19 December 2011

Book review--"The Silence of Our Friends"

The Silence of Our Friends
First Second
January 2012
Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, Nate Powell

Every so often a book will come along that will challenge you, that will make you think, and that will hopefully leave you a bit better after you’ve read it.  And this is just one such book.  And yes some people are probably thinking that’s high praise for a graphic novel, but the story will give you chills within the first three pages and suck you in and not let you go until the very end of the story.

It’s 1968 in Houston, Texas and the fight for civil rights is heating up.  Young Mark Long’s father, Jack Long, is the local TV station's race reporter and he’s embedded into the third ward, one of the poorest parts of the town.  Jack is attempting to cover the events occurring in town, such as the expulsion of the the SNCC (student nonviolent coordinating committee) from Texas State University, and do justice to the people that he’s covering.  He’s saved at one event by Larry Thompson, a local black leader, and the two become friends and their lives intertwine.  One white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the burbs and one black family from the poorest ward in Houston, come together and find common ground in a conflict that threatens to tear the city apart.  But before the end it may all come crashing down with the arrest of the TSU five.  Which will be the loudest before the end, the words of hate or the silence of friends?  This semi-autobiographical tale is based upon true events of Mark Long’s father.

One of the problem that I normally see with autobiographical stories, like this one, is that they often try to give the reader to much information about the story and invariably the reader gets lost or there are moment that leave us wondering why we’re supposed to care about the story.  But this book...this book doesn’t have that issue.  The authors have focused the story upon specific events of the race issues affecting the town in a given time period and give you enough information that you understand where the characters are coming from, but it never lets you wander away from what the focus of the story is.  And more importantly you don’t ever feel like you’re missing out on something. 

My favorite part of the storytelling though is how we get to see the story from two different perspectives--a white family from a racist neighborhood and a black family from one of poorest areas of Houston.  Living in many ways on opposite sides of the world and yet we get to see the overlap and the differences between the two families clearly.  And while that may sound like a cheesey way or stereotypical way of telling the story, Mark Long and Jim Demonakos tell the story in such a deft manner that you don’t really see it being told that way.  You see the characters as real people.  You get to understand a bit of what they went through, the troubles that each family faced for the actions they took and didn’t take, and that you want to know them in real life--just so that you could learn more from them.  One last thought about the story--the title of the book comes from a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. "In the end, We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  And this book does justice to those words.

Nate Powell’s artwork is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s done in his typical grace/style of capturing the human form oh so perfectly and it seems like this time he’s gone even further in his use of shading to give us the beauty of all different types of skin tones, each character’s is unqiue.  His artwork is perfectly suited for this story capturing the range and intensity of emotions--the sorrow, the joy, and the fear that sends chills down your spine.  That intensity, that feeling of life that he captures in their faces really makes them come alive.  And the last pages of the books are some of the most powerful of the book.  It seems like a rather basic layout of people walking in the street, with a closeup so that you can see the people’s skin tones--both black and white, and you can see their faces.  But then he starts pulling back and all you can see are forms of people all different sizes, both genders, and all muted gray.  No race and no color to divide them, just one people.

You can’t help but feel moved by this story and you can’t walk away unchanged.  The combination of story and art works perfectly in capturing this event and this time period.  I’m predicting this book will be one of the best graphic novels of the year, perhaps even one of the best books of the year.

A review copy of this book was provided by Gina at FirstSecond

14 December 2011

Kindle Fire Follow up

So I wrote about my initial impression of the Kindle Fire almost a month ago and I thought I'd offer an update on my thoughts on the device.  What I'm going to do is address some of the complaints/issues I've seen others have with the device and offer my input.  And then give my current impression on the device.

OK first off:
This is not an iPad.  It's not supposed to be one.  Every tech writer/blogger/news person that ran their mouth and kept asking/saying that the Kindle Fire was an iPad killer should be forced to pay a fine for making crap up (yes I know they do it anyway, but still.)  The Fire was never going to be an iPad killer.  It wasn't meant to be.  It is meant to be the next generation of the Kindle and be a media tablet, which I think it does well.  If you want a comparison of what it is like...think of it kinda like a larger iPod touch.

OK onto the issues:

Control responsiveness:
This is one of the most talked about issues with the device, I even mentioned it in my review.  Yes the controls are a bit buggy and sometimes it takes a few pokes to make it do what ya tell it to do.  Is it the biggest issue in the world? For me it's a bit of an annoyance because it takes a few extra seconds to get to where I want it to go, but it's not a huge turnoff (as it is for other people.)  It still works and I can get it to do what I need it to.  Supposedly a big fix is coming out in a week or two to help with this issue, which would be nice.

Location of the power button:
This has been the second biggest complaint that I've seen, especially recently, that it's too easy to turn off the device.  And that's not exactly true.  They make it sound like it shuts down completely and you have to wait for the thing to start back up, but it doesn't do that (at least not on mine.) What it does do is go into screen saver mode. You press the button again and boom you're back in.  To completely shut it down you have to hold the button and then it asks you if you're sure if you want to shut it down.  To me the location of the power button isn't an issue, especially since I have it on one of the sides so I can watch a movie, surf the web, or play Angry Birds.

Volume control:
Lately folks have been complaining that there isn't an external volume control.  And I'll be honest that just doesn't make much sense to me.  I find it much easier to have access to it on the screen itself and much easier to make sure I get the volume I like (and not accidentally hit a slider or something that changes it.)  For me it's the same as on my desktop computer at work, I change the volume via the control panel.

Some people have complained about the weight of the Kindle Fire saying it's too heavy, you can't hold it in one hand, etc.  And my response is 1) why would you want to hold it one hand? and 2) It's like a solid paperback book (think any of the Game of Thrones books by George RR Martin or one of the Codex Alera books by Jim Butcher.)  You have to use two hands to hold one of those books comfortably or lean it up against your lap and that's what I do with the Kindle.  It's a nice solid feel to it so that you don't worry that you're going to break it by poking at it to hard or carrying it around.

Browser Slowness:
When Amazon announced the Kindle Fire they hyped the Silk Browser and how fast it would be.  How fast it would be compared to what I don't remember and can't lay my hands on the information, but people have been complaining about it being slower than what they expected.  And for me what I notice is that it is a second or so slower than my desktop/laptop computer.  But it still loads pretty quickly and I can always get to what I need so it's not an issue for me.  (I have seen from tech sites that there is apparently some setting that maybe the cause of the slowness and if you turn it off it speeds it up a bit.)

Lack of Storage space:
OK I know this is one of the other biggest complaints/worries of folks, since the Fire only has about 6.25GB's of storage space on it.  And it is a bit disconcerting, but Amazon chose to use this as a chance to push their storage and other services.  So as long as you have WiFi and store your music in the Amazon cloud and stream videos it's really not that much of a problem. 
         And what if you travel?  Well you can download movies (at least from Amazon) and download a few CD's onto your device and it won't use up all of the space and keep you (or others) entertained for a while.  You can then always delete and reload new ones once you get someplace with WiFi access.  Is it a hassle to do that?  A bit.  And if you don't want to do that then it might be better to go with another device. 
          For me I like using Amazon's storage and the streaming so I don't need the storage and I'm generally some place where I have WiFi.  And yep I've downloaded stuff a couple of times to keep myself entertained on trips.
           a) one other possibility (and I haven't tried this yet so I have no idea if it works) is to try a portable HD to carry stuff around.  Still a bit of a pain, but it does have more space.)

The "fat finger" problem:
I've seen a few people complain about the size of the device/keyboard and how hard it is to type on it.  And to be honest that's the problem I had with devices like the iPod touch/iPhone.  Those devices was too small and my fingers feel fat against the keyboard (heck I thought the same thing about the Blackberry keyboard.)  But with the Fire I just flip it on the side and the keyboard is big enough for me to work with.  It still might be an issue for others, but I think they would have the same issue with other devices.

Carousel customization:
To me this is my biggest issue outside of the buggy controls.  The carousel is what you see when you start up and shows everything that you've looked at recently/used/downloaded.  And you can't edit it.  You can't get rid of the stuff that you've deleted or you just don't want on the front page.  For me I'd rather not have the carousel, but instead just have a bookshelf like screen (which appears below the carousel) where I can add favorites or just navigate otherwise. 
          Supposedly this is one of the issues they might be fixing in the update, but I can't find any firm confirmation on it.  Would I let this stop me from recommending the device?  No.  But if you're going to share the device with others you might want to be careful about what you download/use (yes there were complaints from people they didn't want their significant others to know what they were looking at.)

Netflix App:
Yes I've seen a few people complain about it.  Here's my simple response:  Netflix built the app.  Go complain to them.

Selection on Amazon Prime Videos:
Again I've seen a few people complain about this and honestly it makes no sense to me at all.  They complain that it doesn't have all of the episodes of a season and it doesn't have much as Netflix and I think there are two different issues here. 
  • One is if you purchased the Kindle Fire you got a free month of Amazon Prime and my thinking is that there maybe restrictions on what you can see as far as videos go (perhaps due to license agreements) that would make you not see all of the episodes of a season. I can't test this theory, but I can assure you that they didn't put up any partial seasons of shows and all of the episodes are on there.  
  • The second issue is the comparison to Netflix and my response is this: Netflix has been in the streaming game since 1997...Amazon since February of 2011.  And trust me their selection is better than it was when they started and they do have a good bit of content for streaming.  There's plenty of stuff to keep you entrained if you get a Prime account and want to stream movies.

I've seen other complaints ranging from privacy/parental controls--such as if you give the device to a kid they can buy stuff with one click that you don't want them too.  And for me I'm just going to say that I think these are personal preferences that you have to take into account when looking at the device.  If you have a kid you might not want to give them the device to play with (or let them play in the store.)

What the Fire does well is act as a media tablet, with the caveat to get the full use out of it you need WiFi and that you like the Amazon cloud for storing your music.  If you don't want something you need WiFi for and you don't like using Amazon for everything then this isn't the device for you.  But for me I do like Amazon.  I like the cloud storage they have, I already had Prime and loved it, and bottom line this device is exactly what I was looking for.  Something that was a combination of an iPod touch/Kindle reader that I could use to entrain myself while I traveled and still surf a bit on the web and not have to carry my laptop everywhere with me (at least as much as I can avoid it.) 

Bottom line I'd recommend this device (I already have to a few people.)  I think it works well for what it is, but you need to take into account what you want out of it and who you're buying it for.  You may also want to wait till the 2nd generation since they're sure to improve things a bit with that one (it's supposedly coming next year.)