Skeleton Man – Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man CoverSeries: Skeleton Man, #1
First Published: 1st August, 2001
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Novel
Available: | Amazon UK

When Molly’s parents disappear, she’s sent to live with an uncle she’s never seen before. He reminds her of the story of the Skeleton Man, but will anyone believe her?

The story starts after Molly’s parents have vanished, but it flashes back to previous events such as her parents not coming home and meeting her uncle. Her uncle reminds her of the old Mohawk story of the Skeleton Man. This is about a man who likes the taste of human flesh, so eats all of his own until he’s only a skeleton. Then he starts eating his family. Her uncle is pale, thin, and she’s never seen him eat. But more importantly, she’s sure he doesn’t have good intentions towards her, whatever those might be.

I liked the theme of using stories to understand the world. Thinking about the Skeleton Man gives Molly a framework for dealing with what’s happening around her. The stories in her dreams help her decide what she’s going to do. This is also reinforced with modern stories, as Molly feels comforted by the songs from musicals sung by her teacher, Ms. Shabbas.

Though what’s happening at her uncle’s house is creepy, there’s also horror in what happens outside. Molly has her concerns dismissed by the adults who should be protecting her. Her only ally is her teacher. Ms. Shabbas believes something is wrong, without expecting Molly to be use exactly the right words. It’s clear Molly is frightened and that’s enough. But the people with the real power to act are reluctant to listen. This will be relatable for many children, who’ve tried to go to adults only to have their concerns brushed aside.

Ms. Shabbas has her own obstacles when it comes to being heard. Her concerns about Molly are not taken particularly seriously, even though she’d know the children in her class and would be in the good position to realise something isn’t right. No one outright says she’s being too imaginative, as happens to Molly, but there is that polite attempt to not listen to what she’s saying if at all possible. This is subtle, as the only indicator given is that Ms. Shabbas has an afro, but I certainly took that as being a black woman making it harder to be heard.

Race and culture is touched on in other ways. One reason Molly is sure she won’t be believed is the Skeleton Man isn’t a shared story with the adults she’s approaching. Molly takes her own dreams very seriously, but is aware that talking about them won’t go down well. She’s also very critical of her own appearance, such as finding her dark hair ugly and wanting to dye it blonde. It reminded me of wanting to straighten my hair when I was a child, because I’d already picked up on my hair not being deemed acceptable. Children shouldn’t face these pressures telling them non-white features are ugly, but they do, so Molly’s criticism of herself was unfortunately very plausible.

There is a reference to the idea of being crazy as a potential cause of the uncle’s behaviour. The adults involved make a specific link between people who are non-neurotypical and survivors of trauma as being likely to act this way. Molly pushes this aside as unlikely. But the link is still being made between evil acts and craziness, in a way that some readers will take away as being the probable cause.

Outside of my concerns on the evil and crazy link, I enjoyed the story. It creates that unsettling feel right from the start. As well as the potential supernatural angles, it also touches on some rather more everyday (if not any less horrifying) issues.

The reading difficulty of the book is aimed at lower middle grade. It’s a very short novel with relatively easy words. The edition I read had pictures by Sally Wern Comport to break up the text. Note that it does have horror themes and cannibalism references.

Pokémon Go: My First Adventure

Developer: Niantic
First Release: 6th July, 2016
Version Played: iPhone 5S (iOS)
Length: Endless
Available: Android and Apple iOS

Pokémon Go is an augmented reality (AR) game that runs on mobile devices. It’s based on the popular Pokémon series of games, with the general theme of catching, evolving and fighting cartoon animals. Game locations are in the real world, encouraging players to travel around. The basic game is free, though players can buy items to help them.

This is a journal of my first Pokémon Go adventure, as well as my overall thoughts on the game. I’ve played a few of the Nintendo DS Pokémon titles. This includes the one that came with a pedometer that let players earn things by walking. It turned out this was an issue, as I played those games in the USA, and I had a trainer account set to that region. I couldn’t change my region or my display name for the old account, which seems like really obvious things people might want to change. I had to start a new account. So the account side of it was not exactly at the cutting edge of account management systems, but at least I could get that set up in advance.

Something that’s an improvement on previous titles is it asks the player to choose a style, rather than asking if they’re a boy or a girl. I prefer it being framed as how I want my character to look, rather than my own gender (unless the game is going to actually let me enter my gender). In general though, there are very few options for the characters, which is an odd choice in a social game.

I caught my starter, a Bulbasaur, at home. The mechanism is to flick the ball on the screen with a finger. It’s a little tricky, but I got there in the end. Over the next few days, it became apparent there was a colony of bug Pokémon in the garden, as there were little flurries of leaves on the map and a few wandered inside. There were also quite a lot of bats over the road, in the house where someone was murdered, which was creepily accurate.

The game instructions are very sparse. I can understand why people think they have to walk towards Pokémon that appear on the map, because it seems logical. However, it isn’t required. As soon as they appear, they can be tapped and the catching process will begin. I could get those bats in the murder house without leaving my house.


Image Caption: My hand holding a phone in my sitting room. On the screen, the image seen through the phone camera is shown. Bulbasaur (a green dinosaur with a plant bulb on the back) is sitting on a computer tower. A Poké Ball is on screen, with an arrow and hand icon showing how to throw it.

Finally, it was time, and the main adventure began. My fellow traveller was Spiritunicorn, because safe trainers go together, to deal with those really big Pokémon. We hadn’t gone far before a child shouted, “Excuse me. Are you playing Pokémon Go!?” I nodded, and they gave us a thumbs up. I’m apparently accidentally fashionable again. It happens sometimes.

There turned out to be quite a few PokéStops and Gyms nearby. The PokéStops let the player spin a coin for some rewards, such as more Poké Balls to catch Pokémon. The Gyms are where people can battle, but we were too low level for that at the start. All went well as we collected items and caught a few Pokémon on the way. We tried not to think too much about why we trusted this strange guy on the basis that he said he was a scientist. Why does he need all those Pokémon? What’s he doing with them? What’s actually in these pieces of candy we’re getting as rewards? I’m not saying this stranger was illegally harvesting animals, hiring children he could bribe with sweets without too many questions being asked, and liquidising the animals for his experiments. But it doesn’t exactly look like a proper catch and release programme to me.

Anyway, the choice of PokéStops was interesting. Quite a few are signs for things, rather than the things. An example is one sign that’s placed right next to the tower blocks. Unlike many towns, mine only has these few towers, so they’re a distinctive landmark. Other PokéStops were things like temporary artwork that was no longer there, so they’re lagged behind in history.


Image Caption: On the right, a pale tower block with a sky blue stripe running down it. In front of the building is a sign with a map saying “Welcome to Greater Hollington”. The sign is the PokéStop. On the left, the image from the phone screen, showing a Spearow (bird Pokémon) sitting by the building, waiting to be caught.

We continued on towards the coast and the sea mist rolled in. I finally hit the level to join a team, which I did at the next Gym. It was a brick church with a tower. As the Gyms look like little towers on the map, this seemed rather apt. I went with Team Mystic because blue is a nice colour.


Image Caption: On the right, a red brick church tower. On the left, the phone screen showing a character standing on a 3D map. Two gym towers are shown. The yellow one on the left is the church tower.

The available Pokémon should change based on the environment, which was clear on our outward route. Home had lots of bugs and a few birds. Asda had a bunch of rats around the back. And the coast had weird tentacle monsters and little lobsters with mushroom ears. The PokéStops also got a lot more historical as we moved into the older parts of town. One marked the house of Elsie Bowerman, a suffragette. Another marked the stone on the divide between the two towns, which is about the only sign it is two towns.


Image Caption: A blue history plaque on a wall, which is a PokéStop. The writing reads: Elsie Bowerman / 1889 – 1973 / Suffragette, Barrister and Survivor of the ‘Titanic’ disaster lived here / Hastings Borough Council.

Heading further into town, we stopped for lunch and to look around the shops. Pokémon Go players were everywhere. The town centre has a number of PokéStops, including the cricketer statue just outside the shopping centre. But other than Game promoting preorders of the next Pokémon DS title, the shops really weren’t getting in on it. If they’d had cuddly toys and other similar things, I’m sure people would have bought them.

Once we left town, we went through the park. The mist thinned, meaning it was a good time to recharge phones. Spiritunicorn has all the gadgets, so we plugged the phones into a solar panel. The game needs to be running in order to count the distance travelled, so it is hard on batteries.


Image Caption: A portable solar panel on a wooden bench. Two phones are plugged in.

Across from our recharge point was another Gym, which I decided to try. It’s a war memorial with a figure on the top, because I have a thing about Gyms that look a bit like the Gym icons on the map.

It wasn’t an epic battle. I did manage to damage the Gym guardian a bit though. I bet that stung for a few seconds. It’s trickier than usual Pokémon games, as it isn’t turn based. Dodging and attacking are done in real time. It’s hard to say how good I was at that, as my Pokémon were so underpowered.


Image Caption: On the right, a white pillar with a statue on top, viewed across the water. A flock of pigeons are between the pillar and the water. On the left, the phone screen showing a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) fighting a Hypno (yellow biped).

Another unexpected thing about battles is the healing system. Potions are the only way of healing them up. I would have liked to see an alternative to this, like having Pokémon heal over time or by travelling a certain distance.

By the time we got to the end of the park, our phones were getting very low on batteries. We turned them off and headed home. All in all, we walked about 15km (9 miles). It only used 20MB of my phone’s data allowance, though this may be on the low side as the maps would have loaded through my home Wi-Fi. I caught many Pokémon and got a few nice shots through the game’s camera system.


Image Caption: Three images taken with the game’s own camera system. Left is a Paras (orange lobster with mushroom ears) on a shingle beach, with the water and mist in the distance. Centre is a Pidgey (bird) on grey pavement stones, with people and scaffolding in the background. Right is a Zubat (blue bat) flying in a garden, next to a standing stone with a hole in it. All pictures have the username (PolenthBlake) placed in the lower right corner.

Our last adventure was close to home, where local players have taken to gathering in a church lych gate. It has a roof and is in range of two PokéStops. The police had evidently been called, though not for one of the players. The person of interest to the police was someone who just couldn’t stop talking. “I didn’t do that. Well, maybe that one time, but not today. Okay, maybe more than once, but not in the last ten minutes.” I do wonder if crime will go down in that area (it has a particular problem with people dumping rubbish) due to the number of people with mobile phones there at all hours.

Heading home meant collecting my thoughts about the game. An obvious one was accessibility. For someone who can leave the house, it isn’t required to actually walk. It uses distance rather than detecting walking gait, so wheelchairs and mobility scooters can also travel the distance. Players don’t have to visit certain PokéStops and Gyms, so can stick to those in accessible areas. This isn’t a game that would work very well for someone who can’t leave the house. It is possible to catch a few Pokémon at home, but it’d mean not getting new supplies at the PokéStops, not being able to hatch eggs, and all the rest.

Catching Pokémon could be tricky for some people, as it requires swiping the ball in the right direction. Some sort of automatic throw on tap would have been a good idea. It’s not like it’d harm the game if some people used the feature who didn’t need it, as catching the Pokémon is more about enjoying the AR.

My main criticism of accessibility in a nutshell: there aren’t alternative ways for doing things or options to customise the game controls.

I also think the instructions need work, as so little is explained. This is particularly true of how to catch Pokémon, as it’s not clear that the player doesn’t have to move towards them, and can keep going until they’re safe before they tap them. For example, one popped up while I was crossing a road. I had time to cross the road and step to the side of the path (out of anyone else’s way), before tapping the Pokémon and starting the catching sequence. Someone who doesn’t know that might think they have to stop in the road or cross back to get closer to the Pokémon.

Criticisms aside, it’s a very fun game. It’s not required to buy things to take part, outside of paying phone costs. Moving between free Wi-Fi areas would be an alternative, as town centres often have PokéStops and Gyms and places with free Wi-Fi. It was fun to see so many others playing the game, including adults, families with young children, and groups of teenagers. People who weren’t playing were still discussing Pokémon, such as reminiscing about the previous games. Everyone who spoke to us was friendly. This was a welcome change, particularly given the current political climate, where the “Go back where you came from!” brigade is out in force.

All I need now is some more Bulbasaurs, so I can feed candy made from their ground-up bones to my own Bulbasaur, and take over the world for Team Mystic. It’s a simple goal.

Among the Sleep

Among the Sleep CoverDeveloper: Krillbite Studio
First Release: 29th May, 2014
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Length: Short
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

On a two-year-old’s birthday, something goes very wrong. An unseen force enters the house at night. Armed only with a teddy bear, it’s time to find Mommy.

This is a game about creepy horror, rather than blood and gore. The world is a very scary place for a toddler. In an early stage, a strange noise sent me hiding under the furniture… only to realise it was the gurgling of a radiator, as heard through a toddler’s ears. That feeling of vulnerability meant I was carefully trying to climb down from furniture, as I was very aware that large falls could be an issue.

But as the game continues, the world gets increasingly unsafe. Those scary sounds might actually be monsters, and the only thing a toddler can do about them is hide. Sometimes escaping meant having to drop from heights, or climb things I wouldn’t have wanted to climb, because things would be worse if I didn’t.

Among The Sleep_20160313040514

Image Caption: A trophy achievement screenshot for “Baby Mozart”. A toddler’s view of themselves and a xylophone on the ground. The crosshair turns into a hand over the xylophone.

The gameplay is relatively simple. Puzzles are within what a toddler can do, such as moving chairs to reach door handles and throwing objects. The main focus is exploring and unravelling what’s going on. You can crawl (the fastest movement speed) and walk (not so fast, but better for seeing things). And run, but I didn’t find any need for that, as crawling is a lot faster and safer. Teddy is carried on your back most of the time, but can be hugged to provide light. He also occasionally offers advice on what to do.

Each of the levels has a different theme, but all of them have elements from the toddler’s home. A forest has furniture in it and a playground has decorations based on the child’s owl toy. It made things familiar, yet also strange. In addition to the main story, there’s a prologue giving more backstory on the relationship between the child’s parents.

Among The Sleep_20160406000948

Image Caption: A backlit playground, with an animal rocker. The crosshair is just about visible in the centre.

I felt the game did a good job of capturing the powerlessness of being a young child. It’s not just about physical strength and ability, but a lack of control over life. There are hints at family troubles from the start, but the child has no power over that. They can’t escape when things turn abusive. I also liked that it reinforced that no one is too young to be hurt by the bad things going on around them. They might not understand it in the same way as an adult, but that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t matter if they’re hurt because they won’t understand or remember it. I remember things back to when I was a baby, so I’ve always had a dim view of the idea that someone can be too young to be hurt.

My main criticism is the climbing mechanic. There’s a button to press to climb things, but at times it doesn’t work for no obvious reason. I had to shift around until finding the magic spot that would start the climb.

A small area of the closet level has flickering lights, which creates a strobe effect. It can be passed quickly, but it’s good to be ready for it. This game is also high on motion sickness triggers. The toddler gait sways. There’s a lot of camera movement climbing up things, and going from crawling to walking and back again. Despite that, I didn’t find it too bad on that front. There’s a crosshair in the middle of the screen, which helps to provide a stable point of reference. The sections are short, meaning it’s easy to schedule breaks. The crosshair and subtitles were on by default in the PlayStation version, which makes a nice change.

This is a great choice for fans of short atmospheric exploration games. It captures the feeling of being a scared child, and offers a perspective that’s rarely explored in games. Note that it does include themes of child abuse and alcoholism, as well as supernatural threats.

Camp Midnight – Steven T. Seagle (writer), Jason Adam Katzenstein (artist)

Camp Midnight CoverFirst Published: 3rd May, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Horror / Graphic Novel
Available: | Amazon UK

Skye doesn’t want to spend the summer with her dad and step-mother. It turns out they don’t want her around either, and send her to summer camp. A confusion means she ends up at Camp Midnight, where everyone is a monster. Except for Skye and possibly her new friend Mia.

This is a fun graphic novel, dealing with some difficult issues in an accessible way. Skye has been hurt by her parent’s divorce. She reacts by lashing out at everyone, without considering how her rudeness and sarcastic responses might hurt people. Something she has to face at the camp is how throw-away comments can end up hurting people, no matter what the intent.

The story runs through the whole time at the camp, from getting her choice of bunk on arrival to taking part in special events. The main focus is her friendship with Mia, though she also has to deal with the popular girls and a crush on a cute boy. The latter two aspects are nothing new, but the friendship with Mia is great. I was rooting for them both to find their place at the camp and beyond.

I liked the handling of consent issues. Mia doesn’t like being touched. Though she might sometimes be okay with it, sometimes she doesn’t want to. Skye accepts this and finds a touchless alternative to shaking hands. It’s nice to see a clear statement that if someone says no to something, you respect that, no matter how snarky you are.

I’m rather lukewarm on depictions of witches as fantasy monsters, but I don’t have any specific criticism here. The witch in charge of the camp is shown as a person and obviously cares about the campers. It’s not bad as such depictions go.

Each page has a limited colour palette, apart from an occasional frame intended to stand out. For example, one page may be greens and blues, and another page may be in oranges. This adds to the spooky atmosphere. The composition hints at monsters, with backgrounds forming faces and monstrous shadows. It’s well spaced, with a few panels on each page, and writing at a comfortable reading size. The art is a perfect match for the story.

This book is on the borderline between upper middle grade and lower young adult. The main themes are friendship and dealing with family issues, but there is some early teen stuff like her crush. It’s ideal for readers in that middling area.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

If I Had a Gryphon – Vikki VanSickle (author), Cale Atkinson (illustrator)

 If I Had a Gryphon CoverFirst Published: 9th February, 2016
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: | Amazon UK

When a girl gets a new pet hamster, she finds him boring. Instead, she wishes for various mythical creatures as pets… but all pets come with downsides.

This is a cute story told in rhymes. The pets considered include a dragon, gryphon, kirin and kraken. Their downsides are shown in a real world context, like the hippogriff scaring everyone at the dog park, and the unicorn hiding under the bed. The artwork is colourful and funny, helping to bring to life the problems with each pet. The story is bound to appeal to young fantasy lovers (and people with pet hamsters).

Also notable is the protagonist is a non-white girl who wears glasses. It’s nice to see a wider range of children getting to have adventures.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]