Thursday, December 4, 2014

From zombies to cannibals....

Our favorite Shinobujin has once again stumbled into more than he expected in Jon Merz's Slavers of the Savage Catacombs.

Note: Slavers of the Savage Catacombs is the second book of the Shadow Warrior series. The review of the first book, The Undead Hoardes of Kan-Gul can be found here. Otherwise, read on!

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Merry Christmas Young Adult Shopping List

The YA Shopping List 2014
It's that time of year again, when the festive masses swarm the malls and shopping districts, looking for those perfect gifts fort the people in their lives. Books are an ambitious gift, with tastes being very personal and reading preferences sometimes being quite surprising.
What has become incredibly popular over the lsat few years, across all demographics, is the Young Adult novel. Fast paced, simply structured and full of easily relatable characters, Young Adult as a classification has much to offer both the occasional and the voracious reader.
And so, here's a list of some of the best of YA, all of which would make great gifts.
Steampunk is still going strong, and Gail Carriger is a founding author of the new wave. Her adult series, the Parasol Protectorate, is wildly popular and has been spun off into this prequel series. Taking place in a floating finishing school, these young ladies of Quality learn all manners of...finishing.
Young Adult novels are full of Chosen One characters. These young protagonists end up starting revolutions and leading armies. Miranda of Life as We Knew It is a refreshingly normal girl, simply trying to help her family alife as the world around her falls apart. She is hardly perfect, and all the more endearing and relatable for it.

Some of the most popular settings in YA fiction are the post-apocalyptic world and the oppressive dictatorship. These settings lend themselves to all sorts of flights of fancy, from zombies to televised battles. But The Book Thief takes place in World War II Germany, and history itself is all the horror the story needs.

Eleanor and Park

While so many books have perfect families and read like adult romance novels, Eleanor and Park is a refreshingly honest look at high school first love. Park is awkward, Eleanor has more to worry about than just her schoolwork, and anyone who remembers being fourteen will find something that rings true.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

People complain that there aren't enough strong female characters in literature, or that the women who are there are just skinned men. Balsa is perhaps the best example of a strong woman who actually acts and thinks like a female. Whether she's fighting off assassins, taking care of her young charge Chagum, or reconnecting with a childhood friend who could have been something more, Balsa is a woman who everyone could aspire to be.

The Midnight Palace

Magical Realism goes hand in hand with Young Adult, and no one does it better than Carlos Ruiz Zafon in The Midnight Palace. With twins separated at birth, a group of orphans and a villain who might be more than he appears, combined with prose that is an absolute pleasure to read, this is perhaps the best-written of the bunch.
And that should give you a good start on your holiday book buying. With stories safe enough to hand to most teenagers, and writing compelling enough to hold the attention of a well-read adult, these are some of the hidden gems of the Young Adult field. Good luck with your shopping, and as always, gift receipts are a lifesaver.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Manga Monday: Getting to know a loved one all over again

Mio and Takumi were high school sweethearts...of a sort.They met in high school, but circumstances kept their relationship from developing until after they had graduated. Eventually, though, they finally come together, and a year after they marry their son Yuji comes along.

In most manga, this would be where the story ends. But here, the story is just beginning.
"Archive is a planet of memory. People who have passed away continue to live there as long as someone on Earth remembers them."
So says the picture book that Mio wrote for Yuji before passing away. She promises to come back when when the rainy season starts, and this is where we pick up, in Takuji Ichikawa's Be With You.

It's been a year since Mio has passed away, and her son couldn't be more excited. She promised to come back at the start of the rainy season, and as the weather forecast predicts cloudy skies, Yuji runs outside to find her. His father follows, glad that his son has so much faith in his late wife but not expecting to find anything.

Imagine his surprise when he finds Mio, sitting on the steps of Lab 5. But the discovery is bittersweet, as they realize that she has no memory of her family.

The manga follows the six weeks of the rainy season, as the family slowly  learns about each other again. Yuji turns seven, Takumi has another health scare, and sleeping arraignments have to be renegotiated. Mio might not remember that Yuji is allergic to strawberries, or that her first dates with Takumi were hours of simply talking, but the family was one built on love, and that love can transcend whatever strange magic has brought Mio back to them.

Be with You started out as a novel, and has become a manga, a tv show and a movie. The theme song of the movie was the highest selling single of 2005, which shows some of the love that Japan has for this story. A melancholy, sweet look into the life of a family that is hurting - and healing - Be With You is a lovely one-shot manga to spend an afternoon with.

Highs: In the last chapter, as we see the events from the mother's point of view, is much more of a payoff than I'd expected from a story like this.

Lows: The fact that Yuji calls his father by his first name was extremely confusing at the beginning, but things made more sense as it went.

Verdict: One-shot manga are hard to find, so this is an even better buy than usual.

Further Reading: Be With You (novel), Bunny Drop, The Girl From the Well

Monday, November 10, 2014

Manga Monday: An ode to common vegetables

Yamaoka takes on vegetables with zeal in Oishinbo: A la Carte: Vegetables.

Vegetable Showdown is a head-to-head battle between the Ultimate Menu and the Supreme Menu. When Yamaoka suggests that their theme be 'vegetables,' Kaibara has a few stipulations. The dishes shall focus on cabbage and turnip respectively, and only the highest quality. These vegetables have been grown without herbicides or pesticides, and have a clean, sweet taste that is uncommon in food grown by large, industrial farms. Does Yamaoka have the skill to bring out these flavors, nearly lost in modern foods?

The Joy of a New Potato gives the reader a look at how food can bring together a family. Misaki Shacho is one of Japan's rising stars of entrepreneurship. Always seen at flashy restaurants, with beautiful young women on his arm, he's the epitome of new money - for better or worse. When bad investments cause him to lose it all, he has to call on friends even to help celebrate his son's birthday. Can friends and family help him learn to treasure what his modest means have left him?

Good Eggplant, Bad Eggplant is a love letter to an often misunderstood vegetable. Many people have been turned off by badly prepared, or badly grown, eggplant. When old or abused, eggplant can be a terrible combination of tough skin and bitter flesh. This is what young Hitoshi has learned to dread about the food. Now, he knows that he'll have to eat the vegetable at school, or lose face among his peers. Can Yamaoka convince his young friend that there is hope?

Tetsu Kariya pens love letters to cuisine in each chapter of his collections. In more fast-paced cultures, food becomes a chore, or something to be eaten in the car between jobs. Oishinbo reminds the reader that food is an art that deserves to be treasured. Whether the topic be the humble ramen noodle or the most basic plants that mother Earth has provided, these volumes show the care and work that goes into a perfect dish.

 Highs: Over and over, we are shown how food brings people together.

Lows: The far-left leanings of the author are thicker here than in other volumes, and can be preachy at times.

Verdict: Oishinbo: A la Carte; Vegetables is a worthy addition to the series, which is a good fit for foodies of all reading preferenes.

Further Reading: Oishinbo: A la Carte: Japanese Cuisine, Neko Ramen, The Drops of God

Friday, November 7, 2014

A new superhero debuts!

Everyone is used to the X-Men addressing issues of alienation and rejection, of feeling like a freak and not fitting in. But there are more ways to not fit in than to be crawling up the walls or calling the weather. 

Nowadays, perhaps one of the most common problems facing teens and their parents is the dilemma of the first-generation American immigrant. As the parents do their best to raise their children in the culture that they themselves grew up in, the kids are torn in a different direction by their peers. Marvel takes this on, with remarkable results, in Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal.

In most ways, Kamala Khan is just a normal teenager growing up in Jersey City. She bickers with her protective parents and older brother, she sneaks out her window to go to parties, and she writes Avengers fanfic. She struggles with blending her Muslim religion with the secular culture of America, and has friends who support her whatever she chooses. She has a pretty decent life, and she knows it.

But while she's out at that illicit party (with BOYS), she's exposed to the Terrigen Mist, and everything changes. Now, she has powers she can't control, a new responsibility to protect those around her, and no idea how to go about it.

And she's grounded.

Ms. Marvel Volume 1 shows us perhaps the most relatable superhero in comics today. G. Willow Wilson brings a fresh perspective to comics, and her empathy shows. Kamala is neither a caricature of a rebellious Muslim girl, nor a perfect daughter. She is a human being, with all the flaws that brings, and the reader loves her all the more for it. Bringing to light social issues without beating the reader over the head with them, and showcasing the most human characters I've read recently in any medium, Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal is a comic with broad appeal.

Highs: Watching Kamala make her costume (with puffy paint!) is absolutely excellent.

Lows: The villains are fairly one-dimensional so far, but there will be plenty of room for them to develop later.

Verdict: This is a comic that no one, even those who aren't as familiar with superheroes in general, should miss.

Further Reading: Alif the Unseen, The Complete Persepolis, Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers

Monday, November 3, 2014

Manga Monday: Checking in again with Amir and Karluk

Life in a village, in a land of nomads, makes Amir's new family a valuable target in A Bride's Story Volume 6.

Note: A Bride's Story Volume 6 is part of an ongoing series. Check out the review of Volume 1 here, and Volume 5 here. Otherwise, read on!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Manga Monday: Exposing the ugly side of society's vanity

Strangers make all sorts of assumptions from a person's appearance. A woman with styled hair and a powersuit looks more like an attorney than the woman with a sidebraid and a sundress. Similarly, no one takes the man with shaggy hair and three days' beard as seriously as the clean-cut man next to him.

It's even more prominent when weight is added to the equation. Being overweight has connotations of laziness, a lack of willpower, a lack of self-respect. And it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the opinions of people become internalized, it becomes more and more true.

This is the trap in which Noko finds herself in Moyoco Anno's In Clothes Called Fat

Noko is living a life that seems exaggerated to others, but rings true to anyone in her position. Working in an office staffed by pretty women in their 20s who still live at home and have their whole paycheck to spend on pretty clothes and going out, Noko is the outcast of the office. Called 'pig' by her superiors, mocked for her underclothes by her coworkers, all she has for comfort is food. And her boyfriend Saito.

But when one of the girls at work crosses the line, and Noko discovers Saito at Mayumi's apartment, all bets are off. And when Noko comes into a large amount of money unexpectedly, the obvious use for it is to lose the weight that has made her more and more of a target for this torture.

Then again, when the only thing a person has control of is their food, everything else slowly spins out of control. As Noko turns to dangerous means to attain the physique she wants, and Mayumi continues her campaign to destroy her, will she lose more than just the fat?

The art of In Clothes Called Fat tells as much of the story as the text. Even in her early fantasies, being thin is always equated with having pretty clothes and perfect hair. The thinner Noko gets, the more tired and haggard her face gets. Rather than becoming more pretty, she uses more and more makeup to hide the circles under her eyes.

Moyoco Anno has written an insightful tale of the ptifalls of society's shallow view of people, as well as the insecurities of those of all walks of life. Whether a top trader, or a beautiful secretary, or a lost soul, there are no pretty people in this book.

Highs: Anno shows a remarkable understanding of the insecurities - and their roots - of a wide swath of society.

Lows: There really isn't anyone to root for in this book; every last person is a broken, irredeemable mess.

Verdict: With no 'good guys' and few happy moments, In Clothes Called Fat leaves the reader with a bleak, if honest, look at society's failings.

Further Reading: Solanin

Monday, September 29, 2014

Manga Monday: When Abnormals fight, experience matters

The Survey Corps continues its campaign in the woods in Attack on Titan Volume 7.

Note: Attack on Titan Volume 7 is part of an ongoing series. Check out the review for Volume 1 here, and Volume 6 here.  Otherwise, read on!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Manga Monday: Chi's friends look an awful lot like her

Chi learns more about both of her families, and the Yamadas learn another hard lesson about having a kitten family member, in Chi's Sweet Home Volume 11.

Note: Chi's Sweet Home Volume 11 is part of a series. Check out the review of Volume 1 here, or the review of  Volume 10 here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Two more stories from a voice thought lost

Whenever an author passes away, I'm reminded of the Library of Dream, from Sandman. There, all the world's books that were never written, except in dreams, live. This hit me especially hard with the death of Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series. In that moment, all the possible adventures of the mice of Redwall were subtly shifted to Dream's library. The same may happen all too soon, to another grandmaster of fantasy, Terry Pratchett.

Ever so often, though, readers are granted a reprieve and a tale or two appear. In Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler, we get two stories that have never been printed anywhere before. 

'A Necessary Being' is in the point of view of the leaders of two tribes. Tahneh, the Rohkohn Hao, is the daughter of the previous leader. Before him their tribe didn't have a Hao, a born leader with a pure-blue coloring. He was kidnapped from another tribe and crippled to ensure he couldn't flee. He was able to rise above the bitterness and hatred of those who had damaged him so and become a good leader for his new Tribe, but watching him and his broken legs showed Tahneh the true cruelty of that tradition.

Tahneh has failed to give birth to a successor Hao, and now it's become her burden to order the capture of a foreign Hao to take over after her. Will she lose heart and betray her own tribe, or will she be able to do to the Tehkohn Hao what was done to her own father?

'Childfinder' takes place in a possible future of our own civilization. Psionic ability has appeared in humanity, and the optimists marveled at the possibilities of uniting the world.

Barbara is living the reality of this new world. Hiding in a suburb-turned-slumlord-housing, she is trying to pass on the control of the psionic ability to children who would never have the opportunity for training otherwise. Very few people can see the potential for psionics in children, and it withers from disuse so quickly that most never learn to use it. Children that the organization hadn't already gotten a hold of and tainted. Children like her.

The organization that she escaped from has no one else with this talent. Eve is sent to retrieve her, to find more children for their own use. But Barbara has other plans.

These stories are from earlier in Butler's writing career, and it shows. These two stories show the potential that Butler has as an author, along with the rough edges that any new author has. Her ideas are as huge as in her later novels, but seem incomplete somehow. There are just a few more unanswered questions than she might have left later on, but they are still light-years ahead of the average short story. 

Unexpected Stories gives Butler's fans one last glimpse into tales rescued from Dream's library.

Highs: The footnote at the end of 'Childfinder' is one of the most chilling bits of writing I've read in a long time.

Lows: The slow discovery of the caste system in 'A Necessary Being' might be frustrating to readers unaccustomed to the style.

Verdict: These two tales raise hopes that more spectacular stories might be hiding somewhere in Butler's papers, just waiting to be revealed.

Further Reading: Kindred, Dawn, Kabu Kabu, The Speed of Dark

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Where do our warriors go, when the war is finally over?

The alien invaders have won. By using the serotonin paths in the brain, they are able to read our thoughts and kept one step ahead of our best military personnel. There seemed to be no way to win, as the 'human population' counter slowly ticked towards zero.

Where traditional arms have failed, a genius geneticist steps in. By radically changing the structure of both the brain and the body, she is able to create the perfect warrior for the fight against the Luyten. Fifteen feet tall. Tripedal for added speed and strength. Genius-level IQs, trained from birth on military strategy, and completely without empathy for the enemy, or each other.

They are Defenders.

Within a matter of months, the Luyten threat is neutralized. Humanity's Doomsday Clock finally stops ticking down, and there is some hope on the horizon. But now that the outside threat is gone, there's a new problem to deal with.

The problem is the Defenders. Humanity has burdened itself with a race of sociopaths who are bigger, stronger and faster than humans. Now that the war is over, they don't have anything to do.

And idle hands are the Devil's playground.

Told from many points of view - from a 'traitor' who helps a Luyten survive in the rubble of a city, to one of the scientists working in the labs that created the Defenders - this is a story of an ongoing apocalypse. Just as one threat to humanity is defeated, another emerges. Humanity will have to make alliances it never thought possible and betray its own creation in order to survive.

Will McIntosh shows his deep understanding of the human psyche, both the thoughts of the individual and those of the masses. Any book with telepathic main characters would be a challenge, but with the fractured minds of the Defenders added to the mix, the book becomes a minefield. McIntosh masterfully creates both a race that is interdependent on the emotions of its group, and a race who has no concept of these feelings at all. The contrast throughout is fascinating and addictive.

Defenders is a can't-miss for fans of near-future science fiction as well as the growing fan bas base of post-apocalyptic tales.

Highs: The way that each Defender is eerily similar, yet has separate personalities, is striking.

Lows: There were mistakes made by the world governments, over and over, that made me want to scream at the book.

Verdict: A masterful piece of science fiction that should have wide appeal.

Further Reading: A Hymn Before Battle, Fortune's Pawn, Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka Volume 1, Robopocalypse

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Everything comes with a price

Some people have a knack for things. Perhaps the letters of her Scrabble bag spell out the future. Maybe they can hop on their bike and find whatever it is they're looking for, whether they know exactly what they're looking for or not. 

Or their car drives them to Christmasland.

In Joe Hill's NOS4A2, some objects can help their users open rifts in the universe. Victoria McQueen, also known as Vic - or simply The Brat - discovers this when she gets her Tuff Burner for her eighth birthday. As she rides away from her parents' fight, a bridge that has collapsed years ago appears before her. On the other side, she finds the bracelet that her parents are fighting over - and a piercing headache unlike anything she's ever experienced.

Over the years, her Tuff Burner and her Shorter Way Bridge help her other lost things, too. A cat, left for dead on the side of the road. A plush penguin. Trouble.

Trouble in the form of Charlie Manx. Once, long ago, Charlie might have thought he was doing good. In fact, even now, he believes that the children he 'rescues' are being given everything they could ever want. They get to live in a land where it's always Christmas. Where they wake every morning to presents and songs and games. Where the evil parents in their lives will never hurt them again. Never mind that their teeth are replaced with row upon row of hooks, like a shark. Or the games that they play with knives and scissors and lynching trees. Never mind the mothers that become the playthings of the Gas Mask Man for no reason other than that they were trying to protect their sons and daughters from the man in the Rolls Royce Wraith.

As a teenager looking for trouble, her bike led her into the path of old Charlie Manx. That encounter ended with Manx behind bars, a conveniently untrue story about being kidnapped by him, and riding off to safety on the back of Lou Carmody's motorcycle.

But now Charlie has escaped the jail hospital. He's found his Wraith, all fixed up for him by an amateur mechanic. He has his Gas Mask Man, who only needs to rescue one more kid before he can go to Christmasland himself.

And he has his sights set on Vic's son.

Now Vic is in a race against time. His old Tuff Burner is long gone, but she's picked up a talent for motorcycles, having married Lou in the intervening years. She's going to have to hold herself together - through police investigations and her own mental illness - long enough to put Manx in the ground once and for all.

Before her son turns into one of the damaged children of Christmasland.

As with his comic book series Locke and Key, Hill tells a wonderfully creepy horror story with touches of magic and the supernatural. Everyone's actions have consequences, and using their reality-bending talents leaves everyone involved broken in one way or another. In showing us these shattered individuals, the truly good people in the story shine like beacons of hope, and the reader can only hope that they get to the end unscathed.

Highs: The side characters, like Maggie and Lou, steal the show.

Lows: The very last chapter 'Come All Ye Faithful' wrapped things up just a little too prettily for me.

Verdict: Despite a slightly weak ending, NOS4A2 is the type of creepy psychological horror full of damaged people and terrible magic that one would expect from the son of Stephen King.

Further Reading: Locke & Key, Another Volume 1, The Midnight Palace

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Alexia wasn't the first Tarabotti to travel to Egypt

The growing popularity of the ebook has created a renaissance in the short story market. once relegated to transient magazines and intimidating best-of anthologies, now anyone can create a Kindle Single and release their tale as an inexpensive tidbit for the general population.

Another bonus of the new publishing industry is the freedom it gives authors to revisit past worlds. While an author may consider a series complete, she might still have a few scenes that never made it into a book, or a bit of backstory that could be told, but these bits and bobs aren't enough to warrant a novel. Instead of being lost to a few pages in an anthology, or never seeing the light of day at all, authors now have the ability to put these treats online for their fans to enjoy. 

And such is the case with Gail Carriger's The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn't, the Mummy That Was, and the Cat in the Jar.

Note: The Curious Case... is part of the Parasol Protectorate series. As it's a prequel, it shouldn't have any spoilers for the series itself, but it might not make much sense without the rest of the series. Check out the review for Soulless here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A mother's love can be...difficult at best.

Dragons have a certain image to uphold. Vicious, ruthless and driven, they can be found both  as leaders of corporations and heads of underground organizations. Predators by nature, and clannish as well, being born a dragon is a dangerous, competitive situation.

In Rachel Aaron's Nice Dragons Finish Last, Julius has a problem. As the youngest and smallest Heartstriker, he's constantly surrounded by stronger, more powerful siblings. As a result, he's become very, very good at being unassuming. Since getting in the way of his family would more than likely make his remaining time on Earth rather unpleasant he simply stays out of their way, mostly playing video games in his room.

Such passive behavior is NOT what his mother has in mind. As the second most powerful Draconic clan - and certainly the largest - such a blemish on her reputation simply cannot be tolerated. She'd much rather simply order his death by one of her enforcers, but she's nothing if not fair, and that means giving him a chance to redeem himself.

And this is how Julian has found himself kicked out of the clan house with just the shirt on his back. He's told that has until the end of the month to earn his way back into the clan, or else he'll be permanently exiled - or worse. 

But that's just too easy for a Heartstriker, so his mother Bethesda turns it up to hard mode. If he wants to live as a stupid weak human, she's more than happy to oblige. She's sealed away his magic, leaving him to earn his way back into her good graces with none of the benefits of dragon-hood.

Even though he can't access the benefits of being a dragon, the threats are still all too real. He's been dropped off in the Detroit Free Zone. When magic re-entered the world, the spirit of Lake St Clare Algonquin flooded the old city of Detroit, and claimed the area as her own. On top of the ruins, a shining city has been built, but dragons are expressly forbidden. So long with trying to make a name for himself, he can't make so much of a name that Algonquin or her guards notice.

As ruthless as his siblings can be, they still try to help each other out. Ian, one of Julius' older brothers, has a mission for him. He's been dating a dragoness named Svena, a daughter of the Heartstriker's rivals, the Three Sisters. Svena's youngest sister Katya has run away from home again, and she needs someone to retrieve her. He's the only dragon who is unassuming and non-threatening to get within a mile of Katya, and all he needs to do is get a bracelet with a binding spell on her.

Of course, a soft-hearted guy like Julius couldn't just take an easy job and do it. As the job progresses, he starts to wonder why Katya wants to escape her family so badly. He knows how bad it can be to be the outcast in a clan, and perhaps he has more in common with Katya than anyone realizes.

Along the way, he also runs into a mage name Marci, who might actually be in more trouble than he is. But with his powers locked away, he needs all the help he can get. And for a human, Marci is a heck of a lot of fun.

Rachel Aaron, who also writes under the name Rachel Bach, is a master of fiction that draws you and and just won't let go. Her books keep you in 'just one more chapter' mode, and before you know it, your alarm clock is going off. Well plotted, thoroughly thought out and carefully edited, Aaron's first foray into self-publishing shows none of the problems that plague the budding industry. Nice Dragons Finish Last is an addictive, immensely enjoyable read that, as is the case with all of Aaron's works, leaves that reader eagerly anticipating the next story.

Highs: Any chapter with Bob, the clan's Seer, ends up being a fantastic mix of comic relief and dangerous prophecy.

Lows: Hopefully, we'll get more details into the history of the Dragon clans, and the re-emergence of magic, in later books.

Verdict: A must-read for fans of urban fantasy, and a strong suggestion for readers of New Adult and general Fantasy as well.

Further Reading: Fortune's Pawn, The Legend of Eli Monpress, Princess of Wands

Monday, June 23, 2014

Manga Monday: Yotsuba's on TV! She must be famous!

Between running a house, going to the park and entertaining Jumbo, it's no wonder Yotsuba's worn out in Yotsuba&! Volume 10.

Note: Yotsuba&! Volume 10 is part of an ongoing series. Check out the review of Volume 1 here, and Volume 9 here. Otherwise, read on!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Who's to say a lady in trousers would be a bad influence?

Betrayal, human cargo and the Chinese underworld all converge on Black Heath Manor in Cindy Spencer Pape's Dragons & Dirigibles.

Note: Dragons & Dirigibles is the seventh story of the Gaslight Chronicles series. While the stories work well as stand-alones, there are inherent spoilers, especially where the romances are involved.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why let a little something like death slow you down?

Gwen Dylan isn't your normal gal. She works as a grave-digger at an all-natural cemetery, for one, which automatically brands her as 'one of the guys.' She's recently cut ties with her past, so she only has a few people that she can truly call her friends.

Oh, and she's a zombie.

In iZombie Volume 1: Dead to the World, Gwen isn't exactly your standard shambling undead. As long as she maintains a steady diet of a brain a month, she keeps her focus and her memory. And so, being the moral sort, she's found herself employment that lets her be around plenty of brains that no one is using anymore.

Honestly, her life is actually pretty normal for being a living dead girl. She lives in a crypt in the cemetery she works at, and has a slightly 'airheaded' ghost for a roommate. Her other friend, Scotty, is a 'thrope' of the terrier variety.

But she still has a couple problems. When she eats a brain, which is by far the most disgusting thing she's ever had to choke down, she is flooded with the fragmented memories of that person's life. Sometimes it includes a bit of unfinished business that the decedent has left behind. Often it includes his final moments, and whether he died under...mysterious circumstances.

It turns out, Gwen isn't the only undead in town either. A pack of vampires has taken up residence at a local paintball course, and while their leader is bright enough not to leave a trail of bodies behind, not all of them are.

And there might be another, less ethical zombie in town as well.

Chris Robertson does a good job setting up a world full of creatures of the night, while still giving us some rules to go by. The characters each have their own personality quirks already, with plenty of room to go. Gwen even has a love interest, of a sort.

It's amazing how full a life a gal can have, even when she's dead.

Highs: Gwen's friends are hilarious, and their antics are sometimes even more fun than the main story.

Lows: The artwork isn't quite what I expect from a Vertigo title, and there's a lot of backstory still missing.

Verdict: iZombie Volume 1: Dead to the World is a fun, quick read with lots of potential for future volumes.

Further Reading: iZombie Volume 2: uVampire, V Wars, World War Z, Soulless: The Manga, The Unwritten

Thursday, May 8, 2014

As the world ends, families come together.

It's amazing how life can change in an instant. Forgetting to check your blind spot while driving, or carelessly mowing the yard, can have consequences that last forever. Lightning strikes cause forest fires that decimate hundreds of acres, and tornadoes can flatten towns in a matter of minutes.

In Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life as We Knew It, Miranda is an eyewitness as one of these events happens. It's been the most talked about astronomical event in a generation: an asteroid is about to hit the moon, and it's large enough to be seen with just a normal pair of binoculars. All the new stations have been bringing astronomers on to talk about it, and Miranda's teachers have been trying to elbow moon-related topics into their lesson plans.

But no one could have expected that the astronomers would be so wrong. No one knew that the asteroid would be orders of magnitude more dense than anything they'd ever seen before. So when that huge piece of space debris hit the moon, it didn't just put on a show for the amateur stargazer. The asteroid hit with such tremendous force, in fact, that it moved the moon visibly closer.

With the increased gravitational pull of the moon on the Earth, the planet is thrown into chaos. The tides rise higher than even the worst tsunamis, literally wiping island nations off the map. Earthquakes strike areas that have weak fault lines, but haven't shaken in centuries. Satellites are disabled, and the worldwide information grid is shut down.

Underneath all of those worldwide crises, there are the day to day problems of living in a world turned on its head. Miranda is a high school girl, who lives with her mother and younger brother in northern Pennsylvania. She has most of the normal high school girl problems: a mother who pushes the schoolwork, friends who are drifting away, an ankle injury that cut short her dreams of figure skating. Like most girls, she was pretty unremarkable, and the journal that she kept only reinforced it.

But as the world crumbles around her, the journal that she's keeping becomes more and more compelling. Public utilities stop working, school is cancelled, and their well runs dry. With the lack of satellites the television quickly becomes channel after channel of emergency signals, and the radio stations soon fade out.As winter begins months early, and both food and fuel begin to run out, it will be all that the family can do to stay together and stay alive.

Unlike so many of the young adult books I've read lately, I truly like Miranda. She's far from perfect, and since it's her journal everything we see is through her eyes, but she is absolutely the most relatable character I've come across in YA in a long time. She fights with her mother over silly things, she resents both the freedoms that her older brother receives and the special treatment of her younger brother. She's a fairly capable, independent young lady, but still mourns the loss of her friends, whether physical or emotional. She worries about her father and his new family, and her sister or brother-to-be. She does the best she can in the situation that she's found herself, and few readers could honestly say they would do better.

Life as We Knew It is a refreshing take on the young adult dystopian novel, without the tired love triangles and created drama that have become hallmarks of the genre. 

Highs: Watching a family try to pull together in a crisis, even when it's hard, is always uplifting.

Lows: I never like books with unreliable narrators, and a few scene might not have happened quite as Miranda writes them, but for the most part it's minimal.

Verdict: Different enough to stand out in a field flooded with dystopian fiction, LIfe as We Knew It is a wonderful, realistic look at a family in crisis.

Further Reading: The Dead and Gone, The Book Thief, Shades of Grey, Under a Graveyard Sky

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Finding the truth of a story can be dangerous, indeed.

Growing up as a trouper gives a kid a very useful skillset. By being onstage from a young age, he learns to show his audience only what he wants them to see. Part of his chores necessarily includes the tasks of travel: keeping the animals cared for and healthy; setting up a campsite; preparing for bad weather. Book learning might be limited to that of the group he's in but there's often the wandering scholar who travels with the troupe for safety, and that type is always too eager to share his knowledge with an eager listener.

All in all, young Kvothe was very well prepared for the life ahead of him in Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind.

Kote runs an inn along the road. Life as an innkeeper can be interesting, but of course it depends on who happens to wander by. The nights that no one stays, though, can be quiet. A solid sort of quiet that pervades the building and smothers the spirits of Kote and Bast, the two who live there and run the place.

Recently, though, there has been a bit more action in the area than usual. The stuff of fairy tales - spider-like creatures that can't be killed, campfires burning blue - have been spotted in the area. It's gotten so bad that the innkeeper himself goes out in the night, and ends up rescuing a man known as Chronicler.

But of course, Chronicler has a good nose for a story, and the humble innkeeper looks quite a lot like the legendary Kvothe. Forgoing an important meeting, Chronicler settles in to record the life story of one of the realm's most storied adventurers.

The bulk of the novel takes place over one evening of tales. Kvothe begins with his childhood as a trouper, travelling with his parents. Along the way, they end up taking on an arcanist named Abenthy, who is the first to truly realize Kvothe's potential. With Ben, Kvothe's love of learning turns towards entering the Arcanum at the University, where scholars learn to control the magic known as Sympathy, as well as the location of the grandest library in the land, the Archives.

But even the most charmed childhood has to end sometime, and for Kvothe it ends at the hands of the Chandrian. Thought to be a story told to scare youngsters, Kvothe learns all too well just how real he is. And his mission slowly turns to learning all he can of the Chadrian, and, perhaps someday, how to defeat him.

On the first night of storytelling, we follow Kvothe from his origins in the troupe through his first year at University. Along the way, he experiences joys and sorrows, first love and great loss. his trouper skills serve him well time and time again, and his whip-sharp intelligence gets him into just as many scrapes as it gets him out of.

The Name of the Wind is epic fantasy of the highest caliber. From bards to demons to even a tree-munching dragon, this book has something for just about every fantasy fan.

Highs: The scene where Kvothe is at the tavern 'earning his talent' plays on the heartstrings of anyone who has been on stage.

Lows: The rivalry between Kvothe and Ambrose should have handled much better by the University.

Verdict: The Name of the Wind is an instant classic fantasy novel that's not to be missed.

Further Reading: Wise Man's Fear, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Alif the Unseen

Friday, April 18, 2014

The deep web has never been so deep.

Alif is a cypher. The first letter of the Arabic alphabet, it is a single vertical line. A simple name for a person whose life takes place in the shadows between computers.

In G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen, Alif's life is turned upside-down, in more ways than one.

Alif lives in a pre-Arab Spring country somewhere in the Middle East. The censors have become more and more a part of the online life of the country, and Alif and his online comrades do their best to provide free movement of information to their clients. It means that The Hand could come down on him at any time, but with the confidence of youth he doesn't really believe that it would happen to him.

As it often does, Alif's problems start with a girl. Intisar is Alif's first love, a Muslim girl from a good family. He meets her online, on some of the message boards that the educated, free-thinkers tend to inhabit. Hardly a radical, she's as likely to defend the government as she is to question it. The computer world gives her the freedom to speak her mind in a way that her birth and culture do not, and Alif is absolutely smitten. They even go so far as to draw up a their own marriage contract, and while Alif's mother is away visiting her family he is able to have her over unchaperoned.

But a woman of her standing is hardly going to have the future she expects with the poor son of a second wife. When the reality of doing her own laundry settles in, she takes the easy route and accepts the husband that her father has found for her.

"Make it so I never see your name again." -Intisar

Heartbroken, Alif decides to disappear from Intisar's life. So he proceeds to do so. Since the majority of his life is spent online, he creates a program to track her, and make sure that whatever she does, she will never see his online presence again. Whether she changes usernames, or computers, or uses a VPN, this program will track her by her word usage and typing styles, and remove Alif's presence.

Such a program has never been created before. There are so many variables, and the program would have to be so complex, that it would almost have to be...alive...

Such a complex program would, by its very existence, draw the attention of a few very influential people. And when Alif finds himself in the possession of  The Thousand and One Days, he ends up with more problems than just The Hand.

G. Willow Wilson shines in her first long-form novel, masterfully weaving together the modern day with the ancient, religion with mythology, and love with loss.

Highs: The character of Dina is perhaps the most three-dimensional, honest females in recent fantasy fiction.

Lows: As with much fiction set in the middle east, as current events unfold the story may show its age quickly.

Verdict: Winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award, Alif the Unseen is a must-read for fans of fantasy and world fiction alike.

Further Reading: Throne of the Crescent Moon, Kabu Kabu, The Midnight Palace

Monday, April 14, 2014

Manga Monday: A sunny girl with an overcast life

Alongside magical girls and androids named Chi, CLAMP told the story of a lonely girl with a cheerful disposition in Suki: A Like Story Volume 1

On the outside, Hinata Asahi's life seems happy enough. She does well at school and has friends that care about her. She sees the sunny side of every situation and is always trying to cheer up the melancholy people that she's around. Nothing seems to faze this girl.

But a closer look reveals that perhaps her life isn't as perfect as it could be. Every night, Hina goes home to an empty house, with only her teddy bears waiting at the door for her. It's alluded to that she's moved out of her father's home because she wants him to be happy, but how could such a wonderful girl be bringing him sadness?

Early on in the volume, Hina gets a next-door neighbor. The house has been standing empty for awhile, so Hina is curious to see who might be living there. Shiro Asou is a young man who has just moved into the area, and as a matter of fact, is taking over for Hina's homeroom teacher. Hina is elated to have found a new friend, and promptly starts inviting him over for meals and the like. But a few side conversations we overhear Shiro having leaves us wondering if there's more to him than meets the eye.

Suki: A Like Story Volume 1 follows a lot of what has become traditional manga tropes. You have the perpetually cheerful girl, her retinue of friends, the older man to have a crush on, and the mystery of their backstory. The art is very 1990s shojo, and has many of the expected traits of a CLAMP title. In many ways, it's exactly what one would expect.

What you have to remember, though, is there's nothing wrong with that. The reason that titles like Dragon Ball and Yotsuba&! come back again and again is that they are the comfort food of manga. You know what to expect when you start it, and it's a welcome break from titles like Attack on Titan and Berserk. CLAMP consistently delivers a certain level of excellence in each title they do, and Suki is no exception.

Highs: Hina getting excited about her favorite author's new book is a feeling we're all very familiar with.

Lows: The mystery around why she lives by herself is going to get old quickly.

Verdict: A traditional shojo romance that is very well done.

Further Reading: Bunny Drop, Yotsuba&!, Chi's Sweet Home

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A sushi-loving werewolf must help two merfolk siblings recovered their embezzled money.

Gail Carriger takes a break from her Steampunk series with a slightly different take on the werewolf curse in 'Marine Biology.'

Alec never really expected to make it to 24. Born into a pack of werewolves, he was always considered a bit too...weak to make the change. In a family that looks like it just walked out of a biker bar, he swam instead of playing a more full-contact sport in high school, and is more likely to be spotted in a lab coat than a leather one. But family is family, and pack is pack, so when there's a get-together he shows up.

Even if he's more likely to bring a salad than a slab of beef.

This time, though, he's actually being given responsibility within the pack. There's been some funny business with the merpeople's finances, and a large chunk of money has gone missing. There's reason to believe that the selkies are in on it, and that's brought a brother-sister pair of mers to town. 

Giselle and Marvin used to be from around here, so they're the ones that were sent from the West Coast to figure out where the money's gone. Since they're not local anymore it's the pack's responsibility to keep them safe while they're investigating, and that's where Alec gets involved.

Nevermind that Marvin used to show up at Alec's swim practices to watch.

'Marine Biology' has an interesting premise and doesn't take itself too seriously. There's a ghost who lives at Butch's house and seems to take great pleasure in teasing the pack when it meets. Alec gets by in the aggressive pack politics by keeping his head down, but still gets made fun of for his sushi platters and job as a researcher. Even the merfolks seen a bit surprised with how badly he fits into this family. Nevertheless, this story has all the humor and clever dialog that readers of Carriger have come to expect, and is a welcome diversion.

Highs: Of course the Irish selkies would be the mafia of the water-weres.

Lows: I kept expecting the werewolf Biff to somehow tie into the character in the Parasol Protectorate with the same name.

Verdict: A quick, easy read that doesn't make itself out to be more than it is.

Further Reading: 'My Sister's Song', Soulless, Attachments