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Elsewhere: The Fantasy Art of Jesper Ejsing (Artbook)

Artist/Author: Jesper Ejsing

My rating: 5 of 5

Right from the moment I first opened the package containing Elsewhere, my first thoughts were “gorgeous” and “stunning.” The book itself is large and thick enough to have an impressive heft to it. And the cover is the breathtaking painting of a white dragon just lightly looking back at you with a faint smirk. And that’s honestly a good barometer for the rest of the volume. In this beautiful artbook, we are given over 400 pages of absolutely wonderful fantasy art. And right from the start, the author invites us to take the journey into his imagination alongside him–introducing the reader to his method and giving short explanations of the origins of and his feelings about certain works. What a journey, too! Here we see dragons (lots of impressive dragons), watch fierce battles, encounter a variety of strange beings in various habitats, and discover terrifying monsters.

Throughout, I’m impressed by . . . well, a lot of things actually. The sense of movement that Ejsing captures in his paintings, for one. He mentions in here that he tries to capture that moment where the outcome is undecided, where you don’t know who wins, and I feel that is done quite well. The sense of focus and balance is also impressive, feeding into that sense of motion and giving it order and meaning. And that is where these paintings really begin to truly come together and shine–because each one is telling a story, inviting us into a world only the artist can otherwise see. And the characters depicted in the paintings are full of personality and emotion, from their nuanced facial expressions to the movement of their limbs to the widely varied clothing that adorns them. The variety and sheer depth of imagination that is presented here is also impressive, and I have to admit that as a gamer, it will likely provide inspiration to me for years to come. Because so much of this work is tied to fantasy worlds that I know and love, like D&D and Pathfinder, worlds that Ejsing clearly has a passion for as well. My sole complaint about this book is that in a few rare instances, with the two-page spreads, there were some details lost in the centerfold, including important details like the faces of some individuals. But honestly, that is such a minor thing compared to how truly fabulous Elsewhere is as a whole, that it hardly bears mentioning. This is an artbook that I would definitely recommend, particularly to fans of fantasy art and to gamers. And hey, it would make a gorgeous coffee-table book for those of the geekier persuasion!

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

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The Chemist

Author: Stephenie Meyer

My rating: 4 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience, mostly for violence, although there’s some minor sexual content

She used to be an agent of the American government, conducting black-ops interrogations, addressing biological threats, and creating new chemical compounds designed to target the human body. Now she’s a fugitive, on the run from her own department since someone there has decided she knows too much to stay alive. She’s gotten good at surviving–staying alone, being over-prepared, trusting no one and nothing. But when the department tricks her, bringing her into contact with sweet, innocent Daniel Beach, everything changes. And suddenly, she’s got a reason to do more than just hide; now she’s prepared to fight back.

In a lot of ways, The Chemist was everything I expect from a Stephenie Meyer novel, although at the same time, it was quite different from anything else of hers I’ve ever read. I have to say that I quite enjoyed it, more than I expected to. It is a book that I think you’ll enjoy more if you know somewhat what to expect, and honestly, that’s not clear from either the title or the cover or the author’s reputation. So I’ll go ahead and tell you: this is a secret agent thriller with a bio-chemistry twist. If you’re into the whole Jason Bourne thing, this should be right up your alley. If needles give you the heebie-jeebies, be forewarned, there are a lot of them here. The book is fast-paced and an easy right throughout, with plenty of action and suspense. And of course, the one element that is definitely classic Meyer, there’s a star-crossed romance thrown into the mix. Although this is definitely a more adult book that the others of Meyer’s that I’ve read (especially with the whole torture and violent death thing), it’s light on the explicit sexual content, and there’s basically zero bad language present. But yeah, torture and violence is definitely a thing here. Tropes are also a thing–as in, the book’s absolutely full of them–but then, they’re the sort of things that are tropes for a reason, right? And this is the sort of story (again, it’s helpful to know this going in) where that’s kind of acceptable because we’re in it for the intensity of the thrills and the sweetness of the love story, not for some great literary exposition. So yes, taken as what it is, I found The Chemist to be a surprisingly rewarding read, one I would recommend, especially to fans of thrillers.

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The Flash: Hocus Pocus

Author: Barry Lyga

The Flash (Media Tie-In Novels), vol. 1

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Flashpoint never happened, and Barry and his friends go on about their lives saving the people of Central City, never knowing the heartache of different choices in a different timeline. But in this timeline, there’s plenty of trouble to go around. Central City finds its citizens at the beck and call of a street magician styling himself “Hocus Pocus”–and really, the nerve of him, going and naming himself before Cisco gets a chance to! Although Hocus Pocus’s magic tricks are nothing impressive, his ability to control people and events around him–from getting people for blocks around to applaud to making trees move at his will–certainly seems almost like magic. But Barry is not about to accept something so implausible as the solution; there has to be a reasonable explanation of this magician’s powers. The crew at Star Labs had better be finding out a solution quickly though, because Hocus Pocus has managed to gain power over The Flash, and there’s no telling how much trouble he could cause with a speedster in his control.

I’m a big fan of The CW’s version of The Flash, which features a fabulous cast, a great sense of humor, and an excellent balance of action and drama. Plus, I’ve enjoyed the writing of Barry Lyga in the past. So I was pretty thrilled to find that Lyga had written the first volume of a media tie-in series for the show. And generally speaking, I was quite pleased with Hocus Pocus. It reads very much like an episode of the show, both with the arrival and subsequent handling of the villain and with the family drama that tends to go on at Star Labs. And of course, the element of angst that arises when things get complicated–can’t have a proper Flash story without a touch of angst. The characters are well done and keep in character nicely. Sure, there weren’t any moments where (like in a good fanfic) I was just like “ooh, that’s so such-and-such” and got all full of feels or anything. But on the other hand, there weren’t any grating moments where I had to wonder if the author had ever even watched the show, either. There was just generally a stronger focus in this particular story on the action, the plot, than on the feels . . . which is fine, although the feels are kind of my favorite part. I found it very interesting that they chose to put this in an AU/alternate timeline in which Flashpoint didn’t happen. My guess would be that this is to allow the tie-in series an element of autonomy and perhaps its own larger-scale plot, since its being an alternate timeline didn’t really affect much of anything that happened in this volume. I’m curious to see what happens with that in future volumes. I did enjoy where this story was placed chronologically in the lives of the characters–for one thing, having H. R. as part of the cast just makes everything more fun. Recommended for fans of the CW series . . . not sure how well it would hold up for fans of The Flash as a general media franchise, although Lyga is reputed to have been a fan of the comics since he was a kid, so. . . .

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Detentionaire (2011-2015 Cartoon)

By Nelvana

Status: Complete (4 Seasons/53 Episodes)

My rating: 4 of 5

On the very first day of 10th grade, Lee Ping gets in trouble for the biggest prank in A. Nigma High’s history . . . only, he didn’t actually do it. Now he’s got a whole year of detention, plus he’s grounded after school for that entire time as well! But Lee’s not about to just accept the punishment for something he didn’t do, so with the help of his friends, he’s sneaking out of detention every day to try to track down who actually orchestrated the prank. But it seems that everywhere he turns, he just comes up with more mysteries–ones that are way weirder and more concerning than a simple school prank.

Detentionaire was recommended to me as a good show for fans of Danny Phantom and Gravity Falls. And while it’s not exactly like either of those shows, I do have to agree with the recommendation–the weirdness, mystery, high-school action, keeping secrets, and conspiracies all appeal to a similar mindset. Honestly, I feel like Detentionaire is one of those shows that doesn’t get the love and attention it deserves, although the people who actually watch it tend to really love it. Yes, it’s Canadian, and the only way I’ve found to watch it in the U.S. is through Amazon Video, so that’s probably part of why it’s so little known. But seriously, it’s a great show–although yes, also very weird. At the start, it’s more of a typical high-school story, playing with the ideas of cliques, the whole detention and sneaking out thing, relatively normal high-school troubles, crushes, that sort of thing. Although, yes, any story that has a cyborg principal, a tazlewurm mascot running free around campus, and hazmats roaming the school is really far beyond normal right from the get-go. But the further you get into the story, the more it’s this big conspiracy/mystery that Lee and his friends have gotten dragged into and the more interesting it gets. The characters are brilliantly quirky, original, and memorable, even the characters you love to hate, but especially Lee and his pals (Biffy is my personal favorite, although Holger is a close second–soooo much quirkiness). Also, the animation is really interesting both in the design and the color choices; personally, I found it to be a nice change from a lot of what I’ve seen in other shows. The music is pretty solid and fitting for the show as well. The one thing that made me a bit sad was that the ending felt like it could (maybe should) have gone into at least another season, although ending it there was also valid and acceptable. So yeah, I would definitely recommend Detentionaire to anyone interested in a unique high-school cartoon with some fun and intriguing mystery and conspiracy elements.

Created by Daniel Bryan Franklin & Charles Johnston/Directed by Kevin Micallef/Starring Jonathan Tan, Ryan Belleville, Fab Filippo, Zachary Bennett, Seán Cullen, & Krystal Meadows

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Gintama (2017 Movie)

Warner Bros. Pictures

My rating: 5 of 5

Edo-period Japan has been invaded by aliens from outer space, and the country looks a bit different now with aliens (known as Amanto) in positions of political and social privilege and samurai bereft of their swords. One such former samurai, Sakata Gintoki, has embraced the challenges of this new life by becoming a sweets-loving odd-jobber along with his young friends, Shinpachi and Kagura. But when rumors of a serial killer begin to arise, Gin finds himself drawn back by his past in order to protect the present that he loves.

Okay, first of all, confession: I totally started watching this live-action remake of Gintama just because I love Shun Oguri’s work; never mind the fact that I also love the anime/manga on which this movie is based. Having said that, Oguri did a fabulous job with the role of Gin, but there was a ton of other things that I loved about Gintama. First of all, the casting in general was very well done, and everyone did a great job portraying their characters. And, even though the particular story arc they chose involves a lot of characters, they didn’t go chopping people out left and right, so fair warning, there are a lot of people to keep track of. But I appreciated that they went to the trouble of not chopping . . . either characters or plot, actually. Plot context: at the start, we do get the cafe scene where Gin and Shinpachi first meet–but after that, there’s this big plot gap, and the majority of the movie is the Benizakura arc. I wasn’t expecting them to jump headlong into the story like that, but I think it was a smart choice. It’s one of my favorite parts of the anime/manga for a lot of the reasons that make it a great choice for the movie as well. It captures the absurdity and general silliness that makes Gintama (whatever the medium) such a  fun, funny story; I confess to laughing out loud for a great portion of the movie. You’ve got fourth-wall breaking, references galore, plus just plain ridiculousness (like the Yorozuya and Shinsengumi’s beetle-hunting madness). But this arc also has a lot of heart. It pulls from both Gin’s and Katsura’s childhood days as well as from their resistance-fighter exploits, incorporating that into the present-day plot. And of course, said plot allows for some great action sequences and sword fights–it’s one of the few points in the series where Gin gets a chance to truly look cool for a moment . . . before he ruins it by picking his nose or something. As far as the sets and makeup/CGI, it’s honestly not the greatest. I mean, a lot of the aliens are obviously just folks in animal suits or wearing body paint. But that fits the story–the absurdity and fourth-wall breaking and such–so well that I honestly prefer that over awesome, convincing CG for everything. It just works. So yes, I really loved the Gintama live-action movie, although I would caution that if you haven’t either read the manga or watched the anime at least a bit, you’ll likely be a bit confused; even with two-and-a-half hours of film, there’s still a lot that isn’t explained in a lot of detail. But for fans . . . absolutely recommended; it captures not just the story itself, but the heart of Gintama.

Written & Directed by Yūichi Fukuda/Based on Gintama by Hideaki Sorachi/Starring Shun Oguri, Masaki Suda, Kanna Hashimoto, Yūya Yagira, Ryo Yoshizawa, Masami Nagasawa, Masaki Okada, Nakamura Kankurō VI, & Tsuyoshi Dōmoto

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1931: Scheherazade at the Library of Pergamum (Visual Novel)

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.

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Incredibles 2 (2018 Movie)

Pixar Animation Studios

Sequel to The Incredibles

My rating: 3.5 of 5

The Parr family have already lost their home to the attack of an evil villain, and following some bad press, the government program that has been supporting them is shutting down. What’s more, that bad press is leading to even more pushback from society against superheroes–as if their technically illegal status wasn’t already bad enough. Seriously, all this sweet family wants is to be normal and to be able to use their powers for good . . . but nothing seems to be going their way. So when Elastigirl (Helen Parr) gets a job offer to fight crime using her powers while also working to publicize her work and regain the trust of the people–and the legality of supers–it’s not exactly like she can refuse. Meanwhile, Bob is left at home with the kids, trying to help Dash with his homework, understand the complexities of Violet’s love life, and work out Jack-Jack’s newfound (and numerous) superpowers. But as they’ve found before, this family is at their strongest when they work together.

So as I’ve said before, I really love The Incredibles, and thus was pretty nervous about watching its sequel. But I have to say, Pixar actually did a pretty decent job with Incredibles 2 . . . nothing groundbreaking, but they stuck to what worked with the first movie and made it work again. It honestly feels almost more like a continuation of the first movie than like a sequel proper, considering that it literally starts at the exact point in time that the first movie ends. Yes, you’ve got a new plot–or at least a new bad guy–but the continued focus on the family dynamic is strong here. Like, the superhero thing is what makes the plot work, but the story is actually a lot more about the people, the way the Parrs work through stuff like homework and dating and which parent stays home with the kids just like normal families do. It manages to be heartwarming and funny and relatable, which is great. Like I said, nothing groundbreaking here–they follow the typical (safe) Pixar tropes and all that–but they’re tropes for a reason. They work. The animation is CG, fairly consistent with the first movie–gotta say, they had some fun with water effects, which were impressive. Ditto with the music, pretty consistent and typical of this sort of movie. So yeah, if you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly movie, Incredibles 2 is a solid, safe choice.

Walt Disney Pictures/Written and Directed by Brad Bird/Produced by John Walker & Nicole Paradis Grindle/Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, & Samuel L. Jackson/Music by Michael Giacchino

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