The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

This is the first novel in the multi-part Wheel of Time series. It’s set in a world where time is circular (a wheel) and all the people in the world are in a constant cycle of death and reincarnation, doomed to repeat the same things over and over infinitely.

I thought it was a nicely unique concept for a fantasy world, and one which is implemented well throughout. Though it largely focuses on on a single set of people during a single point within this wheel, it was a really interesting backdrop for the story, and one which came up regularly throughout it. I’m excited to see what more is done with the concept in later books.

As for the story of this one, to some extent, it’s your typical fantasy set-up – simple country boys are whisked away from their peaceful life in a quiet village and end up on a quest that will bring them across the world as they journey to battle an evil that threatens everything.

The structure of the story might not be too different from things we’ve all seen before, but using a tried and tested formula is by no means a bad thing. I really enjoyed the book because of all of the interesting locations they visited, excellent world-building, and most of all, a great cast of characters.

My two favourites were Moiraine, an Aes Sedai (which is a sort of witch in this world) and her warder, Lan. Moiraine plays the ‘mysterious old wizard’ part in this story, and I think she does so very well. She comes across as otherworldly, in a way, concerned with higher matters than those happening directly before her, and though she a morally grey character for sure, she was so enigmatic that I was won over.

Meanwhile, Lan, her warder, is a completely stoic man who is unquestionably loyal to Moraine. The bond between the two of them is supposed to exceed that bond between a married couple, without it being in the least bit romantic, which I really liked. You don’t often see things like that in fiction.

The other characters were great too. Rand is a little bit of a generic protagonist, but he’s also an awkward, angsty teen. Egwene is a girl that Rand has always been endeared to, and she’s always wanted to see more of the world and now she wants to learn more about the Aes Sedai from Moiraine, but is pulled in another direction by Nynaeve, the village wisdom, who is anti-Aes Sedai (which creates some good conflict). There’s another great character called Loial, but I won’t say too much about him as he comes into it quite late.

All in all, you really feel like the characters are on a long journey in this book, visiting far off locations all around their world – and it’s a world with such a fascinating backstory. If you enjoy fantasy, you’ll probably love this.

Rating: 9.2/10

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Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

This is just the kind of fantasy that I love. Many people have probably heard of the popular anime adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s also a fantastic book, and I definitely recommend it as a different, but equally strong, experience.

Howl’s Moving Castle tells the story of a young woman named Sophie who is suddenly aged far beyond her years by the Witch of the Waste – a figure who is feared across the land. Afraid and not sure what to do, she runs away and meets Howl and his famous moving castle. Howl himself isn’t exactly well respected or regarded in the community (indeed, rumours say that he eats girls’ hearts), but Sophie tags along with him and his young apprentice, Michael, and his resident demon, Calcifer, who powers the titular moving castle.

Though it times, it can feel a little aimless, with the characters just going from one small adventure to the next, it’s all tied together by the overall plot related to The Witch of the Waste, and Sophie looking for a way to reverse her curse. What appealed to me the most was how whimsical the book often was, but never to the extent to being too silly – unlike you see in some more modern fantasy and sci-fi, it takes itself completely sincerely.

Howl is a very funny character too, in that he’s supposed to be this big scary wizard, but he’s actually a pretentious layabout – even if he is still very powerful. Sophie doesn’t have time for any of his nonsense though, and the way the two of them constantly bicker about things is a great source of entertainment.

One of my favourite chapters of the book has to do with the relation between the fantastical world of Ingary, where the majority of the story takes place, and our real world. I won’t spoil it, but it’s bizarre, and unexpected, and I loved that. I always enjoy fantasy worlds having some tie to our own, and I look forward to seeing that thread explored further in later books in the series.

Though the very ending seemed a little cheesy for me (though true to fairy tales, I suppose), it was also very nice to see how many of the seemingly random things that were introduced all tied together – especially in relation to Calcifer.

While it has the capacity to be quite dark at times, it’s also a book that gives you such whimsical things as boots that can take you several miles in a single steps, conversations with falling stars, scarecrows coming to life, and more. There are even a few references to other pieces of fantasy and literature in it, which all help to make reading this book a very charming experience.

As children’s fantasy goes, this is definitely one that will appeal to adults too. If you want a bit of light and enjoyable escapism, this is a book to try.

Rating: 9.2/10

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Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

While Dracula is the big, well-known vampire novel of the latter nineteenth century (and indeed, one of my favourite books), it was actually preceded by Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. For years, I’d meant to read it, but it was only recently that I got around to doing so.

Surprisingly, despite having been a big fan Dracula fan for so long, I actually think that Carmilla is the better of the two. For me, I always liked the portion of the novel that focused on Jonathan Harker’s stay in Count Dracula’s castle – the setting is beautifully creepy, and being isolated from civilisation only helps to make it even more so. Though shorter, the entirety of Carmilla captures that feeling of early Dracula.

Set in a castle deep in a massive forest in Styria, this novel tells the story of a mysterious young woman named Carmilla who ends up coming to stay with the protagonist (a girl named Laura) and her family. The eerie atmosphere of the setting bleeds through into absolutely everything that happens, with many unusual events seeming to centre around Carmilla herself.

Speaking of, the enigmatic Carmilla is easily my favourite character in this. It’s a shame that her being about vampire is no secret to anybody these days, because leading up to that fact must have been really interesting back in the day, but as it stands, it’s still an engaging read even if you do know where it’s going.

Genuinely, I felt quite sympathetically towards Carmilla. I see her as a genuinely tragic character. Unlike Dracula, who comes across as much more of a plain villain, I, at least, really felt that Carmilla cared for Laura and was rather invested in their relationship. It very strongly suggests that the two of them are in love with each other, and for its time, that’s extremely progressive.

The negative response to Carmilla by other characters could be read as a parallel to the negative response to gay people at that time in history – although as I write that, I’m not sure how much I want to make the comparison between vampirism and homosexuality. There’d be some pretty unfortunately implications there, and I don’t think that author meant anything harmful by that, but it certainly plays with some societal taboos.

Anyway, I won’t say any more for fear of completely ruining the ending, but really I loved this book. The two things that a book can do to leave a big impression on me are: creating characters whose relationship I am invested in, and creating settings that have a really strong sense of place. Carmilla does both of these things, and it has vampires. That makes it pretty amazing in my estimation.

Rating: 9.4/10

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Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

For years, I had seen Twilight mocked and parodied as being a really bad book, but I don’t like to get my literary perspectives from the general consensus. I’m quite a fan of vampire fiction, after all, so I thought maybe I’d actually love it.

When I finally read it, I went in with an open mind. I didn’t hate it, but I can kind of see why others do. Let’s start with what I did like about it though: first of all, there’s the town of Forks (where the novel is set), which comes across really well as a setting. The surrounding forests, the gloomy, grey weather – it all felt very clear in my mind and helped make the novel feel more immersive.

Then there’s Bella Swan – yes, she can be annoying, but I actually kind of liked her. She’s a teenage girl, and she feels like a very realistic teenager. She thinks she knows everything, she’s really pretentious and looks down on everyone, and for these reasons she’s kind of funny and endearing. I cared about her, because she was realistic. I particularly find it funny how she’s so constantly looking down on everyone, but also really intimidated by everything too – it does rather encapsulate the teenage perspective.

On the other hand, I didn’t really like Edward Cullen. He’s a very creepy man who I didn’t think ever did anything to earn Bella’s affection, which I suppose is purely physical. He’s over a hundred years old (though physically a teenager) and spent all the time in school, which no doubt did very strange things to his mind, and paints him as a man with some strange issues.

Even if we accept that he is still a teenager because becoming a vampire preserved him as one forever, he’s still controlling of Bella (rarely considering how his actions affect her, always thinking he knows best) and completely contradictory in his attitudes. For example, he always tells Bella to stay away from him because he’s a monster who might kill her at any moment, but then he also invites her to meet him in secluded locations in the middle of the woods. He’s also attracted to her because of the smell of her blood, which you’d think would be a turn-off for Bella, but it’s not.

Ultimately, Edward isn’t as bad as, say, Christian Grey, (and he does help protect her from greater evils) but he still comes across as a weird, lecherous creature – which isn’t just because he’s a vampire either, because other vampires seem much more normal. Speaking of which, I really liked the character Carlisle Cullen, who is Edward’s father figure. He doesn’t get a huge amount of time in the spotlight, but one chapter explores his history and gives a fascinating tale that spans several centuries. I loved it. In fact, I wish the whole book was about Carlisle.

If you read between the lines, you can kind of read it as a pro-celibacy novel, which is probably the worst thing about it. I see nothing wrong with someone deciding to be celibate of their own accord, but I don’t think it’s something you can push someone to, and I think Stephenie Meyer was trying to do that with this book. But if you can look past that, it’s a relatively enjoyable book that accurately captures teenage angst – which can be a bit monotonous at times, but with a nice dose of vampirism in the mix, my overall experience with the book was a positive one.

Rating: 7.2/10

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It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

What if America had become a fascist state in the 1930s? That’s the question that Sinclair Lewis answers with his book, It Can’t Happen Here. It is not only a thought provoking novel, but one that’s written in a very unique style.

At some points, the book feels as if it’s a history book from another universe. The way that political events are written about is very much as if they were real, and I thought that this was a really effective method for helping make the book feel more believable. But it’s not all like that: at the heart of the book is a man called Doremus Jessup and his family.

Doremus and his family live a kind of idyllic life at the start of the book, but that soon begins to deteriorate once Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip becomes president. This gives everything a much-needed human aspect, because going for the purely ‘alternative historic’ style might have made it all feel too academic, but seeing the consequences of fascism manifesting in the lives of characters for whom you feel some level of fondness makes it all much more distressing.

And it is a very distressing book, at times. Admittedly, I think that Lewis was trying to be very darkly comic with some parts, but certain events which take place are so enormously harrowing that they’ll stay with you a long time – not least because many similar atrocities have actually happened in reality in other dictatorships.

Of course, that’s really what the book is all about: the horrors of fascism. The story is fictional, but it draws on some very real horrors. It’s awfully clever in a lot of ways, because as much as Doremus is opposed to the new regime and does what he can to challenge it, the book also shows how he was complicit in Buzz’s rise to power as well, and how certain attitudes and behaviour feed into a dictator being democratically elected.

It also does a good job of illustrating that with fascism, nobody wins – not even the fascists themselves. The book could often be quite depressing, in part, because of the sad fates which befall even those who are loyal to the oppressive government – though I do think it ended on a fairly optimistic note.

As dystopian fiction goes, I think It Can’t Happen Here is one of the best. Even though it was written before Nineteen Eighty-Four, I believe it does a much better job of challenging fascism than that book does, by showing exactly how a dictator could rise to power. Although, I have to admit, that some aspects of it felt a little bit ‘fast’ in terms of the steps Buzz takes to cement his power.

Though I am a bit biased because I find the 1930s a very interesting time period (it’s also filled with literary references that I enjoyed), I genuinely think that this is a fantastic book and one that I definitely recommend. Now more than ever, people need to be aware of the risk posed by fascism…

Rating: 9/10

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Lessons from the Mountain by Mary McDonough

This book is the autobiography of Mary McDonough, best known for playing Erin Walton in the hit TV show, The Waltons. From the title through to the marketing, Lessons from the Mountain is very much presented as if it were all about her time on the show, but, actually, there’s so much more to her life than that and even though I’m a massive fan of The Waltons, that part of the book was probably the least interesting to me.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy reading about her time as Erin, because I did. It’s really fascinating to get an insight into the mind of the person who brought to life one of the fictional characters I’m so familiar and fond of, and her anecdotes about life on the set were interesting and sometimes heartwarming – there was a story about Will Geer trying to make her become more comfortable with her body that I particularly liked, for example.

At the same time, she certainly doesn’t shy away from the tolls that being a child actor takes on a person. The depression and anxiety that she had to deal with while acting is kind of heart-breaking, and it certainly highlights the morally dubious nature of children being actors, because despite the fact that it might seem glamourous, they are still starting jobs at a very young age, and experiencing all the stress that people normally wouldn’t encounter until their adult years.

She also writes about the general difficulties of being a woman working in Hollywood: about sexual harassment, about extreme pressures to look a certain way, seedy directors trying to make her do nude scenes she didn’t want to, and much more besides. As much as she was writing about her experiences as an actor in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, I think a lot of this remains important to this day.

But really, I think the part of the book that was most interesting to me, was where she detailed her work as an activist. She explains that due to the body image problems she experienced, and the fact that she felt like she would get more work if she had larger breasts, she decided to have breast implants.

When she had the procedure, she wasn’t told anything about the health risks, or the fact that they would need to be changed every few years or so, and because of this lack of information, she ended up experiencing a severe decline in health and was ultimately diagnosed with lupus. She would later discover that there are many women who had become similarly ill, or who had even lost their lives, after undergoing a breast enlargement procedure.

Together with other women who had experienced the same problem, she tried to sue the medical company behind it with a class action lawsuit. Sadly, it was unsuccessful, and she details the harassment she received as a result of this, and how the media tried to smear the character of everyone involved. It’s such appalling stuff, and it’s incredible that she stood alongside many other brave individuals to challenge these unethical practises.

Before reading, I had no idea whatsoever that breast enlargement was anything but a simple routine with no real risks. When you see it discussed in film and TV, it’s portrayed as if it’s no big deal, but awareness needs to be raised about the serious harm that they can do, and in writing this book, Mary McDonough has helped shine a light on a social issue which seems to receive very little acknowledgement in the mainstream media. This is why it was so much more interesting to me than the story of her time on The Waltons (as much as I love it).

When I started reading this book, I respected Mary McDonough for her acting abilities in portraying Erin Walton (and for writing the book One Year). When I finished reading this book, I respected Mary McDonough as a fine actor and writer, as well as someone who actively fights to make the world a better place.

Score: 9.3/10

Buy it here.

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The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

Published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique was one of the most influential feminists books of its time. It raises many societal problems which were particularly relevant at the time, and many of which still pervade society even to this day (although to a lesser extent now than then). Sadly, though it was a progressive piece for its time, it has aged quite poorly in other regards, but that doesn’t mean that its valuable points should be disregarded.

The biggest point that Friedan tries to make with this book is that a woman cannot gain total fulfilment in life by dedicating her existence to housekeeping and raising children. Her argument is that because children inevitably grow up, build their own lives, and then move out, the women’s fulfilment is built upon something that is very temporary – once a child no longer ‘needs’ their mother for everything, she may well feel depressed because she has lost the ‘purpose’ she has imposed on herself and no longer has an independent existence of her own.

At the time, this was caused by a prevalent cultural belief that women’s natural role was in the home and she also illustrates that women’s issues actually worsened in the 50s and 60s, after improving somewhat in the 30s and 40s, as a part of the push to get men back into workplaces after women had taken a lot of jobs during the Second World War. I tend to think of social issues as a steady line of improvement, but it’s interesting to consider that there are ups and downs along the way.

She argues that it is important for women to maintain careers while being mothers, because that can help them to keep a sense of independent existence, and also give them something to get back to, once their children aren’t so dependent on them. Obviously, everyone’s needs are different, but as a general rule, I think that’s pretty sensible.

But here’s where she really dates herself: she goes so far as to argue that promiscuity, homosexuality, and autism all may be caused by children growing up without a strong female role model, because their mother lacks their own independent existences. It’s kind of insulting to quite a lot of people really, with a fundamental misunderstanding of how these things work, and then there’s also the fact that she says the lives of housewives are comparable to those of people held in Nazi concentration camps, which is a very poorly conceived comparison which falls apart really easily (in her defence, the introduction explains that she grew to regret this decision).

So, all in all, while there are many points that remain important to this day and have a progressive ethos to them, it’s also clear that this is a book of its time and several of the more unpleasant attitudes of the 1960s do rear their heads (although at least she is sympathetic to the civil rights movement), and it can generally be a very dry read sometimes. Still, it’s an interesting piece of history and her notion of the ‘feminine mystique’ itself (the idea that women should be able to find fulfilment in keeping a happy home) and the harm that it causes, will always be relevant.

Rating: 6.6/10

Buy it here.

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Maximising the ecological value of hard coastal structures using textured formliners by Mairi MacArthur

With human beings causing immeasurable damage to the world, when it comes to reducing that harm every possible measure must be taken. For example, the biodiversity of the ocean is infinitely important, because it leads to the creation of oxygen in much the same way as a forest would do. In this paper, a new method of cultivating that biodiversity, or ecological value is put forward.

As it explains, with climate crisis-related flooding becoming more and more of a problem, there are consequently more structures created within coastal waters in order reduce the risk of floods. But, then, surely unnatural structures in the ocean are going to reduce the ecological value of those areas and then only further contribute to the overall problem?

Well, that’s where the keen perspective of this paper comes in. When created in a certain way, with more complex structures that more closely resemble natural surfaces, these structures can actually become homes to different forms of aquatic life, rather than just taking up space in a place where different life forms should be able to live. This is rigorously demonstrated through tests on various different surfaces over a period of time.

It’s a really important bit of research and something that I’d never have considered myself. Should the creators of those hard coastal structures heed the discoveries of this paper, that could contribute quite a lot of ecological value to coastal regions. We can only hope that, for once, people listen to the scientists.

Reading-wise, it surprisingly digestible for a scientific academic paper, so if you’re into that kind of thing, do give it a look. This will, I hope, be the first of many academic papers to appear in my liberally named ‘book review’ section.

Rating: 8.5/10

Read it here.

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A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

In this 1929 book, Virginia Woolf writes about the misogyny and gender inequality of her time and unlike some other historic feminist texts which seem somewhat outdated when you look back on them in the modern day, A Room of One’s Own has aged wonderfully. It’s something that modern feminists should definitely try (and everyone else too).

Throughout the book, she not only looks at present (for her time) and historic injustices against women, but she also gives her perspectives on the history of literature written by women – an angle which I, as an avid reader, found particularly interesting.

She addresses the fact that women’s perspectives are much rarer when looking at historic pieces of literature, because the majority of women throughout history were not given the opportunity to learn how to read or write. Meanwhile, those who did may have had such a sheltered life, that they wouldn’t have known as much about anything to be able to write a book.

She gives the hypothetical example of Judith Shakespeare, a sister to William Shakespeare born with all of the same literary capabilities as the historic Shakespeare. In some detail, she describes that tragic life that this woman might have lived – involving physical abuse, pressure to be married, nobody taking her writing seriously, and ultimately a miserable death by her own hand. It’s bleak, but very thought-provoking.

The ultimate point of the book is to highlight that a woman needs “a room of one’s own” in order to be able to succeed as a writer, because if a woman does have her own safe space, not only does it mean that she can write confidently and comfortably without fear of her writing being censored or belittled by the men in her life, but also because it suggests some level of financial security – because living in poverty would significantly reduce the likelihood that anybody would be able to produce a novel.

I also particularly enjoyed the portion of the novel in which she writes about the difficulty gay women faced in being able to write about their experiences – primarily because of the laws surrounding so-called ‘obscenity’ in writing at the time. It’s refreshingly progressive to read a perspective like this in something from the 1920s.

All in all, it was a fascinating and enjoyable read. Not only did I feel like I learned quite a bit from this book, but it was also really interesting to get Woolf’s perspectives on the subject and she often articulates her point in comedic or creative ways. If you’ve enjoyed other books by Virginia Woolf, or you’re interested in literary history, or feminism in general, you should definitely read this book.

Rating: 9.3/10

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DC’s Greatest Detective Stories Ever Told

What instantly drew me to this comic collection was the striking image on the front cover of Batman and Sherlock Holmes working out a mystery together. I love both of them, so how could I resist? And, as it happens, one of the stories in this collection actually includes a Batman/Sherlock Holmes crossover too, which was a real treat for me.

In addition to Batman and Sherlock Holmes, this collection brings together a selection of stories from several different DC characters. Truthfully, I hadn’t even heard of quite a lot of them, but even without knowing who the majority of them were, the stories still felt accessible enough.

I decided not to rate the stories individually, because I enjoy them all in very different ways. The very first story, Skyscraper Death, is an old 1930s that I found interesting as a historic curiosity, even though the story was a bit silly, while another story (from about fifty years later) which had Lois Lane investigating child murders and disappearances was genuinely really good even by modern standards. There’s a huge deal of variety.

Here are my overviews of each one:

Skyscraper Death by Jerom Siegel and Joe Shuster
Starring a ‘hard boiled’ dick, Slam Bradley, this comic is very much a thing of its time. Imagine a very cheesy detective story from the 1930s – this story fits the mould perfectly. Slam is both big and strong, but also smart. He and his comically proportioned companion, Shorty (who looks kind of like the Monopoly man without the fancy clothes and moustache, even though everyone else has realistic proportions) investigate a murder for which Slam has been framed. An evil racketeering union leader was behind it all, but how can Slam clear his name? I enjoyed it, but, gosh, it was quite hard to take seriously.

The Van Leew Emeralds by Gardner Fox and Creig Flessel
By day, a rich playboy, by night a vigilante… how similar to Batman. The Sandman is quite a cool hero who seems to mostly go after big crime families and in this story he’s investigating the stolen Van Leew Emeralds. He has his girlfriend Diane as his only accomplice (which I kind of liked) and the two of them set out to find out where the emeralds have gotten to. It’s nice to see Sandman treated as a villian by the police and, while the story isn’t the most unique thing ever, I felt it was a step up from the Slam Bradley story in that I was able to take it more seriously and I thought it had a pretty good atmosphere.

Puzzle of the Purple Pony by Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino
This was the first of the comics in this collection which actually contained a mystery I was keen to see solved. In it, Elongated Man (a hero I’d honestly never heard of before) is driving through a prairie on his way to a rodeo with his wife Sue. Sue spots a man painting a horse purple and is really curious to find out what’s going on, so persuades Elongated Man to look into it. It was a fun little mystery overall and a nice step up from the first two, though I did think the man’s ultimate reason for painting the horse purple was just a bit of anticlimax.

When it Rains, God is Crying by Mindy Newell
This story really stands apart from the three which preceded it, because it is much more adult. In it, Lois Lane begins to investigate a wave of child disappearances and murders in the area, becoming almost single-minded in her desire to raise awareness for the problem and shed some light onto what’s actually going on. It’s a very gritty comic and the art by Gray Morrow does a lot to bring that to emphasise that feeling. Lois is really interestingly written here and it does an interesting job of highlighting that as much as Superman can stop the big super villains, he’s pretty powerless against issues like this.

The Doomsday Book by Mike W. Barr
This was a Detective Comics anniversary comic which told a story that included Batman, Robin, Slam Bradley, the Elongated Man and even Sherlock Holmes. Slam is now a much more interesting character who’s become disillusioned with things after Shorty’s death, which made me like the character more than in the earlier story. I was also pretty pleased with the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, who I felt was very true to his source material. The story starts in Gotham with Slam Bradley, but the action switches to London and we get flash backs from one hundred years ago. It’s a great example of comics doing what they do best, and I loved it. There’s a particularly appealing surprise at the end of the story too. My favourite in the collection.

Mikado by Dennis O’Neil
Another of the very dark and gritty stories, this one features The Question (a mysterious, faceless man) investigating a string of unusual murders. I’d never have seen the ending coming and I actually thought that the killer and their motives were very interesting. The Question himself is a great character too and though this is my first exposure to him, I certainly finished reading it feeling hungry for more.

The Origins of Detective Chimp
Curiously, nobody is credited with having written this story, so I don’t have any names to put down. Anyway, I’d heard about Detective Chimp long ago and always been very amused by the concept. This is my first time reading a story about him and it’s easily the silliest thing in this collection, but I have to say that I found it quite enjoyable, even if it was a little on the short side.

Parallel Lines
Another story that doesn’t credit the author. It features a young boy who comes to Wayne manor and already seems to know all about Bruce Wayne being Batman and Dick Grayson being the original Robin. Dick and Alfred question him, fearing trouble, but ultimately, things work out in quite a touching sort of way.

All in all, I’m really glad I decided to buy this anthology. It’s a nice look at various different threads within the DC multiverse and I liked reading every one of them. If you’re a fan of DC, I strong recommend giving this a try.

Rating: 8.3/10

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