Monday, February 23, 2009

Your & My Secret volumes 2-4

Well, the wackiness continues as the plot spirals deeper and deeper into the gender-confused world of body-swapping. I recently picked up the first installment of this series by Ai Morinaga and really enjoyed it (review here), and now I’m fully caught up with all the volumes currently released in English. Your & My Secret continues to be hilarious and addictive. The artwork is enjoyable, and the story is engaging in spite of (or perhaps in part because of) its extreme implausibility.

A lot happens in these three volumes (Morinaga’s really good at keeping the plot moving along nicely; many manga series tend to stagnate once the basic premise is set up). So rather than try to give a thorough account of all the plot developments, I’ll just try to sum up the most important elements so I can talk a little about the characters and the series in general. Momoi Nanako (pretty but rude and violent) and Uehara Akira (gentle and unassuming) are still stuck , apparently indefinitely, in each other’s bodies. Momoi-in-Akira’s-body has fully embraced being a guy and has even started dating her pre-swap best friend Shiina, who for her part is quite taken with the suddenly strong and manly “Akira”. On the other hand, Akira’s pre-swap best friend, Senbongi, has taken quite an interest in the now demure Momoi-who-is-really-Akira. Oh, and we mustn’t forget that the real Akira harbors a longstanding, unrequited love for the real Momoi, whose body he now inhabits.

On the whole, the biggest disappointment of the series for me so far is the character of Momoi (the real Momoi, not the Akira-in-Momoi’s-body Momoi.) I kind of enjoyed her wildly exaggerated character in the beginning, back when I still thought she had hidden depths that would surely emerge over time. But no, she’s turning out to actually be exactly as shallow and selfish as she seems when you first meet her. She’s still funny and entertaining, I’m just kind of disappointed that she’s not turning out to be more of a diamond in the rough. She’s basically just a rough.

On the other hand, the most pleasant surprise has been the recent character development of Senbongi. At first I thought he was kind of scummy and even a bit of a jerk from the way he went chasing after Akira-in-Momoi’s-body, even though he knew about the real Akira’s feelings for her. But as their story progresses, and especially after Senbongi learns about the Swap (end of volume two), I find myself really warming up to him. It was difficult at first to figure him out or understand what makes him tick, but volume four provides a nice little backstory that gives some insight into Senbongi’s character and his relationship with Akira, which by this point has really become the main focus of the series. Or at least, it’s eclipsed the non-existent Akira/Momoi relationship that never really was to begin with.

Shiina’s a very likable character; she’s sweet and good, but not too unattainably perfect. She has her little moments of jealousies and insecurities that make her a real person and not just a foil for Momoi.

Akira’s really the heart of this series. We experience the story completely through his perspective, hearing all his thoughts and inner turmoil. He struggles a lot with being in a female body, especially since he was a very gentle, almost effeminate boy to begin with. He wants so badly to retain his masculine identity but is finding it increasingly difficult to do so. It’s quite understandable, what with the love of his life now being male and his relationship with his best friend being so completely turned around. Plus, being a girl just seems to come so much more naturally to Akira, just like being a guy seems more natural to Momoi. In the midst of all the surreality of body-swapping et al, Akira’s narrative voice rings pretty true.

Oh and let’s not forget our minor characters. The grandfather really is pretty vulgar, and I don’t find him that funny, but he’s not a major part of the series so it’s not that big of a deal for me. Katsupei, Shiina’s ridiculously overprotective older brother, is actually quite hilarious.

So that’s about all I have to say about volumes two through four of Ai Morinaga’s Your & My Secret. Volume 5 will be released by Tokyopop on May 5, 2009.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fushigi Yuugi VizBig #1: volumes 1-3

You know, these VizBig editions are a brilliant marketing strategy. They take a manga series, usually one with pretty longstanding popularity, and re-release it a larger format with two or three volumes bound in one book. Add in some extra features and some full color pages and you’ve got yourself a pretty enticing product. Not to mention the fact that you’re basically getting three volumes of manga for the price of two. I myself would never have decided on my own to purchase the early volumes of Fushigi Yuugi, despite the affection I have for the series, had Viz not offered them in this format. So that’s seventeen bucks they made off me alone just by giving Fushigi Yuugi the VizBig treatment.

Fushigi Yuugi is a pretty classic shoujo series from the 90s that not only was hugely popular in its own time, but has also sustained a considerable fan base (as well as heavy criticism; it’s basically one of those things you either love or loathe) in the decade or so since its conclusion. It has subsequently inspired an anime adaptation, several OVAs, and a manga prequel series, making Fushigi Yuugi quite the shoujo franchise. Yuu Watase, the artist who created the series back in 1992, has since gone on to write/draw several other very successful series such as Ayashi no Ceres, Absolute Boyfriend, and Imadoki (Nowadays). I was first introduced to Fushigi Yuugi through the anime adaptation of the series. I found it to be a bit silly, but lots of fun and full of shameless romantic fluff as well as some pretty decent humor. I ended up reading some of the latter volumes of the manga, but I never went back to the beginning of the series. So when the VizBig edition came out I grabbed it.

Fushigi Yuugi tells the story of a junior-high student named Miaka who actually reminds me a lot of Usagi from Sailormoon: ditzy, gluttonous, but with a heart of gold. Anyways, Miaka and her more mature, reserved friend Yui open a mysterious book called “The Universe of the Four Gods” while studying for their entrance exams in the library and get sucked right into the world of the book – a world somewhat resembling feudal China. Once there, Miaka is identified by the people as the legendary priestess of Suzaku, a girl from another world who will summon the god Suzaku to save the kingdom and be granted a wish of her own. Enticed by the prospect of a wish, Miaka readily agrees without fully considering what she’s getting herself into. In order to summon Suzaku, she must search out the seven celestial warriors from the land who are Suzaku’s servants and guardians of the priestess. Only when all seven are united may Suzaku be summoned. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and misunderstandings, Yui and Miaka have a bitter falling-out and Yui accepts the role as priestess of Seiryu for the neighboring rival kingdom. Now Miaka must consider Yui as her enemy if she is ever to succeed in summoning Suzaku and saving the kingdom she’s begun to love.

In the first three volumes, Miaka encounters four of the seven celestial warriors:
  • Tamahome, a young man who loves money like Miaka loves food
  • Hotohori, who’s actually the emperor of the land
  • Nuriko, a crossdressing pretty man with incredible strength and a prickly personality
  • Chichiri, a weird but cheerful dude who seems always to show up in a pinch before disappearing again

These guys are all lots of fun, especially as you get to know them as the series progresses.

In addition to all the adventure and romance, this series actually has a pretty good sense of humor. One of my favorite characters from the anime, Nuriko, is particularly hilarious. Watase also has the good sense not to take herself too seriously; she even includes little parodies of the more dramatic moments in the series that are actually pretty funny. Many manga artists like to include occasional side panels in which they kind of ramble on about whatever they feel like to the readers. I always read these, but I found Watase’s comments to be particularly interesting as she wrote them all in the early stages of her career when she was still struggling to find her niche as an artist. Fushigi Yuugi was her first really successful work, after all. Which brings me to another thing: I was really surprised at how different the art of these first three volumes looks when compared with her other series and even with the later volumes of this series. It seems like her art really has evolved a lot over the past fifteen years or so (Fushigi Yuugi was first published in 1992.)

In order to sort of play devil’s advocate, I will say that I can understand why a lot of people don’t like this series. It’s built upon a lot of clichés that many people find annoying: the ditzy yet lovable schoolgirl heroine, one main female character supported by a cast of guys, etc. Yet if you can look past all that, this series actually does have a lot to offer. It’s fun and funny, and the characters are enjoyable.

My one major complaint about this book is that the English translation pretty much sucked. I had to keep reminding myself that the dialogue probably sounds a heck of a lot better in the original Japanese every time I read a particularly awkward phrasing or misplaced colloquialism. Just another thing to look past in order to see the true merits of the material.

The VizBig edition includes some pages of art in color in the front and back, as well as a character introduction page, a sound effects glossary, and a Chinese-to-Japanese glossary. The second VizBig volume of this series, presumably containing volumes 4-6 is scheduled to be released in April. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Episode one of season one of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse

Gah! I am the worst fan ever! I think I must have been living under a rock for the past few years of my life. How could I not know that Joss Whedon, (TV mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Serenity, and most recently Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog) had a new TV show until after the first episode had already aired? What is wrong with me? Well, I usually don’t watch a show when it first airs, preferring rather to wait until it’s already gotten good before I jump on the bandwagon. But still, this wasn’t even on my radar until yesterday! I’m ashamed. Looking back, though, I’m glad I wasn’t aware ahead of time that this series was in the works, because I know I would’ve gotten way, way ahead of myself. I’d have waited and waited for it to premiere, banking on the magic of Joss Whedon, building up impossible expectations. As it is, the first episode wasn’t exactly a homerun for me (but then, the pilot doesn’t have to be a knockout for a series to be great), but it had definite potential. I’ve got a lot of faith in Joss that he knows what he’s doing, and that he won’t disappoint us. I hope he comes through.

One of the most jarring elements of the first episode for me was actually Eliza Dushku in the lead role. It’s just hard for me to not see her as Faith (her character on Buffy), and when she first appeared on the screen my initial reaction went something like, ‘No! Watch out, this bitch is psychotic, she’ll stab you in the back, look out!!!!’ (Side note: Yes, I know Faith had issues and eventually sort of redeemed herself, yadda yadda, but still. I’m a pretty patient, forgiving person when it comes to real life, but boy do I hold grudges against fictional characters. Uchiha Sasuke, for example? He’s dead to me.) Sooo, anyways, once I convinced myself that this was Echo, not Faith, the whole experience went along much more smoothely. I don’t think she’s a very consistent actress, but when she’s on she’s spot on, and I’m hoping she finds her footing and gets really comfortable in this role. As for the rest, time will tell. The first episode was a little scattered, but I think it has potential in the hands of Joss Whedon.

So, anyways, the basic premise has a kind of contemporary sci-fi vibe. The “Dollhouse” is a secret facility that houses the technology to erase a person’s mind, and reprogram it, giving them any conceivable personality, skills set, or attitude desired. These “dolls” are then hired out to anyone willing to pay the exorbitant fee in order to get exactly what they want or need. The dolls, also referred to as “actives” when programmed, are all young, healthy people who have ostensibly volunteered for this job, although none of them have any memory of doing so, of course. It’s still unclear exactly how aware they are of their true identities, but it seems like not very. They’re sort of blank in between jobs. The Dollhouse facility itself is a very lavish and nurturing place to live. Comfortable, yes. Creepy, most definely. I have no idea where Joss is going with this, but I trust that he’s got a destination in mind. So, I’ll be tuning in tonight to watch episode two on fox. Or I’ll watch it later on Hulu, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak: death speaks

Having once been something of a book thief myself during a period of my misguided youth, I was initially attracted to this book by the title. When I learned that it was actually a story about a young German girl who (sort of) stole books during the Third Reich, and that it was narrated by Death, I picked it up without hesitation. Honestly, how can you go wrong with a premise like that? Even if it wasn’t stellar, it was bound at the very least to be interesting. And it was, exceedingly so. The Book Thief was quite unlike any book I’ve ever read before, and although it frustrated me greatly on occasion, it also pleased me immensely and it did make me cry.

After introducing himself rather heavy-handedly (more on this below), Death begins to tell the story of a young girl named Liesel Meminger. A young German girl, the soon-to-be-orphaned Liesel is given over to the foster care of a house painter and his wife in a small town called Molching. The year is 1939. Over the course of the next four years, Leisel grows up in an increasingly deteriorating German society, facing hardship and tragedy, but also finding love and kindness in some really touching ways. Insignificant thought the small girl may seem amidst the terrors of war that slowly encroach on her tiny town, she nevertheless finds little ways to fight back. Throughout the course of the book, she sustains and supports not only herself but also those around her with the written word.

The Book Thief provides a fascinating perspective on the experiences of small town German citizens during the Second World War. Zusak’s own mother grew up in a town similar to Molching, and his father was an Austrian house painter. He has claimed to base much of The Book Thief on their stories and recollections. The cast of characters of this book was very believable, featuring both the best and the worst of humanity. Similarly, Liesel’s love for books (which will naturally appeal to any reader) and the power they hold for her, is nicely contrasted with the power of the Nazi propaganda and ideology over the German people. It is suggested in the novel, or rather it is directly spelled out for the readers, that words are tremendously powerful, whether for good or evil purposes. The duality of the written word, and the duality of human nature, is one of the central themes of The Book Thief.

What makes this book particularly strange is the weird narrative style of which Death seems to be so fond. He sounds almost as if English isn’t his first language (although, logically speaking, why would it be?); he’s got a great vocabulary but the structure and grammatical conventions don’t seem to come naturally to him. I suppose, not being human, he doesn’t feel bound to such restrictions if they don’t fit his purposes. But still, it can get kind of frustrating for a human reader when he puts things out of chronological order or expresses himself unnaturally. I enjoyed him more when he was actually telling Liesel’s story than when he was going on and on about himself. Yet for all the phrases of his I particularly disliked (like when he said the only thing “visible” to Liesel was her father’s voice), there was an equal number that I really did like (e.g. “You will be caked in your own body” when he comes for you.) Lots of Deathisms like that. Definitely interesting.

Quite frequently he (Death) interrupts himself in the telling of the story to interject some little observation or remark that reminds us exactly who is talking and what that means. An example:

They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly: “Get it done, get it done.” So you work harder. So get the job done. The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.


Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of “heil Hitlering.” You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You’d only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no one died from it, or at least, not physically. There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that’s getting all metaphoric.

And lastly:

It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.

Like I said, not quite like anything I’ve read before. I didn’t like the way Zusak would sometimes hit you over the head with his point to make sure you got it, but all in all The Book Thief was moving and thought-provoking.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Persepolis, the graphic novel comes to life

Well, I decided to benefit from the long weekend by watching a whole slew of films online with my Netflix account, and let me say that I wasted a lot of time starting and even finishing some pretty mediocre films. One of them definitely stood out, though, so that’s the one I’ll focus on today. Like the recently premiered Coraline film, which I raved about last time, Persepolis is an adaptation of a book that employs a rather unique method of animation. But the similarities stop there. Based on an autobiographical graphic novel (in two parts) by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis recounts her memoirs of growing up in Iran in the 80s and 90s. Dealing with war, suppression, depression, and loneliness, Persepolis is not always a happy movie. Yet it does have a great deal of humor and lightness to contrast with the darker elements, and it strikes me as very honest (indeed, inexorably so.)

I’m arriving a little late to the Persepolis party, however. I read the books this past fall, but only got around to seeing the film this weekend. Though I definitely liked the books, I kind of hesitated to rush out and see the film because I didn’t think Satrapi’s particular style of drawing really lent itself to animation. Her images are direct and striking, but simple and minimalist. It works wonderfully for the story she tells in the book, but I just couldn’t imagine enjoying a feature-length film in that bare style. In this respect I confess myself to have been very much mistaken. The studio(s?) that worked on this film did an amazing job bringing Satrapi’s artwork to life. I found it incredible how such a minimalist approach could achieve such emotionally poignant and powerful effects. The images are simple, but they are very striking, strongly and effectively portraying some pretty harsh realities in stark black and white. Yet at the same time the film features some very tender, gentle, human moments among Marjane and her family. The young Marjane in particular was extremely real and childlike.

For me personally, I thought the sequences focusing on Marjane’s depression and loneliness later in the film were the most powerful, even more so than the images of war and killing. The artistic combination of animation and sound was very effective, but upsetting as well. Overall, I thought Persepolis was a fantastic adaptation of the original material, beautiful and alternatively funny and harrowing. If you’re looking for something to elevate and cheer your spirits, however, you might want to look elsewhere. Click here for the trailer.


Just for the heck of it, some of the other stuff I watched this weekend:

  • The Other Boleyn Girl - Beautiful to look at, but thoroughly unbelievable.
  • Step Up 2 : The Streets - These kids are great dancers, but sadly not great actors. The bad script didn't help much either.
  • Enchanted - Okay, this movie is awesome, but it was a re-watch for me.
  • Lost In Austen - Delightful little BBC miniseries. Humorous romantic comedy time travel.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Coraline is officially awesome ...

… according to me, that is. But for what it’s worth, I though this Henry Selick directed, stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book turned out very awesome indeed. I’ve seen a few other stop-motion films before, mostly of the Henry Selick and/or Tim Burton variety, but I don’t think even The Nightmare Before Christmas can measure up to this one. Much in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth, Coraline puts a dark twist on the Alice-in-Wonderland theme of a girl who discovers another world in her own proverbial backyard (although perhaps not quite as dark as the aforementioned R-rated Guillermo del Toro film.) In fact, it's sort of like a modern-day Grimm fairy tale; it has the same kind of dark undertones. But I was really blown away by the sheer artistry of the stop-motion animation in this film. Since the rise of computer animation, the medium in which almost all American children’s films are now made, it’s amazing to think that everything depicted in Coraline was actually generated, not by a computer, but by human hands. Every puppet, every leaf and blade of grass, every roof shingle was physically constructed for the movie. The result is a stylized, but somehow very lifelike picture that is beautiful, funny, and in some ways intensely creepy.

Our story begins with young Coraline Jones moving into an old house that’s been divided up into separate apartments in some remote and rainy location. Her distracted parents and eccentric neighbors pay little attention to her, and she soon becomes bored and lonely, until she discovers a small door in the house that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere – most of the time. Despite several ominous clues and veiled warnings, Coraline is slowly drawn into the world beyond the door, a world very closely resembling her own, except for the simple fact that this one revolves around her. It’s magical and fun, and everything a kid could ever dream of – at first. Of course, things aren’t what they seem, but by the time Coraline senses danger she’s already become too entangled in the web to escape without first defeating something very old, very evil, and very nasty: the other mother.

One thing that impressed me the most about Coraline was actually the “real world” parts of the film. Not that the “other” world wasn’t fantastically and artistically portrayed. Believe me, those parts were really, really cool. But Coraline and her family seemed so lifelike and believable, like real people in a real world. Not only is that something you don’t usually see in stop-motion (which tends to rely heavily on crazy, cartoonish characters), but it also made the threat of the “other” world all the more sinister and scary. I also liked the character of Wieby (sp?). He wasn't in the book if I remember correctly, but I thought he made a delightful addition to the story. There wasn’t a lot of music in the movie, but the music that was featured in the opening sequences and closing credits was really lovely in a creepy sort of way, setting the tone of the film quite nicely.

I'm kind of curious as to how the film was marketed. I suppose the target audience was younger children, just like with the book, but I think it would be wrong to write it off as something that would only interest kids. I know I certainly enjoyed it, as did my (also college-aged) friend with whom I went to see it. Although I probably enjoyed it a little bit more.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

First volumes of Your & My Secret and Otomen: a hit and a miss

So I wrote a few days ago about the finale of Rinko Ueda’s Tail of the Moon, and now I’d like to take some time to review the very first volumes of two brand new (to me, at least) series, one of which I found thoroughly engaging and the other one … not so much.

First up: the initially promising yet poorly executed Otomen, by Aya Kanno. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so dissatisfied with this one if my expectations hadn’t been so high. Yet I’d heard and read so many glowingly positive reviews of this firs volume (the only one of the series yet to be published in English), that I just bought it on impulse, completely confident that it would be awesome. (Side note: manga is expensive, so I usually don’t purchase a volume unless I know it’s something I really need to own. That would include mostly continuations of series I’m already hooked on, or series I’ve previewed and researched online.) So anyways, I get home and get ready to be blown away, or at the very least to be amused and entertained. And I really did try to like it; I wanted to like it. Alas, it just wasn’t meant to be.

The concept of the series sounds fresh and interesting enough: a shoujo manga about straight guy Asuka who harbors a secret penchant for all things girly, and forms unlikely relationships with tomboyish girl Ryo and playboy Juta (who’s also got a few secrets of his own). Sounds like there’s lots of potential in there for humor and drama about the trials of coming to terms with oneself and one’s identity, right? Unfortunately, I saw none of that potential come to fruition in this book. I found the plot and dialogue to be un-stimulating and even repetitive, with the same basic scenarios and conversations rehashed multiple times throughout the volume. (And these guys’ lines aren’t particularly interesting to begin with.) The artwork is pleasing enough, but the characters themselves all seem pretty two-dimensional. I had to really push myself just to read through to the end of the volume, never a good sign. I know that many series improve as they go on, but they’ve got to at least keep up my interest in the meantime if I’m gonna stick around to find out. So it’s with a (relatively) heavy heart that I bid farewell to the slam dunk Otomen series I’d conjured up in my imagination, and pass this book on through the paperbackswap to somebody else.

Now reading the first volume of Ai Morinaga’s Your & My Secret, however, was a totally different story. Whereas Otomen completely failed to capture my interest, Your & My Secret drew me in almost instantly. The story features shy, quiet Akira Uehara, who it seems will never be brave or assertive enough to talk to the girl of his dreams. Especially since said girl, Nanako Momoi, although beautiful and elegent, is also incredibly rude, loud, pushy, and selfish. Poor Akira! There’s no way this girl would ever notice him, except maybe to steal his lunch money. Still, he’s hopelessly smitten, and so he pines from afar. Then one day, due to a series of Freaky Friday-like circumstances, the two get flung into each other’s bodies! You haven’t seen wackiness until you’ve witnessed Akira and Nanako wreaking havoc on their school trying to pretend to be one another. And you can bet their classmates are mightily stuck by the bizarre changes in these two. (Mostly they think the “new” Akira and Nanako are vast improvements over the original versions.) The laid-back Nanako seems to take it all in stride, even enjoying the advantages of being a boy, but poor Akira is having a terrible time of it. Confusion and hilarity ensues, and it’s all very entertaining. And I haven’t even said anything yet about all the gender confusion that goes on in our main love – rectangle? Diamond? Dodecahedron? It’s anyone’s guess at this point.

I’ve never read anything by Ai Morinaga before, although I know she’s got some pretty successful series to her name, and so far I’m really impressed. She manages to capture and keep this reader’s attention, and to leave me eager to find out how the story will continue to unfold in the next installment. The artwork is really nice, too, just the combination of detail, cuteness, and animation that I like. Morinaga does a super job of portraying motion; the drawings all seem very lively, whereas I found Otomen to be pretty, but sort of stiff. So, yeah, I’ll definitely be checking out Your & My Secret vol. 2.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Southern Vampire Mysteries (a.k.a The Sookie Stackhouse Novels) by Charlaine Harris

Winter break is a nice time for college students. We get about a month off from school with nothing to do but hang out and work part time. But the greatest part about all this mid-scholastic-year mellowing out is that it provides the opportunity for lots of uninterrupted, guilt-free reading and TV watching. This is not to say we don’t pursue such recreational activities during the semester as well, only that we’re not putting off any homework in order to do so. So if I randomly decide I want to watch the entire first season of the recently debuted HBO series True Blood, for example, I can and a few weeks ago I did just that. Now True Blood itself is an interesting series (starring Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer, and created by Six Feet Under man Alan Ball), with which I have something of a love-hate relationship, but the point of this post is that it inspired me to hunt down and read the series of books it was based on. And that would be the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris.

First, a word in praise of local library networks. This series currently has eight books in it, and is still going strong. (The ninth will be released in May, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the last.) And while I was definitely interested in
reading them all, I wasn’t too keen on making the kind of financial investment it would take to buy them. It had been a while since I’d actually used my local public library, and I’d almost forgotten how convenient (and free!) it was. After a bit of hunting, I was eventually able to track down all eight books and check them out en masse, and was even pretty proud of myself, as if utilizing public resources was some huge personal accomplishment. But, anyways, on to the books themselves.

The series features Sookie Stackhouse, a southern blonde bombshell of a barmaid who lives and works in northern Louisiana, and who just so happens to be telepathic. What’s interesting about these books, and different from many (all?) other vampire novels, is that the living dead have been integrated and (more or less) accepted into modern human society. That doesn’t mean the vampires don’t have their own complicated politics, power struggles and practices of which the humans know nothing, because they sure as heck do. Not to mention the other “supe” (supernatural) communities, such as the weres (werewolves), shifters (shape shifters), witches, and the fairies, all of whom have yet to come out to the humans and admit their existence like the vampires did. Sound complicated? Well, it is. And our telepathic human heroine gets inexorably caught up in all of it. But this complex and imaginative world is something that Charlaine Harris has developed gradually over the course of the series, slowly expanding it with each new installment. In an almost Harry Potter-esque way, she’s taken a clichéd concept and created from it a sprawling and engrossing world that feels very real in spite of its fantasticalness (is that a word?).

Sookie herself makes an okay heroine, but since the books are narrated in the first person her voice is fairly important. She’s pretty blunt and in-your-face, but considering what she’s been through and what she deals with on an average basis I can’t really fault her for it. Grow
ing up as a telepath in a small town like Bon Temps is never easy, and one of the reasons she first gets involved with the vampire community (or at least with one vampire in particular) is because it represents an opportunity for her to deal with her otherness in some way. Another thing about Sookie is the fact that she tends to acquire a lot of admirers within the various supe communities. (Humans guys, on the other hand, tend to avoid her because of the whole telepathy/reputation for craziness thing.) Her seemingly universal appeal would seem a little contrived, except for the fact that she shares a different and interesting relationship with each of her would be lovers, who are also well-rounded characters in and of themselves.

And while we’re on the topic of Sookie’s beaux… Let me just say that I felt a sort of grim satisfaction when her first love interest (you know, the one that sweeps her off her feet in the first book) turns out to be somewhat of a jerk. I’d never really liked him anyways, and I do like how the whole series doesn’t rely on that particular romance as its foundation. I like that while Sookie suffers heartache over him, she learns and grows from the experience, and also starts to navigate the politics and intrigues of the supernatural community on her own. Plus, I gotta admit that one of my favorite things about this series is the character of Eric (local vampire sheriff, former Viking, budding business tycoon, and possessor in spades of joie-de-vivre.) He’s got a pretty complicated relationship with Sookie that nevertheless is always lots of fun, and does a lot more for me than the Bill/Sookie one ever did. They’ve never officially gotten together (except once briefly when he was suffering from magic-induced amnesia), but they’ve definitely got something going on. Pam, Eric’s second-in-command, is also great. Together the two run a vampire bar for tourists in Shreveport that’s called – wait for it – Fangtasia. Ha! Anyways, those two are probably my favorite characters, but there are heaps to choose from.

I do have some reservations about the series, however, and let me just say that it’s definitely not for younger teens. Explicit sex and violence are pretty standard components of many, if not all, of the Sookie books. Call me a prude, but there’s definitely some stuff in there that I could have done without. As for the, uh, caliber shall we say, of the prose, I read a review of these books that compared them to "literary water": no substance or nutrition whatsoever. But I'd argue that they're more like literary kool-aid: yummy and fun, if not as good for you as broccoli, for example. But the fact that I burned through all eight books in two and a half weeks (the first two and a half weeks of a new semester) just goes to show how addictive they are once you really get into them. Now I just have to wait until May 5th so I can read the ninth installment, Dead and Gone.

Just one more thing. I know this post was mainly about the books, but here for your listening pleasure, is the song featured in the opening credits of HBO's True Blood. Kinda sets the tone for the series anyways.

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tail of the Moon vol. 15: The saga concludes

I just finished the final installment of this series by Rinko Ueda, and although it wasn’t my favorite volume of the bunch (too much wrapping up and tying of loose ends), I enjoyed the series overall and I’m glad I stuck through until the end.

So, before focusing on this closing volume, some thoughts on the series as a whole. Tail of the Moon is a series that takes a pretty stupid-sounding premise and draws a surprisingly engaging and entertaining story from it. This is due mainly to a good cast of characters, a nice fast pacing, and a healthy sense of humor. The story focuses on Usagi, a young girl from a ninja clan during the pre-Tokugawa years, who is a good herbalist but a very bad ninja. She’s so useless, in fact, that her elders palm her off to the leader of a neighboring clan as a potential bride, figuring that’s all she’ll ever be good for. Unfortunately Hanzo, her husband-to-be, initially wants nothing to do with the clumsy, tactless girl, but Usagi has a way of winning people over in spite of her faults, and the two slowly get closer to one another.

The series isn’t just about romance, though; as the story progresses Usagi learns and grows into a more independent adult, and also gets caught up in the struggles and intrigue of the feuding clans and warlords of a very volatile historical period. I kind of liked how the author incorporated significant historical figures such as Tokugawa Ieyasu, Oda Nobunaga, Ranmaru Mori, and Sen no Rikyu into Usagi’s story, playfully reinterpreting them within the context of the story. And while the series manages to achieve a pretty wide scope (combining drama, romance, history, adventure, and humor), I can’t really say it was all that deep. But it sure was entertaining. I didn’t particularly like the artist’s style but I got used to it. It’s definitely a series geared towards younger readers, and many parts of it were downright ridiculous. But then again, if you can’t stomach a little ridiculousness once in a while I don’t think you’ve got much business reading manga in the first place.

So anyways, volume 15: In this final volume, the main conflict between Usagi and Hanzo over his revenge campaign against Nobunaga comes to a head and is finally resolved in a tense scene that would have been better if it hadn’t felt a little rushed and condensed. This climactic encounter also happens to take place in the middle of a siege on Honniji castle led by Mitsuhide, who’s been driven to desperation by misfortune and despair. Yet in spite of all this drama, almost everybody lives happily ever after and the series ends on a cheerful note. Did that sound abrupt? Well, it kinda was. I mean, I enjoyed revisiting all the characters and seeing (more or less) how their individual storylines were resolved, I wish it hadn’t been so rushed. The volume also included a cute short story at the end featuring a grown up Mamezo that provided an enjoyable conclusion to the series.

Friday, February 6, 2009

It's Coming: The new Gambit movie! Oops, I mean Wolverine...

I know this trailer’s been out for a while, but I only just watched it for the first time.

So, I'm basically happy for three reasons. 1) I love X-Men. I can hardly remember a time when I didn't love X-Men. 2) I love Hugh Jackman. I just think it's so cool that a Broadway man became such an awesome Wolverine. I mean, this is the guy who used to be known for Oklahoma! And finally, 3) I love Gambit.

Okay. I know I’m not the only person out there whose interest in this film stems largely from the fact that Gambit will (finally!) be making an appearance this time around. I guess I can understand him not being included in the first X-Men movies, seeing as how there are zillions of X-verse characters to choose from, and he’s not exactly as central a figure as Wolverine and the others. But, come on, he’s just so cool! He’s definitely a fan favorite, as well as a personal favorite of mine. And then there were rumors of his inclusion in the third installment, which of course came to nothing, and now, finally, here he is! And I gotta admit, he looks pretty damn good. Of course, it could still go very, very badly for his fans. (I mean look at how drastically they changed Rogue, who was a love interest of his for a long time in the comics, in the other three films.) Yet I prefer to remain cautiously optimistic. So now I’m pumped for May!

New life in an old book: Villette, by Charlotte Bronte

I could so easily write a huge post all about why I love Jane Eyre so much. That post would most likely focus on defending it against critics who would accuse it of being too melodramatic and unrealistic, a book designed to make ugly girls feel good about themselves. (I once saw Jane Eyre dismissively referred to as “the plain girl’s Bible” and honestly I don't think I've ever really gotten over it.) I could also go on and on about why I think Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights pales in comparison to Jane Eyre in terms of psychological characterization, as well as just plain being a joy to read. But since it’s been a while since I read either of those books cover to cover, I’d like to talk instead about another of Charlotte Bronte’s novels, Villette, which I just recently finished.

Although primarily known and liked for her intensely passionate and deeply romantic novel Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte did in fact write three additional novels during her lifetime that for one reason or another never became quite as popular. Nowadays these three other novels, namely The Professor, Shirley, and Villette, are read mainly by people who are either really, really into Victorian literature, or are diehard fans of Jane Eyre looking to find some more of the same in the authors’ extended body of work. I totally admit to being in the latter category of readers in this instance, yet I found that I quite enjoyed Villette on its own merits, and had I read it first I might even even have prefered it to JE. That’s a pretty big “if” though.

Anyways, first to dispense with the requisite comparison: CB’s pretty singular narrative voice is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with any of her writing, which is great for her fans, but most likely irritating for her critics. The fact that these two heroines are similar to each other might bother me more, however, if they weren’t so fascinating to begin with. I particularly love how both Jane and Lucy, in spite of their relative isolation and loneliness, seem nevertheless to thrive on the inner life of the imagination. Charlotte Bronte seems to convey nothing in her writing if not the supremacy of the spiritual over the physical. I was particularly struck when Lucy confesses to us the readers,
I seemed to hold two lives – the life of thought, and that of reality; and, provided the former was nourished with a sufficiency of the strange necromantic joys of fancy, the privileges of the latter might remain limited to daily bread,
hourly work, and a roof of shelter. (Chapter 8)
How true those words rang for me when I first read them! Yes! I thought. Exactly so. My physical home and town are not the world in which I truly live. The world in which I truy live exists primarily in everything I read, in the videos I watch, in the music I listen to, and in everything that tickles my imagination. All throughout Villette Bronte seemed to articulate with deathly accuracy some of my innermost thoughts and feelings. It was uncanny, but still really cool.

Yet Lucy Snowe distinguishes herself from Jane Eyre in a number of significant ways. Almost ten years older, Lucy is more mature and perhaps a little less fanciful (as Bronte herself was much older when she wrote Villette.) Lucy is more secretive than Jane, withholding crucial information even from the reader, causing a plot twist part way through that really threw me for a loop. She is also less isolated than Jane from the society of other people, physically at least. While Jane lives in a remote and empty manor deep in the British countryside, Lucy lives and works as a teacher in a school located in a bustling coastal town of France. The cast of characters in Villette is therefore broader and richer, which makes for a different kind of story. All this is very interesting, of course, but I still might not have finished the book (it’s rather long you see) had I not been so thoroughly delighted with the hero, the incomparable Paul Emmanuel.

Now if this were an Austen novel, the handsome and charming Dr. John would end up being The One, and I confess that for the first leg of the book I though he would be. But fortunately, for me and for Lucy, The One ends up being Lucy’s short-tempered and short-statured, cigar-smoking colleague instead. M. Emmanuel is riddled with flaws: he’s abrasive and impatient, and sometimes downright rude, but Charlotte Bronte makes you somehow love him all the more for it with that special way she has. He’s not brooding like Rochester; on the contrary, he’s actually quite a social animal. And he has such a wonderfully playful dynamic with Lucy, he was sooo much fun to read. It’s difficult to describe, but if anyone wants to get a taste of how their relationship develops I would direct them to chapters 28 and 29, entitled “The Watchguard” and “Monsieur’s Fete”, respectively. I think I had a goofy grin on my face the entire time I read them.
One obstacle to universal enjoyment of Villette, however, is the use of French dialogue prevalent throughout the text. It’s mixed right in there with the English, without translation or explanations. Since I can read French it wasn’t a problem for me personally, but those who can’t will definitely want to get an edition with footnotes. Yet in spite of all the good things about this book, I did have several pretty significant problems with it. First of all, I was not a little taken aback at the xenophobia evident in this novel, so much more than in Jane Eyre. I don’t suppose it would have been that shocking at the time of publication, but I found the author’s obvious animosity towards anything unBritish to be pretty off-putting. Particularly if you’re Catholic and you read this book, prepare to turn a blind eye, or else to feel insulted, when the universal evils of Catholicism play a key role at some points in the plot.

My other major problem with the book, unfortunately, concerns the ending. (If you don’t want it spoiled, STOP NOW.) I don’t mind that it wasn’t happy, or even that it was ambiguous and left open to interpretation. What I do mind is that it felt sloppy. I know the author had some conflict over how to end the story and felt she somehow had to compromise, but I feel like she could have done a much better job. I just felt like the characters deserved better, especially since they were such great characters. But all in all, I would have to say I liked this book an awful lot. Did I love it as completely and obsessively as I did Jane Eyre? No, but I certainly enjoyed it. If you like 19th century Brit Lit, or if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre, or if you’re just looking for something a little (okay, a lot) different from Pride and Prejudice, give it a try.