BOOK REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

written by David Steffen

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a 2011 contemporary fantasy novel, the first in a series of three books by Ransom Riggs depicting children with unusual abilities.

The protagonist of the book is Jacob Portman, who as a child was enamored by his grandfather Abe’s stories of fleeing from Nazi persecution of Jews in World War II–to hear his grandfather tell it there were literal monsters and his grandfather found safety in a secret safehouse with peculiar children watched over by a “wise old bird”. When he was a child, Jacob took these stories literally, but as he grew older he doubted their literal reality, figuring that his grandfather was communicating with metaphor about the horrors of war. As his grandfather dies, Jacob sees a vivid vision of what appears to be a monster lurking nearby, but no one believes he saw what he saw, and he is sent to therapy to cope with the trauma of his grandfather’s death.

His therapist, Dr. Golan, suggests that Jacob should travel to Cairnholm, Wales, the place where his grandfather had lived at the supposed home for peculiar children. There he can either establish the reality of the home, or not, and settle what everyone else believe to be fantasies. He travels there with his family on a work trip.

This book has a very good hook, although it’s clear from the title and the picture of the book that it’s clear that “peculiar children”, whatever that means, are central to the book, and one can probably assume that the home for peculiar children exists or they wouldn’t name the book after it, there is still plenty of mystery in the book to keep turning the pages. As the mystery is revealed there is plenty else to keep the story going in terms of interesting characters and looming villains. It’s hard to discuss it in much more detail because the reveal of the mysteries is the biggest part that is fun in the book.

But another thing that makes this book stand out from other fantasy books is the found pictures that form the basis for many of the ideas. Throughout the book are actual found photographs of “peculiar” children, children who appear to be floating, or appear to be an invisible child visible only as hovering clothing, or things like that. Riggs has worked with collectors of these odd photographs to make a huge collection of images of these, and many of the characters are based on these photographs, so it’s really interesting how those odd photographs, presumably of early photographic special effects, were the basis of the story–it lends the story some feel of truth as well as adding a very cool weird touch to it all.

Highly recommended!

VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Untitled Goose Game

written by David Steffen

Untitled Goose Game is a 2019 puzzle stealth game developed by House House in which you are a goose generally making a nuisance of yourself in a small village.

“It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a terrible goose” is the line that starts the game. You are a goose with a purpose, and that purpose is a seemingly arbitrary handwritten list of objectives written on lined notebook paper wherein the only unifying seems to be “to be a nuisance”. As the villagers are trying to go about their daily business tending gardens, running pubs, and otherwise going on about their lives, you are the goose among them causing them endless inconveniences, stealing their things and move those things to other places, honking and scaring them at inconvenient times, and otherwise just generally making their days unpleasant.

Different villagers respond differently to seeing you–though generally most of them will chase you to retrieve their things if they see you stealing them, so much of the game is based on looking inconspicuous until their back is turned and then stealing and running off before they notice. There is also a puzzle element to the game, as many of the objectives give you a general idea what needs to be done but not HOW to do it. For instance, one of the objectives in the first area is to make a man wear a different hat… but how do you do that? Both the hat on his head and the other hat hanging on a hook are out of your reach.

This is a diverting and silly game, and it’s fun to have a game where your main objective is to be rather annoying, but the stakes are not earth-shaking by any stretch of the word.

Visuals
Cute cartoony style, even if it is a little creepy that none of the humans have eyes.

Audio
Very cute, the instrumental music cranks up in intensity when someone starts chasing you, and the HONK noise is amusing enough that I usually just walked around honking whenever I wasn’t trying to be stealthy.

Challenge
Some of the challenges are pretty straightforward, others take some experimentation, but generally it’s pretty low-stakes since the worst thing that generally happens is that a human takes back a thing you stole and puts it back where it was originally. Where the biggest challenge comes in the game is later advanced objectives when you have a time-limit for completing a series of tasks. You have to work quite hard (and also be pretty lucky) to streamline your nuisance-making to fit it in tight time-limits. (It’s also probably the silliest idea in a silly game, who is imposing these time limits on the goose?)

Story
Extremely light on story, which is fine, it’s not a story game. Other than the generally increasing dislike of the villagers toward the goose, there is not much progression. (But that’s okay, it’s not a game you play for story!)

Session Time
Except for the time-based goals later in the game, you can start and stop pretty much whenever, and it will save your progress (even the time-based ones, the time limits are only a few minutes, so it’s not a big time unit anyway).

Playability
Easy, there are only a few buttons–movement with the joystick, a general “manipulate” button, and a dedicated honk button (you can also flap your wings but that is almost never necessary, you can do it just for fun).

Replayability
Certainly some replay value, after you beat the basic objectives you get some extra timed objectives, and even after that you could go back and find new ways to annoy the villagers (such as stealing all of their belongings and hording them in your den).

Originality
Obviously stealth games are nothing new, but this one made quite a stir because the choice of the goose as protagonist and the goals as being just generally ways to be annoying to random villagers made this game a thing of its own.

Playtime
It took me a few hours to play through everything including the advanced objectives.

Overall

A silly and fun stealth puzzle game well worth the time and cost. Even after all of the memes it inspired, I still found it original and fun and did not wear out its welcome. I still go back and play it just for fun even though I have completed all of the objectives.

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: Fetch-22

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls is a 2019 graphic novel for kids, the eighth in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). The series so far has been reviewed here.

The villain Petey the cat is trying to turn over a new life and be a force for good instead of a force for evil, mostly motivated by a desire to live up to the confidence of his son, an immature clone of himself, known as Lil’ Petey. Lil’ Petey is a good-hearted scamp who is now in shared custody between Petey and Petey’s nemesis Dog-Man who is half-dog half-cop (Lil’ Petey and Dog Man are also members of a superhero group the Supa Buddies with the third member being the robot 80HD). But Lil’ Petey’s faith in humanity has been shaken.

The Fair Fairy is a long-running children’s TV show where a fairy explains to children how to be fair. But, it turns out that she’s not so good at keeping her temper when dealing with kids when she flips out (again!) on live TV and stomps off to become the newest villain. This combined with a minor mishap with some “supa brain dots” that turn a pond full of tadpoles into flying telekinetic monsters that team up with the Fair Fairy to wreak havoc on the city, and Dog-Man and his friends again have their work cut out for them!

Still very enjoyable series for grade-school age kids.

BOOK REVIEW: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

written by David Steffen

In case you haven’t heard of the names, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace (the most common way she was referred to, though it was never quite her name she did answer to it) were real historical figures that worked together on the early theory of computing before the first calculating machines were made in the first half of the 19th centure. Charles Babbage built a functional prototype of the “difference engine” which was a mechanical computing engine using gears and steam that could calculate sums. He had plans for much a more complex machine built on the same concepts he called the “analytical engine” for which he had very detailed designs. Babbage was a celebrity of his time, though notorious for almost never quite finishing his projects, and he never actually finished building an analytical engine. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and her mother strived to insulate her from her father’s “poetical” ways (which seems to be a commentary on mental health rather than the poems themselves), and very accomplished in the field of mathematics, especially for a woman living in her time when women were actively discouraged from mathematical pursuits. The thing she is most well known for is creating the first programming language, intended to be used with the analytical engine. Since the analytical engine was never built, she never saw her language go into use, and it was a very long time before a calculating machine that was built and the language to go with it.

Lovelace died at the age of 36, and Babbage never finished building the engine that he considered to be his life’s main work, but they are such fascinating figures with ideas well beyond their time that it’s fun to imagine what might’ve been if things had gone differently.

This is a book that’s maybe half non-fiction and half fiction. The first section of the book is all non-fiction, albeit told in comic style, telling of the backgrounds and real-life pursuits of Lovelace and Babbage, though told in a narrative style much of it is based directly in quotes from correspondences and publications of various and in the nature of their personalities revealed therin.

The second section of the book is a fictional steampunkish tale making up fun stories about what might have happened if Lovelace had lived longer and if Babbage had created his machine.

It’s a fun romp, both educational and just plain fun. I learned a lot about both Lovelace and Babbage who are both very interesting people that I would love to read more about, and the second fictional part of the book was an exciting and fun comic in its own right, and even more so for being based on the real people.

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 5: Clockworks, by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 5: Clockworks is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between July 2011-May 2012. Previous volumes were reviewed here, here, here, and here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. But trouble seems to follow them wherever they go, much of it tied to their family estate Key House which has magic hidden everywhere in it, much of it in the forms of magical keys, each with their own extraordinary abilities: the head key that allows you and others to manipulate your own memories and thoughts, the crown of shadows that lets you command the very shadows to do your bidding, the giant key that makes you into a towering colossusus. And new keys are turning up all the time. And with a mysterious enemy, a mysterious woman from the well, attacking them to get the keys at every turn, it’s an arms race to try to stay safe and stay alive. But as they have discovered, their enemy has been closer to them than they have suspected, disguised as a friend.

This story detours from the main timeline to tell us more about the lore that established Key House as it is today. Kinsey and Tyler find the clock key which allows them to step back in time and learn more about what happened there before. They learn about their family that has lived in the estate since the American Revolution, and the making of the keys and the Omega Door that their enemy so badly wants to open. We also find out a lot more about Rendell Locke (their dad) and his history there when he lived there in high school with his friends, including Lucas “Dodge” Caravaggio who has since risen from the dead.

This happened to be the first book that I read in the series as I was doing Hugo reading and man was this a poor place to join the series, since it’s all based in the history instead of the main characters. But I certainly wanted more, which is why I’m back now.

Solid series, and this penultimate entry is no exception, diving into a lot of the worldbuilding in a very interesting way as we find out more about the history as the characters do in this penultimate entry.

MOVIE REVIEW: Black Panther

written by David Steffen

Black Panther is a 2018 science fiction superhero film by Marvel Studios, based on Marvel’s Black Panther character established in 1966. This is the first film starring the Marvel hero, who has gone on to be featured in other Marvel films.

The story is rooted in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which keeps much of its culture and economy a secret from the outside world. Unbeknownst to most outsiders, they are the most technologically advanced country in the world, rooted in an early discovery of vibranium (a fictional substance in the Marvel universe that, among other things, is what Captain America’s shield is made from). For many generations, most of the subcultures of Wakanda have been united under the leadership of a king who is also the Black Panther, made special by the ingestion of a heart-shaped herb that grows only there and gives that person superhuman abilities.

The old king has died, and his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the heir, is called back to Wakanda to become the king and Black Panther. But what would normally be a relatively smooth succession marked more by rituals of contention than any real contention is thrown into turmoil by the appearance of a man who calls himself Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an American special operative that claims to have a claim to the throne among other attempts at the throne including attacks from black-market arms dealer Klaue (Andy Serkis).

This is one of my favorite Marvel films. There is a lot of special effects eye candy with the really interesting Wakandan technology that is inspired by African styles but with its own technological flare, intended to be its own thing apart from Western technology. The cast is wonderful, and is a rarity in Hollywood films for being majority of the African diaspora, which was refreshing. The story is compelling and action-packed. Highly recommended!

GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Locke and Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez

written by David Steffen

Locke and Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom is a collected group of comics written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez and published by IDW publishing. The individual issues that make up the collection were published between August 2010-April 2011. Volume 1 was previously reviewed here, and Volume 2 reviewed here, Volume 3 here.

As told in the previous books, the Locke family: three kids (Tyler, Bode, and Kinsey) and their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts after the murder of their father by a couple of teenagers. But trouble seems to follow them wherever they go, much of it tied to their family estate Key House which has magic hidden everywhere in it, much of it in the forms of magical keys, each with their own extraordinary abilities: the ghost key that can project your spirit from your body for a time, the head key that allows you and others to manipulate your own memories and thoughts, the crown of shadows that lets you command the very shadows to do your bidding. And new keys are turning up all the time. And with a mysterious enemy, a mysterious woman from the well, attacking them to get the keys at every turn, it’s an arms race to try to stay safe and stay alive.

As this story starts off, seven-year-old Bode finds a new key which can turn anyone into an animal form and soon he is off adventuring with it. This is one of my favorite sequences of the entire series, with much of the illustration in homage to Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, which is very appropriate since the animal transformation is very much in the spirit of Calvin & Hobbes. Of course, it wouldn’t be Locke and Key without its own dire and dark and compelling danger of it.

This series continues to be one of my favorites of all time and I’m looking forward to seeing the tv show!

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #12: Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2004 film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters, a surreal fantasy/science fiction story about taking a big step to help your mother understand you, among other things.

The film starts out speculative in the first few seconds, even before the first person has shown on the screen. We see a constellation in the sky that looks a bit like Orion, though it’s more likely the Scissor Sisters logo. A shooting star fires into the middle of where its belt would be which causes other stars to shoot off in all directions, and one drifts slowly down onto grass. From this, I conclude that although this story involves space, it is a fantastical one rather than one attempting to operate by known laws of physics, since all of this makes no sense in terms of our understanding of celestial bodies.

The star, a literal two-dimensional five-pointed star, drifts to the ground on a planet (earth?) among the grass, and with supernatural speed forms a plant with a bud that blooms into a flower while at the same time disgorging a floating piano with a woman in a blue dress lying on top of it and a man in front of it playing a guitar. Given that these people were born from an exploding flower, it seems unlikely that they are the human people that they appear to be; this impression is only reinforced by the fact that this floating spore spins wildly around, including upside down, without dislodging its passengers in its flight. So, given the evidence, this seems to most likely be an alien spore of a pod person type alien race. It’s not clear how the spore knew that it should create human-looking simulacra, since it has not established contact with anything, though maybe it found traces of DNA in the ground or perhaps this kind of spore is pre-configured for what kinds of people are known to be on this planet.

A man appears in the foreground, facing away from the spore, not outwardly acknowledging their existence, and possibly not consciously aware of them, but when he begins singing to their tune it becomes clear that they are exerting their influence on him, whether or not he is consciously aware of them.

He sings lyrics about trying to grow up “like a good boy oughta” and how he is the favorite of his mother, and the girls all like him because he’s handsome, likes to talk, and is fun. As he’s singing this, the landscape behind him transforms, hills and tractor and cows and bar popping up seemingly two-dimensional like they are a pop-up book. And another man appears, who I think may be an analog for the singer himself, as a woman appears and kisses him on the cheek leaving a red lipstick print. She appears to be the same woman depicted on the floating spore-piano, which raises the question of whether she is the pod-person or whether she is the human being that was copied by the pod-person. A rocket-propelled… jukebox, I think?… chases some kind of winged creature in the background.

“Now the girl’s gone missing and your house has got an empty bed.” Has the girl gone missing because she has been replaced by a pod person? Did he move out of his house? “Folks’ll wonder ’bout the wedding, they won’t listen to a word you said?” My best guess is that he discovered that she was a pod person and managed to defend himself or flee but no one will listen to his dire warnings about the invasion and instead are hyper-focused on trying to resolve what they imagine to be a minor relationship dispute.

These last couple of lines are sang by the ensemble we’ve seen so far singing as a band on the comparatively gargantuan open palms of a woman (the singer’s mother?) who looks suspiciously like the pod woman on the piano who looks down at them with a shake of her head and then throws them up with apparently superhuman strength as all of the band members literally fly up into orbit. From this I gather that she must be the woman that the pod woman has based her form on , and part of her head shake is disapproval at this fraud copying her form as she tries to return the pod woman who copied her and the other copies back to space from whence they came to trouble her no more.

The band continues to play and to dance in space, though the main singer has changed his denim overalls for feathery white overalls. There begins the refrain of the song “Gonna take your mama out all night, yeah we’ll show you what it’s all about. We’ll get her jacked up on some cheap champagne and let the good times all roll out.” Given how the mother reacted before, this taking out of the mother on the town is an attempt on the part of the pod people to keep her from rejecting them and launching them back into space and being forced to deal with traumatic re-entry again and again. Is there a reason they can’t just land somewhere far away from the mother where their subterfuge would go better undetected since the humans they are mimicking would not be nearby to notice, or is their continued existence dependent on being nearby the people they are emulating. Or is she some kind of authority here on alien invasions and likely to be called in to intervene wherever people are acting strangely?

He eventually falls back down to earth, only to fly back up and down again, apparently not in control of this movement. “It’s a struggle living like a good boy oughtta”, no doubt when you have visited outer space with pod people and you may or may not be a pod person yourself, it is hard to live in the cultural norms of your own rural area. “When your mama heard how you’ve been talking, I try to tell you that all she wanna do is cry.” This could mean talking by saying things that are against the cultural norms in this rural area, or it could be talking in alien language to the other pod people coordinating.

The song finishes with our protagonist jamming with the pod people in space again, singing the refrain about taking your mama out all night again, before eventually turning into the Scissors Sisters constellation again–presumably this is part of the pod people reproductive cycle since that’s where the original spore came from.

This is a very interesting science fictional tale about pod people trying to fit into society to survive and earn the right to be themselves among others like them.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be Iron by Woodkid.

BOOK REVIEW: Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls

written by David Steffen

Dog Man: For Whom the Ball Rolls is a 2019 graphic novel for kids, the seventh in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). The series so far has been reviewed here.

Our hero Dog Man (half dog, half policeman) is a hero and a very good boy, but sometimes he has a reputation for being… easily distracted. It’s hard to depend on a hero who chases anything that resembles a ball even when he’s in the middle of a chase. He asks his friends, Lil’ Petey and 80HD, for help getting over this obsession and they are so effective at it that his loving obsession turns into a phobia, which the city’s villains notice as a weakness they can exploit.

Meanwhile, the once-villain who has started to turn a new leaf decides to start a new life with his immature clone Lil’ Petey, whom he had originally created to help with his evil schemes but found that the young clone was so good-natured and loving and considered him a father. At first Petey had resisted the insistence of Lil’ Petey that he could be good, but he started to see that point of view. But now as he is ready to settle into a simpler life, Petey’s own father, a crook who instilled Petey’s criminal tendencies in him at a young age, has come to town.

More fun from the Dog Man and gang, if you liked the earlier books odds are you’ll like this one too!