Tag Archives: young adult fiction

The Freshman (Visual Novel)

Pixelberry Studios

Status: Complete (4 books)

My rating: 4 of 5

It’s the start of your freshman year at Hartfeld University, and the future is bright. You’ve got a suite full of fun, interesting people who seem to want to be friends . . . maybe even more than friends. Hey, maybe this will be the year you find love! Either way, there are great relationships to build. But not everything is perfect–you’ve got sorority drama, financial crises, a cranky mentor/boss who wants to use your personal drama for his own ends. In fact, things get pretty complicated pretty quickly.

The Freshman is a choose-your-own-adventure sort of visual novel available through Pixelberry’s Choices app. I have to say, I really enjoyed this game. It brings out both the drama and the excitement of college, the thrill of defining yourself, building friendships, and making choices that will determine your future. I feel like they did a good job of making the main character–the girl you play–both developed as a character and open to interpretation based on the choices you make. That’s a hard line to determine, but I think the way they did it works. I definitely enjoyed the other characters as well; you’ve got some strong personalities, but it makes for an enjoyable mix. Although yes, also waaaaay more drama then I ever had at college, thank you very much. The creators manage to keep it fun though, mixing in humor and sweet moments in the midst of the drama and angst. In addition to all the school activity and drama going on with your group of friends, this is also a romance story (some might say it’s primarily a romance story, although I think it’s possible to stay single throughout if you so choose) with three dating choices. Again, I felt like this was fairly well-balanced against the rest of the game. The art and music were well done, and the text/interface are easy to interact with. Honestly, my only complaints are the main complaints I have with the Choices app itself–primarily that certain choices cost diamonds, and it’s impossible to get enough diamonds to afford all the choices you want to make without spending actual money. But I found I was able to enjoy the game in spite of not having the diamonds to choose everything I wanted to, so it doesn’t negatively affect the story too much. I would recommend The Freshman to anyone who enjoys a slice-of-life sort of story and to those who like western (as opposed to Japanese) visual novels.

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Ghost in the Game

Author: Christopher Keene

Dream State Saga, vol. 3

My rating: 4 of 5

Noah has made the difficult choice to work for Wona–the company he had believed responsible for his girlfriend Sue’s death as well as the deaths of several other individuals–in order to find those truly responsible and hopefully see justice done. But that choice has come with a cost as most of his friends in the Dream State now see him as having betrayed them . . . which he kind of deserves, actually. He’s trying to fight for the greater good and hope they come around eventually. Of course, working for Wona has its perks, too. Cushy living conditions and great pay IRL, position and privilege in-game–it’s not all bad. But things continue to get more complicated as players in the Dream State find themselves attacked by seemingly untraceable random attackers . . . especially when one of these Screamers, as they quickly become known, shows up wearing the face of Noah’s friend Chloe’s brother, one of several beta-testers who had previously disappeared. Now it’s up to Noah to bring together a functional team and figure out what’s going on and who is behind it all.

As with the first two Dream State books, I found Ghost in the Game to be a treat to read. Keene continues to impress with his world building, giving us a sweeping, imaginative view of the Dream State world in its many iterations. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I really think that his way of presenting the world and the way the characters interact with it in-game are not only one of his greatest strengths as an author, but it’s also some of the best I’ve read, period. It manages to be immersive, easily understood, and captivating. I really enjoyed that in this volume we move away somewhat from the revenge theme, getting into more mystery, adventure, and relationship building/repair. There’s definitely some intriguing plot going on, which is fun to read, and it’s nice to get more interpersonal development in this volume as well, especially with where Back in the Game left us. I’m still not sure about Noah’s way of looking at the whole situation, but after three volumes, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that he and I just think really differently about stuff . . . and it’s actually kind of neat to have a character that is developed enough that I can draw that kind of conclusion about him. I also quite enjoyed getting to see more of the characters IRL in this volume; combining both in-game and IRL character interactions seems to add a lot to the character development and really flesh Noah’s group out as individuals. I should mention, we get left with a bit of a cliffie, or at least with lots of room for plot development in future volumes, which I am looking forward to. I would recommend Ghost in the Game, particularly for gamers, cyberpunk fans, and LitRPG fans in particular.

NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.

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Giant Days, vol. 3 (Graphic Novel)

Author: John Allison/Illustrators: Lissa Treiman & Max Sarin/Colorist: Whitney Cogar/Lettering: Jim Campbell

My rating: 4.5 of 5

School politics and a mysterious individual who won’t show his (her?) face manipulating the players behind the scenes. Relationship drama on multiple fronts. Camping trips! Old friends stopping in to visit. The wonky world Susan’s brain enters after too many days with nearly no sleep. Find all that and more in the third volume of Giant Days!

As with the first two volumes, volume 3 of Giant Days delivers quite the charming, quirky slice-of-life drama as it looks into the daily lives of Susan, Daisy, Esther and their friends Ed and McGraw. It consistently follows the first two volumes in the delightfully odd look at college life, the relatable and fabulous characters, and the wonderful art that so characterize the series as a whole. I enjoyed especially that the first chapter is an Ed-centric one, giving us a closer look into his life, as well as McGraw’s. Also, although it was totally random, I loved the “Night World” visuals when Susan, and later Esther, get to that point where reality warps due to lack of sleep–the trippiness of the art there is really fantastic. And, while much of the story in this volume is pretty episodic, with the characters kind of scattered at points, the last chapter where the three girls go on a camping trip together loops us back to the beginning, to that wonderful connection and relationship that these three have. This volume managed to be relatable, full of feels, and also laugh-inducingly funny, sometimes within the same page. Recommended. (Warnings for a major cliffie at the end, though!)

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Giant Days, vol. 2 (Graphic Novel)

Author: John Allison/Illustrators: Lissa Treiman & Max Sarin/Colorist: Whitney Cogar

My rating: 4.5 of 5

The holidays are here! Which means it’s time for the ball–vintage dresses and relationship faux pas abound. Then the university is closed, and everyone is supposed to be at home resting and celebrating with family. But Esther and Daisy received an emergency text from Susan, and they have made their way to Northampton to rescue her, from what, they know not. And when the girls get back to university after the holidays, what awaits but the dreaded exams . . . it would probably help if Esther had actually bothered to attend class for most of the previous semester. Meanwhile, Susan is keeping secrets from her friends, and Daisy has developed a weird Texan alter-ego. Naturally, zaniness ensues.

The second volume of Giant Days follows faithfully in the steps of the first volume, dealing a strong combination of relatable, cute slice-of-life story with some pretty hilarious comedic randomness. I would say that I liked this volume slightly less than the first volume, but that’s a matter of levels of brilliance rather than of good versus not good. The characters are strong, developing their personalities even more and branching out to show us more of each of the girls on their own, while still giving us a good chunk of page-time with them together. (Personally, I would have preferred more time with them together, since that’s when they really shine, but it’s neat to see them developed individually as well.) We also get more involvement and character growth for both McGraw and Ed, both of whom I’m growing to love almost as much as I do Susan, Esther, and Daisy–which is quite an accomplishment. Seriously, at the risk of sounding repetitive, the level of character development for all five of these characters is just stunning. It makes me very happy to read it. So does the art, which is just perfect for the story–bright and expressive and kind of casual. Highly recommended.

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Giant Days, vol. 1 (Graphic Novel)

Author: John Allison/Illustrator: Lissa Treiman/Colorist: Whitney Cogar

My rating: 5 of 5

Susan, Daisy, and Esther became fast friends when they began their university studies together. Yes, they all have their individual quirks–you could even say that they’re very different from each other. But perhaps it’s those very differences that make them good for each other, that help them through the complications of studies, relationships, illness, and drama that plague them along the way. Certainly, those quirks keep things interesting, as long as they can survive living in Esther’s drama zone, dealing with Susan’s mysterious past, and helping Daisy handle the big, scary world despite her (shocking) innocence.

I think I’m in love! Giant Days is everything I ask for in a graphic novel. The art is charming–a contemporary style similar to, say, Nimona or Seconds or even Kibuishi’s work, but with its own unique flair–and the coloring is just perfect–vibrant but not overdone. And the tone of the story is spot on, giving us a current, relatable slice of life story that touches on deep issues but never goes so far that we lose sight of the lighter side of things. And there’s plenty of the lighter side to be found here; this graphic novel is brimming with humor in abundance. There’s just enough quirkiness to the characters and the situations they find themselves in to appeal to the nerdier audiences, but the story is such a solid, timely slice-of-life story that I think a lot of YA/NA readers will find themselves charmed by this work as well. The characters are strong and interesting, and their depiction is vivid and captivating. I’m excited to see what Giant Days will bring in future volumes.

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Wisdom’s Kiss

Author: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

My rating: 4 of 5

You might say that there were many different things–different people’s lives interacting–that ultimately contributed to the debacle that later became known as Wisdom’s Kiss. The Princess Wisdom (better known as Dizzy) herself, for one, what with her tendency to belie her name and throw herself headlong into drama and adventure. The Duke Roger whom she was to wed, as well, although he was truly a pawn in the hands of his overbearing and scheming mother. Then there was the dowager queen Benevolence, Dizzy’s grandmother, who with her far-too-intelligent cat Escoffier discovered the schemes of said Duchess. Less immediately obvious, yet equally influential, were the presence of Trudy, a young kitchen maid with second sight; Tips, her childhood sweetheart; Felis el Gato, Tips’ mentor and a grand performer; and the Emperor of the whole land himself. But it was the interweaving of these individual lives that allowed even the possibility of such an event, one that would shape the course of the land for generations to come.

I’ve enjoyed Murdock’s writing before in her story Princess BenWisdom’s Kiss actually ties in with this earlier novel, although it is certainly not necessary to read the one to enjoy the other. They’re more loosely connected tales rather than anything like a series. Wisdom’s Kiss is really fascinating in the way it’s written. You don’t really get any straight-up narrative, although the sections taken from Trudy’s memoirs read essentially like a regular novel. But for the most part, the story is told in letters and diary entries and, yes, even articles taken from an encyclopedia. It’s honestly enough to be a bit hard to piece together where the story is really going at times, although everything comes together nicely by the end. And I did enjoy the different perspectives and the way the different characters’ personalities came through from the different sources. It was interesting–and something I haven’t seen done much–to see the same character from multiple different perspectives, including their own; it gives a different appreciation for the individual. As for the writing style itself, I’ve heard the author’s writing described in the past as “frothy,” and I can’t honestly think of a better word to describe it. There’s a lightness and wit to it, even in the sections where things seem dark and awful–but in this particular story, there’s also a busyness and a constant activity from all sides that I might almost better compare to the fizz you get when you first open a soda. I think that this is one of those stories that would tend be polarizing; you would either love all the novelty and the different perspectives or it would drive you mad trying to keep up and make sense of it all. Personally, however, I enjoyed Wisdom’s Kiss and look forward to reading more by this author.

Note: It’s implied at the end of the story that this is a retelling of Puss in Boots . . . and I guess it sort of it, but I would never have caught it if it hadn’t been mentioned directly. For what that’s worth.

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Landscape with Invisible Hand

Author: M. T. Anderson

My rating: 5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience (for language and dark themes, but mostly for language)

Young artist Adam Costello and his family remember a time when things were different. But it seems like a long time ago, now. Since the vuvv made first contact, bringing promises of new technology and wealth, well, everything has changed–and not for the better. Sure, the ultra-wealthy who live in close contact with the vuvv may have a pretty comfortable life. But for everyone else, the coming of the vuvv has meant nothing but hardship: economic collapse, no jobs, looting, costs of medicine going through the roof. Everyone is forced to make tough choices, and Adam chronicles it all in paint, watercolor, and VR rendering.

On the one hand, I’m not surprised that Landscape with Invisible Hand hasn’t made a big splash in the YA community or in the literary community as a whole. (I hadn’t even heard of it until I stumbled on it in the library, and the average Goodreads rating is only 3.59.) Because while this is a solid dystopian novel (novella, whatever), it’s hitting towards the end of that genre’s popularity storm and the type of dystopian is just enough off from the mainstream that it’s not going to fly so well. Plus, it’s not all mushy romance and fighting the invading hordes. It’s dark and depressing at times. . . . Which brings me to why, on the other hand, I’m shocked that this book hasn’t taken the literary world by storm. Other than the obvious–this is an M. T. Anderson book, people! Why is it not getting attention?! But back to my point: this book is one of the most intentionally, incredibly artistic books I have read in a long time. It delves into the darkness and reveals the underlying truths . . . and finds the spark of hope in it all. The topics it handles–while couched in terms of an alien invasion–are incredibly timely for readers today, at times painfully so. Not to mention that the writing itself, the actual choice and arrangement of the words, is remarkable. It’s all present tense, sparse, yet artistic, each word carefully chosen that–were it not for the obvious paragraph structure–I might almost have thought I was reading free-verse poetry; it has that sort of feel to it. Even the book design feeds into the whole artistic structure of the whole–the unusual proportions, the cover that looks like an oil painting on canvas, the way each chapter is outlined and titled by the picture Adam is working on at that time. I get that it’s not for everyone, but I would really recommend giving Landscape with Invisible Hand a try, even if the initial premise doesn’t sound so interesting. Because this reach of this story goes far beyond what it promises on the surface.

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