Category Archives: E-Books

Oyster is My World

oyster logoI read a lot. Like an average of one or two novels each week, more if I’m not in school or working on special projects. And I don’t want to own each book I read–in fact, I want to read many more books than I intend to own. Years ago, the library allowed me to do that most easily in the form of printed books I could borrow. More recently, I’ve been checking out ebooks from my library and reading these on the Kindle, which I love. I am also a frequent borrower of books that are part of the Kindle Lending Library (only one book per month though, which usually isn’t enough). So I still find myself wanting more, more, more books.

When I first found out about Oyster, the first “Netflix for Books” service, I knew I’d want to try it out. I was one of the first subscribers, because $9.99 per month to read anything and everything in their catalog seemed like a pretty good deal to me. They are focused only on mobile offerings (right now, just for iOS) and therefore don’t have Kindle or other e-reader integration.

Oyster shows you the most recent books you've accessed on its main mobile screen.

Oyster shows you the most recent books you’ve accessed on its main mobile screen.

After signing up and entering credit card information on their website, it’s a simple process to download the Oyster app and log in. The company has more than 100,000 titles and claims to be adding new ones regularly. Oyster doesn’t offer many brand-new releases. Instead, the company seems to have the best subscription-based backlist of traditionally-published authors available anywhere, including books in all genres.

I’ve browsed and read parts of several books on Oyster, but have completed (read from start to finish on Oyster) only four. So the built-in recommendation engine isn’t helping me find many books yet. To address this, the programmers could allow customers a way to rate books they’ve already read (similar to the way Goodreads does when you join).

However, if you already know what to search for, it’s easy to find books you like on the service. For instance, I remember how delighted I was when I discovered that many of the authors published by Open Road Integrated Media are included in Oyster’s vast catalog. I visited the ORIM Author page to browse through writers I already know about, then searched for them on Oyster to find their books. In this way I found that Ruth Rendell and Donald Westlake have several of the titles from their backlists on Oyster–it’ll take me quite a while to mow through all their books I haven’t yet read.

Oyster talks a lot about the social aspect of reading through their service, but so far none of my 300+ Facebook friends or 1000+ Twitter buddies are using it, so I’m still finding that Goodreads is a better place to share and read book reviews.

Choosing reading themes is easy.

Choosing reading themes is easy.

The reading interface and appearance while using Oyster is nice. There are several themes to choose from, and while I initially liked the Crosby theme best because of its sepia tone hues, I ultimately switched to Standard because its white background doesn’t reveal white boxes around imported graphics in books. You can easily increase or decrease font size to suit you, as well as adjust the brightness.

One thing I find annoying is the fact that it’s only possible to search the Oyster catalog through the mobile app. I wish I could search for books while I visit their website on a desktop computer. When browsing books on their website, I can add an interesting title to my own reading list, but full search capability there would be a nice added feature.

Another small beef is the fact that there is no landscape mode, on either the iPhone or the iPad. I admit it isn’t a big loss on the iPhone’s tiny screen; but when turning the iPad on its side, instead of the expected two page or two column layout, the Oyster app centers the text in a single (and fairly narrow) column in the middle. This is clunky and would be a welcome fix in the next update.

As long as the Oyster team keeps adding new stuff for me to read, I’ll be a happy subscriber for life. You should try it out too–coinciding with their iPad launch a few weeks ago, now anyone can give it a test spin for one month, free.

App: free from the Apple App Store
Service: $9.99/month, first month free

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Apps I Like: Roxie’s Doors and Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure

I’ve had my iPad2 for more than two years, and I’ve downloaded and tried hundreds of apps. Therefore, you might forgive me if I’ve become slightly jaded and unimpressed with many of them, for various reasons.

This is why I’m so excited to talk about a couple of apps from OCG Studios and the talented author/illustrator Roxie Munro: Roxie’s Doors and Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure. These two apps have rekindled my love for all things iPad, especially for games that the entire family can enjoy.

Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure

Roxie_Maze02

That’s my little red car in the lower left. I’m still looking for the penguin on this screen.

This game app is sort of a cross between Where’s Waldo? and a first-person adventure game. But it’s a devilishly clever maze too–and there are no instructions to tell you what to do (they aren’t needed). You’ll drive, walk, ski, fly and raft from screen to screen, picking up star points along the way and trying to locate objects, letters, penguins and other animals in Munro’s very detailed and beautiful artwork. Just as in real life, you can’t go the wrong way down a one-way street, and construction and other obstructions can keep you from taking the obvious route through a screen. This makes the maze quite challenging at times–in fact, I got stuck at one point and had to get my eight-year-old daughter to show me how to get to parts of the maze I’d been unable to navigate to.

The attention to detail in this app is truly wonderful. I like seeing my name on the side of a blimp!

The attention to detail in this app is truly wonderful.
I like seeing my name on the side of a blimp!

The navigation is intuitive, and there are little goodies (sound effects, etc.) to discover on each screen. The replay value is high, because the objects you’re expected to find change every time you come back to the app. It’s easy to see that both the developer and artist took great pains to get this one right. At three bucks for the iPad version, this one is a steal.

Roxie’s Doors

I’d categorize this app as a book, since there are words on the screen next to the illustrations, and matching narration by the author. But it’s also a delightful lift-the-flap and seek-and-find activity app. Each screen presents the reader with a door of some sort, and the words explain a series of objects which need to be found. What is so interesting about this book is that the doors/flaps/pockets can’t always be opened just by tapping on them. For instance, I needed to unzip a backpack pocket by dragging my finger across the bag–simply tapping it didn’t work. So the reader needs to try different approaches in order to find all the objects.

Roxie_Doors01

An apple and a hat (and a bunch of other objects) are hidden on each page.

One thing that can’t be shown in screen shots is the gorgeous three-dimensional effect built into every page of Roxie’s Doors. The app takes advantage of the iPad’s gyroscope, so readers will get a slightly different view of the room depending on how they tilt the tablet around. In some cases, items are hidden along the doorway edges and the screen will need to be tilted quite a bit in order to locate them.

Some items are hidden on the back of the door, behind the story text!

Some items are hidden on the back of the door, behind the story text! Words change from red to green once the item has been found.

As with Roxie’s a-MAZE-ing Vacation Adventure, there are sound and other effects that can be activated by tapping (turn the fire engine lights and siren on, for example). Beautiful artwork, engaging play and intuitive presentation make this one a winner, especially at only $2.99.

Both of these apps push the boundaries of what great children’s apps can be. My hat is off to both Roxie Munro and OCG Studios, and I will be on the lookout for their next collaboration.

FREE for Earth Day: My Pouch Upcycling Book!

Planet Pouch

My little craft book is FREE today!

If you’re looking for green ideas this Earth Day, look no further. I’m making my Kindle craft book Planet Pouch: Simple Juice Pouch Bags Anyone Can Make FREE through Monday, April 22. So now’s the perfect time to grab this book and start turning those leftover juice pouches into something stylish!

No Kindle? No problem. You can read this book using the free Kindle Cloud Reader on any PC (or Mac). And if you like the book, please rate and review it on Amazon and Goodreads–I’ll be eternally grateful, and it’ll help others who like to make things find the book.

Happy Earth Day!

Guest Blog at The Digital Media Diet

Library Card

The Amazing Library Card

A while back, Carisa over at Digital Storytime asked me to guest blog for her at The Digital Media Diet. I finally came through, and she posted it today! It’s a look at what I’ve been working on lately, and why. I’d be honored if you’d check it out and let me know what you think.

 

Book Review: Two New eBooks for Kids

I’m lucky to be connected with folks who create books in non-traditional, cutting-edge ways. A couple of them have created some pretty neat new ebooks, and I wanted to share these with you.

The Monarch Butterfly: An Interactive Picture Book by Liz Castro

With the plethora of information available about the Monarch butterfly, you’d think there’d be nothing left to say about these fascinating creatures. After spending over an hour with Liz Castro’s new iBook The Monarch Butterfly: An Interactive Picture Book, I’ve decided that this assumption is wrong.

Clearly a labor of love for Castro, this book is fantastic and pushes the boundaries of what an iBook can do. Each page features lovely and detailed full-color photos, some taken very close up. There are informative captions too, but these are hidden behind yellow arrows, so that the reader can pull them out when/if needed, or enjoy the photos alone.

Also included are amazing time-lapse photos presented as videos, showing different parts of the creature’s life cycle, such as a very hungry caterpillar munching on a milkweed leaf and the magic of transformation as the butterfly makes its way out of its chrysalis. These are set to classical music and are a perfect example of appropriate use of the format–in this case, to inform and engage.

Definitely worth the price at $4.99, the well-done interactive features of this iBook make it very app-like. Highly recommended for teachers, librarians, parents and anyone wanting to get a closer look at a very interesting insect.

Are We Lost? by Annie Fox, illustrated by Eli Noyes

AreWeLost

Remember Raymond and Sheila? These are brother-and-sister alligators I wrote about when they first appeared just over a year ago in their first book Are You My Friend? by Annie Fox. In this new installment titled Are We Lost?, the two head to the beach for some summer fun. Before long, Raymond is ready for some ice cream, and with his big sister’s approval, he heads off to get it. As you might imagine, what seems so simple never is, and misadventures (and a little bit of chaos) ensue.

I love the tone Fox takes with these books. She seems to understand that what usually seems like no big deal to adults often looms larger than life for kids, and her handling of shyness and other common childhood fears is respectful and empowering.

The illustrations are again done in a colorful, fun-loving style by Eli Noyes, and there is a parent guide at the end to initiate discussions with your own kids.

Available soon for the Kindle, Are We Lost? is a cute, reassuring story for young readers.

(Full disclosure: I received electronic copies of both books for review purposes.)

Planet Pouch is FREE Today!

Planet Pouch

My little craft book is FREE today!

Today is my birthday, and to celebrate, I decided to make Planet Pouch FREE today. So please: if you are reading this, go straight to Amazon.com and get yourself a copy, post a review and help me spread the word.

Planet Pouch: Simple Juice Pouch Bags Anyone Can Make is a craft how-to book that shows you how to turn those shiny juice pouches into fun bags and totes using a simple sewing machine. Tons of full-color photos and step-by-step instructions make the process easy.

And if you don’t have a Kindle, no problem. You can use the free Kindle Cloud Reader and read this (and thousands of other) ebooks on your computer.

Thank you, and have a wonderful Father’s Day!

Print Books vs. Ebooks

IKEA Library

Dream library, IKEA version

As long as I can remember, I’ve had the dream of one day owning a house big enough to hold a room with a dedicated library of all my books, complete with one of those rolling ladders to allow me to reach the high shelves. This dream personal library has a velvet chaise lounge with a beautiful bronze floor lamp next to it, and a fireplace, bear rug, the whole luxurious nine yards.

I made a startling realization the other day: if we abandon the fantasy of the chaise lounge/floor lamp/fireplace, I’ve already got the dream library, since I have more than 600 books in my Amazon Kindle Cloud Drive and more than 200 iOS apps, half of them book apps.

Dream library, Kindle version

I write this post today because I’ve been hearing the following statement lately, from a variety of people:

“I like ebooks and all, but I prefer the feel of a real book in my hands.”

While I don’t really care if these folks hold on to their dead tree books as long as they like, I think they’ll eventually change their minds. Here’s why.

Ebooks Are Convenient

Between all my gadgets (Android phone, two iOS devices and a Kindle Touch) I have access to hundreds of books (many obtained free, or at discount prices) in my favorite genres. I send cookbooks, craft books and other how-to or multimedia books to the Kindle Reader on my iPad; mysteries, business books, chick lit and other text-based books I want to read soon to the Kindle Touch, and the rest (books I may want to read someday) to the Kindle Cloud Reader, which effectively stores them in the cloud for free. I use the Kindle Reader on my phone when I don’t have access to one of my other reading devices and I’m unexpectedly caught with an extra few minutes in my day. I like having my library accessible anytime, anywhere–I don’t have to be on the velvet chaise lounge after all.

Page turns are managed with a single touch to the right-hand side of the screen, and I can get to any place in the book easily, within a couple of touches.

Ebooks Enhance the Experience of Reading

I love the ability to touch a word I don’t know and get the definition instantly. I love that the Kindle system keeps my place no matter which device I’m using. I also love the way many of the book apps I have for my kids not only hold their interest but encourage literacy and retention through interactive features (one company that does this especially well is Oceanhouse Media with word highlighting and the ability to hear a word aloud when it’s pressed in their storybook apps).

Ebooks Are Lighter and Easier to Maneuver

I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Because I am a cheapskate, I decided to read the third book (A Clash of Swords) in paperback, since I found it at my local used bookstore and purchased it with store credit. This book, in mass market paperback form, is heavier and bulkier than my Kindle Touch and won’t stay open without my propping it with a heavy object, so it’s difficult to hold with just one hand. I like the fact that I can store all the ebook versions of the others in the series (and hundreds of other books) on a single device that weighs less than the small-format paperback.

Ebooks Are Less Wasteful

Lately when I hold a print book, especially a hardcover, I’m hit with the overwhelming feeling of wastefulness. There’s something pretty unpleasant about the fact that the book I hold in my hands is a real, tangible slice of what used to be a living thing, processed and assembled for the sole purpose of my entertainment or learning. I offset this as much as I can by taking physical books I don’t want anymore to my local used bookstore, then offering the ones they don’t want on PaperbackSwap.com, but the fact is: printed books use up resources (paper, ink, glue and more) that no longer need to be expended for the same entertainment or educational value.

Ebooks Can be Updated Much Faster, and at Less Cost

Non-fiction books in print form eventually become outdated. Information changes and evolves as humans gain more knowledge about a topic, or when materials or ways of doing things are improved. But let’s be honest: most non-fiction print books will be truly useful for only a fraction of their lives. After that, the next edition replaces it–at significant cost. Textbook publishers have profited from this with great success for many years–at the expense of both teachers and students.

It’s time for ebooks to become the preferred way to distribute educational materials and other non-fiction content, which can be updated quickly and redistributed almost instantly, to all users of the material, with no expending of the tangible resources needed to print a new edition.

However, Ebooks Aren’t Perfect

For me, the five reasons above are pretty compelling for the shift to digital. But there are some things about ebooks I don’t like as well. These shortcomings aren’t enough to send me back to paper, but they are worth mentioning:

  • The Kindle ‘Farthest Page Read’ Feature Needs a Reset Button. The ability of Amazon’s Kindle devices to keep my place is great, but occasionally I accidentally make my way to a later page that doesn’t actually reflect where I am in the book. When this happens, keeping my place manually becomes a pain in the neck. I’d love to see a way to reset this, but I imagine it won’t happen, since the addition of this feature would make it much easier for spouses and other family members to share books on the same family of devices. But since I let my kids and spouse share my print books, I’d sort of like to share my ebooks with them too, in a hassle-free way. Come on, Amazon!
  • Prices of Ebooks from the Big Publishers are Too Expensive. Books coming from the big 6 publishers are priced according to their artificial and rapidly-crumbling world of print scarcity and their hardback-to-trade-paperback-to-mass-market-paperback release schedule. This is archaic and needs to change. Why should the ebook version of a title ever cost more than the mass market paperback would? It all comes down to greed, and an over-reliance of the old way of doing things. Eventually these outdated practices will put many of these publishers and retailers (remember Borders?) out of business.
  • Ebook Lending Needs to Be Improved. It’s nice that I can lend one of my Kindle books to someone else (if the publisher allows it), but I can only do it once. After that, the book can’t be lent again. I don’t mind the restrictions of one-person-at-a-time and my own inaccessibility during the lending period (since these are in force for my print books too) but let’s remove the artificial restriction of once only, and let me lend a book I’m finished with over and over if I choose.
  • Ebook Devices Aren’t Durable or Affordable Enough. When iOS devices and other ebook readers are able to withstand normal wear and tear by school-aged children (i.e. being dropped on the floor) and are cheaper than $50, we will see a true revolution. Until then, they aren’t practical enough to replace most of the printed books in my house, which are now children’s books. Plus an entire segment of the population (the lower middle classes and below) have little to no access yet.

So, what I’m saying is: in spite of the drawbacks, ebooks have become just as ‘real’ to me as print books are. I love them both, but I’m not buying many print books anymore. And eventually (probably within the next five years or so) most of the rest of you will be saying the same thing.