Friday, October 30, 2009

Betrayed (book) by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

[This series recently became a great discussion topic at the library I work at, when area newspapers revealed that the entire series has been banned at a local middle school library. Same goes for Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series, which, if it weren't already on my TBR list, would now be added. Wholesale book banning always makes me curious.]

This is the second book in the House of Night series, and I was less than enthused. My problem is that, even though this is only the second book, the series seems to rapidly be going the way of the Anita Blake series and so many others - the heroine, Zoey Redbird, is suddenly finding herself with a surplus of men (males, boys, whatever) and a complete inability to decide between them. Of course, she wants to have her cake and eat it too. Probably my only consolation will be that this series is intended for young adults and will therefore (hopefully) not descend to the realm of frequent and graphic sex scenes loosely held together by story (I'm looking at you, LKH). It's not that I don't like sexy male characters. I do. It's just that I have problems being ok with heroines who won't choose between them. Plus, it feels a bit like laziness on the author's part, since the author is getting out of having to choose as well.

I haven't given up on the series, but I'm wary. Here's hoping that Zoey's Loren/Erik/Heath thing won't get even more annoying (or, worse, become Loren/Erik/Heath/etc.) in the next book.

Synopsis:

Zoey is now leader of the Dark Daughters and wants badly not to blow it. She knows that the Dark Daughters need to be overhauled - membership has to be based on behavior, not popularity.

Even as she tries to think up ideas for the new incarnation of the Dark Daughters, she has to deal with the horrible awkwardness of parent visitation. Her parents show up and are horrible, but at least her grandma is there too. Zoey also discovers, via some mostly accidental eavesdropping, that Aphrodite's parents are fairly awful as well. Aphrodite's father is the mayor of Tulsa. Aphrodite had been keeping her visions to herself, not because she hated humans, as Zoey had previously believed, but because her parents told her to keep them to herself. Her parents believe that Aphrodite's visions are her key to gaining power. They are coldly disappointed with her for losing her position as leader of the Dark Daughters and tell her that she needs to somehow get Zoey out of the way so that she can get her old position back.

This gives Zoey a lot to mull over - Aphrodite may not be quite so bad after all. While Zoey is in the library researching ways she might change the Dark Daughters, she has a...moment with Loren Blake, the Vampyre Poet Laureate. Loren is in his early 20s (maybe 21? I can't remember...), good with words (he's a poet, after all), and very sexy. Zoey's teenage heart races with excitement while she's around him, although she figures that anything she thinks happened between the two of them was really all just in her head. Still, it's nice to imagine, even if she's already got a boyfriend. Well, almost-boyfriend. At this point, she still refuses to think of Erik as her boyfriend, since they haven't gone on an actual date yet. Plus, if she doesn't think of him as her boyfriend, then flirting with Loren (and maybe more) doesn't count as cheating, does it?

Later, Zoey overhears Neferet angrily accusing Aphrodite of lying about her visions. It frightens Zoey, because she's never heard Neferet speak that way to anyone, and Aphrodite is clearly broken up by Neferet's accusation.

Going outside to think, Zoey runs into Loren and has yet another moment with him. It seems like he might be interested in her, and it's obvious that, if he hadn't turned politely away in the end, she would happily have thrown herself at him, Erik or no Erik. Frustrated by the encounter, Zoey heads back to her room, only to see a news report that a football player she knew when she was human has gone missing.

Zoey begins finding haiku poetry that she assumes Loren wrote for her, and again her heart flutters. She tells Stevie Rae, her best friend and roommate, about Loren, and Stevie Rae actually suggests that Zoey might want to try sneaking around and seeing Loren while she is also seeing Erik - after all, she's special in so many other ways that maybe the usual rules don't apply to her. However, Zoey just wants to be normal. She doesn't know what to do about her guy situation.

Later on, Zoey comes across Aphrodite, who is having a vision. The vision turns out to be about Zoey's Grandma Redbird, who, if something isn't done, will be killed when the bridge she will be driving across is damaged. Aphrodite agrees to give Zoey further details about the vision in exchange for Zoey owing her in the future. Zoey readily agrees. Knowing she can't just tell Neferet about the vision, since Neferet no longer believes Aphrodite, she goes to her friends. Together, they concoct a plan to close the bridge by calling in a bomb threat.

Some cops show up at the House of Night, wanting to ask Zoey some questions about the missing football players (or maybe player - I can't remember how many are missing at this point in the book). One of them has now been found dead, apparently killed by a vampyre. Found near his body was a necklace bearing the symbol of the leader of the Dark Daughters. This news shocks Zoey, but her own necklace isn't missing. Neferet defends Zoey against the cops and, when they ask about Loren, lies about where Loren was - Zoey knows it was a lie, because she and Loren were flirting together during the time in question.

Even though it's against the rules (fledglings can only leave the House of Night with the knowledge, permission, and accompaniment of an adult vampyre), Zoey leaves the House of Night on her own. It's almost time to call in the bomb threat. She runs into Heath, who, for the first time in a long time, isn't under the influence of either alcohol or drugs. He says he went completely clean for her, because he wants the two of them to be together again. He doesn't quite seem to grasp that Zoey becoming a vampyre will make the life he imagines for the two of them impossible. However, he and Zoey are Imprinted, so logic and sanity are in short supply during their interactions. Zoey isn't supposed to meet with him or even talk to him at all. Soon, though, he's in her car, where he cuts himself on purpose. Zoey hasn't yet learned to control her bloodlust, so she finds his blood impossible to resist. She licks his blood up, and for her and Heath the experience is like a really hot and heavy make out session. Luckily, they're interrupted, but now Zoey is back to texting Heath and agreeing to meet him again, even though she shouldn't be doing either. Despite all of this, Zoey does manage to remember to call in the bomb threat. The bridge is closed, and a news report reveals that the accident Aphrodite saw in her vision would indeed have occurred if Zoey hadn't acted.

A new student arrives at the House of Night, a guy who has chosen the name Jack Twist. He's not a major character in this book, but he's Erik's new roommate, and it soon becomes clear that he's gay and that he and Damien are probably going to become a couple.

Zoey finishes the preparations for her first ritual as the leader of the Dark Daughters. Just before the ritual, Neferet announces the changes Zoey made to the Dark Daughters, but she acts as though these changes were all her own idea. Zoey feels upset and betrayed, but she manages to keep her cool. Erik is now back (he'd been taking part in the final round of the fledgling international Shakespearean monologue contest), and, for the first time, Zoey is in the same room with Loren and Erik at the same time. She feels like she's having yet another moment with Loren and even flirts with him in full view of all the other fledglings, including Erik, but no one notices what she's doing and Loren doesn't seem to respond to her with any kind of interest. Zoey wonders whether her "moments" with Loren were really all in her head. She proceeds with the ritual, discovering that each of her friends have an affinity with the elements she has assigned to them. This is fantastic news, and everyone is ecstatic. The ritual is a great success, but, unfortunately, Stevie Rae dies right afterwards, her body unable to deal with the Change. She had been coughing for a while before the ritual, but no one had noticed or thought anything of it until it was too late (although everyone worried about Zoey's stress-induced stomach aches earlier in the book).

Neferet offers Zoey something to calm her and help her deal with her friend's death better, but, on Aphrodite's advice, she doesn't take it. Heath gets kidnapped right outside the House of Night, and Zoey uses the bond between them to track him down. It turns out he's been captured by the "ghosts" - fledglings who supposedly died after their bodies rejected the Change. Among them is Stevie Rae, who now barely retains any of her former self. Heath is terrified, because, unlike when Zoey feeds off of him, when these fledglings feed off of him it hurts. Zoey manages to get him out, though. She runs into Neferet, who she has realized is somehow in charge of these evil fledglings - she previously saw Neferet allowing one of the evil fledglings to feed off of her (a sight which repulsed Zoey, since there was a sexual quality to it). Neferet tries to make Zoey forget everything she's seen, but Zoey's connection to her friends helps her - their affinities the various elements helps her cleanse herself.

Zoey meets Detective Marx, who has so far been the friendliest of the cops who have spoken to her about the missing football players. She can't tell him hardly anything (nothing about Nefert, the fledglings, etc.), but she tells him that, if anyone else ever goes missing, she can probably help him find them. Detective Marx makes it clear that he'll help her whatever way he can. He has a twin sister who became a vampyre when they were teens. Even though vampyres are encouraged, for various reasons, to break off all ties with their human friends and family, Detective Marx and his sister stayed close, and he's learned a lot about vampyres from her. He warns Zoey, telling her that his sister mentioned that High Priestesses (like Neferet) can mess with a person's memory. I can't remember if this warning comes before or after Zoey has managed to deal with Neferet's attempt to erase her memory of recent events, but this at least indicates that Detective Marx might be keeping his eye on Neferet in the future.

Neferet threatens Zoey, telling her not to tell anyone anything that she's recently found out. Zoey fires back by revealing the new tattoos that the goddess Nix has bestowed upon her. Even though there's not much Zoey can do right now, and not too many people she can talk to about everything, at least Nix is on her side.

Commentary:

I didn't remember, at first, where Erik was supposed to be (he's barely even in this book), but I did think it was odd that he never even crossed Zoey's mind as she drooled over Loren. When Zoey referred to Erik as her almost-boyfriend (or something similar - I don't have the book on hand to check), I groaned, because she had done the exact same thing with Heath in the first book. In my post for that book, I mentioned that this seemed to me to be a way for Zoey to distance herself from Heath, so that she could flirt with Erik with a clear conscience. Now Erik is her almost-boyfriend, allowing her to flirt with Loren with a clear conscience. Things get more complicated when Heath reenters the picture, but that situation is made more acceptable via vampyre lore - Zoey and Heath are Imprinted, so she really can't help wanting to go after him. Even Erik, once Zoey talks to him about Heath, is fairly accepting of the difficulty Zoey has with leaving Heath behind once and for all. Plus, she and Heath have been friends since childhood, adding an extra layer to their bond.

Actually, all those things made me a little more accepting of Zoey's behavior as far as Heath is concerned, too. She really, really should have just left when she realized she'd just run into Heath, but I could accept that she chose to start up a conversation with him because her bond with him made it difficult for her to choose to do otherwise. Also, it was Heath who cut himself. At this stage in her development as a fledgling, Zoey doesn't have the skills to resist readily available human blood, so I could accept that she drank from Heath, even though it was a really stupid thing to do.

What bothered me most was her behavior as far as Loren is concerned. I was ok with her giddiness when she first met him in the library - I'm sure there are tons of teenage girls out there who have nursed fun, giddy crushes on completely unattainably older guys. Zoey gushed over Loren, and it didn't really feel like she was cheating on Erik, because even Zoey didn't expect anything to happen. However, the second time Zoey met Loren, things got a tad more heated. He asked to see the tattoos on her shoulders that she gained at the end of the first book, and Zoey made a sexy show of it. Suddenly, she felt all womanly. Then she became frustrated because Loren went all polite and left her be. Not once did she think of Erik. Oh, wait, at this point in the series Erik is still only her almost-boyfriend, so it's ok. I think it was Stevie Rae who commented, saying something like "what does it take for you to consider someone your boyfriend?", and I completely agree. Apparently, any guy who wishes to have anything resembling an exclusive relationship with Zoey must publicly announce that he is her boyfriend. And then get Zoey to publicly agree to it.

None of that even gets into the other issue with her flirtation with Loren, which is the age difference. Zoey thought about it at first, and it was one of the reasons why she was sure Loren was unattainable - why would a guy in his early twenties want to date a teenage girl? I can't remember Zoey's exact age, but I think she might be sixteen. However, the age difference was rapidly forgotten as Zoey started to feel all womanly around Loren. She flirted with him like a pro, until he ignored her at the ritual and she started to wonder why she thought she had a chance with him. Trying to give Zoey a little credit, I wonder if Loren didn't have something to do with Zoey trying to throw herself at him. I mean, what if he was somehow using vampyre powers to make her lust after him even more? It's a thought, and, if he's doing it on purpose, would make him a sleazeball. It's also possible that he could be doing it accidentally, which would explain why he seemed drawn in by Zoey at first and then made an extra effort to distance himself from her. That has interesting possibilities.

I still can't believe that Stevie Rae, of all people, suggested that Zoey secretly see both Erik and Loren. And saying that it might be ok because Zoey is special in other ways?! You've gotta be kidding me.

Since I've brought up Stevie Rae, I'll say that it really surprised me that she died. Well, "died." I'd read teasers for later books in the series and had seen her name, so I figured she'd be fine in this book, and then she went and died. I wasn't expecting her to become one of the bad guys. I'm looking forward to all that angst and drama that's going to inspire. I also wonder if "Bad Stevie Rae" is going to bring up the fact that no one even noticed her coughing, even though everyone worried over Zoey's stomach aches. If I were Stevie Rae, I'd be a little peeved by that. Then again, Zoey's friends seem remarkably immune to jealousy and envy.

Neferet's transformation into the (current) primary baddie doesn't surprise me. There were hints in the previous book that she wasn't the gentle, kind person she seemed to be. However, the sudden depth of her badness did surprise me. I kind of thought the Casts would slowly work up to it, or at least spend lots of time focusing on Neferet's motivations (which I'm guessing include her father raping her when she was a child). Instead, she was suddenly snarling at Aphrodite, having a nearly sexual bloodgiving session with a fledgling who supposedly died in the previous book, and apparently ordering the kidnapping and killing of lots of football players. No longer is she a nice motherly figure.

There are a few characters I'm really looking forward to seeing more of. Detective Marx could be fascinating - I'd love to hear more about him and his sister. Who knows, maybe his sister will show up in a future book? Also, the Equestrian Studies teacher, whose name I unfortunately can't remember, could be fun. She seems to at least suspect something about Neferet's activities, because she offers herself as someone Zoey can talk to if she ever feels she can't talk to Neferet. At the time, Zoey wonders about that offer, but she didn't know of Neferet's betrayal until later.

Overall, the guy-oriented storylines in this book annoyed me, but there are still quite a few things that intrigued me. Hopefully the Casts won't go too far down the "sex and a surplus of guys" path. I'd like more vampyres and intrigue, with enough romance to spice things up. Notice I used the word "romance" instead of "sex." Romance can include sex, but sex doesn't necessarily mean romance - sometimes authors forget that, or maybe don't care. Especially with books written in the first person, as the House of Night books are, sex scenes tend to feel a bit voyeuristic, or at least they do to me. I'd rather have romance, thank you.

Read-alikes:
  • Vampire Academy (book) by Richelle Mead - This is the first book in a series. Lissa is a mortal vampire princess and Rose is her half-human/half-vampire guardian. After having been on the run, they are forced to return to St. Vladimir's Academy, a private high school for vampires and the half-bloods who protect them. Rose and Lissa must deal with dangerous social politics, as well as the discovery that Lissa seems to have abilities that haven't been found in vampires for generations. Those who'd like another young adult book (and series) featuring main female characters who must deal with danger, intrigue, and complicated relationships might want to try this. Like Betrayed, this book is aimed at an audience mature enough to handle the occasional bit of steamy sex and "language."
  • The Summoning (book) by Kelley Armstrong - After Chloe Saunders suddenly starts seeing ghosts, her father and her aunt have her admitted to Lyle House, a home for troubled teens. All Chloe wants is to convince the adults at Lyle House that she's better and can leave, but it's not long before she starts noticing that there may be something sinister going on. A couple of the other teens at Lyle House are convinced that Chloe really can see ghosts and is, in fact, a necromancer - they may know what they're talking about, since one of them can do magic. Like Zoey, Chloe has to deal with sudden freaky changes to her life, new friends and enemies, people who can't necessarily be trusted, and potential romance (a very tiny part of the book, since Chloe is more concerned with getting to go home that finding herself a guy in the slim pickings of Lyle House).
  • The Initiation (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book in Smith's Secret Circle series, although it is no longer available on its own - the link will take you to the Amazon.com page for a volume combining the first book and half the second book (what were they thinking?!). Cassie isn't thrilled to move from sunny California to gloomy New England, but it isn't long before things get interesting for her. Her new school is practically ruled by a group of gorgeous teens who appear to be feared and/or respected by everyone around them. Cassie gradually discovers that, not only do these teens have special powers, so does she. As she gets involved with the group, she begins to fall for the boyfriend of one of the girls. Those who'd like another paranormal YA series/book involving magic, a school setting, a bit of romance, and lots of drama might want to try this.
  • The Strange Power (book) by L. J. Smith - This is the first book is Smith's Dark Visions series. Kaitlyn Fairchild is a psychic whose drawings predict the future. The only problem is, her drawings usually don't make sense until after whatever they predict has happened. When she finds out about the Zeetes Institute, a place where she can learn to control her abilities, she decides to go, but the institute may have have more sinister intentions than Kaitlyn realizes. Like Zoey, Kaitlyn finds herself dealing with potential romance and darkness and danger just under the nice surface of the Institute. It's not clear who Kaitlyn can trust.
  • Blue Bloods (book) by Melissa De La Cruz - This is the first book in a series. Schuyler is treated like an outcast by the clique of popular, athletic, and beautiful teens made up of Mimi Force, her twin brother, and her best friend. At the age of 15, Schuyler learns that she is a "blue blood," a very special vampire who is descended from a very old line. Unfortunately, lots of blue bloods have been dying, and Schuyler has to find out why before she, too, ends up dead. Those who'd like another story featuring high school-aged main characters, vampires, and a bit of suspense might like this book.
  • Vampire Knight (manga) by Matsuri Hino - Yuki's earliest memory is of being attacked by a vampire and then saved by another, the gorgeous and mysterious Kaname. Ten years later, Yuki, now the adopted daughter of the headmaster of Cross Academy, spends her time blushing over Kaname and protecting the Day Class students (all humans, unaware of the vampires around them) from the Night Class (all vampires). She is aided by Zero, a brooding teenager hiding a dark secret. Those who'd like another romance involving teens, vampires, and lots of hot guys who make the heroine's head spin might like this series. By the way, it has also been made into an anime, which has not yet been made legally available in the US (which, um, hasn't stopped me from seeing the first four episodes - it's a lot of fun).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Finger Lickin' Fifteen (book) by Janet Evanovich

I really think I'm burning out on this series, but at least I didn't feel like the time I spent reading this book was a waste. There were plenty of funny bits, the occasional sexy bit with Ranger (although admittedly there have been better Ranger bits in past books, and certainly better Morelli bits), and the usual cast of quirky character (plus a little extra).

As with the previous book in the series, I feel a little ambivalent about this one. It was a fun read, but I remember reading the earlier books, enjoying the mystery aspects, laughing about the funny stuff until my belly hurt, and eagerly looking forward to the newest developments between Stephanie and Morelli and/or Ranger. Either I'm getting burned out, like I said, or the series is getting a tad stale. I do think this book had a less "recycled" feel than the last one, however.

This synopsis is slightly more general than usual. I don't give away the killers, or even the people behind the Rangeman-related thefts.

Synopsis:

Stephanie, whose gun is more likely to be found in the cookie jar in her apartment than on her person, is an unlikely bounty hunter. However, for the most part she does ok. Her skips are often annoying, quirky, and slippery, but she can usually manage to catch them and take them in with the help of her knowledge of Trenton, N.J. and its residents. And maybe a taser, but only if all else fails.

As usual, Stephanie needs money, and the only way to get it is to actually catch the skips she's been assigned. She thinks she can handle some of them on her own (Lula, of course, tags along), but there are a few in her caseload who might just decide to send her corpse back to the bail bonds office. When Ranger asks her to help him out with a problem of his own, it's like a godsend - while she helps him with his problem, he'll help her catch her more dangerous skips.

So, what problem could possibly prompt the great Ranger to ask Stephanie for help? Well, somebody has been stealing from clients of Rangeman, Ranger's security firm. It looks like someone at Rangeman might be responsible, so now there's no one Ranger can really trust. Ranger brings Stephanie in because she tends to be able to get people to open up. Plus, she's lucky and stumbles across the solutions to mysteries a lot.

Meanwhile, Lula witnesses a celebrity chef getting beheaded, and suddenly she's the repeated target of the killers, who want to get rid of the one and only witness to their crime. Lula's not exactly the most helpful witness, so she decides that the best thing to do is to enter the barbecue contest the chef was going to enter. She figures that someone didn't want him to enter the contest, so she'll have the best chance of finding the killers on the contest grounds. Also, she figures she can win the contest and claim the million dollar prize. Does it phase her at all that she's never barbecued before and thinks that all there is to making barbecue sauce is adding some pepper to ketchup? Of course not, this is Lula we're talking about. When Grandma Mazur agrees to be her assistant and Stephanie gets roped into helping them out, you know it's going to be a disaster.

After a while, Lula seems to forget that the primary goal is to catch the killers - she really wants to win that prize money. It's too bad she has to make Stephanie and her family suffer through the results of her efforts at learning to barbecue. On the plus side, Lula's new cross-dressing fireman boyfriend (Tank is barely even mentioned in the book, so I guess it's over between him and Lula) is willing to help clean up Stephanie's kitchen and teach Lula some barbecuing secrets.

Although Stephanie is willing to help Lula out and even (reluctantly) give her a place to stay after the killers shoot up her (Lula's) door, Stephanie doesn't spend any time helping Lula find the killers. Instead, she helps Ranger and tries to catch her skips. With Ranger's help, she deals with her skips, and with Stephanie's help, Ranger catches the people stealing from his clients. Morelli, by the way, is not happy that Stephanie has been spending so much time around Ranger. However, Morelli and Stephanie are rarely together in this book - Morelli shows up each time after Lula gets attacked, and that's about it until the end of the book. Morelli and Stephanie are fighting. Stephanie says it's because he complained about all the junk (like olives) she lets get into the peanut butter, but I think her real problem is fear of commitment. Her annoyance with Morelli doesn't keep her from being jealous about Joyce Barnhardt, the bane of her existence, spending a lot of time with him.

Anyway, by the end of the book, Ranger's problems are resolved, Morelli and Stephanie have made up, and the chef's killers have been caught.

Commentary:

Despite the danger Lula is in (and she is in danger, even if the killers happen to be mostly inept), Stephenie doesn't really seem to care much. Instead of trying to hunt down the killers in order to keep her friend from being killed, Stephanie goes after her skips and helps Ranger - she tolerates Lula, but mostly she wants Lula out of her immediate space (her apartment, her parents' house). Maybe book after book of scary situations has made her less susceptible to fear. Maybe her emotional reactions aren't as strong when she isn't the target of killers (I could be wrong, but this might be the first book where that's the case). Or maybe she's finally had enough of Lula. I forget which book it was, but I remember one in which all of Stephanie's troubles boiled down to being Lula's fault. Ever since that book, I've had problems liking Lula. She's like a bull in a china shop. Occasionally, her larger than life attitude and behavior will help Stephanie out, but she's as likely to cause as many problems as she solves. If it weren't for the fact that it would've ruined the comedic tone, I might've wondered if Evanovich, too, had started to get tired of Lula and planned to kill her off in this book.

The title of the book seems to indicate that the big mystery is "who killed the celebrity chef," but I kept forgetting who had been killed. Lula got so into barbecuing that even I forgot the real reason why she was entering the contest. Instead, my attention was more on Stephanie and the work she was doing for Ranger. Unfortunately, Ranger's problem wasn't really all that interesting. Yes, the idea that someone could outsmart Ranger is interesting, as is the idea that it might be someone in Rangeman. However, investigating Ranger's problem mostly involved working on a computer and taking a look at the various properties. No one tried to blow Stephanie or Ranger up while they investigated. It was a pretty sedate investigation, with just a bit of emotional tension resulting from possibility that one of Ranger's employees was betraying him.

Several cars got destroyed, and I couldn't help but smile at the bit where Stephanie immediately got a phone call when her GPS was turned off. Her skips provided a bit of excitement, but I can barely even remember most of them - they weren't really the quirky characters that some of her skips in the past have been, although the paintball game was a little surreal and the elderly man who exposed himself (to the not-so-secret delight of several neighborhood women) was worth a bit of a laugh.

Overall, it was an ok book, but it felt a little tired.

Oh, and I should mention that Evanovich doesn't include the recipe for the barbecue sauce Lula's cross-dressing fireman boyfriend gives her. Maybe I'm just too used to all those "food mysteries" my mom reads, but the lack of a recipe was a little disappointing. I likely would have never tried it out, but the secret ingredient (blackberry jelly) intrigued me.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Cowboy Bebop (anime TV series) - Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter with a laid-back attitude, amazing fighting skills, and a dark past. He's partners with Jet Black, a former cop, and, as the series progresses, his group grows to include Faye Valentine (a sexy, tricky gambler who can't really remember her past) and Ed (a weird and cheerful young hacker). A lot of the episodes, especially the earlier ones, are mostly humorous and include a lot of fast, madcap action - those who liked the action and humorous aspects of Finger Lickin' Fifteen might like this series.
  • Dying for Chocolate (book) by Diane Mott Davidson - This is the second book in a series. Goldy Bear, a caterer in Aspen Meadow, Colorado, decides to have a security system installed in her home after she receives renewed threats from her ex-husband. During the installation, she and her son Arch stay with a retired general and his wife, with Goldy working as a live-in cook. Goldy finds herself juggling two romantic relationships, but then one of the men ends up dead. Goldy becomes a suspect and must find out who the real killer is in order to clear her name. Remember how I mentioned "food mysteries" in my commentary? Well, while I know there are plenty of other food mystery writers, Davidson is always the first one that pops into my head when I think of them. Those who'd like another mystery involving food (this one comes with recipes!), a bit of romance, humor, and quirky characters might like this book and the Goldy Bear series in general.
  • Agnes and the Hitman (book) by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer - Food writer and cookbook author Agnes Crandall is rescued during a break-in by a hitman sent by the mob to protect her (the guy who broke in was actually after Agnes's dog, but whatever). Shane, the hitman, turns out to be a basically decent guy who helps Agnes out with her rat of a fiance, the people who keep trying to take her dog, and all the problems that crop up due to the fortune hidden right under Agnes's nose. Those who'd like another mystery with a bit of action, a bit of romance, humor, and quirky characters might like this.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Yet another used bookstore!

I just went to another used bookstore, while on a birthday shopping and exploration trip with my mom. The best part about this one is that it's only 45 minutes away (as opposed to 2 hours). The books are also a tiny bit cheaper than the ones in the stores I went to in the Big City (unless you count their Clearance sections - those books were insanely cheap). Unfortunately, the organization of the books is nearly nil. They're arranged by the first letter of the author's last name, so, for instance, there might be 10 books by Nora Roberts, but they could be all spread out in the "R" shelves. It made me itch to alphabetize. There is no arrangement by genre, but it's mostly just romance anyway, with a smattering of mysteries and thrillers. Oh, and also, the store shelves its books two deep in some areas, so you have to pull books off to see the ones behind them.

Despite all of that, I'm thrilled to have found another source of cheap-o used books. What I really need now is more book shelves...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (graphic novel) by Mark Schultz, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon

When our Acquisitions Librarian asked all librarians and staff to recommend books to buy (we had a lot of money left over and not much time left to spend it all), I got to ask for books by a few authors I read for pleasure, but I resisted giving her any manga titles. There's lots of reasons for that: many manga series are long and therefore costly, manga volumes aren't exactly sturdy, I have no idea if anyone at our university besides me would actually want to read them, etc.

So, why am I writing about manga when what I should be writing about is a graphic novel about genetics and DNA? A while back, I read the Otaku Librarian's post on The Manga Guide to Statistics, and I had a happy thought. I couldn't really justify asking our Acquisitions Librarian to get something like, say, Chobits, but what about educational manga and graphic novels? No Starch Press, which is publishing these The Manga Guide to titles, has finally published The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology, so you can bet I'll be looking into that one soon. And it's cheap! Oh, happy day!

Anyway, until I found out about those books, it had never occurred to me to think in terms of educational stuff. So, I started keeping my eyes peeled for biology-related graphic novels and manga, which is how I stumbled upon The Stuff of Life. I didn't want to ask our Acquisitions Librarian to buy it sight unseen (plus, I wanted her to see it too, so that she could give me a reality check and tell me if I was being too geeky for my own good), so I requested it through ILL. I also wanted to check on some worrisome stuff I had read in customer reviews on Amazon.com about a missing page and a duplicate page. There is indeed one page missing (page 36) and one page duplicated (page 44). I'm not sure what page 36 was supposed to look like, but it looks like it might have just been "DNA from a Human Perspective, Part 1" (page 44 is "DNA from a Human Perspective, Part 2) - while I wish the page weren't missing, it could have been worse.

Synopsis:

His Supreme Highness Floorsh 727, his family (its family?), and various others on his planet are suffering from some unnamed and vaguely-referred-to genetic disorder. Floorsh and his people, the Squinch (Squinches?), are invertebrates that reproduce by sprouting genetically identical buds that eventually develop into separate lifeforms - basically, they clone themselves. This has worked well for quite some time, but it does mean that they evolve slowly, so they'll need to try something new if they want to beat their genetic disorder.

Bloort 183 of the Glargal Royal Science Academy has recently returned from observing lifeforms on the planet Earth. Bloort 183 reports all the things it has learned about genetics and DNA from watching humans, who have done a great deal of research on both subjects. Bloort 183 covers a lot of information. It explains the molecules involved in DNA and RNA, how DNA is replicated, and how proteins are made. It explains how mitosis and meiosis work, how inheritance works (of course, Mendel gets several pages, but a few examples more complex than Mendel's pea plants are also mentioned).

Remember, Bloort 183 did all of this research in order to come up with ideas for ways its people can deal with their genetic disorder, so Bloort 183 also talks about ways that humans have applied their knowledge of genetics. It talks about pedigrees, genetic counselors, the various modes of inheritance, the Human Genome Project, the Cancer Genome Atlas, mutations, recombinant DNA technology, gene therapy, transgenic crops and animals, and cloning. Bloort 183 also talks about how humans have used what they've learned about DNA and genetics to uncover information about their past (humankind's origins, etc.). I probably missed a few topics in my list, but this gives you an idea of the huge variety of subjects covered in this 142-page graphic novel.

Anyway, Floorsh declares that Squinch scientists will begin researching Squinch genetic history in order to develop therapies that will allow them to beat the genetic disorder. Bloort 183 is at first upset to hear that it is being sent back to Earth to do more observing, but it brightens up at the thought of how interesting its job is.

Commentary:

As you can probably tell, the plot was very basic, little more than excuse for the giant infodump that is the actual story. Still, it's interesting and a little cute. I love Floorsh's expressions of disgust whenever genetic mixing is mentioned - he (or it) thinks the idea of sex and genetic mixing is gross. Not too surprising, since the Squinch have no experience with sexual reproduction.

The info itself seemed pretty good to me (keep in mind that most of the stuff I know about biology I learned in high school and a couple college courses). However, there is a lot of information to cover. At times, the book flies through topics so quickly that I had trouble following along. For that reason, I really appreciated that the author set things up so that Floorsh would occasionally interject and sum up what Bloort 183 just said in an succinct and clear way. It's kind of like the "Summary" sections of textbooks, only a lot more interesting.

The information is presented in a pretty balanced way (if you disagree, please give me an example!). Bloort 183 mentions a lot of controversial topics like cloning, gene therapy, etc., but it doesn't talk about them as though they were 100% good or bad. It advocates caution. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like Floorsh is advocating caution in its final proclamation, so one can only hope that the Squinch take care as they explore their genetic history.

The end of the book has a "suggested reading" list (I considered listing some of those titles in my read-alikes list, but I resisted and persevered) - periodicals, books, and websites. There's also a glossary. I really wish that the glossary were either completely illustrated (for example, all phases of meiosis and mitosis accompanied by illustrations of those phases) or included page numbers pointing to the part of the text that discussed those topics. There is no index, unfortunately. Personally, I think indexes should be required in non-fiction works (or non-fiction-y works, as this one might be called), even short ones.

Overall, this is a nice introduction to genetics and DNA. I wouldn't recommend it as a sole source of information, but it might convince someone who's a bit reluctant about those topics to try them out. I'm hoping our undergrads will like it.

Read-alikes:
  • The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology (manga) by Masaharu Takemura, Sakura, and Becom Co., Ltd. - Rin and Ami have been skipping their molecular biology class all semester, and Professor Moro has had enough. Rin and Ami must now attend summer school on his private island. With Dr. Moro's virtual reality machine, they're able to travel inside the human body and get an interesting look at molecular biology. Those who'd like another educational graphic novel covering biology topics might want to try this. It sounds like it might be even quirkier than The Stuff of Life.
  • The Cartoon Guide to Genetics (graphic novel) by Larry Gonick and Mark Wheelis - Those who'd like to try another fun and interesting take on some of the same topics covered in The Stuff of Life might want to try this. I've only seen a few sample pages, but it looks like calling this a graphic novel might be a bit of a stretch - it seems to be composed of short and not necessarily related cartoons - so, unlike The Stuff of Life, no plot. Still, the short comics look amusing and may appeal to those who liked the humor in The Stuff of Life.
  • Genetics for Dummies (non-fiction book) by Tara Rodden Robinson - Those who liked that The Stuff of Life is less intimidating than textbooks on similar topics but would like more information might want to try this.

Monday, October 12, 2009

OD'ing on my used bookstore haul

I went to three used bookstores this past weekend. It was great. I spent way too much money (especially when you consider that my mom is visiting soon and I'm going to a conference), but the shiny hasn't yet worn off enough for me to care. Overall, I paid about a quarter of what it all would have cost brand new. I got a few managa volumes for as much as 50% off. I got other manga volumes for as much as 85% off. I got a few things I had only vaguely wanted, and I got a few other things I'd been wanting to read for a few years. I have almost completed my collection of Fruits Basket volumes (I'm only missing volume 2, right now - not bad). I got stuff I probably never would have bought otherwise, because it was so monumentally cheap. I got some stuff for giggles and some stuff because I knew I'd never get around to reading it if I didn't break down and buy a copy.

All in all, I ended up with 14 books and 16 volumes of manga. My first night with all of them, I almost passed out from sleep deprivation. I was so into reading my way through them that I lost track of time and stayed up so late it almost wasn't worth it to go to bed. Luckily, it wasn't a work night.

Hmm, happy. Now if only I can make myself write about them all...

Friday, October 9, 2009

9 (CGI animated movie)

I saw this over a week ago and didn't finish my entry for it until today, so I may be a bit fuzzy on some of the details - I'll try my best. I stumbled upon a preview of this movie on someone's blog a while back and was looking forward to it ever since then. I wasn't entirely sure it would make it to my town's movie theater, but it did.

There is still a general perception in the U.S. that "animation" means "perfect for all the kiddos." That seemed to be the assumption of many parents during the showtime I attended, just based on the number of small children in the theater. There's no blood in the movie, and most deaths happen nearly off screen (as a guy falls and dies, his arm will pass into view, but you'll see nothing else). The only on screen deaths are those of several of the little dolls that are the movie's focus (and I'm not even sure those were completely on screen - that's one bit where my memory isn't much help). There's also one character who engages in something almost like drug use (he's one of the little dolls and uses a magnet to pleasantly fuzz his brain for a bit).

If there are any parents who were blindsided by this movie (what do they think the word "post-apocalyptic" means, anyway?), the things I just mentioned are probably the things they will focus on when they work up a good mad over this movie. The thing that really struck me, though, was the ending. I'm not going to give any spoilers right now (for that, you'll have to read the synopsis), but the film ends in a way that I think is supposed to feel happy (hopeful?). For any kids in the audience, maybe it does feel happy. For any older viewers who take a second to think things through, though, it's anything but.

Synopsis:

(Check this out for some great 9 movie posters that serve the added purpose of helping the confused remember who's who.)

Something terrible has happened that has killed every living thing in the world. With the last of his strength, an old man creates a little doll with the number 9 written on the back of it and gives it life. When 9 awakens, it is to an empty, ruined world. His creator lies dead on the floor and 9, who can't yet speak, is soundlessly horrified. He leaves, not noticing the papers on the floor detailing his creation. He takes with him the small, strange object that was with him when he woke.

The empty world, with its occasional glimpse of corpses, frightens 9, but he manages to find a friend. His new friend, 2, is like him, a tiny doll with a number on its back. 2 is a kindly inventor and helps give 9 the ability to speak. He is astonished and excited by the object 9 carries with him, but before he can speak to 9 about it, a beast with an animal skull for a head comes and takes 2 and the object away. 9, who is now damaged, walks until he collapses and is picked up and taken care of by 5, a one-eyed doll.

5 is something of a healer, but he is easily cowed by 1, the dolls' self-appointed leader. 1 is guarded by 8, a great hulking brute of a doll who wields a knife (he's the magnet-user I mentioned) - 1 (according to himself) knows best, because it was he who helped all the numbered dolls find safety while war was still raging. 1 writes 2 off, despite 9's assurances that he was alive when he was taken. 1 waited until poison killed off all humans and other lifeforms, and now 1 wants to wait until the beast, too, is gone. 9 decides to go after 2 on his own, and 5, despite his fear of 1 and 8, goes with him, because 2 is his friend.

9 and 5 do manage to find 2 and receive help defeating the beast from an unexpected source - 7, the only female doll (voice-wise, at least), a fearless warrior 5 had thought dead. Unfortunately, 9's curiosity gets the better of him, and he places the strange object he woke up with on something with matching symbols, without considering the potential ramifications of his actions. 2 pushes him out of the way and his life force/soul is sucked out of his body in moments. This then awakens a giant, terrible machine. 7, 9, and 5 barely manage to escape, and 7 takes them someplace where they might be able to find out what happened and what they can do to stop it. They meet with two more dolls 5 thought had died, 3 and 4, shy, silent twins who piece together and catalog whatever they can find about their ruined world's history and teach others whatever needs to be known. The twins recognize the machine - it's the same machine that killed everything. As for the symbols, 5 recognizes them as symbols that 6, a wild artist with visions, paints over and over again.

Although seeing 6 and his paintings would involve going back to 1, 9 is sure that this is necessary. He and 5 go and are caught by 1 and 8, but suddenly everyone finds themselves in danger when a bird-like machine enters 1's sanctuary and attacks. Fortunately, everyone is saved, but there is friction among the dolls. 1 still believes he knows what's best, 7 doesn't like him very much, etc. 3 and 4 have discovered that the symbols on 9's mysterious object were part of some sort of soul transference technology (magic?).

Meanwhile, 8 is busy standing guard. And using a magnet on his head. Anyway, the big scary machine has created a new little scary machine using, among other things, 2's body. This new little machine, which is a bit like a freaky, horror-movie cobra, hypnotizes its prey and then captures it inside its own body. It captures 8 and, if I remember right, 7. 1 doesn't think they should go after them, but 9 decides they should. He offers to go in and save them while 5 waits outside to blow the whole building up if he isn't able to make it out in a reasonable amount of time. 9 watches in horror as the machine "eats" 8's soul, although he manages to save 7 in time. 5 blows the building up, and there is much celebration.

Unfortunately, they all celebrated too soon. The big machine is still functional, and it eats 5's soul. 1 and 7 want to destroy the machine, but 6 says no, that everyone that was taken is trapped inside the machine. Then 6's soul is taken.

9 runs off on his own, back to the "source" - the place where he woke up. It is here that he finds the message his creator left him. His creator was also the creator of the machine, but the machine, which only contained its creator's intellect and not his soul, turned upon humanity and destroyed everything. So that life of some kind could continue to exist, the machine's creator made the dolls and gave each doll a facet of his own soul. The mysterious object he left with 9, the last of the dolls, has the power to destroy the machine.

9, armed with this new information, rushes back. 7, 3, 4, and 1 are trying to destroy the machine, but 9 assures them that he can destroy it and free those who were taken using the object. 9 wants to lure the machine while someone else presses the object's symbols in the right sequence, but, at the last moment, 1 takes his place. 1's soul is taken, and 9 presses the symbols. The machine is destroyed and the souls are stored in the object. Later, at a kind of funeral service for the dolls, the souls are freed. They say goodbye and go wherever it is that soul fragments go.

In the end, 9, 7, 3, and 4 are left. The machine is gone, and the world is theirs to live in now. Of course, there doesn't seem to be much world left to live in.

Commentary:

I wasn't aware, until a student worker at my library told me, that this movie is based on a short film. One place to watch the short film is here. Some of its elements, like the strange glowing object, the light bulb staff, and the final grave and ghost scene, can also be found in the movie, but other than that a lot was changed and added to when the longer movie was made. For instance, it looks like 9 is the only one left in the short film - everyone else had their soul sucked out by the creature and their skins incorporated into the creature (you can see their numbers on the creature's back).

The main reason I was looking forward to this movie was the animation. The way human skin is rendered still doesn't look quite right (although it's still much better than some CG films I've seen), but humans appear so rarely in the movie that this really doesn't become a huge issue. Most of the things that do appear in the movie involve textures that are rendered very nicely. This is a nitpick, but the only thing that bothered me a little was something about the way the cloth on the dolls' faces moved. It seemed to stretch in ways that didn't quite look natural to me. Still, for the most part everything looked really good.

It impressed me, how easy it was to tell each of the little numbered dolls apart. They all had very distinct personalities, and I liked the character designs (8 reminded me a little of a character in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, though). I liked the designs of the little machines, too, especially the cobra-like one. That one would be enough to give some people nightmares. Its abilities reminded me a little too much of the Grand Fisher in Bleach (another baddie that used the dead as lures), but otherwise it was a terrific bit of horror. The big machine was, in my opinion, the most ho hum of all the characters in the movie. I think it was ripped straight from the Matrix movies - its design (red glowing eye, octopus "legs", blue crackly effects, etc.), its menace, its ability to create more machines all on its own. That was a general problem, I suppose - even as I admired certain character designs, I kept getting reminded of other shows and movies. 7, for instance, made me think of the Minotaur in Tekkonkinkreet whenever she wore that bird skull and brandished her weapon.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie's visuals and the weirdness of the characters. I liked the gradual uncovering of the story behind the dolls' creation. The strange mix of technology and magic didn't bother me too much (who knows, that soul transference stuff might have been a very advanced kind of technology). I think the thing that bothered me the most about the movie was its very bleak ending.

The tone of the ending doesn't seem bleak, and maybe the movie's creators want people to come away with a hopeful feeling. I mean, the Big Bad is dead. That's great. But still. As far as we know, the only living things left (unless there's life on other continents that has survived poison gas being pumped into the air) are four little dolls. They can't create more little dolls, because they'd need more souls in order to do that. They can't reproduce, because they're just dolls. (Was it just me, or was there a hint of shy romance between 9 and 7? And, since they're facets of the same soul, wouldn't that be a little weird?)

So we're left with a dead world and four little dolls. I had a hard time figuring out the timeline of everything (it didn't look like the old man had died too long ago, and yet some of the ruins and dead appeared to be a lot older - also, 1 talked like the poison had been pumped into the air years ago). Maybe the hope is supposed to come in the form of life coming back to the planet eventually? Just looking at all the devastation, it doesn't seem very likely, but that all the hope I can see.

Some people might not mind such a bleak ending. I'm more of a "happy ending" kind of girl. I know, I know, I probably shouldn't have gone to see a movie set in a post-apocalyptic world, then, but, you never know, sometimes even films (or books) like that manage to end on mostly happy note. I just didn't really feel like that was the case with this one. I'm glad I saw the movie, but I needed a good dose of happy afterward.

This list of watch-alikes and read-alikes could be better - I had a tough time thinking of things to list that weren't all created by Tim Burton.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • I Am Legend (book) by Richard Matheson - A terrible plague of some kind has turned almost all of humanity (and many animals) into blood-thirsty creatures of the night. Robert Neville, who is immune to the disease, appears to be the only remaining uninfected human, although he is hopeful that there are others like him out there and that he can find a cure for the disease. Like 9, this is set in a post-apocalyptic world, but it's bleaker than 9 (at least the dolls have other dolls they can talk to). This book has been made into a movie featuring Will Smith - the movie is, not unexpectedly, pretty different from the book, although it keeps the basic premise. Personally, I enjoyed the book more.
  • The Matrix (live action movie) - A hacker finds out that the "real" world is only a construct designed to keep people docile, so that they can be used as living batteries by robots - this hacker discovers that he is the only one who can free humanity from these robots and the constructed world. Those who like 9's "machines turning against humanity" theme might like this movie.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas (stop motion movie) - Jack Skellington of Halloween Town is bored of frightening people. When he discovers Christmas Town, he becomes obsessed with Christmas and eventually tries to take over Santa's role. Most of Halloween Town gets involved, but they all have a twisted idea of what Christmas is like. It's a recipe for disaster, and only Sally, a rag doll woman who is secretly in love with Jack, seems to realize this. Can she free Santa and stop Jack before Christmas is ruined? Those who liked some of the creepy visuals in 9 might like this movie.
  • The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy: and Other Stories (book) by Tim Burton - This book features several macabre stories about boys and girls who are a little...strange. They try their best to fit in with the rest of the world, even though they look odd or aren't quite human, etc., but things never seem to go well for them. It's humorous, but in a dark and twisted way. Those who liked the aesthetics and strangeness of 9 might like this book.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Short films into movies

I had no idea so many of the movies coming out recently were based on short films. You'll be seeing my post for 9 soon - I found out after I watched the movie that it was based on a short film. A link to that film will be available in the post. District 9, too, was based on a short film, which you can view here. I thought I had already written a post about that one, but I guess not.

Might as well get on the disclosure bandwagon

I'm sure other book bloggers have seen this or something like it - I'm not actually sure if the FTC's revised Guide has any effect on me. If it does, I'm not sure what that effect is. I tried wading through the PDF, but it made my eyes glaze over.

I don't make any money off of what I write - heck, I don't even use AdSense. I frequently link to Amazon.com (every book suggestion links to Amazon, every manga and anime suggestion links to Anime News Network, and every movie suggestion links to IMDb), but, if you click on those links and buy the books, I make no money from that. I don't care if you buy from Amazon or not - you could buy the books from somewhere else or, better yet, get them from the library. I have a few advance reading copies (ARCs) in my collection, but I think I've only written a post about one of those so far (Any Given Doomsday by Lori Handeland - my post now clearly states that the book was an ARC). Most of what I review I have either bought, paid to see (in the case of the movies I saw in the theater, for instance), or checked out from the library. I only have ARCs because I won them through contests (writerspace.com is great for that) or because I responded to a general email promotion (Shelfari gave away lots of Any Given Doomsday ARCs, just for replying to an email they sent out - I figured they were lying and was surprised when I actually got a book in the mail). How I get access to a book, anime, manga, or movie has no effect on what I write about it.

I think that about covers it. I'm such a parenthesis junkie. And, p.s., I hate it when I screw up post titles. ::sigh::

I think my inner teenage girl is a masochist...

...or maybe just insane.

It's a bit embarrassing to admit this, but I just got hooked on a show called Shugo Chara! - in just a few short years, I will be 30, and yet my viewing tastes still resemble those of a teenage girl. Gah. The "masochist" comment comes from the realization that, if you count both the original show and the sequels, I can look forward to more than 100 episodes. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but, if I get too hooked, I'll end up watching multiple episodes a day and damaging my brain. Since my inner teenage girl and I must share that brain, it's a little annoying. I got over my addiction to Naruto and Bleach, and now there's this. Bad inner teenage girl, bad!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Odd We Trust (OEL manga) by Queenie Chan and Dean Koontz, illustrations by Queenie Chan

I have this devious little plan to slowly get more graphic novels and manga into the library I work at, in the form of educational titles. In Odd We Trust wasn't something I requested as part of that plan - I'm guessing a Koontz fan asked for it after seeing his name plastered on the cover. I haven't been impressed with the various manga-fied books that have come out as publishers have tried to milk the manga cash cow. This one was no exception.

In Odd We Trust isn't all that exciting. I've read several other Odd Thomas books and, for the most part, enjoyed them. Had I not read any of those books before, this one would not have prompted me to do so. I love the character Odd Thomas, but, in this Original English Language (OEL) manga (or whatever you want to call it), he seems to be lacking the qualities that make him enjoyable. Plus, I'm not terribly impressed with Queenie Chan's artwork. It's possible that part of the problem is due to trying to depict someone else's characters, but I don't really feel compelled to try Chan's The Dreaming to find out. However, samples of her artwork and more can be found here.

Synopsis:

This book takes place before the events of Koontz's Odd Thomas. Odd Thomas, a young fry cook who can see ghosts, sees the ghost of a young boy and later finds out via a newspaper and the chief of police that the boy was killed during the half hour he was home alone waiting for the housekeeper to arrive. The only lead so far is a note, left at the crime scene, composed of letters cut out from magazines and newspapers.

Odd is shocked to learn that the housekeeper is Sherry Sheldon, who grew up in an orphanage with Stormy Llewellyn. Odd doesn't know Sherry well, but he and Stormy are dating, so this still hits close to home. When Odd and Chief Porter arrive at the crime scene, they find out from Sherry that the creepy letter was meant for her and that she was probably the one who was supposed to have been killed. Two months ago, she started getting similar letters. She reported them to the police, but, because they contained no explicit threats, nothing was done about them.

Now that one child is dead, Sherry is worried about another. The other family she works for has a little girl named Angelica. Chief Porter assigns a lookout on Angelica's house, but not Sherry's - the police are a little short-staffed right now because of a parade that's coming up. That's apparently not a problem, though, because Stormy has a gun and plans on protecting Sherry if the police can't or won't. As Odd looks over some of the letters Sherry saved, he somehow decides that the killer will strike again, sometime within the next four days. Don't ask me how he knows this, he just does. Maybe it's magic.

Anyway, Odd hopes that the ghost of the little boy can help him somehow. For some reason, the ghosts Odd sees are never able to talk, but they can usually still manage to make their wishes known to him. It helps that, to Odd, the dead are as solid as the living. He tries to communicate with Joey, the little boy, but, unfortunately, Joey's shy and keeps running away. It isn't until Joey finds out that he can't talk to Sherry, no matter how much he wants to, that he decides to trust Odd, the one person who can see him.

Joey spots the killer, and Odd runs after the man but loses sight of him. He later finds out from Chief Porter that the killer has sent notes like the ones left with Joey and Sherry to several households with young children. Chief Porter thinks the killer has done this to divert attention from his real target, maybe even a child at a household that hasn't received a note, but Stormy is convinced that the real target is still Angelica.

With the parade happening soon, police resources are spread thin. Angelica's house only gets one officer, so Odd and Stormy decide to stay over with Angelica and Sherry. While Odd bonds with the somewhat annoying Angelica, Sherry and Stormy talk a little about Stormy's past. Although Stormy loves Odd, terrible things happened to her as a child that she still hasn't quite gotten over. (There's more detail on this in the book Odd Thomas.)

Eventually, the cop watching the house calls Odd out to take a look at a suspicious car across from the house. Inside the car is a mutilated mannequin. As Odd stands there, pondering the possibility that the killer is still nearby, watching everyone's reactions, he spots a suspicious-looking van that the police officer somehow overlooked. Inside the van is a creepy guy who doesn't seem to care that he's been spotted and that Odd has identified him as the guy he was chasing after earlier. Stormy wants to shoot him, but Odd makes her let him go, reporting the van's license plate number to Chief Porter.

Chief Porter calls Odd back - conveniently, the van is registered to a person named Kyle Bernshaw who lives only a short distance from both of the families Sherry works/worked for. Odd and Stormy decide to go break into the guy's house. Stormy acts as a lookout while Odd goes inside. Odd not only finds stacks and stacks of magazines, but also a note from Bernshaw addressed to him - Bernshaw has left behind an aggressive and very hungry dog (I won't say "large" - the dog may be compact, but it's also extremely short). Luckily for Odd, Joey shows up and scares the dog away.

Odd's psychic magnetism (a fairly unreliable power that has helped Odd locate killers - in the manga, it comes off as merely a convenience for Chan and Koontz) kicks in, and he spots Bernshaw driving past. He finds out that Bernshaw has tricked the police into watching his decoy instead of him, and Odd fears the worst for Angelica. When he arrives at her house, he discovers that Angelica is fine but Sherry, now jobless, has left on foot. It finally dawns on Odd that Sherry was the real target all along. Duh.

Odd and Stormy go looking for Sherry. Once again, Odd's psychic magnetism kicks in and they practically stumble over Bernshaw's car, which is parked at an abandoned slaughterhouse. Odd calls Chief Porter, but, worried that he'll arrive too late, Odd and Stormy enter the slaughterhouse. Odd see Sherry tied to a chair and goes to untie her, only to discover that it's Bernshaw in disguise. Stormy shoots Bernshaw in the leg with her gun, and Odd beats him upside the head a few times. Then Odd and Stormy find out that Sherry is locked in Bernshaw's truck. They can't find the key at first, but the ghost of Elvis points out the key's location to Odd, and Sherry is saved.

In prison, Bernshaw threatens to tell the world about Odd's psychic abilities, unless Odd agrees to talk to him in private. Somehow, Odd knows just what to say, and it's not long before Bernshaw is telling him that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality. Bernshaw is convinced that Odd's abilities are the result of a similar deal with the devil, and Odd lets him believe what he wants. As Bernshaw is about to be taken back to his cell, the guard has a heart attack. Bernshaw steals the man's gun, Odd picks up a chair to swing at him, and Bernshaw shoots, only to have the bullet ricochet off the chair and hit him in the throat, killing him.

Comments:

With manga and graphic novels, probably one of the first things people notice is the artwork. One of the first things I noticed about the artwork in this book was that many of the characters looked very awkward and, in some cases, just plain strange. Chan seemed to have the most difficulty drawing older people. Terri and Chief Porter, for instance, both look a bit frightening. In general, the way Chan drew eyes made me think of Invader Zim when he was in his human disguise. That, combined with her weird nose and very prominent cheekbones, made Terri look very odd. Chief Porter wasn't much better, although I suppose you could blame that on the difficulty Chan had getting his "look" right (Chan writes about this a little in the "sketchbook" section at the end of the book). Besides having trouble with older characters, Chan really had trouble with Elvis and Lyndon B. Johnson. Elvis was only recognizable because of his outfit, and I only recognized Lyndon B. Johnson because the text said that's who it was.

I didn't think Odd and Stormy were too bad, although Stormy's design upstaged Odd. The designs of Chan's original characters, Sherry and Bernshaw, bothered me a bit. Maybe I'm just too big of a manga and anime fan, but I thought Bernshaw looked remarkably like a combination of Fullmetal Alchemist's Majhal and Belsio. With Sherry, the thing that really annoyed me was her headband. Chan seemed determined to draw the full curve of that headband, no matter the angle of Sherry's head. Seriously, watch the headband, it defies perspective.

Aside from my problems with the character designs, the story itself isn't all that good. The mystery/suspense aspects play out very simply and predictably. For a little bit, I thought Chan and Koontz might be gearing up for the revelation that Sherry was the real murderer. I thought Bernshaw might be a red herring. He didn't act nervous enough when Odd found him in the van for me to believe that he was really the killer. Also, there was that comment Stormy made about Sherry taking the letters and Joey's murder remarkably well. So, was there an attempt at cleverness on Chan's and Koontz's part? No. It's kind of like M. Night Shyamalan's Signs - you think "it couldn't possibly be that obvious" and then that's what it turns out to be.

The story is really pretty boring. There's slight incorporation of supernatural aspects, but it all feels like surface stuff. Odd can see ghosts, but nothing actually comes of it except during that bit with the dog (after which Joey disappears and isn't brought up again - I guess his only purpose was to look sad and keep the dog from eating Odd). Oh, and Elvis pointing out the location of the key. Bernshaw says he sold his soul to the devil for eternal life, but then he dies, proving that he's just a murderous nutjob who developed an unexplained obessession with a housekeeper. Finally, there's Odd's psychic magnetism, which, in this book, might as well be a code phrase for "convenient plot device." Psychic magnetism might have a habit of popping up during especially convenient moments in Koontz's books, too, but at least in the books some of the drawbacks of psychic magnetism are brought up. In this book, it's, "Can't find [blank]? Psychic magnetism to the rescue!"

Overall, this book just wasn't very good. Like so many OEL manga that get churned out now, it doesn't seem to get the manga visual conventions quite right (Chan is overly fond of sweatdrops, to the point that they're a bit overused). The story itself doesn't assume much intelligence on the part of the reader and ends up just being boring. According to Chan's website, there's a second volume coming out sometime in 2010, but I think I'll just stick to the Odd Thomas novels (which are having their own problems, if the latest one I've read is anything to go by).

Extras:

There's an afterword by Dean Koontz, an excerpt from Odd Thomas, and Chan's planning sketches, along with comments from Chan.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Odd Thomas (book) by Dean Koontz - Odd Thomas is a small town fry cook who seems like a perfectly nice, normal guy. Only a few people know that Odd can see ghosts. Odd can also see creatures he calls bodachs, horrible creatures that seem to gather around anyone and any place that will soon have a link to pain and tragedy. When Odd notices the growing number of bodachs gathering around a stranger who has just come to town, he investigates and discovers things that lead him to believe that the stranger plans on killing lots of people. It's up to Odd to figure out how to stop him in time. Those who'd like to try the series that In Odd We Trust is based on should start with this, the first book.
  • Kindaichi Case Files (manga) by Yozaburo Kanari (story) and Fumiya Sato (art) - The main character of this series is Kindaichi, a crime-solving high school student whose grandfather was a famous detective. As far as I know, each volume is a self-contained story (for the most part). I usually advise starting with the first volume of a series, but, if that's not possible, find a volume with a mystery that sounds good, and you should be fine. Those who'd like another mystery manga with a crime-solving teenager might want to try this.
  • Case Closed (anime TV series); Case Closed (manga) by Gosho Aoyama - High school detective Kudo Shinichi is well-known in Japan as a genius crime-solver. Unfortunately, after he is drugged by two mysterious men in black, he wakes up to discover that his body is now that of a child. Shinichi hides his identity as he tries to find clues about the men in black through the clients and cases of a pathetic, second-class detective. Those who'd like another story involving a boy crime-solver might enjoy this title.
  • Bleach (anime TV series); Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo - Ichigo Kurosaki has been able to see ghosts for as long as he can remember, but it's not until he meets Rukia, a Soul Reaper, that his life really gets strange (not to mention dangerous). When a battle with a Hollow goes badly, Rukia tries to lend Ichigo some of her Soul Reaper powers but ends up accidentally giving him everything. Now a full-fledged Soul Reaper, Ichigo battles Hollows with Rukia's help and guidance and gradually becomes even more powerful. Those who liked the idea of a teenage boy who can see ghosts but want more action might want to try this.
  • Descendants of Darkness (manga) by Yoko Matsushita; Descendants of Darkness (anime TV series) - Even after death, there's paperwork to do and criminals to catch. Tsuzuki Asato is a somewhat goofy (yet powerful) shinigami (god of death) whose job involves ensuring that the dead remain properly dead and out of the lives of the living. Tsuzuki gets a new partner, Hisoka, and the cases they investigate keep bringing them up against Muraki, a serial killer. Muraki seems to know an awful lot about Tsuzuki and Hisoka's darkest secrets. Those who'd like another story involving supernatural aspects and (at first, anyway) short, one-shot mysteries might enjoy this title.
  • Tactics (anime TV series) - Kantaro is a folklorist who can see monsters (in the loose sense of the word) that others can't. All his life, he's been determined to find and befriend the demon-eating goblin. One day, he does, but the relationship is a bit bumpier than Kantaro might have hoped. Those who'd like another series composed mostly of one-shot stories and mysteries, mixed with supernatural aspects, might like this anime.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Unexpected beasties

I have three unofficial "pets" (two, if you count the fact that the third one scares me).

The first is a cat. He's been hanging around my apartment building for a few weeks now. He loves being petted and will even follow me to the laundry building. Once the weather starts getting colder, I'll need to call the local animal shelter, since I haven't been able to find a home for him and can't keep him myself without risking being evicted. It feels a bit like betrayal, since the shelter's extremely limited hours make it likely he'll be put to sleep, but I suppose that's better than getting frostbite. I keep hoping someone will steal him away, though.

The second is a gecko. The gecko lives between my dining room window and screen. I have no idea how it manages to find enough to eat, but it's been living there for at least two or three weeks. I say, feed on, gecko!

The third, the one that scares me, is a spider. It's fat and creepy, and I haven't had the courage to kill it. Thankfully, it stays in the corner behind my front door. I thought it was a black widow at first, but the colors are wrong. I've taken a few pictures of it - maybe I can find someone on campus who can identify it for me. I'm hoping it will turn out to be something that isn't harmful to humans and loves nothing more than to sit in its little area and munch on insects. Then I can continue to ignore it and it can continue to ignore me. At this point, just based off of pictures I've looked at online, I think it might be Steatoda triangulosa, but I'm in no way a spider expert, so I could certainly be wrong. I kind of hope that's what it is, though, because what I've read about that spider so far actually sounds pretty nice.

More movie theater fun

I saw two movies this weekend - Surrogates and Zombieland. I enjoyed Surrogates, but then again I also enjoyed I, Robot (the movie, although I enjoyed the book as well - I didn't read the book until after I saw the movie, so it didn't bother me that the two barely shared more than a title). I haven't read Surrogates the graphic novel and don't know anything about it, but the movie feels a lot like I, Robot. You know, nifty new technology, can't do without it, then it turns out there's a dangerous problem. The cop who's looking into things doesn't know what to think or, at times, who to trust. Sprinkle in lots of cool special effects. All of that makes it sound kind of bad, but, aside from the ending, I really did enjoy it.

Zombieland was, as expected, a gorefest. It was the scariest funny movie I've seen in a long time. Shaun of the Dead had some scary moments, but the zombies in that one were laughably slow - Zombieland's zombies are fast. I loved Shaun of the Dead (although I was occasionally frustrated by its pacing), and I enjoyed Zombieland, too. Zombieland, due to its fast-moving zombies, has more action. It's been a while since I've seen Shaun of the Dead, so I might be wrong about this, but I also kind of think Zombieland's humor was darker. I was surprised that things turned out fairly well for everyone (or almost everyone), since it looked pretty bleak near the end.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Judging books by their covers

I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but, come on, who can honestly say they've never done that before? Have you ever read a book just because you liked the cover? Have you even bought a book just because you liked the cover?

I've often checked books out of the library just because, while browsing the shelves, the cover caught my eye. That's how I got started with Mercedes Lackey, a former favorite author of mine who I've since sort of abandoned (although I still reread her older books). I was on a gryphon kick and spotted Black Gryphon while browsing the fiction section at my public library.

It's very rare, however, that I will buy something just because I like the cover. After all, what if I end up not liking the actual book? So I was a little shocked with myself when I bought not one book, but an entire 4-volume series, just because I thought the cover of one of the volumes was amusing and "pretty." I didn't even read reviews of any of the volumes - the closest I came to doing actual research on them was reading the short synopsis on the online product page. Luckily, I ended up enjoying all four volumes, but I could've just as easily found myself cursing the loss of $25.

So, has anyone else been so foolish? (Or do you not actually view this as foolishness?) How did things turn out?

I'm reminded of a paper I read while taking my MLS program's readers' advisory class. It was about a library with either a display or special section for its classics (sorry, I can't remember what the title of the article was, who wrote it, or even where the library was located). The librarians chose to invest a little money in the project and buy newer, prettier copies of the books. Not surprisingly, circulation of their classics went up.
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