Asp of Ascension by B R Myers

Asp of Ascension clearly has roots in Nancy Drew – but updated for the modern middle schooler to include hunky love interests (in multiples) who fall for the way she smells, her eyes, her hair, etc. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily, but the harem does get a bit old with all the fawning all over her constantly. Odd pacing made the book feel like a slog – overly long when it wasn’t and not really following a cohesive and thoughtful path. If anything, I felt like I was reading a 300 page synopsis – characters go to point A to overhear something, then point B to get a clue to a mystery. Point C is for studly jock to swoon over Nefertari, point D brings in the handsome Egyptian prince, point E introduces long lost childhood sweetheart from Egypt, etc. etc. It bounced around everywhere, never really settling down on any one scene.

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Story: Nefertari lost her mother in an archeological excavation that also left her with a permanent limp. Now returned home and with the hot Egyptian sun behind her, Nefertari just wants to fit in with normal high schoolers. But the opening of a mysterious sarcophagus at the local museum that could very well be Cleopatra’s leads to her father collapsing and fear of an ancient curse coming to life. With new friends at her side, Nefertari’s scooby squad will help her solve a decades old mystery of a missing asp bracelet – and perhaps also help save Nefertari’s father from the mysterious illness that has him in a coma.

I’ll have to be honest – as much as I love ancient Egyptian history, this fell very flat for me. It’s all over the place, the Cleopatra references felt really shallow, and the whole story just didn’t feel like it could be anything more than made up in an author’s mind. Which doesn’t mean it was terrible by any means – just that I couldn’t get into it at all. It’s not a long book but felt like I had already read 800 pages by the 50% mark. Too much bouncing around and boys falling all over themselves to help Nefertari (read: a lot of instaluv). I wish more time had been devoted to the mystery; and that the mystery itself had a much tighter focus instead of wandering around all over the place constantly.

So, although I did not dislike the book, I have to admit that it didn’t catch my interest, either. Nothing felt realistic and perhaps I want more than a Scooby Doo level of mystery. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Finder Deluxe Edition Volume 1 by Ayano Yamane

With Finder Deluxe Edition, you get a couple of chapters of the main story and then some side stories. The common theme is nonconsental sex – and that’s pretty much it. The artwork is serviceable, if a bit dated, but the clear purpose is not to present a story so much as titillate. Honestly, I found it a bit boring and a bit too graphic – and when they say painful, the reality would be that no one would be sitting easily for a week but here the characters just shrug it off like a bad dream.

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Those who have read the similarly graphic author’s other work, Crimson Spell, will likely know what to expect here, just with a contemporary and fairly unrealistic premise. I felt her style worked much better in a fantasy setting, though. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Golden Kamuy 1 by Satoru Noda

Golden Kamuy is a more adult take on historical events of the early 20th century in Northern Japan – specifically Hokkaido. Using a milieu very little told/known, it is the story of the survivors of the Russo-Japan war (1904-1905) as told through Hokkaido lore. This includes mythology heavily centered around the Ainu people – a people native to the northern area of Japan and with a completely different culture than the Japanese. The story is brutal, graphic, but also full of very interesting cultural and historical facts. The violence doesn’t feel egregious but a natural result of living in the wild or during a lawless time.

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Story: Sugimoto survived the Russo-Japanese war by one simple mantra: avoid death by not dying. Heavily scarred and carrying a dead comrade’s geas, Sugimoto needs to find a way to make money to help the soldier’s widow. A chance encounter leads him to a mystery of gold looted from Ainu gold miners and then hidden – the location tattoed in pieces onto fellow escaped prisoners of the person who stole the gold. Sugimoto decides to seek the treasure but he isn’t alone – one of the murdered Ainu’s young daughter has agreed to help him and together they will brave the ‘wild west’ frontier of Hokkaido – running into former soldiers, lawlessness, a savage wilderness, and men willing to kill to also get their hands on the treasure.

Think of the Yukon during the gold rush and you get an idea of the adventures our pair will get into – from capturing and skinning squirrels, fending off bears, capturing fugitives, and trying to discern the mystery of the map pieces tattooed onto so many men. It’s not only the fugitives themselves who are hiding and willing to kill – the prison guards are also out and about and ready to kill anyone asking about tattooed men. Add in an almost supernatural bad guy in the form of the prison who did the tattoos and you get a story full of adventure and survival.

But there is also a lot to learn here – from Ainu mythology (a Kamuy is a deity) and habits, their persecution, the repercussions of the Russo-Japanese war, Hokkaido nature, the dusty frontier-like towns, society at the time, and more. It’s all about Hokkaido and the lives that were lived there at the time – most especially, the persecuted Ainu and returning soldiers of a hellish war.

In all, this is a very violent and brutal story – mature and intelligently written. But there’s also enough adventure and excitement to keep readers invested while also learning more about Hokkaido history. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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After Hours Volume 1 by Yuhta Nishio

After Hours is a slice of life manga that isn’t interested in going places so much as exploring where people are at the moment. We have the very typical naive and ‘normal’ main character who finds a wild and crazy free spirit and becomes fascinated with them. Ostensibly, the story is about the DJ/clubbing scene. But really, at heart this is a book about exploring and living life to your fullest.

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Story: Quiet and shy Emi goes to a club with her friend – even though she isn’t really into the scene at all. When an interesting girl saves her from the advances of a drunken patron, Emi is completely in her thrall. After a one night stand, she isn’t sure where she stands with Kei but she knows it’s where she wants to be – but with someone as flighty as her new DJ girlfriend, she will have a lot to learn in order to just keep pace.

Kei is the typical quirky and interesting ‘own self’ type of main character that typically gets crushed on by very simple/simplistic love interests. Emi is quite dull, somewhat shy, and easily manipulated. With Kei’s help, she’s going to learn to go outside of herself and experience life in a new and different way.

Not much happens in After Hours Volume 1 – it’s really all about slowly drawing Emi out of her shell through little life vignettes. Kei gradually brings her to different clubs and teaches Emi how to DJ/use the equipment. Emi goes along quite eagerly – she is falling in love with both the DJ scene and with Kei herself.

I’m not a bit reader of slice of life comics and likely won’t continue reading the series. I typically prefer a lot more action or humor, drama or angst. But After Hours is a lovely Josei (adult woman) title that should appeal to quite a few people for its charm, message, and warmth. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Trail of the Dead by Joseph Bruchac

As much as I really enjoyed Killer of Enemies, this second book felt very much like a “second in the series” let down. Not much happens, most felt like filler, and there’s a lot of words just to set up the events in the final third book. Add in animal torture that streamrolled into full on torture porn, and I find I just can’t recommend this to friends.

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Story: Lozen is leading her ragtag band to a better home. But vindictive Ones have sent a killer after her – one with a reputation of never dying. As he slowly closes in on her, gleefully dealing death along the way, Lozen’s special abilities may not be enough to save her from this new threat.

Trail of the Dead started wonderfully – with Bruchac’s great storytelling and rich characterizations making me eager to find out what happens. Each person was so uniquely defined and distinct that it was a joy to turn each page. But that joy disappeared somewhere in the middle as the story became about Lozen’s PTSD darkness rather than the characters and their interactions. Not enough of interest really happened and the great characterizations sort of died there.

Most of the story is told in alternating POVs between Lozen and her evil stalker. He spends his POV pages gleefully finding new ways to torment and torture animals – to the extent where it was completely unnecessary from a storytelling standpoint – yes, we get it, he’s eeeeeevil. Honestly, I wish his POVs were completely jettisoned since nothing happens in them other than bad deeds and some set up to the final big battle between him and Lozen.

The ending, like the beginning, was interesting and I felt Bruchac hit his stride again with it. Yes, set up from the saggy middle aided in the impact – but at the same time, less could have been written to have the same effect.

As frustrating as the read was (and vile – I really disliked the repeated torture porn vignettes), I am still looking forward to the final book in the series. Bruchac is truly an amazing storyteller and there is so much originality and uniqueness in Killer of Enemies to make it well worth the investment in time.

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Return of the Earl by Sandra Schwab

Return of the Earl is a book in search of a plot. I’m not sure how Schwab managed to fill a full novel with pretty much nothing, but the story never goes anywhere and nothing really happens. The Earl returns, he was under the impression his former lover betrayed him, he’s mopey about it, finds out fairly soon that he was lied to, they make up, book ends. That’s truly all that happens here.

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Perhaps if the characters were more nuanced or their personalities had more tics, we might have had something here. But the Earl is angry and confused, the stablemaster is smug most of the time, and both behave in very anachronistic ways (e.g., despite desperate financial times when people can’t get work, antagonizing the employer is not exactly smart). Of course, there is 21st century moralizing added in about slavery and treating servants with respect and not as objects. I didn’t believe in either character and both felt more like YA heroes/heroines than mature adults. I completely skimmed past the romance.

Granted, M/M genre doesn’t always have to be angsty or full of drama. But at the same time, it has a sophisticated enough fanbase who want stories with depth and interest. There just wasn’t enough meat on the bone here to make the book worth remembering. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Incriminating Dating by Rebekah L. Purdy

Incriminating Dating suffers from a lack of originality and spark. So much of the book feels manufactured, including plot and characters. In using the very tired YA device of ‘fake boyfriend’, author Purdy would have really needed to create some kind of wit or charm to elevate beyond the cliches. Unfortunately, there was none to be found here. As a very fluffy Summer read, I imagine this will fit the bill. But keep in mind that we have a Twinkie instead of steak for dinner.

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Story: Ayla is frustrated that the school keeps pumping money into the jocks rather than the arts and sciences. Her only solution is to run for student body president so she can have a say in how the school’s funds are allocated. When she catches super popular jock Luke Pressler misbehaving, she has the perfect blackmail material to force him to pretend to be her boyfriend. With a popular guy at her side, she might just have a chance to win the election.

I just wasn’t believing any of the characters and how they interacted with each other. From the ‘oh-so-perfect’ Luke Pressler to the ‘chubby and nerdy’ Ayla, nothing felt real. The problem with creating a ‘nerdy’ character is that you really need to show more than tell. Ayla supposedly plays video games a lot – but never once do we see her doing so. In fact, our only indication is maybe mentioning picking up a purse with Zelda’s Link on it or listing off various games she’s played in the past so she has a talking point to impress Luke’s younger brother. And I even had to wonder if the author knows the games herself since the games that Ayla mentioned to Luke that would impress his little brother have graphic violence and even sexual hook ups in them (e.g., Skyrim and Dragon Age).

Luke was, of course, too perfect to be real. Here’s a guy who is desperately trying to stay afloat in the midst of his family financially hurting, keeping up appearances so he can get a college scholarship, and very careful about how others perceive him. And yet he isn’t too upset to be blackmailed in a way that would lose him EVERYTHING – and not too upset with the girl doing it. And the supposed “must go along with the flow’ guy doesn’t seem too worried about having a very uncool girlfriend. Of course, to moralize, Ayla will teach him to respect others and stand up for the weak – even though it would have been social suicide in reality. Luke should have been edgy and resentful but instead was the perfect, girl-sniffing, nuzzling, hand holding boyfriend. I just didn’t buy it.

Of course, side characters suffer – here even worse. There is the requisite head cheerleader queen B, the stupid jock who abuses the weak, and teachers who supposedly care more about the jocks than the arts. Add in the quirky best friend and yeah, we’ve seen it before.

I got bored around 40% into the book – it was just too unrealistic and the promise of something charming went unfulfilled. A well trod plot coupled with bland and insipid characters lacking nuance didn’t help propel the story further. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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