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TTRPG REVIEW: The Düngeonmeister Goblin Quest Coloring Book


Jef Aldrich and Jon Taylor have contributed to more of my tabletop campaigns than I think either of them realizes. My monthly afternoon-spanning game in Richmond is now traditionally accompanied by a Düngeonmeister cocktail (last time was a Slippery Grippli), and The Ultimate RPG Tarot Deck has stood in for both my Fey Wanderer's attempts at augury and a Blades in the Dark character's obsession with having his fortune told. There's a certain intersection of creativity and familiarity that turns out this variety of Swiss army gaming tools, and it's happened again.

The Düngeonmeister Goblin Quest Coloring Book is exactly what it says on the tin: a coloring book (with very nice art by Zachary Bacus). The book follows the story of a typical D&D-style campaign, starting from a group of adventurers thwarting a goblin raid and ending with a fight against a mighty dragon. But also, you'll be needing your dice.

There are two ways to play with this book alone, and both of them affect the story. The first is to color in whatever way sparks joy, then pop back to the tables in each section and see what you've inflicted on the heroes of the Greenscale Company. The other is to come in with your dice in hand (d10s and d12s are all you'll need) and see how your rolls affect the party (and your coloring choice).

The book also comes with maps large and small, which you can repurpose for your own games. Some of the tables included can also be repurposed for quick encounters, including a boss fight with several statted-out varieties of dragon. And—best of all in my book—there's a d100 table to quickly generate magic items that range from the silly to the profound. (Going to start petitioning my DM for The Discerning Lady's Spring-Loaded Dagger.)

If there's a youngster in your life interested in gaming but not quite ready to take up the dice, this would be a great introduction, too. The influence of dice rolls on the story and the way the pages are colored is a nice, low-stakes metaphor for the agency players have over their game. (And, of course, the joy and terror of dice rolls.) And even if you just want to enjoy the story and color at your leisure, it's fine for that. The interaction doesn't feel like an obligation so much as a bonus.

If you're already as familiar with the Düngeonmeister line as I am, you hardly need me to tell you this is worth your while. But if you are new to the works of Aldrich and Taylor, this should win you over quickly.

BOOK REVIEW: Curious Tides by Pascale Lacelle


The elevator pitch for Curious Tides, the new YA fantasy from Pascale Lacelle, pitches it as Ninth House meets A Deadly Education. I'm not familiar with either of those titles. All I knew is that there was magic and dark academia flavor, and those two things put together are generally enough to get me through a book.

Well, excellent news for fellow enjoyers of both of those things: this is good. Really good and interesting. From the worldbuilding to the story itself, it's really compelling, with lots of twists and turns to unravel. Best of all, those twists and turns hold up under scrutiny and re-reading—a real trick when you're balancing two narratives (one potentially mirroring the other), more than a dozen characters at varying stages of life and death, and a branching magic system that even the most knowledgeable characters in the story don't fully grasp.

So, what is Curious Tides? Billed as the first book in the Drowned Gods duology, it's an atmospheric fantasy/drama/mystery/romance(?) taking place at a magic academy in a world ruled by lunar magic. Everyone in this world has at least a drop of magic in them, governed by the moon phase during which they were born and further subdivided into applications thereof. Some can actually manifest their magic in impressive ways—either during their set phase of the moon or by bloodletting—and attend magic academies and go on to high-profile jobs. Our two audience viewpoint characters, Emory and Baz, are attending one such school. But their understanding of this lunar magic is about to change.

See, there may be four moon phases, but there are also eclipses. Magic users born during eclipses can use their magic more freely, and thus are more likely to succumb to the power of their own magic. (This is called Collapsing, and at that point your life might as well be over.) Baz is one such Eclipse-born; Emory, born under a New Moon, is a middling Healer. At least, that's what she believes, until she sneaks into a secret ceremony and finds herself able to draw on all sorts of magic at once.

Curious Tides follows Emory and Baz as they navigate her new discovery, which happens in the wake of many students disappearing and/or dying during a secret gathering. What the nature of this gathering was, and what the doomed students hoped to accomplish, is tied to Emory's new magic awakening. It's also tied to a children's fairy tale with which a few students—including Romie, Baz's sister and Emory's friend—are more than a little obsessed.

That's already a lot to take in, but Curious Tides takes the reader even deeper. As I mentioned, the worldbuilding is stunning, and it's spun out in a way that makes it easy to take in and retain over the book's more than 500 pages. The myths, superstitions, laws, and lies of this moon-ruled setting are all easily accessible to us, and clarified just in time for everything to be called into question. Lacelle's world is vivid and enthralling, taking us from dim dormitories to magical caves to terrifying dreamscapes. It's a compelling read, and one I'll be more than happy to follow into its second volume.

Curious Tides goes on sale October 3.

Something more personal.

Lately, I've been posting less and less personal stuff on here. I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

On the surface, there's the fact that I'm back to reading more and, while I do work with IndieReader on a few reviews each month, I don't have the platform I once had to share book reviews. I like sharing my thoughts on books, partly because I know what it's like to try to get people to read your work, partly because it helps me continue to process what I like and don't like in literature and apply that to my own writing.

There's also the fact that I haven't been writing as much lately. I'm a couple thousand words from proving to myself that I've slain two years of writer's block. And perhaps when that's shifted, I'll be able to talk more about things I've made that I'd like you to see. But the need to be present and the embarrassment of being a writer who doesn't write leads to seeking out anything to fill that gap. I at least attempt to go for things that people will like and that would make me happy anyway. But it hurts that I have less to say after having done less.

Deep down, though, I think it's a worry that dipping into anything that isn't "Read this book!" or "Try this thing!" will scratch too close to things that aren't for public consumption. For what it's worth, I don't believe we should bottle up our pain or our grief or our difficulties. But there are "proper" channels for expressing those things—for our own good, not to "keep us presentable." Venting rarely makes me feel better; gaining understanding does. There are venues for that, and I'm fortunate to have them. Everyone needs those venues for processing.

In my case, the processing is still underway. It finds its way into the things I create, and probably always will. But there's a difference between that and laying it all out for the world to see in a public forum. I've flown very close to that recently. Possibly too close. Until those things are at least slightly more in my rearview, "personal" posts will require a lighter touch. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

But to that end, I wanted to put something out there that isn't just me telling you to look at other things.

How's the Writing?

It's better. I'm coming out the other side of two years of writer's block, which exists for the same reasons I'm keeping "personal" things closer to the chest. I'm coming to the end of Project 003, a short story for an unannounced publication, very soon.

Ginger and I are redoubling our efforts to collaborate on fun things to look at. One of my "in progress" languishing works is part of that. There will be more Owl's Flower. There will also be this. I'll call it Project Gremlin for now. But there are a few structural things we want to do to really get everything out there. I'll admit I feel abysmal at how bad a collaborator I've been in this time. I look forward to changing that.

I also owe Obverse and 18thWall - two publishers I love working with and whose owners I am happy to count among my friends - several works of varying lengths. Project Dutchman and Project Quiet are similar in style but different in practice. Project Taured will be a fun one - also languishing half-finished, but one that I think you'll enjoy if you've liked my other 18thWall work so far.

Once I'm caught up to what I owe people and have a more balanced schedule of writing, day job, and seeking out places to submit stories to, I'm considering opening up a SubStack where I can test ideas out as serialized stories. Forgotten Lives readers know I'm a sucker for that format. I still haven't decided yet, though.

How's Life?

I'm back into the full swing of making something of my family home. Earlier this week I finally cleared the IKEA bed out of the small third bedroom I intend to turn into a cozy library/writing room. Can't wait to share pictures of that. I'm going to overdecorate it and fill it with candles and a big comfy chair.

The fairest way to say how I'm doing on the life front without broaching my own privacy barriers is "I persist." More and more, I believe that's a big deal.

What's Next?

Once my wits are about me, a lot of things. I'd like to do something to present my book reviews in a more accessible way—whether that means a separate blog/site or something else, I don't know yet. I also want to look at doing personal seasonal reading recs, especially with spooky season kicking in. My own library is flooded with unhinged horror, so I should very much like to share.

Conventions are still off the cards for now, but I'm hoping they won't be forever. That's the only way I'm going to be able to do a lot of things and see a lot of people. But I know I won't be staffing them ever again; 

I do have some things coming out in print. Two from 18thWall in the nebulous future, and some things from Obverse in a similarly nebulous future. Altrix is also getting back on its feet, as both Paul Driscoll and myself have been through it lately. But there are plans.

Wherever it is you're at in your life, I hope things are going as well as is possible. And I hope soon I'm writing more things that give you a lift in case things aren't going as well as they could be.

Sakuraco vs. TokyoTreat: Which One Is Right for You?


There was a time when, if you were into Japanese entertainment and wanted to try the snacks you saw onscreen, you were limited to the one guy at the anime con dealer room who sold Pocky or the soda candy that came with your Sailor Moon figure blind box in the same dealer room. Nowadays, you can get just about anything you want by mail, if not at a store in your town.

Among the myriad treat boxes you can get are Sakuraco and TokyoTreat. This month, I got a chance to sample both their September boxes. I'm a six-month (so far) Sakuraco subscriber, but I was excited to see what was different between the two boxes—and see if I could do a bit of comparison shopping to help other potential snackers figure out which they should go for.

What's the Same?

The first thing to note is that Sakuraco and TokyoTreat both hail from the same parent company: ICHIGO. This company also offers kawaii culture and beauty boxes (YumeTwins and nomakenolife, respectively) and the TokyoCatch online crane game. The JapanHaul site stocks previous months' boxes, individual items from said boxes, and gift sets and bundles.

In other words, these two snack boxes are two sides of the same coin. Each offers a massive selection of curated treats from Japan, often on the same or a similar theme. This month, for example, both boxes adopted a Tsukimi, or moon-viewing, theme. In addition to special packaging for the occasion, each box was stocked with snacks and beverages just right for a moon-viewing party.

So that's what they have in common. Now let's see what sets them apart from each other!

TokyoTreat: Thoroughly Modern

This was my first time getting a TokyoTreat box, and I was super impressed. I'll always be amazed at how much they fit into one crate. The snacks provided offer a snapshot of everyday life in Japan: readily available snacks from modern brands (mascots and all), a sampling of canned juice and instant noodles, and more.

The curation was pretty decent. Snacks were included either for autumnal flavors or for some relation to the moon: chocolate-mint moon rock candy, various round things like smoky potato crisps and custard-flavored chocolate balls, and the like. There was an even enough mix of familiar and unfamiliar flavors to be approachable even to someone unfamiliar with snacks outside their own culture.

Best of the box: KitKat Chestnut. All the best KitKat flavors live in Japan, apparently. I was happy to finally get to try one off the beaten path.

New discovery: Mikan juice. After hearing about Chika's obsession with mikan in Love Live! Sunshine!!, I wanted an opportunity to see what the big deal was. I may not be quite as much of a mikan acolyte as she is, but I definitely get the appeal.

Pleasant surprise: Sweet soy sauce kibidango. I'm relatively adventurous with food, but I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy this. The packaging features a drawing of Tokyo Skytree, and the kibidango itself actually tasted really nice.

Sakuraco: Traditional Teatime

When I initially picked one of ICHIGO's boxes for myself, I went for Sakuraco. This box specializes in more traditional snacks, and each month's box comes with a tea pairing and some manner of home goods (plates, glasses, etc.). The guide that comes with each box also highlights the makers of the snacks and goods, offering insight into the history and tradition of the snacks.

I've been enjoying the curation of my Sakuraco boxes, and this month was no exception. There's consistently a wide variety of things, including at least one thing I'm completely unfamiliar with. The home goods are always lovely, too, and I use them regularly.

Best of the box: A tie between the hatomugi tea and the chocolate creme danish, which I had together. part of what I love about this box is that you can do tea and snack pairings, and just about anything in the box will go nicely with the tea included.

New discovery: Anko dorayaki. I've been curious about dorayaki for as long as I've known who Doraemon is, and I love anko anyway. I can see why he's into them.

Pleasant surprise: White chocolate infused strawberries. Don't get me wrong, I was not expecting to dislike these. But I was also not prepared for just how good they were.

All things considered, both of these boxes are excellent. A lot of thought went into the curation and theming of each, not to mention the book that came in each crate. What it comes down to is what you're personally looking for.

Are you new-ish to the world of Japanese treats? Do you like to be on top of all things modern? Is your ideal evening watching anime and sharing snacks with your friends? Go for TokyoTreat.

Are you relatively familiar with the culture and history and want to go deeper? Do you like to romanticize your life a bit? Does your ideal evening involve a cup of tea and some quiet time? Go for Sakuraco.

Thanks so much to the team at ICHIGO for letting me sample TokyoTreat and share my thoughts with you. If you subscribe to either box (or both!), let me know what you think!

BOOK TOUR: Facing the Beast Within: The Anxiety of Cameron Poole


Cameron Poole has a problem, a big problem: he's a bully magnet who struggles with anxiety.

Being the smallest sixth-grader at his summer camp, everything around him triggers his everyday struggles with anxiety, or with his Beast, making it impossible for him to do the same things other kids can do. In a constant state of worry, Cameron feels like a perpetual failure, his self esteem crushed. That's bad enough, but when Cameron learns that mythical monsters are trying to invade his camp, things go from bad to worse.

Malphas, the Demon Lord from a parallel world called Agartha, wants to bring mythical creatures from his world to form a monster army, attack Camp Pontchartrain, and begin his invasion.

But before he can bring the biggest and most ferocious monsters to Earth, he must find the seven Skull Keys that will keep the gateway between worlds open forever.
Against all logic, Cameron is chosen to lead an unusual collection of kids to stop Malphas from finding the Skull Keys. But the Demon Lord of Agartha has other plans. He sends mythical creatures to Earth, gremlins, imps, gargoyles . . . to find the keys and destroy anyone in their way.

To stop the Malphas and his monster army from getting all the Skull Keys, Cameron must face his deepest fears while trying to keep his friends safe. But when he learns Malphas's real plan, Cameron's blood runs cold with fear.

Can Cameron control his anxiety and confront his Beast while battling an army of minotaurs, banshees, ghouls, golems, and other nightmarish monsters?

So, I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Among other things. But anxiety is a big one. As a kid in the 80s and a teen in the 90s, I didn't get quite as much access to material on mental health as kids and teens do now. My childhood was filled with after-school specials about how bullies are misunderstood and the onus is on the bullied to defuse the bullying. The 90s were marginally, if not functionally, better. There was mild comprehension that something really ought to be done, but nothing particularly structured.

Growing up, I always thought—and was told by many of the adults in my life (who probably didn't know any better)—that my anxiety was my temper, or my personality, or some other indivisible aspect of me. Facing the Beast Within: The Anxiety of Cameron Poole gets a jump on this in the title of the book. The "Beast" of the title is the name Cameron, our young protagonist, has given his anxiety: a separate entity that can be damaging and frightening when summoned, but that can also be tamed and put back to sleep. That said, there are plenty of very tangible Beasts outside of Cameron's anxiety, and coping with them is going to challenge every coping mechanism he has.

The story is a very straightforward kids' coming-of-age adventure. While coping with bullying and feelings of inadequacy at a cliquish summer camp, Cameron discovers that he and a handful of his fellow campers are the first line of defense against an invading demon army. This group of campers is made up of friends, foes, and otherwise: people who may have had no reason to associate with each other, and in many cases deliberately avoided doing so.

Scattered throughout the otherworldly battles, unexpected friendships with candy-loving imps, and treacherous quests are real-world coping mechanisms that readers can employ in their daily, less demon-infused life. They aren't just mentioned, but described—meaning young readers can make actual use of these (although explanation from a therapist would always be helpful). I immediately recognized several I had already been taught, specifically calming and grounding practices that I've used either at the end of a difficult EMDR session or when I can't sleep because my thoughts are racing. Importantly, characters remind each other to use them during tense times. Because this can be difficult to remember.

With all that being said, Facing the Beast Within: The Anxiety of Cameron Poole actually is a fun read from a purely fictional standpoint. All the real-world usefulness aside, it's got a touch of that classic Amblin vibe that draws even grown readers like me back to kid lit. Seeing kids from different backgrounds, experiences, and areas of interest combine their talents to drive back a demonic horde is both exciting and gratifying. And the understanding between bully and bullied is as realistic and hard-won as it is in the real world... and it's not, as my childhood would have had me believe, the responsibility of the bullied to defuse.

Facing the Beast Within: The Anxiety of Cameron Poole is a book at least one kid in your life needs. You probably know which one.

This blog post is part of a book tour hosted by The Book Network.

BOOK REVIEW: And Don't Look Back


Our late teens are a time of self-discovery: figuring out who we are and what our identity means in the grander scheme of things. But what if that wasn't an option?

Harlow Ford, the heroine of Rebecca Barrow's new novel And Don't Look Back, has never known what it's like to be herself. She's constantly changing her name and personality, running from town to town with her mother Cora. But she's never known what they're running from. Then, Cora dies. And suddenly, Harlow is faced with the truth.

Now armed with money and an inherited family home, Harlow sets out to find out what her mother was keeping from her. The secrets run deep—so deep that the reader will continue to unearth them, even into the book's final sentence. And they start with the mysterious disappearance of Harlow's mother, Eve Kennedy.

Simultaneously tense and slow-burn, And Don't Look Back blends mystery with self-discovery. As Harlow attempts to piece together her family's fragmented past, she's also learning what it means to live as herself. A testing of the waters of friendship and romance intertwines with her dangerous search. Once people realize who she is and what she's after, faces from the past begin to emerge. And what Harlow discovers about herself, and her family, is more than even she bargained for.

Juggling the two facets of Harlow's journey is no easy feat. The juxtaposition of teen romance and a fight for one's life, of honest communication over burgers and running from a potential killer, could be this book's fatal flaw if not handled well. Fortunately, Barrow navigates this beautifully, tying every disparate piece into one breathless journey for the truth.

Because, as the book rightly shows us, everything—the lies, the disappearance, the teen awkwardness, and every last confusingly-captioned photograph—answers the same question of identity. The bulk of the story may have all the thrills and shocks of a true crime podcast, but in the end it's a search for truth. Harlow is at a vulnerable age we all know well, where honesty seems to be in short supply. Fortunately, readers are rewarded with all the details. While there may be some uncertainties still in the air as the book closes, there aren't any loose threads.

And Don't Look Back is a perfect chilling read for autumn. It twists and turns intriguingly right up until its final breath.

And Don't Look Back goes on sale October 3.

BOOK REVIEW: A British Girl's Guide to Hurricanes and Heartbreak


Losing someone close to you comes with myriad feelings. There's the sense of guilt and loss, of course. But when the person's death comes at the end of a protracted deterioration, there are other things to be taken into account. Losing someone to dementia, for example, is effectively, losing them twice. And as that first loss looms large and the second approaches, we all cope in different ways. Flora Maxwell knows this all too well—and when she attempts to come clean about her own guilt, it causes a storm of emotions in her family.

A British Girl's Guide to Hurricanes and Heartbreak is a sister book to Laura Taylor Namey's A Cuban Girl's Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, but reading Lila's story isn't essential to understanding Flora's. There is crossover: Flora is the younger sister of Orion Maxwell, and her journey serves as a counterpoint to Lila's. Where Lila was sent from Florida to England by her parents, Flora makes the opposite journey of her own volition... without even telling her family. Between rejecting the romantic confession of her childhood friend Gordon and admitting to her family that she deliberately fled from her mother's final moments, she has a lot of coping to do.

Safely ensconced in Miami among family friends preparing for a wedding, Flora thinks she's spared her family from her immediate turmoil as she steps away to process. But her rash move has caused an even greater rift—one she's unsure she can repair. As she did during her mother's decline, Flora takes solace in photography. And this is how she meets Baz: the handsome son of a renowned local photographer. Baz can't seem to escape his family's expectations for him to get a significant other, and Flora wants to help her friends find a wedding photographer. So the two strike up a deal: if Flora pretends to be Baz's girlfriend for local functions, he'll do photos for the wedding.

The arrangement throws Flora into the world of the Miami elite... and Miami gossip. Slowly but surely, she finds her confidence and reconnects with her family. But just as things are heating up with Baz, Gordon arrives on the scene. And Flora has to decide where her heart really lies... but not before this emotional hurricane of a girl has to face down a real hurricane.

A British Girl's Guide to Hurricanes and Heartbreak is as emotional and turbulent as its young heroine. And while the "pretend dating" trope is in play, it's not going where you think it will. It's always gratifying to see a book with a healthy assessment of self-care, and this book doesn't shy away from the harder lessons about including your loved ones in that plan. Not every lesson she faces is pleasant, and most are (funnily enough) about how refusing to reach out for help can have negative repercussions for those around you in the long run. The line between selflessness and selfishness is a narrow one, and learning how to ask for what you need when you need it can make all the difference.

Even without its preceding book, this is a powerful read. If you've lost a family member to dementia, it can be an especially difficult one. There is no pleasant version of grief, but that flavor in particular is unpleasantly multifaceted. Namey depicts it with a cathartic accuracy. Best of all, the lesson is not one of changing your entire self for others, but rather accepting yourself in a way that respects yourself and the people around you. While this feels more like a summer read, make an exception and slide it into your autumn reading pile.

A British Girl's Guide to Hurricanes and Heartbreak goes on sale September 26.