Review – Wandering Son Volumes 1 and 2 by Shimura Takako

Title: Wandering Son: Volumes 1 and 2

Author: Shimura Takako

Star Rating: * * (Volume 1), * (Volume 2)

Genre: Graphic Novel, Transgender/Gender Identity

Volume 1

Cover - Wandering Son 1

When I heard that Wandering Son was about two kids, Yoshino and Shuichi, dealing with trans identity issues, it skyrocketed upwards on my to-be-read list. After all, there are not many stories dealing with trans realities in a positive and well-thought out manner, and I was super excited to see that this series was receiving excellent ratings. Unfortunately, volume 1 did little to endear me to the series as I thought that both the art and the story were weak.

The Wandering Son volumes are packaged in beautiful, oversized hardcover editions. Regrettably, the series would have looked better in the normal, smaller tankobon size. Takako’s art is very simplistic and sparse. While the printing is clear and crisp, by enlarging the pages so much, the blankness of many of them was emphasised, as well as the weaknesses of the character designs. While is it not uncommon for manga to have rather barebones backgrounds and similar character constructions, I felt that both were an impediment to my immersion in this story. I kept getting characters mixed up since most had the same, wide-eyed face, and even the hair styles weren’t all that different. Very little stood out to me in regards to the art, and I missed the detail that is often present in so many popular manga.

Wandering Son Example 1

Another major issue I had with the book was the way in which decompression was used. Decompression refers to the pacing of a graphic story. A decompressed story is one that moves slowly, and can take many panels to show small events or reactions. This particular technique is quite common in Japanese manga, and I usually quite appreciate the more sedate, but detailed pace. However, the decompression in this volume left too many gaps in the narrative for me to fully understand what was going on. Scenes would be quite detailed, but then the story would jump forward to a different day or week. Very little time was spent on transition scenes, and even though these can be less interesting or emotional, they are still crucial to a well-constructed story.

Finally, I am sad to admit that there was just not much happening in this volume. Yoshino and Shuichi are just starting to figure out that they may be different, and it is understandable that they need time to sort out their feelings. However, most of the manga is comprised of Shuichi looking distressed and uncomfortable while she stares at things. When dealing with an introverted character that is rather shy and withdrawn, an author has to work particularly hard to make their struggles engaging and understandable for the reader. In the Wandering Son, we don’t get that far into Shuichi’s head, and being pummeled with panel after panel of emotional angst that isn’t very well conveyed does not make me feel for the character, or want to know more about her journey.

Overall, volume one starts off with a very interesting and potentially powerful premise that unfortunately just does not pay off.

Volume Two

Cover - Wandering Son 2

Volume two is where everything really starts to fall apart for me. Technically, the book is a lot better than volume one. The story flowed a lot more smoothly, and I wasn’t getting lost between scenes. I still had many problems telling characters apart, but there were also more characters introduced that looked sufficiently different that the volume felt less same-y than before. Furthermore, the character development was more interesting, and Yoshino and Shuichi were doing more than just spending pages upon pages looking stricken and nervous. Overall, volume two was a much more enjoyable read except for one rather gigantic problem that ruined the entire book for me.

Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence

My issues with this book center on the two characters: Yuki and Shii. Yuki was actually introduced in volume one in a short, but disturbing scene. During Yoshino’s first public appearance as a young boy, Yuki hits on him rather directly despite the fact that Yuki looks to be in her twenties and Yoshino is a pre-teen dressed in a high school uniform. The scene was short, and I forgot about it until Yuki reappeared in volume 2. This time Yuki runs into both Yoshino and Shuichi wandering around as their preferred genders. She invites them over to her house, but tells Yoshino that she would love it if he came back alone one time. When the two kids come over again, Yuki expresses displeasure about Yoshino not coming on his own, and her partner, Shii, walks in just as she’s petting Yoshino’s face. He accuses her of having an affair with Yoshino, and the escorts the two kids out of the apartment. While in the elevator, he fondles Yoshino’s crotch and chest, acting quite surprised that Yoshino is biologically a girl. This leads both Yoshino and Shuichi to discover that Yuki is also transgender, and sets her up as a mentor for the two.

I have tried to come up with a positive interpretation for this scene, but I just can’t. Some have claimed the Shii tends to act spontaneously and was just trying to check to see if Yoshino and Yuki were having an affair, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that he sexually touched a minor. Under the law in my country, what he did is considered sexual assault, and the narrative even shows that Yoshino was quite disturbed and upset by the incident, yet these feelings were completely brushed aside. Given the disproportionate levels of violence perpetuated against trans and gender queer people, this supposedly gag-like scene is unacceptable. I was even more discomforted by the fact that Yuki was supposed to be a mentor for the two pre-teens despite her inappropriate behaviour.

Before I abandoned the series, I wanted to see what would happen with Yuki. In volume 3, Yoshino goes to Yuki when his classmates have found out that he and Shuichi are gender queer and have begun to mock and torment the two of them. Yuki acts completely inappropriately with Yoshino, asking to compare their panties, and wanting to bath together so that she can see his breasts. She encourages Yoshino to share a bed with her, and then she cuddles with him in a way that makes Yoshino uncomfortable enough to run away as Yuki is far too physically close, and saying uncomfortably intimate things. The two end up “making up” by the end of the chapter, and once again I was left feeling extraordinarily uncomfortable at the fact that a pre-teen was just molested by an adult who suffered no repercussions for her actions. For a manga that spends so much time delving into controversial and difficult concepts, it was a terrible error to write plots involving violence without unpacking them with the same care and respect as the other difficult issues approached by this series.

Final Thoughts

I was really excited to read Wandering Son when I heard that it dealt with gender identity issues. However, I wasn’t a fan of the story, and there are some extremely problematic aspects to the narrative that I just can’t brush aside. Violence, particularly sexual violence, is perpetuated against trans people all the time, and I cannot support or enjoy a story that uses this violence as a gag. Even if this is one of the few substantive stories about kids dealing with trans identities, the scenes in volume 2 make it a highly inappropriate and problematic read.

RRRs: The Fables Spin-offs Edition

Rapid response reviews are shorter entries for books that I want to comment on, but don’t have enough time or material to finish a normal post. Given the sheer length of the Fables series, the only way I’ll ever be able to tackle most of its volumes is if I keep my comments short and sweet! My reviews for the actual Fables series are simple: go read them all! To get the whole story, readers need to finish all of the books, and even though there are 19 volumes (as of now), all of them are worth the read. Today’s RRR, therefore, is dedicated to the Fables spin-offs since they are almost as voluminous, but differ widely in their importance to the main series and their overall quality.

Title: Jack of Fables (Volumes 1-9, including The Literals mini-series)

Author: Bill Willingham

Rating: *

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Graphic Novel

Cover - Jack of Fables Series

I’m cheating a bit with Jack of Fables as I am lumping all of the books into one write-up (though I did write mini-reviews for volumes one and two here). Simply put, I hated this series. Jack of Fables is extraordinarily different from its predecessor, and very little of what I loved about Fables was present in Jack. Admittedly, the story premise is quite intriguing as these books deal with the existence of the Literals, beings that are the anthropomorphic representations of writing tools, but the titular character makes the story all but unbearable. I read the full series because there is a cross-over between it and Fables, but after trudging through these books, I am pretty sure I could have just skipped Fables 13 and saved myself the trouble. While the Literals are an interesting concept, most of the series is dedicated to showing how Jack is a terrible human being. The humour is sexist (for example, Jack sleeps with his half-sisters and this fact keeps coming up throughout the entire series as something that is supposed to be funny or admirable), the art is inconsistent, and I could not care less about any of the characters. Unless you are a diehard Fables fan, these books should be a skip. Continue reading

Review – The One by Kiera Cass

Title: The One (The Selection #3)

Author: Kiera Cass

Star Rating: *

Genre: Romance, Dystopia

Cover - The One

Synopsis

The end is finally here. America Singer was pressured into joining the selection, a televised competition between young women vying to be the next princess of Illea, and now she and Prince Maxon must sort out their feelings for one another as a rebellion intensifies in violence around them. Will America win Maxon’s heart or will she be going home heartbroken?

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Review – Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris

Title: Unraveling

Author: Elizabeth Norris

Star Rating: *

Genre: Young Adult, Sci-fi, Romance

Cover - Unraveling

Synopsis

Janelle is a smart, precocious teenager who is responsible for saving the world. Her life was pretty normal until she was hit by a truck, died, and was brought back to life by a fellow student. Suddenly, her life doesn’t make sense, her FBI father is anxious to figure out what a mysterious bomb is that appeared out of nowhere, and strange individuals from another universe are telling Janelle that her universe is about to implode. With only 24 days to figure out what is going on, she has to convince all the adults in her life that even though she’s still just a teen, she has something to offer and she just might be the key to making sure the entire world doesn’t end.

 

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Nostalgic Re-Reads – Goosebumps by R.L. Stine (Welcome to Dead House, Stay Out of the Basement, Monster Blood)

I was searching through books from my childhood on GoodReads when I had the whim to reread some of the old series that I used to enjoy. From things like Nancy Drew to Animorphs, there were a lot of stories that I read as a kid that were fun and short and might provide some entertainment even to me now. I was also curious to see how they stood up to the test of time and maturity. Since I had a particular love for horror novels and TV shows as a child, I decided to start with Goosebumps!

Goosebumps, the series by R.L. Stine, were introductory horror novels for children of my generation. There are 62 books in the series, and most feature 12 year old protagonists who are confronted with strange, paranormal events. While the children are often threatened, there is never much violence in these books, and the kids usually escape their enemies (though sometimes they are changed in odd and unnerving ways). There are usually at least two protagonists in each book, and at least one boy and one girl. The books often end with a silly, but creepy twist that makes the reader rethink the story, or entraps the characters in a bigger or more long-lasting problem than expected.

Rating these books is rather hard. They are not particularly well-written, but neither are they really meant to be pieces of great literature. Goosebumps is a series for entertaining and scaring kids, not necessarily expanding their horizons, or making them think about deep questions of life. However, this absence of a philosophical underpinning is perfectly fine. I have no problem with books that are really just about entertainment and silliness as long as there are also books for kids that do offer a more insightful reading experience. As a child, I loved challenging myself to see how many Goosebumps I could read in a day because even then I took them to be short tales whose sole purpose was to keep me amused for an afternoon. I also read books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth, so the presence of Goosebumps didn’t discourage or prevent me from reading novels with a bit more substance. Thus, Goosebumps are a perfectly legitimate part of a kid’s reading diet, but they don’t tend to warrant all that many stars. Make no mistake, they are entertaining, but this is often despite their poor construction and writing. I have given most of them low-star ratings, but I have been enjoying my re-read even though they have numerous literary problems. I can definitely understand why kids devoured stacks of these books as they are often ridiculous, but scary stories that capitalise on the worst fears of children.


Title: Goosebumps #1: Welcome to Dead House

Rating: * * ½

GB 1 - Welcome to Dead House

Welcome to Dead House is where the Goosebumps phenomenon started, and it is a very standard example of what one will get with this series. The Benson family finds out that they have inherited a house from a forgotten relative, so they move to the small town of Dark Falls to start over. Amanda and Josh are our protagonists, two siblings who are 11 and 12 years old (the standard age for all Goosebumps protagonists). Right away they start making friends with some of the kids in their new town, but they soon find that things seem a bit off in Dark Falls. The kids discover that all their new friends have gravestones in the town cemetery, and Dark Falls is actually a city of ghosts that needs to sacrifice the entire Benson family in order to survive!

This first book of the series is moderately suspenseful and creepy, but it’s also not all that memorable. There are a lot of spooky house scenes, but Welcome to Dead House is a fairly standard evil ghost story. It gives kids what they want – a few scares and frights, and that’s really all Goosebumps ever aims to do. It sets the tone of the series and the general parameters of how these stories work, and was a very safe opening to the series.

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World Building Critique – The Selection by Kiera Cass

Title: The Selection

Editors: Kiera Cass

Star Rating: *

Genre: Young Adult, Dystopia, Romance

 Cover - The Selection

The Selection has been described as a cross between the Hunger Games and The Bachelor. The story begins in a country called Illea, a monarchy that stretches throughout most of North and South America. The prince of the nation is of age and needs to find a wife, and thirty-five young women are randomly picked to compete to be the new princess. However, Illea is embroiled in war and rebels are attacking the castle. Can America Singer, a lowly 4th caste, possibly manage to survive this competition? Will her broken heart be mended by the prince, or will she forever be unable to love again after her lover Aspen abandoned her?  Will she ever learn to stop being the worst protagonist imaginable?

I have tried to write a review of The Selection several times, but it’s a book that I find difficult to analyse. Actually, let me clarify: it’s a book that I find nauseatingly terrible (despite it being a bestseller), and I have too much to say about what I don’t like about it. The protagonist is selfish and irritating, the setting is implausible and makes little sense, and the plot is basically non-existent. Being that there are many other reviewers who have taken a shot at reviewing this book, I decided that I needed to be a bit more creative with my commentary, so instead of my usual style of review, I’m writing a letter to The Selection about its world building choices. One of the benefits of a political science degree is that you get really good at assessing whether a fictional dystopia is well-constructed, and I use these skills to talk about how Illea just shouldn’t logically exist.

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RRRs: Graphic Novels – Part 2

Continuing on yesterday’s thread of RRRs for graphic novels, here is part two!

1.       The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice – Mike Carey

Cover - The Unwritten Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice

Star Rating: * * * * *

The Unwritten is one of my favourite graphic novels series, and this standalone prequel did not disappoint. Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice gives readers a deeper glimpse into the mind of Tommy’s father. At the same time, a huge chunk of the Tommy Taylor story is revealed. Themes and plots that were hinted at in the main series are shown in detail, and this background helps readers make sense of what is happening to adult Tommy. I also really enjoyed seeing how the Tommy Taylor story was an amalgamation of so many different stories. A definite recommend for fans of the series!

2.       Blacksad – Juan Diaz Canales, Juanjo Guarnido

Cover - Blacksad

Star Rating: * * * * *

Have you ever wanted to read a set of noir mysteries about anthropomorphic animals? Well, you should because Blacksad is amazing. Canales and Guarnido capture the feel of the genre perfectly, and the art is absolutely stunning. I was amazed at just how detailed and carefully composed this volume is, and the mysteries themselves were enjoyable and touched on important themes including racism and political corruption. This incredible book is vying for a spot on my top graphic novels of all-time list.

Who could say no to this amazing art?

Blacksad Art Example

 3.       Uglies: Cutters – Scott Westerfeld, Devin Grayson, and Steven Cummings (Illustrator)

Cover - Cutters

Star Rating: * *

The Uglies is a four book series by Scott Westerfeld that dealt with a dystopia where everyone was made pretty, but brain damaged in order to maintain social order. The books starred Tally Youngblood, a girl who tried to protest the system, but kept finding herself used by those in power. It was an interesting and fun series, but I always thought that Tally’s friend Shay was far more interesting than Tally herself. This graphic novel series, therefore, was made for me. Grayson and Cummings retell the Uglies story through the eyes of Shay, a character that is actually quite a bit more active in her choices than Tally, and they do so in the form of a manga.

Cutters is the second volume of the Shay series, and while I enjoyed the first retelling, this one was not quite as enjoyable. The problem with a retelling is managing to keep the story interesting without repeating everything that went on in the original work. Unfortunately, Cutters loses this balance, and the story is choppy and feels incomplete. These narrative choices make it difficult to follow what is going on, even if you’ve read the original series. I also found the art to be a detriment to the story. In this volume, Tally and Shay are pretties, young adults who have undergone extensive plastic surgery to become aesthetically perfect. However, the manga style that this story is drawn in makes it hard to distinguish pretties from uglies! I would recommend this book for fans of the series, but I hope that volume three addresses some of these problems.

4.       Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand – Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl, and Ramon K Perez

Cover - Tale of Sand

Star Rating: * *

If I was rating this book solely on the art, it would have received a five star rating. The illustrations are gorgeous in their fluidity and delicateness. The story, however, is lacking. A dude is trying to make it across the desert and a bunch of weird stuff happens to him (including some racist caricatures). It’s not really a story so much as a collection of emotional vignettes, but since I felt no connection to the characters, it was hard for me to engage with these feelings. I’m glad this was a library read rather than something that I purchased since I am unlikely to reread it again.

5.       Habibi – Craig Thompson

Cover - Habibi

Star Rating: *

Craig Thompson is one of the super stars of modern graphic novels, and Habibi is widely seen as an absolutely stunning piece of work. I, on the other hand, loathed it and couldn’t even bring myself to finish. While the art is beautiful and detailed, showing that that the author spent a lot of time researching his subject, it’s also sexually exploitive, and the themes that the novel brings up make me very uncomfortable.

The story centers on the tale of Dodola and Zam, two refugee slave children who are attempting to survive on their own. Dodola is a highly sexualised character, often portrayed naked and in sensuous poses. However, she is raped multiple times, and engages in sex work to ensure that she can feed Zam and herself. Zam falls in love with her, and I had to stop reading around the point where he begins to fantasise himself as the one who is assaulting Dodola. It is rare that I don’t finish novels that I start, but flipping through the rest of this behemoth of a book showed me that Dodola was going to undergo more exploitation, and the way that it was presented made my stomach churn as her naked body was portrayed in a sexualised manner that did little to showcase the violence of what was happening to her. I was also very uncomfortable with the racist implications of much of the novel. All in all, this is one of my least favourite graphic novels, and I can’t in good conscience recommend it.