My Teacher Blew Up the Moon: Assassination Classroom by Yusei Matsui

Bright yellow cover has a broad smile and two pinpoint black eyes under the title.

by Khaleel G.

The old saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” – but what about a title? 

Assassination Classroom is a manga whose title initially repelled me. Even with its bright and simple covers, I looked at a volume, read the back description, and wondered if this was another manga like Death Note. You know, that sort of intensely serious story, full of extended monologues about power and authority, each chapter twisting into the next. Because, after reading Death Note, I was satisfied; I didn’t need another version of that grim-dark comic book. With a title like “Assassination Classroom,” how could this series be anything else?

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Assassination Classroom has an overall story, yes, and it certainly has intrigue: spies and soldiers working in the shadows of government organizations, with alphabet soup names. But mostly, it’s a gag manga. Yes, the manga about a class of teens attempting to kill their omnipotent teacher is, shockingly, mostly about dumb jokes and silly characters learning about themselves. 

One day, the moon suddenly explodes. The culprit makes himself known to the world with a declaration: I will destroy the world in one year’s time, unless I am stopped. He is a monster of superhuman strength and speed, who then demands the world government let him…teach a class of lovable misfits? Did I mention the monster is tentacled, bright yellow, and wears a classical teacher outfit with a robe and square hat? 

In another author’s hands, this premise would be deathly serious in tone. But here, author Yusei Matsui takes all that global turmoil and high stakes and makes it super light-hearted. Koro-sensei (a pun on “to kill” in Japanese) has threatened to destroy the world, yes, but he also wants to actually teach these kids – not only about science, math, and literature, but growing up and being a better person, too. And uh, also firearms, subterfuge, and assassination techniques, as he playfully dodges their barrages of bullets, all while offering praise and critiques.

Over 21 volumes, we meet the students and fellow staff at the school, watching them react to this absurdity. Nagisa, the closest thing to a protagonist we have, was bullied for his small frame, but under Koro-sensei’s tutelage, he learns how to accept himself and be confident. Mr. Karasuma is a military officer charged with overseeing Koro-sensei, but as he teaches both gym and martial arts, he softens into a capable instructor. Even Miss Jelavic, a trained assassin disguised as an English instructor, learns that education is a two-way street – as you teach, you learn more than you’d imagine.

Yes, it is corny! Underneath the global plot to destroy a banana-colored octopus, the story is heartfelt and honest. I was fairly effected by the series’ conclusion, despite the tonal clash throughout. The simple and cartoonish art makes the characters more personable, making both the jokes and earnest conversations more meaningful. No one is some “cool” and impervious hero – they’re students and teachers, goofing off while learning how to be better than they are.

In this way, Assassination Classroom resembles a coming-of-age school story, like Ouran High School Host Club (with guns) or Naruto (but far less serious). Its title hides the lightness of plot, how quickly and jovially it moves from school trip to midterms to holiday breaks. The result is a pleasure to read, for its stream of gags and touching moments, for Koro-sensei’s silly faces and his quips of honest wisdom.

Be aware though – this is a title for older teens and adults. The violence of the series is mostly unserious, but the lives of these students and teachers sometimes share the mature themes of the best of Young Adult literature. Bullies, abuse, and family trauma are the dangers in these characters’ lives, not the moon-destroying creature who can move at Mach-20. Still, this is a comedy series first and foremost, and these more “real” themes come forth only in certain moments, and never in a way that I found triggering.

I really enjoyed my time with Assassination Classroom, and was delighted to see how wrong I was to judge this one by its title.
 
Assassination Classroom is 21 volumes and is available in print from HCLS branches.

Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, an

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

by Aimee Z.

The cover of Heroic Measures shows the cityscape of New York, fading from deep gray-blue at the top to a reddish-orange near the bottom, with the title, author's name, and a silhouette of a dachshund in white superimposed in the foreground.

Septuagenarians Ruth and Alex Cohen have made a momentous decision: they are going to sell their Lower East Side flat in one of the Big Apple’s most desirable locations. According to their realtor, they’ll easily net a million dollars, which is enough to retire with their precious and equally senior dachshund, Dorothy. In their tiny kitchen, Alex wearing his hearing aids and Ruth in her serious bifocals study the open house listing due to appear online in a matter of hours as two calamitous events occur.

Over the radio, a news alert interrupts the broadcast. A large truck in the Midtown Tunnel has overturned. Traffic in Manhattan is suddenly gridlocked. The driver, now deemed a suspected terrorist, has fled, heightening domestic security all the way to Queens.

Ruth and Alex smirk and shake their heads. Ruth, in her heyday, and Alex by association, was once considered a Communist threat; a schoolteacher in her perky beret and peep-toe pumps who’d somehow found herself on the FBI’s secret enemy list.

But their moment of musing about the past is soon shattered with the appearance of Dorothy. The little dog lets out an ear-piercing howl, and to her parents’ horror, Dorothy’s bottom goes out. A race to the vet ensues, and despite the snarl of traffic, news anchors on the scene, and a now significant anti-terrorism military component, Ruth and Alex manage to get Dorothy to the pet ER.

There, they learn that Dorothy has slipped a disc and needs surgery. Devastated, Ruth and Alex return home to their landline ringing. Their euphoric realtor informs them that a bidding war is already brewing on their apartment. With their dog in the hospital, Ruth and Alex must now contend with an open house.

A parade of prospective buyers pours in the next day. Trend-setting young gentrifiers with way too much money, they tramp through the dated apartment speaking offhandedly about gutting everything – especially Alex’s beloved art studio. One woman in boots, eager to feel the apartment’s embrace, plops down on the couple’s bed, lotus-style, waiting to see if her restraints of self-centeredness dissipate.

It’s all completely hilarious, but it’s Dorothy who steals the show. In the hospital, recovering from surgery, she suspects the vet and his team of conspiracy – all over a mysterious wee-wee pad! Heroic Measures takes readers on a clever, satisfying journey, so wry and wicked, at one point I laughed out loud – startling my own dogs.

Heroic Measures is the basis for the film 5 Flights Up, starring Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton and available as a DVD from HCLS.

Aimee Z., now retired, was part of the adult research staff at HCLS East Columbia Branch. She lives on a lake with her two labs, Dixie and Belle, who enthusiastically approved the content of this review in exchange for a peanut butter and jelly biscuit.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

A clean, clear illustration of a red-headed woman in an aqua blue shirt looking down to read a book. The double-O of "Bookish" forms her classes, in the same color as her shirt. All against a yellow background.

by Piyali C.

Smart, sarcastic, socially awkward, 29-year-old Nina Hill lives by Khalil Gibran’s saying in The Prophet, “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts.” Nina is the daughter of a free-spirited single mother, a famous photographer who concealed Nina’s father’s identity because she did not consider his presence essential in Nina’s life. Nina grew up under the loving supervision of her amazing nanny Louise who was ‘bookish, loving and gentle’ while Nina’s mother traveled the world for her job, appearing occasionally and briefly in Nina’s life. Nina’s childhood was surrounded by books and solitude. For someone who finds sanctuary in book stores and libraries, what could be more fulfilling than working at an independent book store for a living? Nina works as a book seller in a book store called Knights, owned by lovable and eccentric Liz who is always behind on her rent for the store and has to hide from the landlord. The book store is only part of Nina’s commitments though. She runs several book clubs, is part of a champion Trivia team Book ‘Em, Danno, and has perfectly sane conversations with her cat Phil. Plus, there are so many books to read. Nina’s calendar, as well as life, are full and busy. If she ever feels something is missing, she simply picks up another book.

One fine day, a man comes calling for Nina in the book store with such surprising news that it throws a wrench into Nina’s well organized, tightly scheduled, semi-secluded life. The man is a lawyer who informs Nina that her biological father, William Reynolds, has died leaving behind not only something for Nina in his will but also innumerable step brothers, step sisters, nieces, and nephews. And they all live close by! William Reynolds was married thrice and was fruitful. Not only does she have relatives, they all are eager to meet her, at least some of them. Whether she wants it, she has to attend the reading of the will of William Reynolds. Nina’s well-organized world is turned completely upside down.

To add to this complication, Nina’s trivia nemesis, the lead guy from team You Are a Quizzard, Harry is cute and funny. Nina is starting to develop feelings for him. But Tom does not read!! Will Nina be able to contain her crippling anxiety that she has suffered from all her life as she deals with these double calamities in her life? Romance AND relations?

There is a pandemic raging outside. The real world looks grim and uninviting. Why not escape into the quirky, funny, filled with fun literary quotes, bookish life of Nina Hill? Abbi Waxman’s humorous novel The Bookish Life of Nina Hill not only tells a lovely story that warms the cockles of our heart but also presents us with a book loving heroine who we can not help but fall in love with. Nina’s love for books is sure to resonate with all of us bibliophiles and introverts out there. This title is available as an ebook as well as eaudiobook.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Annapara

by Piyali C.

In a sprawling basti (slum) in an Indian city where smog seems to smother the inhabitants along with trash, diseases, and terrible living conditions, children start disappearing. Nine-year-old Jai lives in the basti with his mother, who works for a lady in a ‘hi fi’ building, his sister, Runu didi, who is the fastest runner in her school, and his father, who works hard to provide for the family. Jai loves watching cop shows and wishes to become a detective like Byomkesh Bakshi or Feluda (both fictional detectives in Bengali literature) or Sherlock Holmes when he grows up.

The mystery of disappearing children gives him the perfect opportunity to hone his crime solving skills. Every detective needs assistants, and he employs the services of his best friends and classmates, Pari and Faiz, to be his sidekicks as he embarks into “detectiving.” The trouble is, Pari has excellent brains and always asks the right questions before Jai can even think of them.

As children in Jai’s basti continue to disappear, finger pointing begins targeting the Muslim community of the basti. Although frantic parents of missing children inform the police about these disappearances, drawing the ire of their neighbors, the police take no notice of these kidnappings. They come to take bribes from the poor, bereft parents instead. The other residents are infuriated at the involvement of the authorities as they worry the government can raze their basti with bulldozers since they live there illegally. Fanatic religious groups swoop in to assert their dominance and sow seeds of hatred and divisiveness between Hindu and Muslim communities.

While the story and the characters are fictional, the events are, unfortunately, real. According to the author, “as many as 180 children are said to go missing in India everyday.” The police investigation into these disappearances is negligible. The marginalized population remains invisible to the opulent class and their losses remain ignored. Deepa Anappara, during her career as a journalist, interviewed many impoverished children living on streets and in such slums.

The author chose nine-year-old protagonists to tell this story of loss because, during her interviews, she discovered that the street children have a great sense of humor despite horrific living conditions. Given their cheekiness and astute observation skills tinged with innocence, Jai, Pari and Faiz try to make sense of the sadness and chaos that envelop them. The narrative of the children makes the setting and environment even more poignant for the readers. The sense of place that the author creates transports the readers to Jai’s basti, and Anappara engages all our senses to experience the story. Lastly, the dialogue in the book is very typical of how many Indians speak English as they do literal translation of their mother tongue to the other language. I found the dialogues to be exact and authentic. Having Jai, Pari, Faiz, and others speak impeccable English would have marred the essence of the setting and authenticity. I am curious if the dialogue would be a deterrent for Western readers. The backdrop of the story reminded me of the incredible book about India’s biggest slum in Mumbai, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is available at HCLS both in print and as an ebook in OverDrive.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.

Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder

The book cover depicts an illustration of a woman in pink sweater and blue jeans dancing with the translucent, ghostly image of her mother, who is represented by a gravestone at their feet which reads "Mom, 1961-2009."

by Carmen J.

I hate to state the obvious, but an unfortunate fact of life is that we will gradually lose the ones we love. In this year alone, I’ve had the reality check of all reality checks as I said goodbye to my sister-in-law, my daughter’s great grandmother, my best friend from high school’s parents, my best friend from my first job out of college, a former colleague (RIP Joe McHugh), and two icons: Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman. Yes, 2020, I’m going to have to ask you to leave, please?

In Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir, the author writes about her experience losing her mother when she was 19 and dealing with the 10-year aftermath of grief. The writing and illustrations are insightful, poignant, and humorous at the same time. The author’s mother died of cancer and the author vividly describes the myriad of emotions caregivers endure, so readers can connect to her story on many levels.

Like the author, I lost both my father and sister to cancer, and I found myself nodding in heartfelt agreement at many of Feder’s descriptions of losing a parent and enduring the magnified heartache of cancer. In particular, she captured the reality of the endless trips to the hospital for treatments and cancer’s physical and emotional tolls on the ill and their families.

As a reader, I connected with Feder’s reflections on how death can be so difficult to talk about for some. No one really knows the exact right thing to say when you hear that someone has died. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and unexpected, much like death itself. I laughed at the author’s inflections of humor and her ability to find humor even in her darkest days.

I’m lucky I still have a living mother. As we celebrated her 80th birthday this year, my thoughts trickled to the thought of what life may look like some day without her. I hate that image. As Feder highlights in the book, I, too, consider my mom to be a rock star and an undeniable force in my life. More time is always what we want with those we love and, selfishly, it’s never enough.

Put this book in the hands of someone who is hurting from recent loss, has someone succumbing to illness, or anyone in need of finding the right words of comfort.

Carmen J is a teen instructor at HCLS East Columbia. Among her favorite things are great books, all things 80s, fall weather, Halloween, and pumpkin spice everything.