Tag Archives: contemporary

Otherside Picnic, Vol. 2 (Light Novel)

Author: Iori Miyazawa

My rating: 4.5 of 5

It’s been a few months since Sorawo and Toriko started exploring the other side (as they call the mysterious place populated by horrors you’d typically only see in net lore) together, searching for Toriko’s missing friend Satsuki. As summer sets in, they encounter some pretty unbelievable things–they rescue the U. S. Marines stuck at Kisaragi Station, a fun beach trip lands them deep in the other side, and they handle a problem with (of all things) ninja cats! But as complicated and scary as all that is, navigating the complexities of their relationships–with each other and with others–is perhaps an even more complex and challenging endeavor.

The second volume of this light novel series is a solid follow-up of the first volume, keeping a consistent tone and quality of writing. The author continues to delve into the realms of creepypasta and net lore, bringing these stories to life that seem innocuous enough at first then surprise you with how terrifying they become. The characters are consistent from the first volume, but they are also more fully developed, as are the relationships between them. They’re rich individuals with personality flaws that are relatable, while still being interesting and kind of out there. This volume’s a little more shoujo ai than the first volume, but it’s still definitely not the yuri this is advertised as–there are certainly emotions here, but nothing happens. The relationship building between Sorawo and Toriko is cute, complicated, and kind of twisted . . . I’m interested to see where the author goes with that side of the story. In any case, if you’re into and/or curious about the net lore version of horror, this is definitely a story I would recommend.

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A Man and His Cat (Manga)

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.

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Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill, vol. 1 (Light Novel)

Author: Ren Eguchi

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Mukouda was perfectly happy enjoying a quiet life in Japan with convenient food delivery right to his door and fun web novels to read on his weekends off work. But somehow, he got accidentally caught up in a hero summoning to another world . . . only, his stats are waaaay weaker than the others who got summoned, plus the kingdom that did the summoning is incredibly sketchy seeming to him. So, since he can’t go home, he decides it’s time to set off into this new world on his own. Turns out, his summoned stats may not make him a hero, but they do come in pretty handy–especially the random ability to order food and other supplies from the same online market he used back home, which are not only delicious but, when consumed in this world, also have cool and unexpected stat benefits!

In one sense, Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill is your typical isekai light novel, and yeah, there are so many of those around now that it’s kind of getting boring. But in another sense, it’s rather unique, which gives it a certain appeal. Like, the main character comes into the story fully aware of what’s happening–he’s actually read enough web novels about this sort of thing happening that he’s just like “nope” and runs off to do his own thing. Mukouda is an amusing combination of lazy and clever, such that he uses what he has–his online market skill, his ability to cook, his connections with others, whatever–to make his life more reasonable, guarantee his safety, and even turn a profit. A lot of the story is just him cooking and interacting with others about food, so if you’re not into that, you’ll likely find this pretty boring, although there’s definitely fantasy monsters, magic, fights and other isekai tropes here as well. But yeah, a lot of the stuff he makes even comes with paragraphs that are basically recipes describing how to make the thing. On the whole, it’s a very casually paced, easygoing sort of story, nice for when you’re looking for something relaxed. Other than the cooking stuff (which some folks may like and others not, obviously), the only big complaint I had was that there are so many unusual ways for depicting communication that it got kind of tangled and confusing at times–one specific character gets bold font, thoughts get another, telepathic communication gets another, oracles from a goddess another, plus with normal communication the speaker is sometimes only indicated in parentheses at the end of the statement. It’s a little annoying, but I got used to it as I read more. Generally, I would recommend Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill if you enjoy casual isekai stories and don’t mind the excessive focus on cooking; it’s actually a pretty fun story.

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Otherside Picnic, vol. 1 (Light Novel)

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.

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Burnt Sugar (Short Story)

Author: Lish McBride

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/.

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Ray vs the Meaning of Life

Author: Michael F. Stewart

My rating: 3 of 5

It all started when Grandma got killed by that huge grizzly. Or, well, Ray’s guilty conscience niggles that it may have even started before then, when he killed her avatar in the video game they were playing together and started the whole Rube Goldberg chain of events that led to her death. Whatever the case, it’s when her will was read that things started really getting ugly. Because apparently she left the entirety of her trailer park and reputed wealth to Ray . . . but only if he can figure out the Meaning of Life within the next month. Otherwise, he’s out of luck and his mom (who he’s pretty sure hates him) gets it all. No pressure.

I really wanted to love this book. The first chapter had such potential with its mad riot of dark humor–almost a dark take on Richard Peck’s style. But then everything just gets so depressing and existential–nihilistic almost for a bit. And then it turns into some zen self-help ridiculousness. I mean, it’s not all bad. Some of the zen self-help stuff is pretty common sense for having good relationships and a better life and stuff. But I don’t read a fictional story to get self-help relationship tips. Seriously. Good points: There is some solid character growth and change over the course of the book, which is always nice to see. There are occasional bits of humor or insight that are refreshing. And the author pulls off first person, present tense seamlessly. Extra points for that. So yeah, I don’t regret reading Ray vs the Meaning of Life, but I probably won’t read it again. It’s not the first thing I’d recommend for someone looking for a good story, either; although to be completely fair, it’s highly rated on Goodreads and has won some prizes. So maybe it’s just me.

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In the Shadow of Spindrift House

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.

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Day Shift

Author: Charlaine Harris

Midnight, Texas, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

Things are changing in the small town of Midnight, Texas. First, some big corporation comes in to renovate and reopen the Midnight Hotel, a move that makes zero logistical or financial sense as far as any of the locals can figure. Then one of Manfred’s clients dies, and Manfred is falsely accused of stealing her jewelry, leading to a small fury of reporters and police coming through town. Naturally, this comes at the most inopportune time, since the Rev has a young guest who is growing at inhuman rates; not the sort of thing you want photographed. Obviously something must be done–the only question is, what exactly?

Going into the second volume of Harris’s series set in Midnight, I find myself continuing to be enchanted by these stories. Day Shift continues in much the same vein as Midnight Crossroad, developing the secrets of this tiny community and showing their united front in protecting the town. Over the course of the story, more character backstory unfolds. We get to find out what several characters are or what secrets they’re hiding. . . but there’s still enough mystery to make me want to come back for more! The story continues to be told from multiple characters’ POV, with additional characters such as Olivia and Joe being added in this volume. The mix of characters is pretty unusual, but I find them charming–sometimes at the same time as I find them shockingly dark or heartless. I suppose the fact that several of them aren’t exactly human contributes to that side of it, although that’s another thing that makes this town and its residents so utterly fascinating. This book brings a good balance of that–the lives of its unusual citizens–and plot–the death of Manfred’s client, the whole kerfuffle afterwards, the hotel opening. Plus the tone is just really down to earth and readable. Recommended.

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Midnight Crossroad

Author: Charlaine Harris

Midnight, Texas, vol. 1

My rating: 4 of 5

Midnight, Texas: a town so small that if it weren’t for the single stoplight at its main crossroad, the entire place might just blow away. It’s a quiet place that keeps its secrets, the sort of place no one moves to without a reason or a secret of their own to keep. Newcomer and internet psychic Manfred Bernardo finds that it’s the sort of place that suits him just fine. But the town’s quiet is shattered when pawnshop owner Bobo’s missing girlfriend turns up dead outside town and political extremists start stirring up trouble. And as he becomes part of the town’s inner circle, Manfred finds that they have their own ways of dealing with trouble.

I really enjoyed Midnight Crossroad, definitely more than I have Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. They’re set in the same ‘verse, but this book has a different tone to it. It’s not a romance or particularly a mystery, for one, although there are certain mystery elements. More so, it’s an urban fantasy with a noir-ish, small-town flavor that uniquely suits the particular story and characters the author brings us here. It gets kind of dark, and basically everybody has secrets (not all of which are revealed in this volume). But there’s also a lot of small-town southern charm. I really enjoy the various characters–they’re well developed and enjoyable. I liked that we get chapters from the perspectives of more than one person as well, although this particular volume clearly focuses of Manfred, and to a lesser extent on the witch Fiji. Midnight Crossroad is an engaging urban fantasy, er, rural fantasy (?) with an intensely dark yet comfortable to read style that I enjoyed a lot. Definitely recommended.

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Will Williams (Short Story)

Author: Namwali Serpell

My rating: 3 of 5

Warning: Strong/offensive language

Will knows he’s done plenty of bad things in his life. But the things he’s gotten caught for, gotten in trouble for? He swears those were never actually him. . . .

In this contemporary retelling of Poe’s “William Wilson,” we are given an intriguing look into the mind of a very paranoid, disturbed individual. Everything is told in first person, with an older character in prison for the rest of his life looking back on how his downhill road all started . . . with a gravely-voiced doppelganger–same name, same clothes, even the same tattoo–that no one else seems to notice or remember. You’ve got an obviously unreliable narrator, and it’s interesting to see the persecution complex that builds in his mind throughout the story. There’s a strong use of dialect that adds quite a lot in terms of character development as well–though strong warnings for the language, including some racially offensive terms. I haven’t read the original Poe, so I can’t say how they compare, but “Will Williams” was an interesting character study, with a nice use of dialect, rising tension, and sense of madness.

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