Category Archives: Book Review

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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A Man and His Cat (Manga)

Mangaka: Umi Sakurai

Status: Ongoing (Currently 1 Volume)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

In a petshop cubicle, an ugly-cute cat watches as cuter, younger kittens go to happy homes all around him, day after day. That is, until one day, when a sharp, middle-aged man comes in and asks for him specifically! He’s finally found the home he’s longed for . . . and perhaps he’s exactly what his human needs, too.

A Man & His Cat is a super-cute and funny manga that will appeal to cat owners in its insightfulness. Fukumaru the cat is utterly catlike, complete with all the weird, hilarious things cats do that only a cat owner can truly appreciate. It’s definitely amusing, and Sakurai captures this in a way that’s adorable and relatable as well as funny. But while this manga fits well in the ranks of “cute cat manga” like Chi’s Sweet Home and the like, there are aspects of this particular manga that elevate it to something more. There’s a poignance and wistfulness developed here as Kanda deals with his loneliness after his wife’s death that makes this story relatable on a more universal level. I think Kanda’s an interesting character–older gentleman, music teacher, lonely widower, newly-discovered cat lover–and I’m intrigued to see how his character develops over future volumes. This is a really cute, sweet seinen slice-of-life story that I would definitely recommend.

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The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet City Life, Vol. 1 (Light Novel)

Author: Usata Nonohara

My rating: 3.5 of 5

In what seems to her to be only a short sleep, young alchemist Mariela finds herself 200 years in the future. You see, she put herself in a state of suspended animation in order to survive a huge monster stampede, but something went wrong and she slept waaaay longer than she was supposed to. Upon waking, Mariela finds that the world around her has changed significantly; the monster stampede destroyed a lot of the town where she lived, alchemy is no longer commonly practiced in the area, and the potions that she once was barely able to subsist by selling are now a premium item. Only, she’s going to have to be careful and keep her abilities secret from all but a select few if she wants to settle into a quiet, everyday life like she wants to.

The Alchemist Who Survived Now Dreams of a Quiet City Life is a mostly tranquil seinen slice-of-life fantasy light novel. I enjoyed its easygoing pace, the fairly extensive worldbuilding, and the “just ordinary folks” characters that grace its pages. There’s definitely a lot of focus on (what is for Mariela) the mundane–gathering ingredients, going shopping, making business deals, meeting people, making potions. I can see that being boring for some people, but I found the placid pace to be relaxing. There were, however, a few things that I didn’t love about this story. For one (and this is quite possibly just me), I found it a bit hard to get into the story right at the start. Also, the author tends to repeat certain bits of worldbuilding information when concepts crop up in different chapters, making me tend to think the sections may have been originally published separately. In any case, it can get mildly repetitive. Additionally, while Mariela’s perspective in the most common (and best, in my opinion), the author does throw other characters’ perspectives in, sometimes seemingly at random, and it’s sometimes hard to tell where one stops and the other starts. My final issue with this story is that slavery is a part of this world, so much so that characters we’re clearly intended to see as “good people” are actively a part of the slave trade. And that just morally bothers me, even though the author builds up excuses like the only slaves are really bad criminals and such. It still gets under my skin. Still, on the whole, I enjoyed this story–enough so that I went ahead and picked up the second volume to start right away, so. . . . Recommended for fantasy lovers who enjoy a quieter-paced, slice-of-life sort of story.

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The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist (Novelette)

Author: S. L. Huang

My rating: 4 of 5

The world is only just beginning to learn about the atargati, a second race of sentient beings who dwell deep in the ocean. And while no human can really be said to know them, Dr. Cadence Mbella comes the closest of anyone, having actually interacted with them,  studied them extensively, and learned to speak their language. Her professional life comes to an abrupt halt, however, when she discovers one of the atargati has been kidnapped for study. Unable to let this stand, Dr. Mbella rescues the atargati, but in doing so, she loses everything . . . and yet, even on the run from her country, she finds her curiosity unsated as she yearns to learn more of this culture.

In The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, Huang gives a dark, reverse retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” And let me just say, this short novelette packs a punch. It’s lovely and moving, but it’s also absolutely heartbreaking. Not a happy ending; consider yourself warned. I really enjoyed this story, though. It’s presented as a log of Dr. Mbella’s that she records as the story progresses, and I enjoyed both her unique voice and the way in which you get snatches of the story as it happens with all the emotion and urgency that each moment entails. The author does a great job of giving us that without losing the flow of the narrative. The portrayal of this utterly alien submarine culture is fascinating–and very notably alien. I loved how Huang uses both details that are rooted in scientific actualities and the strangeness of the unknown and possibly unknowable to flesh out the narrator’s understanding and depiction of the atargati. Dr. Mbella’s moral and ethical quandaries in dealing with this culture–and in interacting with her own in relation to the atargati–is compelling and adds depth to the story beyond a simple fairy tale retelling. Additionally, the author does a good job of portraying the narrator’s struggles with identity as she identifies as lesbian yet finds herself falling for someone of a completely different, non-binary species. On the whole, The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist was a fascinating, thought-provoking story that breaks from a lot of traditional molds while giving a solid retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairy tale–non-Disney-fied, just the way I like it.

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Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill, vol. 1 (Light Novel)

Author: Ren Eguchi

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Mukouda was perfectly happy enjoying a quiet life in Japan with convenient food delivery right to his door and fun web novels to read on his weekends off work. But somehow, he got accidentally caught up in a hero summoning to another world . . . only, his stats are waaaay weaker than the others who got summoned, plus the kingdom that did the summoning is incredibly sketchy seeming to him. So, since he can’t go home, he decides it’s time to set off into this new world on his own. Turns out, his summoned stats may not make him a hero, but they do come in pretty handy–especially the random ability to order food and other supplies from the same online market he used back home, which are not only delicious but, when consumed in this world, also have cool and unexpected stat benefits!

In one sense, Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill is your typical isekai light novel, and yeah, there are so many of those around now that it’s kind of getting boring. But in another sense, it’s rather unique, which gives it a certain appeal. Like, the main character comes into the story fully aware of what’s happening–he’s actually read enough web novels about this sort of thing happening that he’s just like “nope” and runs off to do his own thing. Mukouda is an amusing combination of lazy and clever, such that he uses what he has–his online market skill, his ability to cook, his connections with others, whatever–to make his life more reasonable, guarantee his safety, and even turn a profit. A lot of the story is just him cooking and interacting with others about food, so if you’re not into that, you’ll likely find this pretty boring, although there’s definitely fantasy monsters, magic, fights and other isekai tropes here as well. But yeah, a lot of the stuff he makes even comes with paragraphs that are basically recipes describing how to make the thing. On the whole, it’s a very casually paced, easygoing sort of story, nice for when you’re looking for something relaxed. Other than the cooking stuff (which some folks may like and others not, obviously), the only big complaint I had was that there are so many unusual ways for depicting communication that it got kind of tangled and confusing at times–one specific character gets bold font, thoughts get another, telepathic communication gets another, oracles from a goddess another, plus with normal communication the speaker is sometimes only indicated in parentheses at the end of the statement. It’s a little annoying, but I got used to it as I read more. Generally, I would recommend Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill if you enjoy casual isekai stories and don’t mind the excessive focus on cooking; it’s actually a pretty fun story.

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Otherside Picnic, vol. 1 (Light Novel)

Author: Iori Miyazawa

My rating: 4.5 of 5

The first time Sorawo met Toriko was in the Otherside (well, that’s what she calls it), a strange alternate reality populated with strange, mysterious, and sometimes terrifying things. Somehow, that initial meeting turned into her being roped into exploring the Otherside along with Toriko, searching for Toriko’s lost friend Satsuki. Really, this isn’t the sort of place any reasonable person would go to intentionally. But, well, there’s just something about Toriko that intrigues and appeals to her.

I stumbled on Otherside Picnic completely by accident, but was very pleased with what I found in this quirky light novel. I suppose in a sense, it’s a riff on the isekai genre, but it really breaks the typical mold quite thoroughly. It’s more of a horror novel pulling from pieces of urban legend, creepypasta, and other net lore. Which, yes, could be pretty stupid, but in this case, it’s actually both quite engaging and surprisingly scary. The author does a great job playing with the unknown and the inexplicable, letting the reader’s imagination run away with them. The tone of the writing is fitting, giving us a first-person account of events from Sorawo’s perspective. I enjoyed the characters, as well; they’re unusual and a bit over the top, but that’s honestly the sort of person that would get dragged into this crazy sort of stuff, so. . . . Also, this is advertised as being yuri, but it’s really not, at least not in this volume. It’s more along the lines of growing friendship with maybe a bit of mild shoujo ai thrown in if you squint. The relationship works for these two characters, though, and was enjoyable to read. I think this was probably originally posted as a serial novel, since each section (focusing on a different phenomenon or legend) is distinct and has a bit of a recap/info download near the beginning; however, it’s not enough to be annoying, and there’s a definite story flow between the sections. Definitely recommended.

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Laddertop (Graphic Novel)

Authors: Orson Scott Card & Emily Janice Card

Illustrator: Honoel A. Ibardolaza

Status: Incomplete (One 2-volume Omnibus)

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Years ago, a benevolent alien race came to earth, bestowed technology on the people of the planet, and left. Most obvious and vital, they left four towers to space, called Ladders. However, there are some who doubt their good intentions. Whatever the case, there are parts of these Ladders that require maintenance that only children are small enough to perform, and the opportunity to go up and be a part of the work being done in the Ladders is something that the best and brightest students vie against each other for. Among those students, are two best friends–Robbi and Azure–whose destinies will take them to vastly disparate places yet will ultimately draw them to the same mysteries.

I enjoy Orson Scott Card’s writing in general, and I enjoyed Laddertop, but I should point out right from the start that this graphic novel is notably different from much of his writing. Namely, it’s actually appropriate for a middle-grade audience (although it would be enjoyable for older readers as well); I’m guessing that’s the influence of his daughter, Emily Janice Card. There are definitely themes that track with his other writing though–kids getting dragged into space and mixed into stuff way more dangerous than they should at that age, just for instance. The art is a cute, almost manga-like style that works well for the story. The plot of this graphic novel starts out fairly sedate, with fun friendships, school tests, and the typical jockeying for position between kids. But as things get going and we actually follow our characters into space, we begin to see all sorts of plots and mysteries developing, plus some fun and cute friendships (or maybe more?) between characters. It gets quite interesting, which leads to the major downside of this story . . . it’s incomplete. Just where the story is really getting intense, we get dropped at a cliffhanger ending, and it’s been long enough since the original publication (2013 for the omnibus) that I really don’t think we’re getting anymore, which is just sad. I would have enjoyed seeing where the rest of the story went. Still, if you don’t mind the cliffhanger, what we do get of Laddertop is cute, mysterious, and engaging science fiction.

Note: Also, the space robot monkeys are adorable. 🙂

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