Monday, March 28, 2011

Ratha's Creature (book) by Clare Bell

I haven't included any cover art, because the library book I read didn't have a book jacket, just boring green cloth.

Synopsis:

I'll make this easy on myself and start off by saying that all the characters in this book are cats. Some of them can talk to each other and are intelligent. I read somewhere that the setting is prehistoric Earth, but I wouldn't bat an eyelash if someone told me the book was actually set on another planet that just happened to have similar wildlife.

Ratha is one of the Named, a group of intelligent cats that survives by keeping herds of hooved animals. She's young and still in training, but her teacher, Thakur, believes she will one day be one of the best herders in the clan. When she's older, her job will be to help the herd grow and protect it from the Un-Named. Ratha has always been taught that the Un-Named are stupid and unable to speak, but Thakur seems to think this might not be true.

The clan has enough to worry about, protecting the herd from Un-Named raiders, but then lightning causes a fire. After the devastation is over, Thakur has developed a fear of fire, while Ratha, on the other hand, has developed a fascination for it. Through trial and error, Ratha figures out what causes the remaining small flames, the fire's "cubs," to grow or die. She wants to use her new knowledge to help the clan, but the clan leader, Meoran, is resistant to change and chases her away.

Unable to keep her little flame alive, Ratha is now without a clan and without her fire. Her herding skills can't help her now that she's on her own. Somehow, she has to remember how to hunt before she dies of starvation. Life outside the clan reveals things she could have never guessed about the Un-Named, herself, and the clan ways she always thought were best, but what will she do when she learns that her former clan is under threat?

Commentary:

I first read this book when I was younger, and the only thing I could remember about it was that all its characters were cats and that one of the prominent characters died horribly and tragically of a crushed ribcage. I made the mistake of trying to hunt the book down via Google searches, and, after turning up nothing but veterinary information and things too horrific for me to want to remember clearly, I finally turned to the catalog of the library I used when I was younger. By searching for "cats fiction" and limiting my search to the library's young adult location, I found the book in a couple minutes.

My younger self had a greater tolerance for tragedy than I do now. Although I wouldn't say that this book ended very badly for Ratha, the main character, there was still more death and pain in this book than I remembered. By the end of the book, Ratha has experienced being an outcast on at least two occasions, her clan has nearly been wiped out, several cats have died horrible deaths, and Ratha's children turned out to be a huge disappointment to her. My younger self lapped this kind of stuff up. I, as I am now, had to push myself to make it to the book's ending. I had originally planned on reading the second book in the series, but now I'm not so sure. It's not that Ratha's Creature was a bad book, it's just that I don't think books like this are a good fit for me anymore.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

DEAD(ish) (novelette) by Naomi Kramer

Synopsis:

Linda is dead, but she's not gone. Still able to interact with the physical world, she torments Mike, who was her boyfriend when she was alive. Linda is obsessed with finding out where her body is and, although Mike knows exactly where it is, he's not telling, despite the abuse heaped upon him.

Linda hires a private investigator named Trent to help her find her body. There's a lot Trent doesn't know, though, and it's not long before he learns that all that missing information is really important. The location of Linda's body turns out to be tied to the truth about how she really died.

Commentary:

Remember the post I wrote about getting to try out the Nook? One of the things I did was download a free e-book off of the Barnes & Noble website, and this was that free e-book. Well, although I call it an e-book, I think it might be more accurate to call it a novella, or maybe even a short story. The whole thing isn't even 100 pages on the Nook (I'm not counting the excerpt at the end), and that's with the font size set to Large. However, until someone tells me otherwise, I'm going to call it a book and use "books" as one of this post's labels. [On Amazon.com, DEAD(ish) is referred to as a novelette.] If I start reviewing more short works like this, I may see about coming up with a new label.

I downloaded this because the cute, visually appealing cover art led me to believe it would be a funny book in the same vein as Christopher Moore's A Dirty Job, or possibly even MaryJanice Davidson's Undead and Unwed or Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. Yeah, I read a lot more into that cover image than I should have. It really is a nice-looking cover, though.

I'll get this next part out of the way quickly: If you're easily offended by swear words, don't even touch this. I think there are maybe 1-4 per page. Also, if the idea of gay sex, voyeurs, or a heterosexual couple trying to form a foursome with a gay couple offends you, don't touch this. I don't remember the book containing graphic descriptions of anything, though - in this area and in others, this book is more "tell" than "show."

Especially in the beginning, that was my primary problem - readers are told more than they're shown. The book starts off in the first person, from Mike's perspective, and it's quickly clear that, as awful as Linda's treatment of him is, he deserves it. Mike is not a pleasant person, and Kramer communicated that well.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mara, Daughter of the Nile (book) by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Synopsis:

This book takes place in ancient Egypt. Hatshepsut is essentially the pharaoh, and there are people who are not happy about this and would prefer to see her brother Thutmose on the throne instead (I have read that there are great historical inaccuracies at work here, but I don't know much about Egyptian history myself and this is what happened in the book.).

Mara, a clever, blue-eyed slave, could care less about any of that until she is sold to a scary guy who works for Hatshepsut. He promises her eventual freedom if she will act as a spy and uncover the plots and people working against Hatshepsut. Inanni, a Canaanite princess who is supposed to marry Thutmose, is arriving soon, and Mara will be acting as her interpreter - in this way, Mara will be in the perfect position to observe the goings on in the palace.

Before Mara even gets to the palace, however, she winds up with a second master: Sheftu, the young man leading the rebels. Sheftu thinks Mara is merely a runaway slave. He and Mara are attracted to each other and appreciate each others' cleverness, but they both have more important things to think about. Sheftu believes that the only way Egypt can be saved is if Thutmose is put on the throne. Mara has to figure out how to serve two masters and come out of it all with both her life and her freedom.

When Mara and Sheftu start to fall in love, the goals they're working towards end up at risk. Can everything still work out, and can their feelings for each other survive all the lies and danger?

Commentary:

I first read this book when I was a teen. For the longest time, all I could remember about it was that the main character got whipped within an inch of her life near the end and that her shoulders were still healing when the romantic storyline was wrapped up. I also remembered not quite liking Sheftu, but I couldn't remember why. A comment on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reminded me of the book's title and author. My first thought was, "Must request this via ILL!" So I did.

Even though it's dangerous, I like taking the occasional trip down reading memory lane - sometimes I still enjoy the books I loved when I was younger, and sometimes I can barely finish them. For the most part, I enjoyed this one. Although I think I disliked Sheftu a bit more than I would have when I was younger, all the intrigue was a lot of fun, despite some bits that strained my suspension of disbelief, and I still thought Mara was an awesome heroine.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Spice & Wolf, Vol. 1 (book) by Isuna Hasekura, illustrated by Jyuu Ayakura

Synopsis:

This book takes place in a time and place very much like Europe in the Middle Ages. Lawrence is a lonely traveling merchant who dreams of making enough money to be able to open his own shop and finally settle down.

His life is complicated by the discovery of a beautiful naked girl sleeping in his cart - a girl who just happens to have wolf ears and a tail. The girl's name is Holo, Holo the Wisewolf, and she has been the wolf goddess of the harvest for generations in one of the villages Lawrence passes through regularly. However, that village no longer needs Holo, and Holo, as lonely as Lawrence, wants nothing more than to travel back to the forests in the north where she was born.

Holo and Lawrence strike up a deal: Lawrence will accompany Holo to the north, as long as Holo helps him profit more than he would have alone. Holo is by no means an inexpensive travel companion (she likes wearing high quality clothes, and she has an obsession with tasty food and drink), but she's as good at bargaining and detecting lies as she claims to be, and she does negotiate more profit for Lawrence than he could have on his own.

Then Lawrence and Holo learn about a particular deal involving depreciating silver currency. If they can figure everything out and make the right deals, they could stand to make an amazing profit - but it eventually becomes clear that, if they're not careful, they might just as easily end up turned over to the Church, where Holo would be seen as a demon-possessed girl and she and Lawrence would be burned as heretics.

Commentary:

This light novel and the ones that come after it inspired the anime, but I saw the anime first. I had actually heard about this book long before I saw the anime, mainly because of the controversy over the cover. The cover image you see in my blog is not the cover the original Japanese version of this book had, and, from what I can remember, it was extremely difficult to get the version of the cover with the original artwork. I remember assuming that the cover re-design was an attempt by Yen Press to market the book to a wider audience. In my opinion, the new cover is hideous. Also, what was point, when the original cover actually matched the illustrations inside the book?

This book is almost exactly like what I remember of the anime, up to the resolution of the story arc involving the silver trenni coins. The primary difference is that a character who was female in the anime is male in the book - I'm assuming he was turned into a she in the hopes of attracting more male otaku.

As is usually the case with light novels, I found myself preferring the anime to the novel the anime was based on. I didn't find all the financial scheming any easier to understand in the novel - in fact, I think more of it went over my head this time than when I was watching the anime. I found the interplay between Lawrence and Holo to be more charming and clever when I could actually watch and hear the two of them. That said, just as their relationship was the strongest part of the anime, it was also the strongest part of this book, and I really enjoyed reading about the two of them getting to know each other and learning how to work and live together.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Taisho Baseball Girls, Complete Collection (anime TV series)

Synopsis:

It's 1925, and times are changing in Japan. New and traditional views sometimes conflict, however.

Akiko is upset when, at a party, her arranged fiance, Iwasaki, says that women should be housewives and therefore don't even need to go to school. Knowing that he's a baseball player, Akiko decides to challenge him on that front - but there are lots of problems with her plan. For one thing, girls' baseball teams don't even exist.

Akiko and her friend Koume find more members for their team. It's an uphill battle: trying to keep everyone on the team, worrying about what their parents will think, getting uniforms, equipment, and a place to practice, and trying to find teams that will even play against them. Can Akiko, Koume, and the other girls prove that they should be taken seriously?

Commentary:

I kind of bought this series on a whim. I had read a review that made this series sound pretty decent, but I hadn't really had any intention of buying it until RightStuf had a sale on Sentai Filmworks products - and, even then, I only bought it so that I could buy another anime series without having to pay shipping.

At first, I was a bit disappointed by the show. The girls seemed like the kind of stereotypes you'd find in harem anime like Negima or Love Hina, only without the copious amounts of fanservice (unless you count costume fetishes - this show not only has girls in traditional dress and sailor suits, there are also maids, although they're not played for titillation). For example, one girl, Tomoe, is the Tall, Cool Girl Who's Good At Sports.

Early on in the show, there is a point where Koume bumps into a male student from another school, accidentally dropping her handkerchief (after saving her lunch with a really fantastic catch, which turns out not to be foreshadowing for catching awesomeness in baseball). The guy stares at the handkerchief, blushing, and it's clear he's got a crush on Koume. Considering the number of girls who seem like harem anime stereotypes, I started wondering if this was going to be the kind of show where the girls find touching romance while learning to play baseball.

Then came the girls' practice game against the Asaka Middle School baseball team, Iwasaki's team. I have never wanted to smack so many male characters in such a short period of time. I went from being somewhat bored by the girls to hoping they'd make the guys eat every last one of their condescending words - and, unfortunately, the girls completely sucked. I would have been completely unbelievable if they hadn't sucked, but I still hated it that the guys left feeling like their condescending attitudes were justified.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Nook trial time!

I'm so excited - someone is letting me borrow their Nook!  I've only used it a little so far. I had forgotten how bad its responsiveness is (although possibly this Nook is an older version than what's being sold now? Are there older versions of the Nook, beyond one being Wi-fi, one 4G, and one color?).

I downloaded a couple PDFs to see how those would look. I had thought that pictures in a PDF would just be changed to grayscale once on the Nook - but ohhh no, instead they were stripped out and the formatting of the document was extremely wonky, almost unreadable in areas. The other PDF I downloaded had no pictures. The formatting was also a bit off on this one, but the result was much more readable.

My plan is to try some Project Gutenberg books and some of the free books the person I'm borrowing this from already has on there. This will also give me a chance to see how I feel about it after reading on it for a while. And, yes, I have already said many thanks to the person who's letting me borrow it - I thought it was very nifty of her to offer to let me do this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

DNF: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled

Truthfully, I abandoned this book several weeks ago - I've only gotten a few pages further into this book since the last time I wrote about it. However, I've still had it in my apartment, bookmark in place, taunting me. I've now officially decided to abandon it and move on to something else, guilt-free. However, before abandoning it, I wanted to write a little about it.

I've finished a third of the book. I hate not finishing books, especially ones I've gotten as far into as this one, but I have a steadily growing pile of ILL books, used and new books I've bought, and unwatched anime - all of it is capturing my interest more than this book.

I originally started reading this as a palate cleanser - I desperately needed a break from romance novels, and this book fit the bill. It's a strange story. The protagonist, Mr. Ryder, is an exhausted and confused pianist who has been invited to give a performance in a European city still recovering from some sort of disastrous event. What that event was,  Mr. Ryder doesn't know. In fact, he doesn't know much at all - he supposedly has a packed schedule, but he can't remember what's in that schedule, and he doesn't even know exactly what it is he's supposed to be doing at the performance. Because everyone else seems to know what he's supposed to be doing and assumes he does too, he feels too awkward to ask any questions.

Despite his supposedly packed schedule, Mr. Ryder gets sucked into one ordinary and incredibly time-consuming errand after another. It becomes evident to the reader that there is something not quite right about Mr. Ryder's memory, or perhaps there's something off about his entire time in this city. In one scene, he seems to be a complete newcomer to the city, while in another he might be chatting with people he knows intimately, who he seemed not to know at all only a few pages earlier. He might observe other characters and suddenly seem to be able to know their thoughts - without ever thinking it's strange, he'll know things about other characters' pasts that one would think he shouldn't know, only for it to later be revealed that he actually had known those characters for years but somehow did not remember. All throughout this, Mr. Ryder is incredibly, deeply exhausted. He needs a good night's sleep, but things keep getting in the way.

At first, I found this all fascinating. I could have cared less about the town and its big event, but I really wanted to know what was going on with Mr. Ryder. I thought the strangeness was all just due to fatigue - sleep deprivation can mess with your memory. Then I got to the part where Mr. Ryder is attending a dinner of some kind and must give a speech. Even though he is wearing a dressing gown, and even though that gown falls open when he first attempts to give his speech, no one reacts the way I would have expected people to react. The location itself becomes a bit fuzzy - it seemed clear, at first, that it was taking place somewhere Mr. Ryder had never been, but then it turned out to be taking place in the very hotel he (and I) thought he had left.

It was at that point that I decided the only plausible explanation for everything going on was that Mr. Ryder was having a dream. I think that's part of the reason why I lost interest. There's no point in trying to figure out what's going on if the author can make anything happen. It could turn out that I'm wrong, and something very different is going on, but, to be honest, I'm no longer interested enough in the book to want to find out.

Some might find the gradual unwrapping of the town's residents and past interesting and keep going just for that. I did find it all interesting, at first, but then I just got tired of the way it was all written. It's hard to tell, sometimes, what information is important and what isn't - characters can talk for pages at a time about very little. Paragraphs that are anywhere from one to four pages long are a regular occurrence, and they became more annoying to me as the book progressed.

According to some Amazon.com customer reviews I read, I'm not the only one to find this a difficult book to get through. It sounds like Ishiguro's other works are not necessarily like this, so I might try one of his other books one day. It's possible I might try this book again one day, but I kind of doubt it. It's an exhausting book - I'd rather devote my energy to something more immediately enjoyable.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Big Windup!, The Complete Series (anime TV series)

If you remember, I wrote a post about this series back in December of last year, after I saw it on Hulu. The post includes a synopsis, watch-alikes and read-alikes, and a commentary. This post will mostly cover what I thought about the Japanese language track and English subtitles, although I will also write a bit more about the relationship between Abe and Mihashi (sorry, I just can't help myself). A watch-alike is also included at the end of this post, but see my first post if you'd like more.

I love this show so much. If I could, I'd beg more people to buy it, and then use the sales numbers to convince FUNimation to license the rest of the series. It was just as exciting the second (and third) time around as it was the first - I was at the edge of my seat during the final two episodes of the game against Tosei, because I couldn't for the life of me remember the details of how things ended and the show did an excellent job of making things look very bad for Nishiura.

Friday, March 11, 2011

My reading life (sort of)

I downloaded Open Office many months ago, but, beyond typing up a list of books I'd like to request via ILL sometime, I haven't really used it much. I decided it was time to try something new with it.

For some reason I've been thinking about a story my mom told me several years ago. My mom works at a public library, and she had a patron come in, a mother who was upset that her son only wanted to read Star Wars books.  My mom helped her find other books for her son, but both my mom and I couldn't help but think that this mom should have been happy her son was a voracious reader, period. Who knows what books his Star Wars habit would lead him to next? I only hope that her efforts to get him to read something else didn't turn him off of reading entirely.

Thinking about that led me to thinking about my own reading. Below is a very simplified picture of my reading over the years ("Mysteries" is missing. Whoops). I did it using the Open Office Draw program - is that equivalent to MS Publisher?


So, as you can see, I started off as a big-time fantasy reader. I know there was one point where I read anything with unicorns and another point where I read anything with horses - I can't remember which came first. Same goes with the gryphons and dragons - I know I had periods where I read anything with either animal on the cover or in the title, but I don't know which came first or if the obsessions were mixed together.

I briefly got hooked on Goosebumps, which led to an addiction to Christopher Pike. I secretly raided my parents' bookshelves, sure that they would not want me to read their Stephen King novels. I'm pretty sure my first "book for adults" was King's Firestarter.

At some point, I had a teacher who forced everyone in class to read a certain number of science fiction novels. I wasn't happy with the assignment at first, but then I realized that "science fiction" did not mean "boring," like I thought it did. And I learned that sometimes the fantasy authors I loved had written science fiction, too.

The first book I ever read that had "romance" listed on the spine as its genre was Fire Dancer by Ann Maxwell. I loved it and the books that came after it, but now, as someone who's been reading romance for a long time, I'm a little peeved that this series ever got marketed as romance (I believe it was originally marketed as sci-fi, but then repackaged as romance). It has strong romantic elements, but the romance is never resolved. I don't think the series has ever been finished.

It took me ages to admit that I was really a romance fan long before I ever read Maxwell's books - the fantasy and sci-fi (and even, in some cases, horror) books I enjoyed the most tended to be ones with romantic elements. Everything gets a little intertwined - I think my love for paranormal romance has its roots in my old love for fantasy and horror, and my love for fantasy and futuristic romance definitely stemmed from my love for fantasy and science fiction. I'm not really sure how the historical and contemporary romance fits in.

My tastes have changed over the years, but I don't think my interest in any of the genres I've enjoyed has ever really gone away. I read a lot of romance, but that doesn't mean I stopped reading fantasy or science fiction (or even horror, although it's rare I read the really scary stuff anymore). And sometimes the genres do tend to blend together, or it wouldn't have been possible for Maxwell's book to be considered sci-fi in one printing and futuristic romance in another.

There are all kinds of things missing from my picture. Somewhere in there should be the period of time I spent reading nothing but Babysitters Club books. And then there were Lurlene McDaniel's terminally ill teens. And those random YA historicals (ooh, maybe that's the root of my love of historical romances!). And all those books with cats.

Ok, so my picture is really simplified.

I know, this was a pretty random post, but I had fun putting the picture together. Anybody else have reading stories you'd like to share?

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Shy Duchess (book) by Amanda McCabe

This post has several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Synopsis:

Lady Emily Carroll is a blond, green-eyed beauty who should have more suitors than she knows what to do with - unfortunately, she's so shy that most of the eligible men are convinced she's not interested, so she's been dubbed the "Ice Princess." The only person who appears even the slightest bit interested seems somehow "off" to Emily. She doesn't want to have to marry him, but she might not have much of a choice.

Emily may not have many suitors, but there is one person she finds herself interested in: Nicholas, Duke of Manning. He's perfect for all sorts of reasons, but he thinks she dislikes him. Then, at a masked ball, Emily gets a bit tipsy and shares a very passionate kiss with him. Later on, Emily and Nicholas confess that, despite the masks, they each knew who the other person was. Circumstances then result in Nicholas having to publicly declare Emily his fiancee. It's either that, or Emily's ruination.

Emily and Nicholas make a good match, but they're both hiding things from each other. Emily has been secretly teaching at a school for former prostitutes, and, although Nicholas tells Emily about his secret deceased wife, he doesn't tell her what caused her death. Can their marriage survive all these secrets and Emily's insecurities?

Commentary:

I just realized that I used the word "secret" three times in the last paragraph of my synopsis - that's probably a good sign that those who hate Big Misunderstandings with a passion should steer clear of this one. For those who are more tolerant of that sort of thing, I can assure you that Emily, at least, had understandable reasons for keeping her secrets.

I had no idea about the Big Misunderstandings when I picked this book up. I've been gravitating towards Harlequin Historicals lately, because they're cheap grocery store buys and their covers and titles tend to be less embarrassing than the covers and titles of other Harlequin books (I swear, that tiara is covered up by a sticker on my copy, and, although the details are wrong, the necklace is in the book). Although I have two ILL books I should have been reading instead, this book grabbed my attention because I'm a huge fan of "shy heroine" romance stories. The title and back cover description told me that's what I'd be getting.

Unfortunately the back cover didn't say that this book contained one of my top least favorite romance novel tropes: a widower hero. However, my enjoyment of McCabe's writing style, several great moments (an OMG "the birds and the bees" talk, for example), and the delicious anticipation of getting to see how everything would manage to turn out all right despite the Big Misunderstandings were all enough to get me past my problems with the book. This isn't going on my "keep forever" shelves, but I'm not selling it to a used bookstore the first chance I get, either.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Emma (manga, vol. 10) by Kaoru Mori

It's the last volume! So sad...especially since Hans didn't get his own side story. I'm sorry, but the short, funny comic strips, while nice, don't count.

Of the three side story volumes, I think volume 9 was my favorite, volume 10 my second favorite, and volume 8 my third. If you were a fan of William and Emma's story (volumes 1-7), you really, really need to read volume 10, though - it's in this volume that they finally get married.

As I've done with the other side story volumes, I plan on just writing synopses and commentary, no read-alikes. If you'd like Emma read-alikes, take a look at my posts for the main story volumes (in my Titles drop down list, choose "Emma"). Since writing those, the only thing I'd add would probably be Deeanne Gist's Maid to Match, a Christian romance starring a maid and a footman.

Before I start writing about the side stories, I'd like to address something that came up in my post for volume 9: the Molders/Moelders being called the Merediths. I had thought it was a typo in the back cover description of the previous volume, but, when I did some searching online, I learned that "Meredith" is supposed to be the name chosen for that family in the English version of the manga. Except for one thing. I checked my posts for some of the earlier volumes, and I referred to the family as the Molders. I wouldn't have done that if they had been called the Merediths, which means that the switch to "the Merediths" happened in the final two volumes. Does anyone know why? Because I really don't get it. As I said in my post for volume 9, "Meredith" is not a German name. At all. I thought translated manga had moved beyond senseless name changes.

Ok, moving on.

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