Summer Reads Reviewed

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Tokyo Ghoul

What happens when college student Kaneki finally goes on a date with his crush Rize? Well, she turns out to be a ghoul and tries to eat him. When the smoke clears on this situation, Kaneki is part-human, part-ghoul, and must figure out how to live as a different person – holding to his “human values” (not eating people, etc.) while dealing with his nature (only human flesh can satisfy his hunger).

It’s a philosophical sort of manga, with references to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Herman Hesse (“Who would be born must first destroy the world”). Volumes 1-8 were very interesting, albeit extremely disturbing and violent in places. If extreme violence makes you uncomfortable, maybe pass this series up–the manga seems to get progressively darker and more grotesque.

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The Coldest City

The Coldest City is a sparse, slow-burning, noir graphic novel set in Berlin near the end of the Cold War. A missing list containing the identities of all the secret agents operating in Berlin (on both sides) is the linchpin around which this story moves.

As a spy thriller, the graphic novel is well set up, but knowing that it was a spy novel, I found some of the plot revelations predictable. Unfortunately, unexpected plot twists are half the fun for me in spy stories–getting my mind blown by third-act revelations. That said, the graphic novel has an interesting set of characters and enough layers that, even with a somewhat obvious conclusion, it’s still interesting.

Also, The Coldest City is apparently the inspiration for the film Atomic Blonde? I did not know.

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Highs and Lows of “Hilo: The Great Big Boom”

The Great Big BoomJudd Winick’s third Hilo book has its ups and downs.  Compared to the first two books, Hilo: The Great Big Boom has a much weaker opening.  However, I think the plot of the third book is stronger than the second.  The story is more interesting, and I appreciate the change of scenery that accompanies Hilo and D.J.’s journey to rescue Gina, who was sucked into a portal at the end of the second book.  As Hilo and D.J. search for Gina on a strange planet, readers get to ride along into a new setting, meeting unusual interplanetary creatures along the way.  In addition to the stronger plot and revitalized setting, I think it’s necessary to note that, because this is a series in which humor is important, the third book has better jokes than Saving the Whole Wide World.

One aspect of the series that has drawn me on has been the larger story arc that encompasses all the books.  I like how Winick reveals more about Hilo’s past as the robot’s elusive memories return.  Some of the developments in The Great Big Boom feel a bit silly—including the explanation for the book’s title—, but Winick does introduce some intriguing elements.  For example, Hilo becomes hesitant to use his powers in fights, and this places his friends in danger.  Hilo’s self-doubts are sympathetic flaws, and I like how Winick uses them to round out Hilo’s character.  Hilo has to wrestle with the question, “What do you do when you don’t want to harm anyone by using your powers but could endanger your friends by inaction?”  Hilo’s struggles bring surprising depth to this children’s book.

When I began this series, I thought it was a trilogy.  I must admit I was a bit disappointed to learn that it wasn’t because I think more than three books is a bit excessive.  The second and third book might have been stronger if Winick had packed more into them and finished the story with The Great Big Boom.  However, time and the next book (or books) in the series will tell whether or not Winick was wise to stretch the story out.

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Wires and Nerve

THE PREMISE

Wires and Nerve coverWhen I heard that Marissa Meyer was creating a graphic novel sequel to her sci-fi fairytale series the Lunar Chronicles, I was intrigued.  Unlike the previous books in the series, Wires and Nerve spotlights Iko, the android with a faulty personality chip that makes her more human than robot.

As an android and the ninth wheel on a team with four romantic couples, Iko is definitely the odd one out.  Iko’s human friends have all found their place in the world and are now heroes, but Earthens have yet to recognize the part Iko played in saving the world.  Worst of all, Iko is feeling useless, and as Iko explains, “No android likes feeling useless.  It’s in our programming to make ourselves as useful to humans…as possible” (66).  Iko’s plan for how she can be useful to her best friend Cinder is a surprising and daring one.  Cinder needs someone to covertly capture the rogue Lunar wolf soldiers who are terrorizing Earth and return them to Luna for trial.  Dress-loving romantic Iko decides that she is the secret agent for the mission.  After all, the worst damage a wolf soldier could inflict would merely mean a trip to an android parts store, right?

STORY AND STYLE

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Marissa Meyer crafts a story that remains true to the style she created in the Lunar Chronicles.  Her writing is clever and fun.  In spite of the change in genre, the tone of Wires and Nerve is surprisingly similar to the previous books, and the characters remain largely the same.  Iko and Thorne’s characters transition the best, while Cinder, Winter, and Cress seem a little bit stunted compared to their old selves.

I think when authors take a story and then turn it into a graphic novel—rather than starting the book as a graphic novel from the ground up—they often sacrifice clarity, tone, or character development to make the new visual style work.  I’ve noticed this trend in books like Matt Phelan’s Snow White, Art Ayris’ The Last Convert of John Harper, and Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man.  However, what these books and Wires and Nerve lose is gained back in different ways, especially in the artwork.

ARTWORK

I really like Doug Holgate’s art in Wires and Nerve.  The action is easy to follow, the characters are dynamic, and the scenery is detailed and interesting.  As a standalone graphic novel, the artwork is good; however, as a sequel to the Lunar Chronicles, I do have a few problems with the graphics.  Except for Iko, the characters from the original series don’t look like I expected them to.  In particular, the wolf soldiers look wrong.  They are kind of silly—a little bit like trolls or ogres, not like men who have been genetically modified to have wolf characteristics.  These failings are pretty significant to me, but the other aspects of the story, style, and art help balance out problems with characters’ appearances.

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CONCLUSION

While Wires and Nerves is not quite on par with the rest of the Lunar Chronicles, it is still a fun sequel.  The new graphic novel layout limits the storytelling at times but also adds some freshness and originality.  Author Marissa Meyer successfully integrates the graphic novel format with the style, setting, and characters from her previous sci-fi fairytale novels.

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Hilo: Saving the Whole Wide World

Who would have thought Hilo could crash back to Earth with even less than when he arrived the first time (a name, shiny underpants, and a bad case of amnesia)?  Yet somehow, Hilo manages to do just that when he returns to Earth (or at least his toe does) in Hilo: Saving the Whole Wide World by Judd Winick.

Hilo pageHilo has returned, but as his friend D.J. explains, “It was a little weird” (1).  After disappearing through a portal at the end of The Boy Who Crashed to Earth, Hilo returns to Earth in pieces.  For normal little boys, returning in bits might be a problem, but not for alien robot Hilo, who quickly reassembles and warns his friends D.J. and Gina that his nemesis Razorwark is coming to Earth.  To keep Razorwark away from Earth, Hilo ends up stranding himself in the human world and must begin adjusting to everyday human life.  However, bullies at school, Hilo’s slowly returning memories, and aliens invading Earth through portals keep life far from peaceful or ordinary for Hilo and his friends.

As with the Zita the Spacegirl trilogy by Ben Hatke, the second installment of the Hilo series lacks some of the novelty of the pilot book.  That said, though, Saving the Whole Wide World is still an entertaining read and a fitting sequel to The Boy Who Crashed to Earth.  New characters like a magical warrior cat named Pollandra add a touch of freshness to the story, and the focus on friendship and courage provides the story with heartwarming and constructive themes.

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The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

Return of Zita the SpacegirlZita and her friends are back, this time to conduct a jailbreak, rescue prisoners from the corrupt Doom Squad that runs a penitentiary planet, and save earth from the evil Screed and their leader the Dungeon Lord.

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl brings back characters from the first two Zita books and introduces a few more.  While in prison, Zita meets a talking rag pile name Raggy and a skeleton named Femur who are two creative additions to the cast.  Ben Hatke’s artwork, characters, and story maintain the quality of the earlier books, and Return of Zita finishes the series strong.  Best of all, Hatke introduces new themes, pointing out Zita’s character flaw of impulsiveness that leads to problems in all three books.  When Zita tries to defend herself during her trial at the beginning of Return of Zita the Spacegirl, she admits that she didn’t think about the possible outcomes of her actions when she destroyed the asteroid, killed the Star Hearts, and stole a spaceship in the previous books.  The story doesn’t delve much deeper into this subject, but Return of Zita the Spacegirl shows that wrong means to a good end can often result in unintended and disastrous consequences.

When Zita finally returns home, she will not be the same girl who left, for her adventures have changed her.  Now, Zita is ready for whatever lies ahead, whether on Earth or in space.  Her adventures have taught her about courage, friendship, and most of all about herself, for as Hatke quotes at the beginning of the third book, “I went coast to coast, and from star to star / That’s how you learn, just who you are” (1).

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Snow White in Gray

snow-white-coverThe sky is gray, and the day is drab.  Only brief spots of colorful red vary the gloomy grayness and the washed out blue sky that occasionally peeks through the fog and clouds.  While this description could easily be of the late autumn days I experienced this week, it actually depicts the scenes of Matt Phelan’s most recent book Snow White: A Graphic Novel.

Although the book begins in 1918, it is set primarily during the 1920s and ‘30s in New York City.  Phelan uses loose watercolor illustrations, primarily grayscale hues, to tell his modernized version of the fairy tale Snow White.  As with Phelan’s other stories, the art is beautiful, and I enjoy his style and portrayal of characters and facial expression.  This graphic novel’s creative combination of Phelan’s art, early 20th century America, the big city, and the timeworn fairy tale of Snow White produce an interesting result.

Snow White is a familiar tale to most people, and Phelan seems to rely on this familiarity, for his story contains few words and no narration besides chapter titles.  To someone unfamiliar with the classic tale of an evil stepmother trying to kill her beautiful stepdaughter and the seven dwarves who help the daughter, Phelan’s story may be quite confusing.  Even though I have read and watched several versions of Snow White, parts of Phelan’s book were unclear, such as Phelan’s version of the magic mirror that the stepmother consults.  The parts that I did not understand were minor, however, and the story still made sense as a whole.

snow-white-illustrationIn his retelling of a fairy tale in which color plays a significant role, particularly in the protagonist’s name, Matt Phelan cleverly integrates his color into the illustrations so that it complements the story.  Phelan’s illustrations are predominately shades of white, gray, and sepia.  However, occasional accents of red emphasize important parts or characters in the story, such as Snow White, the apple, and the evil stepmother.  Then, during the denouement, Phelan introduces subtle, colorful pastels to mark how the mood of the story changes.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel is a creative concept, and Matt Phelan’s illustrations are excellent.  Yet, in spite of how artistically impressive the book is, it has little else to offer.  Besides the unique setting, the story does not introduce enough new twists to the original story to be exceptional or exciting.  For those seeking a clever fairy tale retelling that displays something novel, Phelan’s book is not the answer.  Nevertheless, for a jaunt through a familiar story in a new guise along pages full of Phelan’s beautiful and quirky artwork, Snow White will most likely prove enjoyable.

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Say Hello to Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth

hilo-coverMeet Daniel Jackson Lim, or D.J. as everyone calls him.  As a middle child of middling capabilities in a family of extremely smart, athletic, and successful brothers, sisters, and parents, D.J. thinks there’s only one thing he’s good at:  being friends with Gina, his next-door-neighbor.  Since Gina moved away, though, D.J. has been alone and has lost the one part of life in which he felt successful.  Now, life is just average.  One day, though, a little boy hurtles from the sky and craters into a field behind D.J.’s house, and Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick begins.

D.J. soon discovers that the newcomer in the backyard is just as unusual as his method of arrival.  Ecstatic, curious, and talkative, the boy introduces himself as “Hilo,” and D.J. quickly learns that a name, shiny underpants, and a bad case of amnesia are Hilo’s only apparent worldly possessions.  After smuggling Hilo into his house, D.J. feeds, clothes, and befriends him.  Before long, though, Hilo’s past begins catching up with him, and D.J. finds himself caught up in life-threatening adventures with his new friend.  D.J. realizes that, in addition to being a good friend, he’s good at something else:  running for his life from alien robots.

hilo-comic-pageJudd Winick and artist Guy Major have designed a colorful, quirky book which has illustrations that match the exuberance of its characters.  Hilo is both fun and easy to read due to well-planned panels.  Even though the panels are irregular in size, varying from full page spreads to five sections on a page, the transitions between pictures are simple and smooth.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick is a hilarious story peopled by funny characters with personalities that remain believable, even in a fictional story.  This book will entertain and delight audiences of many ages with its characters, setting, and new twist on science fiction and alien stories.

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