and to a certain extent you can read ebooks on it, but it’s not an ebook reader
  • The synchronisation between gadget and computer seems to be rather clumsy
  • Price: this is not a cheap option

I’ve owned a Kobo of one kind or another for some time now (I think this that I’m describing here is my fourth – the first broke about 10 years ago and was replaced free of charge by Rakuten, and then I bought another one five years ago for my wife so she could download books in Japanese here in the UK, but she didn’t like it, so I took it over to replace my aged one whose non-replaceable battery was dying.

So when Kobo introduced a larger ebook reader with the ability to accept handwriting and diagrams, etc., as well as the ability to read and mark up PDFs, I decided to splash out. The cost (£350) includes pen and smart cover, which is considerably less than the reMarkable’s price.

What you get in the box

The stylus is proprietary – you can’t use anything else. Happily, the stylus, which uses an AAAA battery (first time I’ve ever heard of such a thing) is nicely made, and the cover comes with a clip to hold it firmly. It’s pressure-sensitive, and you can use it as a brush, ballpoint, fountain, or calligraphic pen, with five (not fifty) shades of grey. There is also a highlighter and erase button on the barrel of the stylus.

And, when you come to use handwriting in the advanced notebook, you can convert handwriting to text with a double-tap of your finger.

Even works with diagrams and equations:

Export over USB or Dropbox as an image, HTML, or Word docx.

And for PDFs, it’s great. You can’t type comments, but you can scribble and handwrite (no conversion there as yet, but I expect it to come). Sync via a dedicated Dropbox folder. I’ve used this for proofing and editing already. It’s one of the reasons I bought this thing, and I’m happy that it does what it says on the tin, very effectively. Sync over USB or WiFi through Dropbox.

There’s a link to Pocket, which allows you to read longer Web articles offline. I’ve used that quite a bit already (there is also a very rudimentary Web browser, which I haven’t used. Also a few games, which I’ve looked at.

The thing goes to sleep after a time or when you put the cover on, and you can add a PIN to prevent others from looking at your work – I intend using this for meeting agendas and so on, as well as editing other people’s work, so even this elementary security is useful.

As an ebook reader, it’s great. The size of the page allows a decent amount of text per page, at a reasonable size for reading (as with all Kobos, you can load your own fonts via USB connection. And you can scribble over the page, drag to make a highlight from which you can add a note – and you can browse through all your annotations, listed with a preview. It’s about as heavy and bulky as a thin hardback book. You can read in bed with it, or sit in a chair and read comfortably. Built-in light, and a dark mode, which makes the text white on black. Haven’t used that yet. Press and hold a word for a dictionary definition.

WiFi is fast and reliable in my experience. Syncing is sometimes done for you, as when an edited PDF is closed, sending the edited file to Dropbox, where it can be read, with annotations, on a computer. There were a few freezes when I first got the thing, but there’s been a software update since I bought it, and I expect there to be more, adding features that I think are missing right now. Purchasing off the Kobo store, and moving books to and from the cloud (either Kobo, or Dropbox for non-Kobo ebooks is simple).

Well worth the experiment, IMHO. Already it’s been used for real live work and will continue to be used.

Oh, and one more thing. I’m not enriching Jeff Bezos with this thing.

Add questions as comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Review



My Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars


I can’t remember when I last read a book that I devoured so avidly – especially a book that’s not a genre thriller or whodunit (at least not in the classical sense). Borrowed from the library, started and finished in the space of a few hours.

It’s a book that mystifies, explains, uplifts and depresses, all at the same time. Told through the eyes of someone who is clearly not in the same world (physically and mentally) as the rest of humanity, it’s obvious that there is something very strange happening.

As “Piranesi” (not his real name) finds out more about his reality, we readers realise that what appeared to be errors in the continuity and credibility of the narration are in fact clues to the situation which we should have picked up, but we are so caught up in the wonder of Piranesi’s world and of his mind that we don’t bother questioning them as deeply as we might.

Not the overpowering tour de force that was Strange and Norrell, but a masterpiece on a far more constrained and miniature scale.

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The Aeronauts – REVIEW

This is a novelty for me – I tend not to watch many films, let alone review them, but this popped up on my radar, and I decided to watch it. I spend a lot of time in the 19th century with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and I’m fascinated by lighter-than-air flight (once went up in the Goodyear airship, and wrote a book about a fictional Zeppelin), so a story about both sounded interesting.

And so it proved to be. The special effects were very well done – there were some genuinely suspenseful moments, and some moments of sheer beauty and wonder. I know a little about these things, though, so there was something that I considered to be an inaccuracy – that the balloon didn’t inflate as it climbed and the external pressure decreased. The film said the balloon was constructed of a non-elastic material – silk – so perhaps that had something to do with it, but it didn’t seem right to me that it maintained the same shape as it climbed upwards.

project-loon-israel-internet
These high altitude balloons expand at high altitude with lower ambient air pressure.

As other reviews have stated, the scenes in the balloon kept getting interrupted by flashbacks – would a linear storyline have worked better? Quite possibly, actually.

Was the acting good? Yes, it was. I don’t follow actors, but these (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) worked well together. But the casting! Yes, I appreciate diversity in casting, but… Were there ever any Indian members of the Royal Society in the mid-19th century? I think not. Black faces in the crowd, OK? Eminent Indian scientist (and yes, I know of Ramanujam), not.

But the script!!! Ouch. As I mentioned earlier, I spend a lot of time in the 19th century – I am somewhat familiar with the way in which people, especially the middle classes, behaved towards each other. Even in moments of extreme peril, would the two characters have addressed each other by their Christian names? What would be a Victorian man’s reaction be to being asked to unlace a lady’s corset? And there was a lot of (forced unintentional) physical intimacy, which would have caused considerable embarrassment on both sides, even to someone as unconventional as Ms Jones’s character.

Basically, the lack of realistic characterisation spoiled the film for me. While I enjoyed the premise and the cinematography, the dialogue and characterisation spoiled it for me. Maybe I’m just fussy, but this worked for me on the same level as the RDJ films which use the name of “Sherlock Holmes” – an entertaining romp set in a fictional past, while pretending to be historical.

Four stars (out of five) for entertainment, one for period feel.

Fracture – REVIEW


Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938
by Philipp Blom

A slightly sideways look at history between 1918 and 1939 – taking in some of the principal social and political events of that time. Blom seems to be one of those historians who sees this period as a time of relative calm in the Second European Thirty Years’ War (1914-1945), given the conflicts in most Continental European countries.

I learned a lot, for example, about the political violence in Austria post-1918, and about this history of Italy, particularly the influence of d’Annunzio’s style and tactics had on Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. The social structure of Prohibition, and the pernicious racism in the USA which ironically coexisted with the rise of African-American culture in the form of jazz also play a part in the story, as does the decadence of the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles.

However, the conclusion may seem particularly shocking to many, especially those right-wing libertarians who worship the god of Mammon. Blom pours scorn on what he sees as the myth of the neoliberal free market, which he blames for many of today’s ills and insecurity, and which he dismisses, saying “the gospel of the free market is just as ideological as fascism or communism. The belief in the seemingly unideological power of the market has helped only a small minority, creating for the rest a world in which hundreds of millions of people live less well and more precariously than their parents.”

He builds a convincing case for this view in the previous chapters, and to me, there is much to be said for it. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the book is worth reading, whether or not it agrees with your views, if only for the stories it tells.

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The woman who fooled the world – REVIEW

The Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness IndustryThe Woman Who Fooled The World: Belle Gibson’s Cancer Con, and the Darkness at the Heart of the Wellness Industry by Beau Donelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very frightening expose of how easy it is to fool many people by telling them what they want to believe. This book deals with the “wellness” business, but the same principles can be applied to financial and political scammers as well.

“Woo” and political “woo” (Brexit, Trumpism, etc.) have many things in common – an audience who are desperate for some good news, believing the existing system has failed them, and welcome any kind of relief from what is troubling them, however ludicrous and outrageous the claims and methods may seem to be.
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If Only They Didn’t Speak English (Jon Sopel) – REVIEW

A book that looks at America and Americans – the premise of the title is that the USA is a very foreign country indeed – very far away from the UK in many deeply fundamental ways, but because they speak English, we think of them as slightly eccentric siblings, rather than distant relatives with very different  worldviews to those we have in Britain.

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Halloween is coming

Unknown Quantities is now available for pre-order and will be on sale from Halloween (the paperback will also be available on that date ). However, I will be happy to send a free ebook copy (EPUB or MOBI) to the first ten people to contact me, in exchange for a review somewhere.Unknownback@1.5x

  • Bee-bee – a rag doll who helps her owner cope with life’s ups and downs
  • What you find in a skip – it can be surprising
  • Babysitter – something nasty in the Coopers’ woodshed
  • Time thieves – they steal time and dreams and energy
  • Ships in the night – “as night turned to day, he started to understand the truth”
  • Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey – a sincere tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s classic ghost-finder
  • The story that wrote itself – sometimes an author gets help from an unexpected source
  • Gianni Two-Pricks – be careful what you take from others – even when they’re dead
  • Lady of the Dance – movement as message
  • Me and my Shadow – or is it really my shadow?
  • What Happens Afterwards? – when you die on the operating table, what’s next?

The Secret of the League – Ernest Bramah – REVIEW

I’ve held off political writing on this blog for a while, but this post is an exception, as a result of the book that I read recently.

The Secret of the League – The Story of a Social War – is a 1907 novel about a Britain in the late 1910s (no world war takes place in this world). A Labour government has been elected, and the government and Cabinet, former union leaders and shop stewards, are out of their depth.

Bramah is best known for his stories of a blind detective, Max Carrados, which I have enjoyed reading, and his Orientalist Kai Lung stories, which I find pretentious and tedious. This book is more like the former than the latter, and though the style is slightly dated, it wears better than many others of the same vintage. The basic plot could be written today, however, with a few modifications to bring it up to date.

The socialist leaders are depicted mockingly, and Bramah makes them slavishly repeat all the clichés of the Left at that time (in dialect at times). They institute a welfare state which goes beyond anything that ever actually existed, and pay for it with ever-increasing taxes on the “bourgeoisie” and the upper classes (the House of Lords has, of course, been abolished). Interestingly enough, Bramah describes the Laffer curve, some seventy years before it became part of the economic vocabulary.

To counter the excesses of the socialists, a League of Unity is set up, fronted by a once-popular politician, which works behind the scenes to prepare for a spectacular act of civil disobedience (it’s all described in Wikipedia and elsewhere, but I won’t tell you here, because the book is well enough crafted to leave you in suspense).

Suffice it to say that it is a revolt by the middle- and upper classes to overthrow a fanatical (if superficially well-meaning) government which is driving the country to destruction. Violence does arise, but as a response to the violence of the supporters of the government side, rather than being instigated by the revolters. Eventually the government is brought to its knees, having shot itself in the foot, with its Achilles heel being the handouts that the electorate have come to expect. (how many below-the-waist metaphors can I cram into one sentence?)

Though it may appear that the tenor of the book is anti-socialist, it transpires at the end that Bramah’s sympathies lie with the anti-populists, as the League of Unity offers places in the new government and there is sympathy for the ultimate goals of the socialist government, but not for their methods.

I discovered some disturbing parallels between the book and our current political state in the UK (I am writing this in the middle of the prorogation crisis just triggered by Boris Johnson). I would recommend that you read this story – a free download as an ebook from Project Gutenberg – and then add your comments here.

Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW

Sorry about the silence recently. Some of it has been an enforced silence (minor surgery with subsequent complications) and some has been connected with things I am not allowed to talk about (no, I haven’t joined MI6 or MI6 or GCHQ, but there are secrets which must remain hidden for the nonce*).

Anyway, I recently bought a copy of Hell’s Empire, an anthology of weird/horror tales around a common theme.

Imagine Them – the demons of Hades, the Empire of the Damned, the Dukes and Earls of Hell, commanding legions of the damned to battle against the heartland of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Martini-Henrys and Maxims bark and chatter against fanged, clawed horrors that rip off heads and splay intestines in obscene eldritch patterns. Continue reading “Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW”

Good Omens – REVIEW (TV series)

This is unusual for me – reviewing a TV series (on Amazon TV). I don’t watch an awful lot of TV series – I tend to get bored with them – unless they’re semi-documentaries like The Looming Tower or Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon.

However, I did note that Good Omens was available on Amazon TV. I’m never 100% convinced about Neil Gaiman’s books, but I do like Terry Pratchett, and I had enjoyed Good Omens as a book, though the end went a little too fast and left me confused. So I decided to watch the first episode of the Amazon production, and I was hooked.

Somehow, the verbal paradoxes and twisted logic of the book made it onto the screen, partly due to the voiceovers by God which played the same sort of role as The Book in HHGTTG.

What really made it for me, though, were the characters of and the relationship between the angel and demon (Aziraphale and Crowley) who came through beautifully. I went into there with almost no expectations of how the actors would come over. I had heard of David Tennant but couldn’t tell you anything about any other parts he’d played except for his role as Doctor Who (which I have never seen) and would never recognise him, and had never heard of Michael Sheen.

How can you manage to be so ignorant? you ask. Lack of interest in “celebrities” and in fictional drama, and nearly 30 years out of the country, I answer.

But what really made it for me is that the ending, complex in the book, all started to make perfect sense in the TV series.

The special effects were, of course, wonderful and the makeup and the characterisation of some of the minor characters was great (I especially liked Beelzebub, and Gabriel). Definitely worth giving up three evenings for.

John Linwood Grant – Interview

The first interview on this blog, with John Linwood Grant, writer and editor of weird fiction, sharer of space with lurchers, and creator of several strange characters who live and move and have their being in and around the London of Sherlock Holmes (who also makes his appearance in several of his works). He has also reviewed a book of mine and interviewed me – and in the interest of balance it is only fair to let him present his side of the story.

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Invasion 1940, Derek Robinson – REVIEW

My introduction to alternative history was Philip K.Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which I read when I was about 20. I hesitate to call it my favourite, though.That prize goes to Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which combines an interesting alternative timeline where the Nazi invasion of Britain takes place with a detective/espionage thriller. Since Len Deighton has also written some pretty good popular historical books on related subjects (e.g., Fighter and Blitzkrieg), I took his ideas as being fairly accurate.

And now here comes Derek Robinson, whose books I also enjoy, who enjoys getting to the heart of matters – at least as he sees them – which he has done in novels such as A Piece of Cake and Damned Good Show, in which he explores the myths that have grown up around the historical episodes he is writing about. So Invasion 1940 is there to prove to the reader that the Battle of Britain, though important, had very little to do with stopping Operation Sealion (the planned Nazi invasion of Britain).

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