26 September 2011

Review: Slabscape: Reset by S. Spencer Baker

Take the most sophisticated A.I. designed mind that has ever existed, encase it in over fifty million cubic kilometres of diamond nano-rods and send it off on a twenty-thousand-year odyssey towards the centre of the galaxy. Then screw it all up by allowing thirty-two million humans to go along for the ride...

Slabscape: Reset is not my usual type of read, but I was very impressed with the level of imaginative realism in this sci-fi outing. The plot and characters are very believable, humour was weaved throughout the plot and it reminded me a little of the Red Dwarf universe. There were times when the pace of the book slowed but overall the book was well paced, and as such I was left wanting more at the end.

I liked the idea of an online resource providing additional information and value to the book, and whilst I personally didn’t find it all that useful, I can see many readers enjoying the material provided there. The wiki will probably become more useful and interesting as the series progresses.

Overall Slabscape is a very humorous and believable sci-fi outing. Drago as a character is easily the most thought-out and well written character I have come across this year.

The book is available from Amazon UK for £7.69 and from Amazon US for $12.35. It is a shame that currently this book does not appear to be available in non-Kindle formats, although the paperback version can be obtained from Amazon.

[A review copy was provided by the author]

19 September 2011

Review: The Quest for the Cure by Brent R. Stockwell

Brent R. Stockwell takes the reader through on a journey through the history and future of drug development in his book The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines.

It is written in a very accessible style and so is open to both those with a scientific background and those who do not. Although a basic grasp of biology will ease things along. As well as dealing with the science of drug development Stockwell also deals with the business side of the pharmaceutical industry, a combination lacking in similar books. I was particularly interested in his exploration of the role of ‘undruggable’ proteins in diseases such as cancer, and how these pose an issue for drug developers. Professor Stockwell’s expertise in this area clearly shows and I especially liked the many anecdotes from his own work that were included.

Overall this is a very interesting and up to date book, which although aimed at those with an academic/professional interest in the topic, is accessible to a much wider audience. It was of particular interest to me as I trained in a field closely related to drug development.

The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines is available from Amazon UK for £8.51, from Amazon US for $13.66 and from WH Smith for £17.75.

[Columbia University Press provided a review copy] 

12 September 2011

Review: Midnight Fear by Leslie Tentler

Midnight Fear is Leslie Tentler’s second novel and follows Agent Novak’s dangerous job to catch a copycat killer before he kills the ex-socialite Caitlyn Cahill.

The book starts with a bang – or more accurately a murder and does not slow down after that. The plot is complex and in places very chilling, although the characterisation, particularly of Novak is at times hit and miss, perhaps a bit 2D for my liking.

I didn’t realise that this was a romantic suspense until I started reading, this for me spoilt the book a bit as I felt it detracted from the plot – though this is my personal preference.

Overall an interesting read with a great ending. The book is let down by the unbelievable lead character and, in my opinion, a token romance plot. All in all, the brilliant plot outweighs the downsides - which is why this has a four-star rating.

Midnight Fear is available in paperback only at Amazon UK for £4.91 and at Amazon US for $7.99. If you would like to see this in an e-book format get in touch with publisher Mira.

[A review copy was provided by Mira]

7 September 2011

Review: Cat Versus Human by Yasmine Surovec (Non-e-book)

Yasmine Surovec is a talented designer and illustrator who maintains the blog catversushuman.blogspot.com. I first came across her work on icanhascheezburger.com, famous for it's lolcats, and became a follower of her online comic. Cat Versus Human is a visual tale of life of a couple with a few cats and a dog, with all the feline related ups and downs, a situation replicated around the world. I was lucky enough to get hold of a review copy of Surovec's first published collection of the comic, also entitled Cat Versus Human.

From Amazon
Cat Versus Human is very similar to it's online cousin, no surprises there. The full-page colour illustrations are as detailed as they are online, but there is an added benefit from being able to view the cartoons as a self-contained story. The illustrations are both comical and true to life, I personally recognised many of the situations played out in the book, especially page 107, to which my long suffering boyfriend can testify. The 'story-based' pages are interspersed with short, self-contained pieces such as "Things cats will destroy", "Presents from my cats" and "Kitten verses dinosaur". My personal favourites are "If the internet breaks - forever" and "Life without a cat". 

Overall a fantastically funny coffee table book, which will resonate and amuse cat lovers and non-cat lovers alike . Surovec has demonstrated that she can easily compete with the likes of Simon's Cat and Kathy Hoopmann. 5 Stars!

Cat Versus Human will be released in paperback on October 4th, and is available to pre-order from Amazon UK for £5.60 , from Amazon US $9.99 and from Barnes and Noble for $9.99. If you'd like to see this in e-book form (who wouldn't!) use the 'Tell the Publisher!' button on Amazon UK or get in touch with Andrews McMeel Publishing directly.

[This review copy was provided by Andrews McMeel Publishing but did not effect the review in anyway]

5 September 2011

Review: Public Anatomy by A. Scott Pearson

“While recovering from a career-threatening injury, surgeon Eli Branch is pulled into the turbulent world of Dr. Liza French, a colleague he hasn’t seen in ten years.  Liza uses their past to lure Eli into a highly-publicized debacle in a Memphis hospital that has put her own career in jeopardy. 

But when the murder of medical personnel at Gates Memorial appears related to Liza’s surgical complication, Eli finds that more lives are at imminent risk. 
Eli discovers clues from the victims that match anatomical art found at the crime scenes, a connection that leads him to the manuscript of a sixteenth century anatomist whose methods of dissection are over four centuries old – but are being re-enacted in the present. 

Aided by the expertise of forensic pathologist, Dr. Meg Daily, Eli uncovers a pattern to the escalating deaths and the search begins for the killer who the media and the city come to know as The Organist.”

 As a fan of the medical thriller genre, I have to say that Public Anatomy is an outstanding cross between this and standard crime thrillers. Whilst it is perhaps less of a true-medical thriller, it certainly competes with the likes of Tess Gerritsen in the crime thriller genre.

The writing style of Pearson is tight and concise, and the book is gripping and full of suspense, particularly near the end, where you constantly feel the ‘ticking clock’. Also, there are lots of little details included in the narrative, which make the plot more complex and interesting, as does the inclusion of the robotic surgery technology.

Overall, an amazing thriller that I will happily read again. Full of suspense and with a clear, concise writing style. If there was any criticism of this book, it would be that it was perhaps slightly too easy to guess the identity of the killer, although this did not diminish the suspense for me. I am looking forward to reading his previous novel Rupture, which features the same central character. 

Public Anatomy is available from Amazon UK for £8.62, from Amazon US for $13.85 and from WH Smith for £7.81.

[A review copy was provided by Oceanview Publishing]

3 September 2011

Guest Blog: No more OCR excuses: Here's how to do it right by Steven Lyle Jordan

Steven Lyle Jordan is a Maryland based Sci-Fi author who has published his series The Kestral Voyages in e-book format, as well as a number of stand-alone novels. For more information visit his site at rightbrane.com. His guest-blog is on the advantages of e-publishing in terms of making revisions.

No more OCR excuses: Here's how to do it RIGHT

I am, to put in simple words, sick and tired of hearing the same lame excuses for the state of quality of old and backlist books that are scanned and converted via Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software into ebooks.  All of us ebook readers are painfully familiar with the ridiculous text errors, the "a"s turned to "o"s, the "p"s turned to "q"s, the lost punctuations, the nonsense words and phrases, the missing lines, paragraphs and entire sections, etc, etc, that turn up in these ebooks.  And we are also painfully familiar with the publishers' excuses for this state, which usually boils down to: "We work hard... it's the hardware/software's fault!"

BULL.  It's how you're using the hardware/software; in other words, WRONG.

So, I’m going to tell you how to do it…the way we did it over a decade ago, and got less than .1% errors in our work. Pay Attention.

Over a decade ago, I worked in an in-house print department that produced thousands of short documents a day, using 3 high-speed printers, 2 of them networked DocuTech digital printers.  Those machines were capable of printing anything (in black and white, anyway) in high quality.  All they needed was high quality going in.  My initial job, upon arriving there, was showing them how to get that high quality input that would give them high quality output.  I had done the same at my previous job.  So I knew whereof I spoke when I was hired.

Occasionally, we were asked to produce a digital version of a book our offices had created.  After going through the process a few times, I hit upon the best method for clean and accurate digital conversion.  My attempts using this method were highly successful, and not that difficult at all... any small to large organization can do this.

The process starts with the original book... and this is where the most important first steps must be taken to ensure high quality.  Many books aren't in the best shape for scanning, due to age, flimsiness of the paper, coloring, stains, etc.  Also, text is often rendered rather small, especially in paperbacks. This is a notoriously poor source material, and must be improved before it is used.

To deal with this, the first step is to CREATE NEW AND BETTER PAGES.  Use a high-quality photocopying machine or scanner that has both adjustable brightness and contrast settings, and an enlarging feature.  Before you start, take sample images of a page, adjusting brightness and contrast to basically darken text to as close to 100% black as possible, and erase any image artifacts from browning or stained pages; you want as clean an image as possible, solid black text against pure white backgrounds.

Once you have your clean high-contrast setting, ENLARGE THE IMAGE to letter-size.  This simple step, which few OCR processes use, improves the recognition of characters immensely, possibly on a logarithmic scale, during the scanning process.

Finally, if you are using a scanner, this is an important addition to the process: Before doing your scan, MAKE SURE THE SCANNER IS SET TO BLACK-AND-WHITE AND AT LEAST 300DPI RESOLUTION.  Many photocopiers will allow you to make the same settings.  This results in a larger file, which can take a longer time to process, but is important to get the best image of each character possible.

With these settings saved, SCAN OR PHOTOCOPY YOUR PAGES.  For best results, cut the pages free of the spine so they can be perfectly flat when scanning/photocopying.  If your scanner/photocopier has a feeder that will automatically feed and scan both sides of a page, by all means, use it and save yourself the grief (and the time).

If you used a photocopier, you should now have a letter-sized, one-sided stack of papers that represent your book.  This is ideal for running through a sheetfed scanner with pretty much any OCR software.  Many high-speed sheetfed scanners have limited adjustment controls... that's why it is important to provide the highest-quality input sheets.  If you do have contrast and resolution controls, make sure they are set to black-and-white and at least 300DPI, just like your earlier photocopied images.

Most scanners these days come with OCR software, or recommend OCR software to use with their hardware.  Start with these applications, but don't be afraid to try other apps with more features if needed.  When you do your scan, the software should automatically start the OCR process.  WAIT UNTIL THE OCR FILE IS DONE, AND SAVE IT.

MAKE A COPY OF THE FILE FOR EDITING.  If you have good OCR software, it will allow you to do sophisticated find-and-replace tasks; this is great to have if you discover an odd OCR artifact, such as the transposition of every "h." with "la" or "&" with "$".  Most of the incorrect artifacts you're likely to find will be a result of dressy typography that uses non-standard or oddly-shaped characters.  These are things that even the best OCR applications can't always interpret correctly.  Your larger and high-res images should generate much better recognition and fewer errors of almost all of the rest.

If your OCR software can't do the find-and-replace tasks, open the file in a word processing app like MS Word, and use its find-and-replace functions there.  As you make these document-wide edits, check to make sure you didn't mess something up (such as correct words that your find-and-replace made incorrect), and if everything's good, save the file.  Then do the next one, check it, and save it.  This way, if you do an edit that doesn't work out, and it's too wide-spread to easily fix, you can revert to the last saved file to try it again.

Done with that?  Good.  Now, READ IT.  I mean, REALLY, REALLY READ IT.  Look for type artefacts that were missed by your initial find-and-replace process, possibly words that have been re-recognized as similar words, such as "words" to "wards," "it" to "if," etc.  A thorough proofing pass should catch these typos, and thanks to the process outlined above, there shouldn't be many.

I have used this process to create ebooks, and have experienced fewer than 1 word or type errors in 20 pages of OCR results.

I am sure that most of the organizations doing scan-and-OCR of older books—most of which are probably contractors working to generate as much text per hour as they can—are not enlarging copy or scanning at 300DPI resolution.  Why?  To save time; low-res versions of smaller pages process faster.  This is why the overall quality of files presented to publishers is so dismal.  Unfortunately, the publishers are still responsible for proofing the text and catching these errors, and I have serious doubts that they are doing that job at all.  If scan-and-OCR workers use my production steps, the publishers' proofers will have even less of an excuse for bad copy.

Feel free to forward this entry to any publishers or OCR companies you know of; maybe we'll see much better quality ebooks in the future, especially if some people take heed of these steps.

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