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]

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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]

Review: Doctor Who, Series 11

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not watched any part of Doctor Who reboot series 11 (including the New Year special, Resolution) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well, well, it may feel like it’s only just begun but Jodie Whittaker’s first series as the titular character in the BBC’s Doctor Who is finally over. Actually it was over almost two weeks ago but I had to do 6 Six Word Stories for the 6th last Sunday so you’re getting the review this Sunday instead. Lap it up.

I’ve already written in some depths about the first episode, so I’m not going to waste too much time talking about that today. What I really want to do is give an overview of the series as a whole.

Let’s start with the most important question of all: characters, specifically the four regular ones.

The Doctor in this series is lively, kindhearted and generally likable. My biggest criticism is that she seems to have completely lost all her demons, and with it, her motivation. She still abhors violence but previous Doctors (especially in the reboot) have been somewhat weighed down by the violence they’ve witnessed and committed themselves. One of the things I loved about Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, for instance, was how plagued he was by his own sense of guilt. This motivated him to chase around the galaxy seeking vindication. As a result, I cared about the Doctor’s goals, even in rubbish episodes like Into the Dalek. The Thirteenth Doctor, alas, lacks this depth.

Graham wins the ‘best character’ prize by a million miles. He is haunted by the death of his wife and is travelling with the Doctor mainly as a way of fleeing from his own grief, only to be faced with it everywhere he goes, finally culminating in his showdown with Tim Shaw whom he (quite rightly) blames for his wife’s death. My only real criticism is how suddenly his hunger for revenge comes upon him in ‘The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos’ (which, by the way, was the most forgettable last-episode-of-the-series since the show rebooted in 2005). It might’ve been nice to see hints of this slightly darker side to him before he finally encountered his wife’s killer again but this is the only minor grievance I have with Graham.

Ryan started strong. His dyspraxia gave him an inner struggle to overcome, as did the loss of his grandmother; he apparently had a tense relationship with both Graham and his absentee father and there was some chemistry between him and Yasmin in the first few episodes. That should’ve been more than enough to make a really interesting character. Unfortunately, most of these issues came to nothing. His dyspraxia was barely mentioned and in no way hindered him; he deals with his grandmother’s death fairly easily and the sexual tension between him and Yasmin fizzled out into nothing after a few episodes. Only the business with his dad came to any sort of resolution, and even this in a fairly clumsy manner in the New Year special.

Speaking of Yasmin, I’m still trying to think of anything I can say about her, whether good or bad. She seemed like a nice person but as characters go, she had all the substance of the Speaking Clock. That’s not a criticism of the actress. She brought Yasmin to life as well as anyone could, but the fact of the matter is, the character could have been completely cut out of this series with almost no loss to the story as whole (even in ‘Demons of the Punjab’ — arguably the only real ‘Yas episode’ — she was just there enough to make the story happen and no more). The character was, in a word, only half-written written.

Now, what about monsters? Doctor Who has always been famous for its monsters, though since the 2005 reboot, it’s been an almost constant barage of Daleks, Cybermen and Moffat’s pet invention, the eye-gougingly tedious Weeping Angels. Not so this time! Every monster (barring the New Year special) was brand spanking new, which was a breath of fresh air for me at least. Although while I’m on the subject of Daleks, I just need to say one thing: since when could the sonic screwdriver disable the Dalek’s gun arm?! If sonic screwdrivers can do that, why was there ever a Time War?

This series has come under some pretty heavy criticism, especially on social media (where all the vitriol of society coalesces, kind of like in that Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, ‘Skin of Evil’, but I digress), for being too ‘politically correct’. I don’t know if that’s because the Doctor’s a woman, because they finally wrote an episode where the racism of modern history is shown in all its ugliness while still being a family friendly TV show (complete with a time travelling white supremacist bad guy) or what but in any event, I see nothing wrong with this. Oh, sure, you might not always personally agree with the message behind each episode, but that doesn’t make it bad writing. Quite the reverse. Give me a real life theme that offends my sensibilities over Moffat’s meaningless, sentimental fluff any day of the week (though just to be clear, I wasn’t offended by this series at all). When it comes to the themes that were explored in this particular series, my only real criticism is how poorly executed they were, often feeling obvious and preachy.

I have only one more criticism (and I know, it sounds like I hated this series, but I really did enjoy it): there was no series-long story arc whatsoever. Since the reboot began (and now and again in the old series, too), Doctor Who has boasted some excellent story arcs. This series just didn’t have one. Just a bunch of time travellers with no discernible motive (apart from Graham) going on lots of pointless but mostly entertaining mini-adventures, finally (anti-)climaxing in them bumping into Tim Shaw again who was, frankly, less scary second time around.

I know it sounds like I’ve really slammed this series. That notwithstanding, I did enjoy it. Really. And since I know you’re all just dying to know what I think about having a woman Doctor, I really did like Whittaker’s portrayal of the character. Please don’t come away from this thinking I hate series 11 or Jodie Whittaker. I do not and I’m really looking forward to series 12. It could’ve just done with a bit of tightening up here and there on some of the most basic principles of serialised story-writing: characterisation and development, subtle execution of themes, story arcs and so forth. But please, watch it with my blessing. It was, for the most part, entertaining and certainly not the worst series in the show’s mostly excellent history.

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 exterminates your Dalek.

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]

App Review: Storywriter

It’s the holy grail of writers app: a perfect palm-sized place where you can both plan and write your entire novel from beginning to end. All the fun of Scrivener on your phone. If you’re an Android user, you’re probably beginning to despair of the hope you’ll ever find an app like it, especially if you’re looking for one that won’t break the bank*.

Well, dear writer, here’s the good news: you’re not strange. I, too, despair of the hope of ever finding such an app. It was in this context that I downloaded Storywriter by Raindrop for Android but the question is: did it deliver? 

Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel with a mobile app knows that many apps boast functionality but are fiddly to use, especially on a phone. There’s often just too much stuff crammed in and it makes the app untidy and complicated. Not so with Storywriter. This app is so neat and tidy that you can jump straight in to using it without a moment’s fuss. That alone makes it worth paying attention to in my book. Even an idiot can open it and intuitively know exactly how to use it in about ten seconds flat. I simply haven’t got the words to describe how ridiculously intuitive this app is. You just make a new project by giving it a name and then boom! A nice, easy way to write chapters, storylines, character bios and general ideas all in one place. I can’t fault it for it’s layout or ease of use.

Each project is divided into four sections: Chapters, storylines, characters and ideas. These all work in exactly the same way. You add a new chapter or character by tapping the button at the bottom and you’re given a blank document to write on. There’s no meta-data or anything like that (for example, if you create a new character, you won’t be prompted to type in names, DOBs, genders, etc). In fact the only differences I’ve been able to find between the four different document types is that smart enter only seems to work on chapters. Apart from that, you could just as easily write your chapters in the character screen or write your characters in the ideas screen. They’re pretty much exactly the same in every way that matters.

So far, I’ve made much of the simplicity of this app. Of course, if we dig a little deeper we will discover that this app does boast a few additional features, such as night-mode; the ability to alter the font and line spacing; ‘smart enter’, which automatically provides you with inverted commas** for a line of dialogue and a similar feature which automatically closes any parentheses you might use (for example, if you type an open bracket ‘(‘, Storywriter will automatically provide the closed ‘)’ one).

Most of these functions are obviously cosmetic and can be toggled on or off from the app’s settings menu. Like most things in this app, the menu is clear and simple to use. I have only got one problem with it: you have to return to the home screen to access the menu. That means if you’re halfway through writing a chapter and decide you would really like to turn off smart enter or change the font size, you have to save your chapter, press ‘back’ to come out of your chapter, press ‘back’ again to come out of your list of chapters and then press ‘back’ a third time to come out of your story altogether. Only then can you access the menu. And then, once you’ve done whatever you wanted to do, you have to re-open your story, re-open the ‘chapters’ list and re-open the chapter you were working on. It’s needlessly time-consuming. 

There is an ‘upload’ function, which I’m guessing is for backing up your work(?) but it’s honestly not clear to me where my work has been uploaded to or why. You need to log in with your Google account to use it and then to sit through an advert so I don’t know how much it’s worth wasting time with this function but it exists and apparently works.

This app does have ads, though they sit unobtrusively down at the bottom of the screen for the most part. There are a few infrequent full-screen ads but you can skip these (unless you try to ‘upload’ a chapter; then you’ll be forced to sit through a full screen video-ad before it will let you upload anything). And of course, if you really can’t bear to look at a little advert at the bottom of your screen, you can always use this app offline and save your work to your device.

All in all, a decidedly okay app but with buckets of unrealised potential. As it stands, it’s pretty decent for a freebie but not quite the miracle I was hoping for. I hope the developers will continue to work on it because with just a few improvements here and there, this could be really a wonderful app.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

*The yWriter Android app looks alright but I ain’t spending £4.19 on app I can get for free on my PC.

**British English writers take note: smart enter automatically provides the double inverted-commas (“”) more commonly used in American English.


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

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

App Review: Goodreads Android App 2.0.2

Anyone who is serious about reading is bound to come across Goodreads sooner or later. They might not like it or see the point of it, but they’ll encounter it. And if they happen to sign up for the bookworm’s social network, it won’t be long before they get emails asking them to download the Goodreads App.

Personally, I’ve used Goodreads on and off a couple of times throughout the years. It’s a handy place to read reviews on almost every book ever published and it’s quite a good place to discover new things to read. It’s also great for those people who feels the need to organise and display everything they’ve ever read on the internet like it’s some kind of virtual trophy room.

Anyway, today I got an email asking me to download the new and improved Goodreads Android App.

‘Yes, I will.’ I thought. ‘And then I’ll tell all my faithful readers exactly what I thought of it, mwahaha!’

So, first impressions: it’s much easier on the eye than it used to be. In fact, it’s much easier on the eye than the actual website itself. The home page is a clear and simple single column consisting of your name, your books (ordered into shelves and neatly compressed so that you don’t see all your books on the homepage), your friends/groups and all your updates. Everything you could possibly want to do is accessible from the sidebar menu (again, this is hidden unless you open it) and a single icon for all notifications on the top right. There is also a search bar for looking up books.

There isn’t much in the way of new features. Just a few badly needed improvements on the old ones, making version 2.0.2 oh so much more pleasant to use than the older ones.

One of the newest features (also available on the website) is the ‘Explore’ page. ‘Try the new Explore page!’ The Goodreads blog says. ‘Browse books trending on Goodreads, new releases hot off the presses, and community-created reading lists across every genre’, it says. So I did, I tried it. It was alright. I don’t know if it’s new as much as newly packaged, but it’s still worth a look if you’re looking for something new to read. If you live in the US you can also use the Explore page to get deals on books by your favourite authors or from your ‘want to read’ shelf sent directly to your inbox.

The ‘My Books’ section has also been improved to make it somewhat more customisable. Books can now be sorted in order of title, author, average rating, number of ratings, publication year and a whole bunch of other things. As far as I can tell, doing this on the app does not in any way affect the order of your books on the website. You can also use the ‘My Books’ section to access your Kindle notes.

Another feature that has been added to the ‘My Books’ section is the ability to add additional dates for when you read a book. This is handy if you’re the sort of person who likes to re-read books. On the surface, this feature is very intuitive and easy on the eye however when I attempted to add a second set of dates for a book I had previously read, I discovered I had to add a finishing date at the same time, which was a little annoying though hardly the end of the world.

As before, the app has one major advantage/annoyance (delete as appropriate) that the website does not have: the ability to use your phone’s camera to scan a book’s bar code, and use that information to automatically add said book to your Goodreads bookshelf. If you do it that way, you even stand a fair chance of finding the correct edition of your book! Alas, even with this new and improved version of the app, it still took about a hundred attempts at holding my camera perfectly still and exactly the right distance from my book just to scan a single bar code, however when it finally did scan, it did scan accurately. You can also scan front covers, which is nice. Covers are a heck of a lot easier to capture with a camera if, like me, you’re not a photographer and you do not have arms of stone.

All in all, not a bad app. There isn’t a whole lot of new features to scream about and it’s certainly not perfect but it’s much easier on the eye than before and runs a lot more smoothly. It’s hardly blown my socks off but it’s alright.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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