Sunday, February 17, 2019

REVIEW: Callander Square (book) by Anne Perry

Callander Square is a Victorian England-set mystery, the second book in Perry's Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series.

Review:

Thomas Pitt, a policeman, has been married to his well-born wife, Charlotte, for a relatively short amount of time. Charlotte is pregnant and quite happy with her marriage - she doesn't mind that she and Thomas don't have much money, or that she has to do housework. But that doesn't keep her from meddling in Thomas's work a bit.

Thomas's latest case involves the discovery of two dead infants buried in a wealthy neighborhood. There's no way to tell whether they were stillborn or murdered, although the one that's been dead the longest shows signs of deformities. It's a delicate case: the mother (or mothers?) likely worked or is still working for one of the nearby families. As Thomas questions the various servants, Charlotte and her sister Emily become involved as well.

Monday, January 28, 2019

REVIEW: Gakuen Prince (manga, vol. 3) by Jun Yuzuki, translated by Harumi Ueno

Gakuen Prince is probably a romantic comedy, but it gets really dark at times. Like at the end of this volume.

This review includes spoilers.

Review:

Things finally seem to be going better for Rise, now that she and Azusa have had their mock wedding and have been officially approved of and supported by Reiko Onitsuka, the student body president. However, it's clear that Akamaru still dislikes and distrusts Azusa. Nobunaga, a member of the student council, decides to use that fact to try to lure Akamaru to the dark side (i.e. the student council, which Akamaru has thus far resisted joining).

It all starts when Azusa comes down with a cold. Rise goes to his house and learns just how much he's been hiding from her and everyone else. His secrets soon land him in hot water at school, threaten to destroy his relationship with Rise, and add to Akamaru's list of reasons to want him gone.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

REVIEW: Gakuen Prince (manga, vol. 2) by Jun Yuzuki, translated by Harumi Ueno

Gakuen Prince is, I guess, a romantic comedy series. It was licensed by Del Rey.

Review:

Azusa and Rise learn that they're going to need to do a little more than just exchange neckties in order to be accepted as a real couple by the girls at their horrible school. They will also need to participate in a mock marriage, a ceremony known as the Fiançailles. Just ignore the fact that this was never mentioned in the first volume.

Rise wants nothing to do with the ceremony, especially since it will involve kissing Azusa in front of the whole school. Azusa, however, really wants the continued protection of a fake girlfriend, although he keeps telling himself that one of the main reasons he wants to participate in the Fiançailles is to finally end the other students' bullying of Rise.

Two other characters get involved: a girl named Noriko Fuwa and Akamaru, a popular but aloof guy from S-class. Noriko is determined to make Azusa her own. Akamaru, meanwhile, seems to want to protect Rise. He had previously warned her to keep her distance from Azusa, and now he goes after Azusa for continuously upsetting her, making her cry, and making her even more of a bullying target.

Monday, January 21, 2019

REVIEW: Sometimes I Lie (book) by Alice Feeney

Sometimes I Lie is a thriller. I got a copy via interlibrary loan.

Review:

Content warning: this book contains multiple instances of sexual assault, a couple of which are on-page.

This story is told in chapters set in three different time periods: Amber's present, Amber's recent past, and childhood diary entries. Amber wakes up on December 26th to discover that she is in a coma, unable to move or speak but occasionally able to hear what's going on around her. She has no memory of what happened but is convinced her husband had something to do with it. For whatever reason, he no longer loves her, although he seems to be doing a good job of pretending to be a devoted husband whenever he visits her at the hospital.

Just a few days prior, Amber was limping along in her job as an assistant at a radio show. She's been given an ultimatum: either figure out how to get the voice of the show, Madeline, to like her, or she'll no longer have a job come January 1st. Amber decides to take a different route. Through carefully planted social media posts, anonymous notes, and a few other efforts, she'll convince Madeline that she's about to be let go instead. While Amber is doing all of this, her personal life is in shambles. Her husband is behaving secretively and may be having an affair with Claire, her more beloved younger sister who lives right next door. This makes meeting up with Edward, an ex-boyfriend, more appealing than it maybe should be.

Meanwhile, diary entries written 25 years ago unravel the childhood secrets that continue to rule Amber's life.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

REVIEW: The Avengers and the Thunderbolts (book) by Pierce Askegren, illustrations by Mark Bagley & Jeff Albrecht

The Avengers and the Thunderbolts is a Marvel media tie-in novel. I think it's an original story and not a novelization of any of the comics, but I could be wrong about that.

Review:

Baron Wolfgang von Strucker and Baron Zemo forge a temporary alliance to...accomplish something. I didn't really follow along very well. Something about Hydra (Strucker's folks) gaining power and Zemo gaining access to research Strucker had acquired that's based on work originally carried out by Zemo's father.

The Avengers first become aware that something's up when the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man's date is interrupted by an apparently indestructible Dreadnought. Wonder Man is kidnapped. At approximately the same time (I think), the Vault, which used to be a maximum security prison intended for supervillains and is now being modified to house broken/inactive supervillain technology instead, is broken into by Hydra. The Thunderbolts just happen to be in the area, for reasons I can't recall.

Strucker, Zemo, and Techno manage to produce a mindless and obedient super-powered army of creepy golden people. The Avengers and the Thunderbolts have to work together and somehow figure out how to defeat them and foil whatever it is they're planning.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

REVIEW: Gakuen Prince (manga, vol. 1) by Jun Yuzuki, translated by Harumi Ueno

Gakuen Prince is, I think, supposed to be a romantic comedy. Possibly a dark romantic comedy? It was licensed by Del Rey.

This review includes spoilers.

Review:

I bought this and the next two volumes while bargain bin shopping a while back. The cover made me think it might be some kind of "bad boy + nerdy wallflower" romance. It's not.

Jyoushioka High School used to be an all-girls' school until a few years ago. Although it's now co-ed, the school's girls still vastly outnumber the boys. All the boys are placed in S-class, which only the richest and brightest girls are assigned to.

Azusa Mizutani is the school's newest male transfer student. He has no idea how the school works, and he soon realizes that he'll have to learn fast. Since boys are few and far between, nearly all of the girls are sex crazed. S-class gets first dibs on raping the boys, after which they're fair game for anyone who can get at them. Munechika, the school's most powerful guy, has learned how to make the system work for him, and his advice to Azusa is simple: just accept it and don't get anyone pregnant.

Azusa doesn't have many options. He can take control and actively seduce girls the way Munechika does, keep running until he's finally cornered and raped, or find a girl who's willing to date him and thereby stake her claim on him. When he accidentally comes across Rise Okitsu, a girl who just wants to make it through high school without getting involved in any trouble, he decides to declare her his girlfriend.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

First thoughts: My Time at Portia (game)

I started My Time at Portia a bit too late to consider it for my "2018 Game Recommendations" post, but I somehow managed to rack up 15 hours of playtime in the past few days, so I figured I'd write up a quick post about it.

This is another one I bought in an effort to find something that hits the same spot for me as Stardew Valley, and I think it's come close (with a few caveats), closer even than Cattails. It's still an early access game, but from what I've seen, it's pretty stable and most of the content appears to be there. The voice acting is the only area where things are noticeably still missing - many characters are missing at least a few voiced lines, and some have no voiced lines, just subtitles. (Edit on 1/24/19 - This article may explain why, even after the game's official full release, it's still missing a lot of its voice acting. Oof. Here's hoping all the voice actors are paid what they're owed ASAP.)

Based on what I've played so far, you can do many of the same activities in My Time at Portia that you can do in Stardew Valley, and then some, although the balance of activities is very different. There are lots of villagers to befriend and potentially marry, and you can complete missions for fellow villagers in order to earn money and stronger relationships. You can grow crops (in tiny little planter boxes - this is not a farming game), build items, raise farm animals, go mining, go fishing, chop down trees, etc. There's world lore for you to gradually learn about - this is actually a post-apocalyptic world where technology almost led to the destruction of everything. Just as Stardew Valley asks you to choose between working towards rebuilding the community center or teaming up with Joja Mart, in My Time at Portia it seems you have a choice between turning some of your mining efforts over to the church or to the scientists at the Research Center (or maybe you can mix it up a bit - I honestly haven't tried that yet).

There are two glaring issues so far, and they're the main reason I'm not entirely sure whether I enjoy this game or not: the Assembly Station mechanics, and the fact that you can't progress without finding half a dozen things you need to track down, build, or do.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy New Year!

For the first time, I still have vacation reading notes to write up at the start of the new year. I really need to get those done, or it'll interfere with my ability to pick up where I left off during my next vacation.

One of the things I realized at the tail end of 2018 is that it has become really hard for me to force myself to write reviews. I'm not sure what's up. I don't want to stop blogging/reviewing, but I think I need to figure out a different way of doing things. Maybe I need to change my reviewing style.

I also realized that I need to actively work at offloading (donating, recycling, or selling) more of my collection, more regularly. In the past couple years, I haven't offloaded more than 30 items a year, whereas I've definitely purchased more than that. I just bought a new bookcase that's taller than me, and that's certainly helped a lot, but I can't keep adding and upgrading bookcases. So, one of the things I'm trying in 2019 is sticker rewards, since Booklikes Bingo has taught me that I apparently have an inner small child that still loves stickers. I have a sheet of paper with a blank table with 56 spots on it. For every item I offload in some way, I get to put one sticker on the sheet. Ideally, I should have the whole sheet filled up in a year. It's not much, but it'd be an improvement over previous years, if it works.

Beyond that, I don't have a whole lot of reading/reviewing goals. As far as goals not related to books go, I'd like to continue to go to the gym regularly and get back to my pre-Hep C medication weight. I don't know if I've mentioned this, but in the past few months I was diagnosed with mild arthritis in my right hip. After being referred to multiple doctors, each of whom thought surgery might be a good idea, I was finally reluctantly given a prescription for physical therapy, which I'm very happy to report worked wonders. Since then, I've been going to the gym regularly and doing my physical therapy exercises and stretches semi-regularly (yeah, I need to work on that). I've also made it a quarter of the way to my weight goal. My hip's still occasionally a bit stiff, and flexibility is still an issue, but things are so much better. I'd like my progress to continue into 2019.

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 Game Recommendations

I didn't play games quite as much in 2018 as I did in 2017, and I certainly didn't finish as many, but I did play a few that I liked enough to recommend.

For context, I'm mostly a fan of adventure/puzzle games that allow you time to think things through. I also enjoy visual novels, which are sort of "choose your own adventure" stories with visual elements, and the occasional RPG. I played all of these games on my computer, with a mouse and/or keyboard - I don't currently own a controller.

In no particular order:

Rumu

In this game, you are basically a Roomba. The only other character with whom you regularly interact is the house AI, Sabrina, who repeatedly tells you that your humans are very busy, but you'll get to see them soon. Maybe tomorrow. Or the day after that. It soon becomes evident that something very bad has happened in this house. Was Sabrina responsible? Can you really trust her?

There are puzzles to solve, but they're all extremely simple and usually involve taking a thorough look at your environment and clicking buttons until the proper things light up. This game is less intended for puzzle aficionados and more for those who'd like an interactive character-focused story. Past a certain point it's pretty predictable, and, as a fan of non-evil AIs, aspects of the ending irked me, but I found it to be a gut-wrenching story nonetheless.

Rusty Lake Paradise

Weird puzzles and more Rusty Lake lore. I still think Rusty Lake: Roots is the best game in this series, but this was still enjoyable. If you'd like to get a feel for what these games are like, I'd suggest trying some of the free Cube Escape games on your smartphone - my favorite is Cube Escape: Birthday, although you can start from almost any point in the series. Just be warned that these games are weird and occasionally gross and/or gruesome.

The developer also released a Cube Escape game on Steam, Cube Escape: Paradox. I played and enjoyed the entire free portion but am currently stuck on a part in the for-purchase portion.

428 Shibuya Scramble (visual novel)

Note: I haven't completed this yet. I've played for 11 hours and have gotten several "Bad" endings, but I haven't made it through all the chapters/in-game hours yet.

This is a relatively old Japanese visual novel, so the controls occasionally leave something to be desired. However, the storytelling and characters absolutely make up for it. It starts off as a basic story about a kidnapped girl, and from there spins off into something that follows multiple POVs. I've found that the best way to progress is to follow one particular POV until you hit some kind of wall, either a "Keep Out" sign (indicating that another character's story must progress to a particular point before you can switch back to this character) or a Bad Ending (where you are given a hint as to what you need to do to make things right).

There's no way to skip "read" text, which is going to be a pain once I get all the way through the story and start hunting for missed endings, but I love this visual novel anyway. It's quirky, a bit cheesy, often funny, and just generally enjoyable to read. The visuals are mostly still photographs, but they're occasionally combined with camera movements in ways that can trick your brain into thinking you're watching a video.

Hidden Folks

Do you like Where's Waldo? This is like a black-and-white computer game equivalent. Each screen is jam-packed with tiny details, and, if you pay attention, you can gradually follow certain characters' adventures from one location to the next. I really enjoyed this, even though it was occasionally hard on the eyes, even with the different visual settings and the ability to zoom in on small areas of the screen.

Gray Matter

Jane Jensen, the woman who created the Gabriel Knight games, also designed this. It's an adventure game that mostly scratched my old school point-and-click adventure game itch. There's nothing in the game that will kill you, and gameplay involves collecting and using items, talking to people, searching your environment, and solving occasional mostly well-integrated puzzles. There's also a magic trick mechanic, although that's not as interesting as I thought it would be - you look through a children's book of magic tricks and use it to have the heroine perform actions in the required order.

The visuals and character movements were occasionally a bit clunky, and I disliked some of the things that the heroine had to do, but I enjoyed this nonetheless.

The Blackwell series

This is a point-and-click adventure game series in which you play as a woman (mostly Rosa, but one game has you playing as Rosa's aunt Lauren) who has suddenly found herself bound to a ghostly detective.

I played The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, Blackwell Convergence, and Blackwell Deception. In order to best follow along with the story, I recommend playing the games in order, but I will admit that the puzzles in the first game in particular have some annoying moments. My favorite games in the series, so far, are Blackwell Convergence and Blackwell Deception. You can definitely see the developer improving in every area: gameplay, storytelling, and character development. I'm looking forward to playing the final game in the series, as well as the developer's newer games.

Cattails

If given a choice between Stardew Valley and Cattails, choose Stardew Valley. But if you've played Stardew Valley and want to try something else, maybe give this game a shot.

You play as a cat that was adopted by a little girl and then cruelly abandoned in the wilderness by the girl's mother (that woman sucks, and the opening animation was an unexpected gut-punch). In order to survive, you must hunt for food and forage for various herbs. At the start of the game, you must join a particular colony, which affects which characters you regularly interact with and the sorts of resources you can easily access. If you encounter cats from another colony, they will fight you, unless you're visiting their colony or you're at a festival. You can befriend and eventually marry and have kittens with cats from any colony, not just your own.

I've only played this for 9 or 10 hours and feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what this world has to offer. That said, I do feel like the characters and character interaction could use more depth. Still, it's fun to explore, catch vast amounts of prey, and make forays into enemy territory for goods you can't get closer to home.

The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Another one I haven't played enough (9 hours) to be entirely sure about recommending, although I really liked what I've seen so far. This reminded me how much I used to love playing RPGs. The characters and city are fun, and its turn-based combat is much less stressful for me than the real-time combat present in so many games I'd like to play but that would probably wreck my nerves. My only complaint is that it seems to be designed to actively discourage grinding - yes, I know lots of people hate grinding, but there are times I find the repetitiveness of it to be soothing.

Friday, December 28, 2018

REVIEW: Game Slaves (book) by Gard Skinner

Game Slaves is YA science fiction.

Review:

My copy of this is an ARC that I picked up at a conference four years ago. Yes, it took me this long to finally read it. Because it's an ARC, I won't be quoting from it.

Phoenix and his team spend their work days fighting battle after battle. Each time they die, they're regenerated. That's because they aren't people - they're the NPC enemies that human gamers try to defeat. The only difference between one day and the next is what game they're in. When Dakota, a new member, is added to Phoenix's team, things gradually start to fall apart.

Dakota won't stop asking questions. She has what she thinks are memories of a life prior to being in the game. Doesn't that mean she, and all of them, are really human? Doesn't that mean there's a life she could get back to? Phoenix tries to ignore her and concentrate on being the biggest, baddest opponent gamers have ever fought against, but then things start happening that even he can't explain away.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

REVIEW: Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun (manga, vols. 6-9) by Izumi Tsubaki, translated by Leighann Harvey

This is another one of my "vacation reads" posts, so be warned that there are spoilers in the sections for individual volumes.

I was hesitant about getting back into this series, since I'd had trouble getting into it during my last vacation. Thankfully, it seems like 4-panel comic burnout really was to blame, because I very much enjoyed the series this time around, at least up until volume 9. I think burn-out was again to blame for that, since I didn't notice any kind of significant difference between volume 9 and volume 6.

I do wonder if Tsubaki has any kind of resolution planned for this series, but even if it's one of those works that's designed to go on forever (ignoring the fact that the characters need to graduate at some point), I don't see it getting old for me for a while yet.

Review: The Tea Dragon Society (graphic novel) by Katie O'Neill

This was one of my vacation reads. The Tea Dragon Society is a fantasy one-shot graphic novel. I had wanted to read it for some time because everything I'd seen from it looked cute.

Review:

Greta is the daughter of a female blacksmith and has grown up learning her mother's craft. One day, she saves a Jasmine tea dragon. The dragon's caretaker, Hesekiel, offers to teach her about caring for tea dragons. Each dragon has its quirks, but, when properly cared for, they produce magnificent tea that carries the memories of their current caretaker. Greta's visits to Hesekiel also allow her to get to know Erik, Hesekiel's long-time friend and partner, and Minette, a shy girl who is approximately the same age as Greta and who is closely bonded to a Chamomile dragon.

REVIEW: A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns (nonfiction graphic novel) by Archie Bongiovanni & Tristan Jimerson

A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is a 60-page guide, in comic form, to using singular they/them pronouns, including how to handle it if you mess up, a script for introducing yourself with your pronouns and asking others for theirs, ideas for trying to move away from gendered language in your workplace, and more. Archie Bongiovanni identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, while Tristan Jimerson identifies as male and uses he/him pronouns, so the work includes a couple different perspectives.

I had seen a bunch of mentions of this online and picked it up thinking that it would primarily be an introduction to they/them pronouns geared towards employers and employees. It can function that way, and from that perspective, I particularly liked the last few pages (quick and easy pronoun reference chart, scripts for asking about someone's pronouns and what to say when you mess up someone's pronouns, quick and easy ideas for using gender neutral language). They sum things up nicely and could serve as handouts in trainings.

REVIEW: Game Night (live action movie)

Game Night is a black comedy/action movie. It's another one I had considered seeing in my local movie theater and ended up picking up from a bargain bin instead.

Review:

Max and Annie are two ultra-competitive game enthusiasts who met during a trivia night. Max's marriage proposal was worked into one of their game nights, and, from what I can tell, literally the only thing they do for fun is have game nights. Game night is their life.

Now they'd like to have children, but there's one problem: Max's sperm aren't very active, and the couple's fertility doctor thinks it might be due to Max feeling emasculated by his brother, who is handsomer, more successful, and always wins. When Max's brother holds his own game night, Max and Annie decide that if they are to succeed in their quest to have children, they must win. The game seems like a fun one: a mystery role-playing game in which one of the players, Max's brother, is kidnapped and must be rescued by the others. What Max, Annie, and the others don't realize is that things have gone wrong, the game isn't what it seems, and the danger is real.

REVIEW: Love 020 (live action TV series)

Love 020 is a Chinese romantic drama based on a book (which sadly does not appear to be available in English, although I admit I haven't gone hunting for fan translations).

Review:

I started watching this while I was on vacation, got sucked in, and ended up watching it when I should have been plowing through manga. I'll blame this show for my relatively low vacation reading total.

The series stars Bei Weiwei and Xiao Nai. Bei Weiwei is a Computer Science major who is known as the "department belle." She's also considered the second most beautiful female student at her university, with the first being a young woman named Yiran who probably cheated. However, Weiwei could care less about both those things. She just wants to study, get good grades, find herself a nice internship, and play her favorite MMORPG, "A Chinese Ghost Story."

Weiwei also doesn't really care when her in-game husband, whose screen name is Zhenshui Wuxiang, dumps her for someone else. But what she doesn't realize is that she was noticed, in real life, by one of the game's top players and the hottest guy at her university, Xiao Nai, whose screen name is Yixiao Naihe. When Naihe asks her (screen name Lu Weiwei) to marry him in the game, she agrees, figuring that the pairing will be practical and beneficial to them both. Soon, however, she finds herself falling for Naihe and wondering about the player behind the avatar.
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