Favorite Anime Shows of 2017!!! (A Non-Comprehensive List)

I have watched different anime shows and films on and off since middle school, but it wasn’t until the last year or so that I really got into it. Part of it was through Drew – and part of it was because we got a Crunchyroll subscription.  I tried to think of a nice even Top Ten but honestly couldn’t think of a tenth anime that warranted being on my personal listicle… SO. That being said, here’s my top nine animes of 2017 – in no particular order! I also love anime opening theme songs so PLEASE treat yourself to these gems.

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Yuri!!! On Ice

All I knew was that this show was supposedly gay and about ice skating, but my good friend and Personal Bad Influence Shoulder Devil, Mel, convinced me that it was more. Much more.

Yuri!!! On Ice follows the story of Katsuki Yuuri, who is a mediocre figure skater. He worked hard to get where he is, and he’s passionate for the sport, but he’s never really unfolded his potential, and as the show starts he’s dropped to the bottom of his division. He goes home to lick his wounds and wonder whether skating is really a career for him, or if he should give up and go to college or something. Plot twist: his lifelong hero and idol inspiration, Viktor Nikiforov, shows up on his doorstep in Japan insisting that Yuuri let him become his new coach for the coming season. Viktor has seen a video of Yuuri imitating one of Viktor’s own routines on the ice, and something about Yuuri is… different. The show follows Yuuri’s journey back to the competitive skating world with Viktor at his side, driving him onward.

But it isn’t just about skating. It’s about self-doubt, impostor syndrome, and passion. It’s about trust and honesty in friendships and partnerships, and about discovering who you really are behind all the goals you have and accomplishments you’ve passed. It’s about a really cute dog and an onsen and pork cutlet bowls.

It’s also pretty damn gay. And it’s wonderful. Can’t wait for season two.

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My Hero Academia (Boku No Hero Academia)

Everyone’s talking about this show – and it’s all for very, very good reasons. My Hero Academia is a traditional “do your best” coming-of-age story with a lot of exciting, modern twists.

The show follows Midoriya, a young boy in a world where 80% of the population acquire a natural-born ‘quirk’ – essentially a mutant power – at a young age that they can develop as they grow older. Some people with quirks develop them so much with the intent of becoming a professional hero. There’s even schools to attend that help young folks hone their abilities to the best they can be. Midoriya worships the Number One Hero of all time, All-Might, and hopes to be just like him. But nothing happens for a long time. As a child, doctors run tests to determine that he isn’t just a late bloomer – he’s quirkless, one of the rare percentage of humans that don’t ever develop a natural quirk. As a teen, a chance meeting and some terrifying villain attacks cause Midoriya to fall into the path of All Might himself, and his life changes. Midoriya progresses to UA High School – the top hero-training academy – and must learn to understand and control his newly-acquired quirk… so that he can become the greatest hero of all.

One of things I love about this show is alllllll of the many characters are so specific, unique, and delightful. Everyone’s powers are loaded with particular pros and cons, everyone’s personalities are varied and interesting, and the dynamics of all the different heroes are fascinating. I’m also super into the fact that the major theme of the show is: do your best. The motto of the school is Plus Ultra – Go Beyond. It drives everything that they do. Midoriya is a fantastic protagonist because he really does want to be the greatest hero – not for fame or wealth or renown but for the inspiration it provides others, and the service he could provide to those in need. I love that. I also love how there are so many female characters present, of all different kinds, all different body types and personalities. It’s wonderful to be able to watch a show about superheroes and see different types of girls in the main cast – instead of one, or two. I also love his friends at school. The more I think about each of the secondary and even tertiary characters the more fired up I get about how awesome they are. THERE IS SO MUCH HERE. It’s a lively, action-packed, high-stakes, intensely positive show. It’s wonderful.

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Food Wars (Shokugeki No Soma)

Do you love food? Do you like those high stakes reality cooking shows? Do you enjoy when genres poke fun at themselves? Great, me too. Here’s Shokugeki no Soma.

The show follows Yukihira Soma, a clever, determined kid raised in his family’s diner by his phenomenal chef-dad, as he attends the most hoity-toity culinary academy in the nation in pursuit of becoming the best chef he can be. The other kids at this intensely competitive cooking high school (yeah, I know) are shocked and incensed at Soma’s casual, point-blank personality and low-budget origins, but quickly he becomes infamous in the school for his exquisite talent and delicious cuisine in spite of his humble birth. Students at the school can specialize in certain foods, ingredients, spices, or styles, and there are different clubs to join for various types of food. But the main thing is that students can challenge each other to a shokugeki – a one-on-one cooking battle that will be judged by three impartial people.

Like Boku no Hero Academia, this is a show about working hard, doing your best, and striving to achieve greater things in spite of all challenges you may face. This is also a show about REALLY INTENSE COOKING BATTLES and insane, deliciously animated recipes. When characters taste something super amazing, their clothes burst from their bodies and they’re thrown into a kind of comical, over-the-top dream sequence of ecstasy based on whatever the flavor or dish is. I stress this again: it is very over the top and comical, but the characters do appear sexualized and/or nude when enjoying intense flavors. It calms down about halfway through season one, but it continues to be a staple of the series throughout.

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Restaurant To Another World

This is a delightful, simple, endearing little show about a restaurant with a magic portal to multiple realms and other worlds than our own. The owner of the restaurant opens it on a certain day (Saturday, I think) every week, and the door of the restaurant appears in different places throughout a fantasy realm. Not everyone knows of its existence, but anywhere the door appears, it can be entered by locals and the restaurant serves exquisite food and beverages and desserts that we might consider normal. But to the inhabitants of a distant fantasy realm? It’s exotic and new and mysterious. The owner of the restaurant tends to stay out of his customers’ personal business, but the customers begin to recognize one another by their favorite menu items: i.e. melon soda, chocolate parfait, pork cutlet, etc. The show gives us little glimpses into the lives of these princesses, explorers, lucky adventurers, fallen heroes, and even dragons as they count the days until the next Saturday appearance of the door, and spend all their coin at the Restaurant To Another World.

It’s a slice-of-life style anime with a lot of heart and very simple, sweet stories attached. It fed my love of well-animated food (see: Shokugeki no Soma) but it also was just an endearing set of stories that fit into a greater world narrative that they don’t tell too much of. It’s sweet and unusual.

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Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

Okay, so… this one is weird. Like, I understand that anime as a whole tends to be weird, but this show is Weird? And really adorable, but very weird??? Um. So.

Kobayashi is in IT, I think, or possibly computer engineering… she does techy stuff for a big company. She enjoys nerding out with her coworker about maids – like, Victorian maids, and the modern Japanese fandom equivalent – and she enjoys drinking. A lot. She gets lost in the woods while drunk and unintentionally frees a trapped/exiled dragon. The dragon, now owing her a life debt, begs her to let it pay her back – and drunk!Kobayashi apparently decides that the one thing she really wants is a maid. She wakes up in her apartment the next day with her very own dragon maid. What she doesn’t realize is that the complications of dragons are even stranger than she could have imagined… and having a maid isn’t as simple as she thought it’d be.

The show is WEIRD like I said but it’s very sweet. Tohru, the dragon maid, is an ancient dragon who has a lot of pride in her dragonhood but DESPERATELY longs for Kobayashi’s love and attention. She says point-blank that she loves Kobayashi in a sexual sense, not just a platonic way, but Kobayashi is not as straightforward with her desires. It is very unclear whether she’s even attracted to Tohru… but throughout the series, their relationship grows and becomes complex, specific, and very real. Kobayashi seems to be more in the asexual category, but she comes to really love and appreciate Tohru’s support and affection as time goes on. More dragons come to visit (and stay) and the weird sitcom-y feel of the show is actually really hilarious. There’s a few over-the-top fetish-y moments that happen on the side with various characters but the main storyline between Tohru, Kobayashi, and the young exiled dragon Kanna-chan as a small, unusual, but loving family is really neat.

THIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE OPENING SONGS EVER PLEASE DANCE TO IT.

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Sakura Quest

So you know how in Japan, mascots are this huge thing? Like, companies, stores, media, neighborhoods, even airports have mascots that do PR appearances and meet-and-greets?? This show isn’t just about that, but it is partly about that.

Yoshino is struggling to find a job. She has no money, no prospects, and despite being a solid, confident interviewee, she keeps… not getting hired. A while back she signed up for a modeling agency on a lark, and she finally gets a call from them – a town in the country needs her to come be their queen. Confused as to what that means, but desperate for a paycheck, Yoshino heads out to the town of Manoyama, only to find that it is a small, run-down, former tourist spot with a long legacy of weird and unusual makeovers, and with very, very little in the way of actual activity. It also turns out the town meant to hire another girl – a former pop star, whose name’s kanji look similar to Yoshino’s. Oops. Yoshino panics and attempts to flee back to Tokyo, but realizes that this could be an opportunity to really make a difference to someone, to help this community get back on its feet, and to find purpose in life. So she stays – and her eager, ready-to-do-anything attitude attracts the help of several local gals who become her ‘queen’s council’ as she quests to revive the town of Manoyama as a destination and as a community.

This show is very slice-of-life and extremely good. The five main girls are so delightful and their dynamic as a team is wonderful. The realism in the show is very relatable – who hasn’t had a problem with finding meaning in their work, or finding a job period?? Who hasn’t struggled with their ability to roll with the punches and find a way to make things work even when everyone around you says they won’t work out? I love the characters on this show, and I love that it’s about community, chosen family, and never giving up on dreams, no matter how big or small they are.

Also: A+ theme song.

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Blend S

This show is ALSO a bit weird but very slice-of-life.

Maika-chan is a high schooler looking for part time work, and as luck would have it, she manages to land a job at a themed café – but not your average maid café, cat café, or licensed character café. Manager Dino has particular plans for Café Stile, and each of the waitresses who works for him assumes a persona archetype as seen in, well, anime. Maika and her coworkers each embody a different persona: Kaho is the tsundere waitress, Mafuyu is the ‘little sister’ type, and later on they acquire Miu as an ‘older sister’ and Hideri, who is a transvestite and portrays the ‘idol’ archetype. Maika is a sweet, incredibly sensitive teenager who just wants to do a good job, but has trouble with her assigned persona: ‘sadist.’ She has kind of a scary smile, so the Manager has her portray a cold, calculating sadistic person while providing exemplary café service to their customers, who, I’ll note, all seem to be young men who happen to fall into various categories of being attracted to different archetypes. On top of all this, the Manager is 26 and has a crush on Maika (who’s 16), and Miu’s ‘older sister’ type is a little more of a sexually charged ‘roleplay’ of an older sister than an actual familial figure. The cast is a weird bunch of highly specific people but the self-aware comedy of the ridiculous archetypes, sexualization, and highly unusual success of such an offbeat, particular establishment are very funny to watch.

Unfortunately the intro song to this show has become some kind of meme and the original version has been taken down, so this is just audio… but I can’t help imagining a full scale Broadway song and dance number with moving sets and turntables and confetti and stuff. Please enjoy that with me in your head.

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A Centaur’s Life

2017 was definitely the year for me discovering SLICE OF LIFE ANIME, you guys. This show is amazing. It’s WEIRD, it’s got detailed worldbuilding, and it’s SWEET, too.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a cat-person? What about a goat-and-or-sheep-person? A bat-person? A unicorn-person? An angel-person? OKAY okay what about a centaur? Like, how would you go to school, or wear clothes, or deal with puberty as a centaur, with your back half bein’ a growing, healthy horse bod while you try to figure out your crushes, hopes, and dreams??? WHAT IF??

Hime is a centaur. She lives in Japan and goes to school like all girls her age do. Her life is very normal. Her entire family are centaurs. She competes in traditional Japanese archery and studies in school, and blushes a lot because her big clumsy horse bod gets in the way of being ‘more normal’. She’s also very kind, loving, and generous to her friends (a smart sheep-girl and a sassy bat-girl). Their world is full of people with unusual traits – unusual to us, that is. Centuries ago people began to develop these qualities – it’s just always been this way. (Sidenote: The anime does some REALLY fantastic show-not-tell about the worldbuilding they did and it’s fascinating??? Every time there’s a story or an episode about the world as a whole or its history I’m like HOLY WHAT WHAT AHHH WHAAAT!?)

So anyway yeah Hime’s a regular girl-centaur with regular girl problems and her friends at school have their own problems too. School responsibilities, little siblings, new romance, and social expectations abound.

I thought this show was going to be Too Weird To Watch but the title is so blunt I had to try… but then I got really really into it and I love it so so much. The opening song doesn’t set the tone properly AT ALL but please forgive it, and know that the scene change and background music in the episodes is usually ska which makes ALL THE SENSE IN THE WORLD when it’s happening.

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New Game

This show is fantastic. Another slice-of-life anime that follows a girl fresh out of high school as she starts her first grown-up job at Eagle Jump, a video game company. Aoba navigates the awkwardness of becoming an adult in an adult workplace while enjoying the perks of working on a game for a company she has long admired. The big thing about the show is that the game company is all women. There are no male characters on the show at all. It’s…. amazing. All of the characters are offbeat and fun, the workplace environment is positive and encouraging while still being new and overwhelming to Aoba, and the themes are all about being yourself, working hard, learning new things and adjusting to work alongside others.

It’s good, wholesome, encouraging stuff. I mean, other than the fact that one of the bosses likes to sleep under her desk wearing just a shirt and her underwear…. but like. Eh.

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Thanks for checking out this Non-Comprehensive List. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter what anime you’d recommend based on my taste in this list OR based on the theme song alone!

-Aly

Life Update: A Huge New Chapter!

Well, friends, it’s been a while since I posted here, and I do apologize for that. If you’re following me on any other social media platforms you’ll know the gist of what’s been going on, and if not, I hope this will catch you up on the deets.

On November 4th, 2017, Drew and I packed up a UHaul van with all of our earthly belongings and hitched his old car Betty to a tow dolly on the back, and we left Chicago. Drew had lived there seven years, and I had been there eleven years, but it was high time for a brand new adventure. So off we went, and two days later we arrived in Orlando, Florida. We moved into our new place, began to buy new furniture (we had none with us) and started to settle in to a brand new city where neither of us had ever lived before.

Drew is working at his old job still – they’re letting him work remotely from a different office of the company. I have been working on some audiobooks for award-winning author Candace J. Thomas and also been preparing for upcoming opportunities here. We’re both auditioning and chasing dreams, and treading water till the next thing happens.

As far as creative pursuits go, Drew and I have spent the last seven or eight months taking a break from Disney Odyssey. We intend to get back to it soon, since we have so many still in the bank from the last round of viewings. But we’ve been very busy with Warda, our real creative brainchild.

Warda is a little bit Game of Thrones, a little bit Downton Abbey, with a dash of Agatha Christie thrown in. It’s luxurious and glamourous on the surface with heartfelt conflict and sociopolitical commentary underneath. It’s been a THRILLING experience to share it with the world for the first time – in May we started doing live streams of a roleplaying game set in the world of Warda (using the FATE system rules) on the One Shot Podcast Network’s channel on Twitch. We stopped doing those live streams in October right before we moved (for obvious reason) BUT the second big thing that came out of this venture is the podcast! You can check it all out here or here, or on your chosen podcasting platform. Even if you don’t know anything about tabletop RPGs, it’s a fantastic story, with great performances by all of our players and Drew as our primary GM (I drop in occasionally myself). Give it a try!

Despite the fact that we moved at the beginning of the month, I made sure to participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month. This year’s theme and challenge I gave myself were unique: I wrote down short titles or phrases relating to Warda, one prompt for each day of November, and a few extra just in case. I challenged myself to respond to a new, randomly selected prompt every day, writing at LEAST the minimum of 1667 words (the projected daily minimum to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo). I told myself that I could write as much as I wanted, but I needed to have the minimum on each day’s prompt. This was an awesome plan! I gave myself weird and delightful and interesting prompts and I had FUN writing on each of them as the days trucked along. However, sometime in the middle of the month I found myself picking up each day with the previous day’s prompt, wanting to write more and ‘finish’ the scene, only to have the current day’s prompt yet to write. And sometimes I didn’t get to the current day’s prompt. But I didn’t count this against myself, since I was having fun and not censoring myself. I have several prompt yet to do, despite the month ending tonight (and despite the fact that I’ve passed 50k words!) so I intend to keep writing a bit every day and building those muscles up again to where they once were. I have, as you may know, been having some issues with ‘writer’s block’ and ‘impostor syndrome’ and other such hurdles, and I’m determined to shake it all off – FOR GOOD – and press on in my writing experiences and career. I’m looking forward to meeting some Orlando area writers soon – there appear to be several community groups I can join up with to meet fellow writers, take workshops, and support/be supported. I’ve never had a writing group or community before, not really, so I’m not sure what it will be like, but I’m happy to try it all out and meet some new friends!

The other magical thing that happened recently is small, talkative, and extremely cuddly. Yes, that’s right – we got a cat! Well, the cat got us. Found us. Whatever. On October 1st (with only a month left before we were supposed to move) we found a cat in Chicago. We took her inside for the night, then took her and had her microchip scanned the next day. We spent the next fourteen days frantically reaching out to the owners through the microchip company, but despite multiple voicemails and emails, they never contacted us or the chip company again. After ten days in Illinois, that’s animal abandonment, so we unexpectedly (but very, very happily) welcomed Queen Felicia to the family.

 

She hated the truck ride down to Florida but once we got here she was fine. She has filled our days with love, strange chirps, purrs, and nuzzles, and we love her more than we ever thought possible. She found us, and we’re so, so glad she did.

We are both missing our friends back in Chicago, but we’re eager for this new chapter to really settle into a rhythm. So many opportunities await, so many possibilities. We’re happy we made it here safely and we’re happy to get a chance at things we’ve always dreamed of.

Here’s to big leaps, and big dreams ahead!

~Aly

 

Happy 20th Anniversary, Harry Potter!

I always wanted to be a Gryffindor, but the truth was always there under the surface, and it was much more simple. I love people too much, and I care about everyone’s feelings.
It’s actually been Hufflepuff all the way.
 
I got the first three Harry Potter books the day that “The Prisoner of Azkaban” came out – September 8, 1999, apparently. I tore through them in a short amount of time, and my world was changed. It led me to internet forums and early chat rooms for fans, it led me to create my own fan fiction, it led me to create my own fiction unrelated.”Hedwig” was part of my first email address. It brought me new friends when I moved to a new place. It brought me a sense of belonging that stuck with me until I was ready to ‘graduate Hogwarts’ and move out into the big wide world on my own two feet, and create new worlds for other people to delve into.
 
I often think about JK Rowling, on a plane or seated in an outdoor cafe, writing with cheap half-empty ballpoint pens, scrawling on napkins when she ran out of paper, and writing just to write – even when she was on welfare. She didn’t write to get herself out of welfare, but that’s exactly what happened. She wrote because she loved her story and her characters and was driven to get it done. And she’s not perfect… And the series isn’t perfect, but it’s arguably damn good. So good that it’s common household vocabulary now, and it’s the “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” of a whole new generation. Harry and Voldemort in the Forest. Hogwarts, when the walls fell.
What’s your Patronus?
What’s your wand made of?
Which House are you in?
Everybody knows their own answers to these questions. And we always will.
Twenty years later, many of us are grown and some are even raising their own kids on the world Rowling built. It’ll keep on keepin’ on.
I’m hoping to finally make it to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios this fall, and taste my first butterbeer and find my wand waiting for me, and probably cry, and my Hufflepuff husband will be there with me, and we’ll probably have a lot of feelings about it all.
Something something about Hogwarts always being there to welcome us home, something something.
Cheers, everyone.

8 Spoopy Books 4 Hammaweens: A Non-Comprehensive List

I love autumn. If asked what my favorite season is, I’ll more than likely say spring because of my birthday. Or summer because of the Ren Faire. But honestly I adore fall. I love layering up, I love comfy stuff, I love dumb Instagram-perfect leaves and pumpkins and hot chocolate. I love cozy socks and sick boots and leather jackets and a feeling of anticipation in the air – for parties, for the weekends, for Halloween, for whatever.

It being the season and all I thought I’d present a thoughtful yet utterly non-comprehensive list of my personal favorite thematic books for your Halloween and/or autumnal enjoyment. Don’t let the fact that Halloween is this weekend prevent you from enjoying these gems year round!

Make some tea or hot chocolate in a big, stupid mug, swathe yourself in your fluffiest blanket, and enjoy one of these books at Maximum Autumnal Introvert levels today!

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digital faux-crayon art provided by: me, in MS Paint

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Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn (1986)

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Published in 1986, this book won the 1989 Reader’s Choice Award and has been on and off school reading lists ever since. It is a middle grade novel which deals with heavy topics: lying, family issues, adolescence, death, and even suicide. Young Heather moves to a new house in the country with her father, stepmother, and stepsiblings. Heather is super against her stepfamily and lies at every chance she gets about what the kids are up to to try to divide her father from her stepmother. At their new home, which used to be a church, Heather meets a ghost named Helen, who is just as lonely and miserable as she is. The two become friends, and plot against Heather’s stepfamily together. The stepsister, Molly, begins to realize that something is not quite right about Heather’s imaginary friend, and the mystery unfolds…

My Thoughts: I read this book when I was in elementary school and it scared the crap out of me. It’s definitely scary to a younger reader.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz (1981)

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This is the first in a series of books which collect urban legends, myths, folk tales, and generally spooky stuff into one compact place. Some of the tales and poems are funny, and some of them are horrifying. The first book came out in 1981, followed by More Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark in 1984 and Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones in 1991. They were mind-scarringly illustrated by Stephen Gammell and were scrutinized in the 1990s as to their appropriateness for children by the American Library Association. The violence in some of the stories, and the chilling illustrations were both considered to be too intense for most younger age groups.

My Thoughts: These books are the proto-Creepypasta of the 1990’s. These books were ALWAYS checked out at the library and if you had one in your possession, everyone wanted to be your friend that week. Actual nightmare fuel to a young mind.

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman (2002)

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This middle grade novella (short novel!) by Neil Gaiman is a sweet and unsettling tale of a lonely girl whose parents are just too busy to spend time with her after moving into their new home. Coraline, the girl, meets a talking cat, some friendly but ominous neighbors, and her button-eyed Other Mother, who wants nothing more than to spend all her time with Coraline and make her happy so that she will stay with her forever. Seems like a good deal, until the Other Mother reveals what Coraline has to do in order to stay there forever…  Coraline was made into a stop-motion film by Laika studios in 2009, and the book won the 2003 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and the 2002 Bram Stoker Award for Young Readers.

My Thoughts: A delightfully eerie, sweetly creepy young adult story. Have you noticed how intense things happen after children move to a new home? I moved a few times as a kid. Let me tell you, this trope is not wrong.

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)

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Okay, I know, another Neil Gaiman book but for real. This is a good one. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, this story follows the tale of Bod, a young boy abandoned in a cemetery while he is only a baby, and who ends up being raised by the ghosts in the cemetery. Bod (short for Nobody) love his ghost parents and neighbors, but there are greater mysteries at hand: what lies beyond the cemetery in the world of the living, and what happened to Bod’s parents?

My Thoughts: Like several of Neil Gaiman’s books, Graveyard Book appears to be aimed at middle grade readers but has deeper things lying in wait for those readers who have surpassed the middle grade level. I found it lovely and confidently spookywithout being terribly scary to me personally. There are some lovely adventures and twists along the way and I enjoyed it thoroughly. “Come and dance the macabray!”

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The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury (1972)

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A group of boys gather on Halloween to go trick-or-treating, but one of their friends is missing. Pipkin is nowhere to be found, and together the boys along with a strange man called Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud must seek him across time and space, experiencing different versions and origins of the autumnal celebration, kind of like A Christmas Carol for Halloween. Author Ray Bradbury also did the screenplay for the 1992 animated feature film adaptation of the same story, for which he won an Emmy Award. Also in 1997, Disneyland added a Halloween Tree to their annual decorations.

My Thoughts: I freaking LOVE Ray Bradbury. This book reminds me of my brother. Actually, most of these books remind me of my brother. Except for the first one. But THIS one for sure. This book is more fun and spoopy than scary.

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Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)

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Written before The Halloween Tree, this novel chronicles two thirteen year old boys and their peculiar and frightening experiences with a traveling sideshow which visits their small Midwestern town. Mr. Dark, the proprietor of the carnival, seems to have the ability to grant the townspeople’s deepest desires… but at a terrible price. There was a film adaptation of the book produced in 1983 which stars Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark  and Pam Grier as the Dust Witch. As if the creepy circus vibe wasn’t enough, the title of this book is taken from one of the Witches’ lines in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Ominous as heck, yo.

My Thoughts: I saw the movie as a kid because my dad loves Ray Bradbury (and subsequently I came to love him as well even though this sh!t is for real terrifying at some points). The book is probably even scarier. This is a legitimately scary one.

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

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 This debut novel from Erin  Morgenstern swept the bestseller lists in 2011 when it was released. An alternate history filled with powerful magic and unsettlingly lovely characters, The Night Circus is many tales woven into one larger story. “The circus arrives without warning…” and brings with it powerful magicians, mysterious contortionists, sentimental clockmakers and more. The circus itself seems to take on a life of its own, its attractions shifting and changing with every performance. Something so miraculous, so beautiful and captivating can’t last forever, though…

My Thoughts: This is one of my top ten favorite books of all time. It reads like a fine French dessert: exquisite, surprising, familiar, transformative, romantic, and so delicious that I wanted to read it again immediately after I finished. It captures the mystery and imagination of autumn perfectly for me, and I recommend it to everyone ever. It is not a spooky story but there is the delightfully unsettling quality of a dream about it, and even though you may have questions about it that go unanswered, it is a very good dream.

 

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)

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 This book is a mystery wrapped in puzzles and enigmas, some of which reach so far into your own personal subconscious that its pages leave you dizzy and breathless with confusion and fear. It has multiple narrators, multiple plots, and multiple angles from which it must be read. Words tumble and scatter across the pages, sometimes like escaping rats, sometimes like leaves gently falling from trees. The shapes and colors and fonts change, as do the narratives, and you cannot help but experience the ride Mark Z. Danielewski has created. Or has he? In one of the main narratives, a character is studying notes and material academically examining a documentary about a family who moves into a house with peculiar qualities. But as the character notes, no such documentary exists. Some readers have gone so far as to say that Danielewski did not write House of Leaves, he discovered it, arranged it, and published it. The events contained in its pages are no doubt extraordinary, but you must read it  yourself to decide what is true and what is fiction.

My Thoughts: First book to give me nightmares since Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Insistently given to me by my brother (surprise, surprise) who refused to elaborate on What It Was About, I read it with a healthy dose of skepticism. This book is mind bending both in execution and in emotional response. I had to stop reading it before bed because, duh, but once I got into the swing of it I read like the wind to find out what happens. This book requires full attention and deep contemplation – once you start reading, it will conquer your thoughts and free time. It is a dazzling read that is unlike anything else out there. And, if you aren’t into horror (neither am I) then remember that the author never bills it as horror fiction. It is not a tale of terror, according to him, but really at its core it is actually a love story.

Mind = blown.

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Bonus Round: AUDIO FICTION!

Six Stories, Told At Night by K.T. Bryski

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Up and coming Canadian author K.T. Bryski received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council which allowed her to write and produce a six-episode audio story based on Canadian folk tales. Before you roll your eyes, take a second to think. Most of these Canadian tales have French origin, which means some of this stuff is gonna be dark. Six stories are set into an original tale of Bryski’s own design, about a girl  named Sam searching for her friend who recently disappeared, and things become even stranger when Sam figures out that Joëlle may have disappeared right into the faerie realm.

You can tune in for free on iTunes or click here to stream it on Podhoster.

My Thoughts: This short form podcast fiction is outrageously good. Excellently performed by Blythe Haynes and edited/produced by Bryski, it is equal parts chilling, imaginative, heartfelt, and captivating. I only wish there were more stories!

 

 

 

 

 

Game Time: Playdead’s “Inside” Gets All Up In Your Mind

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A boy scrambles down a short but steep rocky incline in the middle of the woods, in the dead of night. He hits the ground, unhurt but a little breathless, and looks around. Although we may not have any idea where he is or where he is going, he seems to always know exactly what he’s doing. He moves forward without hesitation, without panic, and with astonishing strength, even though one false move will cause a sudden, abrupt, and brutal death.

This is how “Inside” begins.

There are questions that arise immediately. Why is the boy sneaking and hiding? Why does a terrible fate befall him if he steps into the light, or gets spotted by the strange figures in masks, or the dogs catch up to him? Where is he going, and why is everything so grim, so dark, so unexplained?

What is this world, and what happened here?

Perhaps, in some scenes, it is more important to ask – what is happening here right now?

 

Playing the Game:

Disguised as a lush, shadowy 3D world, “Inside” is actually a 2D side-scrolling puzzle adventure. You play as the Boy, a kid in a red shirt and black pants, and you have only two directions to move in: left or right. You travel ‘forward’ in search of…what? It isn’t clear. But something lies at the end of this journey, and the Boy presses on through challenging obstacles, strange rooms, terrifying surprises, and curious puzzles.

A lot of this gameplay is about timing. There are people (and things) in this game that want the Boy dead, and the second you miss a step or a cue – he’ll be dead before you can blink.

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I kind of wish we had filmed some of the gameplay reactions when the Fella was playing “Inside” the other night. There was a lot of horrified face-making, jumpscare gasping, and slow-burn squinting at the screen while saying “What….the hell….is that?”

I don’t want to say too much about the actual content of the gameplay, because the surprises and mysteries that unfold are fascinating and deeply unsettling.

If dying repeatedly in gruesome ways because of tiny errors in judgement and timing bothers you, don’t play this game. This is a tactic used by the game designers and engineers to ‘steer’ the player toward the ‘correct’ solution to a problem – and it certainly does the trick. This style of gameplay is something that stresses me out to no end – but the Fella managed to mostly keep his cool as he worked piece by piece to figure out how the Boy could make it through to the next section.

“How the hell are you supposed to beat this part?” I kept asking as panic rose in my throat. Bear in mind, I wasn’t even the one playing. I was just an observer.

The Fella was dauntless, however, and pressed onward, and I found myself completely unable to look away.

 

 

Reactions:

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This game, while skin-pricklingly eerie, is beautifully designed and elegantly presented. Although I wouldn’t quite categorize this game’s genre as horror, it definitely has a deep underlying sense of dread and anticipation throughout. Not to mention the Very Abrupt Sudden Deaths the Boy can experience if you step into the wrong light, or lose control of the submarine vehicle, or wait a little too long to move forward. It’s a game designed to keep you on the edge, to keep you racing the invisible clock towards — or away from — something big. Like I said, not my style of gameplay, but I loved watching it happen.

The Fella and I both had intense dreams about this game after he finished playing. I don’t want to go into detail because this game is absolutely worth playing if you get the chance. I also don’t want to put my own thoughts and names on things that have no thoughts and names of their own – this game, having no text and no verbal dialogue, is a delightfully refreshing mystery.

As for the finale? The ending will leave your skin prickling and your mind in a whirl.

This game is awesome. Play it if you can, and if not, watch someone else play it. This is wordless storytelling of a high caliber, and we highly recommend it.