Sunday, August 17, 2014

Be With You (book) by Takuji Ichikawa, translated by Terry Gallagher

Be With You is a Japanese novel that has some sci-fi/fantasy elements but that would probably best be called literary fiction. It was published by VIZ Media and appears to be out of print. I had considered ordering it during my last online book shopping binge, but the prices people were charging for it were a little high, so I opted to get it via ILL instead.

Review:

I vaguely remember seeing the cover of this book several years ago and being intrigued. I hoped I would enjoy it, but I've been burned by so many English translations of Japanese novels. Happily, this turned out to be one of the good ones.

Be With You is told primarily from Takumi's perspective. Takumi is a widower with a six-year-old child named Yuji. In the year since his wife died, he has tried to keep going, do his work, and be a good father, but it has been difficult. I'm not sure what his diagnosis would be, but he has severe anxiety. He cannot travel far from home and has a great terror of being enclosed inside vehicles. He cannot go inside movie theaters, his short-term memory is bad, and sometimes he seizes up and thinks he is dying. His efforts to cook for Yuji often go badly, so they usually just eat Yuji's favorite food, curry. Their home is a mess, because it doesn't occur to Takumi to clean, and Yuji sometimes goes to school in dirty clothes.

This is how things are for them when Mio, or her ghost perhaps, comes back into their lives. Takumi finds her at one of his and Yuji's usual exploration spots, near an old factory. She has no memory of either of them, nor of her death. Takumi had always told Yuji that deceased loved ones go to a planet called Archive, and it now seems possible that his story was true, and somehow Mio has temporarily come back to them. Takumi is hesitant to tell Mio about her death, but he does tell her about how they met and eventually fell in love. The three of them gradually become a family again, as though Mio never died. But this can't last forever, right?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel (nonfiction book) by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, illustrations by Brenda Brown

My parents gave this to me as a birthday gift many years ago, because I'm a worrywart and they know it. I decided it was time for a reread.

It's highly unlikely that I will ever need to know how to control a runaway camel, stop a runaway passenger train, foil a UFO abduction, or cross a piranha-infested river. However, some chapters could potentially be useful (I really, really hope not, but you never know). For example, this book gives you tips on what to do if you're being followed, or if your car's brakes go out. There are also chapters on how to survive a mugging, treat a scorpion sting or severed limb, or remove a leech, and there are some useful sounding travel and packing strategies. Since this book was published back in 2001, some of the advice may not be 100% accurate anymore. For example, I'm pretty sure that most cars now have easier-to-find trunk release catches, making a lot of the stuff in the chapter on escaping the trunk of a car unnecessary.

For the most part, the advice feels solid and serious. The sections on foreign emergency phrases and gestures to avoid are a bit sillier, however. I doubt I would ever have the presence of mind to politely say “Hello—I have been seriously wounded” in Spanish, French, German, or Japanese. And I suspect that “You will never make me talk” would be a bad thing to say in any situation where it might apply.

Unsurprisingly, the book begins with a disclaimer: “To deal with the worst-case scenarios presented in this book, we highly recommend—insist, actually—that the best course of action is to consult a professionally trained expert. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO UNDERTAKE ANY OF THE ACTIVITIES DESCRIBED IN THIS BOOK YOURSELF” (5). Aside from the legal issues, this disclaimer makes sense because many of the situations covered in this book are very high stress, with instructions and tips that are sometimes complicated.

Let's say I was suddenly in need of the advice contained in this book. Would I remember any of it? Probably not. If I, by some miracle, had the book on hand, would I have time to read and follow the necessary instructions? Who knows. If I really did need to use this book, I have a feeling that one of my criticisms would be that it needs more and better illustrations. Take the chapter on crash-landing a small passenger propeller plane on water, for instance. There were pictures of the controls and instruments, but they were on a separate page from most of the details about what everything did. Would I have time to page back and forth, matching instruments up to descriptions? Of course, I'm so afraid of heights that I probably wouldn't be in the plane in the first place.

All in all, this was a quick read that simultaneously amused me and made me feel slightly anxious.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Crown (manga, vol. 2) story by Shinji Wada, art by You Higuri

Crown combines action, humor, hot guys, and hints of future romance. It was published by Go! Comi and is now out of print, although it's still possible to find cheap copies of the first couple volumes.

This review includes slight spoilers.

Synopsis:

Mahiro's team of bodyguards increases by one – Ren and Jake invite the smitten Chondrite “Condor” Bourne to join them and protect Mahiro during the day, while they're busy hunting down potential assassins and doing research. In the latter half of the volume, a new assassin is sent...but not after Mahiro. Angela, a sexy assassin who only works for expensive jewelry, is told to kill Ren and Jake. She becomes curious about Mahiro, who she guesses is her employer's true target.

Review:

I think I'm going to stop here – I doubt the later volumes are worth the effort and, possibly, expense.

Crown (manga, vol. 1) story by Shinji Wada, art by You Higuri

Crown combines action, humor, hot guys, and hints of future romance. It was published by Go! Comi and is now out of print, although it's still possible to find cheap copies of the first couple volumes.

Synopsis:

Mahiro is a cheerful, hard-working orphan who everyone loves, except for the horrible family that took her in after her parents died. When Mahiro caught the dad peeking at her while she was changing, she opted to leave and live on her own. Ren and Jake, two talented and hot mercenaries, kidnap her from one of her jobs, kick the horrible family out of her parents' house, and then take her to their condo. That's when Mahiro finally learns that Ren is her long-lost brother and that she is a princess who is in grave danger. Their stepmother, Lady Phoebula, wants Mahiro dead so that she can have the pendant that is the key to becoming queen of the country of Regalia. However, neither snipers nor hordes of soldiers will keep Ren from giving Mahiro the best birthday ever.

Review:

Right, so this series is over-the-top and knows it. Ren and Jake are OMG hot!!!, Mahiro is so sweet that her very aura can turn any enemy who is not complete cardboard into an ardent admirer, and several of the villains rely on the incredibly lazy stereotype of the Evil Fat Person.

Hello, Please!: Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan (nonfiction book) by Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda

Hello, Please!: Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan is a tiny nonfiction book composed mostly of photographs of “working characters,” cute mascots for everything from toilet paper to police departments. I can't remember how I first heard about it, but the brightly colored cover was appealing. I decided to request it via ILL after looking through some photos my sister took while she was in Okinawa.

The book is divided into five sections: Official Characters, Instructional Characters, Warning Characters, Advertising Characters, and Food Characters. Each section has an introduction that gives a little background on the various types of characters and the reason for their existence. The information struck me as being very light and surface level, quick attempts to explain what made the different types of characters so special and uniquely Japanese. I don't think I ever quite understood what made these characters so different from mascot characters outside of Japan - it seemed to boil down to "there are a lot of them" and "they are used in more situations." Also, I was left with lots of questions.

For example, the characters are repeatedly referred to as “reassuring.” Are they really perceived that way by Japanese people, or is that just the effect that companies, designers, and organizations are going for? The Official Characters section, which covered characters used by various official services, such as police departments, hospitals, and public transportation, left me wondering how many of the characters specific to certain locations would be recognizable outside those locations.

The greatest appeal of this book is its pictures. Alt and Yoda include a dizzying array of characters, and each one only gets one or two photos. The photos have short captions describing the purpose of the character and giving its name if it has one. The only characters in the book that I was familiar with were the OS-Tan, which were mentioned in the text but not pictured, due to “murky rights issues” (151).

All in all, this was an okay book, but I was left wanting something more. More depth on the origins of the characters, or an in-depth look at one or two of the characters, or brief interviews with creators of some of the characters, or even just “what do you think about this mascot character?” interviews with average Japanese folks. Still, the pictures were nice, and I appreciated getting to see so many of these characters.

14 (audio book) by Peter Clines, read by Ray Porter

This post does not include a read-alikes list.

Review:

Nate lives in L.A. and has a dead-end minimum wage data entry job. He needs a more affordable place to live, so he's thrilled to learn about the Kavach building. An apartment with all utilities paid, only $565 a month! Yay! Maybe it's so cheap because it's infested with bright green mutant cockroaches. Or maybe something else is going on. Despite threats of eviction from the building manager, Nate and the other Kavach building residents begin exploring the building's many mysteries, which include highly individual apartment layouts, the mysterious padlocked Apartment 14, weird lighting in Nate's kitchen, and more.

I'm not sure what to call 14. Horror, I guess, but it's not the gory or scary kind. It's suspenseful, slightly creepy, and, especially near the end, downright weird. Aspects of the book struck me as being more silly than scary. Even so, it worked really well for me.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Herb-Witch (e-book) by Elizabeth McCoy

Herb-Witch is a self-published fantasy book, the first in a duology. It's 124,770 words long.

Review:

I really enjoyed McCoy's Queen of Roses, so I decided to buy her Lord Alchemist Duology as well. Herb-Witch turned out to be incredibly difficult to get into, although I did eventually find my footing in this new world. I became invested in the characters...and then the ending happened. To say it was disappointing is putting it mildly. I'll have to read Book 2 to be sure, but so far I'd have to say that this book is not for romance fans, despite the "romance" tag I've seen applied to it.

Iathor, the Lord Alchemist, first meets Kessa Herbsman in a prison cell. She has been accused of disminding a moneylender with one of her potions. Iathor uses a truth potion on her and realizes that she is an immune, someone on whom most potions have little or no effect. There are only two known immunes at the moment: Iathor (the Lord Alchemist is required to be immune) and his heir and brother, Iasen. Iathor has been searching for an immune woman for decades, because he must either marry an immune woman or take a dramswife, a woman who has drunk the dramsman's draught in order to make her completely loyal to him. The thought of a wife who has no choice but to be by his side horrifies him.

Ugly, half-barbarian Kessa never expected to receive a marriage proposal from anyone, much less the Lord Alchemist, but she's not about to fall gratefully into his arms. She has no idea what it means to be immune or how rare it is. All she wants is to take care of her sickly foster sister and to be left alone. Iathor attempts to woo Kessa by feeding her, taking care of her when she's ill or in pain, and generally making her life easier. Even if she decides not to be his wife, he'd at least like to make her his student.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Die, Snow White! Die, Damn You!: A Very Grimm Tale (audio book) by Yuri Rasovsky, featuring a full cast

Die, Snow White! Die, Damn You! is a retelling of the Snow White story, with elements from a few other stories, such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and even “Aladdin.” I really enjoyed Yuri Rasovsky's Sweeney Todd and the String of Pearls, and so I was looking forward to listening to this. Unfortunately, it didn't work for me at all.

This was a full-cast production, almost like a play, but with very little in the way of sound effects. The voice acting was fairly good, probably one of the best things about this audiobook. I'd likely have enjoyed it even more if Rasovsky had either refrained from including German words and phrases or if more of the cast had been able to pronounce those words and phrases without mangling them. Despite using the English version of Snow White's name in the title of the audiobook, Rasovsky named her Schneewittchen in the production. Everyone pronounced it as Shnee (rhymes with knee) vitshen, even the people who could pronounce the other German words just fine (maybe they were aiming for production-wide consistency?). It grated on my nerves a little.

The way the various story elements were blended together was pretty nice (although the Goldilocks reference was completely unnecessary), and the production even made use of some of the less popular aspects of the Snow White story, such as the stepmother eating the huntsman's evidence that he killed Snow White.

Queen of Roses (e-book) by Elizabeth McCoy

Queen of Roses mixes sci-fi and suspense. It's self-published and 103,420 words long.

Review:

I bought this book primarily because the main character is an artificial intelligence. I'm happy to say it worked out really well for me.

In the world of this book, AIs are basically indentured servants. If they end up with decent-paying jobs and manage to avoid having to pay for too many of their own upgrades, they have a chance of becoming free AIs. Sarafina is an accountant AI who ends up becoming the main AI of a cruise ship after her bank is bought out. It's not at all the kind of work she's used to or would prefer to do – accounting didn't prepare her for dealing with biologicals on a daily basis – but she tries to adapt. At least the ship has one other AI, Pilot, who she can talk to, and she's delighted to learn that one of the ship's newest passengers is a free AI. Unfortunately, Sarafina's first cruise has problems right from the start, including stowaways, glitches that keep taking out security cameras (Sarafina's primary “eyes”), a drunken captain who hates AIs, understaffing, rapidly growing Life Support-generated algae paste, and trouble-making child-passengers.

It took me a while to realize that this book was not just going to be about Sarafina desperately trying to keep all of the ship's problems hidden from the passengers and somehow keep the passengers happy at the same time. There were significant mystery/suspense elements, although it took Sarafina a while to realize that some of the passengers weren't just odd.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Written in Red (e-book) by Anne Bishop

Written in Red is urban fantasy. It was one of my library checkouts.

Review:

Wow. I just spent an entire day reading this book from start to finish. Clearly I should have read it sooner. However, that doesn't mean this review is going to be a squee fest. I have some criticisms, and I'll get to them in a bit.

This book's world was fascinating, an alternate universe in which humans and Others coexist. The humans make and develop new things. The Others (vampires, shapeshifters, Elementals, and more) tolerate humans because they like those new things. If the humans become too dangerous, if they start to think they should have more space than they've been allowed, the Others can easily put them in their place. Not only are several Others incredibly dangerous and destructive, the Others also have complete control over the natural resources humans need in order to survive and create new things.

Meg is human, but she's a special sort of human – a cassandra sangue. When her skin is cut, she sees visions. The euphoria that often follows the visions can be addictive, and so cassandra sangue are kept in captivity “for their own good.” Meg manages to escape and get a job as the Human Liaison at the Courtyard, an area ruled by the Others and where human laws do not apply (meaning that, if you break the rules, you might end up becoming the “special meat” at the local butcher shop).

Friday, July 25, 2014

Flying Solo (e-short story) by Wade J. McMahan

I checked this out from Freading in order to test whether they had fixed their problems yet. Sadly, the answer was no. I hate this - Freading used to be fabulous, and now I consider it to barely be usable. Their app has gotten worse. This time around, I couldn't even get font size changes to stick, and the default font size was abnormally small. All I'd like is for things to go back to the way they were before Freading updated their site, when it was possible to use something other than their crappy app.

Okay, moving on to the story itself. I'm not going to list any read-alikes, because the story is so short.

Review:

Flying Solo was a short fantasy story about two fairies meeting each other in a bug bar. The one fairy, Rupert the Low, had been sent by the fairy queen to criticize the slovenliness of the other fairy, Larry. Specifically, his hairy legs, which he refused to encase in tights.

I'm not much of a short story reader, and this kind of story isn't the sort to make me change my mind. It seemed kind of pointless. It's listed as “comedy” on the publisher's site, but it didn't strike me as being very funny. I suppose Larry could be considered clever, for finding a way to wriggle out of getting in trouble. In all honesty, though, it wasn't so much that Larry was clever as Rupert was just not very bright.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thoughts about my e-book shopping requirements

This post is partly information and partly a rant. And it's also kind of long. Sorry about that.

One of my favorite self-published authors, M.C.A. Hogarth, recently announced that she'll no longer be distributing her works via Smashwords. Her reasons made sense and fit with what I've seen other authors say about Smashwords – it sounds like it's a complete pain in the butt to work with. But I'm not an author, and I have my own requirements for online bookstores. Hogarth's post got me to thinking about those requirements, and I figured I'd post some of those thoughts.

When I first started buying e-books, one of my big rules was that I would not buy DRM-protected e-books. I bought my very first Nook a little over three years ago and, since then, I've only broken my rule only once. I wanted to see how hard DRM would be to deal with, particularly if I purchased a DRM'd e-book from somewhere other than Barnes & Noble. The answer was “very hard.” There was a glitch when I tried to authorize my Nook via Adobe Digital Editions, and I couldn't figure out how to transfer my book from my computer to my Nook. This meant that my legally purchased book could only be read on my computer, unless I stripped the DRM off.

I know there are lots of people who buy DRM-protected e-books and then merrily strip the DRM off. One, I'd rather not have to deal with that. Two, I don't want my dollars to make it look like I support DRM. So, I specifically look for sources of e-books that make it easy for me to avoid DRM.

Here is a list of the places where I shop and why:

Monday, July 21, 2014

What Did You Eat Yesterday? (manga, vol. 1) by Fumi Yoshinaga, translated by Maya Rosewood

What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a slice-of-life and food manga. It's published by Vertical.

Review:

I've had this on my “To Buy” list ever since I saw it was by Fumi Yoshinaga. The price was a bit steep considering the thinness of the volume, but I've learned that Yoshinaga's stuff is usually worth it for me.

Shiro Kakei is a lawyer who loves to cook. Every day, he leaves work as soon as he can, so he can hunt down the best grocery bargains and make good meals for himself and his boyfriend, Kenji Yabuki. He and Kenji seem like complete opposites. Whereas Shiro is a saver, Kenji's a spender. Everyone at the salon Kenji works at knows he's gay and has a boyfriend. Shiro's still in the closet at his workplace.

This volume has eight chapters showing aspects of and events in Shiro and Kenji's daily lives. In every chapter, Shiro makes something delicious, thinking about the process and the ingredients as he does so. The chapters each end with a bit of cooking-related advice or a recipe. The translator converted all the temperatures and measurements so that they'd be even easier for Americans to follow. Part of me wished that I had easy access to all the ingredients Shiro mentioned, but I suspect I'd be too chicken to try making any of the meals included in this book. I'm primarily a baker for a reason – I don't do “add a dash of this and a pinch of that, and then let it simmer until X has happened.” I need exact instructions, at least the first few times around, or I'm a nervous wreck.

For the most part, it was nice getting a peek into these characters' lives. If I had to state an overarching theme for this volume, it'd be “The process of cooking a good meal lets you emotionally reset yourself.” Or at least that's the case for Shiro and, to a certain extent, Kenji, as the recipient of those meals. Some of the chapters showed stressful moments in their lives, but Shiro's daily cooking ritual managed to calm things down.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Paratwa (book) by Christopher Hinz

The Paratwa is a science fiction book, the third in Hinz's Paratwa Saga. I got it via interlibrary loan.

This review contains enormous spoilers. I've included another warning just before they start.

I've opted not to list any read-alikes. If you'd like some, you can check out my post for Liege-Killer. Just be warned that they don't entirely work as read-alikes for this book.

Review:

I really liked Liege-Killer, the first book in this trilogy. The pacing was great, and I enjoyed the sci-fi mystery and suspense aspects. Ash Ock, the second book, wasn't as good, but I reminded myself that it was the second book in a trilogy, and Hinz probably needed to do some setup for the events of the third book. Now that I've read the third book, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to stop at Book 1.

This book was incredibly painful to get through. For long stretches, all anyone seemed to do was sit around and talk. Timmy, Susan's mentor, lectured Susan, Gillian, and Empedocles about Sappho's origins, motives, and plans for almost 100 pages. Information necessary for certain scenes to make sense wasn't revealed for hundreds of pages. For example, the Os/Ka/Loq were mentioned long before they were explained, and the phrase “This kascht reeks of the lacking” was overused before it even meant anything to me.

The other reasons why I didn't like this book are almost entirely enormous spoilers. You've been warned.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Protector of the Small: First Test (book) by Tamora Pierce

First Test is a YA (middle grade? I've seen it marked as both) fantasy school story. It's the first in Pierce's Protector of the Small Quartet, and part of her Tortall universe.

My read-alikes list is the same one I used in my First Test audiobook post from several years ago, because I am lazy.

Review:

I almost burst into tears when I finished this book. My reaction took me by surprise because I've read First Test at least four or five times. It shouldn't still affect me like this, but it does. It's a fairly simple story, but I love it so very much, and I adore Kel.

The only thing I can recall being interested in when I was younger that was "for boys only" was comics. There was this comic shop right near my high school that I used to go to during my lunch period. It had a fabulous bargain section, perfect for someone just starting out and still trying to figure out their tastes. I'd buy something every week or two and put up with the grumpy guy who owned the place. Except I eventually figured out he wasn't grumpy with everyone, just me. He was nice and helpful towards adults and teenage boys, while I got lectured about the way I touched the comics, or about being in the store too long without buying something. After a while, I stopped buying individual comics and just read graphic novels, which I could get at bookstores or libraries. No more grumpy comic shop guy.

Kel dealt with a lot more than just lectures. After Alanna the Lioness became the first female knight (by spending several years pretending to be a boy), it was proclaimed that girls could become pages. Ten years later, Keladry of Mindelan became the first girl to request to become a page. Her request was granted, but, to satisfy Lord Wyldon, the hidebound training master, she was put on probation for a year.

Like I said, this story was pretty simple. There were no “dark political intrigue” subplots, just “can Kel make it through her training and be accepted back next year?” She had an uphill battle. The boys wrecked her room, hardly anyone wanted to be her sponsor, and bullies picked on her whenever the teachers weren't looking. No one expected her to be around next year.
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