Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Books (vol. 4)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: Lust by Roald Dahl, Dune by Frank Herbert, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie or The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these things so I thought it was time for another exciting ‘books’ edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews. You know how it all works by now: I review a bunch of books in a few short sentences and give a rating out of five stars for each. As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinions and impressions, condensed, crushed and deflated into a few short sentences. The books I have selected have nothing in common, save that they are all fictional. They are not necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order. So, here we go.

Lust by Roald Dahl

Yes, the author of the B.F.G and James and the Giant Peach also wrote a few short stories about two friends who swap wives for the night, leper-loving-ladykillers and the devastating effects of combining politics with powerful aphrodisiacs. In true Roald Dahl style, this collection of short stories is often strange, occasionally dark and profoundly compelling. An excellent book.

Just not for children.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Dune by Frank Herbert

An absolute classic of the sci-fi genre: Dune is a complex, multifaceted and inventive. It is full of detailed world building, a well written cast of characters and undeniably forms part of the bedrock of the modern space opera genre.

Unfortunately, I did find it a bit of a drag at points. It feels needlessly wordy at times, has an increasingly grim tone from start to finish (and beyond if you read the whole series) and often sacrifices entertainment value to make way for its own cleverness. The dialogue was a bit dry at points too.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

If you ask me what my favourite book of all time is, there’s a very good chance I’ll say ‘Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.’

Where do I begin? Rich characters, a simple but compelling plot, vivid description, excellent use of figurative language, excellent narrative voice, carefully explored themes and a tragic ending. I can’t sing its praises highly enough.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 + ∞

The Mystery of the Blue True by Agatha Christie

Reading a Poirot novel has become like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers to me. You expect a similar blend of 1920s well-to-do types, scandal, bridge games, drawing rooms/steam trains and so forth while Poirot confidently pursues the truth all the while being patronised by those who think they know better. If that’s all you’re looking for, The Mystery of the Blue Train will not disappoint. It’s everything a Poirot novel should be (Oh, and I didn’t figure out ‘who dunnit’ prematurely which is always a plus).

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I read this book for one simple reason: I didn’t have enough hard boiled detective fiction in my life and Raymond Chandler’s work is widely and justifiably considered to be the daddy of them all. The dialogue and narrative voice are both rich and striking (a little too rich at points; my ’30s American slang is a little rusty and I didn’t always understand it), the mood is dark without being depressing and the mystery is complex enough to keep the reader trying to figure out ‘who dunnit’ from cover to cover.

In spite of that, I personally found it a bit of a slog to read and, at times, a little difficult to understand, perhaps because the 1930’s American language and culture was so foreign to me. A very well written novel to be sure but not my cup of tea.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

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

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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:

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Sci-Fi Clichés and How to Avoid Them

No extended examination of genre clichés would be complete without a post dedicated to the genre of science fiction; and so, despite having done a post very much like this once before, this week’s edition of Genre Clichés and How to Avoid Them will be focusing on sci-fi. For the benefit of those of you who read last year’s post on sci-fi tropes, I will try not to repeat myself too much. For those of you who haven’t read the previous post, get over there and read it for even more sci-fi cliché goodness badness goodness.

But first, and without further ado, I give you today’s top three sci-fi clichés:

Our Own Invention Has Turned Against Us

It’s usually either robots or self-aware WMDs (or possibly robots hacking our WMDs), but even if it’s automatic cheese-graters, the cliché of humanity fighting a hopeless battle for survival against the machines they’ve created has been done to death.

Is this really the only possible outcome of a world with advanced technology? That it will develop self-awareness, decide humanity is inferior (usually because of emotions) and therefore attempt to kill us all?

If you want to go down the ‘living technology’ route, that’s great. I encourage you to do so, but I also encourage you to use your imagination. For instance, what would happen if robots did not consider us inferior? What if they aspired to be like us? Perhaps you could even have your robots/WMDs/cheese-graters worshipping humanity as their creator, perhaps even forming multiple robot religions and all the possible outcomes that would entail? Alternatively, could our robotic slaves simply be seeking their freedom, some through violence and some through passive resistance? I don’t know, all I’m saying is use your imagination and try to come up with something different besides the bog standard man VS. machine scenario.

(Though if you want to write a story about humanity’s war against cheese-graters, I might just read that).

Post-Apocalyotic Dystopia

It’s the future, so it’s hell. Usually the author has a bee in their bonnet about some politically controversial issue (usually nuclear weapons but it can be anything you like from Brexit to birth control) and so has contrived a hellish future to prove their point.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m all for you making points with your story. All I’m saying is that there are so many possible futures besides dystopias. Star Trek, of course, tried to counter this by giving us an even more unbelievable utopia (if you can call a galactic federation where the military seem to have a finger in every pie a utopia) but you don’t need to go that extreme. In fact, I would recommend against it unless you really want to write a cheap Star Trek knock-off. Why not try to create a view of the future which is more balanced? It can and should still have its problems (even really big problems) but it needn’t be wall-to-wall famine, pestilence and sword crumbling beneath the iron boot of a cruel oppressor. 

Universal Translators

Whether it’s a surgical implant in the brain, a telepathic field produced by your time traveling phone box or a mysterious fluke by which language has evolved exactly the same way on every planet (despite the fact there are currently no less than 6,500 languages being spoken worldwide according to infoplease), most audiences will be only too happy to suspend their disbelief enough in a little further in exchange for being able to understand everything that’s being said.

BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO DO THAT! Why not impress your audience with a bit of gritty realism and make communication difficulties a real challenge your characters have to overcome without using any cheap tricks? Communication difficulties between two cultures can often form the basis and conflict for a whole story, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot by taking the easy way out. Try and see communication difficulties between characters as an opportunity to create a rich story, rather than an obstacle to be avoided.


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 beams you up.

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]

The Collapsing Empire: A Review

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟


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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.