25 September, 2009

Friday Babble: M is for Manga

Yeah, I'm a total dork (as if you couldn't already pick that from the fact that I write a blog about the books I read). Not only do I read books, but I also read graphic novels, comics, and manga. A lot of people spend a lot of time debating the differences between those three terms, but those are clearly people with nothing better to do.

I, on the other hand, have something much better to do: recommend some awesome manga to you! In case you're unfamiliar with the word, manga are comics originating in Japan that use a particular type of stylised drawing. You may be more familiar with anime, the Japanese cartoons which are often based on a manga story. A lot of people still think that comics and cartoons are for kids, but in Japan a wider audience is acknowledged than that in the West, and there's a lot of stories aimed at teens, dealing with the normal teen dramas of school and relationships. There's also sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries - basically, any genre you can think of, all in delicious manga form.

Like any form of media, there's good and bad manga. The good is well-drawn, has character development, intelligent plots, interesting themes. The bad is - well, recently I tried to read Okane Ga Nai. It's about a guy who buys another guy as a sex slave. That's all I'm sayin'. In order to try and help you separate the good from the bad, what follows is a small, detailed list of manga I'm currently reading, including excerpts and links to website where you can read them online. (The pages read from right to left, by the way! And if you are having trouble reading them you can click on them for a bigger image :))

Title: Chi's Sweet Home
Mangaka: Konami Kanata
110 chapter, ongoing
FACT: If you are not saddened by a lost kitten there is something wrong with you.

This isn't exactly a hugely taxing story to read, but it is so ridiculously cute and sweet that I dare you to try and stop reading once you've started. Chi's Sweet Home is the story of a kitten who loses her mother and is adopted by a young family. A lot of the first arc of the story relates to the fact that the family aren't allowed to keep a cat in their apartment, and try to keep Chi hidden - while Chi, of course, doesn't understand and keeps risking discovery.

Not convinced? Watch this:

If you are still not convinced, I shudder to think what kind of terrifying, hard-hearted monster you are.

Title: Fruits Basket
Mangaka: Natsuki Takaya
Status: 136 chapters, complete
Turning into a rat every time a girl hugs you really puts a damper on your love life.

Details: Since the death of her mother, high school student Tohru has been living in a tent in the forest, and working a night cleaning-job to earn enough money to stay in school. Her hard lifestyle pushes her to the limit, and one night she collapses, sick from not looking after herself properly. Luckily, she's rescued by two cousins - Shigure Sohma, and Tohru's classmate Yuki. There's something mysterious about the Sohmas, and Tohru soon finds out what - they're both cursed to turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac, as are ten other members of their family. But there's more to the Sohma Clan than a secret curse - they're also controlled by the manipulative and selfish Akito. Akito slowly becomes convinced that Tohru is a threat to her power over the other Sohmas - and she's prepared to do anything it takes to see that nothing changes.

Title: Rin-ne
Mangaka: Rumiko Takahashi
Status: 21 chapters, ongoing
Haunted phones seem less scary here than in The Ring.

This manga is still pretty new, so it's kind of hard to see where the story's going so far! But Takahashi is a prolific writer and artist - her work includes my all-time favourite, Ranma 1/2, and the more recent Inu-Yasha. Rin-ne is about a young girl who can see ghosts - some of whom are incredibly annoying - and her new classmate who turns out to be a shinigami, a death-god. Together, they do their best to exorcise the ghosts they find - a process hampered by Rinne's constant lack of money and his long-term rivalry with a demon. Despite the subject matter, it's a pretty light-hearted story, at least so far!

Title: Ouran High School Host Club
Mangaka: Bisco Hatori
Status: 74 chapters, ongoing

...he asks, after he's developed a crush on her.

Can you say gender-bending romcom? Yes you can! When scholarship student Haruhi breaks an extremely expensive vase, he's offered a way to repay it - by joining the school's host club, and earning money by entertaining the rich female students. There's only one problem - Haruhi's really a girl. Wacky hijinks ensue! You can probably guess where this is going! My favourite storyline is where an unpopular student discovers Haruhi's identity, starts spending time with her, and gains instant popularity when all the girls decide he must be gay.

Title: Fullmetal Alchemist
Mangaka: Hiromu Arakawa
Status: 99 chapters, ongoing

Details: All the manga I've listed are good, but Fullmetal Alchemist is brilliant.

Turning stones into gold is, of course, strictly forbidden (which is why Ed
totally didn't do it.)

Ed has a metal arm and leg, and his brother Alphonse is nothing but a soul attached to an empty suit of armour - punishment, of a kind, for breaking one of the strictest rules of alchemy. The brothers are travelling the land, dodging in and out of trouble, and trying to find a philosopher's stone that will help them return to their original bodies. As they inch closer to their goal, they and their friends discover that they are not the only ones searching for the philosopher's stone; there are other creatures, creatures that may have once been human, who are doing everything within their power to gain immortality. Ed and Al unravel a conspiracy that runs through the army and the government, and leads all the way back to their country's founding. Just who, exactly, is pulling the strings, and what does it have to do with Ed and Al's own father...? (God, I just reread this, but I find all those cliches and mixed metaphors hysterical and am going to leave them in. Bed time for me, obviously.)

If you're going to read just one manga based on what I've rec'd, it should be this one. It has all those qualities I listed at the start, and something more - that indefinable quality which makes a story impossible to let go. Do yourself a favour and check it out.

22 September, 2009

Book 25 - Night Singing, or: "Who was that crazy person? Did you know her?"

This may not come as a surprise to anyone who has heard My Thoughts On Twilight, but I continue to wonder how it is that authors who can not actually write to save their lives become so popular! Twilight, for example, is pretty much pure cat dirt, and yet there is something about it which makes it pretty difficult to put down. Luckily I was mostly immune to its sensual charms, and after the ten millionth time Bella complained about how her life sucked soooooo much I finally threw it across the room and out of my life. Sadly, as I was reading it on my laptop, this dramatic gesture turned out to be quite expensive.

You know who else write a lot of dross? Dan Brown! I actually kind of enjoyed the Da Vinci Code, and I thought the movie was better than the book (possibly because I grew up on a diet of B-grade action/suspense movies) but Angels and Demons made me absolutely livid in ways that I can't even describe and will have to explain instead through the magic of MS Paint.

You tell 'em, Badly Drawn Hulk! Anyway, the only reason I bring up the subject of Authors Who Can't Actually Write is because of my incredibly awesome Link of the Day: Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences. I particularly enjoyed all the angry comments down the bottom.

Someone who can actually write to save her life is Kierin Meehan!

Title: Night Singing (2003)

Author: Kierin Meehan

Why this book?
Because I absolutely adored her first book, Hannah's Winter - and Night Singing did not disappoint!

So what's it all about anyway?
Josh has broken his leg and is bored stiff at home, unable to go to school - or even leave the house much. Then Isabelle, a girl from the circus, comes crashing into his life, and things start to get interesting. For one thing, Isabelle has offered him six tickets to the circus; and for another, she doesn't see other people in quite the same way as Josh does.

Josh is horrified when Isabelle starts bringing around kids from his class - not Josh's friends, but the loser kids, like quiet Reesie, Tim (who's actually in the choir), and Arundel, who everyone knows is trouble. And when Isabelle announces her intention of winning this year's Christmas Concert Josh knows she won't - after all, the resident bully Nasty Natalie dances to victory every single year.

Then Mr Vas, a clown in Isabelle's circus, tells her a story about the Moon Rabbit, and a terrible tragedy that destroyed the world. The story is perfect for the concert - but to Josh there seems to be something more to it. His neighbour, the elderly Mrs Murakami, often tells stories about the Moon Rabbit; and the same pattern that appears in her sketch book turns up in Mr Vas' paintings. What great tragedy lies in their past - and what does it have to do with Isabelle's play...?

The Good and the Bad
There were a few loose threads at the end of the book which irritated me a little - Meehan leaves the reader knowing the shape of things, but without giving us the actual details, which was kind of unsatisfying - what happens to Arundel, who has been abandoned by his family? Is he really related to circus folk? Does Natalie get her comeuppance? Does Isabelle actually win the concert competition?

I also imagine reading this as an adult is quite a different experience to reading it as a child; it was obvious to me right from the start that Mrs Murakami had lost her family to the Hiroshima explosion (although exactly how Mr Vas fitted in to the picture was a little beyond my ken!) Still, that didn't ruin it for me - there was still plenty to enjoy in Josh's slowly developing appreciation for the 'losers', and his gentle friendship with Arundel.

I haven't mentioned Josh's little brother, but he's also an important player in the story and he's utterly delightful. He's very much a little kid without coming across as either twee or monstrous, which so often seems to happen in books. Josh's parents are wonderful too - very loving but very human; Meehan portray's Josh's mother's frustration over his brother's refusal to learn to read very well, without demonising her at all.

So, should I read it or what?
I definitely loved it! It is a children's book, so I flipped through it pretty quickly, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Recommended!

Next up: Um, I've just read another Agatha Christie, and I think I'll also do a companion post for this one on Hannah's Winter since it would be kind of interesting to compare them! Also, probably this week: A Friday Babble, topic yet unknown!

17 September, 2009

Book 24 - A Rose for the Anzac Boys, or: "There's nothing worse than ill-fitting socks!"

A Rose for the Anzac Boys (2008)

Author: Jackie French

Why this book?
Because when I was at school we learned about the battle at Gallipoli every Anzac Day, every year, and that is pretty much the extent of my knowledge of WWI and thought I should correct that ASAP - through the power of fiction! Also, I like Jackie French - she wrote one of my favourite fantasy books, Tajore Arkle, as the wonderful but sad Hitler's Daughter.

What's it all about anyway?
When the war starts, New Zealander Midge is a long way from home - in a boarding school in England, in fact, where she is learning frightfully important things like deportment and posture. Her twin brother, Tim, has lied about his age and joined up, and she's really proud of him - he's fighting for King and country, and besides, everyone knows the war won't take that long to win.

Then Midge gets a telegraph saying Tim is missing, and everything changes for her. She knows he can't really be dead - he must've been taken prisoner by the Turks - but suddenly, the war seems real. She doesn't want to just sit around knitting socks and putting together trifles to send to the soldier. That's when Ethel, daughter of a nouveau riche grocer, has an idea - why don't they start a canteen for the soliders? They won't be in any danger themselves, and with her father's help they can provide food and a hot drink for soldier leaving for and returning from the battlefield. Along with their friend the Honourable Anne, they set out for France.

Midge works harder than she has ever worked in her life; one night the girls and their helpers actually serve over ten thousand soldiers. She sees countless soldiers returning missing arms and legs, some shellshocked, others already dead. When a friendly ambulance driver is taken off the job due to septic wounds in her hands, Midge offers to take her place; and from there, somehow, she manages to meet her aunt - a nurse - and is pressed into duty in the big hospital tents where there are too many injured and not enough supplies, and where even the chaplain has been pressed into duty as a surgeon.

And through it all, two things keep her going: one, the drive to find her brother; and the other, the memory of the sheepfarm back home, the place she yearns to be more than anywhere. She meets a young Aussie soldier, a fellow sheepfarmer who knows exactly how she feels, and who gives her a rose on her birthday...

As destructive and terrifying as the war is, Midge revels in the freedom her work has given her. Can things really ever go back to how they were before the war?

The Good and the Bad
This book was kind of amazing. It's not at all subtle - Midge's naivety, the snobbery of the army officers, the pure idiocy of many of the armies' campaigns, they're all painted with a thick brush. But the boldness of French's writing makes this a very readable story - it unfolds quickly, and you can get a grasp on what's going on very quickly. The descriptions of the wounded are stomach-churning at times, but accurate - French based them on descriptions in real letters and diaries.

Midge is a great character. She's not out to change the world; at the very bottom she simply wants to help her own family, but in her love for them lies the strength to do a great many things that a great many people wouldn't. Anne and Ethel are both equally strong, and I was sad to see them drift out of the story as Midge's choices took her further away from them. Anne in particular interested me; the daughter of a Duke who clearly had no interest in being married off to the first suitable suitor who came along, but who didn't seem to have any great argument against it, either; who rebelled in quiet ways, like making friends with Ethel, even as she tried her best to get rid of her pimples to please her mother.

What I did feel weakened the story was framing it against the recent Iraq War. French's message seemed to be that ultimately, it's the soldiers who get screwed over, no matter what the circumstances, and that's true enough! But to me modern wars are a world away from those that happened almost a century ago. We no longer have the belief that this war will be the last; we've long since lost that innocence. Besides - it seemed a little odd having a whole book about women in wartime, the invisible heroes, and ending with a message about male soldiers. I don't know; it really just seemed to take something away from the book, to me. Or perhaps it was my own feelings on the Iraq War that just jolted me out of the story.

So should I read this book or what?
I'd definitely recommend it, although I was pretty much sold as soon as I knew it was about a New Zealand girl in WWI. I'd actually recommend anything by Jackie French though - she really is great!

Link of the day: I mean to pimp this earlier, but since it's still going - check out the Agatha Christie Blog Tour! Awesome.

09 September, 2009

Book 23 - To the Hermitage, or: "Erotics Adventures!! Brand New Positions!!! Please keep the sound low and try not to disturb your neighbours."

When you were a young warthog (sorry, caught part of The Lion King on tv the other day and that song's been stuck in my head ever since) did you ever read those 'Choose Your Own Adventure' stories? I remember them being all the rage at school and I remember hating them, because I could never get the 'good' ending. I'd always end up dying of starvation or being eaten by the monster or what have you.

Anyway, the other day when I was browsing the Young Adult section of Borders... I found some of them. Not the adventure-laden choose-your-owns of my youth, though; know, the point of these books were to make the right choices in order to... end up with the right guy. You stay classy, young adult lit. OK, I admit it, I read a couple of them, but they frustrated me to no end - for the same reason they did when I was a kid: I'd get to the end of the page, read my two choices, and think, "But I wouldn't do either of these things. These are both equally terrible choices. Why would I do either of these things? Why would my attractive but angst-ridden avatar do either of these things? What kind of the moron is she?"

In conclusion: Choose Your Own Adventure stories are one thing that I just never understood.

Today's novel is not, in fact, a book with a choose-your-own ending, but when I was trying to come up with a way of introducing it my brain suddenly spazzed out and couldn't remember if the correct phrase was "without further ado" or, "without further adieu". So, dear read-

If you would like to continue reading without further ado,
turn to page 19
If you would like to start reading without further adieu,
turn to page 67

Title: To the Hermitage (2000)

Malcolm Bradbury

Why this book?
Rec'd by a work colleague.

What's it all about, anyway?
To the Hermitage is written in two part: THEN and NOW.

THEN describes the time that French philosopher Denis Diderot spent in the court of Catherine the Great. Catherine was a great admirer of his; when she heard he was seriously short on money, she bought his entire library but allowed him to keep it until his own death. For some years she pressured him to come to Russia, and eventually he was no longer able to tell her 'no' - not least because other European rulers were starting to take a dislike to him.

Diderot is - perhaps typically for a philosopher - interested in everything, and his own great work is an Encyclop├ędie which he hopes will one day contain everything. He is uninterested in court intrigues, perhaps even to the extent that he will not even sleep with Catherine herself - but he does have grand plans for Russia, and grand ideas about how she should be - could be - ruled; and he has to do his best to convince Catherine of his ideas' merits before she transfers her admiration of him on to somebody else.

In the NOW, a novelist who is also a great admirer of Diderot's has been summoned to Sweden by an old friend to take part in a pilgrimage of sorts - a trip to Russia as part of the Diderot Project. The actual purpose of the Project itself is ambiguous at best; the other members include carpenters, opera singers, university lecturers, some of whom have never even heard of Diderot before now. But as the others gradually lose interest in the Project, our novelist pushes on - after all, great mystery surrounds the fate of Diderot's library, and it's not impossible that he might himself discover a book or a manuscript of Diderot's which has not seen the light of day for hundreds of years...

The Good and the Bad
This is one of those books which is pretty hard to describe; because while there is a plot of sorts it's not a story you're reading for its page-turning action sequences. It's Bradbury's words, the dialogue and the descriptions, which make this book so brilliant. A book which is essentially about a philosopher and a boat trip could be so very dry; but Bradbury's writing is lively and humorous and really, just beautiful. I can't pay it any compliment higher than that.

It begins with the lines,
"This is (I suppose) a story. It draws a great deal on history, but as history is the lies the present tells in order to make sense of the past I have improved it where necessary."
That should really tell you everything you need to know about this book.

It also took me an extraordinarily long time to read - I'd usually devour a book this size in maybe three days, tops - but it was just so dense, in terms of information. I spent a hell of a lot of time with my good friend Wikipedia looking up places and people. Actually, saying that will probably turn most people of reading it so I guess if history and geography and philosophy and political theory don't excite you this might not be the book for you.

But if history and geography and philosophy and political theory do excite you than hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen.

So should I read this book or what?