Saturday, August 28, 2010

Silent in the Grave (book) by Deanna Raybourn

I checked this book out from my library because I liked the cover. Also, I had vague memories of really liking books published by Mira - or maybe I'm thinking of Luna, a publisher that prompted me to try to figure out how to search my public library's catalog by publisher, well before I'd ever even thought of taking my first cataloging class.

Anyway, this was a pretty quick read for me, despite its 435 page length. I wasn't always sure whether I liked Julia, the main character, or disliked her - for the most part, I think I liked her with a small side of dislike. Mostly, that had to do with my frustration at her bouts of stupidity, which cropped up even though she was an overall clear-headed character. The only thing I could think of was that her well-to-do upbringing left her with patches of shelteredness that presented themselves as flashes of stupidity. Or something like that.

I figured out who the killer was on exactly page 114, but I didn't get the motive quite right - the ending was more of a shocker to me than it maybe should have been. So, I don't know if I'm looking forward to the mystery aspects of any future books, but one thing I know I'm looking forward to is more Nicholas Brisbane. Although, since so many of Julia's "stupid moments" seemed to happen around him, it's a wonder he's still interested in her. Then again, if it's just animal passion...

Synopsis:

Lady Julia Grey is not altogether shocked when Edward, her husband, collapses and dies shortly thereafter. He'd had bouts of sickness since he was a child, and he'd gotten much worse before he finally died. So, she doesn't know what to think when a mysterious man named Nicholas Brisbane claims that Edward was murdered and that he had been hired by Edward to investigate the threatening letters being sent to him. Julia chooses to ignore Nicholas, until, nearly a year after Edward's death, she discovers one of the letters among Edward's things. By this time, the trail has surely gone stone cold, but Julia, now convinced that Edward was murdered, is determined to find his killer, with or without Nicholas Brisbane's help. Brisbane decides to help Julia so as to keep her from mucking up his investigation, however old it happens to be.

Unfortunately, the investigation casts suspicion on Julia's own household. She is convinced that none of her servants could have killed Edward, and she certainly doesn't think Simon, Edward's dying, bedridden cousin (basically staying under Julia's care until he finally dies), had anything to do with Edward's death. Brisbane isn't nearly so trusting, so it seems that the only way to prove that no one in the household was responsible is to look through everyone's things - if no evidence linking anybody to the murder is found, then no one in the household was responsible. The search does turn up a few unexpected things, but Julia still thinks it's all unrelated to Edward's murder and, for a while, that seems to be true. Unfortunately, Julia lets someone who may have real evidence pertaining to Edward's murder walk away, and she and Brisbane (or, actually, Brisbane, with Julia chasing after him) are forced to enter a gypsy camp to get that evidence. That's when Julia is faced with the shocking revelation that Brisbane is actually half gypsy. Of course, because she's fairly accepting and forward-thinking, she doesn't really care and still thinks Brisbane is sexy in a dangerous, not-quite-comfortable sort of way.

For a long while, Julia assumes that her brother Valerius, who wants badly to be a practicing doctor, had dug up a grave several years ago in order to further his medical studies. Since Valerius has come home with his clothes suspiciously bloody several times, Julia isn't sure what to think about him anymore. However, when she finally confronts him, she learns that Valerius has never stooped to grave robbing and that he's been getting more experience by doctoring prostitutes.

Julia's marriage had not been going well. When she wasn't able to conceive, Edward finally stopped sleeping with her. He got to the point where he rarely acknowledged her as more than a fixture in his life. So, it's upsetting, but not really a surprise, when Julia learns that her husband had been visiting a whorehouse. Since Valerius acts as the doctor for the particular place, he agrees to delicately probe for any information the prostitutes there might have about this side of Edward's life Julia knew nothing about. Through Valerius, Julia meets a prostitute Edward used to spend time with (he only ever talked to her, no sex) and learns something shocking - Edward had sex with the male prostitutes there.

Suddenly, lots of things begin to come together. Edward stopped sleeping with Julia, not because of her apparent barrenness, but because his syphilis, which was dormant before they married (and which Julia knew nothing about), entered the contagious stage and he didn't want to infect her. Edward's apparently worsening sickness and rages weren't necessarily due to his childhood illness, but were probably the result of the progression of his syphilis. A young male servant who had been sick throughout the book is discovered to have been Edward's lover and the one who sent him the threatening notes, which he did in the hopes of scaring Edward into being faithful to him and no longer sleeping with male prostitutes at the whorehouse. Because of Edward, he has syphilis.

There is still evidence that Edward was murdered, poisoned by a condom, in fact, but who's the murderer if it wasn't the person sending the threatening notes? That's where the real shocker comes in - Simon, Edward's dying, bedridden cousin, was both Edward's lover and his killer. He killed Edward out of jealousy, because of all of Edward's various infidelities. Simon was also the one who did the grave robbing Julia thought Valerius had been responsible for. Because Julia confronts Simon alone, he almost manages to burn the both of them alive, but Julia survives with the help of a raven stolen from the Tower of London. Brisbane (who, by the way, has visions that are sometimes hideously painful) tries but is unable to save Simon from the fire.

Commentary:

Like I said, I know the exact point when I figured out who the killer was: page 114. I thought I knew the motive, even if I didn't have a clue about the means. During the scene where Simon and Julia kissed, I thought Simon's words and actions indicated that Simon had fallen in love with Julia while she was still married to Edward, that perhaps he'd even loved her from the beginning but hadn't managed to ask her to marry him before Edward beat him to it. I never even guessed that he and Edward had been lovers.

Even though I thought I had the murder pretty much figured out, something that almost never happens to me, I kept on reading because I loved all of the historical details and I wanted to see what would happen next between Julia and Nicholas Brisbane. So far, unfortunately, Brisbane is, at best, the "punishing kiss" sort - the kind of guy who, if this book were more of a romance than a mystery, would have spent all his time passionately in love, or at least in lust, with Julia, angry at himself for allowing those feelings to exist, and angry at her for inciting those feelings in him. Of course, this is expressed by kisses so hard they bruise and even draw blood. Not exactly my cup of tea, so I hope he gets over that in the next book, because I really do want to be able to get all fangirly over him.

Julia has things I hope she can manage to get over, too. For instance, there are her flashes of stupidity. Naivete is one thing - her social class makes it really easy not to realize all the things that are or could be going on with her servants. I don't even necessarily consider her decision to send Magda away to be stupid. At that point, she had no reason to trust Brisbane to handle things in a delicate way, and she thought that she was protecting her brother by sending Magda away (although she really should have asked Magda who did the grave robbing - of course, the story could have ended much more quickly if she had, which put this in the "disgustingly convenient complication" category). What did annoy me was the multiple times Julia made stupid investigation-related suggestions. I shudder to think that this woman had planned to investigate Edward's murder herself.

Raybourn wasn't just sloppy when she had Julia send Magda away without ever asking Magda more specifically who she had planned to kill because of the grave robbing, she was also sloppy at the part where Julia honestly believes that looking through all her servants' things was somehow the only way to prove their innocence. In reality, there was absolutely no conclusive way Julia could have proved that no one in her household was involved in Edward's murder - a lack of evidence found does not automatically equal innocence, especially a year after the crime was committed.  That was only one of the many stupid things that came up during Julia's "investigation," but I think it's the clearest example of how stupid Julia occasionally got.

One thing I really didn't expect when I checked this book out was the huge number of homosexual relationships in it, most of which aren't revealed until nearly the end of the book. It's revealed fairly early on that a relative of Julia's, her sister (if I'm remembering correctly), is a lesbian and currently in a happy relationship. Nearly all of Julia's family is eccentric (apparently, only Julia and one of her brothers escaped the eccentrism that plagues her family), so none of them seem to mind this. Then near the end, Edward turns out the be gay, and apparently he slept with oodles of guys.  I suppose I could have taken Julia's sister as a hint of things to come, but I didn't really think anything of it at the time, except to be a bit amazed at how accepting her family was.  I don't know if this was due to their overall eccentricism, or if they were just happy she had at least been married to a man once (and a horrible man, at that) and didn't mind what she did after that.  Anyway, by the end of the book it felt like you couldn't read about a character without him turning out to be been gay and one of Edward's former lovers.  In terms of actual numbers, it was only really two characters, but, because it was such a shock (to me, anyway), it felt like more. Edward's general promiscuity helped to increase that impression.

Despite my complaints about Julia's stupidity and the sloppiness of the mystery, I did like this book, for the most part. Julia's "voice" managed to be appealing (this book is written in the first person), even when I found her annoying or aggravating. I wasn't sure what to think of Julia at first - when Edward collapsed, she didn't panic, she accused him of joking, and, not long after he died, she got the idea to sell just about everything and go traveling in Italy. I wasn't getting "grieving widow I should feel sympathy for" out of any of this, but I stuck with the book and got hooked. I do plan on hunting down the next book - hopefully, the hints of romance between Julia and Brisbane will become much less angry (on Brisbane's part) and fearful (on Julia's part - she acts a bit like a deer in headlights around him sometimes). Also, while I'm not necessarily asking for a steamy sex scene, it would be nice if any kissing scenes were described in ways that weren't forgettable and made it a bit more clear that kissing actually happened. In this book, the "punishing kiss" I mentioned earlier happened like so:
"...He did not strike me; instead he did something I had never expected. He reached for me. It was some time before he let me go.

When he did, I was breathing far too fast and I tasted blood on my lips."
I hate it when it takes me a second to figure out that a kiss even happened, and I especially hate it when there's all kinds of sexual tension between two characters, and this is the best description the author can come up with of what happens when the tension becomes something more. Seriously, the kiss between Simon and Julia was described in more detail than this, which is just an icky thought when you consider what Simon was probably thinking during the whole thing.
Read-alikes:
  • Second Sight (book) by Amanda Quick - The first book in Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz's Arcane Society series.  This particular one may appeal to those who liked Raybourn's book because of the historical setting (not nearly as full of interesting historical details as Raybourn's book, and probably a bit laughable to those who actually know more about this stuff than I do), the whole "paranormal abilities" aspect, the romance and partnership between the main characters, and the suspense.  Basically, Quick's books in general are heavier on romance and lighter on historical information than Silent in the Grave.
  • And Only to Deceive (book) by Tasha Alexander - Like Silent in the Grave, this is the first in a series.  This late Victorian romantic suspense stars Emily, a young widow who only really begins to understand and even love her husband after his death.  Those who'd like another romantic suspense starring a female amateur sleuth might want to try this.  I'll have to add it to my own TBR mountain: Emily and her husband sound like appealing characters.  Unlike Quick's book, this one does, as far as I can tell, pay better attention to historical details and flavor, another aspect that may appeal to those who liked Raybourn's book.
  • Her Royal Spyness (book) by Rhys Bowen - Another historical mystery with romantic aspects, also part of a series, although the historical time period in this case is the 1930s.  Like Julia, Georgie, the main character of this book, is a bit naive about things, but I don't remember her being quite as obviously foolish.  The potential romantic interest isn't around nearly as much in this book as Brisbane is in Silent in the Grave, but I can at least say that he's much less scary and has the potential to be fun.  I haven't read past this first book, but this is another series I'd like to continue sometime.  It'd probably be a good fit for those who like Raybourn's historical details and her book's mystery aspects but wanted something a bit lighter and with romantic aspects that are less unsettling.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kindred in Death (book) by J.D. Robb

I'm a bit behind on this series, because I no longer buy the books as soon as they come out - even when they come out in paperback, I prefer waiting to see if I can get them used. I got to borrow this particular book from someone - very nifty.

I love the earlier books in this series, when it seemed like each book offered something new in the relationship department, even if the mysteries weren't always stellar (Ceremony in Death is by far my least favorite of the earlier books when it comes to the mystery part). At some point, however, things started to seem a little stale. It's like Robb (or should I call her Roberts?) ran out of new relationship developments for all the core characters - as far as Eve and Roarke go, the only thing I can think of that could happen to and/or between them that hasn't happened before is a pregnancy scare or an actual pregnancy. While I would probably feel a pang of sadness if it were announced that this series was ending, I'm starting to wonder if it's maybe time for that to happen. This is not a formerly beloved series that has become a hideous chore to read, the way Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series has. Instead, this is a beloved series that has gone a bit stale.

Synopsis:

Lieutenant Eve Dallas is enjoying some time off from work with Roarke, her husband, and stressing a bit about being Louise's matron of honor when she gets called to the scene of a homicide. Deena MacMasters, the 16-year-old daughter of Captain Jonah MacMasters, a cop in Illegals, was found in her home after having been brutally raped and murdered. The evidence indicates that she knew her killer, that he was someone she trusted and had been secretly dating. Soon, it also becomes clear that Deena's killer wanted her death to be as painful as possible for her father - so what did he do that led to this kind of horrific, indirect punishment? Dallas theorizes that Deena's death has something to do with one of MacMasters's past cases, probably something where his actions somehow resulted in the death of one of the killer's loved ones.

It takes a good bit of digging, but Dallas and her team find their answers, although unfortunately not before another person is raped and murdered. In one of MacMasters's past cases, he helped put a junkie/prostitute/conwoman behind bars. Prison wasn't kind to her, and a couple years after she got out she ended up brutally raped and murdered. She happened to have a young son who grew up being told by his father that his mother's death wouldn't have happened if prison hadn't broken her - and so Deena and another were killed to punish one of the people the son has been brainwashed into thinking was responsible for his mother's death, and several other people were next in line to be raped and killed. However, Dallas, being crafty and in possession of both a good team and whatever help Roarke and his money can buy, manages to figure out which people are the killer's intended future victims, as well as the order in which he plans to kill them. That turns out to be a good thing, because Plan A, catching the killer at Deena's funeral, fails miserably. Plan B, thoroughly and invisibly protecting his next intended victim and catching him when he prepares to drug her, succeeds.

With a bit of work, Dallas even manages to nail the killer's father, although not nearly as thoroughly as she would like to. The son refuses to believe that his father has been feeding him lies for most of his life - technically, his mother going to prison for as long as she did was his father's fault, because he convinced her not to rat on him for a reduced sentence. His father was also ultimately the one behind his mother's rape and murder, having given her to some gang members who did the deed in order to save his own skin.

Her work accomplished, Dallas does her duty as matron of honor at Louise's wedding. There's lots of girlie stuff, Mavis shows up with her baby, Trina terrorizes Dallas, etc., and things end up going happily for Louise and everyone.

Commentary:

Something about the first murder in this book really got to me, made me feel horror/disgust that was the result of a combination of the age and relative innocence of the victim and the horrible way she died, raped for hours both anally and vaginally (even typing that gives me shudders). Rape seems to me like a boogie man for women, only worse, because the boogie man isn't real and rape is. Even if a woman has no personal experience with rape and knows no one who has been raped, it's inescapable. It's on the news, there are events centered around the lack of safety women feel (I'm thinking of Take Back the Night, in particular), and there are self-defense courses focused primarily on teaching women how to deal with attackers. There's a lot of fear, and, even though that fear is about more than just the possibility of being raped, rape is probably pretty high up on the list of things women might fear happening to them.

Robb has written books before with murder victims who have been raped. I can't remember if the rapes were quite as brutal and drawn-out as Deena's, but the thing about Deena that sticks with me in particular is that the guy who eventually raped her made her like him first. Sometimes Robb likes to write scenes that show the murders from the killer's eyes. I was relieved, at first, that it didn't appear that she was going to do that with Deena's murder, and then Dallas watched a tape of Deena being forced, between rapes, to recite a script the killer had written for her. Believe me, I wish Robb hadn't gone there.

One thing about the investigation that had my jaw dropping was this: in addition to her regular practice of using Roarke as an "expert civilian consultant," she also enlists Jamie Lingstrom (who first appeared in Ceremony in Death, when he earned Roarke's grudging respect by trying to break into Roarke and Dallas's home and actually managing to make it as far as the yard). Jamie is, what, 19 or 20? Yes, he's brilliant and he wants to be a cop, but he's not one yet, he's very young, and he was one of Deena's friends. Despite all of this, not one person has a problem with Dallas letting Jamie in on the investigation, to the point that he even gets to hear the details of what happened to Deena and, if I remember correctly, see crime scene photos. Wouldn't that result in potential legal problems down the line, too? All I can think is that Robb is preparing the reader for future books, in which Jamie will be a much more prominent character capable of injecting fresh new romantic subplots into the series. Either that, or Jamie is going to get a spin-off series. I'm betting on the former.  Even if that's the case, it was a boneheaded thing to do.

For me, one of the big appeals of this series is the relationships between the characters. As with other recent books in this series, there's not a lot of new and interesting stuff going on in terms of relationships. Roarke and Eve's relationship is in a comfortable holding state - that's nice and all, but I want more. I can't wait for the book where she finds out she's pregnant, although I'm sure Robb is saving that for the end of the series. Moving on. Morris sees Dallas's facade crack a little when they talk about Deena, and he figures out that Dallas has probably been raped sometime in the past, although he doesn't let her know that he knows. Dallas does the freak out thing over being matron of honor because she's afraid that her stunted girlie-girl skills and her all-consuming job will cause her to ruin Louise's wedding. Mavis shows up at the wedding with the baby and hands her over the Dallas, who does the freak out thing again.

So, all in all, not much new. I'm at least thankful that Dallas didn't have any of those dreams that magically give her the answers she needs - that's a bit woo-woo, and Dallas isn't that kind of person. I've always felt those dreams are out of character for her. The murder parts of the book had lots of the usual In Death cliches: raped victims that lead Dallas to have flashes to rapes she experienced as a child (flashes that were surprisingly mild, not that I don't appreciate that - I'm not sure there's anything new the flashback dreams can give longtime In Death readers); a surviving relative of one of the victims who tearfully, angrily blames Dallas for not understanding and not doing her best to find the killer, blame that Dallas stoically takes even though she's only pretending to have dropped the ball in order to lure out the killer; the visit to some place in the countryside to talk to people with some connection to the killer, a visit that begins with Dallas suspiciously encountering farm animals and/or wildlife (in this case, frogs, but previous books usually have cows or some other hoofed animal).

While this series is getting more than a bit stale, it's not unpleasant. I fully intend to read the next book - I just don't plan to buy it.  I do wonder, though, when Robb plans on ending this series.  I hope she ends it before it has completely outstayed its welcome - I don't want to get to the point where I hate this series as much as I once loved it.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • If you need a reminder of the "good ole days" of the In Death series (like I sometimes do after reading one of the newer books), try one of the earlier books.  I think Vengeance in Death might have a similar "child warped by the parent" story.
  • Light in Shadow (book) by Jayne Ann Krentz - Romantic suspense, in which the suspense part is much less horrific than anything in Kindred in Death. If you like Robb's writing and want something else with a mix of romance and mystery, Krentz's characters and writing remind me of Robb's books.
  • Ghost in the Shell (anime movie) - Every time I write a post for a J.D. Robb book, I include this as one of the suggestions.  It's based on a manga (which I've tried but didn't like as much - it was a bit too text- and techno-heavy for me).  There are also a couple additional movies (which have newer style animation and sound effects and therefore feel a bit less dated), a TV series, and even a reworking of the original movie (I spotted it at Walmart but didn't buy it - according to the DVD box, the animation was updated a bit).  The series has a more futuristic feel than the In Death world, but it may still appeal to those who'd like something else with a strong female heroine, action, and (particularly in the TV series) a story and characters one can still connect with despite the futuristic setting.
  • Mallory's Oracle (book) by Carol O'Connell - I was stumped about what I should add to this list and tempted to end it after Ghost in the Shell.  Insead, I decided to get a bit creative with my read-alike suggestions, and I pulled this one out of the depths of my brain. I read this, or some other book in the series (this is the first in O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory series), a while back, and I remember being struck by how emotionally shut off the main character seemed.  My impression of the character made it a somewhat disturbing read.  If you long for a time when Dallas was more damaged and less steady, and if you wish she had been more damaged than she ever was, you might like this series.  Now that I've remembered it exists, I may have to try it out again - I remember enjoying it and wanting to root for Mallory, even as it seemed to me like I might be rooting for a future villain. 
  • The Maze (book) by Catherine Coulter - This is the 2nd book in Coulter's FBI series.  I've read a couple of the earlier ones, and it seems safe to say that you could read this series like the In Death series: in theory, you can jump in anywhere you want, and you'll at least be able to fully enjoy the mystery, even if all the nuances of the character relationships may escape you, although you might want to start with the first book and work from there.  In this case, the first book is The Cove, but I'm recommending this particular book because I think it would appeal to those who like the Eve/Roarke duo in the In Death books.  The two agents in this book, Lacey Sherlock and Dillon Savich, eventually end up married (possibly at the end of this book, but maybe later - I can't remember).  So, those who'd like more romantic suspense might want to try this.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Naked (book) by David Sedaris

I have no idea what to call this book - fiction, non-fiction, fiction-y non-fiction? I've seen this book called a memoir, and lots of the chapters do seem to be based on events in Sedaris's life (how many liberties Sedaris took with the truth in order to ramp up the humor, I don't know), but a few of the chapters are just off-the-wall odd.

I'm not including a synopsis in this post - for one thing, I don't think I can remember what happened in each chapter, since I've waited longer than I should have to write this post, and, for another, my synopsis would just be a list of events - I doubt I'd be able to capture the funny, and, most likely, my list would probably leech all the funny out.

Each of Sedaris's books has moments that I like and moments that I don't - I really didn't like the first couple chapters of this one and almost didn't read the rest of the book because of them. Sedaris's description of himself as a child with socially crippling behavioral tics just seemed too unbelievable, or maybe just too terrible for me to find funny. And yet, I mostly enjoyed Sedaris's stories about his time at a nudist colony, his journey with a quadriplegic girl (they pretended to be married so as to take advantage of the kindness of strangers), the mystery of the poop on the washcloths and towels, the dangers of hitchhiking, his crazy Greek grandmother, and more.

I have to be in the right mood to read Sedaris's stuff, because, in the wrong mood, the things he writes about can be more horrific than humorous - plus, Sedaris's mix of humor and seriousness may not go down as easily. For instance, in this book, Sedaris writes a bit about his mother having cancer. Although there's humor there, there's also the sad moments when Sedaris writes about things he wishes he'd done differently. At one point, in the parts about his quadriplegic college roommate (which I can't find right now, so I can't confirm her name), Sedaris notes that, not only was it sometimes like his roommate was invisible to the world, but that he, too, became invisible when he pushed her wheelchair. Of course, Sedaris used this to his advantage by teaching her how to shoplift, but these snippets do prompt one to think about things. I had an interesting conversation with one of my coworkers using this bit of Sedaris's book as a basis.

Other parts of Naked make me amazed that he survived to write the book: his scary hitchhiking experience, the freaky guy he worked with while stripping and refinishing woodwork, the creepy guy at the apple packing plant, etc.

Although Naked had its moments, it's not my favorite of Sedaris's books - that would probably be Me Talk Pretty One Day. I'm not sure I'd recommend this one to anyone but other Sedaris fans.

Read-alikes:
  • Running with Scissors: A Memoir (book) by Augusten Burroughs - I haven't read anything by this author, but his sense of humor and strange (and probably embellished, or at least exaggerated) childhood seems similar to Sedaris's - warped and strange.
  • I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (non-fiction book) by Amy Sedaris - For those who are curious about the kind of insane hilarity other members of David Sedaris's family might be capable of, this book might be a good fit.  It's a humorous guide to entertaining, with a few helpful tips mixed in here and there.  Although I don't remember Amy coming up much in Naked, I know that at least one of David Sedaris's books has a more extended portion featuring her: I seem to remember something about her having feet so calloused that they're hoof-like, as well as something about a fat suit.
  • Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence (book) by Paul Feig - I haven't personally read this one, although it sounds like a great fit for anyone who enjoyed Sedaris's tales of his childhood and his tendency to stretch the truth a bit (one would hope, at least) for comedic effect.  Feig's years in school were apparently horrible, embarrassing, and hilarious to read about.  I think I'll have to put Feig on my TBR list.
  • Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal (book) by Christopher Moore - If you'd like more irreverent humor, this might be a good book to try.  It's the story of Christ, from his childhood to his crucifixion, as told by Biff, Christ's annoying friend. This is the only book on the list that isn't a memoir or non-fiction.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore

I can't emphasize enough how much I loved this book - once I started it, I could barely put it down even to sleep, and once I finished it I read it again. I got this book via ILL, but it's now on my "To Buy" list. It reminded me of all the things I loved about writers like Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley when I was younger.

Synopsis:

In the world of this book, some children, although they are born looking like every other child, eventually become Gracelings, with each of their eyes settling into a different color. Gracelings can be quite useful, but they are feared nonetheless, and Katsa is feared more than most. Her Grace revealed itself when she was barely 8 years old and accidentally killed a cousin of hers whose attention made her uncomfortable. Some might have had her, a girl Graced with killing, put to death, but her uncle, King Randa, thought she might have some sort of future use. It was Katsa's best friend, Prince Raffin, who suggested that she ask Oll, King Randa's spymaster, to teach her how to fight with precision and control. Once her control became such that there was no longer any risk of her accidentally killing someone she did not mean to kill, Randa decided to employ her as his bully, sending her out any time he wished to punish someone he disliked or who did not do as he asked.

By the time Katsa is sixteen, she is known far and wide for what she does on Randa's orders. She grows tired of hurting people who don't deserve it, and she grows tired of seeing what the kings of the neighboring lands do to their people. She feels powerless to do anything out in the open, so she decides to start a secret council that sends out people like her to right wrongs perpetrated by the kings.

It is as a representative of the Council that Katsa travels to King Murgon's dungeons and helps free Prince Tealiff, the elderly father of the Lienid king. She has no idea why anyone would kidnap the man, since there seems to be no possible motive. She kills no one while freeing him, not even the strange Lienid Graced with fighting that she encounters. Later on, she learns that the Lienid is Prince Tealiff's grandson, Prince Greening, called Po. After deciding to trust him and show him that his grandfather is safe, Katsa and Po become good friends - for the first time ever, Katsa has found someone who can mostly hold his own against her in a fight.

Several things come to a head, however. One, Katsa finally refuses to carry out one of Randa's orders. Two, Katsa refuses an offer of marriage. Three, Katsa finds out that Po's Grace is not what she thought it was - he is Graced with knowing what others' thoughts are when they think about him or something to do with him. This, as far as Katsa is concerned, is a great betrayal. She no longer wants to be around Po, but, upon finding out that he plans to leave in order to further investigate his grandfather's kidnapping, she also realizes she doesn't want to not be around him. In the end, the situation with Randa and her refusal of the marriage offer prompts Katsa to leave with Po.

Po gradually convinces Katsa to trust him again, mainly by demonstrating to her the abilities and limits of his Grace. Katsa eventually realizes that she loves Po, something that deeply upsets her because she still has no plans to ever marry. Torn between heartbreak and marriage, which she fears will chain her down and change her in some fundamental way, Katsa doesn't know what to do, but then Po introduces a third option: they can be together without being married. This never even entered Katsa's mind, especially since Po is a prince, but it's the option they end up going with.

Meanwhile, Katsa and Po have come to the conclusion that King Leck of Monsea is the most likely candidate for having arranged Po's grandfather's kidnapping. It seems like an impossible thought, because King Leck is known for being kind to children and animals, but there are aspects of the king's personal history that seem suspicious. Also, Po doesn't believe the story that the Queen of Monsea is so heartbroken by the news of Prince Tealiff's kidnapping that she has locked herself and her daughter in her room - the Queen is a relative of Po's, and he knows she wouldn't behave this way.

The truth turns out to be particularly awful. King Leck has the Grace of making others believe his words, a Grace so powerful that, when people repeat his words to other people, those people believe his words as well. The only one not affected is Po, who is apparently protected by his Grace. Unfortunately, Katsa is not so lucky. When Po and Katsa come across the Queen of Monsea, running for her life from King Leck and his men, Katsa believes King Leck's lies, even after the Queen is killed. Po manages to get Katsa away, and the two go searching for Bitterblue, the Queen's daughter. It takes a while for Bitterblue to trust them, but, once she realizes that their goal is the kill the king, she eventually does.

Because Po is immune to King Leck's Grace, he volunteers to kill the king single-handedly, even though Leck is well-protected and Katsa is the better fighter. Unfortunately, Po fails and is badly hurt, so badly hurt that he eventually convinces Katsa to leave him behind and take Bitterblue to safety. Although Katsa leaves him with food, shelter, and a place to hide, Po's physical condition makes it doubtful that he will survive on his own.

Katsa journeys across frozen, deadly mountains with Bitterblue - no one has ever survived crossing them before, so Katsa figures that no one would guess they'd travel this way. Katsa has since discovered that her Grace is not one of killing, but rather one of survival, so she figures she should be able to keep both herself and Bitterblue alive with her Grace. It's a grueling trip, freezing cold, with neither of them properly outfitted. Katsa survives a mountain lion attack, makes protective clothing for Bitterblue, finds food for them both, and pushes her endurance to the limits. Even Katsa is almost killed, but she survives, and Katsa and Bitterblue finally find people who are able to help them.

They even find a ship that can take them to Po's homeland, where Katsa hopes she can find allies against King Leck and keep Bitterblue safe. Once on the ship, Katsa discovers that the ring Po left with her, so that his people would know to help her, is actually the ring of his identity - most Leinid never give this ring away, and those who do only do so if they know they are dying and would like a particular person to inherit something of theirs. Po's island and everything he owns is now Katsa's, but all Katsa wants is for Po to be safe. However, her current concern is Bitterblue's safety, so she takes Bitterblue to Po's island - where she discovers that King Leck has already arrived and convinced Po's entire family to do as he says.

King Leck would have won, in the end, if he hadn't started to give away Po's secret, the true nature of his Grace, which no one knows except Katsa and his mother. Katsa's body moves on its own to save Po, and she kills Leck before he can reveal Po's Grace to everyone. Katsa, who values her personal control, is shaken by what she has done, but she does her best to move beyond this, so that she can travel with several members of Po's family in order to find Po and get Bitterblue safely to her coronation.

Po, as it turns out, is safe, but different. He is now blind, something he is able to compensate for with his Grace, but he needs to be able to do this without revealing the truth of his Grace. Katsa helps him, just as she helps him out of the bleak mood his condition has put him in. Po's Grace has steadily gotten stronger, to the point where all the information he can't help but recieve is overwhelming, but eventually he learns to accept his Grace and finds that he can live with it just fine. The plan, then, is for Po to go back to his home - but Katsa wants to travel to Monsea to teach the women and girls there how to fight. Po and Katsa will both go their own ways, but, in the end, they'll be together.

Commentary:

I have a fondness for pseudo-historical fantasy - you know, fantasy set in a world that feels a little like some kind of European past, but not. So, I automatically tend to like this kind of stuff. However, two things about this book really grabbed me. The first was Katsa. The second, the romance between Katsa and Po.

When I first heard about this book, I thought it sounded potentially cheesy - I mean, aren't these Graced people really just people who are particularly talented in something? I still don't think it's the most interesting idea to base a whole world on, but it turned out to not be as bad as I feared. From what I can tell, Graces are talents, but they're like talents supercharged by magic. For instance, a person in our world might be talented at survival, but no amount of talent could help someone survive the way Katsa managed to. Katsa was absolutely awesome.

Seriously, even if there had been no romance in this book, I probably still would have loved it, just because I loved Katsa so much. If I had read this book when I was a teen, I probably would have wanted to be Katsa's friend, and maybe kick butt like her, too. She's so tough that it takes climbing a nearly vertical surface while carrying a guy who weighs at least as much as she does to make her tired. When she gets attacked by a mountain lion and comes out of the experience with a dead lion to butcher and a few wounds, she's happy to have the meat and fur and annoyed, just annoyed, that the wounds might slow her down a little. Yeah, she's tough and totally awesome.

And how great is it that Po doesn't even mind that Katsa could wipe the floor with him if she decided not to hold back any? Well, maybe not by the end of the book - I think he might be a bit better at fighting than her by the end of the book - but I still think it's great that he never had a moment when his manly pride needed soothing.

That leads me to the second thing I really liked about this book: the romance between Katsa and Po. This is romance where the girl doesn't need the guy to save her, the guy doesn't mind that the girl is stronger than he is, and both characters have their own strengths and weaknesses and can use them to support each other. How great is that? Plus, when Katsa has her freak-outs about marriage, instead of giving her an ultimatum or trying to gradually talk her into marriage, Po just says, "Ok, you don't want to get married, we don't have to get married. We'll just be together as long as you want us to be together." That's some serious low pressure romance.

That last bit was also something I didn't really like about the book. While I was happy that Katsa wasn't presented as an emotionally weak and silly character whose only reason for not wanting to marry was that she didn't realize how good marriage could be, I kind of felt bad for Po. You see, even though I don't like it when a female main character is eventually convinced by other characters that all the things she initially desired or feared at the beginning of the book were wrong, I don't really want the guy to have to cave on everything either. In this book, the direction of Po and Katsa's relationship was entirely determined by Katsa - faced with the prospect of their relationship ending before it could even really start, Po decided to just cave and do whatever Katsa wants in their relationship. This just made me...sad.

Another thing I didn't really like about the book: the names. Granted, this is a general problem that applies to a lot of books in the "pseudo-historical" category. Authors, trying to come up with pseudo-historical-and-yet-still-fantasy names, end up with names that are odd or just a bit silly. "Katsa" is ok, I guess, although the name made me instantly connect her with cats. "Greening" becomes stranger/sillier when you consider that all his sibling are also named after colors (which is maybe not so strange when you consider what celebrities in Hollywood have named their children). I had trouble with "Bitterblue," because I could not imagine a mother who actually liked her child giving her that name. It's an unpleasant-sounding name, and I kept expecting unpleasant behavior from that character because of it. Finally, the big one: "Po." "Po." I think that name must have been a dare. As in, "I dare you to give your romantic male lead a name that can make your readers helpless with laughter, and then I dare you to make him sexy." And so she did, because, holy smokes, Po is sexy.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, and I'm definitely going to read more of Cashore's stuff. Except, darn it, Cashore hasn't published much yet, just one other book as far as I can tell. Well, that's depressing. Fortunately for you, you can try out the stuff in my read-alikes and watch-alikes list. Unfortunately for me, I've seen and read everything on this list already, so it doesn't do me a lot of good.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • First Test (book) by Tamora Pierce - (Another YA book) I haven't read everything by Tamora Pierce yet, but I've read this book several times. This book is the first in a series focusing on Keladry, a girl determined to become the first female knight since the rules were changed to allow female knights and pages. This series is part of a larger series that takes place in the kingdom of Tortall. If you liked Katsa, you'll probably like Kel, another strong, quiet type who wants to help others, can kick boys' butts, and doesn't have marriage as her ultimate goal. The series (Kel's series) as a whole has a bit of romance, but don't expect there to be a similar sexy Po-type character.
  • Moribito (anime TV series); Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (book) by Nahoko Uehashi - (the book is considered YA) The book and the anime are a bit different, but the overall story is the same in both: Balsa, a spear-wielding female bodyguard, is hired to protect a young prince who is possessed by a spirit that will either bring about a terrible drought with its birth or with its death. If you liked Katsa, you may like Balsa, who is also kick-butt awesome. If your favorite part in Cashore's book was the time Katsa spent trying to keep Bitterblue alive, you may like this (and I would suggest choosing the anime instead of the book, because the anime focuses much more on the "keep the prince alive" portion of the story than the book does).
  • The Blue Sword (book) by Robin McKinley - (YA book) It's been so long since I read The Hero and the Crown, the prequel to The Blue Sword, that I can't remember if that one would be a better read-alike suggestion. However, I much prefer The Blue Sword and try to reread it at least once every couple years (in fact, I need to get a new copy, because mine is getting fragile), so I can at least say that I personally love and recommend this one. If you were drawn by Katsa's fighting skills, the uncomfortable lives of Gracelings, and/or the romance between Katsa and Po, you may like this one. In the beginning of the book, the main character has recently been orphaned and sent to live with a brother she barely knows at a remote military outpost. She is kidnapped by Corlath, the king of the local people, and taught to ride a war horse and fight, so that she can hopefully beat back the inhuman enemies that threaten both her own people and King Corlath's. Ok, so I know I said I recommended this to those who liked the romance between Katsa and Po, but don't expect too much - there is romance, yes, but nothing big happens until nearly the end of the story. I've found that I love the romance in this one more during my rereadings than I did when I first read it, because I can anticipate what will happen and go all fangirly over the slightest signs of developing romance. Plus, Corlath is great. He could be Po's stern and serious older brother or something.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series); The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol.1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - This one's another pseudo-historical series with a tough heroine (or at least she becomes tough, eventually) who needs to learn to soften up a bit and let others in her life. Which she does. The anime series focuses on this particular heroine, Yoko, as much as possible, while the books have different main characters depending on which book you're reading. The first book focuses on Yoko, the second on a character named Taiki, who finds out that he's a kirin, while the third focuses on the King of En and his kirin Enki, nearly 500 years before the events of the first book in the series. If you, too, thought Katsa was kick-butt awesome, I recommend trying either the anime or the books. Both the anime and books may be a bit of a slog at first - I didn't start to like Yoko until several episodes into the anime and well into that first book, but, if you can stick with either or both of them, you'll be rewarded.
  • Assassin's Apprentice (book) by Robin Hobb - It's been a very long time since I last read this. I remember hardly being able to put this one down, although I never did read any other books in the series. This book focuses on a young boy, a royal bastard (by which I mean "the bastard son of a prince"), who is taught the skills of an assassin from an early age. The main character, Fitz, is a sympathetic one, and those who felt for Katsa and the inner pain she had to endure as King Randa's dog might like him.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Italian's Ruthless Marriage Command (book) by Helen Bianchin

A few months ago, I went on a book buying spree, and this is one of the books I bought. Although I've been a romance reader for a long time, I've hardly ever read category romances, so I thought maybe it was time to try some. Plus, one of the bookstores I went to packaged some its category romances in reduced price multi-packs.

I don't know much about the different categories (although I could have learned about this one and more by looking at the writing guidelines), but I sometimes get in the mood for romance novels with uber-rich heroes. The god awful Madlib titles in the Harlequin Presents package I picked up indicated that I could look forward to romance heroes who were, in most cases, rich ("billionaire," "million-dollar bargain") or exotic (meaning "not American" - "Italian," "Greek," "Spaniard"). One of several reasons I continue to read J.D. Robb's "In Death" books is because I like Roarke, who is a confident and often arrogant Irish billionaire, so I figured "why not?".

This one took me a while to get through because I hated most of the book and disliked the main characters. It wasn't until the last 60-or-so pages of the book that I pronounced it passable, but I had to get through the first 120 to get to that point. One giant point that neither the Madlib title nor the description on the back of the book get across: the book's heroine, Taylor, has some emotional issues because at some time in the past (I can't remember if it was ever mentioned how long ago) she was attacked by someone who had invaded her home. She wasn't raped, but the experience scarred her physically and emotionally and sometimes made it hard to remember that she hadn't been raped. Had I expected that bit of heaviness, I might have been able to approach this book in the proper frame of mind, and I might have enjoyed it more.

Synopsis:

After the death of her best friend and sister Casey, and Casey's husband Leon, in a tragic car accident, Taylor is left to care for their young son, Ben d'Alessandri. She doesn't view this as a burden - she loves Ben as though he were her own son. Unfortunately, things can't keep going on as they have been, because she's supposed to share custody of Ben with Leon's brother, Dante, a confident and arrogant CEO. Although both Dante and Taylor want what's best for Ben, they define "best" differently. Taylor would like as little to change in Ben's life as possible, which she sees as being best accomplished by leaving him to live with her. Dante would rather have Ben come live with him in Italy, where he could be properly groomed to take his place in the family's corporation. As a compromise, he's willing to accept Ben living half the year with him and the other half with Taylor.

Taylor doesn't want to budge - not only does she think it's a bad idea to constantly uproot a little boy, he's also the only family she still has. Dante's next suggestion is that he and Taylor share custody of Ben in the same home. Since no more acceptable alternatives have been suggested, Taylor and Ben move in with Dante, and tensions rise. Although Taylor is able to keep doing her work in Dante's home (she's a writer), there are times when Dante overwhelms her. She's attracted to him, but he also makes her unbearably tense at times. She still hasn't gotten over the incident a while back, when a man invaded her home and hurt her badly enough to scar her. Although Taylor saw and still remembers his face, he was never caught. (It's not confirmed until much later in the book that, although she was beaten, Taylor's assailant didn't rape her - something I think is important for me to note, because it really colored my reaction to Dante's early behavior with Taylor.)

Dante takes Ben with him on a vacation to Tuscany to be with Graziella, Ben's grandmother, something Taylor only allows because she'll be going with them. Things heat up a bit more between Taylor and Dante, mainly because Dante won't leave her alone. Graziella and others have assumed that Taylor and Dante will be getting married - the misunderstanding soon becomes fact, after Dante convinces Taylor that their marriage would be what is best for Ben.

Taylor discovers that sex with Dante isn't a terrible thing. In fact, sex with Dante is great. Unfortunately, she fears that it may be the best part of their marriage. Back at their home in Sydney, life seems to go back to the way it was before the two of them got married, only with more sex. Although Taylor and Dante get along pretty well now, all she can keep thinking of is that theirs is not a love match. Women keep prowling around him at a party they go to, and one of them won't stop shoving her own past sexual relationship with Dante in Taylor's face. This pisses Dante off, but Taylor is still not convinced that this means that Dante loves her.

During a visit to the zoo with Ben, Taylor sees the man who had assaulted her. Dante springs in and threatens the man with the police. Later, Taylor visits a run-down police station to interview one of the police officers there for the book she's writing. Unfortunately, she's held hostage by a man with a knife. She manages to free herself after only getting hurt a little, but, again, Dante swoops in. Taylor promises never to go to a place like that alone again, and, seeing how shaken up Dante is, finally realizes that he really does love her - and he finally realizes that she needed him to say the words.

Commentary:

I was a little bit wary of this book, because of the word "ruthless" in the title. Sorry, but the title doesn't sound very romantic. Still, good romance novels sometimes have very bad titles, so I decided to give this one a shot. For such a skinny book, it took me forever to get through - I just couldn't settle down and enjoy it.

First, I didn't really like the writing. I can't quite say what it was about Bianchin's writing that put me off, but there were areas that felt like they could have been better worded or just cut out altogether. I kept getting the urge to mark annoying passages, an urge that made it hard to get into the story and try to like the characters. For instance, here's a quote from page 135: "Sex, she viewed logically, then qualified...very good sex, was one of nature's aphrodisiacs." An aphrodisiac is something that increases sexual desire, so Taylor is basically thinking here that sex is one of nature's ways of increasing sexual desire. Was this sentence really necessary? Or was it maybe meant to show that sex decreased Taylor's brain cells, making her think stupid things?

Second, I disliked Dante - it's never a good thing when I'm reading a romance novel and don't like the hero. It wasn't until after Taylor and Dante were married that I was able to think of Dante as more than just an overbearing jerk - he saw how much his presence upset Taylor at times, did he really have skulk around her so much? The only reason I didn't think of him as a total monster was because he didn't force himself on her, at least not with sex, although he did kiss her without it being truly clear that she wanted and was ready for him to kiss her.

I should be fair, though: I didn't really like Taylor, either. I don't know what it was like for Ben, living with her, but to me she seemed moody, damaged, and capable of sucking the fun and life out of everything. Although I understood why she was like that, what with the recent death of people she cared about and the attack she survived (which I initially thought involved rape), understanding didn't translate into liking. After a while, I had enough of her frightened/cornered animal reaction to Dante and her insistence that only she knew what was truly right for Ben.

I never really ended up liking Taylor, although I tended to dislike Dante more than I disliked her - I just couldn't stand how overbearing he behaved around her. Their marriage, the joining of two characters I didn't really like, wasn't much fun either. While Taylor and Dante are on their honeymoon, doing a little shopping, Taylor refuses to let Dante pay for things she wants to buy (even though there's not a peep out of her when he pays for their room, their room service, and their food). Dante's thoughts on this: "Any other woman of his acquaintance would expect him to pick up the tab for anything that took her whim...most often angle prettily for an expensive item" (p. 137). I found Taylor's spotty adherence to her "I'll pay for myself" rule somewhat annoying, but I really hated this thought of Dante's, because I felt it showed that he still thought of Taylor in the same way as all the arm candy he used to date and sleep with.

Supposedly, Taylor grows more comfortable with Dante, and this is apparently exemplified in her reaction to seeing her attacker again. All Taylor knew was that Dante...did something to or with the guy - she didn't know if he just talked to him, or if he beat him up. And yet, she feels safe, because Dante makes her feel safe. Even though he spent a good chunk of the book skulking around her and frightening her. Right.

Overall, there was just too much "too little" going on - too little of the book was from Dante's perspective, making it even harder to like him and connect with him emotionally than it already was. What little of the book was from Dante's perspective was too shallow, making him seem like a flatter, less fleshed out character than Taylor. The whole thing with "Dante's many former lovers" could have been fun, but, since it was so brief and formulaic, it just came across as cliched. Even if Bianchin had done that part better, it would probably have been too little, too late.

I felt that the book got a bit better as it progressed, but that, unfortunately, isn't saying much. This is not going on my "keeper" pile.

As for my read-alikes list...that didn't go so well. The "wounded heroine" is not one of my favorite things in romance novels, so my experience with those kinds of books is pretty limited. As I've already said, my experience with category romance is even more limited, so it's hard to come up with other category romance recommendations. I'm sure there are better read-alike suggestions than this - basically, my list is mostly the result of reading lots of book descriptions. Well, I tried.

Read-alikes:
  • Naked in Death (book) by J.D. Robb - If you liked the "wounded woman, rich and arrogant man who has had many lovers in the past but falls for wounded woman" aspect, you might like this. It's the first in a series - although the main characters, Roarke and Eve, do get married, it's not in the first book. Part of the fun of the series is watching characters' relationships develop. You'll find this in either the romance or mystery sections of a bookstore - each book has its own particular mystery storyline (Eve is a member of the police, investigating homicides), but the series' overarching romantic storylines (and J.D. Robb's real name, Nora Roberts) qualify the books as romance as well. Although the series is set a few decades in the future, other than a few details here and there (flying cars, cancer cures, droid servants, etc.) the overall feel is very contemporary.
  • Italian Marriage: In Name Only (book) by Kathryn Ross - This one's a Harlequin Presents book. The Italian in question is a hotelier with no time or desire for love, but he needs a wife and heir. His choice for a wife is Victoria Heart, a single mom and restaurateur. This book might suit those who'd like something else featuring an arrogant Italian hero, a heroine trying to take care of a child, and a marriage that seems to start off as one of convenience. By the way, it seems as though Kathryn Ross may have written several Harlequin Presents books that might be good read-alikes for Bianchin's book (for instance, The Mediterranean's Wife by Contract) - so if you can't find this one, look for another one of hers instead.
  • The Italian's Ruthless Marriage Bargain (book) by Kim Lawrence - Another Harlequin Presents book. All I know about this one is what's in the description on Amazon - the heroine is the guardian of her brother's three children and is struggling to hold down a full-time job, when, amazingly, she is visited by handsome Luca Di Rossi, a notorious billionaire playboy. I have no idea why he suddenly needs a wife or why he chose this particular woman for the job. Still, it might be a good read-alike for those wanting another Italian hero, another woman taking care of children, and another "let's live together and get married for convenience, oops we fell in love" storyline.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

King of the Lamp (manga) story and art by Takako Shigematsu

This manga is rated 16+ for a reason, but it's really pretty tame (although you might not believe that, considering the number of times I need to use the word "sex" in this post) compared to some other stuff I've seen with the same age rating.

I picked this one up because I saw the cover artwork and the name of the author/artist and thought, "Hey, isn't that the same person who did Tenshi Ja Nai?" And yes, it is. Not that it's all that hard to do, but Tenshi Ja Nai is one of those series that makes me go all fangirly (I'm a sucker for romantic stories with cross-dressing in them). I had forgotten, however, that Tenshi Ja Nai also had some aspects that made me a little uncomfortable. Had I remembered that, I probably still would have gotten this manga, because it was fairly cheap and because I haven't had enough experience with Shigematsu's works to know if her stories often incorporate those elements that made me uncomfortable in Tenshi Ja Nai.

Now I'm thinking...probably yes. Although I'm sure I would have still picked this up, even if I had known. There's just something about Shigematsu's artwork that sucks me in. I guess she's my manga crack.

By the way, although this manga contains both nudity and sex, the nudity is nearly Barbie doll level (no real detail), and the sex is pretty tame (blushing, kissing, and you know the characters are having sex, but you don't actually see anything - seriously, Shigematsu herself calls this "lukewarm," and she's right).

Synopsis:

This is basically five short stories. The first three are tied together by a single character, the King of the lamp, a former king who was imprisoned inside a lamp for taking 1000 of his country's most beautiful women for his harem. In order to be free of the lamp (and able to start up a new harem), he must grant the three wishes of 1000 girls who summon him. The first three stories in this volume cover the wishes of his 986th, 989th, and...well, I'm not sure if it was ever said what number the third girl was. The last two stories are stand-alones, completely unrelated to either each other or those first three stories.

Like I tend to do with anthologies, I didn't put much effort into listing read-alikes or watch-alikes. There's only a couple, and only because those stories really reminded me of other stories.

"Ryoko's Situation":

Ryoko's not sure what to do. In order to get Kei to go out with her, she told him that, since she's a bit older than him, she could teach him "all sorts of things." There's only one problem: she's a virgin. There's absolutely nothing she could teach him, and she knows it. She's afraid that, once Kei finds this out, he'll dump her. Desperate, she even finds herself buying a supposedly magic lamp. She's shocked when King comes out of the lamp and tells her he'll grant three of her wishes, as long as she's willing to pay for each one. There are three levels of wishes: Plum, which would require she pay him with a kiss, Bamboo, which would involve spending 24 hours with King, and Pine, which would require sex. King's a lech.

Ryoko's first wish is to be more attractive - at the Plum level, all King can do for her is give her bigger boobs. When this turns out not to be the way to Kei's instant affections, Ryoko uses her second wish to turn her boobs back to normal. Not realizing that Kei saw her kissing King as payment for her second wish, Ryoko decides to go to Kei's place for his birthday and tell him the truth. Jealous Kei handcuffs her to his bed, demands that she explain about the guy she was kissing, and starts to force himself on her. When a fire accidentally starts in the bedroom, Ryoko uses her third wish to put it out. King, the lech, says Ryoko can pay him back by being his, which Kei objects to. After King leaves, Kei explains that he knew Ryoko had no experience and had put off telling her because he thought she looked cute panicking about it. The story ends with them having sex.

Commentary:

I enjoyed the beginning of this one the most - it was amusing, watching Ryoko fend off Kei, as he tried to take their relationship to the next level and she tried to keep him from finding out her complete lack of experience. As things progressed, though, I didn't like it so much. Granted, Kei saw Ryoko kissing another guy (good thing he didn't see King licking his way up her thighs), but, you know, Ryoko saw Kei just standing there while some girl squished his arm between her boobs and she didn't cuff him to a bed and act all scary jealous. Why is it ok (or at least forgivable) for Kei to do all of that? Kei lost some major points in my book when he started forcing himself on Ryoko. King might have been a lech, but at least he stopped when Ryoko told him to.

"Mayu's Situation":

Mayu has it bad for Hideaki, a guy who works at her little kindergarten-aged brother's school. Unfortunately, Hideaki doesn't even seem to notice her, he never smiles at her, and he doesn't even remember her name. However, when Mayu ends up with a magic lamp, she finds herself with a chance to get Hideaki to open up to her. At first, she wishes for King to turn her into a little kid, but it turns out that that's a Bamboo wish - King hadn't exactly clarified the payment methods before Mayu made her wish. Luckily, her little brother saves her butt and negotiates a better deal for Mayu. At the Plum level, Mayu can be a kid for two hours and can't let anyone guess her identity. As a little kid, Mayu does some gardening with Hideaki and learns that he had a little sister who used to love sunflowers before she died. Things are going great (other than the fact that Mayu is a little kid and that anything that she might wish to have happen would automatically count as pedophilia) until Mayu gets fertilizer all over herself. Hideaki takes her inside to clean her off and starts stripping off his shirt (inexplicably, his pants are also unbuttoned), at which point Mayu freaks out and runs off.

Back to her usual size, Mayu learns that Hideaki must have worried about kid-Mayu when she ran off. She and Hideaki have a little bit of a moment when Hideaki spots Mayu praying for the sunflowers he's growing in his sister's memory. Later, Mayu visits Hideaki as a little kid again, and he starts to think she looks very similar to Mayu. Unfortunately, Mayu forgets about the time limit and wakes up next to Hideaki in her usual size with her shirt open (I'm guessing that it popped open when she got bigger and had breasts again, and not because Hideaki unbuttoned her while she was sleeping...I hope). Hideaki is upset, accusing her of using a secret little sister to trick him. Saying she must not care what happens to her, he starts to force himself on her (ugh...seeing a pattern?), at which time Mayu panics and ends up turning into a little kid. King appears and says her transformation will be for good, unless Hideaki kisses her (for Mayu's third wish, King kisses her, I guess to start the transformation back, but only Hideaki can finish it?).

Still annoyed, Hideaki kisses Mayu, transforming her back, only now she's completely naked. Which is apparently a signal that it's time for sex, because then that's what she and Hideaki do.

Commentary:

This was my least favorite out of all the stories in the whole manga. Mayu and Hideaki had only one nice little moment while Mayu was actually in an older form (and, by "older," I mean probably high school age, while I'm guessing Hideaki was in his 20's) - otherwise, all the bonding they did was while Mayu was a little kid. And yet, somehow this was enough for Hideaki to decide he wanted her, with absolutely no thoughts about how icky it was that he mostly only knew her in little kid form. Also, excuse me, but he tried to force himself on her that first time - yes, he was a wee bit angry, thinking she'd used her little sister to trick him, but he could have just chosen to throw her out instead. Isn't he supposed to be the adult in this situation? Because, well, he is the adult, and Mayu, as far as he knows, is just an infatuated high school student.

The one person I liked in this story was Mayu's little brother. He rocked. Who wouldn't want a little brother who'd try to bash in his sister's attacker's head in with a frying pan (when King tried to get his Bamboo level payment)? Also, I'd want that little guy with me anytime I needed to, say, buy a house or a car or something. He's the cutest, toughest little negotiator ever.

"Hinata's Situation":

Hinata's perfect guy thinks her dedication to her artwork is admirable. Unfortunately, Hinata's perfect guy is also her older sister's boyfriend, Togo Mashiba, the gorgeous and athletic student council president. After Togo gets in an accident, the only thing that could save his sight is surgery he claims not to want. Togo's mother assumes Hinata is her sister, Yuzuki, which, when Hinata ends up with King's lamp, gives her the idea to wish that she sounded like her sister whenever she's around Togo. At first, Togo is angry and mean because Yuzuki had been cheating on him, but he gradually thaws towards "Yuzuki" as she helps take care of him. For her second wish, Hinata has King take her and Togo to the beach, which she thinks will help his mood some. It's there that Togo tells "Yuzuki" that he plans to have the surgery and wants her to stay by his side forever. Even though she knows it can't happen, Hinata says yes.

The day Togo is supposed to get his bandages off, the real Yuzuki breezes in, after spending Togo's entire recovery time with some other guy. Hinata figures it's over between her and Togo, although she breaks down for a bit and asks King to make her look like her sister for her final wish. King refuses and uses her final wish to turn Hinata's voice back to normal. He also arranges it so that Togo manages to find Hinata. When Togo comes across Hinata, he can tell she's the "Yuzuki" who stayed by her side because of her scent (Hinata smells like turpentine, from art class, while the real Yuzuki smells like trendy perfume). The two confess their love to each other, and the story, of course, ends with the two of them having sex.

Commentary:

Of the three King of the Lamp stories, this one was my favorite. While I wasn't entirely thrilled with Togo's near angry sex scene, he got some sympathy points for being under stress from the accident and learning that Yuzuki had been cheating on him, and he got a few brownie points for being the one to pull back (I don't know if it's why he pulled back, but there's a panel that makes it look like he felt that Hinata was crying, and right after that he pulls away, so I chose to make that connection). Plus, unlike the other two girls, after her initial fear reaction Hinata decided she was going to be a willing participant in whatever happened - so, if something had happened, hopefully it wouldn't have been quite so much like rape.

After that, it was a pretty sweet story, with Hinata taking care of Togo and Togo learning about this new "Yuzuki." I got caught up enough in the story to feel a pang when poor Hinata realized that her time with Togo would end once he had the surgery, and I really disliked Yuzuki. Still, I imagine Togo and Hinata would have never ended up together had he not dated Yuzuki and ended up in that accident - as the "popular, athletic hottie," he had a schoolwide image that Hinata wouldn't really have fit into.

I was glad Hinata ended up with the guy she wanted - not only was Togo more likable than the guys in the previous stories, due to the whole "not acting as much like a potential rapist" thing, I also thought Hinata was the most likable of all the heroines. She was genuinely nice. She was the only one who never wished for more than she could easily pay for (until the end, when seeing her sister and Togo together really got to her), and one of her wishes wasn't even for herself, but rather for Togo. I might have felt iffy about the first story and hated the second one, but I like this one enough that I think I'll keep this manga just so I can have the story on hand for future rereading.

Read-alike:
  • Alice 19th (manga) by Yuu Watase - Can't get enough of stories featuring forbidden love in which a sister is in love with her sister's boyfriend? Then try this one out. The heroine in this one is like Alice, in that she's a bit shy and can't bring herself to tell anyone her true feelings. In her case, unfortunately, all those pent-up feelings and words she can't say cause a lot of problems that she's then got to try to fix.
"I'll Kill You With a Kiss":

When she was just a child, Riko's mother abandoned her so that her boyfriend wouldn't dump her. Riko was found and taken in by Yuu and Kai, two hot guys who work late nights as escorts. Yuu and Kai still look as good as they did the day they found Riko 11 years prior, and, unfortunately, now that Riko is older she's fallen in love with Yuu. She doesn't dare let him know, of course, but she's not sure what to do when Orihara, a popular guy at her school, asks her out.

One night, unable to help herself, Riko almost kisses Yuu while he's sleeping. Before she can do it, though, he wakes up, looking totally freaky and inhuman. He tells her to get out and, after that, he rarely comes home anymore. Riko decides to turn Orihara down (who responds to her rejection by trying to force himself on her - seriously, this is getting kind of annoying), sure now that she can love no one but Yuu. She goes looking for Yuu and finds him kissing a client, a woman who seems to mysteriously lose her memory after the kiss. Kai says some weird stuff to Yuu about how Yuu isn't eating enough and, what with them both not being human, Kai can't take Yuu to the hospital if he gets too weak. Shocking stuff, but Riko is most upset when Kai suggests Yuu sleep with Riko and Yuu responds, "I would rather die than sleep with Riko."

Riko gets hit by a car in her haste to run tearfully away, although Yuu saves her life by sharing his life energy with her. Unfortunately, he was weak to start with - he and Kai are part of a race that survives by feeding off of the life energy of women via sex, and Yuu hasn't been consuming enough life energy for nearly a year. After they feed off of someone, that person forgets they ever existed. If Yuu or Kai fed off of Riko, she would forget them. Riko decides she doesn't care - without her help, Yuu may die, so she refuses to take "no" for an answer when Yuu tells her to go away again. Unable to resist, Yuu admits he'd fallen in love with her and the two have sex. Happily for everyone, when Riko wakes up in the morning, she can still remember Yuu, possibly because Yuu had shared his own life energy with her.

Commentary:

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. On the one hand, I hate romantic stories involving siblings not related by blood. If you think about it, Yuu and Kai should basically be both Riko's dad and brother figures. Throughout the entire story, Riko calls them Yuu-nii and Kai-nii (-nii signifying that they're older brother figures to her), even after Yuu and Riko have had sex. To me, that's just icky.

On the other hand, though, Shigematsu is so good at ramping up the sexy that I found myself enjoying this story in spite of myself. I wondered pretty early on why Yuu and Kai still looked so good after 11 years, and the revelation that this story contained some fantasy elements was nice (I like fantasy and supernatural stories), even though the fantasy stuff didn't quite make sense (if Yuu and Kai feed off of life energy, and Yuu basically focused entirely on Riko by the end of the story, doesn't that mean she would die pretty quickly? not to mention, she's not immortal like Yuu and Kai are...).

I didn't hate this story as much as story 2, I thought it was more interesting than story 1, but it had too much of an "ick" factor for me to like it more than story 3.

Read-alike:
  • Crown (manga) story by Shinji Wada, art by You Higuri - I've only read 2 volumes of this so far, but Shigematsu's story instantly reminded me of this one - Crown also has two hot guys (although only one of them is the main female character's "sibling, but not by blood"), and there were at least hints that there was going to be some forbidden romance between the two sibling-not-related-by-blood.
"Chicken That Flies in the Sky":

Hariguchi is such a potent spirit medium that even people who can't normally see spirits can easily see her guardian spirit. As a result, she's 17 years old and has never had a boyfriend, because every guy she's ever been interested in or who has shown an interest in her has run away after seeing her guardian spirit. The only guy who keeps coming back is a guy who's from the Paranormal Phenomena Research club (try as I might, I can't find a single instance in this story where the guy's name is used, so his name will have to be Spirit Otaku). After finding out that Spirit Otaku is afraid of heights, Hariguchi is sure she'll get some peace if she just hangs out on the school roof, but even that doesn't keep him away. The only thing that gets him to leave is when he tries to offer her a letter and she smacks it away - as he's leaving, possibly for good, Hariguchi realizes that maybe she should try to see where things would go with him. She spots his letter in a tree and tries to get it. On the ground below, Spirit Otaku sees her and thinks she's going to try to jump. He climbs up after her, until Hariguchi assures him that she's just trying to get his letter. Unfortunately, Hariguchi and Spirit Otaku both fall at that moment. Thankfully, they're both saved by Hariguchi's guardian spirit, who also retrieves the letter for Hariguchi.

Commentary:

This story is pretty forgettable. Plus, it's older than all the other stories - it looks like Shigematsu's artwork can only suck me in as it is in its later form. As it is in this story, not so much. It's not really a bad story, but it's not all that good, either. It's just...bland. Additionally, I had "one of these things is not like the other" playing in my head while I read it - this story just doesn't fit with all the rest.

And why doesn't Spirit Otaku have a name? Did I miss it?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Scrapped Princess: Song of the Forgiven (book) by Ichiro Sakaki, illustrated by Yukinobu Azumi

Synopsis:

Three rowdy siblings named Shannon, Raquel, and Pacifica are staying at an inn in a small town. Other than being really noisy, there's nothing too objectionable about them, but Winia, who takes care of chores around the inn for her grandmother, is pretty sure they're running from something.

And they are. Pacifica is the Scrapped Princess, the girl who prophesy says will bring forth the Day of Destiny and destroy the world when she turns 16. Although she was supposed to have been killed when she was just a baby, she was instead saved and raised along with Raquel and Shannon. Raquel is a powerful magic user, and Shannon is a skilled warrior. Together, they're determined to protect Pacifica from the Purgers and everyone else who's been sent to kill her.

The three of them do try to enjoy themselves when they're not fighting for their lives, though, and that's what a lot of the beginning of this book is about. Shannon and Pacifica bicker, and everyone tries to keep Raquel from destroying everything by trying to use her battle magic to do even the simplest tasks. After Shannon and Raquel pretty much destroy Winia's family's inn while protecting Pacifica, the group is about to leave, in order to ensure that they don't endanger the townspeople any more than they already have. However, Winia won't let them go, because they're the closest things she's had to friends in a long time. Trying to pay for the damage to the inn, Winia and Pacifica get jobs selling baked goods in amusing (Pacifica) and sexy (Raquel) costumes. Later, when Raquel gets a cold, Shannon is forced to pretend to be her and spend an evening singing and playing a lute at a tavern.

Of course, the happy, relaxed times don't last forever. Instead of going directly after Pacifica, Christopher Armalite, one of the people trying to kill Pacifica, kidnaps Winia. With a little magical help from Raquel, Shannon saves Winia, and Chris declares himself defeated. It should be the end of any further contact between him and Pacifica and her siblings, but the four of them find themselves having to work together when a horrific Purger-monster enters Winia's town and starts absorbing any human that touches it. There's a terrible moment when the Purger-monster takes over everyone's minds, forcing everyone, even Raquel and Shannon, to try to kill Pacifica. At the last second, something inside Pacifica breaks the hold the monster has over everyone, although now everyone knows she's the Scrapped Princess.

The monster still needs to be defeated, and Raquel knows it'll take more than one sorcerer. She could temporarily turn Shannon into a sorcerer, but it would be too complicated to do that and keep her other spells and defenses going at the same time. Fortunately, there are sorcerers in town, members of the military's intelligence division like Chris. They were there to spread nasty rumors about Pacifica, Shannon, and Raquel in order to get them chased out of town, so that it would be easier to deal with them without having to kill any townspeople. The monster's presence changes things, and the sorcerers team up with Raquel. Together, Raquel, the sorcerers, and Shannon kill the monster.

Chris's superior decides to let Pacifica and her siblings be, until the next time. As Pacifica, Shannon, and Raquel leave town, they are surprised and pleased and the number of well-wishers who see them off and give them gifts.

Commentary:

I had to do some searches online to confirm this, since all the book tells me (on the copyright info page, or "verso of the title page" in cataloger-speak) is that it's the second book in a series, but it looks like this book and the others in the series inspired the anime and not the other way around. I've seen the first few episodes of the anime, so some of this book felt very familiar to me.

I must say, overall, I prefer what I remember of the anime to this book - maybe it's due to sloppy translation, but it reads like clunky fan fiction. I can see why someone might read this and think it would make a great anime, though. The interaction between Raquel, Shannon, and Pacifica is often a nice combination of sweet and amusing. When Raquel used her powers, particularly when she temporarily turned Shannon into a sorcerer and combined her powers with his, I wanted to hunt the anime down so that I could rewatch those parts. Shannon's fight scenes had the same effect on me (and I couldn't help but imagine everything he said in the book said in Crispin Freeman's voice). The bittersweet moments that came up occasionally were nice too, like the revelation that Shannon gave up his dream of being a musician in order to devote himself to keeping Pacifica safe.

So, there are flashes of things in this book that excited me, but all they really did was make me want to watch the anime. The book itself was, overall, mediocre. Were there no anime counterpart, I'm not sure I could've gotten past the clumsy, clunky writing. And the thing is, there's a reason why I didn't watch the entire anime, even though I like the artwork, thought the fight scenes were pretty good, and love Crispin Freeman's voice (yes, he is one of my voice actor crushes). I'm not a huge fan of series that start off looking like pure fantasy genre stuff and turn into some kind of strange sci-fi/fantasy mix. Liking the first few episodes of the anime got me through this book, but I can't see myself managing to get through however many others have been translated into English with just that to sustain me. From what I can see, only the first three volumes of the series have been translated into English and released in the U.S., so I guess it's a good thing I'm not craving the whole rest of the series.

Are there circumstances under which I would recommend this book to someone? Sure. If I met someone who was a huge fan of the anime, I might recommend this book. I might also recommend this to general fans of anime and manga - after all, that's the reason I picked this up. It's a quick read, short and very fast-paced, so it's not like it's a huge trial to get through. I didn't like it that much, but it didn't involve so great of a time commitment that I resent having read it. And reading about Shannon in a dress was kind of fun. If that part was in the anime, I can't remember it, so I had lots of fun imagining it.

Extras:

I don't know if this is just a characteristic of light novels - every single light novel I've read so far has had illustrations so maybe it is - but this book has illustrations. Those who've seen the anime will definitely recognize the characters, although I prefer the artwork in the anime to the artwork in this book. There are 9 illustrations total - you get to see Winia, Shannon, Chris, Pacifica, and Arfi (I didn't mention her in my synopsis, because she doesn't really do anything worth mentioning - all she does is act mysterious). I think Raquel is the only major character from this book not pictured in any of the illustrations.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Scrapped Princess (anime TV series) - Of course, if you like this book even a little, you must watch the anime.
  • Scrapped Princess 1: A Tale of Destiny (book) and Scrapped Princess 3: Requiem for the Infidels (book) by Ichiro Sakaki - Likewise, if you liked this book, you should probably read the first and third. Try not to cry when you're reminded that the rest of the series has not been released in the U.S.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist (manga) by Hiromu Arakawa; Fullmetal Alchemist (anime TV series); Fullmetal Alchemist: The Movie (anime movie) - Those who'd like something else featuring traveling siblings and magic (which is viewed in Fullmetal Alchemist as being a science) might like this. It's got a similar feel, with its mix of humor, action, and sweet and bittersweet moments. The manga came first and spawned all the rest. Do not watch the movie if you haven't see the TV series - you might do all right if you've at least read the manga, but the movie takes up where the TV series, which differs quite a bit from the manga after a certain point, left off. There's also a new TV series, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which is still ongoing in Japan and has therefore not been completely released in the U.S. yet. From what I've seen of it so far, I would recommend the first TV series or the manga instead. There are also several light novels based on the Fullmetal Alchemist series - the writing quality is similar to that of this Scrapped Princess book and would probably have similar appeal to anime/manga lovers.
  • Chrono Crusade (manga) by Daisuke Moriyama; Chrono Crusade (anime TV series) - Chrono and Rosette's squabbling reminds me a lot of Shannon and Pacifica, and, like Scrapped Princess, there's quite a bit of energy and action in this series. This is another series that has some very light moments, even as it gets a bit darker and more bittersweet as the series progresses. I haven't seen all of the anime, but I've read all of the manga. I don't want to spoil anything, but make sure to have a box of tissues handy when you read the last volume!
  • Strait Jacket (anime OVA) - This is based on a light novel, although, as far as I can tell, the light novel has not been translated and made available in the U.S. If you liked the action and horrific monster in this volume of the Scrapped Princess light novels, but you wished there was a little less "funny sibling bickering" and other humorous bits, this may be just the thing for you. The main character is a sorcerer who kills a bunch of horrific monsters that are the result of sorcery-based technology gone bad. It's pretty gory.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series); The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol.1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - This one's for those who thought the Scrapped Princess book wasn't bad but wanted less silly and more serious. In addition, this series is a lot more complicated than Scrapped Princess, spanning hundreds of years, set in a complex world, and featuring tons of characters. What this series has in common with Scrapped Princess: magic, sword-fighting, a struggle to survive (particularly in the first book/first few episodes of the anime), and (particularly in the anime) sappy friendships. The books came first, but if you try them and find yourself confused about all the names and even when everything is supposed to be happening, try the anime. The nice thing about the books and the anime is that they make up for each others' weaknesses - the books are more interesting and less cheesy, while the anime presents the timeline and characters in a more coherent manner. Be warned, though: the anime stops suddenly, covering the events of what I think is only the first four books.
  • Moribito (anime TV series) - I'm suggesting this for the same reason I suggested The Twelve Kingdoms - try this if you'd like something that deals with similar themes but contains less silliness. The main character is a prince who's on the run from assassins sent by his father, because the boy is possessed by a spirit that may bring a terrible drought to the land. He's protected by Balsa, an awesome spear-wielding female bodyguard. This was a series of books before it became an anime (the anime is based on the first book in the series), but the anime, which spends more time of the threat to the young prince's life, is more like this Scrapped Princess book than the first Moribito book is.
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