Book Review: Mark of the Raven

SPOILER ALERT:

Anyone who has not read Mark of the Raven by Morgan L. Busse is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I love a good old fashioned high fantasy set in faintly medieval inspired magical worlds and Christian fantasy Mark of the Raven by Morgan L. Busse promised to be exactly that. The protagonist, Lady Selene of House Ravenwood, has the ability to enter and even manipulate the dreams of other people and stands to become the head of her royal house. As she learns, under the cold instruction of her mother, to use her gift to spy upon and even assassinate the enemies of her house she becomes torn between the dark destiny set before her and the dream of a more peaceful way of life.

In general, an enjoyable book. I liked it. It didn’t knock my socks off but it was okay.

Most of the drama in this story focuses on Selene’s own internal conflict. Oh, yes, there’s an apparent threat to the Great Houses from the encroaching Dominia Empire but this never really matures into any direct conflict for any of the main characters. Instead, the main characters are simply squabbling about how best to deal with the threat of invasion, or indeed, if such a threat even exists. That side of things, however, is fairly by-the-by, for which I was immensely grateful as it could have become incredibly boring otherwise. Selene’s internal conflict about her own destiny and whether or not she can (or even should) carry out her mother’s instructions for the sake their house and their people is far more interesting, and the author very wisely focuses on this throughout and it is this particular arc which is concluded by the end of the novel. As part of a series, the conflict with the Dominia Empire and the break-down of relations between the great houses is left very much open and will, I trust, be fulfilled in the following instalments.

The world-building was strong, if not particularly mould breaking. It was easy to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of Rook Castle and the Magyr Mountains and the history of the world is also well developed and feeds directly into the story in a way which seems natural and believable. I did feel like the religions practised by the main players (in particular the followers of the Light and of the Dark Lady) were a little underdeveloped, which seemed like an especially odd thing to leave so half cooked in a Christian fantasy. On the plus side, this prevented the story from feeling obviously preachy. Indeed, I have a sneaking suspicion that the true allegory lies in the inter-house politics and the Dominia threat, where I suspect the different houses possibly represent church denominations and the Dominia represent all the forces of hell or something along those lines. If that is the case, however, it is not delivered in a way which ruins the story or makes the reader feel preached at. The author clearly knows how to incorporate theme effectively.

My only major criticism of this novel is that it was a little predictable, especially the outcome of the relationship between Selene and Damien. Pretty much from the first moment we saw the noble and true Damien, servant of the Light and all round good guy (who certainly wouldn’t ever dream of marrying a lady of Ravenwood!), I knew he was going to end up marrying Selene. I was not remotely surprised by this and I frankly got a little fed up waiting for it to happen, especially given Selene’s obvious attraction to his soul and Damien’s fascination (though certainly not love or desire, no sir-ee!) with her. I will say this however: exactly how the two characters got from ‘stranger’ to ‘husband and wife’ stage wasn’t quite how I expected it to happen and it was, therefore, still worth reading.

Speaking of characters, the main players in this story (specifically: Selene, Damien, Selene’s Mother and, to a lesser extent, her father) are fairly well developed, if a little unremarkable. They are all distinctive enough and driven by clear motives to accomplish specific goals. There are loads of other characters (twenty four if the ‘character list’ at the start of the book is to be believed), each distinctive enough in their own ways, however some of them feel a little superfluous, as if they are only there to make up the numbers at the summit.

All in all, an easy enough read with jut enough excitement and intrigue to keep me going, but a little predictable at points and slow to begin with. If you like Christian fantasy, you’ll probably enjoy it in a ‘no fuss’ sort of way. Even if you’re not particularly interested in religious fiction, you’ll probably still enjoy this book well enough without feeling like its intruding on your beliefs. A nice, safe bit of easy reading fantasy.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what marks your raven.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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TV Review: After Hours

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not seen the British sitcom After Hours (2015) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

My wife and I’s Now TV subscription will be coming to an end in a few days and, in an effort to save a bit of money, we shan’t be renewing it. Consequently, we’ve taken to cramming in a lot of short TV shows from Now TV to get our money’s worth. Thus, you’re going to be getting quite few reviews of TV shows over the next couple of weeks starting with the little known* British sitcom, AFTER HOURS

Well then, what can I say about After Hours? In many respects, this six episode British sitcom defies a lot of the requirements for good telly and yet I really enjoyed it.

Willow (Jamse Tarpey) hasn’t long finished school and plans on going travelling with his girlfriend Jasmine (Georgina Campbell). However, when the first episode has barely started she meets up with him in a cafe just long enough to dump him. Lauren (Jaime Winstone), who is working at the cafe, tries to comfort the dismayed Willow, and as they are talking it is revealed that she is one of the hosts of Willow’s favourite internet radio program, After Hours. She is delighted to learn that someone actually listens to and enjoys the show, and so she and her co-host Ollie (Rob Kendrick) invite him to work with them on the show, broadcasting from Lauren’s longboat on the canal.

This show contains only the absolute minimal required suspense, drama or conflict. In fact, it probably contains less than is required to make a genuinely good TV show, even for a sitcom and yet… it has a real je ne sais quoi about it, that makes it very pleasant to watch, like cuddling up on the sofa in a thick duvet. Most of the characters are friends with each other. Even Willow and Jasmine’s new boyfriend are reasonably civil. Whenever one character suffers, the other characters rally around and support and help each other. Willow’s parents want him to get a real job instead of working for free on After Hours. But they see it’s important to him, so they let him do it anyway. Willow’s father (Ardal O’Hanlon) wants the family to boycott the local supermarket. Money worries drive both he and his wife to secretly get jobs there, however this never climaxes in a shocking discovery or any sort of marital strife. The most ‘dramatic’ part comes in the final episode where Lauren and her ex-boyfriend/bandmate reunite to do a one-off gig. They sleep together, fall out and cancel the gig at the last minute. But no problem! The gig goes ahead anyway with a little help from Lauren’s friends. It’s a huge success and everyone’s happy again.

I mentioned that it’s a sitcom. Perhaps you think what it lacks in drama, it makes up for in eye-watering laughter. But I’d have to say no to this as well. It had funny bits, don’t get me wrong, but it was hardly a rip-roaring, side-splitting odyssey of mirth. It was the kind of funny that makes you smile rather than laugh. It was a really, really nice program that gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

I realise I’m making this sound frightfully dull but it wasn’t. Believe me, my wife and I enjoyed every last minute of it and were sad when it was over (though I suspect if it had gone on for too long it could have become boring; I think it was just the right length). If life’s getting you down or if you’re just sick to the back teeth of intensely depressing TV and you’re looking for a bit of comforting escapism, I can highly recommend this show.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Footnotes:

*Seriously, I had to really hunt for this on IMDB when I was doing my research for this post.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

App Review: Tomato Typewriter

They say there’s nothing like a deadline to increase productivity; a notion I, personally, have always found to be true. So, if you’re the sort of writer who enjoys writing on your Android tablet or smartphone but need the threat of a deadline to get you going, Tomato Typewriter by Zest Works might just be the app for you. This elegant little app encourages non-stop writing by punishing you whenever you stop writing, either by deleting your words (gradually or all at once) or playing an annoying sound.

You begin each session by customising the session’s rules: specifically, whether or not you want a timed session, your session targets and what kind of threat you want for stopping. Then, as soon you hit that ‘start’ button, you just write like fury until your time elapses or you reach your target word count, depending on whether or not you opted for a timed session. If you pause while writing, a clock will appear on the screen to warn you that you’re about to be punished. If you don’t continue writing immediately, you will indeed be punished. When you successfully complete a session, you will be given the option to carry on writing with or without threat of punishment. Your work is then saved to the app for you to share, copy to clipboard or delete as you see fit (you won’t be able to edit a session once you have closed it, however).

So, let’s have a closer look.

The first thing I would say is that this app is very easy on the eye and highly intuitive to use (this alone makes it stand head and shoulders above more famous tools of this type, like Write or Die). Even a dafty like me can download it and immediately start using it to its fullest potential without wasting any time trying to figure out where everything is or how to use it. There are also no ugly adverts popping up all over the place.

Like most writing apps these days, it boasts a choice of ‘light’ or ‘dark’ themes and the font size and style are also adjustable to suit your preferences. You can also choose to enable or disable a visible word count, time remaining and threat warnings. All very useful, though I would point out that the visible time remaining/word count actually appears as a very thin gauge at the bottom of your screen, just above the keyboard. It doesn’t give you a specific count with numbers you can clearly understand. In fact, it’s so subtle that when I first tried it out, I thought the feature wasn’t working at all; but it is working. It’s just very discreet.

One more big selling point for this app is that it’s free. Truly, honestly, free. Not ‘free but with locked features you need to pay for’ or ‘free as long as you watch twenty minutes of adverts’. It’s completely and utterly free!

I have only one real criticism of this app(and it’s certainly not a major deal breaker): there is no obvious way to directly export your work into a standard text format which you can use on other apps. All you can do is ‘share’ your work on another app and save it from there. Apart from being a clumsy approach to exporting your work, I also found that many of the apps I use for creating text files weren’t actually compatible with the Tomato Typewriter. I got an error whenever I tried to share my work to JotterPad, Polaris, and even Google Docs. It did, however, work like a charm with Writer Plus.

All in all, this is a beautiful little app. It does what it says on the tin with no fuss and just enough bells and whistles to make it do everything you might want it to. If you’re looking for a timed writing app which punishes you for not writing and doesn’t break the bank then look no further. This is the one.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what times your tomatoes.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Review: The Orville (season 1)

As a lifelong Trekkie (who has been profoundly disappointed by Star Trek: Discovery) I’ve been really curious to see what The Orville was all about. I’ve heard a lot of folk talking very positively about this show, even claiming it fills a Star Trek void in a way the most recent Star Treks fail to do.

High praise indeed. My curiosity was piqued. And so, late for the party as usual, I watched the trailer for season one before deciding to buy the DVD.

I won’t lie to you. I bought it with a certain trepidation. The trailer made it look a bit too spoofy for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good spoof, but it’s been twenty years and I’m still in remission from Galaxy Quest. Had it not been for the great reviews I found online, I probably wouldn’t have taken this gamble.

Lucky for me, I did. Season one was brilliant. Yes, it is a comedy spoof in some ways, with subtle-as-a-phaser-on-kill references to all your favourite Star Trek tropes, but it also retains something of the drama and depths that made Star Trek great.

So, that’s enough about how it compares with Star Trek. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

This series begins with Captain Mercer being grudgingly offered the captaincy of a starship after a year of wallowing in a pit of despair after he caught his wife, Cmdr. Kelly Grayson, in bed with a blue alien. He’s thrilled to be in the captain’s seat again– until he discovers his ex-wife is his first officer. The ensuing story arc concerning their working relationship is predictable but enjoyable nonetheless. The other characters are also reasonably well developed, largely playing on your favourite Star Trek tropes (an artificial lifeform who doesn’t understand humour, a burly alien with a grim countenance and so on and so forth) but distinctive enough in their own right.

The first episode or two seemed a little heavier on the immature spoof humour than the rest. Off-beat gags about how frequently aliens need to urinate, whether or not the navigator was allowed to bring drinks onto the bridge and how badly framed the Krill commander appeared on the view screen while he threatened to destroy the Orville jarred slightly, however as the show wore on it began to develop a much more even balance of humour, drama and suspense, seasoning each story with humour rather than depending on it to carry the narrative.

Critics have largely slammed this show’s mixture of drama and comedy, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit the pattern for your typical spoof or a sci-fi drama, but instead mashes them together in a way which is, perhaps, a little unusual. But this show isn’t your typical spoof. It’s a homage to Star Trek by someone who clearly loves the show and wants to do it justice; as such there are episodes which tickle you, others which have you on the edge of your seat and others make you stop and think. I don’t think it’s a flaw. In fact, I liked that about this show. It made it stand out among other tedious spoofs and depressingly grim actual Star Trek shows like Discovery. “Majority Rule” for instance (easily my favourite episode of the season) brings together a well measured dose of humour and a plot the audience could really care about. There was something at stake. Lt. LaMarr was in real danger and we cared about his plight while also bemoaning his hilariously cringe-inducing attempts to save himself. I think this episode even has something to say about real life and the negative impact of social media on the modern world. It’s everything a meaty but light-hearted TV comedy drama should be.

I will say this against the first season: some of the stories have slightly disappointing endings. I don’t want to get too detailed and spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it so I’ll just give one example of what I’m talking about. Be warned, there is a big stinking spoiler coming up in this next paragraph. Ready? Here it comes:

In the episode “If the Stars Should Appear”, the Orville crew discover a massive ship with an artificial biosphere inside: grass, trees, cities and farms. The people living there have never seen a night sky because the ship’s roof constantly displays a day sky. They do not realise they are on a ship and, apart from a small and fiercely persecuted group of heretics called Reformers, they all revere a deity called Dorahl. Social tension is at boiling point between the Reformers and the established theocracy. Then in the final moments of the episode, the Orville crew find a way to open the ship’s ‘sunroof’, thus allowing the inhabitants to see a night sky and proving the Reformers right. Good night. The end. Mission accomplished. All social tensions resolved, truth wins over ignorance and…

Yeah. This is a dissatisfying ending, no denying it. It was too easy. You can’t just flick a switch and resolve centuries of false belief, social tension and theocratic dictatorship. Remember, these guys have never even seen stars. What do you think would happen in real life if the sky was suddenly replaced with something bizarre, like brickwork or something. Rioting, surely. Certainly not a quick fix to the main conflict that’s blighting society. Not only was it hard to believe, but it’s also one step away from deus ex machina, which is unforgivable even in a comedy. And there are a few episodes which end like that.

I do have one more complaint about this series. Sometimes, especially on the more serious episodes, key issues will be left hanging and are never referred to again. For instance, it is strongly implied at the beginning of one episode that Bortus and Klyden are having marital difficulties, as Bortus leaves for work in a huff while Klyden whines that he feels neglected. Given that in a previous episode they had recently been to court over whether or not their newborn should be given gender reassignment surgery (being female is considered a birth defect on their world), I naturally imagined that this was going to be an on-going part of the story arc but… it wasn’t. It was never referred to again and that was pretty much it.

All in all, a very enjoyable show. There’s probably a lot of good reasons why the critics can find fault with it at a technical level but if you just take it for what it is — a bit of Star Trek inspired fun — it’s a thoroughly enjoyable show. I loved every minute of it and I will certainly be purchasing season 2.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what opens your pickles.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

App Review: Character Story Planner 2

Search for ‘writing apps’ on Google Play Store and you will be spoilt for choice by the results. Everyone and their granny seems to have produced an app to help writers draft or plan their stories, most of which I personally don’t find very helpful. Nevertheless there are a few diamonds in the rough to be found and today I want to tell you all about another one I recently discovered: Character Story Planner 2 for Android by Ifantasia.

In fact, the name of the app is somewhat misleading. This app is much more then a simple character planner. You can use it to work out pretty much all of the little details that go into creating a world for your story: characters, settings, magic systems, scenes, timelines, the works. Everything short of actually drafting your story.

One of the best things about this app is the generous supply of preset templates for creating character bios, relationships, settings, groups, objects etc. Most of these are pretty detailed and, with a bit of work, can help you to knock together all the essential details you need to build your world and your characters. You can also easily download templates created by other users. While none of these templates can be customised, you can create and modify your own templates from scratch. This can be time consuming, but is probably worth the effort if you’re not satisfied with the default templates.

At first glance, the timeline function may appear to be a good way to plan out your chapter outline, but don’t be deceived. Whenever you create a scene on this app, you include the date the events take place on. So far, so good. This information is then used to automatically compile a timeline, which also includes key dates from character bios etc, such as characters’ birthdays. However there is no way to organise what order scenes will be actually presented in, making it a pretty poor substitute for a proper chapter outline. It works best simply as a means of organising the history of your fictional world (as I suspect it was really intended for),

If you really, really, really want to use this app to draft your story, there is a ‘script’ function tucked away under the ‘story’ tab of your project. Each script you create is essentially just a block of free text without any bells or whistles whatsoever, which could possibly suffice as a place to draft your story if it weren’t for one glaring problem: there is no obvious way to export the text or to compile it into a single manuscript. Personally, I only use the script function for taking notes, not for writing my actual story.

The general layout seems to assume the author is writing fantasy. Under the ‘world’ tab of each project, there are specific sections for detailing magic systems, deities, creatures, flora and so forth. Of course, if these are irrelevant to your story, you can just ignore them and use the other sections to write any genre you like so it’s not really a problem.

There are ads, though these can be easily avoided by turning off your data/WiFi when you use the app. I haven’t personally found any obvious bugs so far, though I feel compelled to point out that there are a lot of reviews on Play Store by other users complaining about some pretty annoying sounding bugs, including ones which delete most of your work. Perhaps these bugs have been fixed or perhaps I’m yet to encounter them. Only time will tell (I’ll maybe let you know!).

All in all, a useful tool with bucket loads of potential. There is, perhaps, a bit of scope for development but when it comes to world building, this app is still well worth a look.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what builds your world.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Game Review: Toonstruck

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not played Toonstruck (1996) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Back in the ’90s, point and click adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Broken Sword were far more popular than they are today. Nevertheless, they still retain a devoted fan-base who enjoy the pain of walking around the same level for hours or days at a time without making any progress and then falling off their seats with delight when they discover a ‘pickupable’ object they don’t know what they’re supposed to do with.

I count myself as one of them. I guess one of the things I like about them is that they are so heavily story driven. They’re not like first person shooters where you can pretty much ignore the story (though I do love a good first person shooter after a hard day at the office). The game is the story, and you have to engage with what’s going on in order to move the story forward.

So today, I’m going to review an often overlooked gem of the genre: Toonstruck (1996).

The game begins in the ‘real world’, where a successful but despondent cartoon animator by the name of Drew Blanc (I know) has been assigned the task of creating new characters for his immensely successful Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show; a cartoon filled with cute bunny rabbits. Despite the show’s success, he despises those sickly sweet rabbits and is struggling to complete the job he’s been assigned. While he is sitting there, despairing of his life, his eye alights on a picture on the wall of a not remotely cute rabbit: Flux Wildly. Wild, irreverent and sarcastic, The Flux Wildly Show was Drew’s first creation, one that he believed would bring him fame and success but never saw the light of day.

Suddenly, just as morning is breaking, he finds himself sucked into a cartoon world, populated with characters from The Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun Show and of course, his old pal, Flux Wildly. But this is a world divided. The innocent cartoons of Cutopia, where everything is insufferably cute and child friendly, are being threatened by Count Nefarious, ruler of the Malevolands, where everything is weird, dark and sinister. The evil Count has developed a weapon (the Malevolator) which allows him to transform cute cartoons into ugly and nasty cartoons, thus giving him the ability to conquer Cutopia and turn it into one big Malevoland. To stop that from happening, the King of Cutopia hires Drew and Flux to find the parts to build a counter-weapon (the Cutifier) and so begins your adventure in this surreal and colourful cartoon world.

All in all, the story works well. A lot of critics have accused the dialogue, humour and characters of being dated and unoriginal but I personally feel that they may have missed the point. It strikes me that this game was meant as a homage to a classic ‘Loony Tunes’ style of cartoon which is now little more than a distant memory and which was probably already on its way out by the late ’90s; and if this is the case, it has accomplished it masterfully.

This game boasts a wide cast of diverse characters (many of whom are voiced by surprisingly famous actors including Christopher Lloyd, Ben Stein, Dan Castellaneta and Tim Curry), none of whom feel under cooked in any way– not even the minor characters.

If I have one criticism of the overall story, it is this: that towards the end of the game, the story seems to unravel a little bit, which may be owing to the fact it was originally intended to be a much longer game. For instance, Drew is injected with a chemical to turn him into a cartoon, but this doesn’t really come to anything. The story would have worked just fine without it. It would have also been nice to see him succeed with The Flux Wildly Show (the game ends with him pitching Flux to his boss as a companion for Fluffy Fluffy Bun Bun, only for his boss to talk him down and angrily reject the idea). It’s not enough to spoil the game, but it feels like the loose ends were tied up a bit hastily.

One more thing: I would suggest to anyone considering buying this game for their children (because it’s been rereleased on Steam) that it might not be quite as child friendly as it first appears. There is quite a bit of adult humour which, although reasonably subtle, might not be suitable for children of a certain age. The most blatantly adult scene is one in which a perfectly cute cow (Marge) and a perfectly adorable sheep (Polly) are struck by the Malevolator. When you visit them after this, you find that ‘Mistress’ Marge is now chained to a ‘Wheel O’ Luv’ and ‘Punisher’ Polly (all dressed up in a tight fitting corset) is now whipping the cow. The puzzle which follows consists mainly of trying to find a form of torture which can satiated Mistress Marge’s lust for pain more than Polly’s whip. You might have a hard time explaining this to your child so I recommend playing the game yourself to decide if it’s suitable.

All in all, it’s a great fun game to play. I like it a lot and it’s a shame that it was such a commercial flop. Give it a go. I think you’ll enjoy it.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what cutifies your bunnies (😐).

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

10 Great Book Reviews

As you might have guessed by now, when I’m not writing, I’m reading; and when I’m not blogging, I’m reading other people’s blogs. One of my favourite things to read is book reviews (what better way to find new books to read?), and so today I’ve decided to share a few book reviews I’ve read from my fellow bloggers over the last few days.

None of these posts have necessarily got anything in common, save for the fact that they are all novel reviews I enjoyed reading. Some of these reviews are quite short; others longer and more detailed. They don’t necessarily deal with novels in the same genre or by the same author. As ever, this is simply a selection of my personal favourite reviews, not an exhaustive list; and as ever, this list is in no particular order.

And so, without further ado:

K DeMers Dowdall: ‘Book Review: Catling’s Bane’

Shalini’s Books and Reviews: ‘Book Review – Sleep by C. L. Taylor’

Stephanie’s Book Reviews: ‘Review: Summer by the Tides by Denise Hunter’

This Is My Truth Now: ‘Book Review: Endgame by Patrick Hodges’

FictionFan’s Book Reviews: ‘Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison’

Suzy Approved Book Reviews: ‘In The Neighborhood Of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton’

Keeper of Pages: ‘Book Review: The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides’

Lifesfinewhine: ‘The Dioramist by Eric Keegan (Book Review)’

KayCKay Book Reviews: ‘If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura ★★★★★ #BookReview’

Beetleypete: ‘Book Review: The Summer of Madness’


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what reviews your book.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Movie Review: Spider-Man Homecoming

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’ve always liked Spider-Man. I used to collect the comics quite diligently when I was younger and I thoroughly enjoyed the movies too. Nevertheless, when I heard they were rebooting the franchise for a second time with Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was a bit jaded. I was frankly getting fed up with new re-tellings of the same story over and over: Great power, great responsibility; don’t care about that; Uncle Ben dies; it’s all my fault; aaah! bad guy trying to kill the girl I fancy; accidentally kill bad guy; the end. It’s for this very reason that I did not go and see Spider-Man: Homecoming when it first came out. Even after I learned it wasn’t another origins story, I was still feeling all Spidered out.

Well, the loss was mine. I finally did see Homecoming at the end of 2018 when my wife got me the DVD and it was just the breath of fresh air I needed to make me love Spider-Man again. Without a shadow of a doubt, this is one of my favourite Spider-Man movies of them all. The main thing that sets this film apart from the other Spider-Man movies is how much fun it is. The others had their share of humour, sure, but the humour in this film felt more natural in this film and was a great relief after so many dark superhero movies. If I was being hyper critical, I would say that the humour sometimes overshadowed the actual story just a little bit, but not enough to turn it into a farce. I just remember a lot more of the funny bits than I do about the actual plot if truth be told.

In many respects, this film is more like an American high school film than a typical superhero film. There is none of the mysticism or grittiness about it that’s become so popular in recent years, nor is Parker consumed with anxious thoughts about power and justice. No, in this movie Peter Parker character is portrayed very much as real teenager, full of enthusiasm about being a superhero, eager to be accepted by the more mature Avengers, while still trying to navigate the complicated high school life of parties, studies, friends and the girl he fancies. Incidentally, not being an American myself, I often find American high school movies a bit hard to relate to (high school in the UK is quite a different kettle of fish from the USA) but I didn’t find that to be the case here. The emphasise lies more heavily on Peter Parker as a character, rather than on the setting and anyone who has ever been a teenager will find it easy to sympathise with this enthusiastic and impatient young man.

The Vulture character is one of my favourite things about this movie. Previous Spider-Man villains have all lacked depth and especially relatability. Vulture is different. This is a man who is concerned for his family (he gave me a few good ideas for how to handle my daughter’s future boyfriends!) and trying to make a better life for himself and his family by doing a bit of bank robbing with the help of some alien technology he managed to procure. The final battle between he and Spider-Man was a bit of a disappointment, lacking the sense of tension that we’ve seen in previous movies (I mean heck, he never even got to choose between saving his girlfriend or saving a bus load of school kids!) but not to such an extent I didn’t enjoy it. It perhaps just felt a little like the story was ultimately finished already, and now Peter just had to have a fight with Vulture just to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s so to speak.

All in all, a great film that has reinvigorated my love for Spider-Man. While it is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also works perfectly well as a stand-alone film for those of you who can’t be bothered watching all the Avengers films and is great fun to watch with a box of popcorn. I commend it to your enjoyment.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what spins your web.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Book Review: Steelheart

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

There are two things I really like: Brandon Sanderson and superhero stories, so when I heard that Sanderson had written a series of superhero stories, I knew I had found my next book. I was so confident that I would like it that I even bought the first two books at the same time, despite normally being wary of blowing money on serialised novels in case they’re rubbish (I would’ve bought the whole series but my Waterstones vouchers didn’t stretch that far on top of everything else I wanted to buy).

This story is set in a not-too-distant post-apocalyptic dystopia where a mysterious stellar event, known as Calamity, has gifted certain people with super powers. These individuals, known as Epics (Sanderson consistently shies away from the word superheroes/super villains), have taken over the world, oppressing ordinary humans and imposing their own despotic rule on whatever territory they deem to be their own. The main antagonist in this story is one such Epic: Steelheart, a seemingly invulnerable man who kills David’s (the protagonist) father in front of him. However, the boy David also saw something impossible at the same time: he saw Steelheart bleed, and swore he would make it happen again to avenge his father. As an adult, David joins a group of anti-Epic resistance fighters known as Reckoners and together they hatch a daring plan to kill Steelheart and put an end to his ruthless reign over Newcago (formerly Chicago).

There are a lot of things I like about this novel, and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment, but I won’t lie to you: it was a bit of a disappointment compared to Mistborn.

Let’s get down to brass tacks.

In a similar way to the The Final Empire, Steelheart features a young protagonist who joins a group of rebels (the other ‘good guys’) with the primary goal of taking down a seemingly indestructible despot who barely appears in the narrative until the story’s climax. The characters all have their own little distinctive quirks and are, for the most part, likeable. My only criticism is that they were, perhaps, a little half-baked by Sanderson’s usual standards. For instance, David, the protagonist, was okay in general but he seemed little too ridiculous to believe insofar as things seemed to fall into place a little too easily for him despite impossible odds, especially in the beginning.

Oh, and while I’m complaining about my least favourite characters, can I mention Megan? Apart from being one of only two major female characters and the only one with a clear personal tie to the protagonist, she doesn’t even come across as a particularly well written character, at least before the last few chapters. She’s beautiful, feisty, with a hidden vulnerability and (you guessed it!), she’s the obvious love interest. David thinks she’s hot but doesn’t know if she likes him or not because she seems to be sending him mixed signals. I will admit that I wasn’t prepared for what happened to her and who she turned out to be, so it’s maybe worth persevering with Megan until the end of the book but it took me quite a lot of chapters to actually like her as a character.

The plot worked, although I felt there was a certain inevitability about it. David wanted to join the Reckoners, so he did. He talked them into killing Steelheart. They planned to do it. Executed plan. Did it. End. It lacked that all important sense of rising action, conflict, tension, greater conflict, greater tension and final climax when it came down to the main story of David’s quest for revenge and the Reckoners’ plan to kill Steelheart. On the plus side, there were a few interesting twists regarding the identities of characters like Megan and Prof. I won’t spoil what they were, but I will only say that I had my suspicions about Prof from fairly early on; I wasn’t ready for what happened with Megan at all, however. That was glorious and her only saving grace.

As usual, Sanderson’s writing style was a joy to read: clear, straight-forward and written in a solid 1st person voice from David’s point of view. In keeping with that character’s tendency to use lousy metaphors in his speech, the narrative itself was also replete with eccentric figurative language which was appropriate (though perhaps not always quite as funny as Sanderson intended it to be).

I did find the profanities used by the characters a little odd. Don’t get me wrong, I tend to have a ‘less is more’ attitude towards profanity in fiction, but it seems that all but the mildest of swear words we use in the real world have been replaced by made up swear words including ‘sparks’ , ‘slontze’ and ‘Calamity’. Depending how far in the future this book is set, I suppose its possible we’ll chuck out all the old curses and invent brand new ones, but I get the impression this book is set in a period relatively close to our own. As much as I dislike bad language, I personally found this stuff a bit jarring.

I know what you’re thinking. I sound like I hated this book. I did not hate this book. In fact, I really liked this book. It’s a great bit of highly enjoyable, action packed, funny-in-places escapism. If I sound like I’ve been hard on it, it’s only because Sanderson has set the bar so high with all his other books that it’s hard not to compare them. This is not my favourite Brandon Sanderson book, not by a long way; but it is a great book. You should definitely read it.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what steals your heart (you see what I did there?).

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

Book Review: Burning Bright

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not read Burning Bright by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post contains spoilers.

Well, well, well, believe it or not, I’ve never reviewed a John Steinbeck book before, despite repeatedly implying that he’s one of my all time favourite authors. That changes today with this review of John Steinbeck’s tiny and much maligned little ‘play-novelette’, Burning Bright.

Steinbeck himself described this book as an experiment in writing a play in the form of a novelette, and it becomes immediately obvious what is meant by that when you read it. Unlike most novels which are split into numerous chapters, set in various locations with a wide cast of characters, Burning Bright is split into three acts, each set in a single room (a circus tent, a farmhouse, a ship and a hospital to be precise). There are only four characters and the action is entirely driven by Steinbeck’s masterful use of dialogue and, to a lesser extent, description of setting.

So, did this little ‘experiment’ pay off? Well, if the critics are to be believed, the answer is no. It seems everybody and their granny hates this book. But I’m not everybody’s granny and I do not hate this book! True, it’s not my favourite Steinbeck book and it could certainly stand a little constructive criticism (in fact, it’s just about to do so), but it’s definitely not my least favourite Steinbeck book either. So let’s get down to brass tacks and look at the story in more detail.

Joe Saul is our protagonist in this story: an everyman who desperately wants to have a child but alas, is sterile. He suspects it but refuses to acknowledge it, preferring to wallow in his misery. His younger wife, Mordeen, also suspects his sterility. She is so determined to produce a child for Joe that she is willing even to sleep with a man she frankly doesn’t care for, not because she desires another man but because she is desperate to give Joe a child.

Victor is the other man: an altogether arrogant, unlikable and ignorant little man who works as Joe’s right hand man in each act and who wants Mordeen for himself. Then there’s Friend Ed: supportive, protective and loyal towards Joe even if it means hurting him. None of the above are the deepest or most complex character’s Steinbeck has ever written, but they’re okay. I liked them well enough and it was pretty plain to see what they all needed and what stood in their way.

The plot itself is perfectly good in that it follows a natural and plausible progression, though there is a certain inevitability about it. Almost from the very start, we just know that Mordeen is going to try and get pregnant by Victor and pass it off as Joe’s, and we just know that Victor is going to become attached to Mordeen, and we just know that in his jealousy, Victor will threaten to tell Joe the truth and most inevitably of all, we just know that the story will climax with Joe finding out the child is not his. For most writers, this would be an express ticket to Rubbish Novel Land. Fortunately Steinbeck’s writing style is a joy to read even at the worst of times and beautifully carries this rather plain story along.

The action is heavily dialogue-driven, which is appropriate for a play. It is, however, less appropriate for a novel, and I think this is one key area in which the incompatibility of the play form and prose form is made obvious. The two forms just don’t blend, any more than clay blends with iron. However, while critics are often quick to bemoan Steinbeck’s use of lengthy and the unsuitably flowery language, I personally found that Steinbeck’s trademark artistry with words was sufficient that I still found the dialogue enjoyable (if a little jarring) to read.

There was one other very strange thing about this story, even within the experimental context of the story’s structure, and I’m not sure I liked it: the characters’ backgrounds change from one act to the next, yet the individual characters remain fundamentally the same people. For instance, in Act One, the characters are all circus performers, whereas in Act Two they live on neighbouring farms and in Act Three, they are sailors. They are all the same people, they all relate to each other in the same way and there is continuity with the key events of the plot, but their day-to-day situation is portrayed as variable and irrelevant.

My best guess is that this is an ambitious but uncharacteristically clumsy effort by Steinbeck to highlight the everyman quality of Joe and his fellow characters. By rendering the backdrop variable, and therefore irrelevant, the reader is focused exclusively on the naked humanity of their situation which could happen to any one of us. Be that as it may, it feels like Steinbeck was trying a bit too hard to be clever at the expense of writing a good story. It strikes me that by robbing Joe Saul and the others of their backgrounds, Steinbeck has effectively created shadow characters who exist purely as symbols of the idea he was trying to communicate. They don’t read like real people, as good characters should, because real people are defined, at least in part, by where they come from and what they do.

All in all, the critics are correct about one thing: this is not Steinbeck’s best work. However, in my experience, Steinbeck’s grocery list (probably) makes better reading than the average novel– and I say that as a bona fide bookworm. While not his most adventurous story in terms of plot and characters, its still a perfectly solid bit of fiction, and would perhaps serve as a useful case study for teaching the rudiments of quality story telling to the uninitiated. The experiment of bringing together the play format and the prose format was ambitious but, alas, the two things simply don’t mix. I don’t think this was because Steinbeck did it badly. I’m just not sure it’s possible to  effectively create a true mixture of the two styles, because they’re just too different and necessarily so. I did enjoy this book, but it was, without question, only Steinbeck’s trademark wizardry with language which held it together.

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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what novelises your play.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]