Friday, January 30, 2009

Schindler's List (live action movie)

I saw this movie for the first time just a few hours ago - it was part of a monthly "free movie night" thing that the Student Center at the university I work at has been doing. I'd heard about the movie before, of course, but I really didn't know too much about it. Until I started looking it up online before leaving for the movie night, I didn't even known that Liam Neeson is in it and that it's a black and white film.

For the most part, the movie focuses on Oskar Schindler, a German businessman whose main concern is making as much money as he can. World War II is good for him - he can get lots of cheap Jewish labor. However, after witnessing a massacre at the ghetto he had been getting his workers from, he feels compelled to turn his factory into a refuge for as many Jews as he can, bankrupting himself in the process.

Anyway, I'll start with what I didn't like about the movie. I had a horrible time following things for a while in the beginning - it was hard to keep the characters straight, and hard to figure out what was going on. However, my complaints feel pretty minor because, quite frankly, I felt they ended up being eclipsed by everything else.

Even though the movie is more than 3 hours long, it doesn't feel long. I got too wrapped up in the people to really notice how much time was going by. I couldn't see how Schindler managed to afford saving as many people as he did - the way he ran his factory/refuge, it's amazing even his fortune managed to hold out long enough. Then there was Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes, very disturbingly). At one point, Schindler tries to say that it's war that brings out the worst in people, and that Goeth would probably be an ok guy during peacetime. I wonder about that, though. Can having a position of power and authority make a person as twisted as he was, or do people have to be pretty twisted inside from the start to do the things he did the way he did them? My gut says he had to be twisted from the beginning, but then I remember things like the Stanford Prison Experiment. If the experiment had continued, could some of the guards have gotten as casually murderous and brutal as Goeth?

As someone who is half German, I've grown up with some of that national guilt and shame. When I was younger, my mom (who is German and has now been an American citizen for many years) and I would occasionally have very uncomfortable and awkward conversations about the war. My Opa, who attended an engineering school during the war, has never said anything to me about the war or how he felt about it. The closest he's ever come to saying anything was a very confusing and exhausting trip into the former East Germany - we visited his engineering school (now a hotel) and a place that used to be a checkpoint after the war.

Movies like this remind me of that national guilt and shame, but even people who have absolutely no connection to the war should pay attention. When you convince yourself that, for whatever reason, certain people are less than yourself, or even not human at all, atrocities like these are possible.

I'm glad that the movie managed to end as happily as it did, or I'd likely be depressed for days. As it is, I can't help but remember pretty much all of the Auschwitz part and the scenes where Goeth casually killed someone.

  • Schindler's List (book) by Thomas Keneally - Try reading the book upon which the movie was based. The book is a fictionalized account of the real-life story of Oskar Schindler.
  • The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (non-fiction book) by Philip Zimbardo - Zimbardo is the psychologist who set up the Stanford Prison Experiment. Here, he revisits that experiment and applies it to historical examples of injustices and atrocities. He argues that anyone has the potential, under the right circumstances, to do terrible things. He believes that it is the systems and people that create these circumstances that should be blamed. Those who are interested in finding out more about how people could come to commit the kinds of atrocities shown in Schindler's List might want to read this book.
  • The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale (graphic novel) by Art Spiegelman - Just because the Jews in this graphic novel have mouse heads and the German have cat heads doesn't mean this is a cute story. In this classic work, Art Spiegelman tells the story of his parents' experiences during the Holocaust and in postwar America.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

New post may be prevented by zombies

If I can't manage to finish my post for tomorrow, it's because the zombies have spread and made their way to my area. So sorry, but maybe it's cold enough that they'll stay away...

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Midnighters Vol. 1: The Secret Hour (book) by Scott Westerfeld

Jessica Day's mother has gotten a new job in Bixby, OK and Jessica is less than happy about being the new kid in a tiny town with a tiny high school. She thinks the water in Bixby tastes funny (it turns out that this is an important detail, and not just the whiny complaining I first thought it was), some weird kids (and one cute guy) have taken an interest in her for some reason, and she starts having odd dreams that may actually be real.

Rex, Dess, Melissa, and Jonathan are the weird kids (and cute guy) I mentioned. They each have a sort of double life in Bixby. For 24 hours out of every day, they're ordinary kids, for the most part. They tend to be sensitive to light. In addition, Rex is incredibly serious and gets picked on a lot, Dess is an extreme math whiz, Jonathan is thin despite eating enough to feed two or three people, and Melissa can't bear for others to touch her. What they know that no one else does, however, is that there is a 25th hour in the day, squished into the exact instant of midnight. Normal people never even know that the 25th hour (aka the blue time, so called because the world turns bluish) exists, but the Midnighters experience it every night. Although there are dangers in the 25th hour, most of the Midnighters don't have any problems - Jessica, a new and strange Midnighter, is an enormous exception.

All the Midnighters have special abilities that they can only use to their fullest extent during the blue time. Rex is a seer - one thing he can do is recognize other Midnighters outside of the blue time. Dex is a polymath - her abilities are tied to mathematics, so she is exceptionally good at making blue time weaponry (in the blue time, most weaponry involves the use of 13-letter words). Melissa is a mindcaster, someone who can hear and influence the thoughts of others. Jonathan is an acrobat - you'll have to read the book to find out the specifics of his ability. Only Jessica's ability is unknown. She's unlike anyone the Midnighters have ever met. Although she can experience the blue time, she's not comfortable in it, and she seems to be far more defenseless than everyone else. However, the blue time is crawling with slithers and darklings, ancient and terrifying beings that seem determined to kill Jessica. Jessica has to figure out what her ability is and learn to defend herself before even the other Midnighters are no longer able to protect her.

In an earlier post about one of Westerfeld's books, I wrote that I'd like to eventually read all of his books - I'm going to try my best, because I have yet to read something of his that I haven't liked. I think this is his first young adult novel - prior to this, he wrote five adult science fiction novels.

Just like in his Uglies books, Westerfeld plays around with ideas that are probably appealing to a lot of teens (and adults, too!). Those who are outsiders, or who feel like they're outsiders, will likely enjoy reading about a bunch of outsiders who share a slice of time that's all their own. The special powers are pretty cool, too, and Westerfeld leaves that aspect of the book wide open for future books - there is no list of the kinds of powers that a Midnighter might have, which means that there are basically no limitations. Who knows what a new Midnighter in a future book might be able to do? My favorite ability out of the ones Westerfeld has written about so far is probably Jonathan's, although Dex's love of math is so deep and powerful that it makes her ability seem pretty appealing, as well.

While I enjoyed this book and have already gotten the second through interlibrary loan, I prefer the other books by Westerfeld that I've read. One, the perspective shifts in this book were kind of weird. My summary may have made it seem like Jessica is the main character, but she's really only one lens through which the events of this book are viewed. At one point or another, Westerfeld writes from the perspectives of each of the Midnighters - it took me some time to adjust to this. Two, this book doesn't feel quite as focused as the other books by Westerfeld that I have read. Peeps had a bit of a biological/ecological focus. The Uglies books dealt with the pursuit of physical perfection as well as, once again, biology/ecology. If this first Midnighters book had any particular topical focus, I didn't really notice it, although there's a possibility that something will come up when/if Westerfeld further explores the relationship between humankind and the darklings and slithers.

All the books on this read-alikes list are intended for young adults, but some might be better for certain age groups than others. For instance, I wouldn't recommend Meyer's Twilight books for younger teens, while Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard, a more challenging read than Twilight, has content that many would consider appropriate for children as young as 10 years.

  • Twilight (book) by Stephenie Meyer - Bella doesn't expect her move to the small town of Forks to be at all exciting, until she meets Edward Cullen. At first, Edward seems repulsed by her, but eventually the two of them can't seem to stay away from each other. The more time Bella spends with him, however, the more odd things she notices about him, leading her to the impossible conclusion that this boy she is so drawn to is actually a vampire. Those who'd like another story with a new girl in a small town who learns about and gets involved with an incredible secret might enjoy this book.
  • The Summoning (book) by Kelley Armstrong - After Chloe Saunders suddenly starts seeing ghosts, her father and her aunt have her admitted to Lyle House, a home for troubled teens. All Chloe wants is to convince the adults at Lyle House that she's better and can leave, but it's not long before she starts noticing that there may be something sinister going on. A couple of the other teens at Lyle House are convinced that Chloe really can see ghosts and is, in fact, a necromancer - they may know what they're talking about, since one of them can do magic. Those who'd like another story about a girl whose world is turned upside down when she develops new abilities might enjoy this book.
  • The Initiation (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book in Smith's Secret Circle series, although it is no longer available on its own - the link will take you to the page for a volume combining the first book and half the second book (what were they thinking?!). Cassie isn't thrilled to move from sunny California to gloomy New England, but it isn't long before things get interesting for her. Her new school is practically ruled by a group of gorgeous teens who appear to be feared and/or respected by everyone around them. Cassie gradually discovers that, not only do these teens have special powers, so does she. As she gets involved with the group, she begins to fall for the boyfriend of one of the girls. Those who'd like another story in which a newcomer discovers that she's part of a group that has amazing powers might want to try this book.
  • Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace (book) by MaryJanice Davidson and Anthony Alongi - This is the first book in the Jennifer Scales series. Jennifer Scales has no reason to believe she isn't an ordinary girl in an ordinary family - until she suddenly develops the ability to shapeshift into a dragon, and her parents admit that she's half-dragon, half-Beaststalker. As if her life wasn't complicated enough, Jennifer has to figure out how to protect herself and her family from beings who view her as their natural enemy. Those who'd like another story in which a teen discovers she has special powers might enjoy this book/series.
  • So You Want to Be a Wizard (book) by Diane Duane - In an attempt to escape some bullies, Nita Callahan hides in a library, where she finds a book intriguingly titled So You Want to Be a Wizard. With the help of the book, she embarks on the path to becoming a wizard and soon meets Kit, another new wizard. The two have to learn quickly and make friends when they can, if they want to be able to survive the Lone Power, an evil being whose home is an alternate Manhattan. Those who'd like another story involving special powers and a dangerous alternate/parallel world might enjoy this book.

Monday, January 26, 2009

To Say Nothing of the Dog (book) by Connie Willis

Ned Henry is one of the many historians who are part of Lady Schrapnell's incredibly determined effort to restore Coventry Cathedral. As far as Lady Schrapnell is concerned, "God is in the details." Ned's detail is the bishop's bird stump, which he's having trouble locating, no matter how many jumps back in time he makes (in this vision of the future, historians do a good chunk of their research with time travel). In fact, poor Ned makes so many jumps back in time in such a short period of time that he develops a bad case of time lag, resulting in symptoms like maudlin sentimentality, difficulty distinguishing sounds, and fatigue. Ned's not going to get any rest in his own time, however, not with Lady Schrapnell around, so he's given an easy assignment in the Victorian era. Unfortunately, Ned's Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds means he never quite hears what his assignment is supposed to be, or even who his contact is in the Victorian era. Ned is left to figure all this out on his own, while at the same time trying to act the part of a Victorian gentleman.

Although Connie Willis is American, she does an excellent job of writing something that often reads like a British comedy of errors. This book starts off slow and a little confusing, but things get easier and much more interesting once the time travel aspect has been explained a little more thoroughly. Even though I didn't always understand what was going on (things got a little complicated near the end of the book), I didn't mind, because I was enjoying the characters and the humor so much.

At first, the humor mostly centers around Ned's Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds and his attempts to figure out what he's even supposed to accomplish in the Victorian era. Soon, Ned finds himself in love with Verity, his contact, a feeling which may or may not be due to his time lag, and dealing with his assignment and helping his contact with hers. Although Ned left his own time to get away from Lady Schrapnell, he finds himself living in the same house as one of her ancestors - Tossie doesn't terrify him the way that Lady Schrapnell does, but she can still be a bit much to deal with. The people Ned stays with and meets add to the humor in the book, as do some of the Victorian details - I loved the bit where one of the girls in one family talks about Miss Marmalade, a cat, and her mother corrects corrects her with "Mrs. Marmalade." I guess the idea is that even cats need to be married before they can have babies...

Besides the humor in this book, I also enjoyed all the animals. There are two animals that show up a lot in this book - Cyril, a bulldog, and Princess Arjumand, Tossie's cat. Cyril has so much personality he's practically human. Princess Arjumand just does as she pleases. Both animals seem to really like Ned. Ned has at least a little familiarity with bulldogs, but I really laughed when I read any parts with Ned and Princess Arjumand. In Ned's time, all cats are extinct, having been wiped out by some kind of distemper. Princess Arjumand is the first cat Ned has ever really interacted with, so he has a lot to learn. Just as an example, in his first encounter with her, he tries to figure out if she'll respond to any commands. He also learns what a cat's purr sounds like (and how nice it is).

Another thing I enjoyed was all of Willis's references to other books. My "to be read" list has grown after reading this book, because I want to find out more about the things that Willis's characters talked about. For instance, Ned often finds himself thinking about Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. At one point, he even meets Jerome K. Jerome. Verity, whose specialty is the 1930s (if I remember right), brings up a lot of early mystery authors, characters, and books. Agatha Christie gets mentioned often (especially Hercule Poirot), as does Dorothy Sayers. Willis never feels the need to explain any of these references in much detail, but there's enough information there that readers (like me) who haven't read these works won't be lost and may even find themselves wanting to read them.

There were only a couple things in this book that I didn't like quite as much. I thought that the romance between Verity and Ned was one of the weakest parts of the book, since it never really seemed quite real. I already mentioned that this book starts off slow, but another thing I didn't entirely like was how confusing things got near the end. Because this book was one of my book discussion group's picks, I was able to talk about some of the more confusing parts with other discussion participants, but I did get the the point where I felt like I needed to draw a diagram or something in order to figure out what was going on.

I'm not usually a huge fan of time travel books, because I always find myself thinking too much about whether things could actually work the way they're described in the books. Whether Willis's presentation of time travel is believable or not (one of the more science-minded people at the discussion group said that it fit well with current theories about how it might work), it's remarkably comforting. In a lot of time travel books, shows, and movies, people always make a big deal out of protecting the timeline, or someone might end up being their own grandfather or otherwise accidentally mess up history. Characters in Willis's book have some of the same fears, but the timeline actually turns out to be pretty robust, because self-correcting fixes any problems people might cause.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I even recommended it to my mom - because of her love for British comedies, I think she'll have fun with this.

  • Three Men and a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog (book) by Jerome K. Jerome - This comedy follows the misadventures of three Victorian-era bachelors who decide to travel on the Thames in a rented boat. Along with Monty, a devilish terrier, they get into every kind of trouble imaginable. This book is mentioned a great deal in To Say Nothing of the Dog.
  • Diary of a Nobody (book) by George Grossmith - In this comedy, Mr. Pooter, a pompous city clerk and the "nobody" of the title, decides to keep a record a record of his life, family, and friends for posterity. Those who'd like another comedic story involving mishaps and misunderstandings may enjoy this book.
  • Alice in Wonderland (book) by Lewis Carroll - Young Alice falls asleep during her lessons and dreams of following a white rabbit down a rabbit hole. While down there, she meets strange people and creatures and finds herself in one bizarre situation after another. Those who enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog's weird, rambling conversations and would like another strange story might enjoy this (which I would say is definitely stranger).
  • The Eyre Affair (book) by Jasper Fforde - In an alternate universe, Thursday Next is an operative in the Literary Division of the Special Operations Network. Her latest case involves finding someone who's been stealing characters from the original manuscripts of beloved works of literature, thereby removing those characters from all copies of those works. Those who'd like another strange genre-bender with lots of literary references might enjoy this book.
  • The Color of Magic (book) by Terry Pratchett - This is the first book in Pratchett's Discworld series, although it is by no means necessary to start with the first book when tackling this series - feel free to begin wherever you'd like. This particular book stars Rincewind, an incompetent wizard whose greatest skill is in running away. He involuntarily becomes a guide to Twoflower, a rich and naive tourist, and ends up on a journey around the Discworld. Those who'd like another comedy filled with mishaps, misunderstandings, and odd conversations might enjoy this book (or even the entire Discworld series).
  • Thank you, Jeeves (book) by P. G. Wodehouse - Bertie Wooster, a bumbling aristocrat, attempts to solve his personal problems on his own and is eventually forced to turn to his butler, Jeeves, for help. Fans of To Say Nothing of the Dog who'd like another comedy of errors with a similar "feel" might enjoy this book, or something else in Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Tarot Cafe (manhwa, vol. 6) by Sang-Sun Park

Alecto visits an old three-headed fortuneteller who reminds him of a promise he once overheard between Ash and Belial, the devil, and tells him various important secrets. Alecto tells Cora these secrets, secrets with include the knowledge that Cora is Pamela's mother, reborn in a new form. Elsewhere, Ash arranges a surprise meeting with Pamela and tells her about his relationship with Belus. Since he was a child, Ash saw Belus as something like a father figure, but one day Belus left him in order to go be with Pamela. That's why Ash hates Pamela. He tries to push her into a door to Hell, but Belus saves her, getting wounded in the process.

Cora finds Pamela and, just before she dies, tells her to find Alecto. Belus and Pamela track Alecto down, as does Ash. Alecto reveals some of what he's found out. It turns out that Ash isn't really Ash, but rather a gem - the real Ash is being kept at Belial's castle. A long time ago, Ash made a deal with Belial: Ash wanted to give up immortality for the ability to die, be reborn, and have an end. He said that, although he loves Pamela, he loves himself more. Before Alecto had even met Pamela, he'd also learned from the three-headed fortuneteller that it's his fate to have unrequited love for a human female and then disappear like dust. Alecto did his best to protect himself from that fate, but then Ash took in Pamela. Alecto eventually fell in love with Pamela and was jealous of the love between her and Ash.

Alecto begins coughing up blood, and Belial appears. Alecto turns into his dragon form and attacks Pamela, who is told by Belial that she must do what she can in order to stay alive if she wants Belus to continue living. With that motivation, Pamela tries to kill Alecto but fails. Belus appears to try to finish the job but is badly wounded. By the end of the volume, it's unclear whether he will continue to live, since Alecto had the power to kill immortals like Belus. Meanwhile, back at the Cafe, Nebiross comes back for Aaron.

I have to admit that this volume was massively confusing for me. Ash isn't Ash, Alecto loves Pamela and hates her too, Cora is Pamela's mom, and Belus may be dying. Actually, it doesn't sound too complicated when I put it like that, just... soap opera-ish. Even if the confusion turns some readers off, I imagine the high pretty-boy content will keep people reading anyway. This volume is just filled with images of Alecto. Are really gorgeous images of Alecto worth paying $9.99 for? I suppose that depends on who you ask. At any rate, the series is almost over, and the events of this volume may make more sense after the next and last volume.

As far as extras go, there's a preview of Park's Ark Angels vol. 2. Three sisters are sent back in time to rescue the last remaining Seychelles Elephant Turtle.

  • Alichino (manga) by Kouyu Shurei - This fantasy series revolves around Alichino, beautiful creatures that appear human and will grant any wish at a huge price, and a beautiful boy named Tsugiri, who has a terrible past. Overall, this series is darker and more serious than The Tarot Cafe. Those who'd like another story with somewhat similar artwork and beautiful and androgynous (yet somehow still sexy) men might enjoy this manga. Unfortunately, although it's only one volume away from being concluded, it's unclear when and if the final volume will ever be released.
  • Night Pleasures (book) by Sherrilyn Kenyon - Kyrian is a Dark-Hunter, someone who's given up their soul to the goddess Artemis in order to be able to exact vengeance after death. Part of the price he must pay is that he must continue to fight for Artemis, battling Daimons (a bit like vampires, only their main goal is to consume the souls of their victims). Kyrian meets Amanda after the two are attacked and handcuffed together. Amanda's never been one to believe in the supernatural, but seeing Kyrian fight Daimons shakes her world view up a bit. Along the way, Kyrian and Amanda fall in love, but they're going to have to get Kyrian's soul back from Artemis if they want to have any kind of a life together. Those who'd like another story that includes gorgeous male characters and people with painful past relationships might enjoy this. Actually, the entire series is full of gorgeous guys, hideously painful pasts and betrayals, and romance, plus demons and shapeshifters.
  • Demon Diary (manhwa) by Lee-Hyung Lee (script, vol. 2+), Lee Chi Hyong (story), and Kara (art) - Lord Raenef is supposed to be a Demon Lord, the reincarnation of one of the most powerful ones in existence. Unfortunately, even with an exasperated and frustrated Eclipse tutoring him, he's less powerful and terrible and more cute and cuddly. Even if he does become a better Demon Lord, do Eclipse and Raenef's friends really want him to be that way? Similar to The Tarot Cafe, the characters in this series eventually have to make some tough and painful decisions and somehow deal with their pasts. Plus, there's several pretty-boy male characters.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Tarot Cafe (manhwa, vol. 5) by Sang-Sun Park

Pamela and Belus make sure that everything works out all right for the young singer who was going to have to pay for a magical contract with his life. Afterwards, Pamela lets her friends know that she's decided to take a trip to Scotland by herself. Belus and Ash are already not getting along well (they are both apparently attracted to Pamela, and she seems to be attracted to them both as well), but Belus is also suspicious that Ash has something bad planned for Pamela in Scotland. Belus and Ash both follow Pamela when she leaves for her trip. Pamela ends up following a mysterious man in a robe, who turns out to be Victor, the monk who tried to kill Ash and Pamela long ago.

Belus was right to be suspicious of Ash, as Ash's plan is now put into effect - Pamela gets exposed to a perfume that causes a person to fall into a dream, from which they cannot awaken, of their most painful memory of the past. Pamela dreams of the monk, of everything falling apart with Ash, and of Ash's apparent death. The person who made the perfume for Ash has plans of his own (I think this person is a guy, but I'm not sure...) - he needs the life-strength of an immortal being like Pamela to create a perfume that will restore his youth and beauty. He does manage to create a perfume, but Belus replaced one of the ingredients with poison, and the man dies. Belus wakes Pamela up in the only possible way, by letting her hurt him so that she can taste his heart's blood. Although things appear grim, when Belus next appears he's bandaged up and nearly good as new. In the last part of the volume, Pamela's store is visited by an old man who's trying to help his only friend, a young boy who is repeatedly abused by his father. The man, who is actually an old tree, gives up his trunk so that the boy can live and grow up to be a great and kind man.

It's been a while since I've read the earlier volumes in this series, so I had a little bit of a problem following what was going on and remembering who all the characters are - although there's a "story so far" page, it's incredibly unhelpful. The relationship between Pamela and Ash is particularly confusing to me. She loves him, or did love him at one point, but he wants to punish her for some reason. Perhaps he blames her for his supposed death so long ago? One scene from Pamela's past also seems to indicate that at one point Ash actually told Pamela that he could never love her - did she blank that memory out, or was she so in love with him that she couldn't believe he could possibly mean what he'd said?

Unlike Ash, Belus seems to genuinely like (maybe even love?) Pamela. He was certainly willing to risk dying in order to wake her up. I'm not sure how great his risk of death was, since I think he's nearly as difficult to kill as Pamela (who is immortal). Pamela still seems determined to believe that their relationship is entirely based on the contract that they have with each other, rather than any deeper feelings, but I wonder how long that's going to last.

The final part of the volume was a bit jarring, since it was such a sudden departure from the overarching storyline involving Pamela and her past, but it was still a sweet story. It was kind of cliched, though, and I'm sure I've seen stories like it before, where some ancient tree or something gives up its life for the human being it cares for.

As far as extras go, there's a several page long preview of the first volume of Sang-Sun Park's Ark Angels, in which a trio of sisters from the future try to rescue animals on the brink of extinction. In this preview, the girls are trying to save one of the last Guam Fruit Bats. It's a bit goofy, which, in my opinion, doesn't really fit Park's art style.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Xxxholic (manga) by CLAMP; Xxxholic (anime TV series) - Watanuki is a high school student who is plagued by the ability to see spirits. One day, he meets a woman named Yuuko who can help rid him of this ability. Anybody who receives her help must pay a fair price in return, so Watanuki becomes her cook, housekeeper, and errand boy for an undetermined amount of time. Until he has worked enough to earn her help, Watanuki will continue to have to deal with his abilities, which often come in handy when Yuuko gives him special errands to run. Like much of The Tarot Cafe, this series has lots of mini-stories, as Yuuko deals with clients who need her specials skills and knowledge. Those who'd like another series with a similar mix of humor and seriousness, along with a supernatural shop owner, may want to try this manga.
  • Alichino (manga) by Kouyu Shurei - This fantasy series revolves around Alichino, beautiful creatures that appear human and will grant any wish at a huge price, and a beautiful boy named Tsugiri, who has a terrible past. Overall, this series is darker and more serious than The Tarot Cafe. Those who'd like another story with somewhat similar artwork and beautiful and androgynous (yet somehow still sexy) men might enjoy this manga. Unfortunately, although it's only one volume away from being concluded, it's unclear when and if the final volume will ever be released.
  • Seeker: The Tarot Unveiled (non-fiction book) by Rachel Pollack - This is a good book for beginners who'd like to know more about the Tarot. The Tarot Cafe's Pamela often uses Tarot cards, and those who find this aspect of the series particularly interesting may enjoy this book.
  • Pet Shop of Horrors (manga) by Matsuri Akino; Pet Shop of Horrors (anime TV series) - Count D is a mysterious pet shop owner whose pets aren't the sort you could find anywhere else. When cared for properly, these pets can bring their owners contentment and companionship like no ordinary pet ever could. However, there are potentially horrific consequences when Count D's pet care instructions are not followed. Officer Orcot, an American policeman, goes to Count D's shop to investigate after the strange and unexplained deaths of several of Count D's former customers. Like much of The Tarot Cafe, this series tends to be pretty episodic - a customer with a need comes in, Count D provides them with a pet that fulfills that need, and things either end well or badly for the customer, depending on his or her situation and how he or she treats the pet. Those who'd like another story starring a mysterious shop owner who's a bit supernatural might enjoy this series.
  • Yume Kira Dream Shoppe (manga) by Aqua Mizuto - The only characters that show up on a regular basis are Rin, the owner of the Yume Kira Dream Shoppe, and Alpha, Rin's helper at the shop. Rin and Alpha use the magical items at the shop to make people's desires a reality, at a cost. Similar to The Tarot Cafe, this single-volume manga is episodic - each chapter is a standalone story. Some of the stories are sweet and happy, while others are more bittersweet. Those who'd like another story starring a mysterious shop owner who uses his/her powers to help customers might enjoy this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Soulmate (book) by L. J. Smith

Warning: spoilers in this post.

Hannah is convinced she's going crazy - she keeps finding notes she doesn't remember writing, written in her own handwriting, telling her that she'll be dead before she turns 17. In desperation, she turns to a young, inexperienced psychologist who eventually tries hypnosis on her. While hypnotized, Hannah talks about wanting someone she shouldn't want, a dangerous man named Thierry who has killed her in many lifetimes and who happens to be a vampire. Not believing any of it and not expecting much, the psychologist has Hannah go back to the time when she first met Thierry, which turns out to be the Stone Age. Thierry was the first made vampire (Maya, the first lamia, made him - a lamia is a born vampire, although Maya was actually born a witch), and his inexperience results in the death of Stone Age Hannah and nearly her entire clan.

Hannah and Thierry meet in Hannah's most recent lifetime, and she instantly recognizes him as her soulmate, a discovery that become distressing when she recovers memories of him killing her in other lifetimes. However, it's not until later that Hannah realizes it wasn't Thierry who killed her, but rather Maya, disguised as Thierry. Maya hopes to end things once and for all by turning Hannah into a vampire and killing her - vampires can't be reincarnated. Now that Hannah knows Thierry isn't out to kill her, she rushes off to find him, flying to Las Vegas and eventually making it to his mansion (Thierry, being one of the oldest and most powerful vampires in the world, is filthy rich). She's not even there a full night before she's kidnapped by Maya and must try to survive (and not get turned into a vampire) and free herself.

When I was a teen, this was my favorite book in Smith's Night World series - now, it's my second favorite, since I'm not into the whole "soulmates across lifetimes" thing as I used to be (for those who are wondering, my favorite is now Daughters of Darkness, which I've also written about). Thierry's also a little too angsty for my tastes now - I guess I'm getting older, huh?

Still, I'm betting that Thierry will appeal to a lot of teen girls. He's rich, he's good-looking, he's completely and unwaveringly in love with Hannah (and very protective of her), and he's constantly sad and guilt-ridden (guaranteed to make girls want to hug and comfort him). All of that certainly appealed to me when I first read this book, back when it was first published in 1997.

Hannah's pretty appealing herself. I can't really think of any weak heroines in Smith's books, and Hannah's no exception. When Hannah realizes that she was mistaken about Thierry, instead of sitting there and hoping he'll come back to her, she takes charge, borrows money from a friend, and flies off to Las Vegas to go looking for him. Granted, this was a little silly of her, since if Smith had handled things a little more realistically, Hannah wouldn't have managed to find Thierry's place quite so quickly. It was also a bit pathetic that Hannah managed to get herself captured after only a few hours at Thierry's mansion. However, once she's been captured, she doesn't go into hysterics after realizing that Thierry probably won't be able to find her and save her. Instead, she frees herself, makes a weapon, and might have managed fairly well if it weren't for her primarily pacifist nature.

I'm not really sure how accurately presented Hannah's past lives are. There doesn't seem to be anything too jarringly wrong about the Stone Age portion of it, although the way Smith writes about Hannah's (or Hana's) clan's diet makes it seem as if they eat a lot of meat - from what I remember from some of my anthropology classes, Stone Age people would have been more likely to have a diet rich in other things, with meat as an occasional and welcome treat (but I could be wrong, of course). I also wonder how common blonds were in ancient Egypt, since Hannah was supposed to have been a blond priestess then.

Before I wrap things up, I'd also like to mention, as a fan of Daughters of Darkness, that Ash makes an appearance in this book. He's not around much, but he gets enough time to be a little sarcastic and a little pensive (thinking about Mary-Lynnette, his own soulmate, who he is trying to become a better person for). Several characters from other books in the series also show up (James and Poppy, Thea and Eric, Gillian and David, Quinn), but Ash happens to be my favorite of the bunch. It's possible that he's Smith's favorite, as well, since I think he got more lines than the others.

Overall, I liked (and still like) this book. Pensive vampire-human romance, hurray! As I've said before, it's just too bad that Smith's Night World books are so short (and that Smith hasn't gotten to publish the ending to the series yet).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Twilight (book) by Stephenie Meyer - Bella doesn't expect her move to the small town of Forks to be at all exciting, until she meets Edward Cullen. At first, Edward seems repulsed by her, but eventually the two of them can't seem to stay away from each other. The more time Bella spends with him, however, the more odd things she notices about him, leading her to the impossible conclusion that this boy she is so drawn to is actually a vampire. Those who'd like another young adult vampire romance might like this book, the first in a series.
  • Magic's Pawn (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Vanyel has never seemed to fit in with his family, especially his father. All he wants is to become a Bard, but his father is determined to turn him into a warrior, even if it kills him. After the situation at home takes a turn for the worse, Vanyel is sent to live aunt Savil. While there, Vanyel eventually realizes he's attracted to Tylendel, Savil's male protege, and that the feeling is mutual. At first it seems like the only thing the two have to worry about is others' homophobic reactions (especially Vanyel's father), but a feud Tylendel's family is involved in may turn out to be an even more dangerous problem. Obviously, not everyone will be comfortable with this book, but those who'd like another book with a strong romantic storyline and a "soulmate" aspect may want to try this out. There are other books set in this world that also feature soulmates (a soulmate is called a lifebond here), but not all of the books feature a romantic storyline quite as strongly as this one. Another of my favorites set in this world is Arrows of the Queen, the first in a trilogy that eventually features a heterosexual lifebonded pair and may therefore appeal to a wider audience.
  • Daughter of the Blood (book) by Anne Bishop - Among the Blood (magic users) women rule and men serve. Usually, this is a harmonious and balanced system that benefits both sexes, but there are those who have perverted this system so that men are enslaved and young girls who might grow up strong are broken. If she can manage to grow up, Jaenelle could heal the rot in Blood society. Her family thinks she's unstable, and growing up and growing strong won't be easy, but she has some powerful allies on her side: Saetan, the High Lord of Hell (and, confusingly for some readers, a good guy) and Daemon, a dangerous (and sexy) man who's been waiting for someone like Jaenelle to come along for much of his long life. This series is not for the faint of heart (there's abuse, torture, rape and more) and is definitely not intended for young teens. However, those who don't mind something with a darker tone and who'd like another story with magic and a bit of a "soulmate" aspect might enjoy this book, the first in a trilogy.
  • Vampire Knight (manga) by Matsuri Hino - Yuki's earliest memory is of being attacked by a vampire and then saved by another, the gorgeous and mysterious Kaname. Ten years later, Yuki, now the adopted daughter of the headmaster of Cross Academy, spends her time blushing over Kaname and protecting the Day Class students (all humans, unaware of the vampires around them) from the Night Class (all vampires). She is aided by Zero, a brooding teenager hiding a dark secret. Those who'd like another young adult vampire romance (with a nice helping of angst) might enjoy this manga. It has also been made into an anime which has not yet been licensed in the US. With vampires being so popular right now, though, I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Breaking Dawn (book) by Stephenie Meyer

Although I'm sure I could summarize this book in a paragraph or two, I'm not going to. Therefore, this post has a lot of spoilers - if you don't like that sort of thing, either don't read the post or skip to the very end of it, where I've got all the read-alikes/watch-alikes.

Bella and Edward finally get married. Bella is thrilled when Jake turns up at her wedding, but, as usual, she manages to upset him - this time, by making it clear that she intends to have a proper honeymoon with her new husband. Jake is, of course, horrified and angry, since he expects that Edward won't be able to keep from killing Bella when the two of them have sex. Bella, in keeping with her general lack of survival instincts, is not worried about getting her throat ripped out on her wedding night.

The honeymoon actually goes rather well. Edward is deeply upset by all the bruises Bella collects after their first time together. Bella, on the other hand, enjoys sex with Edward enough that she's willing to put off being turned into a vampire for a while longer in order to keep having it. Things become rapidly less blissful, however, when Bella and Edward realize that she is pregnant.

At this point, Meyer does something unusual - she switches from Bella's viewpoint to Jake's (she did this once before, at the end of the previous book, I believe). Jake is convinced that Edward will soon be turning Bella into a vampire, and, when he hears that she's being confined due to "an illness," he's ready to go kill Edward. He's brought up short when he realizes that Bella really is sick - her pregnancy is killing her. Now Jake's Pack (specifically Sam, the Alpha) wants to kill Bella and the monstrosity that is her unborn child. Jake breaks free from the Pack and becomes an Alpha in his own right in order to defend Bella and the Cullens. Seth and Leah leave the Pack as well, in order to become part of Jake's new Pack (which he refuses to see as such). Quite a few people would happily give Bella an abortion in order to save her life (Edward and Jake, for instance), but Rosalie (who, if you remember from the previous book, had wanted a child when she was human) is more than willing to keep that from happening. Besides, Bella loves her baby - after all, doesn't she always love the things that stand a good chance of killing her?

Eventually, it's time for Bella to give birth, and it's awful. Bella's spine is broken, she spews blood, Edward chews through her stomach and womb in order to get the baby out (the womb is too tough for a normal birth - half-vampire baby, remember?), and then Edward injects Bella with his venom.

Around the time of the birth, Meyer switches back to Bella's viewpoint. Bella's not really aware of too much that's going on around her, since she's in so much pain from the birth and the venom. Once she snaps out of it, she does extremely well for a new vampire, exhibiting a remarkable amount of control. Eventually, it's agreed that it should be safe enough for her to see Renesmee (this is the horrible name Bella gave her baby girl). Jake's awfully protective of Renesmee, which confuses Bella, until she realizes that Jake has imprinted on the girl (who, by the way, is aging incredibly fast and was even born with teeth). Bella first reaction is anger, but she doesn't actually try to kill Jake until she finds out that he's nicknamed her Nessie ("You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?"). Even though there's nothing sexual in the feelings of a werewolf who's imprinted on a child, it still strikes me as a little icky, since someone will eventually have to explain to Renesme that Jake used to love her mother. Anyway, now that Jake has imprinted, all romantic tension between Bella and Jake is gone as though it never existed. For me, as a reader, this is both a relief and intensely disconcerting.

Once the personal stuff is dealt with, a life-and-death situation arises that soon involves vampires from just about every continent. The Volturi have been told about Renesmee and have wrongly assumed that she's a vampire child - vampire children have all the powers of adult vampires, plus a heavy dose of cuteness (no vampire can resist them and all want to protect them) and complete lack of control. The rule is that all vampire children and those who made and protected them must be killed. All the group needs is for the Volturi to pause long enough for it to be made clear the Renesmee is not a vampire child and doesn't pose a threat. To that end, Alice instructs the Cullens to gather as many vampire witnesses as possible and then mysteriously leaves with Jasper for parts unknown.

The Cullens gather up lots of vampires, so many that Meyer feels compelled to include what she calls a "Vampire Index" at the end of her book (since when are the Cullens the "Olympic Coven"?) - I'd like to add that this is not, in fact, an index, but rather a list, or, if you're feeling generous, a guide. Not that the "index" matters much, since most of the vampires don't do much to distinguish themselves from the rest, anyway. Although the vampires are supposedly only going to act as witnesses, everyone prepares for a fight anyway. Bella gets a little training in fighting and a lot of training in using her special gifts, which, it turns out, are more special than she realized - she can extend her gift so that others besides herself are protected from vampire powers.

When the Volturi finally arrive, it's less that exciting. They can't do much, since Bella's abilities stop the Volturi from hurting anyone (including the werewolves, who've joined the fight in order to protect Renesmee since Jake has imprinted on her), while allowing those on her side to use their powers against the Volturi. Renesmee gets a chance to use her abilities (she can project her memories into others' minds when she touches them) to convince the Volturi that she's not a vampire child. However, the Volturi have a strong motivation for continuing to fight - they'd like to collect a few more vampires with amazing abilities, and Bella and Edward are at the top of their list. Alice appears in the nick of time, with a grown-up half-vampire in tow, in order to prove that Bella won't grow up to be a danger. The Volturi, lacking a good excuse for continuing this fight in front of witnesses, leave.

As I mentioned in an earlier post for the this series, a student worker's enthusiasm for this series prompted me to continue reading it. Her favorite books, she told me, were the third and fourth ones. I had already read blogs that described this final book as horrifically, hilariously awful, so I was interested to see who I'd agree with, the bloggers or the student worker. Well, I'm sorry to say I'm a little more on the side of the bloggers here - what was Meyer thinking?

I could probably write for ages about this book, but, since my summary was so long, I'll try to limit myself. First, the jarring viewpoint switch, then the omigod sex/pregnancy/birth, then Renesmee, and finally the lackluster ending. Hmm, maybe I'm not limiting myself all that much.

The Jarring Viewpoint Switch: I already mentioned this - for some reason, Meyer decided, after three books worth of writing from Bella's perspective (minus the odd little bit at the end of the third book from Jake's perspective), to write a good-sized chunk of this book from Jake's perspective. While I usually like Jake, and I find his "voice" much easier to take than Bella's sometimes is, it was still an odd decision. Was this really necessary? The only thing extra this gave the readers was a peek into Jake's mind (which wasn't that hard to read, anyway), a better view of what Pack life is like (which, I admit, was nice), and not having to experience Bella's pregnancy. While it's great that readers didn't have to sit through a description of Bella's feelings and pain as the baby broke yet another one of her ribs, she could've gotten around this just as easily by condensing her description of the pregnancy (and thereby making the book, which is longer than it needed to be, much shorter).

The Omigod Sex/Pregnancy/Birth: Meyer was remarkably... vague in her description of Bella and Edward having sex. Actually, I don't think there was any description. Maybe she was worried about offending parents, but that seems odd when you consider that Bella looked like an accident victim after sex - I would think that those who'd be offended by descriptions of sex in a young adult book would be just as offended by massive bruising as a result of sex (and a horrific pregnancy, and a violent, bloody birth). The pregnancy, as I've said, is just horrible and painful to read about. I admit that the birth, though also horrible and extremely bloody, could have been much worse - Meyer went into so little detail about Edward's role (biting Bella's stomach and womb open) that I almost missed it.

Renesmee: When Meyer writes about the vampire children, she mentions that one of the things that made them so bad was that other vampires loved them so much and felt compelled to protect them. Was it only me that thought that Renesmee seemed awfully similar in this regard? Sure, she's not an out-of-control killer, but it creeped me out a little how many humans/werewolves/vampires instantly fell in love with her. The other thing that bothered me - her name. What was Meyer thinking??? Did the effort of thinking up so many names for new vampires drain her so much that she had to resort to the idiocy of Renesmee Carlie Cullen for Bella's baby? Yes, I know it's unlikely that Bella will ever have any more children (I won't say impossible, since Meyer already broke her own rules by allowing new-vampire Bella to have so much control - she never did explain that to my satisfaction), so she'll probably never have a chance to name any other children after her and Edward's parents, but did she have to smoosh all the names together like that? Carlie's not so bad, unless you think of how she came up with it (smooshing together Carlisle and Charlie), but Renesmee (Renee and Esme) is just awful.

The Lackluster Ending: The Volturi are terrible and powerful, and no one has ever been able to stand against them. They come to kill everyone and take anyone with interesting powers away, and when they get there they... bluster a bit and then leave? Huh? This is not what I expected, but Meyer seemed determined to have a Happy Ending at the expense of believability. Every loose end is tied up, and everyone who matters survives. The "Jake Problem" is solved when he imprints on Renesmee (by the end of the book, Bella is just fine with the whole thing), conveniently allowing him to still be a part of Bella's life (just forget that she ever thought she loved him - Bella's certainly forgotten). The Volturi are laughably easy to turn aside, especially because Alice has conveniently found another half-vampire to parade before them (Meyer's explanation for Alice's method for finding him also stretches the boundaries of believability). Everything is wrapped up nice and clean, and everyone is happy. Now, I like happy endings, but I also like them to feel like they've happened naturally. I can usually turn a blind eye to the occasional overly convenient detail, but Meyer is asking a bit much with this book.

Overall, while this book wasn't unreadable, I still say "What was Meyer thinking?" It had all the failings of the previous books, plus a whole bunch of new ones. I'm happy if this series got some teens to read who aren't generally readers (I know that the Harry Potter books did, but I'm not sure if the same phenomenon occurred with Meyer's books), but I'm sad that their rare exposure to reading had to be so awful. It's like talking to people who say they're anime fans only to discover that their idea of the height of anime brilliance is Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Ceres: Celestial Legend (manga) by Yuu Watase; Ceres: Celestial Legend (anime TV series) - This series is also often referred to by US fans as Ayashi no Ceres, its Japanese title. A long time ago, Ceres, a celestial maiden, came down from the heavens to bathe in a stream. She hung her hagoromo (robe) on a nearby tree, where it was stolen by a young man who forced her to become his wife. Since that time, Ceres has been trying to get her hagoromo back so that she can return to the heavens. In present day Japan, Aya Mikage, a descendent of Ceres, has turned 16, along with her twin brother. Aya's grandfather plans to kill her, since Aya's celestial blood can cause her to transform into Ceres, who is a danger to the Mikage family. However, Aya escapes. Can she learn to control Ceres and get her life back to something approaching normal? Those who'd like another supernatural love story with lots of action and drama might enjoy this series. As with Meyer's books, there's a love triangle (Aya's "nice guy" protector loves her, Aya loves the guy her grandfather is sending after her to kill her, Ceres might like Aya's protector, etc.).
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (live action TV series) - Buffy used to be a popular cheerleader, until she discovered that she's the Slayer, the girl whose job it is to defeat the supernatural baddies intent on killing everything and taking over the world. She does her job with the help of her friends, her Watcher (her high school's librarian), and, eventually, a brooding vampire. Those who'd like something else with teenage vampire romance, werewolves and other creatures, and the occasional supernatural threat (including big, dramatic showdowns that tend to be less disappointing than the showdown with the Volturi) might like this series.
  • The Awakening (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book in Smith's Vampire Diaries series. Elena is a beautiful, popular high school girl who is intrigued by Stefan, a brooding and mysterious newcomer who is the only one to ever resist her. Damon is Stefan's sexy and dangerous brother, who, in order to get revenge against Stefan, is willing to take Elena from him by whatever means necessary. What Elena doesn't know at first is that both Stefan and Damon are vampires - by getting closer to them, she's involving herself, her friends, and her family in their dangerous world. Those who'd like another story involving high school romance, vampires, and a vampire character the heroine can't keep her eyes off of might like this book.
  • Interview with the Vampire (book) by Anne Rice - Louis tells the account of his transformation into a vampire by the charismatic vampire Lestat. The two seek out others of their kind and eventually turn a young girl into a vampire. Stylistically, Rice's books are different from Meyer's - if I'm remembering this correctly, I think they might also be slower paced. However, those who'd really like more books with vampires from all over the world may want to try Rice's Vampire Chronicles, beginning with this book. At the very least, Anne Rice has Egyptian, French, American, and Roman vampires (I stopped reading the series at Pandora, so it's likely her vampire population is even more varied now).

Friday, January 16, 2009

GetBackers: Complete Season One (anime TV series)

I had a little debate with myself over how I would write about this series. Would I write an entry for each DVD, or would I write an entry for each boxed set? In the end, I decided to write an entry for each boxed set, since I bought the thinpaks. For those not in the know, besides conserving more space, anime thinpaks also tend to have absolutely no extras - this GetBackers set has a few previews on the first DVD but nothing aside from that. This is an important thing to know, since, if you were to buy the individual GetBackers DVDs, you would be getting quite a few extras. I checked out a few of those DVDs through my local public library back when I was in grad school, and I remember really enjoying the interviews with the English dub actors.

Well, on to the summary. The GetBackers are a team of two, Ban and Ginji. Ban has the Jagan (when he makes eye contact with someone, he can give them a dream for one real-time minute, a dream so real it's like reality) and a gripping power of 200 kg of force. Ginji can generate electricity with his body. The two of them use their abilities to get back things that their clients have lost or that were taken from them.

The first few episodes of the first season of GetBackers are pretty much "job of the week." A client comes and tells them what they need retrieved, and Ban and Ginji go and get it back. Sometimes it turns out that the client lied to them. Also, despite having an excellent success rate, Ban and Ginji rarely manage to make money. Either the deal with their client goes bad, or they take what money they get and spend it immediately. This formula sticks around for a few episodes, as the GetBackers retrieve a lost kitty thing (a doll?), a painting, a violin, and more.

These first episodes also introduce many of the GetBackers' main allies and enemies and give hints of Ban and Ginji's pasts. Before he partnered up with Ban, Ginji was the Lightning Emperor of the Limitless Fortress, a giant abandoned building that most people in the city try to pretend isn't there. Ginji was the leader of the VOLTS, a gang that kept the peace in the Limitless Fortress as much as possible. When Ginji left the Limitless Fortress, his people felt betrayed, and gradually the Four Kings of VOLTS (Kazuki, Shido, MakubeX, and an unnamed person) went their separate ways. Kazuki and Shido are introduced in the earlier episodes of this show. Kazuki, who is easily mistaken for a woman, can wield string as a weapon (he also uses it to spy on people). Shido can communicate with animals and use a beast mimicry technique.

The early episodes also introduce Himiko (a transporter, a poison-user, a person from Ban's past, and potentially an important character in the future, if someone would just explain what the Last Children are), Akabane (a transporter and creepy killer), and Hevn (a negotiator who gives the GetBackers their most dangerous jobs).

Eventually, Hevn gets everyone together (Ban, Ginji, Akabane, Shido, Kazuki, Himiko) and offers them a job retrieving and transporting something for a client. The client won't even tell them what they're looking for, just that its initials are IL (it's called "ill" - apparently, the Japanese writers liked the link to the English word "ill") and that it's somewhere in the Limitless Fortress. Everybody enters the Limitless Fortress, and almost immediately the group gets split up (the smaller groups include Ban and Shido, Ginji and Akabane, and Himiko and Kazuki). Gradually, everyone discovers that MakubeX, one of the former Four Kings of VOLTS, has IL and has plans for it that may result in the destruction of the Limitless Fortress and maybe Tokyo (where the series is located). As they struggle to stay alive and stop him, they begin to uncover more of the Limitless Fortress's secrets.

I'm so very happy that I own this entire series, and not just the first season. If I had finished this boxed set and not had the second season already in my possession, I think I would've had to cry. It's not that this season ends in a cliffhanger - actually, although it would have been annoying for the series to end at this point, it could have, and I've seen this sort of thing done in other anime shows. Mainly, I'm glad I have the whole series because I loved the characters so much.

There's so many great characters in this series that I doubt anyone who watches this show wouldn't fall in love with at least one of them. My favorites happen to be Kazuki (I've got a thing for anime pretty boys), Ban (so very cool and mysterious, not to mention funny), and Akabane (God, but he's creepy). My only complaint about the characters is that the women are far less interesting than the men - Hevn's there mainly for the sex appeal (her breast are big enough for at least two women), Natsumi's just there to be cheerful and cute (from what I've read in Wikipedia, she may be a much more interesting character in the manga), and Himiko's a relatively weak fighter compared to everyone else. Himiko would be even weaker if she were treated more realistically - as things stand, however, she somehow never runs out of her special poisons during her entire time in the Limitless Fortress.

I also enjoyed the music in the series - I'm not just talking about the opening and closing songs (I love the first closing song, sung by the VA for Natsumi), but also the background music. During the violin episodes, there were some very pretty pieces of music. At some point, I may look up the soundtrack to see if the songs I enjoyed the most are there - if so, I'll be putting it on my "to buy" list (which is, regrettably, much longer than I'll ever be able to afford).

The season's final revelations are pretty shocking. Throughout the series, characters talk about how horrible it was that Ginji and the others left the Limitless Fortress, leaving behind those who couldn't leave it themselves. I had thought that these people couldn't leave because there's no place for them in the outside world - a pretty lame excuse, when you watch Ginji, Shido, and Kazuki managing reasonably well outside the Limitless Fortress. However, the real reason they can't leave is much more tragic. If viewers have any trouble following what's going on, things are made painfully clear when Ren, a resident of the Limitless Fortress, tries to follow everyone as they leave the Limitless Fortress at the end of the last episode of the season. I suppose I can understand why MakubeX's actions were so extreme, if he was having to deal with the suspicion that he's not real all on his own.

Overall, I loved this boxed set. The characters are wonderful, and the story got to be pretty riveting. For fangirl types like myself, there's a lot of very squeel-worthy friendships (the main ones for me were Ban and Ginji and Kazuki and Juubei - Boys on Boys on Film even has it listed as a "Slashable Anime"). I watched the entire series through in Japanese, and I watched a few episodes in English dub. The Japanese voice actors were very enjoyable to listen to. The English dub actors weren't always so good. The subtitles were, for the most part, well done, although there was one episode (the final episode on the second disk, I believe) that confusingly had subtitles when no one was actually speaking. I checked the English dub, and someone actually did speak at that point in the dub, so I wonder if the Japanese language track was missing the line, or if the subtitlers were working off of the English dub (gosh, that'd be a horrible way to do subtitles).

My most consistently favorite English dub VAs were Jason Liebrecht (Ban), Ellie McBride (Hevn), and Matt Hislope (Kazuki). Shannon McCormick (Akabane) is pretty good, but he's outclassed by the much creepier Nobuo Tobita, who I think my be my favorite VA in the entire series. The English VA casting for this series is pretty complicated, which, to my mind, is never a good sign - from what I can tell, there are at least 2 VAs for Ban and three for MakubeX. Most of the English VA cast is people I've never heard in any of the other anime I've seen, also not something I tend to view as an encouraging sign of a good English dub. I can't say for sure, since I haven't watched everything in English yet, but it doesn't seem like it's a bad dub - only a little of what I watched was what I'd call hideously awful (the bit that tops my list is when child Kazuki and child Juubei are running away from the massacre at Kazuki's home - shouldn't someone have told the VAs that they were supposed to sound upset??).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Cowboy Bebop (anime TV series) - Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter with a laid-back attitude, amazing fighting skills, and a dark past. He's partners with Jet Black, a former cop, and, as the series progresses, his group grows to include Faye Valentine (a sexy, tricky gambler who can't really remember her past) and Ed (a weird and cheerful young hacker). There are a couple manga series based on this anime, but they're not nearly as good as the anime. In addition, there's a movie that takes place fairly late in the series timeline - I'd recommend watching the series before seeing the movie. Those who'd like another series about characters taking on various one-shot (for the most part) jobs and usually just barely breaking even might enjoy this show. Like GetBackers, the series has both its serious and comedic moments.
  • Staying Dead (book) by Laura Anne Gilman - Wren Valere is a Retriever, someone who finds things that are missing for people who, for one reason or another, cannot go to the police. Sergei, her partner and agent (and potentially more), finds the jobs and negotiates their fee. In this first book in the series, the two of them are hired to find a missing cornerstone with a protection spell on in. Unfortunately, they also have to deal with a dangerous runaway spirit that was freed when the spell was stolen. Wren does things with electricity that are similar to what Ginji in GetBackers does. Those who'd like something with a premise similar to GetBackers, only less light-hearted and comedic, might like this book and series.
  • Black Cat (manga) by Kentaro Yabuki - Ex-assassin Train and Sven are a bounty hunting team constantly trying to earn enough money for a decent meal. Their lives are mostly normal until someone who knew Train back when he was an assassin tries to recruit him into a new and dangerous crime ring full of people with amazing abilities. Those who'd like another action-packed story featuring a perpetually penniless team of characters who happen to have special powers may enjoy this series. There is also an anime based on this manga series, but I haven't seen it yet and can't comment on how similar or different it is from the manga.
  • .hack//SIGN (anime TV series) - This story is set mainly within a popular virtual reality RPG called the World. This particular story (there are several .hack//whatever series, manga, and games) revolves around a detached and introverted player character named Tsukasa. Many strange things happen around Tsukasa, and for some reason he can't log out of the game. Those who found MakubeX fascinating may enjoy this series - Tsukasa is a similar character. In addition, the World has some similarities with the Limitless Fortress.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Devil Wears Prada (live action movie)

Andy Sachs wants to be a journalist, but, since no one will hire her fresh out of college, she's willing to settle for whatever she can get just to pay the bills. She ends up becoming an assistant to Miranda Priestly, an impossibly demanding New York fashion magazine editor. Andy has no sense of fashion and really couldn't care less about the topic. Unfortunately, Miranda and everyone around her practically lives and breathes fashion. If Andy is going to survive her job, she'll have to develop a little fashion sense and learn to make miracles happen whenever Miranda snaps her fingers. Andy starts to get the hang of things in her new job, but, in the process of doing so, she begins to forget her original goal (to become a real journalist, and not an assistant for a fashion magazine) and starts alienating her friends and boyfriend.

I haven't read the book, but I have the distinct feeling (from talking with my mother, who has read the book and avoided the movie because of it) that Miranda was a lot worse to Andy in the book than she was in the movie. In the movie, Miranda is a frightening person who, by the end, is also revealed to be hollow and a bit pathetic. She is terrible to Andy, but there are only a few examples of that terribleness. My favorite is Andy's worst day, when Miranda makes her get the manuscript for the latest Harry Potter book, the one that (at the time this movie was made) hadn't even been published yet. However bad Miranda was to Andy in the movie, I'd have to say that the worst stuff that happens to Andy is actually the stuff she does to herself, when she completely makes herself over so that Miranda will like her.

I never really understood why Andy changed herself so completely. For some reason, she suddenly wanted and needed Miranda to like her. Miranda hadn't done anything to deserve that kind of devotion. It would have been more believable if the movie had focused on Andy's fear that she wouldn't be able to find another journalism job after this if she just up and left. There is a little of that in this movie, but mostly Andy just seems to want Miranda to like her. Personally, I'd be much more able to understand the "but I won't be able to find another job" reason - I had, and still have, some of the same fears now that I've finally managed to find a job myself and, unlike Andy, I wasn't even limiting myself to finding jobs in a single city. If my first "real" job were as bad as Andy's, would I stick with it out of fear that I wouldn't be able to find anything else? It feels pathetic to say this, but the answer is probably "yes." Heck, my current job is actually pretty good, but I'm still settling for a less ideal situation than I had thought I would when I first got out of school.

Like Andy, I'm not a big fashion fan myself, but it was still fun seeing all the outfits people were wearing in this movie. I wonder, are there people in New York, real people, who actually wear this sort of stuff? I find it a bit mind-boggling, but, hey, Anne Hathaway looked fabulous is just about all of it.

Overall, I thought this movie was ok, but it wasn't nearly as funny as I had expected it to be. I think the main reason I enjoyed it at all was because of my own perspective: like Andy, I recently just about sweated blood in order to get my first real job. I can only be thankful that my experiences since taking this job have not been nearly as bad as hers. Anyway, not only was the movie not as funny as I had expected it to be, I saw the ending coming well before Andy did. It was obvious to me that Andy was becoming more and more like one of Miranda's minions (and Miranda herself), but it takes Miranda spelling things out before Andy actually realizes what's going on. Predictability in a story doesn't always bother me, but there was so little to truly enjoy in this movie that I couldn't easily ignore that aspect of it.

  • Beyond the Blonde (book) by Kathleen Flynn-Hui - Georgia Watkins, freshly graduated from the Wilfred Academy of Beauty in Weekeepeemie, NH, is a small-town girl with big ambitions. In a classy salon in New York, she works her way up, starting off by sweeping up hair and eventually becoming a colorist. Unfortunately, things aren't all wonderful, and she has to deal with bullies, romance, heartbreak, and betrayal. Those who'd like another story showing the less glamorous side of a glamorous workplace might enjoy this book, written by a celebrity colorist.
  • The Second Assistant: A Tale From the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladder (book) by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare - Elizabeth Miller is a young former campaign worker who suddenly finds herself between jobs. Unable to find any more socially responsible work, she ends up settling for the job of second assistant to an executive at a Hollywood agency. Of course, her experience is utter hell, but she eventually makes friends, builds her wardrobe, and learns to care for her job and her boss. Those who'd like another story in the "tormented underling in the world of glamour and glitz" genre might enjoy this book.
  • The Nanny Diaries (book) by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus - Two former Manhattan nannies tell the story of Nan, a young woman looking for a job to fit around her child-development classes at NYU. Mrs. X seems reasonable enough when she hires Nan to look after her 4-year-old son Grayer, but she soon reveals herself to be a bundle of neuroses wrapped up in Prada who sees her son as little more than a status symbol. Nan's devotion to Grayer prompts her to stick with this job against the advice of friends and family, but how long can she last? Those who'd like another comedy that reveals the ugly side of the world of the well-to-do might enjoy this book, which, much like The Devil Wears Prada, has been made into a movie.
  • Fear and Trembling (book) by Amelie Nothomb - Amelie is a young Belgian woman who was born in Japan. It has been her dream to work for a company in Japan, and one day that dream comes true. She begins at the bottom of the corporate ladder, writing letters for her boss and trying to make perfect copies for him on the copier, and amazingly manages to descend even lower. I'm not sure how true any of this book is - maybe it's all fiction, or maybe it's exaggerated truth. Whatever the case may be, it's funny and horrible at the same time. Those who'd like another funny story about a woman who stubbornly sticks with a miserable job might enjoy this (very short) book. Just as Andy doesn't maneuver very well in the world of fashion, so too does Amelie have trouble with the Japanese corporate culture.
  • Sushi for Beginners (book) by Marian Keyes - For Ashling, the job she lands at start-up Irish fashion magazine Colleen is a dream come true. For Lisa, a high-maintenance London editor who had been expecting a promotion to New York, it is a bitter disappointment. Lisa becomes determined to make Colleen a success, even if it kills her (and her staff). Lisa eventually starts to wonder if her move to Dublin and her single-minded focus on her career have been a mistake. Meanwhile, Ashling has to pick up the pieces and figure herself out after she is betrayed by her best friend and her boyfriend. The book starts out painfully slow and boring, but stick with it and the characters turn out to have some interesting depth and charm. Those who'd like another story focusing on the employees at a fashion magazine might enjoy this book.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Good for now

Well, I'm set on this blog, at least until after the due date for my web links and databases pages (the databases page has been turned in, but I'm still picking at the web links page like it's some kind of horrible scab). I'm keeping up a semblance of happy energy with the help of a Maaya Sakamoto singles collection. My music collection has been slim ever since half of it mysteriously disappeared (my money, if I had any, would be on the maintenance man), and the fact that over half of the radio stations I get feature country music doesn't help any. Is it any wonder I entertain myself with muffin-making?

(Successful recipes so far: Chocolate Cream, Sausage, Sausage Cheese, Rye, Parmesan Herb, and Cinnamon. Unsuccessful recipes so far: Chocolate Sugar-free and Vanilla Sugar-free. I blame the unsuccessful recipes on the lack of sugar and possible typos - the Vanilla Sugar-free refers to oil in its instructions, but it lists no oil among its ingredients. At least the Chocolate Sugar-free muffins were edible enough on their own, although they were better when dipped in tea. The Vanilla Sugar-free is disgusting without a dollop of hot fudge sauce, which sort of defeats the whole sugar-free aspect.)

Brain... melting...

I put in a 10 hour day today, not counting my 15 minute lunch, doing my regular cataloging work and trying to finish up my edits for the Biology databases and web links pages. Actually, the cataloging work wasn't really all that regular - today I tackled my "problem pile," which included reference books (I haven't done those before at this library - they're not necessarily hard, the procedures are just different) and derived and original cataloging. I came up with subject headings and call numbers for works containing abstracts I could barely decipher. If the professor who donated this stuff doesn't agree with my decisions, I figure he'll email me. Or he'll email my boss.

My edits for the web pages are due Wednesday morning. In theory, I could consider myself finished right now, but I want to put in another hour's worth of work tomorrow. I'm guessing that very few students ever actually look at our web links pages, but you never know.

With all this stuff making my brain go painful, I haven't gotten much done on my blog, which has, as of today, run out of scheduled posts. Will I finish something in time for the next day in my posting schedule? Well, I'll do my best.

Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death (book) by Jo Dereske

When this book begins, Helma Zukas is trying to figure out a way to convince the director of her library that allowing children to sleep over at the library is a bad idea. It's too late, however, and she and several other of her fellow librarians are assigned to different nights as chaperones. The library is also dealing with a relay race and a grief-stricken librarian whose poodle has died. In order to get out of her night as a chaperone to sugar-hyper children, Helma agrees to take part in the canoeing portion of the relay race. Even as she trains for this, she tries to help out her friend Ruth, a flamboyant artist who is considered a "person of interest" by the police after a dead man is found by her home. The night before the man was found dead, Ruth saw him at a local bar and rejected him when he made a pass at her. Helma is convinced that her friend had nothing to do with his death, but, despite the fact that he was generally disliked, it's hard to find evidence pointing to a better suspect.

I admit, for the most part this book bored me. This is the first book in this series that I've read, but it didn't particularly feel like it was necessary to have read the previous books to understand what was going on. My problem was that the murder itself wasn't really that interesting to me, and Helma seemed like such a stereotypical librarian. She has a very traditional view about how and what things should be done at a library. In her opinion, professional librarians demean themselves and their degrees by watching out for children after-hours and taking part in relay races. While I agree with Helma that having the children in the library after-hours was not necessarily the best thought out plan, the way Dereske wrote Helma just made her seem stiff, strict, and at least a decade or two older than her 39 years. Dereske did reveal a few interesting aspects of her character, however - for instance, she enjoys cutting out things in magazines, she's kind to her elderly neighbor, and, as much as she says she wants Boy Cat Zukas (a stray cat that adopted her) to go away, there are signs that she may thaw enough in future books to let the cat into her house.

This is the first book I've ever read in which the author mentions librarians doing things that aren't reference work, research, or finding or re-shelving books. This felt like a real library to me, albeit with more professional librarians than I think many public libraries in a town of this size would have. I guess that's part of what made it so boring - as far as day-to-day work goes, library work isn't exactly action-packed. Still, it's a different view of library work than I imagine many people have, so it's possible that those who don't actually do this stuff every day might find it more interesting than I did.

The main thing I enjoyed about this book was the way Helma related to other characters. Her life is pretty quiet, and she has a very orderly and somewhat stiff personality, but she seems to be a basically kind person. As I already mentioned, she's kind to an elderly neighbor, and she tries her best to help her friend Ruth. She's also got at least one guy who's interested in her, maybe two. The chief of police, Chief Gallant, definitely seems to be interested in her, and there's a really great, but brief, scene at an amusement park that's almost like an unplanned date. Walter David, the manager of her apartment complex, may also be interested in her, although I think Chief Gallant is the more likely future love interest. Walter David blushes a lot when he's around her and offers his help whenever he can, but it doesn't seem like Helma really notices any signs of interest and I don't think they've got much in common.

I also liked reading about Helma's colleagues at the library. George Melville, the cataloger, seemed particularly interesting - and I'm not just saying that because I'm a cataloger. Apparently, George is a bit closed-mouthed about his past, so maybe he's hiding a big secret that will be the focus of a future book. Other than Patrice, the social science librarian (a public library with a social science librarian??) whose poodle died, and the fluffy-brained director, there weren't really any other librarians with really distinguishing characteristics.

The canoeing bits were also fascinating, more so than I expected them to be. I'm not really very interested in canoeing, or in physical activities in general. However, the canoeing parts were so nicely and lovingly written that I couldn't help but enjoy them. They also made Helma seem like a much more human character, since this was obviously an activity that she enjoyed and that brought her a lot of satisfaction. In addition, because Helma's canoe was made by her now-deceased Uncle Tony, writing about canoeing and the canoe gave Dereske lots of opportunities to tell readers more about Helma's youth.

Overall, I'm not really sure that I like this book, but I didn't hate it either. I might pick up another book in the series, just to see if a somewhat different storyline would attract me to the series more - as I mentioned, I didn't really find the murder mystery in this book to be all that interesting. If you're the sort who likes to be able to put clues together and try to figure out the mystery before any of the characters do, you might end up liking this book even less than I did, because I don't think there's really any way to figure out who the killer is before Dereske reveals who did it. However, readers looking for a cozy mystery starring a librarian as an amateur detective might enjoy this book or something else in this series.

  • The Quiche of Death (book) by M. C. Beaton - This is the first in Beaton's Agatha Raisin series. Agatha Raisin has decided to retire from her London public relations job and live a quiet life in the Cotswold village of Carsely. Hoping to gain acceptance from the villagers, Agatha enters a local bake-off, undeterred by her inability to cook or bake. When Agatha's quiche turns out to be poisoned and kills the bake-off judge, she's determined to prove on her own that the judge was murdered (by someone other than her) in order to avoid having to admit that the quiche was store-bought. Those who'd like another cozy mystery set in a small town and starring a female character who could stand to unbend a little might like this book.
  • The Case of the Missing Books (book) by Ian Sansom - Awkward and socially-challenged Israel Armstrong has just gotten his first full-time, long-term job as a librarian. Unfortunately, Israel gets to his new workplace and home only to discover that the library he was supposed to work at has been closed down. If he wants work, he'll have to become the new "Outreach Support Officer" (aka, Bookmobile driver and staffer). He'll also have to figure out, without alienating all the townspeople, where all the books have gone, since every one of the library's 15,000 books has gone missing. Those who'd like another mystery starring a librarian may enjoy this book.
  • Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian (non-fiction book) by Scott Douglas - Douglas writes about his experiences working in libraries. He began working in a small public library in Anaheim and eventually decided to get a degree in library science, after which he got other jobs at public libraries in Anaheim, ones with more responsibility. This description makes this book sound dry, but Douglas' humor and his anecdotes about his co-workers and library patrons makes this an entertaining read - you don't necessarily have to have worked at a library to enjoy this book. Those who found the library work portions of Dereske's book interesting might enjoy this book.
  • The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (book) by Lilian Jackson Braun - This is the first book in Braun's possibly unending Cat Who series. Jim Qwilleran is a prize-winning reporter who's just gotten a job as a feature writer for the Daily Fluxion. He takes a tiny apartment in a building owned by the paper's art critic, who happens to own a spoiled and eerily intelligent cat named Koko. When a gallery owner and the art critic end up dead, Qwilleran tries to solve the mystery (and gets a little help from Koko along the way). Those who'd like another cozy mystery with a varied cast of characters might enjoy this book. In addition, those who found themselves cheering for Boy Cat Zukas will probably love Koko.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Summoning (book) by Kelley Armstrong

This is the first book in Armstrong's first young adult series, Darkest Powers. As far as I can tell, it's set in the same world as her Women of the Otherworld series.

Chloe Saunders is a fairly ordinary 15-year-old high school student, although she sometimes has nightmares of a time when she was much younger and had imaginary friends who could sometimes be pretty scary. She's a little embarrassed by the fact that she hasn't yet gotten her first period, so she's thrilled when it finally starts one day at school. However, on that same day, she sees what appears to be the ghost of a dead janitor and completely freaks out.

On the insistence of Chloe's school, Chloe's father and aunt have her admitted to Lyle House, a home for troubled teens. Chloe is told that she has a mild form of schizophrenia - she knows that if she wants to have any chance of ever leaving Lyle House, she has to agree with this diagnosis and take the medication given to her. However, a couple of the other teens at Lyle House believe that she really is able to see ghosts - one of them calls her a necromancer. As Chloe investigates her abilities, the ghosts she's seen, the other teens, and Lyle House as much as she is able to, she begins to believe that Lyle House may be more sinister than those in charge of it let on.

I was thrilled when I realized that this book is probably set in the same world as Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. There's Chloe the necromancer, as well as a sorcerer, a werewolf, potentially two half-demons, and another teen whose supernatural side has not yet been revealed. Although I thought the story itself didn't quite measure up to some of Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld books, I still enjoyed it and loved the gradual revelations of everyone's abilities. I look forward to seeing whether everyone can get away from Lyle House and whatever experiments are being conducted there in the next or later books.

I was wondering, however, if everything in this book agrees with the rules Armstrong established in her Women of the Otherworld series. The main thing that throws me off is the werewolf teen. As far as I knew, Elena's children were the only children born of a werewolf, since Elena is the only female werewolf in existance. Also, as far as I can remember, it's not possible to become a werewolf if you're younger than a certain age (maybe 18?), because the transformation is so hard on a person. Clayton was supposed to be the only exception, I think. Does that mean that the boy in this book is another exception, unknown to the Pack?

For those who are wondering, this is basically a young adult urban fantasy book - there are hints that there might be some romance developing in the future, but I wouldn't in any way call this book a paranormal romance. At first, I figured that Chloe might be ending up with Simon, one of the two boys at Lyle House and certainly the best-looking one. However, as the story progressed, I started wondering if Armstrong might end up pairing her with Derek - although acne-covered and more than a bit scary, Chloe's spent the most time with him and seems to be getting to know him fairly well. There's also that one scene where Chloe got to see Derek's very non-teenage boy chest... Of course, Armstrong might decide not to pair Chloe off with anybody, but her track record in her other series would indicate otherwise. I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to getting to read more of this series.

  • The Strange Power (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book is Smith's Dark Visions series. Kaitlyn Fairchild is a psychic whose drawings predict the future. The only problem is, her drawings usually don't make sense until after whatever they predict has happened. When she finds out about the Zeetes Institute, a place where she can learn to control her abilities, she decides to go, but the institute may have have more sinister intentions than Kaitlyn realizes. Those who'd like another story starring teens with special abilities who are trapped in a sinister place might enjoy this book/series. The books in this series definitely have a romantic element.
  • Jennifer Scales and the Ancient Furnace (book) by MaryJanice Davidson and Anthony Alongi - This is the first book in the Jennifer Scales series. Jennifer Scales has no reason to believe she isn't an ordinary girl in an ordinary family - until she suddenly develops the ability to shapeshift into a dragon, and her parents admit that she's half-dragon, half-Beaststalker. As if her life wasn't complicated enough, Jennifer has to figure out how to protect herself and her family from beings who view her as their natural enemy. Those who'd like another story in which a teen discovers she has special powers and a non-human bloodline might enjoy this book/series.
  • Blood and Chocolate (book) by Annette Curtis Klause - Vivian is a werewolf, part of a small community of werewolves living in secret among humans. Vivian's father, the pack leader, was killed when the pack was driven out of its previous home, and all that remains is for a new leader to be chosen before the pack can move to a more permanent home. In the meantime, Vivian doesn't really feel at home with anyone in the pack. She begins dating a human, but how long will their relationship last if she tells him what she is? Even worse, people have been getting killed and Vivian can't be certain she wasn't responsible. Those who'd like another young adult novel involving supernatural creatures and a bit of suspense might enjoy this book.