Saturday, December 14, 2013

Book review: Brick Shakespeare: The Tragedies

Brick Shakespeare: The Tragedies by John McCann, Monica Sweeney, and Becky Thomas, 2013, Skyhorse Publishing

Please note that I'm posting this same review across all my blogs, but I'm appending some blog-specific information at the end of each one.

Next up in my survey of LEGO books is Brick Shakespeare: The Tragedies. John McCann is credited with building and photographing the LEGO creations, while Monica Sweeney and Becky Thomas abridged and edited the plays' texts and wrote introductions and synopses. As the name suggests, this is basically a LEGO-illustrated version of Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Ceasar (listed as the four most well known tragedies, personally I would have listed Lear before Ceasar, but okay). The text is original shakespeare, though they say it is lightly abridged (I haven't gone back and compared, and it's been ages since I've read the plays, so I can't say how much they were abridged). If you are familiar with the two large Brick Bible volumes, you can tell that some of the same people at Skyhorse were involved in putting this together, because the format is largely the same (same size book, about the same number of pages, LEGO pictures in sort of a comic-book layout with text in boxes). Each play starts with a Dramatis Personae showing pictures of the minifigs in each role, and a short description of that play.

I wanted to love this book, and I should have. My first real area of building after I emerged from my dark age was LEGO illustration of stories, and I've even made a handful of Shakespeare scenes before. Unfortunately, I just can't endorse this book. The LEGO scenes themselves, which should be the star (I mean, I already have copies of most of the plays), are really subpar. I help run Classic-Castle, a site dedicated to LEGO Castle building, and so every day I see scene after scene that are significantly better than what is found in the Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet stories, and a quick check of the Greco-Roman LEGO group on Flickr will show the same for the Julius Ceasar chapter. I'm sorry to be harsh; a few years ago I might have been more positive about this book, but this year I have to set it beside things like Assasination! and LEGO Space, illustrated story books with amazing LEGO building. One suggestion for anyone taking on a project like this: Shakespeare is written for the stage, which means that there will be only a very few settings. That means you only have to build a few different scenes, and then place the figs within them. Therefore, those scenes should be amazing. I really felt like I could have built any of the individual scenes in this book in a single sitting at my LEGO table. Probably the only scene that really impressed me was the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, but that was a barely reworked version of set 10223, Kingdoms Joust.

A couple of curious things about this. On Skyhorse's own website, the author is listed as 'Jack Hollan'. In the 'About the Authors' section of the published work, McCann, Sweeney, and Thomas are referred to as the 'Hollan Publishing team', and McCann's LinkedIn page says he works for Hollan Publishing. It turns out the Hollan Publishing is a company that, in their words "are conceptual agents and book packagers who develop compelling non-fiction concepts and work with promotable expert personalities to deliver strong books across a range of categories." Interesting. Another clue that I find is that on the Skyhorse site, and also on the Hollan site, an alternate cover is shown. Interestingly, IMO a couple of the images on the alternate cover look pretty good (the witches at the top and the Lady Macbeth at the bottom). Purely speculation, but my guess is that someone at Hollan came up with the idea, put together a mock-up cover, and shopped it to Skyhorse, and then went and found McCann to build the whole stories. Alternatively, McCann first came up with the idea, got signed by Hollan, and in the process of building the whole stories he reworked all of his photos.

I can't find much about McCann. The 'about the author' section says he's been building with LEGO for twenty years, but I find no evidence that he's involved in the larger AFOL community at all (i.e. no Brickshelf, MOCpage, or Flickr account, also no mention of him on the NELUG site). The aforementioned LinkedIn account says that his current job at Hollan involves "Building Lego sets and taking photos to act out 8 different Shakespeare play and Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales to illustrate 3 different children / young adult books." (see below for the other books). I think this book would have been improved by some interaction with the AFOL community. I'm not trying to be snobbish and say that everything has to conform to the latest popular building techniques, but he doesn't seem to be aware of the high quality scenes you can build out of LEGO, including other peoples' LEGO Shakespeare scenes.

Unfortunately, I have to give this a negative review. I love the idea, but was disappointed by the execution. This is really not for AFOLs; the best audience would be a younger teen who likes LEGO, but needs some hook to get them interested in great literature. If you enjoy this book, you'll be happy to note that Barnes & Noble lists two additional books by the same team. The first is a follow up volume called Brick Shakespeare: The Comedies, which will include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Tempest, due out in April of 2014. The second is Brick Fairy Tales, which will include "Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, and More", and is due out next May.

Blog-specific content - There is none.

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