Tag Archives: Fantasy/Sci-Fi

Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who's MorphingEach of Tom Cho‘s 18 stories in his just-over 100-page-debut is a surprise waiting to happen to you. Already lauded and awarded in Cho’s native Australia, his Stateside arrival is sure to elicit gasps, guffaws, and more.

Welcome to half a century of pop culture icons – before you ask ‘how can pop culture be that old?’ allow me to point out that ‘the hills came alive’ 49 years ago on a screen near you back in 1965. That said, Cho’s Captain Von Trapp isn’t who you might expect. In fact, morphing proves to be the occupational hazard of choice throughout.

“Suitmation” has a different identity available to anyone and everyone, from Godzilla to Olivia Newton-John, while two siblings admit in “Dinner with My Brother” they might choose “Marlon Brando” and “Indiana Jones” over their own Chinese monikers, given the chance. “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang” becomes a computer adventure, and “Learning English” means hiring Bruce Willis to talk instead. Inner rage goes out of control in “Today on Dr. Phil,” while “The Bodyguard” chivalrously deals with a bionic stalker to save Whitney Houston. Mother and son get transformative makeovers in “I, Robot,” and the girlfriend dismisses a Muppets adventure in “Pinocchio.”

As the stories unfold in surreal glimpses, a blurred outline of the unnamed narrator emerges: a Chinese Australian young man with extended relatives on multiple continents, including parents and a brother Hank, who has a sometime girlfriend Tara among many, many lovers, who is driven by a fertile imagination without boundaries – not to mention quite the multi-platform command of TV, film, music, and games. In his many morphing guises, Cho explores a myriad of unexpected identities and impossible situations. This is fluid fiction, he seems to insist on every page: forget any expectations about culture, race, gender, sexuality, and more … embrace the pure, fantastical stories found here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Salem Brownstone: All Along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning, art by Nikhil Singh

Salem BrownstoneSalem Brownstone, once the proprietor of the Sit & Spin Laundromat, gets an ominous telegram (on Halloween, naturally) calling him to New Mecco City, Azania to “take immediate possession of his [late father's] house and the contents therein.” His mourning – “[a]fter all these years of wanting to know my father, now it’s too late. I’ve lost him” – is short-lived when he discovers an intruder in the manse …

Before Salem has time to get better acquainted with visiting Cassandra Contortionist, who knew his father, the Shadow Boys descend. Uh-oh. Cassandra passes Salem the “scrying ball” which belonged to Salem’s father, with warnings that he must always keep it safe. Injured during their escape, Salem wakes up surrounded by the many creatures of Dr. Kinoshita’s Circus of Unearthly Delights. As Salem recovers, many strange occurrences happen, not the least of which include evil, dark plans to take over the universe. Salem, of course, holds the key – I mean the ball – to keeping the world in balance.

While the plot follows a rather straightforward good vs. evil narrative, the art is anything but predictable. As revealed in artist Nikhil Singh’s bio notes, the panels were seven years in the drawing with a major move in between for both creators from South Africa to London. From Salem’s single expressively squiggly eyebrow, to the mysterious Lola Q’s eyepatch, to Ed Harm’s stages of mutant transformation, and so much more, Singh’s irreverent, protean imagination is clearly manifested in the myriad tiny, peculiar elements of each panel.

Reading swiftly through will restore your sense of goodness and safety, but you’ll find you need to go back again and again)to make sure you haven’t missed any important details. After all, the fate of the universe lies between these glorious, mercurial pages.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010 (United States)

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The Incredible Adventures of Dog Mendonça and PizzaBoy (I and II: Apocalypse) by Filipe Melo, art by Juan Cava, colors by Santiago Villa, translated by Raylene Lowe (I) and Philip R. Simon (II)

Incredible Adventures of Dog Mendonca and Pizzaboy 1.2

While watching evening TV that’s been interrupted by a special bulletin about the unending “wave of child abductions in Lisbon,” Eurico nods off, only to be jarred awake by the ringing telephone. He’s late again to his pizza delivery job, where his boss thinks he’s “a half-wit,” his best (only?) friend Vasco mops floors, and he dreams about asking out the love of his life Ana.

Finally out on delivery, Eurico gets his scooter stolen. When the police laugh off his sketch of the hooded culprit, Eurico seeks the help of “occult detective” Dog Mendonça who works with a chain-smoking little girl named Pazuul (who’s really a 6,000 year demon kicked out hell for not being “bad enough”). Eurico doesn’t exactly get his scooter back, but he does get the thief – at least the guilty gargoyle’s head whose missing body doesn’t deter his chatterbox tendencies.

Then child-like Pazuul – remember those kiddie kidnappings? – disappears and Dog, Eurico, and Gargoyle head for the sewers, where they end up having to save the rest of the city while they’re looking for their girlish demon buddy. Who needs a night job when you’re suddenly a superhero?

Alas, hero-ing apparently doesn’t pay the bills because five years later in Volume II, Eurico is stuck at a desk providing technical support. Dog and Pazuul reappear to rescue him from boredom, collect Gargoyle after severing his loquacious head yet again from the rest of his regrown body, and visit a bookstore (they’ll be needing a certain holy book). Thus begins their battle to save the world, this time taking on the Apocalypse (you did notice the subtitle, right?) in an epic battle of biblical proportions (couldn’t resist!). The volume ends with a bonus prequel, The Untold Tales of Dog Mendonça and PizzaBoy, which reveals how the original gruesome twosome (Dog and Demon) came to be – via family circus, immigration, ‘the code,’ and even the Loch Ness Monster.

So you could read these ‘incredible adventures’ – the two volumes are 2/3 of a trilogy – for the sheer guffaw-inducing, over-the-top entertaining stories that they are, splendiferously enhanced with eye-popping, jaw-dropping art … and be utterly satisfied. But, of course, these saturated pages hold so much more. Take, for example, who wrote the forewords: Volume I by John Landis (think Animal House, Thriller, An American Werewolf in Paris) and Volume II by George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead and the zombie genre that never died). Those are major hints to some deeper references and meanings.

Then you have multi-levels of sly humor: that first German scream on p. 67 in Volume I roughly translates to “If you read this, then you understand German!” which actually has nothing to do with the action on the page; the type in the dialogue bubbles is printed upside down when the speakers are thusly hanging; in Volume II the would-be saviors choose a cuddly cutesie kiddie Bible because it’s not $30 and it “looks much better”; and I can only barely mention the whole religious (or not) meta-narrative going on. Oh, be still my ongoing giggles!

“[H]ow long do we have to wait for the next one?” Landis asks in Volume I; with II+just out, the question begs asking again. Our answer: Volume III: Requiem hits shelves November 10, 2014. Click here for the sneak-peek trailer, but before you hit play, be warned – you’ll be wanting more, more, more. Patience certainly isn’t my virtue!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 and 2013 (United States)

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenWhenever I hear that a book is about to be transformed into celluloid, I get into a little panic to read the original, oftentimes titles I ironically wouldn’t have opened otherwise. Occasionally, I’m pleasantly rewarded, Miss Peregrine among those few that fill me with literary gratitude. And truth be told, I might actually go see the film as the surreal Tim Burton is set to direct; IMDB lists a July 31, 2015 release date.

As faultless as narrator Jesse Bernstein is in creating the memorable aural incarnation, you’ll need to keep the printed book nearby (libraries rule!): if a picture is worth a thousand words, then the full splendor of this debut novel by writer/filmmaker Ransom Riggs is only possible in conjunction with the ‘peculiar’ photographs interwoven throughout the text.

Take, for instance, this cover … look closely – no ordinary little girl, she! So young Jacob Portman, too, learns when his beloved grandfather dies in his arms, his final words a mystery for the 16-year-old to solve: “‘Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.’”

As Jacob slowly emerges from the shock Grandpa Portman’s murder, he finally becomes aware that not all of Grandpa’s “unfathomably exotic” life adventures he told Jacob growing up were figments of the old man’s imagination. In search of truth, Jacob manages to convince his parents to allow him to spend the summer on a small island off Wales where Grandpa once lived many decades ago.

A Holocaust survivor, Grandpa grew up in the titular Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, from whence many of his fantastical stories originated. When Jacob arrives on the remote island, and begins to explore, he discovers the orphanage is mostly in ruins. Until, one day, it isn’t and Jacob finds himself facing the impossible.

In a feat of whimsical collage, Riggs essentially combined “authentic, vintage found photographs” with his own speculations about their subjects. Riggs explains in an interview at book’s end, “… among the photos I found, the strangest and most intriguing ones were always of children. I began to wonder who some of these strange-looking children had been – what their stories were – but the photos were old and anonymous and there was no way to know. So I thought: If I can’t know their real stories, I’ll make them up.” Working his own brand of ‘peculiar’ magic, Riggs’ visionary endeavor proves ingenious and extraordinary; so inspiring and plentiful are his found photos, that the peculiar adventures continue in just-released sequel, Hollow City. Riggs admits he has “tons” more great photographs, as yet unused … which begs the question, of course, how many peculiar books might we dare hope for?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Avatar: The Last Airbender | The Rift (Part One) created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, script by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru, lettering by Michael Heisler

Avatar Rift1Although our son incessantly watched various versions of the Avatar series on television and even more often on DVD, I had little knowledge for years of who’s who or what’s what. The casting controversy of the 2010 film version disastrously directed by M. Night Shyamalan is what actually made me take close notice (not to mention the ridiculously official email requests for assistance with finding the nameless “Asian-looking” faces for the anonymous large crowd scenes; nasty replies flew back!). And then 2006 and 2013 National Book Award finalist Gene Luen Yang took over the printed storyline in 2012, and I’ve been utterly hooked since!

The third and latest three-part adventure from Yang and company, The Rift, hits shelves mid-March – get your pre-orders in now! To find out how the city of Yu Dao – which both the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom cohabit peacefully – has become “the example” that the other colonies are all trying to emulate, you’ll first have to read The Promise and then The Search to get the full picture – highly encouraged!

While celebrating the announcement of Yu Dao’s new coalition government, Aang is visited by the spirit of Avatar Yangchen, Aang’s predecessor “four Avatars ago.” She’s obviously in distress, but Aang is unable to hear her warnings. He later realizes that he’s being called to observe the Yangchen Festival, “one of the highest holidays on the Air Nomad calendar,” which “hasn’t been celebrated in over a hundred years.”

Gathering Katara, Sokka, metalbending buddy Toph Beifong, and three Air acolytes, Aang flies Appa (their fluffy mode of transport) to “a cliff overlooking the ocean” where the festival traditionally begins. As the motley crew parades down to the meadow, what they see, smell, and experience is not the “sacred place” it should be: “This is what Yangchen was trying to tell me,” Aang comes to understand her silent entreaty. Keeping the newfound peace here is going to be quite the challenge.

Yang makes Rift especially contemporary, adding environmental health to issues of loyalty, power, parent/child filial duties, sacred bonds, gendered expectations, and (of course) much more. Intertwined with all that swashbuckling flying and bending entertainment are always subtle reminders to think and act beyond one’s comfort zones. Lessons to be learned for us all.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Chinese American, Pan-Asian Pacific American

The Savage Fortress (Ash Mistry Chronicles, Book 1) by Sarwat Chadda

Savage FortressWell, I seem to be totally out of order here: so I read The City of Death (Book 2) first because I had a judging deadline, then backpedaled to catch up by sticking this Fortress (Book 1) in the ears (Bruce Mann narrates well enough, although I think Sunil Malhotra would have been the better choice), only to learn that Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness (Book 3) which hit shelves on the other side of the Pond last summer, doesn’t even have a Stateside pub date scheduled yet!

Harrrummmphhh. Talk about literatus interruptus (especially since Book 2 ended with quite the shocker)! And while it’s true that you don’t need Book 1 to enjoy Book 2, obeying the order will make you more enlightened.

Meet Ash Mistry, your average city teen: “All-day gaming sessions. His mates. McDonald’s. These were the best things in life.” He’s been sent to India with his younger sister Lucky for some cultural rediscovery with Uncle Vik and Aunt Anita. While he might not be British enough back home, he’s certainly made to feel like a London oddity on the other side of the world. Two weeks into their trip, he doesn’t know how he’s going to survive “the oppressive temperatures, the stench, the crowds, and the death.”

And then he lands at the Savage Fortress, owned by Lord Alexander Savage, who has the world convinced he’s nearly a saint with all his many charities. Savage has summoned Uncle Vik and offered him two million pounds to translate ancient scrolls written in a lost language. Hidden behind proverbial curtains, Ash witnesses the exchange with mounting horror; his nightmares becomes real when he literally falls into a hidden portal from which he glimpses his own mysterious past …

“‘I’m tired of being poor,’” Vik initially replies to Ash’s protestations, but Vik’s conscience makes him tear up the check when he catches a glimpse of Savage’s true nature. Not used to being challenged, Savage is less than pleased, setting off a violent chain of events that send Ash and Lucky running for their very lives. Survival will depend on a holy man, a shapeshifting demon, and a street urchin … and the odds just aren’t looking so good.

Who needs video games, when you’ve got deadly monsters chasing you 24/7 in real time? So much for a typical summer vacation …!!!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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The City of Death (Ash Mistry Chronicles, Book 2) by Sarwat Chadda

City of DeathOkay, so we’re skipping ahead here, because I had to read this for a book judging requirement – and, in reading out of order, also confirm that it can narratively stand alone even without its prequel. I can’t reveal any trade secrets, but I can confirm that Book 2 of Sarwat Chadda‘s Ash Mistry series doesn’t need Book 1 (The Savage Fortress), but if you decide to turn back time, you’ll appreciate filling in a few details. That said, to maximize your sense of adventure, I would definitely stick to the 1 – 2 – 3 (3 being The World of Darkness, available on the other side of the Pond, but a U.S. pub date is still pending).

After a serious makeover summer in India, Ash is back home in London with his old friends, starting a new school year. He’s lost his adolescent pudge, learned how to kill with a single touch, and can run to Edinburgh and back in a single night (those nightmares about past lives keep the shuteye away). He might be the reborn “eternal warrior” of Kali, goddess of death and destruction, but he’s also still the same socially awkward teenager he was before his transformation; alas, none of his newly acquired skills are helpful as he fumbles to ask the gorgeous Gemma out on a date.

Then his old friend Parvati shows up to warn him that their nemesis, evil Lord Savage, is after the legendary Koh-I-Noor diamond, part of the British Crown Jewels – it’s the last relic he needs to unlock the secret to eternal life. Savage’s hench-monsters wreak havoc hunting down the priceless jewel, and in the violent skirmish, Gemma dies in Ash’s arms. Bent on revenge – not to mention saving the world yet again – Ash returns to India with Parvati to stop Savage once and for all. His not-so-secret determination to resurrect Gemma repeatedly impedes him from thinking clearly, even as his trust meter is tested again and again. But being a superhero when you’re still just a kid – with ever-growing powers you haven’t quite mastered! – is no easy job, especially when those new skills just might come at the cost of your own humanity.

Chadda updates ancient mythology to fit into a brave new world of instant access driven by cell phones, video games, and the world wide web. Technology might have advanced, but the war between good and evil remains forever timeless: get ready for young Ash Mistry, the latest vanquisher-in-training the world has been waiting for …

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Tune | Book 2: Still Life by Derek Kirk Kim and Les McClaine

Tune 2Okay, so both Book 1 and Book 2 of this intergalactically stupendous series start out almost the same (Book 2 has an extra, well-placed, close-up “Gyaaaaah!” thrown in), but don’t be misled into thinking you’ve already read it, done that, check!

“What’s next for Andy Go?” the new chapter begins … well, he’s woken up in a faraway frontier with a splitting headache (a “dimensional jump” will do that to you), although it just happens to look exactly like the bedroom (complete with hidden porn stash under his mattress), living room, and kitchen where he’s spent most of his young life. The one exception is that his new habitat is missing the fourth wall … and on the other side of the invisible barrier are unrecognizable, definitely not human, faces who watch his every move. Welcome to the C.I.S. Zoo! “Yoiks,” indeed!

Enclosed as it might be, Andy’s new life is pretty good … at first. His zookeeping duo (Dad is belligerent, but 503(4)-0717.04.23.B101 – “Dash” for short – is rather sweet) keep him well fed with all his favorite foods, he has 500 home-y channels to keep him couch-surfing, and he’s got plenty of time to draw. When the mood hits him, he’s not above entertaining the masses, bonding through the barrier with the young ‘uns. He’s hoping his keepers will let him make a quick phone call to his beloved Yumi  (too late! he forgot to sign up for interdimensional service before his earthly departure), as he gleefully anticipates his first weekend off when he’ll finally be able to tell his one true love just how very requited their undying love is.

But then surreal reality sinks in: instead of going for the basic package, Andy Go apparently inked the “premium” contract. Somehow, he agreed to live in his Praxian cage for life. That smooth-talking voice beyond the vent (who is that?) confirms the worst. Uh-oh. Now what’s our lovesick young man to do? How is he ever going to hook up with the love of his short life? Dash reluctantly promises to help, but only if he can teach her about art in exchange. How do you teach an alien about something so … well … alien?

Disguised as giggles and guffaws, Andy Go gives us plenty of fodder to consider – all about life, love, and that elusive pursuit of happiness. So he’s a bit of a slacker with plenty of talent who gets waylaid by easy money with benefits he doesn’t even need (child support for the young and the childless?). What can he do? Frontal lobe maturity happens late for the XY-chromosomed, and our young hero is no exception.

The graphic triple crown-winning – EisnerHarvey, and Ignatz – Derek Kirk Kim has picked up a collaborator since Tune‘s 2012 debut. While Kim retains the text copyright, fellow comic creator Les McClaine gets the art credit; the illustrative hand-off seems seamless between volumes. Best of all, if partnering means “To Be Continued …” happens sooner than later, that’s definitely a happy (temporary) ending for us readers. Tune 3 soon, oh please!

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Untold Story by Monica Ali

Untold StoryMonica Ali’s latest novel which pubbed June 28, 2011, just before what would have been Diana Spencer’s 50th birthday – July 1, 2011 – had “The People’s Princess” lived. In case the cover wasn’t enough of a clue, that date detail matters because Untold Story imagines that Diana left her adoring public not via decorated casket, but was rowed away by a faithful staffer – an Oxford-degreed Foreign Officer turned history professor who was Diana’s Private Secretary! – to restart her new life as an American commoner. “Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales,” opens this Story. That might have been ’nuff said right then and there … but we go on and on and on …

Train-wreck style, Ali resurrects a fragile Diana who undergoes the knife to change her renowned visage just enough, tones down her posh accent, wanders the States carrying the birth certificate of a dead British-born American, has a few meaningless peripatetic flings, and eventually settles somewhere in Middle America in a small town called – wait for it …! – Kensington (egads!).

She’s bought a small house (with a pool), works at an animal shelter, and has made a few close (as possible) friends, although she spends most of her time with a rescue canine named Rufus. She’s more or less gotten over her cutting and starving (she even has an opportunity to share her recovered wisdom with a friend’s troubled adolescent). She longs for her heir-and-a-spare, and keeps a box of clippings about them hidden in the back of her closet. She also has a kind, devoted lover with whom she can share little more than a bed. And then her image-stealing nemesis happens to randomly wander into Kensington, and recognizes her iconic eyes. What’s a distraught ex-royal to do? To run or not to run, that is again the question …

Ali’s debut, the unforgettable Brick Lane (shortlisted for the 2003 Booker Prize, adapted to celluloid in 2007), was one of those literary landscape-changing titles about the Bangladeshi British community. Not surprisingly, the novel garnered controversy for various unflattering portrayals of the locals, but in this case, even bad press was good press and Ali hit bestselling lists, and collected nominations, prizes, and other hefty accolades.

Loyal devotion to Brick Lane keeps me adding every Ali title to my shelves. Alas, I have yet to finish her Portuguese-set short story collection Alentejo Blue, or her deadly In the Kitchen. Sticking this Story into my ears is most likely what got me to the end: kudos indeed for narrators Emma Fielding (who assumes the royal voice) and Nicholas Farrell (who alternates between the elegant, saving secretary and the desperate, lifelong photo-snatcher) as they go far in making the implausible at least finishable.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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07-Ghost (vols. 1-4) by Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara, translated by Satsuki Yamashita

07-Ghost 1.4

Since we’re talking four volumes here, allow me attempt to offer a set-up without too many spoilers.

“One thousand years ago,” a boy named Teito Klein (not sure of the kanji for ‘Teito,’ but his last name means “small” auf Deutsch – you’ll find many German-inspired references throughout) is about to reclaim his larger-than-life past. Assumed to be an enslaved orphan who is now an elite teen soldier of the Barsburg Empire, Teito is frequently haunted by mysterious images that bear little resemblance to the slave narrative he’s always been told. A loner at Barsburg’s military academy, Teito accepts (and returns) the devoted friendship of a gentle comrade, Mikage Celestine; depending on the original kanji (not included in the translated manga), ‘mikage,’ in Japanese, can mean ‘beautiful shadow’ – hold on to that etymology, as Mikage will always remain at Teito’s side.

Teito’s dream-like (nightmarish) flashbacks finally begin to make sense when he overhears the Barsburg leaders talking about him – their words trigger a violent memory, and he recognizes Ayanami, the Barsburg Imperial Army’s Chief of Staff, standing over a murdered body. In blind reaction, Teito attacks Ayanami, gets thrown into prison, but escapes with Mikage’s help. He’s rescued and taken to Barsburg Church in District 7 – the “District of God” – where the military cannot touch him. Something about the glorious sanctuary seems familiar … and thus Teito’s quest for the truth begins …

The epic battle of good vs. evil is on. Here’s what Teito initially learns: Seven Ghosts (hence the name) prevent the god of evil, Verloren (meaning ‘the lost’), from world domination. Two kingdoms battle for control, although one needs some major restoring. Three swashbuckling bishops (one of whom has a propensity for hiding porn, ahem) take turns nurturing, teaching, bullying (sort of comically) young Teito as he learns to control the power he never knew he had.

Given the multi-layered rules and engrossing history of this millenially-aged universe, 07-Ghosts is undoubtedly one of the most intricate series I’ve thus far encountered. Apparently slated for 17 total installments, have patience and pay close attention: the numerology and meaning of names alone are noteworthy brain-ticklers. It’s also one of the most graphically gorgeous manga; even when the characters are at rest, nearly every panel overflows with swirling movement (the religious robes alone are better than any haute couture). If you find you can’t wait for the translated paper and ink to hit Stateside, you might check out the subtitled anime which seems to be readily available online. Oh, the powers of google; ask and ye shall be answered.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2005-2007 (Japan), 2012-2013 (United States)
© Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara
Original Japanese edition published by Ichijinsha, Inc., Japan

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