Southbound! Glorious Summers by Zidrou and Jordi Lafebre

As the title suggests, this is a somewhat autobiographical and very romantic memory of the author during one Summer in 1970s Belgium. We have a family without much means but a lot of heart who give us a wonderful reminder that the best Summer vacations aren’t the ones that you spend thousands on – it’s the ones where you are with your family and enjoying life.

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Story: Pierre is a frustrated comic artist with more ideas than successes in his career. His long suffering wife is at the end of her rope trying to justify the lost years hoping her husband will have a series that makes it big. They have three kids and are ready to do their yearly Summer drive South to their favorite camping areas. But this year is different – unbeknownst to the kids, Pierre’s wife is considering divorce and the vacation has become a bittersweet event for the parents.

Zidrou adeptly captures the feel of 1970s France/Belgium through his everyday family. Precocious toddler, fighting middle kids, and a quiet boy who has an imaginary friend: a giant squirrel. The love there is obvious, even if strained at this point in time. The book covers their Grimwold’s family trek, though without Chevy Chase emoting. From passing the french fries stand to convincing a Dutch family to leave ‘their’ camping spot.

The lighthearted adventures are offset by the growing realization that the parents’ relationship is failing. And that the father, despite spending all day and night at the drawing board, is about to have another failed comic series. But of course, the kids are oblivious and to them, this is the grandest Summer just being with the parents and away from school.

The illustration work is superb and easy to follow. Each of the characters definitely looks 1970s European in wonderful ways – from the mutton chops to the wide legged pants and old Renault. I really liked that it was set in that era – it was a different time before cell phones and computer games.

Southbound! is the type of story you didn’t want to end. Even experiencing the pathos and sadness leading up to the third part of the story, it is an engaging and wonderful read. As well, it didn’t end the way I thought it would – a surprise and perhaps the most European aspect of the entire story. In all, very recommended, especially for those who grew up in the 1970s and remember those halcyon days before technology stole away kids’ energies. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ark Land By Scott A Ford

I love that we have so many original stories in graphic novel format these days. Sure, I may not love all of them – but we have such variety that we really are spoiled. And while Ark Land never connected with me, I was glad to have a chance to read it.

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Story: Kairn survives in the moors, picking up debris from arks that fell out of orbit and crash landed on the planet. The arks contained specimens of different creatures and plants that took up life and created a very interesting world. No one knows why the arks appeared – only that they can somewhat tell when one is going to fall and then head to that location to search the debris for scraps. When Kairn becomes involved in a radio contest to find certain scraps, she will uncover a much larger plot involving the secretive cult that worships the arks.

For me, I found Kairn to be completely charmless as a main character and therefore did not really want her to succeed or even to follow her adventures. He/she was yet another example of a person everyone is nice to even though he/she doesn’t deserve it and he/she doesn’t really care how much damage she does to people. Even when searching for her kidnapped robot buddy, he/she is more concerned about the robot’s usefulness than the companionship. If we don’t have a “Forest Gump” type of charm in a simple hero/heroine, it’s hard to really like them.

The plot itself is choppy and feels pieced together – almost like the mindless episodic feel of Tv series. I didn’t really feel an overarching arc and the ending was so anticlimactic as to make everything that went before completely pointless. It was like a road map: character does a then b then c. End tale.

The illustration work was ok – it was very distinct but again, as with the story, it never really got my attention. The panels were detailed yet there was an unrefined crudeness that never really made sense to me, especially in a sci fi story. E.g., the ark wrecks looked like the bones of a shipwreck – yet we were to believe there was a whole maze inside that wasn’t apparent from the outside. It was hard to follow.

The big killer for me was a font that is so hard to read as to be distracting. I had to force myself to finish the book, using glasses and a magnifying glass to meticulously figure out each word. After awhile, it gave me a headache and I began skimming.

So although this was not a book I enjoyed, I still am damn glad we have offerings like this.

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Space Cat Visits Venus by Ruthven Todd

Written in 1958, this is a beloved book to many for a good reason: it is beautifully illustrated, has a fun story, and the author put in as much as was known about space travel at the time (remember, no one would go to the moon until 1968). Of course we know much more about the galaxy, space travel, and the planets now, making this book’s outdated aspects all the more charming as a result. It’s a book to read to kids to get their imagination and adventure stirring while the enjoy the wonderful illustrations.

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Story: Space Cat Flyball has conquered the moon! But then astronaut Fred Stone prepares for a trip to Venus! Flyball already proved himself as an astrocat and is hoping to find tasty mice there. But what they do find is amazing and fantastical. Can Fred and Flyball the Spacecat save the indigenous species from a hostile invader plant from another planet?!?

So yes, this story is very sweet and fun. From scientific descriptions of ammonia clouds and different gravity, to the more imaginative psychic plants and three-legged mice. We get wonderful moments and one has to appreciate all the care that Ruthven Todd put into the story. Flyball’s adventures, a four book series, are a joy to read.

The illustrations, of course, are a huge asset. Flyball is somewhat anthropomorphic but most of the time looks like your ordinary tiger-striped cat. In this second book in the series, Fred and Flyball can communicate thanks to a plant so they can share their adventures and explorations together. Perhaps the cutest illustration is of Fred enjoying smoking a pipe in the spaceship while Flyball sleeps in his lap. Ah, the 1950s – it reminded me so much of the future world that Disneyland once promised us.

In all, truly wonderful and a treasure to be handed down through the years. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Vampire Knight Memories Volume 2 by Matsuri Hino

I don’t think fans of the series will mind that these short stories are more vignettes than tale; there’s enough in here to see how the characters have grown and how their lives went after the ending of the manga series. Each story flows into the next seamlessly and we get a picture of several people and how they are doing through time.

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– The Warmth of the Princess of My Memories. While Kaname gets to know Yuki’s children in the future, we are brought back to a time when Ai was writing memories in a book with Zero when she was a child. Yuki has to deal with vampires trying to assassinate Zero as an unfit consort while Zero also has the suspicions and doubts of the vampire hunters. Yuki is still unable to move on to fully commit to zero at that time. Yori is determined to remain a human despite her relationship with Hanabusa.

– Stars That Shine In Darkness: When vampires attempt to attack Yori in order to protest Yuki and Zero’s relationship, she is saved by Hanabusa. A sweet romantic moment ensues between the two.

– The Box In The Depth Of One’s Soul That Must Not Be Opened. Ai is young and attending her first soiree. But it doesn’t go as planned and she runs into Zero’s arms in tears. She chides herself for wishing her mother would reawaken Kaname so she could have Zero to herself. But the incident is the catalyst to learning the truth about Kaname, Yuki, and Zero’s relationship.

– Ai and her first love. When Ai tells her feelings to Zero in a special moment, he has a very expected answer to her. But Ai learned about love then and was able to move on.

– You are my North Star. Ai is going through her transformation and doesn’t want to hurt other people from her thirst for blood. Yori worries that her determination to stay human is a detriment to Hanabusa. And Yuki and Zero finally find the opportunity to move forward.

At the end of the book there is a nice description of why Hino named the characters as she did. In all, a very well written book that flows smoothly through time, with each story ending on a thematic note that leads to the next tale. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis

First a personal note – I’ve read all the Davis books over the years and while I consume large amounts of audio books in general, I have always steered away from them when it comes to Lindsay Davis, primarily because I was worried the narrator would not have the same tone as my imagination had given the characters over the years. Turns out this was not so – the Audiobook version was very enjoyable.

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The story in Pandora’s Boy is very typical of Davis’ latest works. It is competent, witty and enjoyable but unfortunately predictable. As before, we have a large amount of characters each of which seem to divulge only a small bit of information at any given time. The reveal at the end has a twist, but usually one that can have been seen a mile away. To be honest, as a murder mystery it’s not much to speak off.

To summarize the plot: Flavia is called upon solve the death of a young teenage girl by her husband’s ex-wife – and there is scandal in the air as a love potion is rumored to be the cause. Love potions are the realm of witches and witchcraft is illegal. The cast involves the extended family of the deceased as well as her young friend who could easily be mistaken for teens of today.

Where the true enjoyment of these books still comes from is the witty dialogue and that is still very much on par. I also love the main characters Flavia Albia and her husband – both are finally operating as a pair in the fine art of mystery solving. Their interactions alone are worth a couple of stars. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Wild Blue Wonder by Carlie Sorosiak

I’ve read several of these types of books this year and really it comes down to characterization if it succeeds or fails; fortunately, Sorosiak is a deft hand with the empathy and the book is a bittersweet read about love, loss, and ultimately grief. What could have been a very depressing read is instead alleviated by the awkward warmth of our heroine and her gentle friends. As well, the plot unwinds organically, with character growth and development well written.

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Story: The middle child in a fairly ‘new age’ family who operates a Summer camp in the North East of Maine, Quinn grew up with her best friend Dylan at her side. As she writes letters to him that he will never read, it becomes obvious that a tragedy took Dylan’s life and Quinn feels responsible – and that they all blame her. As we slowly get to know her family, how the tragedy affected all of them, and how Quinn is picking up the pieces of her shattered life, it will be old friends, family, and a new friend who will help her move on.

The letters to Dylan are sweet and there really is a lot for Quinn to learn about Dylan as the story progresses. She knew her sister had a crush on him, as did Quinn, and that perhaps there was more between Dyland and her brother as well. But with no one talking after his death, Quinn is left isolated and even more alone in her grief and self blame. It will take a shy and unusual foreign exchange student as well as her fiercely loyal best friend to help Quinn see beyond the past.

There are many touching and warm moments. And yes, if people just talked to each other, a lot of the self persecution would have been over in minutes and we wouldn’t have much of a story. But then again, the author does a great job of conveying the different reactions to grief by all the family members and community. And because we don’t know the full story of the tragedy until near the end (and not as an info dump reveal, fortunately) the book gets more and more interesting as it progresses.

In all, a surprisingly gentle and excellent read with a positive ending to such a tragic tale. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Exile by Glynn Stewart

I have read several Glynn Stewart books now and all have a running theme of not being overly technical combined with an emphasis of good people trying to do the right thing in a shifting culture. He avoids a lot of the ‘evil villain’ cliches; mostly it’s about people with conflicting priorities and desires all working within their own constraints. With Exile, we have a book in three somewhat disparate parts: espionage/rebellion, politics/new world exploration, and then first contact/space battles at the end. The three don’t really work well together despite being a natural progression for the characters in the story; I think readers will be a bit divided as a result since we have three different types of sci fi presented.

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Story: Isaac Gallant, son of the Iron Dictator, has chosen a different path than his mother – he is leading a secret rebellion against her. Amelie Lestrand is a famous actress – and the leader of the rebellion. Both are captured as the rebellion is compromised and collapses. When the Iron Dictator decides she can’t bear to see her own son killed, she instead rounds up all the Confederation’s dissidents and prisoners and sends them on a one-way trip through a worm hole to a new planet that might be habitable. There, Amelie and Isaac will have to build a new civilization for their one million refugees – on a planet suspiciously perfect for human needs. But out in the far end of the galaxy, they may not be alone.

The book has two primary leads: Isaac and Amelie. Isaac bears the weight of his mother’s dictatorship (she led the military coup that overthrew the Confederacy government and put her in power) and wants to distance himself from any signs of desiring power (and becoming the “iron brat”). Amelie, meanwhile, wants the goals of the rebellion maintained and works with Isaac and what’s left of the military to keep the new government from becoming corrupt. There are a few POVs from side characters that, to be honest, were not needed to further the story and felt superfluous.

As noted, the book came down to three parts. The Confederation rounding up all the rebellion just as the rebellion was working on a big maneuver to remove Isaac’s mother from power comprised the first 20% or so of the book. We have Isaac captured on a failed military ambush in space and Lestrand seized during a high speed chase when she realized she was compromised and tried to get away. Finally, there are some interesting scenes of Isaac’s mother confronting him in prison and telling him of his new fate.

The second portion is all politics, setting up the government, surviving the transition to the new world, and what they find there. There are some interesting maneuverings by criminals, considerations on how to build warp drives and protect the few military vessels in space, and exploration of the new world. Most of this is Lestrand taking control of the government and trying to ensure she does not become a dictator as well. This is a large chunk of the book.

Finally, (and this isn’t a spoiler since it is in the description/synopsis), there is a first contact scenario. The aliens aren’t all that interesting but there is a moral dilemma that Isaac faces: as someone of African descent, he continually asks the question if what they are doing on the new world is the same as what the European colonists did to Africa.

In all, the writing moves well and though the subjects aren’t the most interesting (e.g., figuring out how to get warp drives on the ship from spare parts or descriptions of the new world by the people exploring it), they feel like a good representation of what the exiles would have to face/deal with/discuss. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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