Social Intercourse by Greg Howard

I was curious as to how others were receiving this book and came across one review that noted you might feel like you need a shower after this book. And I have to agree – this definitely looks like it was written by a guy in that the focus is entirely on male or female genitalia. For one character, it’s all about ‘dick’ and ‘balls’ – and for the one with the lesbian parents, it’s about vagina. After awhile, I think I got more detail about every vulgar word used to describe sexual parts than I would have received from years in high school. It’s probably accurate – in a ‘teen male verite’ type of way. But I have to honestly say I missed the pathos of an Adam Silvera book or the sweet Disneyesque heroines of Becky Albertalli. I despised both leads in Social Intercourse and didn’t want to read their story of selfishness and self absorption.

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Story: Beckett Gaines is a very out-n-proud virgin looking to get laid as much as he can so he will be the perfect sex partner when he finds Mr Right. Too bad he’s finding undesireable hookups on Bangr.com with porno-staches, 1980s purple sedans, and middle age catfish deceptions. Jax, meanwhile, likes girls, gets plenty of sex, but is curious about boys, too. Except he hates it when his parents suggest he is Bi – something he finds labeling. The boys get a chance to work together to fix their parents issues (Beckett’s dad is dating someone new that his son doesn’t approve and Jax wants to get his moms to live together again). Both will do horrible and mean things in order to accomplish this.

Right from the start, when Beckett comes home and finds his father has a new girlfriend, all he can complain about is that he saw her ‘big titties’ – and proceeds to name her that, despite the woman trying hard to be nice to him since she is dating his father. Jax, meanwhile, spends most of the time annoyed that his moms encourage him to explore bisexuality when he hates the label and the connotation it conjures – even though he is curious. Both boys will end up doing mean and horrible things to ‘fix’ their parents’ issues. That is, when they aren’t focusing on dicks or vagina thoughts (which, to be fair, isn’t very often).

I’ve never been one for overidealized protagonists and certainly I appreciate a book from a different perspective. But I’ve got to want to root for my anti-heroes and honestly, these boys were so pathetic and selfish, I just wanted someone to end the story already so I didn’t have to see them do yet more stupid and often cruel things to otherwise decent people.

Those looking for a very vulgar and perhaps far too honest look at boys at that age, here you go. But if you want to like and love the characters, this probably won’t be your cup of tea. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publishers.

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The Bird and The Blade by Megan Bannen

The Bird and the Blade is a retelling of the Opera Turandot. If you have never heard of Pucchini’s 1924 unfinished piece, that’s not surprising. Reviews through history have been polarizing, especially since it was completed by someone other than Pucchini. The heart of the story is a Princess who does not wish to wed and therefore sets a challenge of three riddles; every suitor must solve them immediately or die. When a prince in disguise comes to challenge Princess Turandot, it is through the selfless act of a lovesick slave that saves both the prince and Turandot. Many found the sacrifice meaningless and the prince rather facile in the original story. Here, author Bannen builds up the tale nicely to give us a YA version. But anachronisms and a slavish attention to detail often derail the story unexpectedly.

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Story: Jinhua has lost everything to the selfish Mongol Princess Turandokt: the Song dynasty devastated in a war over Turandokt’s fickle hand in marriage, then her second home as a slave also destroyed. But Jinhua has a secret – she has fallen in love with the master she serves, Prince Khalaf and (whose father is the former Khan of the Kpchak Khanate). Together, the three will flee their city and seek a way to recover the Khanate. But all signs point to Khalaf risking his life in Turandokt’s twisted riddle challenge to gain the Khan’s patranage through marriage to Turandokt. Can Jinhua let her poet prince go in order to help him salvage his legacy?

For this tale, author Bannen has made some smart choices. The story is not linear but unfolds in a way so as to provide fascinating reveals about characters you thought you knew. The story starts with the first riddle but then immediately backtracks to Jinhua’s fist meeting with Khalaf and her subsequent devotion to his side as they flee the invasion. The second riddle is presented in the middle of the book and we are then given more flashbacks, this time to Jinhua’s past. Finally, we’re given the third riddle and the conclusion of the story.

Those who know the opera will be relieved that this has not been Disneyfied as with the Little Mermaid. As well, it hasn’t been watered down for a YA audience, assuming readers don’t need a perfect HEA in order to enjoy a book. But at the same time, the ending doesn’t feel as logical and obvious as it could have been. I didn’t necessarily understand or empathize with Jinghua’s choices in the end, which was surprising because the author did a good job of slowly developing Jinghua and her relationship to Khalaf.

I found myself similarly ambivalent about the characters. Khalaf is handsome, of course, and very learned/intelligent. He’s known more for his philosophizing than for his swordplay, but of course he is an unparalleled warrior. Which means he isn’t the usual alpha male but he is also far too overidealized a Prince Charming to be realistic. He doesn’t want to bed our slave heroine like someone of his era (nor does his father, oddly) would – instead we have the angst of the prince whose heart is going one way but his royal duties going another. It was hard to find a reason why he was so attracted to Jinhua, if I’m being completely honest, and harder to find a reason why he doesn’t just bed her. But at least this wasn’t a three-way romance – Turandokt only briefly appears.

The book has a lot of history interspersed. The author is careful to note where she took liberties; after all, it isn’t as though the opera inspiration was all that historically correct either. But I had a really hard time with the modern language used in the story. Phrases such as when Khalaf gives her a dagger to protect herself, Jinhua answer, “I bet you give all the girls daggers.” There were too many odd modern phrasings that kept jarring me out of the wonderful historical milieu and I honestly didn’t feel the book would have been worse had they been left out.

It was those inconsistencies in narrative that jarred. This isn’t a swashbuckling swords and daggers story – it’s more of a slow burn travel adventure that has some really smart writing decisions and some I felt let the book down. In all, though, it is definitely worth the read, especially since it is based of a Pucchini opera. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Shortcake Cake volume 1 by Suu Morishita

I had a hard time with Shortcake Cake simply because I have rarely seen more wooden characters. Our protagonist is like a clueless mannequin walking among people but never really giving any semblance of being an actual living person. This reverse harem features several really bland and uninteresting boys who, of course, fall immediately for our brick of a main lead. I was beginning to wonder if there would be a hook that Ten, the girl, is actually a robot. But sadly that doesn’t look to be the case.

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Story: Ten had been taking a long train commute to go to school. But when she friends a schoolmate who lives in a boarding house, she decides that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to live closer after all. So just like that, she moves into the boarding house and interacts with the boys. One develops an immediate crush on her while the others look to be holding similar longings for our expressionless and unemotional paper weight. Most of the story in this volume is about the boys trying to figure out how much of a crush they have on Ten – in a rather insipid way.

Perhaps I missed something? Upon starting it twice, I really didn’t see the attraction. Certainly, Ten is the antithesis of the genki and impulsive shoujo heroine archetype. But then again, so was Tsukushi of Boys Over Flowers. At least in Tsukushi’s case, she was intelligent and logical and endearing in her exasperation with Doumyouji. Ten is just like a black hole – all characterization, nuance, and spirit is sucked into her and disappears. There is absolutely NO chemistry whatsoever with any of the male inhabitants of the boarding house. This makes the boys having a crush on her absolutely mind boggling.

The boys themselves don’t fare much better. I had a hard time telling them apart since they pretty much just walk around and mumble “maybe I have a crush on her.” I didn’t find any of them interesting or ‘swoon worthy’ and certainly have to wonder what the appeal is with this title. The plot goes no where, the characters are cardboard, and the art is ok but nothing to write home about. Perhaps it picks up and gets better in later volumes? Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Black Torch Volume 1 by Tsuyoshi Takaki

Yes, we’ve seen this story before: boy gets possessed by something [insert supernatural entity here: yokai, demon, angel, satan, evil spirit, etc. etc.] and gains extra powers. He’s recruited by secret organization with iffy roots, and he goes out and fights supernatural bad guys. He’s going to be kind of feckless but good hearted and his supernatural entity is going to be smart mouthed and sarcastic. But this is done in a fun way and the art is solid, so it is worth a read.

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Story: Jiro can talk to animals; that’s odd enough but he’s also been raised by a ‘grandfather’ who taught him ninja abilities. When Jiro comes across a cat left for dead, he nurses it back to health. But it turns out it is no ordinary cat and Jiro’s life is about to become even more complicated.

As with all buddy stories (and this is one, to be sure) the story will live or fall flat on its face based on the banter between the two. It it sounds forced, it will be a snoozefest. But if the author strikes the right note of comedy and warmth, then it is enough to keep readers returning. I do have a fear that this will turn into a ‘monster of the week’ type of fare. But there is some mystery around the ‘espionage organization’ to hopefully bring us a series-long arc to explore.

For now, we have an introduction, a few character, a lot of fan service, a snarky black cat, a dumb but energetic main character, and a lot of supernatural hooey. Here’s hoping the story goes somewhere! Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Promised Neverland Volume 5 by Kaiu Shirai, Posuka Demizu

The Promised Neverland continues to be a fascinating read as the kids are now outside and facing new perils. I had worried the series would be about constantly scheming to get out but never actually leave the orphanage. Fortunately, with this Volume 5 they are finding new clues in a whole different world unlike anything for which their books have prepared them.

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Story: Ray and Emma have planned for months and now the escape is happening. Mother watches helplessly as the orphanage goes up in flames and the demons demand answers. But she is also resigned to the machinations put into place by the children. Can Emma, Ray, and 15 kids survive the horrors of the outside world if they do actually manage to escape?

It would have beggared belief that a bunch of smart kids could survive a whole different world than expected. Fortunately, they were left clues by William Minerva that they are now just beginning to recognize. It broadens the picture nicely and builds the tension and plot quite neatly to the point where you want to eagerly turn the page to read what is going to happen next. Of course, there is quite a cliffhanger in this volume.

In all, I am greatly enjoying The Promised Neverland. Each volume has been engrossing, the story and plot quite well thought out and nuanced, and the characters interesting. There’s more than enough mystery to keep this going for quite awhile. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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That Blue Sky Feeling by Okura and Coma Hashii

That Blue Sky Feeling should be fairly popular – it has a sweet, slow burn type of romance that is somewhat rare in a lot of manga in this genre. But at the same time, both main characters are very underdeveloped and there’s not a lot of world building. It’s hard to root for either when we have to take so much for granted and fill in too many blanks.

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Story: Noshiro has moved around a lot and is an easy going guy well prepared for another year in a new high school. But on his first day he notices a classmate who seems left out and ignored by the others. When he asks why, he’s told it is because they think that boy may be a ‘homo’ and they don’t want to associate with him. Sanada (the pariah) knows who and what he is and has decided to just withdraw rather than deal with the discomfort/awkwardness his situation arises. But Noshiro hates the ugliness and decides to pursue a friendship with the recalcitrant Sanada. That friendship may turn into something more as an otherwise straight Noshiro discovers that he has more than friendship thoughts about Sanada.

The story really hinges on Noshiro – a sweet, nice, every-boy that isn’t too handsome or smart or overidealized. Sanada is quiet, reserved, and somewhat standoffish but never really mean or obnoxious, as can sometimes be the case in manga. In that, this is a really refreshing manga where we don’t have to deal with boys who are too good looking or obvious seme or uke roles. Instead, it is two average boys and a very slow burn but sweet romance.

There are things I really disliked about the manga. For one, Sanada has a 26 year old ex boyfriend who takes pains to befriend Noshiro and offer ‘friendly’ advice. I found it far too creepy and disturbing, especially when Noshiro blithely accepts an invite to ‘dinner’ at the ex boyfriend’s house. Honestly, if the ex likes one young boy I couldn’t help but feel creeped out that Noshiro was next. It’s not that kind of manga but it was a deal breaker for me.

I also had issues with Sanada. yes, he’s reserved and deservedly so after all his friends turned on him when they suspected his orientation. But at the same time, it’s hard to understand Noshiro’s fixation with him, even beyond that of wanting to ‘right an injustice’ and pick up a sad puppy like Sanada. Noshiro is a big, kind-hearted lug but Sanada’s characterization is paper thin. So Noshiro’s preoccupation with helping Sanada just felt off and forced.

Because of the two issues above, I never believed in either character. I didn’t have that “butterflies in the stomach’ reaction the blurb promised and I really didn’t feel compelled to further read this story. Perhaps others will be less creeped out by the ex boyfriend salaryman, though. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Cleo and Cornelius by Elizabeth Nicholson, Janine Pibal, Nick Geller, Michelle Thies

This is a short and simple retelling of the City Mouse and the Country Mouse published by Getty (known for their classical history collection). Here, we have two cousin cats who live a nice existence in ancient Egypt but are separated by a quirk of fate. The illustrations are quite lovely but the tale doesn’t have much to it – anthropomorphic cats exploring Greek and Egyptian culture without much of a plot to tie it all together. It feels like a museum tie-in – something to keep kids interested in all the ‘old stuff’ in a museum.

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Story: Cleo and Cornelius are cousins who are inseparable in ancient Egypt. When Cleo accidentally gets trapped on a boat to ancient Greece, he discovers a whole new fascinating world where dogs, not cats, are worshipped. Cornelius hops on board a boat and comes to his rescue – only to find out Cleo really likes it in Greece. Cornelius hops a boat home to Egypt and is glad his friend is able to stay and adventure in Greece.

The book has a lengthy end section about the historical aspects of the story as well as the inspiration fable. Discussions on Egyptian mummies and Greek society help young ones learn about the classical cultures of the past.

There were a few things that were detractors for me. For one, the story was very short and didn’t really have much of a point. I would have liked to see an actual plot rather than a quick little set of vignettes. I also wish the cats hadn’t been made anthropomorphic – it was jarring that we have a book about actual history but with very unrealistic cats. Yes, Cleo and Cornelius are quite cute – but that’s on the illustrator and not the story writers. There’s not enough meat on these bones to keep one interested.

The illustration work is quite lovely and worth exploring for that alone (since there really isn’t much else to this paper-thin tale). The educational aspects are nice but really sabotaged but lack of story. It felt more like “Cleo and Cornelius take a walk through Egypt and Greece so we can learn about these cultures” rather than a retelling of an old fable that will keep kids invested in rereads. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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