Monday, November 19, 2012

It's been a funny old month

Behold the majesty.
It came as something as a surprise, while I was waiting for my bus connection, that the book store I'm now working at is smack on Route 66. Indeed, about 75% of the commute to work runs right along it.

I knew, notionally, that the 'main street of America' ran through St Louis, but it was a little jarring when I realised I was actually standing on the bloody thing. Jarring because, well, you can see why in the picture. It's not exactly the Highway to Heaven. It's not quite what I was expecting from the likes of what Nat King Cole was singing about.

I imagine, given the hundreds of miles the route runs, there's much more scenic bits of it than this particular piece of urban wasteland; being on Grand Station's doorstep, an area famed for being an unsightly boil on the arse of the city, it's never going to look fantastic. And indeed, once the bus rolls into Maplewood and the like, it starts looking a bit better. But only by a slight amount, I'm afraid.

The stores along Manchester seem to be doing a lot better than other places I've seen. There's a lot of bars, coffee shops, and surprising sounding enterprises: A 'genuine' British/Irish Pub, which I haven't been inside so I'll reserve judgement. A Mongolian restaurant. A drive-through sushi kiosk. But there's also a lot of those stores that I think of as 'boundary shops', existing on the very boundary conditions that barely allow them to stay in business. These tend to exist slightly outside the urban center of cities, but not quite before you get into the suburbs. They all appear to have been there a very, very long time, but you can't quite imagine when there was a massive demand for their products. Every city I've lived in has had these; picture frame stores, dental plate wholesalers, foam rubber cushion purveyors. They all seem so unlikely to do a brisk trade that I've been convinced for years that many of them are CIA or MI6 fronts, and all manner of shenanigans is going on through that door behind the counter.

But the overall impression the area gives the impression that it's clinging to edge of survival, that these stores are slowly being eroded away by the huge shopping malls and online businesses. The stores are certainly game, and some of them do seem to be doing well, but it's a friendly, cornershop style environment which very people seem to want any more.  It feels like a place that's somehow existed past its time, that these stores are still around past the point where there's any major demand for them. Much, perhaps, like Route 66 itself.

State of the art.
There seems to be a lot of this about. I saw with a certain melancholy a few weeks ago that the BBC have finally shut down Ceefax, which was something of a surprise as I was under the impression no-one had so much as glanced at it since about 1995. For anyone born past that point, or who isn't a Briton, Ceefax was a digital service broadcast alongside terrestrial TV signals. A TV capable of receiving the data (which was pretty much every British television made past 1980) could flop this info straight onto your screen. It was a very early cousin of the world wide web, in some ways: You could check the weather forecast, plan holidays, catch up on the news, and so on and so forth. All in glorious four colour, eight bit graphics. It also provided subtitles for most TV shows. It was clunky, it consisted of a few hundred pages a day maximum, and there certainly wasn't any user input or any way to make your own pages. But it worked, and people used it.

Or at least, I imagine they used to use it. Now that the Internet is everywhere, especially now its in your pocket on your phone, I can't imagine anyone has used Ceefax in over a decade. The web is quicker, more diverse, more data-dense, and far prettier to look at.  Shutting it down makes sense, and yet... I can't help feeling we're losing something. Something we no longer want, or need, but it's still lost. I doubt there'll be any campaigns to save Teletext and Ceefax from the scrapheap anywhere, and that really just makes me realise all the more that the world has moved on. For the better in many ways, but it's still moving.

All this sounds like it's leading up to describing the place I now work, and I have to admit, I was expecting a second hand bookstore to be something that would be on the edge of extinction. I can't remember the last time I bought a book, an actual paper book. Part of that was packing up my belongings and moving to the US; I didn't really want to be weighed down with hundreds more books. Another major factor is living in an apartment where there's not a whole lot of room. But a lot of it is to do with Amazon, and eBooks.

I was way ahead of the wave with eBooks; I was reading them before there was anything notionally like an eReader. I used PDAs, I used sub-notebooks like the Psion, I used cellphones, I used anything with a screen that'd fit in a pocket. Nowadays, eReaders and tablets are everywhere. The days when people would ask what the hell I was looking at on the bus are long gone. Paperless editions are actually starting to outsell hardcopy books. With that in mind, I did expect the store to be in the process of slow decline.

Despite everything, though, it's not. Or at least not nearly as much as you'd expect. The owner is concerned as to what might happen in the next few years, but right now, people come into the store. New customers, to my eternal amusement, has a severe case of "TARDIS face" when they enter, the exact face people pull on Doctor Who when they enter that police box for the first time; the store is far, far bigger on the inside than it has any right to be, and every horizontal surface available is packed to the ceiling with books. And they buy the books. They buy them, and they come back for more. There are people that have been coming there for nearly thirty years, and it's pretty much the oldest and biggest store of its kind in the area. And books ship out every day to far corners of the world, from online ordering.

Business could be brisker, certainly, but for what it is, it does exceedingly well. I'm hoping it's not quite ready to be put in the same category as Ceefax. Its day hasn't gone yet, whatever the next few years might bring.

And perhaps that might be said of Route 66 as well. Perhaps eventually, it might come back to something approaching its heyday. Although that might require people to do something other than want to get from A to B as efficiently and quickly as possible, or step outside to buy multiple things rather than have them all under one roof. It's not likely, but the road seems to survive in the hopes this might happen one day.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Time flies.

I wasn't going to make a fuss at first, but you can't really let something like this pass without comment. Today it's been ten years since Kit and I decided to get together.

Let me just emphasize that. Ten years. That's a quarter of my entire life. Admittedly, more of it was spent apart than I would have liked, but that's an awful lot of commitment right there. A mountain of paperwork, thousands of miles travelled, even more thousands of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of days spent working towards the goal of being here, right now.

We have our ups and downs, our arguments and upsets, but for the most part, I can only say that it seems to work very well for both of us. In fact, I'd be concerned if we never quarrelled. People who don't disagree are hiding something... ;)

Anyhow, I just wanted to say it's gone by entirely too quickly, and it doesn't seem too long a period of time. I expect to be saying the same for the next ten years, and the next, and the next. Love you, hon. Here as long as you're willing to put up with me.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Quick update: Sale's over on Amazon

Sadly the book's back to a whopping $12.99 now. Honestly, had I not caught it and still wanted it, I'd be more tempted to get the multimedia edition for the extra two dollars. Anyone actually bought this? I'd be fascinated to know how much the video/audio inserts add to it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book sale: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition

This isn't a full review by any means, but it's come to my attention that the 10th anniversary kindle edition of this book is available on Amazon is available for only $1.99.

I really can't stress how excellent an author Neil Gaiman is, and this one of his best novels. I have bought family members this in hardback and stressed they had to read it, or they'd be missing out on something special. It seems as though Harper Collins have the same idea; Gaiman himself seems bemused on twitter that the publishers have set the price so low. Curiously, the non-anniversary issue is still on sale for $9.99...

Seriously, if you don't already own this, and have the slightest liking for urban fantasy stories or mythology or the like, get it now. If you have a a Nook or similar, it's apparently the same price on Barnes & Noble and other major ebook sellers. The sale might also end soon, I've seen nothing official on Amazon, but I hear rumours, so grab it while you can.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review: Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years
Back in the days before the name 'Palin' was synonymous with vice-presidential candidates apparently chosen as the result of a bet, we had Michael Palin. Michael is probably best remembered as being 'the nice polite one' from the Monty Python team, though Brits will also remember him travelling all over the place on the telly.

Turns out he's quite the diarist as well, diligently filling notebooks on an almost daily basis; by coincidence, he'd started writing them again after a lull a few weeks before the first series of Flying Circus. From there, you get a blow by blow account of the whole of the 1970s, which covers the four TV series, the first three movies, ripping yarns, his appearances on Saturday Night Live, and absolute reams on the writing and performing of all these.

Not to mention the dynamics of the Pythons. I don't know about you, but I can read all day about how, say, Pennon and McCartney hated each other, or how the four members of Queen, well, actually got along with each other really well. With the Pythons, there's definite (if very polite) camps; Cleese and Chapman writing in one very specific style, Palin, Jones and Gillian on another, with Eric Idle somewhere off on his own. There's no fisticuffs (at least not that Palin records), but you get the feel that every sketch that made it to the screen had an epic battle to get there; until all of them agreed something was funny, it didn't get done.

Interspersed with all this are entries about Palin's personal life; his marriage, the children growing up, his father's long illness. The sort things you would get, in other words, in a diary. These moments are perhaps what make the book stand out from other, drier biographies of some celebs. There's some genuinely touching moments in there. Not that Palin, perhaps one of Britain's best loved TV figures, needs to be presented in a more human light, but still...

Price? Last time I looked, ten bucks, give or take a cent or five. Probably at the high end of books I'd review, and probably only if you're a Python fan (which, if you're a big enough nerd to be reading a blog about eBook reviews, you most likely are). The sequel I refuse to buy while Gollancz insists on pricing it at $16.99, which is something like a whole dollar cheaper than an actual hardback copy of the book. They must think I was born yesterday or something.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Book reviews

So that's basically something new I'm trying; I read an enormous amount of books, and it's only gotten worse since I got the Kindle Fire. Hoping to put these up fairly regularly, and the reviews will fall into one of two categories: Either books that aren't well known (or aren't well known nowadays), and/or are remarkably cheap, or even free, on Amazon's website. They'll inevitably be eBooks, as I buy nothing else nowadays, and there'll no doubt be a heavy bias towards sf and fantasy, as that tends to be the mainstay of what I read. I'm planning to keep the book reviews fairly short, and about as spoiler-free as is possible.

So, enjoy.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Short reviews: The Complete Works of HP Lovecraft

The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft
Note that there are several different versions available on Amazon of Lovecraft's works; the quality varies dramatically, some being badly formatted, even missing whole paragraphs, with little in the way of italics or indexing. The link to the one above is the best version I've found to date.

HP Lovecraft's work can come across  as a little dated; to jaded modern horror enthusiasts, his scares can seem somewhat insipid and cliched, especially in some of his shorter stories. His influence on modern horror writers cannot be denied though, with several masters of the craft openly acknowledging his works influence on theirs, among them being Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Carpenter, and comics writers such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.

The collection above contains practically every story Lovecraft wrote. Over that length of time, naturally, there's some stinkers, and others which have dated badly, but some stand out as gems even now. Personally? I'd recommend the Color out of Space, the Shadow out of Time, The Shadow over Innsmouth, the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and, of course, the Call of Cthulhu, the story which gave us his most famous character.

The price can't be beat; 99 cents for pretty much everything the man ever published, and worth much more just for the stories listed above.