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Posts from — July 2013

Review: The Blue Jackal Series – An Interactive Book for Kids

Photo Credit: Brad Flickinger on Flickr

Even though I have an iPad the one type of book I hadn’t read until now was of the interactive kind, so when Pankaj Gupta got in touch with me to review his interactive Blue Jackal series based on tales from the Panchatantra I jumped at it, even though the books are for children.

Since it’s my first interactive book I wasn’t sure about what to expect or even what parameters to gauge by. I figured I’d give the stories a spin at bedtime and see what I felt about some aspects of it. Over a couple of nights I took a look at two stories/apps –

1. The Blue Jackal

2. The Blue Jackal in America



Languages

‘The Blue Jackal’ had multiple language and voice options. I could choose between English Male, English Female, French Female and Hindi Female. I enjoyed trying out the different options and listening to the story in Hindi.
I really liked the idea of the same story in multiple languages as it has the dual benefit of reaching out to a larger audience and getting children to listen and learn more than one language.

‘The Blue Jackal in America’ however had only one option for narration – English Female.

Story

The story of ‘The Blue Jackal’ is the old tale of how the jackal became the blue king. The story is told well and even has a moral at the end.

‘The Blue Jackal in America’ starts where the previous book ends – the animals get caught and are shipped to a circus in America. This story is longer with an introduction to classic American landmarks, a plot hatched to escape the circus and a sub-plot from the Panchatantra to inspire the animals to escape.

Over all this is also a well told story with a moral at the end that children will enjoy. However I did not like some messages in the story. America is repeated talked about as the land of the free, the land that everyone aspires to be in, etc. Considering the brain drain we are already facing, this isn’t the message I’d want children to take away from the story at that vulnerable age.

Characters

The first book has some common characters from the forest apart from the jackal – the lion, the hare, the tortoise, the elephant, the mouse, the bear, the monkey, the snake and the giraffe. Though there are quite a few of them, they don’t have much to contribute except play the supporting roles in the story.

However in book two some of them come back to play more substantial roles. There is the lion, the rooster, the monkey, the parrot, the elephant, the deer, the mouse, the tortoise and the hare who this time round add to the story. The jackal along with the other animals set the stage for a good plot and variety in characteristics.

Music, Sound

Both books have a lot of music and sounds that children will enjoy, but Book Two definitely has more than the first. I found myself clicking on the characters and all over the screen constantly trying to find new dialogues and sounds that were built in.

The dialogues, music and sounds add to the story and make it entertaining even in repeated reads. I think children will enjoy revisiting the stories over time.

Animation

There is also a lot of animation but just like with music there is more animation in Book Two than One. It took me a while to figure out that there were interactive elements in Book One, but once I did, I had to click on everyone of them. And ‘The Blue Jackal in America’ kept me busy for quiet a while with the amount of animation it had. Kids are sure to like the bit where you shake down a Christmas tree and redecorate it.

My Thoughts –

‘ + + + ‘

On the whole the stories were engaging and fun. The working of the apps was quite intuitive and easy to figure out. Children of all ages will enjoy them but younger children will enjoy them repeatedly.
Each story seems to end with a connection to the next, so I’m looking forward to the next story in the Blue Jackal series where I think the animals will visit France.

‘ – – – ‘

There were a few things I felt were missing in the books like there was no pause button in either book to stall the narration, so I had to go back a page to restart the narration if I missed something. I would have also liked a button to repeat the narration on each page.
The Blue Jackal had a counter showing how many interactive elements there were on each page so they were easier to find. However The Blue Jackal in America did not have a displayed counter, so I had to click on absolutely everything on the page to make sure I didn’t miss out. That said, the narrator did give instructions to animations on some pages.
I also would have preferred to have more language options than just English in book Two.
Lastly the apps did hang on me a few times and that needs some looking into.

Going by what I saw in the first story and the next, I think the team at Five Axioms Inc. is learning and getting better at the stories and apps. The Blue Jackal series is definitely something for parents and kids to look forward to.

Have you read an interactive book before? Reviewed one? Do you have any suggestions for me?

July 24, 2013   No Comments

Book Review: Penelope by Anya Wylde

Title: Penelope
Author: Anya Wylde
Paperback: 302 pages
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, Inc. (January 13th 2013)
Genre: Regency Romance
Read: e-book
Stars: ****/5
Buy On: Amazon
Summary: (Goodreads)

Leaving behind the rural charms of Finnshire, Miss Penelope Fairweather arrives in London with hope in her heart and a dream in her eye. The dowager, no less, has invited her for a season in London, where she will attempt to catch a husband.

Thus begins our heroine’s tale as she attempts to tackle the London season with all her rustic finesse. Unfortunately, her rustic finesse turns out to be as delicate as a fat bear trying to rip apart a honeycomb infested with buzzing bees.

What follows is a series of misadventures, love affairs, moonlit balls, fancy clothes, fake moustaches, highwaymen, sneering beauties, pickpockets, and the wrath of a devilishly handsome duke.

My Review:

Thanks Anya for offering me your book to read and review :)

Cover: Makes you want to pick it up!

Paper and font: The font and layout is good.

Readability, language: : Easy Read!

Why did I choose this book: Look at the cover, how could I not 😀

Penelope who has a knack for saying and doing the most idiotic things at the most inappropriate of times is invited by the dowager at Blackthorne to London for a season, where she hopes to catch a husband. The idiosyncrasies start right from her arrival when she arrives dripping wet with her pet goat Lady Bathsheba in tow to the surprise of the Blackthorne Household.
The rest of the story is a hilarious tale of Penelope’s season as she learns London society-etiquette and goes about finding a husband.

When Anya got in touch with me for a review of ‘Penelope’ it was the cover that first caught my eye. With a pink background, a dainty girl and a 4 line introduction to Penelope, it was just so Julia Quinn and P G Wodehouse that I had read it.
And the cover was balanced well with a blurb that completed and sealed my interest in the book.

The plot of ‘Penelope’ is the age old one of a simple naive girl finding her prince charming. However Anya tells it in a refreshing way and I laughed my way through the book as Penelope puts her foot in her mouth and puts herself in a spot repeatedly while prince charming is right there under her nose.

Set in Regency London Penelope’s rustic charms of rural Finnshire stand out and make for a good comparison with the big city, it’s society and it’s people. London with all its rules and stipulations still has its quirks and moments.

Anya has created a set of memorable characters with endearing quirks that I’m going to remember for a while. There’s Sir Henry Woodville with his fixation for moustaches that goes so far as to require a supply of fake moustaches. Lady Bathsheba the goat who adds to every situation with full gusto. Jimmy the Falcon who is a poet, a highwayman, a deer stealer and a burglar of some note. And not to leave out Miss Penelope Winifred Rose Spebbington Fairweather who is at the root of it all!

Along with Penelope we get introduced to a lot of new characters and plots as she makes her way through London Society looking for a husband. However Anya neatly ties up all the loose ends and wraps the story up well with the couple living happily ever after and making lots of babies :)

‘Penelope’ reminded me and left me longing to revisit Wodehouse. There’s clear influence of P G Wodehouse in Anya’s writing and though no one can touch the master, Anya has done a good job and written an enjoyable regency romance with a good sense of humour and comic timing.

If you’re someone who enjoys Humourous Regency Romance, this is a book for you. A great read to curl up with on a rainy afternoon. And don’t forget the hot coco :)

About the Author:
Anya Wylde lives in Ireland along with her husband and a fat French poodle who’s now on a diet she says. She can cook a mean curry, and her idea of exercise is occasionally stretching her toes. Anya Wylde can be reached through her Facebook Page.

Buy On: Amazon

July 23, 2013   No Comments

Review: Woodpie – A Paper-Book Sharing Site

Photo Credit: Andrew Subiela on Flickr

As a reader one of my biggest pain points has always been getting more books. While growing up my biggest challenge was my limited pocket money; my budget still is my biggest challenge.

Libraries helped solve this to some extent through the years but I’ve exhausted a few and there aren’t many left. Ebooks have also helped in price and availability but nothing beats paper books. I belong to book communities like Goodreads to make more reader friends but exchanging books across countries is unfeasible. Well, you get the gist of the problem, don’t you? 😀

Then a while back I heard of Woodpie – a site that encourages the exchange of paper books. This I had to check out.

Woodpie’s main page says that it helps you explore what’s trending, what your friends are reading, find rare books you’re looking for and even make real friends.

Here’s what you get when you login. I’ve filled in a bit of my profile, added some books and a review to see how the site works.

So, How does it work?

As a new user after setting up your profile, the first thing to do would be to add books to your shelf. When adding books you get two options – shelf and wishlist. In both cases you can choose who your book is visible to by adding circles and specific friends names. The shelf option also allows you to mark the book as read, reading or will read.
Circles here work just like on Google+. You categorise your friends into circles that you can then use to share relevant books.

Challenges –

I couldn’t find an invite friend option, and that would have been helpful to reach out to my friends on G+, Facebook and Twitter.
I would have loved an import G+ circles option, since it’s circles here too.

Plus –

Choosing circles and friends gives me privacy control over each book and I like that. No everyone needs to know what books I have and read. 😀

Library

Your library (separate from shelf) is a collection of books your friends have shared with you and all the books members have shared publicly. Basically these are the books that are accessible to you.

If it’s a book you want, you can request it from the main library page. Clicking on the request button gives you a list of people who own the book and options in the mode of exchange.

Clicking on the book takes you to a page with more details on the book, user ratings, reviews and a list of people who have the book. If its a book from your shelf you’ll also see a list of people who want the book and offer it to them with a click of a button.

Challenges –

The book details page does not have a request book button. To request a book you have to come back to the main library page.

Requests

We saw one way to request for books above but you can also request for books directly from on your wishlist. Aside from that there is also a page for all requests, where both sent and received requests can be tracked.

Matches

This is a interesting feature to me as it compares my shelf and wishlist against that of my friends and public and gives me a list of books I can share or borrow. Simply put I can see who owns books on my wishlist and request for them easily. I can also find people to pass a book onto after I’ve read it.

Plus –

It’s a great way to make new friends, share books, and save paper and save money.

Offers

The offers section works just like requests. You can track all your sent and received offers. You can also recall/cancel an offer.

Trends

This section gives you a snapshot of the most active books and members.

My Thoughts –

‘ + + + ‘

On the whole I like the idea and site. I have a lot of books on my bookshelf I’d like to share and Woodpie lets me do just that with relative ease. It also helps me find books I want to read without having to buy them. And all of this helps me make actual new friends and widen my reader circle. This is good stuff.

‘ – – – ‘

That said, the site still has a long way to go. There isn’t a large base of members yet, and that means that there isn’t a large variety of books to choose from. The probability of finding books from your wishlist on people’s shelves is currently quite small. I couldn’t find anyone to borrow Chanakya’s Chant from and that’s a fairly famous book.
The various social networks used by readers are not integrated into the site. I’d like to see options to invite friends, announce book requests & offers and import book lists. Adding books would be easier if I could import a book list from Goodreads, rather than add one book at a time.

Woodpie is a great idea and if there are enough people using it, there’d be a lot of happy readers. I’m going to be watching the site to see how things go.

One question though is picking at me – In the age of ebooks, where we are seeing libraries disappear, can a paper book exchange program work?
Are you on Woodpie? What do you think of it?

July 17, 2013   2 Comments

Book Review: Jacob Hills by Ismita Tandon Dhankher

Title: Jacob Hills
Author: Ismita Tandon Dhankher
Paperback: 259 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (May 2013)
Genre: Murder Mystery
Read: Paperback
Stars: ***/5
Buy On: FlipKart
Summary: (Goodreads)

It’s just another evening at the Tiller’s Club.

Near the bar, Capt. Rana, the Young Officer undergoing training at the War College stands among his course mates, consciously avoiding his pregnant, Muslim wife, Heena. Rumour has it she had forced him to marry her because of the baby.
Saryu, village belle turned modern babe, drink in hand, chats up a YO. Her husband, Maj. Vikram Singh, shoots angry glances at her. She isn’t bothered; the question is, who will she go home with tonight?
Pam and Gary, the flamboyant Sikh couple, chat merrily with the senior officers, charming as ever. Who’d ever guess that they lead the infamous Key Club, an underground swinger couples’ club.
And in one corner stands the Anglo-Indian wife of Maj. George Chandy, Eva, who finds herself at the heart of a murder mystery when a woman’s bleeding body is discovered at the old church under the black cross. The murdered woman’s body is covered with cigarette burns. A six-year-old girl’s wrist is similarly marked. Another little girl shows signs of severe abuse.

Jacob Hills: an army station that houses the War College where young officers receive training. A world of army officers and genteel conversation, of smart men and graceful women. Set in the 1980s – in an India that was at the cusp of tradition and Westernized modernity – this is the story of the ugliness that lies beneath the garb ofJacob Hills’s beauty and sophistication. An ugliness the Chandys find themselves confronted with. Will they uncover the truth behind the woman’s murder? Will their love survive Jacob Hills?

My Review:

Thanks Ismita for offering me your book to read and review :)

Cover: Bright, eye-catchy and a bit gaudy!

Paper and font: Smell-worthy!

Readability, language: : Easy on the eyes!

Why did I choose this book: Army life has always fascinated me but I’ve never read a book about it.

A woman is found murdered with cigarette burns on her body in Jacob Hills. Eva, who has moved here with her husband Maj. George Chandy, finds that Jacob Hills is not what it seems, the army station has a lot of undercurrents with much happening under the surface.
As Eva tries to solve the murder of the woman she found bleeding in the church, she uncovers some dark secrets of the residents – abnormalities in the ordered life of an army station.

Filled with the colours of sunset in the hills the cover is bright, eye catchy and a bit gaudy, but the name made me stop and relook at the book. The blurb is a good snapshot of what to expect and supports the title with a clear pointer to the army station at Jacob Hills.

People and the TV had created this image in my mind of an army station. A place filled with class, finesse and style. Jacob Hills was an insight into what happens behind the glossy veneer of army life. The infallible men are just as human and crass as everyone else.
The story is about a lot of things – a young couple, an abusive man, wife swapping, sexual favours and more. Eva who is a new army wife finds her way around in the army life of Jacob Hills discovering well hidden secrets. Ismita has woven a good plot that kept me reading right to the end.

The book is set in 1980’s India, a time when things were changing and there was a lot of tussle between the old and new schools of thought. Ismita explores the conflicts and emotions of people during that time.
Though there isn’t much place description in Jacob Hills except where needed. It gets balanced by the in-depth descriptions of people and society in the 80’s.

Jacob Hills has quite a few characters telling the story and it took me a while to figure out and remember who was talking and who was who. Though seeing the story through a characters eyes was insightful, I would have preferred fewer characters narrating. It did confuse me.

The story starts out with murder that is followed by instances of abuse, scandal and suicide. There were a lot incidents that I felt would tie up to the main crime but they worked out into different sub-plots in the last part of the book. Though there were no loose ends and each thread was neatly tied up, I was a bit disappointed. The murderer did not make an appearance until the end and Ishmita took me on a wild goose chase though the book. There should have been more of the main murder I think, and less distraction and dilution with irrelevant seperate incidents.

The story is interesting and written well. It seems clear from the story that Ismita has an army background and knows the life well, else she has done her research :)

Jacob Hills is an easy read, though I felt it was more of an insight into army station life than a murder mystery. That said, it is still a book worth reading, and you should check it out.

About the Author:
There isn’t much known about Ismita, but here’s what I found out. Ismita had studied in Sophia College, Ajmer before doing her MBA and working with the foreigh exchange division of Thomas Cook for a short time. She now writes books and poetry full-time. Other than Jacob Hills, Ismita has also written a romatic thriller ‘Love on the Rocks’ in 2011. She blogs her poetry at www.lesserknownpoet.com.

Buy On: FlipKart

July 11, 2013   2 Comments

Review: My Gola – A Custom Trip Planning Site

Photo Credit: Tamas on Flickr

Planning for a trip is the most difficult part of a trip for me. There is just so much research and planning to be done to make sure I don’t miss out on something on the trip. Anything that would make this easier would be a god-send.

There are a lot of tools to help with this online today and I have used some of them. But, I’m always on the lookout for new ones. Here’s where MyGola comes in. MyGola claims to help you create a custom trip in 15 minutes. So, I figured I’d give it a spin.

The site offers three types of sign-in – facebook, twitter and id & pw. The twitter login didn’t work for me though and I had to refresh the page to get the twitter login to register.

Straight up you are asked to plan a trip in 15 minutes. I decided to go with Thailand. Che and I had travelled there last year and so I know a little bit about the country.

The ‘Thailand’ place-search results in a lot of package options. I can either select a listed package or filter the travel packages based on themes, dates and places. Filter it is – so I choose History and Outdoor as themes, days as 10-20 and places as N/A (my choices didn’t make any difference). Here’s the short list of 10 that I got –

One of the things Che and I didn’t get to do in Thailand was visit the hill tribes, so that’s the package I choose to explore. A 12 day Trek to hill tribe villages of Northern Thailand.

My first view of this section of the trip plan leaves me wowed. I like the idea of seeing a day map for each day, it gives me a immediate realistic understanding of distances to be travelled through the day.

Each day of the itinerary has a drop down of places to be seen. Each place when selected shows you a photo of the place and gives you details about it along with more photos and videos. All the places can be marked as either definitely or maybe going.

I quickly went through all the places and selected the ones I wanted. Some I definitely wanted to see and a couple were maybe’s. I ended up with 19 places before I clicked on the ‘See Your Plan’ option.

Here’s what the plan looks like –

The planner is quite neat. It shows the day in timeslots and I could add, move and remove places from it. I could also extend and reduce my time spent at each place.
When I tried to add a place, I got options of places near-by to choose from with details. I could also had an option to add a place that was not listed.
Clicking on each place on the planner to took me to more details about it, there was even a description right here in the block.
Like I said before the planner is neat, it gives you control over your entire trip.

Once you’ve saved the basic plan, you can invite people to edit and refine the plan. If you have questions, you can ask the experts at MyGola. And you can also download the current plan as a pdf, that looks quite handy for travel with maps and other details.

Another way to plan a trip is by using the ‘Start Planning’ option in the left column. This method works a bit differently. You enter the countries or places you want to visit, the number of days you have and the site gives you a recommendations of cities and locations to visit. Mark the ones that interest you with definitely or maybe and you’re back to the planner we saw earlier. This option is great if you don’t want to start with a package and want to plan your trip from scratch.
You can also mark places as favourites and save your plans for future use on MyGola.

My Thoughts –

‘ + + + ‘

The planner from MyGola impressed me. It’s the first planner I’ve seen that gives me so much flexibility, info and help, all in one place. I didn’t finish planning my trip in 15 minutes as promised but I did enjoy spending one hour planning it. 😀
MyGola has a good coverage of the world through tour operators. I found packages for most countries and cities I tried searching for, even those in India.
If you’re looking to plan a trip abroad or to one of the tourist destinations of India, this planner will work well for you.

‘ – – – ‘

There are some things though that were missing. I noticed that not all places had enough relevant photo and video content.
Though you can plan what you will do in each day, there are no details for in-between the days. E.g. I could plan what to do in Bangkok on day one and activities for Chiang Mai on day two but I couldn’t find a way to plan how to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. I wasn’t looking for tickets, but I would have liked to know the distance between places. I also would have appreciated space to add my travel details in the planner, so it would show on the pdf.
Like I said above, MyGola currently works well only for countries and touristy cities. A search for locations or lesser known places will not help much.

I’m looking forward to using MyGola to plan my next international trip. Have you used MyGola before? What do you use to help plan your holiday? Do you have any favourite websites or apps?

July 10, 2013   No Comments