Category: Reviews

iPad Get! So How Is It, Really? (review)

Gneech and his iPad! Let's hope they'll be happy together...

I thought about doing a spoof video of myself geekgasming as I opened the box a la Stephen Fry, I really did. But in the end, I was thwarted by the fact that Mrs. Gneech wasn’t here to operate the video camera, and that I was too bouncy to wait.

So, how is it really? Is it like a laptop? Or just an iPod? What’s the verdict?

Granted, I haven’t exactly been running the thing through its paces, but I did buy the limited 30 days of 3G access and took the thing with me on some errands, I played the first few minutes of “Sam and Max: The Penal Zone,” and now I’ve got it on the keyboard and I’m posting to my blog. So it’s not a bad little test. I haven’t tried the funkadelic “Periodic Table App” or keyboard toy — I’m looking for a gadget I will actually use, particularly when I’m at conventions. Really, that’s what I wanted it for, to replace my Old and Busted laptop with some New Hotness.

Overall, I like it. While it is heavier than it looks, it’s not so heavy as to be unmanageable. The interface takes a little getting used to, (although people with an iPod/iPhone/iWhatever already will have a much easier time) and the apps need a little more baking. On the other hand, sliding, swiping, and touching the screen quickly become second nature and it won’t be long before you’ll wonder how you managed so long struggling with a mouse.

Regarding the apps, most of the ones ready out of the gate are just iPhone apps with either a big black margin, or blown up to double size and fuzzy as all get out, so they will take some time to catch up. Stanza particularly suffers here, because if you double the size of the app, and then shrink the font down in order to get more words on the screen, they’re still fuzzy from being blown up. Guh. That would quickly give me a headache. The iBook and Kindle apps are much nicer in this regard. iPad native apps that make better use of the larger screen real estate are much better, and by this time next year there will be a lot of awesomeness in that department. (I haven’t tried out the native word processor yet; I’m not sure if I want to go that route or just write to the cloud with Google docs or something. I have yet to see how much writing on the road I’ll actually want to do.)

I will say, the shiny shiny screen can be a turnoff, especially once it’s covered in thumbprints. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is just a tad annoying.

Still, the iPad is exactly what I expected it to be — the first generation of a new and all together different type of computer. This is going to be the “pushbutton easy” machine that will start showing up everywhere — in the doctor’s office to call up patient records, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office in place of a magazine or portable game, in the kitchen looking up recipes, lying in bed and watching that episode of Doctor Who you missed last week, sitting on the tray in front of you on the plane and showing a movie you actually want to see. It’s the internet from your comfy chair. It’s your e-mail while you’re riding the bus. It’s gonna be big.

That said, I don’t necessarily recommend running out and buying one now, unless you particularly want one right now. For me, the iPad came at just about the perfect time, as I was looking to replace my laptop anyway and had the money allocated to spend. Certainly, the apps could use some time to cook, and no doubt next year’s model will have a camera and better multitasking (i.e., any at all).

But if you find yourself gazing longingly at one and you’ve got the money to spend, I say go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

-The Gneech

Categories: Reviews

Tags: , ,

There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell, by Laurie Notaro (Review)

As you might expect, Mrs. Gneech and I frequent bookstores regularly, and one evening as we wandered into the nearest Barnes & Noble there was an author doing a reading of a humorous vignette from her new novel. So even though I’d never heard of her, I listened to the reading, then bought a copy and waited around the rest of the evening to get her to sign it.

The book was There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: A Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble by Laurie Notaro, whom I found out later is known primarily for her humor column (and collections thereof, The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club). …Going to Hell was her first straight-up fiction piece, and as the vignette she read put it right into the same general vein as my Brigid and Greg stories, I figured that this was an author I should get to know.

Life being what it is, of course, I only now finally read it. Though not for lack of trying — I expect I must have picked it up and put it back down about ten times over the two years it spent sitting on the “to read” pile. But I’ll get to the reasons for that shortly.

The story, in a nutshell: Maye Roberts is a reporter from Arizona (Hmm…) whose husband is offered a post at a small college in the tiny little town of Spaulding, Washington. And while the town is picturesque and full to the brim of quaintness (having been built on the fortunes of the country’s largest sewer pipe factory, then turned into a haven for ’60s dropouts and/or draft dodgers returning from their Canadian exile), it is also insular and cliquish, which makes it close to impossible for Maye to make any friends. After several gruelingly-detailed (and heavy on the zany madcap-ness) false starts, Maye makes one last desperate stab: she enters the Sewer Pipe Queen Pageant. This causes her to lock horns with the college Dean’s wife, an Old Queen (as former winners are known) herself who essentially regards herself as the actual queen of the town, and has her own favored protégé in the running. And when Maye’s sponsor dies in a freak accident involving a bug in her hair and a vicious raccoon, Maye has to seek out the Queen of Queens, the mysterious Ruby Spicer, who was the most glamorous Sewer Pipe Queen ever but who vanished halfway through her reign.

The Good

Laurie Notaro is a funny writer. She has a deft hand at setting up a situation and then making an amusing comment on it. She’s also very good at picking out the significant detail that tells volumes with just a few words.

Maye tried to smile as she passed the biddy, but the combination of decades’ worth of cigarette smoke and the eau de doggie from the numerous boxers that were standing guard — even several who had come into the room since Maye’s arrival to evaluate the visitor — made smiling a difficult challenge indeed.

The crone, dressed in a yellow terrycloth sweat suit with several burn holes directly below the neckline, closed the door and motioned for Maye to sit on the couch. As she did, Maye looked up at the grungy yellow-stained walls, the stinky brown barkcloth curtains, and the mud-colored bald carpeting, all shellacked with a grimy, dull film of exhaled nicotine and exuding its coordinating smell. Christ, she thought, it’s like this woman is living inside of a diseased, shabby lung.

Also, once the plot gets going, it becomes a very engaging book. That, however, is a bit of a problem.

The Bad

As I said, I picked up this book several times, started to read it, and put it back down again. Forcing myself to soldier on through this time revealed why: the story doesn’t actually start until you’re literally halfway through the book — and then once it starts, it runs hell-for-leather toward the ending in the apparent realization that it only has 150 pages left to cover it all.

The first half of the book is a semi-picaresque series of episodes showing Maye’s failed attempts to win friends, nearly joining a coven when she thought it was a book club, falsely claiming to be a vegetarian to get into the local vegan society, and so on. Most of it has little bearing on the meat of the plot, and some of it, I regret to say, is just plain wasted space. You could (and probably should) delete the entire first chapter in Arizona, which other than giving a misleading first impression of the protagonist, serves no story value at all. It would have been much stronger to just open with Maye and family walking up the steps to their new house with boxes in hand.

The other problem with this first half, and this can be the kiss of death for humor, is that it feels forced. Spaulding, Washington is TV Land’s idea of a quirky small town, where the mailman kicks over your trash can because he refuses to walk around it, where the local vegetarian shrieks that you are a cow-murderer, and even the clerk at the bookstore gets plastered and shouts about her period. There are no funny observations about everyday life here, because everything and everybody is a caricature and nothing is everyday. Whenever somebody new shows up, the reader finds themselves thinking, “Okay, so what’s this person’s wild-and-crazy shtick?” Of course, Ms. Notaro is known for quirky anecdotes — that’s been the main basis of her career — so it may be that readers who already knew her work were coming to the book looking for just this sort of thing.

The Ugly

Nothing to say here. The prose is very clear and clean, and Ms. Notaro has a very engaging writing style. Really, if she had taken a ruthless editing pen to the first half of the book, and then more satisfyingly fleshed out the second half of the book, I’d have only good things to say.

The Bottom Line

There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell is a good book from the mid-point onward; and even the funny vignettes at the beginning have their moments, I just wish they’d done more to earn their page count. For what it’s worth, her new book (Spooky Little Girl) looks quite interesting and I plan to pick it up this evening.

-The Gneech

Categories: Reviews

Tags: ,

Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk (Review)

In a blog article, Mike Stackpole recommended Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk, so I toddled on over to a local bookstore, flipped through it for a bit, and finally picked up a copy.

In brief, Crush It! is about turning yourself into a brand and over time make a living doing whatever it is you love to do, specifically in this case using online outlets such as blogs and social media. Using himself as a case study, Vaynerchuk lays out a working model of how to start, grow, and build on an audience, with the underlying message that the internet has made this easier to do now than it ever has been before, so JUMP ON WHILE YOU CAN! (Vaynerchuk is a man who likes a lot of exclamation points.)

The Good

A lot of “self-help” or “get-ahead” books take enough content for a ten-page article and expand it into a 500-page book costing $40+; Crush It! does not do this. Crush It! is a slim volume with a lot of white space and a very zippy writing style (one chapter is only a single word long!), which cost me ~$17 with a discount card and would have only been $10 in electronic form. And Vaynerchuk is passionate about his subject, giving a lot of no-nonsense, straight-up advice about how to get out there and make a name for yourself.

Vaynerchuk is a classic hustler (in the Tom Sawyer sense, not in the sense of being a crook) — he’s all about finding out what people want and getting it to them, in a way that will make him a profit along the way. The archetypal merchant hero, as it were. While reading Crush It!, I kept being favorably reminded of Kerry O’Day, my own business partner (the gal behind Merchandise Maven and other such projects), who would get along with Vaynerchuk like a house on fire. In particular, when he related a story about driving a case of wine to a customer hours away late on a holiday weekend when he discovered his staff had screwed up the order, I immediately thought, “Yup! That’s Kerry all over.”

And in Crush It!, Vaynerchuk turns this “Kickass Schmoozer and Customer Service” mind to the world of blogs and social media, giving concrete and well-thought-out advice on how to turn things like WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter into the launchpad for your own career. His own enthusiasm also rubs off in the text, so if you’re flagging at the end of a long day and needing a little booster shot to keep you going, it’s a good place to look for that.

The Bad

Of course the problem with a work like this is that, by its very nature, it’s ephemeral. While the core lessons of making yourself your own best product and your own best salesman are timeless, the particular vehicle he’s chosen to talk about in Crush It! is an always-changing field of technological change driven by both innovation and marketing. Sure, Facebook is hot right now — but in two years, if previous social media lifespans have been any guide, everyone will be somewhere else that hasn’t even hit the radar yet. At which point, the chapter in which he lists specific strategies on getting the most out of Facebook will be yesterday’s news.

Vaynerchuk knows this full well and is the first to tell you so; he also keeps driving home the point that the methodology of Crush It! is simply one path to take. “Be true to your DNA” is one of his core rules, whether that means being a texty-sort of blogger (like me) or more of a video-star blogger (like him). So once you get the underlying truths, the specific path you take doesn’t matter as much.

The Ugly

If I had to pick one thing that put me off a bit in this book, it would be how much of it Vaynerchuk spends, particularly at the beginning, telling his life’s story. A very standard “by your bootstraps immigrant makes good tale,” he goes into great detail about his father’s liquor store, which led to his own development as a wine expert, combined with his own adventures as a teenage baseball card dealer, which led to his status as big-time wine store owner and online wine guru, etc., etc. I understand why it’s there, and of course I’m painfully aware of the role this very book plays in Vaynerchuk’s promotion-of-self (and by extension, now my own role in his promotion by reviewing it) … but purely as a reader this is where I found myself tempted to say “Get ON with it! I picked up this book to learn how to toot my own horn, not to listen to you toot yours!”

This takes up roughly the first 2/5 of the book; and while it does have value as part of the big picture (teaching by example, essentially), it takes a long time getting there. It would have felt like less of a digression if Vaynerchuk had found some way to push it back and put a bit more “let’s talk about your needs”-type info near the front. On the other hand, it does establish Vaynerchuk’s bona fides as somebody who knows what he’s talking about, having lived it, so it may be that in the front is the only place it could go.

The Bottom Line

Crush It! is definitely a “right place at the right time” kind of book. If you’re looking for a handbook of self-promotion, particularly through online media, as well as a primer on how to get out there and hustle, this definitely should have a spot on your bookshelf, whether physical or virtual. And, since it is so economical, both in terms of price and wordcount, there’s very little overhead to going out and getting a copy. The price of two lattés for the electronic version, or three-and-a-half for print, it’s money well spent on useful advice. I don’t quite see it as the career bible that Mike Stackpole makes it out to be, but on the other hand for people who’ve never seen Kerry in action, I’m sure it’s an eye-opener!

-The Gneech

Categories: Reviews

Tags: ,

Douglas Adams Meets Pixar: Divine Misfortune, by A. Lee Martinez (Review)

Beware! There may be spoilers ahead.

My first thought when I picked up A. Lee Martinez‘s latest novel, Divine Misfortune, was “Somebody’s been reading The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.”

In a nutshell: Phil and Teri can’t get a break. Everyone around them seems to get ahead, regardless of personal merit, entirely on the basis of offerings to their gods. So when Phil gets passed up for yet another promotion, the unhappy couple decide it’s time to find themselves a god as well … and go searching for one on the internet. In the end they settle upon a minor god of prosperity named Luka, spill a little blood on the mouse to seal the deal, and click “accept.” Within moments Luka appears to them: an anthropomorphic raccoon in a loud Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses (“Call me Lucky!”), who promptly crashes on their couch and invites some of his other down-on-their-luck god friends over for a party. From there, life for Phil and Teri goes all pear-shaped, as they discover the reasons why Lucky is down on his own luck, and find themselves contending with the Goddess of the Jilted (not her official title) and a primal god of chaos and destruction who prefers to spend his time sitting in the basement watching reruns (and occasionally eating cellphones in frustration at not being able to figure out how to use them properly).

The Good

This is a light, enjoyable read. The action is very brisk and there isn’t any time wasted. The nature of the gods, in as much as it’s defined at all, is defined mostly by example, or revealed only as it’s needed. Neither Phil nor Teri have had many dealings with the gods before, even in a world where Haephestus is a major car manufacturer and Zeus has a PR agency, so they make natural sounding boards for Lucky (or more often Quetzlcoatl, who has a supporting role as one of Lucky’s slacker-god pals) to expound on the nature of the world and just what the hell is going on at any given time.

The characterization is nice and vivid throughout, as well. Lucky is of course very likable — the book lights up when he’s on the scene and tends to drag just a hair when he’s not. Ditto Quetzlcoatl, who comes off as an ex-addict who’s seen the light and is trying to rebuild his shattered life. As one might expect, the gods tend to overshadow the mortals most of the time. Phil and Teri are a standard “cute young couple” from Central Casting, which is very deliberate (one of the gods specifically comments on how dime-a-dozen Phil is), but also by its nature leaves them without a lot of inherent interest when the gods aren’t around.

The Bad

There isn’t anything I would really call bad in Divine Misfortune, except by omission. By which I mean, the book just isn’t very deep — and here is where the similarity to something Douglas Adams might have written becomes a hindrance rather than a help. Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul was mysterious, evocative, poetic … Divine Misfortune comes off cartoonish and lightweight by comparison. By the end of it, in the theater of my mind Lucky was speaking with John Candy’s voice and Syph (the aforementioned goddess of the jilted) looked a goth manga character. This is perhaps a somewhat unfair treatment of the book — to many people (myself included), cartoonish and lightweight is usually a feature, not a bug — but in this case, I kept wishing there had been more meat here.

There was one other glaring omission — which was that for all the tons of gods buzzing around in the story, one rather important one is completely left out — to wit, Jehovah. Granted, the clash between monotheism and polytheism would have been likely to add some baggage to the story, but to completely skip around it leaves a giant hole. Those conquistadors who left Queztlcoatl in such a lurch that he’s spent the past 500 years bumming around with Lucky — they were Catholics, weren’t they? How does that figure into the scheme of things?

The Ugly

Very little to say here. Except for one major “Idiot Ball” moment that’s done to set up the third act, the plot is nice and tight and the writing is all very clear. The one major issue that didn’t seem to get sufficiently addressed (aside from Christianity) was what made Gorgoz (the primal god of chaos and destruction who likes to watch old reruns) any noticeably worse than the rest of the gods. He demands sacrifices … but so do plenty of other gods. He is cavalier or even hostile to his followers and mankind in general … but so are plenty of other gods. He’s pretty disgusting … but so are plenty of other gods. The one “offense” he seems to commit that’s somehow beyond the pale is to desecrate Lucky’s temple (a.k.a. Phil and Teri’s house), but Lucky invaded the dreams of one of Gorgoz’s followers to get dirt on him first, which seems to be just as big a violation of the rules.

The net result of this is that Gorgoz comes off as something of a nonentity. All of a god’s vices with none of the virtues, more or less, except that every other god in the book is pretty light in the virtue department as well. So the big ending, while very showy and full of special effects (in as much as a book has special effects), doesn’t come off “epic” so much as “out of proportion.”

The Bottom Line

Overall, Divine Misfortune is a fun book and a fast read, but I kept waiting for it to get really good and though it occasionally came close, it never quite made it.

-The Gneech

Categories: Reviews

Tags: , ,