Tag Archives: 4.5★

Natsume’s Book of Friends (Manga)

Mangaka: Yuki Midorikawa

Status: Ongoing (currently 22 volumes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

For his entire life, Takashi Natsume has been able to see yokai, and it’s brought him little but trouble–especially since his parents’ death. He’s been shipped between relatives who don’t really want him, who find him odd at best or a liar more often than not. It’s been a life that has led him to be withdrawn, to hide who he really is and what he sees. But when he moves in with an older couple of distant relatives who legitimately seem to want him, things begin to change. Natsume starts making friends at school. What’s more, he inherits an old book from his grandmother, Reiko Natsume, who he finds was also able to see yokai. In fact, possession of this book brings him into contact with even more yokai than before, including one that has gotten itself stuck in the form of a maneki neko who sticks around . . . to protect him and the book (and to raid free food from him). As time goes on, Natsume finds himself building true connections to those around him, both human and yokai, as well as to the memories of his grandmother Reiko.

Natsume’s Book of Friends is such a delightfully different manga that it’s difficult to truly explain. It’s shoujo, even though the main character is a boy, and that combination sets the story up to be very different than it would be if it were shounen (more action-y) or if the main character were female (where it would likely be more of a romance). As it is, it’s perfect, going more into Natsume’s sense of isolation at first and into his growing connections as time goes on. He grows in his understanding of Reiko as well, seeing memories of her through the Book of Friends. It’s also really neat to see him growing in confidence and conviction as the story progresses. I guess just in general there’s a lot of character growth developed in this manga, which I really love. Plus, Natsume just has an interesting personality, kind of blunt, actually–but it works and is enjoyable to read without being too overpowering for the story. The general atmosphere of this story is gentle, tranquil, even in the places where there’s action or peril. Plus, the softness of the illustrations helps to draw out this quality in the manga even more. It makes for a pretty relaxing read. One thing I didn’t care for quite so much in the earlier volumes is that it is extremely episodic–to the point of repeating the whole entry sequence for each chapter and having the chapters not connect at all. I get that this was intentional based on how the manga was originally published, but it’s a bit annoying to read. But this reduces significantly as you get further into the story, to the point that you have multiple-chapter story arcs and such–much more engaging to read at that point. Honestly though, even that episodic nature is a minor distraction to how generally enjoyable and peaceful this story is on the whole, and I would highly recommend this series.

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Moonstruck, vol. 2: Some Enchanted Evening (Graphic Novel)

Author: Grace Ellis

Illustrator: Shae Beagle

Moonstruck, vol. 2

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Werewolf barista and (secretly) aspiring author Julie and her friends score an invitation to a fairy frat party. It’s one of the hottest parties of the year–literally. The entire frat house is bespelled to be a little piece of summer in the midst of Blitheton winter. Fortunately, Julie’s girlfriend Selena is smart enough to keep their entire group from eating or drinking anything. Julie’s friends, the idiot band that the run into at the party . . . not so much. Two of the band members manage to get themselves stuck in the frat house, unable to leave unless the entire band performs at the fraternity’s next party–which would be a lot easier if Mark would get his scrawny vampire butt back to the fraternity instead of refusing to go anywhere near. Naturally, because they’re way too accommodating, Julie, Selena, Chet, and Manuel somehow find themselves trying to sort this all out, only to find themselves caught in a bigger plot–a party war between two separate fairy fraternities. As if they didn’t have enough drama and complications to sort out between themselves already!

I really love the cute fluffiness of this graphic novel series. If you’re in the mood for epic, intricate plots and high stakes, this isn’t really the story you should be picking up. But if you want sweet relationships where the characters are trying to make it work, even as they deal with real struggles like trust issues, then Moonstruck is perfect. Of if you love casual urban fantasy, where all sorts of magical/supernatural beings live normal lives playing computer games, working in coffee shops, playing in bands, and hanging out with friends. Some Enchanted Evening does a good job of showing the growing relationships between this group of friends while providing some solid humor (Mark is an idiot–the whole band are idiots–and Chet’s whole Newpals thing is ridiculous but also amusing). Again, the plot isn’t so much a high-stakes, intense thing, although it does push the characters to deal with some of their issues, which is nice to see. It really does seem like it’s setting us up for something major in the next volume or two, though, especially Cass’s ominous and untold visions being thrown into the mix. The art is consistently super-cute–lots of pastels and fun extras thrown into the background. Recommended.

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The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations

Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.

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Running from the Deity

Author: Alan Dean Foster

Pip & Flinx, vol. 11

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Flinx really didn’t set out to make first contact with the (comparatively) primitive native population on the planet Arrawd. . . . Never mind that doing so is a huge breach of Commonwealth law, Flinx was honestly a bit more occupied with his search for the Tar-Aiym artifact and, you know, saving the known universe. So when his ship set down on Arrawd to conduct some routine maintenance, he had every intention to stay on board and wait. But then boredom coupled with his innate curiosity struck, he explored a bit, accidentally ran into a native Dwarran (as they called themselves) . . . and what with one thing leading to another, somehow he’s using modern technology to perform what seem like miracles to the native Dwarrans and gaining a reputation across the world.

Running from the Deity is the first Alan Dean Foster I’ve ever read, and to be honest, that’s kind of tragic because he’s such a good writer. I feel like I’ve been missing out. First off, just on the whole, he crafts an interesting story, plain and simple. And I know it’s weird to be jumping into the middle of a series like this, but this book is surprisingly well self-contained–while also clearly connecting to the other volumes in the series, should you want to read them in order. But starting the story at this point, I didn’t feel lost; I was given sufficient background information in a pleasant, approachable manner so as to be able to enjoy the story . . . without being subjected to a nasty info dump. The only chapter that felt even slightly out of place was the last, which jumps to a different character and sets the stage for the next volume. The characters are excellent–full of personality that is presented to the reader in scintillating detail and that drives the progression of the story in a remarkably credible manner. And the worldbuilding. Just, wow. Arrawd and its population are so utterly alien, yet they’re presented in such a comprehensible and interesting way that I could just see them. Physical details, culture, all of it is thoroughly developed in much greater detail that I am accustomed to seeing just about anywhere. The actual writing itself is equally impressive–easy to understand, interesting to read, yet also teeming with challenging vocabulary that had me pulling out a dictionary. So yes, I truly enjoyed reading Running from the Deity as a fascinating sci-fi story and would certainly recommend it.

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The Atrocity Archives

Author:Charles  Stross

Laundry Files, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience, mostly for language

At first glance, Bob Howard seems like a pretty typical IT guy–smart, sardonic, harried by the incompetence of the computer-illiterate in his organization and the demands of his managers. That is, until you consider the fact that he works for a secret government organization whose sole purpose is to protect the world from eldritch entities invading from alternate realities. And Bob’s life is about to take a turn for the weirder as he, bored with desk duty, volunteers to be put on active service. There’s no telling what horrors he’ll run into next.

So, I’ve heard some really mixed reviews about this book, and honestly the author in general. I have to say, for myself, I enjoyed The Atrocity Archives a great deal and plan to read at least more of this series–probably some of Stross’s other series as well. It’s this delightful cross of eldritch horror, office politics, techno-thriller, and spy story, all told with this delightfully sardonic sense of humor. Personally, I enjoyed Bob’s outlook and found him an interesting character to read. And just the ideas behind this story are fascinating . . . higher maths being summoning rituals and opening doorways into other realities, programmers accidentally stumbling on said summonings, secret organizations specifically designed to deal with these. Plus just the whole office drama of the organization and Stross’s presentation of it. I have heard some folks complain about the “technobabble” used in this story, and yes absolutely this book makes me wish I actually understood more higher math and programming . . . but on the other hand, I’m not sure how much more sense it would make even if I did have more context for all the terms. It seems kind of like magic spells used in fantasy novels; like, if you understand Latin, you’ll get a bit of a heads up on what the spell does, but it’s mostly flavor text, and even if you don’t understand, the effects will become pretty clear pretty quickly. I never felt lost because I didn’t understand a term, put it that way. In any case, I found The Atrocity Archives to be a truly engaging and enjoyable book–recommended for those who enjoy something a bit more off the beaten path.

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Moonstruck, vol. 1: Magic to Brew (Graphic Novel)

Author: Grace Ellis

Illustrator: Shae Beagle

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Julie lives in a world where magic and mundane go together seamlessly–for instance, her best friend and fellow barista Chet just happens to also be a centaur. Or at least Chet was a centaur, until they tagged along on a date with Julie and her new girlfriend Selena to a back-alley magic show . . . where the magician stole their magic and left them a normal human. Horrors! Now the friends are on a mission to trap this magician and get Chet’s magic back before any more magical people are hurt.

Moonstruck was one of the sweetest, most charming graphic novels I’ve read in a long time. Right from the start, the cute art and pastel palette are just delightful. Add in the marvelous variety of character designs, not only in the main characters but also in the background, and you’ve got a story that’s visually engaging and charming. There’s a huge amount of diversity presented here, too, but (major kudos to the creators) in a way that feels natural and relatable, not forced or contrived. The characters are who they are, and I love them for it. As for the story, a great deal of it is character building and relationships, both romantic and friendships–lots of great friendships here, and the love story is sweet. Add in the coffee-shop dynamic and some light-hearted humor, and you’ve got a pretty cozy story. But then you’ve also got a certain amount of adventure, as these friends deal with Chet’s loss of magic and their subsequent tracking down and defeating of the magician. It’s a good balance. Probably more than anything, I love the characters and how they deal with real, complex emotions and situations. I love that Julie deals with worries and uncertainty, and I really want to see her backstory explored more in future volumes–like, we know she’s not all about being a werewolf, but why does she not like that about herself? In any case, I would definitely recommend this first volume of Moonstruck, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

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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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