Sunday, July 31, 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Complete Book 2 Collection (non-Japanese animation, TV series)

Synopsis:

Early on in the season, Aang learns that he cannot fight the Fire Nation solely in the Avatar state - as powerful as the Avatar state is, if he dies while he's in it, the Avatar reincarnation cycle will be broken. So, Aang, Katara, Sokka, Momo, and Appa continue to travel, searching for an Earthbending master willing and able to teach Aang Earthbending.

Aang finds this new mentor in Toph. Toph is such an incredible Earthbender that, although she is blind, she is able to see via her Earthbending (she has to have her bare feet on earth, and she can only actually "see" things that are touching the ground).

Aang and the rest of his group learn that a solar eclipse will occur soon. Just as a lunar eclipse weakened Waterbenders in the first season, a solar eclipse will weaken Firebenders. With help, Aang stands a good chance at beating Firelord Ozai and the Fire Nation. Unfortunately, help turns out to be hard to get. First Appa is stolen, forcing the group to try and find him on foot. Then, when the group tries to get an audience with the Earth King at Ba Sing Se, they find themselves blocked by bureaucracy and corruption.

Meanwhile, Princess Azula, Prince Zuko's ruthless sister, is trying to capture (or maybe just kill) Aang. Zuko is also still on Aang's trail, but his Uncle Iroh has started rubbing off on him, and while in Ba Sing Se he begins to reevaluate his life and the kind of future he wants for himself.

Review:

It's been a while since I last saw season 1, so there are details I've forgotten and I can't really say for sure whether season 2 is better than season 1...but I suspect it is. Things become less black-and-white in this season. The Fire Nation may still be the primary enemy (although I'm sure that in the final season Aang and his group will remember that the Fire Nation is just one of the four nations and not actually an enemy, they're not quite to that point yet), but the Earth Kingdom is shown to have its own issues.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Family Complex (manga) by Mikiyo Tsuda

Synopsis:

This one-shot focuses on each of the members of the almost entirely beautiful Sakamoto family.
  • Akira (the youngest son - 14 years old) - He's the only member of the family who's not incredibly beautiful, so (and here's where the title comes from) he's got a bit of a complex about his family. He hates it when he's out in public with his family and everyone fawns all over his family members. It makes him feel like he doesn't belong.
  • Harumi (the oldest son - 17 years old) - He doesn't have friends - he has servants. And he hates it. He wants nothing more than to go out and have fun with friends like a normal high school student, but he can't do that when all his classmates put him on a pedestal and call him Sakamoto-sama. The only person he's really close to is his little brother, Akira.
  • Natsuru (oldest daughter - 16 years old) - Natsuru is a tomboy who even looks like a very pretty boy. She doesn't fit in with other girls, because they all fawn over her and fight over her like she's a boy, and she doesn't really fit in with the boys, either. When she was younger, Harumi used to tell her that she should be more girlie, but she wasn't sure if she could do it or if it would even make a difference in how others treated her.
  • Fuyuki (the youngest child in the family, and youngest daughter - 10 years old) - She looks like a beautiful doll. Although she gets along well with her family members, she never knows what to say to those outside her family. Because she agonizes so much over the meaning of what others have said to her and what she should say to them in return, she ends up not speaking at all. Most of her classmates think she's weird and too quiet - pretty, but not much besides that.
  • Hidetoshi (father), Nanami (mother) - During the chapters about the kids, both of these characters are 41 years old. Hidetoshi looks like he could be another older brother in the family, and baby-faced Nanami looks potentially younger than Natsuru. A short story later in the volume shows the two of them as they were 20 years ago. Nanami hated looking young and cute and wanted to be more womanly, while Hidetoshi hated looking beautiful and wanted to look more manly. They meet during a women's apparel contest Nanami organized, which Hidetoshi's friend entered him in without telling him.
There are also a few pages that show the various Sakamoto kids after the events in the chapters that focused on them.

Review:

Mikiyo Tsuda (and her BL pseudonym, Taishi Zaou) is my guilty pleasure. Her stories aren't exactly deep and moving. Her characters and situations may only have the most tenuous of connections to reality. However, I love her sense of humor and the way she draws her characters so much that it doesn't matter.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Arsene Lupin (e-book) by Edgar Jepson and Maurice Leblanc

This is another Project Gutenberg book.

I tried to avoid spoilers, but it still may be possible to guess certain things about the book based on what I've written here. However, as I say in my review, I guessed a few things very early on and still enjoyed the story. Arsene Lupin is just plain fun.

Synopsis:

I'll start by listing the characters.
  • Arsene Lupin - The gentleman thief.
  • M. Gournay-Martin - A millionaire. Sometime in the past, Arsene Lupin sent him a letter telling him that he planned to steal several of the paintings in his collection, as well as the coronet of the Princesse de Lamballe. Lupin took the paintings, as promised, but did not manage to get the coronet.
  • Germaine - The millionaire's snooty daughter. She's about to marry the Duke of Charmerace.
  • Sonia - A servant in the millionaire's household. She's lovely and delicate and puts up with Germaine without complaint. She's secretly in love with the Duke.
  • Duke of Charmerace - About to marry Germaine, although he seems to like Sonia more than he does his fiancee. He became engaged to Germaine seven years ago and, shortly after that, left to go to the South Pole. He was only supposed to be gone for 3 years and ended up being gone for 7.
  • Chief-Inspector Guerchard - A great detective who is obsessed with catching Arsene Lupin.
At the beginning of the book, Sonia is preparing Germaine and the Duke's wedding invitations. When Lupin informs M. Gournay-Martin, via a letter, that he plans to steal more of his paintings and finally get the coronet, the millionaire panics. It's not entirely clear, at first, whether the letter is really from Lupin or just from someone pretending to be Lupin. It doesn't matter - M. Gournay-Martin wants the police, particularly Guerchard, to help protect his collection. If the police cannot keep the items from being stolen, Guerchard may be the only one who can help get everything back.

Review:

Maurice Leblanc's Arsene Lupin books are my favorite Project Gutenberg find. This is the second Lupin book I've read, and, although I don't think it was as good as The Extraordinary Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Burglar (which is actually a collection of short stories, rather than a novel), it was still a lot of fun. Well, except for the gripes I have about the ending. And Sonia. But more about that later.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sleight of Hand (e-novella) by Katrina Strauss

Sleight of Hand is a short erotic paranormal m/m romance story. Both All Romance and Samhain Publishing include it in their steampunk categories as well, which is a decision I'm not entirely sure I agree with.

On my Nook, Sleight of Hand is under 50 pages, if you don't count the excerpt from Barbara Sheridan and Anne Cain's Lost Souls that is included at the end. According to All Romance, it is 17,403 words. Considering the page/word count, the $2.50 price tag is kind of high (I wish Samhain charged less for short works). For me, it turned out to be money well spent.

Synopsis:

Edwin, his sister Alma, and their mother are journeying by train to Alma's fiance, a man who is much older than her but makes up for it by having quite a bit of money. Since Edwin has always been fragile, Alma realizes that this is probably the best option for her and her family's future, but Edwin doesn't like it. Still, he has to admit that he's not quite well. For one thing, he has dreams of some kind of fiery disaster, dreams that keep him from ever getting a good night's sleep. For another, as much as he tries to squelch his feelings, Edwin has always found himself more attracted to other men than to women.

While on the train, Edwin meets a man who may be able to help him: Marco Satori, a handsome and mysterious magician.

Review:

I was browsing a review blog when I came across Sleight of Hand's cover art, which caused my “ooh, pretty” reaction to kick in. I read the review and was intrigued. I was a little concerned by the bit in Samhain Publishing's “warning” that mentioned “dubious consent,” but I decided to take my chances. I'm glad I did.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Hunger Games (book) by Suzanne Collins

Synopsis:

Sometime in the future, everyone in Panem, located in what used to be North America, lives at the Capitol or in Districts 1 through 12. Every year, one boy and one girl are chosen from each district to be tributes at the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games, which were started after some past rebellion and are meant to discourage future rebellion, require that each tribute try to kill the other tributes until only one is left. The remaining tribute gets to live out his or her life in comfort, although each year he or she must coach the district's newest tributes. Each district is forced to watch the tributes kill each other, and viewers at the Capitol sponsor their favorite tributes (sponsors can send their tributes useful gifts, like food or medicine) and bet on who will win.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss lives in one of the worst districts, District 12. Just getting enough food on her family's table requires that she enter herself for more and more chances to be part of the Hunger Games. The illegal poaching she does with Gale (sort of a friend, if Katniss can be said to have friends) helps somewhat, but it's not always enough.

When the time comes for the Hunger Games lottery, Katniss is relieved when her name is once again not drawn - but that relief doesn't last long. Despite only having one entry in the lottery, Prim, Katniss' sister, is chosen to be part of the Hunger Games. Knowing that Prim couldn't possibly survive, and unable to bear the thought, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Then the male tribute chosen turns out to be Peeta. Katniss doesn't know Peeta well, but she remembers him as the boy who gave her bread when she and her family were starving. She doesn't want to have to kill him, but she doesn't want to die, either.

Review:

This book took me a lot longer to read than it should have. I read the first three quarters or so very quickly, carried on by a need to know what was going to happen, who was going to survive, and how they were going to manage it. The closer I got to the end, however, the harder it was for me to continue reading. I spent some time thinking about why this was, and I think I now have the answer, although Hunger Games fans may “boo” me for it: I started to hate Katniss.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ash (book) by Malinda Lo

During Pride Week, Dear Author had a post recommending YA fiction, and this was one of the recommended books. I still intend to read Boy Meets Boy, but I decided to read Ash first because 1) the cover is gorgeous and 2) I was thrilled by the idea of f/f fiction that did not end depressingly and did not read like porn.

One thing, though: don't go into this expecting the romance to be present right away. Ash and Kaisa don't start to spend a lot of time with each other until halfway through the book. This book isn't so much romance as it is fantasy.

Synopsis:

Shortly after his wife's unexpected death, Ash's father remarries. His new wife does not appear to like Ash very much, and Ash's new stepsisters are not particularly friendly, but Ash doesn't experience the full brunt of their dislike until after her father dies. Ash's stepmother turns her into the family's servant (practically the family's slave), claiming that this is only just, considering that the family is hurting financially because Ash's father's business had been doing badly.

The death of Ash's mother put her into such despair that she used to visit her mother's grave every night, despite warnings from others that she shouldn't, because she might attract fairies. After Ash's father dies, she drifts further away from the world of mortals, emotionally, and begins a strange and probably unhealthy friendship with a fairy named Sidhean. Although Ash wouldn't mind it if Sidhean stole her away from the world of mortals entirely, for some reason he doesn't.

Then Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, and things begin to change. She finds herself longing for Kaisa's company to the point where she doesn't even notice how long it's been since she last spent time with Sidhean. Kaisa seems equally interested in Ash - she tells Ash her favorite fairy story, teaches her how to ride, and doesn't seem to mind that Ash is only a servant.

Ash begins to recognize that what she feels for Kaisa is love, but if she is to stay with Kaisa, she must somehow figure out how to break free of her stepmother's control and the hold Sidhean still has upon her.

Review:

This is really a lovely story. Fairy stories are not only a big part of the book, the book itself reads like a fairy tale. It is loosely based on the story of Cinderella, but Lo doesn't feel the need to include every last detail of the basic story, so the result is something that feels very natural and new.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (manga, vol. 3) by Karuho Shiina

Synopsis:

Sawako is invited to hang out with friends for the first time in her life. She eats ramen with Yano and Yoshida at Ryu's family's ramen place. When Yano realizes that Sawako probably has a crush on Kazehaya, she encourages Sawako to call Kazehaya and invite him to join them. Then, when he arrives, Yano messes with him a bit. It's an overall cute, fun gathering.

Next, the school is gearing up for its sports festival. Kazehaya has been assigned to be part of the sports festival committee, which means he'll be spending a lot of time with Kurumi, a girl who appears cute and nice on the surface but who seems to be manipulating others into pairing her and Kazehaya up. When she notices that Kazehaya likes Sawako, she declares herself one of Sawako's friends, with the intention of manipulating Sawako into giving up on Kazehaya and helping her end up with him instead.

Other than the whole Kurumi situation, things are going well in Sawako's life (and Sawako, by the way, doesn't even realize that Kurumi is trouble waiting to happen). Yano and Yoshida are trying to get Sawako to be more relaxed with her fellow students. They start by encouraging her to call her friends by their first names. Yano is Ayane, Yoshida is Chizu, and then there's Tomo and Ekko. Yano, who I will call Ayane from now on, continues to try to encourage the budding romance between Kazehaya and Sawako. She tells Sawako to try calling Kazehaya by his first name, Shota. Of course, Sawako tries, but she can't manage it. Kazehaya also can't manage to call Sawako by her first name (he calls her Kuronuma), which later causes Sawako to become upset, because he seems to be able to refer to Kurumi by her first name.

Review:

Okay, first, I have to admit that I was not able to stick to my personal rule of only reading the next volume after I'd written a post about the volume I just finished reading. I recently finished volume 6 and probably would have read more if I owned volume 7. The good news is that this means I already know how all the Kurumi stuff ends. The bad news is that it's going to take a little extra willpower on my part to write posts about volumes 4 to 6.

The Lark and the Wren (e-book) by Mercedes Lackey

This book is part of the Baen Free Book Library. I downloaded it because I could not find my paper copy of the book, and because I wanted to see what I could expect from Baen's e-books, in terms of formatting and general readability. Just based on this one book, I'm not sure I'd want to pay even Baen's admittedly cheap prices for their e-books, unless e-format was my only option. This particular book can be bought cheaply online or at a used bookstore, and in the paper version hyphens and dashes would actually look different, there wouldn't be the occasional paragraph that was either combined with another paragraph or broken apart in mid-sentence, and visual cues indicating scene/POV changes would always be present. The problems aren't actually that major (the only consistent and pervasive problem is that the hyphens and dashes look the same), but they're a bit annoying when I know that the paper version looks fine and that there are e-books out there with absolutely no formatting issues.

Synopsis:

This book is set in a fantasy world that is very much like Europe sometime in the past.

Rune has spent her entire young life working at a small inn. When work slows down and customers request it, she can do what she loves - play her fiddle. After the inn's owner's kind wife dies, however, Rune gets fewer opportunities to play, and townsfolk start treating her worse. When her mother begins jockeying to become the inn's owner's next wife, Rune wonders what will become of her.

A dare prompts her to go and play for the Skull Hill Ghost, who rewards her for her music with more silver than she's ever seen in her life. Since her life at the inn appears to be little more than a dead end, Rune decides to take her silver and make a new life for herself. Her goal is to become a Guild Bard, but first she'll need to find teachers who can help her fill in the gaps in her musical training.

What Rune thinks she wants to do with her life may not actually be what's best for her, however. Eventually, she learns about the Free Bards and even finds love among them. As one of the Free Bards, she meets a young man with a gift for music. The young man could make an excellent Free Bard, but he won't survive long enough to do anything if Rune and her companions can't figure out how to protect him from the assassins that are after him.

Review:

If you think my synopsis seems a little “all over the place,” that's because the book itself kind of is. The Free Bard stuff doesn't even come up until maybe halfway through, although Lackey at least doesn't drop it in totally out of the blue, since readers will probably have noticed and wondered about all the musicians in Rune's life who seemed to mysteriously know who she was and what instrument she played. The stuff with the young musician who's being hunted by assassins doesn't come up until nearly the end. Surprisingly, he's not the setup for a second book – the entire thing is resolved, nicely and happily, by the end of this book.

Mercedes Lackey used to be one of my absolute favorite authors. I read everything by her that I could find. Then one day I read one of her newer Eric Banyon books and started to get annoyed by how black-and-white it seemed like her stories had become (although the last straw for me was really when Lackey wrote a thinly-veiled version of herself into her Valdemar books, but that's a story for another post). The good people were almost saintly, while the bad people were very, very bad. The good people might do things that supposed pillars of the community didn't like, but the idea was that those “pillars of the community” were wrong and weren't good in the ways that really counted.

I remembered loving this book when I first read it. I still enjoyed it, but I realized that the black-and-white worldview that I thought was brand new in Lackey's books must have always been there. What changed wasn't necessarily Lackey's writing. What changed was me.

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