Tag Archives: urban

Weirdos of the Universe, Unite!

Title: Weirdos of the Universe, Unite!

Author: Pamela F. Service

Mandy is determined to be weird. When she meets Owen, who is even weirder than she is, she’s happy to have a friend who shares some of those ideals. But after a homework assignment goes strange, mythological creatures are suddenly invading their lives, the world is in danger, and their group of misfits seems to be chosen by the Fates to stop it . . .

This was an amusing mashup of various characters from several mythologies banding together to stop an alien menace, with plenty of Star Trek and Star Wars references sprinkled in. Unfortunately, the short length felt like a detriment, because no one ends up with a lot of depth. This is more about the absurdity of Coyote, Baba Yaga, Sigfried, Lung Nu, and the Wild Huntsman banding together (with a tribble!) to fight aliens whose main fault is that they have no imagination.

I suppose the main reason it didn’t grab me was that with the exception of Lung Nu most of these characters were too familiar to feel weird, and the short length works against substantially adding to or deviating from some of the expectations. Knowing Coyote, the “dog” routine was obvious from the moment it showed up. Same with the rest. To people who aren’t as familiar with mythology, the story probably flows better.

Overall this was another fast read, and amusing enough. It’s a standalone story and ties up well by the end. I rate this book Neutral.

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Being of Two Minds

Title: Being of Two Minds

Author: Pamela F. Service

Connie and Rudy are two teenagers on opposite ends of the globe, but they’ve been connected since birth. Each one is prone to strange spells which leaves their mind inside the other’s. It’s a condition both of their families would like to cure, but Connie and Rudy themselves don’t want it to end. But Rudy is a prince of a tiny country, and when politics intervene, their connection might be the only thing that can save him.

One thing I really appreciate about older children’s books like this is that the story doesn’t waste any time. Connie’s predicament is clear from page one, and the relationship between her and Rudy is both a blessing and a curse to the both of them. They desperately want to share more than they are—taste and smell don’t translate, nor can they communicate while in each other’s consciousness—but at the same time, randomly passing out causes those around them to consider them seriously unhealthy.

The only real complaint I have is that I’d like to see more of these two and where they go in the future. This being a stand alone book, any future adventures will have to stay as hints.

Overall, though, it’s a very quick (less than 150 pages) read that tells a solid story. I rate this book Recommended.

Discern (Mosaic Chronicles #1)

Title: Discern

Author: Andrea Pearson

Series: Mosaic Chronicles #1

Nicole is settling in her freshman year of college at Katon University. Despite an exemplary high school life, she’s nervous: this is a university for Aretes, those with magic, and although she’s supposedly capable, she hasn’t yet been able to call any magic. But college life throws even more surprises than she expected. Her dorm room is haunted by spiders. A magical book is determined to follow her around. And an expedition is coming up which offers both opportunity and danger . . .

This wasn’t terrible, but it has a lot of really bizarre logic near the end to make the plot work that backfired for me.

The characters were generally good. Nicole comes from a very wealthy background, but her attempts to remain independent of her controlling parents means she’s trying to get through things without them. I actually wish this had gotten a little more focus, particularly when she has to deal with her mom directly. I didn’t see the emotional upheaval I expected (having seen this play out in real life) from having to confront someone who’s trying her hardest to undercut Nicole’s independence. Because despite how much she might hate her family, that’s still a lot of baggage to overcome, and could have provided a bit more depth to the plot.

On the other hand, her struggles with finding out how to release her own power were well-drawn. Only fourth children have magic in this universe (I guess seven was stretching credibility), and although the world appears to be exactly like ours the magic is well known and generally accepted. I do wish the small hints about its origin had gotten a bit more explanation. Magic on the whole appears to be a hard career, as users are limited both by ability and by how much they train and study. Nichole has the studying side down, because that’s the only variable she feels she can control.

I don’t care for romances in general, so I skimmed the parts where Nicole is noticing the hot prodigy who refuses to talk to her. That plays out pretty much how you might expect, from the initial frustration to the growing attraction to admitting that they actually are interested. I would have preferred more of getting to know him instead of mostly being shown he’s hot and super powerful, but at least there were a few scenes that dug in, and since this is a series I expect he’ll have time to develop. I did find it odd when he revealed the big secret that it was so brutal, and he was so calm talking about it. It doesn’t really seem like he’s over it, and either way he should’ve had a bigger reaction to some of what they found at the excavation because of it.

Now for the bizarre logic. Everything up through the start of the expedition made at least plausible sense. Then we get to the “remote” expedition that’s still close enough to a town for one member to spend the night in a hotel and the days on site. So the problem is, when people start finding bodies brutally murdered, WHY IS EVERYONE DETERMINED TO STAY IN TENTS ON SITE? Tents. TENTS. And then things escalate and they’re STILL staying in tents and wringing their hands about the tragedy.

This is the point, by the way, that I’ve long since stopped being nervous about anyone and am instead laughing as each new gruesome discovery is unearthed. The police are notified about the dead body, but it isn’t being treated as a crime scene at all (no one is telling the group to evacuate until way too late). There’s a scene at the end where Nicole is expecting the authorities to arrive with backup, but she and very few others decide it’s a better idea to go after the murderers by themselves, down tunnels that the enemy knows far better than they do . . .

I actually might keep reading this series purely for the comedy value. Which is sad because the story was going for a horror vibe and ended up feeling like a campy horror B movie instead. The small details worked a lot better when it was just ordinary college life stuff, and not an archeology expedition that by the way has terrible, terrible practices (just pick up any ancient magical artifacts and bring them to us for evaluation! No need to worry about possibly live curses or keeping the site documented for actual archeologists!).

Overall this was a decent effort, but would have been better served if the expedition had either never taken place or had been completely overhauled. I rate this book Neutral.

Psyren (Manga)

Title: Psyren
Volumes: 1-16 (chapters 1-146, complete)

Ageha is a kid who likes to fight. He says he’ll solve problems for 10,000 yen, but that’s just an excuse to get into trouble. But when a former friend asks him for help, then disappears, he’s determined to figure out all the things she didn’t say and solve a mystery far bigger than he ever imagined . . .

This is primarily a mystery-driven story, so I’m going to try to avoid talking about plot or even characters as much as possible, since spoiling too much would ruin the fun. What I will say is that the story rockets through its twists and turns. The sci-fi angle starts by the end of the first chapter, and Ageha soon understands why Amamiya always looked so strung out. Now he’s stuck in the game as deeply as she is, and one false move will get them killed.

I really liked the characters, especially the four kids. Kyle was a particular favorite—he was rambunctious without being annoying, he had a neat darker-skinned character design, and his enthusiasm never lets up even when the situation looks extremely grim. And Ageha’s relationship with those kids, and his desire to protect them, changes their lives quite a bit.

Although Psyren doesn’t have the benefit of an anime, it does have the benefit of being complete. All volumes have been released by Viz, making it easy to acquire. (I can hope it gets the Ushio and Tora treatment of getting an anime adaptation well after the fact, but I won’t hold my breath.)

Overall this is another recommendation I’m glad I followed. The series is well worth checking out. It does end a bit fast, but the major story completes in a satisfactory way, and there were only a few bits that felt like they should have been fleshed out. I rate this series Highly Recommended.

The Monster’s Daughter (Ministry of SUITs #2)

Title: The Monster’s Daughter

Author: Paul Gamble

Series: Ministry of SUITs #2

Jack and Trudy return, in an adventure just as insane as the original. This time, Jack is struggling to figure out the meaning behind a sinister new fracking operation, a weird aquarium, a bath and body shop with curiously powerful products, and more. He also stumbles across the reasons why there’s always a spider in the bathtub and learns a new superpower. But he’ll need every bit of twisted thinking to escape this nefarious plot . . .

I had a lot of fun with this volume too, although it didn’t grab me quite as much as the original (possibly because I was expecting the daughter of the title to be Trudy, as the book was heavily focusing on her relationship with her mother, and then it turned out to be something else).

It’s fun to see even the “normal” people in Jack’s life, like a classmate convinced he’s a superhero because he managed to harness static electricity, are going off the rails. It would be amusing if Jack really is responsible for upping the weird quotient in his general vicinity.

Also, like the last book, this features plenty of perfectly logical explanations for various oddities in everyday life, and plenty of footnotes to expound on them. (“This is 100 percent true. Or at least it will be in about ten minutes after I’ve finished editing the right section in Wikipedia.”)

I was disappointed that the mystery of Trudy’s mom doesn’t really resolve. They get so close, too. Other than that, though, the story wraps up nicely. You could probably start here but I’d recommend reading the first book to catch up on the background. I rate this book Recommended.

Ushio and Tora (Anime)

Title: Ushio and Tora
Episodes: 1-39 (complete, seasons 1 and 2)

Ushio is a normal student who discounts his priest father’s stories about the legendary Beast Spear (and monster it’s trapping) that their temple supposedly protects. At least, until he stumbles across the monster while cleaning out a storeroom. Ushio ends up releasing it to help him fight the myriad of tiny demons now assaulting himself and his friends. He calls the tiger-like demon Tora, and it’s a rocky relationship from the start—Tora’s cautious of the Beast Spear but determined to eat Ushio. And if he can’t eat Ushio, he’ll haunt him. Ushio, for his part, now has the Beast Spear, which grants him incredible power but is chipping away his humanity.

I remembered reading an enthusiastic recommendation for this when I was looking for something to binge-watch over New Year’s Eve, so I gave it a shot, and was instantly hooked. 39 episodes and less than a week later, it’s now one of my top anime series as well. I ordered the anime the first night, and I still have the manga to read, which promises quite a lot that couldn’t make it into the anime. Unfortunately the manga doesn’t have an official English release or I’d be collecting that too.

Ushio and Tora is a modern remake of a rather old series that ran from 1990-1996. This gives it a unique aesthetic (and sometimes, like with certain demons who look like a bunch of heavy metal band rejects, it can be unintentionally hysterical). The animation is generally good, though towards the end it suffers a bit more from still frames because the final battle is pretty epic in scope. I’m not overly fond of the first opening song, but the music during the show worked well.

What makes the show so fascinating to me is the characters. Ushio is almost the definition of average. He’s got very average looks (no special hair color or wild design that calls him out as the protagonist, at least before the Beast Spear). He might have some talent for sports (and getting into fights), but his passion is art, despite a rather low amount of artistic talent. But he’s got enormous emotional range, and most unusually for a guy, he’s not ashamed to cry. Which he does, often. He empathizes with people (and youkai), stands up for what’s right, defends the weak, and often puts himself in considerable danger if someone else is in need. And once the Beast Spear comes into his hand, he gains slitted eyes, claws, huge hair, and a massive power boost. (Also, the Beast Spear seems to have something against shirts. Ushio may start wearing layers but as soon as he picks up the spear the shirt is usually toast.)

Tora is his polar opposite. Strong, vicious, bestial, prideful, and most of all selfish, Tora despises the heroic impulses that drive Ushio. He’s quick to pick a fight with anyone that offends him. But he’s also very childlike in personality—the modern world fascinates him (his reaction to television, cars, and bus rides left me in stitches). And that childishness in the end makes him really easy for those who know what he’s like to manipulate him (Mayuko does it with kindness, and Ushio has a variety of ways to bait Tora into helping him out). Tora was my favorite part of the show, but he wouldn’t work nearly so well without Ushio drawing such a sharp contrast.

On the love interest side, Asako is the childhood friend who won’t admit to anyone she likes Ushio (he returns the sentiment). Mayuko, though, also has a crush on Ushio—and in a radical departure from modern storytelling trends, admits that because she loves both Ushio and her friend Asako, she’s willing to move on so they can be happy together. AND SHE DOES. And this does NOT take vast numbers of episodes of her internal agony, but comes up quickly and is stated as a matter of fact. Mayuko won my respect with that. I also like how both of them have their own ways to be strong, whether that’s Asako’s refusal to give into fear despite the hopelessness of her situation or Mayuko’s steady faith.

It’s also really neat to see how Ushio’s kindness changes the people around him, and how that has unexpected dividends. And how as long as he has people who support him, he can’t fail—but when he feels utterly alone, no amount of his own strength is enough.

Another area that struck me is how integrated everything is. Ushio and Tora end up getting filmed fighting a giant monster IN THE SECOND EPISODE. And he KEEPS making the news, along with the other youkai-caused disastrous events. He’s only a “secret” hero because his looks change so drastically using the spear that even his own friends have a hard time recognizing him. He’s not jumping into a hidden war, but a very public one. The real enemy threatens humans and youkai alike—and BOTH GROUPS are needed to stop it. Every time I thought the show was going to rag hard on something (like the scientist episodes) it turns around and points out that this, too, can have a purpose. Most of the things that started out looking extremely cliche turned out to have something more running through it.

And the show is gut-bustingly funny. Tora wins pretty much every scene he’s involved in. Whether it’s his wide-eyed enthusiasm about watching himself on the news or his rage at someone else wanting to eat the human he picked out for his own lunch, he’s going to throw himself into things wholeheartedly. His vicious streak also makes him great at trolling enemies.

Equally, the story has tons of pathos. Ushio gets his heart broken again and again by the various things he’s going through. And he’s dealing with a lot of people in emotional crises themselves. It’s not just a story that knows how to deliver great action and funny lines, but one that’s honest enough about pain and joy and all the rest to go deeper.

All in all, this is one of the rare few shows I’d highly recommend to pretty much anyone. It packs so much in that even 39 episodes feels far too short. If you’ve missed out on this one so far, definitely give it a try. It’s currently streaming at Crunchyroll.

The Ministry of S.U.I.T.S (Ministry of S.U.I.T.S #1)

Title: The Ministry of S.U.I.T.S

Author: Paul Gamble

Series: Ministry of S.U.I.T.S #1

Jack has too much curiosity and a tendency to think about the world around him. Unsurprisingly, that leads to him getting mixed up with an agency devoted to taking care of the unusual things that normal people think don’t exist (or don’t exist anymore, like dinosaurs and pirates). When the sinister Mr. Teach sponsors his school, he knows there’s got to be more going on. But it’s going to take all his wits, the power to slow down time, and the help of the scariest girl in school to get to the bottom of this . . .

This reminds me so much of Terry Pratchett’s work. From the abundant footnotes to the cheerfully logical absurdities, it was always throwing out something that made me laugh. Like the ongoing thread about the aspirations of scarecrows to become store mannequins. Or the various digressions on pirates, or the origin of ninjas, or why dolphins are the most educated aquatic mammals.

Overall this was a light but funny read, and I’m eager to see where the series goes from here. I rate this book Recommended.