Category Archives: Book Review

The Gift of the Quoxxel, 2nd ed.

Author: Richard Titus

My rating: 3 of 5

An isolated tropical island. A whimsical, incompetent king who just wants to see the world. A mysterious girl. Sea monsters and pirates. Extra-dimensional lizards who may or may not exist. What kind of mad wonder is this?!

You can tell before you even open The Gift of the Quoxxel that it’s going to be a quirky trip. And you would be right in that assumption. This is quite the whimsical genre-mash, with a lot of fantasy but also elements of science fiction and mystery, plus a lot of humor. If you’re a fan so Seussical neologism or Alice in Wonderland-style whimsy, this is the book for you. It’s filled with quirky characters, long strings of alliteration, and plenty of surprises. For myself, I did personally find the surprises to be a bit too obtuse for my taste. It was like the author tried to keep things so mysterious at points that I just found myself getting lost. Not that I get the feeling that everything is supposed to fall into place and be perfectly understood. It’s not that kind of story. But . . . I kind of found myself getting lost in the whimsy at times. Still, The Gift of the Quoxxel was a fun trip, and even better, one that’s appropriate for all ages.

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My Life as Alien Monster Bait

Author: Bill Myers

The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

It’s every kid’s dream, right? Get chosen to be in a movie, and instantly transform from all-school reject to everyone’s new best friend? When uber-klutz Wally McDoogle manages to land a role in an up-and-coming monster movie, his life certainly undergoes an extreme transformation. About the only person who doesn’t treat him differently is his best friend Opera . . . only Wally’s pretty sure he’s too cool to be seen around Opera anymore. The nerdiness may be catching, after all. But when the filming goes haywire (as it is so prone to do around him), Wally finds out just how valuable true friendship is–and how fleeting  those “friendships” based on fame.

As with the first book in this series (My Life as a Smashed Burrito with Extra Hot Sauce), My Life as Alien Monster Bait is a great Christian middle-grade story that manages to teach important lessons without being stuffy or “preachy” in the slightest. Between Wally’s escapades, the offbeat stories he writes, and the quirky first-person writing, you’ve got a story that’s absurdly funny (even to an adult, but even more so as a kid). But in the midst of the humor, you’ve got some excellent lessons on pride, true friendship, and that more challenging concept to nail down–not treating people differently just because they have more fame or money or coolness points or whatever. Myers brings us a blatantly Christian story with solid life lessons . . . that’s also immensely enjoyable and laugh-inducing. Definitely recommended.

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Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario

Author: Daniel Pinkwater

My rating: 4 of 5

Getting left with his Uncle Mel for 6 weeks over summer break wasn’t too bad–other than trying to survive solely on junk food. But then, when Uncle Mel got dragged away to Rochester for a 2-week training session for his work, Eugene got dragged along as well and found himself going mad with boredom . . . that is, until he saw a documentary movie with his uncle about a man searching Lake Ontario for a monster called the Yobgorgle. That’s when Eugene has the bright idea to get in touch with this guy, Ambrose McFwain, who (let’s face it) is rather mad but also quite interesting, and who hires Eugene as his assistant on the spot. The summer’s about to get a lot less boring and a lot more wacky.

Daniel Pinkwater is one of those underappreciated authors who can take the absolute zaniest things and make something absolutely captivating out of them. Yobgorgle is a tall tale about a kid and an inept monster hunter that gets taller the longer it goes. All told in first-person from a twelve-year-old’s point of view. And Pinkwater nails the twelve-year-old part impressively; there’s a dry, cutting observation to the way Eugene views the world, with none of the filters and social niceties that adults use in their way of expressing themselves. No, Eugene tells it like he sees it, for better or for worse. And the situations he finds himself in just keep getting more and more spectacularly strange as he goes. It’s all very funny and engaging. It’s also interesting to read this book today; it was originally published in 1979, and it’s telling. There are so many little cultural snippets that loudly proclaim that this is a story of a bygone era . . . the clothing, the emphasis on vending machines (Uncle Mel’s job is working on them), but perhaps most of all the way a twelve-year-old kid is able to just roam around Rochester, New York on his own. It’s an interesting peek into the past, although with the specifics of this book, it’s a past that never was. Still, another zany, all-ages-friendly offering from an amazing author; Yobgorgle definitely goes on my recommended list.

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Handa-kun (Manga)

Mangaka: Satsuki Yoshino

Status: Complete (7 volumes)

My rating: 4 of 5

Misunderstandings abound as Sei Handa weathers through his high school days. You see, Handa-kun (with a little help from his best friend Kawafuji) has managed to convince himself that all the other students at his school hate him–to the point that he misinterprets innocuous, or even positive, interactions in a negative light. Not that he interacts much with anyone at school, since he’s even told Kawafuji not to talk to him, for fear that the hatred will spread to him too! Not that there actually is any hatred at all. Rather, Handa is the most popular student at the school. His reputation as an up and coming calligrapher, combined with his good looks and mysterious aura, have gained him a following of admirers that grows until it extends even to other schools in the area! Not that poor Handa-kun has a clue. And of course, no one dares to actually approach to speak with him and break his misapprehensions.

Handa-kun is a delightfully amusing spinoff of the charming series Barakamon by the same creator. There are some things–like the lovely art style–that carry over from this series. But this is a 6-years-earlier spinoff, and Yoshino makes a strong distinction between the two, so don’t expect Barakamon 2.0 here. Rather, Handa-kun is a lighthearted gag manga, full of tropes, puns, and goofiness of all sorts. It’s charming, but in its own unique way. It’s a slice-of-life school story, with a more shounen style rather than the seinen feel of Barakamon. And it’s really just so completely over-the-top improbable; a lot of the humor actually comes directly from that fact. So yes, it is an interesting look into Sei Handa’s backstory, but it’s kind of fantastic too. Charming and funny, though. I would recommend Handa-kun if you’re interested in comedic school stories, whether you’ve read Barakamon or not.

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FiND YOTSUBA (Artbook)

Illustrations by Kiyohiko Azuma/Photography by Miho Kakuta

My rating: 5 of 5

This gorgeous, adorable artbook features photographs from Japan, mostly of somewhat rural settings and everyday situations. And inserted into each and every photograph is an illustration of the world’s most amusing and cute kiddo ever–Yotsuba! Suddenly, each picture is both beautiful and fun.

Yotsuba&! is one of my absolute favorite stories, manga or otherwise. So naturally, I was delighted to discover there was an artbook available. But wow, FiND YOTSUBA surpassed my expectations. The photos themselves are a fabulous window into everyday Japanese life; they’re lovely. And the way Azuma-sensei fits Yotsuba into the pictures is wonderful. He manages to match color and lighting, use shadows and reflections brilliantly, play with the visual focus points, and even include the photo-blur you get when something moves too quickly to make her place in the pictures seem more natural. Sometimes, you have to pull a real “where’s Waldo” looking for her. And what really pulls everything together is that way that, even without any text or connecting storyline, Yotsuba’s personality, the way she’s so full of life and excitement, carries through so strongly in the pictures. They made me smile–a lot–and even laugh aloud at points. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of the manga, but also just for people who love cute things.

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My Life as a Smashed Burrito With Extra Hot Sauce

Author: Bill Myers

The Incredible Worlds of Wally McDoogle, vol. 1

My rating: 4 of 5

Wally knew his summer was going downhill as soon as his dad started throwing around phrases like “great outdoors” and “think manly thoughts.” He just didn’t know how bad it was going to get until he stumbled onto the bus to “Camp Whacko” (as it was fondly nicknamed) and into the bad graces of notorious bully Gary the Gorilla. Somehow (yes, his ego tends to be his undoing), his fellow campers convince Wally to stand up to Gary in an all-out camp war–pranks in the middle of the night, traps on the trail, that sort of thing. Only, all of that doesn’t go very well with all this teaching on wisdom that Wally’s been hearing from his camp leader, and at some point he’s going to have to make a defining choice.

I discovered Bill Myers’ Wally McDoogle books back when I was still in, like, middle school. They were fabulous then, and they continue to be a joy even today. They manage to be distinctively Christian middle-grade fiction, with solid teaching (in this volume, focusing on making wise choices, choosing good friends, and even loving your enemy), while still being relatable and impossibly funny. Wally is just so utterly clumsy and has such an over-the-top sarcastic sense of humor (and yes, everything’s told from a first-person perspective, which in this story definitely works), that you can’t help but laugh. The collection of circumstances as a whole is so improbable as to be basically implausible. And yet, the attitudes Wally has, the bad choices he makes, and the hard decisions he’s faced with, are completely realistic–they’re the sort of challenges that real people are faced with on a everyday basis. Which (besides the gut-wrenching laughter) is what makes this story so great; it equips kids to face real choices and helps them think through things so that they are more ready when they’re faced with this stuff in real life. Definitely recommended.

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Laid-Back Camp (Manga)

Mangaka: Afro

Status: Ongoing (currently 4 volumes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Rin loves solo camping, and even though she’s only in high school, she’s already made numerous camping trips on her own. The quiet, the beauty of the scenery, the delicious camp food . . . it’s all quite enchanting. On one camping trip, Rin encounters another student, Nadeshiko, who is about as bubbly and enthusiastic as Rin is calm and collected. Yet the two quickly form a fast–if unusual–friendship, texting back and forth, trading camping advice, and sending pictures of places they’ve gone. Sometimes they even go camping together with Nadeshiko’s outdoor club from school, which is fun too, if a different sort of fun from the camping to which Rin is accustomed.

Laid-Back Camp is a very unusual but charming manga. It’s very chill–the “laid-back” in the title is quite appropriate. There’s a seinen flavor to the story, even though the main characters are all high-school girls. And it’s a very cute, fun story revolving around Rin and Nadeshiko in their separate camping-related endeavors (Rin’s solo camping trips to fabulous locales, Nadeshiko’s goofing around with her school club, shopping trips to camping supply stores, and group camping trips) while also developing the unusual friendship between these two. The other side of this manga is that it is, in fact, a camping manga. Which doesn’t mean you have to like camping or be interested in it to enjoy the story; it’s cute and fun either way. But if you are interested, the manga actually provides a lot of information–comparing camping supplies based on cost and utility, describing various sorts of campsites, even going over camp-friendly recipes. It’s pretty cool, giving lots of info without obnoxiously overriding the story. I’ve really enjoyed reading Laid-Back Camp and look forward to reading future volumes of it.

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