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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
AO3 ID: 12592096
Status: Complete (22 Chapters)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Rated T for violence/whump
Princess Allura has entrusted Lance with his very first diplomatic mission, to the cat-like people of Macka–a peaceful planet that has historically been allied with the Alteans. Lance is determined not to mess this up, although it should honestly be pretty easy, enough so that the team is only sending him and Keith to handle the meeting while the rest of them attend to another mission. Only, it seems the Mackans have changed a bit in the thousands of years since Altea last communicated with them, and now Lance and Keith find themselves dedicated as sacrifices to the Mackan goddess Lady Leora. And even when Keith manages to break them out, they must handle the harshness of the desert, Lance’s (magical) loss of his voice, his (equally magical) non-healing wound that’s bleeding all over, and a fierce group of Mackans fueled by religious fervor at their heels. But at least Keith and Lance are in all this together.
The Purity of Sin was the first of Icy’s works that I read, and it was brilliant then. It’s still brilliant upon re-reading. This story is definitely whumpish–there’s lost of violence and bloodshed, and Lance in particular just gets some really rough breaks. But there’s a ton of character development as well. The transition of Keith and Lance from awkward rivals-turned-allies to brothers is beautiful and touching, and the author does a great job of showing this in a myriad of little moments–new understandings, cuddles, sharing in hardships together. Also, I liked that the author didn’t make the Mackans some stereotypical “bad guys” but instead gave us a people with good intentions but misguided, fearful beliefs that lead them to terrible choices. The whole story is balanced well, and the writing is enjoyable to read–as long as you’re up for some pretty angsty moments. Recommended.
Note: You can find The Purity of Sin at https://archiveofourown.org/works/12592096/chapters/28681112.
Author/Illustrator: Jon Klassen
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Bear has lost his hat, and he really wants it back. He goes around asking everyone he meets if they have seen his hat. For that matter, have you seen his hat?
I Want My Hat Back is one of those great picture books that I truly enjoyed reading . . . even while I have some reservations about giving it to kids to read. I’ll discuss that in a bit. But first, the things I adored about this book. For starters, Klassen’s art style is just fabulous–simple and straightforward but with a softness that makes me want to just pet the animals. And the dialogue is perfect for the 3-5 age range; the words are simple, and you’ve got a repetitive theme with subtle variations so it doesn’t get too boring. Then you’ve got the one huge exception to the repetition–only, it’s disguised to look just like all the other interactions. It’s a fun something for kids to try to catch and a humorous inside-joke upon re-reading. Which leads us to the ending and the love/hate reaction I have to it. At the risk of totally giving spoilers for a kids’ picture book: the bear eats the rabbit who stole his hat then acts all shifty and lies when someone asks about the rabbit later. Which, when reading the story, it basically darkly hilarious, since it’s a perfect mirror of how the rabbit acted when bear asked about his hat. Trouble is, as a responsible adult who’s trying to teach kids honesty and values, I’m then conflicted . . . . I guess, read the book yourself and decide if it’s appropriate for your kids personally. But yeah, for myself, I found I Want My Hat Back to be mostly charming and darkly funny.