Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A few new posts coming up

Well, it's not much, but I've gotten a few posts finished and scheduled to be published, so look for new posts over the next few days. We'll see if I have time to finish a few more posts this weekend. I've got a few nearly finished posts that have been sitting there for three months - maybe I can finish those up and finally allow them to see the light of day.

Monday, September 29, 2008

I'm back and frustrated

Well, I'm in my new hometown - it feels kind of weird to write that, since I don't feel like I actually live here yet. I don't know anyone yet, my brand-new car has already been rear-ended, trying to get my car registered and trying to get my state driver's license has entered me into a horrible black hole of bureaucracy, and it's impossible to get my car fixed before I begin work. Did I mention that nearly every business around here is only open Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 (or 4)? Since I can't use any vacation time until 6 months after I've begun working, my driver's license, any other issues with registering my car, and getting my car fixed will all have to be done during my lunch, or possibly during the sliver of time I might have before work begins for the day. It takes me three times as long as most people just to get out of a parking space (I'm a very inexperienced driver), so I'm not sure how all of that's going to work out.

None of this really has anything to do with this blog, but it should explain why nothing's happened with this blog for a while. That, and one of my family's dogs died - she was fairly young, it was very sudden, and it still doesn't feel real to me.

Not everything is bad, though. I have an apartment and a working Internet connection. That should count for something, right?

Anyway, I start work in a couple days, so I'm not sure how many posts I'll be able to write once that happens. However, until I start work, I basically don't have much to do - everything on my To Do list is being held up by something that isn't under my control. We'll see how many posts I can finish up with that kind of free time...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Gakuen Alice (manga, vol. 3) by Tachibana Higuchi

This is my last book post before my big move - there's not much in the way of read-alikes at the end of this post, but if I think of more later I can always just edit this post. Anyway, have fun with this - I love Gakuen Alice, it's just so cute. Things get a bit darker in this volume, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Higuchi's going to balance the various tones of the series in later volumes. I guess that means I'll have to find a way to buy this series in the future, since I'll no longer be able to get it at a local library...

It's now Autumn, and nearly everyone at Alice Academy is gearing up for the School Festival, at time when many students get to showcase their particular talents. Some Alices are very popular and do well at the festival, while others either aren't very popular (Special Class, the one Mikan is in) or aren't allowed to participate (Dangerous-ability type class). Mikan is sad when she discovers that those with a Dangerous-ability type Alice, like Natsume, can't participate, but she can't really think of any way to help. She can and does think of a way that the Special Class can show their worth - she tells the others in her class her idea, and they like it, but readers will have to wait until at least the next volume to find out what Mikan's great idea is.

Every student at Alice Academy receives an allowance, depending upon his or her star ranking - Mikan, a lowly no-star, receives only 500 yen a month (approximately $5, I think), whereas a one-star student, the next level up, receives 3000 yen (approximately $30, I think). The students are allowed to go to Central Town, a shopping center located on Alice Academy grounds, to spend their allowance, if they'd like, but Mikan, a no-star student, can't go unless her "partner" (Natsume) goes with her. Natsume doesn't really like her, but he agrees to go because a little boy with a Dangerous-ability type Alice who likes tagging along with him wants to go. Mikan loves Central Town, but she doesn't have enough money to buy Howalon, a special Alice Academy candy that's so good it makes you happy. Unwilling to accept a loan from one of her friends, Mikan raises the money for the candy by enlisting her friends' help and staging a little "Mikan the Little Match Seller" play in the streets of Central Town.

The students discover that the guest of honor on the third day of the School Festival is going to be Reo, an Academy alumnus who's a big Hollywood star with the Alice "Pheromone Voice." Before going to the Academy, Reo will be getting a check-up at the Academy hospital. Meanwhile, Natsume has been admitted to the hospital because of exhaustion. Several Alice Academy students, including Mikan, try to sneak into the hospital in order to catch a glimpse of Reo, but Mikan and Sumire (a girl who hates Mikan and who actually got into the hospital for a legitimate reason, to see Natsume) get the closest to Reo and witness him kidnapping Natsume. Faced with the difficulty of getting adults to believe them in time to actually do something, Mikan and Sumire chase after Reo's car on foot. However, they get caught and wake up in a warehouse. Reo, a member of a rebel organization called Z that opposes the Academy, plans to sell or kill all three of them (Natsume, Sumire, Mikan). Fortunately, Mikan and Sumire eventually manage to escape - and Mikan decides to go back to rescue Natsume. However, Mikan gets hurt and Natsume (whose Alice is Fire) blows up. When Mikan wakes up two days later, she's at the hospital but otherwise fine, and Natsume is also resting.

While this could've just been a school comedy with the occasional romantic and dramatic moments, the introduction of a rebel organization may potentially push the series in a different direction. It's still not clear how Narumi is going to behave - he seems to want to help Mikan, and he seems to like her, but his motivations may actually have more to do with finding the person from the Academy's past who also had the Alice of Nullification. I also found it interesting that Reo thought that Narumi might actually prefer to be part of Z, because Narumi is also anti-Academy.

In addition to some interesting Narumi moments, Higuchi also reveals Natsume's great secret - apparently he incinerated his entire hometown. I'm sure that it was an accident, maybe the result of being unable to control his Alice, but it's still big news. Also, Reo reveals that the Dangerous-ability type students are trained by the government to become spies (and, I'm guessing, assassins, but maybe that was too much to say in a manga starring a bunch of 10- and 11-year olds).

As a final note, I thought it was cute that Natsume blew up after watching Mikan get hurt - although I doubt he'll ever confirm it, I like to think that he totally lost it because he's starting to care about her and didn't like seeing someone else hurt her.

As far as extras go, there are a few character profiles, a 5-panel Higuchi's room comic strip in which Higuchi bemoans a mistake she made concerning Mikan's birthday, an entire page devoted to a scene in the previous volume that made many readers uncomfortable (the one where Narumi and Mikan fall asleep in the same bed - readers wondered if Narumi might be "that kind of person," but Higuchi assures everybody that this is not the case and that she didn't mean for the scene to be taken that way), and an illustrated explanation of Hotaru's Tranquilizer Patch.

Read-alikes:
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (book) by J.K. Rowling - After spending 10 years with his uncle, aunt, and their bully of a son, all people who hate him, Harry Potter learns that he is a wizard and has been invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Although things don't exactly become easy, as he tries to deal with a new magical world he knows nothing about, his celebrity status in the world of witches and wizards, and a powerful enemy who tried to kill him when he was just a baby, Harry still manages to enjoy himself and make friends. Those who'd like another fantasy series with a school full of children with special abilities and a detailed fantasy world might like this book, which is the first in the Harry Potter series.
  • The Strange Power (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book is Smith's Dark Visions series. Kaitlyn Fairchild is a psychic whose drawings predict the future. The only problem is, her drawings usually don't make sense until after whatever they predict has happened. When she finds out about the Zeetes Institute, a place where she can learn to control her abilities, she decides to go, but the institute may have have more sinister intentions than Kaitlyn realizes. Those who'd like another story involving psychic abilities, action, and characters with lots of dark secrets might like this young adult book and series.

Shelfari issues

I've been having some problems with my Shelfari widget, and its placement on my blog means that those problems can prevent my blog from being viewable. In order to deal with that issue, I've moved my Shelfari widget so that it's now placed in the right sidebar, after all my labels. I'd prefer not to have it there, but I'd rather have a readable blog.

By the way, I'm going to see about publishing a post today - it'll definitely be my last before I leave for my new home (which, at the moment, is going to be a hotel, but I'm hopeful I'll have an apartment soon).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Withdrawal in my future

I was just browsing the online catalog of the public library in the town I'll be moving to and discovered that I'm going to be going through some serious withdrawal. They don't collect many (or, in some cases, any) of the books by a lot of the authors I like, and the only manga title they have even a little of is Fruits Basket, a title I already collect on my own. Considering the price of a volume of manga, once I'm done finishing up all the posts I've already written about several manga volumes, it's highly unlikely that you'll be seeing much of that here. I'll try my best, but I have a feeling my paychecks are going to be stretched pretty tightly just by necessities like food, shelter, and transportation.

Aw, I'm going to miss finding out what happens next in Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist, Naruto, and more... It's one of the drawbacks of moving to a small town. Here's hoping I can at least afford to continue buying Fruits Basket and Loveless.

By the way, there's definitely going to be an interruption in published posts - I haven't bothered to finish anything in quite some time. Just planning the move and figuring out how and where I'm going to buy a car is taking all my time and energy. I just read a blog post snippet about how overrated car ownership is - I'd agree (the overall cost, compared to what I've been paying for public transit, is enough to make me feel kind of nauseous), except that living without a car in the town I'm moving to would be impossible. Although they have something they like to call public transportation, it's really just a joke. But goodness, just think about all the novels and manga I could buy if car ownership wasn't looming in my future.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bleach (manga, vol. 23) by Tite Kubo

Ulquiorra and Yammy report back to Aizen and their fellow Arrancars, not all of whom are happy that they let Ichigo and the others live. Meanwhile, in the world of the living, all the Soul Reapers try to find places to stay. Renji goes to stay with Urahara, Rukia stays with Ichigo, Rangiku stays with Orihime (Captain Hitsugaya follows, although he doesn't actually stay at Orihime's), and Ikkaku and Yumichika don't immediately have any place to stay. After the events of the previous volume, everyone needs some time to sort through their stirred up thoughts and emotions. Orihime, for instance, is trying to cope with her feelings of jealousy over Ichigo and Rukia's closeness - she's happy that Rukia was able to get Ichigo out of his funk, but she's upset that she couldn't help him herself.

Meanwhile, the Arrancars travel to the world of the living and decide to kill anyone who has any spiritual pressure whatsoever. Hitsugaya has to fight the Arrancar Shawlong (hardly any of this fight is shown in this volume). The Arrancar D-Roy goes after Chad but is stopped by Ichigo, who hurts Chad's feelings by not accepting his help in the fight. After Chad leaves, Rukia comes and backs Ichigo up. For the first time since the beginning of the series, readers get to see Rukia as a Soul Reaper, and, for the first time ever, readers get to see Rukia's Zanpakuto in action. Rukia's white Zanpakuto turns out to be powerful enough to kill D-Roy before he even realizes he's in trouble. The battle between Ikkaku and the Arrancar Edorad is also shown at length. Although Yumichika is present for the battle, he doesn't interfere, and Ikkaku's attempt to do the fight without using Bankai almost gets him killed. In the meantime, Rukia and Ichigo have been confronted by yet another Arrancar, Grimmjow. Rukia is the first to get attacked, and she doesn't fare well.

After the main story, there are three additional short manga. In the first, rather bittersweet one, Ichigo passes by all the nice, ordinary activity of his friends at school on his way to visit a ghost, only to discover that the ghost he was going to visit has disappeared (possibly eaten by a Hollow). Ichigo reflects on his powerlessness and wishes for the strength to protect everyone he cares for.

The next short manga takes place just before the beginning of the series and shows how Rukia found out she was going to be assigned to the world of the living for a month. The things that are said and done in this short manga take on more significance if one has read the series from the beginning and knows that this won't be the quick and easy assignment everyone thinks it will be. One detail I found interesting was that Byakuya wasn't told about Rukia's assignment before she left - she thought he might find the news too trivial to bother with. While Rukia finds out about her assignment, Renji finds out that he's been promoted to Assistant Captain of 6th company, something he decides to tell Rukia after she gets back from her assignment.

The final short manga is only 3 pages long, and its only purpose is to be humorous. The Society of Female Soul Reapers, which consists of Yachiru, Nanao, Isane, Soifon, and Nemu, has a meeting to decide upon a new design for a Soul Pager for female Soul Reapers. Although everyone is supposed to submit a design that will appeal to all female Soul Reapers, nearly every woman's design fits herself best. Rangiku's is sparkly and has a butterfly, Isane's is made tough enough to survive being dropped from a height over over six feet, and Soifon's is a cross between a bee and a cat (a tribute to Yoruichi, her idol). Nemu's suggestion was pixelated and referred to as obscene - my imagination conjured up all sorts of horrible possibilities, and her expression made me laugh. So, which design won? Yachiru's - her suggestion was an edible Soul Pager made of chocolate, candy, and gum. It sounds like a bad idea to me, but Rukia seemed to like it.

I really enjoyed this volume, although some things were a little painful to read, mostly because I hate it when characters I like are hurting in some way. I'm not entirely sure that Ichigo was aware of how much he hurt Chad when he told him to leave the fight. Since Chad is such a rock, it was hard seeing his shock and pain when the thought came to him that Ichigo doesn't trust him to back him up in a fight anymore. The way Chad sees it is probably not how Ichigo sees it, but that doesn't change the fact that Chad was hurt by Ichigo's attempt to keep him safe. Orihime is another character I like who was in some pain in this volume. Orihime is a really good and sweet person - watching her try to work through her feelings of jeolousy made me want to hug her. By the way, guy readers will probably go wild for this part of the manga. One, Rankgiku is so well-endowed that she makes Orihime look flat-chested. Two, Rangiku is bathing at the beginning of Orihime's confession, meaning that Rangiku was naked. Sure, nothing shows, but still. Three, when Rangiku comes out of the bathroom to tickle, hug, and talk to Orihime in order to make her feel better, she's still wet and naked. Can we say major fanservice?

The battles in this volume were fun. I actually thought that Ikkaku was going to die, and I started tearing up when Yumichika asked for a company funeral to be prepared for him. Although Ikkaku's Bankai was nice and came at a good spot during the fight, I found Rukia's battle with D-Roy to be even more exciting. As far as the actual battles went, Ikkaku's was more impressive and went on longer. However, Rukia's battle wins, for me, in excitement, because her strength was so unexpected. It's easy to forget that Rukia has Soul Reaper abilities, because she's spent so long without them, and I'd always had the impression that she wasn't very strong. In this volume, it's revealed that Rukia is actually strong enough to be a seated officer, but that Byakuya kept her from becoming one because the work is so dangerous. Rukia's Zanpakuto's ability, although deadly, especially when an opponent doesn't expect it, seems rather limited, but I'm still looking forward to seeing more.

Besides the three short manga at the end, the only other extras are the occasional sketches after the chapters. Each sketch is part of a continuing story about Kon and Hanataro.

Read-alikes:

  • Shaman King (manga) by Hiroyuki Takei - Manta, a rich but wimpy kid who can see spirits, meets Yoh Asakura, an apparently lazy shaman. They become friends, and Yoh gains Amidamaru as a spirit partner (spirit partners can lend their skills to shamans, and Amidamaru was a samurai). Gradually, Yoh befriends others, participates in battles against other shamans, and sets out on the path to becoming the Shaman King. Those who'd like another series that includes deep and sometimes painful friendships, lots of battles, and spirits might like this series. There is also an anime based on this manga, but I haven't seen it yet and can't say how similar it is to the manga.
  • Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - During the violent Bakumatsu era, the assassin known as Hitokiri Battousai paved the way for the Restoration, killing many. Years later, this man, now known as Rurouni Kenshin, has given up killing and chooses to wander from town to town. After he helps a woman named Kamiya Kaoru, his wandering life becomes more rooted, at least temporarily. Kenshin is willing to fight to help others, but he does whatever he can to avoid having to kill. Those who'd like another series that includes swordfighting, action, and friendships between warriors might like this series. As in Bleach, the characters in this series will sometimes fight nearly to the point of death for pride, honor, or a need to protect someone.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Frequency interruption predicted

I'm predicting that my posts to this blog are going to be somewhat spotty for a while. I just got a job, so I'm going to be moving to another state - with all the work that goes into moving and getting set up in my new home, I won't have much time for blogging, not to mention I might not have Internet for a while. I've only got one more post scheduled for publication right now. I might have the time and inclination to finish up a few more posts over the next few days, but don't count on it.

I've still got plenty of nearly finished posts, so look forward to more posts sometime in the future.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Batman Beyond: Season One (non-Japanese animation, TV series)

My description for this show is very long, but most of the information I give comes from the first and second episodes - there are 13 overall in the first season.

The series begins by showing the original Batman, dressed in a new (as far as fans are concerned) costume, trying to save a girl. When the thugs who've kidnapped her start fighting Batman, he manages to hold his own at first, but he starts have heart problems and it isn't long before they have the upper hand. In desperation, Batman does something he's never done before: he picks up a gun and aims it at his attacker. Although the sight of the gun is enough to scare the thug off and he isn't forced to shoot, Batman knows he's crossed a line. Before the end of the scene, he takes his mask off, allowing viewers to see that he's much older than he's usually been depicted.

Years later (maybe 50 years after the "present" of the original Batman cartoons, meaning that Bruce Wayne is about 80 years old), Batman has retired, and Bruce Wayne lives alone in his mansion with only a dog for companionship. His company is now the Wayne/Powers Corporation, and he doesn't pay as much attention to it as he should. Enter Terry McGinnis, a high school boy who lives with his divorced father and lets his anger get him into fights that often cause him trouble. When he fights back against the members of a Joker gang (gang members dressed as clowns), it's more than he can handle, and his attempts to get away bring him to Bruce Wayne's mansion. Wayne helps him fight off the gang members but then needs his heart meds as a result, so Terry helps him back to the mansion and gets him the meds. In another reminder that Wayne is old, he falls asleep after taking them. Terry is left to find his own way out and accidentally discovers the Bat Cave. Wayne finds him and angrily throws him out of the house.

Terry's father, who works at the Wayne/Powers Corporation, has discovered terrible things about a nerve gas that Derek Powers has had developed. In order to silence him, Powers had someone kill Terry's father while Terry was running from the Joker gang and at Wayne's house. However, the killer wasn't able to find out where Terry's father had stashed the disk of incriminating evidence. While moving in to his mother's house, Terry discovers the disk and realizes things are rotten at the Wayne/Powers Corporation. He tries to get Wayne's help but is refused, so he steals Wayne's most recent Batman costume - it's a nifty thing that enhances strength, has gliding abilities, has camouflage abilities, allows the wearer to listen in on conversations, and more (it also must shrink to fits its user, since Terry has a much more slender build than Bruce). Although Wayne is really displeased that Terry has stolen the costume, he eventually allows Terry to finish what he's started, stopping both his father's killer and the distribution of the nerve gas. Derek Powers, although caught up in a cloud of nerve gas, survives - the radiation that saves him ends up making him radioactive and green-glowing, among other things.

Terry thinks he's finished with the whole Batman thing, until Bruce Wayne shows up at his house and offers him a job. Suddenly, Terry has a legitimate reason to hang out at Bruce Wayne's place (his mom thinks he's Wayne's gofer). On a nightly basis (and sometimes during the day), Terry goes out as Batman, with Wayne watching over things at the Bat Cave and giving him advice and information.

Besides Derek Powers, only one villain, Inque, turns up more than once in the first season. Most of the villains are brand-new and slightly futuristic in some way - one group of villains flies around on hoverboards that look like giant playing cards, another villain uses advanced technology to mess around with sound waves, another uses hypnosis technology to cause hallucinations, etc. Only two villains from the original series show up: Mr. Freeze (he gets a whole episode) and Bane (only for a few seconds - he's now old and decrepit). However, fans of the original animated series will love the occasional references to earlier times - Barbara Gordon, who was once Batgirl, is now commissioner, and Wayne and others occasionally refer to characters and events from the past.

Even though it has its failings, I really love this show. Although the futuristic setting is usually pretty generic-feeling and not very ground-breaking, it's still appealing, and I love the somewhat dark feel of the show. I also love the character designs, which I think are really eye-catching - the smooth and somewhat angular look makes me think of The New Batman Adventures, which I used to watch several years ago. Terry has a slighter build that makes him look less powerful, but more nimble, than the original Batman in his prime - since Terry is only in high school, the look fits, and the suit amplifies his strength.

For the most part, I enjoyed the voice acting (some of the extras were... not very good), and I was thrilled that Kevin Conroy was still doing the voice of Bruce Wayne (this may sound a little weird, but when I was younger and first started watching the animated Batman episodes, I had a crush on Kevin Conroy's voice). I really enjoyed seeing the new villains, watching the action scenes, and, in general, just getting to see what an older Bruce Wayne is like. This is one of the few American animated TV shows that recognizes that animation doesn't always have to be cute and/or funny, which is something I appreciate. Even though the creators of this show hoped to attract a younger audience (10-14 years old, maybe), it can still appeal to older viewers.

There were a few things I didn't like about this show. For one thing, the emotional continuity sometimes felt a little off. In one episode, Terry and his girlfriend break up, because she's upset that he always has to stand her up (she knows he's working for Wayne, but she doesn't know that he's Batman). It's not long before Terry's with another girl, who unfortunately turns out to be a villain and gets arrested. In the next episode, Terry and his girlfriend are back together and as cuddly as if nothing bad ever happened between them. It was a little jarring. For another, Terry adjusts amazing well and quickly to his new role as Batman. There are no scenes showing him receiving training in the use of the suit or in combat techniques - he just does it all, with barely any fumbling. Also, I think all the anime I watch has spoiled me a little - I'd like some kind of overarching storyline, or at least some kind of evidence that the characters and their relationships with each other are changing from one episode to the next. I wanted this series to be about more than just the villain of the week, but that's not really the case.

Overall, though, it's this series, and season one in particular, is enjoyable. There are several special features, including creators' commentary for two episodes (the first episode and one called "Shriek"), a short interview with the series creators, and score-only versions of a few different scenes. I watched the score-only versions of a few scenes (very interesting, I can't believe how much of the score I tuned out when I was just watching these episodes) and the short interview (the creators talk about being told to create a new animated Batman series with a teenage Batman that will appeal more to a younger audience). I also listened to the commentary for the first episode - that was really fascinating. I especially enjoyed hearing about how the WB tried to encourage them to make the show "more like Buffy" so that it would appeal to kids (despite the fact that kids weren't even Buffy's primary audience) and turn Terry's little brother into Batman's sidekick. I think it's a great example of how networks don't always get what makes a good show, and I'm really glad that the creators of this show just kept on doing what they felt was right for the show and for Batman.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • The New Batman Adventures (non-Japanese animation, TV series); Batman: The Animated Series (non-Japanese animation, TV series) - If you'd like to watch the original Batman bring strange and often crazy criminals to justice, or if you'd just like to find out about all the past events and people that Batman Beyond hints mentions or hints at, then you might try either of these animated series. Of the two Batman: The Animated Series aired first, but the episodes of both shows are often self-contained, so you can start with whichever show you prefer. I tended to prefer The New Batman Adventures because of its character designs.
  • Batman: Gotham Knight (anime, anthology) - This is actually an anime-inspired anthology, but I'm calling it anime because it's less complicated than figuring out what else to call it - I haven't seen it yet, so I can't comment on how much it looks and feels like anime. This DVD is composed of six short stories that show Bruce Wayne as he goes from tormented vigilante to Gotham's Dark Knight. Those who'd like more animated Batman, with Kevin Conroy again providing his voice, might enjoy this DVD. Although I mentioned that Batman Beyond is a little bit dark, I believe this DVD is even darker in tone.
  • Batman Begins (live action movie) - This live-action Batman movie's title says it all - the movie is about Bruce Wayne becoming Batman. It begins with the death of Bruce Wayne's parents, shows Bruce's training, and shows him setting up his other life as Batman, dealing with Gotham's crime however he can. Of course, besides this movie there's also the sequel, The Dark Knight. Those who'd like a darker, non-cheesy live-action version of Batman may enjoy this movie. It might also be helpful for those who enjoyed Batman Beyond but don't know the original Batman's backstory.
  • Alias (live action TV series) - Sydney Bristow believes she is working for the CIA. She finds out she's actually working for SD-6, the bad guys, when they kill her fiance after she tells him that she's an agent with the CIA. Sydney becomes a double agent, working for both the CIA and SD-6, in an attempt to take SD-6 down. Those who'd like another action-packed show in which the main character is living a double life might like this TV series.
  • Ghost in the Shell (anime movie) - This movie takes place in a future where just about everyone has some sort of cybernetic implant, if not entirely cyberized bodies. Unfortunately, this leaves people vulnerable to brain-hacking. Section 9, a group of cybernetically enhance cops, is called in to investigate a brain-hacker called The Puppetmaster. The sound effects and look of this movie are a little dated, in my opinion, but it's still an excellent movie (although it may require more than one viewing in order to figure out what's going on), and it's a great place to begin before trying any of the newer incarnations of this franchise. It should also be noted that this movie is based on the Ghost in the Shell manga. Anyway, those who'd like to see something else set in a gritty, futuristic world with some interesting technology and lots of high speed action might like this movie.
  • Bleach (anime TV series); Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo - Ichigo Kurosaki has been able to see ghosts for as long as he can remember, but it's not until he meets Rukia, a Soul Reaper, that his life really gets strange (not to mention dangerous). When a battle with a Hollow goes badly, Rukia tries to lend Ichigo some of her Soul Reaper powers but ends up accidentally giving him everything. Now a full-fledged Soul Reaper, Ichigo battles Hollows with Rukia's help and guidance and gradually becomes even more powerful. Those who'd like another series in which a basically good high school-aged kid with delinquent tendencies has to become someone who can secretly save everyone in his town from frequent menaces might want to try this. The anime and manga are fairly similar, aside from a few filler episodes in the anime, so take your pick.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Iron Kissed (book) by Patricia Briggs

Mercedes Thompson, mechanic and walker (someone who can see ghosts and change into a coyote at will, but who is otherwise human), became indebted to one of the fae in a previous book, and that debt gets called in now. Someone has killed several members of the fae inside one of their own reservations. They're having trouble figuring out who the killer is, but they don't want to alert the human authorities - things are tense enough between humans and the fae. They're hopeful that Mercy's sensitive nose can identify the killer, preferably without her finding out more about the fae and their secrets than is good for her.

Before Mercy can confirm the identity of the killer, Zee, her boss and a rare iron kissed fae (he can touch iron without pain), is taken in by the police and accused of killing the most likely suspect in the murders. Against Zee's wishes, Mercy continues to investigate the fae killings, tries to clear Zee, and risks angering the Gray Lords (the very powerful and dangerous leaders of the fae). While all of this is going on, Mercy is also dealing with serious relationship issues. She is finally forced to choose between the two main men in her life, Samuel and Adam (both of whom are werewolves).

I'll start this off by talking about the relationships aspect of this book. Patricia Briggs is one of many current authors writing a vampire/werewolf series starring a female character with several men in her life, and I'm thrilled that Briggs actually had Mercy make a choice. Although I knew it was going to be a difficult decision for Mercy, I already had a good idea of who she might choose. Even though one of the men made it easier on her by admitting that he already considered himself out of the running, Mercy didn't find that out until after she'd done some soul-searching and settled upon a decision. Some might think that Briggs kind of took the easy way out by having one of the men back out, but, just as I'm glad that she made Mercy choose, I'm also glad that Mercy's choice didn't tear apart any friendships - I can't help it, I like both the men, even though they both have their aggravating moments. It's a nicely done "have your cake and eat it, too" situation.

As far as the "who's killing the fae and who really murdered the suspect?" part of the book goes, I'll admit that I occasionally lost track of what was going on. Mercy didn't exactly have a lot of information to go on, and whenever she tried to do some serious investigating other things would get in the way, someone would tell her to drop the whole thing, or someone would try to kill her. When the killer was finally revealed, it was a big surprise to me (but that's not saying much, because I'm often unable to correctly guess who the killers are in books).

I might've considered this something of a ho-hum book if it hadn't been for Mercy finally deciding between Adam and Samuel and the book's ending. I'll say right now that, in order to talk about the ending, I've necessarily got to give some things away, but I'll try not to give it all away (I don't know why I'm being so careful about spoilers when I've got posts that spoil everything about some of the books I've read, but there you are). Basically, near the end of the book Mercy gets raped in such a way that both her body and mind respond willingly (magic is involved, because there's no way she would have been willing otherwise). The rape isn't described in much detail - for me, it's the stuff before and after the rape that's the most horrific and heart-breaking. Mercy is such a strong-willed character that it was painful to read about her will and her choices being taken away. After the rape, Mercy's spirit is crushed so badly that she's sure she'll never be loved. However, rather than ending in a completely depressing way, Mercy gradually begins to heal emotionally and I think the process helps her and the werewolf she's chosen for herself grow closer.

It may be that my feelings about the book's ending are coloring my feelings about the entire book, but I really enjoyed this book, the third in Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series. I can't wait to read more. Before I list read-alikes, however, I'd just like to mention one nit-picky little thing that kind of bothered me: I'd have to look this up to be sure, but I could've sworn that Mercy called herself a skinwalker in the previous books. In this book, however, she makes it clear that she's a walker, not a skinwalker, and lists the reasons why this is so. Maybe I'm wrong, and she's always called herself a walker, but that bit still stuck in my brain as something that felt a little off.

Read-alikes:
  • Urban Shaman (book) by C. E. Murphy - This is the first book in the Walker Papers series. This book features another strong, somewhat supernatural main female character who also happens to be a mechanic. In a jarringly short amount of time, Joanne Walker makes a new friend, discovers she has shamanic powers (including the ability to heal herself by imagining she's fixing herself in the same way she might a car), and finds out she has to use those new shamanic powers to save the world from the Wild Hunt. The only help she's got in trying to figure things out is a cryptic coyote who shows up in her dreams. Like Mercy, Joanne is a competent woman who's in over her head a lot of times. There's a little less in the way of romantic subplots in this book and in the series in general than there is in the Mercedes Thompson books, although there are indications of a potential romance between Joanne and her boss (I can't remember how strongly it comes through in this book, but I do know it shows up in later books).
  • Tempting Danger (book) by Eileen Wilks - This is also the first book in a series. Lily Yu is a cop who's trying to figure out who's going around killing people in gruesome ways. It looks like werewolves might be involved, and maybe even the prince of the Nokolai clan, Rule Turner. This is especially unfortunate, because Lily and Rule have suddenly discovered that they are mates - the result is a compulsion to be near each other, and it'll look really bad if someone finds out Lily's having sex with the prime suspect. As in the Mercedes Thompson series, werewolves have only recently revealed their existence to humankind, and things are still a little tense. Lily, like Mercy, is a strong, competent female character who manages to use her own skills to accomplish things, despite being physically outclassed by supernatural beings like Rule. If you're not up to trying an entire novel by a new author, this series actually grew out of a short story featured in the anthology Lover Beware. Consider the story a different version of how Lily and Rule met and came to terms with each other - Lily is still the same basic character in the story and the novel (a strong, competent woman whose family is important to her), but Rule in the story is a somewhat different man from Rule in the book.
  • Dead Until Dark (book) by Charlaine Harris - This is the first book in Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series. Sookie is a telepathic barmaid. Most of the people in her small Southern town know about her special abilities, but most people can also forget about it a bit because Sookie makes an effort to either not read people or not show that she's read someone. It's an exhausting life, however. Before the beginning of this book, vampires revealed their existence to the world, and in this book Sookie discovers something she thinks is wonderful - it's very hard, if not impossible, for her to read the thoughts of most vampires. Soon, Sookie is dating a vampire, but, unfortunately, being around him gets her involved in more danger than she's ever experienced before. Those who'd like another story featuring supernatural beings (shapeshifters, various were-animals, vampires, fairies, etc.), the occasional murder, and a main female character with supernatural powers who's in a little over her head might like this book and series. As an added bonus, several male characters are interested in Sookie.
  • Touch the Dark (book) by Karen Chance - This is the first book in Chance's Cassandra Palmer series. Cassie is a gifted clairvoyant whose entire life since she was a little girl has been controlled by vampires. Three years ago, she managed to run away from the vampires who both raised her and had a part in her parents' deaths, and she's been in hiding ever since. Now the vampires are closing in, and Cassie learns that the mages are after her as well. Cassie has to figure out who she can trust, stay alive, and figure out why so many people want to kill her. Those who'd like something else with supernatural beings (vampires, mages, etc.), magic, and a main female character with supernatural abilities who's in a over her head might like this book and series. As an added bonus, several gorgeous guys are interested in Cassie - unfortunately, none of them have proven themselves very trustworthy yet.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Train Man (book) by Hitori Nakano

Just a note to start things off: The contents of this book came from a real-life Internet forum - if you believe everything that the people involved wrote, then Train Man and Hermes are real people, and these posts reveal the progression of their relationship over two months.

2channel, or 2ch for short, is a Japanese Internet forum that allows for completely anonymous posting. In March 2004, an anonymous user posted about his experience defending the passengers of the train he was riding from a drunken salaryman. Afterwards, several of the women on the train asked him for his name and contact information, so that they could send him a proper thank you. Although this young man thought that things would end here, he later received a thank you gift from one of the younger women on the train - Hermes tea cups (an expensive gift).

So begins Train Man's relationship with Lady Hermes (both are nicknames given by the other users). Train Man, being a Geek, has absolutely no idea what to do or say to a woman, so he asks the other 2ch Geek users for advice. Their advice prompts him to ask Hermes to dinner to repay her for the gift of the cups (he also asks for advice on where to take her and how to make himself look less like a Geek). As things between Train Man and Hermes progress, Train Man describes everything: the dinner, meeting with Hermes and a friend of hers, going to her house to drink tea using the cups she gave him, etc. Train Man seeks out the encouragement of the 2ch Geeks up until "the end," the time when he finally gathers up the courage to tell Hermes how he feels about her and graduates from the Geeks forum to the Couples forum.

Unlike the movie version of this story that I wrote about in a previous post (see Train Man [Densha Otoko]), this book, which is an edited version (lots of posts were removed to make it more manageable) of the actual 2ch posts, mentions some of the less eventful ways that Train Man and Hermes' relationship progressed: for instance, they got to know each other better through daily emailing. Whereas I occasionally had problems suspending my disbelief with the movie version, this book, whether or not Train Man was actually a fake, had more mundane relationship updates that made everything seem more real.

It's unfortunate that the book doesn't actually include any explanatory footnotes or endnotes, since I think they would have been very useful. For instance, there are quite a few references to anime series and other things that readers might not necessarily catch - Train Man and other posters mentioned some anime by name, but other titles were referred to more subtly (I caught references to Ai Yori Aoshi, Oh My Goddess, and maybe Azumanga Daioh). The many, many instances of ASCII art use would also have made good fodder for an explanatory notes section.

There are some terms the posters use that I wish had been explained. As an example, near the end of the book, several posters use the word "anorak" in a way that seemed to be synonymous with "geek" - I eventually looked it up and discovered that it's British slang for someone "who has unfathomable interest in arcane, detailed information regarded as boring by the rest of the population, and who feels compelled to talk at length about this information to anyone within earshot." That actually brings me to my other (pretty minor) issue with this book, the occasional very British bits. I don't think it happened often (what do I know, though, I didn't even realize that "anorak" was British slang and not somehow Japanese slang), but it was noticeable anytime prices were listed, since they were always in pounds. That was a little jarring - I've got a fairly good idea of how to convert Japanese yen into American dollars, but I had no idea how to deal with pounds. I checked the publication information for this book, and apparently it was first published in the United Kingdom - I guess no one thought it was necessary to adjust anything for publication in America.

Before I read this book, I'd actually already seen and read two different interpretations of this story, the movie version and a one-volume manga version, so it was really nice to read this, which is probably as close as I'm ever going to come to reading the original posts that started it all. It's not something that will appeal to everyone - I'm not just talking about the ASCII art, but also about the format of the book. Not everyone will like reading a bunch of anonymous forum posts, although it may help that Train Man's posts come fairly close to presenting his story in a coherent and chronological way and that Train Man's posts are in boldface, making them easily identifiable. Still, once I got used to it, I enjoyed reading all of these posts, since it allowed me to feel a little of what the many anonymous posters and readers must have felt, watching Train Man's story unfold. Although there is apparently some controversy over whether or not Train Man's story is true, I prefer to think that it is: it makes reading this book more fun, and, aside from the fairytale-like progression of the relationship, it feels like it could be true.

With each version of this story I read, I love something different. The one-volume manga introduced me to this story and caught my interest. I loved how the movie version turned Train Man's anonymous posters into characters in their own right. This book fills in more of the details of Train Man and Hermes' relationship, making it seem more realistic. If I were recommending Train Man's story to someone, I'd probably recommend that they see the movie and read this book - the two make up for each others' weaknesses. For instance, while I was reading the book I found myself wishing that there were a way to tell which posts were done by the same people - only a handful of non-Train Man posts had anything other than "anonymous." With the movie, the way Train Man and Hermes' relationship was presented didn't always feel very real, and I found the "war zone" scenes a little jarring. It wasn't until I read the book that I understood why these scenes were done the way they were - throughout the book, several of the posters compare the experience to a prolonged battle, one in which they are both cheering Train Man on and dodging his "attacks" (anytime Train Man is successful with Hermes, it's good news, but it also rubs salt in the girlfriend-less Geeks' wounds).

Overall, I enjoyed this book and I'm glad I finally got to read the Train Man posts. I don't think I'll ever feel the need to read it again, since I didn't find the format that appealing, but it was worth it to read it once. Here's hoping Train Man is real and still living happily with Hermes.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Train Man: Densha Otoko (manga) by Hitori Nakano (story) and Hidenori Hara (art); Train Man: A Shojo Manga (manga) by Hitori Nakano (story) and Machiko Ocha (art); Train Man: Densha Otoko (live action movie) - Train Man's story was so popular that it spawned interpretations in several different formats - these three are, as far as I know, the only ones currently available in the US. If you liked the basic idea (geeky guy tries to save girl on train, gets an expensive gift from her later on, and uses the advice of people from a message board to help him eventually get to his happy, romantic ending), then you should try at least one of these interpretations of the story.
  • Whisper of the Heart (anime movie) - Shizuku, a young girl in junior high, loves to read. Every time she opens a library book, she always sees the same name on the cards, "Seiji Amasawa" - it's as though this guy somehow reads even more than she does, and she becomes determined to try to find him. As Shizuku learns more about Seiji, she also learns more about herself and her goals in life. Those who'd like to watch another sweet and sometimes awkward romantic story might enjoy this anime.
  • Genshiken (manga) by Shimoku Kio - College freshman Kanji Sasahara is an otaku who joins a college club called The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture (aka Genshiken). The club may have a grand name, but it's full of otaku who love going to conventions, buying doujinshi, and more. The story focuses on Kanji and the other members of the club as they do what they love, deal with life, and, in some cases, learn to deal with otakudom and being an otaku. Those who'd like another story with otaku as the main characters might like this series.
  • Welcome to the N.H.K. (manga) by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (original creator) and Kendi Oiwa (art) - Tatsuhiro Sato, a 22-year-old man, is a NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and incredibly socially withdrawn (hikikomori). He believes everything around him is a conspiracy, and he has this theory that there is a secret organization called the NHK that is trying to produce a hikikomori-filled world. He would like to break free from the NHK, but he's too afraid to go outdoors on his own. However, things change when he meets Misaki, a high school girl who invites him to become part of her "project," which she claims will cure him of his hikikomori ways. Those who'd like another story featuring an otaku who needs help changing himself might like this series.
  • Male Call (book) by Heather MacAllister - Marnie LaTour is a computer nerd with a serious crush on Zach, a handsome construction worker she's barely spoken to. On a whim, Marnie rents an apartment nearby his construction site for a few days a week, and her new landlord helps her begin to make herself over. The first time Zach sees Marnie in clothing that makes her gender clear and doesn't make her look homeless he's hooked, but it takes him a while to convince Marnie how he feels and that she can be higher on his list of priorities than his restoration business. Those who'd like another romantic story in which a nerd gains confidence from a makeover might like this book.
  • Rob&sara.com (book) by P. J. Peterson and Ivy Ruckman - Sara, the teenage daughter of an army colonel, posts one of her poems online, and Rob, who lives at a school for troubled teenagers, likes it and gives it a positive comment. The two become friends and communicate through email, fantasizing about being able to meet each other. With their emails, they support each other through difficult times. Those who'd like another story featuring a relationship conveyed through a modern format (the book is a collection of Rob and Sara's emails) and who don't mind if it's a fictional might like this young adult novel.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Teenage Mermaid (book) by Ellen Schreiber

Spencer almost drowns in a surfing accident but is rescued and saved with a kiss of life given by someone he thought looked like a mermaid. Whatever she is, she's the girl of his dreams, and Spencer is determined to find her. The only clue he's got is the silver heart locket he accidentally took from her.

Lily is a mermaid who's fascinated by humans, beings which most mermaids view as lesser creatures. One day, she breaks her own people's rules and reveals herself in order to rescue a human boy. Unfortunately, she loses her heirloom locket in the process. When she spots the signs asking for the "golden-haired beauty who saved my life" to come to Seaside High Stadium for a thank you, she knows she has to go see this boy in order to get her locket back. Lily and her friend Waverly manage to get hold of a potion that will give a mermaid legs for a few hours - the catch is that if the mermaid stays out too long, he or she will be stuck on land forever, having forgotten how to breathe in the water.

In Schreiber's world, life as a mermaid is exactly like life as a human, only underwater with a few things named differently (and pet dolphins instead of pet dogs). I would've preferred it if things had been a little different, but I suppose it was funny how much mermaids looked down on beings who are exactly like them. Lily was so much like the super-confident, popular type that it wasn't really surprising that Spencer thought she'd end up dating one of the school jocks after she got her locket back from him. Actually, I thought that Spencer was more interesting than Lily, despite the fact that the book focused slightly more on her than it did on him (the book alternated between chapters from Spencer's perspective and chapters from Lily's perspective). I liked how he changed his hair color every week or so, and I liked his somewhat shaky confidence when it came to life outside of surfing (he's not one of the popular kids), which was balanced by his determination.

The "fish out of water" aspect was interesting, too, and often funny. Despite Lily's obsession with all things human, she (and mermaids in general) doesn't actually know much about them, so it's difficult for her to blend in properly in the high school classes she accidentally finds herself a part of. Luckily, others assume that she's just a bit weird or trying to be funny, so they don't think anything of it when her answers to class questions are strange. Even Spencer rationalizes anything she does that doesn't quite fit, so he doesn't realize that she's really a mermaid until nearly the end of the book.

Although this was a fun, fast-paced (and short) read, it was very predictable. I'm not just talking about the "you know Lily and Spencer will end up together" aspect - it's a romance, of course they're going to end up together. No, I mean that it was fairly obvious that the potion would be part of the climactic moment (readers are told what can go wrong with it - a mermaid can end up drowning, unable to breathe water), and it's just as obvious what will happen to make everything turn out okay (early on, it's explained that a kiss of love from an Earthee - a human - can save a mermaid and turn that Earthee into a merperson). Yes, right there on page 34, with another 120 or so pages to go, the reader pretty much knows what to expect by the end of the book. It's not very subtle.

Still, the characters are bubbly and likable, the story's lighthearted, and there's a nice mix of fantasy and a high school setting. As long as readers don't expect too much and don't mind a book that doesn't expect them to do much thinking, this isn't too bad of a read. Just as a warning, though, it does end rather abruptly.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • The Little Mermaid (non-Japanese animation, movie) - In this Disney movie loosely based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, Ariel, a mermaid and the youngest daughter of King Triton, dreams of going on land and being among humans. One day, she makes a deal with a sea witch - in exchange for her voice, she'll be able to walk on land and try to win the heart of the human prince she's fallen in love with. Unfortunately, the sea witch has terrible plans of her own. Those who'd like another story in which a mermaid falls in love with a human and magically acquires legs in order to see him might like this movie.
  • Pichi Pichi Pitch (manga) by Michiko Yokote (story) and Pink Hanamori (art); Mermaid Melody: Pichi Pichi Pitch (anime TV series) - Luchia, a young mermaid, once saved an orphan boy her age from drowning by giving him a magical pearl. Years later, she takes on human form in order to get her pearl back from the boy, but she has to be careful, because she'll turn into foam if she tells him that she was the mermaid who saved him. Those who'd like another story that mixes comedy, magic, and romance between a mermaid and a human boy might like this manga/anime series.
  • Diary of a Radical Mermaid (book) by Deborah Smith - The story focuses on Juna Lee, a spoiled (but not malicious) mer-woman, and Molly Revere, a children's author who doesn't know she has mermaid ancestry. The two fall in love with a couple mer-men and deal with an oil company's plot to ruin the ocean as we know it. Those who'd like another light-hearted story with merfolk, adventure, romance, and humor might like this book. Be aware, however, that this book was written for an adult audience. Also, this is actually book 2 of Smith's Waterlilies series, which began with Alice at Heart (the tone of the first book is very different from this one).
  • Sleeping With the Fishes (book) by MaryJanice Davidson - Fred isn't your average mermaid - she's not blond, she's not buxom, and she has a tendency towards crankiness. Even though she can't swim when she's not in her mermaid form, she works at an aquarium, trying to convince the fish to eat their food. Fred, a marine biologist who goes all fanboy when mermaids are mentioned, and Prince Artur, a merman and the High Prince of the Black Sea, join forces in an attempt to figure out what's causing the high levels of toxins in the local seawater. Of course, the marine biologist and the prince are also interested in seducing Fred. Those who'd like another story featuring humor, romance, and mermaids might like this book. Be aware, however, that this book was written for an adult audience.
  • Dancing With an Alien (book) by Mary Logue - Tonia, a 17-year-old, saves a young man named Branko from drowning and finds out that he comes from another planet, one where the entire female population has been wiped out. Branko was sent to Earth to find a female willing to go back with him and repopulate his planet, but he didn't anticipate falling in love with the one he finds. No matter what choice Branko makes, whether to take Tonia with him to his planet so that she can become a baby factory or leave her on her own planet so that she can live a normal life, he will have to give up his love for her. Those who'd like another story involving a watery rescue and romance between a human and a non-human might like this book. This book is a great deal less light-hearted than Schreiber's story.
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