The Greatest Opening Lines in Fiction

A great first line can make or break a novel.I was recently directed to this story about the best opening lines in fiction. And they all sucked. Every single one. Well, except Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. And Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Okay, so it’s possible I was exaggerating slightly when I said they all sucked. But I wasn’t a fan of a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong, novels like Wuthering Heights, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Jane Eyre are all excellent. But “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” does not a great first line make.

So I rummaged through my library to dig out my own list of 15 fantastic examples of opening lines in fiction:

1. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happen to say that it was the only cast he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

2. Buddha Da, Anne Donovan

Ma Da’s a nutter.

3. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

Madame Doubtfire, Anne Fine

All the way up the stairs, the children fought not to carry the envelope.

5. Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

All children, except one, grow up.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

7. Dune, Frank Herbert

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

8. Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

9. State of Fear, Michael Crichton

In the darkness, he touched her arm and said, “Stay here.”

10. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.

11. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

12. Neuromancer, William Gibson

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

13. Singularity Sky, Charles Stross

The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.

14. I am Legend, Richard Matheson

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

15. The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Pretty good, aren’t they? Now I dare you to do better. Find a better opening line. I bet you can’t.

Writing Lessons from Empire Strikes Back

Vader only became Luke's father in the second draft of Empire Strikes Back.I loved Empire Strikes Back as a kid so much that I wore out the tape. Don’t get me wrong, I love all three films of the original trilogy, but ESB always had a special place in my heart. Sadly my wife is a philistine who prefers Revenge of the Sith so I don’t get many chances to watch Empire anymore. So when I wasn’t feeling well last week I pulled out my blu-ray set (and boy does it look good on blu-ray) and watched it again. And, as ever, I found a few tips that can help a writer of any stripe.

It’s All About The Characters

I believe that Empire is the strongest of the Star Wars films for one reason: it focuses on character. Star Wars is really all about the plot and whilst Return of the Jedi has Luke’s battle with Vader, the rest of the film is pretty plot-heavy. But almost every plot thread in Empire has character at it’s core: Luke’s desire to become a Jedi; Han and Leia’s desire for each other; even Vader’s hunt for his son. The stakes aren’t as high as saving the galaxy but it’s easier for an audience to relate to more personal goals and so they care about these stories more as a result.

Give Your Villain Agency

Darth Vader gets his bad-assery kicked up a notch in Empire Strikes Back, and it’s not because he has more Force powers or anything like that. It’s because he’s got the power to do anything he likes. Unlike in Star Wars, there’s no-one giving him orders; he storms about the galaxy, killing his own men, stopping laser bolts with his hands, taking over cities and dictating the terms to everyone around him. It makes him more threatening to the heroes, because there doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t or won’t do.

Stay True to the Character

When Princess Leia tells Han Solo that she loves him, he doesn’t say “I love you too”. He was meant to; that was his line in the script. But they tried it and the director, Irvin Kershner, didn’t like it. It didn’t feel right. So they experimented with different lines until they came up with “I know.” Because that was right for the character, despite what the script said.

The Hero Does The Right Thing

When Darth Vader tortures Han, Leia and Chewbacca, Luke wants to rush to their rescue. Yoda tells him not to, that it’s a trap, that he must stay and complete his training. And when Luke says, “And sacrifice Han and Leia?”, Yoda says yes. Luke is too important. Reason dictates that he must stay.

But he goes. Because the hero has to do the right thing, even if it means doing the wrong thing.

Don’t Be Afraid To Change Anything and Everything

Despite what George Lucas would have you believe, Darth Vader wasn’t always going to be Luke’s father. That little twist didn’t appear until the second draft of the script. In the story treatment and the first draft, Anakin appears as a Force ghost and teaches Luke about the Force and about his twin sister. Changing Luke’s father into Darth Vader required some retcon work (making the Jedi out to be well-meaning liars, for a start) and completely alters the shape of the trilogy, but who can argue it wasn’t for the better?

What do you think writers can learn from Empire Strikes Back? Or are there better lessons to be learnt from one of the other films? Leave a comment and let me know.

Why I Need to Stop Buying Books (Again)

Five shelves of unread books. It's embarrassing, really.I blame Ryan Colucci.

I’ve had a terrible weekend. In anticipation of a potential move, we’ve dedicated ourselves to a clear-out. And, as the only thing I really own is my book collection, that’s where I focused my efforts. But that wasn’t the terrible part.

Whilst rooting through my books I found Harbor Moon by Ryan Colucci et al. It was on the bottom shelf, out of sight and out of mind, and I’d forgotten about it. I didn’t want to put it back. It was about time I read it.

“I know,” says I. “I’ll put all my unread books on one shelf. That way there’ll all be in one place. They won’t get forgotten that way.” Except it wasn’t one shelf. Or two. I’m embarrassed to say it was five. Five shelves of unread books.

I’ve always known there are two types of book-buyers: readers and collectors. I always thought I was the former, but seeing almost an entire bookcase full of books I hadn’t read made me doubt myself. The sight of them was something of an accusation. All these books were made to be read and here I was keeping them prisoner, able only to show their spines. To be honest, the sight of them depressed me a little.

So it is that I’m resurrecting No More Books for 2014.

The idea is as simple as it was in 2012: to stop acquiring any new books until you’ve read some of the books you already own. There are only three golden rules to No More Books:

No buying.

No borrowing.

No rereading.

And only two exceptions:

Gifts – It’s rude to turn down a gift so this is okay. But no asking for books or getting a friend to buy one for you and calling it a gift. That’s cheating.

Research – If a book is absolutely needed for research purposes then a temporary pass may be granted by your personal NMB2014 committee. This committee is usually a somewhat patient and exasperated individual; family, friends, spouse, etc.

The only difference from 2012 is that, this time, you get to decide when it ends. You can take control of my life using the widget below. Don’t worry if it doesn’t work; you can head over to my Facebook page to cast your vote there!

If you’re suffering a similar plight, I’d love to hear from you. Are you a reader or a collector? Do you have too many unread books? And would you suggest joining me in Book-Buying Rehab? I wouldn’t say no to some company. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

Writing Lessons From Gravity

Gravity looks great but it can teach us a thing or two about writing as well.I often say that Avatar was the first film I saw in 3D but that’s not true. It was a space documentary narrated by Tom Cruise in the London IMAX. So it’s quite fitting that when I finally saw Gravity it was in 3D; I’ve come full circle.

Gravity, of course, looked a lot better, but in a way it was very similar to the Cruise-narrated documentary; much was made of its looks (and the 3D) to the detriment of the story behind it. And don’t get me wrong, Gravity is a beautiful film. But the script has a few good lessons worth highlighting for a writer of any genre.

Don’t Let Reality Interfere

Gravity is careful to be scientifically accurate. But when science gets in the way of the story, the Cuaróns weren’t afraid to ignore it. In practice there’s no real possibility of an astronaut just hopping from space shuttle to space station to space station. But that would have severely limited the story opportunities, and so the writers ignored reality in favour of the plot.

Make a Character’s Death Mean Something

Gravity kills on two occasions. The first kills a bunch of nameless characters to illustrate the danger of the situation and to leave astronauts Stone and Kowalski stranded.

The second kills Kowalski. This is a character you care about. Sure it could be Clooney’s rugged charm. But the writers also took time to show us his stories, his little dreams, and how much he tries to help Stone.

Kowalski’s death is working overtime. It reminds the audience that no one is safe, not even characters they like. It removes Stone’s last source of aid and comfort. And it further complicates her relationship with death.

No Place to Hide

Gravity is a perfect, if extreme, example of motivating characters to move on. At no point can your characters find a place, in the world or in their head, where they can find any permanent peace. Sure it’s good for them to catch their breath, as Stone does when she reaches the ISS. But if the ISS was too safe, the story would have ended. Stone would have waited for rescue or she would have hopped in a Soyuz and cruised back home.

Each point Stone reached was either perilous before she got there or became so shortly afterwards. This prompted her to keep moving and the story moved with her.

The Importance of Death and Rebirth

Gravity offers a very clear and literal interpretation of this stage of the Hero’s Journey. Stone settles down to die only to receive a heavenly visitation from the dead Kowalski. She then regains consciousness with the knowledge necessary to save herself and she makes her peace with the death of her daughter.

Ultimately your character has to be flawed at the beginning of your story. They don’t have to be a broken mess. But they cannot be the hero, not yet. It’s only when they go through the death and rebirth stage that they gain the quality necessary to defeat the antagonist.

Did you learn anything from Gravity? Or do you disagree with any of what I’ve said? Leave a comment!

My Writing Process

I had this sketch of me writing made especially for this blog post.This week I’m taking part in the My Writing Process blog hop, which was recommended to me by Dave Sivers. I interviewed Dave about his crime fantasy novels here, but he also writes crime novels too. He wrote about his writing process last week, so be sure to check out Dave’s blog.

So this hop consists of four questions about my work:

1) What am I working on?

Most writers have a number of different projects on the go, so I’ve always got a few short stories and a dozen novel ideas I’m tinkering with. However my main project is an epic fantasy. The story had its genesis in the Ballad of Thomas Rymour, a Scottish folktale of a man who is spirited away to the realm of Faerie. I imagined Tom would develop a sort of Stockholm Syndrome so he would want to go back once he was forced to leave Faerie.

So I’m writing an epic fantasy in which the world is embroiled in a war between elfs and men, where dragons are enslaved and turned into weapons of mass destruction, and all Thomas Rymour wants to do is get back to his beloved Queen of Faerie. Obviously it’s not going to be easy for him.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Legends and myths often play a large role in epic fantasy, but I wanted folklore and fairy tales to influence mine. It gives the world a different flavour, as the rhythm of folklore is very different to that of mythology.

The fay themselves are different, too. I wanted to do something new with them, so their personalities are tied into the time of year. For one half they are light and fey, for the other they are dark and dangerous. A fay in summer will play a harmless prank and laugh. The same fay in winter might maim you and react the same way.

3) Why do I write what I do?

That’s a tough question. I suppose a lot of it comes from reading other books and thinking “but what about this?” So what does Thomas Rymour do and feel after he leaves Faerie? What if the “good” fay and the “bad” fay are different sides of the same coin? What would really happen when a messiah came back to us? I sit and decide what I think the answers to those questions are and then I write down what I think would happen.

4) How does my writing process work?

The process itself doesn’t begin with writing. It begins years before with random thoughts and ideas that conglomerate into a “what-if?” question that interests me. That question usually prompts more thoughts, which turn into ideas and probably some research.

But the process of writing is pretty straightforward. Each morning I sit down for an hour before work and pick up where I left off yesterday. That’s it. I don’t revise or rewrite unless I feel it’s crucial; I just write the next thousand or so words. Sometimes if the hour doesn’t go well I’ll write in snatches throughout the day. But, if I’m lucky, the hour produced some good work and I’m free to spend my time thinking about the next hour or about future projects.

I find the routine helpful; as time has gone on it needs less time to change gears and be ready to write. Doing it first thing also means that, no matter what the rest of the day is like, my writing is in the bag. It also can’t be affected by the detritus of the day!

Anyway you’ve probably heard enough from me. Time to hand over. I’m passing the hop to two fantastic authors: Ginny Lurcock and M. Latimer-Ridley!

Ginny Lurcock lives in New Hampshire with her husband whom she adores, her daughter whom she also adores, and their cat who she likes alright. Her father and his two cats also inhabit the space.

*shifty*

When not writing, she enjoys playing games (of the board and video variety) or reading to the point of obsession (she’s not an addict, she can quit whenever she wants), watching intelligent television, mindless television, sports, movies and listening to music.

Basically, she likes all the things.

And somehow, she still manages to find the time to be bored.

You can check out Ginny’s blog next week to read about her writing process. Check out Bad Blood in the meantime. It’s excellent.

Latimer (Karen) and Ridley (Rachel) are two eccentric best friends with far too many obsessions and a frightening addiction to tea. When they aren’t reading stories filled with magic, passion and adventure, they’re writing them. A writing duo for the last nine years, they’ve always dreamed of sharing their imaginary worlds and quirky characters with others.

While they live in Ireland, they would love to spend their lives travelling the world. But for now, they can be found happily wandering the internet.

Check out M. Latimer-Ridley’s blog next week to see their take on this blog hop.

In the meantime, tell me how your writing process works or about your WIP in the comments below!

Free Stories for January

Get two free short stories, one horror, one superhero!January’s a time for tightening belts. Literally and figuratively. While we’re trying to work off the Christmas pounds, we’re also staring at our bank balances and our credit card bills in disbelief. Time to start cutting back on a few luxuries. Like books. (Although I think books are necessities, I’m aware that some people don’t see it that way.)

January is a good time for freebies.

So anyone who subscribes to my newsletter gets two short stories for free. The first is You Are Just A Guest, a suburban horror told via social media about a young couple in a house that’s home to something else. The second is The Homeless Hero, a superhero tragedy about a man trying to help everyone but himself.

They’re available in MOBI, EPUB and PDF format so you can read them on a Kindle, iPad, Kobo, Nook or even your computer. There’s no DRM either so you can share them with your friends and family if you want.

And if you enjoy them, please review them on Amazon. Posting reviews is a great help to authors!

So let me treat you to a freebie and subscribe today!




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11 of Matt Smith’s Best Doctor Who Moments

Matt Smith's run on Doctor Who was a high point.I’ll miss Matt Smith. I make no bones about that. I’ve said before that he’s my favourite Doctor. He’s a young actor but played the Doctor very old. And very honest. Whether he was playing the Doctor’s childish glee, his bottomless rage or his unfathomable regret, you believed every moment. Smith never seemed to act. He just was.

So, to say goodbye, here are my favourite moments of Matt Smith’s Doctor. (Spoiler alert, by the way!)

1. “I am definitely a madman with a box.” The Eleventh Hour

The moment I decided Smith was my Doctor. It encompasses everything you love about the Doctor and it’s delivered with promise and a grin.

2. “Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All” Closing Time

The Doctor speaks baby. Of course he does. And when he speaks to a baby named Alfie, he reveals that Alfie prefers to be known as Stormageddon. Fantastic name and delivered so matter-of-fact.

He speaks horse too.

3. “No-one human has anything to say to me today.” The Beast Below

The first of Matt Smith’s angry moments. The Doctor’s just discovered that humans are torturing a space whale so they can ride it. His rage is palpable and he almost seems personally betrayed, as if he’s been let down by this behaviour. I wouldn’t want to upset him after seeing this.

Doctor Who made fezzes so cool they made it onto action figures.4. “It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” The Big Bang

Matt Smith’s Doctor had a tragic sense of fashion that you couldn’t help but love. Fezzes. Stetsons. And, of course, bow ties. All of these were cool, according to him. No-one around him seems to agree, but fezzes kept popping up nonetheless.

5. “The universe doesn’t care.” The Snowmen

The Doctor retreats after losing Amy and Rory. To be honest, this idea bored me a little. It’s been done before and it doesn’t last long (the format of the programme doesn’t leave much space for reclusive Doctors). But Smith saved it. He seemed honestly bitter, hurt, even laughing at his pain. I believed in his retreat and I believed in his return.

6. Good Things and Bad Things Vincent and the Doctor

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.”

This whole episode is filled with lovely moments and it’s not just Snith that shines. But this little speech tops it off. It’s been a sweet episode and a very sad episode. And just when you get a bit too sad, Smith delivers these lines. And you feel good again.

7. “Oh, I always rip out the last page of a book. Then it doesn’t have to end. I hate endings!” The Angels Take Manhattan

Given that this episode is Amy and Rory’s last, this is beautifully prophetic. Many actors might try to add import or gravitas to these lines but Smith delivers it with a casual, throwaway energy. It gives the words all the more impact. That he’s desecrating a book is almost forgivable. Almost.

8. Finding out he has to go to Trenzalore The Name of the Doctor

The Doctor realises he has no choice but to go to the planet where his grave lies. Watch it. Just kills me.

9. “I’m not running away from things, I am running to them. Before they flare and fade forever.” Power of Three

The only logical reason why Smith never seems to be still. He portrays the infinite curiosity and enthusiasm for everything that the Doctor embodies. The universe is full of incredible things and Smith’s Doctor is excited by all of it.

10. “You’re always here to me. And I always listen. And I can always see you.” The Name of the Doctor

River Song was a fantastic addition under David Tennant’s tenure, but she shone with Smith. Their relationship developed so quickly but so believably. And, at the last, Smith shows just how much the Doctor really cares for her.

I thought of plenty more. I wanted to go back and rewatch his entire run. I still might. His madcap energy was a joy to watch, his darker moments never failed to move. Even in the worst episodes Smith had a great moment and he made the best episodes his own. So the last moment could only be Smith’s farewell speech, because it felt like he was talking to us and it’s certainly how we’ll feel about him.

11. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” The Time of the Doctor

Matt Smith takes off his bow tie for the last time.

The Best Books of 2013

Ginny Lurcock's Bad Blood was a funny and excellent read.Another year, another pile of books to reflect on. The Internet is awash with “year in review” posts and this blog is no different. But, as with previous years, I haven’t read many new books. Mostly because I usually only read paperbacks (it’s cheaper that way) but also because I let word-of-mouth lead me to books. And that takes a little while. So this is what I read in 2013 and what I recommend you read too.

Turin Shroud: How Leonardo Da Vinci Fooled History by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince

Don’t let the subtitle fool you. Yes, the authors try as best they can to draw a grand conspiracy theory around the idea that Da Vinci created the Turin Shroud to fool the world. The truth is that no conspiracy theory is needed. The notion the Da Vinci created the Shroud is fascinating enough, and there’s enough evidence to convince you that this might indeed be the case.

Bad Blood by Ginny Lurcock

I am very over vampire romance. Kind of over vampires in general. But Bad Blood was an absolute joy to read. It’s written incredibly well, with a tongue firmly in cheek and it pops the tragic vampire romance balloon before it can inflate. Even if you’re tired of vampires, trust me: you’ll enjoy Bad Blood.

A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver

I watched the TV series and was fascinated. Ancient Britain isn’t taught much at school so it’s easy to be left with preconceptions perpetuated by lazy writers. Oliver’s book goes beyond the series and shows a remarkably advanced and civilised world that we’ve all forgotten about. Worth a read and great for fantasy writers!

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin

I enjoyed the second book in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series more than the first. While the first was a brilliant set up, the second kicked into high gear. Battles and intrigue and, of course, more Tyrion Lannister. What’s not to love?

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

A sombre entry, this. It’s written from the perspective of a ten year old boy whose older sister has died. The boy is living with his dad – his mum has left – and is starting a new school. He makes a new friend, but the shade of his sister means his dad might not let him be friends with a Muslim girl. Sad and heartbreaking but full of hope at the same time.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Friends and family have told me that Aaronovitch’s work reminds them of me for years so I finally read it. I see what they mean. It’s a bit facetious and sarcastic and weird. But it’s great for it. “Magic is real” is an old idea but Aaronovitch mixes it with the boring reality of real police work and it works. You can tell it’s his first book – the story wobbles in places – but I’ll definitely check out his others.

What were your best books of 2013? Anything I should read in 2014? Leave a comment and let me know!

Kobo Explain Kobogeddon, Except They Don’t

Kobo upset a lot of indie authors over Kobogeddon.Kudos to Michael Tamblyn, Kobo’s chief content officer. He could have hidden behind a corporate silence after the Kobogeddon debacle, follow the advice of many a lawyer and simply give a “no comment”. Instead he got up on a stage and gave a calm, candid, even funny speech. And whilst it has disarmed many commentators, I found myself with one key question: why did Kobo nuke every self-published title?

Tamblyn’s speech at FutureBook has brought him universal acclaim, or so it seems. Indeed, he does a very good job of explaining what a difficult situation Kobo found themselves in. But after watching, I still found myself wondering why they had to remove every self-published title, even temporarily, when vendors like Apple, Barnes & Noble and Amazon managed to remove only the offending titles. The cynic in me thinks it knows the answer.

Kobo had to upset one party, WHSmith on the one hand and indie authors on the other. Both parties made money for Kobo. But one party was a single entity which could make a single decision to take that money away. The other party was a disparate group of multiple entities that would have to make thousands of individual decisions to boycott Kobo. Some might leave. Some would stay. And the majority were likely to grumble but stay anyway.

I’m aware that sounds very cynical. I’m not suggesting that is the case (although it is a possibility). So what am I saying? Only this:

He didn’t answer the most important question. We should still be asking Kobo “why?”

Will Amazon Source ruin Independent Bookshops?

Is Amazon Source a Trojan Horse for independent booksellers?Amazon have recently announced their Source programme, which is designed to encourage independent bookshops to sell Kindle devices. Opinion is strongly decided over Source, with many booksellers calling Amazon Source a Trojan horse. But I’m not convinced.

First I need to say one thing: I am not an Amazon apologist. Yes, they’ve done great things. But there are too many indies blindly singing hosannas to the mighty Zon. Perhaps they’re scared their books will be pulled if they don’t or maybe they just love Amazon. I don’t know. But Amazon have made no secret of their desire to rule the world and they’ve stepped on little people to get to that goal. But, that being said, there are two reasons why I’m not sure this will devastate independent bookshops as much as some might think.

Ebooks don’t trump books

I got my first Kindle two years ago and I love it. It’s a fantastic little device and it’s worth it’s weight. Literally, because it saved my wrists from snapping under the weight of the Game of Thrones books. But I still buy tree-books. Quite a lot of them. And I’m not alone. I know only one Kindle owner who has entirely turned her back on tree-books and that’s only because she can’t physically lift them anymore.

Sure, an independent bookshop will want you to buy all your books in a physical format (despite the 10% commission Amazon will offer them on ebook sales). But a devoted reader is bound to pick up an ereader at some point. Why not have them do it at your own store? Which brings me to:

Service trumps price

There’s a comic shop in Norwich called Abstract Sprocket. It is, unsurprisingly, a little out of the way and it cannot compete with Amazon on price. Whilst I don’t buy comics anymore, I still buy graphic novels and collections. So where do I buy them?

At Abstract Sprocket. Because it’s a pleasure to shop there. The guys love their products, they recommend titles to me because they think I’ll like them, and they’re just fun to talk to. It costs more money to shop there, but it’s worth it. If an independent bookshop is a pleasure to visit, customers will keep coming back.

And I can guarantee they’d rather visit the bookshop that isn’t afraid to talk about and help them with ereaders and ebooks rather than the one that sneers at them and sprays them with holy water.

So am I saying independent bookshops should stock Kindles? I think I am. People want ereaders and ebooks. If the bookseller creates a welcoming environment and offers great recommendations, many customers will come back. And I’m pretty sure they’ll keep buying tree-books too.

Is the Kindle a Trojan horse or is it just another reading tool? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.