By Black Chicken Studios
My rating: 4 of 5
1930, New York City: Prohibition is in effect, and the Great Depression is making itself known across the country, but for wealthy heiress Scheherazade Keating (Sadie to her friends), other things are much more immediately important. Having just graduated valedictorian of her high school class, Sadie is ready to make her mark, embarking on a whirlwind college degree in archaeology that includes on-site work at a variety of digs around the world. Incidentally, she’s following in the footsteps of her parents, a pair of famous (now missing) archaeologists . . . . She’s also following a trail of clues that may (she hopes) lead to more information about what’s happened to her parents. And she’s not afraid to break a few rules of society if that’s what it takes.
How to describe Scheherazade . . . it’s honestly a pretty unique experience, although there are similarities to a lot of other stories and games in certain aspects. It definitely plays like a visual novel–nice backgrounds, music, character pics, text describing what’s happening, and choices for the player to make that influence how the story progresses. You could, I suppose, even compare it to an otome visual novel in some senses; there are certainly several romance paths that can be pursued, if desired. But it’s entirely possible to play with purely platonic relationships as well. I actually loved how much good friendships were a part of the story. Mechanically, the game is also almost a princess-maker sort of game in that you have to choose how to spend your time, different choices build different skills, and your skills influence how certain challenges resolve. There’s actually a good bit of challenge to the game mechanics if you really want to play to meet certain goals; however, there’s also an easy mode that basically lets you focus on the story. And Sadie’s story is pretty interesting in a pulp novel sort of way. She’s a very strong character, and an amusing one to read–even if her ridiculous wealth tends to make you forget how bad life is in the world at large for a lot of people. But then, she’s more ridiculous than even her wealth, getting caught up in chases, digging in the dirt, getting into arguments, and suchlike. And there are actually a lot of interactions with people of a variety of stations in life–lots of interesting relationships to build. On the whole, I really enjoyed playing Scheherazade and found it to be an interesting slice of an era as well as an exciting romp around the world and a fun exposition of a fascinating character.
Author: Justin Richards
My rating: 3.5 of 5
*SPOILER ALERT*: This book ties in to the seventh series of Doctor Who, and there may be spoilers for those who haven’t seen this series yet. And really, a huge part of the appeal of this story will be exclusively for those who have seen the series.
Melody Malone–sole detective and owner of the Angel Detective Agency. You could say that she specializes in a certain sort of case. Not that she isn’t intrigued when Rock Railton, one of the most attractive actors around, comes by–flirting atrociously and claiming someone’s out to kill him. But Melody isn’t hooked, not until she hears the phrase “kiss of the angel”. But when she comes around to a party–at Rock’s invitation–she encounters an ancient hobo who begs her assistance and a Rock Railton who doesn’t even recognize her. Something very strange is going on. . . .
Fans of Doctor Who will likely recognize The Angel’s Kiss as a book that showed up in the show–a book written by River Song under the pen name of Melody Malone, which ended up playing a large part in the plot of an episode or two. (As a complete aside, there’s got to be a word for that, right? Books that show up in other stories but that previously didn’t exist in the outside world? Like the Simon Snow books, and Carry On in specific, since it became an actual physical book afterward in a slightly different form. It’s been bugging me, so if you know, please comment.) In any case, the text of this actual e-book isn’t the same as what you hear in the TV show. But there’s a definite River Song tone to the whole story which totally makes it. The entire book is written in first person, and you can hear her bad-girl vibe coming through strongly throughout. That and the humor, sass, and attitude with which the story is told are what bring this mystery from dime novel to dazzling, really. (And it is very funny. I caught myself laughing aloud in public several times. Oops.) The Doctor Who references are also a definite plus. As you can imagine, the story involves the Weeping Angels as a major plot device . . . so it was weird to me that their mechanics were different from what I’ve seen previously for them. But then, they’re an intelligent alien species, so I guess they can pick different ways to do things. It does work with the plot–although let’s face it, the plot is always secondary to Melody’s brilliance. Which is just the way I like it; River is a favorite of mine. I’d recommend The Angel’s Kiss for Doctor Who fans . . . I think it would probably fall a bit flat without the context, even though it doesn’t really play directly into the plot. More like, it plays way too much into the humor, so you’d miss all the parts that make it really good. But yeah, for fans, very much a recommended read.
Note: As far as I know, this is only available in e-book format (but if you find a hard copy, let me know).
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5
Like many other children in 1939, Vivian Smith is on her way to the countryside to stay with her cousin while the bombing is going on in London. Only, she never quite makes it to meet her cousin. At the train station in the country, she is abducted by two boys who snatch her away (through a wall in the train station, no less) into what might as well be another world: Time City, a place set apart from time and ordained to govern over it. Only, things are going wrong, and the two boys, Jonathan and Sam, heard rumor that the Lady of the City–Vivian Smith–was going to be at that train station in 1939, so the went to get her. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that they have the wrong Vivian Smith. But they can’t just take our Vivian back to her own time, not now that she’s seen the City. So Jonathan, who thinks himself very clever, thinks up a plan to pass her off as a cousin of his, visiting from history (i.e., every time that isn’t Time City). Which is all a bit much, but Vivian’s quick to adapt. Unfortunately, they’re still left with that small, nagging problem of all Time coming to pieces around them. . . .
I love stories about time travel, and I absolutely adore Diana Wynne Jones’s writing, so I suppose I was pretty much fated to enjoy A Tale of Time City. It’s wonderful! And I don’t just mean that in the sense of it’s being “great” or “amazing”–it’s full of all sorts of wonders that surprise the reader at every turn. If I could do so and return safely home, I would love to get to tour Time City myself. I’d love to meet Vivian, too. She’s the perfect balance of a credible but remarkably spunky girl. Not to mention inordinately adaptable! She would stand out more but for the fact that the whole book is just full of lively, interesting people. And, as is so typical with Jones’s books, the plot is intriguing from beginning to end. The pacing is excellent, drawing the reader along comfortably but with enough ease to enjoy the setting and the characters as you go. And there are certainly surprises at the end, but ones that just seem to fit perfectly once you encounter them, like they were inevitably but you just never realized it. I would give A Tale of Time City high recommendations, especially to those who love a good fantasy and to those who are intrigued by the idea of time itself–because it’s just fascinating, isn’t it?
Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki/Produced by Toshio Suzuki/Music by Joe Hisaishi
Ever since he was young, Jiro Horikoshi has dreamed of the sky and the aircraft that inhabit it so gracefully. He would have loved to be a pilot, but due to his poor eyesight, that dream would never come to pass. Realizing this early on, he takes a note from his hero, the Italian airplane designer Caproni, and pursues a career in aircraft design. A combination of innate talent and unflagging work keep him on the path, designing better and better planes, always pursuing the ideal craft that exists only in his dreams.
Over the years, I have come to expect great things from Studio Ghibli, and from Hayao Miyazaki in particular–and I must say The Wind Rises is something special indeed. It is, at its core, nearly a documentary on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero–a plane used by Japan during the second World War. Yet Miyazaki transforms this young man’s life story into something beautiful and spectacular. Jiro deals, throughout the story, with the impossible question: would you pursue your dreams, even knowing what you create may be used in war, or would you live in a world where you abandon your dreams and refuse to create? The telling of the story itself is fascinating–you are given snapshots of various important events in the life of Horikoshi, but each is filled out in great detail, enough to give a good idea of who the characters are. I love that Miyazaki included Jiro’s brief, fateful relationship with Nahoko his beautiful, sickly wife (although I find Nahoko herself a strikingly Mamoru Hosoda sort of heroine). All the aircraft that are included only serve to emphasize that this is a Hayao Miyazaki movie–they’re kind of his trademark. The art is classic Studio Ghibli–breathtakingly beautiful. I think the inclusion of certain rather surreal elements, particularly in Jiro’s dreams, adds a lot to the story as well. I think my favorite Miyazaki movies will always be his fantasies like Spirited Away and Howl, but The Wind Rises is pretty incredible as well–you should check it out, especially if you’re a fan of Studio Ghibli or of older planes.
Oh! Production Studio
Written & Directed by Isao Takahata/Produced by Kōichi Murata/Music by Michio Mamiya/Based on the Short Story by Kenji Miyazawa
Gauche is a simple, quiet man who lives by himself in the country near a small town in the early 1900s. He keeps a garden and plays the cello for the local orchestra, which performs concerts and also accompanies the silent movies that are currently in vogue. The Beethoven that the orchestra is planning to perform soon, however, seems to be a bit much for him, and he never can seem to satisfy the conductor. Throughout the week before the concert, Gauche has a stream of unexpected visitors–nearby animals who have been touched by his music and who want him to play for them again. He ends up playing through the night and going to bed exhausted in the morning, never realizing that while he’s playing for his woodland visitors, he’s also getting a great deal of practice.
I found Gauche the Cellist to be an enjoyable tale providing a placid look into a bygone era. It’s based on the short story of the same name by Kenji Miyazawa, which was originally published in the 1930s. The story itself is bucolic and almost fable-like; it’s certainly not meant to be taken as a true slice-of-life story. You’ve got talking animals, nights that go by in a flash, and various other improbably happenings. Still, it works in an old-fashioned way. One of the most outstanding aspects of this movie is the music; rather, music is the heart of the story. There is a great deal of classical music worked into the soundtrack–often with a Tom and Jerry-like effect, although also at times with a more Fantasia sort of feel. The animation is definitely old-school, but nice for all that. I love that the director is one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli–and I must say that this has a somewhat Ghibli-like tone. I think Gauche the Cellist is a pleasant, simple movie that would be great to watch with children–or as a nice change from the clangor of much of today’s movie-writing.
Author: James Herriot
Having just graduated from veterinary school at a time when new veterinarians are practically begging for work, Jim Herriot is thrilled to be offered a job as an assistant to Sigfried Farnon, a Yorkshire country vet. The work isn’t at all what Jim had planned for himself–hard work at all hours of the day and night, driving across miles of rocky dales in all weathers to treat creatures larger than himself. Still, as he spends more time in Darrowby, Jim finds it growing on him as he develops a real appreciation for the countryside and the simple, honest people who inhabit it.
All Creatures Great and Small is a personal favorite of mine for numerous reasons. First of all, it’s always good for a laugh: the author describes the discomforts, surprises, and embarrassments of his early working years with such great good humor that the anecdotes are really quite funny. Another reason I love this book is that James is just a nice guy–candid, eager to please, a bit too eager to look good (with a marked tendency to fail), and somewhat too easily influenced (like I said, a nice guy; definitely not a saint). Plus, his descriptions of the Darrowby area and its inhabitants in the 1930s, as well as the descriptions of veterinary practice at that time, are something you almost never see in other books and are extremely interesting. All Creatures Great and Small is an excellent book that I would definitely recommend.
Author: Rosemary Wells
Illustrator: Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5
Reuben and his parents live safe, ordinary lives in a safe, ordinary town where watching a trick-performing airplane is about the most exciting thing to come to town in ages. However, when the dust starts rolling in, his comfortable world begins to crumble, leaving his family as destitute as the rest of their slowing eroding town. Gambling everything on an advertised job in an out-of-state newspaper, the family joins a traveling carnival, and Reuben’s world alters expansively as he watches his dad tap-dance on a flying plane’s wing, sees his mother worrying but persevering, and meets the variety of individuals also working for the carnival.
I have to admit, I originally picked up this book simply because I love the illustrator–and I wasn’t disappointed. The pictures are as beautiful and evocative as I’ve come to expect from Selznick’s work; however, while reading, I’ve fallen in love with Rosemary Well’s work as well. The story is told with the wide-eyed candor of a young boy. It’s quite compelling to read. I love that the author took a story about the Depression and crafted it into a story that’s more about facing our fears and learning about the people around us than it is about all the bad things that can happen in life. All in all, Wingwalker is a forthright story that I would recommend, particularly as an introduction to the Depression era for younger readers.