Book Review: Ready Player One

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

‘Enchanting. Willy Wonka meets The Matrix‘ (USA Today). That’s what the little quotation says on the front cover of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

High praise indeed. High enough to make me buy it and read it. But I know what you’re thinking: ‘did it deliver?’

The opening chapters of this novel introduce us to Wade Watts: a super-geek teenage boy living in a dystopian not-too-distant future. He’s bitter, cynical and spends most of his time hiding from his abusive aunt in the OASIS: a (seemingly endless) online virtual reality/computer game. There, he dreams of finding the ‘Easter egg‘ which the OASIS’ programmer created, promising in his will that whoever found it would gain full control of the OASIS and get all of his considerable wealth. There’s also a fairly unremarkable romantic sub-plot thrown in there for good measure (Wade meets a girl on the internet, falls in love with her though he’s never met her, she keeps him at arms length because she’s insecure about something, turns out she’s got a birth mark on her face, Wade still loves her anyway, they meet in real life after thwarting the bad guys, kissy kissy, the end).

In a word, Ready Player One is a good, fun story. Not at all bad for a debut novel. It was a little hard to suspend my disbelief at points, as he breezes through impossible odds just a little too often for my taste (I know he’s smart and I know he’s good at computer games, but come on). Don’t get me wrong though, this book is still a real page-turner. I think geeks, gamers and lovers of retro will probably find it far more enjoyable than the rest of humanity because it is bursting with gaming lingo and references to computer games, TV shows, movies and music from the 1980s, some of which may be lost on the uninitiated, though I think Cline still does a pretty good job explaining everything without too much info-dumping. No small achievement in a story of this kind.

The first-person narrative style was, for the most part, a joy to read and let us get right under the skin of Wade as all good first person narratives should. If I was being hyper-critical about the narrative voice, I would only add that it sometimes felt like Wade spent the whole novel ‘getting the hell out of Dodge’. I don’t know how often he used that expression but… it was a lot. I know people tend to use the same expressions over and over in real life but still…

Anyway, let’s talk bad guys. Innovative Online Industries (led by the unrepentant Nolan Sorrento) are a global internet service provider who are determined to seize the Easter Egg before anyone else so that they can charge people to use the OASIS and use it as an advertising space. Their methods range from the unfair to the downright brutal (blowing up houses, throwing people out of windows and so forth). Absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever as far as I could tell. If you like a bad guy you can boo and hiss at, you’ll love these guys. If you want a bad guy you can sympathise with, you’d better look elsewhere because these guys are b-b-bad to the bone: slippery, devious and with seemingly limitless resources, there is simply no low to which they will not stoop in their quest for the Egg. In spite of this, I actually quite liked them. Yeah they’re a bit two dimensional but… dang, they’re just so much fun to boo at. However, without wanting to give too much away, I will say that I was really looking forward to an epic final battle between Wade and Sorrento and I didn’t really get one. I mean, yes, there’s a battle but it was over before it started. Wade kicked butt, raced Sorrento to the Egg and… got there first. Wade wins. The end. If only Sorrento had had one more ace up his sleeve in that final scene, I would’ve been satisfied but no. He just loses.

Digging a little deeper, I get the impression Cline was trying to build a bit of a theme, paralleling Wade’s search for the Easter Egg with religion; or at the very least, with higher causes in general (for instance, consider the way Wade treats Anorak’s Almanac almost as if it were some kind of holy scripture). I’m not sure if this was deliberate but I think it was. It’s the only explanation I can think of for the lengthy ‘religion-is-stupid’ diatribe in chapter one, and for the devout Christian minor-character who appears just long enough for Wade to compare the Hunt for the Easter Egg to Christianity:

I never had the heart to tell her that I thought organised religion was a total crock. It was a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going– which was exactly what the Hunt was for me.

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, ch. 1

It’s either that or he was soapboxing. Possibly both. Either way, it was a good idea for a theme but it could’ve done with a bit of work. It kind of fizzles out without reaching any conclusion that I can see.

All in all, a great story. A little weak on a few technical points, but an enjoyable read and an enthralling adventure all the same. And yes, it is vaguely reminiscent of Willy Wonka and The Matrix.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what blows your nose.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Author Interview: Sharleen Nelson (part 2 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

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If there’s one thing I love, it’s a truly imaginative story. As a story about a time travelling private detective, The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson definitely fits that category!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharleen, whose debut novel The Time Tourists is available to buy on Amazon and other retail outlets. This is the second half of that interview. Click here to read the first half.


Let’s talk some more about your characters. Teddy is probably one of the most messed up characters I’ve ever come across. He’s absolutely vile in many respects and guilty of some pretty awful crimes yet there is also something pitiable about him. How do you go about developing a character like that?

He started out being just this borderline sociopathic neighbourhood bully with a kooky mother. We do feel sorry for him at times because, after all, he is this sort of confused teenage boy who wants to be good–he is envious of Imogen’s family. He would like more than anything to be their boy and have a normal life. But on the other hand, his mother has been doing unspeakably vile things to him since he was a child. He knows he will never be able to recapture that innocence and he also doesn’t feel like he deserves to be loved and he takes all that rage and pent-up anger and directs it at Tiffany. But just when he was beginning to feel better about his life, she shows up with the news that she is pregnant. He liked his job. Niles was mentoring him. He was thinking about a career. But Tiffany ruined everything. His reaction was obviously to get rid of her. In developing Teddy, I read up on sociopathic behaviours– antisocial behaviour, deceitfulness, hostility, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, risk taking behaviours, aggression, impulsivity, irritability, lack of restraint–and combined that with a narcissistic, abusive mother–and voila! Teddy.

timetouristsYou mentioned earlier that Imogen had her own opinions about things. Throughout The Time Tourists, the audience is privy to a lot of Imogen’s strongly-held beliefs about a whole range of controversial subjects from abortion to Darwinism. Do you think it’s important for authors to use their protagonists to make points on important real-life subjects?

I think every author’s approach is different. Each author has their own story to tell. I don’t know that it’s necessarily important, but for me personally, I think addressing real-world topics makes my characters more believable. I read something the other day about the movie Dirty Dancing. Everyone loves that film and it always feels like this very light, entertaining outing about dancing. However, the entire premise for Baby and Johnny getting together at all is because she is called upon to fill in for his usual dance partner after she falls victim to a botched, illegal abortion. I also think that if my characters are going back in time I have a responsibility to provide context and comparison.

If they ever make a film adaptation of The Time Tourists, who would you choose to play the lead characters? 

Haha, I actually have thought about this–what author hasn’t? I sort of envision Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss in The Hunger Games) or maybe Emma Watson (Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter)– both seem like strong, feminist-type women. For Herbert Doran– Michael Shannon. He is so intense and awesome. Simon was actually based on a sort of Robert Downey, Jr. prototype, but I think we’d need someone a bit younger for the role. Not sure about Teddy– a method actor, for sure!

The Time Tourists is, of course, the first book in the Dead Relatives Inc. series. Now I know you won’t want to give too much away but I have to ask: what’s next for Imogen? 

Imogen will have more adventures in time, of course, but there are a number of loose ends– her mother and father are still lost in time and we may never know what happened to Tiffany, or will we? I envision Mimi Pinky playing a larger role in this second book. Simon will have to also become acclimated to living 100 years in the future and as the new guy in Imogen’s life, I envision some conflict between he and her ex-boyfriend Fletcher. There will be a few other surprises that I’ll keep under wraps. I also see some danger ahead.

Final question: do you have any advice for anyone out there who might be thinking about writing their first novel? 

Forget an audience. Write for yourself and don’t censure yourself. What do you like to read about? When I was a little girl, I enjoyed it so much because I was basically telling myself a story. Enjoy the journey. Just like the reader, as the writer I keep going so I can find out what happens next. Say what you want to say and write what you yourself would like to read.

The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is available to buy now on Amazon and other retail outlets.
Click here to visit Sharleen Nelson’s author page.

MISSED PART 1 OF THIS INTERVIEW? CLICK HERE TO READ IT.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what interviews your author.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Until next time!

Author Interview: Sharleen Nelson (part 1 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

31949641_10103880103049296_8630631606152855552_n

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a truly imaginative story. As a story about a time travelling private detective, The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson definitely fits that category!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharleen Nelson, whose debut novel The Time Tourists is available to buy on Amazon and other retail outlets. What follows is part one of that interview. Be sure to check back next week for part two!


You’ve been a journalist and an award-winning photographer for over twenty years. What made you decide to write a novel?

I have always been a writer, ever since I was a little girl. I used to spin stories in my head, complete with an array of characters and dialogue. I started one novel and got about 40,000 words into it, but then couldn’t figure out what to do with the characters, so abandoned it. This particular story started percolating about 10 years ago. My father had died recently and I was pretty devastated. I thought that getting lost in a nice little fantasy might be good therapy.

What was the main inspiration behind The Time Tourists?timetourists

Well at the time I was working as a magazine editor/writer at this place called Marathon Coach– they build these million dollar luxury buses. Anyway, in the bathroom were framed prints of local street scenes from around the turn of the century– people walking, doing things, cars and buggies. I remember looking at those and thinking, ‘how cool would it be to just be able to walk into that picture, into that scene and be a part of it.’ I love history. I’m a photographer, and if time travel was real, I would totally do it! The combination of things just sort of meshed and I started forming the story. I didn’t want to deal with the tech part of having a time machine; I wanted it to be more of a magical thing, so that when my character arrived somewhere in time, the universe just filled in everything for her.

Did you find anything particularly difficult about writing this novel?

Yes, I wanted it to be more character-driven, less science fiction. I guess you could say it’s more of a fantasy, but it doesn’t really fit neatly into either genre. I guess you’d call it ‘speculative fiction’. The most difficult part of writing it for me was letting myself get bogged down with plot structure. I knew the story. I never have writer’s block at all, but I wasted a good deal of time organising and reorganising and moving chapters around–should I weave in the backstory? Should it be chronological? Finally, I just decided that I needed to write the damn thing and worry about that later. Once I did that, it all sort of fell into place.

When I first read the synopsis I thought I might be getting a sort of sci-fi/cozy mystery combination but there are actually a lot of different and sometimes very dark themes running through this story making it quite hard to categorise (definitely not a cozy, however!). What would you say was your central theme(s)?

That is a great question! You’re right, it isn’t the cozy tale that one might expect. Of course, as every writer does, I drew things from my own life and I wanted Imogen to be this very real, complex person with opinions about things. I didn’t want to just send her off on adventures without the audience knowing what motivates her. So much of it evolved as I was going along. It’s true what people say, that sometimes characters seem to have minds of their own. Teddy is a very dark and twisted character. He came about from an experience I had when I was 19. I was majoring in psychology and for a time, I volunteered on a crisis line. The phone calls were routed to my home phone and I had a list of resources to recommend to people who called in. One night, a 16-year-old boy called. I wasn’t supposed to counsel anyone, just refer them, but he started telling me this horrible story about how his mother was abusing him sexually and that she would let him use the car if he slept with her. Of course, that stuck with me and not only did it make the reader feel more sympathetic to the Teddy character, he wasn’t all pure evil, but also showed that abuse comes in many forms. It’s not always male perpetrators. I also wanted to explore themes like religion, misogyny, feminism, or what it’s like being a gay person in another time. So I’m not sure that there is a central theme. I just wanted to create characters that the reader could maybe identify with, who have real motivations and real flaws.

COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2.

The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is available to buy now on Amazon and other retail outlets.
Click here to visit Sharleen Nelson’s author page.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what snaps your photo.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Until next time!

The Collapsing Empire: A Review

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

As ever this review reflects only my own personal opinions and impressions.

When I first heard about John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire, I thought ‘that sounds like my kind of book’. I love a good space opera and the manifold positive reviews I read all suggested that was exactly what I was going to get, so I thought it was a safe bet. But I’ll be perfectly honest. I have mixed feelings about this book. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of stuff I absolutely loved about it, but there was also plenty of stuff I wasn’t so keen on.

First let me say that Scalzi’s world-building is top-notch. It’s hard to be original, interesting and scientifically not-too-ridiculous when writing a space opera but I think Scalzi has done an excellent job balancing these three. There is a certain homage paid to the tropes found in classic space operas like Star Trek, Star Wars and especially Dune but this is by no means a cheap knock off of any of those. In this story, Earth has long since been abandoned and humanity now lives in a galactic empire called the Interdependency. The various worlds of the Interdependency are thinly spread across the galaxy and joined together by the Flow (this story’s answer to hyperspace; a naturally occurring network through which vessels may travel from one place to another, kind of like a space-subway) and have been carefully organised so as to be interdependent on one another for resources. Trade in the Interdependency is controlled by various Guilds who each have their own government sanctioned monopolies. And now, horror of horrors, the Flow is beginning to collapse and society as we know it is about to end. I love all that stuff. That stuff’s brilliant.

Not only do I like what Scalzi has created, but I also like how accessible it is for the reader. Sometimes when you read sci-fi, you have to take notes to figure out just how the heck everything works when all you really want to do is enjoy the story, but that’s not the case here (although I thought the scene where the guy at the university lectures a group of school children on how the Flow works was a bit of a cheap trick). However, apart from the accessibility of the speculative elements, I found myself a little but underwhelmed by the overall writing style. Don’t misunderstand me, it was okay but all the reviews I had read suggested it was going to knock my socks off. I thought it was decidedly alright. The narrative is fast paced but not in a way that is dizzying or confusing. There are generous dollops of humour in his narrative which, although not entirely to my taste (when I read ‘explody bits of metal’, a grimace the closest thing to mirth I could manage), nevertheless make the book a pleasant enough read.

The characters are, in some respects, very good indeed. Each one has clearly established goals which derive from their individual motives and these shine through consistently, making it easy to get to know who’s who, what they want and why we should care about them; whether it’s the slippery Nohamapetans, the potty-mouthed Kiva or the reluctant but faithful Emperox– all these well researched characters form the foundation of this story and drive the story along in a way which is both believable, compelling and satisfying. I do think he could have improved these, however, by working a little bit harder to create distinctive voices for each character to bring out their individual backgrounds and personalities more fully. As it is, the characters’ voices can be divided into two categories: the ones who don’t swear much and the ones who swear like a sailor who just stood on a Lego brick.

My biggest complaint about this story is the ending. Or, to be more precise, the distinct lack of ending. It’s a ‘buy the next book!’ ending. And that makes me never want to buy the next book. Yes, yes, I know it’s the first in a series and I know we need to have something to look forward to in the next book, but I nevertheless would have liked a bit more resolution on some of the main issues in this first instalment.

All in all, a strong enough piece of work if space operas are your thing and you don’t mind excessive profanity. Just make sure you’re prepared to buy the next instalment before you go spending any money because this is most definitely not a book which can stand alone and apart from the rest of the series.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what collapses your Flow.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

The Well of Ascension: A Review

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Final Empire or The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Some of you might have fallen into the trap of thinking I only ever do really short reviews because I do them so darn often [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]. But I vowed at the start of this year that Penstricken was going to feature more reviews and that’s just what I intend to do. So, here we have it: my full scale review of The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson; the second book in the high fantasy Mistborn series. As ever, this review reflects only my own personal opinions and impressions.

Before I begin, I just want to say one thing about the series as a whole. It features two of the most complex but beautifully constructed systems of magic I have ever come across: Allomancy and Feruchemy. I love these magic systems. I don’t have nearly enough time to explain in any detail how these work so for those of you who haven’t read the books, here’s a link to the Mistborn wiki’s articles on Allomancy and Feruchemy.

Now, down to business.

In the previous book (The Final Empire), the street urchin Vin discovered herself to be a powerful Allomancer and joined a crew of thieves who led a successful rebellion against the “god-like” Lord Ruler of the gloomy Final Empire. Now that the Lord Ruler is dead, the Empire is fractured. Various lords come against the capital city (Luthadel) amid rumours that it contains a wealth of atium: one of the most valuable Allomantic metals there is. Vin, her crew and her boyfriend-turned-king quickly find themselves living in a city under siege by forces they cannot possibly overcome.

Did I like this book? Yeah, I did. Sanderson set himself an incredibly high standard in the first book, The Final Empire and while I don’t think The Well of Ascension quite lives up to that standard, it’s still a pretty strong sequel.

As well as an excellent magic system, this book also boasts a strong cast of characters. I often find the characters in some high fantasies to be a bit samey and it can be difficult to remember who’s who. Not so in The Well of Ascension. It’s easy to see each character clearly in my minds eye as I’m reading; their backstories are well researched and they all have recognisable motives and goals. If I’m being critical, I would say that some characters — particularly Vin — have perhaps changed a little too dramatically since the last story but not in a way which seriously ruins things. While I agree it’s important for characters to grow and change, I do think she has taken a little too naturally to being the king’s consort, while in the previous novel she was a cowering street urchin, still haunted by the memory of her abusive brother. She does have inner demons in this instalment, but they seem more largely focused on her destiny and whether or not she deserves Elend’s affections. On the other hand, I did enjoy how Elend himself developed from a scholarly and naive king to someone who, though technically deposed, nevertheless takes charge of himself and shows himself to be a true king in every way that matters. Through adversity he learns and becomes a better man, which is what you want in any good guy’s character arc.

The dialogue is not bad, though could do with a polish. The individual character’s voices are not terribly distinctive, making it sometimes difficult to remember who is speaking (with the possible exception of Tindwyl and, to a lesser extent, Clubs). In a similar way the narrative itself is decidedly alright. Sanderson’s use of language is accessible without being infantile, allowing the reader to easily step into the misty grey Empire with its red sun and constant ash-fall. However, the pacing did sometimes drag a little bit. My main beef in this regard was with the fight scenes. There’s a lot of them, they’re often very long and tend to focus a little too heavily on the details of who’s burning what metal and what they’re pushing or pulling against. More than anything, these are the scenes which caused me to switch off because — irony of ironies — they often caused the narrative to drag more than the intentionally ‘slow’ scenes.

The plot itself excellent, with several complicated and important social, political and religious themes weaved throughout in a way which is not too in-your-face. I don’t want to give anything away but it essentially involves a struggle for power after the demise of the Lord Ruler, a few prophetic mutterings hinting at a much larger picture and a surprising twist at the end which will have you eagerly reaching for the third book. There is much more emphasis on the personal needs and feelings of the individual characters, most of whom were once fairly anonymous individuals who now find themselves at the centre of their Empire’s political turmoil. The romantic subplots could perhaps have done with a little bit more unpacking but they were there in the form of a love-triangle (of sorts) between Vin, Elend and Zane and a short-lived (but far better written) relationship between the two Keepers, both of whom were previous victims of the Lord Ruler’s controlled breeding program.

All in all, a strong sequel. And I don’t normally like sequels. Not as good as the first, but still pretty darn excellent.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what burns your atium.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

5 Sci-Fi Tropes I Could Live Without

Among the many styles and genres of fiction which I enjoy, I must unashamedly confess to a particular fondness for popular sci-fi and fantasy. Yes I know it’s all just unrealistic escapism into a nonsense world of space adventures, suspiciously human shaped aliens and humanity being conquered by the very robots we built to help us but still… it’s fun. And you know… fun’s allowed, even if you like serious literature.

All the same… there have to be limits. But for some reason, sci-fi is just chock full of certain clichéd tropes, some of which are so very ridiculous that it frankly beggars belief that they ever became clichés. The others are just plain done to death. What follows are some of my (least) favourites.

The Holographic Hook

You’ve got to write a space opera and are struggling to come up with an exciting opening scene to draw the audience in from the very beginning. Solution: an exciting space battle! Ships firing at one another, hand to hand combat between aliens and humans, lasers, explosions–

Then an admiral calmly walks onto the scene and ends the simulation. It was all just a holographic training exercise!

This kind of scene, made famous by the Kobayashi Maru scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (and then repeated time and time again in one form or another), gives the audience a burst of excitement that has very little bearing on the story which is to follow. The best it can do is foreshadow some internal conflict the protagonist may face later on in the story.

Please… it’s been done too often. Put some effort in and come up with a proper hook for your story.

Is That You Clive?

You’re alone on an abandoned space station or a spooky castle. Or maybe you’re just home alone, meticulously colouring in your colouring-in book on a dark and stormy night. Suddenly you hear something… something rattling, hissing, banging… perhaps even a sinister inhuman voice whispering your name.

You spin around wildly.

‘Is that you Clive?’

No. No, it’s not Clive. It’s never Clive. And really, ask yourself, is this the sort of thing Clive normally does? If it is… you need to dump Clive and get yourself some nicer friends. Just saying.

Just once I’d like to read or watch something where the victim doesn’t automatically assume that the scary noise is their friend pulling a cruel prank on them. Or better still, just once, I’d like it to really be Clive pulling a cruel trick. At least I’d be surprised.

Hey Clive, Are Those New Horns?

Something terrible has happened to Clive. He’s being controlled by an alien or replaced with a robot duplicate. His behaviour is erratic. His speech has become strange. His eyes have turned luminous green and he has grown horns.

And no one really notices until it’s too late.

My personal favourite example of this occurs in the Doctor Who episode, Rose. Rose returns to her boyfriend’s car to find he is now made entirely of plastic and is talking funny. And what does she do?

Goes out for dinner with him. She suspects nothing until the Doctor fires a corkscrew straight through his skull without injuring him. And she’s supposed to be his girlfriend.

Sigh. 

We, The People of Earth…

So it finally happened. Aliens have made contact with humanity. They may have come in peace or they may have come laser guns blazing, but one way or another, it’s first contact day for the people of Earth.

You know Earth, don’t you? Seven-point-four billion different versions of the truth, spread across one hundred and ninety five independent sovereign states (to say nothing of those who want to break away and start their own nation or conquer others) all gathered together on one planet, unable to agree on even the most trifling of matters?

A whole host of different political ideologies, systems of government, international treaties and religious beliefs, and yet when the aliens finally come, humanity all rallies around a single leader, or at the very least, sets aside all their differences. Usually it’s the President of the USA, except in Doctor Who where it can be just about anyone except the President. In any event, I have a sneaking suspicion that if aliens did make themselves known to us today, humanity would not respond with a single unified voice, or even two or three differing voices. Call me cynical but I think it would probably be chaos.

Ask yourself this. If aliens landed on Earth today:

How would Donald Trump respond?
What about Kim Jong-Un?
What about Angela Merkel?
What about ISIS?
What about the Pope?
What about the World Health Organisation?
The Scottish National Party?
The British National Party?
Richard Branson?
Kim Kardashian?
The writers of Doctor Who?
The guy that sells the Big Issue in the town centre?

You get the idea.

Magical Alien Artefacts

I don’t really have a problem with functioning magical artefacts if you’re writing a fantasy, set in a world of magic and myth, rather than a sci-fi set in space and/or the future. At its core, sci-fi (even silly popular sci-fi) tends to speculate on the advancement of technology and science, rather than the possibility that magic might actually work. If we are assuming that magic is not real, as sci-fi tends to do, we have to ask some serious questions about why it would work on an alien planet.

‘Ah, but, you see, it’s not really magic!’ I hear you cry. ‘It’s just technology that seems like magic!

But if it’s just technology… why dress it up like magic? Star Trek is very guilty of this. Whether it’s the legend of the Tox Uthat (a quantum phase inhibitor which appeared in TNG: Captain’s Holiday), or Vulcan mythology concerning the psionic resonator (TNG: Gambit), there just seems to be no end of magical artefacts in space which are actually just very clever technology. Technology made of stone. Stone technology that does magic. Heck, some even involve meditating and muttering incantations.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • Everybody knows how to fly every kind of spaceship in the universe, even if it is of completely alien design.
  • Everybody knows everything about science.
  • Rough alien taverns. Just once, give me a classy alien wine bar.
  • With just a slight modification to the engine/shields/BBQ grill, we can do some sci-fi magic to save the day!
  • The bad guys believe emotion is a weakness and that is their Achille’s heel.
  • Love conquers all (exemplified in the Doctor Who episode Closing Time, where Craig is turned into a Cyberman then somehow manages to turn himself back into a human simply because he hears his baby son crying… as if he was the first parent the Cybermen ever upgraded. Seriously, I preferred it when the Cybermen’s greatest weakness was gold).
  • Universal translators.
  • Legendary technology, planets or lifeforms which really do exist.
  • Having a weapon of mass destruction called ‘The Weapon’. By all means call it the Super Zappy Death Ray, but don’t call it The Weapon. Use your imagination and give it a name.
  • Shooting the control panel/monitor shuts down everything on the entire spaceship, unlocks every locked door and/or disarms the Weapon.
  • Snippets of news reporters telling the general public how to survive the alien invasion. I repeat, do this to survive the alien invasion!
  • Jeanie who works at the shop is actually THE PROPHESIED CHOSEN WARRIOR QUEEN OF ALL THE MULTIVERSE and she doesn’t even realise it.

Well that was a far from exhaustive list but I’m glad to have got it off my chest anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment below and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reverses your polarity.

Until next time!

The Joy of Re-Reading

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” — C.S. Lewis

Good old Jack. He was a wise man.

But you know, the funny thing is that until recently, I hardly ever re-read books. I watched my favourite TV shows and films over and over and over again (seriously, my Star Trek DVDs are going to catch fire if I keep re-watching them the way I do); I listened to my favourite music over and over again; why, I even laugh at the same jokes more times than I really should. And in spite of the fact I consider myself to be a bookworm who prefers books to all of the other pleasures listed above, somehow I had gotten into a habit of never re-reading anything, no matter how much I liked it.

I didn’t really start to think about all this until recently, when I ran out of unread books. I had just finished Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories for the first time and suddenly found myself without anything new to read. I had a look around online to see if I could find a new book but I was struggling to decide what I fancied and… well, frankly, I didn’t have time to wait. I needed something to read now. So I returned to my bookshelf and picked up The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Winder; a book I had read once before.

I will admit, I was reluctant to open it again. It’s not that it was a bad book. I remembered really enjoying it the first time I read it. I just didn’t expect it to thrill me the way a good book should, since I had already read it once before and knew everything that was going to happen. Imagine my surprise when now, halfway through re-reading it, I find myself every bit as enthralled by it as before.

I had forgotten, you see, that the thrill of reading a story is not simply finding out what happens. I would argue that it is not even predominantly in finding out what happens, though it is obviously an important part of reading a story. There is a certain ineffable pleasure to be had in reading a good book, watching a good film or even listening to a good song which far transcends simply memorising how it goes. It’s the whole experience of the voice of each character, the clever turns of phrase and the poetic weaving of language which transports the reader from their own life into the life of the protagonist. Literature is an art-form that makes you think, makes you feel and — perhaps more than any other art-form — puts you right in the shoes of another person. That’s stimulating, no matter how familiar you are with the plot. As cake does not cease to be delicious simply because you’ve had it once or twice before, a good book does not cease to be a good book simply because you’ve read it once or twice before.

Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I think I can tell you exactly why I stopped re-reading things. I had succumbed to the very thing I so despise in others: reading, not for the joy of it, but so that I could show off to my friends, family and all of you who read my blog just how widely read I was.

When I was a child, I didn’t have this problem. I used to read and re-read a strange combination of Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Star Trek novels. An unlikely and somewhat narrow jumble, perhaps, but it was my jumble. I didn’t read so that I could tick off all the books I’d read on those horrible blog posts you get with titles like ‘100 Books All SERIOUS Bookworms Will Read Before They Die’, nor did I read so that I would have something impressive to tweet about on #BookLoversDay. It didn’t even occur to me to try to read a certain number of books in a single month or year. I read for the sheer joy of it, and as a result, I naturally  found myself re-reading those things that brought me the most pleasure. If I concentrate, I can probably still quote you a few passages verbatim from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the B.F.G., for the simple reason that I just couldn’t get enough of those stories.

Am I advocating wilful narrow reading? Of course not. The wider you cast your net book vouchers, the more good books you’re likely to discover; books that you’ll really want to read again and again. You’ll find that different authors and different genres all have their own unique flavours to enjoy which you can mix and match however you like, so I definitely encourage you to explore what’s out there and fill your head with a wide variety of books. But for goodness’ sake, don’t let snobbishness towards what kinds of things you read, how widely you read or how fast you read rob you of the joy of reading. Read widely. If you find something you like, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of reading it again and again for as long as it pleases you to do so.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you did and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s your flavour.

Until next time!

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, Different Seasons by Stephen King, Curtain by Agatha Christie or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books, TV shows and films, and now it’s time to return for a second helping of super snappy book reviewsAs before, the books I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing book collection and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all books. They are not necessarily books that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionssquished, sliced and diced into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

As much as I like fantasy, I’m also picky about it. Fortunately, this book (the first instalment of the Mistborn series) has it all: a richly imagined fantasy world, compelling characters, an excellent magic system and a plot which kept me glued to its pages from beginning to end. Best of all, Sanderson has obviously understood that while good world building and detailed magic systems are important elements of fantasy, it is characters that really count when it comes to writing a good story.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Speaking of fantasy, this book (the first instalment of Pratchett’s Discworld series) is arguably one of the most imaginative books I have ever come across. The characters are compelling and there is a goodly dash of wit spread throughout this rather dream-like narrative. My only complaint is that while the world building does demonstrate something of Pratchett’s superhuman imagination, the time spent he spends explaining the minute details of his world (and the additional time required for the reader to assimilate it all) does drag the pace down to a crawl at certain points.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

At the risk of being flamed to death… I found A Game of Thrones a bit of a drag. No, wait, hear me out! It’s got a lot going for it! There’s a lot of different characters’ points of view represented in the book which made it more true to life (though a bit more difficult to follow; just who is the protagonist in this story?), strong world-building, a good plot it’s just… I don’t know. I found myself getting bored as I read it. I’ve not been able to bring myself to read the next six books yet. Maybe I’ll watch the TV show one day and see what all the fuss is about.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck can do no wrong. This little novel is about a small but tactically important coal mining town which is taken over by a battalion from a non-specific nation (reminiscent of Nazi Germany) who are at war with England and Russia. It is essentially a story about freedom, democracy and oppression, crafted with the kind of fineness of style that only Steinbeck can produce. Read it now.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Different Seasons by Stephen King

This collection of stories by Stephen King includes, among others, the classic Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. In true King style, most of these stories have a dark tone to them, although I wouldn’t really have described any of them as horrors or fantasies in the truest sense of the word (although The Breathing Method does include certain fantasy elements, I suppose). I loved, loved, loved Shawshank. The Body and The Breathing Method were alright too. Apt Pupil was also very well written, however it did focus on a young boy with an unhealthy obsession with violence and his toxic relationship with a Nazi surgeon. Personally, I found it a little too dark for my tastes.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Curtain by Agatha Christie

In this, the final adventure for Christie’s famous Belgian detective, we see a Hercule Poirot (now very frail and elderly) who has been drawn back to the scene of his first adventure to solve one last crime before it even takes place. The mood is somewhat more melancholy than in earlier Poirot novels and I must admit… I found the ending just a little bit ridiculous, given the otherwise serious tone of the book. It feels a bit like Christie came up with a compelling mystery but then was unable to imagine a good way to resolve it. In a word, an okay read until you get to the end.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in this little volume. Jekyll and Hyde is, of course, a classic tale which has justifiably earned a familiar spot in modern culture, even among those who haven’t read it. The Merry Men was okay, although I found Stevenson’s rendering of the Scottish accent difficult to follow (and I’m a Scottish person myself!). Markheim and Olalla were both enjoyable enough little reads with (not too) dark undertones. Janet Thrawn was decidedly tedious. The Treasure of Franchard, with its larger than life characters, was easily my favourite.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Well, I hope you enjoyed these itzy-witzy book reviews. No doubt we’ll do it all again soon! Why not comment your own thoughts on these books below? Or maybe you could give us a short review of something else that you’re reading? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to ‘like’ it and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you fancy it.

Oh, and be sure to come back next week for the next instalment of 6 ‘SIX WORD STORIES’ FOR THE 6TH.

7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

Need Help Deciding What to Read?

Someone recently asked me how I decide what books I want to read. Good question, I thought. The truth is, I find choosing new books (and new TV shows, movies and everything else) exceptionally difficult. As a rule, I try never to immediately follow a sci-fi with another sci-fi or a mystery with another mystery but that still leaves me spoiled for choice.

Blurbs are, of course, useful pointers to give you a hint as to whether or not a story might appeal to you but just because a story has an interesting synopsis doesn’t mean that it’s been well written or that it will appeal to your particular tastes.

As you might expect, the internet is ready and eager to try to help. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of three websites that give you customised book recommendations.

Goodreads

Let’s get the most well known one out the way first.

To be honest, Goodreads is much more than just a website for getting book recommendations. It’s more like a social network for book-lovers. However, unlike Facebook, Twitter and all the other more general social networking sites, Goodreads allows you to build a library of books you have read, want to read and are currently reading. It will then give you recommendations based not only on what you have on your ‘shelves’ but also based on the reviews you give them. If you give a book a very positive rating, it will recommend more books like it and vice-versa. It will also organisation your recommendations based on genre. So, if you read a lot of sci-fi novels and a lot of murder/mystery novels, but never read romance novels, it will give you separate recommendations for sci-fi and mystery… but nothing for romance.  If you don’t like what it suggests, it’s easy to tell it that and it will adjust future recommendations accordingly.

It’s also easy to link your Goodreads account to Facebook, Twitter and WordPress and has a large enough community of its own that you can find plenty of other user reviews about each book.

The only downside I can find is that its recommendations can often be a bit hit or miss, so be sure to read user reviews before blindly buying the books it recommends.

What Should I Read Next?

If you can’t be annoyed with all the bells and whistles of Goodreads, you might want to give ‘What Should I Read Next?’ a go.

If all you want  to do is get recommendations based on a particular book you like, you don’t even have to register. Simply type in the title of a book you liked and boom! It’ll give you a long list of similar books you might want to try (when I searched for Brandon Sanderson’s The Final Empire, it came up with a whopping fifty recommendations – only three of which were written by the same author).

However, if you want to refine your search parameters, you can register with your e-mail address and make up a list of your favourite books. One you have done that, you can search based on some or all of the books in your list.

Another way you can refine your search is by choosing what it is about your favourite book that you are looking for in a new book. For instance, when I told it I liked The Final Empire, I then had the choice to search for books about courts and courtiers, woman revolutionaries, magic, heroes, imaginary places, etc.

Whichbook

Unlike a lot of websites I consulted on this matter, Whichbook does not simply try to find a book ‘similar’ to one you have already read and liked. Instead it asks you what kind of book what you want to read. There are two different approaches you can take to this.

The first approach involves using sliding scales to tell Whichbook exactly what kind of feel you’re looking for in a book. Do you want a long book or a short book? An easy book or a demanding book? One with lots of sex or one with no sex? Happy or sad? Safe or disturbing? There are twelve such sliders to choose from (though you can only use four at a time) by which you can specify exactly what kind of book you’re after and it will give you recommendations based on what you tell it.

Alternatively, you can ditch the sliders and ask it to search for books with a particular kind of main character (the choice of details includes race, age, sexuality and gender), a particular plot type and/or a particular setting (in which you can choose from any country in the world or ‘imaginary’). You can mix and match these details as you see fit and it will make recommendations accordingly.

Whichever approach you decide to use, each recommendation comes with a mini-synopsis to help you make a more informed choice. You can also make lists of books in a similar way to Goodreads.

The major drawback is that you cannot specify a particular genre or author you’re fond of.


I hope you find some of these suggestions useful. I’m always looking for new things to read and watch (I won’t lie to you; the main reason I wrote this post this week is because I was looking for something new to read myself) so if you can recommend any other good review or recommendation websites, do let us know in the comments section!

Until next time!