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.
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.
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.
AO3 ID: 1617737
Status: Complete (4 Chapters)
My rating: 4 of 5
In which Darcy cat-sits for Captain America, tasers don’t work on Bucky Barnes, Nat threatens everyone with Dog Cops spoilers, Darcy’s leftover pizza keeps disappearing, and nobody uses the front door.
This story is so utterly dorky, and I love it so much. It’s a little piece of a kinder, softer Marvel-verse, one in which Bucky actually sticks around after The Winter Soldier instead of all the other craziness going down–kind of reminds me of Owlet’s Infinite Coffee-verse, although this has its own distinct flavor as well. Of course, Fenestration and the Art of Self Defense is seen through Darcy Lewis’ eyes, which, well . . . let’s just say she has a unique perspective on life. It makes for a refreshing and funny story, though. Most of the story is just her and Bucky interacting–first impressions, that sort of thing. Naturally, she shoots him with a taser right off the bat. Also naturally, he has tons of knives and the taser does nothing to him. Comedy gold all around. The entire story’s like that for the most part–amusing conversations, clashes of opinion, weird random stuff happening. . . . All very funny. It’s sad to me that Darcy and Bucky never really interact (or even meet as far as I can remember) in MCU canon; their personalities have the potential to be an unexpected but amusing mix, and I think this story does a great job of highlighting that without being shippy or anything like that. Definitely recommended.
Note: If you’re interested in trying Fenestration and the Art of Self Defense, you can find it at https://archiveofourown.org/works/1617737/chapters/3447221.
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: 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.
Authors: Mac Barnett & Jory John
Illustrator: Kevin Cornell
The Terrible Two, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Best friends Miles Murphy and Niles Sparks, better known as the Terrible Two (but only to each other), have taken their school by storm with a series of madcap pranks. As a pair of dedicated pranksters, it’s what they do. But they realize they may have gone too far when their pranks get Principal Barkin fired . . . only to be replaced by his father, also Principal Barkin. And while their former principal made a fun target for their pranking, the new principal is quickly sucking the life and fun out of everything. He doesn’t even react, even to the most innovate pranks. And to handle this new principal and get their old one back, Miles and Niles will have to team up with an unlikely ally to pull off a prank of epic proportions.
For those who enjoyed The Terrible Two, this book is a solid, fun follow-up. The Terrible Two Get Worse is a charming, funny middle-grade story full of tricks, friendship, and good clean fun. I appreciate particularly that this volume addresses the idea of pranking while doing no real harm–and fixing the messes you make. Because yeah, while middle-grade pranking is humorous and ought to be relatively innocent, it would be pretty easy for kids to go overboard. As far as Niles and Miles’ friendship, we get something more developed and settled here. In the first volume, they’re in this rivals-to-friends stage, but by this point, they know each other and have done lots together. They accept each others’ quirks, have secret handshakes, and are generally comfortable together. I wish we had gotten more of this friendship aspect, honestly–like, it’s there throughout, but there’s enough focus on plot that it gets a smidge lost in the shuffle at times. Still, though, I enjoyed the friendship represented here. The plot can get a bit angsty at times, if only because there’s such a dour antagonist at play, but rest assured that there’s plenty of good fun as well. As an aside, I also really enjoyed the way the illustrations are worked in as actual parts of the text; you couldn’t read the story completely without the specific pictures in the specific places that they are. For those who enjoy humorous middle-grade stories, I would recommend.
Author: Emmy Cicierega
Illustrator: Stephanie Ramirez
My rating: 4 of 5
When Mabel finds a blank book in Dipper’s stuff, well, he can’t really expect her to NOT write in it, can he? Only, when she opens it up and starts her Mabelish ramblings, she finds Dipper actually stuck in the book, trapped by an extradimensional being demanding they give it colors. Which, okay, for Gravity Falls is basically Tuesday, but whatever. Naturally, Mabel and Dipper are going to be completely serious and compliant with this weirdo’s wishes. Oh, who am I kidding? When are the Pines twins ever serious or compliant?!
So, technically, this is a Gravity Falls coloring book. But it’s also basically a short graphic novel, so there’s that. The Pines twins’ character is all over this book, right from the sparkly pink ink and stickers festooning the cover. The back and forth dialogue between Mabel, Dipper, and the color-sucking monster (Chamelius Pendraggin, “pigmentologist”) is amusingly in-character and funny. The pictures get quite goofy, but they are also very funny–classic Mabel whimsy makes up a huge portion of it (and how could that be anything but awesome?) with some amusing Dipper asides and lots of commentary from Dipper on Mabel’s pictures. This is one of those books that, although it’s clearly intended for kids as a coloring book, it manages to be a fun read for fans of the show, even if they’re waaaay over the intended age bracket. Recommended.
Author: Mira Grant
My rating: 4 of 5
Harlowe and her friends have been there, done that. They’ve made a name for themselves as teen detectives. Solved cases adults wouldn’t touch, even some paranormal ones. But now they’re growing up, and Harlowe feels like they’re losing something, maybe losing each other. So in one last try to keep the group together and make it work, she brings them something special: a haunted house, tied to her own family history and possibly to her parents’ deaths, with a huge payout if they manage to find the original deed and find out who the house really belongs to. None of them can resist. But they aren’t the first who have ventured into the house. Who’s to say whether they’ll be the first to succeed and make it back out alive?
I really enjoyed In the Shadow of Spindrift House, a paranormal novella by Seanan McGuire, written under the pen name Mira Grant. Right off the bat, I loved the idea of teen detectives who have grown past the point where they can call themselves that, who have already had their popularity and are no longer cute. I mean, you see stories about kids going around solving mysteries and doing crazy stuff all the time. But what happens when those kids grow up? Are they able to adapt, or do they keep doing that crazy stuff . . . only now, it will get them killed or arrested or something? Just saying, it’s an interesting idea to play with, and I thought the author addressed it well, putting this solidly in a new adult fiction kind of genre. Only with lots of eerie paranormal stuff going on. I also liked the way the mystery and the atmospheric creepiness gradually built, tiny details adding up over the course of the story. The author also did a great job of creating characters and relationships that I cared about–enough so that certain parts of this story actually hurt, so fair warning there. There’s a certain lack of definition to some of the paranormal elements of this story, and I still can’t quite decide if there was enough definition, or if I would have preferred a bit more clarity. For instance, there’s a good bit of effort put into building the themes of nature and the sea, and we definitely can tell a lot just from that and from the historical stories that Harlowe and her friends uncover. But we never get a name for what we’re dealing with, or an actual explanation, or anything like that. So I guess I’d recommend this book for those who prefer things a bit more mysterious and open-ended. I would definitely recommend In the Shadow of Spindrift House, though, and I certainly intend to try more of the author’s writing.
Author: Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Illustrator: Goñi Montes
My rating: 4 of 5
Jack is special. Ever since he was little, he’s been able to see shades of those who have died, but things got even weirder when he was in 5th grade. He says it’s like he’s got spikes on his back that ghosts can grab onto and stick around. This is the story of his first three ghosts, the ones who changed his life forever.
Ghost Hedgehog is the first of Hoffman’s stories that I’ve read, and I have to say that it’s whetted my appetite for more. The story is creative and interesting, with a timeless feel that’s broken only by the occasional reference to a cell phone or suchlike. The writing style is accessible and down to earth, very enjoyable to read. It’s told in first person, focusing on a small period of time when Jack was eleven, although the tone of the writing is more mature than that–like maybe he’s looking back as an adult to how he got where he is. This story’s pretty short and could easily be read in one sitting. The ending leaves a promise of so much more, though, whether in the reader’s imagination or in other stories. I would certainly be interested in reading a sequel and definitely plan to try more of Hoffman’s books. Recommended.
Note: This is a Tor.com original story and can be purchased digitally or read only for free at https://www.tor.com/2011/11/16/ghost-hedgehog/.