Tag Archives: Yen Press

Review: Penguin Highway

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way: the back-of-the-book blurb for Penguin Highway confidently proclaims “Everything made sense…until the penguins showed up!”, which may just be my favorite book summary of all time. In fact, I’m thinking of adopting that phrase as my personal motto.

Now that I’ve made a mental note to reprint all of my business cards, onward. Often, the highest praise you can give to a book is claiming that you couldn’t put it down. With Penguin Highway I had the opposite experience, which might lead you to believe that I didn’t care for it that much. In reality, this was the inverse of the I-can’t-put-it-down phenomenon; I wanted to keep putting my reading on hold, because I knew that once I finished the book, I could never again return to that strange, beautiful world. I could always read it again, but it would never the same as the first time. Despite the fact that this book is a rather petite little volume, I spent a whole week reading it, dragging it out as much as possible so I could savor every moment.

This book is written from the perspective of a child– an extremely precocious one, but a child nonetheless. Sometimes reading from a child’s perspective is nice just to be reminded of one’s own childhood, but Penguin Highway takes it to another level by making me nostalgic for a childhood I never really lived. This is something all great stories featuring children have in common, I find; they make you relive being a child, but not in quite the same way as you actually lived it. There’s enough overlap with things you really thought and did at that time to feel authentic, yet there’s something uncanny about the fact that you find yourself longing for a simple time that A)was never actually simple and B)didn’t exist. Yet the longing remains.

Our scientist-hero, Aoyama, is a smart kid, but he make the typical smart-kid mistake of assuming he must be the smartest person who’s ever lived (he never admits that out loud, but you can tell he totally thinks so). That’s why he’s so stymied when he runs into a mystery he seemingly has no hope of solving: penguins, and other creatures, are randomly appearing throughout Aoyama’s small town. Aoyama knows that the penguins have something to do with the lady who works at the dentist’s office (whom, coincidentally, Aoyoma has a massive crush on), and quantum physics are somehow involved. But even for a child genius with a bunch of fresh notebooks and a dream, that’s not a lot to go on.

Don’t go into this book expecting a rich feast of detail, because it’s not that kind of story. For one thing, though she’s the most important character in the book besides Aoyama himself, the lady from the dentist’s office is only ever called “the lady.” We never learn her name, or a lot of the other things we would like to know about her. Aoyama’s friends do get names, but the whole setting is detail-light, in general. The book does provide enough information to paint a vivid picture of the town and nearby forest where the action takes place, but once the setting is established, things are explained rather tersely. I thought the restraint was deliberate and interesting, but some others might have difficulty suspending disbelief, considering that some pretty incredible events are explained with minimal detail.

This book will have you asking an awful lot of questions, and it’s hard to say whether or not we ever really get answers. Yes, we do find out where the penguins are coming from, among other things, but every piece of information leads to about ten more questions, many of which remain unanswered at the end of the book. This ambiguity mirrors the themes that Morimi is dealing with, like the mixed blessing of growing up. When Aoyama gets what he wants and grows up to become “an important adult,” will he be happy? Or will he be regretful that he tried so hard to act like a grown-up, that he let his childhood pass him by? As his sleepy little town develops, will he relish the new conveniences and opportunities? Or will he long for the peace and quiet he never truly appreciated before?

Suffice to say, if you like a clean, meticulous ending where everything is properly explained and wrapped in a neat little bow, Penguin Highway may not be for you. This book is a mess, but it’s a strange, elegant mess, if you can imagine such a thing. To me, it’s an unusually energetic and charming rumination on the nature of mortality, and that’s how I’ll likely remember it. I was going back and forth in my mind over whether the 13 & Up rating is really necessary, but all the talk about death probably is a bit intense for a younger audience. Younger children may enjoy reading about Aoyama and his research (and be tempted to start research projects of their own), but may not be equipped to handle the darkness hiding behind a cheery facade.

This edition features an analysis from Moto Hagio, one of the mothers of Shoujo manga. It’s a nice feature, but if you were expecting Ms. Hagio to do the heavy lifting for you and explain what this whole thing was supposed to mean, you’re out of luck. In fact, the main thing Hagio does is ask more questions, so it’s less of an analysis and more of a gesture of shared confusion. Let’s all have fun being confused together, and if waddling penguins are involved, so much the better.

In Summary:

A seemingly wacky premise belies a tale with resonant themes about mortality, growing up, and human progress. Some may find the concepts underdeveloped and the writing spare, while others will take the book’s concise nature as an invitation to fill in the blanks on their own.

[This review originally published at The Fandom Post].

Review: Final Fantasy VII: On The Way To A Smile

(This review was originally posted to The Fandom Post.)

I spent 100 hours leveling up to beat Sephiroth for this?

Creative Staff:
Story: Kazushige Nojima

Final Fantasy VII was the first JRPG I ever played, and only the second game I ever completed; to say that it holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement. I think there is actually entire chamber of my heart that is roped off and says “Reserved for Final Fantasy VII (and also VIII, sometimes).”

Sadly, I haven’t enjoyed any of the attempts that developer Square Enix has made to revisit that universe. I found Advent Children, the movie sequel, more irritating than anything else, and none of the prequel games that SE released seemed appealing. Maybe I just hold FFVII to too high a standard, but to me, the original game was like lightning in a bottle; a rare artistic achievement where the entire production came together to be more than the sum of its parts both as a video game and as a larger fantasy narrative.

So that leaves me in a weird place with On the Way to A Smile, basically a prequel to a movie that I didn’t like, but based in a world that I unquestionably love. This story collection bridges the gap between the end of the game and the beginning of Advent Children, a period of about four years. I tried to put aside my general dislike of all FFVII expansion material and approach this book with fresh eyes, but I’m not sure I succeeded. It seemed intent on reminding me of all the things I have never liked about attempts to continue the FFVII story beyond the final boss fight.

For one thing, this book is pretty dark; everyone is so despondent that you almost wonder if it wouldn’t have been kinder to let Sephiroth destroy the world and put everyone out of their misery. Now, it was always a dark world, and it’s not like I expected things to suddenly become happy and light-hearted after Sephiroth was defeated. I mean, it’s nice to think about Cloud and Tifa being married with 2.3 kids and a dog, Red XIII finding a girlfriend and having the best animal romance since The Lion King, or Cid starting the Gaia version of NASA, but I knew it would never be that easy for these characters. Still, this book goes too far in the other direction by making everybody utterly miserable. What makes it unforgivable to me is that this book requires the characters to forget the things they learned in the original game in order to be unhappy.

Remember how Barret’s character arc in the game had him realizing that while he’ll never be the father he thinks Marlene deserves because of his past, he’s nevertheless the father she has, and he needs to be there for her? Well, this book has him dump Marlene on Tifa early on so he can “settle his past,” which he should already know is a fool’s errand. When he ends up doing something useful, it’s more because he stumbles into it than anything else. Cloud and Tifa, who achieved a state of great intimacy by the end of the game- to the point where they even shared a consciousness at one point- treat each other like awkward strangers, and struggle to communicate. Yuffie goes on a useless quest that she knows has no chance of success, but does it anyway because she thinks her pluck will give people hope, or something. Wasn’t Yuffie the one who wanted results, not just idle talk? Cid is doing fine, so naturally, Cid isn’t in the book that much.

It’s certainly not all bad. It clarifies a lot of things about Advent Children that were always a bit hazy, and some of the individual stories are interesting. I particularly liked Red XIII’s story, because even though it was depressing as all hell, at least he seemed properly in character. But man, talk about going out of your way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Most of the characters don’t even seem conscious of the fact that they saved the entire planet, because that might give them something to feel good about. Yuffie at least acknowledges it, then is promptly told that no one wants to hear about it and she should shut up.

And yet, for all my complaints, there’s something here. We’re dealing with a society that both regrets nearly destroying nature, yet fears the raw destructive power of nature; a worldwide slump brought about by extreme corporate mismanagement; an epidemic with no cure, without enough medicine or health providers to go around; A rapid increase in technology, while at the same time, a desperate need for a new energy source that doesn’t seem forthcoming. Even though this book doesn’t do right by the cast of the game, I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel relevant. It’s almost too relevant, if such a thing is even possible; I mean, I just ostensibly read a Final Fantasy book, and here I am thinking about health care and diminishing fossil fuel supplies instead of Chocobo Racing. Is that okay?

In fairness, most fans of FFVII are probably less picky and will find more to like here. If you liked Advent Children (and a lot of fans did), you’ll probably like this. And it’s always nice to see interaction between beloved characters that didn’t get much one-on-one time in the original game, like Yuffie and Red XIII. With all this sequel material though, I’m always left wondering if SE perhaps doesn’t understand the story of the original game they made, or if maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand. It’s not a good feeling, either way.

In Summary:
A short story collection that succeeds as a supplement to the Advent Children film, but may leave series fans wondering if Final Fantasy VII was always this macabre and joyless.

Review: Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon Vol. 3

(This review originally posted on The Fandom Post.)

A sentient snack vending machine continues to do a better job romancing the ladies than you might think.

Creative Staff:
Story: Hirokuma
Art: Ituwa Kato

This volume focuses less on the mechanics of Boxxo’s existence as a vending machine, and more on developing the supporting cast. On the face of it, this is good; how many times do we need to find out that Boxxo added a new kind of corn soup to his products? Do we really need to know how many points Boxxo has accumulated at any given moment? Probably not.

However, I think this series is meant for a particular type of reader, and we’re the kind who enjoy this kind of minutia. I’m the kind of person who actually enjoys organizing (and re-organizing) long lists of items in RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why the extremely detail-heavy nature of the first two books appealed to me. Several times during this volume I found myself asking “How many points did Boxxo just spend to do that?”, something I’ve never had to wonder with this series before. One of the things that made the series initially compelling is the fact that Boxxo’s point total is effectively his life; if he runs out of points, he stops operating, essentially death for a vending machine. I think you need to really care about how many points Boxxo has left in order to be fully invested in the story, and that’s something that doesn’t work as well when the narrative starts glossing over the numbers.

Regardless of whether other readers get hung up on the lack of detail (maybe it’s just me being obsessive compulsive?), this volume does benefit from the greatest strength of this series: the fact that, as a vending machine, Boxxo’s solutions to problems are never what you would expect from a more typical hero. His use of different vending machine functions is a little less creative here than earlier, but it’s still interesting to see him utilize the benefits of practically every single kind of vending machine created by humanity. This time around, he even starts functioning as a jukebox, which seems like a bit of a stretch to me– that’s a different kind of machine, right?– but I’ll allow it.

This volume does continue the narrative of Boxxo’s party’s struggle against the mysterious dungeon bosses, but most of it is spent on downtime with the ladies in Boxxo’s life: particularly Lammis, the mighty but surprisingly timid adventurer who carries Boxxo on her back, and Shui, an archer with a bottomless pit for a stomach and a heart of gold. The focus on Shui was somewhat surprising (in fact, I barely remembered that she existed before this volume), but not unwelcome, and an eating contest is certainly tailored toward the strengths of this series. I’m hoping we’ll eventually get more background on Director Bear, the trustworthy public servant who happens to be a grizzly bear, but I guess I’ll have to wait for another volume for that. There are some fanservice scenes (which illustrator Ituwa Kato appears to have some fun with), but they’re pretty mild altogether.

My one big complaint about this volume (and this series in general) is the fact that the main character feels the need to remind the reader that he’s a vending machine waaaaaay too often. Dude, the premise of your series is unique, it’s not like any of us are going to forget anytime soon, you know?

In Summary:
A more character-driven installment that tones down on the “gamey-ness” of previous volumes, which can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you liked the focus on vending machine stats earlier on. It still reads like a breath of fresh air compared to more formulaic series. Also, don’t read this book when you’re hungry: just don’t. You’ll probably end up demolishing an all-you-can-eat buffet, but if you planned on doing that anyway? Full speed ahead.