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The Grand Tour: of The Purloined Coronation Regalia

Authors: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Cecelia and Kate, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

Following their weddings, cousins Kate and Cecy–along with their husbands Thomas and James and Thomas’s mother Lady Sylvia–embark on a grand tour of the Continent, a honeymoon to be remembered. Or, well, that’s what it was supposed to be. And it certainly is. Memorable, that is. Nearly from the start, the party find themselves confronted with strange happenings–mysterious visitors, falling ceilings, magical illness, secret messages, and strange magical rituals performed in ancient ruins, among others. Certain that something odd is going on, they begin investigating, because really, could these people ever leave something that intriguing alone?

The Grand Tour proved a solid follow-up for Wrede and Stevermer’s first volume, Sorcery & Cecelia, although with some marked differences. If I could compare the first volume to Howl’s Moving Castle, then The Grand Tour could better be compared to one of Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody stories, just with magic. The dates are completely off, of course, as is the location, but the whole well-to-do British travelers in foreign parts getting involved in mysteries and intrigue involving some antiquity or the other? Definitely fits here. As for the writing, this volume is told more as journals or memoirs as opposed to letters, so the tone is a bit different–actually quite a bit, really. There’s a touch of dissonance at first, to be honest, like the authors are figuring out who their characters are all over again when seen in this different light. After that first bit, though, you get to see more of the characters’ individualities coming through, you get more facets to them than might have been seen if this were also told as correspondence. And the characters are, well, quite the characters. Without the decorum demanded by Regency-era society, they might be quite shocking, and even while attempting to exercise decorum, they push the bounds at times. But in a very enjoyable sort of way. On the whole, I quite enjoyed The Grand Tour and would recommend it to those who enjoy Regency-era stories, historical fantasy, and intrigue.

 

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The Forest (2016 Movie)

Gramercy Pictures

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Rated PG-13/Trigger warning for suicide

Sara Price receives a phone call from Japan informing her that her twin sister Jess was last seen entering Aokigahara Forest–a place legendary for people going to commit suicide–and is presumed dead. But Sara knows better. Ever since they were kids, she’s been able to sense Jess’s existence, tell when she’s in trouble. So she knows that Jess is still alive, and as so many times before, that she needs Sara’s help. Arriving in Japan, Sara is warned off numerous times, told of the yūrei that haunt the forest, driving people to madness and luring those with sadness in their hearts to kill themselves, even if that wasn’t their intention. But Sara refuses to be dissuaded, and teaming up with reporter Aiden and trail-guide Michi, she sets off into the forest in search of her sister.

I initially picked up The Forest for the simple reason that Eoin Macken is in it. For the record, don’t do that. His role here isn’t that big, and while I liked his character, the writing here simply did not do justice to his immense skill as an actor. Having said that, I very much do not regret watching this movie. It’s an unexpected horror/thriller that refuses to fall into any of your typical genre niches neatly. There’s an Asian horror feel to it that goes beyond just the setting, but it’s not strictly an Asian horror film. Nor is it your typical jump-scare, blood and gore fest that so many horror movies are. In fact, although it seems strange to say this in regards to any horror sort of movie, The Forest is remarkably clean. Still not family friendly, obviously, what with the scariness and allusions to suicide that are prevalent, but it’s not all the sex and language and blood that so many movies of this sort seem to stoop to. Rather, this movie is a slow, atmospheric build of emotional, mental, and psychological horror over the course of the entire movie. If you’re not a fan of the slow burn, it will probably drive you crazy; give this movie a pass. But if you’ve got the patience, the atmosphere of tension that builds is quite well done–the lighting, music, acting, sets, backstory, everything working together quite brilliantly. There’s a sense of mystery that plays in well, and of course, the supernatural element as the yūrei here are real . . . at least in Sara’s head. And that’s where things get really interesting as we have this slow descent into madness from her perspective, so we as the viewers aren’t always able to tell what’s real and what isn’t either. I’ve seen a lot of controversial ratings for this movie–some very positive, others negative in the extreme–but personally, I feel The Forest is one of the best horror/thriller movies I’ve seen, period. Recommended, at least for those who have the patience for the slower pacing.

Written by Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell, & Nick Antosca/Directed by Jason Zada/Produced by Tory Metzger, David S. Goyer, & David Linde/Starring Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, & Eoin Macken/Music by Bear McCreary

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Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

Authors: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Cecelia & Kate, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Kate has been dragged to London along with her (much more lovely and socially graceful) sister Georgina to be presented to Society. Meanwhile, her cousin (and long-time partner in crime) Cecelia is left in the countryside, staving off complete boredom as best she can. The two quickly begin an exchange of letters, sharing gossip and commiserating with each other’s woes. But somehow the two of them soon find themselves dragged into some inexplicable, magical conspiracy, unsure who to trust or what exactly is happening. But these two cousins are nothing if not sharp-witted, and they quickly begin putting their heads together (through letters sent back and forth) to figure this thing out before either of them ends up in true trouble.

Sorcery & Cecelia is an absolutely charming story! I’ve greatly enjoyed Wrede’s stories before, so that’s not particularly surprising; however, I don’t particularly have a great taste for Regency-era stories, and this most certainly is that. But it just has so much to offer, in spite of that, or perhaps because of. The setting causes so much of the story to be couched in politely-barbed wit, and the effect is quite delightful–reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, I’d say. And the addition of magic to the setting is perfect. Between that and Thomas’s character, there are bits that almost remind me as well of Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie). The entirety of the story is told in letters exchanged between Kate and Cecy. It’s actually quite brilliant; this book started out as a role-play sort of game between the authors, exchanging letters in character, and sort of just happened to develop into an actual book. Because they’re cool like that. In any case, it works amazingly well. The story starts off a little slow at first, but I found myself quickly falling in love with the cousins’ wit and humor, and as actual plot began really developing, I found myself utterly pulled in. Highly recommended, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

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Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

Author: Paul Krueger

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience for language, alcohol use, and mild sexual content

All throughout her school years, Bailey Chen has been a force of nature, succeeding the first time with everything she tries. But after graduating with a fancy business degree, she finds a grating disconnect in her experiences with adult life. While trying to get a “real” job that actually utilizes her (significant) skills, Bailey settles for working at a bar–a job gotten for her by her childhood best friend, Zane, which could actually be a good thing, except for “The Fight” four years ago, since when they haven’t actually really talked. Like, at all. And the fact that he actually looks and acts like an adult now, nothing like the unkempt, goofy boy she remembers. And just to make Bailey’s life even more of a mess, while closing the bar one night, she stumbles on Zane’s secret stash of alcohol, mixes up a drink that has actual magical properties (she’s just a natural like that, remember?), and discovers a whole nasty world of monsters and alcohol-powered magic. And it’s looking more and more like her actually calling is less up-and-coming businesswoman and more magical monster-hunting bartender. Yikes!

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is a volume I probably wouldn’t have picked up necessarily on my own (although the cover is distinctly tantalizing, don’t you think?); however, it came to my attention in a Humble Bundle I purchased–the Quirk Books one, surprise there. And you know what? It manages to be surprisingly good. Yes, it’s never going to be great literature, and it’s definitely something of a niche story. But . . . it manages to bring us a quirky, fun new-adult urban fantasy that’s solidly build from start to finish. It delivers an exciting story, some surprises, a messy-cute romance, and a fascinating magic system. Seriously, I think the whole cocktails-based magic thing–and the way the author develops it, complete with extracts from a “reference book” explaining things in more detail–is fresh and engaging. Add to the cool urban fantasy aspect some relatable, interesting characters and a sometimes painfully familiar expedition into the wonderful world of adulting and yeah, you’ve got a pretty neat story. Recommended for those just venturing into the whole adulting thing themselves, as well as for fans of urban fantasy, regardless of age or life experience.

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Tempests and Slaughter

Author: Tamora Pierce

The Numair Chronicles, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Arram Draper is one of the youngest students at the Imperial University of Carthak, sent there by his family to hone his Gift–before he accidentally burns up everything they own! It swiftly becomes clear that his Gift is special, powerful, enough so that he rises quickly through his classes to get special training with advanced teachers, along with his best friends Varice and Prince Ozorne. As if being friends with a prince didn’t come with enough complications on its own. Not to mention the problems Arram gets into once he gains the attention of various gods and other supernatural beings. It’s pretty clear that he will never really fit in, not that he really wants to, but as Arram experiences more of the troubles facing Carthak–the threats to the Imperial succession, the horrific place that slavery and gladiatorial entertainment play in the nation–he finds himself more convinced than ever that he can’t stay in this country, even if it means leaving the people who mean the most to him.

I love Tamora Pierce’s writing, always. And Numair has been a favorite character of mine in her books for quite a while now, so it’s pretty cool getting to go back and get his backstory. Having said that, in the past, I’ve always watched characters grow up into legends in her books, so it’s a bit weird to know the legend first and then go back to that character’s childhood. (He even has a different name as a kid, although we’re already introduced to that fact in some of Pierce’s other Tortall books.) It works though, and I feel like his character is consistent while allowing room for his growth into the adult Numair that we know and love. It’s neat to get a look closer look at Carthak, and at this time period in this world’s history, too, since most of the stories we get are set in Tortall and are a bit later chronologically. As far as the general storytelling, if you like Pierce’s writing, you’ll like this. It’s solid, engaging, character-driven fantasy writing with an easy, gradual pacing, lots of character development, and a unified plot. Lots of room for development in future volumes, too. At its core, Tempests and Slaughter is a school story, so a lot of it revolves around Arram’s classes, teachers, and friendships, as well as a bit throughout about the physical and emotional changes he goes through during this time and the complications of handling that without a real father figure around to talk about it with. So, warnings that there may be some content that’s a bit old for elementary/middle-grade kids . . . okay, considering the exposure Arram has to the gladiator’s ring in later parts, I’d make that a definitely. Recommended for high-school and up, but definitely recommended.

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Endless Summer (Visual Novel)

Pixelberry Studios

Status: Complete (3 books)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Along with a group of fellow college students, you find yourself on a plane heading for a Caribbean island paradise. Sounds just about perfect, right? Only, before you even land, things begin to go awry. There’s an extra person on the plane, and no one can figure out which of you isn’t supposed to be here. A freak storm nearly causes your plane to crash. And when you arrive on the island, instead of a bustling tourist resort, you find . . . nobody. Eerie in the extreme, but also kind of tempting since you’ve got a huge resort stocked with food and booze, nice rooms, beaches and pools, and a fun group to hang out with. Only, how long can you have fun before the strangeness of the situation begins to have larger repercussions? And will you be able to find the clues you need and make the choices you have to in order to survive?

Endless Summer is another choose-your-own-adventure style visual novel that’s playable through the Choices app. And the first thing I have to say is, quite simply, play it. It’s a lot of fun, it’s well thought out, and it’s engaging. The art style is unique and in many places quite beautiful–especially the island scenery, of which there is a lot. This story is largely character driven, and they manage to create characters who are interesting and fun to interact with. Of note, a lot of what goes on in this story is driven by your relationships with the other characters, and those relationships are impacted by your prior choices. So choose wisely. The initial plot lands you on this seemingly deserted island with a group of fellow students, but the plot quickly spirals in an ever-expanding whirlpool of mysteries, time travel, strange people, and evil plots that somehow manages to remain unified and coherent in spite of the strange paths it takes. I also feel the need to note that this story is absolutely rife with geeky and pop-culture references–not that you can’t play without a good knowledge of these, but stuff is definitely going to go over your head. Personally, I thought this aspect of the character development was absolutely marvelous. The sole reason I don’t rate this visual novel a 5 of 5–and this is significant–is that a lot of major choices and story paths require diamonds (i.e. real money, in most instances). It’s possible to play, enjoy, and complete the story without spending any real cash–I did it and had a blast doing so. But you should know going in that there are lots of major things you just aren’t going to be able to do, or you should go ahead and purchase a set limit of diamonds before going in, if you choose to spend anything . . . otherwise the spending is just going to get out of hand. But despite that, I would highly recommend Endless Summer to anyone looking for a fun choose-your-own-adventure story that’s a bit off the beaten path.

 

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My Bloody Valentine (2009 Movie)

Lionsgate

My rating: 3 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience/Rated R for all the reasons–sex, language, nudity, blood and gore, violence, you name it, you’ve been warned

Tom Warden returns to the small mining town of Harmony after nearly ten years away to settle things following his father’s death. But it seems the past is coming back to haunt him as a series of violent murders sweeps across the rural community . . . murders that parallel closely those that devastated the town on Valentine’s Day ten years ago. And people can’t help but wonder, since Tom was in a way responsible for the previous murders, or at least for the mining accident that created the monster responsible for them.

My Bloody Valentine is a great reminder of why I don’t watch slasher films–but I couldn’t resist the awesomeness that is Jensen Ackles anymore, I just couldn’t. And I have to say that if this were my kind of movie, I would likely have given it quite a high rating. There’s more story to it that just a random collection of bodies building up, so points for that. The casting and acting are well done, too–and yes, I have to gush a bit over the great job Jensen did with this role. There’s a lot of subtlety and suggestion that goes into this part, and he pulls it off with his typical aplomb. But I have to say that the other actors did a great job with their parts, too, which again made the whole thing much more enjoyable. Having said that, there’s a lot of violence and just cringe-worthy, graphic murders–kudos on the CG, by the way–that are just kind of awful, even though they’re executed well. So yeah, fair warning and all that; this is likely to induce nightmares. I did enjoy the twist at the ending, even if it was a bit predictable. Of note, this is a remake of the 1981 movie of the same title, which I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment on any comparisons between the two. Recommended for Ackles fans and for slasher fans, but probably not otherwise. And I’ll always love Ten Inch Hero waaaaay more.

Directed by Patrick Lussier/Produced by Jack L. Murray/Screenplay by Zane Smith, Todd Farmer, & John Beaird (1981 screenplay)/Story by Stephen Miller (1981 story)/Based on My Bloody Valentine by George Mihalka/Starring Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Betsy Rue, & Kevin Tighe/Music by Michael Wandmacher

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