The Books That Fell Through the Cracks: The 2016 Mid-Year Grab Bag

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As happens every year, there is always a set of books that, for various reasons both valid and not-so-valid, I have chosen not to review at length. However, some of those books can be rather good – or rather bad, as the case may be – and it would not be right not to at least say something about them.

And so, in the interest of completeness, here are the books that fell through the cracks: honest reviews and all.

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Gin no Saji/Silver Spoon, Vols. 1-11 – Arakawa Hiromu

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Created by the same mangaka behind Fullmetal Alchemist, Gin no Saji (translated as Silver Spoon for English readers) is set in an agricultural high school in the Hokkaido countryside, and follows the story of Hachiken Yugo, who enters the school in an attempt to escape the consequences of failing an important entrance exam.

In many ways, this manga is almost as far as one can get from Fullmetal Alchemist, which might be Arakawa’s most famous work. However, despite the differences in things like setting and storyline, there are certain themes that remain similar in both series: the value of friendship, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and the complicated relationships between children and their parents – all those themes are present in Silver Spoon, just as they are in Fullmetal Alchemist. There are also many wonderful moments of drama and poignancy, leavened with plenty of Arakawa’s trademark humour – indeed, I often found myself trying to stifle my giggles while reading this at work, lest my coworkers ask questions. This series proves that Arakawa is an excellent storyteller regardless of genre, and that she is definitely one of the best mangaka currently in publication.

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Umbral, Vol. 1 – Antony Johnston (Writer) and Christopher Mitten (Illustrator)

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After enjoying a good run of graphic novels towards the end of last year, I decided to try my luck again at this year. My decision to pick up Umbral was based largely on the cover art, and the notion of a fantasy graphic novel with a female lead. Unfortunately, despite the promise of the cover art and the summary, the story did not really hold me the way I thought it would, and the art lost some of its charm as the story went on. The protagonists are not quite as interesting as I might like them to be, and the villains are not driven by motivations I find intriguing. It also doesn’t help that the art looks a bit off-kilter in some places: something uneven about it, in a way I can’t really put into words.

Still, this is not all that bad a tale, for the right reader, but I do not find it as captivating as I think it could be.

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Rat Queens, Vols. 1-2 – Kurtis J. Wiebe (Writer), Roc Upchurch (Illustrator) and Stjepan Šejić (Illustrator)

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This was recommended to me by one of the close friends, saying that I might find it interesting because of its fantasy setting and diverse cast. Said friend was entirely correct: Rat Queens is an enjoyable read, not least because of the way it upends some common fantasy cliches. It’s quite funny in some parts, but there are plenty of dramatic moments as well – and it helps that the art is very, very good, especially in the fight scenes.

However, a caveat: this is a graphic novel very much meant for adults, since the violence is quite gory, and there are some sex scenes here and there that might be too naughty for some readers (even though I think they are quite tasteful, myself). If one is not too opposed to the above, then this is definitely a must-read.

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The Unwritten, Vol. 1 – Mike Carey (Writer) and Peter Gross (Illustrator)

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Another graphic novel that I picked up on a whim, and didn’t fall in love with the way I thought I would. Again, one would assume that the premise (one with deliberate echoes of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia) would be enticing enough to keep me reading, but it did not really hook me the way I thought it would. I did not find the protagonist or his antagonists particularly interesting, and as for the idea that one could hop through through fictional worlds, other writers have done similar things, and done so in a more interesting manner.

Again, this is another mediocre read: it might be the right one for some people, but I, for my part, simply did not find it interesting enough to invest more time in reading the rest of it.

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Age of Reptiles, Vols. 1-2 – Ricardo Delgado

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This is a discovery I made almost at random, while browsing through the Recommendations section in Goodreads. This graphic novel has no dialogue, so the reader must rely entirely on Delgado’s artwork to perceive the story he is trying to tell – and while it works in some parts, it can be a bit hit-and-miss in others. Still, the hits outweigh the misses, and the absence of speech bubbles means that there is nothing to get in the way of Delgado’s gorgeous artwork.

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The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle

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This is an incredible little piece of fiction: a novella that is basically a retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook”. LaValle reimagines the story in a manner that addresses the racism and discrimination so deeply embedded in the fabric of American society in the 1920s – as well as in Lovecraft’s own work. For years authors have struggled with Lovecraft’s legacy, uncomfortable with his politics but also undeniably fascinated and in many cases influenced by his work. The Ballad of Black Tom is a story that does both: it honours the legacy, while at the same time unveiling and rectifying Lovecraft’s ideological shortcomings. Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend in weird fiction, because it would be an amazing way to reclaim the best of Lovecraft while leaving the worst behind.

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Otoyomegatari/A Bride’s Story, Vols. 1-5 – Mori Kaoru

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I first discovered Mori Kaoru’s work when I read her manga Emma, set in the Victorian period and following the story of a young woman working as a maid in a wealthy household. I was drawn to her work, firstly, because of her incredibly detailed and precisely researched artwork, and then became a firm fan after learning, while reading Emma, that she’s also an incredible storyteller. Otoyomegatari (translated as A Bride’s Story for English readers) takes place along the Silk Road during the late 19th to early 20th century, and is an interconnected set of stories following a set of characters who live along the length of the Silk Road. Like Emma, it features Mori’s beautiful artwork, all with meticulously researched details, and a story that is as touching as it is charming.

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Chaos Choreography (InCryptid #5) – Seanan McGuire

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I practically inhaled the first four books of McGuire’s InCryptid series last year, and when the next book in the series dropped this year, I automatically picked it up, already looking forward to the continued adventures of the various members of the Price family and their extended relations. This volume focused on Verity again, who is invited to perform on an all-star season of Dance or Die, and it was interesting reading about the trials and travails of dancers performing for a television audience. There were plenty of supernatural hijinks as well, and I have to say – that climactic scene? I was kind of expecting it, but goodness, being able to kind of expect it does not mean one can immediately handle the things one’s imagination flashes in one’s head upon reading it.

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The Highland Guard Vols. 1-6 – Monica McCarty

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Sometime earlier this year I had a whim to read about muscly men with Scottish accents. I cannot explain the whys and wherefores of the specificity of that whim, but I decided to fulfil it anyway. After some poking around on Goodreads, I settled on Monica McCarty’s Highland Guards series, and got started on reading it.

For the most part, it’s not all that bad: set during the reign of Robert the Bruce, the series centres around the Highland Guard: a group of elite warriors handpicked by Bruce himself to undertake the deadliest and most dangerous missions against the English. While the concept itself is fascinating, the stories themselves vary in terms of quality; out of six books, only one has really made me happy, with the others containing tropes that, unfortunately, make me squick. There are six other books in the series, including the latest one released this year, so I am hoping that those turn out a mite better than the most recent ones I’ve read.

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The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 3: Commercial Suicide – Kieron Gillen (Writer) and Jamie McKelvie (Artist)

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After thoroughly enjoying my experience reading the first two volumes of The Wicked + The Divine last year, picking up the third volume upon its release this year was practically a no-brainer. This issue dealt more with the Pantheon and their backstories, which was quite interesting in its own way, though it was a significant slowdown, in terms of pace, after the conclusion of the second volume. Still, it was nice to get a peek into the stories behind the Pantheon, and I’m looking forward to the fourth volume, where the action picks up anew, and to explosive effect, if the rumours I’ve been seeing online are any indication.

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The Beast (Black Dagger Brotherhood #14) – J.R. Ward

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It’s always a pleasure, watching a writer grow, and I can claim to have that pleasure when it comes to J.R. Ward and what she has been doing with the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. She is moving well beyond the typical HEA (Happily Ever After) that is conventional in romance novels, and is exploring what life is like after the romantic leads come together. After all, love – the true kind, the best kind – is about dealing with life, with all its delights and pitfalls, together. I really hope Ward keeps going in that direction, because it would be nice to read a series of romance novels that shows the romance absolutely does not disappear after the wedding bells ring.

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League of Dragons (Temeraire #9) – Naomi Novik

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Ten years and nine books since the release of His Majesty’s Dragon, and finally, fans of Novik’s Temeraire series can finally read about Laurence and Temeraire’s last great adventure – or is it really their last? There were some problems in the narrative, mostly to do with a certain choppiness in terms of flow, and a few digressions that I thought didn’t really do anything to advance the plot in any significant way, but despite those shortcomings, this book was still a joy to read – a wonderful conclusion for the series as a whole.

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Envy of Angels (Sin du Jour #1) – Matt Wallace

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I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked up this novella (thinking it was a novel at the time), but either way I’m glad I did, because it’s a whole lot of fun wrapped up in one neat, novella-sized package. Wallace’s writing is definitely a treat, as his language is snappy and oftentimes quite hilarious, so this reads a lot faster than one might expect. However, fun as I think it is, I do not recommend this to readers who are just about to sit down to eat, or are squeamish about blood, guts, and body horror. Best to wait until after the meal, or when one is feeling up to handling rather gross descriptions, before reading this.

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2 thoughts on “The Books That Fell Through the Cracks: The 2016 Mid-Year Grab Bag

    1. It is a really, really, REALLY good manga, with exquisite art. Seriously, you know those really elaborate Turkish-style carpets? Mori gets them down almost EXACTLY in her artwork – and we’re not even talking about the costumes (which are dazzling) and her storytelling (which I adore) XD.

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