Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (vol. 2)

Originally published 30/07/2017

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!

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8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Originally published 19/03/2017

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read: The Count of Monte Cristo by A. Dumas, The Afrika Reich by G. Saville, The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by R. Winder, The House of Silk by A. Horowitz, The Gospel of Loki by J.M. Harris, I, Robot by I. Asimov, Deception by R. Dahl or Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well this might be a great idea or it might not be, but I thought it might be fun to knock together a couple of two or three sentence book reviews based on a selection from my bookshelf. Who knows, if it’s a hit, I’ll maybe do it again… maybe with movies or TV shows. But for today, it’s books.

I selected the books for review entirely at random. They are not necessarily of the same genre, nor are they necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, compressed, squeezed and crammed into a few short sentences. So, without further ado…

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Justifiably a classic of the genre; a good wholesome historical adventure story and love story rolled into one. It helps to know a thing or two about the period of the Bourbon Restoration to fully appreciate everything that’s going on but don’t let it put you off if you don’t have any knowledge of that period. Oh, and make sure you read the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. It is the best.

My rating: 5 stars

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

If alternative histories and non-stop heart-pounding thrill-rides are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. Personally, I can’t help feeling the protagonist should have died from his injuries- or at least been slowed down enough to be caught and executed by the Nazis but I suppose that’s what we have suspension of disbelief for.

 My rating: 3 stars

The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert  Winder

Historical fiction featuring William Shakespeare as the protagonist. This novel is set shortly after the Gunpowder Plot and tells the fictional story of the last play Shakespeare (never actually) wrote: Henry VII. In some respects, the story is quite exciting; filled with personal danger for Shakespeare and his troupe. While the narrative does drag at some points, it is beautifully written in a way which brings many of the real historical characters to life and is kept afloat by its interesting premise and a goodly dash of humour. It also includes the full script for the fictional play this novel focuses on.

My rating: 4 stars

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Many have tried to capture the magic of Sherlock Holmes in books and films throughout the years. Few have done it as well as Anthony Horowitz does it in The House of Silk, balancing fidelity to the original creation of Arthur Conan Doyle with a fresh and exciting new plot for modern readers. It has everything in it you ever wanted from a Sherlock Holmes story; mystery, excitement, a dark secret to uncover and a quality of narrative which draws you right into the heart of Holmes’ London. Parental advisory: the ending is a lot darker and more disturbing than anything A.C.D. might have written.

My rating: 5 stars

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

This novel is an imaginative reexamination of Norse mythology, given from the unique perspective of one of its central villains: Loki, the god of mischief. This novel is full of sharp and occasionally dark humour and a very compelling antihero. Downsides? The first few chapters felt more like a list of cosmic anecdotes forming a backstory, which made it a slow read at first but it does pick up. I also found the narrative voice of Loki a little irksome, but then again, the Loki character is probably supposed to be irksome so I suppose that’s a good thing.

My rating: 3 stars

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

What can I say about I, Robot that hasn’t already been said? Almost every robot character that has ever appeared in sci-fi since owes something to this collection of short stories which are set at different points in the lifetime of robopsychologist, Dr. Calvin (though she is not a character in every story, the stories are largely told from her perspective). Each story is generally centred around the Three Laws of Robotics (Google it) and the problems caused by human and robot interpretations of these laws. I found the pacing a bit slow occasionally, but all in all it’s a good read and an essential addition to any sci-fi buff’s bookshelf. This book sets the standard for everything modern sci-fi readers expect from a robot story.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Deception by Roald Dahl

As a child, I loved almost everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Deception is certainly not for children but it is an excellent collection of short stories all dealing with theme of lies and deceit. Some of the stories are quite dark (for instance, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ deals with a woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb then feeds it to the police) while others are a little more lighthearted. I loved it. I think you will, too.

My rating: 4 stars

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Lewis is probably more famous for the The Chronicles of Narnia and his assorted theological texts but this book (the first in ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’) is well worth a look anyway. Hard sci-fi fans, don’t waste your time. This is a story about a man who travels to Mars, but Lewis’ idea of space is clearly grounded in his interest in mythology rather than modern cosmology. Treat it as a fairy-tale rather than a sci-fi, though, and it’s a darn good read.

My rating: 4 stars


Phew! Well, that was different!

Until next time!

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The Malice Restored My Faith In Sci-Fi/Fantasy Trilogies

Originally published 05/03/2017

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read The Malice or The Vagrant by Peter Newman is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I was rather reluctant to write a post reviewing Peter Newman’s The Malice (the second book in Newman’s The Vagrant trilogy) for the simple reason that I seem to be constantly bigging up Peter Newman on this site, as well as on Twitter. Frankly, if I keep this up, there’s a very real danger of Penstricken turning into The Peter Newman Appreciation Society (I may have raved about The Vagrant once, twice, or thrice before).

However, a few days ago someone very kindly (but not entirely accurately) referred to Penstricken as a ‘writing tips blog’ when really I intended this site to be for both story writers and their audiences. So, I decided it was time to write a post for those of you who have put up with me rambling about writing week in and week out when all you really want is a book recommendation. And since I have recently finished The Malice, it seemed a logical choice to review it on this week’s post.

Naturally I will try to give a fair, balanced and critical review but you know…

The Vagrant trilogy is arguably the best sci-fi/fantasy series I’ve come across in a long time!* It has made me believe in sci-fi/fantasy trilogies again! I wish the third book would just hurry up and COME OUT already!

… and relax.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s get down to business.

The Malice is the second book in the Vagrant trilogy, based several years after the events of The Vagrant. When I read the first book a year or so ago, I did so believing that it was a stand-alone novel. You see, over the years, I have grown cautious about reading novel series (especially sci-fi/fantasy) from authors I don’t know because I have often found myself getting bored with them by the second or third book. As we know, some series just go on and on and on and on and on forever. Therefore, since there’s nothing worse than abandoning a story halfway through, I tend to think long and hard before picking up a new series. As much as I loved the originality, the poetic language and the vivid world-building I found in The Vagrant, when I learned that it was part of a trilogy I was a little anxious that it might go the way of so many other series I’ve started but never finished.

I was wrong. I devoured The Malice with as much proverbial** relish as I did The Vagrant. I think the reason it works so well as a sequel is because Newman has managed to strike that difficult balance between continuity with the first book and not rehashing the same story all over again. For example, there is a definite continuity in the style of story-telling. Newman’s distinctive voice has carried on into the sequel and draws us easily back into the same vivid and original world he has created. However, the characters are, as always, where Newman really works his magic.

As with the previous book, we have the protagonist who leads the adventure; the protagonist’s companion who supports and defends her and a capra aegagrus hircus (in this case, a kid), who serves in a comedy relief kind of capacity. However, Newman hasn’t relied on reusing the same (or virtually identical) group of heroes as before. The protagonist, Vesper, for example, is a young girl; chatty, a little unsure of herself, optimistic to the point of naivety and with an iron core of purity and unhindered free-thinking that suits her age and background. This is quite the opposite of her father and protagonist from the previous book: the strong and silent Vagrant who pushed his way relentlessly through whatever adversity he encountered.

Her companion, Duet, brings a similarly refreshing spin on the familiar role she plays. She is a Harmonised; an single entity made up of two joined individuals (as far as I could tell). Having been forced to kill her other self in the early chapters of the book, Duet grows increasingly bitter and cynical throughout the story as her health begins to fail her. Again, this contrasts sharply with the companion from the previous book, who served mainly as a very positive influence to encourage the Vagrant on his journey.

It was also good to get something more of the origins and inner-politics (if you can call it that) of the infernals who feature heavily in both books.

This book (both of them, in fact) also beautifully accomplishes something which very few other sci-fi novels do. It draws the reader into a dark and dangerous dystopian world while yet retaining a sense of optimism and even fun; exploring important themes of friendship, compassion (especially in the character of Vesper, who often resolves to help and heal others even at great risk to herself and her mission) and duty. For me, this sets it apart from many other sci-fi stories which are often either unremittingly depressing from the get-go or else are a little too fun to have any realism or tension about them (not that I’m knocking that. I like fun). This gives it a sense of believably, even though it is set in a world that is so completely different from our own.

If I must criticise something about this book (and I really would rather not), it would be that the pacing of the last few chapters could possibly have benefited from a little tightening up. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it did feel a little bit like having dramatically saved the day, Vesper then goes back home via the long and not-terribly-thrilling route which left me thinking ‘I hope something good happens to justify all this excess narrative that’s been stuck on the end’. Well, I don’t want to give away what it is but trust me: something good does happen. It is definitely worth reading on, especially if you’ve got any plans (as I do) to read the third instalment, The Seven, when it comes out in April.

All in all, The Malice was every bit as excellent a story as its predecessor; perhaps even better. While it remains firmly rooted in its predecessor, it carries the story forward in great strides, opening up the possibilities for the next instalment and leaving the reader feeling both fully satisfied and eager for the next one. Go get it!


*Having said that, I have just started The Mistborn series. It’s off to a promising start too.

**Don’t put literal relish on your book. It leaves a stain. LFMF.

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Throwback Thursday: Different Seasons (Book Review)

Originally published 21/02/2016 under the title ‘Different Seasons’

SPOILER ALERT:

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read Different Seasons by Stephen King is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve never been a fan of horror stories (but power to you if you like them) and for that reason, I’ve avoided the work of Stephen King for far longer than is healthy for someone who claims to love a good story. However, on my birthday at the end of last year, I unwrapped not one but two Stephen King books: Different Seasons and The Green Mile (I also unwrapped Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck and a 9 book collection of Poirot novels by Agatha Christie, but that’s not important just now). I haven’t got around to reading The Green Mile yet but if it’s half as good as Different Seasons then I might have just become a Stephen King fan. It’s a fantastic book.

I would offer one word of caution to anyone who, like me, does not usually like horror but is curious about Stephen King: Different Seasons may(!) not accurately reflect the kind of stories King normally writes. As I read through Different Seasons, I was surprised by how relatively mild the horror elements were until I got to the afterword, in which King (1982, p. 672) comments,

I write true to type … at least, most of the time. But is horror all I write? If you’ve read the foregoing stories, you know it’s not … but the elements of horror can be found in all of the tales, not just in The Breathing Method – that business with the slugs in The Body is pretty gruesome, as is much of the dream imagery in Apt Pupil. Sooner or later, my mind always seems to turn back in that direction.

It’s this little afterword which leaves me wondering exactly how King’s other novels compare to this collection. That being said, the four novellas contained in this collection (Rita Hayworth and Shawkshank Redemption; Apt Pupil; The Body; The Breathing Method) certainly have their own dark threads running through them.

I don’t really want to rabbit on about Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption too much since I’ve already raved about it in a previous post but it bears mentioning. It tells the story of a friendship which develops between two prisoners in the Shawshank Penitentiary and of the final dramatic exit of both men from that prison. It features pretty much nothing in the way of supernatural horror elements but neither is it shy about giving a gritty account of life in the Shawshank Penitentiary, where most of the story is set. There are, for example, a few brutal scenes of violence including rape, though these are not overdone in a way which would make the narrative needlessly crude. In fact, I found there to be something strangely heart-warming about the main plot and the way the story ends. What really made this story stand out for me, however, was King’s superb use of narrative voice, as mentioned previously.

Like ShawshankApt Pupil is a story that does not really contain any traditional horror elements. However, it is very dark; the darkest of the four in my opinion. It is set in the fictional Californian suburb of Santo Donato and focuses on a mutually destructive relationship between an elderly Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander (a.k.a Arthur Denker) and Todd Bowden, an ‘all American kid’ with an unhealthy fixation on the Holocaust. Unlike the other three, Apt Pupil is narrated in the third person.

The story opens with the protagonist, Todd, appearing quite uninvited on Dussander’s doorstep, having already learned of Dussander’s previous life as a Nazi and his specific role in the Holocaust. Todd begins by blackmailing Dussander, threatening to expose him unless Dussander tells him gruesome and detailed stories about the Holocaust. The relationship brings out the worst qualities in both characters, eventually leading both to actual acts of murder while their mutual fear of each other forces them to continue their toxic relationship. While this is a little darker than the type of story I would normally go for, I must say that the two main characters are a master-class in constructing complex relationships between characters. Each character is unique, memorable and serves a vital function in the story (as all characters should), yet their relationships are a complex and intricately crafted web of obsession, hatred and interdependency the like of which very few other authors could hope to equal. Despite being darker than the type of thing I would normally read, it is so well written that I would have to say that, along with ShawshankApt Pupil is probably my joint-favourite story from Different Seasons.

The Body, on the other hand, was probably my least favourite of the four. It is written from the perspective of Gordon Lachance; an author, writing about an incident in his youth when he and a group of his friends, all of whom come from dysfunctional families, learned of a dead body which one of their brothers had discovered but not reported to the authorities. Lachance and his friends set out in secret to search for this body so they can ‘discover’ it and become famous. Personally, I found the narrative a little on the slow side compared to the other three novellas and while King’s use of narrative voice in this story was very good, it doesn’t come close to Red’s narration in Shawshank. The ending was also a bit of a let down. On the plus side (if you don’t like anything too dark), it is comparatively light on the physical and psychological violence found in the previous two stories.

The Breathing Method is a story within a story and is probably the closest thing to a supernatural horror to be found in the collection, though any supernatural or fantastic aspects to this story are only hinted at. The story opens with David, the protagonist of the frame narrative, being invited along to a mysterious men’s club by his boss where the members mostly read, tell stories and play pool. The rest of the novella takes the form of another character, Edward McCarron, telling David and everyone else at the club a story about an unmarried pregnant woman he once treated who was determined to have her baby despite the social and financial difficulties this would have caused her. He also tells them about an unconventional method of controlled breathing which he teaches her to use when she goes into labour, which allows him to save the baby’s life when the woman is involved in a fatal traffic accident.

All in all, Different Seasons is an excellent collection and is probably a great place for a first time reader of Stephen King to begin, especially if you’re not wild on horror. More importantly than that, the quality of the writing in all four of these stories testifies to the fact that – no matter how famous he might be for writing horror – Stephen King is no one-trick pony. Different Seasons may be a little on the dark side at points but I would still highly recommend it to even the most avid of horror-dodgers.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, why not help support Penstricken by buying me a coffee? You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterTumblr, Pinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

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You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: The Alloy of Law

If there is one series of fantasy novel I absolutely loved, it was the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, so I felt I was on pretty safe ground picking up this spin-off novel set some 300 years after the events of the original Mistborn trilogy.

This book follows the story of Lord Waxillium ‘Wax’ Ladrian, a lawman and Twinborn who spent most of his life trying to establish law and order in the aptly named Roughs until he is forced to return to the city of Elendel to fulfil his duties as head of a noble house. However when a spate of train robberies and kidnappings leave the local constabulary baffled and Wax’s intended fiancee is also kidnapped, Wax teams up once again with his old partner Wayne (I know…) to save the day with a whole lot of gun slinging and, of course, Sanderson’s trademark magic systems.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And you’re right, it was pretty good.

Let’s start, as we always must, with the most important factor of any good story: characters. As was the case in the original trilogy, The Allow of Law boasts a stellar cast of larger-than-life characters whom you can’t help but fall in love with, especially the four main players: Wax (protagonist), Wayne (sidekick), Marasi (love interest) and, to a lesser extent, Miles (antagonist). All of these speak with their own distinctive voice, have well established and consistent traits which makes them stand out from one another and are reasonably well established in their goals and motives. I really can’t say anything bad about the characters and that alone makes a book worth reading.

Worldbuilding, of course, is something Sanderson is famous for doing well and the worldbuilding in The Allow of Law is no exception. While still firmly rooted in the world he established in the original trilogy, three centuries have passed since the events of The Hero of Ages and the world has moved on into industry, science and all the challenges any society might face while it is on the brink of modernity. It is unsurprising then that an emphasis is placed on crime, law and civil order, however we also get a good flavour for how religion and culture has developed over the centuries in a world in which metal endows some people with magic.

My main criticism of this book is that the pacing was just a shade too fast without much respite. There were a lot of action and fighting scenes, which can be cumbersome at the best of times, and even more so when the reader has to pause to remember what happens when a Coinshot pushes steel or a Bloodmaker taps his goldmind. And let me tell you, there’s a lot of that in this book.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the Mistborn world might want to read the original trilogy first. While the story is distinct enough from the original that it can stand alone, it is nevertheless deeply grounded in Sanderson’s original creation and tends to assume a certain level of knowledge from the reader about the world the story is set in (especially the magic system).

All in all, a fantastic little book. I’m not convinced it’s Sanderson’s finest work (he has set his standards so high) but it’s a good read and a strong successor to his earlier masterpiece.

⭐⭐⭐⭐


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AUTHOR INTERVIEWS:

Due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Ready Player One (Book Review)

Originally published 22/07/2018 under the title ‘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. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (Vol. 4)

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not read The Golden Egg by Maggie Keen, Peedie Puffin by Michelle Robertson, The Jolly Pocket Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg, Tractor in Trouble by Heather Amery or Postman Pat and the Giant Snowball by Alison Ritchie is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s time once more for another exciting edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition! My daughter is almost three now and more addicted to books than ever before, especially picture books with simple stories, and so I’ve reviewed another small selection from her bookshelf for your enjoyment.

You all know how these things work by now. I’ve selected five random children’s books and written tiny little reviews on each of them. As ever these reviews reflect nothing more than my own personal opinions and impressions, abridged, abbreviated and condensed into just a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save the fact that they are all fictional stories for very young children. They are not necessarily books that I or my daughter particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

The Golden Egg by Maggie Keen

This sweet little tale of a duck who longs to find an egg made of solid gold (for some reason) has been one of my daughter’s favourites on and off since she got it. I quite like it too. The protagonists have a clear goal which they try to accomplish only to gain a profound epiphany in the end. Highly accessible to small children and with a beautifully paced rhyming pattern.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Peedie Puffin by Michelle Robertson

A sweet but fairly unremarkable tale about a puffin who decides to go and live apart from other puffins and then changes his mind and goes home. Highly accessible for toddlers but a bit of a bore.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Jolly Pocket Postman by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

If you’re running out of psychoactive drugs during lockdown*, try reading this instead. This story follows the bizarre adventures of a postman who gets caught up in a surreal mish-mash of fairy-tales. The swift rhyming pattern creates a sense of urgency, stressing out both adult and child alike as they try to make sense of what the heck is going on.

*Don’t do drugs, kids.

My rating: 🌟

Tractor in Trouble by Heather Amery

This book is flavour of the month with my almost-three year old right now. Personally I found it a bit of a bore at first but I’m warming up to it and I can see how its simple but inoffensive plot would appeal to a toddler. My only real criticism is about Mrs Boot, the farmer. She is introduced on the first page and then… she never does anything again. Even when Ted needs a farmer’s help, he calls for Farmer Dray instead of Mrs Boot. I mean…. why?

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Postman Pat and the Giant Snowball by Alison Ritchie

This has been a firm favourite of both myself and my daughter since the day she first encountered it. Postman Pat and the Giant Snowball (or ‘The Snowy One’ as my daughter used to call it) is based on the TV episode of the same name. You can’t go wrong with Postman Pat and this book has been lovingly adapted from screen into clear and simple prose in a way which feels natural and remains highly accessible regardless of whether or not your child has seen the TV show.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

DON’T FORGET TO CHECK OUT ALL THE PREVIOUS EDITIONS OF SUPER SNAPPY SPEED REVIEWS
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (Vol. 3)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (Vol. 4)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Edition (Vol. 2)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Doctor Who Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Children’s Books Edition (vol 1)Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition (vol. 2)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Writing Apps for AndroidSuper Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 3)
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Games EditionSuper Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition
Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 2)8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Film
5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews: TV Edition8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: From Waterloo to Water Street

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not read From Waterloo to Water Street by S.E. Morgan is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m going to be completely honest: as much as I find history fascinating in a casual sort of way, I am no historian beyond what I had to study at school (mostly Nazis and the Civil Rights movement) and what I studied in college (church history). And so, as much as I am interested in history, I often find I am hindered by my lack of knowledge whenever I come to read a piece of historical fiction. The world I’m reading about is often too alien for me to truly appreciate the significance of what’s going on, especially if the author focuses heavily on giving a history lecture rather than telling a story of human beings and the things they care about.

That was not my experience with From Waterloo to Water Street by S.E. Morgan: a frankly beautiful piece of writing which is set in 19th century Wales, where the Rebecca Riots are in full swing. In addition to the civil unrest which took place in Wales at that time, this book also draws heavily on the Napoleonic Wars, as one of the main characters (Gu) recounts his own personal memories of serving as a soldier for the British army in those conflicts.

For an entry-level historian such as myself, there is real potential to be bogged down by tedious details which I had little prior knowledge of in a story like this one; and while I am sure a little extra knowledge would have been a boon for me (isn’t it always?), this simply wasn’t the case with From Waterloo to Water Street. Morgan’s character driven writing immediately draws even the most uninitiated reader into the 19th century Welsh country, where desperate farmers are battling for their livelihoods. You really get a feel for the plight of the individual characters (e.g.: Gu’s struggle with PTSD or Will’s conflicting sense of estrangement and solidarity with his own people) as well as the battle that is being fought in the background between agricultural workers and the local authorities.

I have very little to say that is negative about this book. I will concede that the beginning was a little slow as we were introduced to a fair number of characters early on while still trying to understand what was at stake at that point in history but this had very little impact on my overall enjoyment of the novel. Once the story got underway, it was easy to get into the skin of all the main players; to hear their distinctive voices, to understand their motives and to care about what they hoped to accomplish. Gu, in particular, was a deeply complex and well rounded character, so expertly crafted and cooked to perfection that he almost felt like a real person. By the time we reached the climax both in Gu’s memories and in the events unfolding in Will’s own life, I was so deeply involved in the events described in this book that I could not put it down until it was finished.

If you’re wanting to read a piece of intelligent historical fiction with real character-driven substance and a plot which marches decisively towards a satisfying climax, you should read this book. There is no doubt in my mind that anyone who loves a rich story, both history buffs and laymen alike, will appreciate From Waterloo to Water Street for the masterpiece it is.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Click here to read my interview with S.E. Morgan, author of From Waterloo to Water Street.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth

First published: 16/09/2019
SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

This review reflects only my own personal opinions and impressions.

Well last week it was all about children’s books; this week I’m reviewing a book that is definitely not suitable for children. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is a hefty tome about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge in 12th century England. It’s full of lovable and deplorable characters, political intrigue, technical details about medieval construction and just a little bit more sex and sexual violence than was necessary.

One of my favourite things about this story was how well paced it was. Given that this is a story about building a cathedral and is set over a period of several decades, and also bearing in mind that thrillers are Ken Follett’s usual racket, there was a very real danger of this story either being an absolute drag or being inappropriately fast-paced. I needn’t have worried. The blend of fast scenes and slow scenes is beautiful and appropriate, making this lengthy novel a constant page-turner from start to finish.

Now let’s talk characters. I honestly can’t decide if the characters in this story are one of its best qualities or one of its worst. In some ways I liked them. They’re all quite distinctive with clearly defined personality traits and its also pretty clear that each character is driven by firmly established motives and goals. Very good indeed. If we know what drives a character, it’s easy to care about what happens to him, even if the subject matter is foreign or uninteresting to us. This makes The Pillars of the Earth a real page-turner when it could have just as easily been a bore.

When I first began to talk about the idea for Pillars, some people hated the idea. “Nobody cares about building a church in the Middle Ages,” they said. But readers will care about it if the characters care.

Ken Follett, Goodreads Notes and Highlights on The Pillars of the Earth

Having said that, there was also something a little bit tedious about some of the characters (with the major exception of Philip and, to a lesser extent, Jack). The female protagonists are strong and beautiful (oh and Aliena has huge breasts, we’re constantly reminded); the male protagonists are brave and noble and the antagonists are devious and brutal. William Hamleigh, the primary antagonist, is the worst for this. He’s devious, cowardly, violent, greedy and licentious with absolutely no redeeming qualities. But just in case we’re in any doubt that he’s the bad guy, he rapes way more people than is necessary for one story. Seriously, this guy does a lot of raping, pretty much whenever he’s not tormenting the poor or burning villages. The good guys in this story never rape of course, but they do have lots of consensual sex to the point of implausibility. While most of the sex scenes are not explicitly described (though a few are), some of the characters are portrayed as being at it on a several-times-a-day-every-day basis and still find time to build a cathedral, overcome one disaster after another and fight the bad guys. I dunno, maybe they’re just really good at organising their time, but between this and the manifold references to the size of Aliena’s breasts, it sometimes just felt a bit like the authors’ mind was wandering. That’s just my opinion though.

In many respects, this is a story with several different layers to it. There are several protagonists whose stories we follow, each overlapping and interacting with one another while yet remaining distinctive. Tom wants nothing more than to build a cathedral but cares for his family. Jack is a boy who lived in the forest, now growing into a man who is consumed with questions about his deceased father. His very much a coming-of-age type story. Aliena is the daughter of a disgraced earl who has sworn to help her brother reclaim the earldom, and finds herself constantly pulled in all directions by her sense of duty to others. Prior Philip is driven by his zealous faith in God and his sense of righteousness. He tries earnestly to do what is right on earth and to glorify God by the building of the cathedral and yet is in constant conflict with his own sense of pride and self-doubt. These are just a selection of the main players in this story, all of whose individual story-lines overlap and diverge to create an intricate tapestry of skilfully executed fiction. It really is a thing of beauty.

All in all, The Pillars of the Earth is a great story. It’s got plenty of excitement, plenty of sentiment and Aliena has big breasts all of the characters are driven by goals and motives that we really care about. The many threads that comprise the plot are magnificently woven together to form a novel which is well constructed and handles potentially dry subject matter in a way which is enjoyable and entertaining. Worth a look, even if it’s not your usual preferred genre. Just don’t read it to your kids.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: Beyond

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not read Beyond by Georgia Springate is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Beyond by Georgia Springate follows the story of Alex Duncan: a fourteen year old boy who finds himself consumed with anxiety about what happens to us after we die when his sister is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Struggling to cope with the impact of his sister’s prognosis and feeling neglected by his family, Alex turns to the pastoral support teacher, Mrs Moss, who encourages him to research what lies beyond this life while he continues to face the added struggles of every day teenage life: bullies, friends, girls and school.

As always, good characters are what make a good story and Beyond is no exception. Most of the main players are teenagers or young adults and Springate captures the strange dynamics of the teenage social structures as well as the individual goals and motives of each character in a way which feels natural and believable.

The protagonist and POV character, Alex, is by far the best example of what I’m talking about. He is anxious about his sister’s eternal destiny and this motive provides him with a clear goal which he pursues diligently throughout the story; however he is also burdened by the things that all teenagers are concerned with. He learns that the rest of life will not stop for him while he deals with his sister’s prognosis, forcing him to juggle school work, budding romance and the treacherous waters of teenage social structures under inordinate pressure with little support from his parents. Springate has manifested this complex web of life in Alex in a way which is absolutely believable and relatable, creating a character we can really care about.

I can only imagine what a challenge this novel was to write thematically, not just because of the emotive subject matter (though that is also undeniable) but because the protagonist’s goal is so heavily focused on finding out, with reasonable certainty, what happens to us when we die. This inevitably puts the author in the position of having to either come up with a single decisive answer (this would create an instant ‘preachy’ novel which would annoy most readers) or else leave the question unanswered but teach the protagonist something even more valuable in the process. The author has, quite rightly, done the latter and has walked the line between a hard preachy epiphany and meaningless fluffy one as well as could be hoped for.

A story like this one runs the risk of having a meandering pace as the protagonist wanders from one inevitable hospital visit (with more bad news!) to another; one inevitable person with an opinion on death to another; one inevitable encounter with the school bully to another until Jenna inevitably dies and Alex has his inevitable epiphany. Beyond doesn’t feel like that. True, the protagonist does spend a lot of time visiting people with opinions on death and avoiding the school bully, but each scene moves the plot forward, creating a definite sense of anticipation which makes this book unputdownable. No small achievement when a discerning audience should realise from the outset that Jenna is almost certainly going to die and Alex is almost certainly not going to find a decisive answer to his question.

While the main plot is expertly paced and drawn to as satisfying a conclusion as is possible for a story of this type, some of the less central elements of the plot seem to fizzle out a little towards the end, particularly the business with the school bully, Duce. This altogether unpleasant little bully torments most of the other characters throughout the novel, culminating in him leaving a threatening note in Alex’s locker only to suddenly change his ways and become a nicer person in the final chapter. Personally, I think a more decisive resolution to the bullying subplot would have really tightened up the ending.

This isn’t really the kind of book I normally like to read. While I generally reject any advice about avoiding certain subjects while writing a novel, a lot of books of this type are either clumsy and insensitive or else are so overloaded with sentiment that it dilutes the substance of the theme. Not so with Beyond. It is sensitively written, drives the protagonist towards a reasonably satisfying resolution and takes the audience on a coming-of-age odyssey of the full tapestry of teenage life. A strong debut from a promising new author.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. 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/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here: