RIPL Teen Book Reviews

Graphic Picks #41

Happy Friday! This week’s Graphic Pick is the manga Black Butler by Yana Toboso. It’s a dark (but at times hilarious) manga set in 19th century England, and I’d recommend this one to anyone high school age and older, due to some sexual references and violence.

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Black Butler tells the story of Ciel Phantomhive, a boy who became an Earl after his parents’ violent deaths. As a wealthy aristocrat, Ciel would be lost without Sebastian, his butler, who at times seems a bit too good to be true…

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As it turns out, the reason Sebastian is so perfect is that he’s a devil. (Sebastian occasionally says “I’m a devil of a butler”—in the original Japanese, you can also read his statement as “I’m a devil and a butler,” because in Japanese, you can have two sentences that are pronounced the same but have different meanings—like “they’re,” “there,” and “their” in English.)

Sebastian bound himself to Ciel after the latter, when he was in the clutches of his parents’ murderers, wished for anyone to save him, and for the power to get revenge on his captors. Now, Ciel and Sebastian are bound together, and until the former dies, Sebastian must dutifully serve his master.

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Sebastian is the title character, and as such, he’s the focus of a lot of the action. You’ll often see him taking care of things behind the scenes: Ciel’s other servants aren’t the most competent bunch—at least when it comes to their day-to-day duties—so in early volumes, you’ll often see Sebastian performing his own duties and those of his coworkers with flawless aplomb. Humans are always amazed by Sebastian’s skill and efficiency, but only Ciel and Sebastian know why he’s such a perfect butler. At times, they have to go to great pains to keep their secret.

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In human form, Sebastian is handsome and charming. His true form, not so much:

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Also, he loves cats:

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Ciel, after the trauma he experienced when his parents were killed (and in the terrifying aftermath), has grown up very quickly. While he taught Sebastian to be a proper butler, Sebastian taught Ciel to be a proper Earl. But Ciel is more than just an aristocrat: her Majesty Queen Victoria trusts Ciel to investigate mysterious matters within her realm, just as other monarchs trusted the previous Earl Phantomhives.

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Ciel is a really fascinating character in this sense: he’s simultaneously a detective, a vulnerable child trying to navigate the world of adults, and a ruthless judge who has no qualms about ordering Sebastian to execute wrongdoers.

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Sometimes, Ciel and Sebastian have to go undercover to investigate matters on the Queen’s behalf, like the time they joined a circus:

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Also, Ciel is engaged to a girl named Lizzie, who isn’t as fragile as she initially seems:

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In the current arc, Ciel and Sebastian are undercover at a boarding school called Weston College, where Ciel is a student and Sebastian is a tutor:

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If you like action, mysteries, and the supernatural in your manga, read Black Butler. You’ll actually learn a lot about the 19th century…minus the demons and zombies our heroes occasionally encounter. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again next week! 

"Hildafolk" by Luke Pearson
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(Grade 5 and up) Hilda loves to have adventures, which is how she meets Twig (a blue fox-like creature) one night while camping out in her backyard. The next day, she and her new friend set off on an expedition to draw rocks (after accidentally letting the Wood Man into the house). That’s when Hilda finds a rock shaped like a troll. After drawing it from every angle, she and Twig both fall asleep…but when they wake up, the sun is setting, and the rock is gone. Is there really a troll hunting Hilda and Twig? And what can the Wood Man tell Hilda about trolls? 

This was Luke Pearson’s first book about Hilda, a little girl who has strange and magical adventures in the wilderness outside the house she and her mother share. Pearson’s style is really engaging; for the most part, he only uses varying shades of primary colors in this book, and his characters run the gamut from cute to really unnerving. (The troll is certainly menacing, at least until you find out why he was really looking for Hilda.) This slim volume will leave readers eager to check out Pearson’s other Hilda books. (4 out of 5 stars)
  • Series: Hildafolk
  • Paperback: 24 pages
  • Publisher: Nobrow Press; Sew edition (November 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1907704043
  • ISBN-13: 978-1907704048 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)
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Graphic Picks #40

Hi everyone! Halloween is my favorite holiday, in spite of the fact that I’m not really good with scary stuff, so for the next few weeks, Graphic Picks is going to focus on horror. This first book is a doozy: Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix, is set up like an Ikea catalog, if Ikea sold actual instruments of torture instead of furniture that people sometimes have trouble assembling. Quirk Books was nice enough to send me a review copy, and, to paraphrase the description on the inside flap, it promises “…the psychological terror you need in the aesthetically pleasing package you deserve.” I’d recommend this to readers age fourteen and up, since there’s mature language, allusions to sex, and oh yeah, A LOT OF HORRIBLE GHOULS TRYING TO MURDER PEOPLE.

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The novel begins with Amy, who’s late for work. Amy works at Orsk, a knockoff of Ikea, and Basil, her boss, is unimpressed that she’s late. Basil’s part of the reason that Amy’s trying to transfer to another store, but until her transfer goes through, she’s desperate to keep her job. After escaping from her mother’s trailer and dropping out of college, at 24, Amy is always behind on her bills, always tired, and sees no way of ever getting ahead.

At Orsk, Amy does what she has to and nothing else…though she did recently take the Shop Responsible test, which you have to take to become a manager. (She failed.) It’s because of all this that Amy doesn’t say anything about the strange guy she sees sneaking around the store that morning—a man who definitely isn’t an employee. And when she gets a text message that just reads help, she shows Basil, but then gets on with her day. After all, employees at this particular Orsk store receive help texts all the time. (No one knows who keeps sending them.) And that’s not the only weird thing going on.

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(Pretend the sign says Orsk instead of Ikea.) 

Lately, someone’s been vandalizing the store at night, which is why Basil asks Amy and another employee, Ruth Ann, to work a second shift that night. He’s determined to catch whoever’s responsible for the damage, and Amy really needs the money, so she agrees to stay in Orsk overnight. Ruth Ann agrees because she’s a team player, and two other employees, Matt and Trinity, sneak into the store without permission to shoot the pilot of a ghost hunting show. As Matt explains to Amy, this particular Orsk store was built over the remains of a 19th century prison called the Cuyahoga Panopticon, where the brutal Warden Worth attempted to “cure” prisoners (who he called penitents) through maddeningly repetitive tasks and strange torture devices.

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At first, Amy regrets taking the extra shift because of Basil, who lectures her on being a better employee. To escape that conversation, she goes to the bathroom, where she finds a lot of strange graffiti. That’s where Amy first reads about the Beehive: Amy doesn’t know it then, but that word is the beginning of a descent into terror and madness that she and her coworkers may never escape.

If the idea of a haunted Ikea-type store doesn’t seem that scary, see the map below for a great illustration of how easy it is to get disoriented in one of these places even if it’s not full of murderous spirits:

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Stores like this are built like mazes so that shoppers have to go past everything, which, on average, increases the amount of money they’ll spend. Amy and her coworkers know some shortcuts between sections…except it doesn’t take long before Amy and Matt get lost anyway. They’re able to find their way back to the others with the help of a video camera, but Amy isn’t totally convinced by Matt’s explanation that electromagnetic fields can cause vivid hallucinations. And after the group (minus Basil, who’s waiting for the police) holds a seance to try and contact any spirits that might reside within the store, things go very wrong very quickly. By the end of the night, not everyone will be leaving Orsk alive…

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Imagine being trapped in one of these huge stores with a seething mass of vengeful dead.

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Now imagine that same scenario if all the lights went out. 

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This is a delightfully scary book. If you’re a fan of horror, then read this—it’s the rare novel that’s both an entertaining homage to House on Haunted Hill and also a unique tale of modern terror that will leave you afraid of Ikea. (I tried to make this book less scary by picturing Amy and co. as characters from Parks and Rec, but if anything, that just made the story scarier.) So, when this book comes out later this month, pick up a copy! It will fill you with dread/look nice on your bookshelf.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again next week!

Graphic Picks #39

Hi everyone! I’ve got two Graphic Picks for you today (and I actually mean that this time). This first one is Guardians of the Galaxy by Brian Michael Bendis, and I’d recommend it to readers age thirteen and up. (Basically, if you’re old enough to see the movie, you’re old enough to read the comics.)

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Guardians of the Galaxy is an entertaining read—the first volume of collected comics is called Cosmic Avengers, and for the first several issues, Iron Man took a vacation from earth and joined the team. Hilarity, adventure, and a (very) brief romance with Gamora ensued.

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As the series goes on, the Guardians face more challenges as Quill’s father, the corrupt Emperor J’Son of the Spartax Empire, attempts to punish them for interfering with earth. Specifically, they help save the earth during the Infinity event—you don’t need to know much about Infinity except that, as is often the case in the Marvel Universe, our world was in peril, and the Guardians helped to save it.

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It’s around this time that the Guardians meet Angela, who’s apparently from another dimension, and it isn’t long before she’s fighting evil alongside them. (Angela was co-created by Neil Gaiman, so he co-writes at least one issue, which is definitely a treat.) 

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Later, the Guardians meet the original X-Men when Jean Grey is captured and put on trial for her future crimes against the galaxy:

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Basically, if you don’t read a lot of comics, then this all probably sounds a bit convoluted. But for my money, Guardians of the Galaxy is a great series for beginning comics readers, because you don’t need to know a lot about the rest of the Marvel Universe to follow the story. Honestly, if you’ve seen the movie and you liked it, then that’s more than enough of a primer. I started reading this series when it was first relaunched last year, and it continues to be an unpredictable and satisfying ride every month.

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Also, Captain Marvel’s been traveling with the Guardians lately, which makes it just that much more awesome. (Venom’s been around too, but he’s had a much less fun time of things.) If you’re a fan of graphic novels and you’re not reading this series, do yourself a favor and give it a try!

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again later today!

Graphic Novel Recommendations for September
Emily Tobin / Book Recommendations

Love Graphic Novels? Here are five recommendations for September. Two are manga, two feature awesome ladies having adventures, and one is about existential angst, love, and crime sprees.

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Graphic Picks #38

Hi everyone! I’m back this week with two Graphic Picks: this first one is Angela Johnson’s Heaven trilogy. I’d recommend this series to readers age thirteen and up, since there is some swearing and mature themes are discussed. But first, let me say something that might be obvious: I don’t read a lot of realistic fiction. Honestly, I can think of three realistic fiction authors whose books I consistently enjoy and recommend to teens: John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Angela Johnson.

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My lukewarm attitude toward realistic fiction (as implied by the graphic above) is not a reflection on realistic fiction itself—there are tons of great authors out there, and many people prefer realistic fiction to other genres. For me though, if I can read about time travelers or aliens or magic or vampires or whatever…then I’d rather do that. Because I live in the real world, and that’s plenty of realism for me most days, thanks. But let me tell you why Angela Johnson’s books are an exception to my usual antipathy:

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For one thing, Angela Johnson’s novels deal with real issues that teens face growing up. These books are believable in part because they don’t offer easy answers to problems like racism, poverty, and family discord. The ending of each book isn’t happy so much as happy-ish. Things have usually improved in some ways by the end of each novel, but the issue at the heart of the book has left its mark too, and the protagonist’s life is inevitably changed forever. 

Another thing about Angela Johnson’s books: they’re short. I think that some reluctant readers look at a John Green or Rainbow Rowell book and think, “yeah, that’s kind of long.” And I often enjoy long books…but I like short ones too. Angela Johnson’s prose manages to be both poetic and to the point. She gives you fascinating glimpses of a character’s life—who their friends and family are, their likes and dislikes, etc—and then she inevitably drops a bombshell which she then resolves in less than a hundred and fifty pages.

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When you look at the cover of The First Part Last, I’m guessing you already know what the bombshell is. I know I did when I read the book, but guess what: you don’t. (The book switches back and forth between the past and the present, so you get some clues, but what I guessed about Bobby’s difficult road to fatherhood wasn’t even close.) 

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In Angela’s Johnson’s novels, you’ll have a character going along in life, and suddenly they’re faced with a huge change or challenge. I sometimes call books like these “problem novels,” because they show teens dealing with difficult situations. Now, if you remember those books from elementary school about the importance of sharing and why lying is bad, you know that problem novels can be boring and preachy no matter what age of reader they’re intended for. But Angela Johnson’s books aren’t like that.

The three novels in the Heaven trilogy never explicitly state anything to the effect of “this is how this person should deal with this issue.” These are interesting stories about engaging characters who change and grow over the course of the series. By the end of each book, you genuinely like each main character, and you respect their choices, even if you think that you might have made different decisions if you were in their shoes. (For example, I like to think that I’d be as forgiving as Marley or as loving as Bobby, but I’m not so sure. I think I’m more like Shoogy, which isn’t bad—we just prefer to keep to ourselves most of the time.)

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So if you’re a realistic fiction fan—or if you’re looking to try more realistic fiction after reading John Green or Rainbow Rowell, give Angela Johnson’s Heaven trilogy a try. (I also really love A Certain October—Scotty is a great narrator, and it’s a great novel to book talk.)

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Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again tomorrow!

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Graphic Picks #37

Hi everyone! This week’s second Graphic Pick focuses on Haruhi Suzumiya, the subject of anime, manga, and light novels. There’s some mature humor here (Haruhi and co. are in high school), so I’d say that thirteen and up is the age recommendation for this one.

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Haruhi Suzumiya is a high school girl who wants to investigate aliens, time travelers, espers, and any kind of paranormal phenomena. Of course, her classmate Kyon is sure that that stuff doesn’t exist…until he’s roped into joining the club that Haruhi forms, the SOS Brigade, which exists to solve mysteries and explore the supernatural.

Kyon soon gets to know the other members of the club, and he finds that one is an alien, one is a time traveler, and one has ESP. They’ve all joined the SOS Brigade to keep an eye on Haruhi, who apparently has god-like powers, but doesn’t know it. When she’s happy and entertained, everything’s fine. But when Haruhi gets bored or frustrated, her subconscious produces creatures that the threaten not just the world, but existence itself!

The story of Haruhi Suzumiya in the world of novels, anime, and manga, is a bit complicated:  it started in 2003 with the publication of the first light novel. A light novel (ライトノベル) is a short Japanese novel targeted toward middle and high school students.

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In 2004, a manga was published, but it wasn’t very close to the original story; the next manga adaptation began in 2005, and it’s still being published in the U.S. 

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Then, an anime based on the light novels was released in 2006. It was shown with the episodes out of sequence, which made it that much weirder/funnier/mysterious.

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There’s also a spinoff/spoof four-panel manga called The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi-chan:

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There’s an anime of that too:

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Then there’s The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan, which takes place in an alternate universe where, instead of being an alien on a mission, Yuki is a shy high school girl who has a crush on Kyon. 

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And (as you could probably guess), there’s an anime of this too:

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Oh, and there’s this one volume manga anthology:image

Each series has something to recommend it: I like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya manga because the story blends elements of sci-fi, fantasy, and high school romance. The Haruhi-chan manga is an absurd comedy that combines stories of daily life with surreal elements like a sentient balloon animal and a murderous alien trapped in the body of a tiny human. Yuki-chan is fun because it’s the most realistic of these three manga. Nothing fantastic or supernatural happens, it’s just the story of Yuki in high school having fun with her friends and hoping to get closer to Kyon. 

Obviously, I’ve read and watched a lot of Haruhi over the years. The anime and assorted manga are all a wonderfully entertaining celebration and subversion of manga and anime tropes, and if you’re interested in anime or manga, you can’t miss these series.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again soon!

Graphic Picks #36

Hi everyone! After an excellent vacation, I’m back this week with three Graphic Picks. The first is the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley. Flavia herself is eleven years old, and if you’re Flavia’s age or older and enjoy mysteries, then you’ll really love this series.

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Flavia de Luce lives at Buckshaw, the storied and rather decrepit ancestral home of the de Luce family, along with her father, an avid philatelist (stamp collector) and two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. Feely loves music, Daffy loves to read, and both love to torture Flavia. But the youngest de Luce, who is after all a brilliant chemist, has many creative ways of getting back at her older siblings. Flavia’s mother, Harriet, disappeared years ago while mountain climbing, and though she was only an infant at the time, Flavia feels a kinship with Harriet, as well as her great uncle Tarquin de Luce, whose chemistry lab she has appropriated for her own experiments.

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Flavia’s adventures as a detective begin quite suddenly one morning when she finds a dead body in her family’s garden. Soon, her father is the prime suspect in the murder, and Flavia is determined to prove him innocent. With the help of Dogger, Buckshaw’s gardener (who saved Colonel de Luce’s life in the war), Mrs. Mullet, cook and gossip, and her trusty bicycle, Gladys, Flavia sets off to solve her first mystery, which is soon followed by several others in the formerly sleepy town of Bishop’s Lacey.

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Flavia is a fantastic narrator. Obviously, she’s brilliant—sometimes, reading a Flavia de Luce book makes me feel like I’m reading about what Hermione Granger’s childhood might have been like had she not been a witch and had lived in England in the 1950s. But Flavia is also eleven, so as she works to solve the various murders she encounters, she also has to navigate the mysterious world of adults, many of whom aren’t too keen on the young sleuth’s activities. But as precocious as Flavia is, she’s even more determined to bring the guilty to justice. (And it doesn’t hurt that she has a passion for poisons, as well as an abiding curiosity about what death does to the human body.)

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This is a series where I’ve listened to some of the books and read the others. Jayne Entwistle, who reads the audiobooks, does a fantastic job of bringing Flavia to life, and I’d highly recommend listening to this series…though reading it is also extremely fun. Either way, you’ll get an entertaining taste of an idyllic English village in the middle of the 20th century, though as with many mystery series, the setting seems a bit less idyllic after the third or fourth murder victim is discovered. 

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Flavia’s voice, and her knowledge of chemistry, is a big part of what keeps me coming back to this series. Though the solutions to the crimes committed are always clever and well-plotted, the real treat is going along with Flavia as she looks for clues, dodges her older sisters, and works in her laboratory. And with four more books to go in the Flavia series, I’m really looking forward to finding out what one of my favorite detectives investigates next.

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Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again later this week!

"The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet" by Neil Degrasse Tyson, read by Mirron Willis

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(Grade 6 and up) In 2006, Pluto ceased to be classified as a planet by the International Astronomical Union. To many, this change in status seemed abrupt, but for decades, many scientists had had questions and doubts about Pluto. As it happens, Pluto is just the latest in a long line of objects in the far reaches of space that have been misidentified: some of the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter were once classified as planets, so at one point in the 19th century, textbooks taught students about 18 planets. Of course, Pluto does have moons and other planet-like characteristics, and many have argued that only planets have moons, except that in 1993, a moon was discovered orbiting the asteroid Ida. Regardless of what side of the Pluto debate you fall on, The Pluto Files is a fascinating tale of historical and present-day drama in the world of astrophysics and planetary geology.

A huge controversy ensued when Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet (which is a problematic classification in itself, since it implies that Pluto is still some type of planet—it’s not, it’s one of the larger objects that make up the Kuiper Belt). If, like me, you never really felt strongly about Pluto one way or the other, then the passion of many Pluto fans detailed in this book will seem downright strange. Even some people who know the science behind the change in classification still lament the loss of Pluto, and many of the letters that Dr. Tyson received (from kids and adults) will amaze you with their fervor.

Obviously, this book is full of intriguing facts about Pluto, but there are also plenty of interesting details about the rest of our solar system. (Did you know that Venus spins so slowly on its axis that the Venusian day is longer than the Venusian year?) The uproar over Pluto demonstrates the strange nature of labeling things: whatever you think of what Pluto’s classification should be, what we call it doesn’t change it. It’s still out there, in its strange orbit, and as an inanimate object, it felt none of the betrayal that many Pluto fans experienced when it was downgraded from planet status. And as Dr. Tyson says, perhaps “…Pluto is happy now. It went from being the runt of the planets to the undisputed King of the Kuiper belt." (4 out of 5 stars)

  • Audio CD
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.; Unabridged edition (January 19, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1433244098
  • ISBN-13: 978-1433244094 (Source of Publication Data: Amazon.com)

My new kitten, Maya, loves books…mostly for sleeping on. And chewing on.