Ghost Brigades, Last Colony, Zoe’s Tale

I had read Old Man’s War some time ago and liked it. So when I was looking for some science fiction to buy for our trip to Italy, I got the sequels The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony.

As is common with sequels, whether of books or movies, they are not as good as the original. In this case, they were good enough for the plane and train ride reading and I did enjoy (and finish) them during our vacation.

The Ghost Brigades does not feature the protagonists from Old Man’s War, though it is set in the same universe. It was a fun read and a decent book.

The Last Colony ties up parts of the story in The Ghost Brigades and the protagonists in Old Man’s War in a new space adventure. It is better story than The Ghost Brigades and a lot of fun to read.

I read Old Man’s War on my phone at the time, Treo 650 and The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony were the first books I read on my new Kindle. I enjoyed reading on the Kindle, with the only issue being the flight crew’s insistence that I had to turn it off during takeoff and landing.

Thus it was that I finished The Last Colony on the flight back from Rome to New York and realized that there was a further sequel, Zoe’s Tale. Waiting for my connection to Atlanta, I made my first impulse Kindle purchase and bought Zoe’s Tale.

Zoe’s Tale is a retelling of the story of The Last Colony from the point of view of Zoe, the teenage daughter of the main characters of the previous novel. Making the same story interesting in a new book without introducing inconsistencies is hard and John Scalzi succeeds somewhat. However, Zoe’s Tale is definitely the weakest book of the series.

Italy Trip: Technical Note

Free maps from Open Street Maps in Garmin format as well as points of interest were really useful during our vacation in Italy.

We returned from a fun vacation to Italy a couple of days ago. I’ll have an account of the vacation along with photographs soon but first some technical notes.

I checked air fares on Expedia and Orbitz but in the end booked on the Delta website since they were marginally cheaper. Also I was using frequent flier miles to get one ticket for free. The only way I found to book one award ticket (bought with frequent flier miles) and other regular fares was to first reserve the award ticket (since they are less common), then buy the regular fares on the same flights and finally book the award flight.

For hotels, I checked reviews and prices on Trip Advisor to shortlist a few and then used the hotel websites to make reservations.

For planning all the sightseeing and for making a shortlist of restaurants, I used Fodor’s Italy Gold Guide and Lonely Planet’s Italy Guide.

I took my Garmin 60CSx GPSr with me. I found that Open Street Maps had maps available in Garmin format. The ones I liked the best were OpenMTBMap since they were routable and could route for hiking or mountain biking instead of cars. That was a huge success for us in Italy. We never got lost and we used the maps to go everywhere and find restaurants etc. near our location. It made life much easier and even when we wanted to walk around in the back alleys in Venice we could do so without any fear of really getting lost since whenever we wanted to go back we could use the GPS.

The maps came with lots of POIs(Points of Interest), but I wanted some specific ones too: the hotels we were staying in, train stations for travel between Rome and Venice, restaurants, Cafes and Gelaterias that I wanted to go to specially and some important sightseeing. So I used Google Maps to locate these places and saved them to My Maps there. Google Maps’ My Maps allows you to export the list of placemarks in Google Earth (KML) format. Then I used GPS Visualizer to convert the list to GPX format and used Garmin POI Loader to transfer the locations to my GPSr.

I plan our vacations in detail and these maps and list of locations on the GPS were very useful everyday as we went about sightseeing and enjoying Italian food. In fact, while walking around, I would notice that there’s a nice gelateria nearby and we would go enjoy some gelato.

I read almost three books on the Kindle during the trip, even though I read only on planes and trains. While it was a fun experience, I found one some hitch: Flight attendants want you to turn the Kindle off during takeoff and landing.

UPDATE: One thing I forgot. I tried to reserve train tickets between Rome and Venice on the Italian Rail website but it just kept denying my credit card. Apparently, it’s a common problem for credit cards with non-European addresses. However, I didn’t really need to buy the tickets before going there. There was enough space when I made reservations three days before the train travel at the Rome Termini station.

Kindle

I have finally got a Kindle and I like it despite some shortcomings.

I had been thinking about getting a Kindle for a while. Then one day a package arrived at home somewhat unexpectedly. In it was a Kindle 2.

I have read a few books on my old Treo 650 as well as on the iPhone. So I didn’t mind reading on a screen, though of course the small screen was awkward. I have read a little bit on the Kindle now and mostly like it. I have also bought a couple of Kindle books for my upcoming vacation and might have more to say about using the Kindle after I return.

The Kindle screen is not very bright. It’s quite grey, more like a mass market paperback than a hardcover with more white paper. That also means it’s easy on the eyes (and has long battery life) but doesn’t look as neat as a hardcover edition.

The interface is somewhat intuitive, though we have been spoiled here by the iPhone which my 4 year old has mastered. I don’t particularly like the feel of the keyboard however. I don’t usually buy books or browse the web from the Kindle, so it’s not much of an issue for me.

Kindle 2

One thing I would have liked is some sort of book organization. If it can hold 1,500 books, I should be able to organize them into folders or labels.

I love the fact that there is an iPhone application which syncs with the Kindle and I can read a book on both. However, any non-Amazon books or documents I put on the Kindle are not synced.

Michelle loved the text-to-speech system. She was very happy to listen to stories. Of course, the text-to-speech system is for listening for a short while since its monotone would bore you after a while. It’s not a real substitute for an audiobook and that’s how it’s going to be due to technological limitations.

The Kindle is lighter than a lot of books and I love the fact that I don’t have to expend effort trying to keep the book open with one hand when I am reading in bed. Bookmarks and annotations are important features I really needed as well. I need to look into the annotations feature which I have really used yet.

I bought a leather cover for the Kindle which makes it look like a book.

Kindle 2 with case

In addition to the three books I have bought in Kindle edition, I have also downloaded a number of books from ManyBooks.Net. I have also tried converting a couple of large PDF documents to Kindle format via Amazon’s free conversion service (it’s free only if you want to get it back via email and costs money if you want the book transferred directly to the Kindle) with varying results. In some documents, the formatting got all screwy but in others it stayed okay.

Lest I forget, thank you, Badtamiz.

The Dark Side

Jane Mayer’s book on the torture regime of the Bush administration is a must-read for anyone interested in politics, civil liberties, war on terror.

I guess you could figure out that I was reading The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by my recent blogging on torture.

This is a must-read book by Jane Mayer. It follows the torture story meticulously and focuses on how the policy developed. It is clear from the book that there were some major villains in the Bush administration who pushed for torture and got their way most of the time. John Yoo, David Addington and others shut the actual officials who were supposed to make national security policy (at the subcabinet level) out. However, the cabinet principals don’t come out looking good. They were either indifferent or supportive of the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques”, properly known as torture.

While there are several people mentioned in the book who tried to stop torture by the US government, there were also lots and lots of bad guys, lawyers who wrote or approved torture memos, military, civilian and CIA personnel who approved, condoned, supervised or actually tortured suspected or actual terrorists and intelligence, military and law enforcement who consumed the results of torture investigations. There are times when I feel like the Obama administration should release the names and deeds of all those people, anyone who was in any way involved with the torture policy. I know it’s not going to happen and isn’t really fair either.

What should be done is to release all the information about US actions and policy with regards to torture. For example, the thousands of pages of the CIA Inspector General’s May 2004 report.

The Audacity of Hope

I read Obama’s book about his political program during the election and inauguration.

I don’t usually read books by politicians, especially about current politics. However, being an Obama supporter and volunteer, I thought I should read his book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

I had already read Dreams From My Father and loved Obama’s writing style. The Audacity of Hope is also written well. Of course, I liked Dreams From My Father better, but that’s because of its subject of autobiography and identity.

The Audacity of Hope was written when Barack Obama was a US Senator and I started reading it a bit before the election. I finished it around inauguration time. As to why I didn’t read it earlier? I got it early in 2008 but then most of my spare time was consumed by the election campaign. I started the book only when I went to Pakistan for a couple of weeks in October.

In this book, Obama explains his views and his political program. Having followed his career since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, I was familiar with a lot of his views. But two things still stood out. One is how Obama is actually fairly moderate. The other is Obama’s tendency to give an honest airing to conservative views and even agreeing partly before arguing for his liberal viewpoint on any issue. This quality, the so-called post-partisanship, was evident throughout the book.

Dreams from My Father

I usually do not read autobiographies. Or books by politicians. But Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is an exception.

First of all, it’s written by Barack Obama and was written before he got into politics. So it’s refreshingly honest. Secondly, Obama writes well, very well.

Dreams from My Father is basically about the young Obama’s quest for identity. As a child of a Kenyan black man and a Kansan white woman who was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, he was somewhat of an outsider to both the African American experience and the general White majority.

It is a work of self-reflection and Obama comes across as a thoughtful and honest person.

I read the book on the way to Pakistan (more about that in my next blog post) and during my stay there.

If you want to understand Obama the man and where he comes from, I think this book is essential reading.

Sun of Suns

A fun and quick read.

I read Sun of Suns courtesy of the Tor.com promotion.

It’s a fun science fiction story about small, warring nation-states with poor gravity, artificial suns and naval battles. Some of the plot is predictable, but it’s a quick read, the kind of book I liked to read when I was young.