Monday, August 12, 2013

What have I read lately? A lot, mainly old children's lit. So let's have a few quick reviews.
  • Heidi - Unprepossessing little Swiss girl grows up in the mountains, has to live in the city, and converts her city friends to the wonders of the mountains. It's so sincerely written that you don't mind a lot of happenings that would be extremely twee otherwise. Overall, I enjoyed reading this.
  • Dear Brutus - Short, sentimental J.M. Barrie play, I like this one because it hits all the expected notes and is enjoyable to read as a short story just as much as a play. It's a quick read but clever.
  • Black Beauty - A classic horse story but actually pretty boring? Like, I thought there were supposed to be more exciting parts, but it's basically a tract about animal cruelty. It held the most interest, to me, in its depictions of English life and how horses fitted into society. Black Beauty is such a bland narrator that I couldn't care about his story.
  • What Katy Did - A young scamp of a girl with her big family gets into trouble, befalls tragedy, and learns to trust in God and be more ladylike. Resonated with me since I've been laid up with a bum leg for the past few weeks, and Katy's spirit isn't entirely crushed, and she is rather more of a wild child than some of her contemporary spunky female main characters, so I'll allow it.
  • What Katy Did At School - A sequel and a pretty entertaining one, all things considered. Katy and her sister Clover go to boarding school and the usual shenanigans are had. Katy is more subdued and so a bit less interesting.
  • The King of the Golden River - A charming little fairy tale, not much to it, but delightfully told with a lot of vivid images and plenty of story fairy tale elements.
  • Seven Little Australians - Seven Australian children are not paragons of virtue and instead get into scrapes without learning wholesome moral lessons all the time - you know, like real children. I thought that the book was too short; there could have been a lot more to it without the story wearing out its welcome. All of the children were unique and well drawn, and the ending worked.
In conclusion, wow, children in those books are always having horrible things happen to them. Ye gads.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Final Fantasy IX: Part I

My good friend Jacob has persuaded me to try Final Fantasy IX as the introduction to that series. He has been so good as to loan me a copy, and so I will make every attempt to finish the game. In my turn, I shall blog my efforts in hopes of amusing and enlightening my readers. These entries shall be stream of consciousness accounts of what I encounter, and as such may be disjointed. Needless to say, they will also contain spoilers. Well, let us begin.

- ... Wow. For PSX era graphics, for a game I remember reading about in an old gaming mag while still in middle school (or thenabouts), the cutscenes look good. You can tell they're dated, but you don't care. It puts SoA:L (my favorite RPG of Dreamcast era, ported to GCN) to shame.
- Regular graphics, not so much. And everything's so smudgy and pixelated. Then again, I play the Golden Sun games, so I'm used to that.
- So far, so good. Wandering around the city (Alexandria?) trying to go see this show where some abduction is going to go down. No ticket, but instead I get trading cards. Will I have to challenge the castle guards to a children's card game?
- Okay, this card game is pretty darn addictive.
- Annoying children run into me and won't move until I do.
- Wish I understood how they're getting the, like, HP of the different cards. I can't tell if the symbols on them are supposed to be numbers?
- Okay, let's go and move the plot along, if I can figure out how to do that.
- This game has such a fairy tale feel to it.
- Theatre! Jacob knows what I like. X3
- That's actually a fun run of minigame sequences.
- Poor sad princess.
- Mysterious figure. I wonder who that could be.
- And now I have to go search for the missing princess.
- I do like how the viewpoint character changes up. Gives it more of a rounded story feeling.
- Except Steiner moves so slow, and I don't know what I'm looking for. The princess, yeah, but there's so many bland rooms and corridors. Oh well, probably won't be long.
- Ugh, searched everywhere. Well, pretty much. If I can't find her in this last place, I'm checking a guide.
- Staaaaaairs.
- Oh, guess it really is the last place you look.
- Haha, Steiner. I like that guy already.
- Cutscene! And now more chasing.
- Is that band made up of zombies?
- These days it's more shocking if a princess doesn't want to escape/run away/be kidnapped from her privileged, pampered existence. I'll be interested in finding out Garnet's motivation.
- Poor Steiner. He just wants to do a good job.
- Bwahaha, yesss, that play. Jacob, when you read this, know that I fully support putting an homage to it in our stuff. So much melodrama and farce.
- I was wondering when Vivi would show up again.
- Just the sort of coincidence to cause the most plot trouble.
- Harpoon Cannon, fire!
- Did... Did they just fire a literal sun at them or something?
- Not sure what's up with that queen aside from the fact that she is cray cray.
- Garnet's all, "what the heck did I just get myself into?"
- Oh right, those creepy jester guys. Creepy.

Well, there's our first entry. I have to replay a bit of the game due to some technical difficulties, so I'm going to call this a good stopping point as far as this entry goes. I'll update again soon!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Warm Bodies

I saw the trailer for Warm Bodies when I went with a friend to see Breaking Dawn: Part 2. The latter movie was surprisingly enjoyable in a "this is a bad movie, but dang if it's not hilarious and with far more decapitations than I expected" sort of way, but that's really all there is to say about it, so now that I've gotten that out of the way, let's move on. Warm Bodies, another zombie movie. Except... from the point of view of the zombie? That's pretty novel. And... there's a love interest? Well, this isn't the first time I've seen that. And the trailer in general seemed very snappy, full of quips that didn't fall flat and entertainingly action-filled.

So, at some point soon after I learned that it was based on a book, and on a whim I ordered it from the library. Came in pretty quickly too. Last night I was up late but didn't quite want to sleep yet, so I thought I'd crack it open. Two and a half hours later I turned the last page to the light of the rising sun. (Poetic license; I keep my windows firmly barricaded against any stray beams of natural light.) But anyway, I stayed up way later than I should have due to this surprisingly engaging novel.

So, first thing's first, while it definitely has a theme and message and all that jazz, and the main character is this rather philosophical zombie named R (that being all he can remember of his name), I never felt like I was being beaten over the head with any message of hope and what it means to be human. I mean, that was definitely in there, but it felt right, not forced. The writing was nice, didn't call attention to itself with any fancy gimmicks, just told a briskly-paced story. It's a nice tale of the apocalypse, dark and gritty enough to drive home just how plain terrible it'd be to live after the collapse of civilization, but what with the message of hope and the story not taking itself too seriously, the tone is just right. Same with the characters. None of them are saints, not R or his love interest Julie, but they're good people. Well-developed, too, and the romance is actually very believable, with the characters connecting over things instead of just being based off chemicals. And as for the zombies in general, it's just a darn interesting take on the monster, putting a new twist on why they do what they do and, really, what zombies are. It's hard to discuss without spoiling the journey of the book, including the ending which, somehow, actually worked for me. It's built up and plays out without breaking suspension of disbelief. I shouldn't buy the ending, but I do. This is a strangely good book. I think that says it best. It's a strange book, and I did not expect it to be as engaging as I found it.

One last thing. I think it's best saved until you've read the book yourself.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Too Many Pinkie Pies

Now this was a delightful episode. "Too Many Pinkie Pies" was funny, well-paced, and quite sweet. Pinkie Pie is a ball of energy who loves having fun with her friends. When she has to choose between hanging out with Rainbow Dash and raising a barn with the Apple family, Pinkie remembers a legend about a mirror pond in the Everfree Forest that will allow you to duplicate yourself, and she takes advantage of it. However, the amount of Pinkie Pies quickly explodes out of control, and faced with a Pinkie plague, the town has to do something. Twilight discovers a spell to set things right, but first they need to determine which Pinkie Pie is the real Pinkie Pie - if they can.

This episode reminds me a lot of "Party of One." Pinkie can definitely be obnoxious, but she has good intentions and really cares about her friends. And Pinkie-centric episodes are nice when we get to see her as more than just a source of jokes. My heart went out to her when Pinkie started to see just how far in over her head she'd gotten and realized that she might get sent away from her friends as a consequence of her actions. The other ponies all got some screen time, and I liked the callback joke with the orange frog. The throwaway reference to the older MLP series was a nice touch too. I don't have much to say about the specifics; if I were to pick out the good moments I would have to talk about most of the episode. Overall this is a very solid episode and promises good things for season three.

Friday, November 30, 2012

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - The Crystal Empire Parts 1 & 2

First, the musical numbers. I'm sorry to say that I found them mostly uninspired. "The Ballad of the Crystal Empire" was nice enough, being both pleasing to listen to and serving as a montage of preparations for the fair, but "The Failure Song" and "The Success Song" did nothing for me and felt shoe-horned in to meet a quota of musical numbers. Less is more, folks, and always remember that musical numbers really should only happen when the character's emotions reach a point where just talking won't cut it. I was not buying that as the case for Twilight here. Maybe for "The Failure Song" but definitely not "The Success Song." And, perhaps more crucially, if you removed these two songs, nothing would be lost, which is a good way of identifying extraneous musical numbers. Take "The Failure Song." We've already seen Twilight over-prepare for the test before leaving for Canterlot, and the first two seasons also show her scholarly abilities and growth as a person (well, pony). And her lament about not being prepared for the task which Celestia set her is also covered before the song even starts, when Twilight voices just such concerns to her mentor. I also think that the tone of song doesn't fit with the relatively darker tone of the rest of the two-parter. It feels too Disney coming off the heels of a fairly tense book scene (if you'll pardon the theatre lingo). There's some legitimately discomfiting stuff in these episodes, and there's some mood whiplash here.

But as far as the actual story goes, I have no complaint. Twilight is summoned by Princess Celestia to save the Crystal Empire by stopping Kind Sombra from stealing back control of the empire with his black crystals. I'm kind of hazy on the details, having only watched this once, but the best parts of the episode don't deal with minutia, they focus on Twilight's character arc. Enjoyable parts include the very first scene with her packing for a test in Canterlot and having a mini-version of her "Lesson Zero" freakout. She may have learned her lesson then, but that doesn't mean that Twilight's studies aren't the most important thing to her after friends and family. Besides this scene being funny, it also hearkens back to previous character moments as well as setting up how important it is to Twilight to pass this episode's test. I liked seeing Princess Luna again, and there were some cryptic exchanges between the two princesses of which I was unsure whether they were just for setting up the atmosphere of the episode or if they were hinting at a possible plot arc for this season, in the same way that the Grand Galloping Gala was a plot arc for the first season. We'll skip the first song, as I've already talked about it. When Twilight and friends arrive in the north and meet Shining Armor, that was actually fairly, well, not scary, but definitely eerier than I'd been expecting. Something I did expect which didn't come to pass was that the black crystal chunks on Shining Armor's horn would factor more into the plot than to block his magic, but I guess having him get possessed would be too much like what happened to his bride last season. The Crystal Empire itself was really freaking eerie, sort of deserted and dystopian. And the overhanging sense of oncoming doom kept the tension in the episode high. I was glad that the story followed through on Twilight having to find the Crystal Heart alone; again, that keeps the stakes high and the focus on the character who is undergoing a development arc. And Spike coming along made sense; he's her number one assistant, a nice foil for her, and the way they helped each other helped Twilight learn something about herself and helping others. This time was different from the usual sort of friendship lesson. Instead of learning to work as a team to overcome an obstacle, it was, as Princess Celestia said, about self-sacrifice, about acting on your own, but still for the good of others. And even though it hurt for Twilight to go against the conditions of the test, she made the call without much dithering, because she knew it was the right thing.

Twilight Sparkle is the protagonist of this story, but Friendship is Magic is overall an ensemble show, and the narrative for these episodes does a nice balance of keeping her at the center of things while not giving the other ponies short shrift. Rarity acts completely in character, being a supportive friend even while she is understandably distracted by all of the shiny things. Applejack is the loyal lancer to Twilight, holding down the fort and keeping things on track. Rainbow Dash is headstrong, unthinking, and a source of comic relief, especially when paired with inoffensive and timid Fluttershy. And Pinkie is just Pinkie. These five all get moments to themselves, such as when they're searching for information and running the fair, which helps balance the episode. And Spike is allowed his fair share of screen time as well, and his relationship with Twilight is, as always, adorable.

Overall I was very pleased with these two episodes as the opener for season three. Unlike some highly anticipated pieces of media, the build-up did not let down all of the fanbase's hopes and dreams. On a completely unrelated note, I think I might start crossposting my Golden Sun: Dark Dawn reviews/gameblogs here from my old blog. Keep an eye out for that, as well as for more MLP and other reviews.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Half-baked metaphors

Today I made dinner. It was a rather last-minute thing. I received the recipe by e-mail and was told to get to it. Okay. Go downstairs, raise my eyebrows at the printout. Eight ingredients? Minced garlic? Dry sherry? Well, aren't we fancy tonight? So okay, in the kitchen I start pulling out the ingredients. Ground beef, yeah. We're missing egg noodles, so we're going with rotini and penne instead, combining two partial boxes. The sherry's there, and so's the Worcestershire sauce, but we only have one can of tomato soup, so I'll have to sub in some diced tomatoes in too large a can size. There's sliced cheddar in the fridge, but no Parmesan, so let's go with mozzarella instead. I hate dishes like this anyway (I've got a lovely rant about Italian food I'll do if anyone ever gives me an opening in conversation), so what do I care if we've got the wrong cheese?

Well, I get started. Boil some water for noodles and just guesstimate the right amount, pour 'em in to cook. Start browning the meat, and chop some garlic while that's happening. Life pro tip, gotta peel garlic a bit before you get to the good stuff, and also, there are several cloves for each bulb. So don't just throw a whole thing under the chopper. Where was I going with this? Ah, yes. I don't remember about draining the meat until after I'd added the tomato sauce (because you'd think they would put something that important in the instructions), the noodles don't seem to be softening at all, the whole mess is too big for the pan, and by the time I get this hot mess (both literally and figuratively) in the oven, I am wiped out and prickling with annoyance.

You know what, though? It turned out swell. Everyone raved about my casserole. Even I didn't think it was terrible. It occurred to me later that this whole experience is an imperfect metaphor for writing. For your rough draft you've got your recipe, your outline of what you expect the story to be about. Your ingredients are all the characters, settings, plot devices, and the like, which you may have to swap out or change at a moment's notice for the betterment of the story. You slop the whole thing together, wincing at every mistake or every clunky paragraph, but the important thing is getting it in the over, finalizing that draft. And I guess you could compare the oven to editing, but that's a bit more of a stretch. Still, it can take something as simple and unexpected as a come-from-behind success at making dinner to drive home the point that fussing over perfection every step of the way while writing is counter-productive. So I'm not going to get in my own way. When I get back to cooking up this short story in a bit, I'm going to press forward, write what excites me, and shove that tasty first draft in the oven.

... Now I've made myself hungry again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


When I first heard the concept behind Moshidora, it cracked me up. A high school girl manages her high school's baseball team using Peter Drucker's business book Management. How were they going to pull that off? I expected a comedy about a failing team that pulls wacky stunts as they vainly try to apply corporate management techniques into their training. I was not expecting a heartfelt slice-of-life show that balanced comedy and drama in a sincerely told and uplifting story. For whatever reason, baseball media seems to be especially good at this sort of underdog tale.

Kawashima Minami volunteers to manage her high school's baseball team when her best friend, and the team's current manager, Miyata Yuki is hospitalized. Minami hates baseball and knows nothing about management, but being a gung-ho young woman she visits the bookstore and finds a volume with which to educate herself about the latter. The team is full of unmotivated and discouraged young men, but Minami applies herself, and with the help of Yuki and team member Nikai, she employs Drucker's techniques to energize and focus the team, setting their sights on the Nationals.

Now, I'm not such an anime connoisseur that I can comment knowledgeably on production aspects such as animation, sound, voice acting, and the like. I will say that you're not missing anything if you skip the first two minutes of each episode, which is the introduction and opening theme, the latter of which is pretty terrible. The ending theme isn't bad, but it's nothing special. The animation is good enough that if you're just a casual viewer, like I am, you'll have no cause for complaint. Occasionally the series makes use of super-deformed art for comedic effect. The story is well-told and well-paced. We get some early episodes setting up how Minami transforms the team using management best practices, and then the series tones down on introducing new terms and concepts and goes into showing how the efforts of Minami and the others are working out for the team. There are some predictably dramatic moments, but they're handled very well. Nothing overblown; the characters act how you'd expect high school kids to act under pressure or grief. Overall, this is a funny, sweet stories that tells an uplifting story in just the right amount of time.