Spooky Video Games I Love for Halloween

I’m not much of a gamer, but I do have certain games that I love and come back to time and time again! Today I wanted to share some of my favorite games to play in October. I’ve picked out just four, but it’s a pretty diverse set, so it should be easy to find one you might like!

1. Hollow Knight

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For a game with a dark, moody aesthetic that isn’t actually scary, I love Hollow Knight. You’re a bug-like creature exploring the ruins of what was once a thriving bug civilization. The enemies you fight are mindless zombies, once citizens overtaken by disaster. It’s a game that takes a lot of patience and skill, but the world is huge and gorgeous, so it feels worth it when you finally defeat a boss or maneuver through a tricky piece of platforming.

2. Undertale

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If you’ve played a video game in the past three years, it would be hard to have missed the massive hype around Undertale. This is another Halloweenish game that isn’t too scary… unless you make it that way. You are a human child who has fallen into an underground world of monsters and must find your way back to the surface. It’s easy to play with a cheerful retro aesthetic, so it’s great for beginners, but be careful–your choices matter. If you haven’t played it yet, do it! It’s incredibly refreshing and creative.

3. Detention

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This is one of the only real horror games I’ve played, and it’s terrifying. You’re a student stuck alone inside a school in 1960s Taiwan that’s haunted by spirits and the undead. There are political, cultural, and religious elements that give the story a unique flair, but it can be hard to appreciate that when you’re scared out of your wits. I can only take this game in small doses.

4. Doki Doki Literature Club!

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It may look cute, but Doki Doki Literature Club! is a psychological horror game. Personally, I didn’t find it that scary, but that’s because it doesn’t tick the boxes of things that freak me out–others have said it’s one of the scariest games they’ve ever played. I think it’s a very clever deconstruction of the visual novel genre (even if Hatoful Boyfriend did it better). Do pay attention to the content warnings, though.

Have you played any of these? What are your favorite games to play in October? (Seriously… I’m on the lookout for more horror games.) Let me know in the comments!

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Scare-Free Movies for Halloween

I’m in the same camp as a lot of people, I think, in that I love Halloween, but I’m not as big a fan of being scared. Sometimes I want all the treats without the tricks. In the interest of discovering the best and worst Halloween movies, I’ve watched a whole bunch of non-scary movies and rated them by both Halloween spirit and quality. In no particular order, here they are!

1. Kiki’s Delivery Service

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Kiki is one of Studio Ghibli’s most iconic characters, and this sweet coming-of-age story is perfect for the whole family. She’s a young witch looking to make it on her own, but her only magical skill is flying on a broom, and poorly, at that. Nonetheless, with support from the people around her, she’s able to start a burgeoning delivery service.

Halloween Spirit: 2/5 black cats.

Star Quality: 4/5 big red bows!

2. Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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Mary is a young girl who manifests magic powers and is enrolled in a magic school. It all seems perfect, but there’s something off about the whole situation… This movie was made by former Studio Ghibli employees who started their own company, Studio Ponoc. It clearly owes a lot to Kiki’s Delivery Service as well as Harry Potter, and it comes together as a cute, but not entirely original film.

Halloween Spirit: 2/5 redheaded witches.

Star Quality: 3/5 magic flowers.

3. Room on the Broom

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Continuing with the witchy theme, here’s a short film based on a picture book about a friendly witch and her found family. It’s charming in its way, but I would only recommend it to folks with very young children. For older viewers, there’s not a lot to chew on.

Halloween Spirit: 4/5 broomsticks.

Star Quality: 3/5 unexpected guests.

4. The Gruffalo

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A mouse in the forest scares off predators with tall tales of a horrible monster, only to find out that the Gruffalo is real. From the same creators as Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo is another picture book-turned-short film, but it’s more suited to its adaptation than the former. Even though this story is geared toward younger children, it’s narrated so well and keeps such great tension through its pacing that older viewers will enjoy it, too.

Halloween Spirit: 2/5 Gruffalos.

Star Quality: 4/5 scrambled snakes!

5. Ghostbusters

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It’s campy, corny Halloween fun. It’s got a killer theme song and inspires oodles of nostalgia. If you’re reading this, you probably already have your own opinion of it. Here’s mine: I can see why people like it, but it’s overrated and sexist. Venkman is one of the most boring and unlikable protagonists I’ve ever seen. I’ll stick to bumping the song, thanks!

Halloween Spirit: 5/5 ghosts.

Star Quality: 2/5 tired stereotypes.

6. Dear Dracula

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This is a wholesome family film about a young bullied boy who makes friends with Dracula, who helps him to build up his self-confidence. Aside from a couple of gratingly stereotypical side characters, it’s a warm and funny movie for kids and adults to enjoy.

Halloween Spirit: 5/5 vampire bats.

Star Quality: 3/5 Dracula action figures.

7. Mickey’s House of Villains

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A collection of Halloween shorts tied together by a loose overarching plot, the best that can be said about this movie is that it contains characters your kids will recognize. The shorts themselves are mostly pretty boring, and I was much more intrigued by Jafar’s promised evil plan to upend the night, but that was disappointing as well.

Halloween Spirit: 4/5 Disney villains.

Star Quality: 1/5 spooky shorts.

8. Ichabod Crane (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

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This part two of two in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, the first part of which is The Wind in the Willows. If you’re a fan of old-school Disney animation, this is a pleasant throwback set in the newly minted USA in the late 1700s. Most of it has more of a Beauty and the Beast feel than Halloween, but toward the end it gets nice and spooky!

Halloween Spirit: 3/5 headless horsemen.

Star Quality: 3/5 feckless dandies.

9. Trick or Treaters

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Originally in German, this movie based on a picture book comes up with a unique origin story for the tradition of trick-or-treating. It’s snarky, dark, and full of plucky orphans, kind of like a Lemony Snicket novel. If you want something a bit out of the ordinary for Halloween or are a connoisseur of animated film, I recommend giving this one a try!

Halloween Spirit: 4/5 plucky orphans.

Star Quality: 4/5 wicked aunties.

10. My Neighbor Totoro

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It might not strike you as particularly Halloween-ish, but My Neighbor Totoro starts out with a family moving into what they believe is a haunted house! Sure, the spirits they meet all turn out to be friendly, but there is a bit of haunting going on. Take a break and watch this timeless family classic. Yes, this is lowkey just me inventing a new excuse to watch My Neighbor Totoro.

Halloween Spirit: 1/5 soot sprites.

Star Quality: 5/5 acorns!

11. The Nightmare Before Christmas

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I might be a bit biased, but I think The Nightmare Before Christmas is the ultimate Halloween movie. The concept is creative, the aesthetic is perfect, and, of course, it gave us the anthem “This Is Halloween.” As a kid, I would wait for it to be shown on TV every year, and that’s how you know it’s timeless.

Halloween Spirit: 5/5 skeletons.

Star Quality: 4/5 Jack-o’-lanterns.

What are your favorite Halloween movie picks? Let me know in the comments!

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Sci-Fi Favorites

Right now I’m reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, an alternate history wherein an asteroid hitting Earth accelerates the space race, including the appearance of the world’s first female astronaut. I’m loving it so far, but I haven’t finished it yet, so I thought I’d recommend some other sci-fi favorites in the meantime!

1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

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Since I read this book around when it came out, it’s spawned a popular series now on its third installment. To be honest, I haven’t read either of the sequels yet, but I really want to. This first book features a quirky ensemble cast of humans and aliens. They form an interstellar construction crew for wormholes, and their biggest assignment yet is to connect an isolated planet with the universe at large. The planet is so isolated that they can’t use typical shortcuts to get there, and so it’s a long way to that small, angry planet. It’s a fun, low-pressure space adventure that focuses on the relationships between characters on what is essentially a really long road trip. And the characters are so endearing!

You can buy it here!

2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Le Guin is, of course, the queen of sci-fi, but I hadn’t read any of her books until this year after my brother gave me a copy of The Dispossessed for Christmas. It centers around Shevek, a renowned physicist from Anarres, an anarcho-communist splinter colony on the moon of the planet Urras (or is Urras the moon of Anarres?). He’s the first visitor between the two worlds in hundreds of years, becoming entrenched in diplomatic intrigue in the much more complex politics of Urras. There’s a strong focus on world-building, comparing and contrasting the political systems of the two worlds. Le Guin uses this novel as a way to explore what anarchism might look like when put into practice, both the upsides and downsides. It’s a nuanced and fascinating read.

You can buy it here!

3. Extras by Scott Westerfeld

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This might sound a bit unusual, but I’m recommending the fourth book in a series. The Uglies series made a splash with its exploration of beauty standards, environmentalism, and dystopian government in a post-apocalyptic Earth. I’ve loved it ever since middle school. Most people, though, don’t even know that there’s a fourth book, since it was originally billed as a trilogy. Extras is something of a spin-off featuring a new main character, Aya Fuse, who lives in a future Japan. The book came out in the early years of YouTube and social media, and I find that it predicted the impact of these websites on our world with unnerving precision. In a city where popularity is an industry, Aya is desperate to be famous. Her character is a fictional prelude to the social media stars and wannabes of today.

You can buy it here! Or start with the first book here.

4. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

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This series is an enjoyable and well-crafted sci-fi/fantasy mashup that brings together the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White in a futuristic setting. Cinder kicks off with the title character as a cyborg who loses her entire prosthetic foot, not just her shoe. It’s also fittingly set in future China, home to one of the earliest versions of the Cinderella myth. The Lunar Chronicles is not merely a retelling, but rather a total reinvention of fairy tales, and Meyer deftly weaves them together to form a cohesive, creative world. I’m asking you to give it a shot even if you usually steer clear of YA books. It’s worth it.

You can buy the first book here!

Have you read any of these? What are your favorite sci-fi novels? Tell me in the comments!

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Review: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka

I received a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There are many wars going on around the world, many children and families are suffering, but these hardly affect those of us living in peacetime and we become inured to the images of suffering that we see on TV. I feel strongly that people should be aware of the reality of war and why we should do everything in our power to avoid it—whether it affects us directly or not. That is why stories like the ones in this collection are so important.

— Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator

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Akiyuki Nosaka is best known as the author of “Grave of the Fireflies,” an award-winning short story that was adapted to film by Studio Ghibli, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time. The stories in this collection are diverse, but like “Grave of the Fireflies,” they also concern the tragedies of World War II, particularly as seen through the eyes of children and animals. This short story collection is an expansion on the 2015 English-language publication of The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine. It includes five additional stories not included in the original English publication, making a total of twelve.

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Nosaka presents war as a calamity that inevitably strikes innocents who cannot fully understand it or be complicit in its violence. The personification of animals, child-oriented tone, and elements of magical realism throughout the book give the stories a fairy-tale feeling that contrasts with their dark subject matter.

Content below the cut contains spoilers.

Continue reading “Review: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka”

Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

A few weeks ago, I picked up Pachinko alongside its fellow National Book Award finalist, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Sing, Unburied, Sing took home the prize last year, but Pachinko has won my heart.

Is that too cheesy?

The novel follows the history of a Korean-Japanese immigrant family. It begins in Busan, Korea in 1910 and ends in Yokohama, a main port city of Japan neighboring Tokyo, in 1989. With the narration in omniscient third person, many characters, major and minor, contribute their voices to the telling of this story. The sprawling network of characters has a nucleus in Sunja, who is not so much a main character as a central one. It is her unexpected teenage pregnancy that serves as the catalyst for the events of the book, and as she weathers the storms of life, she slowly transforms from a wide-eyed girl to an elderly matriarch of many sacrifices.

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The variety of perspectives reflects the research that Lee conducted while preparing it, which included interviews with numerous Korean-Japanese people. She has also expressed her desire to tell the stories of “minor” players in history, such as minorities, women, and the working class, and so the ensemble cast includes all of these. About her narration, Lee has said, “above all, I wanted the narrator to be sympathetic to every character’s plight.” This even-handedness lends the book an interesting realism when it comes to the thoughts and feelings of the characters — after all, everyone can justify their actions within the safety of their own minds, no matter how unreasonable those actions may seem to other people.

A major thread that runs through the narrative is Christianity: the characters’ relationship to it or lack thereof. Sunja’s husband, Isak, is a Presbyterian minister, and their marriage contains parallels to the book of Hosea. When the imperial Japanese government cracks down on Christianity, there are nods to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Although Isak is an exemplar of Christian love, faith, and humility, other characters have more complicated religious viewpoints and struggle with the idea of God. Sunja, for example, wonders whether she will see her father in heaven and feels attached to the ancestral traditions of her upbringing.

The male characters of the family line, Yoseb, Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon, each have their own burdens to bear, and even having biblical names can be a struggle in a country where they are extremely uncommon. There is a push and pull in how each character lives up to, runs away from, or simply ignores his name. These names are badges of both their Christian upbringings and their foreignness, and some of the characters wish to break away from both of those things. The politics in a name are even more evident as each Korean is required to take on a legal Japanese name. As the younger generations become more and more Japanese, they more often choose to pass as native Japanese to avoid discrimination, although their legal statuses remain as foreigners. Outside of the context of the book, Korean-Japanese people are still not considered full Japanese citizens today.

The game that gives the book its name, pachinko, does not come into play until midway through the book, when Mozasu gets a job at a pachinko parlor. Pachinko is a type of pinball/slot-machine game that sidesteps Japan’s anti-gambling laws by offering prizes that can be exchanged for cash. Historically, it has been affiliated with yakuza, or Japanese organized crime. It’s also one of the only industries where early Korean immigrants could get a leg in, owing to widespread discrimination.

While pachinko plays a role in the livelihood of Sunja’s family, it also serves as an extended metaphor for life itself, and particularly the chances taken by immigrant families as they build their lives in new countries. Some of the Korean characters work in pachinko, but none of them play it. Instead, they play the game of life. This connection becomes explicit in the story of one of my favorite characters, Etsuko: “[She] had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

Being a family history, Pachinko necessarily reflects on parenthood and on connection and disconnection between generations. The plot flows so gradually through time that changes in technology and cultural norms can catch the reader by surprise, and characters that once seemed full of life transform into two-dimensional cutouts in the eyes of their descendants. The effect is to follow a trajectory opposite of most novels — in the end, when their adventures are over, some of the characters seem less than they were in the beginning, even when we know that they must be more. Most novels, of course, don’t follow characters past the end of their own stories, and in stopping there, they leave them frozen in states of self-realization in the mind of the reader. Not so in Pachinko nor in life — the waters of time must flow onward.

The characters of Pachinko struggle to bridge the generational gap between parents and children. Parents wonder why their children don’t respect the sacrifices they have made for them, and children run relentlessly toward the future, determined to blaze their own paths. Heartbreakingly, it is the mothers who often suffer the most in these situations: Yangjin, Sunja, and Etsuko all experience some kind of abandonment from their children. “A woman’s lot is to suffer,” they repeat time and time again. The tragedy of their familial discord is a powerful reminder to love and respect the parental figures in your life.

Pachinko is a complex and lovingly crafted novel that clocks in at nearly five hundred pages long. Min Jin Lee clearly put in the work to make it as historically accurate as possible, and the details buoy the story, giving life to the various settings while refraining from over-exposition. It has the fire and pluck of an adventure novel, the emotional tension of a family drama, and the scope of an epic. I recommend it to anyone looking to get invested in a book with substance. This is a truly great modern novel.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

Buy Pachinko here!

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