The Janitor’s Boy

Author: Andrew Clements

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Normally, Jack Rankin is something of a model kid–polite, hard-working, good grades. Life isn’t exactly normal right now, though. The entire middle school has been dumped in the ancient high-school building for the year until their new building is ready to use . . . the high-school building where Jack’s dad works as the janitor. Not a big deal, except let’s be honest, when the other kids find out, it’s totally a big deal. Let the teasing begin. And wondering why his dad so desperately wants to ruin his life, Jack begins to get angry. That’s when he comes up with the perfect revenge.

Although I’ve been vaguely aware of Andrew Clements’ writings for some time, this is the first time I’ve actually read one of his books, and I must say, I’m impressed. This middle-grade/coming-of-age story is warm, humorous, accessible, and engaging. Moreover, it delves deep into the complexities of the parent-child relationship at a challenging age and stage of life, opening some interesting discussions on the topic from both the child’s and the parent’s point of view. I love, love, love that the story actually carries Jack through the transformation of perspective from seeing his dad as someone who provides for him and tells him what to do to seeing his dad as an actual whole person with his own problems and stories and personality. It’s something I’ve experienced personally, but I’ve never seen a book actually develop this phenomenon before. I think this is what truly raises the bar in this book, transforming it from an amusing middle-grade story to a beautiful, moving coming-of-age story. I also really enjoyed how much individual personality each of the characters had and the way in which that personality affected the flow of the plot. In short, The Janitor’s Boy was an impressive surprise for me, and I would highly recommend this book.

 

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988 Movie)

Studio Ghibli

My rating: 5 of 5

Satsuki, her father,  and her little sister Mei move to an old, slightly decrepit house in the country to be closer to the hospital where their mother is being treated. It’s a big change, but it’s also an adventure, and both girls are delighted, especially when they find the house is inhabited by soot sprites–tiny spirits that the adults can’t even see. Even better, Mei encounters a large, friendly spirit calling himself “Totoro” during her explorations while Satsuki is at school. (Satsuki’s a tiny bit jealous about that.) But one rainy evening when the girls go out to meet their father’s bus, Satsuki gets to meet Totoro as well! It seems that not only are their new neighbors glad to welcome the family to the area; the forest spirits are as well. Good thing, too, because it will take everyone’s help when Mei goes missing.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of those movies that never gets old and that has something for everyone. My two-year-old niece adores it, and my dad does too. It’s a wonderful story for many diverse reasons. Just as a start, the animation and the music are wonderful. Joe Hisaishi has some of the most interesting and beautiful film scores out there, and the score for this movie is no exception. And yes, the art isn’t always as detailed in some scenes as the modern CG stuff that’s created today, but the form, the details that the artists choose to capture, and the overall flavor of the place and time that is evoked is absolutely stunning. The characterizations of the children–everything from the art to the scripts to all the tiny details–is incredibly captivating and believable. Satsuki is the quintessential big sister trying to hold it all together and mother her little sister while still being just a kid and worried about her mom’s health herself. And Mei is so full of whimsy and imagination and childish impulses and mannerisms. I love the way in which the culture and community of a rice-farming community in late 1950’s Japan is presented, too, with all sorts of details. And the way in which the wonders of the spirits and traditional beliefs and fantasy are all woven in is just lovely and charming. In short, My Neighbor Totoro is a sweet, lovely animated movie that I would highly recommend to basically anyone of any age.

Note: I watched the 2005 English dub for this movie. It’s excellent.

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyazaki/Produced by Toru Hara/Music by Joe Hisaishi/Starring Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Tim Daly, Lea Salonga, & Frank Welker

 

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Cosmic

Author: Frank Cottrell Boyce

My rating: 5 of 5

Liam has always been tall for his age, getting mistaken for being older than he is and being teased by other children for it. Now at the age of twelve, he’s already growing facial hair and being mistaken for an adult. Which is mostly awful. . . . But it does have its advantages at times. Like when he was mistaken for a new teacher at his new school or when he and his classmate Florida would go to the stores with him pretending to be her father. And ever one to push the limits, Liam begins to see just how far he can go with this “adult” thing–never dreaming that doing so would end up with him being stuck in a spaceship with a bunch of kids looking to him to get them safely home.

So, Cosmic was one of those books that blew my expectations completely out of the water. I had never even heard of the author previously (clearly an oversight on my part), and it appeared both from the cover and the description to be a rather average middle-grade story of hijinks and randomness. Well, the middle-grade hijinks and randomness is definitely there, but average this book is not. It uses humor and a tall tale sort of setting to look at what being an adult is really all about–as well as to examine how much the advantages of being an adult are wasted on actual grown-ups who don’t have the sense of fun and irresponsibility to really enjoy them. It also looks at major themes like fatherhood and the relationships between fathers and their children in a way that is quite touching. But the story never gets bogged down in these themes; rather they are revealed gradually through the improbable and ridiculous circumstances in which Liam and his companions find themselves. It’s very funny–perhaps even more so reading this as an adult, although this is definitely written for a younger audience and is completely appropriate for such, even for a younger elementary grade readership. There’s something of a universality in the midst of absurdity to be found in Cosmic, and I would highly recommend this book.

 

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Catch Me Now (Supernatural Fanfic)

Author: BatTitan

FanFiction ID: 8980147

Status: Complete (35 Chapters)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

With one misstep, Ariel finds herself falling, not down the stairs at her school as she expected, but right out of her safe college life and into an airplane . . . right next to the Winchesters! Of course, she knows they’re the Winchesters (and not Jared and Jensen); she’s enough of a fan of Supernatural to know that. Also, enough of a fan–and in enough shock at being dragged from her own universe into theirs–to attract their attention. Not necessarily the best of things when they’ve just been dumped on the same plane themselves and are still reeling from the madness of it all. Things get sorted eventually,  and Sam and Dean decide to keep Air (as she prefers to be called) around since she must have been dragged into their world for a reason–possibly something to do with the impending Apocalypse ? Ariel becomes almost a part of the extended Winchester family, offering her opinions readily, helping where possible, and trying not to be too obvious of a Destiel fangirl whenever Dean and Cas are around each other. And then there are the dreams she begins having. . . .

So, the premise of Catch Me Now may be the sort that is both overdone and consistently messed up . . . but in this story, it works and does so brilliantly. A lot of that is due to the author’s obvious talent in spinning a quality tale; the writing itself is excellent. Equally impressive was the character of Ariel and the way her story was woven into the plot of Supernatural so seamlessly. Because this fanfic is essentially season 5, and other than the character insert, it pretty much sticks to canon (even when I really wish it wouldn’t!). Ariel is a really well-written OC, and I truly appreciate the work the author took to create someone who would work in the context of the story and the already existing characters, adding flavor and character without completely altering the course of the story. I especially appreciated that she wasn’t 1) a completely flat self-insert sort of character, 2) overly stereotyped in some way as OCs often are, 3) an awkward love interest for Sam or Dean, or 4) somehow automatically a great fighter or otherwise equipped to be a huge help in the fight. She’s funny, quirky, opinionated, smart, geeky, and compassionate–which is just what is needed for these guys–but she’s also just a normal college girl. As for the plot, the first few chapters are basically just the associated episodes as seen through Air’s eyes, which is interesting enough as it is. But as the story develops, we get more of her own story, sometimes as a part of whatever is going on in a certain episode, sometimes elsewhere, doing her own thing (often with Gabriel–I adore the amount of Gabriel we get in this story, it’s brilliant). The author did make a couple choices here and there that threw me a bit–like changes the person in which the story is written partway through (for a really good reason) and sticking with the plot where I would have loved to see some divergence (see above)–but in all those instances, there were solid reasons behind those choices and I respect them. They certainly didn’t reduce my enjoyment of the story, and I would highly recommend Catch Me Now to anyone interested in a fun, engaging Supernatural fanfic.

Note: You can find this story at https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8980147/1/Catch-Me-Now.

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Back in the Game

Author: Christopher Keene

Dream State Saga, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

Noah is gradually recovering from the car crash that killed his girlfriend and left him fighting for his life in the virtual reality world of the Dream State. But he’s got unfinished business with Wona, the creators of the game and the company responsible for orchestrating the crash to begin with. Somewhere in the Dream State is an item encoded with video evidence that could put Wona out of business, make them take responsibility for what they’ve done. To get this item, though, Noah must return to the game where he was previously trapped, reunite with his old team members, and race to find this item before someone else does . . . except, when he gets back to the Dream State, he finds that someone already has.

I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Stuck in the Game, and I think that Back in the Game is a solid continuation of the story. The author does some really great stuff with the setting, focusing less on explaining the mechanics of the game (which you should already know from the first book) and more just letting the game setting affect the way things play out in the story. There are aspects of the story that just couldn’t work in any other setting, and there are also some really neat ideas and nuances that are developed here that I liked a lot–the way that leveling, items, and spells affect the battles or the wide variety of locations, for instance. That said, the type of story presented here is actually pretty different from that of the first book; Stuck in the Game is more of a survival story, whereas Back in the Game is much more revenge-focused. It works, and I enjoyed the plot, but I think I personally like the story-type of Stuck in the Game a bit better–but that’s just me. Also, not to give out too many spoilers, but I felt very personally betrayed by one character in the story . . . and I’m intrigued to see how that betrayal will end up playing out in future volumes. I did enjoy getting a variety of character perspectives throughout the book; they were balanced out quite well and provided some interesting insight into the various players. Overall  I think Back in the Game would be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in LitRPG stories, light novels, video games, or cyberpunk/fantasy/sci-fi stories in general.

NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this post.

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Deal Alert: Humble Bundle Women of Sci-Fi & Fantasy

So sorry to totally spam posts today, but I just realized that Humble Bundle has a really nice collection of sci-fi/fantasy books by female authors available right now–but it’s only available for the next 5 days. So late notice, sorry. Anyhow, the bundle includes authors such as Robin McKinley, Octavia E. Butler, Elizabeth Hand, Kate Elliott, Diana Pharaoh Francis, and Nalo Hopkinson. Personally, I’ve read the McKinley books, and the bundle would be worth it just for those books alone. But several of the other ones look interesting too. Oh, and the highest tier ($15) includes a Jane Yolen! If you’re interested, you can check it out here.

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Pathfinder (Tabletop RPG)

Released by: Paizo

In light of my D&D group’s being on hold for the indefinite future due to schedule complications, I’ve started playing another tabletop RPG called Pathfinder with another group of friends. This game is very similar to Dungeons & Dragons, being based on edition 3.5 of that very game. However, unlike D&D, Pathfinder is released under an Open Game License–so all the rules and stuff are available for free (see the Pathfinder SRD website for details). This makes it a very appealing option for those who are interested in trying this type of game but who don’t want to spend all the money on books that is a necessary startup cost for most of these sorts of games. (Although, if you are interested, Paizo does also have physical books available–see their website for more details.) As far as gameplay goes, it’s mostly very similar to D&D, although I’ve never played 3.5, so I can’t compare precisely; however, there are tweaks that were made both to differentiate the two and to cater to player preferences. Most noticeable differences: Pathfinder has lots more skills and a different system for leveling up on skills, numbers in Pathfinder get a lot bigger a lot faster than in D&D, there’s a lot more focus on strength-scaled fighting, and you just generally get more feats and extra stuff. It can actually be a bit overwhelming to someone accustomed to 5th edition D&D, but it’s growing on me.

While playing with a different group, I noticed some interesting aspects of different parties’ playing styles–and this has nothing to do with Pathfinder specifically, just my personal rambling observations. Sorry. But I found it interesting. For one, I’ve never played with modules (pre-defined adventures) before; it does help to keep things moving and keep the party on track, but I kind of miss the freedom to do super-random stuff and just see what happens . . . and I feel like it’s harder to roleplay when we’re trying to stick to a pre-defined plot. The other interesting observation is the differing focus groups have on either roleplaying or on battles and the adventure itself. Previously, I’ve played with groups that found the battles and monsters as a means to the roleplay and with groups that balanced and mixed the two in absurd combinations. With this particular group, there’s a greater focus on getting to the next fight or challenge and less of a focus on the roleplay aspect. Both are good; I just find the contrast intriguing.

In any case, if you’re interested in trying a tabletop RPG, but you’re not really invested yet, Pathfinder is a great way to try the whole concept out. Likewise, if you’ve previously played other tabletop RPGs, it might be an interesting way to add variety. Enjoy!

 

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