The Gift of the Quoxxel, 2nd ed.

Author: Richard Titus

My rating: 3 of 5

An isolated tropical island. A whimsical, incompetent king who just wants to see the world. A mysterious girl. Sea monsters and pirates. Extra-dimensional lizards who may or may not exist. What kind of mad wonder is this?!

You can tell before you even open The Gift of the Quoxxel that it’s going to be a quirky trip. And you would be right in that assumption. This is quite the whimsical genre-mash, with a lot of fantasy but also elements of science fiction and mystery, plus a lot of humor. If you’re a fan so Seussical neologism or Alice in Wonderland-style whimsy, this is the book for you. It’s filled with quirky characters, long strings of alliteration, and plenty of surprises. For myself, I did personally find the surprises to be a bit too obtuse for my taste. It was like the author tried to keep things so mysterious at points that I just found myself getting lost. Not that I get the feeling that everything is supposed to fall into place and be perfectly understood. It’s not that kind of story. But . . . I kind of found myself getting lost in the whimsy at times. Still, The Gift of the Quoxxel was a fun trip, and even better, one that’s appropriate for all ages.

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My Life as Alien Monster Bait

Author: Bill Myers

The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

It’s every kid’s dream, right? Get chosen to be in a movie, and instantly transform from all-school reject to everyone’s new best friend? When uber-klutz Wally McDoogle manages to land a role in an up-and-coming monster movie, his life certainly undergoes an extreme transformation. About the only person who doesn’t treat him differently is his best friend Opera . . . only Wally’s pretty sure he’s too cool to be seen around Opera anymore. The nerdiness may be catching, after all. But when the filming goes haywire (as it is so prone to do around him), Wally finds out just how valuable true friendship is–and how fleeting  those “friendships” based on fame.

As with the first book in this series (My Life as a Smashed Burrito with Extra Hot Sauce), My Life as Alien Monster Bait is a great Christian middle-grade story that manages to teach important lessons without being stuffy or “preachy” in the slightest. Between Wally’s escapades, the offbeat stories he writes, and the quirky first-person writing, you’ve got a story that’s absurdly funny (even to an adult, but even more so as a kid). But in the midst of the humor, you’ve got some excellent lessons on pride, true friendship, and that more challenging concept to nail down–not treating people differently just because they have more fame or money or coolness points or whatever. Myers brings us a blatantly Christian story with solid life lessons . . . that’s also immensely enjoyable and laugh-inducing. Definitely recommended.

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Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario

Author: Daniel Pinkwater

My rating: 4 of 5

Getting left with his Uncle Mel for 6 weeks over summer break wasn’t too bad–other than trying to survive solely on junk food. But then, when Uncle Mel got dragged away to Rochester for a 2-week training session for his work, Eugene got dragged along as well and found himself going mad with boredom . . . that is, until he saw a documentary movie with his uncle about a man searching Lake Ontario for a monster called the Yobgorgle. That’s when Eugene has the bright idea to get in touch with this guy, Ambrose McFwain, who (let’s face it) is rather mad but also quite interesting, and who hires Eugene as his assistant on the spot. The summer’s about to get a lot less boring and a lot more wacky.

Daniel Pinkwater is one of those underappreciated authors who can take the absolute zaniest things and make something absolutely captivating out of them. Yobgorgle is a tall tale about a kid and an inept monster hunter that gets taller the longer it goes. All told in first-person from a twelve-year-old’s point of view. And Pinkwater nails the twelve-year-old part impressively; there’s a dry, cutting observation to the way Eugene views the world, with none of the filters and social niceties that adults use in their way of expressing themselves. No, Eugene tells it like he sees it, for better or for worse. And the situations he finds himself in just keep getting more and more spectacularly strange as he goes. It’s all very funny and engaging. It’s also interesting to read this book today; it was originally published in 1979, and it’s telling. There are so many little cultural snippets that loudly proclaim that this is a story of a bygone era . . . the clothing, the emphasis on vending machines (Uncle Mel’s job is working on them), but perhaps most of all the way a twelve-year-old kid is able to just roam around Rochester, New York on his own. It’s an interesting peek into the past, although with the specifics of this book, it’s a past that never was. Still, another zany, all-ages-friendly offering from an amazing author; Yobgorgle definitely goes on my recommended list.

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A Wise Use of Time (Video Game/Visual Novel)

Producer: Choice of Games

Author: Jim Dattilo

My rating: 3.5 of 5

You find yourself unexpectedly with the ability to stop time. Now, what will you do with your newfound ability? You could use it to save people in dangerous situations or you could profit from it. Or you could refuse to use this ability, uncertain as to what it all means and if it’s dangerous. And maybe it is; you certainly feel drained after using it much.

As with Choice of RobotsA Wise Use of Time is a purely text-based game that uses the same scripting language–so no pictures, no sound, just stuff to read and choices to make. And of course, stats and events that are affected by the choices you make. Personally, I enjoy this gameplay style, so that was fun for me; I’ll probably continue to seek out more games written in this script because I do enjoy it so much. The basic premise of A Wise Use of Time is also pretty interesting–not time travel or anything like that, but the ability to slow time so much that it appears stopped. That’s pretty cool. And you do get a good bit of customization at the beginning as far as who you want to be, your skills, your interests and such . . . but after the beginning, the choices are more limited. Or rather, you have a lot of choices, and they do affect people’s opinion of you and the outcomes of certain events, but for the most part, I feel like the general chain of events is pretty linear. Much more so that for Choice of Robots, in any case. That was kind of disappointing, especially with such a strong emphasis placed on 1) my job and 2) my roommate’s gambling problem. Not that those aren’t interesting issues to work through, but it would have been interesting to have a bit more branching of options. Still, this was an interesting game and one that I enjoyed. I should note that I played the Android version, but I’m pretty sure (based on what I’ve seen of their games in general) that the gameplay is identical regardless of platform.

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Handa-kun (Manga)

Mangaka: Satsuki Yoshino

Status: Complete (7 volumes)

My rating: 4 of 5

Misunderstandings abound as Sei Handa weathers through his high school days. You see, Handa-kun (with a little help from his best friend Kawafuji) has managed to convince himself that all the other students at his school hate him–to the point that he misinterprets innocuous, or even positive, interactions in a negative light. Not that he interacts much with anyone at school, since he’s even told Kawafuji not to talk to him, for fear that the hatred will spread to him too! Not that there actually is any hatred at all. Rather, Handa is the most popular student at the school. His reputation as an up and coming calligrapher, combined with his good looks and mysterious aura, have gained him a following of admirers that grows until it extends even to other schools in the area! Not that poor Handa-kun has a clue. And of course, no one dares to actually approach to speak with him and break his misapprehensions.

Handa-kun is a delightfully amusing spinoff of the charming series Barakamon by the same creator. There are some things–like the lovely art style–that carry over from this series. But this is a 6-years-earlier spinoff, and Yoshino makes a strong distinction between the two, so don’t expect Barakamon 2.0 here. Rather, Handa-kun is a lighthearted gag manga, full of tropes, puns, and goofiness of all sorts. It’s charming, but in its own unique way. It’s a slice-of-life school story, with a more shounen style rather than the seinen feel of Barakamon. And it’s really just so completely over-the-top improbable; a lot of the humor actually comes directly from that fact. So yes, it is an interesting look into Sei Handa’s backstory, but it’s kind of fantastic too. Charming and funny, though. I would recommend Handa-kun if you’re interested in comedic school stories, whether you’ve read Barakamon or not.

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FiND YOTSUBA (Artbook)

Illustrations by Kiyohiko Azuma/Photography by Miho Kakuta

My rating: 5 of 5

This gorgeous, adorable artbook features photographs from Japan, mostly of somewhat rural settings and everyday situations. And inserted into each and every photograph is an illustration of the world’s most amusing and cute kiddo ever–Yotsuba! Suddenly, each picture is both beautiful and fun.

Yotsuba&! is one of my absolute favorite stories, manga or otherwise. So naturally, I was delighted to discover there was an artbook available. But wow, FiND YOTSUBA surpassed my expectations. The photos themselves are a fabulous window into everyday Japanese life; they’re lovely. And the way Azuma-sensei fits Yotsuba into the pictures is wonderful. He manages to match color and lighting, use shadows and reflections brilliantly, play with the visual focus points, and even include the photo-blur you get when something moves too quickly to make her place in the pictures seem more natural. Sometimes, you have to pull a real “where’s Waldo” looking for her. And what really pulls everything together is that way that, even without any text or connecting storyline, Yotsuba’s personality, the way she’s so full of life and excitement, carries through so strongly in the pictures. They made me smile–a lot–and even laugh aloud at points. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of the manga, but also just for people who love cute things.

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Escape Room in a Box: The Werewolf Experiment

Mattel Games

You’ve stumbled upon a mad scientist’s lab and been exposed to his experiment–the one that caused him to turn into a werewolf. Lucky for you, he did create an antidote as well, but it’s not that simple. . . . The antidote is locked away, and you only have an hour to solve the clues around the room and unlock the box, or you’ll be stuck as a werewolf yourself!

The basic idea of this is the same as for an actual escape room . . . only you have everything you need in a single package that you can take home and play for the cost of about 1.5-2 tickets into your average escape room. I was actually quite impressed by this game. The scenario was interesting, and the puzzles were appropriately themed. Moreover, the puzzles managed to be challenging while still manageable. You have a lot of that back and forth of one answer tying into another puzzle, plus the whole going through everything you’ve got just trying things to see what works. There’s even a blacklight! We played with 6 players, which worked well, but you can have up to 8 at a time. And bonus: although it would be kind of pointless for the same people to play over again, since you’ll know the answers, you can save everything in the box, print out new papers, and re-set everything for a new set of players (find instructions and more information here). Highly recommended for those who love escape rooms or puzzle games, or for those who are looking for an inexpensive, easy way to give the whole escape-room thing a try.

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