Summer Book Club Review: Level Up

Welcome to VGBlogger’s Summer Book Club! All summer long, we will be providing weekly book reviews across a wide range of geek favorite categories, including art, comics/graphic novels, fantasy, gaming, and sci-fi, and welcoming you to join in on book discussions in the comments. So whether you’re heading out for a road trip, going on vacation, lounging beach/poolside on a nice sunny day, relaxing inside away from the summer heat, or simply searching for a good read to fill your free time, follow our Summer Book Club for our top picks of what you should be reading during these hot summertime doldrums. Please enjoy!

LevelUp

Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel Level Up, which dates back to 2011 but is releasing in a new paperback edition this month, tells the story of Dennis Ouyang, a young Asian-American man burdened by the expectations of his father, caught between doing what he loves–video games–and doing what his parents want him to do–study and work hard to become a doctor.

Dennis’ infatuation with pixels begins with his first encounter with a Pac-Man coin-op at the age of six, continuing to third grade when a friend tells him about the NES and how it allows you to “play Super Mario all you want, any time you want, for free!” This blows Dennis’ mind, inspiring him to start dropping hint notes to his dad about wanting an NES for Christmas. Instead, he gets a chemistry set (we’ve all been there!) and a series of notes in return about getting into college, finding the best job, and learning the value of hard work.

The story carries on from there with Dennis struggling through multiple attempts at medical school, making new friends and falling out of touch with old ones, and just trying to find his way in life. Things take a fantastical turn when one day four kewpie doll angels come down to help instill in him the will to endure and achieve his destiny of becoming a gastroenterologist. But is that what he wants to do in his heart, or does he feel that he has to do it out of a sense of obligation to his father’s wishes?

It’s a compelling story that deals with real, topical issues facing second-generation immigrants yet is equally relatable for young adults from all walks of life who are dealing with the inner conflict of wanting to live for themselves and pursue what they are passionate about versus feeling the weight and pressure of living to appease family expectations. Has your destiny already been set for your, or do you set out to make your own destiny?

Artist Thien Pham’s illustrations, though a little monotonous in terms of the subdued color palette, are done in an amateurish style that looks like it was hand drawn and colored through the imagination of a teenager. The simple art brings a certain charm that beautifully complements Yang’s storytelling, which does a wonderful job of building likeable characters, weaving in references to retro gaming, and lightening the mood with a healthy dose of humor (of course it’s only fitting that there be some poop and potty-humor jokes given the gastroenterology theme) while also tackling a serious subject matter in a smart way that really makes you stop and think. There are also a number of sweet, heartwarming moments, leading up to an ending that brings Dennis’ story full circle in the most perfect way imaginable. Reading the final page left me with a huge smile on my face as well as in my heart.

Buy From: Level Up is available for $16.99 from Amazon.com or Macmillan Publishers.

Disclosure: A copy of Level Up was provided to VGBlogger.com for review by First Second Books.

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!