Sunday, May 31, 2009

Antique Bakery (manga, vol. 3) by Fumi Yoshinaga

The Antique Bakery takes part in a promotional fair at a department store. The event is being covered by two female TV reporters, Haruka and Tammy, whose claim to fame is their sexiness and large breasts - Tammy isn't really fazed by this, but Haruka can't wait for the day when she'll get to be a real reporter, covering serious news (she would also settle for marriage). Haruka immediately sets her sights on Ono and is very disappointed when she finds out he's gay.

The plan for the fair was to have Tachibana tending to the customers while Ono made desserts in the back. Unfortunately, due to a sty in his eye, Tachibana has to go help Kanda at the bakery while Chikage handles the customers at the fair - and it doesn't help matters that Ono's work area will be in full view of the many women attending the fair (remember, Ono's afraid of women). Ono gets through it by assuming his ultra-sexy gay guy persona and pretending that all the customers are just pretty guys in drag. He coaches Chikage through handling the customers, and between the two of them they charm everyone. Meanwhile, Kanda has to figure out how to bake one of the bakery's popular items, something he accomplishes with the help of Tachibana's pastry memory. During a lull, Kanda finally asks Tachibana if he opened the bakery in the hope of trying to catch his kidnapper. It's a question Tachibana can't answer. In the end, everyone manages to survive the two days of the fair.

In the next part of the volume, Ono's former pastry-making teacher, Jean-Baptiste Hevens, shows up and tries to convince him to leave the Antique Bakery and work for him instead. Ono is tempted, because the pay would be really good, but he ends up deciding to stay in order to continue teaching Kanda. He doesn't know how to break the news to Jean-Baptiste - he's already started sleeping with the guy again (they were lovers back in his apprenticeship days in Paris), and, in addition, Jean-Baptiste has a temper (he used to alternate between being abusive and loving during their time as a couple).

The others at the Antique Bakery are thrilled when they hear that Ono plans to stay (Tachibana was so desperate to keep him that he basically offered to sleep with him if he'd stay), but, when Ono is late one morning, Tachibana and Chikage discover that Jean-Baptiste beat Ono and planned to break his hand after Ono told him he wasn't coming to Paris. Chikage is furious, but Ono and Tachibana convince him not to hurt Jean-Baptiste. They go to the bakery, and then Kanda is furious and wants to hunt Jean-Baptiste down. Ono offers to take him to the hotel in Japan where he's currently working, but not so that he can beat Jean-Baptiste up - rather, he believes that trying the man's incredible pastries will convince him not to beat him up and also be a good learning experience. In the end, Tachibana gives both Kanda and Ono a bonus, and Ono takes Kanda to the hotel to try Jean-Baptiste's pastries, which Kanda enjoys immensely.

Tammy, the reporter from the first part of the volume, is getting married, and the Antique Bakery is handling the catering. Interspersed throughout this portion are flashbacks featuring Tachibana during his birthday, only a month after he was found, and Tachibana and his girlfriends from high school to just before he decided to open the Antique Bakery. The catering job goes smoothly - Kanda's first pastry idea is well-received, and Ono manages to interact with the many female guests so well that Tachibana starts to worry he might become a "bi of demonic charm." The flashbacks of Tachibana's past aren't quite so nice.

At his first birthday since coming back home after the kidnapping, Tachibana seems like a happy kid, but his mother can sense that he's trying a little too hard to appear cheerful and in private he throws up the birthday cake she made for him. Tachibana acts ecstatic about every single one of his girlfriends (it surprised me, but it looks like each one was a monogamous relationship, at least on his part), but each one of those girlfriends ends up dumping him and telling him it's because they can tell he's trying too hard and they don't really feel loved. In fact, the reason why Tachibana treated Ono so badly in high school was because Ono had incredibly bad timing and confessed his love right after Tachibana's girlfriend dumped him. Near the end of this portion of the volume, Tachibana has recently been dumped again and is drunkenly asking a friend if it's possible that whatever the kidnapper did to him, maybe molesting him (Tachibana can't remember anything), warped him somehow. He wonders if he'll be like this forever. Although he does well at anything he tries, he can't settle on a job because he'd have to work with his old girlfriends. He decides to open the Antique Bakery, perhaps as a way to overcome whatever happened to him while he was kidnapped.

The next portion of the volume begins with a flashback to Chikage's childhood. Chikage's mother is taking Tachibana's mother's cooking classes, and Tachibana's mother notices that Chikage's mother is covered in bruises. She invites her and her son to come live with her and her family and work as their new housekeeper. Chikage's mother only agrees to do so after she realizes that, by continuing to live with her husband, she's upsetting Chikage and making him worry about her.

Next, a writer is trying to work and gets into an argument with her young daughter, who wants her affection but doesn't know how to say it. During a particularly heated point in their argument, the mother hits her slaps her daughter, and she runs off. Meanwhile, at the Antique Bakery, Tachibana and Chikage are critiquing Kanda's boring-looking but delicious creations. The writer's daughter, Kaedeko (Deko), enters the shop and, to Ono and Kanda's horror, asks to stay at Chikage's for the night. Ono and Kanda are even more horrified when it appears to them as though Tachibana is flirting with Deko and when Deko climbs onto Chikage's lap and hugs him. Deko tells Chikage what happened with her mother, and Chikage, remembering a younger Tachibana waking up from a nightmare and needing comfort, tells her that she's got to start acting more like an adult for her mother at times, because even adults occasionally have tough times.

Later, Deko tries one of Kanda's cakes and loves it, which instantly makes Kanda like her. Then Deko's mother shows up, at which point it is revealed that Deko is Chikage's daughter (Ono: "So, he was sexually active after all." Kanda: "He actually knew how to make children..."). Deko's mother, Sakurako, had been desperate for a child and convinced Chikage to sleep with her. Sakurako, a novelist, had gotten upset with Deko because she was stressed out by her latest deadline and suffering from a hernia, which she hadn't told her daughter about. Deko, it turns out, is only in the fourth grade, although she looks several years older (as her mother says, she's like Chikage, inside and out - pretty, tall, and not too bright). Anyway, Chikage slept with Sakurako because she was desperate and it was something even he could do for her. Whenever Sakurako needed a break from taking care of Deko, Chikage took Deko in (and Tachibana did most of the "taking care of," which is why he treats her like she were his daughter or niece). By the end, Deko and Sakurako have left and they seem to be doing quite well together - Sakurako's smile when Deko tells her she's like to learn how make a cake for her is very nice.

Overall, I really enjoyed this volume - I don't think there's been a volume I haven't liked yet, because each new volume reveals more pieces of these very interesting characters' pasts. Apparently, I wasn't far off the mark when I speculated that Tachibana might have opened up the Antique Bakery because he hoped to capture his kidnapper. That didn't really surprise me, but Chikage's daughter and the abusive nature of Ono's relationship with Jean-Baptiste did. I suppose Jean-Baptiste shouldn't have come as too much of a surprise. With the way Ono lives, it would be more surprising if there weren't a jerk somewhere in his past, and his habit of sleeping with multiple men without any of his lovers knowing would probably upset the most even-tempered of guys. I guess I just figured that Ono had had all his lovers wrapped around his fingers. It was sad to see how little he seems to care for his own well-being - even knowing what Jean-Baptiste was like, back when he was his apprentice, Ono slept with him again and put himself back in the same position he had been in. It's Tachibana who tries to talk some sense into him, and I'm not really sure he succeeded. I had hoped that Kanda would beat Jean-Baptiste up despite his pastries, or maybe that he would at least say that Jean-Baptiste's pastries didn't compare to Ono's (part of Jean-Baptiste's abusiveness stemmed from his jealousy of Ono's pastry-making talent, but Ono always says that his pastries don't compare to Jean-Baptiste's) - instead, it looks kind of like Ono was right, Kanda really does forgive the guy because of his pastries.

My response to the revelation that Chikage had had a child was pretty much like Ono and Kanda's - I couldn't believe the guy knew how to make babies. I wouldn't be surprised if Sakurako had had to help him figure out what to do. This was a great thing to end the volume with - so much of the volume was weighty and a bit dark that the humor and sweetness of this portion was very welcome.

Speaking of weighty and dark bits, the flashbacks of Tachibana's various girlfriends were interesting. Tachibana had said before that he acts like a perfect young man for his family so that they won't worry about him, but his mother, at least, worries because he's like this. In addition, this behavior is also what drove most of his girlfriends away (one of them dumped him because he didn't really know her as well as he thought he did, something she realized when he proposed after she was told to quit her job). This part finally explains why a guy who, in present day, seems pretty decent, was so horrible to Ono back in high school. It also explains a little more what prompted him to open a bakery.

Finally, I found it intersting that Ono seems to be getting over his fear of women a little. It starts during the fair, when Haruka tells him that the reason he was popular with the women was not because he was acting "obviously gay," but rather because he is really, really attractive - his expression after she tells him this was very hard for me to read, so I'm not sure if he really appreciated what she said and was just stunned or if her words upset him. However, later on, he does fine speaking to a waitress and doesn't realize it until Tachibana mentions it to him. Then he handles throngs of women without a problem when the Antique Bakery handles the catering for Tammy's wedding.

I can't wait to read the next volume and see what else Yoshinaga reveals about these characters. Sure, it's tons of drama, but drama is fun.

Sorry for the pathetic read-alikes and watch-alikes. All my usual resources for hunting down potential read-alikes and watch-alikes for anime and manga that aren't like what I usually read have failed me for this series. It's like Emma, all over again... Feel free to suggest read-alikes or watch-alikes of your own in a comment.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Yakitate!! Japan (manga) by Takashi Hashiguchi - Azuma Kazuma's goal is to make Ja-pan - every country except Japan seems to have its own national bread, and Azuma wants to correct this by making bread that would fit in with Japanese cuisine and be loved as much as rice. In pursuit of this goal, Azuma finds work at a branch of Pantasia, a famous bread-making chain. Bread-making isn't a sport, but you wouldn't always know it from reading Yakitate!! Japan - in this wacky manga, people bake the craziest things (which usually have some sort of basis in real-life breads), competing rabidly against one another. The feel of this manga is nothing like Antique Bakery - although this manga is also humorous, its humor is wackier than Antique Bakery's, and it doesn't have that same undercurrent of seriousness. However, readers who'd like another manga featuring mouthwatering foods might want to try this.
  • Honey and Clover (manga) by Chika Umino - (This popular manga has spawned both anime and live action shows, none of which I've listed here - check out Anime News Network if you'd like to know a little more about them.) This "slice of life" manga focuses primarily on a group of art college students - their friendships, dramas, and loves. Those who liked Antique Bakery's mix of humor and seriousness, character-driven story, and focus on relationships may enjoy this manga.
  • Bartender (manga) by Araki Joh (story) and Kenji Nagatomo (art); Bartender (anime TV series) - Ryu Sasakura is a genius bartender who makes the most incredible cocktails anyone has ever tasted. Customers of all kinds come to his bar, and Ryu uses his talents to help each one with their worries and problems. This is another character-driven "slice of life" story. In addition, those who enjoyed Antique Bakery's lovely and well-described pastries and cakes may enjoy Bartender's various drinks. (It is very bad of me to include this in the list, because neither the anime nor the manga are available in the US yet. But, oh, I wish - I've read some very nice blog posts about the anime.)

Friday, May 29, 2009

Work Hard. Be Nice.: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America (non-fiction book) by Jay Mathews

If I remember right, I found out about this book on Unshelved's website - it was during one of their book-a-day weeks, and the book's banner caught my eye.

Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin were in Teach for America and not happy with their teaching skills. One of them noticed an experienced teacher, Harriett Ball, who somehow managed to captivate and teach students and control her classroom. Eventually both Feinberg and Levin observed Ball teach and began getting pointers from her. They used some of the things she taught them, plus things they'd learned from another teacher named Esquith, plus their own trial and error, to successfully improve their students' test scores and control their classrooms. They didn't want to stop there, however - they knew just one good year wasn't enough for their students, any students. Plus, although they'd accomplished quite a bit, they knew they could do better.

Together, Feinberg and Levin began something they eventually called KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program). The primary features of KIPP were longer school days, more school days (some Saturdays, shorter summers), home visits (especially good for establishing strong relationships with the parents and demonstrating that they cared about their students), and making themselves available at all hours for homework questions. They practiced zero tolerance of bullying and other classroom disruptions, made sure everyone participated in class, and required their students to finish all their homework. They rewarded students who behaved and followed the rules with field trips that they, as low-income, at-risk students, would likely never have experienced in a non-KIPP class.

Although Feinberg and Levin's efforts produced impressive and measurable results (much higher test scores), they often faced opposition. Feinberg and Levin could be pushier than some administrators liked, and not everyone appreciated the extended school hours they believed were essential to the success of their students. Some believed that their classroom disciplinary measures sometimes went over the top and could potentially be considered abusive. Eventually, tired of never being sure if they would be given the space and freedom they needed, Feinberg and Levin found the funding they needed to establish their own KIPP schools. Most KIPP students were low-income, at-risk students. KIPP teachers were the best they could find, paid more than most public school teachers because of the long school days and 24-hour availability. There were still those who criticized KIPP, but the author of this book argues that, whatever KIPP's weaknesses (student retention is not always very good, for instance), it's still better at economically disadvantaged students than any other program or school in the nation. (I suppose I should have used the present tense in this paragraph, since KIPP is still around and, according to its website, going strong.)

For the most part, Mathews tells the story of Feinberg, Levin, and the creation of KIPP in chronological order. One of the things that bothered me was that he shook things up just enough that it was sometimes hard to figure out what was supposed to be happening when, and to whom. It didn't help that, for a good chunk of the book, Feinberg and Levin weren't even teaching in the same city - Mathews would write a bit about one person, and then move on to the other.

I also wasn't always a big fan of Mathews's writing style. It was fine when he was just describing events, but it felt too straightforward when he tried writing about Feinberg and Levin's personal lives. Also, this was probably unintentional, but all the more personal information about who was dating whom (one of the earliest KIPP teachers was, if I remember correctly, Feinberg's on-again-off-again girlfriend) made KIPP seem a bit inbred and soap opera-ish.

It wouldn't surprise me if any person who has had a good education could name at least a few teachers who had a big impact upon them. I believe teachers play a big part in a student's academic success - a "good school" can't be a good school if it doesn't have good teachers, and a "bad school" might only be bad because its teachers aren't good and/or don't put enough effort into helping their students succeed. Although this doesn't mean that all my other teachers were bad, I can really only name three teachers who had a huge positive impact on me - two were art teachers, one was a math teacher. They cared about their students, loved their subjects, and had high expectations of their students. I remember my math teacher starting our first day of class by telling us that she had been given a packet of our previous math ability assessment scores (or something to that effect) - and then she told us she threw those things out. Had she depended upon the information she was given, I would probably have done long division for the third year in a row. Instead, I learned algebra and actually started to like math.

I imagine Levin, Feinberg, and other KIPP teachers have also been the sorts of teachers their students will remember years later. I'm still not sure if I agree with KIPP's focus on test scores and college prep. College is not very everyone and is no guarantee of success. Also, focusing too much on standardized test scores can result in classes that miss out on the things that aren't on tests. It's a little difficult to tell, but it seems like KIPP might have managed to avoid some of the drawbacks of test score focus (you can see a little of what KIPP classes are like on their website - but of course their website is going to show them at their best) - the book mentions a KIPP orchestra, and KIPP students seem capable of applying what they learn outside of their classrooms and tests. Still, it made me a little uncomfortable.

Overall, this was a fascinating book. Mathews opinion of KIPP was a little too glowing for my tastes - he makes an effort to write about what some of KIPP's detractors have said, but then goes on to say that nothing those people have said has any basis in fact. He might've been telling the truth, but he seemed too enamored with KIPP for me to feel comfortable trusting him at his word. Also, although Mathews talked to some of KIPP's successful former (and current?) students, who mention that KIPP was tough but worth it, I don't think he ever included any comments made by those for whom KIPP did not help. At one point, Feinberg or Levin (I can't remember which one) accidentally humiliated a student more than he intended with one of his disciplinary actions - how is that student doing today? It's something that never comes up.

Read-alikes:
  • Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire: the Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 (non-fiction book) by Rafe Esquith - In this book, Esquith, one of the teachers who inspired Feinberg and Levin, discusses the teaching methods he has used in his own 5th grade classes.
  • Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America (non-fiction book) by Donna Foote - Foote, a freelance journalist and former Newsweek correspondent, follows four Teach for American corps members through a single school year at Locke High School in Los Angeles. Those who found the descriptions of Feinberg and Levin's time in Teach for America interesting might want to try this. This book may also appeal to those interested in something else about attempts at education reform.
  • Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (non-fiction book) by Jay Mathews - If you've seen the movie Stand and Deliver, you probably already know who Escalante is. Mathews traces Escalante's teaching career from its start in Bolivia to his to his inspirational success teaching calculus and other mathematics courses to low income, high risk students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Those who'd like another "inspirational educator" book by Mathews might want to try this.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cry Wolf (book) by Patricia Briggs

I've been looking forward to this book ever since I read Briggs's short story, "Alpha and Omega," which can be found in the anthology On the Prowl. The cover of this book makes me laugh, though. I don't think Anna would ever wear something like that, even if she hadn't spent most of this book trudging through snow. What is it with cover artists trying to turn all of Briggs's female characters into pin-up girls?

Anyway, this book picks up where Briggs's short story left off. Anna travels with Charles back to his home. He considers her his mate, and he believes that, as an Omega wolf (sort of outside the pack hierarchy - she's not compelled to follow anyone's orders but her own, and her mere presence can sooth other werewolves), she should be a valued and protected member of any pack she chooses to be a part of. Anna is attracted to him, but she can't help but feel as though she doesn't really belong.

Before the two of them have much of a chance to get used to each other, Bran, Charles's father and the Marrock (sort of the Alpha of Alphas, and one of the oldest werewolves in the world), learns that a rogue werewolf is out is out in the wild somewhere killing people. The werewolves plan on going public soon, and a killer werewolf would not be good and reassuring publicity. Although Charles is wounded, Bran decides resolve things as quickly as possible and send him after the werewolf. Anna won't let him go alone, so the two of them leave together. Charles hopes that Anna's abilities as an Omega will make it so that he won't have to kill the rogue.

They do discover Walter, a new werewolf who has very little control, and Anna is able to "tame" his beast, but he's not the one who was killing people. The "rogue" is actually a ghostly werewolf controlled by an evil and crazy witch who's bent on finding a werewolf in Charles's pack named Asil. Centuries ago, Asil's mate was tortured to death by that witch. Although Asil was never able to avenge her death, he at least thought his mate was truly dead - unfortunately, part of his mate lives on as the witch's guardian and plaything. Charles, Anna, Asil, and Walter must try to stop the witch before she gets to Bran and, through Bran, gains control of all the werewolves in his pack. Of course, what the witch doesn't realize is that she's not strong enough to fight the Berserker lurking inside Bran. If Charles and Anna don't work quickly, the witch may be the least of their problems.

I have to admit, I was far more interested in Charles and Anna's relationship than the witch storyline. Anna, who was abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by the members of her former pack on her Alpha's orders, has plenty of issues to work through. Although Charles shows no sign of being like anyone in her former pack, it's hard for her to trust him, so there's a lot she doesn't tell him about what she's feeling and thinking. That leaves Charles with very little to go on when interacting with Anna - I kind of liked that he wasn't on solid ground with her. Since he's sexy and comfortable with both his human and wolf self, it'd be a bit much if he were also confident about dealing with Anna. A little insecurity can be a good thing.

The witch storyline wasn't exactly boring, but it didn't really grab me either. If everyone hadn't stumbled into her clutches, would she have been able to do as much damage as she did? I suppose there's the whole "it'd be bad publicity for the werewolves," but somehow that seems kind of weak. The witch seemed very familiar to me, and then I realized it - she could've been related to Shaman King's Tao Ren! After all, she can turn dead things into her guardians. Unfortunately, rather than being even a fraction as exciting as a Shaman King villain, she just sits around, acts like a crazy, evil, spoiled child, and gloats. If she had died sooner (I suppose you could consider that a spoiler, but did you really expect her to survive?), Briggs could have written more about Charles and Anna, darn it.

I did enjoy getting to find out more about the Marrock, and I suppose that couldn't have happened without a witch breaking his control. I knew from the Mercedes Thompson books that Bran is stronger and tougher than he looks, but this book shows, just a little, how scary he could be if he let loose. As bad as he apparently was centuries ago, now that he has a bunch of werewolves tied to him who aren't all that stable to begin with, he could potentially wipe out large chunks of the human population. True, he usually has control of the Berserker part of himself, but Briggs repeatedly says in her books that older werewolves are less stable. Bran may be the oldest werewolf in the world - is it really a good idea for so many old, powerful, dangerous werewolves to have their sanity dependent upon him? I'm not sure what they would do if they didn't have Bran, but, after reading this book, being with Bran seems like being part of a house of cards. Bran may be doing ok now, but even he can't last forever.

As someone who has read Briggs's Mercedes Thompson books and the short story that introduced Charles and Anna, I have a different perspective of it than someone who hasn't read all those things would have. I'm not sure how well a newbie to this world would do. I think it would probably be fine not to have read any of the Mercedes Thompson books, although that would mean missing out on some of the things going on with Samuel (he makes a brief appearance in this book). I'm not sure if it would be a good idea to miss out on Briggs's short story, though. Even though the main happenings of the story are explained here and there, it's not the same as actually getting the story "firsthand." The story shows Anna's former pack situation, Anna and Charles's first meeting, how Charles was hurt (he spends much of this book suffering from wounds he received in the short story), etc.

Overall, even though the witch storyline didn't excite me, I'm looking forward to the next book with Charles and Anna.

Read-alikes:
  • Tempting Danger (book) by Eileen Wilks - Lily Yu is a cop who's trying to catch the one responsible for some gruesome murders. 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. Werewolves have only recently revealed their existence to humankind, and things are still a little tense. Those who'd like another book featuring werewolves and a couple trying to figure out how to make a new relationship work out might want to try this. 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 book featuring supernatural beings (vampires, werewolves and other shapeshifters, faeries, etc.), the occasional bit of romance, and a likeable female main character with some supernatural aspects of her own might want to try this.
  • Guilty Pleasures (book) by Laurell K. Hamilton - Before American law gave vampires, werewolves, and other beings the same rights as humans, Anita Blake was a vampire hunter. Now she's a vampire executioner, in addition to her full-time job as an animator (raiser of the dead). In this first book, we meet Jean-Claude, a vampire who is one of the many people throughout the series who will be competing for Anita's affection. The various supernatural societies in this world all have their own politics and culture, and the cast of characters is usually fun and interesting. The early books feel a lot like paranormal mysteries with a hint of romance. Be warned, though - at around book 10 or so, the tone of the series changes drastically, Anita becomes darker and harder, and the sex scenes become way more graphic and time-consuming, leaving little room for the mysteries that were part of the early appeal of the series. Those who'd like another book featuring supernatural beings (vampires, werewolves, and more), a bit of romance, and a female main character with supernatural skills of her own might want to try this.
  • Bitten (book) by Kelley Armstrong - Elena became a werewolf after the man she loved betrayed her (that's how she sees it, although it's not what he intended) and bit her while in wolf form - she had no idea what he was and never chose to become a werewolf. She leaves her pack as soon as she is able and begins as normal a life as she can in Toronto. Elena agrees to help her former pack members hunt down mutts (non-pack werewolves) who are leaving a conspicuous trail of carnage - humans don't know about werewolves, and they want to keep it that way. Unfortunately, Elena has to deal with her former lover (the werewolf who bit her) and finds herself drawn to him again. Those who'd like another book featuring werewolves, a bit of romantic tension, and a hunt for a dangerous killer might want to try this book.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Hayate the Combat Butler (manga, vol. 1) by Kenjiro Hata

Sixteen-year-old Hayate's life kind of sucks but he's doing the best he can with the hand he's been dealt. His father doesn't bother getting a steady job because he's always hoping he'll find something that'll suit him better, while his mother gambles all the family's money away (one of my favorite quotes out of many: "Mommy's not buying horse-racing tickets. I'm buying dreams. <3"). Hayate skips out on having a normal social life in order to devote as much time as possible to his part-time job, only to discover that he's been fired because he's too young. His parents told his boss his real age so that they could collect his final paycheck for themselves.

As terrible as this is, Hayate's actually kind of used to this behavior. The last straw, however, is his discovery that the "Christmas present" his parents left him with was their entire gambling debt, roughly $1.3 million. Rather than leaving Hayate to figure out how to pay off the debt on his own, his parents just went ahead and sold him (or, more accurately, his organs) to the yakuza. Hayate is understandably unhappy with this and runs away. He knows the yakuza won't leave him alone until the debt is paid off, so he decides to kidnap the first person he can find and repay the debt with the ransom money.

The first person he finds is 13-year-old Nagi Sanzenin, who just happens to be mega-rich, although Hayate doesn't find this out until later. Hayate beats up some guys who are hitting on Nagi, upset that someone's trying to take his "prey" from him. Nagi completely misunderstands the situation and thinks Hayate has feelings for her - Hayate thinks Nagi's willingness to stay with him means that he's successfully kidnapped her. He has absolutely no idea that Nagi is developing a bit of a crush on him. Hayate's obliviousness and Nagi's misunderstanding are an ongoing joke. Hayate runs off to call Nagi's parents and ask for ransom money, only to run into 17-year-old Maria, Nagi's maid/mother-figure. He instantly develops a crush on her and rescues Nagi from some kidnappers in order to help Maria and atone for trying to kidnap Nagi himself. Although Hayate gets hit by a car and gushes blood, his body is pretty much indestructible and he's fine after a bit of sleep. This is another ongoing joke.

As a reward for saving her, and because she still believes he has a crush on her, Nagi decides to make Hayate her new butler. Hayate's thrilled to have a job (one he's really good at), especially since it means he gets to be around Maria more. Unfortunately, the yakuza haven't forgotten about him, and Hayate ends up in their hands. Nagi saves him, pays off his parents' entire debt, and makes that debt Hayate's own, now to be repaid to her. Hayate's grateful, even though it will take decades to pay of his debt. He may have to deal with Klaus, the Sanzenin family's Head Butler and someone who doesn't really like him, Tama, Nagi's talking tiger, and Nagi's seemingly unreasonable mood swings (when he shows and interest in Maria, Nagi thinks he's thinking of cheating on her, unaware that he doesn't even realize they're a couple), but at least no one's trying to kill him. Well, no one's trying to take his organs, anyway.

I remember seeing an ad for this manga a while back. The ad told me next to nothing about the series, and yet I wanted to read it anyway, just because of the title. "Combat butler" sounded like fun, and it turns out it is. I'll have to wait and see if this series can continue to hold my interest for very long beyond this first volume, but it's done a great job so far. Just about the only thing I didn't like was Hayate and Nagi's misunderstanding. I was willing to put up with it the first time, but when it came up again and the misunderstanding still wasn't cleared up, I started to get a little annoyed. Maybe those scenes lost something in translation, but in English the wording that allowed the misunderstanding to develop and continue was pretty forced. Another one of the weaknesses of this series is its characters, which, despite what the author writes in the character profiles at the end of the volume, tend to come off as fairly one-dimensional and not very interesting. I do enjoy Hayate, but none of the other characters interested me very much.

I have a feeling, however, that most of the issues I have with the characters are a result of the amount of attention Hata has given to this series' off-the-wall humor - I love the humor, so I'm willing to forgive the weak characters. I'm a sucker for inexplicably indestructible characters who get horribly beat up but don't die and random things that get thrown into a story for no apparent reason, other than maybe because they're funny. It's not something I can take in large doses (I'd OD on this if I read one volume of this series right after another), but I love reading this kind of stuff every once in a while. I think the oddness and idiocy of it all wipes my brain cells all squeaky clean.

Another fun thing about this series is all the pop culture references. Most of them are, understandably, Japanese, so, in order to catch them, you have to have decent anime/manga knowledge. However, there are a couple references even an anime/manga novice should be able to catch, namely a Batman one and (I think) a Spiderman one. I wasn't able to figure out all the anime/manga references, but, of the ones I did catch, I particularly enjoyed the Death Note reference.

Overall, I liked this first volume, and I'm willing to see how long this series can hold my interest.

This volumes extras include a one-page introductory comic, character profiles (Hayate, Nagi, Maria, Klaus, and Tama), an author postscript, and a couple four-panel comics.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Excel Saga (manga) by Koushi Rikudou; Excel Saga (anime TV series) - Lord IlPallazzo and his team of ACROSS agents (two of them - hyper Excel Excel and Hyatt, who is sickly and coughs up blood) plan to one day take over the world - and they're starting with just one city. Their various crazy attempts always fail. Those who'd like another crazy comedy with anime/manga/pop culture references might want to try this.
  • School Rumble (manga) by Jin Kobayashi; School Rumble (anime TV series) - When Tenma learns that her secret crush is going to be transferring to a school in America, she writes a long (but anonymous) love letter to him. Karasuma, her crush, ends up postponing his transfer, and Tenma realizes that she's got to work up the courage to tell him how she feels before he finally does leave. Meanwhile, Tenma is entirely unaware that Harima Kenji, the school delinquent, has a huge crush on her, but he's too nervous to confess his feelings to her. Aside from the messy and bumbling love story, there's a whole cast of friends, classmates, and Tenma's younger (but more thoughtful and mature) sister. Those who'd like something else with idiot characters, misunderstandings, weirdness, and humor might like this series. I've read the manga but never seen the anime - however, from what I've heard, the two sound pretty similar, at least in tone.
  • Gin Tama (manga) by Hideaki Sorachi - Gintoki is a broke samurai in a world that no longer needs samurai. His life gets a little more complicated when he starts living with Kagura (a super-strong alien girl who looks tiny and cute) and Shinpachi. The group takes odd jobs, trying to save people and earn enough to eat and pay the rent. Those who'd like another manga series with weird, off-the-wall humor might want to try this.
  • Azumanga Daioh (manga) by Kiyohiko Azuma; Azumanga Daioh (anime TV series) - This series chronicles the everyday lives of some high school students and their eccentric teachers. For instance, there's Chiyo, an adorable 10-year-old genius, Sakaki, a cool-looking shy girl who both adores and is hated by cats, and Osaka, an airhead. Those who'd like another occasionally strange comedy might want to try this.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's been a while, but I'm still here

After months (maybe nearly a year?) of keeping up with my every-other-day review/rambling/read-alike posting frequency, I just sort of stopped for about a week. Well, I'm still here, I just felt a sudden need for a break. I had to deal with some worrisome phone calls, which filled my brain up for two or three horrible days. Then my mom called to say that our family's last remaining cat had to be put to sleep. He was 17, and I hadn't really expected to see him again when I moved away, but, as any pet lover knows, it's never easy. I guess part of me kind of thought he was too grouchy to ever die.

I didn't feel like working up the energy to blog, so I just decided not to for a few days. However, I'm feeling much better now and will hopefully have something new up tomorrow.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Squirrel cuteness

This post has absolutely nothing to do with anything that this blog usually focuses on.

A few weeks ago, I was walking home from work and almost stepped on a baby squirrel. It looked wobbly and weak - I hope that this was just because it was young, and not because it was hurt or sick or something. I felt bad about leaving it where it was, but it would've been a really bad idea to try to take it home with me and there was always a chance its mother was somewhere nearby.

This video is terribly cute and reminds me of that squirrel. Hopefully, my squirrel's mom was as determined as this little one's mother (or whatever) is.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Movie theater time - Star Trek

I went and saw the new Star Trek movie today. It was better than I expected. There were several very funny bits (my favorite: McCoy chasing after Kirk, injecting him with stuff in a desperate attempt to take care of yet another bad reaction to the previous injection - doesn't sound funny when I write about it, but it really is, trust me), and a few good action scenes. Sulu got to kick butt, Uhura was great and got to reject Kirk with style, Scotty and McCoy were amusing, Chekov was adorable, and Kirk was still a bit of a womanizer but charming enough that this wasn't as annoying as it could have been. Oh, Spock wasn't bad either - it was just weird seeing Zachary Quinto and not Leonard Nemoy.

Now, just off the top of my head, the things that bothered me:
  • The Romulans - Did they ever look like that in the show? With the tatoos? I don't recall that, but then I never watched the original Star Trek, just the spin-offs.
  • Spock and Uhura - This bothered the friend I saw the movie with too. While I'm thrilled that Uhura didn't fall into Kirk's arms and make herself another notch in his belt or whatever, the Spock thing was just weird. The first time she kissed him in the movie, his response was so stilted I thought for sure she was just forcing her affections on him or something. Then, later, it's confirmed - they're a couple.
  • They jumped from space?? And survived?! - Well, mostly survived, but the jumping from space was not what killed the one guy. Shouldn't they have all burned up in the atmosphere? Maybe they didn't start out in space, but I could've sworn they did...
  • A cracked spaceship is a very bad thing - Near the end, the Enterprise cracks a bit while under tremendous strain. Cracked glass was all that stood between the people on the bridge and space, and yet no one was nearly as worried as they should have been. Did I miss something?
There's probably more, but I can't think of anything else right now. Anyway, there may not be much to do in this town, but movie theater tickets are incredibly cheap, and I didn't feel like I wasted the money. Of course, the ticket cost me less than $3, so that's not really saying much. Although I had fun, I don't plan on buying the movie once it comes out on DVD - I have no desire to re-watch it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

High School Debut (manga, vol. 4) by Kazune Kawahara

Christmas is coming up, and Haruna is determined to make it the best one ever for Yoh. Specifically, she wants him to say, "I never knew that Christmas could be this good. Having a girlfriend is the best thing ever." Of course, all Haruna and Yoh's friends are supportive, but they know him well enough to doubt he'll ever say anything like that.

After talking to everyone she can think of, Haruna comes up with what she believes is the best list of romantic Christmas activities ever. Plus, after briefly having a part-time job (she was fired for working too hard), she can afford to get Yoh a great present and give herself a make-over (with Asami's guidance) in time for their date. Although the activities Haruna planned don't turn out quite like how she imagined, the date is still a big success, until things go badly during dinner. One of the waiters at the restaurant decides to play a trick on all the couples (he's jealous that he doesn't have a date for Christmas). The game he starts up reminds Haruna that, although Yoh has been happy with her during their date, he used to be happy with his ex-girlfriend and probably even kissed her at some point. In her head, she knows that this is all in the past, but in her heart she can't help but feel upset. Yoh chases after Haruna and ends up kissing her and telling her that, from now on, he won't kiss anyone else but her.

You'd think this would be a happy moment for Haruna, except that now she can't hardly stand to be around Yoh. Every time she's around him, all she can think about is their kiss, and she finds herself being unable to speak, or running away without meaning to. Her sudden awkwardness around Yoh hurts his feelings, and suddenly Haruna's relationship with him appears to be falling apart. Haruna can't even talk to her best friend Mami about it, because she sees Yoh and Mami doing something together and thinks the two of them might be on their way to becoming a couple. It doesn't help that a store employee sees Yoh and Mami together and mistakenly concludes that Yoh is Mami's boyfriend.

Haruna is determined to make things right with Yoh again, but because she still freezes up around him she knows she can't do it on her own. Asami offers to help by going out on dates with Haruna and pretending to be Yoh, so that she can tell Haruna what she's been doing wrong and help her learn to act normally around him again. Haruna doesn't know it, but Yoh sees what she's doing with Asami. He also sees Haruna helping him out by shoveling the snow in front of his house for him - even though she can't be near him, she still wants to help him however she's able.

Haruna is shocked when Yoh shows up at her house one day, eats the cake she had intended to give him on Christmas, and leaves. Haruna goes after him and tries to talk to him, but, even after all her practice with Asami, she can't. Yoh solves things by talking for the both of them, saying that, while he understands why Haruna has been acting the way she has, it still upset him. Haruna apologizes to him and even manages to hug him. Yoh later tells Haruna that he went out with Mami so that she could help him find a good catching glove. He figured that he could rehabilitate Haruna by playing catch with her - even if she couldn't look at him under normal circumstances, she might be able to while throwing the ball to him.

This volume is like Haruna's emotional roller coaster. She starts off high, hits the kiss bit, and plummets to a low. Haruna's high is both funny and fun. I'm pretty sure I've compared her to a puppy before, and that comparison fits yet again. She practically vibrates with excitement at the thought of a perfect Christmas with Yoh. My favorite part was when Mami suggested that Haruna find out what Yoh wants by going shopping with him and subtly asking him what he likes. Mami knows Haruna and seems a bit worried about her ability to be subtle. Considering Haruna's response ("Subtly, got it! I'm gonna write it on my hand!"), it's easy to guess that she's right to be worried. I just can't believe Yoh didn't figure out what Haruna was up to.

As prone has Haruna is to emotional overload, it's not surprising that her kiss with Yoh throws her so badly out of whack. I was kind of surprised that she thought Mami and Yoh might end up as a couple - while it didn't look good, from Haruna's perspective, that Mami and Yoh were having some kind of secret outing together, Mami's the last person I would expect to do something like steal her best friend's boyfriend. Actually, I suppose I'm not really sure what Mami's capable of - Kawahara hasn't really done much with her at this point.

Asami got a little time in this volume and, as usual, I got a little annoyed with her. She doesn't do anything really bad - in fact, it was kind of sweet that she agreed to try to help Haruna get over her issues with Yoh (I think this might show her affection for Yoh more than any kind feelings towards Haruna, but still). She cancels a date with Fumi because of the potential entertainment value of Haruna's problems - not exactly nice, but kind of funny. The one bit that bothered me was when Asami took Haruna out for her Christmas makeover. She takes Haruna to all kinds of stores that are so expensive even she doesn't normally shop at them, probably just so she can mooch off of Haruna and get all her free gifts. It's only a little thing, but it sticks with me, because I never really got over Asami's actions in volume 2.

Now on to Asaoka, and his very unusual violent reaction. It's always hard to tell what he's thinking, because he smiles all the time. He's such a laidback character, in general, that it was a bit of a shock to see him punch the waiter who gave out the test/game that upset Haruna during her Christmas date. I wonder, was he more upset that Yoh's date took such a bad turn, or that Haruna was hurt? I'm going to guess that it was because Haruna was hurt, because I'm still running off the suspicion that he secretly likes her. I just know Asaoka is going to be a really interesting character in the future.

Overall, this is a fun volume. There's plenty of humor, plus Haruna and Yoh's relationship moves forward a tad. I loved the high concentration of "Yoh smiles" in this volume, as well - compared to how he usually is, he's practically giddy during the first half of this volume. Very cute. One thing, though - in volume 2, when Haruna talks about her feelings for Fumi, she says, "So this is what love feels like... It's my first time feeling this way," to which Yoh responds, "And it probably won't be your last." This isn't the only shojo manga series I can think of that recognizes that high school love isn't necessarily eternal, but I think the majority of them don't even bring this sort of thing up, so comments like these still catch my eye. In this volume, however, we're back to "eternal high school love," as Yoh tells Haruna he won't kiss anyone but her from now on. I would have been even more upset if Yoh had qualified his promise with "while we're dating," though. I'm not really sure what I want - it's just that my brain latched on to the difference between this volume and that one.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Fruits Basket (anime TV series); Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya - Tohru had been living with her grandfather after her mother died, but circumstances and Tohru's own desire not to be a burden meant that she ended up living alone in a tent for a while. However, she gets taken in by the Sohma family, who are hiding a secret - certain members of the family turn into animals in the Chinese zodiac when they're weak or hugged by a member of the opposite sex. Both the manga and anime are good - the anime follows the manga pretty closely (except for a few things, and the last episode), but it ends well before the manga does. Those who'd like another story with romance, a sweet and cheerful female main character, and a guy who isn't always good at expressing his emotions might want to try this.
  • Kare First Love (manga) by Kaho Miyasaka - Karin Karino is a shy student at an all-girls school who doesn't stand up for herself enough. Aoi Kiriya is a handsome and popular student at an all-boys school. Althought they seem completely different, when their paths cross Kiriya ends up asking Karin out on a date. As their relationship develops, Kiriya teachs Karin to be more confident, while Karin helps Kiriya deal with his family-related issues. Those who'd like another series featuring a female character who's a newbie at love and relationships might want to try this.
  • S.A (manga) by Maki Minami; S.A (anime TV series) - This series is also often referred to as Special A. Ever since she was a little girl and Kei beat her in a wrestling match, Hikari has always been second to Kei and considered him her rival. What she doesn't realize, even though everyone else figured it out ages ago, is that Kei loves her. In her determination to beat Kei at something, anything, Hikari has become a member of the Special A, an elite group at their elite school, right alongside him - will she ever realize his feelings for her, and what will happen if she does? My main exposure to this series has actually been to fansubs of the anime - since I don't think this anime has even been licensed by any company in the US, I'm kind of breaking one of my personal rules by putting it on this list. Not like it's the first time, though. Those who'd like another romantic series with a clueless heroine might want to try this.
  • Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - Yukino is a vain and greedy (albeit likable) girl who has spent years making herself seem like a perfect, elegant, and humble student, just so that she can be praised and loved by others. One day, Arima, a boy she views as a rival, sees beneath her mask and uses this knowledge to blackmail her into helping him out with his tremendous volume of work. Arima appears to be the real deal, a good-looking, perfect, and humble student, but he has his own secrets, some of which are far darker than Yukino's. As Yukino spends more time with him, she begins to fall in love with him and wants to help him deal with the darker parts of himself. This series has a part near the beginning that's similar to Haruna's awkwardness around Yoh - like Haruna, Yukino has some problems telling Arima how she feels, which almost messes up their budding relationship.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It's just not happening

I have 18 minutes left before midnight - there's no way today's post is getting done in time. I'd have been able to do it, but the motivational speaker that finished up today's "staff development day" (it's my second one this week) made me feel crappy, and I ended up sleeping all my free time away. How's that for motivation?

The activities she had us do made me feel like I needed to apologize to people, but I can't even remember my group members' names. There's all this attention given to the ethical treatment of human subjects in research, but what about the ethical treatment of human subjects in motivational speaking?

Ah well, I'm sure I'll be over this by morning. At least I know that several of my coworkers also felt that the "activity" portion was painful and hideous. The next time I'm given the option of attending something like this, I think I'll pay attention to my instincts and just skip out and go back to work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Hellboy (live action movie)

Near the end of World War II, the Nazis become desperate enough to try to win with black magic. Although their ritual is interrupted, an infant demon manages to make its way into our world. That demon is given the name Hellboy by the people who find him, Professor Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm and some American soldiers.

Decades later, Hellboy is part of the Bureau for Paranormal Research, along with another "freak," the intelligent and amphibious Abe Sapien (whose abilities include telepathy and psychometry). Hellboy's job is to capture and/or kill any monsters trying to wreck havoc in our world. When he's sent after a demon called Sammael, "the Hound of the Resurrection," it is discovered that several of the people involved in the Nazis' attempt at black magic are back. Hellboy and others must kill Sammael and stop these people before the manage to free the Seven Gods of Chaos.

I have so many movies based on comic books in my collection. I hadn't read any of the Hellboy comics before watching this movie for the first time, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. I don't know how fans of the comics feel about this movie, but I was pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed the humor, even if it was a little heavy-handed in places, and the action scenes were fun. The best part of this movie, however, was Hellboy himself. Despite being covered in make-up, latex, and who knows what else, Ron Perlman did a great job of making Hellboy enjoyable, believable, and likable.

It's a good thing Hellboy is the main character, because he really steals the show. While Abe is interesting, he doesn't really get enough screen time to be more than that - I would've liked to see more of him and learn more about him. Liz, Hellboy's love interest (or crush, or obsession), gets more screen time than Abe, but I'd argue that she's less interesting than him. True, she has awesome pyrokinetic abilities, which make her potentially one of the most destructive members of the group, but personality-wise... I don't know that it's the character who's boring - it might just be the actress who portrays her, Selma Blair. Most of the time, Blair seems to me like she's exhausted, or possibly on some kind of tranquilizers. The sexy Liz on the DVD box makes me laugh, because she's just not like that in the actual movie.

Although I enjoyed the action scenes and some of the special effects, I also recognize that there were things that could've used some work. Sammael should never have been in a decently-lit scene - he (it?) looked great in dim lighting, but brighter lights made the "airbrushed latex" look seem more obvious. There was also a scene or two where I couldn't help but think, "that's definitely a CG Hellboy" - that kind of thing takes me out of the story a bit, which I don't like. Still, it all could have been a lot worse. I didn't notice this stuff as much when I first saw the movie. Now that I know the story and can afford to pay attention to other things, this stuff jumps out at me a little more.

Overall, I really did enjoy this movie. Stereotypical evil Nazis (plus Rasputin) and a wise-cracking, butt-kicking demon, with a smattering of high school romance - not earth-shattering stuff, but I don't mind that. I haven't seen Hellboy II yet - I hope that it's at least as entertaining as this one.

My copy of this movie is the 2-disc special edition - it has so many extras I haven't seen them all, nor do I wish to. That's not to say the extras are bad - there's just so many of them. Even though they have nothing to do with the movie or with Hellboy, I enjoyed the cartoons included on the first disc. Cataloging nerd that I am, I found myself wondering if those who cataloged this included added title access points to the cartoon titles. I'm too lazy to check, but I had a few amusing moments imagining how I might catalog this.

Watch-alikes:
  • Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (live action movie) - In the year 1936, archaeology professor and adventurer Indiana Jones must try to get the Ark of the Covenant - the chest that carried the 10 Commandments - before the Nazis do. Those who'd like another movie with lots of action, evil Nazis, and some wise-cracking humor might want to try this.
  • X-Men (live action movie) - Even as American politicians debate how the "mutant problem" must be handled, a group of mutants plans to take matters in their own hands and make the "mutant problem" a moot point, by turning regular humans into mutants. It's up to Professor Xavier and his "X-Men" to stop them. They must also figure out how two mysterious mutants, a man named Logan with no memories of his past and a girl on the run who goes by the name of Rogue, fit into all of this. Those who'd like another action-filled movie based on comic books might want to try this. Wolverine reminds me a bit of Hellboy - they're both tough, with a similar sense of humor.
  • The Invisible Man (live action TV series) - Darien Fawkes, a thief who ends up in jail, is given a second chance - he can get out of jail if he agrees to have an experimental "quicksilver" gland implanted in his head. The gland allows him to turn invisible, and eventually Fawkes begins working for a secret government organization in return for the counteragent that will keep him from going psychotic and dying (a side effect of the gland) and the chance to eventually have the gland removed. Those who'd like something else with a wise-cracking main character who's part of a secret government organization might want to try this.
  • The Dresden Files (live action TV series) - Harry Dresden is a wizard who works as a private investigator and occasionally helps out the police (doing his best not to reveal that he can do real magic). Those who'd like something else with magic and a wise-cracking main character might want to try this, or the books upon which this show is based (the first in the series is Storm Front by Jim Butcher).

Monday, May 11, 2009

You can practically see the germs

My coworkers are dropping like flies. I talked to several people today who have complained of fatigue, sore throat, etc., and I think there might even have been some weekend nausea in the mix. Our other new librarian (I'm only slightly newer than her) has been out for a few days and had to miss the conference. Her mom visited and mentioned that she didn't have a doctor yet, so I emailed her the name of mine - it sounds like she could really use one right now.

I'd like to say that I'm going strong and will pass through this sea of germs unscathed, but I'm not so sure about that. My throat has been suspiciously scratchy - since it's been this way for a couple days now and hasn't gotten much worse, I'm hoping it's just dryness or something. One of the nice things about having an actual office is that, in my mind at least, I feel a little shielded from whatever is floating around. However, my brain knows I'm probably breathing it in all day long. Ick. It could be worse I suppose - I heard there's a box of moldy books somewhere in Preservation. It makes me think of that disgusting Cowboy Bebop episode, the one with the fridge. ::shudder::

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Salvation in Death (book) by J.D. Robb

Father Flores is poisoned in the middle of a Catholic funeral mass, in front of horrified mourners. Dallas and Peabody are called in to investigate, and Dallas begins to uncover evidence that Father Flores may not have been who he said he was, that he might not even have been a priest at all. So, who was he, and does his real identity have anything to do with his death?

The case looks briefly like it might take a different turn when an evangelist named Jimmy Jay Jenkins is murdered in a similar fashion. However, after Dallas figures that one out, she returns to the idea that "Father Flores" was killed because of who he once was. "Father Flores" was using information he learned during confession to blackmail some of his parishioners - it's possible his killer was one of his victims. "Father Flores" was also once part of a gang, with a tattoo that indicated he had killed someone - he might've been killed because of his past actions as a gang member. Finally, as a gang member, "Father Flores" might've been involved in bombings in the very same neighborhood in which he preached and died - he might've been killed because of that. It's up to Dallas to figure out who killed him and why and see to it that justice is served.

This mystery was twisty enough that it wasn't nearly as boring as the one in Strangers in Death, but I still found myself wanting more. As I've mentioned before in this blog, the main reason I enjoy this series is because I enjoy reading about the characters - the mysteries, if they're good, are just icing on the cake. One of the bright spots in Strangers in Death was Charles and Louise's engagement. This book didn't have much, really. Dallas had some of her usual (and increasingly boring, in my opinion) dreams, in which parts of her and/or Roarke's pasts are combined with victims and/or suspects in her current case(s). In this case, Dallas's father, the rapes she experienced as a child, and Marlena all come up, but there's nothing new. Plus, I'm to the point where these dreams of Dallas's actually take me out of the story - they just feel too contrived to me. Who actually has dreams like that? And on such a regular basis? I think Eve has at least one of these dreams every time she gets a new case.

I suppose if I'm not looking for actual character relationship moments, but rather the general character relationship feel, this book does have something worthwhile in it. Eve and Roarke are at a point in their relationship where they don't really have many big crises to work through anymore. In this book, they really realize how much they each do for each other. Robb didn't really dwell on it much, but it was kind of sweet that Eve thought to have Summerset make sure than one of Roarke's family members called him up.

Despite my complaints about the lack of really good character-related storylines, the mystery was pretty good. I could've done without the Jimmy Jay Jenkins bit - Dallas was so unconvinced that it had anything to do with her Father Flores case that I couldn't make myself believe it had anything to do with it, either, which made the whole thing feel like padding. However, it was interesting seeing the fake priest's past unfold. I had to suspend my disbelief more than a bit - could someone like this really have pulled off a con this prolonged? would people really not have noticed the areas where he slipped up? could he really have been so stupid as to allow himself to be snared by his killer? I know emotions tangled things up a bit, but still... I also had problems reconciling the fact that Father Flores seemed to be a good and popular priest with all the things Dallas discovered that he did and was doing - how could no one get even the hint of a bad vibe from this guy? Despite all that, it was still a fun and readable mystery. And, as usual, Dallas manages to get everything wrapped up so that true justice is served as much as possible. Again, that's a bit contrived, but it bothers me a lot less than Dallas's dreams.

Overall, while this was better than Strangers in Death, I'm beginning to wonder if all the best books in this series were the earlier ones. I can't say that the mysteries in those earlier books were any better than the mysteries in the later ones, but the character-related parts were definitely better. Sometimes I feel like the author is gearing up for a future book in which Dallas discovers that she's pregnant, but she doesn't seem to have many ideas any more for what to do between now and then.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • 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 enhanced 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. However, those who prefer something newer might want to try the anime TV series. I suggest this title as a general watch-alike (or read-alike, if you decide to go with the manga) because the Major, like Eve, is tough, yet with a buried vulnerable side.
  • Light in Shadow (book) by Jayne Ann Krentz - Zoe Luce is an interior decorator with secrets, one of which is that she is a psychic who can sense the emotions that permeate rooms. When she walks into a new client's bedroom, she knows immediately that something terrible happened there and hires Ethan Truax, a private detective, to investigate. As the two of them spend more time with each other, the attractive between them deepens, but how will Ethan react when he discovers that Zoe isn't who she says she is? Those who'd like another romantic suspense story, by an author with a writing style that's similar to Robb/Roberts', might want to try this.
  • Learning to Fly (book) by April Henry - Nineteen-year-old Free Meeker is heading home to tell her parents that she's pregnant when she's involved in a horrific 52-car collision. Although Free survives, a newspaper reports her as one of the fatalities before she can contact her parents. Free ends up assuming the identity of the woman whose body was mistaken as her own, but this turns out to be a dangerous decision - the woman was being followed by her abusive husband, who now thinks Free was the one responsible for helping her escape. In addition, Free is in possession of a suitcase of money given to her by one of the collision victims - a suitcase which belongs to some very unforgiving drug dealers. Those who'd like another story involving an assumed identity might want to try this thriller.
  • Pope Joan (book) by Donna Woolfolk Cross - In this work of historical fiction, set in the early 9th century, a woman named Joan assumes her dead brother's identity and eventually becomes Pope John Anglicus. Those who'd like another book involving religion and assumed identity might want to try this.
  • The Big Picture (book) by Douglas Kennedy - Ben Bradford appears to have everything a guy could want - a beautiful wife, two kids, a nice home in suburbia, and a partnership in a prestigious law firm. However, Ben has always dreamed of being a photographer. When he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with a guy who happens to be a photographer, Ben snaps, kills the man, and ends up assuming his identity as a photographer. Can he get away with it and somehow be happy? Should he get away with it? Those who'd like another book involving murder and an assumed identity might want to try this thriller.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Graveyard Book (book) by Neil Gaiman

One horrible night, a man named Jack kills nearly an entire family. The only one he misses is the youngest child, a baby really, who had gotten out of his crib and walked to a nearby graveyard. The ghosts there adopt him and protect him, with the help of the mysterious Silas. As the baby's original name is unknown, he is renamed Nobody Owens, Bod for short.

Years later, Bod is fairly happy in his graveyard home, but he's also hungry for knowledge and contact with living, breathing humans. Because he's only truly safe in the graveyard, Silas and the ghosts don't want him to leave, but Bod is a living boy and can't stay there forever. Both on his own and with Silas's help, Bod begins to make contact with and venture out into the world outside the graveyard, learning ways to protect himself as he goes along.

Can a boy raised among ghosts in a graveyard ever truly be part of the living world again? What will happen when Jack finds Bod again? And why did Jack kill Bod's family in the first place?

I haven't actually read very many Newbery Medal winners, and I didn't read this one because it won a Newbery Medal - I read it because Neil Gaiman wrote it. I've enjoyed his stuff for years, ever since I picked up The High Cost of Living (my first exposure to his Sandman world) and fell in love with Death.

Parts of this book felt so familiar I started to wonder if it hadn't been released before. Then I read that Gaiman had published a short story called "The Witch's Headstone," which later became part of this book. The feeling of deja vu makes more sense now.

Although I enjoyed this book and found the idea of a boy growing up in a graveyard to be fascinating, I think American Gods or Anansi Boys (neither of which could be considered children's books, so maybe this isn't fair) are better. I think it's just that I was left wanting more than what I got.

I would've liked to have seen more of Silas and Miss Lupescu. Although Gaiman doesn't say so, Silas is probably a vampire, and I should've figured Miss Lupescu out sooner than I did. Both characters interested me, but they're really only present in this book as support for Bod. They protect him and form part of his odd, yet loving community/family. I don't know if Gaiman has said anything about writing more books set in this same world - if he does, Silas might turn up again, but unfortunately Miss Lupescu probably won't. I was disappointed at how little attention her ending received, but I guess that brings me to one of the things I didn't quite like - Bod's way of reacting to certain things.

Bod doesn't really react to things the way one might usually expect a boy his age to react, which made it a little hard for me to think of him as a living, breathing human boy and not some sort of supernatural being. I suppose a lot of my issues about Bod could be explained by his unusual upbringing. Growing up with ghosts, he has a interesting perspective on death. The thought of his own death and of others' deaths doesn't really seem to bother him, because he knows what comes after death - of course, "life" as a ghost isn't really life at all, but I think the closest Bod comes to demonstrating that he knows this is his hunger to be part of the world outside the graveyard. It's possible that his upbringing was also why he couldn't seem to realize why Scarlett, his childhood friend, became so afraid of him.

As close as Bod is to the members of his ghostly community, instead of really mourning the coming loss of his ability to see them all and continue to live in the graveyard, Bod instead seems more excited about being able to go out into the world. While I understand his excitement, the low level of sadness seemed odd. In some ways, his confused and somewhat lowkey reaction made the ending feel especially tragic to me. It felt like the bonds he had with his family and community were being severed, and he was barely even able to notice it happening. Growing up and leaving childhood behind (which was really what Bod was doing) can be sad, but I think, in this particular case, I would've probably felt better if Bod had seemed a little more aware of what was going on.

Ok, a couple more random thoughts/comments, and then I'll wrap this up. One, Scarlett. I had thought, especially when Bod met Scarlett again, that Gaiman was planning on pairing those two up. Had Bod been more upset by the way things turned out with Scarlett, or had he been upset longer, I might've disliked the way Gaiman dealt with Scarlett more. As it is, I just find it interesting that things didn't go the way I expected them to. Two, Mo and Nick. I was a little uneasy when Bod started coming into his own with the various ghost-related powers, since his first major use of those powers was to scare Mo and Nick silly. True, those two were terrible bullies and needed someone to reign them in, but I wasn't always sure how far Bod was going to go with things.

Overall, this was a quick, interesting read. The Newbery Medal meant that one of my coworkers actually read (or, more accurately, listened to) the book - maybe she'll get hooked on Gaiman, too. Since I suggested several of Gaiman's other books as good potential additions to our popular fiction collection, it should be pretty easy for her to try more of his stuff.

Read-alikes:
  • Odd Thomas (book) by Dean Koontz - Odd Thomas is a small town fry cook who seems like a perfectly nice, normal guy. Only a few people know that Odd can see ghosts. Odd can also see creatures he calls bodachs, horrible creatures that seem to gather around anyone and any place that will soon have a link to pain and tragedy. When Odd notices the growing number of bodachs gathering around a stranger who has just come to town, he investigates and discovers things that lead him to believe that the stranger plans on killing lots of people. It's up to Odd to figure out how to stop him in time. Those who'd like another book with a somewhat odd main character who can see ghosts might want to try this. Keep in mind, however, that this was written for an older audience than The Graveyard Book. Although I can't recall much happening in Odd Thomas that was worse than anything in The Graveyard Book, the greater amount of suspense in Koontz's book does make this a tenser read.
  • Nation (book) by Terry Pratchett - Ermintrude (who renames herself "Daphne") is on the ship the Sweet Judy, on her way to joining her father. Mau has survived his time on the Boys' Island and in on his way back to his family, to celebrate becoming a man. Both of them are left alone, their lives horribly disrupted, when a giant wave destroys the Sweet Judy and many of the small islands in the area. As they interact with one another, their worldviews are disrupted. Together with other survivors, they gradually form a new community and try to figure out how live again. At times, this book is terribly sad and brutal, but, like The Graveyard Book, it also has its humorous moments. Those who'd like another "coming of age" story by an author with a somewhat similar writing style might want to try this.
  • A Dirty Job (book) by Christopher Moore - Charlie Asher is very much the beta male type, an average guy with an average life who doesn't really want more. Unfortunately, his wife doesn't survive the birth of their first child, and Charlie, who even under better circumstances is a bit neurotic, is left to raise their daughter. Although he gets help from friends and family, how's he supposed to deal with everything when he discovers his daughter's talent for causing things to die, hears menacing whispers in the streets, and finds out he has to locate people who are dead or about to die and collect their soul vessels? Those who'd like another book that mixes seriousness with humor and deals (in a different way than The Graveyard Book) with death and what comes after might want to try this. Like Odd Thomas, this was written for adults, not children or teens, so keep that in mind.

Why does everything have to use electricity?!

I had a 40-minute power outage today - from what I heard, all or most of the town had no power. I'm not sure why, since, from what I could tell, the weather wasn't all that bad, just gray. Even though it was just for a short while, I still had problems going for more than a few minutes without wanting or trying to do something that needed electricity. I also realized that I have very little food in my apartment that doesn't need to be cooked or baked first. If the power hadn't come back on soon enough, I probably would've had leftover Sally Lunn bread and string cheese for dinner. That would've been ok, but it's a little scary thinking about longer power outages.

Going to be a little late

It's late, I'm tired, and my post isn't finished. This is another one that is going to be published a little later in the day than usual. Unless I change my mind and decide to write something about the next volume of High School Debut, expect to see a post on Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book soon. Ghosts, murderers, and a strangely serious little boy, yippee. I can't believe I don't have a single Neil Gaiman post yet...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Great techie fun - ClearForest Gnosis and more

I got to go to a conference on technology for librarians. Although the technology petting zoo turned out to be pathetic (lots of handouts, hardly anything to play around with, and the stuff that was available wasn't the sort of stuff I was interested in), the presentations were awesome. I learned about some nifty tools, Semantic Web developments, and open source stuff (ILSs, OPACs, and more). I'm not sure I'll be able to play around with everything I learned about, but I can play around with some of it.

One of the things I found out about was ClearForest Gnosis, a Firefox add-on. ClearForest Gnosis can process a web page and, in a few seconds, link topics, names, organizations, etc. to information available from a select list of sites or search them in whatever seach engines are included in the list. The default list includes things like Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, Linkedin, and Technorati. You can add more sites to the list, but ClearForest Gnosis seems to be picky about which sites its able to use - I'm guessing it has something to do with how those sites are set up and what their metadata is like. Either that, or I'm adding the sites wrong. I tried adding Amazon.com and a few other sites, and ClearForest Gnosis doesn't seem to be able to use any of them. Also, I tried it out on my blog and discovered that it doesn't like long pages of text - I either had to select a portion of text to process or click on a single post.

Still, even with its limitations and glitches ("Teen Games"= sports event, "hockey puck travel" = industry term, etc., and it catches some things, such as certain names, only to miss others), it's pretty nifty. I'm not sure how often I'll be using this add-on, but it'll be fun to experiment with it at least.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Invader Zim, Vol. 1: Doom Doom Doom (non-Japanese animation, TV series)

The Irken armada is preparing to take over the universe (Operation Impending Doom II), but first the Almighty Tallest have to do something about Invader Zim, the guy who ruined the first Operation Impending Doom. They convince him that he's being sent on an important mission, put him in a spaceship, and send him in a random direction with a defective robot (the adorable GIR). That random direction brings Zim to our own planet, which he is promptly determined to take over. After cleverly disguising himself as a small green child with a small green dog (GIR in a dog suit), Zim tries to learn Earth's weaknesses. The only person who immediately sees through his disguise is UFO-obsessed Dib, one of Zim's classmates.

I love this show.

There's no progressing storyline - Zim wants to take over the Earth, and Dib wants to stop him (and use him to prove that aliens exist), but that's pretty much it. One episode ends with the Earth floating aimlessly through space - in the next episode, everything's fine again. In another episode, Zim's brain has been replaced with a pig - in the next episode he's fine. Is this a problem? No, not really, because the important thing is the humor - if you're worrying about continuity, you're taking this show too seriously.

It's been ages since I watched anything on Nickelodeon, but I remember when I was a kid and it featured slime and toilet humor. Invader Zim has both (plus other liquids and drippy stuff I don't want to think about too much). It also has random weird humor, fun dialogue, and lots of great one-liners (many of which I'm sure made it onto t-shirts and other merchandise). This show practically cries out for fan sites listing favorite quotes - and a search for "Invader Zim quotes" turns up plenty.

In addition to the humor, I liked the characters. Zim gets a little too evil for my tastes at times, but I love him when he's barely competent but hugely confident. It wouldn't surprise me if Gaz, Dib's sister, inspired Mandy from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, yet another show I like. Dib is like a young, picked-upon Fox Mulder (The X-Files). Then there's GIR - as the various people in the DVD commentaries say, "America loves GIR" (also, "America hates Dib"). Anytime the show needs a boost in its insanity levels, GIR is there to help. Plus, he's the cutest thing ever.

Several times during the commentary, people mention how surprised they were that Nickelodeon let them get away with as much as they did. The humor does occasionally get pretty dark (to the point of being horror, actually). In one episode, Zim rips out the eyeballs of one of his classmates and replaces them with new ones - this is only shown in silhouette, but still. I think this happens in the second episode. In another episode, Zim steals the internal organs of his classmates and stuffs himself to bursting with them. In yet another episode, Zim uses rubber pigs and a time machine to gradually cripple and eventually kill Dib (he only stays dead for a few seconds, but it's still brutal). The cast and crew members in the commentary conclude that Nickelodeon wasn't watching them too carefully (yet), and I'd have to agree.

As I've already said, I love this show. I'd recommend it (to people with a high tolerance for sometimes dark and often gross humor), except that owning it now takes a slightly greater monetary commitment than it did only a year or two ago. A couple years ago, I remember seeing the complete Invader Zim series on RightStuf.com for only $30. Now, you'll see it selling for $50+ used.

I don't usually spend much time looking at and listening to DVD extras, but the extras for this aren't too bad. The commentary is fun, although it doesn't always stay focused on the show and the cast and crew have a tendency to just keep talking as though the episodes will never end (I think one commentary cuts off in the middle of some comments). For me, the only other good extra is the interview with several of the voice actors. After hearing some of them in the commentary, it was nice getting to see them. I didn't really watch the animatics, the pig commentary was pretty worthless, and I can only guess that the Irken subtitles were a nod to some really obsessed fans (I couldn't help but wonder if the subtitles were actually translatable - it didn't seem like they could be). The back of the DVD box mentions "fanboy commentary" - if you want some of that, you'll have to provide it yourself, since I don't think it actually exists. I suppose fangirls need not apply. ::sigh::

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy (non-Japanese animation, TV series) - This show features the adventures of the Grim Reaper and the two children who have forced him to be their best friend. Billy is a cheerful idiot, while Mandy is cynical and devious - between the two of them, they make Grim's existence very difficult. Those who'd like another cartoon with gross, weird, and occasionally dark humor might want to try this.
  • Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (comic) by Jhonen Vasquez - The same brain that came up with Invader Zim produced Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, a dark and disturbingly funny comic about Johnny (Nny). Nny tortures and kills people, usually as vengeance (because they belittled him or otherwise gave him a hard time), but sometimes just because he likes torturing and killing people. However dark Invader Zim may get, this is darker - it's definitely not for everyone. What little I know about Johnny makes me think of Dib, if he suddenly snapped after years of being ridiculed.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas (stop motion movie) - Jack Skellington of Halloween Town is bored of frightening people. When he discovers Christmas Town, he becomes obsessed with Christmas and eventually tries to take over Santa's role. Most of Halloween Town gets involved, but they all have a twisted idea of what Christmas is like. It's a recipe for disaster, and only Sally, a rag doll woman who is secretly in love with Jack, seems to realize this. Can she free Santa and stop Jack before Christmas is ruined? Those who'd like something else weird, funny, and a bit creepy might want to try this.
  • Excel Saga (manga) by Koushi Rikudou; Excel Saga (anime TV series) - Lord IlPallazzo and his team of ACROSS agents (two of them - hyper Excel Excel and Hyatt, who is sickly and coughs up blood) plan to one day take over the world - and they're starting with just one city. Their various crazy attempts always fail. Those who'd like another weird and energetic "let's take over the world" story might want to try this. With all the satire and references, it helps to have some knowledge of manga and anime before you see this, but I don't think it's absolutely necessary. I'm more familiar with the manga than I am the anime, although I've heard that there's so much going on in the anime that it can be tough to keep up with the subtitles.
  • Pinky and the Brain (non-Japanese animation, TV series) - Two lab mice - "one is a genius, the other insane" - try to take over the world, coming up with various outlandish schemes that never quite work out. Those who'd like another cartoon featuring a pair of characters who attempt to take over the world might want to try this.
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