Author Archives: ARamone

Review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: The Clone Army Attacketh, by Ian Doescher

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To Shmi or not to Shmi? 

The curtain rises on yeoman Jedi Anakin skywalker, a man torn between duty to his Masters, attraction to Padmé, and concern for his beloved mother, Shmi. His choices will determine not just his own destiny, but that of the entire Republic. 

Out, damned Fett! 

A noble lady in danger. A knight and squire in battle. And a forbidden love written in the stars. The quill of William Shakespeare meets the galaxy of George Lucas…complete with period illustrations, insightful soliloquies, and masterful meter that will convince you the Bard himself penned this epic adventure. 

Once again we return to the world of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, where people in doublets trade vicious insults while flying in ships and battling with lightsabers. It’s just as enormously fun as all the others.

I will fully admit that, while I do consider it a step down from the original trilogy, I didn’t uniformly hate the prequel trilogy – I enjoyed The Phantom Menace and though it has its problems, I still have some fun watching it. The same can’t be said for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, which were plagued by an under-developed romance, inconsistent logic, and a wooden performance by Hayden Christensen as Anakin. I’ve only seen them once each and mostly refresh my memories of them through pop culture complaints about their quality. Luckily for me, then, that The Clone Army Attacketh came around and made the second movie fun in its own way.

 The book did its best to fix what went wrong in the movie, mainly the romance between Padmé and Anakin. While in the movie they had only a few scenes scattered amidst more interesting ones, their scenes get merged into one, with lots of added soliloquies that help show Padmé’s growing feelings for him. While it was nice that it got developed a bit more, it still felt intrusive, like if someone stopped Macbeth in the middle of Act 3 to show the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, and I was happy when the story got back to more interesting things. The romance was still underdeveloped, and while Anakin’s wish to marry Padmé can at least be dismissed as youthful impulsiveness, I still don’t see why Padmé would go along with it. I don’t think it’s very fair to blame to book for this, as they were in the source material, but it does pull the quality of the book down slightly, though at least you know that once the romance scene is over, you don’t have to deal with it again. I will make this point in its favour, and it’s one I never thought I’d concede: It makes the “I hate sand” line sound far less stupid.

As in the others, there were a lot of shout-outs to other plays; the one scene with Anakin and Padmé’s romance references most of Shakespeare’s comedies as well as Romeo and Juliet, and the play itself includes many references to Macbeth and, oddly enough, one reference to The Wizard of Oz. The character Rumour, who exists to spread discord, makes several appearances, and like The Phantom of Menace the book flirts with self-referentiality and continues Jar Jar’s character arc.

And if you need any other reason to read it, remember: This is the one where we have Samuel L. Jackson, wielding a lightsaber, speaking Shakespearean English.

Overall rating: 5/5


Review: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, and Other Stories, by Tim Burton

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From breathtaking stop-action animation to bittersweet modern fairy tales, filmmaker Tim Burton has become known for his unique visual brilliance — witty and macabre at once. Now he gives birth to a cast of gruesomely sympathetic children — misunderstood outcasts who struggle to find love and belonging in their cruel, cruel worlds. His lovingly lurid illustrations evoke both the sweetness and the tragedy of these dark yet simple beings — hopeful, hapless heroes who appeal to the ugly outsider in all of us, and let us laugh at a world we have long left behind (mostly anyway). 

Firstly, let me say that I love Tim Burton’s animated movies – The Corpse Bride is a masterpiece. When I saw The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, and Other Stories in the local book store, then, I was excited for it. It’s short – not even 130 pages – so I read it in there, and was done in twenty minutes. My opinion on it is mixed.

The book is similar in style to Alice in tumblr-Land, being a collection of short poems that range from a few pages long to only two lines. Some of the entries are continued in later poems, but for the most part they’re self-contained. Illustrations on the adjacent page help bring the stories to life. The illustrations are like something out of one of Burton’s movies: creepy, but almost cute, in a way. Be warned, though: there aren’t any happy endings in these stories. They range from the merely melancholy to the truly macabre, with very little of the lightheartedness or uplifting themes that his movies often have. It’s easy to empathise with the put-upon main characters of the poems, who are without exception outcasts and unloved. Many of them meet sad ends. The stories are bittersweet at best, and many are outright depressing. Unfortunately, they’re not very memorable – I finished it two hours ago and have to rack my memory for details. While not as bad as the afore-mentioned Alice in tumblr-Land, where I found myself forgetting the beginning of a story even as I read the end of it, these stories didn’t do much to stick in the mind.

Ultimately, the book is an okay read once, but lacks the charming atmosphere of Burton’s movies. As it’s such a quick read, I don’t recommend actually buying it – reading it in the bookstore is more than enough.

Overall rating: 3/5


Review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: The Phantom of Menace, by Ian Doescher

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O Threepio, Threepio, Wherefore art thou, Threepio? 

Join us, good gentles, for a merry reimagining of Star Wars: Episode I as only Shakespeare could have written it. The entire saga starts here, with a thrilling tale featuring a disguised queen, a young hero, and two fearless knights facing a hidden, vengeful enemy. 

‘Tis a true Shakespearean drama, filled with sword fights, soliloquies, and doomed romance…all in glorious iambic pentameter and coupled with twenty gorgeous Elizabethan illustrations. Hold on to your midi-chlorians: The play’s the thing, wherein you’ll catch the rise of Anakin! 

We all know there are only three Star Wars movies, but luckily for us Ian Doescher continued his series of plays based off of them with this fourth book, The Phantom of Menace, which was a fantastic read all around.

Moreso than the other translations of the Star Wars movies, this book really expands upon the story, adding new implications, new dialogue, and new perspectives that change your perception of the film. Characters get new interpretations and different emphasis is placed on dialogue to change how the entire film appears to play out. These do much to add depth and tone to the film, in some ways bringing it more in line with the original trilogy and improving on the story overall.

The book had to tackle two main problems: the pod race – how to convey a rather long scene with almost no dialogue and not much way to convey action? – and Jar Jar Binks, considered the most hated animated character of all time. Both of them were handled exceptionally well. The pod race was handled differently from the regular battle scenes, which conveyed it better, in my opinion, allowing for a nice overall picture of how it went that we would not otherwise have gotten. Jar Jar’s character got completely turned around, making him likeable and competent (almost). We get the usual references to other Shakespearean plays and a nice, light-hearted scene poking fun at how different and comparatively old the original trilogy looks compared to the newer movies. Unfortunately, nobody says “Prithee”, but the rest of the dialogue is awesome enough to compensate for that.

I once again implore people to put on a performance of these plays for my entertainment, but until people do, this book is a wonderful read on its own.

Overall rating: 5/5


Review: The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition, by The Brothers Grimm & Jack Zipes

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When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published their Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, followed by a second volume in 1815, they had no idea that such stories as “Rapunzel”, “Hansel and Gretel”, and “Cinderella” would become the most celebrated in the world. Yet few people today are familiar with the majority of the tales from the two early volumes, since in the next four decades the Grimms would publish six other editions, each extensively revised in content and style. For the very first time, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm makes available all 156 stories from the 1812 and 1815 editions. These narrative gems, newly translated and brought together in one beautiful book, are accompanied by sumptuous illustrations from award-winning artist Andrea Dezsö. 

From “The Frog King” to “The Golden Key,” wondrous worlds unfold – heroes and heroines are rewarded, weaker animals triumph over the strong, and simple bumpkins prove themselves not so simple after all. Esteemed fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes offers accessible translations that retain the spare description and engaging storytelling style of the originals. Indeed, this is what makes the tales from the 1812 and 1815 editions unique – they reflect diverse voices, rooted in oral traditions, that are absent from the Grimms’ later, more embellished collections of tales. Zipes’s introduction gives important historical context, and the book includes the Grimms’ prefaces and notes. 

A delight to read, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm presents these peerless stories to a whole new generation of readers. 

You might think this book is designed for fairy young children, but I’ll tale you, it’s got some Grimm stories in it.

First, a bit of backstory. History has seen a lot of changes in what is viewed as acceptable for children; once believed to be essentially miniature adults, kids were often exposed to the same tales adults were. As time marched on, kids were increasingly sheltered from the harsh realities of life, with people preferring to wait until children were older until introducing them to sex, violence, and death. Perhaps no medium shows this better than fairy tales and their adaptations. Early Disney films, like Snow WhiteCinderella, and Bambi, for all their light-hearted whimsy, were often quite dark. Later movies toned this down; throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, Disney’s fairy tales became more light-hearted, with fewer darker elements. Newer movies have started to swing away from this trend, but ultimately are still viewed as movies for children first, with parental bonuses being inserted afterwards. Going in the other direction, a large sub-genre in fantasy is the fairy tale for adults: retellings of classic fairy tales intended for mature audiences, with in-depth plots, sex and violence, updated roles for female characters and subversions of classic and expected tropes. These often contain shout-outs to classic fairy tales and introduce themes that aren’t very child-friendly.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm didn’t see fairy tales as being simply for children – they were part of a nation’s heritage and an important literary treasure. For this reason, they made it their job to collect fairy tales from all over Germany and published them in two editions, one in 1812 and the other in 1815. The stories were presented exactly as they were received – the Grimms believed the language used in telling a story was just as important as the story itself. After these two volumes, the books were re-issued, with each new publication toning down some darker stories, deleting a few nasty ones, adding in some they had missed. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm is the first time the original editions have been published since 1815.

The stories in this book are, in a word, mature – sex, violence, death, and punishment grace the pages of every tale. There’s an equal number of evil mothers as there are evil step-mothers, and a good number of evil mothers-in-law. All the stories are variations of basic themes, reusing plot elements and set ups with only the details changed – common in oral stories that change with time. One or two stories are out-right slaughter-fests, with people killing each other being the entire point of the stories. The stories aren’t plotically correct by any means – Jews are obviously evil, beauty equals goodness, and morally corrupt people are ugly or black-skinned – but the shock this gives the reader is part of the delight of reading of the stories. Nevertheless, the stories are immensely relatable, speaking through the ages to give universal morals and relate eternal themes. The editor’s introduction provides a history of the Grimm’s life and work, and the Grimm brothers’ own introductions gives historical context to the stories and the attitude they had when setting out to collect the stories.

Immensely enjoyable and always relatable, The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm has a place on every bookshelf.

Overall rating: 5/5


In Memory of Terry Pratchett

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It’s with a heavy heart that I announce Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series and co-author of The Long Earth series, has died. After being diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2007, he passed away this morning in his bed, surrounded by his family and with his cat next to him.

Terry Pratchett has had a long and immensely successful career. He got his start writing as a young man when he got a job for his village newspaper, where he published short stories for children; his first novel, The Carpet People, was published when he was seventeen. It was the Discworld series, however, that made him a household name. The first book, The Colour of Magic, was published in 1983, and was followed by forty-four other books in the series, with more than a dozen books connected to the series that weren’t directly in it, such as The World of PooWhere’s My Cow?, and the various Discworld diaries, bringing the total number of books to over sixty. Unconnected to Discworld, Terry Pratchett wrote several other books, all with his trademark wit and insight; DodgerA Blink of the ScreenNation, and a re-write of The Carpet People all came out while Discworld was still being published.

During his life, Terry Pratchett also collaborated with many people. With his friend Neil Gaiman, he wrote Good Omens; with Stephen Baxter, he wrote The Long Earth series; Stephen Briggs, who started out as a fan of the Discworld series, collaborated with Terry Pratchett on the Discworld diaries and various other books about Pratchett’s most famous creation. All are masterpieces in their own right, marked with his signature style, and have captivated readers just as strongly as his own fiction.

Terry Pratchett was knighted for services to literature in 2009. One of fantasy’s most beloved authors, he will be fondly remembered and sorely missed. Our hearts go out to his family and friends in this troubled time.

Donations to the Research Institute for the Care of Older People (RICE) in his memory can be made here: www.justgiving.com/Terry-Pratchett


Review: Alice in tumblr-Land and Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation, by Tim Manley

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Peter Pan finally has to grow up and get a job, or at least start paying rent. Cinderella swaps her glass slippers for Crocs. The Tortoise an the Hare Facebook stalk each other. Goldilocks goes gluten free. And Rapunzel gets a buzz cut. 

Here are more than one hundred fairy tales, illustrated and reimagined for today. Instead of fairy godmothers, there’s Siri. And rather than big bad wolves, there are creepy dudes on OkCupid. In our brave new world of social networking, YouTube, and texting, fairy tales can once again lead us to “happily ever after” – and have us laughing all the way. 

When I picked up this book for review, I figured there were two ways it could go: it could either be a clever, thoughtful update of the old fairy tales, cleverly integrating modern technology and mores to present their morals in a more relevant context that could be entertaining; or it could be a cheap cash grab with little effort put into it and no real insight into what it was discussing. I’ll save you some time – it was the latter.

Let’s start off with the book’s biggest problem, one that shows up before it’s even had the chance to bore us with its prose: the promise of “over one hundred fairy tales” – 146, to be precise. In reality, there are thirty-one fairy tales in the book – barely a fifth of that promised to us on the dust jacket. How can the publisher justify such a bald-faced lie? Each and every story is broken up into “chapters” of under a hundred words. By this logic, the Harry Potter books are 199 short stories about Harry’s life at Hogwarts fighting Voldemort.

(I hope my readers appreciate the fact that this book was so boring it drove me to do math. Math.)

At first, reading through the book, it looks like it will live up to its promise of over a hundred fairy tales – the “chapters” are presented one to a page, with an illustration either on the facing page or above it. When the reader turns the page, instead of finding the next chapter of the fairy tale, we instead find a completely different fairy tale chapter, and then another one, and another one, all entirely different; the twelve chapters that make up Alice in tumblr-Land each have several pages between them. This essentially ruins any sense of continuity that would otherwise have linked the chapters, and indeed for the first few chapters for each fairy tale, I didn’t even realise they made up one continuous story, and by the time I did I had forgotten so many details from the earlier chapters the later ones had little impact as a result. Not that there are many details to begin with in these fairy tales – most of them could conceivably be told in a Facebook status or tumblr post without being overly long or tedious to read (except for the fact that they’re all quite boring). I’m not sure what drove Manly to break up the stories like this, but it’s safe to say that if he was hoping to frustrate his readers, he succeeded.

Alice in tumblr-Land is classified as a humour book, so you would at least expect it to be amusing. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The “humour” apparently comes from the fact that the stories are told using slang and dropping the names of websites at random throughout the text. Using the phrase “This blows” to sum up a situation can have comedic value – if its use is meant to surprise the reader. If a smart, upstanding and erudite butler to a noble family were to say, after an entire book of speaking The Queen’s English, something along the lines of, “Master, if I may be so bold, my assessment of the situation is that it blows,” that would be funny, or at least vaguely amusing, because it’s subverting our expectations. Rhett’s classic “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” is one of the most famous lines in literature and movie history precisely because of this notion of shocking the audience. Having Gretel sum up her and Hansel’s situation by saying “This blows” fifty words after we’re introduced to the characters has no impact on the reader because no history has been established with these characters. Sure, we wouldn’t expect to hear the phrase in your standard fairy tale, but as it’s often told, Hansel and Gretel has almost no dialogue anyway – most of the classic fairy tales don’t. With no history for any of these characters, the phrase has about as much impact as if a typical fourteen-year-old said it. Similarly, name-dropping Chatroulette in a book isn’t funny, nor is mentioning Instagram, or filters. The Pinocchio chapters don’t even have these attempts at humour to bog them down; each one just has Pinocchio telling another lie, with the “joke” apparently being that, in the accompanying picture, his nose grows longer. (Really, it wasn’t even that big of a plot point in the original book – it came up maybe twice.) And when it grows longer, it breaks things! And this is apparently the whole joke.

Well, at the very least, do the stories offer any insight into the tales on which they’re based? Well, no, not at all. The stories of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood might as well have been about characters named Jenn and Amanda for all the relation they had to folklore. Robin Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and the story of King Arthur are so far removed from their mythologies that almost no connections can be drawn between them. The Three Billy Goats Gruff seems to think that featuring three goats is enough to say the story was based off of them. Some stories stay truer to their origins, but it doesn’t add much to their quality. The Peter Pan stories still deal with the trials of a kid who doesn’t want to grow up; and in the end, just like in the original book, Peter learns to accept that growing up is inevitable and enters the adult world – so, really, nothing was gained from this that couldn’t be gotten from the original, unless you really, really wanted to hear about Peter’s blog. One or two stories go in a different direction from the source material; instead of Mulan being a girl who pretends to be a boy to serve in the army and protect her father, Mulan is transgender and comes to embrace his new identity as Ping – though very quickly; the story doesn’t even come close to presenting the difficulties transgender people face coming to terms with themselves and living their lives as they really are. Yet other stories take a character trait from their title characters and waters that trait down to make it less interesting. Chicken Little becomes a story about a chick suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, a serious psychological condition that requires years of medication and behaviour therapy to cure, and yet is never dealt with – on the contrary, it appears to be a source of humour, despite being a truly difficult disorder to live with that can have damaging and lasting effects on a person’s life. Sleeping Beauty is no longer in an enchanted sleep because she pricked herself with a spindle; instead, that’s something that was dealt with off-screen in her past. In the book, she appears to suffer Major Depressive Disorder, a serious mental disorder affecting a full third of the population and yet which faces so much stigma from a society that equates it with general sadness that many people don’t get treated for it. Instead of ignoring it and milking it for jokes like Chicken Little does, the book has Sleeping Beauty deal with and overcome her depression with almost insulting ease – a few YouTube videos of people expressing their deep feelings through song, a heart-felt talk with a friend that makes her realise the true source of her sadness, and suddenly she’s well on the path to recovery. If only real life were so convenient.

Well, at the very least, do the stories make us realise anything about the modern condition and the way we interact with technology? I think the answer to that should be clear by now. At no point are we really forced to confront how we conceive of and use modern technology; it more just mentions it in passing like we would casually mention having a Facebook discussion with a friend. Nor are we forced to confront the morals of the original fairy tales, and nothing said about them inspires us to view them in a new light. This book is a literary non-entity, leaving as much of an impression on me as Under the Skin did; despite finishing it yesterday, I had to look up story elements today for the review. The stories slid out of my mind almost as soon as they entered, and from page one I found my eyes straying back to the first lines of stories I had already read, reading and rereading them three or four times each in a futile effort to stop them from running through my hands like water. To borrow an expression from my late grandmother, these stories go in and out like a fart in a colander, and nothing can make them stick. Perhaps the book’s one high point is that it’s easy to finish; you can read it in an afternoon and as such have it done well within your local bookstore’s return period. You can buy it, read it, then give it back for a full refund and spend your time and money on more worthwhile books, like a collection of Grimm and Anderson’s fairy tales, which, despite their age, are far more applicable to modern life than the thirty-one stories collected here.

Overall rating: 1/5


Review: Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook to Travelling Upon the Ankh-Morpork & Sto Plains Hygienic Railway, by Terry Pratchett

Fully Illustrated and replete with useful tidbits 

Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook offers a view of the Sto Plains like no other 

Authorized by Mr. Lipwig of the Ankh-Morpork & Sto Plains Hygienic Railway himself, Mrs. Georgina Bradshaw’s invaluable guide to the destinations and diversions of the railway deserves a place in the luggage of any traveller, or indeed armchair traveller, upon the Disc. 

From the twine walk of Great Slack to the souks of Zemphis: edifying sights along the route 

Tickering, nostrums and transporting your swamp dragon: essential hints on the practicalities of travel 

Elegant resorts and quaint inns: respectable and sanitary lodgings for all species and heights 

Terry Pratchett has published three small handbooks like this – The World of Poo came first, followed by Dodger’s Guide to London – that built on previous books and were educational as well as entertaining. The World of Poo explored the history of indoor toilets while telling a story; Dodger’s Guide to London gave fascinating tidbits on the odd and sordid history of England’s most famous city. Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook takes more after Dodger’s Guide to London, with each two-page spread being on a different topic. It’s a travelogue for the area around Ankh-Morpork, less than 150 pages, and makes for very nice light reading.

Pratchett was a boy growing up when steam power was being replaced and England’s iconic steam trains began disappearing, and a certain nostalgia for steam is apparent in his writing. The most recent Discworld novel, Raising Steam, is all about steam power coming to the Disc and the transformation the world underwent as a result. Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook is almost an extension of Raising Steam, showing us things that the full novel wasn’t able to. In addition, the handbook fleshes out the Disc in new ways, giving us maps, showing where the various city-states of the Sto Plains sit in relation to each other, and exploring the history of the region. The book is filled with as much wit and humour as any other Discworld book, and has a few in-jokes to delight long-time readers. In a nice spin on how things normally are, Mrs. Bradshaw is an old widow who truly loves the new steam technology, instead of turning her nose up at it and wishing for things the way they were.

I can guess what most of you are thinking. “But ARamone,” you say, “it’s just a travelogue for a fictional place – who would enjoy reading it?” In truth, I think every Discworld fan would enjoy reading it. It helps us orient ourselves in the vast geography of the Discworld. It made me want to travel on the Ankh-Morpork railway and see the sights described. The amount of thought and detail put into the book is truly impressive and speaks to Pratchett’s talent as a writer and world-builder. The simple power of Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook is how real it makes the Disc, like we could reach out and touch it, and how it does it just as effectively as the novels with so much less space to do it in. Mrs. Bradshaw’s Handbook has a spot on the shelf of every Discworld lover.

Overall rating: 5/5


Review: Dragons at Crumbling Castle (Special Edition), by Terry Pratchett

A deluxe, slipcase edition of Dragons at Crumbling Castle, complete with critical commentary, bonus stories and a beautiful limited-edition print.

Focus on a planet revolving in space… Focus in on a small country in the northern hemisphere — Great Britain.
Closer, closer… and on the western edge of London you can see the county of Buckinghamshire. Small villages and winding country roads. And if you could go back in time to the mid nineteen-sixties, you might spot a young lad on a motorbike coming down one such lane, notebook and pen in his jacket pocket.
This is me. A junior reporter for the Bucks Free Press, where I began writing stories for young readers that were published every week in the newspaper. The stories in this collection are a selection of those. There are wizards and mayors, carpet people and a monster in a lake, along with plenty of pointy hats. And some of these stories even spawned my later novels.

14 hilarious short stories by Terry Pratchett, perfect for anyone aged 8-108. Terry’s youngest writing yet — this collection will introduce a whole new generation of fans to the witty and wonderful world of Pratchett.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle is a collection of short stories by Sir Terry Pratchett, intended for young children but great for any fans of his works. With sixteen stories, commentaries on each one by Suzanne Bridson, a rather lovely box, and an exclusive piece of art by the illustrator, the collector’s edition is a lovely addition to any bookcase.

The stories included were written when Pratchett was seventeen, and were written for the local paper in a section for children. They’ve been edited slightly since Pratchett was a kid, but are for the most part left intact, giving an interesting view of how he wrote in his early days. Certain elements – a general level of silliness, unusual characters, turtles – show up later in his Discworld series, and one of the stories became the basis for his first published novel, The Carpet People. Though different from what fans of Pratchett’s later works are expecting, the stories are quite well-written and very enjoyable. The stories are interspersed with illustrations by Mark Beech, adding colour and flavour to the already-rich text. The commentaries don’t add much to the stories, and are mostly just thoughts on what happens in the stories; to be perfectly honest, I would have much preferred if they were by Pratchett himself, to get his view on his early work (as much as he doesn’t like it). The occasional interesting tidbit can be found in them, however, and overall they’re not bad reading.

Though technically meant for kids, no one is too old for Dragons at Crumbling Castle. The whimsical stories bring you back to your childhood, and the amount of world-building and character Pratchett fits into such short stories is truly a testament to his skill as a writer. Whether a long-time fan of Terry Pratchett or just discovering his work, Dragons at Crumbling Castle will find a place on every bookshelf.

Overall writing: 5/5


Review: Under the Skin, by Michael Faber

Hailed as “original and unsettling, an Animal Farm for the new century” (The Wall Street Journal), this first novel lingers long after the last page has been turned.

Described as a “fascinating psychological thriller” (The Baltimore Sun), this entrancing novel introduces Isserley, a female driver who picks up hitchhikers with big muscles. She, herself, is tiny–like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she listens to her hitchhikers as they open up to her, revealing clues about who might miss them if they should disappear. At once humane and horrifying, Under the Skin takes us on a heart-thumping ride through dangerous territory–our own moral instincts and the boundaries of compassion. A grotesque and comical allegory, a surreal representation of contemporary society run amok, Under the Skin has been internationally received as the arrival of an exciting talent, rich and assured. 

With elements that could have made for a good story if they were developed enough, Under the Skin is a book that tries to make a point, but ends up leaving no impression on the reader.

The book starts off setting up a very good concept: a young woman named Isserly drives along the lonely Scottish highways, picking up muscular male hitchhikers, and lying to them about herself, drawing them into a conversation about who would miss them if they would disappear, before knocking them out with a drug and taking them back to an isolated farm. At the beginning of the novel, we’re shown that she quite enjoys this; gets a rush from it, in fact. She’s also in near constant pain and has surgical scars all over her body. At this point, the book is a good enough read, though not spectacular, and sets itself up to be a nice character study of a female serial killer who seduces victims before doing off with them. If it had stayed like this, I probably would have liked the book a lot more.

Unfortunately, the truth will out, and in this case the truth is that Isserly is not just a psychotic young woman: she’s actually a sort of monkey, a species yet unknown to humans, who had her body surgically altered so she could pick up humans for a company that sells human meat to her species, who consider it a delicacy. She brings back muscular men who then get given steroids for a month to make them more muscular before being killed and shipped off to Isserly’s home. The inclusion of this rather bizarre supernatural twist, which comes quite early in the novel, upends what was otherwise shaping up to be a rather nice premise and the novel goes in a different direction from thereon.

The book reads like it was intended as a vegetarian manifesto, with the point driven in further when a young man, son of the company’s owner, comes and preaches to Isserly about the dangers of eating meat and how he suspects humans are an intelligent species. Here, however, it fails for one major reason: it’s implied that Isserly’s species doesn’t naturally eat meat and that doing so is causing health problems for them. That’s all right for Isserly’s species, but means the book doesn’t apply at all to humans; for whichever reason vegetarians remove meat from their diet, there’s no denying that we need the protein it gives and that our bodies are set up for an omnivorous diet. In this way, the book fails to be applicable to the reader. Partly because of this, as well, the premise fails to grab the interest of the reader or to create any drama; all of this comes out by the middle of the book, causing the second half of the novel to plod along without really going anywhere.

With so much attention given to the book’s vegetarian philosophy, the plot is left to meander by the wayside, and as a result the book is a fairly boring read. The scenes with Isserly talking to the hitchhikers are the best in the novel: each one does build up some drama as we sympathise with the humans who might lose their life. Each one also includes a short section from the humans about how they view Isserly, which serves to characterise them very well, as well as giving some character to Isserly, showing how she presents herself to others in the course of their job. There aren’t quite enough of these scenes to save the novel, however, and the drama and questions these scenes raise about Isserly’s motives is completely lost when we learn what she’s doing, taking out much of what made these scenes enjoyable in the first place.

However, even taking out the problems with the main premise, the book falls flat on a few points. None of the characters are very well fleshed-out; Isserly in particular is never explored in much depth, leaving much of her personality a mystery to the reader. This was done partly deliberately, as it’s implied Isserly shuts herself off from others, but leaves her as a relatively bland protagonist. Isserly goes through no appreciable character growth, meaning the reader is denied seeing how her experiences change and affect her. Exactly who Isserly’s species is and where they come from is never explored, and the information we are given only raises more questions than it answers. We know it’s somewhere with a coastline, as they send a ship to pick up the human meat, so they most likely live on an island. It’s also stated, however, that they polluted their home so much that nothing can grow; there are no plants to produce oxygen and the air above is so bad they were forced under ground to survive and to generate their own oxygen. Any island with a pollution problem that bad would have been spotted by someone and explored; logically, then, humans should already have been aware of Isserly’s species, yet Isserly takes great pains to avoid letting on to the humans she picks up that she’s not one of them. Somehow, however, humans are known to Isserly’s species, and they’re familiar enough with human appearances to surgically alter their own people to look human, with the resemblance being so good that to humans, Isserly just looks a bit ugly. Questions about how it is possible they remain hidden from humans stay with the reader even after the book is finished, detracting further from the novel’s overall quality.

The ending leaves on a rather low note that does nothing to resolve the books main plot, what little there is. The issue of how Isserly sees humans isn’t resolved, nor is anything done about the corporation that’s selling human meat. With no resolution and nothing to tie it together, the book ends up reading as a collection of scenes and events related to each other, but failing to tell any sort of story. The book has good pacing and dialogue, but with nowhere for any of it to go and nothing for it to really work up to, these points don’t work much in the book’s favour. The day after finishing the book, I had already nearly forgotten it, and for all the staying power it had, I might as well not have read anything at all.

Overall rating: 1.5/5


Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss

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Deep below the University, there is a dark place. Few people know of it: a broken web of ancient passageways and abandoned rooms. A young woman lives there, tucked among the sprawling tunnels of the Underthing, snug in the heart of this forgotten place. Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a brief, bittersweet glimpse of Auri’s life, a small adventure all her own. At once joyous and haunting, this story offers a chance to see the world through Auri’s eyes. And it gives the reader a chance to learn things that only Auri knows….

In this book, Patrick Rothfuss brings us into the world of one of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s most enigmatic characters. Full of secrets and mysteries, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is the story of a broken girl trying to live in a broken world. 

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read this year.

A short novella, only about thirty thousand words, The Slow Regard of Silent Things isn’t a story in the traditional sense. There is exactly one character, who says not one line of dialogue in the entire book; there’s no plot, or climax. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful book, and I wish I could see more like it.

To be clear, this is not a book for those who have not already read the first two books of The Kingkiller Chronicles; without the content and backstory they give, the book doesn’t make much sense. If you have read them already and then pick this up, however, it comes together wonderfully. The book is a week in the life of Auri, giving us fantastic insight into her mind and worldview and tantalising insight into her past. To us, the logic seems disjointed and odd, but everything makes sense in Auri’s mind. I’ve always particularly liked her and identified with her, and this book fleshed her out to an enormous degree; even if I didn’t understand the basis for her internal logic, the writing of the book drew me in and made me celebrate her victories and sympathise with her downfalls. I was drawn in completely for the entire book, and had to give it a hug when I finished. I only reluctantly put it down.

If you’re a fan of The Kingkiller Chronicles, pick up The Slow Regard of Silent Things; if you haven’t read The Kingkiller Chronicles, read them and then read the novella. You won’t regret it, and you might just discover you love a style of storytelling you’ve never even thought of before.

Overall rating: 5/5


Review: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

From the creator of the wildly popular webcomic xkcd, surprising answers to important questions you probably never thought to ask. 

Millions of people visit xkcd.com each week to read Randall Munroe’s iconic webcomic. His stick-figure drawings about science, technology, language, and love have an enormous, dedicated following, as do his deeply researched answers to his fans’ strangest questions. The queries he receives range from merely odd to downright diabolical: 

 What if I took a swim in a spent nuclear fuel pool? 

Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns? 

What if a Richter 15 earthquake hit New York City? 

What would happen if someone’s DNA vanished? 

In pursuit of answers, he cheerfully runs computer simulations, digs through declassified military research memos, consults with nuclear reactor operators, times scenes from Star Wars with a stopwatch, calls his mother, and Googles some really freaky-looking animals. His responses are comic gems, accurately and entertainingly explaining everything from your odds of meeting your soul mate to the many horrible ways you could die while building a periodic table out of all the actual elements. 

When Randall Munroe is your guide, science gets really weird really fast. Near-light-speed baseball pitches can level entire city blocks. A mole of moles can suffocate the planet in a blanket of meat. Yoda can use the Force to recharge his electric-model Smart Car. 

This book features the most popular answers from the xkcd’s What If? blog, but many of the questions (51 percent!) are new and answered here for the first time. What If? is an informative feast for xkcd fans and anyone who loves to ponder the hypothetical. 

In addition to reading copious amounts of fiction, I’m quite a fan of non-fiction books as well – depending on the topic. Most of the non-fiction I read (actually, all the non-fiction I read) is science-related. Combine that with the fact that the only webcomic I read is XKCD, which is really the best thing on the Internet (besides a certain blog run by yours truly), and I was quite excited to find out that XKCD creator Randall Munroe was publishing a book.

XKCD’s What if? feature has been running for a couple of years now, and in that time it’s answered some truly odd questions. What If? is no different. It covers everything from global windstorms to Twitter to how well an arrow would fly in zero gravity. The answers are delightfully informative and, often, surprising. Munroe writes with his usual wit, making the articles as funny as they are knowledgeable.

I’d be the first to admit I’m not physics- or math-oriented at all, and a physics-major friend of mine can attest to that, but despite that I had no trouble understanding the science in What If?. It’s no more complex than what you’d get in a typical XKCD comic, making it accessible to readers of all types. As a former roboticist for NASA, Munroe knows his stuff, and it shows in the text; that he can make his explanations so understandable shows how well he understands what he’s talking about. His enthusiasm for all things scientific shines through in the writing to draw the reader in and hold their interest, making for a truly enjoyable read. Interspersed through the articles are sections entitled, “Weird and Worrying Questions from the What If? Inbox”, which covers exactly what you’d expect: the oddest questions he’s ever been asked, which he doesn’t answer but instead responds to with humorous asides. These provide a nice little break from the articles themselves to stop the reader getting bombarded with too much science at a time. Within the articles themselves are relevant, yet funny short comics drawn in the style of XKCD to add humour to the articles, further adding to the enjoyment.

What If? is a great read for anyone, scientifically-oriented or not, and will especially appeal to those who like odd, esoteric, or just plain crazy knowledge.

Overall rating: 5/5


Review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: The Jedi Doth Return, by Ian Doescher

Once more unto the Death Star, dear friends! 

The epic trilogy that began with William Shakespeare’s Star Wars and continued with The Empire Striketh Back concludes herein with the all-new, all-iambic The Jedi Doth Return — perchance the greatest adventure of them all. 

Prithee, attend the tale so far: Han Solo entombed in carbonite, the princess taken captive, the Rebel Alliance besieged, and Jabba the Hutt engorged. Alack! Now Luke Skywalker and his Rebel band must seek fresh allies in their quest to thwart construction of a new Imperial Death Star. But whom can they trust to fight by their side in the great battle to come? Cry “Ewok” and let slip the dogs of war! 

Frozen heroes! Furry creatures! Family secrets revealed! And a lightsaber duel to decide the fate of the Empire. In troth, William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return has it all! 

Friends, we have come to the final installment of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, and when I saw it on the shelf as I was walking out of the bookstore I nearly gave myself whiplash. Naturally I bought it right away and began reading it the next day, and loved every moment of it.

The Jedi Doth Return was, stylistically, more similar to Empire than to New Hope; it uses monologues, dialogue, and speeches to explain action sequences; the chorus comes up only a couple of times in the play. This was, overall, a very good choice; the characters could give their thoughts and views on a situation, which fleshed them out and made the sequences more fun to read. Once again, side characters were expanded upon and motives explored more in-depth, and characters who had little to no personality in the original were given clear characters – a prime example being Salacious Crumb, Jabba’s odd laughing pet, who gets several lines in the play. This expanding of dialogue meant that I occasionally got a very different impression of characters than I do when watching the movie, especially regarding the Han-Luke-Leia love triangle, which made reading the play a fresh experience in some ways and a slightly different experience than the movie.

I was curious about how the Ewoks’ dialogue was going to be rendered in the play, and I was amused to find it was written as four-line, half-nonsense little poems; the first and fourth lines were gibberish while the middle lines were odd-sounding English that gave character to the Ewoks and let us understand them while preserving their distinct way of speaking. Doescher had previously used similar tricks to great success in Empire (Yoda speaks in haiku, Fett in prose) but this is the first time he’s done it with an alien language to make that language understandable – Chewbacca’s and Jabba’s dialogue, as well as that of the Jawas and other aliens, is left untranslated. Reading the way they spoke and the conversations they had with C-3PO was quite fun.

Unfortunately, Darth Vader doesn’t say “prithee” in this play like I hoped he would, but it was still a fun read and a nice ending to the trilogy. Nevertheless, we still get great and innumerable shout-outs to the original Shakespeare, like one monologue that references “All the world’s a stage”. By the way, if any of you are planning to put on a production of these plays, now would be the perfect time, because you could perform them all back to back and either invite me to watch or send me a video of it (I’m still waiting). In conclusion, I’ll just say that this series has been great from beginning to end, and that if you haven’t read The Jedi Doth Return yet, you should immediately.

Overall rating: 4.5/5


Author Bio and Giveaway: Tracey Smith, author of A Summer Romance

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A Summer Romance E-Book Cover

I grew up in Southern California, but as a teenager moved with my family to a small town in Arkansas. It was there that I met my husband, who had also recently moved to the state. Fate brought us both to that same small town and into each other’s lives and it is where we remain today raising our two children and living out our happily ever after. As you can probably tell I’m a hopeless romantic.

I began my writing career in 2009 with the publication of my first novel Love’s Fate, which quickly grew into a romantic series. Since that first day that I sat down to write I haven’t been able to stop. Writing is my passion and has become a necessary part of my life. Sometimes there are stories that just beg to be told.

A Summer Romance Facebook Cover Art

A giveaway for A Summer Romance will be happening from the 19th to the 23rd, with five free copies up for grabs! WordPress won’t let us post Rafflecoptors, but follow this link to enter the giveaway!

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/share-code/Zjk0NzA2YjlkZjg5OTBiYzZiZWQwOTg2MjY5Zjk1OjE=/


A New Door Opens

Hear ye, hear ye!

Readers, we’ve got an announcement to make: your favourite review blog is introducing something new!

Starting today, we will begin offering editing services! More information can be found here, but here’s a quick run down of what we offer:

Proofreading: This is more beta reading than full editing. We’ll read through a nearly completed copy of what the finished book will look like, to check formatting, make sure nothing is missing or has been repeated, and aesthetics. This will improve the look of your story.

Copy-editing: This is a lot more in-depth and involves reading through a manuscript to check for grammatical, spelling, or tense errors. This is recommended for most authors, because it’s quite hard to spot errors in your own work. This will improve the readability of your story.

Substantive editing: This includes copy-editing and involves reading through a manuscript in-depth to give advice on plot lines, revamping characters, and any other changes that need to be made. This can also be hard to do yourself; having someone else take a look at your manuscript allows them to spot plot holes you may not have noticed, as well as missing scenes or errors. This will improve the quality of your story. Depending on the length of the novel, this service will vary in price.

Our prices range from 0.5 cents/word – 0.8 cents/word. Note that this is lower than industry standard. Self-published authors are advised to hire an editor to look over their work; it can make the difference between an okay story and a really good read.

Contact us any time through our editing services page to request an edit. Please tell us the wordcount of your novel and what sort of editing you would like. If you mention where you live, we’ll make sure spelling is correct for your region.

Thank you everyone who reads our blog. We couldn’t have done this without you!


Review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: The Empire Striketh Back, by Ian Doescher

The saga that began with the interstellar best seller William Shakespeare’s Star Wars continues with this merry reimagining of George Lucas’s enduring classic The Empire Strikes Back.

Many a fortnight have passed since the destruction of the Death Star. Young Luke Skywalker and his friends have taken refuge on the ice planet of Hoth, where the evil Darth Vader has hatched a cold-blooded plan to capture them. Only with the help of a little green Jedi Master – and a swaggering rascal named Lando Calrissian – can our heroes escape the Empire’s wrath. And only then will Lord Vader learn how sharper than a tauntaun’s tooth it is to have a Jedi child. 

What light through Yoda’s window breaks? Methinks you’ll find out in the pages of The Empire Striketh Back!

My friends, the wait is over: the second part of Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars trilogy is here.

In the author note, Doescher says that The Empire Strikes Back was the most similar to one of Shakespeare’s plays; it has the same pathos, tragedy, battles, triumph, and romance that Shakespeare was so fond of. And, indeed, the book certainly reads very much like a play, and feels like one. Stylistically, it’s somewhat different from Verily, A New Hope; while New Hope made use of a chorus to explain scenes without dialogue to them, Empire uses characters to do the same thing in most cases, both of which Shakespeare did depending on the play. We also get more monologues from side characters explaining who they are; the wampa gets two such speeches at the beginning of the play.

The main strength of Empire is that it greatly expands on the movie. Instead of just being a straight retelling, monologues, asides, and observances are added that expand upon character motivations, making Lando Calrissian, Bobba Fett, and other characters more three dimensional and making it easier to sympathise with them.

Once again, the book heavily references Shakespeare; the opening line is a reference to Twelfth Night and a stage direction references The Winter’s Tale. They’re fun to spot for the Shakespeare nut and a nice little bonus for those who remember Shakespeare from high school. You don’t have to read Shakespeare regularly to spot them, either; many of them are references to very well-known lines that people with a casual familiarity of Shakespeare can spot. Also like the first book, Empire is dotted with illustrations of how the scenes would look if they were in a stage production, including ships held up with strings and AT-ATs pulled along on wheels, and these are always rather amusing.

All in all, The Empire Striketh Back improves on the first book by adding more to the movie. It’s a must-read for any fan of either Shakespeare or Star Wars of all ages. Unfortunately, Darth Vader doesn’t say “prithee” in this, so we can only hope that comes back for the third book. Once again, if anybody wants to put on a production of this, let me know so I can either come and watch it or get a DVD of the production.

Overall rating: 4.5/5


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