Showing posts with label Asian fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Asian fantasy. Show all posts

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo


Rating: WORTHY!

This was a long (and slightly draggy in places, but otherwise) excellent novel which went in somewhat unexpected, but nevertheless entertaining directions.

In the antique port of Malacca, which has slipped out of Dutch influence, but is still under the sway of Muslim and British presences, young Pan Li Lan learns that she has been chosen as the ghost bride for the unexpectedly deceased Lim Tian Ching. There is some suspicion over his death, and Li Lan is not interested in a relationship with this man, even a ghost one. She'd much rather be involved with his cousin, Tian Bai, who is now the family heir, but the Chings and the Pans were once close, and now that Li Lan's father has made such a mess of their family finances, they need this relationship to keep them on an even keel.

Li Lan is further dissuaded when Lim Tian begins to visit her in her dreams. She becomes stressed and ill, as is the wont of young girls in those times, and she finds herself visiting the astral plane where she seems to have become trapped, unable to return to her body. Here she encounters Er Lang, a mysterious man who is investigating the afterlife of the Lim family because of suspected corruption. He and Li Lan become allies, and with his promise of helping her to return to life, and his need to uncover this corruption, they begin working together.

I am not a believer in any afterlife at all, but I do enjoy a good story about this kind of thing, and this one was inventive and original enough to keep my interest, even as it became a bit slow and irritating from time to time. The afterlife depicted here had several facets. One of these was merely the ghosts haunting the real world, but Li Lan discovers another, one where the living do not normally get to visit.

This next phase was purely a ghost world, which was modeled on the real one, but in which there were only ghosts - no solid people at all. That world, which was bleak and confusing, was to an extent was made possible and supported by burned offerings: you burn a paper house, and one appears in the afterlife for the person to whom the offering was dedicated. The more elaborate and realistic the burned offering is, the better the quality of the one in the hereafter - so even in the afterlife, the rich have it better! I guess Jesus lied with that "camel through the eye of a needle" shtick, but it's a great pitch if you want to rip-off the gullible and pull in some cash. Christian churches have been pulling this same trick for two thousand years!

But other than that, it was just like the life they left, and it made me wonder what was the point? The story tried to explain it as a way-station - a transition between the substantial life on Earth and a more spiritual one afterwards, but it was supposed to be only a way-station prior to judgment, yet even here, there was corruption, and the dead could lead and life of luxury for some considerable time, evidently buying-off the judges so judgment never came.

It made for an interesting read, but life wasn't roses there by any means. There were bull-headed demons hunting Li Lan, and ravenous leathery flying creatures which feasted on meat and would eat people caught out in the open. I have no idea what that was about since this was supposed to be before they were judged! Some of this made no sense, but overall, it was a fun story, inventive and interesting, and it made for a worthy read. I recommend it for anyone who is interested Asian fantasy, and ghost stories that are off the beaten track.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O'Neill


Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the author.

This was one of the most fun and charming graphic novels I've ever read. It's written I think for middle-graders, but it makes a great story for anyone to read. I loved how detailed it was (including the authors delightful section on the back on different species of tea dragon and their personality traits.

This book is everything that the overly-commercialized 'My Little Pony' garbage ought to have been but failed so dismally to get there. One of the best things about it is how little conflict there is. Everything in this story is about cooperation and understanding, and it made a truly refreshing change, I can tell you. The little dragons are renowned for the tea they produce through leaves which grow on their horns and antlers. Those leaves contain memories which the drinker can share, but they cannot grow without a true bond between the Tea Dragon and its care-giver. And no, you cannot buy that tea commercially!

Another delight was Greta, the main female character, who is unapologetically dark-skinned and who works with her mother in a forge, creating swords. Yes, even in this world there are monsters to fight! But her job and her skin color are ordinary and everyday in this world. The remarkable story is the tea-dragon and the friendship Greta forges with Minette, and the learning relationship she has with Hesekiel and Erik, who is wheelchair unbound. By that I mean that the wheelchair is simply there; it's no big deal and it plays no more part in the story than does the table they sit at or the shoes Greta wears, or the horns in her head. It was just nice to see how thoroughly inclusive this story was.

The artwork is gorgeous colorful, detailed, and just plain pleasing to the eye. The overall story is sweet with its steady pace and the idea of a 'changing of the guard' and traditions being kept in play by willing neophytes taking up the challenge. I think it was a wonderful read and I recommend it highly.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Kiss Him Not Me by Junko


Rating: WARTY!

In Japanese this manga was called Watashi Ga Motete Dōsunda or, What's the Point of Me Getting Popular?. Superficially it purports to tell the tale of a girl who loses weight and suddenly finds herself popular, but in reality it's just another Shōjo designed as teen female wish-fulfillment and as such it's actually harmful because of the 'fat-shaming' attitude employed in it. There's nothing wrong with having a healthy fantasy life as long as it's kept in check (or untethered in creative writing or other art forms!), but the author went about this entirely the wrong way. There are ways of addressing issues or over- or under-weight in characters and this one was a fail in my opinion.

In the story, Kae Serinuma is a fujoshi - essentially a geek - who is into gaming, and who is also obsessed with male homoeroticism, picturing selected boys she knows, as being in gay romances in her fantasies. Since all the boys look like girls in these drawings that makes for rather interesting pairings! There are four boys in her life: Igarashi, Mutsumoi, Nanshima, and Shinomya, and only one of them might have had any real interest in her when she was overweight. Now they all do for sure, This is pretty shallow and she needs to reject them all with the potential exception of the guy in her gaming club, but she does not, despite the protesting title. She seems not so much enamored of them as she is enamored of their attention.

Where I had the real problem with this though, was after an accident where she's dinged by one of the players in a sport she's watching. Serinuma is knocked to the floor, and goes home after a brief recuperation at school. The next morning (or perhaps some unspecified time later - it was hard to tell), when she wakes up she has lost all her excess weight and then some. Not only that, her eyes have grown to huge proportions, her chin (which though prominent) never was a 'double' chin, has shrunk almost to nothing, her hair has become rich, thick, healthy, long, and shining and healthy, her head has shrunk or her facial features have expended to fill the whole face instead of the tiny center portion, and and her wardrobe has fantastically changed from baggy sweats to short, pleated skirts and tight sweaters.

Moreover, her legs have grown long and slim, and her breasts have miraculously tripled in size. In short, instead of a oval shape, she now has an hourglass figure. These factors combined are not the usual outcome of weight-loss, so one has to wonder if this is an illusion or wishful thinking, but by the end of the novel her appearance had not changed and all four boys desperately wanted to date her.

This sounded far more like wish fulfillment than ever it did an honest attempt to write a realistic, thoughtful, and honestly engaging story. But is this type of manga ever intended to be realistic? Wouldn't that defeat the purpose?! Maybe that's so, but this was all wrong for a host of reasons.

First of all, this shallow 'they like me now I'm anorexic and infantilized' is an awful thing to do to a woman. I expect it form some male authors, especially far too many of those who draw graphic novels, but there are different levels of 'fat' and they have all kinds of 'cute' names with which to euphemize them (BBW, chubby, corpulent, full-figured, matronly, plus-sized, portly, robust, rotund, and so on), but the question is not whether a person is overweight so much as whether they're healthy.

Clearly carrying too much weight, and eating poorly and getting no - or too little - exercise is a recipe for medical disaster, but you can be unhealthy whether you are under-, over-, or even at optimal weight, and you can likewise be healthy even when you might appear overweight to some overly-critical eyes. So the real question is over your health, not your weight per se.

In this novel, neither was the issue. The issue we're presented in (literal) black and white - and without a shred of supportive evidence - is that not only does no one love a 'fat' or 'dumpy' girl, but no one even notices her. As it happens, Serinuma is fine with this because she lives largely in her fantasy world anyway, but when she magically (and that's the only term employable here) morphs into 'a total babe' - as a frat boy would (and evidently these schoolboys do) perceive her - she makes no analysis whatsoever of her situation, and never once (not in the parts I read) harks back to how she was or makes comparisons or even tries to understand what happened. This tells me she is so shallow that it doe snot matter whether she is overweight, or a superficial model agency's dream applicant, or anywhere in between she's not worth knowing because there's nothing worth knowing about her.

I had wondered if, by the end of this volume, she might wake up and find she has dreamed this whole thing, or much better yet, that her knock on the head caused her self-perception to change, and everything that happened afterwards was because of this, not because she had literally physically changed. In my opinion, that would have made for a far better, more intelligent, realistic story, and a worthy read but I guess I shall have to write that one.

Women have hard enough time being blasted perennially with commentary from all manner of sources, most of them not even remotely medical, and most of them ads, telling her that she's ugly, fat, her hair is nasty, her clothes suck, she needs more high-heeled shoes, and she is useless in bed. Every time she passes through a supermarket checkout aisle, she has this blasted at her on the one side from women's magazines written by women it shames us all to report, and on the opposite side of that selfsame aisle, she is blasted by fattening snack foods, candies, and sugar-laden sodas. is this a problem? You bet your ass it is. Literally.

It does not help at all to have a manga written by a woman telling women this same thing. It's Junko food, and women need to stop letting authors like this one feed it to them.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Two Will Come by Kang Kyeong Ok


Rating: WARTY!

Translated by Jennifer Park, this Korean graphic novel (and thus a manwha rather than a manga) was the first in a series. It consists of black and white line drawings, often veering towards the type of illustration I most thoroughly detest: the pointy nose, pointy chin, and giant eyes - in short, characters who look not even remotely Asian.

While we in the west bemoan the lack of diversity in our graphic novels (and other media) - particularly in the poor showing of women and people of color, I have to wonder why are so many comic books written by Asians who are apparently afraid to depict themselves in all their authentic beauty. That said, a lot of the art work was very pleasant, some of it truly captivating. But a lot of poses even on the same page were so similar that they could almost have been photocopied, shrunk and moved over a panel or two.

It was also odd though in that there were, interspersed with the main panels, miniatures which looked weird since they were in a small and very simplified style - rather reminiscent of how an old and very formal Asian form of writing might be compared with a more modern, casual, and simplified one. it made me wonder why this was a graphic novel rather than simply a novel. If you're not going to push yourself with the illustrations, and make it a magical journey as well as a story, then why not simply tell the tale in words and omit the pretentious pictures? In this case, I have to say that - with a few exceptions which might have merited inclusion in what would otherwise be a pure text book - they graphic part of this novel contributed very little beyond pretension, notwithstanding artistic merit.

The biggest problem with the book though, was that the blurb completely lied! The claim was that it's a story about a family curse, handed-down over generations because of the slaying of a large serpent that was awaiting going to heaven. Just the day before it was due to leave, Jina's ancestors killed it because they thought it was cursing their family. Don't you just hate it when this happens? You're waiting to go to heaven and someone sticks you with spears and chops off your head? If I had a Band-Aid for every time that happened to me....

Once the serpent saw it would was doomed to die it actually did curse the family, and the curse is that one family member in each generation will slay another family member. We get very little by way of explanation as to how this has played out over the centuries, but now in Seoul in 1999, Jina is the one upon whom the curse falls, but the predictors cannot say if she will be the perp or the victim, nor do they know who the other member of this generation's fated but not feted pair is.

The End.

I am not kidding. That's not the end of the volume, but it is the end of the curse story. There is barely a word spoken of it after the first third of the novel. The rest of this volume is nothing but a tediously slow-moving high-school romance between the girls and this guy from the USA - a Korean emigrant, who has returned for a visit. He looks more like a girl than the girls do, and so the girls naturally all fall for him.

Frankly I would rather watch a cowpat dry. Or even fry, as I first ham-fistedly typed it. So while some of the art was great, a lot of it felt xeroxed, and the miniatures were just plain weird. The story had little to do with the blurb's claim for the most part and the interaction between the two main characters was utterly tedious, blank, flat and uninventive.

Plus, as if all that wasn't bad enough, the story moved at a glacial pace. I optimistically borrowed volumes one and two from the library, but I quit reading volume one at about half way and I skimmed the rest, and I sure am not going to even start volume two. I cannot in good faith recommend this. It was bait and switch, and stunk like baited breath so rank you could cut it with a switch-blade.


Friday, June 2, 2017

A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi


This is another audiobook experiment which started out strongly, winning me with its improbable events, Indian mythology, and dry humor, but which in the second half of the book, particularly the finale, became so lost and bogged-down in endless exposition and irrelevant descriptive prose that it spoiled the entire story for me. Perhaps I should have paid attention to the initials of the title, which spell out 'A Cow'!

The author's name is Roshani Chokshi which sounds wonderful, but when the audiobook opened, I discovered that the author's name has been so Americanized that it's lost all of its charm, being pronounced Row-shnee Choke-she, which doesn't sound exotic at all, and even sounds abusive: choke she?!

While I can't judge a book on the author's name any more than I can on the cover, I have to confess to disappointment that so rich a heritage has been so badly diluted. Indian names tend to be pronounced as consonant/vowel pairs, so Roshani would be Rho Sha Ni. The 'a' is long and the 'i' is pronounced as 'e', so in Indian, the name would be like Row Shaa Nee. Obviously it's a matter of personal taste (and it's her name to do with what she will, after all!), but to me that sounds so much sweeter than Row-shnee. Schnee is the German word for snow!

Let's move along! In the novel, Gauri is a warrior princess of Bharata, who is imprisoned for reasons which were never clear to me. I listen to audiobooks while commuting, which means I miss things on occasion, as I'm more focused on traffic, as necessary, than I am on listening, so I readily admit this may well have been explained, yet never made it to my conscious mind. It's not really important. Vikram, known as the Fox Prince, is from a neighboring, but hardly friendly nation. Each sees a chance though, of recovery of their inheritance in the other, and so they form an alliance.

If they are to form a team and enter the Tournament of Wishes, then he will need her fighting skills, and she needs his deviousness. The victor gets a wish, although how this works if the victor is two people was not clear to me either! Do they each get a wish or is it shared? The fact that neither of them ask this question to begin with makes me doubt the smarts of either of them, but the story was initially interesting as they navigated the world of mythical creatures and entered the competition.

Unfortunately, while it was fun in parts and interesting in others, the author rambled on far too much about things which seemed to me to be irrelevant and which id nothing to move the story along. I was looking forward to an interesting and eventful contest, yet the contest itself fell flat for me. Either that or, through driving, I missed the best bits! But when I was about eighty percent into the book I became tired of the endlessly rambling tone, and I DNF'd it. I decided that overall it isn't a worthy read, despite some really good bits, because it was slow, tedious, and boring in far too many parts.

In terms of the reading, it was very pleasant, I have to say, to listen to reader Priya Ayyar's voice, which was charming and told the story, such as it was, well. I would listen to her again, hopefully reading better material. Her only misstep that I noticed was when she read "Boughs of an impossible tree" and pronounced it 'bows' of an impossible tree! Language matters. So does pronunciation! Authors - and readers - neglect this at their peril! Overall, I can't recommend this one.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Good as Lily by Derek Kirk Kim, Jesse Hamm


Rating: WARTY!

This is a graphic novel which is well illustrated and decently written but I had some problems with it. For one, there is a disconnect between the cover image and the interior images. If this were a novel, I could understand such a difference (between the cover and the character description inside) because the author has no say in the cover and the cover artist (in my experience) either has no clue what the novel is about, or simply doesn't care.

This is why I pay little attention to the cover of a novel, but with a graphic novel, it's different: the creators also do the cover, so why the cover image shows one body style and the interior a completely different one is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable to me. The cover image matches the text in that the main character, Grace, is "chubby" (to use a term employed in the novel). The interior images show a slim main character, which makes no sense when she's described (even vindictively) as chubby. Did the artist not read the novel until it came down to finally painting the cover?! Given this disconnect, parts of the story make no sense.

I'm typically interested in time-travel novels, and this one is a such a story in a sense. Grace is evidently a 2nd gen Korean teen living in the US. Her parents speak an oddball brand of English which I associate with racist stereotypes. Yes, I know the author, at least as judged from his last name, may well have Korean ancestry, but this doesn't excuse him from employing racial stereotypes. The mom and dad also run a convenience store. Seriously? Could we not get away from that and have them do something non-stereotypical or must everyone be pigeon-holed? This story makes the same mistake that stories featuring western characters do: it's all Caucasian, with only a token sprinkle of Asian and African. This story puts that in reverse: it's all Korean, with a token sprinkle of Caucasian. That doesn't make things better; it makes them just as racist.

On her eighteenth birthday, Grace breaks a piñata, and soon discovers that she has somehow unleashed three other versions of herself: a six-year-old, a twenty-nine-year old, and an elderly one. Despite the fact that Grace's life seems to be well on track and she's heading to Stanford after graduation, she seems to be inexplicably in disarray. She's unhappy with her lot, yet we're offered no valid reason whatsoever as to why this is. The only hint comes late in the novel and is embedded in the title: Grace had an older sister, Lily, who died young. I guess Grace felt like she never measured up to Lily, but since Lily died young there never was anything to measure up to in any practical sense, and nowhere in the novel do we ever get any real sense that Grace's problems lie with her parents' love or with her prematurely-deceased sibling.

The novel is very much like the movie Heart and Souls, wherein several recently deceased people attach themselves to a still-living guy and he, resentfully, has to help them complete unfinished business before they can move on in the afterlife. The same thing applies to Grace's three visitors. They have something to do and it's not clear what. At random points in the story, they disappear one-by-one having completed whatever it is they needed to, but the story is so vague about what it is, we get only the haziest notion of what they accomplished that helped them graduate, and so we receive no solid sense of closure for each of these phases of Grace's life.

For me, the biggest problem though, and why I'm rating this negatively, is Grace herself. We're told that she's going to Stanford, but never does she come off as very smart, or creative, or imaginative. Never do we get any idea as to why she's so down on herself and she never tries to figure it out, smart as she's supposed to be. When the school play production runs into a roadblock, she fails to apply her intellect, and fails to solve it. We're never told why so much money is needed to put on this play, or why inexpensive minimalist solutions wouldn't work.

When the school budget is cut and the golf team survives while the arts are cut, no-one organizes any sort of protest. The 'solutions' run to juvenile car washes and bake sales instead of having people simply approach local businesses and ask for donations of time, talent, or necessary items. There's no way they can earn thirty thousand dollars this way, and there's no justification given as to why thirty grand is better spent on producing this play than in being applied to a more worthy or more encompassing cause.

Grace is also pretty dumb about the guy who's interested in her. It's the tired old chestnut of lifelong best friends not realizing they're destined to be together. It's been done to death, and we're offered nothing new or original here: no twist, no great insights, no passion, no creative interactions, no imagination, and no romance. It's boring and uninventive, and I can't recommend this novel.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening Part 6 of 6 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda


Rating: WARTY!

This final part - certainly the final part I plan on reading - continues to have Maika and the monster explore her consciousness (or unconsciousness if you like) while she's imprisoned in the sarcophagus. The monster looks more like a one-eyed mummy here and less like the evil tarry, sticky creature we've hitherto seen. Maika continues to pine for Tuya, who evidently doesn't feel the same way about her!

The artwork is once again remarkable, but this is supposed to be a story, not a coffee table picture book, and the story has become far too bogged-down to be interesting to me. There's a reason that Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 - he's quite literally an action figure, and while he is rather trite and simplistic compared with this story under review, he does move (faster than a speeding bullet!). This story doesn't - or more accurately, it doesn't feel like it moves; it feels mired and stagnant, and this made me lose all interest in it which is sad in consideration of how appealing it was in the early parts of this volume. I can't recommend this one and do not feel inclined to pursue this story any further.

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening Part 5 of 6 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda


Rating: WARTY!

This one went further downhill for me and I really can't recommend it at this point.

We meet the almost insanely cruel Ilsa, then move to the half-faced "angel" who offers Maika, Kippa, and Ren the two-tailed cat safe harbor, but in the words of Admiral Ackbar, "It's a trap!" Maika becomes confined to a sarcophagus, where she retreats into her memories followed, unexpectedly, by the monster she harbors. The monster tries to convince her to give him control, whereupon he will, he claims, free them.

I can't recommend this because although the art work remains good, the story itself seems to be circling the drain rather than going anywhere interesting, and where it is going is taking forever to happen. Reading this has become too much work for the reward.


Monstress Volume 1: Awakening Part 4 of 6 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda


Rating: WORTHY!

While the art work continues to be remarkable (which is why this gets a 'worthy read' appellation), the story has begun to fall off somewhat. Initially it was full of mystery and promise and adventure, and while some of the mystery is being exposed, the story has begun to develop a meandering quality like it doesn't quite no where to go. I'm committed to finishing these six parts of volume one, but I am not enjoying this as much as I had hoped and expected to based on the early parts.

It has become difficult for me to figure out who is who and what they're after, and while sometimes that's not a bad thing, I think as this point, the lay of the land ought to have had a lot more clarification in this case. We keep meeting people and they're not often introduced properly for my taste, so I feel left in the dark rather more than I ought to feel by this place in the story.

This is a problem with writing - you may have the plot all mapped out and be intimately familiar with the characters, but your readers are never automatically so well-informed. Without some help they're never going to get to know them like you, the writer, does. Naturally this doesn't mean larding up an elegant story with a massive info-dump, but this graphic novel is quite wordy, so it's not like the writer is shy about telling the story. I just wish it was more informative.

What it looks like to me is that grown-up versions of our main characters (Maika and Kippa) are hunting for them. At first I thought we had leaped forward in time and these characters actually were the grown-up versions of the young ones we first met, but it soon became clear they're not. We meet a bunch of new characters, including a monkey guy and more multi-tailed cats, and we see Maika once again wrestle with her monster, but the story itself hasn't really moved in a couple of parts now. Maika is still int eh dark about what's going on, as is the reader, and it's becoming annoying. I'm recommending this one only because of the art and the fact that it's necessary to read this to get to the next part! For the art, it's a worthy read. The art really is wonderful.


Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening Part 3 of 6 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda


Rating: WORTHY!

This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publishers and creators, and I have to say the quality is maintained with great writing and lush art work (lush in the sense of rich and detailed not in the sense of being created by an artist with a fondness for alcohol! LOL!). One thing I was pleased with was how quickly the pages turned. Sometimes with a publication that is heavy with images, the page turns can be excruciatingly slow, but that is not the case with this series. The only issue I had was that some pages were missing the speech from the speech balloons! I've seen this before in other graphic novels, and I also encountered it in part one of this series. In this particular part, it was pages 14, 16 (where all speech balloons were blank except for one which appropriately read >GASP<! LOL!) and 18.

In this part we again meet Yvette and Destria who are fond of wearing bird-beak-like masks over their faces. Yvette was the one who was brought back to life in part two. Apparently she was forgiven, but not to the point of regaining any sort of normality in appearance. The mask evidently hides her disfigurement, but regardless of their physical appearance, these women are not pleasant people.

One thing I have to ask about is why we get the title of Monstress? Why not Monster? It seems to me that the two words do not convey the same thing, irrespective of whatever gender content they might profess. Monster indicates that the bearer of the title is a monster, whereas Monstress, which invokes 'monstrous' could be construed as the way this character, Maika, actually is - a person who has some sort of control over, or link with a monster or monsters? But I have a better question: if we're going to have Monstress, then why not have Inquisitress? But we don't get Inquisitress, nor do we get inquisitor. We get Inquisitrix, which is no more of a real word than is 'Monstress' or 'Monstrix'.

Of course, it's entirely up the the writer what word she chooses, but to me words are important and convey meaning, and this is especially true in a work of fiction where new concepts and ideas are being promoted, so I can't help but be curious about what's being promoted here. On the one hand we have a powerful story, populated with powerful females who dominate the tale (males are highly conspicuous by their absence), yet on the other, we have word forms which are gender specific and which in other contexts are not typically used with respect towards women. Anything ending in 'trix' is unlikely to be complimentary since the one most commonly used is dominatrix, something which these days has strong sexual and perversion connotations. The only other comparable word is aviatrix, which has fallen into disuse.

Words ending in 'ess' are even worse, the most common one being 'mistress' signifying at best, a possession, and at worst, a women of questionable morals. Words ending in -ess and applied to women typically are used to segregate. Is that what we're seeing here in this matriarchical world? It's questions like this which are part of what interests me. I am curious, inter alia, as to whether these words were chosen deliberately to serve a purpose, or thoughtlessly offering nothing more than cheap novelty? I hope it's not that simple! I shall be very disappointed if it is.


Monstress Volume 1: Awakening Part 2 of 6 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda


Rating: WORTHY!

Part two (featuring the disturbingly foxy feminine profile on the cover), takes up right where part one left off, thankfully. Maika has escaped with Kippa and the two-tailed sentient cat, with whom she definitely does not get along, and her captors are being abused mercilessly for their incompetence by a new faction - the bitches who are witches, evidently. One of the dead is brought back to life to account for her incompetence - that's how evil these guys are!

This is a lot shorter volume than the previous one - as are all the rest in this series - at a more standard comic book length of 32 pages. The trio have taken up with a farmer who is traveling to sell her potatoes and such, but Maika's journey is about to be interrupted.

Before writing this review, I watched a show on Netflix about these guys in Britain who built a robot using only prosthetics developed to replace human body parts. The final thing was worth a million dollars in parts alone. It was weird and creepy and ultimately unsatisfying because they appeared to promise a lot more than they delivered, but one of the guys involved in the show sported a prosthetic lower left arm, and when he removed it, his limb looked exactly like Maika's! I mention this, because it's in this volume that we learn what Maika's arm looked like before.

Again the artwork was outstanding, but in terms of moving the story, not a whole lot happened until the last portion of it, which made me feel a bit like asking why the first part wasn't split into two and this actual part two not shortened somewhat? That said, it was still a worthy read and made me look forward to part three. We got some background and some holes filled in, and met some new characters who proved to be as scary as they were interesting.

In part one, I'd noted two pages where, in this advance review copy, the speech balloons were completely blank! I've seen this in other graphic novels, but in this case, part two was fine with no missing speech. Once again thanks to the publisher and creators for the chance to read and comment on this advance review copy.


Monstress Volume 1: Awakening Part 1 of 6 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda


Rating: WORTHY!

Errata:
Two of the pages in this graphic novel had completely empty speech balloons! I've seen this phenomenon before in other graphic novels. There are no page numbers to quote from the graphic novel itself, but on my iPad, Bluefire Reader identifies the page numbers as 52, and 62.

In 1999, the American Library Association found that only 33% of children aged 11-18 read comic books, and when considering girls alone, this was down to 27%. More recently (2014) on Facebook, self-identified comic fans numbered some 24 million in the USA, of which almost half (~47%) were female. These were two different surveys covering different demographics and using different methodologies, but from this it sure looks like women are beginning to feel like they're finally being catered to.

I think that's a very good reason to celebrate by reading this remarkable series which is both written (Marjorie Liu) and illustrated (Sana Takeda) by women. It's also a very good reason to ask why, after over a decade of modern blockbuster comic book-based movies, we have yet to get one which is centered on a female character! I'll leave that question out there!

This is a very richly illustrated series of which I got the first six installments as advance review copies, and for which I thank the comic book creators for this fine work, and the publisher Image Comics, and Diamond Book distributors. The series is comprised of six volumes, all of which are thirty two pages except for the first, which is seventy-two pages long. It is beautifully illustrated in sumptuous detail, and the time and effort which has gone into this is quite staggering to contemplate. But it was worth it! Takenada must really love her work!

The story is well told and begins with teenager Maika, a naked, one-armed female slave, who is part of a collection of 'freaks' being sold to an idle bunch of self-centered and wealthy old white(-haired) men for the purpose of being their property. It's rather reminiscent of a scene from the Australian movie Sleeping Beauty which has nothing whatsoever to do with the fairy-tale, but which is a live-action movie starring the remarkable Emily Browning who at one point finds herself in a similar position, but at least Lucy has a choice in her participation. Maika does not.

This is however, a matriarchal society, and just as the bidding on Maika, who is referred to as an Arcanic, begins, she's quickly snapped-up not by one of the men, but by an influential nun known as Sophia Fekete, who maintains a lab at the Cumaea compound. Maika and her 'companions, a "fox cub, the cyclopean freak, and the stubby one with those useless wings" are transported to the city of Zamora with a sour-faced guardian by the name of Ilsa, who tells them they will be killed. Ilsa tells them that being smart and obedient might keep them alive, but nothing will keep them whole.

For Sophia, the interesting thing about Maika is the symbol tattooed above her breastbone. It has associations with monster worship, and Sophia has never seen a person branded with it before. Most people discount and discredit stories that people can raise the monstra, but Sophia does not. Maika and her 'friends' are incarcerated.

This is not a story for children. The art is beautiful although at times disturbing. The writing is threatening, deadly, and abusive. There are four-letter words and dismemberment, and some weird and crazy characters. But Maika doesn't have that particular tattoo for nothing, and just what it's for? People are going to find out in short order. I recommend this volume one unreservedly.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer by Satoshi Mizukami


Rating: WARTY!

I picked this out at the library because it had a delightfully absurd Manga title, and from a brief look at the first few pages, it seemed like it might be a fun read. Be warned: amusing perusing can hasten the crime of wasting time!

The story is your usual trope bland guy picked out by fate (or in this case a talking lizard) to be the hero who saves the world. Why he's picked out is never made clear despite some five hundred pages (I'm guessing since they're not numbered) of comic. I can't even tell you how this ended because the ending was such a confused mess that I'm honestly not sure what happened. Seriously! The first three fifths or so was ok - not great but moderately entertaining. Unfortunately, the last portion was a complete disaster when it came to intelligible story-telling. Finally I can tell you I found a novel that was three-fifths worth reading! Not really, because the ending sucked and robbed those first three-fifths of all value.

Evidently the bad guy was beaten, and the biscuit hammer did not come down on Earth, but what happened to it was unexplained. Neither did the princess, who was the bland guy's next-door neighbor destroy the Earth herself after she helped to save it. Again, why this was so went completely unexplained - or I missed it somehow, but how and when that happened was not at all clear! It wasn't explained why she ever wanted to destroy the Earth, and why - if that was indeed the case - she was helping save it.

If she so desperately wanted to destroy it, why waste all those days fighting the owner of the biscuit hammer (who we never met, unless it was blond super dude, but this wasn't at all clear - not to me, the reader, anyway, but why would an author care about keeping readers happy?!). Instead of wasting all that time fighting it, why not simply destroy it herself first? Or just stand back and by her inaction be the agent of destruction she wished to be.

Yes! None of this made sense but the first part was entertaining - for the most part. The biggest problem I had with it was the author's clear and present - and creepy - obsession with young girls' panties, a pair of which, in situ on the girl, were exposed every few pages. That was perverse at best. At least I didn't pay for this! Except with my valuable time.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Crossing Midnight Cut Here by Mike Carey, Jim Fern, José Villarrubia


Rating: WARTY!

This graphic novel made little sense. It looked interesting in the library from a quick flick through, but when I got it home and sat down to read it, it didn't hold up well, and was not very entertaining, although the artwork by Jim Fern and coloring by José Villarrubia were not bad. It's the tired trope of split twins, with nothing really new or original added.

It's supposedly set in Japan, but the characters nearly all look curiously western. It begins when someone makes a wish to the house spirits for a healthy child without knowing that the mom was bearing twins. The spirit who took the wish returns later after the children have grown some, to claim the daughter for his own. This spirit has power over knives, which makes for some excessive gore here and there. This is one story in which the pet dog doesn't make a miraculous escape.

From that point on, the story is a mess. There are claims not only on the daughter, but also on the son, from another quarter. There is a bizarre incident at the Nagasaki shrine which is also a portal to the other world. I managed to finish this volume and since I had taken two other volumes from the library (The Sword in the Soul and A Map of Midnight), I began on the next one, but I found I could not continue reading it very far. The story seemed to dwell on gore and obscurity and appeared to be going nowhere, so I gave up. I can't recommend this based on what I read.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Zen Ghosts by Jon J Muth


Rating: WORTHY!

This is the third of my children's Halloween book reviews for today. This one is a fine-looking work of art illustrated by the author. When Karl says there's a ghost outside, Michael hardly believes it, and he;s smart not to because this is Stillwater, the giant panda who wears a tiny wolf mask on his head. Karl explains to Still water that he's going to be a monster for Halloween, while Michael is still trying to choose between an owl and a pirate. Perhaps he could be both if Karl didn't object to that so strenuously.

When Addy joins them, Stillwater tells them of a ghost story they could hear after they're done trick-or-treating, and if they meet him by the big stone wall. The giant panda leads them back to his house and illustrates a story for them with some fine brush strokes. It's the story of Senjo and Ochu, two youngsters who were destined to be married until Senjo's father became so ill that he could not work. Senjo would have to be married off to Henryo instead. Ochu: Ouch!

Ochu decides to leave the village, but Senjo discovers his plan and abandons her father and leaves with him. I guess she was that kind of girl. On the other hand, he was going to sell her off to the highest bidet. It wasn't until the had married and had children that Senjo started to feel bad about deserting her sick parent. What will they find when they return? Well, I'm not even going to tell you, but it's awesome. I thoroughly recommend this one.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Eden Volume 1 by Bash


Title: Eden Volume 1
Author: Bash (no website found)
Publisher: Gen Manga
Rating: WARTY!

Well, Eden qualifies as the most incoherent comic I've ever read without any question, which is sad, because it actually succeeds where far too many comics fail by actually having the text large enough to be legible on an iPad without destroying the quality of the image.

It begins with a young girl getting a ride on a wagon, and the wagon-driver rambling on about proposing to his girlfriend for no apparent reason, and suddenly there's this bird-person coming out of nowhere and wanting to kill the wagon-driver, also for no apparent reason. The passenger fights to save him, and then is suddenly on trial for fighting to save him.

Meanwhile, there are these obscure symbols drawn in almost every frame which I at first took to be some sort draft scribblings (since this was an ARC copy). For example, on page six, it looks like measurements were written down, and then changed: 11" is apparently written in the first frame, and then crossed out and changed to 17, and in the third frame it looks like 19 is changed to one.

These seemed to make some kind of sense until I finally realized that they were not notes to be removed before the final copy was released, but actually were intended to be a part of the image. I could only conclude that this comic was originally written in some Asian language which was changed in the speech bubbles to English, while the original image outside the speech bubble was left unchanged. Kudos at least for having the comic read the regular way for the western world.

On page nineteen this girl - or maybe it's a guy, I can't really tell- actually says this: "He used a deadlier poison than I thought". I am not kidding. I'm sorry, but deadly is kind of an absolute. It means it will kill you. So in effect, this character is saying, "It looks like he killed me more than I thought". I'm sorry but that's just plain stupid. The writer could have said something like - "He used more of that poison than I thought" or, "He used a stronger dose than I thought", or something along those lines.

Suddenly this guy (or girl) named Tehra is hanging out with a wolf who appeared from nowhere (and the expression on its face suggests it was just as confused as I was!). Page thirty-one is nothing but name-calling - no I mean literally - what appears to be two names are called back and forth for the whole page which does nothing to move the story or even to tell a story.

On page fifty eight, the character says, "I'm not moving forward," which is exactly how it felt for me, and that's when I gave up - at just over a quarter the way through. He used a more deadening story than I thought! I cannot recommend this, especially not some two hundred pages of it. Although the artwork isn't bad at all, the story is non-existent. Either that or it moves so slowly that life is not detectable.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix by Marina Bonomi


Title: Ming Li and the Charmed Phoenix
Author: Marina Bonomi
Publisher: Amazon
Rating: WORTHY!

If you think this sounds like a Chinese rip-off of a Harry Potter Story, think again. It's a nicely-written tale set in a fantasy land where there is a war of wills between two magical beings, one of whom is the feared Dragon King of Dongting Lake, and poor Ming Li is trapped in the middle of it.

For someone as smart as Li, you would imagine he would be able to keep himself out of trouble, but when he passed his exams with flying colors and then some, he naturally went out to celebrate with his friends, and who can blame him for wandering home late at night and a little worse for wear?

Even so everything would have been fine except that in a deserted street, Li finds himself kidnapped and taken to a cavern in the forest, where someone asks for his help and Li, not remotely sober yet, volunteers it. He wakes up in the morning expecting to have fond memories of a weird dream, but in practice, he's still in the cavern and now he finds himself bound by honor to go up against this dragon or suffer the shame of having his word taken to be worthless.

There's an error in the text where someone offers Li to do their "outmost" to help. What's really meant is that this person will do their "utmost". There were also some instances where a word ran into the one preceding it because there was a comma after the previous word, but no space after the comma.

The story resorted to a really old challenge presented to Li, whereby he can leave an area only by one of two doors. One of the doors leads to safety, the other to death, but the doors are guarded and of the two guards, one on each door, one always lies, the other always tells the truth. Li can ask only one question to determine which door he may safely choose. This is a well-known (although perhaps not by this author) 'Fork in the road' type of puzzle. It was also used in the movie Labyrinth.

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That aside, the story is inventive, charming, warm, sweet, and beautifully written. I recommend it.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Kabuki Dreams by David Mack


Title: Kabuki Dreams
Author: David Mack (no website available)
Publisher: Image Comics
Rating: WARTY!

According to Wikipedia, kabuki is a word made from three Japanese kanji characters ( 歌舞伎 ) which in English mean sing, dance, and skill, but the word itself may be more closely related to ‘kabuku’, which is taken to indicate what we in the west might term ‘experimental theater’. None of this has anything to do with the story being told in this graphic novel, however.

This is a sequel to Kabuki Circle of Blood, a relatively long graphic novel which I did try to read, but which turned me off by its vague rambling sparsely-written text and a story which seemed to be going around in circles. This graphic novel I viewed differently, however. It is much shorter and is depicted in full color, and it's very well illustrated. It featured the woman who was badly wounded at the end of volume one, who now lay across her mother's grave marker, lost in reverie.

I decided to treat this as an illustrated poem, because it really wasn't a novel in any meaningful sense. Viewed in this way, I was able to enjoy it and this is why I am rating this positively despite having rated its predecessor negatively. The art work was beautiful. Much more effort had been put into this than had been expended on the first volume, which consisted, pretty much, of black and white sketches.

The story really doesn’t go anywhere, as I've indicated, but the art in Dreams was really well done, very true to life in some instances, while being much more abstract in others. There was something really appealing about it that I did not find in the first volume. It’s for this reason that I recommend this, and you might want to try it at the library before you decide if you want to buy it. There are many images from this series available online, too, so you can check them out there before you even decide if it’s even worth a trip to the library for this!


Kabuki Circle of Blood by David Mack


Title: Kabuki Circle of Blood
Author: David Mack (no website available)
Publisher: Image Comics
Rating: WARTY!

I found this in the library, and a quick flip through the pages made it look interesting, so I took it and the companion volume home to read. I was very disappointed. Actually the companion volume was not bad if you thought of it as illustrated poetry which is how I decided to treat it, but this graphic novel was a complete mess.

It’s rooted in Japanese culture. According to Wikipedia, kabuki is a word made from three Japanese kanji characters (歌舞伎)which in English mean sing, dance, and skill, but the word itself may be more closely related to ‘kabuku’, which is taken to indicate what we in the west might term ‘experimental theater’. None of this has anything to do with the story being told in this graphic novel, however, which is more along the lines of Yakuza and gang activities.

I honestly can’t tell you what the story was really about because it was scrappy and disjointed, and it made no sense to me, so I quickly lost interest in it, but in the beginning we’re introduced to eight young, highly sexualized Japanese women who are evidently assassins, but who have western names, so the story already started downhill, yet managed to go further downhill from there.

Like is aid, by this time I’d pretty much lost interest, so I skimmed the rest of it, and I have to say that the art work, black and white line drawings for the most part, is really rather good, but then the creator had to offer something to make up for the fact that the tale-telling is sparse and far more like poetry than prose, yet it wasn’t improved for all that. It explained very little, and that’s why I gave it very little regard. I cannot recommend this.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart


Title: Jade Dragon Mountain
Author: Elsa Hart
Publisher: MacMillan
Rating: WORTHY!

Possible erratum:
Page 272 "indicate" is used where "implicate" would be more appropriate. Either can be used here though, so maybe this isn't an error.

There was a prologue which I skipped as I do all prologues. Chapter one begins on page seven, so the book is some 315 pages long. It's set in China either at the beginning of the nineteenth century, or the beginning of the twentieth, thinks I, depending upon which Prince Frederick of Saxony is referred to in the text. There were three. I was wrong: it was actually set in 1780.

There is nothing in the text per se to show in what year this takes place, not until page 131, where we see a letter which was dated December 1707. We're told that this letter's date is "...only several months ago...", yet the book blurb assures us that this is taking place in 1780! One character mentions Prince Frederick of Saxony. The Kingdom of Saxony existed only between 1806 and 1918, and the only prince Fredericks were: Frederick Augustus I 1806 - 1827, Frederick Augustus II 1836 - 1854, Frederick Augustus III 1904 - 1918.

There was an Electorate of Saxony prior to this, and there was an Elector Frederick Augustus III was in power around 1780, but not in 1707 and anyway, to call him a prince is mistaken and misleading, but aside from that, I noticed no other glaring errors - and they would have had to have been glaring for me to see them since my knowledge of eighteenth century China is non-existent!

Author Elsa Hart is a genuine Roman! She was born in Roma, Italy and has lived in Russia, and in the Czech Republic, the US, and China. This novel was actually written in Lijiang, which used to be known as Dayan, the setting for this story.

It begins with Li Du, a once respected librarian who fell into disgrace because of his association with malcontents in Beijing. He was exiled from the capital by the Emperor himself, evidently lucky to have retained his head. Now Li Du spends all his time traveling alone, and on the very edge of the Chinese borderlands, he stops at the city of Dayan, an outpost which is becoming ever more crowded as people gather to see the all-powerful god-emperor hide the sun. Li Du has to report in to the magistrate, who happens to be a cousin, who is none too pleased with the disgrace Li Du has brought upon the family.

His cousin would normally send him on his way into the mountains, but the emperor is coming to the city to perform his miracle - seemingly to precipitate this eclipse which in reality he knows is coming because it was predicted by Jesuit scholars. Li Du's cousin doesn't trust all the foreigners crowding into his city, and demands a favor of Li Du: spend a few days here, talk to the foreign guests, find out what their attitudes and purposes are, report back, and then he can go on his way with his cousin's blessing.

The first night he's there, one of the two Jesuit Priests, an elderly astronomer, is murdered. Li Du discovers that he was poisoned, but no-one seems to care, not with the emperor due to arrive in only six days. Li Du's cousin becomes annoyed at Li Du's potential for stirring up trouble over this murder, so he signs his papers early and pretty much runs him out of town without even giving him the courtesy of providing him with a rail.

Unable to live with the idea of someone getting away with murder, Li Du abruptly halts his journey and resolves to return to the city from which he was ejected by his own cousin, and solve this murder. He has less than a week to do it and he risks of the wrath of the Emperor should he fail.

As writers we're told to write what we know, but no writer really ever does that when you get right down to it. Joanne Rowling never met a dark lord and she certainly never attended a school for witchcraft and wizardry, yet she wrote seven best sellers in the subject. Jack McDevitt never traveled between the stars, yet he wrote not one but two (mostly) excellent series of novels on that very topic! Elsa Hart never lived in China in the eighteenth century, but she sure lived there when she wrote this, and I think that shows.

You don't have to be Chinese or to have lived in the eighteenth century to write a good novel on the topic. You don't even need to be accurate to write it well, not for me, at least. The truth is that very few people would be in a position to call you out on errors - unless, of course, those errors are glaring. Typically I really don't care that much because for me, she's written it convincingly, regardless of how spot-on accurate or how far adrift from the truth she actually is. That's what's important for me. The only reason I looked up the prince was to try and figure out exactly when this was supposed to be taking place!

Unable to live with the idea of someone getting away with murder, Li Du resolves to return to the city he's effectively been tossed out of by his own cousin, and solve this murder. He has less than a week to do it and the risk of the wrath of the Emperor should he fail.

What follows is a really excellent story, which I enjoyed immensely. The author is a skilled writer and while she did drop into a bit too much detail for my taste here and there, overall the story moved well. It moved intelligently, and the plot definitely thickened! I'm usually bad at figuring out who dunnit, so I was rather thrilled in this case to narrow it down to two people one of whom was the actual killer. I even figured out what the motive was, but what I didn't see coming was not one, but two twists at the end, one of which was big, and both of which I really appreciated. This was an excellent and speedy read, and I fully recommend it. I'd love to have read more about Lady Chen and Bao, but that's a minor complaint.