Reviews, rants, and tidbits from an overpassionate novelist

Archive for the ‘REVIEWS’ Category

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V. 1 of Arisa by Natsume Andou: Manga Review

It’s been a while since I’ve discovered a new shoujo manga (that’s actually been released in America) I could not put down. In fact, there really hasn’t been one since Dengeki Daisy. But simply reading the premise of this gave me chills. 

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Estranged high-school twins Arisa and Tsubasa are reunited after years of secret communication through letters – and Arisa promptly attempts suicide. In an effort to figure out why, Tsubasa disguises herself as her twin and attends Arisa’s high school. The reason has to do with an online personality called “The King” and his/her relationship to Arisa’s class. But will Arisa’s secrets destroy Tsubasa’s life, too?

Plot

Analyzing and re-analyzing every personality for clues as to the King’s identity – and Arisa’s suicide attempt – makes this manga somewhat character-driven and extremely compelling. Of course, some coincidences are a little too perfectly incidental. To Ando’s great credit, not all of Arisa’s classmates fall for Tsubasa’s Clark Kent-ism of her sister. They notice the differences in their personality and express different levels of concern.

Artwork

The art is reminiscent of Yuu Watase’s and rather typically shoujou. Big eyes for crying, detailed hair and outfits. Some proportions and angles are a little awkward. Natusme Ando is, however, yet another manga artist who has mastered the creepy smile. Delicious. 😀

Ando plays with the page panelling in ways I haven’t seen before. For example: Before Arisa’s suicide attempt, several pages corner with a snippet of a folded note – part of her reason for jumping. The reader doesn’t see the full note until she has gone over. Beautiful.

Characters

Because all peripheral characters are suspects who could be the King, even those who are flat at first develop new dimensions – especially once the class’s crowd psychology hits its frequent peaks.

Tsubasa herself struggles with her identity as she constantly compares herself to her sister and redefines her relationship to her sister. Her dark side could get deeper, but she’s no Mary Sue.

The cast includes:

  • Tsubasa – Too spunky/punky to get a boyfriend
  • Arisa – Too beautiful and popular to be considered anything less than perfect and happy
  • Takeru – An adorable “best friend” type, very committed to Tsubasa
  • Mariko – Arisa’s cutesy, innocent best friend
  • Midori – Arisa’s prestigious, nonchalant boyfriend
And a whole class full of suspects!
Playlist suggestions
  • For something cheesy – Happy Go Lucky by Steps
  • For something dramatic – Much Like Falling by Flyleaf
  • See Who I Am by Within Temptation
  • The Leaper by Deas Vail
  • All We Are by One Republic

There has to be a good song out there to express Arisa’s loving desire to figure her sister out. I’ll update when I find it. 🙂

What I learned about storytelling: Don’t underestimate double trouble. It can be hokey sometimes, sure, but there are always going to be new ways that it can actually tie into themes of identity and belonging. 

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS BY JOHN GREEN: THOUGHTS

First of all, I am excited to own a signed copy of this even though I’ve seen signed copies in every bookstore I’ve been in all month – everywhere from Fort Mill, SC to Jacksonville, NC. I know there was some confusion and people received copies of the books before its release date, so I think he might have taken advantage of the accident.

These characters were incredibly tangible. John Green’s characters always are, though he can recycle them a bit. Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines, for example, have extremely similar dynamics between protagonist, love interest, and best friend.

Like with Looking for Alaska, this is not a book that affords you the luxury of blissful ignorance. It promises to be a loaded gun, a tearjerker in the sense that it’s completely unfair. This probably isn’t for everyone.

But in this subject matter, he wrestles with questions that cannot be answered. For example: Should a terminal individual expand themselves and soak up life and touch the lives of others while they still can, or is more ethical to minimize the devastation of death?

I’m really glad he refrained from answering it – or rather, I’m glad he answered yes to both sides, in a way.

He’s a wonderful author, and I’m not going to fault his stars. Even though I don’t usually star things, he gets five.

 

YOU by CHARLES BENOIT: An Original Format is Nothing Without Original Content.

I took a look at this book because it’s told in SECOND PERSON OMG. I think this experimentation is a truly great thing in the world of YA lit.

But I regret to say that if it hadn’t been told in SECOND PERSON OMG, I would not have read beyond the cover. I read thirty five pages of it, then skipped to the end. Here’s why.

The prologue involves some kind of accident involving blood, and the main character trying to figure out where things went wrong. There are hints that he’s on a track toward death. Yet, all of the content you get to fill in these spaces does not involve A) Deep, involving emotion, B) extraordinary, interesting circumstances, or even C) eloquent angst. It’s mostly cliched whining about authority and academic boredom.

The love interest is flat and cliched in every way. The friends are flat and cliched in every way. After thirty five pages, the only glimmer of redeeming character depth is a one-sentence panic attack that culminates in a didactic break of POV in its rush to be quickly dismissed.

This is not how teenagers work. Sure, we can all dismiss and hide from guilty feelings. But if it’s THAT easy, it’s boring.

What gets me is how overwhelmingly didactic the story is; kid hangs out with rough crowd, angst a bit, one things leads to another, then blood. We’ve all seen this horror story. We’ve been forced to endure it in Drivers Ed classes, Don’t Drink Seminars, etc.

Who thought that telling it in second person was a good idea?? It reads like a sermon from the bored; every other sentence could begin with “Of course.”

At least for the first thirty-five pages, it’s downright condescending.

THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER: THOUGHTS & REVIEW

I’ll admit it. I read this book for the cover:

Come on. It’s gorgeous. Emotional. Thought-provoking. I wanted to know what it was about.

I’m going to give you an important piece of information up front: It’s a cliffhanger in the worst way. Very little is resolved at the end. It is not a self-contained story.

Buuuut I am looking forward to reading the rest.

Strengths:

The story blurs genres and borders on literary. Are we reading about the supernatural or simply post-traumatic stress disorder? Young adults who have been diagnosed with anxiety/depression/bipolar are common and this book exaggerates and begs the questions the many of them are asking: How crazy is crazy?

The love interest is a fantastic character. A modern Mr. Darcy with plenty of style, flirtation, flaw, and appeal. Reading this as purely a love story is very reductive compared to what it tries to be, with the many other elements it explores – but it’s probably the most effective and appealing way to read it.

The letter at the very beginning is pretty cool. You find out that Mara Dyer isn’t Mara Dyer’s real name, but simply the name she’s chosen to work with while she writes out this story. She’s telling this story for a reason – this appeals to me immensely.

Flaws:

Of course, its failure to be a self-contained story is a flaw.

I don’t think Michelle Hodkin really meant to portray anything like PTSD, and the way the story is set up is somewhat misleading about it. PTSD is a disorder which involves a person who is unable to stop thinking about a traumatic event. Mara finds it pretty darn easy to move on. After the first seventy pages or so, it’s easy to forget that this girl’s best childhood friend and boyfriend just died. I understand the author probably felt pressure to avoid angsting but… a girl in that situation would probably, in fact, angst a bit. She has every license to angst a bit. And she doesn’t. She just moves along, pursues new relationships, and comes off as a bit of a sociopath. I was truly hoping that the novel would climax in her realizing all of the emotion she’s been repressing – no such luck.

The quotations on the back are misleading. This book is not that scary! Mara, whose head we are always within, operates under the assumption that the scary things that happen to her are not real, but hallucinations and delusions. They don’t fail to operate in that way.

Hope this is helpful.

FEED BY M. T. ANDERSON: THE HORROR, THE HORROR!

This book gave me a panic attack.

I say this as a testament to its power. The vision of this dystopian novel is both beautiful and horrifying. A few generations from now, technology will exponentially expand possibilities for travel – fly to the moon for a vacation, zip across the country in your upcar – but as that technology developed and humanity became so dependent upon them, corporations became king. The government is their pawn.

As the accumulation of this corruption and the technological advancement, people have something called the FEED, a microchip, implanted into their brains. They can communicate with their friends and co-workers instantaneously, enabling telepathy at all times, and Facebook forever frames their vision. Everyone has constant access to the Internet, so School(TM) is a sham of its former self.

Sounds okay so far, right? Well, the FEED also replaces basic body functions, so it’s impossible to disable once it’s been implanted. Carriers of the Feed are doomed to forever be barraged with ADVERTISEMENTS for anything they look at and happen to like – from a pair of pants to a news article – as the Feed tries to catch onto their habits and tastes and know how to market to them.

Constant advertisements full of flattery, cliche language, and impossible promise in conjunction with abounding instant gratification turns people into a society of UNEDUCATED BRATS, who take boundless luxury for granted and are unable to deal with sickness, death, and the realities of the universe.

This book was difficult for me to read, and THAT FACT is the most terrifying of all. I didn’t want to deal with it, the way the characters don’t want to deal with any reality beyond the cocoon of their boundlessly giving Feed.

It was fascinating to read alongside The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson, not to mention Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Five stars for horror, vision, and accuracy.

A BOOK-LOVER RIGHT OF PASSAGE

Reading Atlas Shrugged.

Tis an arduous and intimidating journey of 1167 pages, more if you want surrounding criticism. I’m plugging away at it presently, and you know what? I have a love-hate relationship with it. Here’s why.

My LOVE for it is comprised of its respect for the reader – a respect easily misjudged as disrespect in its mind-directing, even hypnotizing narrative techniques. Ayn Rand expects her reader to be intelligent, hard-working, and dedicated to his or her own life, and this is evident in the way she tells the story. John Rogers said in a blog once, “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” I think, had Ayn Rand heard this criticism, she would have been delighted to have been understood so well. Atlas Shrugged is a strange fusion of utopian and dystopian narrative and the oversimplification that comprises this strangeness is obviously fantastical.

On this level, it’s a fantasy novel. Ayn Rand always claimed to write for herself – She is her own reader and that is why her reader receives the respect of great expectations. Of course, her writing would be her fantasy.

She was far too intelligent to have been deluded into believing that the realm she envisioned was realistic; its purpose was a fantastical forum through which she could explain very realistic (in the reality-relevant sense of the word, not in the feasible sense, necessarily) ideas and ethical postulations.

Reading such a novel at fourteen and failing to distinguish the fantastical and the realistic elements would most certainly be dangerous.

So with John Rogers’ words I completely agree – yet not with his tone.

My HATE for it is comprised of its AWFUL HORRIBLE TERRIBAD DREADFUL ~LENGTH~. And yes, I know Ms. Rand would have rolled her eyes at me for my saying so.

DENSHA OTOKO: BEAUTY AND THE JAPANESE GEEK

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Last week in my class Japanese Society and Culture through Film we watched the movie Densha Otoko directed by Shosuke Murakami. The subject of the class: the otaku.

I’m not kidding. My college is the best.

I enjoyed the movie for personal reasons and quickly realized I had to blog about it.

As defined by my professor, “Otaku is Japanese geek.” Really, there’s a bit more to it than that. An otaku is anyone with an obsessive and possibly “nerdy” interest, such as anime, computer games, video games, computer software, etc. I have long considered myself a mild anime otaku. So does my roommate, and so do a good number of my friends from Fort Mill.

This movie concerns itself more with the “hardcore otaku”: the type so lost in their own worlds of anime and computer games that they care little for contact with the outside world.

Train Man, the movie’s main character (called Aoyama in the TV show), is based on a 23-year-old Akihabara dweller. Yes, it’s a True Story story. One of my absolute favorite kinds. One day on the bus, he spies a beautiful girl. When a drunk starts harassing her, our timid, nerdtastic little hero stands up, setting in motion a train of events that will change his life.

The things I liked about the movie included the creative approach to creating the otaku’s world. The opening credits and the pixelated fireworks, the ways they portrayed his chat with various people and used the chat messages to creative ends. That much was amazing. So was the movie’s ability to get a room full of college students laughing. When you’re with a group, the boy with the bunny is hysterical.

Then there was the climax, which seemed to take forever. In American and Western fiction, a climax is generally one moment, one scene, one critical point. In Japanese ficiton, I’ve noticed, climaxes drag out. They function less as a point and more as an extended segment. A part of me feels like whining, “Get on with it,” even though it’s probably a more realistic approach to storytelling. In real life, there’s rarely a neat one-scene climax.

Also interesting is the attractiveness of the supposedly repulsive otaku. Even in his horrible getups or his horrible moments of pathetic weakness, a majority of the girls in the classroom were sighing and saying they wanted to hug him. The boys couldn’t believe it. You have more allure than you think, nerds!

To be perfectly honest, this movie is probably not great. But I enjoyed it profoundly. Therefore, I shall grant it:  3 1/2 Stars!

But I love it. ❤

More later!

STUDIES OF STORYTELLING

I have a very unique way of battling writer’s block. When I can’t seem to make a story fit together, I go back and review the first fundamentals of storytelling I ever learned…by watching Disney movies.

Yes, this works! I’ve told quite a few other writers about it who’ve seen where I’m coming from. Classic stories told in ways that have caused people to love them all their lives. If you’re shooting to be a bestseller (though maybe not a Pulitzer), why not pay a little attention?

I’ve started making a study of storytelling in everything I watch. As an 18-year-old, I believe I am still entitled to my share of anime and That’s 70’s Show, not to mention movies with friends. I always try to pay attention to character development, narration as the way the story unfolds, the effects of setting and time. I suppose I can attribute it to my teacher Mr. Ford, who invented a class called Film & Fiction in the Fort Mill school district and taught students to appreciate film as art. It was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken.

Writing isn’t the only form of storytelling out there. It’s not even the most popular anymore. There is lots of room for writers to take advantage.

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* THE WHITE DARKNESS BY GERALDINE McCAUGHREAN – FIRST IMPRESSIONS *

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I love it. Sym’s voice is one of the best I’ve read. The themes, patterns, and writing are all lovely and fitting for a YA audience. It even received the Printz Award–a high-level YA contest–in 2008.

And get this:  When I asked for this book at Barnes & Noble here in Texas, I was told that the store didn’t carry it. Nor did any of the stores close by. Looks like the major bookstores know of it, but no more.

Why?

I guess Sym is hard to relate to. The reader finds out that she’s unusual so quickly, it takes us a few chapters for us to relate to her. I think the complete click with her doesn’t come until the end. Perhaps Ms. McCaughrean could have done something about the narration of this book to bring the horrific moments that haunt the end home closer to the beginning.

That, however, is the only criticism I can make. I love the themes that flow so naturally through this book, the patterns. The end is glorious. Just thinking about a certain moment–and if you read it you’ll know which one–still gives me goosebumps.

Love & Peace!

* VACATIONS FROM HELL – STORIES 1-3 *

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Vacations from Hell is a short story collection/anthology featuring major YA authors–Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, and Claudia Gray to name three out of five–each with a few thousand words of compelling, voicey short story. These aren’t your Hemingway, however. They’re a lot more fun than that.

I have to confess I’m intensely curious about this new development in the Young Adult Fiction world. I want to know the story. Why did Harpercollins decide to put together an anthology? Did they know it would take off as well as it has? How did they select their authors? Is it a coincidence that at least two of the authors (the biggest names) have the same literary agent?

I gobbled this book in about 24 hours–good for me. Only one segment of the book was boring and skippable. The rest left no words wasted. Two of the stories left a strong impression on me; one was so odious to me I wondered how it had found its way into print.

Story #1:  Cruisin’ by Sarah Mlynowski

Despite my childhood in the Bible belt of South Carolina, I found this character–Miss All Around Average–and her goal–doing it–worth reading about. Especially in the setting:  a cruise ship.

The story went along I became increasingly curious as to how it would turn out thematically. Would she realize giving her virginity to Random Casino Guy #2 was a little shallow? Would she simply fail at her attempt? Would she succed and feel good? Bad?

This story has a twist at the ending. And it’s not predictable.

Unfortunately, the story would have worked much better if it had been predictable–only to the very perceptive. It would have worked better if the story had not been in first person. As is, the ending of this story is as annoying as it is shocking. It still leaves an impression. You want to talk about it. You can tell I’m dying not to give the spoiler away online. It’s good. It simply could have been 100x better.

Overall:  Four stars.

Story #2:  I Don’t Like Your Girlfriend by Claudia Gray

After reading about the shallow girls on the cruise ship, this story is a breath of fresh, moral air. Like a good number of us on the planet, this antagonist is bent on good. I liked her.

The story itself isn’t as strong as the first one. It’s simple, with a completely wrapped conclusion and and a few really cool imagery moments. I loved the hot tub scene. I will not see a hot tub the same way for some time.

Overall:  Three & 1/2 Stars

Story #3:  The Law of Suspects by Maureen Johnson

Hoo, boy. Where do I begin? I’ll start with the ranking. Two stars. One for setting and one for creativity.

1.  The characters:  Two are flat (creepy French guy and sister), two are unbelievable (sexy French guy and main character Charlie), and Charlie cannot be trusted–as she more or less confesses from the beginning. Also:  Even if you acknowledge it as a fault in yourself, making out with Random French Boy #3 on the couch with a dead body on the floor and your homicidal sister locked in the basement is inexcusable.

2. The backstory/description:  It goes on too long. I started skipping it. This was the only time in this anthology I felt compelled to do so. I don’t care how you got to the French country house. Just get me there. Good stories–especially short stories–should start as close to the end as possible.  None of this backstory was even necessary to the central theme.

3. Lazy plotting:  So many plot holes appear in this novel it isn’t funny. The author spends a lot of time setting up certain scenarios with little payoff. I was both stressed and impressed as I read her elaborate and confusing setup, but the tangling of fringes that the story created was never satisfyingly unraveled.

4. It leaves the reader feeling cheated. Enough said.

Overall:  Two Stars.

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