Book Review – Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder

  • Title: Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder: Scholars and Creators on 75 Years of Robin, Nightwing, and Batman
  • Author: Kristen L. Geaman
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 02/09/2019

Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder is an excellent essay collection about Dick Grayson – Robin, Nightwing, Agent of Spyral, and the heart of the DC Universe. Some of the essays in this collection take a strictly chronological approach – summarizing different eras in Dick Grayson’s career from his earliest days as Batman’s “young sidekick” to the New 52 Era of Grayson. Other essays use a particular lens to examine the character from Freudian psychology to Feminism. Grayson’s relationships with other important characters in his life including Alfred and also the Teen Titans are examined. Finally, the book concludes with interviews with some of the more influential writers of various DC Comics.

I really enjoyed this book, though it took me a while to read parts of it (I never was a fan of Freud and Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin left me cold. So the chapters devoted to those topics were tough going. But, on the other hand, the essay on New 52 including Grayson was very interesting – and I’m not a fan of New 52 either.) I also learned a lot about the history of the character and of DC Comics. I highly recommend this book to Grayson’s many fans, and to anyone who would like to learn more about the character and the history of DC Comics. Each essay is meticulously researched and documented with footnotes.

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Non-Fiction Book Review – Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on Classic Doctor Who

  • Title: Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers
  • Edited by: Robert Smith?
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/01/2018

It took me awhile to finish this book, but that’s not a slight against it. Outside In is a thick book with a unique premise – one unique essay for each episode of Classic Doctor Who plus the TV movie. Every article or essay is written by a different author and approaches it’s subject in a different way. About half to two-thirds of these essays have been published before, either online or in fanzines, but the joy of a collection like this is finding unusual or obscure essays, that, while technically previously published, one never would have found otherwise.

Many of these essays were inspirational or unique or had a different viewpoint on various episodes of Classic Who. Some of the essays, especially for Peter Davison’s Doctor were extremely critical, something I found a bit unfair – as I actually like Davison’s Doctor. But the articles on McCoy’s Doctor pretty much consisted of a uniquely positive look at the last Classic Doctor. Previously, McCoy’s Doctor was ridiculed as a “clown” by fans (based solely on his first episode). But then, Doctor Who fandom goes in cycles, and episodes that at one time were highly criticized – at another time are highly praised and vice-versa.

This is the first book in a series, there is a follow-up volume for New Who, and volumes for Classic Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. This volume is recommended.

Non-Fiction Book Review – Red, White and Who

  • Title: Red, White and Who the Story of Doctor Who in America
  • Authors: Steven Warren Hill, & Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, and Robert Warnock, with Janine Fennick and John Lavalie
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 01/23/2018

Red, White and Who was a book that I massively was looking forward to, from the moment I heard about it at Chicago TARDIS a Doctor Who convention. Every year I’d return to the con, only to find the book had been delayed. Now that it hs finally been published, I am very happy to report it does not disappoint.

Red, White and Who is a history book about Doctor Who in the US and Doctor Who fandom in the US. The majority of the book is also a fast and enjoyable read. I was a bit intimidated looking at a 700-plus-page book that even the author describes as a “history” – but it really was an enjoyable and fun read.

The history of Doctor Who in America goes back to the Peter Cushing film, Dr. Who and the Daleks being shown in drive-ins, often as part of a double or triple feature. The television series Doctor Who was first shown in the US in the 1970s when a small group of independent stations bought a syndication package of Jon Pertwee stories. In the early 1980s, Time-Life sold the series (early Tom Baker) to independent and PBS stations (adding the dreaded Da Silva intros along the way). But it wasn’t until LionHeart sold the series to PBS that it really took off in the US. And this book does an excellent job of explaining the history to some extent of PBS and how it works, as well as Doctor Who‘s history with PBS.

Reading this book is part discovery (I never knew that!) and a class reunion as I recognized names, events, etc. It’s a journey and a fascinating one!

The only part of the book I found to be a little less interesting was the information on New Who and the changes in fandom there. That almost could be a separate book – New Who fans live in a different world of streaming services and binge-watching DVDs. Which isn’t to say “Classic fandom” is better – neither is better, it’s just different.

The book includes a large number of appendices, some of which I read and others I only skimmed or flipped through, but they make the book a great resource and something that will probably live on my desk hutch rather than buried in my bookcases.

Red, White and Who is highly, highly recommended – especially to Doctor Who fans in other countries, it’s a cultural history, a highly entertaining read, and very enjoyable!

Full Disclosure: I acted as regional expert for this book – and communicated with the authors by email with what information I knew. I received an acknowledgement in the book – but no monetary compensation.

Non-Fiction Textbook Review – How to Get Started as a Technical Writer

  • Title: How to Get Started as a Technical Writer
  • Author: James Gill
  • Subject: Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/24/2013

In a sense this book does exactly what it says on the tin, especially if you include the subtitle questions. But that’s why I loved it. As a person in their early 40s looking at a career change, this book answered all the questions I had, and then some. It also confirmed that I had finally made the right choice in finding a career I’d love. Technical writing seems like the perfect career for a perpetual student with a love of writing.

This book is brief (only 70 pages), clear-cut, and full of no-nonsense advice and information. It’s a practical guide, and although the author occasionally uses personal examples, it does not read like a tell-all book or expose’, rather it’s a plain, common-sense guide to the realities of working in the technical writing field. The author is calm, not condescending, helpful, not hurtful, and has no political agenda other than to answer questions from potential technical writers and offer practical help and advice. It makes for a nice change from several of the “career manuals” out there which seem to think anyone investigating a new career is a potential rival who must be shot down – cruelly.

Most of the chapter titles are questions, and the chapter accurately answers those questions. Additionally, each chapter offers “Do This” assignments, which far from being pointless homework, are practical suggestions for investigating the tech writing field, and also in some cases examples of things to do that can be applied to any new career, whether you are a 24-year old new college graduate, or a 40-something looking to try something new. I really wish I had read this book my senior year in college.

Chapters include:
• Who is this book for?
• How to use this book
• My story
• Why become a Technical Writer?
• What is Technical Writing?
• Life as a technical writer
• Five Must-Have Skills
• Should I get more education or training?
• How do I get experience?
• How do I get hired?
• Putting it all together
• Resources
• Glossary

Again, this is a practical no-nonsense career guide. It’s a helpful tool for the new technical writer. Unlike other writing guides and career books I’ve looked at or read, it’s completely free of condescending talk — and avoids re-hashing advice you find everywhere from Monster to The Ladders. And yes, it’s well written.

My highest recommendation. Oh, and by the way, if you are a perpetual student who loves writing – technical writing might be the career for you!

Non-Fiction Textbook Review – Thinking with Type

  • Title: Thinking with Type
  • Author: Ellen Lupton
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Typography
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/29/2015

This book wasn’t what I was expecting – but I enjoyed it anyway. The first section was about the history of typography, which was very interesting but not necessary what I wanted to know. Although to me, with no formal graphic design training, I had always assumed that Graphic Design was like Architecture, a field where the emphasis was always on “the hot new thing” with little knowledge or care for the past (other than the “opposite” effect – that is, new trends tend to rebel against the previous trend.) But as someone completely new to Graphic Design, it was nice to see everything laid out from the beginning of hand-painted and copied Illuminated Manuscripts to modern website design.

This book also has a very easy style about introducing information. It doesn’t say, “Now here are the parts of a letterform – memorise them.” Information you want to know is slowly introduced and teased out as various examples are presented. It made for an enjoyable, and quick read. There are a lot of examples in this book, I hesitate to call it a textbook, though it probably is, because it’s also a fun, enjoyable read.

A couple of frustrations – included in the examples were things called “type crimes”, sort of a “What not to do.” Sometimes the two “good” examples and the “bad” example, side-by-side, made it obvious why the “type crime” was a bad idea. But more often, I found myself wondering why the bad example was so bad. To my, admittedly, untrained eye, it didn’t look any worse (or better, usually) than the good examples. Now, part of the reason I’m reading books on graphic design in the first place is to try to train my eye, so to speak, but I can’t do that if it isn’t explained why Option A is so much better than Option B (and if it really is just personal preference or opinion the author should state so). Rules make a lot more sense – if you know why they exist. And rules can be broken if you know what they are, the reason for the rule, and the effect of breaking it – in art and design.

Another frustration was the inclusion of pieces of typography that, while they may be nice pieces of art, or pretty to look at, or really cool – were impossible to read. I’d think that for any sort of graphic design or typesetting, or typography – Rule 1 would be “Can you read it?” Now some of these frankly illegible examples (and I’m not talking about historical documents) were “Art” pieces – so maybe I missed the point, but in modern pieces – say a poster for an art gallery opening, if people can’t read the day, date, time, and location – How on Earth do you expect them to show up? It’s like those advertisements that you see, and remember for being amusing or strange or unusual or just plain weird – but you can’t remember what the product was, much less what company produces it. And, to my mind, it’s even worse – because in other sections of the book, the author does talk about the necessary utility of design – that is, the importance of it being used, and leading the reader to understand the information better. Ellen Lupton’s section on tables, charts, and graphs is especially clear on the subject of how good design can help make information clearer and easier to understand (or by implication, obscure information or even make it misleading.) There is now even a new field that combines information into graphics – Infographics, which when done well, is accurate, makes the point, and is easy to understand. But when Inforgraphics are done poorly – they are difficult to understand. And Infographics, like statistics, also has the capacity to be very misleading.

Anyway, I just wish Lupton had made the importance of making graphic design, especially when typesetting a book, legible – more clear.

Overall, it was a fun, informative, quick read that I don’t regret purchasing. Recommended to graphic design students.

Non-Fiction Textbook Book Review – Adobe InDesign CC Revealed

  • Title: Adobe InDesign Creative Cloud Revealed
  • Author: Chris Botello
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Adobe InDesign, Software
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 04/08/2015

This was my textbook for a recent class in Adobe InDesign, at a local Community College. I liked the textbook, and I’ve bought two more in the series. The book starts with the very basics of InDesign – the workspace and adaptable panels, and precedes, chapter by chapter, to go through major features.

Each chapter includes numerous project-type examples you can do with the software (if you have it) and learn along with the book. The end of each chapter has a Skills Review – usually assigned as homework in my class, for practicing the skills explained in the chapter, a Project Builder – one or more more involved exercises, that can be added to a student portfolio, and the Design and Portfolio Project – which are further examples for building a portfolio or discussion-provoking questions about a design. In order to successfully complete any of the skills reviews, Design Projects, Portfolio Projects, or Project Builders, you must be able to download and access the data files for the textbook. For me, these were found on the school server, from the path my instructor gave me. However, going from the other books in the series, there are publicly-accessible websites from the publisher for downloading zip files of the data files.

The chapters included good information, and the skills review and other exercises reinforced the knowledge of each chapter.

There were a few things to watch out for, however:

  1. Sometimes instructions referred to skills one hasn’t learned yet, and were in the subsequent chapters – this happened rarely, but was annoying when it did.
  2. Following the skills reviews step-by-step often involved using different methods to accomplish the exact same goal. Though I understand why multiple techniques towards the same end might be taught, it often became either annoying or boring (who wants to do the same thing three times using slightly different methods?); on rare occasions it even became confusing (I thought I did X by using tool Y – now you’re telling me to use tool C?).
  3. Format of the book/skills review. Sigh. It’s a rectangler book, which opens on the skinny side – depending on your desk, it can be hard to work with, compared to a standard portrait-style book. (Try picturing a landscaped Excel spreadsheet verses a standard Word doc). The font in the skills review sections is a bit too small to read comfortably.
  4. Every once in awhile the printed instructions and the pictures did not match. My guess is the text was revised but some illustrations weren’t updated.

Finally, just for me, personally, I would have liked at least some chances to do more creative things, rather than blindly following instructions. I mean, I did try various things out anyway, but when someone hands you a playbox – it’s a shame when you can’t creatively use the toys.

Overall, a great textbook, and, like I said – I ordered two other books in the series. Recommended.

Non-Fiction Textbook Review – The Non-Designer’s Design Book

  • Title: The Non-Designer’s Design Book
  • Author: Robin Williams
  • Subject: Graphic Design, Technical Writing
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 01/22/2015

I bought this book for an advanced Technical Writing class, then ironically had to drop the class because I got a full-time job. I just picked up the book again and read it all the way through.

The good points – this is a quick and breezy book with a lot of examples. I felt most of the examples clearly illustrated the points that the author, an experienced graphic designer, was trying to make.

The bad points – the section on website design was extremely out of date. Recent research on how people use the web emphasizes two things: for websites, san serif fonts are easier to read, especially for large blocks of print (the opposite is true for printed books – where serif fonts are easier to read); and second, although customers hate horizontal (or back-and-forth) scrolling on websites, vertical scrolling is OK. In fact, with the phenomenal growth of tablets and smart phones, vertical scrolling is not only OK – it’s expected.

The author repeats the out-of-date, graphic design advice that “everything has to fit on a standard screen size for a webpage”. That simply isn’t true anymore, in part because there is no standard screen size – a flat-screen monitor may be large and square – or thin and rectangular (widescreen). And then there’s screens which are very small and vertical (smartphone), or vertical and larger (tablet), or even medium sized and horizontal (tablet in landscape mode). Since you have no idea what the viewing screen will be – deciding the “optimum” screen size and designing for it isn’t possible. The latest marketing tools talk about “flowable” screens and “design for mobile”. However, that’s really only one chapter of this book – and the basic design principles probably haven’t changed, especially when designing for paper (books, magazines, newsletters, print ads) etc.

My other gripe was the Mac-Centered nature of the book. Yes, I realize that graphic design was one area that has been traditionally dominated by Apple computer products – but I use a Microsoft Windows PC, and when I use Adobe products (Acrobat, InDesign, Photoshop) it’s the Windows-versions of those products that I use. It was annoying for most of the sample typefaces to be Mac-specific fonts, or the Mac version of fonts because that makes it hard to figure out the specifics of some of the lessons. At least a comparative list of Mac vs. Window fonts would have helped.

Still, I enjoyed reading The Non-Designer’s Design Book and I felt I learned something from it. It also wasn’t overwhelming at all, which is perfect for an introductory textbook.

Here are three recent blog posts all declaring that for on-line use san serif fonts are more readable (serif fonts still rule for paper publications).

What’s the Most Readable Font for the Screen?

Screen Readability

The Best Fonts: Print, Screen, Email

The concept of designing, without design, that is – to allow a website site to flow correctly on any screen size from an extra-large PC Monitor to a small smart phone is known as Responsive Design.