This past week our internet went down for a day, which meant we all did a lot more offline than usual—we couldn’t watch any TV because everything is through streaming services, and even most of our video games require an internet connection to function. Fortunately, we still had plenty of board games and books, so I got a bit of extra reading done. It’s been a couple of weeks since my last Stack Overflow column—I spent most of October working on daily Etch-a-Sketch drawings inspired by an AI-generated prompt list, so I apologize for my absence. But I’ve got a big stack for you today, including several comics, a Choose-Your-Own Adventure book, and a couple of Young Adult novels!
Cat Ninja is a comics series about some pets with secret identities: Claude pretends to be a lazy cat at home, but sneaks out to fight crime as Cat Ninja; his housemate Mr. Squeaks is also known as Master Hamster, a criminal mastermind. The two siblings who take care of them know their secret, but they still keep things hidden from their parents. By this second volume, the two animals have developed a sort of truce, though Mr. Squeaks still tries to pull off some schemes from time to time. That’s when a third creature shows up: Hoot, a little owl that has some remarkable abilities of her own—and her appearance coincides with a string of villains arriving to challenge Cat Ninja.
As you may have guessed from the subtitle, this volume includes some time travel! I don’t want to spoil too much, but Hoot is connected to some tangled timelines, and our crew finds themselves on a time-hopping adventure in the latter half of the book. Okay, so the time travel isn’t super detailed, but it should be fun for the middle grade target audience of this series. Lots of action, a good helping of silliness, and some references thrown in there for the parents (like the villainous slug Elan Mollusk, for instance, in a sequence that’s an homage to old James Bond films).
While we’re on the subject of time travel, here’s a kids’ book that uses the perfect format for time travel: a choose-your-own-adventure story. This one is an official CYOA book (remember, that’s a trademark!), but in a new paperback format that’s slightly larger than the classic white-bordered versions you may remember from when you were a kid. The way it works is the same, though: you read a section of story (told with you as the main character), and every so often you’re presented with a choice, with different page numbers to jump to based on your decision.
You’ve just moved to Wisconsin with your parents, taking over your grandmother’s motel because she’s gone missing, and almost right away things get weird. Your mom calls to tell you to stay out of the basement and the line goes dead, and your dad—who was just here a minute ago—has vanished. So you and the two kids who were playing basketball in the parking lot, Trent and Damien, decide to explore a bit to figure out what’s going on. Do you go down to the basement? Do you investigate the motel rooms? It’s all up to you.
The story takes you—as you may have guessed—to different points in time, from dodging dinosaurs in prehistoric periods to fighting gladiators in Rome. You meet pirates and fantastical creatures and aliens. Oh, and your story ends, over and over again, with over twenty different possibilities (most of them unpleasant). The fun thing, of course, is that not only do the characters in the story travel around in time, but you as the reader can jump back in time, too, making a different choice at each branch and hoping to find a happy ending. (For the record, the time travel here is a little more detailed than in Cat Ninja, though it’s still mostly a McGuffin device that just works when it needs to.)
Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel series, written by Eoin Colfer, adapted by Michael Moreci, illlustrated by Stephen Gilpin
I read the Artemis Fowl series—or at least a couple of the books—back when they were first published, but then I kind of lost track of them. There’s actually a second “cycle” of the novels that started in 2019, and the graphic novel series I read recently is actually the second incarnation of the graphic novel series (the first adaptation was published in 2007!).
In case you’re not familiar with the series, Artemis Fowl is a 12-year-old genius who also has immense resources at his disposal, and a leaning toward criminal activities. In the first book, he manages to crack a code to learn the secrets of the fairies, which he uses to kidnap Holly Short, a captain in the LEP, so that he can ransom her for fairy gold. The fairies—who, in the world of this story are like a high-tech military with wings—send out a retrieval team to rescue Holly, but Artemis is one step of them the whole time, anticipating their tactics and using them to his advantage. The second book, The Arctic Incident, throws Holly and Artemis together again, forced to cooperate to face two different threats: first, Artemis’ missing father turns up, kidnapped by the Russian mob and held for ransom; second, the fairy world is under attack from goblins, but it’s clear that somebody is behind their actions.
The books are filled with lots of action and subterfuge, plots and counterplots. That, and lots of magic—though the magic used by the fairies and the other magical creatures is portrayed as advanced technology (which makes sense, according to that famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke). The characters in the stories are a bit morally ambiguous: Artemis is the main character, and he’s clearly a criminal, but his targets—the fairies—are shown to be not so innocent themselves. The second book in particular has a lot of backstabbing among the various magical factions, as the uneasy alliances between schemers break down.
As somebody who enjoyed the novels a while back, I enjoyed seeing the stories brought to life in a new format, and I’ll probably try to check out the rest of the series if they continue to adapt them into comics. I might go back and look up the original novels, too, to see how far I actually got in the series.
Friends Forever is the third book in Hale’s autobiographical comics series (following Real Friends and Best Friends). The first book is about young Shannon in 5th grade, and Best Friends is about 6th grade, as she navigates friendships and cliques, her dreams of becoming a writer, and her anxiety and panic attacks. This latest volume takes place in 8th grade, and Shannon has big plans. She’s got a friend group, she’s found her thing (drama!), and she’s got her list of things she wants to do. But as she tries to perfect herself for high school, maybe she has a bit too much on her plate. She wants to be beautiful and successful and famous—oh, and she wants boys to like her, too.
Hale does an excellent job of capturing what it was like for her in junior high, both the thrills of moments of success and the anxiety of trying to fit in. Shannon tries to change herself into the person she thinks she should be—but is also worried about being a “good person,” and whether she’s being too vain or selfish. It’s a lot for an eighth grade to have on her mind, and it takes its toll.
Pham’s artwork is wonderful as always, and I love the way that she’s captured Shannon in each book as she and her classmates get older. (Plus, all those ’80s looks!) She’s able to switch between a more comic-book style with hard outlines and a picture book illustration style for Shannon’s imaginings. Each chapter heading also includes a magazine cover featuring the various things that Shannon is worried about.
The whole series is really well done, even if painful to read at times. I appreciate how Hale is honest about her own struggles with fitting in, and particularly that she talks about anxiety and panic attacks in a way that was much harder back when she was in junior high. Hopefully readers today who struggle with similar issues will be encouraged to get help because they know there are others who have faced similar things, and they won’t feel so alone.
The goblins live in an underground cave on Teacup Island, but they have to move soon. The frequent earthquakes—the Earth Queen must be angry!—have caused enough damage that their cave may not survive much longer, so they have to move to higher ground. Well, the headstrong Pella is having none of it—she doesn’t want to move, and she’s especially furious that this evacuation is ruining all of her big plans for the midsummer festival, so she’s off to the Enchanted Forest to give the Earth Queen a piece of her mind. Of course, her older sister Bix knows two things: first, that the Earth Queen is just an old story goblins tell because there’s nobody else to blame for an earthquake; and second, of course, no one returns from the Enchanted Forest.
When Bix wakes up to find Pella missing, she has to overcome her worries and enters the forest, where she discovers that it’s quite different from what she expected. She meets Cici, a tree troll who’s much more adventurous but is terribly afraid of the water, and a host of strange creatures. Bix realizes that the forest is both beautiful and dangerous. Meanwhile, we also learn more about the island’s history, and the truth about these stories about the Earth Queen and other goblin tales. It’s a sweet story about the love between two sisters, new friendships, and exciting adventures—I really enjoyed it!
Gayle and her mom have moved to Martha’s Vineyard, chasing a dream to open an ice cream stand, but things haven’t worked out exactly as planned. Gayle injured her arm during the softball championship—on a play that cost them the game—and things have been tense between her and her teammates ever since. Meanwhile, a film crew has moved into town to film Shark! (clearly intended to be Jaws, down to the mechanical shark named Bruce), which is really changing the feel of the island.
Elijah shows up with his reporter dad, determined to make his own movie that will win the youth film contest. And “Ghastly” Maddie, a loner girl who lives in the lighthouse, has just the story to tell for their film: the story of the island’s ghost shark, an old legend. If they can win the contest, Gayle can use the prize money to help pay for the ice cream stand. As they explore the island and interview residents, though, it’s clear that this is a story most people hope will stay buried. What’s the truth behind the mystery, and why won’t anyone talk about it?
This comic book blended its own story with the filming of Jaws, which did take place on Martha’s Vineyard. Elijah is a movie geek and we get some glimpses of what the movie-making experience was like as he talks to some of the film crew (including Charlie Potter, the special effects guy). Maddie’s story involves Captain Atwood, who built a fishing clubhouse on the island shortly after the Civil War, and is tied to the legend of the ghost shark—but his name has vanished from the records. Why? As the kids work on their movie, they run into various problems, including conflicting agendas and personalities, putting both their film and their friendship in danger.
It’s a fun comic, and I think would be particularly appealing to kids who have an interest in moviemaking, simply because that’s woven into the storyline. But it’s also a story about a summertime adventure, even if you’re not a budding filmmaker.
Oksi is a hefty graphic novel, inspired by Finnish folklore, about some troubled relationships between mothers and daughters. In one case, the mother is Emuu, a goddess of the sky, and her daughter is the bear, who left the sky to live in the forest; in another, the bear is Mother, and among her cubs is one known as Poorling, who doesn’t really seem to be a bear. Poorling’s brothers make fun of her, saying she’s not strong enough, but then she realizes she can change her shape and her voice. She secretly learns lessons from Scaup, a great bird who speaks in runes.
The watercolor illustrations are mostly black and white, but with bursts of color that can be dreamlike, or startling, or magical. The story has the feel of older fairy tales: there are parts that are gruesome and gory, and there aren’t always straightforward rules that you can figure out. Poorling just wants to be with her Mother, but the bear has her own suspicions about Poorling and doesn’t trust her. Throughout the book we get some glimpses of older stories, sometimes told by Scaup, revealing the origins of the divine conflicts between Emuu and Mother. We also meet another character, Mana, the ruler of the forest who created her own Shadow children—she has her own war with Emuu that ensnares Mother and Poorling as well.
This is a book that I’d recommend more for older readers—maybe teens and up—or if you’re giving it to a younger reader, you may want to preview it first. While the illustration style keeps things from being too explicitly graphic, there are portions that could be disturbing. That said, I found it really enchanting, all the more so because the story it told was so unfamiliar to me.
I’ve always been drawn to books that tweak the “Chosen One” trope—what if the Chosen One turns down the job? What if the Chosen One fails? What if you go to school with the Chosen Ones but you’re just trying to graduate? What happens to the Chosen One after the “final battle”?
That last question is what kicks off the first section of Chosen Ones: five teenagers were selected based on a prophecy to defeat the Dark One, and after a lot of battles that left them scarred in different ways, they succeeded. That was ten years ago, and each of them responded to the success in different ways. Esther parlayed her fame into success as an Insta! influencer; Matt has worked hard to continue helping people around the world; Sloane became a recluse and hates attention, and just wishes she could live her life as a normal person without all the fame and its accompanying expectations. They’re still called upon occasionally by the shadowy government agency that had trained them as kids—the folks there are still trying to exploit magic for their own purposes, of course—but with the Dark One gone, they’ve all had to find something else to live for. What do you do with your life after you fulfill the prophecies about you? There weren’t any prophecies about that, and they all struggle in different ways in how to grow up after that experience.
But that’s just the first third of the book. On the tenth anniversary of the last battle, amidst celebrations and ceremonies (that Sloane really doesn’t want to be a part of) the Chosen Ones discover that maybe they aren’t done after all. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but the rest of the book goes to some new places that I hadn’t been expecting, and it was a wild ride. I really loved the way that Roth described the magic and how it works (and, more often, how it doesn’t). There’s also a lot about dealing with trauma and PTSD: Sloane and Albie (one of the other teens) had gotten kidnapped by the Dark One and came out changed—and Sloane has been carrying secrets about that time with her for a decade.
This is the first of Roth’s books I’ve read—I know her Divergent series was pretty big, but I just hadn’t gotten around to them—so she’s a new author to me, but after reading Chosen Ones I’m curious to read some more of her books, too.
I can’t remember how I first came across Xiran Jay Zhao on Twitter—it may have been their detailed analysis of the live-action Mulan movie, digging into the historical accuracy of the clothing and language used—but it has been fun to have a window into some of the writing and publication of this book since they tweet a lot. But before I tell you more about the book, let me start by saying that this debut novel is the first in a series, because if you don’t know that starting out, you’re going to get sucked into the story and get to the cliffhanger on the last page and say WHERE’S THE REST OF MY STORY?! I mean, to be fair, you’ll probably say the same thing even if you know, but at least you’ll be a little more prepared for the prospect of waiting for Zhao to write the next book.
Iron Widow is set in a world that was overrun hundreds of years ago by Hundun, strange, faceless, six-legged creatures made of spirit metal. They destroyed civilization, and humans have gradually rebuilt. One of the keys to their success has been their ability to use spirit metal, harvested from defeated Hunduns, to create Chrysalises—giant mechas that stand guard at the Great Wall. The Chrysalises are always controlled by a pair of pilots—one male and one female—but in almost all cases, the young women’s minds are consumed in the process, so even a successful battle has casualties. In this patriarchal society (one that draws from China’s real-world history), their deaths are considered reasonable sacrifices.
Zetian’s older sister was selected as a concubine-pilot and was killed, and Zetian has been plotting her revenge ever since. She volunteers herself, and eventually finds herself paired up with Li Shimin, the most powerful pilot—but also a dangerous convict. He’s too valuable an asset for the powers that be not to use him in the battle against the Hunduns, but they still don’t trust him and keep him on a tight leash. Zetian is determined not only to survive the system, but to stop it from destroying so many girls.
The story is like Pacific Rim, but in a world that’s more like ancient China with modern technology; Zetian isn’t content just to smash monsters, but to smash the patriarchy as well. There’s romance in the plot as well, but it isn’t your typical YA love triangle. I was amazed by both the world-building and Zetian’s fiery spirit; I’m still trying to figure out if she’s a heroine or an anti-heroine—probably she’d resist being put into either box. If you’re looking for an explosive read that challenges the status quo, put Iron Widow on your list.
I came a bit late to Neal Shusterman’s books—I read the Scythe series only after the entire trilogy was published, and earlier this year I read Dry (co-authored with his son Jarrod), which was published a couple years ago. This time, though, I’m right on time with Roxy, which comes out this week. The Shustermans aren’t afraid of tackling current events and controversies in their YA novels, and Roxy is about drugs and addiction.
In the book, the drugs are personified and given names: Roxy is roxicet, a pain med that’s a mix of oxycodone and acetomenaphin, but she’s joined by many others that you may recognize. Mary Jane, who’s gone legit and wears a business suit. Al, one of the oldest, always ready with a drink to welcome you to the Party. It reminds me a little of the new gods in American Gods, the way that abstractions like media and the internet take on personalities and gain power from human belief. The gods in this book have a perpetual Party going on—they bring their “plus-ones” to the party, hoping to escort them to the VIP lounge. That translates to us, under the influence of the chemicals, overdosing and shuffling off this mortal coil.
When the book begins, we get some foreshadowing about our two main human characters, Ivy and Isaac Ramey, siblings in high school. One of them is going to die—the paramedics will arrive too late. Ivy is a senior who gets into trouble all the time, partying with her drug-dealer boyfriend; Isaac is a junior and hopes to get noticed by soccer talent scouts, and he also tries his best to take care of his big sister when he can. But after an altercation with the boyfriend, Isaac hurts his ankle, one thing leads to another, and eventually he’s taking pain meds. Meanwhile, Ivy finally decides to clean up her act so she can graduate, and gets a prescription for her ADHD.
That brings us to our two other main characters, Roxy and Addison. Roxy is the current star—she’s always at the party, always escorting people into the VIP lounge (where they’re usually taken over by her “upline,” harder drugs from the same chemical family). But Addison, for all the time that he spends at the party, is never taken seriously—he belongs with antsy kids and helps them do schoolwork. The two make a bet about who will be the first to take someone all the way to the end of the line, and from that point Ivy and Isaac are headed for disaster.
Although much of the book is about the addiction and the Party, it does show the benefits of drugs, too. There is a purpose for painkillers, just as there are real benefits to the meth-based ADHD meds like Addison. We see Roxy as she lures Isaac away from the other things in his life, but we also see her care for his grandmother when she has a fall and breaks her hip. The interactions between the humans and the drugs are portrayed as conversations between them, and the Party itself is like something that the people see in their mind’s eye while under the influence.
Roxy and Addison are the main characters, but there are also some interludes featuring other drugs as well. There are drugs that are mostly outdated, like Lucy. Drugs whose reputations have changed dramatically, like Mary Jane—she spends time with a pastor, diagnosed with cancer, who sees the irony in using a drug he previously railed against. Drugs that are no longer made, like ‘Lude, who become a scary story the current drugs tell each other. If you’re too successful at the Party, you might end up like ‘Lude and get exiled altogether.
I don’t know how medically accurate the story is—maybe it’s the equivalent of those TV medical dramas that make my doctor wife roll her eyes—but the emotions and behavior around addiction seem pretty real to me. I think the book did a good job of dramatizing a series of events that could lead to addiction, the difficulty of overcoming it (including one scene about withdrawal), and the drastic measures people might take to get more of a drug once they’re hooked. That it’s all done through the lens of personification means that we also see the drug’s “motivation,” and what it’s trying to do as well.
Like Shusterman’s other stories, it’s not a pleasant tale overall—although there are some highs and lows, you know from the beginning that it won’t have a happy ending. But I do think it’s a valuable book to read; it might give people some tools to battle drug dependency, or to recognize some of the signs of dangerous addiction.
My Current Reads
Aside from the books above, I did read a few other comic books that it turns out won’t be released until January, so I decided to wait a bit on those. I’ve been seeing some announcements about book releases getting pushed back because of production delays, and even the news that Europe’s publishers have shut down printing for the rest of the year because they don’t have enough supplies of paper. It’s a rough time for book publishers, so if you’re hoping to give somebody a book for the holidays, you probably want to get on that really soon!
In the meantime: I started reading Another Now by Yanis Varoufakis, a speculative fiction book about a fair and equal society; I’ve also been perusing The Curious Viewer from Mental Floss, a compendium of trivia and lists and essays about binge-worthy TV shows that somehow doesn’t include The Good Place but is nevertheless quite fun.
Disclosure: I received review copies of the books in this column.