Monday, June 30, 2008

Whistle! (manga, vol. 19) by Daisuke Higuchi

This volume finishes up the (soccer) match between the Tokyo Select team and the Seoul Select team in South Korea. Although the game had a tense and rocky start, due to the general tensions between Koreans and the Japanese, by the end of it everyone has learned to at least respect the other side. After the match is over, Higuchi takes a quick break from soccer for a short chapter on one girl's attempt to show her love for Sho using homemade Valentine's chocolate. After that, it's off to the National Toresen, where players from different parts of the country train together until they finally have a tournament where the teams from each district play against each other. Sho, the hardworking main character of the series, is going, of course, and he's shocked when he finds out who one of the members of the opposing teams is. Here's a hint - he used to be one of Sho's teammates. This volume sets up some of the early relationships between the players from the different districts (rivalries, friendships, determination to be good rivals despite friendships) and lets readers know which districts are scheduled to play against each other.

I'm not a soccer player, nor am I interested in watching the sport - however, I like this series. Sho's a sweet character who somehow manages not to get annoying, despite having the kind of hardworking, cheerful attitude that could be seriously annoying in real life. This isn't really an exciting volume, since it's just wrapping up the events of the previous volume and setting things up for the next volume, but it's not bad. The Korea vs. Japan wrap-up is another one of the frequent examples of "sports could promote world peace" themes you'll see a lot in any manga involving competition in the real world environment. It's a bit optimistic, but still nice to read.

I enjoyed seeing Shigeki again - I like him, even though he can occasionally be hard to tell apart from Tatsuya, since they both have similar faces and light-colored hair. I also think one of the new characters from another district, Shoei Takayama, is going to be a lot of fun - his tendency to overreact is funny and he seems just as cheerful and good-natured as Sho.

I could list a few other soccer-related manga/anime, but, unfortunately, I don't think any of those titles are legally available in the US. That doesn't mean there's nothing out there that fans of this title won't like, however, so read on.

Read-alikes:
  • Hikaru no Go (manga) by Yumi Hotta (story) and Takeshi Obata (art); Hikaru no Go (anime) - When Hikaru discovers a haunted Go board, he gets stuck with Sai, a ghost who wants nothing more than to play Go. In order to appease him, Hikaru agrees to find people to play against, letting Sai dictate the moves to him. Eventually, however, Hikaru learns how to play the game himself and becomes interested enough in the game and in beating his rival to try to become a professional Go player. Sure, this is a series about a board game, but it's written and drawn in an exciting (but still very realistic) way - it inspired me to learn to play the game and join a Go club, so it might inspire others as well. Those who'd like an exciting series in which someone goes from being a terrible player to being amazingly good through shear hard work and strength of will might like this series. This series, like Whistle!, has quite a few adult characters and, at a few points, has Japanese characters and Korean characters playing tense games against one another. Hikaru's more of a whiner than Sho, but he's still a likable character.
  • The Prince of Tennis (manga) by Takeshi Konomi - Ryoma Echizen is a tennis genius and a new student at Seigaku High School. He soon becomes a member of his school's famous tennis team and proves that he's capable of beating 2nd and 3rd year students. Those who'd like another realistic sports manga might like this series - although a few of the characters have weird quirks and names for their specialty shots, the matches still seem to be pretty realistic.
  • Eyeshield 21 (manga) by Riichirou Inagaki (story) and Yuusuke Murata (art) - This manga about American football focuses on Sena, a new student at Deimon High School. He's been picked on for years and has learned to run really fast, both to get away from bullies and to act as a gofer for bullies. Hiruma, the president of the American Football Club, sees what Sena can do and forces him to join the club. Sena is reluctant and frightened at first, but he gradually learns to enjoy the game and improve his skills. Those who'd like another sports manga with a small main character who succeeds and improves as the story progresses might like this series. The humor is goofier than what you find in Whistle!, but the author does try to make sure the football strategies and rules are realistic and explained so that readers can understand things (American football is not a well-known sport in Japan, so there's lots of explanations in earlier volumes).

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ouran High School Host Club (manga, vol. 1) by Bisco Hatori

Haruhi is a scruffy-looking scholarship student in an elite school for rich kids. One day, Haruhi stumbles into a music room in an attempt to find a quite place to study and discovers the Ouran High School Host Club, a group of guys who flatter and attend to the needs of their female clients. Poor Haruhi is forced to become a host after breaking an expensive vase. It eventually becomes clear to everyone in the host club (even their clueless club president, Tamaki) that Haruhi is actually a girl. Still, Haruhi's never been very gender-conscious, and there's no other way she could afford to pay the club back for the vase - it looks like she's going to have to hide her gender from everyone besides the host club members and be a host until she graduates.

In this particular volume, Haruhi deals with the prejudice and jealousy of one the host club's spoiled regulars. Also, Haruhi and the rest of the host club help heal the relationship between one of the club's clients and her fiance. Finally, a rich young woman from France arrives and announces that she is Kyoya Ohtori's fiancee (Kyoya is the club's scarily calculating vice president). In actuality, Kyoya just bears a striking resemblance to her favorite character in a dating sim - of course, that realization doesn't stop her from wreaking havoc with the club and its members.

I first became aware of this series when I found fansubbed episodes of the anime version (apparently FUNimation has licensed it, but I don't think they've actually released anything yet - the result is that most fansubbers will likely no longer distribute it, despite the fact that it's still unavailable for legal purchase in the US). In some ways, I enjoy the anime version more - I love the Japanese voice actors, the clean artwork, and the bright colors. However, at the moment the manga is the only legal version of this series available in the US, and it's a lot of fun, too.

If you read the back of this volume before reading the story, you'll already know that Haruhi is a girl, so I'm not really sure if it matters much how easy it is to figure she's a girl before it's officially revealed. Haruhi's design is certainly ambiguous - she could be a cute, big-eyed boy, or she could be a girl who happens not to have a big chest or to pay attention to her looks. As for the guys, it's highly likely that one or more of them will appeal to just about any reader. Tamaki is the gorgeous and charming one, with a healthy streak of energetic (yet appealing) idiocy. Mori is tall, quiet, and very loyal to Hunny. Hunny, despite being one of the oldest of the host club members, looks small enough to be a child, and acts like one as well. Hikaru and Kaoru are twins who don't really care about much besides each other. Finally, Kyoya, the one with the glasses, is intelligent and calculating.

Each character basically fits into a certain character mold - when Renge, the girl with the dating sim obsession, comes along, many of her observations about the host club members are actually fairly accurate, despite what Haruhi says about not judging people according to stereotypes (dating sim or otherwise). How accurate Renge is won't really become apparent until later in the series, but I don't really mind that the characters are stereotypes. Bisco Hatori makes them fun and interesting despite (or maybe because of?) that. Although this volume (and the series in general) has the occasional serious moment, this is primarily a humorous story.

While there are plenty of drool-worthy male characters and some romance between minor characters (like the one client and her fiance), don't expect much in the way of romance between Haruhi and any of the other characters. In this volume, there are signs that Tamaki may be interested in Haruhi, and I know enough about later volumes to say that other characters start to show an interest in her as well. The problem isn't so much the guys as it is Haruhi - she's so oblivious that she doesn't even notice when others are interested in her, and, anyway, she's not even looking for romance.

My only complaint about this volume is the density of the artwork. There's so much detail crammed in many of the panels that it can be daunting to get through some of the pages. I'm amazed Hatori got any sleep at all while creating the artwork for this first volume - I wonder if she manages to keep this level of detail in later volumes?

Finally, before I forget, this volume has some nice extras. There's an extra short story involving the host club members and Hunny's favorite stuffed animal, a couple short comics that focus on Hatori Bisco herself (a research trip to an actual host club and a little information about Hatori's feelings about the manga and the results of a favorite character poll), a few pages of character information, and a sketch of an alternate magazine cover image. I loved the character profiles, because Hatori drew each of the host club members in regular clothes, rather than school uniforms - I love Tamaki's outfit, and I wish I had Hunny's coat.

Read-alikes:
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) - After Tohru's mother died, she went to live with her grandfather, but she left his house to live in a tent when he began home renovations. Tohru ends up getting invited to stay with the Sohma family, an amazing occurrence considering that Yuki Sohma is so popular at Tohru's school that he's got his own fanclub. Tohru soon discovers the Sohma family's secret - whenever certain members become physically weakened or are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into an animal in the Chinese zodiac. Those who want a school manga/anime with a slow-paced romantic plot (more romantic than Ouran High School Host Club, since Tohru is more interested in guys than Haruhi, although she's about as oblivious), a large cast of gorgeous guys, plus a few fun girls, might like this. Both the anime and manga are good, but the anime doesn't finish the story.
  • Princess Princess (anime TV series) - This anime is based on a manga series, but I've only seen the anime, so that's all I'm going to specifically suggest. When Toru transfers to an all-boys school, he's a little freaked out by how thrilled various teachers and students seem to be about his beauty. He's right to be freaked out, since this school has what's known as the "Princess System" - the prettiest boys in the school can agree to be "princesses," dressing up in lovely girls' clothing and acting as the school's honorary girls. Their job is to inspire the boys with their gentleness and sweetness and to go to school events and cheer the boys on. Toru is reluctant to become a princess, at first, until he discovers that his education and everything that goes with it (room, food, etc.) would basically become free. Those who liked a story with cross-dressing, students who serve other students with smiles and gorgeousness, and humor might like this series. If you're worried about potential shonen ai content (romantic relationships between guys), there isn't really any, although one of the princesses kisses another in order to mislead a crazily obsessed girl (a real girl, not a cross-dressing guy).
  • Beauty Pop (manga) by Kiyoko Arai - In Kiri's school, there's a team of three guys who transform random girls by doing their hair, make-up, nails, etc. It's said that any girl they make over is guaranteed to get a date with whoever she has a crush on. Kiri is also a master hairstylist, but she prefers to work anonymously, and she's more willing than the guys to help out girls who aren't already good-looking to begin with. Kiri usually acts pretty apathetic, but she's got a soft heart and can be persuaded to use her skills to improve people's self-esteem. Kiri, like Haruhi, doesn't seem to really be interested in guys, despite the fact that at least one guy does appear to be interested in her. Also, although Kiri doesn't pretend to be a boy, she gets mistaken for a boy a few times throughout the series. One of the guys, Ochiai Kazuhiko, reminds me an awful lot of Kyoya - they have similar designs and personalities. Those who'd like a series that mixes humor with sweet and/or serious stories might like this series.
  • Megatokyo (manga) by Fred Gallagher and Rodney Caston (no longer involved in the series) - If Renge's story was your favorite, you might like this series, which, in addition to being something you can purchase, is also an online comic that you can read for free at the Megatokyo website. Piro and Largo are two Americans who play too many video games - Largo is obsessed with shoot-em-ups and Piro is obsessed with dating sims. The two guys fly to Tokyo to buy some great Japanese games and end up getting stuck there with no money. Piro lands a job in a store for otaku, while Largo causes havoc and somehow manages to end up with a job as a teacher. Like Renge, Largo and Piro have a tendency to view the world through the lens of whatever game they're obsessed with. Socially awkward Piro tries to figure out relationships using what he's learned from dating sims and romantic manga, while Largo battles a world that he thinks is filled with zombies and other monsters.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Blood Noir (book) by Laurell K. Hamilton

Jason is a werewolf, Master vampire Jean-Claude's pomme de sang, one of Anita's friends, and also one of Anita's lovers. Not long after Jason's girlfriend breaks up with him, he finds out that his father has maybe weeks to live. Jason's family, especially his father, believes he's gay, because to them there's no such thing as being bisexual. If his girlfriend hadn't just broken up with him, Jason could have taken her with him to see his father. Without her, however, he's got nothing but his word to prove that he's not gay. Anita agrees to go with Jason and let his family think she's his girlfriend - she's a girl, she's his friend, and they're lovers, so it's not exactly lying. Unfortunately, Jason bears a striking resemblance to Keith, the son of a senator who'll be running for president and Jason's cousin. Since Keith is supposed to be getting married in a few days, it looks really bad when reporters see someone they think is Keith (Jason) cuddling up with a strange woman (Anita). To make things even worse, Anita's ardeur is acting up, as is the tiger lycanthropy inside her, Keith, and therefore Jason, is in trouble, and the Mother of All Darkness (the most powerful vampire in existence) is focused on Anita.

(I tried not to do too much in the way of spoilers throughout this post, but if you're really worried about them I'd skip down to the read-alikes if you haven't read the book. If you're not too worried about spoilers, you should be fine if you've at least read the series up to the previous book or two.)

I'll start this off by admitting that I was one of the readers who was really upset when Hamilton introduced the ardeur (which I still see as a convenient excuse for rough, orgy sex scenes), shifted the tone of the series into something very different from what the series was originally like but remarkably similar to her Meredith Gentry series, and started writing long, graphic sex scenes. I read a lot of romance, so I'm no stranger to sex scenes, but these are more like what you might get in an erotica novel.

I was a little worried by the way this book started. Basically, Anita, Nathaniel, and Jason negotiate the terms of a threesome (seriously, it's like some sort of business deal or something) and then actually have the threesome, in graphic detail. Hamilton uses this scene to remind readers that Anita had agreed to BDSM for Nathaniel - that kind of thing doesn't interest me, so it probably contributed to my dislike of this scene. In previous books, the sex scenes got so detailed and so lengthy that there wasn't always time for much plot, and I feared that this might be one of those books - it's gotten to the point where, although I used to buy Hamilton's books as soon as they came out, I no longer even feel the need to buy them used. As far as sex goes, this book wasn't that bad - if you actually liked the copious sex scenes in the last few books, you might feel differently. There are maybe three and a half sex scenes - the threesome I just mentioned, attempted sex between Jason and Anita that keeps getting interrupted by their need to chat with one another, sex between Anita and Jason, and an unintentional orgy that Hamilton thankfully never describes in detail. The biggest problem is that, although there aren't a lot of sex scenes, much of the book is still about sex in one way or another - Jason trying not to appear gay, Anita's ardeur, women drooling on Jason, etc.

Besides the way the sex scenes are written, I think one of the things that bothers me about them is Anita herself. Anita, to me, has always seemed like a thinly veiled stand-in for Laurell K. Hamilton. They look the same, they might dress the same if the author photos are anything to judge by, and, from what I've read of Hamilton's writings when she's writing as herself and not from the point of view of a character, they sound the same. I don't want to find myself trying to get through yet another graphic sex scene filled with bodily fluids of all sorts and find myself wondering if the recent shift in the tone of the Anita Blake series and in the kind of sex Anita has has anything to do with Hamilton's own sex life. I don't want to know about her sex life, and I'm hoping that Anita's sexual adventures are just Hamilton writing down her fantasies like some sort of lame fan fiction writer.

I enjoyed reading about Jason seeing his family - it wasn't a pleasant meeting, by any means, but it's always nice to read about the lives and families that characters have outside of all the supernatural weirdness that Anita lives around. In fact, I would have liked it if the book had been more about Jason's visit with his family and his attempts to connect with them. Hamilton is fond of having Anita analyze and painstakingly think through what's going on in all her relationships (sometimes only after things have already gone to hell), and I would have preferred it if Anita's analysis had been restricted to bad, but fairly ordinary family relationships (Jason's father was abusive and several of Jason's family members figure Anita is a whore who's just pretending to be his girlfriend so that they won't think he's gay, but all of that's more ordinary than Anita's metaphysical problems). Instead, readers are treated to pages and pages of Anita trying to think through and deal with relationship, political (vampire and lycanthrope politics, mainly), and metaphysical problems that she didn't even see coming.

Readers who enjoy shapeshifters may find something to like in this book. Anita meets several weretigers, the first natural-born weretigers she's ever met, and she learns a lot about how their society functions, mainly because there's a possibility that they might force her to abide by their societal rules because of the tiger insider her. A few werewolves do show up, like Jason (of course), Richard, Shang-Da, and Jamil, but weretigers are the primary lycanthropes in this book.

If you've read the past few books, which you really should before you start this book, you'll know that Richard has gone from being Anita's very nice boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) to being an angry, unreasonable bastard. I can sympathize with some of his reactions to Anita and her ardeur - Anita's gone from being someone who resists sex in the earlier books to being someone who's regularly having sex with several different men, sometimes all at the same time. In this book, Anita does something that helps make Richard a little more like the guy he used to be, but the effects only last for a very short time. After that, he becomes a bastard of a different flavor, this time trying (and almost succeeding) to take Anita's choices about who she is with away.

One of the things I'm sort of sympathetic about with Richard is his attitudes towards Anita's fleet of lovers. I don't always like the way he deals with these feelings, but I can understand why it bothers him, even though the two of them aren't actually dating anymore. Personally, I feel like Anita's pretty hypocritical. Because she has to feed the ardeur, she has to have a bunch of lovers (like I said, it's an excuse for lots of sex with multiple partners), but I'm sure that even if she suddenly lost the ardeur she'd keep at least four or five of those lovers (Jean-Claude, Asher, Nathaniel, Micah, and maybe Jason - I can't remember if she and Damian are lovers). It's not so much the multiple lovers thing that bothers me as much as it is her rule that, although she's allowed to have multiple lovers, her lovers must in turn be monogamous. Anita gets to have her cake and eat it, too, and I'm never really quite sure why all her men put up with it. If Jean-Claude could just give her up, I wonder sometimes if he would, considering how much her "you must be monogamous while I sleep with everyone" rule hurts him politically.

Well, enough ranting. Overall, I think this book is an encouraging sign that future books will actually have time for a plot between sex scenes, although I doubt the series will ever go back to being what it once was. I no longer plan to buy any of the books in this series right when they come out, but I haven't yet gotten to the point where I'm just going to give them up. I didn't really like this book, but I didn't hate it either.

Read-alikes:
  • A Kiss of Shadows (book) by Laurell K. Hamilton - This is the first book in Hamilton's Meredith Gentry series. If you haven't read this series and you like how things have been going in the Anita Blake books, well, this series started at around the same time Anita's books changed. The sex scenes are similarly weird, there's lots of gorgeous guys who're all willing to have sex with the main female character, and there's a convenient reason why the main female character must have lots of sex. Besides the sex, there's faerie politics and supernatural action. The first book introduces Meredith Gentry, a faerie princess who's been working for a supernatural detective agency and hiding her identity from everyone. When her identity is revealed, Meredith discovers that she has a chance at the Unseelie throne, but only if she can manage to get pregnant before her cousin can get someone pregnant - you see, faeries are notoriously infertile, so pregnancy would prove the fertility of either candidate, and a fertile ruler means that the Unseelie in general will be more fertile.
  • Full Moon Rising (book) by Keri Arthur - This is the first book in the Riley Jensen Guardian series. Riley Jensen and her twin brother are half vampire, half werewolf. In Riley, the werewolf side is pretty strong, but she does have a few gifts courtesy of her vampire side. In this fast-paced book, Riley's twin goes missing and a naked vampire turns up on her doorstep. Riley and Quinn team up to find her brother and end up uncovering lots of scary stuff about clones of supernatural creatures (cloned vampires are only the tip of the iceberg). Those who want action, vampires and werewolves, and a heroine who sees no problem with having multiple lovers (werewolves have many lovers until they find their mate) may enjoy this book.
  • Bitten (book) by Kelley Armstrong - Elena found out that werewolves are real when her boyfriend bit her while in wolf form and turned her into one. Since then, she's worked hard to gain enough control over herself and her abilities so that she can pass as human. She's now living in Toronto, trying to have a pleasant and ordinary relationship with a man who has no idea what she is. However, she's called back to the Pack in order to help out with murderous mutts (the name used for werewolves who aren't affiliated with the Pack), and she's forced to deal with her unresolved issues with her Pack and her feelings for the werewolf who made her what she is. Those who'd like a main female character who's strong, introspective, and trying to deal with both supernatural and ordinary life, and a story that's got both action and family issues ("family" in the broader sense in Bitten and in the more literal sense in Hamilton's book), might like this book.

Friday, June 27, 2008

You Want Fries With That? (non-fiction book) by Prioleau Alexander

The full title of this book is You Want Fries With That?: A White-collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage. Prioleau Alexander used to work for an advertising agency before he got tired of it and quit. He was tired of having to kiss up to clients who thought they knew his job better than he did - actually, he was tired of having to kiss up to clients, period, because none of them ever seemed to appreciate the work that he and the others in his advertising agency did for them. For a while after quitting, he just sat around like a lump and apparently made his wife angry at him (I'd probably be angry, too, if my family were suddenly depending on just one person's income because someone decided they were tired of their job). Then he got an idea - he'd start doing minimum wage jobs, just to see what they're like. The jobs he did were pizza delivery guy, ice cream scooper guy, demolition guy for a construction company, tech at a hospital, cashier guy at a fast food place, and cowboy. He also tried to get a job at a big-box store, but no one would hire him.

For each of these jobs, Alexander talks about how he got the job (in some cases, very quickly, without even the need for an application or interview), how the job began (usually with little to no training), what the job entailed, and what the benefits and drawbacks of the job were. The book was strongest when Alexander talked about normal minimum wage jobs that many people take - pretty much anything except for his time as a hospital tech and a cowboy. While those two jobs were interesting to read about, they felt like they didn't really belong in this book and were maybe just there because Alexander had a page number quota he needed to fill.

Although I imagine people who are working in minimum wage jobs right now will probably find a lot in this book to agree with Alexander about, this book seems to have been written more for those who are currently in white-collar jobs and haven't ever worked in anything but jobs like that. I found myself wondering about Alexander. Hadn't he ever taken jobs like these when he was younger, either in high school or during college? He mentions that he used to be a Marine, so maybe he went straight from high school to the military, without stopping to get a crappy, low-paying job along the way. At any rate, he sure writes like he's never had jobs like these before.

Alexander's earliest chapters are his best. I enjoyed reading about what it was like to be a pizza delivery guy, an ice cream scooper guy, and a demolition guy. Alexander had interesting observations to make about the people he worked for and with and any customers he might have served. In his chapter about being a pizza delivery guy, Alexander explains why he now never tips less than $5 when he has a pizza delivered, and why others should do the same. In the ice cream scooper chapter, he writes about the categories of customers he observed, whereas in the demolition guy chapter he writes about the types of workers found at a home renovation.

Considering that the stereotypical minimum wage jobs are at fast food places, it takes a long time before this chapter shows up and then it's way too short - by this time, I think Alexander has gotten a bit bored with minimum wage jobs. The hospital tech job, while disgusting and sometimes depressing, cannot really be considered a normal minimum wage job - after all, Alexander only got it because he had a friend who was a doctor at the hospital. The cowboy job was also something that felt out of place because most people would not have had this opportunity - Alexander got this job because a friend of his knew a guy, and the guy was willing to pay to fly Alexander to a new state to do the job. I'm sorry, but that just doesn't happen to most people who are looking for minimum wage work. These oddball chapters are my biggest complaint about the book.

My other complaint is that in a few places near the end of the book, Alexander gets pretty political - I had problems keeping my hackles from rising, even though I didn't necessarily disagree with everything he wrote. Also, Alexander is occasionally amazingly idealistic when it comes to America and how well it and its various systems work. In his mind, America is the greatest country on the planet, because even the poorest of its poor have clothes. Also, anyone who perseveres and gets a college education won't end up with a minimum wage job like one of the ones he wrote about - apparently, Alexander hasn't looked at the job market lately and hasn't considered the fact that so many people have college degrees that having one isn't necessarily worth much. I should know - I've got a BA and an MLS (Master's in Library Science) and I still haven't managed to get a full-time job in my field after more than a year of sending out applications. Minimum wage jobs aren't just for people lacking college degrees.

One final complaint: although Alexander starts just about every chapter with information on the history of whatever it is his job is about (ice cream, big-box stores, etc.), he rarely ever looked at a book while doing his research. Most of his history sections start with the phrase "I Googled it." When Google fails him (as it does in the case of big-box stores), does he go to his local library and talk with a reference librarian? No, he contacts a Wikipedia writer. In case you're unfamiliar with Wikipedia (however it may sometimes seem, there are still people out there who haven't used it), it's an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. This means that when he said he contacted a Wikipedia writer to ask about big-box stories, he could've been talking to a 12-year-old kid or a conspiracy nut. The "nut" option seems like a possibility, since his history of big-box stores has them starting with a gangster whose idea was stolen by Sam Walton. Apparently, Walton sent a whole squadron of corporate lawyers after the guy, as well as, eventually, a bounty hunter. Since this all sounds like it might potentially be just anti-Wal-Mart fiction, I would've appreciated it if Alexander had actually used cite-able sources so that his readers could check his information. However, there are no citations whatsoever in the entire book, and the only book Alexander mentions is Fast Food Nation. Granted, this is a popular non-fiction book, and not a scholarly work, but it's still incredibly sloppy.

Overall, though, this was a funny, scary book - funny if you can approach it objectively, scary if you think of all the people who have to have jobs like this. Very scary if you have to have a job like one of these yourself, or if you, like me, are facing the possibility of a life with jobs like these, because you can't manage to get anything else.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • 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 liked Alexander's humor and the details he provided about working in different jobs and what the co-workers and customers were like might like this book.
  • Empire of Scrounge: Inside the Urban Underground of Dumpster Diving, Trash Picking, and Street Scavenging (non-fiction book) by Jeff Ferrell - In December of 2001, Jeff Ferrell quit his job as a tenured professor. With a place to live but no real income, Ferrell began an eight-month period of dumpster diving, trash picking, and scavenging. His efforts provided him both with a way to survive and convenient field research. Although I think Ferrell might lean in a different direction, politically, than Alexander, readers who enjoyed reading about the efforts of a man who quit what others might view as an excellent job with nothing else lined up to take its place might like this book.
  • Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-line Employee (non-fiction book) by Alex Frankel - Journalist Alex Frankel wondered about how well-known companies win over the hearts and minds of their employees in retail and service. In an effort to find some answers, he embarked on a two-year undercover journalism mission, getting hired by half-a-dozen companies. He was a UPS driver, a t-shirt folder at the Gap, a coffee brewer at Starbucks, a salesman at the Apple Store, and more. Those who enjoyed reading about an outsider's experiences in different jobs might enjoy this book.
  • 30 Days (live action TV series) - In this documentary-style program hosted by Morgan Spurlock (known for his documentary Supersize Me), individuals are introduced to a different philosophy or culture for a whole month. This might involve an atheist living with Christians, or a pro-choice person working at a pro-life birthing and counseling center. The intent of the show is to encourage communication, learning, and acceptance from everyone on both sides of whatever issue an episode covers. Those who liked reading about a white-collar guy working in minimum wage jobs might enjoy this show. Those who are especially interested in the minimum wage job aspect of Alexander's book might enjoy the first episode of this show, in which Spurlock and his fiancee try to survive for 30 days on minimum wage pay.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Eyeshield 21 (manga, vol. 19) by Riichiro Inagaki (story) and Yusuke Murata (art)

In order to make it into the Kanto Tournament, the Deimon Devil Bats (a high school football team) must defeat the Bando Spiders. At the beginning of this volume, Bando is in the lead and high winds seem to be making things even harder for Deimon. However, Deimon, least of all Sena and Hiruma, don't plan to give up. Sena has finally admitted to everyone that he's not the real Eyeshield 21, but he still has a chance to prove that he can beat the person who is, Bando's Akaba.

This is not the most realistic of football stories. A lot of the characters have weird quirks (Hiruma's a demonic gun fanatic, for instance), and the different teams' themes have a tendency to get way over-the-top. However, despite, or maybe because of, all of that, this is an exciting and enjoyable series, something that also applies to this particular volume. Taken by itself, I don't think this volume is the best so far in this series, but I enjoyed it as part of the story as a whole, because it shows how Deimon finishes the battle to become part of the Kanto Tournament.

As far as character development goes, this volume offers something unusual: information about Hiruma. It isn't much, only a couple panels worth, but apparently even Hiruma has a father out there somewhere, and Hiruma's father wants to do something to repair their relationship. Besides that, this isn't a big character development volume - there's a scary character with dreadlocks who I assume will be getting more time in the next volume, and Sena becomes a bit more self-confident as he continues to improve his skills.

Even if you (like me) don't like football, I recommend trying this series. It's energetic and action-packed, there's tons of sometimes silly humor, and there's buckets of emotion as various players improve their skills and either defeat other players or are defeated themselves.

If you're interested in the next stage, the Kanto Tournament, this particular volume clearly shows what the lineup will be for the tournament.

This volume has a few extras: a few funny pages of "Devil Bats Investigation Files", 24 color pages, a few short biographies for minor characters, and a funny little extra non-Eyeshield 21 comic strip.

Read-alikes:

  • Hikaru no Go (manga) by Yumi Hotta (story) and Takeshi Obata (art); Hikaru no Go (anime TV series) - When Hikaru discovers a haunted Go board, he suddenly finds himself saddled with Sai, a ghost who was once the emperor's Go instructor. Sai wants desperately to play more Go, giving Hikaru, who could care less about Go, no choice but to go out and find people to play against. As Hikaru learns more about Go, he becomes more involved in it and eventually works hard to become a professional Go player. Yes, Go is a board game and not a sport, but a lot of what Hikaru goes through emotionally is similar to what sports players like the ones in Eyeshield 21 go through. Those who'd like something with humor and tense and exciting (yes, I said exciting and I mean it) matches might like this manga/anime. The anime follows the plot of the manga pretty closely, so you can take your pick.
  • Whiste! (manga) by Daisuke Higuchi - Sho loves soccer, but his school's team won't let him play. He switches schools, practices every chance he gets, and improves his playing. Although Sho's not always the best player on whatever team he's on, he's so hard-working and enthusiastic that his mere presence tends to improve morale. Occasionally he does something on the soccer field that hints at how awesome he could be in the future - without knowing it, he attracts the attention of other players, spectators, and coaches, who are all waiting to see what sort of player he will become. Readers who'd like something more physical than my first suggestion, with exciting and emotionally-charged matches and amazing athletic growth, might like this series. Whistle! has less wacky humor than Eyeshield 21, but both series demonstrate a love for their particular sports and Sena and Sho are both players who encourage those around them just by working hard.
  • Yakitate!! Japan (manga) by Takashi Hashiguchi - Azuma Kazuma's goal is to make Ja-pan - every country except Japan seems to have its own national bread, and Azuma wants to correct this by making bread that would fit in with Japanese cuisine and be loved as much as rice. In pursuit of this goal, Azuma finds work at a branch of Pantasia, a famous bread-making chain. Bread-making isn't a sport, but you wouldn't always know it from reading Yakitate!! Japan - in this wacky manga, people bake the craziest things, competing rabidly against one another. Just as Eyeshield 21 is based on realistic football rules and strategies, despite its wackiness, Yakitate!! Japan also apparently bases at least some of its amazing bread-making on real bread-making techniques. Those who'd like a wacky, humorous manga filled with tense, emotionally-charged competition might like this series.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Fullmetal Alchemist (manga, vol. 16) by Hiromu Arakawa

In this volume, Scar rescues Doctor Marcoh in order to enlist his help in figuring out how the alchemy of Xing differs from the alchemy practiced in Amestris. The Elric brothers also want to investigate the differences, but the books at the Central City National Library aren't very helpful and the only person they could ask has left. The brothers are told they can find this person if they travel east and then north, braving a cold, miserable climate and Major Armstrong's dangerous sister. In addition to all of that, Kimblee, a ruthless, murderous alchemist, is freed and given the task of finding and killing Scar and bringing Marcoh back to the Humunculi.

If you haven't read any of the previous volumes of this manga (watching the anime doesn't count, because by this point the plots of the manga and anime differ wildly), the first paragraph of this entry probably made no sense to you, which is reason enough not to start with this volume. I don't consider this volume to be one of the most interesting in the series, not on its own, although it does move the general series plot forward a bit more - nearly everyone's goal is now to figure out how Xing's alchemy is different. After the previous emotionally devastating volume, this volume feels a little like a pause that allows readers to collect themselves.

It is fun, however, to see Kimblee really have trouble with someone - he's the kind of scary character you just love to fear and hate. I also enjoyed getting to see another one of Major Armstrong's family members - this shows readers a different facet of his family that's less amusing than what's been shown in previous volumes. There's several exciting action scenes, including one where Ed fights in conditions he's not cut out for, and one between Scar and Kimblee. Also, there's a short scene where Ed and Al get to meet President King Bradley's son and wife - it's a strange-feeling scene, knowing what I and other readers who've been keeping up with the series know about King Bradley.

As far as the extras for this volume go, there are a few funny comic strips. Arakawa chose not to include one of her "body count" comics, which would've been sparse anyway (only one chimera, I think).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:

  • The Golden Compass (book) by Philip Pullman - Lyra Belacqua, a young orphan in a world where everyone is accompanied by a daemon, a being that looks like an animal and basically reflects a person's soul, is given a mysterious alethiometer. After she escapes from a woman who wants to take it from her, Lyra goes looking for her friend and other children who have been kidnapped by a mysterious group she and others call gobblers. Along the way, Lyra makes lots of friends and discovers shocking things about herself, those around her, and the gobblers. Those who want to read something that is thought-provoking and yet has exciting action scenes might like this book. Lyra's world, like that of the Elric brothers, feels like a mix of things from the past and amazingly magical technology (the alethiometer may seem like magic, but it's actually considered technology). Also, Lyra, like the Elric brothers, is on a long journey. Her journey, similar to this volume, takes her into some cold and inhospitable places.
  • Last Exile (anime TV series) - In a world that looks like 19th century Europe with awesome flying technology, Claus and Lavie are pilot and co-pilot of a Vanship and act as couriers. When they rescue a little girl and complete the mission that involves her, they end up becoming crew members of the legendary mercenary ship Sylvana. As this series progresses, the powerful and often scary Guild also gets involved a lot. Those who enjoyed reading about a world that mixes a chronologically older feel with awesome abilities and technology might like this series. There are also lots of battles - mainly between ships but also occasionally between individuals.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Claimed By Shadow (book) by Karen Chance

This is the second book in Chance's Cassandra Palmer series. Cassandra Palmer has visions of the future, can see ghosts, was raised by vampires (she's human, by the way), and is heir to the title of Pythia (basically, the world's chief clairvoyant and protector of the timeline). At the beginning of this book, Cassie is trying to find the vampire Antonio. The main reason for this is that he's probably traveling with Myra, the crazy woman who had been expected to inherit the title of Pythia and who therefore does not wish Cassie well. The secondary reason is that Antonio is keeping the soul of Cassie's father as a paperweight. Cassie, Billy (Cassie's ghostly helper), Pritkin (a warrior mage who doesn't much like Cassie), Mac (a magical tattoo artist), and others end up teaming up together.

Although Cassie's main problem is dealing with Myra, there are lots of other things that make her life more complicated. First, she's not entirely in control of her Pythia powers - she has a habit of sliding into the past without meaning to, which is made especially bad by the fact that she might inadvertently damage the timeline. Second, she's discovered that she's had a geis on her since childhood that ties her to Mircea, the vampire who protected her as she grew up. It seems that Mircea has set things up so that Cassie can't have sex with anyone but him or someone he chooses for her. The more she is with Mircea, the stronger the geis grows, and, unfortunately, Cassie needs to lose her virginity in order to fully become the Pythia.

This is one of those books where a lot happens to the characters in what, for them, is a very short amount of time. I think almost everything in this book happens in about two days worth of the characters' time - it's a little tough to be more exact, what with all the time traveling and time differences in Faerie. One of the reasons why I'm still not sure whether I really like this series is Chance's habit of lots of scene changes, in both this book and the first one - maybe Cassie is in a casino one moment, and then in 1888 or thereabouts the next. Then Cassie goes to Faerie, and a lot of the rules change - Cassie doesn't really know what's going on, and neither do the readers. It takes a bit of energy to follow along.

Cassie seems to constantly be in danger or running from something. I think the biggest breathers she got were when she was at Mac's tattoo parlor and when she was being imprisoned in Faerie. For those of you who haven't read the book and were wondering from my description whether the whole geis thing means that this is a sex- or sexual tension-filled book, it really isn't, not in comparison to books I've read by other authors. Cassie ends up with Pythia power-induced lust a few times, but the geis keeps her from having sex until the break during her imprisonment in Faerie that I mentioned. Then we get a near-rape scene (Cassie just barely gets away, but it's still horrible), which is shortly followed by a sex scene between Cassie and a returning character from the previous book.

I think I enjoyed this book a little more than the first one. I've finally gotten a little more used to this world Chance has created, I've learned some of the terminology, and I've learned to cringe a little less whenever a time travel scene comes up. I'm not usually a big fan of anything with time travel in it, since there is too much potential for an author to create situations that defy (or deny) logic or that aren't well thought out. The time travel aspect of this book still bothers me, but I've adjusted. Unlike some other time travel books, which tell readers that the timeline can't really be changed, because anything you do in the past has already happened and therefore isn't actually changing anything, this book and this series assumes that things done when you are in the past can affect the timeline. Cassie, as Pythia, is supposed to protect the timeline, but she, too, occasionally messes things up - actually, I think she's changed something in the timeline in both books in the series so far.

There were several things I did like about this book. Most of what I liked involved characters. The Graeae were a lot of fun, providing both humor and large amounts of carnage. I can't remember if the first book mentioned Cassie acquiring them and her other objects, so they were a surprise for me. If Chance introduced them and Cassie's newly acquired dangerous magical objects just for this book, I could see some readers viewing them as cheap plot devices, sort of like"get out of jail free" cards that the author could use whenever she couldn't figure out how else to get Cassie out of her latest jam. I can understand this viewpoint, but I still enjoyed the Graeae.

I also liked Mac, the magical tattoo artist. He seemed like a nice guy, and the magical tattoos were a fun and interesting addition to the list of magical things you can find in Chance's world. I look forward to finding out what Cassie's newest tattoo can do - some act in defensive ways, protecting a person from attack, others can give people certain abilities. It's too bad that Cassie's tattoo is probably the only one that will be showing up in future books. In addition to Mac, I liked that Tomas got to show up again. Despite the fact that he is probably not the best person for Cassie to like and trust, I think he has the potential to be a very interesting and complex character. Also, he's sexy, as are many of Chance's vampires. In this particular book, readers get to find out more about Tomas' past and how he feels (or at least says he feels) about Cassie.

Read-alikes:
  • Urban Shaman (book) by C. E. Murphy - This is the first book in Murphy's Walker Papers series. Joanne Walker, mechanic-cop for the Seattle Police Department, finds out she has shamanic powers and has to figure out how to use them in only three days so that she can save the world from the Wild Hunt. She's got a talking coyote who appears in her dreams, a new ability to heal herself, and more to deal with. Those who enjoyed the tone of Claimed By Shadow and want something else with a woman who's new to her powers and must quickly learn how to use them might like this book.
  • Guilty Pleasures (book) by Laurell K. Hamilton - This is the first book in Hamilton's Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, set in an alternate history where vampires, werewolves and more are now a (sometimes uncomfortable) part of society. Anita Blake is a vampire executioner, an animator (she can raise the dead), and a consultant to the police on all things supernatural. In this first book, someone's killing innocent vampires, and, although Anita's killed her share of vampires, she does her best to find the killer. Those who liked reading about supernatural politics, vampires, and magic in a contemporary setting might like this book. Like Chance, Hamilton creates some very sexy vampires - just be careful about reading past book 10 or 11, because the series takes a sudden turn for the graphically sexual. If you consider the sex scene in Claimed By Shadow to be graphic, the most recent Anita Blake books are probably not for you, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the earlier books.
  • Blood Bound (book) by Patricia Briggs - This is the second book in Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series - it's probably best to start with the first, Moon Called, which establishes the world and characters, although it isn't until the second book that Mercy's ability to see ghosts becomes a bigger plot point. When a demon-possessed vampire begins gruesomely killing people, Mercy, a mechanic/skinwalker, wants a chance to go after him. Unfortunately, although her skinwalker powers allow her to turn into a coyote and make her faster than an ordinary human, she doesn't stand a chance against a vampire. Mercy may be the only chance everyone has, however, as even werewolves and other vampires are hurt trying to go after the killer. Those who'd like to read another book with a supernaturally gifted main female character who can see ghosts might like this book. Also, instead of lots of sexy vampires, there's several sexy werewolves (Mercy's current boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend).
  • You Slay Me (book) by Katie MacAlister - This is the first book in MacAlister's Aisling Grey series. All Aisling wants to do is deliver an old, gold dragon statue to her uncle's client in Paris. Instead, she comes across a dead woman and a mysterious and sexy man. The man (who is also a dragon), named Drake, disappears, along with the statue. Aisling has to prove she didn't kill the woman and recover the statue, all while dealing with the revelation that she is a Guardian (basically, the Keeper of the Gates to Hell). Those who liked reading about a woman who has to learn how to use new supernatural abilities and want something with some sexual tension (in this case, between Drake and Aisling) might like this book.

Read-alikes I haven't read

I have a few posts in the draft stage that may never get posted if I don't change how I'm doing things with this blog. So far, I've been doing my best to only list as read-alikes those books that I've already read. If I can't manage that, then I try to suggest books by authors I've read, even if I haven't read those particular books. I think there's only been one book so far that I listed as a read-alike for something despite not having read the book or anything else by that author.

I'm still going to try to stick to suggesting books/movies/etc. that I've read or seen already. However, since I'd like to get some of these posts out of the draft stage and actually published, I'm going to loosen up a bit and start listing read-alikes that I've researched but not necessarily read. I'll more than likely only be doing this for books/movies that aren't what I usually read or watch.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ghost of a Chance (book) by Kate Marsh

Karma Marx is a transmortis anomaly exterminator - basically, if you've got spirits in your house and you'd like to be rid of them, Karma cleans your house. Although several characters spend a good portion of the early parts of the book harping on Karma's job, claiming that she's doing a bad thing by doing these exterminations, Karma almost always just relocates the beings, either to her own home or wherever else they wish.

This is the first book in a new series. Karma has just gotten undeniable proof that her husband is cheating on her, and she's determined to finally divorce him. Her husband, Spider, has agreed to make the divorce a civil one if she'll do one last cleaning job for him. She agrees, but she discovers she's also got to have a 15-year-old girl named Pixie (who prefers to be called whatever dark, Goth name she's chosen for herself within the past few minutes) tag along, since Karma's father has volunteered her as a foster mother. When Karma arrives at the house, she discovers that its former owner, Adam Dirgesinger, is not aware that it's no longer his, and he is very unhappy about the planned cleaning. An upset Adam magically seals the house so that no one can get in or out for 12 hours, effectively trapping Karma, Spider, Pixie (or whatever she wants to be called), Karma's father, Spider's business partner, and his business partner's wife in the house together. Adam is a powerful poltergeist - in Marsh's world, that means he's a solid being (not ghostly, although maybe that's part of their powers) who can have as many as four arms, who has a tendency to move around a lot, and who creates apports (tiny pebbles) in times of stress. Karma's father is a polter, Karma is a half-polter, and Pixie is a polter.

Not long after everyone gets sealed in together, Karma finds out shocking secrets about her husband and his business partner and her husband turns up dead. With the house sealed, the killer could only be someone who's been sealed inside, and Adam and Karma team up and try to find out who killed Spider before the house opens up again and they've got to report the murder to human authorities.

Kate Marsh is also Katie MacAlister and Katie Maxwell. In her biographical information in the back of the book, she says that this Karma Marx book is her way of indulging her love of mystery and moving a little way away from her usual romantic comedies. Unfortunately, the cover makes it clear that Katie MacAlister and Kate Marsh are the same person, so I couldn't help but begin this book expecting romance. Despite the potential for a relationship between Adam and Karma in future books, this is definitely not a romance. Also, by mentioning things like Guardians and the Akasha, Marsh reminds people of the Aisling Grey books she writes as Katie MacAlister - those would probably be called paranormal romance, so I was all set for a paranormal romantic mystery. Instead, I got a paranormal mystery. If you begin this book knowing this and not having the same expectations I did, you'll probably be fine. If you're like me, you might be a bit disappointed.

The variety of beings was one of the most fun parts of this book. I thought that poltergeists, polters for short, sounded pretty interesting, and Marsh gives readers lots of details about them. Karma's household full of strange beings was also fun. She's got a vegetable spirit in her fridge, a domovoi cleaning her house, an agoraphobic goddess, and a bunch of imps that think she's their mother. Adam also has a few interesting beings in his house - my favorite was the unicorn.

The mystery itself was not as much fun. It might've been better if it had been more expertly written and if it hadn't ended the way it had. It's difficult to say exactly why the ending was such a letdown without actually saying what the ending is. However, I can say that Marsh gives so many clues that, if the answer weren't contradictory to characters' thoughts and behaviors, I probably would've guessed it much sooner. Several characters behave in inconsistent ways and seem to conveniently forget things or conveniently not make certain connections. Although Karma (at least, I think it was Karma - it might've been Adam or her dad) explains that the apports of each individual polter have their own particular color, no one makes a big deal about the number of different apport colors found around the house and, more importantly, near the scene of Spider's murder. At one point, Adam makes a big point of saying that everyone must be considered a potential suspect. Then, later on, he refuses to consider the possibility that the beings who are his wards might be murderers. Karma, too, is guilty of inconsistency. The book is told in the first person from Karma's perspective, but Karma's thoughts throughout the book do not match the revelations in the end, nor do they really even hint at those revelations.

There are other things that bothered me. Near the beginning of the book, Karma discovers that Spider and his business partner had had sex with her underage cousin. The connection with other information was so obvious that even I could make it, and I usually get so involved in stories that I miss important details. Marsh, however, pretends that Karma is momentarily a blinding idiot who misses the obvious connection, just so that she can get the plot to go the way she wants it to. Sorry, that's clumsy writing, and having it be a locked-house mystery does not make it automatically clever.

My final issue was with Pixie, the Goth girl Karma was saddled with. Her constant insistence that her name was something other than Pixie, and her anger and panic every time Karma tried to ask her a little about herself and her past got on my nerves after a while. Yes, Pixie has had a rough life, and she's also a teenager and therefore moody, but I would've appreciated it if Marsh had toned it down a little. I imagine other people might be more forgiving about Pixie, however.

This was a quick read, so I'll probably pick up the next book in the series when it comes out. However, avid mystery readers will probably dislike this book for its clumsily executed mystery.

Read-alikes:
  • Summon the Keeper (book) by Tanya Huff - This is the first book in Huff's Keeper's Chronicles series. Claire Hansen, the Keeper, and her talking cat Austin are on their way to answer a summons when they get caught in a rainstorm and decide to stay at the Elysian Fields Guesthouse. The next morning, Claire finds out that she is the new owner of the guesthouse and has therefore been saddled with all its quirkiness and problems. There's a French ghost who'd like to get into Claire's pants, a hunky Boy Scout of a caretaker named Dean, a woman who's been sleeping in one of the rooms for decades, and a hole to Hell in the furnace room. Those who enjoyed reading about a woman like Karma who's used to dealing with weirdness and who'd like something with even more humor, mixed with a freaky situation, than Ghost of a Chance has might like this book. Also, there's a smidgen of romance.
  • You Slay Me (book) by Katie MacAlister - This is the first book in MacAlister's Aisling Grey series. If you liked the world Marsh writes about in Ghost of a Chance, then you might like this book, because it's set in the same world and written by the same author (Kate Marsh = Katie MacAlister). In this book, all Aisling Grey wanted to do was deliver an old, gold dragon statue to her uncle's client in Paris. Unfortunately, she ends up finding a dead woman and a sexy, mysterious man named Drake nearby. Drake disappears, along with the statue, and Aisling soon finds herself trying to prove that she wasn't the one responsible for the murder. To complicate matters, Aisling also discovers that she's a Guardian. This series has enough humor to make things fun, lots of sexual tension between Aisling and Drake, great minor characters (a demon in the form of a Newfoundland dog, for instance), and an interesting and complex magical world that exists, hidden, alongside the more mundane world.
  • No Humans Involved (book) by Kelley Armstrong - This is the 7th book in the Women of the Otherworld series and the first book from Jamie Vegas' perspective. Jaime Vegas is a necromancer who can reanimate the dead. She's also one of those TV mediums (think John Edwards, the psychic medium who had that show on the Sci Fi channel). Although Jaime's the real deal, no one in show biz actually knows that, and not everything she does on her show is real - she wants to be on TV, not studied by scientists or locked in an insane asylum. Now Jaime's got a chance at big-time fame and must prove herself as one of the three celebrity mediums on a TV special. Jaime suddenly finds herself having to deal with a serial-killing cult and the ghosts of murdered children. Luckily, Jeremy Danvers the Alpha werewolf drops by to help her out. Those who liked reading about someone who can see spirits and want something with a bit more romance in addition to a spooky mystery might like this.
  • Dime Store Magic (book) by Kelley Armstrong - This is the third book in the Women of the Otherworld series and the first book from Paige's perspective. Paige is a 23-year-old witch who, after the death of her mother, finds herself with the responsibility of being the new Coven leader, as well as the responsibility of taking care of Savannah, a gifted but rebellious 13-year-old girl who inherited her mother's talent for dark magic. Paige ends up having to enlist the help of Lucas Cortez, a nerdy-looking lawyer/sorcerer, despite the fact that witches and sorcerers don't get along well. Those who enjoyed reading about a world that incorporates the supernatural and the mundane world and a troubled teenage girl might like this book.
  • And Then There Were None (book) by Agatha Christie - Ten strangers are lured to Indian Island by a mysterious host. Once they have arrived, they are all accused of murder, and, one by one, they begin to die. No one is able to leave the island, and everyone's darkest secrets are gradually uncovered. Those who would like another mystery involving a limited number of suspects, a closed environment, and the gradual revelation of characters' secrets might like this book.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Daughter of Regals and Other Tales (anthology, book) by Stephen R. Donaldson

I wasn't planning on ever listing read-alikes/watch-alikes for anthologies because it's often difficult to say what an anthology as a whole is like (the tone, topic, etc. can switch from story to story) and, if I do something for each separate story, I come up against the issue that it takes a lot of work to come up with and write these lists for just one book, much less a bunch of stories. However, as I was reading this anthology I kept thinking of books that were similar to some of the stories, so I might as well list those - just don't expect long lists.

As a whole, this anthology is varied - it's pretty much half science fiction, half fantasy, with some of the fantasy stories set in some sort of fantasy medieval-like world and some of the fantasy stories set in more contemporary times. All the stories in this trilogy were first published in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"Daughter of Regals":

In this fantasy novella, a young woman is trying to get through the evening that will determine whether or not she is a Regal. If she can manage to pass the test (sitting upon a stone that no one who isn't Magic could even touch), then it will be proved that she is a Creature (a being that sometimes looks like a human, but that could also look like a dragon, phoenix, or some other being) and therefore the next Regal. If she does not pass the test, then those around her will kill her. Before she can even begin the test, however, she must delicately weave her way through all kinds of dangerous political machinations, dealing with each of the rulers who have come and expect her to fail.

When I first started this story, my main response was "huh?" but I eventually got over that and accepted that I would never really understand what Donaldson means by "Real" and "not Real." As one who usually reads things by female authors, I expected this story to go a lot differently than it did - a female author would've written things so that the handsome young man who is so attentive to the plain young woman would turn out to be the Creature, saving and marrying the young woman when she fails the test. This isn't what happens, but I won't say what does happen - although my ending would've been more predictable, I think I might've enjoyed it a little more, which isn't to say that I disliked Donaldson's ending. I'm just a romantic, and I wanted a little romance for her - she's intelligent, careful, and seems a little lonely.

Read-alike:
  • The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - This is the first book in Ono's The Twelve Kingdoms Series. Yoko is an ordinary high school student who's been having dreams that foreshadow great danger to her. Then one day at school, Yoko is saved by a young man and ends up getting taken to a strange and frightening world where she is in constant danger from demons and can trust no one. Like the young woman in "Daughter of Regals", Yoko turns out to be pretty powerful. Those who enjoyed reading about a woman who must be suspicious of everyone and about a world with fantastic creatures who may sometimes appear human might like this book.
"Gilden-Fire":

This is actually an outtake from Donaldson's The Illearth War, so I'd suggest reading that book if you haven't already. I haven't actually read that book, so I was a little lost as I read this story. This is apparently part of a character named Korik's mission to Seareach. As he and his party travel Grimmerdhore Forest, they worry that something is wrong with the Forest and the trees (which, I gather, are somewhat sentient). In the end, the entire party must deal with a pack of dangerous wolves. Since I spent quite a bit of time confused during this story, I won't list any read-alikes. However, I may eventually read the books in Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series - some of the characters in this outtake interested me.

"Mythological Beast":

In the future Donaldson presents in this science fiction story, everything that might upset people has been eliminated. Everyone has little biomitter that reassures them that they are okay. Unfortunately, one morning Norman wakes up and his biomitter appears to obviously be wrong - how could he be okay when he's got a hard, horn-like lump on his forehead? As his symptoms begin to get worse, Norman starts investigating things.

It's a simple story, but I still enjoyed it. Although I can't say I agree that the world would ever get this placid, there are some aspects to the future Donaldson has created that are a bit chilling in the connections they have to what's going on in the world today. No one in Norman's world reads (Norman is one of the few people who knows how to read, because he works at the National Library), and no one questions anything.

Read-alike:
  • Acorna: The Unicorn Girl (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Three space prospectors find a toddler with strange hands and feet, silver hair, and a tiny horn in the middle of her forehead. They discover that she has amazing abilities, and she almost ends up in the hands of scientists who want to study her. The three prospectors whisk Acorna away to a planet where they believe they can keep her hidden, but they all soon discover that the planet deals in child slave labor, a practice Acorna is determined to stop. Those who liked the idea of a character who has the characteristics of a unicorn, one who isn't sure what he or she is capable of or if there are others like him or her out there, might like this book.
"The Lady in White":

In this first-person fantasy story, a blacksmith/wheelwright/ironmonger named Mardik tells the story of the Lady in White and how she bewitched him and his brother. After Mardik's brother saw her and went to visit her home in the woods, he returned blind. At first, Mardik wanted to avenge his brother, but after Mardik saw the Lady in White, he, too, was bewitched. Mardik attempts repeatedly to get to her, determined to have her as his own. The ending of this one is weird - make of it what you will.

I won't give a separate list of read-alikes, but I would like to say that this story reminded me a little of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Just as the beauty of the Snow Queen draws in and changes the boy in the fairy tale, the beauty of the the Lady in White draws in and changes the men in Donaldson's story.

"Animal Lover":

In this science fiction story, it's sometime in the future, and one of the biggest forms of entertainment and ways for people to let out their aggression in a controlled manner is hunting. Special Agent Sam Browne is unusual, in that he feels disdain for these hunters and protectiveness for the animals - on his off days, he likes to go into hunting preserves and smuggle out animals so that they can be taken to a zoo (where, unfortunately, they don't fare much better). Sam's boss, knowing his interests, gives him a case involving a hunting preserve with an unusually high percentage of human deaths. Sam has to try to infiltrate the preserve enough to figure out what's going on and stop it.

This is an exciting story, but, at the same time, it's almost B-movie cheesy in the way it handles genetic engineering fears - not too surprising, since it was first published in 1978, but that knowledge didn't make me stop snickering at some of the visuals (like rabbits with hand grenades).

Read-alike:
  • The Island of Doctor Moreau (book) by H. G. Wells - In an area that might otherwise be considered a paradise, a mad doctor conducts experiments on animals, turning them into something more human and more "beastly" than they've ever been before. Readers who enjoyed the horrific elements of Donaldson's story, as well its cautions against tampering with nature (or, if you like, "God's creations"), may like this book, which was written in response to the theory of natural selection.
"Unworthy of the Angel":

A man who can remember nothing from his past, nor even his own identity, encounters a young woman in need of help. He eventually convinces her to introduce him to her brother, so that he can figure out exactly what's going on and what he must do to save her life. Basically, in order to get his sculptures known and seen, the woman's brother agrees to a gallery owner's conditions that he create all his sculptures out of a strange, evil black clay. He unknowingly is causing his sister's death with his efforts.

I enjoyed this story, although it was obvious well before the end of the story what the supposedly amnesiac man was. All you have to do is read the title for a nice big clue.

Read-alike:
  • Murder Mysteries (audio book) by Neil Gaiman - Technically, this is actually an audio play, since it's got a full cast of characters and is actually intended to be more like a radio play than an audio book. However, it's rare enough that I'll be writing about any other audio plays that I'll just label this as an audio book. Someone who looks like a ragged homeless man but claims he is the angel Raguel, the vengeance of the Lord, tells the story's narrator about his investigation of the very first murder. It occurred before the world had been fully created - angels were still testing out things like the color green and concepts like love when one angel turned up dead. Raguel was called in to perform his function, talking with those who knew the angel and trying to determine if any of them had a motive to kill him. Those who enjoyed reading about an angel who goes about in the world like a ragged homeless guy, or about an angel doing its best to perform its function, however difficult or potentially heartbreaking that might be, might enjoy this story. There is also a graphic novel adaptation of this story, if you'd rather not pick up the original audio version, since it's pretty expensive.
"The Conqueror Worm":

A young married couple are fighting in their house. The man is upset and is accusing his wife of sleeping with other men, while the woman is upset over what she sees as his unreasonable jealousy. While the two fight, they keep encountering a disgusting, 10-inch long centipede that gets closer and closer to the woman.

Although I didn't think this was the best story in the anthology, the creepy-crawly aspect really stuck with me. The centipede may or may not be a metaphor for the husband's sexually-oriented anger - several of the people in my book discussion group caught this possibility as they read, too, so I'm apparently not the only person to think this.

Sorry, no read-alikes for this story. If you'd like me to list something, you can comment and ask, but I didn't think of anything while I was reading, and I don't want to take the effort to try and find something unless I have to.

"Ser Visal's Tale":

A bunch of young boys sit around Ser Visal as he drinks and tells the tale of events surrounding a young nobleman (I think he was a nobleman - anyway, he had a decently high station) and a witch. Think Salem Witch Trials - any woman accused of witchcraft gets imprisoned and tortured, and, of course, all women who are declared witches are found to be guilty. Dom Peralt was a drunken party animal who owned no slaves, unusual for this society. One day, as he is making his drunken way around, a slaver forces him into a situation where he must buy a slave. Dom Peralt does and immediately sets her free. He passes out from drunkenness and wakes up to discover that he has been jailed for consorting with a witch - the woman he freed. Dom Peralt tries to figure out if there's a way for him to survive this situation. He doesn't want to die, but some seemed to determined to make him appear guilty, and he doesn't want the young witch to die in his place.

Although I didn't like how the story was going when I first started it (Ser Visal seemed like an overly pious bastard, and Donaldson took his usual leisurely time getting around to the exciting parts of the story), the story really grew on me. Ser Visal was not, in fact, the overly pious bastard I thought he was - his slips of the tongue, emotions, and actions reveal that he hates the injustices that are rife in his society. If you can get past Donaldson's verbosity, this is a very thoughtful story. The one bit that bothered me was that there seemed to be a few loose ends that were not necessarily covered by Ser Visal's final revelation.

Read-alike:
  • The Pillars of the World (book) by Anne Bishop - This is the first book in Bishop's Tir Alain trilogy. In Bishop's new world, a witch hunt is in full force. Witches everywhere are being found and killed. Unfortunately, witches serve a purpose, keeping magic alive in the world and tending the roads between the worlds of humans and faery, and their deaths are throwing all of that out of balance. While all this is happening, Ari, a young witch, unknowingly takes a Fae lover. Ari soon comes to the attention of the inquisitor Adolpho, the Witch's Hammer. Those who liked reading about a witch hunt and enjoyed the story's sympathetic view of witches might like this book.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Stranger Than Fiction (live action movie)

Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell, is an IRS agent whose life is boring. Every day he brushes his teeth the same number of times and arrives at the bus stop nearly too late by the same number of minutes. He basically lives his life by his watch. One day, his routine is interrupted by his realization that he can hear a woman's voice narrating his life. If it weren't for the fact that this woman is so accurate and sometimes says things that even Harold doesn't know, he'd suspect he's going insane. Harold ends up going to a literature professor (played by Dustin Hoffman) for help. Eventually, despite the voice and its dire foreshadowing (according to the woman, Harold is going to die, and he doesn't know how or when), Harold falls in love with an anarchist baker and figures out how to relax and enjoy himself. In order to continue with his new, more enjoyable life, however, Harold is going to have to find the person who is telling the story of his life and convince her not to kill him.

This movie made me think of The Truman Show - I never expected Jim Carrey to be able to do so well in a mostly serious role, just like I never really thought Will Ferrell could do so well in a mostly serious role. Although there are funny moments in the movie, Harold Crick is mostly just a boring, ordinary guy trying to figure out what the heck is going on with him and his life. Harold begins the movie as a stiff, wooden numbers guy, and he ends it a likable person who's more than some cardboard IRS employee.

I only have vague memories of the previews for this movie, but I remember them making it seem like this movie was mostly about Harold's attempts to find the author who's narrating is life. In actuality, Harold doesn't go looking for the author until nearly the end of the movie. Instead, he spends most of the movie trying to get help that doesn't involve medication for schizophrenia, figuring out what kind of story he's in (a tragedy or a comedy?), and learning to have a more enjoyable life. Interwoven with all of this are scenes of Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), the woman narrating his life, as she tries to break through writer's block that's lasted for 10 years. All that's left is for her to figure out how to kill Harold Crick, and her new assistant (played by Queen Latifah, who does a pretty decent job of it) does whatever she can to help.

This is a very strange, yet enjoyable movie, although it was a bit unbelievable that so many people were so easily convinced that someone they couldn't hear was narrating Harold's life. I really enjoyed Karen Eiffel's reaction when she meets Harold, however - Emma Thompson did a great job there, and her slightly-sick, sleep-deprived look made her reaction even more convincing.

Of those viewers who are able to adjust to the movie's strangeness and suspend their disbelief, some may be even more won over by the ending, while others may find that it ruins the movie. I won't give any details, but I will say that, while the movie sets things up for a sad ending, the actual ending is a happy one. I really enjoy happy endings, but I still haven't really decided if I would have preferred a sad ending for this movie - its happy ending feels a little forced and could probably have been done better. Overall, though, I enjoyed this movie.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Anansi Boys (book) by Neil Gaiman - This is the second book in Gaiman's American Gods Series, but both books work pretty well as stand-alones and involve almost completely different casts of characters, so you shouldn't be too confused if you start with this book. In this book, Fat Charlie's life is turned upside down when he finds out that his father has died and the brother he never knew he had, Spider, moves in with him. Spider is a trouble-maker and quickly wears out his welcome, sleeping with Charlie's fiancee, getting him fired, and more. When Charlie decides to fight back, he discovers that his father was actually the god Anansi (which explains why people Charlie has just met call him "Fat Charlie" even though he's no longer fat - his father called him that once, and the names he gives things just tend to stick). Charlie's life gets even more complicated, but these discoveries also allow him to grow into his own power. Viewers who liked Stranger Than Fiction's tone and the way it layers weird events on top of a man's formerly ordinary life might enjoy this quirky book. Charlie, like Harold, starts off with a boring life and eventually learns how to loosen up.
  • A Dirty Job (book) by Christopher Moore - In this book full of both hilarious and poignant moments, recently widowed Charlie Asher does his best to take care of his used goods store and raise his young daughter. He soon discovers that he is a Death Merchant. When a person dies, their soul goes into an object that was important to them. A Death Merchant must find that object before some very unsavory creatures do and make sure it comes into the possession of someone else, someone right. Death Merchants aren't supposed to be in contact with each other, and it's very bad if they don't find the objects they're supposed to find in time. When things start going wrong, Death Merchants start to die, the end of the world becomes a possibility, and Charlie has to figure out how to make things right again. Viewers who enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction's calm handling of death, its tone, and its mix of seriousness and humor might like this book.
  • 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. Viewers who liked Stranger Than Fiction's scenes about literature may enjoy this book.
  • Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi: Mysterious Play (anime TV series) - Miaka is an ordinary middle school student (things are different in Japan, so Miaka is actually 15 years old, rather than 14 or younger) who wants nothing more than some tasty snacks and to be accepted into the same high school as her best friend (who, unfortunately for Miaka, has much better grades than she does - getting into the same high school is going to be tough). When she visits the National Library with her friend, she stumbles upon the book The Universe of the Four Gods and gets sucked into the story. She becomes the priestess of Suzaku, protected by her Celestial Warriors. If she can find all seven of her Celestial Warriors, she will be able to summon Suzaku and go home. Viewers who liked the idea of someone being inside a story might like this series. As Miaka goes about her business in The Universe of the Four Gods, others, usually her brother or her best friend, read about her adventures as she has them. Later on, the young man Miaka falls for finds out that he's a character in a story and has to deal with the crushing feeling that he's not actually real. If you have a choice between the manga or the anime, I suggest the manga - it makes it easier to skim through Miaka's whinier or "idiot young girl" moments, and you don't have to deal with Miaka's annoying voice actors (both the Japanese and English voices for Miaka are pretty grating).
  • The Truman Show (live action movie) - Truman lives a perfect, '50s sort of life. Unfortunately, what he doesn't know is that his whole life is fake, a reality TV show that people have been watching since he was born. Little things start arousing his suspicions, however, and Truman first begins trying to figure out what's going on, and then how to break free. As with Stranger Than Fiction, viewers get to see someone (in this case, Jim Carrey) who's not known for his serious films in a serious role. Like Ferrell, Carrey does a wonderful job. Viewers who liked the strangeness of and touching moments in Stranger Than Fiction might like this film.

Dance With a Vampire (book) by Ellen Schreiber

Young goth-girl Raven has a lot going on in her life right now. In addition to getting ready for her very first prom (Raven's school is so small all grades are allowed to attend), she and her vampire boyfriend, Alexander, must track down Valentine, the younger sibling of the two vampires she and Alexander drove out of Dullsville in the previous book. Unfortunately, Valentine has befriended Billy, Raven's younger brother, and Raven is terrified that Valentine's plan is to get back at her and Alexander by hurting her family. Not only that, but Valentine knows one of Raven's biggest secrets, the one thing that could be most damaging for her and Alexander's relationship: as much as she has always insisted she wants to become a vampire and be with Alexander, she is actually very conflicted about the thought of turning into one.

This is the fourth book in Schreiber's Vampire Kisses Series, and I think it's the best yet. I didn't much like the previous book, Vampireville, because I felt it relied too much on convenient coincidences and the stupidity of the adults around Raven. Also, as an avid reader of romance novels, I've found the romance in this series to be lacking - Raven loves gushing over Alexander, but Schreiber rarely takes the time to give her readers scenes that show them getting to know each other or doing romantic things. If there are any such scenes, Schreiber usually skims over them quickly. Although I think there's still a lot of room for improvement, many of these issues were not as much of a problem in this latest book. Raven's parents and teachers still had a habit of falling for Raven's lies, but her investigations managed to stay within the realm of what's believable for a girl her age. Raven actually did a little thinking about her relationship with Alexander that wasn't all sparkles and roses - her realization that she might not actually want to become a vampire put her through a bit of an emotional wringer, since she now had to worry about whether or not Alexander would still want to be with her if he knew the truth (despite the fact that he's repeatedly said that he doesn't want her to become a vampire). Also, there were a few nicely romantic scenes that Schreiber, for once, chose to actually show us, rather than summarize later on. I particularly liked the bit where Alexander shows Raven the surprise he put in her locker. It's very sweet and fits his character.

Raven's brother, Billy, gets a bit more developed in this book, and the result is pretty sweet. In an earlier book, Billy made it clear that he wanted Raven to respect him more and not call him Nerd Boy. In this book, Schreiber continues this storyline with little details that show how much he respects Raven's opinion of him. She also shows this aspect of Billy by having him befriend and defend a boy who's much like Raven. For that alone, I liked Valentine more than I liked Jagger or Luna - Valentine actually served a larger purpose than just being a new vampiric bad guy (besides which, he didn't turn out to be as bad as Alexander and Raven feared).

I have a feeling that in a future book Raven is going to have to deal more actively with her outcast status. Although she's good at befriending others, if they'll just give her a chance and take a little time to get to know her, there are also indications that her world is getting a little shaken up. For instance, her friend Becky is becoming more and more like one of the popular girls, and the secrets Raven must keep about Alexander (that he's a vampire and everything that goes with that) mean that there's very little she can actually confide to her friend, something that allows them to drift further apart. This, with Raven's realization that she doesn't want to fully become part of Alexander's world, means that Raven's becoming more and more isolated. I also have a feeling that future books might have to deal more with Raven's somewhat ambiguous relationship with Trevor, one of Dullsville High's jocks. In some books more than others, Raven and Trevor have had varying degrees of flirtation, and there are hints, even in this book, that Raven might be more attracted to him than she'd like to admit. I can see Alexander forcing the issue more in later books.

Overall, Dance With a Vampire renewed my affection for this series, and I'm looking forward to the next book. I still wish that Schreiber would do a better job with the romantic aspects of the series, but she's come a long way from the unsatisfying scenes in her earlier books. Raven's over-the-top silly mental love notes to Halloween imagery (she has a habit of invoking spiders, bats, and dark or creepy things during some of her descriptions) has been toned down a little for this book, although that sort of thing is still present.

Finally, I'd like to add that I loved Raven's goth version of a prom dress - it sounded gorgeous, and it thankfully didn't reference some sort of trademarked character or band in order to reassure readers of its goth-iness.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Daughters of Darkness (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the second book in Smith's Night World Series - the first book gives readers a little more information about the world and includes an appearance of one of the main characters in this book, but it should still be easy enough to follow along with the second if you haven't read the first. Mary-Lynette and her brother Mark are curious about the new girls who've moved to their town. They see something that lead them to believe the girls might've killed someone. Things get even more complicated when Ash, a relative of the girls, comes to town. The three new girls are actually vampires and fugitives from the Night World, and Ash is determined to bring them back. Unfortunately, Ash and Mary-Lynette turn out to be soulmates (very forbidden in the Night World), and there's also still a murderer to deal with in town. Despite the fact that this series was never concluded, I love it and this book in particular. Readers who enjoyed Dance With a Vampire's romantic aspects and vampires might like this book. As in Dance With a Vampire, Mary-Lynette, Ash, and others must hunt down and stop someone who is a danger to the residents of their small town. Mary-Lynette, like Raven, must decide how she feels about becoming a vampire for her boyfriend. The romantic aspects are stronger in this book than in Dance With a Vampire, and people aren't just in danger, they're being killed, so this book might be better for slightly older readers than Dance With a Vampire, but, no matter their age, reluctant readers will appreciate that this book, like Schreiber's, is short.
  • Got Fangs? (book) by Katie Maxwell - This is the first book in Maxwell's Goth Series. Fran is tagging along with her mother, who's part of a Goth faire traveling in Europe. Fran has the ability to read people with her touch, but she hates her ability and feels like a freak because of it. A young man shows up and tells her that he's a vampire and she's his Beloved, the only person who can lift his curse. Although Benedikt is sexy, Fran's a bit resistant. Readers who enjoyed the vampires, romance, mystery, and action in Dance With a Vampire might like this book.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (live action TV series) - Pretty, blond, cheerleader-material Buffy moves to a new school and discovers that she, as the Slayer, must forget any chance she might have at becoming a normal, popular girl and fight demons, vampires, and other supernatural horrors in order to keep the oblivious residents of Sunnydale safe. Like Raven, Buffy eventually finds herself with a brooding, socially awkward, romantic vampire boyfriend. Readers who enjoyed Raven's investigations, her outsider status, the vampires, and the cluelessness of everyone in Dullsville might like this TV series. Readers who'd rather try another book should look into some of the many books based on this series - I don't, at the moment, have a particular book to recommend.
  • The Wallflower (manga) by Tomoko Hayakawa - When Sunako finally gathered up the courage to tell the boy she liked how she felt about him, he crushed her by telling her that he doesn't like ugly people. Ever since then, Sunako has surrounded herself with dark and scary things and stopped putting any effort into how she looks. She watches bloody horror movies, she's ghostly pale and dresses in dark clothing, and her room is filled with skulls, coffins, and other gruesome things. She lives alone in her aunt's house, which, unfortunately for her, is invaded by four beautiful guys who were promised free rent by her aunt if they could only turn Sunako into a lady. Readers who like the way Raven dresses and her obsession with dark things may like this series. Also, there are many light-hearted, sweet, and funny moments throughout this series, as well as hints of romance (which will have to stay hints until Sunako gets over her fear of romance, dating, and love).
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