Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In which I discover manga

Back in April I posted a list of anime series that introduced an entirely new art form to me—anime is not the same as North American animation; there's a different art aesthetic, different storytelling paradigms, and a different understanding of the audience: it seems everyone in Japan watches anime, since there are titles appealing to all ages and interests. (I can update that list for you with a number of new series I've since watched and enjoyed.)

Well, it turns out I had barely crossed the lip of the rabbit hole. Anime is mostly based on manga, the Japanese version of comic books or graphic novels, and manga is an entire universe unto itself. I am now falling infinitely into more and more addictive imaginary worlds. I blame Nafiza, from Book Wars, who started it all with this post about Skip Beat.

Skip Beat (the title tells you nothing, don't even worry about it, just read Nafiza's description) does have an anime adaptation, which I obsessively watched all 25 episodes of on Crunchyroll, only to discover that the story has barely started (this is a common thing, where popular mangas get turned into animes, but only the first few volumes get animated, I guess because it's expensive and time-consuming). But lucky me, my library has all 37 extant volumes of the manga. Yes. 37. And it's not over yet! She's still putting out a new chapter every month (there are about 5 chapters per volume. it's not like 37 novels or anything. but still).

So since I'm all caught up with Kyoko's evolution as an actress and her excruciatingly slow romance, I had to find other mangas to fill my new need for cool combinations of story and art and heaping doses of Japanese culture. Here are some series I can highly recommend:

Akatsuki no Yona, or Yona of the Dawn: historical fantasy about a sheltered princess who escapes with her loyal bodyguard after her father the king is murdered, and then wanders the kingdom looking for the dragon warriors that are supposed to show up when the kingdom is in trouble. Gorgeous, gorgeous art, and wonderful characters. I love Yona's journey into strength; I love her bodyguard Hak's devotion; I love Soo-Won (I can't say anything about him because spoilers. but his hair. is. so. beautiful.) And the dragon warriors are all utterly delightful. I'm buying this one as it comes out in English (only 2 volumes are available so far) but reading the unofficial fan translations*, which are up to chapter 130 now.

Chihayafuru: contemporary realistic story about a girl whose friendship with two boys develops along with her passion for a competitive card came called karuta. This one has a lovely anime adaptation, that, again, only goes so far. The manga is up to 173 chapters now, and it looks like the story will follow all the characters into university at this rate! Another very slow romance, but mostly it's about developing strength, friendship, leadership, teamwork. I keep almost getting bored with all the detail about a card game I'll never play, but I care so much about the characters I eagerly await the next chapter. Great art. Taichi has the most beautiful eyes of any manga guy.

Ore Monogatari!!! or My Love Story!! (exclamation points are required): adorable and trope-subverting romance between a big ugly guy who is the sweetest softie at heart and the girl who recognizes how great he is. Other awesome characters include the good-looking best friend who should get all the girls but hasn't fallen in love with anyone yet, and everyone's parents, who actually play roles in the story (great meeting-the-parents scenes, for example). Realistically awkward high-school romance (takes them weeks to work up the courage to hold hands!) So cute and funny!

Well, there's more, but I'm not sure I want to admit how much I've read in the last few months! For lots more recommendations of both manga and North American graphic novels, Nicola Mansfield has a great blog.

And if you really want to know what other anime I've enjoyed . . .

Bleach (again with the not helpful titles; it probably makes more sense in Japanese)—soul reapers dispatch evil lost souls with really cool sentient swords, and occasionally attend their high school classes. After 100 episodes it started to feel repetitious, so I haven't finished all 15 seasons, but there's a reason this one is one of the most popular animes. (His name is Ichigo.)

Blue Exorcist—Rin is the son of Satan but he was raised by a priest and he wants to become an exorcist; if only he could stop bursting into blue flames whenever he gets upset. Lots of intriguing characters (the head of the exorcist school is Mephisto Pheles; might he possibly have a hidden agenda?) and complex relationships (like that between Rin and his twin brother who didn't inherit any demonic powers), great art, lots of humour, and a plot that develops nicely and comes to a satisfying conclusion at the end of 25 episodes.

The Irregular at Magic High School—cool future in which magic is developed like technology and is used in warfare (of course); a brother and sister navigate a high school divided into higher- and lesser-skilled magic-users, but the brother has more talent than meets the eye.

Those three are on Netflix, in case you wanted to just take a look (Crunchyroll has some series you can watch for free but some stuff you have to have an account to watch.)

And I think I'll leave it at that for now! I welcome recommendations: have you watched or read anything you've loved?

*It's considered semi-acceptable to read these "scanlations" on a site like Batoto that doesn't use advertising (thus making money off the efforts of the original author and the volunteer translators), as long as you buy the official versions whenever you can. Since not all mangas are ever published in English, sometimes it's the only way to read them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Swan Riders, by Erin Bow

I was so excited to get this one in my mailbox. I loved The Scorpion Rules, and when I was offered a chance to review the sequel I had to edit all the exclamation points out of my enthusiastic reply. Erin Bow is simply an astonishing author; and this book is possibly even better than the first one (except that's actually impossible—when I reviewed The Scorpion Rules I said I wasn't sure I would reread it because of how intense it is, but I reread it before reading The Swan Riders, and loved it all to pieces even more).

Note that I will do my bestest not to spoil Swan Riders at all in this review (you really don't want it to be spoiled, trust me!), but it's impossible to talk about it without spoiling Scorpion Rules, so if you haven't read the first book, go read it now before you even look at the blurb for Swan Riders!

And if you've read Scorpion, then all you really need is this pretend blurb from E.K. Johnston:
"All the emotional punches of THE SCORPION RULES, but with horses instead of goats."
Very true. But, okay, I'll rave a bit more about it. LAST CHANCE NOT TO BE SPOILED FOR THE FIRST BOOK. Ahem. The Swan Riders starts right after the end of Scorpion.

Awesome first line:
So. It is perhaps not everyone who asks to be murdered, gets their wish, and then, three days later, finds that their most immediate problem is that they cannot ride a horse. 
Greta is riding across the Saskatchewan prairie with Talis (in Rachel's body) and two Swan Rider escorts, Francis Xavier and Sri. New characters that you will come to love with as much intensity as you loved Xia, Thandi, the Abbot, etc.  (Just so you don't get disappointed: Xia doesn't get any screen time in this book, though she's still an important emotional presence. But Elián does. Oh, Elián!)

We find out about Swan Riders—how and why they were created, their powers and limitations, why they choose to become Swan Riders, their relationship with Talis and the other AIs—and Bow has lots of room here for her trademark heartwrenching moral and existential dilemmas. Oh, Francis Xavier!

We find out more about Talis—oh, Talis! Some of the best scenes in the book are interludes from his point of view, memories that pack in a lot of world-building and explanation while being equal parts funny, creepy and heartbreaking. We meet a few more AIs, and learn more about why they are going insane (and why Greta might, if she can't get a grip on herself).

And, of course, because this is what the best science fiction does, Bow uses the idea of artificial intelligence, and Greta, who is turning into one, to explore what it means to be human. "The who of me. The why of me." What love means. Why it matters.

I said this in my CM Magazine review (I try to sound dispassionate and scholarly in these reviews, but sometimes my raving voice leaks through): Bow’s writing is elegant and exact: she illuminates rather than explains the technological and metaphysical complexities that underpin the novel, always bringing every idea back to the impact it has on an individual.
He'd seen it over and over: how a single memory rose from the organic mind, and then from the datastore, and then (reinforced, and stronger) from the organics, and then (reinforced, and stronger) . . . it was two mirrors reflecting each other. It was feedback squealing through a microphone. A single moment building to an intensity beyond what any psyche could endure.
 How could there be no circuit breaker? How could there be no grace? 
Those sentences that punch you in the gut. Lots of them in this book. (Talis learned how to "make it personal" from Erin Bow, just saying.) Lots of tense, visceral moments; lots of rock-you-back-on-your-feet plot twists. And humour, still so much humour. Talis being snarky, Elián being Elián, horses (with names like NORAD and Gordon Lightfoot) being horses.

I keep trying to write sentences that explain how wonderful Bow is at exploring really cool philosophical ideas with gripping drama, and my sentences keep getting tied up in themselves (like this one). Bow is just a master of metaphor and symbol and character and pacing, and everything, really.

The short version? If you loved Scorpion, you won't be disappointed in Swan, so just go read it already!

I've got the smell of roasting ham wafting through my house, and it's actually a good food metaphor for Swan Riders: salty, savoury, a bit smoky, meaty, all kinds of complex goodness.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving, by the way! I'm thankful that we have awesome writers like Erin Bow in our beautiful country!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Queen's Thief 5 Announced!

Insert appropriate jumping up and down screaming gif (I have no idea how). May 2017 is the expected publication date. Not even a year away!

Much to my surprise, it's not about Eddis. Remember Kamut, the Mede slave? From Goodreads:
Kamet, a secretary and slave to his Mede master, has the ambition and the means to become one of the most powerful people in the Empire. But with a whispered warning the future he envisioned is wrenched away, and he is forced onto a very different path.
I'm wondering if we go to the Mede Empire with Kamut, or if his different path starts on the boat (see: burning boat on cover image). I'm really hoping we see more of Eddis and Sounis (and Gen and Attolia, of course)(and Costis, and the Magus), but I'll be happy no matter what the book's about!

Plus, it has maps!

This links to a brief interview with Megan Whalen Turner. Can I just say that we are all so lucky she has editors and a publisher who give her the time she needs to write her books so well?

It turns out I haven't reviewed any of MWT's Queen's Thief series on my blog, though I've mentioned her the odd time. That's only because I had read them all before I started the blog, and also because I figured everyone would already be familiar with her. Suffice it to say she is required reading for anyone who remotely likes YA fantasy. If you haven't met Eugenides yet, now's the perfect time to be introduced to one of the greatest characters ever created (I'm not exaggerating)!

This calls for some celebratory chocolate!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

12 Noblebright novels for 99 cents if you preorder

Thought I'd share a limited-time offer on Amazon that Sherwood Smith is involved in. Because it's a bit of a no-brainer. Even if I don't end up liking any of the novels I won't feel gypped! Since I haven't heard of any of the authors except for Sherwood Smith, I assume this is a way to get publicity for relatively new writers. Seems like a great idea—if I like any of them I'll happily review them on Goodreads.

The Sherwood Smith novel included is Lhind the Thief, one I already have, alas. I'm still hoping for more books set in Sartorias-Delas—she's given tantalizing hints that there are more to come, but she seems to be working on different things these days. (Darn those authors who don't cater to my every whim.)(Her historical books are great, too, though.)

I can't say I'm a fan of the descriptor "noblebright," but the sub-genre it describes is probably my favourite type of book. Rachel Neumeier has a recent post talking about it, and here's Sherwood Smith quoting C.J. Brightley (who chose the 12 novels in the bundle):

Noblebright fantasy has at least one important character with noble, idealistic motives who does the right thing out of principle. The character is flawed, but his or her actions are generally defined by honesty, integrity, sacrifice, love, and kindness. The story upholds the goodness of the character; the character’s good qualities are not held up as naiveté, cluelessness, or stupidity, but rather shown to be worthwhile. Good characters can make a difference. Noblebright characters can learn and grow. They can deliberately choose to be kind when tempted to be unkind, they can choose generosity when it hurts, and they can influence their world and other characters for the better. In a noblebright story, even villains are not without hope; their stories may have a redemptive ending, or they may have some kind of conversion experience (religious or not). It’s not guaranteed, of course, but in a noblebright story, it’s a possibility.

Noblebright fantasy is not utopian fiction. The world of a noblebright story is not perfect, and indeed can sometimes be quite dark. Actions have consequences, and even good characters can make terrible mistakes. But a noblebright story is generally hopeful in tone, even if there are plenty of bad, grim, dark things going on in the world.

What do you think of the term? And what have you read that you would call [word that's better than noblebright]?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Cybils Nominations are Open!

Sorry I'm a couple of days late with the announcement, but y'all prob'ly knew about it anyway. Make sure your favourite books of 2016 are nominated! Anyone can nominate: you don't have to be a blogger. You only have until October 15, so don't procrastinate. I can't wait to find out what everyone loved this year!

Here's the link with everything you need to know.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Demon Catchers of Milan, by Kat Beyer

When I saw this title I knew I had to read this book, because Italy. I've never actually been to Milan, but here's a couple of shots from Florence:

So gorgeous. I pretty much love everything about Italy, so I was favourably disposed to like this book no matter what it was about. But demon catchers sounded fun! And I loved the juxtaposition of demons with the city of fashion, style, and all things modern and too cool for words.

The Demon Catchers of Milan satisfied in every respect. It's about Mia, an American girl who discovers the Italian side of her family when she gets possessed by a demon and her cousins show up to exorcise it. They inform her she's the latest in a long line of exorcists and she'd really better come to Italy to learn how to do it, or that demon is going to get her. So it's a story of cultural transplantation, as Mia gets plunked down into all things Italian and has to learn a new language, new food, new customs, new assumptions. Beyer obviously loves Italy, too, because her novel is a love story to the city of Milan and Italian culture in general. Her writing is beautiful, so you can taste the food and hear the bells and feel the cobblestones underfoot.

Oh, and Mia does also have to learn about demon catching, which actually took a back seat for me in terms of what I was interested in (I was too busy salivating over the descriptions of pasta). But I liked the way Beyer takes the traditional Catholic version of demons and puts her own spin on it. There are intriguing ideas hinted at that I hope are explored more in a sequel (there is a sequel, which I've just requested from InterLibraryLoan); since Mia is just learning we don't get the whole story about what demons are, but there seem to be different types, not all of which are totally evil.  I liked the way Italian history was brought into the story as an explanation for some of the hauntings.

This isn't a kick-some-demon-ass-with-magical-swords kind of story; it turns out that meditation is the big thing Mia has to train in. I liked that Beyer wasn't afraid to make her demon battles spiritual rather than physical, and I liked that Mia makes some significant mistakes because she's young and insecure and susceptible to temptation. She was a realistically flawed character that I could root for as I winced. I also loved the extended family and neighborhood with all the little squabbles and difficult personalities who nevertheless all came together when it mattered.

The Demon Catchers of Milan isn't a typical YA paranormal, and I liked its differences. I'm looking forward to finding out more about the world and spending more time with all those gorgeous Italians! And I really want to go back to Italy again!

Difficult to choose an Italian food for a metaphor. I think I'll go with panzanella, because you might not have heard of it: Tuscan bread salad. Sounds weird, maybe, but it's really tasty, the way the bread cubes soak up the olive oil and tomato juices and everything is fresh and savory and mmmmmm. Here's a beautiful picture of it and a recipe if you want to try it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It's Cybils Season Again! (And I'm a judge again, yay!)

I am excited to announce that I'm a Round 2 judge for the YA Speculative Fiction category, along with . . .


Hayley Beale


Aneeqah Naeem
My Not So Real Life 

Hi Hayley! (We judged together in MG Spec Fic last year.) Nice to meet you Pam, Samantha and Anneqah! I'm really looking forward to seeing the shortlists we get in January.

Good luck to all the Round 1 judges who have to choose their favourites from among all the YA speculative fiction published in North America between Oct 2015 and Oct 2016.

Nominations for Children's and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards (CYBILS) in all categories open on October 1, so all of you out there in the blogosphere, start thinking of the books you loved this year and be sure to send in your nominations.