Book review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web

I was a bit surprised when this one turned up in my ‘recommended’ list. I blasted through The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo series and thought that would be the end of it since the original author, Stieg Larsson, has passed away.  This fourth outing sees Mikail Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander thrown together again for another intricately woven conspiracy which seemed to be  aimed squarely at computer geeks. The new writers, David Lagercrantz & George Goulding, have made a commendable effort, though I think they’ve possibly missed out on much the shock value of the original. I wonder if it was toned down slightly to appeal to a wider audience. The characterisations are good, and for those familiar with the originals, might seem a little bit wordy. I was left thinking, “I know all this about her”, but then I guess a lot of people this might be their first Lisbeth Salander novel, so I didn’t get too hung up on it.

the_girl_in_the_spider_webLikewise with the technical detail; no prior knowledge is assumed so the first part of the book is a crash course in computer hacking and security (with a little bit of cryptography thrown in for good measure). I did find this a little bit dull, but again that could be because I know little bit about this stuff already. Still, I’m not sure it was entirely needed, certainly not all of it.

This isn’t one of the those book that goes in for the whole ‘show don’t tell’ style of writing. It’s unashamedly a tech thriller, so you were handed all the facts about someone’s life history and personality in one easily digestible paragraph. Got all that? Good, then let’s crack on … Still, I do prefer to discover people, rather than just be handed a dossier on them.

Despite the huge cast list and the complexities of the plot, the whole piece held together extremely well. I did find myself getting lost in one or two places, but the occasional literary signpost soon had me back on track. The writing style itself was fairly stark but not at all taxing to read.

So, information dumps aside, a really enjoyable book – though I’m not sure it’s quite reached the level of the originals.

A respectable six out of ten.

Book review: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter

This one’s been on my reading list for a while, but ended up being pushed to the back. I wasn’t sure why, but now that I think about it, I reckon I’m just ‘prolonging the Pratchetts’: the great man is gone now, so at some point I’m not going to have any more of his work to read – and I’m really not looking forward to that. Anyway, it seems sort of stupid to deprive myself of some really good books just because I don’t want to run out, so here we are: The Long Earth.

This is the story of the human race following the discovery that homo sapiens can travel to other versions of planet Earth in an infinite stream of alternate dimensions. All that’s needed is a box of electronics (plans freely available on the internet) – and a potato, preferably a large one (I feel the Pratchett influence here). The premise is established early on, and from there we’re taken on a whistle-stop tour of the Long Earth: millions of alternate Earths that are, for the most part, empty – but not always.

The_Long_EarthThe Long Earth is the first book in a series, so I’d probably describe it as the preamble. To be honest, we learn an awful lot about how things work, and the effects that the discovery of the Long Earth has on history, and make no mistake this is thought-provoking stuff. There are now enough raw Earths for everyone to have one to themselves, so the real Earth pretty much empties out overnight. Gold loses its value because everyone can have their own goldmine on an Earth somewhere else. Blimey!

The idea is big and sprawling, so it’s no surprise that the first book is pretty much a preamble to set things up for the books that follow on. It lays everything out, but doesn’t really lead to any conclusions. Still, it’s gripping, witty, and has Mr Pratchett’s fingerprints all over it. The characters are strange and engaging (who doesn’t love eccentric nuns!) and though you quickly get the feeling that this perhaps might not lead anywhere, it’s still very readable. The action seems to amble along at several hundred earths per minute, but occasionally hits the brakes to show you something; that, to me, felt a little bit artificial, almost like a tour guide holding up her hand to point out an interesting monastery. 

Still, I enjoyed it immensely and I reckon I’m going to stick with the series.

Seven out of ten. 🙂

Software: A quick look at Scrivener

A friend of mine is starting out on the eBook trail, and he trapped me over lunch so he could ask how I go about writing long-length pieces. He’d heard a rumour (horror!) that I didn’t use Word. That’s actually true; I don’t. It’s not that I think Word isn’t any good; it just doesn’t suit me. My novels tend to be upward of five hundred pages (the latest eight hundred!), so a straight word processor won’t really do the job. For a start, I like to keep chapter separate when I’m working so I can get to them quickly; I don’t like having the book in one large lump. Of course, Word works extremely well with multiple documents, but it’s the navigation I find cumbersome.

So for document composition, my weapon of choice has been Scrivener – since 2007, if I remember correctly. Scrivener is a beast of a tool, but it can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. For me, I just use it for research, composition and early drafting (formatting I’ll come to later).

Scrivener main window

Scrivener presents you with a pretty basic two-pane layout: a hierarchy of documents on the left, and the document you’re currently working in on the right. It supports a fairly comprehensive set of formatting tools and rudimentary styling system (nothing that compare to Word or InDesign), and allows you to import documents and images into your project, which most folk find helpful for research. (As well as novelists, Scrivener enjoys an enthusiastic following in the field of scientific research.)

So you have a pretty decent word processor that allows you to work – very easily – with multiple documents. Where Scrivener really shines is taking those documents and assembling them into a finished piece. The application allows you to set a vast number of parameters to govern how you’re finished output will look. You can set headers, page and chapter numbering, the look and spacing between the chapter heading and the main text, margins, front matter, copyright pages . . . It’s a hell of  a list and folk coming to the app for the first time can find themselves overwhelmed by the breadth of the formatting options available. Still, this complexity means that Scrivener can output finished Word documents,  PDFs, eBooks (for both the Kindle and iGadgets), LaTEX documents – all from the same source project.

Scrivener even comes with a pretty good script editor (though I actually prefer to use another tool for that) and can output your documents in Final Draft.

compile_optionsOkay, that all sounds wonderful . . . so what’s the catch? Well, it certainly isn’t the price. You can pick up Scrivener from the Literature and Latte website or the Apple app store for £34.99

It’s important to bear in mind that Scrivener is designed as a drafting tool, so in some (perhaps many) cases you will need to tweak the finished output to get it exactly how you want. I’m a stickler for detail so I always end up doing some post-compilation rework. The eBook format is also very simple. It’s certainly passable, but again I often take the output of the Word formatter and use another tool to get a better looking eBook layout.

And then there’s the learning curve. Although the developer has carried out a lot of work to  simplify things, you will need to spend some time using it to get the best out of it (and I say the same thing about induction hobs). Still, there are plenty of places to get help. The Scrivener forums are a good place to start, and then there’s the tutorials, courses and website run by Gwen Hernandez who seems to have carved out a second career around Scrivener.

So if Word doesn’t float your boat, then I’d definitely take Scrivener for a spin to see if it suits you better. 🙂