Monday, June 29, 2009

More adventures in food

A few days ago, I cataloged a book of recipes from the 1920s and '30s. While flipping through it, I found a recipe for something called "Butter Pie." Not "Buttermilk Pie," but "Butter Pie." Eww, I thought, but I was also kind of curious, so I wrote it down. Yesterday, I made that pie, and "eww" was right. It was so runny when it came out of the oven that I didn't think it would ever become pie-like - actually, I ended up putting it back in for an additional 15 minutes, done in 5-minute increments. The end result is a very thin, overly sweet pie with a texture I try not to think too hard about. I don't plan on making this again, although I found a variation of this recipe I may try sometime in the future, when I'm feeling a little braver.

As far as bread machine stuff goes, I tried out a new recipe that uses the Dough setting. The recipe calls for the dough to be cut into pieces, rolled into circles, filled with spicy meat, bean, and onion filling, pinched shut, and baked. The end result is pretty little rolls with yummy filling. My pie may have been a disaster, but this turned out awesome. It's a lot of work, but three of these things make a nice meal, and the medium-sized recipe makes 18 of them. I've frozen the rest of them for those days when I come home too tired to even cook a pot of oatmeal.

Another yummy recipe using the Dough setting is something the recipe book called a "Bavarian coffee cake." It's incredibly easy and only uses a few ingredients. The end result is a very yummy cake that, in my opinion, only gets better when it's reheated. It tastes a lot like a cinnamon roll.

Ouran High School Host Club, Part 1 (anime TV series)

This first boxed set includes episodes 1 to 13. Since FUNimation is perfectly capable of including an entire 26-episode series in one boxed set, the only explanation I can think of for why they decided to break this series up into two boxed sets is that they wanted more money. I find that a little annoying. Maybe they figured that this series would be popular enough that people would be willing to shell out the cash for two boxed sets - after all, I did, and I've still got fan subs for the entire series saved on my computer.

Well, enough with the speculation, and on to the synopsis and commentary.

Synopsis:

Ouran Academy is a prestigious school filled primarily with rich and privileged students. The one exception is Haruhi Fujioka, an intelligent scholarship student who might as well come from a different planet than everyone else at Ouran. Haruhi is looking for a quiet place to study one day and stumbles upon a music room filled with young men who claim to be part of the Ouran High School Host Club. Haruhi accidentally breaks one of the club's expensive vases and must now find a way to pay them back. The club members come up with what they think is a great idea - clean Haruhi up and make him work as a host club member to pay the club back for the vase.

There's one small snag, however - Haruhi is a she, not a he. Tamaki, the president of the host club, occasionally entertains fantasies of Haruhi dressing like a cute girlie girl, but it's really in everyone's best interests if no one outside the host club knows Haruhi's true gender. After all, if people find out she's a girl, she won't be able to work as a host anymore. Not only would she be unable to repay the club for the vase, Tamaki wouldn't get to see her very often. A depressed Tamaki does not make for a good host club.

Haruhi thinks the club is a little weird, but she at least approves of some of the things they do. Above all else, Tamaki's main goal is to make sure that all guests of the host club are happy. Usually, all he and the club members have to do is flirt with their guests and play their various roles to the hilt (Tamaki is the princely type, Haruhi's the natural, Kyoya's the cool type, Kaoru and Hikaru are the mischievous ones with a hefty dose of implied twincest added in, Honey's the boy-Lolita type, and Mori is the strong and silent type). However, occasionally they must be a bit more actively involved with their clients. In this particular boxed set, they help a shy couple communicate with each other again, they help a young boy with his first love, and they help another student get along better with his little sister.

When the club members aren't dealing with clients, they're dealing with each other and working through their own problems. Haruhu's biggest problem is making sure that no one finds out she's a girl - something that becomes more difficult when it's time for physical exams at Ouran Academy. However, later on there's another threat to Haruhi's continued presence in the host club - the girls from Lobelia Girls' Academy, who see straight through Haruhi's disguise and are determined to wrest this poor girl away from the host club's grip. Haruhi must also deal with the frequent annoyance of constantly being around the filthy rich - the guys in the host club have absolutely no idea what life is like in a middle class household, and Tamaki especially is often inadvertently insulting in his ignorance.

One episode reveals a little about the twins and the closed-off life they lived up until they joined the host club. Other episodes reveal a little about Honey and Mori and their close relationship. The final episode in this boxed set is one of the strangest in the series - Haruhi has a dream that mixes her experiences and the people she's met at Ouran Academy with the story of Alice in Wonderland.

Commentary:

This series is high on my list of fun anime - not a whole lot happens, but the characters are so likable that it really doesn't matter, at least not to me. There are tons of cute male characters (how could there be a host club if there weren't, after all?), but the show has heart, too. In the very first episode, Tamaki is shown to actually, truly care - the way he behaves isn't just an act, he cares and he believes everything he says. With Tamaki, at least, this comes up over and over again, and the results can often be very sweet.

And, ok, while it's nice watching the guys do whatever it takes to help those who come to them, a big draw of the series is, of course, the guys themselves. There's someone for just about everyone. My favorite is Kyoya - like Renge, I love cool guys with glasses. The bit with Kyoya and Haruhi on the bed had my inner fan girl squealing, even as the sane part of my brain was saying, "Gah! No! Bad Kyoya, bad!" Some of the types may throw newbies to the reverse harem genre through a loop - I'm thinking particularly of Kaoru and Hikaru's twincest appeal and Honey's boy-Lolita thing. The whole boy-Lolita thing has shown up before in popular US-licensed anime - namely, in Fruits Basket (Momiji and Honey are even voiced by the same person in the Japanese language track, further emphasizing the connection). Twincest, not so much, at least not that I can think of. Actually, the only other identical twins I can think of in anime/manga are the ones in Fushigi Yuugi, and I don't recall twincest being part of their appeal. Ayashi no Ceres had that whole thing with Aya and Aki, but that was intended to be horrible, not appealing.

Random thought: While I was watching this show, particularly during episode 12, "Honey's Three Bitter Days," I couldn't help but think how lonely the host club actually is. They flirt with all these girls, and Tamaki, at least, is doing all of this to make girls happy, but even with Tamaki it's not really real, is it? None of these guys date anyone, and all the girls who go to see them are all just clients. If a girl forgets that it's not real and falls for one of them, she's out of luck. It's kind of sad, really.

Moving on, another appeal of the show, for me anyway, is the artwork. It's bright, clean, and pretty - basically, it fits the overall mood of the show. Again, it reminded me of Fruits Basket. The two shows don't have the same sort of colors (Ouran is heavy on pinks and purples), but the style is still quite similar. One thing about the artwork, though - I didn't notice this so much the first time I saw the show, but the Ouran uniforms apparently gave the animators some trouble, particularly the little Ouran symbol on the jackets. Sometimes the jackets have the symbol, and sometimes they don't.

I've mentioned this before, but I first saw this show in fansubbed form, so my primary experience with it was with the Japanese language track. That may be part of the reason why I prefer watching this in Japanese with subtitles (by the way, Japanese without subtitles is an option, for those of you who want to try out your Japanese comprehension skills). At first, I was really against some of the casting decisions for this show, particularly Vic Mignogna for Tamaki. However, they've since grown on me. Vic is quite good as Tamaki, and Caitlin Glass is great as Haruhi. My main problem now, I guess, is with the voice actors for Kaoru and Hikaru, particularly Greg Ayres - everytime I hear Greg's voice, all I can think is "Shinpachi" (from Peacemaker). It's distracting. However, Greg and Todd do an excellent job with all of the simultaneous lines, so I can't complain too much. One of the things I disliked the most about the dub was FUNimation's decision to redo the opening and closing songs. The original Japanese opening song took me enough time to get used to, but I find the English version almost unlistenable. The closing doen't grate quite as much, but I still prefer the Japanese. I didn't like this when they did it with Fruits Basket, and I don't like it here, either.

For me, the dub versus sub debate isn't just about the voices, it's about the script, too. If you were to turn on both the English dub and the English subtitles, I doubt there'd be much that would actually match. For the most part, though, the dub script at least matches the spirit of the original lines - that won't appease purists, but it's better than it could be. Unfortunately, there are times when, for some unknown reason, the English dub abandons even the spirit of the original lines. The English subtitles have their own problems, though. At times, they seem to be literal translations and, as such, can occasionally be somewhat awkward and/or difficult to understand.

No matter what language I watch it in, however, I really like this show. I like its humor. I like the characters, even minor ones like Haruhi's father (he's hilarious, and I love how he casually kicks Tamaki's butt). I love its mix of craziness and sweetness, and I love its hints of romance (and wish those hints had become more than hints, darn Haruhi's obliviousness). There's still one more boxed set to go, so watch out for a post on that sometime in the future.

Extras:

Although I've seen boxed sets with more extras than this one has, many of the extras that this one includes are my favorite kinds. No anime DVD would be complete without clean openings and closings, so that's included - if you've got the DVD set to English dub, then the English dub versions of the songs will play, so you need to switch to the Japanese language track to hear the original songs. Quite a few trailers are included, so my list of "anime to eventually buy" has increased a little. The "Ouran High School Host Club manga pages" (you can "flip through" the pages on the DVD) are pretty bad, but then I didn't try looking at them on my computer - maybe they're better quality there. On my TV, they were unreadable.

The best extras, in my opinion, were the actor commentaries and outtakes. I love listening to English dub voice actor commentaries. Three of the episodes in this boxed set have commentaries. All three commentaries feature Caitlin Glass, the ADR director and the voice of Haruhi (some may also know her as the voice of Winry in Fullmetal Alchemist). The commentary for the first episode also includes Vic Mignogna, the voice of Tamaki (Edward in Fullmetal Alchemist, Ikkaku in Bleach, and a gazillion others). Episode 4, "Attack of the Lady Manager!," includes J. Michael Tatum, the voice of Kyoya (Jiro in Black Blood Brothers), and Monica Rial, the voice of Renge (Muuchan in Tactics, Saizo the pig in Peacemaker, and, just to include a "normal" role, Lyra in Fullmetal Alchemist). Episode 5, "The Twins Fight!," includes Greg Ayres, the voice of Kaoru (Chrono in Chrono Crusade and Shinpachi in Peacemaker), and Todd Haberkorn, the voice of Hikaru (Watanuki in XXXholic). My true nerdy-ness becomes apparent when you realize that I could list nearly all of those extra roles off the top of my head.

Anyway, the commentaries are lots of fun. True, there's lots of, "BLANK was really awesome in this role!" - the actors loved to gush about each other. They loved to gush about the show, too, which made listening to the commentaries a little like watching the show with small group of anime fans. I especially enjoyed it when the commentaries touched on what actually went into creating the scripts and dubs, and the actors' interpretations of their characters were pretty interesting as well. Whether or not you like English dubs, and whether or not you agree with the casting decisions for this show, you can't fault these people for their enthusiasm - if they don't love what they do, they're really good at faking it.

I really liked the outtakes, too - it's 15 minutes of the English dub voice actors flubbing their lines or ad libbing. As with any outtakes, some parts are a little boring, while others are hilarious.

Oh, and for those who care about that sort of thing, the artwork in the DVD cases is reversable - the two cases in this set feature Haruki/Tamaki, and Kaoru/Hikaru.

Watch-alikes and 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.
  • 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.
  • My Heavenly Hockey Club (manga) by Ai Morinaga - Hana Suzuki's favorite things to do are sleeping and eating. She'd never dream of joining a school club on her own, because it would interfere with her precious sleeping time, but circumstances force her to join her school's hockey club. The club is full of rich, attractive guys who hardly ever practice playing hockey, much less participate in hockey games - this club is mostly just an excuse for field trips. Those who'd like another humorous series starring an oblivious female character surrounded by a bunch of attractive rich guys might like this series. As with Ouran, there's the potential for romance between Hana and one of the members of the hockey club, but Hana's too oblivious to notice.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Earl and Fairy, Library War, oh my

Never mind that I've got hours and hours of unwatched anime stacked and waiting for me. Never mind all the great stuff being streamed on FUNimation's Youtube channel, Hulu, and Joost. I've been watching unlicensed, fansubbed stuff on Youtube. First, it was Earl and Fairy, which I'll probably be writing a post about soon (I think I'm just going to give up and write about this stuff, even though it's not yet licensed...). I had lots of fun with that one - brain candy, with light romance and action. Now I'm watching Library War. Does it bother you when people try to get books banned? Have you ever been horrified by the discovery that someone has ripped or cut a page out of a book? Then I'd say, give this one a try. I've only seen one episode so far, so I don't know yet if it'll be something that'll grab me for the full 12 episodes, but I have to admit that I love the idea behind the show. Go Library Defense Force!

And yes, the time stamp on this post is correct. I don't sleep much. ::sigh::

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Alice and Kev

I stumbled upon this blog today, and I've already read all the entries. Robin Burkinshaw decided to create two homeless characters in the Sims 3 and see where things went with them. Alice and Kev's story is told through a wonderful use of screenshots and text. Alice is basically a nice girl who is unfortunate enough to be too young to permanently leave her "home" (a small park) - if she tries to stay out past curfew, she risks getting taken back to the park by the police. Kev, her father, is insane, quick to anger, and king of inappropriate behavior.

Their story is at times very funny and very sad. I find it particularly interesting when Burkinshaw lets the characters' AI take over and some unexpected things happen. I can't wait to find out what happens next in Kev and Alice's story - it's like reality TV, only without any uncomfortable feelings of sympathetic embarrassment.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Skip Beat! (anime TV series) on Crunchyroll.com

I've heard somewhat conflicting things about Crunchyroll's legality, so I debated a bit about including a post about a show I watched on it - as far as I know, if Crunchyroll isn't legal, there's no legal way for someone in the US to watch Skip Beat!, beyond buying a Japanese copy online. I do hope that Skip Beat! does get licensed in the US. Aside from the ending, which caused me to scream in frustrated rage, I really enjoyed this show.

Summary:

Kyoko has devoted her entire life to making Sho, her childhood friend and currently her boyfriend, happy. When he decided to leave his family's inn behind and follow his dream of becoming someone famous, Kyoko dropped everything when he asked her to and went with him to Tokyo. She worked two jobs to pay for her and Sho's large and expensive apartment, despite the fact that Sho was rarely there. Even when he did come home, the longer they were in Tokyo the snappier he got with her. As far as Sho is concerned, Ren is his biggest rival in show business, so Kyoko hates Ren because Sho does.

One day, Kyoko finds out that Sho only sees her as his maid, someone to support him, feed him, pay his rent, and do all his housework. Now that he's making good money on his own, he plans to dump her. Kyoko, enraged, tells him that she will find some way of getting revenge upon him. Sho only laughs at her, saying that the only way she could possibly do that is by going into show business herself.

These new revelations about Sho bring forth a side of Kyoko that she never realized existed. All her life, she's worked, and failed, to please others - her mother, and then Sho. Now she wants no one's love, only revenge. With that in mind, she goes to a talent agency as big as Sho's, which just happens to be Ren's agency. Through sheer guts and determination, she manages to get an audition. She fails it because of her lack of desire for others' love, something that the head of the agency believes is vital for a star. However, he's intrigued enough by her to give her a second chance, and she ends up in a special section called "Love Me" - she must cheerfully do whatever others ask of her, earning points when she does something well and with the goal of pleasing others, and losing points when she does something badly or for selfish reasons. It's not easy - Kyoko must fight the demons within herself that Sho brought out in her, and she must deal with Ren, who seems to hate her for wanting to get into show business for revenge. However, Kyoko gradually discovers a genuine desire to be an actress, and, as Ren recognizes this genuine desire, he begins to thaw towards her.

Commentary:

I didn't really like this show at first. I couldn't stand how much Kyoko's life revolved around that jerk, Sho. First, she's his doormat, cheerfully giving up on all the things she wants (like going to high school) to help him do what he wants. As much as I hate Sho for using her, she made it easy for him to do so. Second, she let Sho rule her life again after she left him, by the shear strength of her desire to take revenge upon him. She's not waiting on him hand and foot anymore, but, by making her every action a step towards taking him down, she's just as tied to him after she's left him as she was when she was with him. She can be such an awesome girl at times, so it's kind of tough to watch. In those early episodes, one of the things that gave me hope for Kyoko was a bit in the opening credits - Kyoko, dressed like a princess, running past Sho without even looking at him. That bit indicated to me that, at some point, Kyoko would grow out of Sho, get over him, and surpass him without even thinking about it. I couldn't help but cheer her on.

I started warming up to the show at the same time Ren started warming up to Kyoko a little. During episode 7, Kyoko, in an attempt to show up a horribly spoiled actress, acts out a tea ceremony scene with Ren despite being in horrible pain. She's so dedicated to what she's doing that she prompts Ren to act at his full ability, until he notices that the only thing keeping her from passing out is her willpower. Even after filming is stopped, Kyoko still doesn't quit, not until the "customer" is gone (her mother trained her to serve customers with a smile, no matter what, in preparation for her eventually marrying Sho and helping him run his family's inn - Kyoko uses this training to get through the shoot). Once Ren realizes this, he leaves the set and she passes out. At this point, Ren admires her for her dedication to her work, even though he still hates what motivates her. At this point, I decided Kyoko was awesome.

Kyoko actually reminds me a bit of some shonen anime/manga heroes. Shonen anime and manga are full of heroes who don't always seem particularly bright, but these guys continually surprise people. At just the right time, they pull off some kind of amazing strategy, or they demonstrate keen perception, or something else you wouldn't expect from them. Even if only for just that brief time, those characters are cool. Kyoko can be like that. Usually, she's scary with rage (whenever something makes her think of Sho), or she's overly bubbly and energetic with happiness. She can be incredibly naive, and she can never seem to figure out why Ren gets so mad at her sometimes, even though she can read him like a book at other times. All kinds of characters underestimate her, until she does something truly awesome. At one point, she's at an audition and, in seconds, comes up with a new scenario idea for her and her partner after her original idea is stolen. At another point, after allowing her rage for Sho to almost ruin a job vital to her budding acting career, she pulls off a truly stunning performance.

There are some shojo anime and manga that I love mainly for the scenarios and the guys - the main female characters can, at times, be too annoying for me to really like them. However, Kyoko really grabbed me. I liked her, and I liked how much she came to love acting. I was happy when she made her first female friend (because she was always around Sho, all the girls she knew while growing up hated her - yet another reason why she despises him now). It's a nice friendship, too, and made me think of manga/anime like Fruits Basket - Kyoko and Kanae (or Moko, as Kyoko likes to call her) support each other through tough times and never end up at each other's throats over a guy, thank goodness (one of several things I came to hate about anime/manga like Fushigi Yuugi).

I liked Ren, too, though. He can be pretty mean to Kyoko at times, but it's easy enough to understand why he doesn't like her at first - for a guy who loves acting so much, it's got to be hard being around a girl who gets into acting for such a negative reason. As he thaws towards Kyoko, and the audience is treated to more of his thoughts and a few details about his past, he becomes more than just a pretty face. I particularly enjoyed the problems he had at the end of the show, when he, who had been such a perfect actor up to this point, couldn't figure out how to portray a character dealing with feelings of love he knows he shouldn't have. That's part of the reason why the ending made me so mad - although there are indications that Ren will work through his troubles, absolutely no loose ends are tied up. Ren is never shown finally managing to portray the character, and the budding romance between Ren and Kyoko is still a budding romance. Yashiro, Ren's manager and hilariously supportive of a relationship between Ren and Kyoko, would probably be tearing out his hair over this ending, and I'd be right there with him. By the way, Yashiro was another thing I loved about this show - for a minor character, he's amazingly fun.

The first time Sho went all goofy (as cool as he tries to act when he thinks others are watching, he tends to be like a big kid when he's alone, with his manager, or with Kyoko), I thought his voice sounded suspiciously familiar. I thought he might be voiced by the same person (Mamoru Miyano) who voiced Ouran High School Host Club's Tamaki - I looked it up, and I was right. Ren also sounded somewhat familiar to me, but I never guessed that he was voiced by the same person (Katsuyuki Konishi) who voiced Soubi in Loveless. In addition to loving most of the show, I really enjoyed the voice acting. It was great getting to hear some people I'd enjoyed in other shows again, and I'll have to hunt down other stuff Kyoko's VA (Marina Inoue) has done. I'm tempted to see if I can find Library War - the description makes it sound perfect for a library nerd like myself.

Overall, I really enjoyed this anime, but, oh, the pain of the ending! Either they decided to be faithful to the manga and wait until the manga got further ahead before creating a second season (and, although I've read about many fans wishing for a second season, I have yet to read anything confirming that there will be one), or they decided to see if they could make the "where's the rest of the story?!" pain so great that fans would go out and spend their money on the manga just to find out how things end. I really hate it when that happens - the ending of His and Her Circumstances made me feel the same way, although I at least got to find out how that one ended a couple years and many library holds later. Skip Beat! has now been added to my list of manga I'm trying to get through ILL - I don't know how many volumes of the manga were covered in the anime, so I'll have to start at the beginning.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Gravitation (manga) by Maki Murakami; Gravitation (anime TV series) - Shuichi Shindo is a singer in a band that he hopes will become famous. One day, he loses a page of unfinished song lyrics. The handsome and caustic man who catches it insults the lyrics and sticks in poor Shuichi's mind. Schuichi later discovers that the man was Eiri Yuki, a famous writer, and seeks him out. The two eventually become lovers, but Yuki's emotional issues and Shuichi's rapidly developing musical career may tear them apart. Those who'd like another romantic show featuring a main character trying to make it as a star might like this. Gravitation isn't for everyone, since it features romance between two men - although neither the manga nor the anime are explicit, the anime keeps the physical aspects of the romance slightly more "off screen" than the manga.
  • S.A (manga) by Maki Minami; S.A (anime TV series) - This series is also often referred to as Special A. Ever since she was a little girl and Kei beat her in a wrestling match, Hikari has always been second to Kei and considered him her rival. What she doesn't realize, even though everyone else figured it out ages ago, is that Kei loves her. In her determination to beat Kei at something, anything, Hikari has become a member of the Special A, an elite group at their elite school, right alongside him - will she ever realize his feelings for her, and what will happen if she does? My main exposure to this series has actually been to fansubs of the anime - since I don't think this anime has even been licensed by any company in the US, I'm kind of breaking one of my personal rules by putting it on this list - however, the manga is definitely available, so I suppose I'm only bending my rules. Those who'd like another series featuring an energetic heroine obsessed with surpassing someone and clueless about the potential for romance around her might want to try this.
  • Kare Kano (manga) by Masami Tsuda; His and Her Circumstances (anime TV series) - Yukino is a vain and greedy (albeit likable) girl who has spent years making herself seem like a perfect, elegant, and humble student, just so that she can be praised and loved by others. One day, Arima, a boy she views as a rival, sees beneath her mask and uses this knowledge to blackmail her into helping him out with his tremendous volume of work. Arima appears to be the real deal, a good-looking, perfect, and humble student, but he has his own secrets, some of which are far darker than Yukino's. As Yukino spends more time with him, she begins to fall in love with him and wants to help him deal with the darker parts of himself. Those who'd like another romantic series featuring an energetic, kick-butt main female character and an emotionally blocked guy might want to try this.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Suite 606 (anthology, book) by J.D. Robb, Mary Blayney, Ruth Ryan Langan, Mary Kay McComas

Since this is an anthology, I don't plan on listing read-alikes. It's just going to be summaries and commentaries.

Judging by the cover of this book, this could've been a horror anthology or perhaps a mystery anthology. Actually, it's a bit more accurate to call it a paranormal romance anthology. I picked this up because of the story by J.D. Robb - I have never read anything by the other authors. Overall, this anthology is kind of strange and uneven. Those who persevere are in for an interesting surprise, but there wasn't a single story in this anthology that I felt was outstanding.

"Ritual in Death" by J.D. Robb

Eve Dallas is at a party with her husband when, surprise surprise, a disoriented man turns up, covered in blood and holding a knife. The man, a doctor, has recently killed a woman in Suite 606 in one of Roarke's own buildings. As Eve investigates, she discovers that the man is, in his own way, a victim too, unwillingly made to take part in some kind of satanic ritual. Because the murder happened in Roarke's hotel and involved the compromising of his usually tight security, Roarke conducts his own investigation, bringing in Isis, the witch from Ceremony in Death. Eve isn't happy, but she'll take whatever information she can get if it can help her bring down the people involved in this murder.

It's not a great story, but it's got the usual "in Death" feel. Except, you know, for all the psychic stuff. Usually, Eve does more investigating than this - you might think the psychic help was intended to speed things up, since short stories have greater limitations than novels, but Isis's help was never actually used. All she did was confirm what Eve had already figured out. A bit lame, if you ask me. I had almost forgotten that Isis existed, actually, and found the "something" between her and Roarke to be somewhat annoying. By the way, these satanic killers were a bit stupid, if they could be so easily caught. Also, Eve and Roarke's sex scene in the police station shower - huh?! It's incredibly out of character for Eve, who still flinches at the thought of her coworkers catching her kissing her husband. Sex in the showers at work is edging towards the realm of sex on her office desk - true, Roarke needed some time with her, but was this really necessary? Yes, this is a romance anthology (not that you can tell from the cover), but the sex felt tacked on and, if you know anything about the characters, inappropriate.

"Love Endures" by Mary Blayney

Summer is not surprised that her husband Reggie is off somewhere, either drinking or gambling the family's money away. She is shocked, however, when Lord Stephen Bradley shows up to tell her that he was killed by thieves. She's not sure how she will cope. She has a young daughter to take care of, Reggie's debts to pay off, and less money than she tries to let on. Things only get worse when she finds out that her husband's ghost is haunting his bedroom - apparently, he can't leave until the wrongs he did while he was alive have been taken care of, because he made some kind of deal with a demon (or spirit, or angel). Summer is desperate to get him to leave, because his presence reminds her of all the ways he hurt their family - while he was alive, his charm tended to override her anger, but his charm doesn't seem to work on her the way it once did. One debt she swears she will take care of is the 150 pounds Reggie owes Stephen, which he lost in a bet years ago, a bet that Stephen would not be able to seduce Summer (or so Summer thinks, because that's what Reggie told her). Stephen knows the truth, that all he's ever wanted from Summer is her love. With the help of a magic coin and the mysterious Suite 606, the truth will come out.

This one overdid it a bit with the paranormal stuff. A ghost, a deal with a demon, a magic coin, and a mysterious Suite 606 which invites the truth to come out. Oh, come one. I loved the mood of this story at first, and was looking forward to seeing Summer and Stephen become the couple they would've been if Reggie hadn't been so selfish and greedy. As all the paranormal stuff started piling up, however, it became increasingly laughable that Summer and Stephen were meant to be together. Two people who are mean to be together shouldn't need this much magic to bring them together.

I'm glad that this wasn't longer than it was - not only would all of the Great Misunderstanding stuff have become even more unbearable, but I'm sure Kitty, Summer and Reggie's daughter, would've become hideously grating. As it was, she was hardly in the story and I still disliked her. Not much really does happen in the story, which alternates between the present, with Summer trying to deal with the aftermath of Reggie's death, and the past, how the misunderstanding came into being. Personally, I can't believe she trusted Reggie's word for so long - he's such a pathological liar, but it seems she has only caught him on a fraction of those lies over the years.

Remember how I said that the only author in this anthology I'd read anything by before was J.D. Robb? At this point in the anthology, I had the distinct impression that I was missing out because of this. This story had what I thought were weird cameos from the the author's other books - it wasn't until the final story that I found out I was mistaken. Until I discovered that, however, the "cameos" felt a bit out of place - plus, I was annoyed that the author didn't explain them.

"Cold Case" by Ruth Ryan Langan

Sam Hunter doesn't know what he wants to do with his life anymore or where he wants to be - all he knows is that he no longer wants to be a cop surrounded by all the cops who used to know his partner. Sam's partner took a bullet meant for him, and now Sam just wants to get away and heal. He decides to go to an area he hasn't seen since college, but ends up getting into a car accident during a snow storm. He finds himself stranded at a place called Storm Hill, with a beautiful woman named Mary Catherine, her 16-year old sister Anna, and Hoag, their angry, forbidding stepfather. Sam, who is usually adept at restraining his emotions, finds himself overcome by passionate feelings for Mary Catherine, feelings which she shares - it's not a comfortable situation for either of them, especially with Hoag's threatening presence so close by.

Mary Catherine says Hoag is worried that she or her sister might do the same thing their mother did, and run off with a secret lover. Mary Catherine swears to her sister that she won't run off with Sam, although Sam comes to feel that it would be best for her to leave with him, either alone or with Anna. Neither Mary Catherine nor Anna ever thought their mother would leave without them - and did she really?

This story is really predictable - I figured out what happened to their mother well before the story ended. I also figured out pretty quickly that Sam had to be dreaming, time traveling, or somehow seeing the past in the some other way. I kind of thought maybe he was meant to stop some past murders, or at least reveal the truth of those murders in the present day, but Sam does neither of those things. Instead, he meets one of Anna and Mary Catherine's descendants and falls in love with her, only pages after Mary Catherine, who he had had such passionate feelings for, dies - it makes him look a bit fickle. Also, him getting over the death of his partner was very sudden and unrealistic, like a bolt of lightning provided by the wonderful Mary Catherine. Oh, gag me with a spoon. Like J.D. Robb's story, this one felt like it would've been stronger if the author had just concentrated on writing a really good mystery and left all the romance out. I do like romance, really I do, but it is so rarely done well in short stories.

Like the previous story, this one has a strange moment that appears as though it might be a cameo of some of the author's regular characters from something else, although at least this time the "cameo" was brief enough and unremarkable enough that I didn't really feel like I was missing out on anything. At the time, I just felt it was a little odd.

"Wayward Wizard" by Mary Kay McComas

Marie takes her son Hugh to a museum, hoping desperately that she will eventually be able to re-connect with him and win back his trust. A while back, she was in an accident and was in a lot of pain while she recovered. She became addicted to painkillers and her husband eventually divorced her. It hasn't been easy, but Marie is now finally starting to put her life back together. Her ex-husband has already moved on, but she's still got a chance with Hugh.

While at the museum, both Hugh and Marie end up getting sent to a different time and place after messing around with a strange stone. They end up in the company of a wizard named Nester who had been hoping that one of them would bring the stone with them - that stone, together with the one he already possessed, would've fully augmented his power, and he could easily have sent Hugh and Marie back home. However, without the second stone, Nester is limited to two or three jumps in time and space per day, with only a little control over where they all end up. His jumps take them to the New York of Marie and Hugh's future, where they see J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas. Nester's jumps also take them to the parts of the second and third stories that I had thought were cameos, as well as to a few other times and places.

During Nester's resting periods, Marie and Nester get to know each other better and eventually become lovers, and Marie and Hugh begin to mend their relationship. The big question is, once Marie and Hugh get home, what will Marie do? Will she stay in her own time and continue to work on her relationship with her son under her ex-husband's watchful eye, or will she go with Nester, the man she has come to love, back to his own time and place?

I can't say I found the romance in this story to be very exciting - it's a little hard to have an exciting romance when the hero and heroine are constantly accompanied by the heroine's young son. The tension between Marie and Hugh was pretty interesting, though - I think I might've enjoyed reading more about the two of them slowly mending their relationship.

The completely unexpected way this story linked all the other stories together grabbed my interest, too. Unfortunately, like I said, it was completely unexpected - if I weren't the sort to force myself to finish nearly any book I start, I might've given up on this anthology before reading this story and missed the explanation for the "cameos." Plus, there was something just a little... messy about it all. Langan and, especially, Blayney both seemed very much aware of what McComas planned to do with her story - both authors' stories incorporated appearances by Marie, Hugh, and Nester. However, unless I missed it, it looks like no one told Nora Roberts (aka J.D. Robb) anything, because, despite the group's brief encounter with Eve Dallas, I don't believe they ever show up in Robb's story.

Robb appears to have written her story under the impression that Suite 606 was what would be tying the anthology together. The other three authors made weak attempts, sometimes very weak, at incorporating Suite 606 into their stories, but it seems as though the anthology would have been stronger if they had dropped Suite 606 (which, at various points in the anthology, was a satanic ritual site, a love nest that promotes truth, an interesting coincidence, and an unimportant detail) and focused on the Hugh/Marie/Nester link instead. I wonder if Robb had already written her story before this anthology was put together, and the other authors just planned things around her?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tramps Like Us (manga, vol. 1) by Yayoi Ogawa

The original title for this series was Kimi wa Pet ("You're my pet") - that title gets the basic story across a little more clearly than Tramps Like Us. I can only guess that Tokyopop thought the original title might put some people off.

Synopsis:

Sumire Iwaya seems to have it all - a successful career, good looks, a good education, and a fiance. Unfortunately, she discovers that her fiance is cheating on her and gets demoted at work after punching her boss. Everywhere she goes, it seems like people are talking about her behind her back. They talk about how she's the "ice princess," too focused on her career to get and keep a man. Sumire is determined to find a new boyfriend for herself who is more educated, makes more money, and is more successful in his career than she is - maybe that kind of guy wouldn't feel as intimidated by her as her ex-fiance did.

On her way home one night, Sumire spots a large box she thinks is someone's garbage and is shocked to discover a young man passed out inside it. She takes him home with her, feeds him, and gives him a place to sleep. It's not supposed to be something permanent, but then, after another bad day at work, Sumire finds herself telling the young man that he can only continue to stay with her if he agrees to be her pet. Amazingly, he says yes, and she names him Momo, after a pet dog she once had, feeds him, washes his hair, and gives him a place to sleep. As a pet, he doesn't really do anything useful around the house, but the effect Momo has on Sumire's emotional well-being makes him invaluable to her. Although he has a life outside her home, he pretends to be helpless without her because he can tell that she needs him.

As long as it's just the two of them, there are no problems, but Sumire hasn't given up on finding a boyfriend. How is she supposed to explain Momo, though? She hiding him and lying about him, which doesn't always work so well. She ends up with a boyfriend who seems to be fairly decent, but he bores and exhausts her - she finds herself wanting someone like Momo, someone with whom she can just relax and be herself.

At any rate, her relationship with Momo starts to occupy her thoughts far more than work or her boyfriend. She worries about him when he's not around or when he's hurt, and she gets frustrated with him when he plays tricks on her in retaliation for her trying to bring a guy home. He's cute and she enjoys being around him. During a drunken moment she offers to let him sleep with her - he secretly loves her, but he doesn't take her up on the offer, because he's waiting for her to see him as a person and not as her pet Momo. She does have moments when she thinks of him as more than a pet, though. She thinks about him during less-than-exciting sex with her first post-breakup boyfriend, and at one point he kisses her. Later on, she worries that he's left her and goes looking for him. By that time, she has learned that he's a dancer and that his real name is Takeshi Gouda. While trying to find him, she learns a lot more about him - can she continue to think of him as just her pet now that she knows more about what he's like when he's not with her?

Commentary:

I'm pretty sure that my description of this first volume makes this series seem...very messed up. And weird. I mean, here's a grown woman with a young man as her pet. The only one who really knows about it is her best friend, who can't imagine why Sumire hasn't slept with Momo yet. Still, it doesn't seem quite so weird in context. Sumire's miserable, and she can't seem to relax and be herself around any of her boyfriends. Maybe it's because she (mostly) thinks of Momo as an adorable pet, but he helps her relieve all that pent-up tension. Plus, while their relationship has obvious benefits for Momo/Takeshi (free food, housing), there are hidden benefits that Ogawa only begins to reveal in this volume. Momo cares for Sumire, and she also serves as his inspiration in dance. I can't wait to find out more about him in future volumes, and see how Sumire and Momo's rather unorthodox relationship works out.

I have wanted to read this series for quite some time now. I wasn't sure, at first, how I felt about the artwork, but it grew on me quickly, and the story definitely got me hooked. Momo and Sumire's relationship works out really well when they're just mistress and pet - I wonder how things will go when Momo is no longer Sumire's pet, and she has to see him as an equal? At the very least, I hope she never acts with him like she does with her other boyfriends, always doing what she thinks they want or expect.

I don't often read manga in which most of the main characters aren't in high school (in fact, I think the only other series I'm reading right now with adult characters is Antique Bakery) - I guess I just haven't heard about those titles as much. It's interesting to try something like Tramps Like Us, because the problems Sumire has to deal with aren't quite like the problems characters in other manga I've read have to deal with. True, like all those high school girls, she has guy problems, but they're not really the warm/fuzzy/angsty guy problems of shojo manga. Her main problem, really, is figuring out how to both be herself and be with a guy.

Sumire's a bit of a workaholic, so she's also got to figure out how to balance work with everything else. From the sounds of things, before she began living with Momo, all she did was work. Momo loosens her up enough that even her coworkers, who know little to nothing about her, notice. Although she's got one female friend who pops up occasionally, I don't really get the feeling that they're very close. I'm sure they used to be closer at one time, but now Sumire is a career girl and her friend is married and has a kid - their worlds are a little different. Sumire's life is a little lonely, actually. All she's got in this first volume is Momo, and before Momo she didn't really have anything.

Ah well, enough with the rambling. I am definitely going to be reading more of this series. One thing I wish - I'd love to have a blown-up version of page 92. It's incredibly sweet.

Extras:

There isn't much in the way of extras, just a one-page comic about Ogawa and her editor, and a page of stuff drawn by Mariko Nagahara (I have no idea who this is, unfortunately).

Please excuse the skimpy read-alikes/watch-alikes list - I usually try to at least list three things, but this time I wimped out. I'll try to do better with future volumes - I need to do more research on this kind of story, since this is not the sort of thing I tend to read, whether in manga or novel form.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • The Aromatic Bitters (manga) by Erica Sakurazawa - Sayumi and Hide are two friends stuck in dead-end, long-term relationships with men who cheat on them. When they decide to go to Hide's country home for the summer, they end up learning a lot about life, love, and each other.
  • NANA (manga) by Ai Yazawa; NANA (anime TV series) - [There's also a live action movie, but I'm not sure if it goes far enough to really deal with all of the boyfriend storylines.] Two young women named Nana meet in Tokyo and end up becoming roommates. Nana Komatsu is a naive girl with a somewhat childish outlook on life. She frequently falls in love with guys she meets, but things don't always go well for her. Nana Osaki is the lead singer of the band Black Stones (Blast, for short). Both Nanas have to work through relationship problems - Nana O. has additional complications stemming from her past and the future she is trying to build for herself. Those who'd like another series with complex relationships and lots of drama might want to try this.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bread Machine Magic, Revised Edition (recipe book) by Linda Rehberg and Lois Conway

I know, I know, this isn't really the sort of book I usually write about (unless you count that one time I wrote about the muffin recipe book), but I really like this book. Or, more accurately, I like the results.

I could've included a picture of the book itself, but I thought it might be nicer to include a picture of something I made with the help of the book. On the left is a picture of french toast, which I made from a slice-and-a-half of Rehberg and Conway's Egg Bread (pg. 19).

I own a Breadman model TR875, which can handle 1.5 and 2 lb. loaves. The book it came with has a few recipes, but most of them haven't really impressed me much (I do really like its Soy Almond Fruit Bread recipe, though). Rehberg and Conway's book has 138 recipes (according to the cover of the book) - some of them can be made entirely with a bread machine, while others will require a Dough setting and an oven. So far, I haven't done any Dough recipes.

Each recipe includes measurements for 1, 1.5, and 2 lb. loaves, although sometimes the measurements for certain sizes are more awkward than for others. As someone who's fairly new to using a bread machine, I appreciate that each recipe says what crust setting and bake cycle to use. The recipes also include lists of optional bake cycles, but I haven't had to try any of those. All recipes begin with a few descriptive sentences that sometimes provide very useful information - for instance, I got the idea to make french toast out of the egg bread from the recipe's description. Each recipe includes per-slice nutritional information - in my opinion, this is a bit useless, since slice size will vary depending on how you slice the bread and what size bread you bake.

The beginning of the book has some tips and information about the various components of bread. I found some of this to be helpful, but most of it was already included in the booklet that came with my machine. The book ends with lists that categorize the various breads in the book according to their suggested uses - sandwich breads, breakfast bread or toast, snacking breads, gift breads, dinner party breads, and stuffing/croutons/bread crumbs. There's also a couple oddball lists - most aromatic breads, and recipes that are okay to use with your machine's delayed timer. The book includes an index - the indexing of ingredients isn't quite as thorough as I would like, but it's still nice. It's also necessary, if you're looking for a particular recipe, because the table of contents is very basic and doesn't list each individual recipe.

I've only tried a fraction of the recipes in this book, but I've enjoyed almost all of them so far. The only recipe I tried that failed was the Irish Soda Bread - it collapsed at some point while it was in the machine. My favorite recipe is the Sally Lunn Bread. If you don't have an electric knife, this one is perfect, because it cuts beautifully. It also doesn't use very many ingredients.

I read one customer review of this book on Amazon.com that complained about the use of butter in most of the recipes. The authors do say at the beginning of the book that oil could be used as a substitute for butter, but I haven't tried this myself yet. Personally, I really enjoy this book. The recipes are simple and easy to follow, and almost all of my breads have turned out nicely. Of course, if you want your bread to turn out perfectly, you should always monitor it during the second kneading cycle to see if you need to add more flour or liquid. I usually have to add more flour.

Overall, I recommend this book (unless you really want to avoid butter - like I said, I'm not sure how these recipes would turn out if oil were substituted instead). If there are any other bread machine fans out there who like to recommend their favorite recipe books, please do so - I'm always looking for more recipes to try. Plus, other books might have better variations of certain recipes.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Regular posting schedule? Ha!

I'm not sure if I'm going to abandon my regular posting schedule completely, but it definitely needs to be altered. How will I alter it? No idea.

The "every other day" thing was fine back when I had no full-time job and nothing to do beyond fill out applications, volunteer, and make sure I was there for my ever-dwindling part-time job. Now, however, I do have a full-time job and, while I won't say I have a busy social life, I've at least got something resembling a social life. I'm addicted to buying books and DVDs, so I've got plenty that I could write about, in theory. The problem is that, in practice, I'm reading and watching a lot less than I did when I was jobless. The reading and watching takes time, as does the blogging that comes after.

I think I'll try to do a minimum of one book/movie/TV show post a week - hopefully I'll usually end up with more than one a week. We'll see how that goes.

Podiobooks.com

My library has been encouraging staff to do various technology-related activities, such as learning about LibraryThing, podcasts, tagging, image editing, etc. I've really been getting into podcasts/webcasts. Mostly, I've stuck to the Library of Congress's webcasts, but I've recently started branching out to Podiobooks.com, which features serialized audio books in podcast form. Right now, I'm just focusing on completed books - I recognize some of the titles, but I think a good chunk of them are by authors who are still new, unheard of, and/or unpublished in the more traditonal sense. I haven't spent too much time exploring the titles yet, but I'm guessing quite a few of the books are read by the authors or their friends, so the quality of everything from the writing to the reading really depends. Still, it's all free, and it's a nice way to give authors you haven't heard of (or maybe some you have - I saw one of Karen Marie Moning's books on the site) a try.

It's been a while since I wrote any audio book posts, but, if I don't get bored with Podiobooks.com, you can probably expect to see some more in the near future. Right now, I'm listening to Forever Fifteen by Kimberly Steele, read by the author.

Section headings

In case you hadn't noticed, I'm going to try to start using section headings in my posts ("Synopsis," "Commentary," and "Extras," in addition to "Read-alikes and Watch-alikes," which I already use). It's not like anyone complained, but I'm hoping that the headings will make it easier for people to just skip to the kinds of information they'd like to read. I know my synopses can get kind of long - I had considered shortening them, but, in some cases, they've turned out to be really helpful when I needed to look back at something I'd read or watched a few months before and remember some specific part or character. My most recent post uses the new headings, but I wrote the post before using the headings, so there's a little bit of overlap between the sections. In the future, these sections will hopefully be a little more discrete.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Emma: A Victorian Romance - Season Two (anime TV series)

The image I've used is not something found on any of the US DVD cases or the box as a whole, although a black and white version can be found in the "Victorian Picture Book" included in the boxed set. I believe this image was used for one of the Japanese DVD cases. Even though it makes Hans look a little villainous, I like it. Plus, it highlights one of the things that makes the second season of the anime different from the manga - the relationship between Emma and Hans.

Synopsis, with a bit of commentary mixed in:

At the end of the first season, Emma left both William and London behind, saying that she was going back to the village where she was born. The Second Season boxed set includes an Episode 0 - if you need a quick refresher on what happened during the first season, this episode takes care of that (with a bit of weirdness mixed in). Not all of it is repeat footage from the first season, either, so the episode is pretty watchable even if you don't need a refresher.

At the beginning of the second season, Emma is working at the Molders family estate as a maid. She works hard, doesn't talk much about herself, and is Dorotea Molders's favorite maid, so the other servants don't always speak very kindly of her, but Emma still manages to win a few people over. For instance, one of the servants, Hans, believes at first that Emma hates him. However, he and Emma eventually get a chance to talk openly with each other, and they realize they actually have a lot in common. Both of them came from incredibly poor families and had to work extremely hard to get to where they are now, which is why they seem to appreciate their positions a little better than some of the other servants.

While Emma is settling into her new job, William is trying to deal with being without her. He throws himself into the family's business and attends a few parties, but he continues to act a bit standoffish with Eleanor. Eleanor tells him that she'll wait as long as necessary for him to get over Emma. Eventually, after Monica, Eleanor's sister, arrives and berates William for not caring for Eleanor with all his heart, William breaks down and finally proposes to Eleanor.

Meanwhile, Dorotea Molders agrees to loan Emma out as a party companion for a friend of hers. Dorotea and her friend dress Emma up and have her attend the party without glasses because they think she looks nicer that way. Because Emma doesn't know Dorotea's friend's real name, and because she can't see well, she doesn't realize until it's too late that Dorotea's friend is Aurelia Jones, William's mother, and that the party they're attending is William's engagement party. Emma faints when she comes face-to-face with William and Eleanor. She's taken to a guest bedroom to recover, and William goes to see her that evening. In an effort to keep them both from ruining the separate lives they've made for themselves, Emma leaves early in the morning, without telling William where she can be found.

Aurelia guesses the truth behind the relationship between William and Emma. Although she is sympathetic towards Emma, it's not entirely clear whether she supports the relationship between the two of them or not. Aurelia does tell William where to find Emma, contrary to Emma's wishes.

If you're familiar with the manga, it's at this point that the show becomes really different from the manga. William pursues Emma, and Emma resists. Hans decides to give Emma the perfect excuse for resisting William by becoming William's rival - he even goes so far as to propose to Emma. Now, in the manga, there are signs that Hans may have feelings for Emma, but signs are all Mori's readers get. In my opinion, Manga William went from being a rich kid who didn't really understand what his relationship with Emma would mean in practical terms to someone who had actually considered all the pros and cons and was more emotionally mature than he had been. Emma's kidnapping, arranged by Eleanor's parents, was a bit out there, and I'm not sure that William could realistically have rescued her quite as quickly and easily as he did, but at least it was exciting.

Emotionally, I think Anime William matures faster than Manga William. He realizes what he feels for Emma, and rather than waffling between his feelings for Emma and the relationship everyone expects him to have with Eleanor, he sticks firmly with Emma and does his best not to encourage Eleanor without being too rude. Eleanor eventually realizes that William loves someone else, and a maid at that, but she continues to hope that he'll choose her - she realizes (at least until William proposes) that he doesn't really love her and is only with her for her company, so it's not quite as easy to feel sorry for her as it is to feel sorry for Manga Eleanor. When Manga William chooses Emma over Eleanor, William's family is upset with him, and it's indicated that this will hurt the Jones family's social standing. Manga Emma doesn't agree to marry Manga William, but she agrees to stay with him, which gives him the opportunity to eventually talk her into marriage.

The anime takes things further than the manga. It very clearly shows the effect that William's decision to call off his engagement to Eleanor and choose Emma has, not only on his family's social standing, but also on his family's business. Especially on his family's business. By the end of the manga, you can almost forget that William's family even has a business, since I don't think he's ever shown doing much with it. That's definitely not the case in the anime. Anime William spends tons of time working. Rather than arranging for Emma to be kidnapped, Eleanor's father instead sabotages one of the Jones family's important business deals, almost costing William his chance to meet with Emma and see if she chooses to stay with him. I suppose the whole business thing is probably more realistic than Manga Emma's kidnapping, but it was kind of boring.

I rooted for Manga William and Manga Emma, even as a part of me wanted to see Hans display more obvious feelings for Emma. I wasn't always rooting for Anime William and Anime Emma. The anime made it so very clear how much William's decision to pursue Emma hurt him and his family. It made William seem so selfish. I found myself thinking that Emma would be better off with Hans - Hans understands her, and, socially, he would be a more comfortable husband for her. All William seems to do for a good chunk of the second season is make Emma upset and uncomfortable. She repeatedly tells him to go away, but he keeps coming back. Since she doesn't explain why she tells him to go away until nearly the end of the series (she wasn't sure if being with her would really make him happy), William came off as an annoyingly arrogant rich guy.

Hans ends up letting Emma go without a fight - part of me would just love a spin-off anime starring him - and William and Emma end up together. Hans seems to be fine, and there's a snippet showing Eleanor in the country, with a handsome young man watching her. I have yet to read volume 8 of the manga, but I'm assuming that the young man is the person Eleanor meets in that volume. At the very end of the anime, things skip forward a few years. William and Emma are a happy couple, apparently living in the Jones family's home with lots of their own adorable children.

And more commentary:

I think I liked the first season better than this one. The romance between him and Emma was sweet, and he knew without a doubt that he wanted to be with her, even if he was naive enough to think that his father wouldn't try to force him into a more socially acceptable relationship. The romance in the second season wasn't quite as pleasant to watch. I hated seeing Emma so upset, and all William's presence ever seemed to do was upset her. Besides that, there were other things I didn't like about the second season. Eleanor's pursuit of William made her seem emotionally masochistic and pathetic. All those scenes of William working bored me - even at its most exciting, when Eleanor's father was sabotaging things, it wasn't that exciting. Also, as far as the art goes, I didn't always like the way Emma's eyes were drawn.

Although I preferred the first season, that's not to say I hated the second season. There were several things I did like. For instance, I loved that Hans got a bigger role. I liked that William and Emma got a definitely happy ending - marriage, kids, and, I'm guessing, the eventual acceptance of William's family. I enjoyed the dramatic bits, like the part at the beginning of the season, when Emma discovers that one of the maids is stealing things for her secret lover. I loved the scenes with all the servants at the Molders household.

Overall, I'm glad I watched the second season. I would've been just too depressing to stop at season one, with William and Emma apart. I just wish the writers hadn't made William look so unreasonable, stubborn, and selfish in the second season.

Extras:

There really aren't many. As with season one, the DVDs don't include many extras, only trailers, clean opening and closing animations, and fan thank-yous. Again, the boxed set includes a booklet, but this one is much thinner than the one included with season one. The content is also pretty sparse. There are character designs, pictures of what I'm guessing are the Japanese DVD case artworks (in black and white only, unfortunately), and a 3-page interview with Kaoru Mori. With Emma working in a different and much larger household in this season, additional historical notes taking that into account would've been nice. I would've liked more information about all the different kinds of servants in the Molders household and where each of them stand in the hierarchy, for instance.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Maria Watches Over Us (anime TV series) - Yumi is a first year student at the Lillian School For Girls, an exclusive all girl's catholic school. She admires Sachiko, who will likely become one of the heads of the student council. When Sachiko asks Yumi to be her soeur (older girls take on a younger girl as their little sister, or "soeur," and instruct them and watch out for them), Yumi finds herself having to figure out the relationships between the girls in the student council and her own feelings for Sachiko. As this is apparently a shoujo-ai series (romance between girls), it's not for everyone. However, those who'd like a slow-paced drama/romance involving a strict social environment might enjoy this series. I have yet to see it, but the many (two or three) ads that RightStuf has sent me have worked their way into my brain, and I'd like to.
  • Shirley (manga) by Kaoru Mori - Ms. Bennett lives alone and needs help with her house, so she places an ad for a maid. The person who answers the ad is Shirley Madison, only 13 years old. Despite her misgivings, Ms. Bennett hires her. Those who'd like another maid manga by Mori may want to try this. I believe this manga takes place during a slightly more recent time period than Emma, so I'm not sure if there will be any cameo appearances made by Emma characters, but you never know.
  • Land of the Blindfolded (manga) by Sakura Tsukuba - High school student Kanade has a secret: when she touches someone, she can sometimes see a glimpse of their future. For years she's believed she's the only person with a secret like this, until she meets Arou, a boy who can see people's pasts when he touches them. Despite differences in their outlooks on life, the two of them grow close and eventually start dating. Like Emma, this is another series that's a bit slow-paced and sometimes bittersweet. Those who'd like another gentle romance with some drama in the mix might like this manga.
  • Fruits Basket (anime TV series); Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya - Tohru had been living with her grandfather after her mother died, but circumstances and Tohru's own desire not to be a burden meant that she ended up living alone in a tent for a while. However, she gets taken in by the Sohma family, who are hiding a secret - certain members of the family turn into animals in the Chinese zodiac when they're weak or hugged by a member of the opposite sex. Both the manga and anime are good - the anime follows the manga pretty closely (except for a few things, and the last episode), but it ends well before the manga does. Those who'd like another story with a slowly developing (and seemingly doomed) romantic storyline might enjoy this title.
  • Antique Bakery (manga) by Fumi Yoshinaga - (There is an anime TV series - and even a live action show? - but I don't think any of that has been legally released in the US.) This series focuses on the owner and employees of a small gourmet bakery. Although the series is often light-hearted and funny, each of the characters has personal issues, painful memories, and more to deal with. Those who'd like another slow-paced character-focused series might enjoy this. Yoshinaga often draws the cakes and pastries and the way these things are made in lovely detail that those who enjoyed the historical details in Emma's artwork may appreciate.
  • Romeo x Juliet (anime TV series) - Fourteen years earlier, the Montague family seized control of the floating continent of Neo Verona and murdered nearly every member of the Capulet family. Juliet Fiammata Asto Capulet, the sole survivor and Capulet's daughter, has long forgotten the murder of her family and her identity. The now cross-dresses as Odin and the town's hero of justice. During a daring escape, she happens to meet Romeo Candorebanto Montague, the kind son of the tyrannical Montague, and the two eventually become star-crossed lovers. As you might have been able to tell, this is only loosely based on the play. Those who'd like another story about an apparently doomed romance, but would like something with more action, might enjoy this anime.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Blank Slate (manga, vol. 1) by Aya Kanno

If you haven't read this volume and don't want me to ruin everything, you probably shouldn't be reading this post. At the very least, skip to the end. As usual, there's commentary and read-alikes/watch-alikes at the bottom.

The story takes place in a country ruled by the Galay government, which, in theory, is benevolent. Twenty years earlier, the Amatans were taken over by the Galayans and supposedly saved from their previous suffering under an oppressive government. However, many Amatans aren't so grateful - they're not particularly happy about being discriminated against and forced into a position where they can't survive without the Galay government.

At the beginning of this volume, a bounty hunter named Russo is pursuing a mysterious criminal named Zen. He finds Zen at the Meeting Room, a place that houses all kinds of activities banned by the Galay government - prostitution, banned drugs, sexual deviance, etc. As a bounty hunter, Russo is basically a legalized killer, and he enjoys his work, but even he understands that the underworld has rules. Zen doesn't care, and, not long after Russo finds him, Zen kills nearly everyone the Meeting Room. Zen, now on the run, seems to have accepted Russo as his partner in crime, and Russo keeps telling himself that he's waiting for the perfect moment to kill Zen, the moment when Zen has truly come to trust him and has let his guard down. Eventually, Russo gets the perfect opportunity to kill Zen, but, rather than take it, he shoots the guy who tries to make him take Zen down. Unfortunately for Russo, Zen shoots him in order to kill the other guy. Russo dies while telling his story to an Amatan fortune teller.

After robbing a bank, Zen is misfortunate enough to have one of his car's tires shot out, so he secures new transportation by taking the people in a nearby car hostage. One of those people is Rian, the daughter of an important Galay general. The other is her Amatan attendant and bodyguard, Maka. Rian is blind and seemingly has no fear of Zen, despite the fact that he makes it clear he will kill her if either she or Maka try to get free - she is happy that Zen is around, because his presence provides her with the first real freedom she's had her entire life. Zen has Maka drive them all to Rian's family's summerhouse. While there, with Rian's help, he finds a potential escape route, a passageway that leads to a soldier's graveyard.

Unfortunately for Rian, it is soon revealed that Maka is a terrorist who has taken care of her for years in order to get close enough to kill her, as revenge for the death of her older sister during the war between the Galayans and Amatans 20 years earlier. Zen tries to get his hostage back, but Maka thinks her terrorist comrades have come and she's won. Maka is wrong - the Galayans have captured all her comrades, and they kill shoot as she leaves the summerhouse. Zen is wounded, and, before she dies, Maka tells him to take her bracelet and give it to the doctor who lives on the outskirts of town. Apparently, this doctor is her brother and will help even criminals on the run. Zen wants to take Rian with him as a hostage, but Rian says she'll only slow him down - it's unclear whether Zen really wanted to help keep Rian free from her oppressive life, but that does seem to be how she takes it.

Zen manages to make it to the doctor without dying of blood loss, but it's a near thing. The doctor, Hakka, was actually Maka's brother-in-law, a Galayan who had been married to Maka's older sister. Hakka does his best to help Zen, even though all Zen wants to do is get his gun back and go on his way. However, Hakka is horrified when he discovers that Zen is such a high-profile criminal. He worries that everyone in the Amatan village he lives in will be killed for harboring a criminal like Zen. By cutting his ties with the village and going on the run with Zen, Hakka manages to save the people of his Amatan village from the Galayan soldiers who come looking for Zen. He tells Zen that he has injected him with a virus, and that he will only cure him if he helps him free Maka's terrorist comrades. Zen agrees to go with him but later reveals that he knew all along that Hakka was bluffing about the virus - the real reason he agreed to go with Hakka was because he thought it might be interesting to see someone so righteous become evil.

Zen has no memories of the first 20 years of his life - all he knows is that he came to consciousness one day, dying, with a urge to kill and destroy. He is ruled by nothing but those urges, and he hates that even those things rule him, because he wants no one and nothing to control him. Zen and Hakka manage to free Maka's terrorist comrades, but, while they're separated, Zen comes across a Galayan colonel who seems to know him somehow. During his fight with the colonel, Zen is almost killed. He regains consciousness to find Hakka next to him, but he has no memories of the 30-minute period since he separated from Hakka - which means he has no memories of meeting the colonel and fighting him. When the volume wraps up, Zen has made the decision to continue travelling with Hakka, because he believes that there's something about Hakka that might be the key to uncovering his memories and freeing himself from everything that controls him.

One of the big draws of this volume, for me, was the artwork. Yes, it's shallow of me, but Kanno is really good at drawing pretty guys. Zen may be a scary, sociopathic killer, but he's also nice eye candy. The same goes for Hakka, who, as an added bonus, is a good guy who couldn't kill a fly. About Hakka, though - how old is this guy? He looks young and idealistic, but if, say, he married Maka's sister when he was 18, he'd be 38 right? I have a feeling I'd be way off if someone showed me pictures of Kanno's characters and asked me to guess their ages based on the way they look. Zen looks young, too, and Rian is tiny and doll-like, but who knows how old either of them really are.

So, besides the gorgeous guys, what other reasons are there to read this? Well, the mystery of Zen is pretty interesting, although, with such a short series (it's only 2 volumes long), I expected more than I got. Right now it's all just smoke. Zen can't remember his past, so he runs around stealing, killing people, etc. Until he meets Hakka, there's no sign that he's even trying to recover his memories - he lives in the moment. The only tidbits Kanno gives readers in this volume are a Galayan colonel who might know who Zen is, flashback images of a young, wounded Zen, Zen's ingrained urge to kill, and the possibility that Hakka might have some kind of link to Zen's past. This isn't much, when you consider that it's only a 2-volume series. I guess I'll have to read the second volume to see what Kanno comes up with, but, at the moment, the artwork is still my primary reason for reading this series.

I tend to be a very character-oriented person - I can be happy with a slow-paced or even bad plot if I like the characters enough. Pretty artwork aside, were Kanno's characters worth it? I'd say she did a decent job with them, considering the limited number of pages she had to work with. Most of the characters that were around enough to rate a mention in this post had interesting aspects of some sort, and Zen seemed to force those things to the surface. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time for Kanno to really do much with any of that. Whatever Russo told himself, his relationship with Zen did not seem to simply be "hunter stalking dangerous prey." Rather than taking the time to explore this, Kanno kills him off. Rian, sheltered, vulnerable, and possibly nursing a crush on Zen, is less an interesting character than a potentially interesting character. Meeting Zen allows her to find out things about her world she might otherwise have never learned - it's possible that her position in Galayan society will allow her to change things, but I doubt there will be time for Kanno to show anything like that. Hakka, at least, should be around long enough for Kanno to do more with him. As far as Zen goes, there's still his past to deal with, but I'm also hoping for more besides that. Is Zen really the scary killer he seems to be, or are there softer emotions and maybe even a conscience hiding somewhere inside him? I would've said no, he's just a killer, but it did seem like he was being nicer to Rian than he really needed to be - it got me thinking.

Overall, this volume was ok. I loved the artwork, and the mystery of Zen is mildly interesting. I felt a little like there wasn't enough detail (character detail, plot detail, political situation detail, etc.) for anything in particular to really stand out and grab my attention, so it was all just mildly interesting. Still, it wasn't bad, and I'm willing to see how things turn out in the second volume.

As far as extras go, there's not much, just a few author sidebars. All the author really does is explain why the order of the chapters in the graphic novel isn't like the order of the chapters as they were originally published (serialized in a magazine).

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion (anime TV series) - In this alternate history (?), the Empire of Britannia has invaded Japan. Japan is now referred to as Area 11, and its people are 11's. Lelouch appears to be an ordinary, if extremely intelligent, high school student, but in reality he's hiding many secrets. One of those secrets is the power of Geass, which was given to him by a mysterious young girl who was some sort of military secret. Geass allows Lelouch to make anyone obey his orders, and he uses it great deal as he begins living a double life as Zero, the masked leader of a rebellion to combat Britannia's tyranny. Those who'd like something featuring a similar political situation might want to try this - Britannia is similar to Galay, while the Japanese are similar to the Amatans.
  • Daughter of the Blood (book) by Anne Bishop - Among the Blood (magic users) women rule and men serve. Usually, this is a harmonious and balanced system that benefits both sexes, but there are those who have perverted this system so that men are enslaved and young girls who might grow up strong are broken. If she can manage to grow up, Jaenelle could heal the rot in Blood society. Her family thinks she's unstable, and growing up and growing strong won't be easy, but she has some powerful allies on her side: Saetan, the High Lord of Hell (and, confusingly for some readers, a good guy) and Daemon, a dangerous (and sexy) man who's been waiting for someone like Jaenelle to come along for much of his long life. This series is not for the faint of heart (there's abuse, torture, rape and more). However, it still manages to be a bit lighter, at times, than Blank Slate. Those who don't mind that might want to try this. Daemon reminds me a little of Zen - both men are dangerous, sexy, and don't want others to control them.
  • The Bourne Identity (live action movie) - A mysterious injured man with no memory is picked up by a fishing boat. Soon, this man, Jason, is on the run from assassins, using whatever clues he can find to piece together his own past. Those who'd like something else featuring a mysterious and skilled killer with no memory might want to try this.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Scary lightning

I had planned on finishing up today's post over the next hour or so, but we've got quite a storm going on right now - all that lightning worries me. I'll try to have my post up sometime tomorrow. It'll probably be something about the first volume of Blank Slate, but it might be a post about the second season of Emma: A Victorian Romance. Both posts are equally finished, so who knows. On the plus side, putting this off a little longer gives me more time to get over my massive headache - I've had a new pair of glasses for the past few days, and the most recent frame adjustment was a horrible step in the wrong direction.
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