Review: Unspotted by Justin Fox (short e-book, non-fiction)

unspottedIn summary: Worth picking up. Here’s the Amazon link and here’s the publisher page with all the other ways to get it.

One of my favourite books ever is Douglas Adams’s (yes, that Douglas Adams) Last Chance to See, a travelogue-quest to spot rare and endangered species around the world and which predisposed me to love the first-person account of chasing after animals in the wild in order to save them.

Unspotted by Justin Fox fits into that genre with an added twist (or bonus, if you are me and taking care of a 4 year old post-surgery as well as renovating 1/4 of your home for the arrival of your mother-in-law.) It’s a short e-book: 40 pages.

Fox recounts his time spent chasing after the elusive Cape Mountain Leopard at the side of zoologist Quinton Martins, founder of the Cape Leopard Trust. Seven reasons I give it a thumbs up:

  • Chasing leopards around is a pretty cool activity and Fox brings the reader inside the experience with a lot of rich detail.
  • The pacing of the book is pretty good; it does sometimes feel like it could have been a longform article but for the most part there’s not a lot of extraneous information, or a lot of gaps.
  • I got a good sense of the zoologist at the centre of the story, Quinton Martins. There are a couple of moments that made me want to go meet him, which is a gift in any story.
  • I learned a lot without ever feeling lectured to, with the possible exception of the scene that actually is a lecture.
  • There’s a strong sense of place without (mostly) being overwrought description.
  • Pictures!
  • It feels candid on the truth side of truth-telling, and controlled on the telling side…in other words, Fox (who is not a novice writer) is providing a true tale, well-told, or at least that’s the sense I’m left with as a reader.

Three ways it could improve:

  • I didn’t come away with a strong sense of Fox’s interior journey beyond details like mud in his shoes. This could be a feature for people who find The Serpent and the Rainbow-type books to be self-indulgent writing, but because the narration was quite close first-person, I expected a bit more. I felt a bit like I missed some of the journey, or like this was a smaller piece of a larger work.
  • Occasionally I felt pelted with adjectives/adjectival phrases, particularly in the opening chapters. It settled down well once the story got rolling.
  • I think Fox is a strong enough writer that he could have dropped the chronological narration and moved some of the stronger anecdotes to the start of the book or at least the start of a chapter. I mention this not just editorially but because my understanding is that as a money-making enterprise, e-books sold through Amazon are increasingly compensated for whether people actually read through them. I found some of the strongest material was buried at the end of the book.

Publishing digression: And with that last point I want to talk a bit about why I volunteered to review this book. I think the idea of small e-press publishing original works is a great compromise between “free” and “writers don’t get compensated and The World Ends.” But it doesn’t work if people can’t find them or aren’t talking about them, so I’m pleased to be a part of the conversation.

This particular book didn’t sell me on the format in the sense of wow, were it not for novella-ish-length e-publishing this completely perfect gem wouldn’t have been the ideal shape to bring me joy but given the crazy summer I am having, it absolutely was the best length for me as a reader.  And it costs less than a latte!

Here’s the handy publisher link if you want to check it out. 

Disclosure: I received a free review copy and I’m an Internet fan/supporter of Annorlunda Enterprises which is a startup enterprise publishing short e-books.

Byte sized #8: Healthy online communities edition

I’m a weird reader in that sometimes I read just the comments on things like advice columns; the actual advice is that not relevant to me but watching people duke it out over social norms is my reality TV fix.

One of the best jobs I’ve had was at the now-something-else 50Plus.com watching retirees chat and post on our forums. (Pro tip: People do not necessarily get wiser, but you can love them anyway.) But how to maintain great online communities can be tricky, even when you invest resources into it–which many sites do not.

This post over at Autostraddle about healthy online communities and the struggle to maintain them as we’ve moved from a homepage culture to a Facebook culture is pretty great, outlining top issues and their response to those issues.

There have been a lot of analyses of the big Reddit meltdown but I pick Davey Alba’s summary at Wired. I’ll also point you at Gina Bianchini’s piece for Re/code solely for the phrase “control is not an option.” Any brand manager or editor worth his or her salt knows that once you forget about the reader, you’re in hot water. But in online communities it’s your animator/moderators who are your bread and butter. When I was playing PernMUSH lo so many moons ago, I learned this one the hard way.

Josh Dzieza’s profile of The Awl at The Verge is a great read but buried in is this important quote which I would summarize as “communities of interest are currently winning, just not your community”:

The transition from media hosted on websites to media built around social platforms is more profound than people realize, Herrman says. As more content is published directly onto Facebook, users will gradually lose a sense of who’s producing what. The most consequential journalism becomes just another unit of content in a single stream of music videos, movie trailers, updates from friends and relatives, advertisements, and viral tidbits from sites adept at gaming fast-changing algorithms and behaviors. Readerships that seem large now will turn out to be as ephemeral as Snapchats.

And finally, an oldie but a goody…Internet Commenter Business Meeting

Byte sized #5: The Traffic Factories and more

If you’re fascinated by how journalists/sites/brands get content online and measure its success, Caitlin Petre’s report The Traffic Factories: Metrics at Chartbeat, Gawker Media, and The New York Times at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is totally worth a read. A tip of the hat to Jim Romenesko’s blog for that one, lo these months ago.

Navel-gazing but still fun: J. Freedom du Lac reports on ‘LOVE SUPREME’: How newspapers played the landmark gay-marriage decision at The Washington Post. It’s a lovely roundup but I found the Facebook rainbow tool and even the WordPress Pride header I’m looking at equally fascinating. It was definitely time.

We have a coyote in our neighbourhood; do you? Drew Nelles looks at the issue over at The Walrus. Also spotted at the Walrus: A username “TooManyCrayons.” Love the name but spent way too many seconds figuring out whether you really can have too many.

I saw Inside Out and it was really great. After Up I guess we all know Pixar can tell a life story in a short montage. Here’s the little memories clip.

Byte sized #2: Reply All and the Girl Guides, plus bonus Alanis

This week’s Reply All, episode #28, Shipped To Timbuktu, made me cry. Find out how adults running Girl Guides, to loosely quote one of the interviewees, “saved the childhoods” of children living in a concentration camp. Not even kidding.

#ICYMI: It’s Gen X theme week, probably because everything is suddenly turning 20. Soraya Roberts over at Hazlitt looks at the making of Alanis Morissette.

Even though Father’s Day is over, Lindsay Popper’s How to Love Your Father When He’s in Prison for Child Porn on Narratively has stayed with me. (Trigger warning)

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Featured picture: Girl Guides: Eating Watermelon, circa 1924-1934. Photographer: Unknown. Archives: Girl Guides of Canada -Guides du Canada via Flickr.