Novel Review: Small Favors

9113ts3u2rl._ac_uy436_ql65_Fairy tale adaptions are a popular subset of YA novels, but not many are based on Rumpelstiltskin. However, Erin Craig has taken that tale and turned it into a gothic flavored thriller in Small Favors.

Back Cover Blurb

Ellerie Downing is waiting for something to happen. Life in isolated Amity Falls, surrounded by an impenetrable forest, has a predictable sameness. Her days are filled with tending to her family’s beehives, chasing after her sisters, and dreaming of bigger things while her twin, Samuel, is free to roam as he wishes.

Early town settlers fought off monstrous creatures in the woods, and whispers that the creatures still exist keep the Downings and their neighbors from venturing too far. When some townsfolk go missing on a trip to fetch supplies, a heavy unease settles over the Falls.

Strange activities begin to plague the town, and as the seasons change, it’s clear that something is terribly wrong. The creatures are real, and they’re offering to fulfill the residents’ deepest desires, however grand, for just a small favor. These seemingly trifling demands, however, hide sinister intentions. Soon Ellerie finds herself in a race against time to stop Amity Falls, her family, and the boy she loves from going up in flames.

The Review

Life is peaceful and predictable for Ellerie Downing, a farm girl in Amity Falls, a frontier town surrounded by an impenetrable pine forest. Then one summer, all the members of a supply train get slaughtered in the woods. Shortly thereafter, strange occurrences start happening to the populace, and misshapen animals appear in and around the town. After a fire ravages the Downing farm, Ellerie’s father must take her mother to the city for medical treatment, and it’s up to Ellerie to protect what remains of her family and home against the sinister forces threatening Amity Falls.

I reviewed Craig’s previous work House of Salt and Sorrows. If you enjoy her brand of creepy imagery, you’ll probably like Small Favors. The main difference is that in her previous work, most of the ghoulish stuff was limited to the heroine’s hallucinations and nightmares. In Small Favors, multiple characters are beset by disturbing visions, and monstrosities show up in the flesh to horrify everyone in town.

The exact location of the town and time period are never explicitly stated, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the American Midwest during the early 1800s. The residents are descended from Puritan-like settlers, and although they are reliant on periodic supply runs for manufactured goods and other necessities, they live for the most part in isolation. No mail. Very few visitors.

So the community slides into a steady decline when their link to the outside world (the supply train) gets broken amid rumors that the forest monsters that once terrorized the original settlers have returned. Those fears are cemented when abnormalities plague their fields and livestock. Craig does an excellent job of inserting horribly mutated versions of things to shake up her characters, then plunging them into hardships to drive them further on edge.

She’s less effective with the infighting among the Amity Falls folks. We can see the deterioration of Ellerie’s relationships with her best friend and twin brother, but not so much for the others. Mainly because there are too many to keep track of. As in House of Salt and Sorrows, most of the cast are a muddle of names without much to distinguish them. The book opens with a list of the “Important Families of the Gathering,” but even with the list (which doesn’t even include all the townsfolk mentioned by name), I still had trouble remembering which character was which.

In terms of the supernatural forces wreaking this havoc, Craig keeps readers guessing as to their true nature and as to which occurrences are their doing and which stem from the townsfolks’ own intent. However, the reveal of the Brotherhood of Light with their trove of knowledge felt a bit too convenient, as did their assumed identities. I’m a nitpick for details, and the Brotherhood seemed overly informed of the Amity Falls situation given how isolated it is. (The next settlement is several days away by horse.) There is one mention of a messenger bird, but no mention of it carrying news or correspondence. Also bothersome is how the town risks another ill-fated supply run right before winter because they are so desperate for supplies, but once spring comes, no one even talks about a supply run.

Ellerie is also really slow to connect the weirdness in town to the handsome, mysterious stranger who won’t tell her his real name. Or give her a straight answer about anything else. In terms of the romance aspect, it is very similar to that in Salt and Sorrows. There are heart-pounding instances with Ellerie’s building attraction to Whitaker, but he walks into the story besotted with her before she lays eyes on him. Given the breadth of his experience before they meet, I find it difficult to believe that he would fall in love simply by looking at Ellerie, engaging though she is.

By the way, the cast includes two Englishmen, and the narrative mentions a French trapper who once lived near Amity Falls, but there is no mention at all of Native Americans.

In Summary

Small Favors is a Gothic thriller set in an isolated 19th-century American town that chronicles the populace’s descent from harmony and order to chaos and hate. There are creepy scenes and visions aplenty as Ellerie first struggles to navigate the bizarre events plaguing her town and then strives to discover who’s behind them. However, she is slow on the uptake regarding her love interest, who’s a little too perfect and innocent for his background. While the novel is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, the connection to the original work is very subtle, and if you’re looking for happy endings, this ending is mostly not.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!! Blu-Ray Videos: “The Strongest Challengers,” “The Dumpster Battle,” and “View from the Top 2.”

My husband and I have been fans of the 2.5 D musical series, Hyper Projection Engeki Haikyu!!, ever since we saw their second show “Karasuno Revival” in Fukuoka in 2016. When their new Karasuno cast made their debut with “Fly High” in 2019, my husband, who was working in China at the time, made a weekend trip to Osaka just to see the show. (And he saw it twice!)

Unfortunately, seeing subsequent shows was made impossible to us and just about everyone else when the pandemic struck. Like all theater productions, Engeki Haikyu!! was hit hard by COVID. “The Strongest Challengers,” which began March 2020, had to cut its run short.

Despite the disappointment and financial loss this must have caused, Engeki Haikyu!! persevered. During the shutdown, they released an amazingly creative YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO-mLXG3MtA) with nearly every performer involved in the production. Then once things opened up, they went on to produce “The Dumpster Battle” and the final show, “View from the Top 2.”

And fortunately I was able to get these videos through Animate International (www.animate.shop).Thank you, Animate International for shipping internationally! Thank you, Toho Animation for producing the Blu-rays! (The videos are also available through amazon.co.jp.).

So for those who are sad that the Haikyu!! manga has ended and need something to tide you over until the next anime season, consider the Engeki Haikyu!! videos! You’ll need a Region 2 player to play the discs, and unfortunately, the show and extras are entirely in Japanese. However, if you read the manga, you will get the gist of what’s happening. In addition, various kind people have made show translations available for free on the Internet. At the writing of this post, my husband found subtitles for nearly all the shows and some of the curtain calls here:

https://kanasmusings.tumblr.com/post/614980635395833856/masterpost-engeki-haikyuu-subtitles

If you do decide to watch Engeki Haikyu!!, please support them by buying the videos! And for more details about the pandemic releases, please read on.

Contents

If you have any of the previous Engeki Haikyu!! videos, you’ll immediately notice some differences. The biggest difference is that “The Strongest Challengers” and “The Dumpster Battle” are a dual release that consists of three discs:

Disc 1

  • The Dumpster Battle (edited and wide angle version)

Disc 2

  • The Strongest Challengers (edited and wide angle version)

Disc 3

  • The Strongest Challengers Backstage Footage
  • The Dumpster Battle Backstage Footage
  • The Dumpster Battle Curtain Call

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The Strongest Challengers and Dumpster Battle dual release discs, disc case, and sleeve

Sadly, there’s no curtain call for “The Strongest Challengers.” Usually, that’s recorded at the final show, and it got canceled due to COVID. In addition, “The Strongest Challengers” video was not filmed before an audience. They still give a good performance, but I do miss watching the actor for Tanaka ham it up with the audience during curtain call.

“The Dumpster Battle” did get recorded before a live audience and have its curtain call, but it has obvious COVID modifications. The actors wear clear masks, which I didn’t find too distracting, but they sometimes interfered with the sound quality of the actors’ dialogue. Also, the curtain call was conducted in small, socially distanced groups rather than the mass lineup they usually have.

With “The Strongest Challengers” cut short and theater capacity limited for “The Dumpster Battle,” it’s not surprising Toho Animation packaged the shows together for the fans who couldn’t see it live. It certainly made it easier for me not having to order and ship two items.

Moving on…

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View from the Top 2 discs, cover insert, and case sleeve

“View from the Top” consists of:

Disc 1

  • View from the Top 2 (edited version)
  • Curtain Call
  • Special Ending Credits

Disc 2

  • View from the Top 2 (wide angle version)
  • Interview with the director, composer, Kotaro Daigo (actor for Hinata), and Ryunosuke Akana (actor for Kageyama)
  • Backstage Footage
  • Studio live session performance by the composer

Because I preordered my Blu-ray from Animate, I got a bonus item which turned out to be four buttons with Engeki Haikyu!!’s version of team mascots. I pinned them to the totebag my husband purchased at the 2019 Fly High performance.

Fly High tote bag with my View from the Top bonus buttons

Like “The Dumpster Battle,” “View from the Top” got filmed before a live audience with protocols in place (i.e. clear masks for the performers, no cheering from the audience). Unfortunately, a couple cast members tested positive for COVID while in mid-run so the last several performances, including the Tokyo grand finale, got canceled.

As a result, this curtain call isn’t the usual fun interaction with the audience where actors are as likely to burst into tears as they are to ham it up with their fans. Instead, each performer makes final remarks solo in front of their character’s team banner. It doesn’t have the same impact as pre-pandemic curtain calls, but I appreciate their efforts.

Production

The stage arrangement, aside from minor details on the periphery, were identical for the three Spring Tournament shows. This might have been due to budget constraints, but it does also make sense from a storytelling standpoint. (All of the matches are taking place at the Orange Court, after all.)

There are two (!) rotating tables at the front of the stage, an elevated platform at the rear, and a retractable ramp connecting the two levels. The front of the stage, the ramp, as well as the rear wall of the stage function as surfaces for Engeki Haikyu!!’s namesake high end projectors to cast their magic. This gives projections huge flexibility upon the stage and really makes images pop. Throughout the shows, you’ll see various cast members wiping off those surfaces (under the premise of cleaning the sweat off the Orange Court).

“The Dumpster Battle” and “View from the Top 2” also use flying harnesses but only very briefly. The majority of action is comprised of performers moving in sync with projections, dance numbers, and dramatic scenes.

Review

Most preceding productions incorporated two matches into a single show, but Engeki Haikyu!! dedicated an entire show to each of the Spring Tournament matches. Given the prestige of the competition, it was a good call. Plus, it was less exhausting for me as a viewer. “The Best Team,” which covered the Aoba Johsai rematch and the Shiratorizawa match, was a long show, and though I enjoyed it, I was worn out by the end.

Of the Spring Tournament shows, “The Dumpster Battle” is the one I’d watch over and over, even with the COVID masks. “The Strongest Challengers” was set up as a setter battle similar to “The Winner and The Loser,” but Kageyama doesn’t have the intense history with Atsumu that he did with Oikawa. Also, a lot of attention is given to the Miya Twins, but the Inarizaki team as a whole doesn’t have a distinct identity the way Dateko, Nekoma, or Nohebi do. Also, nearly every team has a signature dance move, but if Inarizaki had one, it didn’t stand out to me.

Nekoma, though, is a team included in several Engeki Haikyu!! shows, has a distinct personality, and has multiple rivals among the Karasuno team. The Dumpster Battle is the culmination of a relationship that dates back to old Ukai and Coach Nekoma’s youth, and Engeki Haikyu!! did a fabulous job incorporating all those elements as well as the childhood promise between Kenma and Kuroo.

On top of all that anticipation and emotion, the show capitalizes on Kenma’s gamer mindset to maximize projection effects. There’s a hilarious fantasy interlude at the opening of Act 2 that has nothing to do with the plot but uses their projections in a spectacularly entertaining way. (Seriously, I’ve watched that scene eight times, and I still think it’s awesome.)

It’s worth noting that the actors who play Kenma and Kuroo (and a few other Nekoma players) have been with the production since Nekoma first appeared in “Karasuno Revival.” As such, they get extra attention and screen time in the Curtain Call and Backstage Footage. So be sure to check that out if you’re fans of Kondou Shouri or Nagata Takato.

Oh, and Fukuzawa Yuu, who plays the Nohebi captain Suguru, returns to make commentary on the dumpster battle. This guy’s moves are so captivating, my eyes automatically jump to him anytime he’s in a dance number.

“View from the Top 2” runs into similar issues as “The Strongest Challengers” in that Kamomedai doesn’t quite have a memorable collective personality or signature dance. This matchup is mostly framed as a battle of little giants between Hinata and Hoshiumi before the OG of little giants, Udai. It also weaves in a Kageyama character arc outlining his journey from lonely King of the Court to one surrounded and supported by his team, but it has more to do with Kageyama and Karasuno than with Kamomedai.

Act 2 of “View from the Top 2” serves as a postscript for our characters. Hinata’s years in Brazil gets summarized a few lines of narration then the timeline jumps to the evening of the Schweiden Adlers-Black Jackals match where we see what everyone looks like post-high school. As they’ve done in other productions, Engeki Haikyu!! projects video of previous cast members (some of which interact with the live cast) to show how their characters fare as well. Although the manga dedicates three volumes to the Schweiden Adlers-Black Jackals match, Engeki Haikyu!! limits it to the highlights, which works well to wrap up the production without dragging it out.

Thus, Engeki Haikyu!! reaches its conclusion. Clearly, COVID ruined a lot of plans (including our plan to see the final show in person). To tell the truth, my husband and I were afraid the company would fold when “The Strongest Challengers” got canceled. Yet they persevered to bring Haikyu!! to a valiant finish, and for that, they have our heartfelt thanks and admiration.

Light Novel Review: Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki

51bevid5ehl._sx328_bo1204203200_Mamoru Hosoda is the director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Mirai. In 2012, he released Wolf Children: Ame & Yuki, and I recently had the chance to read Yen Press’ hard cover translation of the novel adaption. Read on for the review!

Back Cover Blurb

When Hana worked up the courage to speak to the mysterious loner in her college class, she never expected the encounter would blossom into true love-nor that he was secretly a wolf living in human form. Their relationship was far from ordinary, but she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Her joy only grows with the births of Ame and Yuki, who have inherited their father’s unique ability to transform. But life is full of both joy and hardship, and Hana is left to bring up her little wolves on her own. Raising human children is hard enough…but how will she handle their wild side, too?

The Review

Please note, I am writing this novel review without having seen the movie it was based on.

Hana is a university sophomore when she encounters the mysterious loner in her college class. As it turns out, the standoffish young man is a werewolf. Even so, Hana embraces him and his secret and soon bears a daughter and son with their father’s ability to transform. But hardship strikes when the werewolf unexpectedly dies, and Hana’s left to raise their children on her own.

Hosoda-sensei tries to give this novel the aura of a fairytale. Aside from the existence of werewolves, Hana has a couple of dream encounters with her lover. The story also never gives his name, which might be some sort of Japanese literary device. (However, as a Western reader, I found it odd because Hana has his driver’s license so he clearly had a name.)

Despite these fantastical elements, the novel did not strike me as romantic or fairytale-like. Even the book’s opener, where Hana falls in love and is at her most carefree, is hardly swoon-worthy material. Hana takes the initiative in the courtship, and the werewolf never gives any professions of love or proposes marriage. He works a blue-collar job, is short on cash, and their dates consist of reading books and walks. Eventually, they move in together, he gets her pregnant so that she has to drop out of university, and shortly after their second child is born, he dies.

Thus, Hana’s true struggles begin in the latter half of Chapter 1. Yet the majority of her challenges have less to do with her children being werewolves and more to do with the fact that she’s an isolated single mother without many resources. Her money worries, her lack of sleep, her neighbor who’s angry about her baby’s crying, her older child’s accidents – those are common to many mothers, and not even just the single ones. Certainly, the need for secrecy is an additional burden, but it seems minor compared to the rest. Rather than a unique journey, Hana’s circumstances feel more like a cautionary tale about what happens when you have kids too early in life.

Continuing on to Chapter 2, Hana moves her family to the mountains. Partly because of the cheap rent, partly because it’s easier to hide her children’s secret where there are fewer people. Although there are moments where the children explore the wilderness, the focus remains on Hana–her efforts to make their rundown house livable, her city slicker struggle to grow vegetables, and her gradual acceptance by the country community.

It’s not until Chapter 3 that the focus really shifts to the children. With their mixed heritage, the identities they ultimately choose are anyone’s guess. As it turns out, those identities get chosen early and abruptly. After a taste of peer interaction with the students at her elementary school. Yuki immediately gives up her wild child behavior to be a girly girl so she can fit in with her friends. Ame’s change is more drastic. After meeting a wild fox who agrees to mentor him, Ame goes from a sickly crybaby who can’t fend off a house cat to a tough wolf disinterested in human society. And for Ame, the decision to ditch his mother’s home to live in the wild comes at the age of ten.

Chapter 4 has Hana confronted with her son’s decision to leave for good against the backdrop of a ferocious downpour. As the storm rages, the focus is not so much Ame’s escape into his new world but Hana’s maternal grief and ultimate acceptance to his departure. After that, the story abruptly comes to a tidy end. Despite all the child protective services activities in Chapter 1, Ame’s disappearance doesn’t raise any questions from neighbors, Hana’ coworkers, or Ame’s school. And Yuki goes with her classmates to live in the junior high dorm, leaving Hana smiling happily alone in her remote home with her lover’s driver’s license.

The story only follows the children until Yuki turns twelve, which doesn’t allow much space for character development. Though brief, Yuki does have a reasonably interesting character arc, mainly because hers includes her relationships at school. Ame’s is less so. Although he clearly becomes enamored of the wilderness, his only relationship is with a fox, and we aren’t privy to those interactions.

Thus, it is predominantly Hana’s journey that takes up the narrative. Although Hosoda-sensei tries to portray her as heroic, I can’t help but see Hana as simply reaping the consequences of poor decision-making. Granted, her lover didn’t abandon her, but he was awfully careless to get himself killed (and not even for anything meaningful). And even if their first pregnancy was an accident, they should’ve known better than to get pregnant again so quickly if money was truly tight. Finally, her smile-through-everything attitude is unrelatable and unrealistic. When Grandpa Nirasaki snaps at her, “Why do you always have that phony smile on your face?” I wholeheartedly agree.

In Summary

Despite the title Wolf Children: Ame and Yuki, this novel is really about their mother Hana. It follows her as she goes from a lovestruck nineteen-year-old to a single mother of two, from struggling to raise her children in the city to toiling to carve a place for them in the country. While Hosoda-sensei romanticizes Hana’s love for her werewolf, the majority of the book is not the least bit romantic. Rather, it’s mostly difficult circumstances and a lot of hard work.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Graphic Novel Review: The Jewish Brigade

81ckaqjzscl._ac_uy436_ql65_I never had much interest in war narratives until I came across Tanya the Evil. It’s a fictional isekai, but its war nerd creator did such a wonderful job dramatizing the varied aspects of military conflict that it completely hooked me. Now, my reading list frequently includes military history and fiction. On the graphic novel front, I recently read The Jewish Brigade. Read on for the review!

Back Cover Blurb

In the waning years of World War II, as the tragic plight of the European Jews was coming to light in ever more horrific detail, a Jewish fighting force, known as the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, was born as part of the British Eighth Army. Leslie Toliver, a racecar driver in the pre-war years, eagerly joined the all-volunteer force for a chance to fight with his people against those who sought to murder them.

When the war in Europe ends and the “savage continent” sits on the brink of continental civil war from chaos, terror, and famine, Leslie and the Brigade move to Tarvisio, Italy, a border triangle city perfect for covert action. While out searching for Holocaust survivors, Leslie undertakes vigilante missions in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe hunting down Nazis on the run for both vengeance and justice. With each Nazi found or refugee rescued, he looks for more information to complete his most personal mission: to find his mother and fiancée who went missing in the upheaval of the war.

The Review

Toward the end of World War II, the British formed a unit known as the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group. But even after Germany’s surrender, violence continued to rage against Jews in Europe. Thus, two Jewish Brigade members who are tracking down Nazi war criminals find themselves having to protect Jewish refugees.

The Jewish Brigade is a lot like Ennis’ The Night Witches in that it highlights a lesser-known World War II military group. It also has a similar three-part structure. The first two, “Vigilante” and “TTG,” take place in Europe at the close of World War II. The third, “Hitikvah,” fast forwards a few years to put its characters in the midst of another conflict. In this case, the later conflict is the Arab-Israeli hostilities that broke out at the formation of Israel.

The main character is British-born Leslie Toliver, a former racecar driver who volunteers for the Jewish Brigade. The story begins in June 1945 with Leslie and Ari, a Palestinian-born member of the brigade, on the hunt for escaped Nazis. Along the way, they pick up Safaya, a Jewish girl who had been hidden in a Polish convent. As they travel through former Nazi territory, they find anti-Semitic sentiment and violence still alive and well despite the fall of Hitler.

In Part 2, Leslie and Ari part ways. Leslie’s still hunting down Nazis. While tailing one SS officer, Leslie unexpectedly teams up with a German private who has his own reasons for wanting to kill the officer. Meanwhile, Ari is working with other brigade members in a group called the TTG to smuggle out Jews who are desperate to leave Europe for Palestine.

Part 3 then skips ahead to 1948. Leslie’s now smuggling arms to the woefully undersupplied Jewish forces in Palestine where he re-encounters Safaya. Now a grown woman, Safaya takes an active part in fighting the Arabs trying to snuff out the Jewish state before can be officially established.

As a historical work, The Jewish Brigade is ambitious in its breadth. It covers the formation of the Jewish Brigade, their initial exploits on the European front, the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitic activity that continued after Hitler’s fall, Nazi escape routes to South America, the activities of the TTG, and UN Resolution 181, which partitioned Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. It is uneven in its explanation of historical points though. For instance, Part 1 explains the establishment of the Jewish Brigade in such a way that I, a person who’d never heard of the group, was able to get a decent grasp of them. However, in Part 2, the TTG comes onto the scene, and the characters talk about its activities in such a roundabout way (i.e., “arms and human trafficking”) that it went entirely over my head. I had to do an Internet search for the group before I was able to understand what was happening in that arc. And when Leslie arrives in Palestine in 1948, I can’t tell if his smuggling operation is sponsored by the Jewish Brigade, the TTG, or another group.

This issue could have been solved with an afterword or reference inserts, but unlike other historical graphic novels I’ve reviewed for Dead Reckoning, The Jewish Brigade provides no supporting historical information. As such, I’m not sure what audience this graphic novel is intended for. Because of its information gaps, it falls short as an educational text. However, if it is meant for readers already familiar with the Jewish Brigade, the amount of explanation devoted to the unit’s establishment and UN Resolution 181 seems like overkill.

In terms of Leslie’s personal story, it felt more like a collection of loosely associated events rather than a cohesive arc. The back cover blurb states: “With each Nazi found or refugee rescued, he looks for more information to complete his most personal mission: to find his mother and fiancée who went missing in the upheaval of the war.” Yet the search for loved ones never factors in during Leslie’s hunt for Nazis, and the fate of his mother and fiancée feels like a tacked-on connection when he visits the former concentration camp in Part 2. Part 2 also spends a lot of time setting up the hunt for Krause and the encounter with Private Schuster, but in the end, the Germans drop out of the story, and we never discover what happens to them. Finally, the very end of the book shows Safaya and Leslie as a couple despite the lack of romantic vibes between them.

The illustrations do a good job of conveying emotion and action and give backdrops and equipment a nice level of detail. I should mention that settings include Italy, Poland, Austria, Belgium, and Palestine, and the cast includes Arab, German, Russian, American, and British characters. However, except for some German dialogue (not all of which is translated), it’s never clear what language characters are using, although they never have trouble understanding each other.

As far as I can tell, there’s no age rating, but I would rate it older teen for violence, disturbing images, and language.

In Summary

The Jewish Brigade highlights the exploits of Britain’s Jewish Infantry Brigade Group. Unlike many works set in World War II which depict Jews solely as victims, Leslie and other Brigade members take an active part in fighting Germans, eliminating escaped Nazis, and protecting their people. However, the narrative doesn’t quite provide enough context, so those unfamiliar with this aspect of history might get lost in the various chain of events.

First published in The Fandom Post.

Light Novel Review: May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace: Bullet Magic and Ghost Programs Vol. #01

5122ee7tgal._sx331_bo1204203200_There are a lot of works about parallel worlds, but how about one that incorporates it into a weapon? That’s the main premise of May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace: Bullet Magic and Ghost Programs. Read on for the review of Volume 1.

Back Cover Blurb

The power to rewrite history…and all it costs is a deal with the devil

For a hundred years, the East and West have waged a ferocious war using everything from tanks to witchcraft, but the technological advancements of the West have begun to shift the balance. That all changes one day when Rain Lantz, a young soldier from the East, finds a few mysterious silver bullets–and discovers that anyone shot with them is erased not only from the battlefield but from history itself. Soon after, he meets the bullets’ creator, a Ghost who calls herself Air, and learns that if he wishes to continue using this power to end the war for good, he will have to give her his freedom…

The Review

Rain Lantz is a cadet at the East’s Alestra Academy, where he specializes in Bullet Magic. One day, he and his classmates get caught in an ambush by the West. Backed into a corner, he fires a mysterious silver bullet at his attacker – and erases the man from history itself. Soon thereafter, he meets the bullet’s creator, Air, a Ghost with the power of Oblivion and a 100-year grudge against the West.

The world of Leaden Battlefields is complex. There are two countries with a century-old conflict. Armies fight with two-person mecha called Exelia and magic is delivered via various guns, so there are mechanical, firearm, and mage terminology to keep track of. Finally, Ghosts are supernatural beings, each with their own unique power, who take corporeal form during times of war and fade away when peace comes. So if intricate world-building is not your cup of tea, this is probably not a good title for you.

However, if you choose to tackle Leaden Battlefields, what you’ll ultimately find is a tale of revenge. Rain has a single-minded desire to make the West pay for massacring his family. As for Air, she was cruelly betrayed by the West. Having revived as a Ghost, she uses her unique power of Oblivion to create Devil’s Bullets, magical bullets that erase a person’s entire existence. Seeing that Rain has the mental fortitude and resolve to effectively use them, she offers Rain a deal. Her Devil’s Bullets in exchange for his absolute obedience. And because his country is losing before the overwhelming might of the West, Rain accepts.

Sound hard-core? It is. However, because Rain is an eighteen-year-old Academy student, the novel also inserts “fun school hijinks” amid the battlefield carnage. Most of this is Air, who has the appearance of a cute, petite girl, showing up at the Academy as a transfer student and causing Rain trouble by making his (pretty female) Exelia partner Athly jealous. Although Rain is somewhat oblivious, Athly harbors strong feelings for him. The tension of a romantic triangle doesn’t fully realize in this volume, but the final chapter strongly hints it will play a key part in Volume 2.

Instead, the first half of this volume has Rain struggling to understand the world-altering power of the Devil’s Bullet and figuring out who and what Air is. Once he forms a pact with her, the plot then shifts to the forces behind the East versus West war, namely the Ghosts. Each has its own unique power, and all have been meddling in the world’s military conflicts to suit their personal agendas. The second half has Air going head-to-head against rival Ghosts, and Rain trying to survive amid the resulting destruction.

As personalities, Rain and Air start off fairly flat. Air comes off as a mean-spirited bully, who picks on Rain and flashes her panties just because. As for Rain, he’s a stereotypical model soldier and student. However, two-thirds into the novel, there are a couple of surprise revelations that really add depth to Air and Rain. Rain’s hidden eye felt a bit like a cheat; the narrative makes his thoughts privy to the reader so there should’ve been more hints prior to the reveal. In contrast, the underlying connection between Air and Rain was a legitimate shock and made them much more compelling characters.

Like many light novels, the text is short on dialogue tags, so it’s often difficult to tell who said what. It’s also difficult to tell where characters are located. One scene went on for several pages before informing me that a character was in an Exelia and not out in the open as I had imagined. In addition, there are what looks like a lot of extraneous section breaks and at least one typo.

The first eight pages, which contain character profiles and mecha illustrations, are printed in full color. Extras also include eight black-and-white illustrations and afterword.

In Summary

May These Leaden Battlegrounds Leave No Trace: Bullet Magic and Ghost Programs may be a light novel, but it’s got a complicated setting involving military conflict, technology, magical warfare, and supernatural beings. However, if you’re not deterred by the aforementioned elements and you like tragic characters motivated by revenge, give this title a try. It gets off to a slow start, but once the myriad elements of this world have been established, Air and Rain’s partnership becomes a compelling one.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Manga Review: Mint Chocolate Vol. #1

51m8bcsgodl._sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_fmwebp_The theme of forbidden love often pops up in shojo manga. A subcategory of this kind of romance is attraction between step-siblings, and it forms the basis for the series Mint Chocolate. Read on for my review of Volume 1.

Back Cover Blurb

When Nanami finally gets a chance to meet her mom’s new husband and his son, the last person she expects to see is one of her classmates, Kyouhei Suzumura. Not only is her new stepbrother cool and completely unapproachable, but even worse—he’s the crazy-hot guy Nanami’s been crushing on for months…! Only time will tell how Nanami’s unexpectedly forbidden romance will play out…

The Review

High school freshman Nanami Murata harbors a crush on her classmate Kyouhei Suzumura. He’s good-looking, smart, and has a reputation for being cold to girls. Although she knows she has no chance at succeeding where so many others have failed, she can’t stop her feelings for him. Then life throws a curveball when her mother marries Kyouhei’s dad, and the teenagers are suddenly living under the same roof!

Romance between step-siblings isn’t a new idea. When I read the synopsis, the old anime Marmalade Boy immediately sprang to mind. But while Marmalade Boy and Mint Chocolate both derive their titles from the male lead’s personality, their plots are very different. Whereas Marmalade Boy exploded into multiple love polygons with a massive cast, Mint Chocolate revolves almost exclusively around new step-siblings Nanami and Kyouhei. In fact, it’s not until the end of chapter 3 that we get another teenage character with a name (Kyouhei’s longtime friend Mizuki), and aside from him, there is no supporting cast of significance in the first volume.

While this kind of focus isn’t bad in and of itself, interactions between Nanami and Kyouhei aren’t particularly compelling. Nanami has a habit of overthinking and overacting to every little thing while Kyouhei alternates between gruff and snark. Thus we have a continuous song and dance where Kyouhei teases or embarrasses Nanami into losing her temper. And if the parents are around, they just chuckle and remark how the two are like real siblings.

However, the whole point of the situation is for the characters to absolutely not view the other as a sibling. Nanami is very much on board in that department. She is continually berating herself for her inability to rid herself of her crush on Kyouhei or hoping that he might reciprocate. With Kyouhei, though, it’s difficult to get a read on his emotions. Given the type of story this is, I know I’m supposed to believe he’s fallen hard for Nanami, but it’s not convincing. He’s turned down every girl at school, but Nanami, who has ordinary looks, terrible grades, and a bad habit of spacing out, gets through to him simply because her dad died when she was a baby?

Another element that’s baffling is their hiding their step-sibling status from their classmates (with the exception of Mizuki). While keeping their attraction a secret from their parents is understandable, there’s nothing particularly shameful about them living together as step-siblings. (Not to mention the fact that Nanami did an Internet search to confirm that marriage between step-siblings is not illegal.) Also, their at-home fights bleed into their interactions at school, which causes their classmates to believe they are dating. And somehow for Nanami, having to constantly deny she has any interest in Kyouhei at school is preferable to simply clearing up the situation with the truth. While misunderstandings can form the basis of comedy, in this case, it’s just confusing.

In addition, most of their “heart-racing” moments are forced or contrived. There is the typical guy saving the girl from a fall as well as the inadvertent walking in on her while she’s in her underwear. Probably the hardest to swallow is Chapter 3. Nanami jumps to way too many conclusions about what Mizuki is to Kyouhei, then crawls into Kyouhei’s bed in a drunken stupor because she got wasted on liquor-filled chocolates.

By the way, Chapter 3 also confused me because Nanami looks like she’s biting her nails in the scene where she’s supposedly stress-eating the chocolates. In general, the action in the panels is sometimes difficult to follow, which is problematic considering this manga is slow-paced overall. The backgrounds are also minimal, but the character designs are okay.

Extras include bonus comics and translation notes.

In Summary

The attraction between step-siblings can form the basis of a compelling romance if there’s good chemistry. Unfortunately, the tone of this story keeps shifting back and forth between “enemies to friends” and “forbidden attraction.” As a result, the lead couple doesn’t mesh in a convincing, let alone compelling way.

First published at the Fandom Post.

Comic Review: Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat

51mkh93zwfl._sx353_bo1204203200_I never had much interest in war narratives until I came across Tanya the Evil. It’s a completely fictional isekai, but its war nerd creator did such a wonderful job dramatizing the varied aspects of military conflict that it completely hooked me. Since then, I’ve checked off titles such as Tom Hanks’ Greyhound and the Ken Burns documentary The War from my viewing list. On the comic book front, I recently reviewed Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat. Read on for the review!

Back Cover Blurb

In virtually every military conflict in recorded history animals have fought—and often died—alongside their human counterparts. While countless stories of the men and women who’ve served in the trenches, jungles, and deserts of the world’s battlefields have been told, Four-Fisted Tales: Animals in Combat shares the stories of the animals who fought alongside them.

From Hannibal’s elephants in ancient Rome to mine-sniffing rats in Vietnam and everything in between, Four-Fisted Tales highlights the real-life contributions of these underappreciated animal warriors. Whether in active combat or simply as companions, these animals served and made their mark on history.

The Review

I’m not sure what the title, Four-Fisted Tales, refers to, but despite its puzzling name, it is a real gem. As you can tell from the more straightforward subtitle, the subject of this book is animals in combat. Not only does the content explore a lesser-known aspect of military history, but the variety of animals and their unique stories will also likely attract readers who otherwise have no interest in history or war stories.

Four-Fisted Tales has no overarching arc. Rather, it is a collection of short, standalone stories and biographical profiles. Moreover, the eleven chapters that make up the book are not organized into any particular order. The first chapter “Jack” tells the story of a dog who fought among Union ranks during the American Civil War. It is followed by “Cats,” a collection of short vignettes of British Royal Navy ships’ cats, and the third chapter, “Dolphins” is a fictionalized courtroom scene that discusses acknowledged and conjectured uses of dolphins in the United States Navy since 1960.

And the facts presented are wide-ranging and obscure. In addition to individual heroic acts by horses, dogs, and pigeons, there are lesser-known (but significant!) contributions by species such as slugs and rats. The book even includes an amusing chapter on military mascots. These fascinating bits of history combined with Towle’s artwork create a text that will hold the attention of a reluctant reader.

Speaking of Towle’s artwork, the illustrations are rendered in black and white with a sepia tone that acts as shadowing (kind of like a manga screentone). In other words, it is not full-color. That might disappoint some, but I believe Towle’s narrations actually function better with what are essentially pen and ink drawings. His humans and the expressions of his animals have a pleasantly cartoonish style, but everything else–the settings, warships, military vehicles, armor, and other trappings of war–are drawn with a realistic level of detail and definition that likely would’ve been obscured had it been printed in color.

One other thing, Towle does a decent job of ethnic representation among the humans depicted in the book. Most of his stories are based on Western history, but the book’s prelude features the World War I era Harlem Hellfighters and one chapter follows two modern-day Vietnamese girls hurrying to school.

Four-Fisted Tales is often bizarre and funny, but ultimately it is a book about animals in combat. Towle doesn’t get overly graphic, but he does include images of war casualties and humans and animals getting injured or killed in action. The conclusion of Four-Fisted Tales is a soberingly grim scene as if to remind readers that war is bad for all living creatures involved. Because of that, I’d recommend this as a 12 and up book. If you’re thinking of giving this to someone younger, you might want to make sure that child is mature enough for the content.

In Summary

An engaging comic book that is educational, too! And just because it’s fact-based and in graphic format, don’t assume it’s just for kids (although it is perfect for a middle school library). As an adult who has been reading a lot of military history and military historical fiction lately, I found it fascinating, and animal enthusiasts will likely find the content interesting and inspiring as well.

First published in The Fandom Post.

Novel Review: The Seekers of Genesis: Empyreal Roots

41jcyh2jkl._sx322_bo1204203200_The Seekers of Genesis: Empyreal Roots is the debut work of author C. J. Walters. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

When immortal twins Villow and Dameaon Verchant reach their sixteenth year, they are required to choose Paths to fulfill their purpose. Villow is prepared to become a Guide Seeker, to shape a world and its citizens, far away from his twin. But Dameaon changes his mind at the last minute, switching from a Soldier Seeker to a Guide. To avert disaster, the twins are assigned as co-Guides, tasked with re-creating humanity.

With their fates unequivocally linked, Villow and Dameaon must prove that mankind is inherently good, or humankind will be destroyed and the twins will be banished—or annihilated. With disagreements and failures at every stage, their last chance lies in Ancient Greece. But through their own reckless actions, the twins bring forth the Trojan War, causing more problems than even the gods can solve.

The Review

Glanchings are immortals who choose their life’s path at sixteen. Villow Verchant looks forward to becoming a Guide in re-creating an Original Species that was lost in the War of the Fiends. But his carefully laid plans fall to pieces when his twin Dameaon, who has been training to be a Soldier, also declares he’ll become a Guide. The unexpected announcement results in them receiving a joint assignment to revive the human race on planet Earth. But will their sibling rivalry doom their efforts and humankind?

When I read the blurb for this novel, I couldn’t quite get a handle on the kind of story it was. As it turns out, the summary is all over the place because the novel itself is unfocused. On one hand, the world-building is overly complicated; on the other hand, character arcs don’t go anywhere. And inconsistencies of all kinds riddle the entire work.

The novel is divided into roughly two halves. The first half is the fantasy portion that establishes the Glanching world the brothers come from. It is a magic-wielding society obsessed with doing good. Yet although they claim to be vastly superior moral beings compared to humans, their behavior is very human. They lie, bully, gossip, and have petty rivalries. Although Dameaon is the supposed bad egg, supporting cast Portia and Colton are hardly upstanding characters either. And for a society set on the rules, the Glanchings bend them. A lot.

Anyway, Glanching citizens must choose one of five paths, and those who choose the Guide path are tasked with re-creating species that were destroyed in a long-ago epic war. Humankind was one of them, and the twin brothers are tasked with reestablishing humans on planet Earth and “guiding” them to become a good, upright species. However, if humans become evil, they get wiped out, and their Guides are punished with banishment.

The twins’ attempt at guiding humans is the focus of the second half of the book. They go to the ancient city of Troy to influence the inhabitants to become morally good and self-reliant. It isn’t clear if the planet is our Earth or a post-War of the Fiends remake. Either way, this is where the “mythology” aspect comes in. While I enjoy Trojan War retellings, Walters veers too far off cannon for my taste. The identities of the Greek gods stay more or less intact, but the human cast is a big mashup. Oedipus somehow ends up in the Trojan War; Menelaus never actually comes to fight for his wife; Paris is a runaway prince; and Helen is not born a Spartan princess but comes from some unnamed farm. These Trojans also drink wine in glasses in bars and play field hockey with Spartans prior to the Helen fiasco. These elements plus poorly scripted war scenes and very 21st-century attitudes about courtship make this version of Troy less than authentic.

The story is told in first person with the perspectives alternating between the brothers. I believe this was to make readers sympathetic towards both characters, but it didn’t work for me, especially in Dameaon’s case. His snark and arrogance got old fast. His love for animals supposedly makes up for those shortcomings, but that characteristic just makes it more baffling when his influence on humankind results in them (*gasp*) killing animals. And even though he was at fault, he expresses no remorse or regret.

Dameaon’s violent personality is also problematic. During a field hockey game, he gets mad at Achilles for playing rough and starts punching him so violently the other characters are afraid to intervene. Yet when Achilles sprains his ankle in a field hockey accident with Oedipus, Dameaon gets unreasonably indignant at Oedipus. What makes this particular scene even weirder is that both he and Achilles act like a sprained ankle is the worst thing ever when Achilles has supposedly gone through Spartan pain endurance training which involves getting flogged during childhood.

Basically, nothing is consistent about Dameaon except that he’s got no respect for rules and has no concern for anything but himself and animals.

Villow, fortunately, has a more consistent personality, but that doesn’t make him compelling. His obsession with the mean-spirited Portia is especially distasteful given his oft-repeated respect for morals and his touchy-feely relationship with his best friend Katarin. Those relationships and his devastation over his parents’ potential divorce make him come off as weak and immature.

Unfortunately, the two brothers are the main characters, and their infighting dominates the plot. Basically, the brothers are at odds no matter what situation, and circumstances always bend such that they can’t get away from each other. For instance, Villow is the golden child of his prestigious family, and there’s a big deal made over his training to take on the huge responsibilities of re-creating an Original Species. (In fact Villow’s supposed inherent talent for being a Guide is the basis for the twins’ sibling rivalry.) However, when Dameaon declares on a whim that he will be a Guide, not only do the authorities not have a problem, he has no problem with the job, despite his lack of training. Occasionally, he even does better than Villow. So as Dameaon breezes through their duties, I have to wonder what the big fuss over being a “Guide” is. When they re-create the fauna and flora of the earth, all it amounts to is taking templates from a magical laptop and adding features – similar to a videogame.

Ultimately, I couldn’t relate to the twins or their Glanching world, and because of the setting and character inconsistencies, I didn’t care either.

In Summary

The Seekers of Genesis strives to be epic but comes up short. It starts slow and includes a bunch of terminology and details that don’t add to the plot. As for the historical/mythological aspects, a very contemporary sensibility permeates those elements, which rob them of authenticity. This novel is supposedly the first of a five-book series, but after 444 pages, I’ve had enough of Glanchings and the Verchant twins’ constant and pointless squabbling.

First published at The Fandom Post

Graphic Novel Review: The Flutist of Arnhem

51awvyegiol._sx361_bo1204203200_I never had much interest in war narratives until I came across Tanya the Evil. It’s a completely fictional isekai, but its war nerd creator did such a wonderful job dramatizing the varied aspects of military conflict that it completely hooked me. Since then, I’ve checked off titles such as Tom Hanks’ Greyhound and the Ken Burns documentary The War from my viewing list. On the graphic novel front, I recently reviewed The Flutist of Arnhem. Read on for the review!

Back Cover Blurb

In October 1943, all the Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents in Holland are captured by the Germans . . . except one. John Hewson, a.k.a. “Boekman,” is the most dangerous agent to the German occupiers, with vital information about the German army, Boekman escapes the clutches of the S.S. and stays hidden until the start of the largest airborne operation in World War II: Operation Market Garden. When the SOE learn that Boekman is still alive, and that his estranged son, Harry, is on the ground fighting in Market Garden, Harry is tasked with organizing a small commando unit to rescue Boekman and try to escape through the German siege. The Battle of Arnhem unfolds day by day as father and son search for each other amidst the chaos of war and the dogged pursuits of a cruel Gestapo agent.

The Review

John Hewson is a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent stranded in Holland. He’s trying to smuggle critical intelligence to the Allies, but the country is crawling with Nazis. However, when Operation Market Garden roars upon Holland, the military strike might just provide Hewson the opportunity he needs to escape.

The Flutist of Arnhem is a combination spy thriller and war story with a long-lost father/son element thrown in to tie the parts together. For the espionage part, we follow John Hewson, a lone SOE agent in possession of key information about German military units. He’s eluded German counterintelligence so far, but a determined Gestapo agent is closing in on him. For the war portion, we follow John’s son Harry, a fresh recruit who gets his first taste of combat when he parachutes into Holland during Operation Market Garden.

Like many World War II tales, The Flutist of Arnhem depicts a new soldier’s shock and horror as Harry confronts the chaotic carnage of the battlefield. Gil does an excellent job illustrating rural and urban settings; artillery fire and explosions; and light and shadow effects in nighttime scenes. Unfortunately, his character designs leave something to be desired. When in uniform, his characters all look the same, and it’s difficult to tell what happens to whom. In one scene, two officers had red berets and dark mustaches as their only distinguishing features, so I constantly got them mixed up. On top of that, faces are not very expressive. Harry in particular seems to wear the same slightly depressed look throughout the book.

Harry’s knowledge of the operation is limited to his assignment, so the story includes a couple of conversations between Montgomery and Eisenhower that explain their plan and objectives. Then once the operation is underway, the narrative occasionally inserts an omniscient overview of the battle as a whole.

Unfortunately, the manner in which Gil conveys information is nothing short of a dense data dump. I have a casual familiarity with World War II. Meaning I’d heard of Operation Market Garden and only knew it was a failed Allied initiative. I don’t have a background on military vehicles, weapons, Dutch geography, or German military titles. As a result, I often got lost in a sea of place names, terminology, and acronyms. The graphic novel includes three maps, but the units and places mentioned in the narrative are buried amid a bunch of other names and information. One map is a two-page spread, and unfortunately, some of the words got caught in the binding. One scene actually has Montgomery and Eisenhower strategizing over a map, but Gil fails to depict their interaction with the map in a way that would elucidate uninformed readers. For the Arnhem portion, I really could have used a map that clarified the movements of our characters, but the one provided only focuses on the positions of military units.

Gil has clearly done his research, and if you’re well-versed in Operation Market Garden, you’ll probably appreciate it. However, if you’re a newbie seeking to learn about the expedition, this is not the book to start with. There’s no glossary, and the only footnotes deal with foreign language translations. Oddly, German dialogue is presented as English text within brackets (although they preserve German military titles, which often put my brain into a twist), but Polish dialogue is presented in Polish with translations in boxed text within the panel.

In terms of the Hewson family drama, it’s obvious from the moment Harry picks up the flute and says, “My dad used to play a special melody for us,” that the two Hewsons will reunite through that melody. The main question is how, and that’s where Corporal Kolecki gets introduced.

Multilingual, resourceful, and quick-witted, the Polish specialist gets recruited to help Harry and Harry’s commander retrieve John from behind enemy lines. For me, he was the most interesting character in the story. Unlike Harry, who’s stuck in a perpetual shellshocked daze, or John, who’s simply scampering from one hideout to the next, Kolecki seeks out opportunities and seizes them with effective results. And while Harry’s commander praises Harry as a hero at the close of the story, Kolecki deserves a lot more credit for getting their team out of more than one pinch.

By the way, aside from nameless faces in civilian crowds, the cast only includes two women. One serves only as a pretty young thing for Harry to pine over when he gets shipped out. The other only serves as a pretty young thing to bail John out when he gets into a life or death pinch. In other words, this narrative is definitely a male-centric one.

Extras include the melody that Harry was playing.

In Summary

If you’re a World War II nerd, the dramatized version of Operation Market Garden in The Flutist of Arnhem has a lot to offer. In addition to the broader scope of military engagement, it includes lots of interesting details on both Nazi and Allied sides. However, those unfamiliar with World War II will likely get confused by geographical references and military lingo. As for the espionage portion, it’s got good tension, but that aspect gets overshadowed by the war narrative. And as a family drama, it is predictable and falls flat.

First published in The Fandom Post.

Novel Review: Influence

Sara Shepard is a YA author best known for Pretty Little Liars. Recently she collaborated with 17-year-old actor Lilia Buckingham, and the result is the YA suspense novel Influence. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

After a video she makes goes viral, everyone knows Delilah Rollins. And now that she’s in LA, Delilah’s standing on the edge of something incredible. Everything is going to change. She has no idea how much.

Jasmine Walters-Diaz grew up in the spotlight. A child star turned media darling, the posts of her in her classic Lulu C. rainbow skirt practically break the Internet. But if the world knew who Jasmine really was, her perfect life? Canceled.

Fiona Jacobs is so funny–the kind of girl for whom a crowd parts–no wonder she’s always smiling! But on the inside? The girl’s a hot mess. And when someone comes out of the shadows with a secret from her past, it’s one that won’t just embarrass Fiona: it will ruin her.

Who wouldn’t want to be Scarlet Leigh? Just look at her Instagram. Scarlet isn’t just styled to perfection: she is perfection. Scarlet has a gorgeous, famous boyfriend named Jack and there’s a whole fanbase about their ship. To everyone watching online, their lives seem perfect . . . but are they really?

The sun is hot in California . . . and someone’s going to get burned.

The Review

Influence” is a reference to influencers, the top tier of the social media hierarchy that draws masses of followers. Given the title, I anticipated reading about YouTubers creating videos, brainstorming for fresh content, seeking profitable collaborations, that sort of thing. However, this is less about independent efforts to gain a fan base, and more about the dark side of those who’ve attained it all.

Delilah Rollins is a Minnesota teenager with a small YouTube following – until a video of her rescuing a puppy goes viral. Her sudden fame coincides with her family’s move to LA, and she finds herself rubbing shoulders with TV star Jasmine Walters-Diaz and gorgeous fashion YouTuber Fiona Jacobs. Unfortunately, she also catches the eye of hottie Jack Dono, boyfriend to sponsorship queen Scarlet Leigh, and instantly draws the ire of their gargantuan fan base.

Despite the text constantly referring to characters as influencers, they seem less like people carving out online personalities and more like stereotypical Hollywood celebrities. Jasmine, who has the most developed back story, is best described as an actor/entertainer who has been in television she was eleven. In contrast, Fiona supposedly gained a following because her YouTube videos are so hilarious, but even though people keep mentioning how funny she is, there are no scenes that show readers Fiona’s funny side. As for Scarlet, she’s a sponsorship queen, but it’s never clear what made her one. In fact, the one whose online brand we know most about is small fry Delilah’s DIY and pet videos.

So instead of portraying the characters as social media creatives, the story sets up Jasmine, Fiona, and Scarlet as gorgeous celebrities who put out a perfect public façade but hide secrets that could destroy everything they’ve got. This is hardly a new storyline, even with the social media aspect making things more invasive. And with Delilah thrown in, we also have the innocent Midwesterner trying to navigate the glitzy perils of LA, which is also not an original concept.

Following an old theme isn’t bad in of itself, but the execution in Influence left much to be desired. For example, the insta-friendship between Delilah and celebrities Fiona and Jasmine and Delilah’s simultaneous insta-romance with Jack Dono was a lot to swallow. The authors also forced in a high school feel to accommodate their online learning only teenagers. Despite their wealth and success, Fiona, Jasmine, and Scarlet along with the rest of LA’s young influencers all live in the same Vine Street condo, so it ends up as a kind of young celebrity dorm. And even though their busy careers keep them from attending regular school, they still get a prom (courtesy of Instagram), where they all get fabulously dressed up before social media bombs start dropping down.

There are also logistical issues with the details. The perspective rotates between the four girls, but while Delilah, Fiona, and Jasmine’s chapters are written in a close third person, Scarlet’s are presented as video transcripts. I didn’t have an issue with that per se, but there are parts where her phone supposedly livestreams without her knowledge, yet the video footage would’ve been impossible to get unless Scarlet was intending to get it.

However, if you don’t care so much about details and are simply out to see wealthy, beautiful, and broken people destroy others and themselves, Influence packs in destructive behavior, lies, scandal, grudges, and rivalries aplenty.

Because Sara Shepard is one of the creators, the book wouldn’t be complete without a murder, thus someone gets knocked off midway through the book. Whereas the first half of the story focuses on the tension between the characters’ private lives and their perfect public selves, the second half is a murder mystery, with Delilah as the head sleuth. However, her main suspects are way too cooperative with the Minnesota kid. And confessions and information come out without much prompting. The solving of the mystery culminates with two shockers, but if you actually go back and try to line up events, the sequence doesn’t make sense. Especially in light of Scarlet’s hidden health condition. And speaking of health conditions, I found it odd that Delilah, whom the narrative pointedly describes as really responsible about her diabetes, would conveniently let herself go blind drunk at a critical part of the story yet suffer no ill aftereffects.

In Summary

LA’s biggest teen influencers are beautiful, glamorous – and desperate to hide their imperfections from the public eye. This theme isn’t a new one, and the social media creatives aspect isn’t as strong as the title would lead you to believe. For those that like jealous rivalries and vindictive attacks (online and physical), Influence has it in spades. But while the plot is loaded with shockers, it’s also riddled with tons of logic issues.

First published at The Fandom Post.