Tuesday, September 28, 2010

That's all for now!

I think time went a little funny the closer it got to my vacation, because "more than enough time" turned into "how am I going to get everything done in time?" So, yesterday was the last of my posts until I'm back from vacation. And maybe until later than that - I'll be getting one (maybe two?) kittens as soon as I get back, so the adjustment period might take up my time a bit.

As always, we'll see. I do have some partially finished posts, but I'm too busy admiring my new (and first!) niece to do anything about them. :)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Vampire Knight (anime TV series), via Hulu

Synopsis:

When she was a little girl, Yuki was found and saved from being killed by a vampire by Kaname Kuran, an apparently kind and gentle Pureblood vampire. Since then, she has grown up as the adopted daughter of Kaien Cross, the headmaster of Cross Academy, a school intended to foster peace between humans and vampires. Four years prior to the series' present, Headmaster Cross also took in a boy named Zero, whose entire family was killed by vampires. Although Yuki is still fearful of violent vampires, she has developed a huge crush on Kaname. Zero, however, hates and distrusts all vampires.

Zero and Yuki are members of the Disciplinary Committee at Cross Academy, charged with keeping the Day Class students, the humans, separated from the Night Class students, the vampires. For the most part, the human world is unaware of the existence of vampires, so the Day Class doesn't know what the gorgeous Night Class students are. The Day Class and the Night Class are rarely allowed to interact, although accidents do occasionally happen. However, Kaname, the class president of the Night Class, mostly manages to keep the Night Class students in line.

Although most wouldn't call Yuki's life normal, it's at least stable. That is, until she learns that Zero was bitten by the Pureblood that killed his family. Unlike ordinary vampires, Purebloods like that vampire and Kaname are able to turn humans into vampires with their bite. Humans turned into vampires in this way eventually become Level Es, insane vampires who indiscriminately kill humans. If Zero becomes a Level E, he will have to be killed.

When a transfer student arrives at Cross Academy and joins the Night Class, Zero is convinced that, although she looks different, she's the vampire who bit him and killed his family. He's right - the transfer student is Shizuka Hio, and her companion is Zero's twin brother, who betrayed his family and helped Shizuka kill his and Zero's parents. Because Shizuka turned Zero into a vampire, she has power over him that prevents him from killing her, no matter how much he wants to. After Kaname kills her and drinks her blood, however, there are those who think Zero was the one responsible for Shizuka's death, especially since Zero disappears right afterward. What not even Yuki knows is that Zero is so close to being a Level E that he's been confined. Drinking Shizuka's blood would have saved him, but now she's gone. Saying that it will help him retain his sanity, Kaname, for Yuki's sake, offers Zero his blood, and the series/season ends with Zero drinking it.

Commentary:

The initial appeal of this show for me was the romance between Yuki and two other characters, Zero and Kaname, the vampires, and the humorous interactions between the Day Class and the Night Class. Unfortunately, the larger storyline, involving Zero and his past, took its sweet time developing. First, there were plenty of "Zero hates himself" and "Zero's turning into a Level E" episodes. Then Shizuka Hio finally appeared, which is when lots of things about Zero, his past, and the death of his parents were finally revealed.

One thing you need to know when watching this series is that it's only the first part of the story - Vampire Knight: Guilty, the next part of the story, comes after this. I haven't watched that yet, so I don't know if it actually wraps the series up or has its own loose ends. I hope not. I want to find out what Kaname is planning, I want to know what the deal is between him and Yuki (I keep suspecting that he was the one who killed her parents, and the closing credits for this season look creepily not good for Yuki), I want to know about all the stuff that's been hinted at about Purebloods, and I want to know how things turn out for Zero.

I don't know which of the potential love interests, Kaname or Zero, I like better. They both have their good and bad points. Kaname appears to have control over his emotions (although there are hints that maybe his control isn't as good as it seems, that he's just good at keeping those emotions from showing on his face). Zero is rapidly loosing control of himself, becoming more and more of a danger to Yuki and others.  Kaname is both powerful and protective, well able to keep Yuki safe from other vampires (I would argue that, despite the weapon Yuki waves around throughout the series, she is not able to protect herself - she crumbles or slips up every time she's in real danger). Zero can protect Yuki from some things, but not from himself. Kaname appears elegant and kind, and his behavior around Yuki is always perfect. Zero is standoffish and so filled with self-loathing that it can't be easy to be around him. All of that makes Kaname look great, but the main thing that keeps Zero in the running is that, while Zero appears to have no ulterior motives where Yuki is concerned, I'm not sure that the same can be said about Kaname. During this entire first season, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I guess I'll have to wait until Vampire Knight: Guilty to find out what sinister things Kaname has up his sleeves. If he turns out to be completely honest and perfect, I'll be very surprised.

Of the more minor characters, I loved Headmaster Cross, who provided a good portion of the series' comedy, particularly in his interaction with Yuki. He'd love for Yuki to treat him like a father, but Yuki refuses (I don't know if she does this because she really doesn't think of him as her father, or if she's just messing with him). Also, I'm sure that anyone who watches this show and enjoys it even a little probably has at least one favorite among the Night Class students. Mine is Aidou. Even as he fawns over Kaname, he can't seem to help but toe the line and seems to always be in trouble for something. I also like the vice president (I can't remember his name, sorry) - he seems like such a nice guy that I can't help but want him to show all the scary stuff I just know he's got hiding right under the surface. After all, it's made clear several times that all vampires are scary predators and that some just hide it better than others - the vice president can't be nearly as nice as he appears.

Overall, this isn't a spectacular series, but I enjoyed it and I can't wait until I can watch Vampire Knight: Guilty. From what I remember, the manga this anime is based on is slower paced than this anime, which made for a lot of boredom early on, so, in that respect, I at least consider the anime to be better than the manga. I can't believe it took so long for this anime to get licensed - with all the excitement over vampires and, specifically, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, you'd think it'd be a no-brainer to license an angst-filled vampire romance starring several super-gorgeous guys as soon as possible. Then again, maybe this was as soon as possible - I have no idea what goes into getting a series licensed.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Trinity Blood (anime TV series) - This series has a similar mix of drama and humor, along with lots and lots of vampires. Also, maybe it's just me, but I thought one of the characters in Vampire Knight (Zero's teacher) looks an awful lot like a character from this show.
  • Twilight (book) by Stephanie Meyer - Those who'd like another angsty love triangle with vampires might want to try this. I can't imagine that someone who watched and enjoyed Vampire Knight wouldn't have already at least tried Twilight, but it could happen. In this series, one part of the love triangle is a werewolf with occasional anger management issues, and another part is a vampire who hates what he is.
  • The Awakening (book) by L.J. Smith - It's been a long time since I read this, but I do believe there's another angsty love triangle with vampires in this one. Vampires hiding big secrets, vampires hating what they are, the works. I remember loving this series as a teen, although, when I reread it several years later, I realized I hated Elena, the main character. I think I just got too old for these books.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (live action TV series) - If you'd like more vampires, a bit of romance, and a heroine who is truly able to kick butt, you might want to try this. Unlike Yuki, Buffy doesn't need help all the time.
  • Hakuoki (anime TV series) - Ok, so this series is neither licensed in the US nor even finished yet in Japan, but I can't help it - Chizuru, the main character of this series, is so much like Yuki. Except she's even more useless. However, if you, like me, enjoyed Vampire Knight's gorgeous guys and occasional action scenes, you might enjoy this one. Remember, focus on the pretty guys and fight scenes.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Body Check (book) by Elle Kennedy

I'm continuing my category romance exploration - this one is a Harlequin Blaze title. On the basis of this book, I'm guessing that Harlequin Blaze is more on the "sizzling hot" end of the sex scene scale.

So: hockey players, one-night stands that morph into something more, and game fixing scandals. For the most part, I only really had issues with this book when I stopped to think about certain things too much, like the whole one-night stand thing. I'll get into that more in my commentary.

Synopsis:

After her mother died, Hayden's father became owner of the Warriors, a hockey team, and devoted himself to the team and to hockey. Hayden didn't particularly like hockey and wanted her relationship with her father to be as close as it once was, but they grew farther and farther apart as time passed.

Her lonely childhood has convinced Hayden that she needs to end up with someone nice, comfortable, and, above all, willing to put her before his career. Unfortunately, although her current boyfriend is all those things, he's moving things too slowly. Hayden hasn't had sex in months, and it's driving her crazy. When Hayden's father asks her to come visit him so that she can support him during his nasty divorce, Hayden's best friend convinces her to try a no strings attached one-night stand with the first guy to catch her eye. That guy is Brody Croft, who is thrilled that Hayden doesn't seem to know who she is, because that means she's not after him because he's a professional hockey player.

Yes, the guy Hayden picks is a professional hockey player. And not just any professional hockey player - he plays for the Warriors, her father's team. When Hayden finds out, she's horrified. What was initially supposed to be a one-night stand morphs into a fling (more than a one-night stand, less than a relationship), at least for Hayden - the sex was great, so she figures it couldn't hurt to continue, and, besides, it wouldn't exactly be easy to avoid Brody once he finds out she's the team owner's daughter. Unlike Hayden, though, Brody wants something more. He's tired of meaningless sex, and he feels an emotional connection to Hayden. He and Hayden aren't just good together in bed, they get along well, too. Brody hopes to convince Hayden to give the two of them a chance. And officially dump her boyfriend.

While all this is going on, Hayden's father and the Warriors are dealing with scandalous allegations brought up by Hayden's father's soon-to-be ex-wife. According to her, Hayden's father and one or more Warriors team members fixed a couple games. Hayden and Brody don't want to believe these allegations are true, but eventually it becomes painfully true that they are. Even if they weren't true, the accusations alone have the potential to mess up Warriors team members' careers, and Brody hopes to keep a relatively low profile and stay clear of the ugliness until he can sign with a new team. Being with Hayden isn't exactly keeping a low profile, though.

When Brody is accused of being one of the team members who accepted bribes, and his relationship with Hayden is made public and could potentially be used against him, he suggests to Hayden that they "take a break." By this time (after, what, a week or two?) Hayden has fallen in love with Brody - hurt by his suggestion, she tells him they should just completely break it off instead. Now that she's learned that her comfortable relationship with her boyfriend isn't what she wants, she also finally breaks up with him. Meanwhile, Brody learns that a teammate he trusted was one of the people taking bribes. He also gets his priorities straight and realizes he loves Hayden more than he wants to protect his career. In the end, Hayden and Brody end up together, Brody's career doesn't go down in flames, and the people involved in the game fixing are punished but not sent to jail.

Commentary:

I'm not a big sports fan. At all. The one and only game I've ever gone to was a hockey game, and it didn't excite me (sorry Megan!). However, as I have learned from reading sports manga, one does not need to like sports to enjoy things that have sports in them. This being a romance novel, hockey games were not a huge focus, although they did come up. As things became more tense when the allegations began piling up and became more likely to be true, the Warriors did more and more badly on the ice. See, sports manga requires more sports knowledge than this - it doesn't take a big sports fan to realize that behind-the-scenes stress and pressure could cause a sports team to do badly.

The pressures of hockey as a career also came up. I was going to say that those were general enough that most any career could have been substituted in place of hockey, but that's not entirely true. In the end, the reason for one betrayal turns out to be, in part, the shortness of a hockey career - professional hockey players (or anyone who plays sports professionally) can't play forever. While it might have been possible to substitute, say, football for hockey, I don't think any non-athletic careers could have been used instead.

There were a few things in this book that set off red flags for me. For instance, Kennedy hopping into bed with Brody while she's still technically dating another guy. Ok, so things were kind of shaky with the other guy, and I think they were on a break, but still. I didn't like the "we were on a break" excuse when it was used in Friends, and I didn't like it here, either. My other issue with the book: the "one-night stand with a complete stranger" thing...do people even do that anymore? I mean, if they're not drunk? It just didn't fly with me, because 1) STDs (although Brody used a condom, he also performed oral sex, which shows rather more trust than I think is warranted) and 2) the potential for One-Night Stand Guy to be a Bad Guy. The only thing Hayden worries about is that Brody might be a serial killer - Hayden's friend tells her not to worry and to call her or the police if there's a problem. Right, because that's always so easy to do.

One problem I sometimes have with romance novels that feature lots of sex and the hero and heroine hopping into bed (or onto the carpet) with each other right away is that, no matter how much the author tries to assure the reader otherwise, there is a tendency for it to look like the hero and heroine only want each other for sex. Because this book is so short, there's not a lot of room for Kennedy to write about the scandal, have steamy sex scenes, and show Brody and Hayden believably falling in love with each other for reasons that include more than sex. Although Kennedy shows readers very little of the non-sexual ways that Brody and Hayden get along, there's a very nice scene in which Brody shows Hayden how to skate. I loved that. Other than that, most of it is Hayden and Brody thinking about all the great times they've had with each other - I would've liked more scenes like the skating one, because just telling me that they enjoy each other's company, have gone out on dates, etc. isn't enough. Still, Kennedy does a fair job of making Hayden and Brody's relationship believable. The biggest stumbling block, for me, was time. From when they first meet to the final chapter before the epilogue - I think all this takes place in maybe two weeks. That's fast.

As far as the non-romantic storyline goes, once I decided that Hayden's father really had convinced one or more players to fix a couple games, it wasn't too hard to figure out at least one of the players involved. All I had to do was think, "which player would give Brody the greatest sense of betrayal?" Up until that point though, I found the storyline interesting, because I wasn't sure if Hayden's father really had done what he was accused of having done, and I wanted to see if Kennedy was going to throw in any kind of interesting twists. She didn't really, but it still wasn't bad, and I didn't feel like the non-romantic storyline was getting in the way of the romantic storyline and my enjoyment of it.

Overall, this wasn't too bad. The sex scenes were fun (although I wasn't as big a fan of the public and semi-public orgasm bits), although I'd have liked a few more romantic scenes. Brody was appealing enough to make up for that lack, though.

Read-alikes:
  • Hunks of Hockey (book) by Erica DeQuaya - Want more hockey romance but thought even Kennedy's book wasn't steamy enough? You might want to try this, then. This book features several erotic novellas starring professional hockey players.
  • Night Play (book) by Sherrilyn Kenyon - Those who like the idea of a sudden apparent one-night stand turning into something more might want to try this. This paranormal romance starts off with Bride having sex with a strange, hunky guy she's never met before. She's at a low point in her life and doesn't think any man as gorgeous as this could ever really want her, and yet it seems he does. What Bride doesn't learn until later is that this man, Vane, is something like a werewolf, and she's his mate.
  • Blindsided (book) by Leslie Lafoy - Another hockey romance - this one's a Silhouette Special Edition. I know very little about this one.  Apparently, an ex-professional hockey players takes over coaching a minor league team that is run by a divorcee.
  • See Jane Score (book) by Rachel Gibson - Yet another hockey romance, this one starring a "plain Jane" columnist-turned-sports journalist who knows nothing about the game and a professional hockey player.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Wrong Wife (book) by Eileen Wilks


Synopsis: 

This book starts with the two main characters waking up in bed together.  Cassie is kind of thrilled - once she wakes completely up, she remembers that she and Gideon, the guy she's been in love with since forever, flew to Vegas and got married.  Unfortunately, Gideon in seriously hung over and much less thrilled with the whole situation - he was drunk when he decided it was a good idea to marry Cassie, and he no longer thinks it's a good idea.  He was supposed to marry Melissa, but she dumped him just before they were going to get married.  When he went and got drunk, his buddy Ryan, Cassie's older brother, talked him into marrying Cassie.  And so he did.

Gideon is convinced that Cassie married him for his money.  He knows she's a struggling artist, and he doesn't have any faith in love, so he figures her only possible motive must be money.  Cassie, of course, is hurt and outraged by his assumption.  However, Ryan steps briefly into the picture and he and Gideon work things out so that Gideon and Cassie will at least try marriage for a year.  After a year, they'll just get a divorce.

Except Cassie doesn't just want a year.  As aggravating as Gideon can be, she's wanted him pretty much since she first met him, and she suspects he wants her.  She's just got to convince his icy interior to thaw, so that he can not only lust after her, but love her, too. This thawing is accomplished by things like an enjoyable day at a carnival, conversation, and working as Gideon's secretary's assistant (or something like that - anyway, Cassie ends up filing things and typing up letters, none of which she does very well).  Unfortunately, Gideon's aunt is very much against the marriage.  She fans the embers of Gideon's jealousy into full blown flames, convincing him that his fears that Cassie might have a lover on the side are true.  It doesn't help that Cassie is pregnant and Gideon doesn't remember that they actually did sleep together on their wedding night.

Of course, everything works out ok, even though Gideon has lots of issues to deal with, including an alcoholic father, the death of his beloved younger brother, and an aunt who forced him to live a lie and not grieve for his brother.

Commentary:

I was visiting one of my favorite used bookstores as a reward for getting my oil changed (I reward myself for lots of things), and it was there that I spotted this book.  Eileen Wilks, I thought.  Wait, not that Eileen Wilks, the one with the sexy werewolf characters?!  I lack the kind of technology that allows me to check this stuff no matter where I am (my cell phone is just a phone...and an alarm clock), so there was no way for me to be sure of this, but I grabbed the book anyway.  I didn't really care that the description didn't excite me - if this was the Eileen Wilks, I knew I wanted to read it.  And I was right about this being one of Eileen Wilks' early books.  Also, I was right about this book not exactly being up my alley.  Either Wilks has improved as a writer over the years (this book was published in 1997), or she really found her stride writing about FBI agents, werewolves, demons, and fairies.

The book just felt so...formulaic.  Like I'd read it before, only whatever it was I'd read before had been better.  Cassie is the lively, spunky heroine who loves her hero no matter how dark, wounded, and icy he is.  Gideon is the dark, wounded, and icy hero, so emotionally crippled that the best he can give Cassie at first is his lust.  Gideon's secretary is the obligatory oddball character who eventually approves of Cassie and Gideon's relationship from the sidelines.  There wasn't anything there that really excited me, and I didn't even like any of the characters enough to want to forgive any lack of originality.  Cassie was such a people person that I had a hard time believing she'd continue loving and putting up with Gideon after the way he treated her.  When he accused her of marrying him for his money, I decided I didn't really like him.  She got angry but soon folded, because she can't stay mad at someone she loves for long (I can't find the spot where she thought this, but it's in the book somewhere).

So maybe younger Gideon wasn't such a jerk, and maybe that's why she was able to sustain her feelings of love for him for so long.  She tried dating lots and lots of other people, but nothing ever clicked with anyone, or she just never tried hard enough to get things to click with anyone else.  I couldn't really see how things had ever clicked between her and Gideon, beyond the fact that she could make him lust like no one ever had before, forcing him to hide his lustful feelings as best he could.  Oh, the horror, the Ice King's feelings were forced momentarily out of the box!

Apparently the main thing Gideon worried about was that, if he let his control slip at all in any way, he would become like his alcoholic con man father.  Unfortunately, most of the time when Gideon's control did slip, all he did was act a bit dark and scary.  I would have preferred more scenes like the one at the carnival, when Cassie and Gideon spent time with each other and actually enjoyed each other's company in ways that did not have anything to do with sex.  There just wasn't enough of this kind of thing in this book.

Overall, this was kind of a blah read.  I might keep it, just because it's one of Wilks's earlier works and it feels kind of cool to own it, but there's no part of it that I think I'll ever find myself wanting to reread.

Oh, by the way, for those who are interested in such details, the guy Gideon thinks Cassie might be sleeping with on the side is actually a gay male friend of hers. One good reason I can think of for Wilks making him gay is that, quite frankly, Cassie had a better relationship with him than with Gideon. Had he not been gay, I would probably have rooted for her to end up with him instead of Gideon, even though he didn't show up much and even though I can't remember his name. 

Read-alikes:
  • Front Page Engagement (book) by Laura Wright - Those who'd like another romance in which the hero and heroine decide to marry on a temporary basis might want to try this. In this book, the hero needs to marry someone in order to be allowed to take over his family's company, but he doesn't want or need the marriage to last more than a year.  The heroine agrees to the deal because of the future care and security he'd offer her mother, who has Alzheimer's.  In the end, of course, the two really do fall in love, and the marriage becomes a real one.  Although this book didn't completely thrill me either, I still think it's more enjoyable than Wilks's book.
  • Absolutely, Positively (book) by Jayne Ann Krentz - If you like dark, potentially scary heroes like Gideon, you might want to try this. Unlike Gideon, Harry, the hero of this book, never really goes all scary towards Molly, the heroine. He's just really intense and broody. Molly's the owner of a tea shop and comes from a long line of inventors. She hires Harry to look over grant proposals submitted by various inventors. Things heat up between the two of them when Molly is threatened by someone, probably an inventor whose proposal was rejected.
  • The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever (book) by Julia Quinn - Another book with a hero who's gone a serious dark side, although this one is a historical romance, not a contemporary. Like Gideon, Turner, the hero of this book, has a tendency to treat the heroine (Miranda) badly, only to redeem himself in the end. Like Cassie, Miranda has been in love with Turner since she was a child.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Gravitation (manga, vol. 1) by Maki Murakami

Synopsis:

High school senior Shuichi is the singer and lyricist for the band he's in with his best friend Hiro. One night, lyrics Shuichi has been trying hard to finish are blown away, only to be caught and read by a gorgeous and somewhat scary man who pronounces them garbage. Even though Shuichi doesn't know the guy, he can't stop thinking about him and wants to make him apologize. It turns out that the guy is famous novelist Eiri Yuki. Shuichi asks Yuki to come see his band perform (only to immediately retract his invitation after Yuki insults him some more).

Yuki does show up at Shuichi and Hiro's performance, however, prompting Yuki's sister and her husband, big-time producer Toma Seguchi, to think that they might be able to use Shuichi to make Yuki go see his sick father. They tell Shuichi that he's got a good chance at a record deal if he uses his influence on Yuki. What Toma and Mika (Yuki's sister) don't realize is that Shuichi and Yuki aren't even really a couple. Yuki lied about their relationship to get Mika off his back. Of course, that doesn't mean that they won't necessarily have a real relationship in the future (which we know they will) - shortly after Yuki blew his sister off, he and Shuichi shared a steamy kiss that shocked them both. Currently, Shuichi is willing to admit he has feelings for Yuki. Yuki, on the other hand, won't admit to anything.

Shuichi calls off his deal with Toma, not realizing that he somehow managed to convince Yuki to go see his father. During a talk with Yuki's managing editor, Shuichi learns some shocking news: Yuki has a fiancee!

Commentary:

I can't believe I haven't written a single post about any of the Gravitation manga or anime yet. For a while, I was obsessed with the anime (which is based off the manga). I watched the entire anime TV series several times before finally beginning to read the manga, although I didn't begin the manga with the first volume, but rather the 8th.  This does make a difference, by the way. If you take a look at this volume and compare it to one of the later volumes, the first thing you'll probably notice is how much Murakami's artwork has changed. I think it's after volume 3 that her artwork undergoes a drastic transformation into something more similar to the style you'll find in the anime (which, by the way, has really uneven artwork, even if I was incapable of noticing it during my initial obsession).

I'm not sure I would have been as obsessed with this series if my first exposure to it had been this first manga volume. The artwork is not in a style I enjoy. In fact, my initial reaction would probably be to say that it's a mess. Also, either it was very difficult to apply good-looking screentone to this artwork, or the screentone work wasn't much better. I do occasionally like the artwork, and I kind of think that Shuichi looks better in this volume than he sometimes does in the later volumes. However, being primarily an Eiri Yuki fan (goodness knows why - literary masochism?), I tend to prefer the later volumes - he looks so much better then.

Actually, if I were going to recommend this series to anybody, I would probably recommend the anime before the manga. The anime tightens the plot a lot and scales back on the craziness, resulting in a finished product that is probably more likely to appeal to a wider audience. Certain details are changed, as well. For instance, Shuichi is not a high school student in the anime. I know he's a senior in this first volume of the manga, but it still seems rather...wrong...for Yuki to be behaving the way he does with Shuichi. Plus, the kiss. Good God.

Some things aren't really all that much different in the anime versus the manga, though. For instance, Yuki and Shuichi's personalities. Shuichi is a spaz in both versions of the series, and it's easy to see why Yuki is so hard on him. I mean, would you want to spend a lot of time with someone like Shuichi? I could practically hear his annoying, whiny voice as I read this volume. Yuki, too, is pretty much the same in both versions. Initially, he doesn't appear to have any redeeming qualities, other than being sexy.  And by "initially" I mean "this entire first volume, plus probably a bit later."  In fact, if I remember correctly, even in the later volumes he alternates between being sweet and being a cold bastard. Of course, in the later volumes you understand his reasons for acting the way he does. The main difference between Yuki in the anime versus Yuki in the manga is that it doesn't take quite so long to find out Yuki's reasons for being a cold bastard in the anime. Shuichi and Hiro's relationship is also pretty much the same in the manga versus the anime, although I think the incredibly...close...nature of their relationship is more pronounced in the manga. If it weren't for Hiro ending up with a girlfriend he likes very much later on in the series, I would suspect that he, too, might one day end up with a boyfriend.

After rereading this, though, I'm surprised that the series even got off the ground. I couldn't really see why Shuichi thought he loved Yuki, and I couldn't see what Yuki saw in Shuichi - basically, at the point it's just lust on both their parts.

Well, that's pretty much it. I don't really like this first volume, but I do like Gravitation's overall story. One last thought: I had forgotten that Yuki is supposed to be a writer of love stories that end tragically, so, when I got to the part that mentions that, the first thing I thought was "Oh no, he's Nicholas Sparks!" I don't know if even he has Sparks' ego, though.

Extras:

Freetalk sections written by Maki Murakami, with some behind-the-scenes info about the series. Sort of.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Fake (manga) by Sanami Matoh; Fake (anime OVA) - I've only seen the anime. I'm betting the manga has a slightly less rushed plot. This, like Gravitation, is considered shounen ai, although I've heard that later volumes of the manga get very explicit. Those who'd like more humorous shounen ai might want to try this.
  • Sensual Phrase (manga) by Mayu Shinjo - Those who'd like another steamy romance involving the music business might want to try this. The series focuses on a male (famous, mysterious singer with a dark past) and female (naive new lyricist) couple, so it's not shounen ai, but it might appeal nonetheless.
  • Skip Beat! (manga) by Yoshiki Nakamura - Again, a romance with show business for a background. And, again, this isn't shounen ai. However, those who liked Shuichi and Yuki's personalities might like the main characters in this series. Kyoko is energetic and kick-butt, willing to do anything to get back a the guy who had been using her for years. Ren is a famous and intense actor who seems to hate Kyoko for some reason. I haven't read much of the manga yet, but I did see the anime on Crunchy Roll. I can't believe it hasn't been dubbed and released in the US yet.
  • Descendants of Darkness (manga) by Yoko Matsushita; Descendants of Darkness (anime TV series) - This one is not quite shounen ai, although there are hints of it in the series. The main characters, Kurosaki and Tsuzuki, do have a lot of chemistry. Although Tsuzuki is technically the older and more experienced shinigami (god of death) of the pair, in personality he's most like Shuichi - happy-go-lucky and a bit dorky. Kurosaki, on the other hand, is standoffish and cold, much like Yuki.The two of them must work together on various cases, making sure that the dead stay dead and don't interfere with the living. Later on in the series (particularly in the manga, which I don't think was ever completed), things get pretty dark.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever (book) by Julia Quinn

Synopsis:

At the age of 10, Miranda Cheever showed no signs of Great Beauty. Even she knew that, although she didn't particularly like it when a girl named Fiona rubbed it in her face. It was shortly after this event that she fell in love with her best friend Olivia's 19-year-old brother, Viscount Turner. He told her he thought violet ribbons looked nice in brown hair. He also told her that she should keep a journal, "Because someday you're going to grow into yourself, and you will be as beautiful as you already are smart. And then you can look back into your diary and realize just how silly little girls like Fiona Bennet are. And you'll laugh when you remember that your mother said your legs started at your shoulders. And maybe you'll save a little smile for me when you remember the nice chat we had today." At the time, Turner had only wanted to make Miranda, a serious girl with large, sad eyes, happy. He had no way of knowing that his words would stay with Miranda for the next ten years.

While Miranda quietly suffered unrequited love, Turner fell madly in love with and married a horrible woman who cheated on him multiple times and finally died when she fell off the horse she was riding to meet her lover. The experience soured him towards both love and marriage, and, that night after his wife's funeral, he both kisses Miranda and behaves cruelly towards her. Miranda isn't sure what to think. On the one hand, she loves Turner, hopes his heart can heal, and hopes she can help his heart heal. On the other hand, the Turner she fell in love with may be dead and gone forever - why not consider Winston, Olivia's twin brother, who seems much like Turner was before marriage made him bitter?

In the end, though, Miranda can't seem to help but love Turner. She hates that her love is apparently unrequited, that he can dance with her and kiss her without feeling anything more than attraction, but there are always moments when it seems like he might one day be able to feel for her what she feels for him.

Eventually, the two do end up having sex. Afterward, after coming to his senses, Turner is well aware that, should anyone find out what they'd done, Miranda's reputation would be ruined, so he decides he'll do the honorable thing and marry her. Unfortunately, he dawdles for a couple months, quite enough time for Miranda to realize that she's pregnant and figure out what her next step should be. By the time Turner goes to find her at her grandparents' place in Scotland, she'd already miscarried, but he insisted that the two of them get married anyway. Although it breaks her heart that he still sees their marriage only as his duty, Miranda reluctantly agrees to marry him.

However incapable Turner is of saying "I love you," he has no problems with Miranda in bed, and it's not long before she's pregnant again. He thinks their marriage is a perfectly blissful one, but his inability to say the three words she wants to hear the most weighs heavily on Miranda, to the point where they rarely see each other near the end of her pregnancy. It isn't until Miranda has given birth to their daughter that Turner realizes he really does love Miranda and that this revelation isn't nearly as terrifying and horrible as the thought it would be . Unfortunately, Miranda lost a lot of blood during the birthing, and it doesn't look like she'll live long. To Turner's great joy, she does survive and is able to both name her child and hear the words she's always wanted to hear Turner say: "I love you."

Commentary:

I enjoyed this book, even if my synopsis sounds pretty depressing. It's weird: I alternated between hating Turner (whenever he acted bitter, immature, or just generally like an idiot) and really liking him (whenever he and Miranda actually got along). As far as I'm concerned, Turner's best moment was at the beginning of the book - I wanted to hug him for everything he told Miranda, even as I couldn't believe he didn't realize he was practically guaranteeing she'd develop a major crush on him. After that point, Turner did almost everything else wrong. Even though he knew Miranda wanted him to say he loved her, and even though he knew he couldn't, he still kissed her and slept with her. Even though he went and proposed to Miranda after sleeping with her, it took him two months to get around to it and he only really did it because he felt it was his duty. Every time he turned around, he was saying (or not saying) something that hurt Miranda.

I felt like Miranda deserved better, but, unfortunately, there wasn't really any better to be had. Olivia was like the sun to Miranda's moon - men flocked to Olivia and only went to Miranda if Olivia intimidated them too much or she was surrounded by too many people to make approaching her possible. Winston was the closest thing Turner had to a rival, and he wasn't really all that much of one. Miranda saw Winston as a younger, less bitter version of Turner rather than as himself, something that could never have gone very far and certainly would not have ended well.

The one thing that kept me from completely disliking Turner, aside from his occasional flashes of charm, was that, for the most part, he was aware that his behavior towards Miranda sucked. He knew he hurt her, he hated that he hurt her, he just couldn't make himself say the words he knew she wanted to hear, even though he kind of thought he might even mean those words.

I had never read any other Julia Quinn books before reading this one, although I now think that, the next time I head over to the used bookstore that's got all those 75% off books, I need to pick up everything I can find that she's written. When it comes to what I think is important in a romance novel, the emotional content, this book packed quite a punch. Even when I found myself disliking Turner and wishing that Miranda could just tell him to go to hell and then walk away without looking back, I couldn't put this book down. With romance novels, you always know there will be a happy ending (thank goodness), so I wasn't so much interested in how things would end as how the happy ending would be accomplished. How would Turner come to the realization that he had been an idiot? What would bring him to finally tell Miranda he loved her?

And then Quinn had me in tears when Miranda was seemingly on her death bed after giving birth to her daughter. Turner had finally, finally realized that he loved Miranda and that this was not a bad thing, and Miranda didn't even know. I knew that Miranda would be just fine, but that didn't stop me from crying at the thought that she might not be fine, that Turner would never get to tell her he loved her, and that she would never get to see her daughter.

The title of this book initially had me worried that it would be in diary format - I hate it when authors try things like that, because, in my opinion, it rarely works. However, the diary entries were only a small portion of the book, with the only odd one being the pseudo diary entry Miranda composes in her mind as she is dying (this sort of thing is exactly why I tend to hate books written in "special" formats - it forces the authors to bend over backwards and break the format's rules if they want to present something that doesn't quite fit the format they've decided upon). Overall, this was a really enjoyable book. I plan to read more of Quinn's stuff - I can only imagine how much I'd like one of her books if I liked the hero more.

Read-alikes:
  • Whitney, My Love (book) by Judith McNaught - I have yet to read anything by this author, but I think I may have to try her, because it sounds like her writing style might be similar to Quinn's. I chose this particular book for this list because it also contains a childhood infatuation, although, from the sounds of things, the heroine in this book discovers that her childhood love is not the person she really wants to end up with.
  • Rendezvous (book) by Amanda Quick - Another Regency romance with a hero whose deceased wife had been cheating on him. In addition to that similarity, Quick and Quinn also have somewhat similar writing styles. This book features a suspense subplot, in which the heroine is trying to prove that her brother was not a traitor.
  • Portrait of My Heart (book) by Patricia Cabot - I haven't actually read this one, or anything by the author. It just sort of came up during my search for more books for this list. Anyway, I chose it because it's another historical romance with a heroine and hero who have known each other for years. In this book, it's the hero, Jeremy, who's been wanting to marry the heroine for years, but Maggie, the heroine, doesn't believe herself to be duchess material and ends up getting engaged to another. Like Turner, Jeremy has some less than stellar qualities, and yet he still somehow manages to be endearing.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Love Story 2050 (live action movie), via Hulu

Synopsis:

Karan is an adrenaline junkie who doesn't care if his stunts kill him, because no one, certainly not his work-obsessed father, would care if he died. All that changes when he meets Sana.  Karan is instantly smitten and works hard to get Sana to let him into her life. Things are looking good - it doesn't take long for Sana to loosen up a little and be ok with having such a daredevil in her life, and Sana's mother loves Karan. Unfortunately, Sana dies in a tragic accident, and Karan is left heartbroken.

Karan's Uncle Ya, a brilliant and eccentric scientist, has a possible solution, however: the time machine he has been working on for 15 years finally works. He, Karan, and a couple stowaways (Sana's younger siblings) use the time machine to travel to Mumbai in the year 2050. There, they learn that Sana has been reincarnated as Zeisha, a world-famous mega-superstar.

Karan has only 30 days to get Zeisha, who seems to be the exact opposite of Sana in terms of personality, to remember her past life and love for him. If he can't get Zeisha to go with him back to his present (2008), he has to leave without her, because he would suddenly age 42 years if he stayed past the 30 days. Unfortunately, Karan, Uncle Ya, and the children must also evade Hoshi, an evil overlord type everyone fears because of his ability to teleport with his mind. Hoshi wants to get his hands on Uncle Ya's time machine.

Can Karan keep from getting killed by Hoshi, get back to the time machine on time, and convince Zeisha/Sana to go back to 2008 with him?  Of course he can. And he can do it with singing, dancing, and lots of outfits.

Commentary:

This is the first Bollywood movie I've ever watched all the way through - I've tried a couple others and only managed to get half an hour into those.  I can't really say why I did better with this one.  Maybe it helped that this one had more glitz and romance than the others (one was a thriller, and the other was a horror movie based on - or ripped off of - a Hollywood movie).

Whatever the reason, I'm impressed I managed to make it all the way through this nearly 3-hour long movie.  I added it to my Hulu queue because the time travel aspect of the movie sounded interesting to me, and yet at least the first hour of the movie made no mention of time travel.  Instead, it was a fairly conventional story about a guy falling in love with a woman who's very different from him and yet just what he's been looking for. While this part of the movie wasn't bad, it could (and should) have been edited down. The shocker came when Sana was killed right in front of Karan's eyes, run over as she crossed the street. Of course, the moment was a little ruined for me, because my first reaction was to scream, "No, Karan! Quit tragically picking her up and cradling her against your chest! Don't move her and call an ambulance." Possible spinal injuries, jeez.

When the story finally introduces actual time travel, it's a little disappointing. Although the special effects in this part of the movie aren't too bad (some things are more cheesy than others, while other things look really, really good), there's very little in this vision of the near future that's new.  In fact, this movie appears to have ripped off (or, to put it more nicely, been inspired by) quite a few other movies: I, Robot, The Fifth Element, A.I., and Star Wars, to name a few. Unfortunately, the blatant rip-offs weren't just limited to the visuals - the music featured at least one obvious rip-off that I was able to identify, something I would think would be a big no-no in a movie in which characters break into song and dance out of the blue. If you watch this movie, listen for a portion of what I believe is the theme song for the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. If you miss it the first time, don't worry, it gets repeated several times throughout the movie.

The overall impression that I got of this movie was that it was bright, pretty, and generally light and fluffy in content. Although it had plenty of action scenes, it failed to be a truly fast-paced movie due to a too-gentle editor who was apparently afraid to condense anything. It certainly wasn't the most terrible thing I've ever seen, but it definitely wasn't great, and the amount of material (imagery, futuristic technology, music, etc.) it "borrowed" from other movies makes it difficult to even say that the movie was creative or innovative in any way. It's a "meh" kind of movie.

One final comment, kind of a side note: The movie had subtitles for everything, even the occasional English bits (it took me a bit of getting used to, but the characters mixed quite a bit of English in with their Hindi). This made it easy to identify portions where the translation was less than stellar, or obviously censored.  Yes, the screen may have said "Aw, shucks," but that's not what I heard the character say.

Watch-alikes:
  • The Fifth Element (live action movie) - Love Story 2050's vision of the future looks a lot like what you find in this movie. Plus, the evil villains in both movies also seem pretty similar. The movie's not stellar, but Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich are fun enough to watch.
  • Back to the Future (live action movie) - A classic time travel movie, and one of Love Story 2050's obvious "inspirations." Uncle Ya reminded me a lot of Doc Brown.
  • Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (anime TV series) - This is another basically light-hearted story in which the characters travel (in this case, to alternate worlds/realities), trying to escape and/or put right something terrible that has happened in their own world.
  • What's Your Raashee? (live action movie) - Ok, like I said Love Story 2050 is the first Bollywood movie I've ever seen from start to finish, so I don't exactly have a lot of Bollywood experience. Unable to find a good recommendation tool, I'm left looking up stuff involving any of the same actors. If you'd like another light-hearted romance, this one sounds like it might work. Yogesh Patel (played by Harman Baweja, who played Karan in Love Story 2050) must get married in 10 days. He figures that the best way to find himself someone suitable is to meet one girl (all played by Priyanka Chopra, who played Sana/Zeisha) from each Raashee (sun sign).

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Maid to Match (book) by Deeanne Gist

Synopsis:

Eighteen-year-old Tillie has spent her whole life working towards one goal: becoming a lady's maid. As a lady's maid, she would be able to travel, meet famous/wealthy people, better support her family, and donate money to the local orphanage. If she can successfully pass a few more tests, she stands a good chance of becoming Edith Vanderbilt's lady's maid, and her goal will have been accomplished.

Things aren't quite so simple, however. The Vanderbilts hire Mack, a mountain man, because it would give them excellent bragging rights to have gorgeous twin footmen. Mack's twin is already a good footman, but Mack is going to need a lot of training to get up to snuff. It doesn't help that he doesn't really want the job - the only reason he agrees to work for the Vanderbilts is because he'd be paid more than he could earn anywhere else, and he needs the money to get his sister out of the orphanage and bring all his brothers back to the family's home in the mountains. Although Tillie refuses to believe it, Mack swears that the director of the orphanage has been abusing the children left in his care.

However tempting it may be, a romance with Mack would ruin Tillie's chances of becoming a lady's maid and would probably result in her dismissal. Even as she begins to have doubts about wanting to become a lady's maid, a life that would probably mean never getting married and never having children, she refuses to ruin her chances by being with Mack. Still, is being a lady's maid her dream, or is it really her mother's? Would becoming a lady's maid really allow her to do as much good as she thinks, or would it be better to become Mack's wife and take a more active role in helping out at the orphanage?

Commentary:

I have wanted to read this book for a while.  I've only read one other book by Gist, and, I have to say, although I thought that one was pretty good, I liked this one even better. I'm fairly new to Christian fiction in general and Christian romance in particular. Gist seems like a fantastic author to recommend to those who, like me, are used to reading secular fiction. Although "God stuff" does come up in her works, Gist doesn't seem to be too heavy-handed about it. In this book in particular, the "God stuff" is actually pretty light. During the first half of the book, it's just about nonexistent, and, in the second half, it's mostly limited to a few "what does God want me to do?" moments on Tillie's part.

As usual, Gist's writing is filled with all kinds of wonderful historical details. My knowledge of servant life is limited to English servants, and even then I don't know very much. The amount of detail in this book was wonderful, and I enjoyed the historical note Gist included at the end of the book.

One of my biggest complaints about Gist's The Measure of a Lady was my frustration with the main character's black-and-white view of the world, which sometimes made it difficult to like her. I didn't have that problem with this book. Both Tillie and Mack were enjoyable, likable characters. Tillie's desire to do good doesn't become too saccharine, and her refusal to believe what she was hearing about the director of the orphanage was perfectly understandable - after all, the entire town saw him as a fine, upstanding citizen, so why would she believe otherwise? Mack was prone to letting his temper get the best of him, getting into fights when he would have been better off dealing with problems in other ways. However, he only ever raised his fists at those he believed deserved it, and never women or children, and he gradually learned that fighting was not always the best way to solve problems. His horror when he realized that his own bad behavior at the Vanderbilt's could result in others, such as Tillie, being penalized, also went a long way towards making him likable.

I loved Tillie and Mack's relationship - there were some fantastic sparks flying between those two! Mack obviously adored Tillie, and there was no artifice in the way he dealt with her - he flat-out told her how he felt about her, and he demonstrated his feelings for her without once ever trying to make her feel jealous or otherwise force her to return those feelings in some way.

I suppose my love of Tillie and Mack's relationship leads to one of my few complaints about this book: the primary conflict keeping Tillie and Mack apart seemed a bit weak to me. It was obvious that Tillie and Mack were great together. It became increasingly obvious that the benefits of being a lady's maid would, for Tillie, probably not outweigh the drawbacks. Being a lady's maid would have been an excellent way to earn more money, which she could have used for the two things in her life that were most important to her, supporting her family and funding good organizations like the orphanage. However, lady's maids only last as long as their looks do, so her career would have been over by her early 30s. At that point, her chances of having a life like that of others in her station, with a husband and children, would be pretty slim, and yet she would not be able to fund the kind of life being a lady's maid would have accustomed her to. Tillie gets sick riding in carriages, so being able to travel would not have been of true benefit to her. Being a lady's maid would also have consumed so much of her time that the only good she could have done for others would have been with her money - volunteering her time for anything would have been impossible. As her father makes clear later in the book, Tillie siblings can support the family by getting jobs as they get older, so her monetary support isn't as necessary. Once Mack is offered the job of orphanage director, on the condition that he is married, all remaining reasons for Tillie not to be with Mack evaporate.

One thing about this book that may shock those expecting a gentle Christian story is a fairly dark event that happens near the book. Up to that point, it was very difficult for Mack to drum up enough suspicion about the orphanage director to get a proper investigation going. However, after one of the orphanage's children dies, this changes. The thing that makes this tragedy especially dark is that the child who dies isn't a random, unnamed child, but rather a girl that both Mack and Tillie had gotten to know a little. In fact, just before the girl's death, Tillie had promised to teach her how to sew, so that it would be easier for her to get proper employment after leaving the orphanage. It turns out that the orphanage director had a deal with the local brothel - the girls at the orphanage were intentionally not taught marketable skills, so that they would feel their only chance for survival once they became too old to live at the orphanage was to become prostitutes. I had expected that Tillie would manage to help the girl find a job after leaving the orphanage, and that this experience would prompt Tillie to realize that she could do more good in person rather than with monetary donations, so the girl's death was a shock.

Overall, I really liked this book and would recommend it to any reader of secular romance would wanted to delve into Christian romance but was afraid of anything too preachy or disgustingly sweet. Because of the very light amount of "God stuff," and because of the dark turn taken near the end of the book, this may not be considered an acceptable book for some regular readers of Christian fiction, however.

My list of read-alikes and watch-alikes is wimpy. I would love to find more books involving romance between a maid and footman (or other servant positions), but there don't seem to be any. 

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma (anime TV series) - Those who loved the historical details in Gist's book might want to try this. Set in England, this series focuses on the romance between Emma, a maid, and William, a member of the gentry. Gist's book reminded me a great deal of the second half of the series (last half of the manga series, the second season of the anime), in which Emma works in the Molders' household as part of a large staff. Alas, those who loved Gist's romance between a maid and a footman will be disappointed that nothing happens between Emma and Hans, the Molders' footman, but that doesn't mean the tension between the two of them isn't fun (FYI, this tension is much more pronounced in the anime).
  • Shirley (manga) by Kaoru Mori - Can you tell that my knowledge of stories featuring maids as main characters is largely limited to Mori's works? This manga focuses on a maid named Shirley and is set in a slightly more recent time period than her Emma series.
  • Lady on the Hill: How Biltmore Estate Became an American Icon (non-fiction book) by Howard E. Covington Jr. - Imagine my surprise when, shortly after finishing Maid to Match, I found myself cataloging this book at work.  For those who are interested in reading more about the Vanderbilts and the place where Tillie worked, this book might be a good fit.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Black Sun Silver Moon (manga, vol. 1) by Tomo Maeda

Synopsis:

Taki's family has always been really poor. When he was 17 (or maybe 18?) he learned that his father owed a debt to the church, which the priest Shikimi came to collect. Rather than asking for money Taki's family didn't have, Shikimi asked Taki to work for him. Taki thought Shikimi seemed nice (and it's not like he had much of a choice), so he agreed to do it.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Shikimi is a bit of a slave-driver. Every time Taki manages to finish cleaning something, Shikimi messes it up again. Shikimi also failed to mention that one of Taki's jobs was going to be killing undead creatures, beings Taki hadn't even realized existed.

Taki eventually realizes that, despite Shikimi's constant smile, Shikimi's life is rather sad. The primary reason Shikimi hired Taki was so that Taki could eventually kill him - it turns out that Shikimi is half demon and will eventually turn into one of the undead that he and Taki regularly kill. A while ago, Shikimi's eyes and hair turned from black to silver, a sure sign that someone is a demon. Because of this, the townspeople don't like Shikimi.  However, that doesn't stop Taki from deciding that Shikimi is actually a nice person (even after he curses the messes Shikimi makes). There are hints, though, the Shikimi may have done something really terrible: in addition to fearing him for being nearly a demon, the townspeople also call Shikimi a murderer. There is no explanation yet for why this is.

Taki and Shikimi are eventually joined by a small white dog. Although Taki usually isn't afraid of anything, dogs scare him - when he was little, he secretly took care of a small black dog that was eventually killed, and the self-hatred he felt about that developed into an aversion to dogs. Taki tries his best to overcome that aversion when he learns that Agi (the name Shikimi chose for the dog) is that same dog he cared for as a child. After it died, the dog's love for Taki turned it into an undead creature. According to Shikimi, undead creatures go after the ones they love first, biting them as a way to show their love (biting = really aggressive kisses). Since Agi will only ever bite Taki and can drink Shikimi's blood for sustenance, since Shikimi heals fast, they decide to keep Agi as a pet.

Additional manga - "Magic Words":

Raru, the king of Imulu, is supposed to choose a bride for himself, but he refuses - he's tired of princesses who are only interested in his kingdom, not him. Every princess he's ever met has always been shocked and dismayed to learn that he's the king. You see, although he's an adult, he looks like a little kid. For unknown reasons, he never really developed an adult body.

Most of the current crop of princesses think the Raru's servant Adelle is actually the king, so they swarm around him. This leaves Raru free to be with the one princess who seems perfectly content to keep him company, Seshun, a woman with two different colored eyes. Even though Seshun thinks Raru is a little kid, she seems to like his company and treats him well.  However, things can't go on like this forever, and Seshun eventually figures out that Raru is the real king. Although Raru doesn't remember it, when he and Seshun were kids, he comforted a crying Seshun by telling her that he thought she was pretty. Everyone had always made fun of her for her odd eyes, so this really touched her. As a child, she was determined to marry Raru.

So, Raru's true identity is revealed. The story doesn't end with him proposing to Seshun, and Raru still has the body of a little kid, but I imagine a proposal isn't far behind.

Commentary:

I don't know how I feel about this one. The artwork is nice, the story is ok...overall, it's just ok.  It feels like a story I've read a billion times before. It's not bad, so I can see myself hunting down later volumes of this series, but there's not sign yet of something that will really set it apart from other works.

I'm sure that Shikimi's story will be the source of much future angst, but, so far at least, it looks like Maeda won't let things get too depressing. When Shikimi's bleak story starts to become too sad, Taki becomes the optimistic idiot who snaps him out of it. Then, when Taki slips back into griping house slave mode, Shikimi becomes his ever smiling self again. Although it's a little early to be saying this (after only reading one volume), this series could very well turn out to be a "tragic death" series, particularly since Taki swore that he would die alongside Shikimi, but I suppose I could also see Maeda somehow pulling a happy ending out of it all.

When I first flipped through this volume, I could have sworn I saw at least one moment where it looked like Maeda was going to have a romantic relationship develop between Taki and Shikimi, but when I actually read the volume that turned out not to be the case. Still, the two seem to have the relationship dynamics of Kurogane and Fai (Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle), if not really the massive amounts of chemistry - a hinted-at romantic relationship might not totally be out of the picture.

The dog was adorable, and the part where its origins were explained made me a bit teary-eyed, even as the whole "bite = aggressive kiss" bit made me want to gag.  Plus, the very existence of the cute zombie dog breaks the rules of the story. From what we'd seen so far, zombies (or whatever you want to call these undead creatures) kill things, anything that gets in their way. This dog is just as sweet as when it was alive and only ever bites Taki. If you decide to accept the dog, then it just becomes strange that neither Shikimi nor Taki try to figure out why the dog is so different from the other undead creatures they've encountered.  You'd think they'd want to figure out how to help Shikimi become a less dangerous version of the undead, just in case they can't figure out how to cure him completely.

I actually found I liked the additional manga more than the main story. The characters in the additional manga were very cute (although an actual romantic relationship between Seshun and Raru would probably be...icky). In general, Maeda seems very good at depicting sweet relationships.

Extras:

A few four-panel comic strips featuring funny little things with Taki and Shikimi; a translator's note explaining Kokkuri-san; bonus info from the author about some of the characters and some of the chapters in the volume.

Read-alikes:
  • XxxHolic (manga) by CLAMP; XxxHolic (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another series with a main character who's basically the griping servant of another character, the slave driver, might want to try this. Like Black Sun Silver Moon, there are strong supernatural and mystery elements.
  • Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (manga) by CLAMP; Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (anime TV series) - The relationship between Taki and Shikimi reminded me a lot of the relationship between two of the supporting characters in this series, Kurogane and Fai.  Like Shikimi, Fai is always smiling, although he's got some dark secrets he doesn't want anyone to know. This series also has a lot of supernatural and mystery elements, plus quite a bit of action.
  • Tactics (anime TV series) - Apparently this is based on the Tactics manga, but I've never read it and, actually, what I've heard about it hasn't been all that good.  The anime is ok.  Those who'd like another mysterious story with similar "I'm griping about you but actually kind of like you" master-servant relationships might want to try this.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Twelve Kingdoms, Complete Collection (anime TV series)

If you asked me "what do you think about this series?" while I was watching it, I might have said either "I love it" or "I hate it" depending upon the part I was watching at the time. It's that kind of series. It starts off fairly weak, gets stronger, then gets pretty weak again, gets stronger, etc. Unfortunately, it ended weak. I'm not sure what happened, but I remember reading somewhere that the original plan was to cover the events of all the books in the series (this anime is based on a series of novels by Fuyumi Ono). Unfortunately, the anime wasn't able to go on that long and only covers 4 books (I'm pretty sure) of the 11-volume series. All those partially finished storylines are maddening.

Despite the show's many flaws, however, it's still going on my "never even think about selling" pile. My reasons: the kirin are pretty, Youko gets to lead an army, and Shoryu is awesome.

Synopsis:

Youko has spent her life always doing what she thinks other people expect her to do. One day, however, her life is turned upside down by a strange man with long blond hair. He finds her at school and pledges his loyalty to her. A confused and frightened Youko is given the ability to slay terrifying beasts that are trying to kill her. The strange man, Keiki, takes Youko and her friends Asano and Sugimoto back to the Twelve Kingdoms with him.

In this first part of the anime, Youko gets separated from Keiki and her two friends. She must learn to come to terms with a world where everyone seems to do only what's in his or her own best interests. Her life is in constant danger for reasons she can't fathom, and the sword she carries with her for protection is determined to drive her insane. Eventually she finds people she can trust, including a hanjyuu (half-beast) named Rakushun. Youko learns to her shock and dismay that she's the new queen of the kingdom of Kei. The king of Kou had been trying to kill her, even sending her friend Sugimoto after her, in order to keep Kei from becoming richer and making his own kingdom look bad. In the end, the king of Kou accidentally kills his own kirin, which will mean his own death in the near future. Youko defeats the false queen of Kei, frees Keiki, and takes the throne. With Keiki's help, Youko sends Sugimoto back to Japan. Asano is still nowhere to be found and possibly even dead.

The second portion of the anime focuses on the story of Taiki, the kirin of Tai, whose eggfruit was torn from the world of the Twelve Kingdoms and deposited in the belly of a woman in our world. Eventually, Taiki is found and brought back to the Twelve Kingdoms, where he learns what it is to be a kirin and chooses the new king of Tai. At first, Taiki is terrified that he made a selfish and incorrect choice, but he is eventually shown that it is impossible for a kirin to choose anyone but a kingdom's true ruler. This entire portion of the anime is presented as though it were a story being told to Youko and Keiki.

The third portion of the anime is complicated, involving the intertwining of three different characters' stories. There is Shoukei, the pampered princess of Hou, whose father is killed after he begins executing his people for committing crimes of any sort. During her father's reign, Shoukei was beautiful and immortal. After his death, she is bitter at the loss of her immortality and at the gradual loss of her physical youth and beauty, and she must live in fear of what the people of Hou will do to her if anyone ever finds out she used to be the princess. There is Suzu, a young Japanese girl who ended up in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, unable to speak the language and generally mistreated by others. Even after she becomes a sen-nin, an immortal who can speak the language of the Twelve Kindoms, Suzu's life is still little better than that of a slave. There is Youko, who, although now queen of Kei, seems incapable of making anyone take her seriously. She has no idea how to rule her kingdom and doesn't even know whose opinion she can trust.

After Shoukei and Suzu hear about Youko, they both travel to meet her. Shoukei wants to steal Youko's kingdom from her, believing herself to be more deserving of it. Suzu believes that Youko, a kaikyaku (person in the Twelve Kingdoms who is originally from Japan), will understand her, sympathize with her, and be her friend.

During their journey to see Youko, both girls change. Shoukei learns that she does indeed have a lot to atone for. Suzu learns that Youko may not, in fact, be the perfect person she was hoping she would be and becomes determined to kill her. During all of this, Youko has been spending most of her time and energy trying to learn what her kingdom is actually like, and she doesn't like what she sees. Corruption is rampant, and there is little Queen Youko can do about it. However, when Youko learns that there is a revolution brewing, she decides that there is something she can do about the current situation if she acts as nothing more than another revolutionary. In the end, Youko reclaims her kingdom and has many corrupt officials arrested and replaced. She offers both Shoukei and Suzu a place in her court and they both accept.

Once again in the guise of a story (one being told to Youko by Shoryu), the anime goes backwards in time, to the time when Enki, the kirin of En, was a child born in Japan. After his village is wiped out in a war, he is abandoned by his parents and almost dies before he is found and brought back to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Firmly believing that all of a kingdom's problems are caused by rulers, Enki is horrified when he learns that, as the kirin of En, he is expected to choose the kingdom's next ruler. Eventually, though, he does find and choose Shoryu, who was the young master of the Komatsu clan in feudal Japan. After Shoryu's clan is wiped out, Enki takes him to his new kingdom, En.

At first, no one, not even Enki, has faith in Shoryu's abilites as a ruler. He rarely attends court and must constantly be dragged back to the palace, usually after he has spent all his money on prostitutes and gambling. Convinced that Shoryu is a war-hungry idiot, Enki allows himself to be captured by Kouya (a friend of Enki's and someone who was raised by a demon) and Atsuyu, a governor of a province in En. Atsuyu wants to overthrow Shoryu. He says he wants this for the good of the people, but, as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, his own people turn against him. Shoryu arranges things so that the people in Atsuyu's province see the royal army not as an invading force, but rather as something meant to help them. When Atsuyu opposes the royal army, then, he pits his army against his own people. Eventually, Shoryu is forced to kill Atsuyu. He promises Kouya that he will one day make En a kingdom where demons and humans can live together peacefully.

Commentary:

I'll start by talking about the things I disliked about this show, so I can end by talking about all the things I liked about it. Because, overall, I did like it.

1) I didn't like the beginnings of several of the story arcs - mainly the first one with Youko and the later one with Shoukei and Suzu. All three of those girls were annoying at the beginnings of their stories. Youko was a weak and whimpering girl who later became hard and distrustful. It wasn't until she thawed a bit that I actually started to like her - I think I had to make it to the second DVD before that happened. Even when she was likable, she wasn't quite believable - how humble can one character be before they start to appear saintly? Although their initial flaws were different from Youko's, Shoukei and Suzu were similarly easy to dislike at first, eventually morphing into characters that were almost unbelievably good and humble.

2) The artwork was occasionally sloppy. No, it was never as bad as the worst shows I've seen, but I shouldn't be watching two characters talk and thinking "the angle of that person's mouth is really odd in comparison to the rest of her face."

3) Keiki was lame. Thank goodness I had already read the first two books of the series and knew not to expect much from him. So many anime series have trained female viewers like me to expect that pretty male characters with long flowing hair will either fight alongside equally awesome female characters or act as protectors. Of course, these pretty male characters would also be love interests. Right away in this series, Keiki not only doesn't fight, he flat out tells Youko that she has to do all the fighting for the both of them and hands her a sword she can use. Actually, that bit was kind of funny.

4) I hated how Taiki, Shoryu, and Enki's stories were turned into "tales being told to Youko." I know that the anime's creators were probably at a loss as to how to turn this series into a single coherent story, but the way they chose to do it was boring and didn't always make a lot of sense. Along that same vein, I know that Sugimoto and Asano were used to make certain parts of the book easier to communicate in the anime - that doesn't mean I didn't hate them and wish they hadn't been included. Sugimoto was annoying and kept reminding me of the horrible "clashes between friends" that was Fushigi Yuugi (although I'd argue that Youko and Sugimoto were never friends to begin with). Asano, on the other hand, was just useless - ineffectual in both life and death.

5) I hated the ending. I know there's probably an explanation for why the series ended with an episode that was little more than a recycling of clips from the final story arc, probably something to do with funding suddenly being yanked. Whatever the explanation (and there had better be one, because what kind of moron would do something like this on purpose?), it was a terrible way to end the series. I already intensely disliked the "interlude" episodes for generally being worthless on DVD (I can see their usefulness in a weekly televised show, where a story arc recap might be helpful, but it still seems like a cheap way to pad the episode count). I did not see the benefit in ending the series with one of them. It seemed like a waste, when there were still loose ends like the whereabouts of Taiki waiting to be tied up.

Now that I've written all about the things I hated about this show, I'll write about the things I liked about it.

1) Once Youko got over being all whimpery, she was pretty awesome. True, her fighting skills were due to a hinman (a water spirit Keiki had ordered to possess her), but it was still fun to watch her kick monster butt. Plus, in her later story arc, she got to face down a whole army. How awesome is that?

2) The whole world of the Twelve Kingdoms is interesting and complex. I watched the show twice, first in Japanese with English subtitles and then in English, and during my second viewing I realized how much I hadn't noticed. Lots of characters make multiple appearances throughout the series - I remembered that Suzu appeared as early as Taiki's story, but I hadn't realized that Kouya had appeared that early in the series as well. I liked learning how the whole world worked, even if certain aspects were kind of depressing, like the poor kirin, who basically have no choice about anything.

3) Shoryu is awesome. The guy managed to set things up so that his enemy couldn't oppose him without making his own people turn against him. Very cool. Plus, any guy who can wear a pretty, flowing pink bow and still look manly gets a thumbs up from me.

4) The kirin. I know, I said Keiki was lame, but he was also pretty. Although Taiki probably would have been just as useless in a fight as Keiki, what with the whole allergy to blood thing, watching him face down the toutetsu was fun. Let's see...Keiki was the pretty one, Taiki was the awesome/cute one, and Enki was the smart-mouthed one - every one of them had some aspect that I liked. In addition, even if the kirin weren't, by themselves, always cool, they traveled with beings that were pretty nifty.

5) The anime clarified a lot of things that had confused me in the book. I may not have always liked how the creators of the anime chose to do things, but it was a lot easier to figure out who was who and what happened when. I wish the entire series had been made into an anime - I just know there will be things in future books that will confuse the heck out of me.

6) Some things in this series were just beautiful. The music was lovely and fit the series well. Even though the artwork definitely had rough spots, the backgrounds were often very nice. You could tell, too, that the animators must have had a soft spot for Youko, because she, in particular, tended to look really good, especially during the arc in which she is queen.

So, overall, I liked this anime. As long as I don't think too much about the way it ended...if I do that, then I start to get angry.

I highly recommend watching this in Japanese with English subtitles, rather than dubbed in English. The English dub voice acting often felt awkward, and I think the casting was, in general, badly done. Some voice actors were reused far too often - while several members of the Japanese cast also voiced many characters, I found it much more noticeable in the English cast. Those who are sticklers for name and word pronunciation will cringe at the way some characters' names and some Twelve Kingdoms words are said. Although there are moments when the English dub is good and certain characters (unfortunately only minor ones, in my opinion) who are consistently done well, the Japanese language track is much, much better. I could believe that Aya Hisakawa, Youko's Japanese voice actor (and the voice of Yuki Sohma in Fruits Basket!), might get mistaken for a guy, but Midge Mayes always sounded like an annoying girl to me.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • The 10th Kingdom (live action mini-series); The 10th Kingdom (book) by Kathryn Wesley - In this mini-series, a New York waitress and her father are transported into a world filled with fairy tale people, places, and magic. If they are to survive and get back to their own world, they have to help a prince regain his true form. Those who'd like another story in which characters are transported into a strange and sometimes dangerous world might want to try this. The special effects in the mini-series are sometimes a bit cheesy, but it's still fun to watch. Anyone disappointed by the lack of romance in The Twelve Kingdoms will probably like that there is romance in both the mini-series and the book (which is a novelization of the mini-series).
  • The Story of Saiunkoku (anime TV series) - Those who'd like another series set in a pseudo-historical world might want to try this. Shurei, the main character, is, like Youko, a female character who (for the most part) doesn't let romance rob her of her brain. This series has more romance than The Twelve Kingdoms, but not nearly as much as one might expect - the bulk of the story deals with court politics and adventure.
  • Fushigi Yuugi (manga) by Yuu Watase; Fushigi Yuugi (anime TV series) - Two friends are transported into a book - the main character, Miaka, becomes the priestess of Suzaku, while Yui becomes the priestess of Seiryu and her enemy.  This one might be good for those who liked the idea of someone being transported to another world but wanted way more romance - most of the male characters in this series are handsome, several of them love Miaka, and there are even a few who love Yui.
  • Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - A teenage girl is transported to the past, a time filled with demons and magic. Together with Inuyasha, a half-demon, and several others, she must find and purify the shards of the Shikon Jewel. This series has more humor and romance than The Twelve Kingdoms but may still appeal to those looking for another "transported to another world" story.
  • Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore - This YA book might be a good suggestion for those who'd like something else starring a strong female character ("strong" being a bit of an understatement in this case) who, like Youko, must survive great danger. This adventure takes place in a pseudo-historical world in which some people develop into Gracelings, people with amazing special skills.
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Talia is a dreamer who longs to leave her restrictive home and live with Heralds and their Companions. When she is given the chance to do just that, she must also figure out how to deal with those who would do anything to keep her from getting in the way of their ambitions. Those who were particularly intrigued by the kirin and their relationships with their rulers might want to try this book or perhaps another book in the series.  There are times when the Companions are a great deal like the kirin.
  • Daughter of the Blood (book) by Anne Bishop - The first in a trilogy focusing on several powerful, emotionally damaged characters. For centuries, Daemon has waited for Witch, a woman he is determined to serve and love. Somehow, Daemon and others must protect Witch, who is still a child, so that she can grow into her power and save everyone from the corruption that has almost destroyed the Blood. It's a dark series, but a good one. The Queen of Kyou prompted me to add this to my list of read-alike suggestions - there is something about her that reminds me of Bishop's Queens, or at least makes me think of what they could have been.
  • Blue Sword (book) by Robin McKinley - Those who loved finding out about how the world of the Twelve Kingdoms works might want to try this book, which also includes a lot of interesting world-building details. Like The Twelve Kingdoms, the main character in this one is a young woman who must gradually become stronger and more capable, to the point where she is able to lead others against an entire army.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...