Category Archives: Book Review

Field Tripping (Graphic Novel)

Authors: James Asmus & Jim Festante

Illustrator: José García

Status: Ongoing (2 issues/5 projected)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Mrs. Flubbins’ class is off on another exciting field trip in their magic bus, ready to explore whatever wondrous adventure their teacher has in store today. It starts off great, exploring a world where you can experience all four seasons in a single day . . . until they find that this world also has man-eating plants. Then their controls get messed up, and they find that they can’t get home. The class ends up jumping from world to world . . . for seven whole years. Those of them who survive, anyway, although even they find themselves irreparably changed. Still, for all that Mrs. Flubbins hasn’t saved them, she’s still the adult in their lives and they look to her for guidance–until their teacher’s captured by pirates, and they have to save her instead.

Field Tripping is–quite frankly–a trip, and I kind of love it. The beginning harks strongly back to The Magic Schoolbus, like, almost uncomfortably so. Only, this graphic novel goes darkside pretty quickly. It’s like the authors are imagining what all could have gone wrong in a situation where a teacher takes her students without their parents’ knowledge on field trips using magic–like, realistically (as realistic as one can be in such a hypothetical, fantastic situation), that’s dangerous and sketchy at best, right? This story plays that up, with most of the students being dead by the end of the seven-year gap, and the survivors being cursed or stuck in magical armor or transformed into a bear or something crazy like that. But it’s not just dark and dour–actually, it’s not really dour at all. Because the personalities presented here are just plain funny, especially since these kids have basically grown up together at this point and know each other really well. And the authors do a good job of adding in situational humor to keep it from being overwhelmingly dark. The art is fabulous as well, and plays into the atmosphere and balance of it all quite well. Field Tripping has been an extremely interesting story so far, and I’m quite interested to see how the rest of it plays out. Recommended.

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Happy Bird (Manga)

Mangaka: Emi Fukasaku

My rating: 4 of 5

Believe it or not, Masato’s friend and classmate, Koto, is actually an android–she just looks like a cute girl. Around exams, it’s easy to get frustrated with how easily she can load the information she needs to know, while he’s busy trying to study. But it’s also all too easy to forget how utterly dopey and forgetful she can be about taking care of herself–getting to school on time, taking in the water that is necessary to fuel her functions and protect her operating system. Her (irresponsible) creator has asked Masato to look after her for just that reason . . . but with all the studying he’s trying to do, he hadn’t realized just how much she needs him until it’s almost too late.

Happy Bird is another super-short oneshot manga from the author of Alpha Minus, and it’s also extremely adorable. The art is just too cute–again, somewhat reminiscent of Kiyohiko Azuma’s work. While reading this story, I was also reminded a lot of Keiichi Arawi’s manga, particularly Nichijou. The blend of a cute slice-of-life school story with just a touch of the surreal, especially with the whole android thing, is what really brings that flavor out. It’s enjoyable and sweet, and the characters are interesting to read. Recommended.

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Alpha Minus (Manga)

Mangaka: Emi Fukasaku

Status: Complete (1 volume)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Because she’s an alien and weird things happen to any texts she sends, Sasamori has just decided not to send text messages at all . . . which is a problem when shy Arimura in her class wants to message her, since it’s the only mode of communication he’s comfortable with. Meanwhile, poor Nishida has extreme trouble with time management, always seeming to have the worst timing for absolutely everything . . . except for the timing that brought her friend Taketoshi into her life.

Alpha Minus is a random little indie two-shot manga that I discovered completely by accident–and I couldn’t be more happy to have found it. It’s cute and fluffy and quirky in the best way. The art is just adorable; it kind of reminds me of Kiyohiko Azuma’s work. The stories themselves are short and simple, but also super cute. Plus, they manage to avoid being too stereotypical and boring–like, they’re both cute school romances, but one’s about an alien (?!) and the other deals with time management. Basically, the characters are actually developed and interesting enough to really carry the story in both of these shorts. Recommended. I’ll definitely be checking out more of this author’s work.

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Louisiana’s Way Home

Author: Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4.5 of 5

When Louisiana Elefante’s Granny wakes her up in the middle of the night to pack her bags and scramble into the car, it’s not the most alarming thing. This has happened before, after all, and they always go back. But as they continue driving, Louisiana begins to realize . . . they’re not turning back towards home. They just keep driving, further and further away from her friends, her cat Archie, and the one-eyed dog she shares with her best friends Raymie and Beverly.

I have yet to read anything by Kate DiCamillo that I didn’t love, and Louisiana’s Way Home is no exception. This is a powerful and captivating story, simple and absurd in turn, full of whimsy and hope and hard knocks as well. For Louisiana, her life is just her life, but for the reader, I think the way she’s been raised to grift and charm her way through things is pretty heartbreaking. And in turn, the way she loves stories and music and her friends, the way she keeps trying, is just beautiful. She’s the sort of character that you want all the good things for, even though they don’t seem to be happening much, and the way she focuses on the good things she does get is pretty poignant to read. I promise, this does have a happy ending–one so fulfilling that I ended up crying through much of the last chapter or so. But it’s kind of rough at parts, just in the sort of way that is still ok as a kids’ adventure story. I think this would be a fun story for a middle-grade reader and a heartbreaking, heartwarming story for an adult reader; great in either context!

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No Guard Wife (Manga)

Author: Toshinori Yano

Status: Ongoing (currently 2 volumes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Juri has just recently married, and she adores the faces her husband makes when he gets flustered. Cue all sorts of plans to be super romantic and make him blush. Only trouble is, he all to frequently beats her to the punch, being even more romantic and leaving her a blushing disaster . . . which he finds adorable.

No Guard Wife is a doujinshi, in the sense that it’s a self-published manga, not that it’s a fanfic manga based on a popular series. As such, it’s pretty short, with volumes running just over 20 pages each. The upside of this sort of publishing is that it’s a labor of love–without the restrictions of editors requiring certain things in the story, the author’s free to create what they want. In this case, the result is adorable and wholesome and sweet. We get multiple instances of this newlywed couple being sweet to each other and getting embarrassed, because they love each other and they’re in that just-married phase. It’s episodic, slice-of-life romance that would be kind of fanservice-y in other contexts, but seems remarkably wholesome in this particular context. Granted, this sort of manga isn’t for everyone, but most readers rate it 4-5 stars, so it’s generally well received. The story and art are both very cute, and the price is low enough that it doesn’t feel like too much to pay for such a short volume. Recommended.

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My Best Friend’s Exorcism

Author: Grady Hendrix

My rating: 4 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience

Ever since Abby’s birthday party at the roller rink, when Gretchen was the only guest to show up, they’ve been BFFs. They’ve shared secrets, done practically everything together . . . they even have their own secret expressions that no one else understands. But in high school, a very strange and scary experience at a friend’s beach house marks the beginning of change. Gretchen starts acting weirder and weirder, and it’s scaring Abby, especially when she begins to clue in to what’s actually going on.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism was a truly strange read, but I liked it quite a lot. It’s like a good, quality horror story–but one that has its roots in old-school pulp horror. There are tons of references to 1980’s pop culture (since that’s when the story is set). There are even a number of visual references–pamphlets, postcards, yearbook pages, etc.–to build the vibe, which I though was pretty cool. The story honestly begins reading like some kids’ coming-of-age story, with the girls becoming friends, growing up, sharing experiences. Then, about a third of the way through, things just start getting darker and scarier the further you go. The author does a great job of balancing the horror of what’s happening with the awfulness of Abby’s reactions–because what she in response to the changes in Gretchen is pretty terrible too. The whole story is a great picture of how we will do the impossible–and the unconscionable–for the people we love. This is an edgy yet old-school horror story full of friendship and 1980’s Charleston culture . . . as well as some pretty gross stuff. Recommended.

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Lotus Blue

Author: Cat Sparks

My rating: 5 of 5

Many years ago, wars decimated the planet, unleashing bio-engineered weaponized plants and mecha supersoldiers–half human, half machine–on the world. Now, the only ones who truly remember what the world once was are the few still functional Templars, their bodies sustained by the tech inside left over from the wars. Meanwhile, vast sections of the remaining population hole up in underground cities, waiting for the world to recover. And on the sand roads above, a determined few face the fading world and strive for survival, the tech of the past incomprehensibly altered to the stuff of myths. But the world is changing–Angels fall from the sky, travelers arrive from the hidden underground cities, and somewhere beyond the Obsidian Sea an ancient consciousness awakes.

I hugely enjoyed Lotus Blue, right from the start. This may not make sense, since they’re really not particularly alike, but the flavor of this story reminds me a lot of Firefly (a favorite of mine). The author’s descriptions are evocative, and the worldbuilding is sublime. I love the way she looks at modern (and futuristic) tech through the eyes of a people who have long forgotten what it actually is; the combination of advanced technology and primitive culture is quite intriguing. I love how the world slowly blossoms before the reader, displayed through the eyes of a variety of characters, each with different backgrounds, understandings, and motivations. The multiple points of view are fascinating, and the characters are all interesting in their own ways. The story itself weaves multiple individual stories into one big interconnected plot, and does so remarkably well. I honestly had no complaints about this book; it was very enjoyable and is one I would highly recommend–an excellent work of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction.

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Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san, vol. 1 (Manga)

Mangaka: Honda

My rating: 2.5 of 5

With his surreal, skeletal appearance, Honda offers us a first-hand peek into the everyday life of a Japanese bookseller. Along with his equally bizarre coworkers, we see him struggle with stocking issues, foreigner customers, fujoshi, ambiguous customer requests, training seminars, and more.

In this manga, we are presented with the everyday struggles of a Japanese bookstore clerk–through the eyes of the most surreal, bizarre staff ever. The main character is literally a skeleton, and the rest of the store staff are no better. But the truly surreal thing is that no one reacts to that, like, at all. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with this title and may not bother reading the rest of the series. It’s true that the peek into a bookseller’s daily life was interesting, but beyond that, the story really didn’t have much personality. Sure, the art is intriguing in its weirdness, and I enjoyed that, but for all their weird personas, I didn’t feel the characters were fleshed out as individuals much at all. Very disappointing, since the premise has a lot of potential.

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Otherside Picnic, Vol. 2 (Light Novel)

Author: Iori Miyazawa

My rating: 4.5 of 5

It’s been a few months since Sorawo and Toriko started exploring the other side (as they call the mysterious place populated by horrors you’d typically only see in net lore) together, searching for Toriko’s missing friend Satsuki. As summer sets in, they encounter some pretty unbelievable things–they rescue the U. S. Marines stuck at Kisaragi Station, a fun beach trip lands them deep in the other side, and they handle a problem with (of all things) ninja cats! But as complicated and scary as all that is, navigating the complexities of their relationships–with each other and with others–is perhaps an even more complex and challenging endeavor.

The second volume of this light novel series is a solid follow-up of the first volume, keeping a consistent tone and quality of writing. The author continues to delve into the realms of creepypasta and net lore, bringing these stories to life that seem innocuous enough at first then surprise you with how terrifying they become. The characters are consistent from the first volume, but they are also more fully developed, as are the relationships between them. They’re rich individuals with personality flaws that are relatable, while still being interesting and kind of out there. This volume’s a little more shoujo ai than the first volume, but it’s still definitely not the yuri this is advertised as–there are certainly emotions here, but nothing happens. The relationship building between Sorawo and Toriko is cute, complicated, and kind of twisted . . . I’m interested to see where the author goes with that side of the story. In any case, if you’re into and/or curious about the net lore version of horror, this is definitely a story I would recommend.

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As the Last I May Know (Short Story)

Author: S. L. Huang

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Ten-year-old Nyma stands as the last line of defense preventing her country from doing the unthinkable and wiping out entire cities full of innocents in the name of victory . . . a fate her own country experienced years ago. In fact, her own order was established in reaction to the horrors they experienced then. It’s something she believes in, a fate she willingly agreed to . . . but that doesn’t mean she isn’t terrified, trapped and manipulated between opposing parties, never knowing which day will be her last.

First off, I must say that I had no idea what this story was about when I picked it up; I probably wouldn’t have chosen something this dark intentionally right now. But Huang’s writing in The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist was good, so. . . . I guess I should have been prepared, considering the dark ending of the aforementioned story. As the Last I May Know is first and foremost an anti-war story focusing in on the high costs in innocent lives, the costs no one can calculate or determine in advance. I had to read some similar stuff years ago for school, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read something so directly focused on that particular subject. It’s pretty dark, and the way the story’s written, quite disturbing. It’s supposed to be. But Huang gives this story layers, creating a sympathetic protagonist in Nyma. She’s determined and his strong convictions. She’s young and scared. She writes poetry and watches the peach blossoms falling. In spite of the darkness, I enjoyed reading her voice, which just makes the context even more dark and disturbing. This was a good, if pointed, story; perhaps more recommended to read in a more cheerful, less worried time, but still worth reading.

Note: You can read this story for free at https://www.tor.com/2019/10/23/as-the-last-i-may-know-s-l-huang/.

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