Undaunted by Jack Colrain

In all honesty, I did not enjoy this book and had a hard time pushing through after around 50% through. It’s not a bad book but it kind of falls victim to a lot of the shortcomings of military sci fi genre: they read like a 1990s US/Western military but with sci fi trappings. That means all the sexism, machismo, and marty stu tropes are present and the sci fi is nebulous window dressing.

Story: Andrew Ritchie is a small colony doctor who decides to become a grunt in the war against insectoid aliens (and not use his medical background and instead open combat). But when he saves some VIP lives in a battle, he comes to the notice of the higher ups and gets assigned to the new Valkyrie Medevac Corps. Cue training montages. The war against the aliens heats up as Ritchie chews gum and pops bad guys.

Right off the bat, it was kind of eye rolling to see the very male sexist comments. With women serving equally in the future, you’d think the military wouldn’t still objectify women. But yeah, with great analogies such as, “”Plasmafire,” he explained with the type of smile you get when your girl sends you a picture wearing less material than a glove.” or “He was covered with ticks like bills on a stripper’s G-string” (that analogy doesn’t even work!), or noticing that the bar girls were ‘showing actual legs. And cleavage” as if only women work the bars and not e.g., shirtless men.

I don’t want to drone on about the sexism so I’ll just say that the female characters didn’t fare any better. Our main character, for the first part of the book, comes in contact with two females. Both are ‘ballbusters’ to our main character – one is a superior and one is a squadmate. Neither are well rounded female characters. The squadmate is describe as “if she wasn’t my squaddie and a genuinely heartless bitch, I might have taken a liking to her.” And the superior is there to stand in his way of ‘doing the right thing’ and be a maternal-like pain in his butt for her stupidity. It was hard to slog through at that point.

But the usual Marty Stu cliches are there: macho guy who fights the authority because he knows he is right, he has superior skills to everyone, he can do/fight about anything, and just kind of swaggers through. That worked in the 1980s for movies like Top Gun but it just feels silly and unimaginative in this day and age.

The sexism and Marty Stu are annoying and I could slog through the rest of the story if the writing wasn’t so jumpy. It felt like a book written from a bullet point list; too few segues, not enough exposition to really explore the environment or get a feel for the characters, and a very disenfranchising story. The plot just jumped from action point to action point as if afraid the audience had a short span of attention and couldn’t handle exploratory or emotive moments. I don’t expect a CJ Cherryh experience here but I also at times felt like I was reading a novelization of a Michael Bay movie.

As I noted earlier, it’s not terrible and there is an audience for this kind of macho gung ho militaristic sci fi. I just found it unsatisfying and my eyes hurt from rolling them all the time. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ooku Volume 18 by Fumi Yoshinaga

With this penultimate volume in the long running series, we see the Tokugawa Shogunate crumbling as vassals abandon Iemochi Tokugawa, beri beri deaths sweep Japan, Western forces exert influence, and powerful province leaders seek to make puppets of the Imperial family. Through it all, the Ooku itself begins to collapse as the leaders recognize the ascendance of Tokugawa Yoshinobu heralds the end of Ooku.

Story: Iemochi is trying her best to keep Japan unified, out of civil war, and to ensure the lineage of the Shogunate. But at the young age of 20, she is crippled by a new disease in Japan: beri beri. She relies heavily on three good men: her faithful Tensho In, Ooku chamberlain Takiyama, and Baron Katsu, who heads the Japanese navy. Together, these men must counsel consort Kazu through her grief, deal with the vagaries of Yoshinobu (who they all detest), and try to uphold Iemochi’s last wish to stabilize the Shogunate.

One of the greatest strengths of Ooku has always been that the story draws closely from actual history but creatively uses it in a fascinating alternate universe where women had power. In this volume, the effects of modernization takes a heavy toll on Japan when a new disease sweeps the country: beri beri. We know today that it was caused from shelling rice – an expensive and city-focused process that removed thiamin from the diet and caused debilitating results that often lead to death. The disease was a puzzle to the Japanese – why did the city folk suffer from it and the countryside population didn’t? As well, the Japanese army was fed all the fancy white rice (hulled) they could eat and the result was catastrophic – nearly more soldiers died from beri beri than from an actual war. This new disease greatly affects our main characters in Ooku and how it affected the course of history.

Despite the Shogunate crumbling, author Yoshinaga focuses on the good men in the government. All three are very different (gentle Tensho In, fatalistic Takiyama, aggressive Katsu) but have some interesting common ground in their past. But all three see the writing on the wall and know they will not be able to keep Iemochi’s wish to preserve the Shogunate.

There is one volume left of this wonderful series – mostly to follow Yoshinobu’s mishandling of the Shogunate and the resulting Meiji restoration. Because there is so much actual history in the series, I greatly recommend having wikipedia handy – you’ll marvel at how much is actual fact. I greatly look forward to the last volume and the completion of this exemplary series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Witch Haven by Sasha Payton Smith

Witch Haven is a nicely atmospheric historical urban fantasy that, while diverting, had some frustrating inconsistencies. As a milieu, 1910s New York is only a side character when it should have shined. The heroine (and most of the other characters) are oddly ambivalent and the magic is never explained. It can be very dark at times and the plot holes/character motivations frustrating. But there are some nice twists and certainly it keeps you reading to solve the mysteries.

After her beloved brother’s untimely death, Frances is just getting by as a seamstress. It is a thankless job and she is miserable but she sees no other opportunities in 1911 New York. Until the night the company’s owner accosts her and she suddenly finds herself with a dead body at her feet, her scissors firmly planted in his neck. The next moment she is whisked away to a ‘sanitarium’ for tuberculosis, the police hot at her heels. Turns out, Frances has magic powers and the sanitarium is actually a secret school for witches. Frances chafes at the curriculum – using powers to sew, clean, cook more efficiently. When a former friend of her brother’s shows up and offers to teach her and her close circle of friends how to use their powers for more, she is all in. But who is Finn and why is he helping them? Surely not only because he was her brother’s good friend……

The setting here is very atmospheric – you’ll picture a gloomy old world NYC/Queens. But we only really see the witch school and warlock nightclub and I couldn’t help but feel so much was missing. Sights, sounds, smells – everything that 1911 City life would have been. Frances seemed more to be just passing through this world rather than having grown up with it.

As a character, Frances was frustrating. She is very unhappy most of the book, always wanting more and to do things her way, regardless of the repercussions. It meant she rushed off most of the time and did brainless things. I will always prefer a heroine who can use intelligence and wit to get out of situations, rather than needing luck or a hero to save her from her own stupidity. Granted, throughout the novel, things are not always as they appear and Frances’ escapades just a bit too easy to be safe. But seeing the same YA archetype (willful, energetic, spontaneous, and mouthy/rude) is getting tiring: a heroine can be quiet and thoughtful and still be very empowered. She doesn’t have to run out and do stupid things to be ‘brave’. In the end, she just felt selfish and foolish.

The other clichés are here: unique snowflake, a harem of boys all wanting her, the usual escalation of her powerful abilities, and people hiding important facts from her that would make life so much easier. The writing is decent enough to mitigate some of the frustrations with those tropes, though.

In all, this is currently a stand alone but it finished in a way that was satisfying but still left some doors open. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Bones of Ruin by Sara Raughley

This is an interesting story with many layers in the storytelling. At the same time, the characters felt simplistic, unrealistic, and the story dragged rather than thrilled. This fantastical Victorian London never resonated as a true place and Iris’ African heritage should have had more repercussions in everything she did in that era. The usual YA tropes are here: unique snowflake, everyone keeps secrets from her that she has to discover, every male wants her, and the world’s survival depends on her. It is by no means a bad book; I just did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped.

Story: Iris has no memory from before she walked into the circus and begged for a job. Now, as a performer, she begins to question who she is and what happened to her. Especially since she has discovered that she cannot die. When a mysterious young nobleman appears and says he can answer all her questions if she will help him, Iris is dragged into the web of a conspiracy that might just be the harbinger of a coming apocalypse. But she has the help of three young men at her side: another performer with secrets of his own, a street urchin surviving off his cunning, and the mysterious nobleman with whom she senses she has a past.

The influences of manga/anime and sci fi are clear here: from Clamp’s X and Fifth Element to direct homages from Revolutionary Girl Utena. They are not unwelcome but admittedly many of the characters felt ‘cartoony’ as well. Because Iris begins the novel as a tabula rasa, she spends most of the book doing unwise or dangerous things in order to find out more. This allows the author to pull in all kinds of easter eggs that can be fun to note.

Because this is a YA, every young man wants Iris. There were many points where the boys were fighting over her and it got old very fast. Even the women and older adults were fighting over who gets Iris. This is in addition to her unique snowflake abilities which clearly overshadowed every other character’s special ability. Iris really didn’t have to struggle and there was clearly a ‘Superman’ effect going on: if the character can’t die, there never is a sense of danger.

Of course, the author uses the usual “Ya Heroine with a Power that no one helps her with” cliche. E.g., Adam knows who/what she is but refuses to tell her because he doesn’t think she can handle the whole truth. Yet that’s just what happens and she handles it just fine. It felt like another writer’s excuse not to reveal the mystery and I couldn’t help but feel it could have been done better.

The circus is only in the beginning of the book. Most of the plot is Iris running around doing ludicrous things in order to find out clues to her past. These tend to get her friends injured but hey, Iris can’t die, so who cares? All the boys falling all over her felt cardboard written when they all espoused over and over that they would happily die for her. They lacked will of their own.

There is a ‘game’ in the middle of the group that her group has to compete in before Adam will reveal more truth to Iris. This is where I really felt let down: e.g., one section had literary references to high end establishments in London that none of Iris’ gang of urchins would know. And yet, each suddenly had some connection to solve the riddles. And symptomatic of the entire book, Iris is handed the answer to the hardest riddle.

The cast is racially diverse and that diversity in Victorian era London is nicely explained. This read very much like an anime – with all the good and the bad that can involve. At no time did I believe in the world building – Iris was rarely subjected to any racial issues that honestly would have been ugly and rampant at the time. But I am happy that Iris’ past was revealed before the end of this first book in the series.

In all, I think a good 100 pages being cut would have made for a better book. At times, it was really a hard read that didn’t flow and didn’t excite or make me never want to put it down. Iris is a likable character but there was a lot of ambivalence in her decision making (either go into super dangerous situation with no plants or refuse to do something she really needed to do) that made her hard to understand and respect. This is the first book in the series and ends on a complete arc. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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A Rush of Wings by Laura E. Weymouth

This is a beautifully written and atmospheric retelling of the Swan Maiden fable using medieval Scotland as a setting. Contrasting against the somewhat cartoonish cover, the book can be very dark and does not shy away from violence. But it is a very rewarding read featuring a heroine who is strong and steadfast in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Story: Rowenna’s mother is a hedgewitch; her family has protected their Scottish village since memory. But politics have changed and a vicious warlord has seized control of the country. When Rowenna’s mother loses her battle to a supernatural creature, her daughter can only watch helplessly. For her mother feared Rowenna’s lack of discipline and refused to teach her the craft. Now, her are brothers cursed to become swans at night and Rowenna’s ability to speak taken away. She must find a way to save her family: both from the supernatural creature that cursed them and from the warlord who would use her abilities to further his own power.

Through the entire book, Rowenna will be tested, tortured, and used. Author Weymouth doesn’t shy from the realities of medieval Scotland and the fantastical elements are layered seamlessly into the milieu. It is Rowenna’s strength of character and will, though, that shine throughout. She never chooses the easy path but she knows inherently that it is the right one. When others would have given up, she retains the strength to continue.

The writing is nicely done and perfectly evokes the location. The plot does stay fairly close to its fable origin story but gives it a better and more realistic grounding. There is a romance but it is not the focus of the story and instead adds more dimension.

In all, I enjoyed this book. I do feel compelled to once again emphasize that it can be very dark and at times hopeless. Our heroine is not a do-gooder and instead is trying to survive while also saving her family. Her magic is a help but is not what will save her in the end. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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By Any Other Name by Lauren Kate

What should have been a fun romp of a romance was instead a very contrived plot married to an overly melodramatic heroine that was hard to respect or even like. It was not silly fun read – just annoying.

Story: Despite little experience, Lanie has been promoted to be in charge of her publishing company’s goldmine: bestselling romance author Noa Calloway. Lanie couldn’t be happier: Calloway’s books have been her inspiration for creating her perfect love life and she feels a connection to the reclusive and mysterious author. But Calloway has had writer’s block and Lanie needs to figure out how to fix that or the company could go under. Then Lanie discovers a devastating secret about Calloway that rocks her world.

Very early in the book, we learn that Lanie is chirpie, bubbly, but kind of stupid. Inexplicably, she is handed a high position in the company. The book goes downhill from there: when she learns Calloway’s secret, she yells and insults the author, feels personally offended that the author could have a secret, and feels tricked by the President when she signed an NDA about Calloway’s secret and can’t gossip about it to her friends. This doesn’t even go into the sexist comments made continually by Lanie throughout about the author. Does this sound like a good person to put in charge of her publishing company’s livelihood?

Also tiring is the lazy trope of having a love interest become obsessed with a woman who insults/is rude to him right from their first meeting. Especially when the love interest is a quiet and thoughtful man. It made the plot even more unrealistic and at one point, you will feel sorry for him or question his sanity.

Reality isn’t really a prerequisite in romance novels but at the same time, the heroine should have common sense and a modicum of self preservation. Anyone who has ever worked in the business field knows that you have to deal with difficult people, especially those who don’t fit your world expectations. Our heroine is stupid enough to jeopardize her career, her company’s stability, and an author’s career because she’s annoyed that author was not what she expected. it made her look immature and prone to ‘tempest in a teapot’ outbursts that further exacerbated any chance of liking the heroine.

The plot felt contrived and no one acted in rational or logical manners. The plotting was heavy handed and lacked organic growth and development. the side characters were just odd and over the top as well – but not in a zany fun way.

There was not much to like here, sadly, though it is a fast read. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels by India Holton

This is a well written book with plenty of action, humor, and romance. There is a bit of magic in that houses can fly (and thus are used for piracy/stealing) and it is a fun concept. But as with so many of these ‘fantastical comedy of manners’ types of books, none of the plot is rational, organic, believable, or gripping. And the characters are so hidebound as to be stupid and illogical. India Holton does a better job with these dichotomies here but at the same time, it still ends up feeling like whole story is grossly overwritten.

Cecilia Bassingwaite is a proper miss born to an illustrious pirate-house family. When her father turns evil and kills her mother, Cecilia is taken in by the Wisteria Society and raised by her ‘aunties’ to be a proper pirate. She yearns to be taken in by the society but fears her blood connection to her father is causing hesitation among the aunties. When one of her aunties decides to have her assassinated, the assassin proves to be a very interesting person indeed. One that Cecilia is fast falling for, despite her best attempts otherwise.

I did enjoy the first half of the book since it was so well written. But by the second portion, I began to be weary of the heavy handed plotting and dialogue. It felt like every sentence was trying too hard to be clever or amusing and the story began to lose any organic quality that would have redeemed it. As an exercise in creative writing, this book is great. As a logical, rational, or even amusing read, it began to fail for me at that point. E.g., situations were brought in so the heroine could make a clever quip rather than because it made for an interesting plot point. I began to get disenfranchised as a result.

Another problem for me was that the hero was the only rational p;erson in a world of very irrational people. The dialogues and situations were amusing but only because they were illogical and silly, especially exacerbated by his viewpoint. As a result, her heroine and her comrades began to look very ‘too stupid to live’ and it became much less amusing and more frustrating. With the hero being constantly baffled by all the other characters, he’s not in on the joke of the story and serves to point out too starkly that the heroine is an idiot. Why he had an attraction for her at that point is mystifying.

I honestly prefer a bit more depth in characters and for them not to be hidebound or following rules because they are sheep. They need to use their own brains and good sense to get them out of situations – not for deus ex machina to save them each time from their own stupidity. Granted, that stupidity is the core point of the novel here but I just wish our heroine was different. There are enough stupid people in the world now that I don’t really want to follow one in a book. It might have worked more for me if our heroine was the one looking perplexed on this supercilious world rather than the love interest.

I can see a lot of people enjoying this book and certainly it is better written than other attempts at this genre that I’ve read recently. All the same, it wasn’t something that I could enjoy beyond a few chapters before I became disgusted with every character in the book and the heavy handed plotting. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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To Sir With Love by Lauren Layne

The book is inspired by You’ve Got Mail/Nora Ephron’s works and the author has channeled that mood/feel perfectly. It is a great Summer read with likeable characters and modern fairy-tail undertones. The read is quick but also satisfying and I greatly enjoyed and appreciated how the author brought us something as good as the inspiration(s) but distinctly different/a modern take.

Story: Gracie never wanted to run her father’s business when he died but of her three siblings, she was the one best suited for it. She is trying to make it a success but being a small business in Manhattan is hard enough at the best of times. Then her corporate landlord approaches her with an offer to buy out the business so he can release the space. Gracie hates the soulless corporate magnate for even suggesting it but Sebastian Andrews is persistent. At the same time, her Cinderella dreams are in shambles, she’s now 30 and single, and all she has to show for her love life is a crush on a correspondent whom she has never met. Or so she thinks….

To Sir, With Love isn’t necessarily realistic but it also isn’t drearily earnest. What it is, however, is a lovely romantic read with characters you will really like. Gracie is dependable, hard working, and multi talented. Sebastian is honest, straightforward, and respectful of Gracie. Even while defending her family-owned business against what she feels is an attack by Sebastian’s company, she is all heart when doing so.

This is one of the few romances where we can actually understand Sebastian’s attraction to Gracie. There is a nice “love at first sight” meeting that is mutual on both their parts but then they learn of each other’s identities. At the same time, they have been conversing with each other in a friendly manner via text for months, neither thinking of romance since both are under the impression the other has a girlfriend/boyfriend.

The texting is very sparse in the book and usually equates to a few sentences that underscore previous scenes in the chapters. If there was one aspect of the book left unexplored, it was how these two grew close in the text messages before they met. I would have loved to have seen more of that happen instead of having to take it on faith.

In all, I greatly enjoyed this read and recommend it to those who want a delightful Summer read with a feel-good message throughout. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Tokyo Ever After by Emiko Jean

Note: the low star rating is mostly for the audio narration, which I could not get past. The narrator sounded like an adult trying to mimic what she thought today’s teens sound like. The result was that all the characters in the first few chapters ended up being thoroughly unlikable, vapid, stupid, and just mean. I would recommend anyone getting this book in audio version to listen to a sample first to make sure it doesn’t grate on them as it did me.

I would have bought the book version but the characters were also problematic in those first chapters. E.g., at the same time that the main character was upset about being stereotyped she was putting down the gay boy next door for dressing too loudly and for having a crush on her mother, “Like a cat bringing a dead mouse to the door.” Her group of friends hate on others just as they are hated on. It made the whole book unlistenable/unreadable for me.

I couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Perhaps it gets better and there is character growth and our heroine realizes that she was being just as ugly as the people were to her. I did like that her group of friends were racially diverse and each had to deal with different types of harassment because of it – we need more awareness of this unacceptable situation in books. But it defeats the purpose when those characters are just as bad in their stereotyping. Reviewed from an advanced listenter version provided by the publisher.

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21st Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa

21st Century Boys was written to clear up loose ends and bring more clarity to the original long-running 1990s series 20th Century Boys. If you haven’t read the other series, you can still follow this two volume set just fine – but of course, you’ll miss a lot of what made the original story fantastic.

Story: Kenji is willing to do anything to stop the end of the world. He’ll chase down clues, enter a virtual reality world, and even fight a giant robot to do so. But who is the mysterious Friend and what exactly is going on? Most importantly, what set in motion the events that lead up to the end of the world?

All the of the characters look to be here – from Kanna to Yukiji. There is an especially poignant moment with Yukiji near the end that pretty much made the volume already worth the cost.

Those who want more information, some great closure, and a return to the story/characters will definitely want to get 21st Century Boys. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat

Dark Rise is an entertaining fantasy with plenty of twists to keep readers entertained. The point of view switches often but converges by the end so that it all ties in. Characters are likable and from the premise set up in this first book, it will be interesting to see where the author takes it from here. That said, the author has a tendency to repeat herself frequently enough to be frustrating and the book often feels like it borrows far too liberally from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Story: Will Kemper’s last moments with his mother was as she lay dying, her final word to him to ‘run’. Now, he survives on the docks and tries to avoid the strange men who murdered her. When he is captured and chained in the hold of a ship, he thinks all is lost. Until a group of anachronistic men storm the ship, sink it, and he escapes. Now, with the help of a young girl with great strength and a group of ages-old guardians, he will become embroiled in a struggle to prevent the Dark King from rising again and destroying the world with his terrifying magic.

The characters were interesting, though I am not a fan of an unreliable narrator structure. We mostly follow Will has he learns about his heritage and struggles with the notion that he may be the world’s savior through his bloodlines. Along this journey, he makes friends/companions who also are intricately wound up in the ancient history of the world. There is young Violet, who should be Will’s enemy but isn’t. There is Cyprian – a young man with a proud past and supreme martial talent. There is Will’s evil counterpart, James, who was born to be a slave to the Dark King and share his bed again. And then there is Katherine – fiancée of Will’s enemy and someone who calls to Will’s heart for reasons he does not understand.

No real relationships are created in this first book so there is not much in the way of romance. It is a straight-forward fantasy set in a pseudo-London of around the 1600s or so. The settings are nicely created, though it is disappointing that the author did not go full fantasy and instead settled for yet another British historical setting. The fantasy elements call for their own worldbuilding since they are not really rooted in any of the milieu’s actual past or history. It can feel lazy on the author’s part as a result. The setting also kept the book from more original elements that could have elevated this to a great read as opposed to a good one.

There were two serious issues that did keep Dark Rise from a higher rating. First, the author had a tendency to repeat herself over and over. At one point, when I read nearly the exact same line for the umpteenth time, I felt like closing the book and giving up on it. The story really did not need to have the same point or lines repeated so often to make a point; readers these days are savvy enough to understand subtleties.

The other issue was that the book felt too much like it was influenced by Lord of the Rings (LoTR). No, there are no elves or orcs running around but phrases and descriptions might well have been lifted wholesale from the LoTR series. The book often felt like the author must have binge-watched the movies before writing because so many things were so familiar to anyone who has read the books or watched the movies. From a “Lady of the Light” (hello Galadriel) to a Dark King defeated in the past and trying to return (hello Sauron), to Shadow Kings betrayed by the Dark King and forced to serve him as shadows (hello Ring Wraiths), to an all-seeing eye for the Dark King through his minions (hello Eye of Sauron). It could often feel like Middle Earth was replaced by Olde England, ditching all the other non-human characters along the way.

I did enjoy Dark Rise despite it feeling so derivative and repetitive at times. I am hoping that with the next book, the author does not continue with the gimmicky ‘unreliable narrator’ with Will just to make twists and reveals happen at the end. It felt very deus ex machine/an author plot device rather than a natural and needed aspect of an organic story.

In all, I enjoyed Dark Rise and will be getting the next book in the series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Cheer Up! by Crystal Frasier, Val Wise

This was a delight from start to finish. The characters were adorable and it was a fun read with some great messages that never overshadowed the plot. The artwork perfectly suited the story and the entire book was just the perfect length for a great afternoon read.

Story: Beebee is a people pleaser – she just wants to quietly fit in and get better grades. But she came out as trans awhile back and suddenly she is the interest of everyone in the school. Her good friend Annie, on the other hand, is snarky, antisocial, has no filters, and is the smartest person in the school. When Annie is pressured to come up with an extra-curricular activity for her college application, she gets help from friend Beebee. Both girls, coming from different ends of the social spectrum, will be able to learn from each other as they become closer while working together.

The writing of this is organic and flows perfectly. Both girls are easy to understand and their personalities and issues very understandable. It’s not a hyper-realistic story but instead a very sweet one where the protagonists learn life lessons from each other while also perhaps falling in love.

The artwork is beautiful – clean, colorful, and distinct. It blended perfectly with the story to create a seamless narrative that is engaging and fun. Especially in this era where comics have gone dark again (see Sabrina/Archies crossovers), it’s a pleasure to see something bubble-gum again.

In all, I finished this book with a smile on my face. It is a complete story arc, has some great subtle messages, and features very underrepresented individuals as protagonists. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Winds of Change by Erin Hunter

Winds of Change takes place near the beginning of the second series, The New Prophecy. As with all the Warrior Cats books, the story is engaging, there are no slow times, and these graphic novels are well worth the read since they flesh out hidden storylines and give us new perspectives on the lives in the other Warrior Cat clans.

Story: Mudclaw’s story is retold from his viewpoint as he strives to protect his clan at all costs. When Firestar looks to be a threat, Mudclaw begins taking advice from Hawkfrost, who feeds his clan chief’s paranoia. This causes his original goal of protecting his clanmates to morph into something dangerous under Hawkfrost’s goading. Letting his actions spur out of control under the influence of the malicious Hawkfrost, Mudclaw, still the noble deputy he was before, comes to the realization that he was used and must come to accept his failure.

The characters are on-point and the translation from novel to graphic format is very well done. Character stories are fleshed out and I am not disappointed in the direction that the manga took in that regard. It is great to see a character who didn’t get much page time get his own story.

In this stand-alone story, Mudclaw gets a redemption arc that is well written and full of pathos. It’s great to see a viewpoint that is not Thunder Clan and instead we see the reasons and motivations of how other clans interact with them (in this case, Wind Clan).

Admittedly, I am not a fan of the drawing style. It tries to give very distinct facial expressions to the cats but it ends up looking wonky. In this particular novel, the colors also felt very bland and washed out – when it should be a colorful world in my mind. The panels had good angles for the backgrounds and the attention to detail was very well done throughout.

In all, I highly recommend this graphic novel. It explores several side characters stories, gives us perspectives from the other clans, and allows us to see the story in a new way. The art is serviceable and the read is always engaging. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Homebrewed Vinegar by Kristen K. Shockey

This is an extremely thorough and well researched book that will tell you everything you need to know about vinegar. From its history to the various types, ph levels, mom starterss, etc. etc. There are photographs throughout for this complicated and time-consuming process.

Ironically, I discovered I have no desire to put that much time and effort into something like a vinegar. But gourmands will find much to love here since this is the most comprehensive book I’ve ever seen on the subject. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Lost On Planet Earth by Magdalene Visaggio, Joe Corallo, Claudia Aguirre, Zakk Saam

This was a very hard graphic novel to get into. The writing felt heavy handed and each scene seemed to be plotted specifically to make a point or statement rather than a story. As a result, the story never grew organically and the segues were abrupt and missing vital information. Ironically, since this felt more of a soapbox than a plot, by the end I was wondering, “What was the point of that?”

Story: Basil focused all her life on getting into the military (read: Star Trek Federation) that she left personal relationships at the wayside. But on graduation testing day, she runs and ends up with rebels trying to take down the ‘assimilating’ government. In doing so, she left behind the one woman, Charlotte, who has loved her and supported her throughout.

First and foremost, I didn’t like Basil and found I wasn’t very interested in following her story. As written, she remains completely self centered throughout the whole book – creating a path of destruction around her as a result. I wish we had seen more about her history and hopes as a child but there was a LOT of tell here in the present that just just became disenfranchising. Charlotte, on the other hand, is a doorstop and the rest of the side characters just pop in and out without really enough justification or interest.

The plot itself pretty much is about Basil careening through life like a pinball – there’s not a lot going on except Basil meeting people then moving on as she fails to accomplish anything. There are no epic space battles, revolutions, or anything sci fi fun. I’m not even sure this needed to be set in the future for all the use that was made of the milieu.

Perhaps the most egregious issue for me is that every male in the book is a macho power-hungry jerk. From Basil’s father to the commander of the fleet to a fellow cadet – uniformly unpleasant. As well, the government having an issue with LGBQT was also strange and inexplicable (especially in a sci fi story with aliens). It was very deus ex machina in order to make a statement or story point than as a natural consequence of how this future evolved.

In all, aimless plotting, male bashing (just as bad as female bashing), soapboxing, lack of inertia, and just a general senselessness made this a very hard read to trudge through. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Bad Boys Happy Home Volume 1 by Shoowa and Hirmasa Okujima

I was pleasantly surprised by this title. Unlike many in this genre, it had a distinct storyline with interesting reveals and surprising pathos. The story flows smoothly and there are plenty of hints at a darker side to at least one of the characters.

Story: Akamatsu is an angry young man. When he picks a fight on a young guy hanging out at the children’s playground, he gets his butt kicked. After coming back for more fights daily, he soon discovers that the guy, Seven, is homeless. What begins with a fight soon turns into a truce and then uneasy friendship as Akamatsu eventually lets Seven stay at his apartment.

I found both characters very interesting. The reason for Akamatsu’s pent up anger soon becomes evident and it was interesting to see him work through that. Seven, meanwhile, seems so calm and compassionate but it is clear that he he has a troubled past he is attempting to escape.

This first volume resolves a lot of Akamatsu’s issues. I greatly look forward to the next volume, which should confront Seven’s past. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Yakuza Lover Volume 1 by Nozomi Mino

I love a sexy josei title as much as the next girl but I have to admit that this one feels very confused and aimless. The smutty sections are rather unsexy, the love interest is a caricature and over idealized, and the heroine Yuri is just odd. The whole story was far too much like a huge deus ex machina, with each scene feeling like it was plotted in advance to within an inch of its life. It just made for a rather boring read.

When romance-starved Yuri attends a party, she is accosted by gangsters. But she is then saved by their rival gangster head – Oya. He respect the feisty girl and she is mesmerized by them. But can an ordinary girl survive in a Yakuza world?

This is yet another josei where the hero can do everything, is filthy rich, handsome, sexy, powerful, and yet lives only for the heroine. He’s respectful when she wants to take it slow and knows when to go full. It’s all a bit too convenient and takes away the suspense and organic nature of a romance.

Each chapter has a plot we have read in every shoujo romance before: mistaken situations, communication crosses, etc. I know I’ve read the exact thing in countless novels in the past and I was hard pressed to find anything original in the story.

The artwork felt very old fashioned and I became sick of the same expressions on the faces. Yuri spends most of the book wide eyed like a deer in the headlights. Oya has the same smirky smug expression in every scene – whether he is walking or making out. It got old fast.

In all, it was hard to find much to like here. I felt like I’ve read it before and the artwork didn’t bring anything new to the table either. It especially pales to similar titles such as Midnight Secretary. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Darkness Outside Us by Eliot Schrefer

This was an interesting book in that I didn’t actually believe it was a realistic situation, none of the dialogue or plotting felt organic, and yet I did stay hooked until the end. The protagonist felt like he jumped out of an overidealized YA LGBQT novel (read: cliche chirpy and friendly) while the other character might as well had “Communist Russia” stamped across his forehead. That said, readers will want to follow it to the end despite the flaws because there are some interesting twists, thoughout.

Story: Aristocratic Ambrose was chosen for a rescue mission to save his famous sister on a new planet far away. But when he wakes up weeks after launch, he’s told that he suffered an accident, was in a coma, and that the ship desperately needs repairs. He also learns that unknown to him, his ship was docked with one from a competing government and that ship also contains a 17 year old astronaut. As he goes about his duties, he also begins to thaw the very reserved and stoic Kodiak. Together, they will uncover a mystery that will affect their mission to save Ambrose’s sister.

For once, this is not a romance so much as a space survival story. We learn quickly that the AI on the ship has some HAL-esq qualities and that the two teens may not be safe. And while there is a mutual attraction, most of the emphasis on the book is on figuring out exactly what is going on. There are quite a few twists you won’t see coming and quite a bit of tragedy.

I didn’t really believe either character was real. If anything, this ‘cold war’ aspects of the story made it just a bit too familiar; both characters could have been plucked from Los Angeles and Moscow 2021. Part of the book is the two cultures coming to respect each other despite a lifetime of being enemies but that aspect was both underexplored and overplayed. The AI was ridiculously dense and I think my cat could have outsmarted it.

As a protagonist and our POV of the story, Ambrose is very useless other than having more of a personality than Kodiak. Kodiak solves all the mysteries and pretty much does everything needed while Ambrose fumbles around and smiles amiably. In the end, Ambrose finally becomes useful as a computer programmer – but it is a very unbelievable deus ex machina that felt really silly to anyone with any programming experience. It’s also hard to ascertain why Ambrose was chosen for such an important mission other than that the rescue objective is his sister.

Sometimes, a book can carry enough momentum to get past the frustrations with the plot and characterization. This book did so quite effectively – I finished it in one night just to see how it would end. The ending was not a disappointment but I can’t help but feel I’ve read it before in books such as Revis’ Across the Universe series.

In all, it is very addicting but just don’t think too deep. It does have plenty of ‘romance’ and a nice love story but that isn’t really the focus, which is the mystery the two boys have to solve. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Promised Neverland 19 by Kaiu Shirai, Posuka Demizu

With this penultimate volume, we begin the final battle back where it all started: at Grace Field. The plot follows two different directions: saving the Grace Field children and dealing with the aftermath of the death of the queen and nobles in the demon world.

Story: Peter Ratri has taken over Grace Field and is holding the kids hostage. But Ratri forgets that that Ray, Norman, and Emma grew up there and know all its nooks and crannies. Time is against the trio, though, and they rush to get there in time. What they don’t know is that Ratri has one large group of terrifying allies on his side. Meanwhile, in the demon world everything has devolved into chaos until Duke Leuvis unexpectedly appears and halts the mob destruction. Can he convince the demons not to kill Mujika and Sonju?

There are several twists in this volume and plenty of action left. Ratri is clearly crazy and doesn’t care who he has to sacrifice as long as he can win. Emma will have to hurry to stop Ratri from killing the children one by one; what she doesn’t realize is that Ratri knows The Promise hinges on her being alive to fulfill the contract. He doesn’t care about Grace Field any more and has set his sights on destroying the mastermind of his defeat: Emma.

In all, a satisfying rush to the final volume. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Promised Neverland Volume 20 by by Kaiu Shirai, Posuka Demizu

With this 20th volume, we reach the end of the Promised Neverland story. Some may argue that the plot wavered in the middle and became a bit aimless or that the ending was a bit too pat. But I enjoyed the series and feel that the conclusion was perfect for the story. The theme of The Promised Neverland was hope and family – both were nicely represented.

Story: Peter Ratri has been cornered and defeated by the moms. When offered a peace by Emma, will he take it or sacrifice himself to kill her as well? Meanwhile, a price had to be paid for The Promise and no one but Emma knows what the promise entailed. What is the most valuable thing she owns that she gave up to ensure that the children would be transported to the human world? And what will they find once they get there?

In the end, the story became focused on Mujika and Emma. A valid criticism of the series is that Ray was never really utilized well after the first arc. Norman’s vilification was interesting but never really played out well. I think many fans had hoped for more with Ray and Norman but by the end, they had pretty much faded from view (especially Ray).

The ending wasn’t too long or too short and played out nicely. I felt that it was appropriate for the themes of the title and really couldn’t have ended any other way. There are some sacrifices made – in terms of lives and happiness. But in all, still a very good conclusion to the series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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