Author: Lish McBride
A Firebug Story
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Ava and her friends Ezra and Lock are on a job–for the magical mafia, which, not their choice really but definitely their norm at this point. It ought to be a fairly simple task, present a sufficient show of force that the witch they’ve been sent to deal with pays up. Not too hard when you’ve got a werefox, a half-dryad, and oh, a girl who controls fire on your hands. But of course, things are never simple for these three.
I adore Lish McBride’s novel Firebug, so it was with delight that I discovered this digitally-released short story set in the same world and following the same three main characters. Chronologically within the story’s timeline, “Burnt Sugar” actually predates Firebug and gives us a good picture of an (honestly) pretty average mission for these three. Which isn’t to say the story’s average, by any means. It’s exciting and suspenseful, with a great sense of humor and some amazing friendships. Seriously, I just love these three and the relationship they share so, so much. And really, a plot that involves gingerbread houses, health-conscious witches, and a girl who can summon fire with just a thought–what’s not to love? Also, if you’re not familiar with this author/series and would like a sampling, “Burnt Sugar” actually provides sufficient information to appreciate the characters and what’s going on, while avoiding being a straight-up info dump. (Granted, if you’ve read Firebug, some of the information provided is unnecessary, but not annoyingly so.) I would definitely recommend this short story, honestly to a broad audience, although particularly to fans of quirky, funny urban fantasy.
Note: While this story is available for digital purchase, you can also read it for free on Tor.com at https://www.tor.com/2014/12/10/burnt-sugar-lish-mcbride/.
Author: Ira Levin
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Joanna’s life seems to be going just as it should. She’s got a supportive husband, has two healthy children who argue only as much as any others their age, her photography is beginning to be recognized and profitable, and the whole family has just moved to the quiet suburb of Stepford. Only, Stepford isn’t exactly what she was expecting. In fact, in the whole area, Joanna has only found two other women who are remotely normal . . . all the rest seem to be perfect housewives, actors in commercials almost, focused only on their housework and pleasing their husbands. It’s all terribly backward for the times, and something about it just doesn’t sit right with Joanna.
Fair warning that 1) I’ll probably spoil something about this story somewhere in the review, and 2) I’ll likely ignore a lot of things that are typically commented on or have different opinions from those that are popular. This book is iconic enough–and well enough known–that I’m not really trying to avoid either of the above. The Stepford Wives is a psychological thriller set in 1970’s suburban Connecticut. It’s also a solid example of what I would term “suburban horror”–the whole idea that in the suburbs no one will give you too much grief about [insert horrible thing you do here] so long as your house is tidy and your lawn neat and green. So yeah, basically throughout the whole town, all the women are being murdered and replaced by robots because the menfolk in this backwards place prefer that over real, modern women with opinions and personality and interests outside the home. Blah, blah, social commentary, you get the picture. It’s a great insight, this far out from when the story was written, into the mindsets and social atmosphere that were prevalent at that point. From a strictly storytelling perspective, this story is fascinatingly written. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, Levin limits us to what Joanna knows but also sticks strictly to the facts. This happened, that happened, in minute detail at times–we’re given occurrences, hints, the passage of time, and Joanna’s gradual horrifying realization, but we never actually delve into her psyche and emotions. It’s all objective and almost clinical at times, the clear, spare way in which things are written. But I really like the way it’s done; in some ways, it increases the horror of what’s happening as you begin to realize along with Joanna just what’s going down in this place. Also, the pacing of the story is deliberate, spelled out in minute daily events, in a way that makes the progression seem inevitable. I enjoyed The Stepford Wives quite a lot and would recommend it to those interested in psychological thrillers/horror. Just don’t expect a fast-paced, emotion-drenched story coming in to it.
Mangaka: Taiyo Matsumoto
Translator: Michael Arias
My rating: 4 of 5
During her work as a tour guide at the Louvre Museum in Paris, Cécile is introduced to a mysterious, captivating side of the museum not seen during its open daytime hours. For at night, the watchmen wander the quiet, echoing halls and tell stories of those rare individuals who hear the paintings speak to them. And at night, the cats who live secretly in the Louvre come out to play and bask in the moonlight. As as Cécile becomes more involved in this nighttime side of the museum, she finds two stories inexplicably intertwined–an old night watchman who swears his sister disappeared into a painting when they were children, and a small white kitten who never seems to grow.
Cats of the Louvre is an incredibly unique and unexpected work. For starters, although it is technically manga, the style is more artsy than your typical manga, including detailed depictions of actual works of art at the Louvre. And then, placing the setting specifically in the museum and focusing on one particular tour guide, a couple of night watchmen, a little lost girl, and an odd collection of cats . . . it’s unusual, yet it makes for something of a magical combination, actually. Throwing in a touch of magical realism–again, unexpected, but that really was the final piece that tied everything else together. Like, the plot is all kinds of odd and surreal and a bit meandering, but by the end, I found myself really involved in the story and characters, to the point that I actually cried a bit at a particularly moving scene. One thing that I found truly strange and a but off-putting is the way in which the cats are drawn sometimes looking like actual cats and sometimes as anthropomorphic cat-people, often switching between the two during the same scene. It’s part of the flavor of the story, and it actually makes some of the more fantastic bits make more sense . . . but it’s still just really strange. On the whole, though, I really enjoyed Cats of the Louvre and would recommend it to anyone who likes art, cats, and a certain amount of surrealism in their stories–whether they generally like manga or not.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Hatke
My rating: 5 of 5
Goblin is enjoying a nice quiet morning in the dungeon, hanging out and having fun with his friend Skeleton, when a group of adventurers randomly burst in, cause a ruckus, and take everything–including Skeleton. Goblin is determined to get his friend back, even though his neighbor warns him that nobody likes a goblin and he’ll only find trouble out in the wide world. And while he does find trouble aplenty on his quest, he also finds his friend . . . and a whole bunch of new friends as well.
I am convinced that Ben Hatke’s books are basically perfection, like, all of them. They’re cute and quirky and innocent and heartwarming in a way that just grips you and pulls you in. In Nobody Likes a Goblin, we’re presented with a flip-side of a common enough story. As both a D&D player and a reader of fantasy novels, I’m quite familiar with the whole adventurers raiding a dungeon thing . . . just not typically from the perspective of the dungeon’s typical residents. Generally, we’re led to think of goblins, skeletons, and such as villains (to, in fact, not like them); yet in this story, these characters are innocent protagonists while the adventurers are the troublemakers. Expectations are challenged, and (while not explicitly stated as such) a certain racism is revealed and also challenged in this story. And Goblin and his friends are presented in such a heartwarming, charming way that you can’t help but root for them. The art in this story is lovely as well, giving additional charm, atmosphere, and character to the work as a whole. Nobody Likes a Goblin truly is an adorable, beautiful picture book that I would highly recommend.
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Illustrator: Chris Van Dusen
My rating: 3 of 5
Mr. and Mrs. Watson live a very ordinary, quiet life. Some might even say boring. But all that begins to change when a tiny piglet shows up on their doorstep and wiggles her way into their hearts.
A Piglet Named Mercy is, to my understanding, a picture-book prequel to DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series (which I believe are written for a slightly older demographic, although I haven’t read them yet). As such, a certain amount of the story’s appeal is directly linked to its relation to the other books–which, again, I haven’t read. So do please take that bias into consideration while reading this review. The story itself is cute, although extremely simple. I honestly expect more from DiCamillo’s writing, though, even just for a picture book. She typically makes so much magic, regardless of the story or the reading level. Still, though, a cute story about a lonely couple, a couple nosy neighbors, and an adorably spunky piglet. I would expect this to be popular with preschoolers, perhaps even into kindergarten or first grade. And yes, it’s a nice set-up that leaves the reader expecting great things of the actual series; we’ll see how well those expectations are fulfilled. The other aspect of this book that I haven’t really addressed yet–but which plays a significant role, since this is a picture book–is the art. I don’t love it. Yes, it has a fitting country-kitchen sort of feel that works with the story . . . but the edges are too sharp, the colors too brash, the facial expressions too odd. It just doesn’t work for me. Yet for all the negatives mentioned above, I do still rate this a 3/5 (which is a positive rating for me); the story is sweet and funny enough that I would recommend it for younger readers.
Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 4
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah’s team at Wona is coming together nicely–new name, cool new stuff to try out in-game. But not everything is settled and calm. As evidence arises that the Dream State beta-testers–including his girlfriend Chloe’s brother–may actually still be alive and held captive, Noah finds himself pulling together a team IRL to find them. And it seems likely that this dangerous mission will require all their skills (plus some fancy new gadgets) to pull off without losing even more of their friends.
Lost in the Game is a solid, enjoyable installment in this intriguing LitRPG series. I am again impressed by the world-building going on here, particularly when it comes to settings described in-game. And even though this volume is distinctly more focused on the real-life setting and plot, there are still some pretty awesome in-game moments–new skills that Noah gains which lead to insights into the Dream State’s ghost, dungeon crawls to dig for information on the missing beta-testers, even a big tournament with Siena the Blade. As with previous volumes, the descriptions of things in the game are immersive, detailed, and clear without bogging the story down unnecessarily; I truly admire how Keene pulls this off so seemingly effortlessly. Back in the real world, there’s some pretty intense mystery and intrigue developed as well, as Noah and his team attempt to track the missing beta-testers to an actual location. Things get . . . really real, more so than I was expecting, but it works, heightening the adventure and mystery, advancing the character development, and pushing the plot along. Again, as I’ve found in the other volumes of this series, Noah seems kind of calculating and perhaps even manipulative as a character; however, his character is well-written and consistent, and I find myself enjoying reading even while being concerned by his personal choices as a character at times. Lost in the Game, as well as the rest of the series, is a book I would definitely recommend, particularly to gamers and those who enjoy LitRPGs.
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Lost in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.
Author/Illustrator: Ben Clanton
Narwhal and Jelly, vol. 1
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Narwhal wanders into unknown waters and meets Jelly–who may or may not be imaginary, but who is definitely a good friend. Together, they do cool stuff like eat waffles (yum!) and make a pod of friends. And even though misunderstandings may sometimes lead to conflict between them, they’re the sort of friends who work things out together and still have lots of fun.
Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is an weird but adorable graphic novel for younger readers (I would say early elementary, primarily) featuring two super-cute sea pals. It is extremely random and whimsical at times (okay, most all the time), but in a way that’s fun and relatable . . . although it’s still a bit too random for me to be wholly on board with it. I can see it being a really fun read for kids, though. Plus, it includes some fun sea-animal facts and features some helpful conflict-resolution skills–something kids in the primary intended readership definitely need to be exposed to. The art is appealingly simple, although the random (again) photographs of waffles and strawberries throw off the vibe a bit . . . or maybe they make the vibe. I don’t know. A bit weird for my taste, but cute and fun. Recommended for early elementary readers.