Sunday, June 29, 2014

Japan Interlude: Morning Musume '14 Again

I've mentioned my love of Morning Musume '14 here, but seriously guys I devote almost as much time to keeping up with this group and being generally super geeky about them that I do reading/reviewing books.

Case in point was today. I went to what is called a "Cheki-kai" Cheki are are tiny polaroid pictures and a "Cheki-kai" is an event where you can go and get your photo taken with singers/idols.

I acquired a ticket for this via buying a box set. This is Haruka Kudou, and we just played some Rock Scissors Paper, and I totally won.

Of the girls, Haruka and Haruna are the biggest readers. Haruka is into Shonen manga, she has a huge One Piece obsession, while Haruna is into pretty much any manga she can get her hands on. She actually writes a column in a magazine reviewing and recommending her favourites. Her all time favourite manga, however, is JoJo (which never took off in the west, but is the longest running series in Japan, if I remember correctly).

Haruna is awesome, because she has no problem showing how geeky she is, despite being an idol.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: The Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph (His Fair Assassin #2)

Robin LaFevers

Review of Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin #1)

Publication Date: April 2nd 2013

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children

Pages: 385

Genre:  Fantasy, Historical, Adventure, Romance, Young Adult

When Sybella arrived at the doorstep of St Mortain half mad with grief and despair the convent were only too happy to offer her refuge - but at a price. The sisters of this convent serve Death, and with Sybella naturally skilled in both the arts of death and seduction, she could become one of their most dangerous weapons.
But her assassin's skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to the life that nearly drove her mad. Her father's rage and brutality are terrifying, and her brother's love is equally monstrous. But when Sybella discovers an unexpected ally she discovers that a daughter of Death may find something other than vengeance to live for...
Sybella's journey in Dark Triumph is a much different one than Ismae's in many ways, yet similar in the way that she also comes to terms for what it means for her to be Death's Handmaiden.

Dark Triumph picks up the story before Grave Mercy ends with the moment of Sybella's warning. We are then pulled into the dark twisted world that is her family, and it becomes very obvious why she was so crazed when she had appeared at the abbey. Sybella's story is much, much darker than Ismae's.

Once again LaFevers storytelling and characters are compelling. We deal less with intrigue and more with family politics this time around. We explore a household held hostage by fear of the patriarch. We see how abuse is internalized and how even good things can become twisted.

The romance does not disappoint as well. I found our two hero enjoyable with how compatible they are. Beast's need to save people is important to impart Sybella with belief in humanity again.

I am more than ready to devour the final book in the trilogy, our final Handmaiden's tale.

If you enjoyed Grave Mercy, don't hesistate to pick up this next book. It is a slightly different sort of book from the first one, but it is written just as well.


Feature and Follow: Mugs

Question of the Week: Post a photo of your favorite coffee mug (or mugs if you can’t choose just one).

I actually have a bit of a mug problem, lol. I talk myself out of buying so many mugs (I already own too many considering I live alone!) My favourite, though, is probably this one that I got when I was studying abroad in Chiba:

It was only 100 Yen (about $1USD) but I love the charm of that messy HeNoHeNoMoHeJi (へのへのもへじ are the characters used to create the face).

There's another one still back in the states that I love as well as it's the size of a small bowl, lol, which is great for large batches of Hot Chocolate.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Blog Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles #2)

Marissa Meyer

Review of Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles #1)

Publication Date: February 5th 2013

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends

Pages: 452

Genre:  Fairy Tale, Scifi, Romance, Young Adult

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She's trying to break out of prison--even though if she succeeds, she'll be the Commonwealth's most wanted fugitive. Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit's grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn't know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother's whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.
Scarlet is a much more dramatic and darker tale than its prequel, Cinder, but considering that story it comes from (Little Red Riding Hood) I feel like that's harder to avoid. There's something about this specific fairy tale that inspires darkness. The book follows two storylines for the most part (with bits from Kai's point of view). We have the continuation of the last book's plot with Cinder's escape, and then we have the introduction of our new heroine, Scarlet.

What I absolutely love about Meyer's writing style, is how strong her characters are. They have very distinct personalities, they are not flaky things that we can imprint our own selves on to, instead they have such personalities that if we met them in real life we could recognize them.

Focusing in on Scarlet's story, we have a girl whose grandmother has disappeared, yet no one will take the disappearance seriously (everyone considered her crazy and thinks she just ran off). When she gets a hint to where her grandmother may have gone/been taken, she starts off, ending up getting help from a stranger named Wolf. However she doesn't know if she can trust him or not.

Do you notice something about this summary? I certainly noticed it while I was reading the book. Meyer has not just taken the basic story of a girl in a red hood and a wolf, this is the fairy tale, with every bit Meyer could fit in from the original tale stuck in somewhere. I was duly impressed. I think Meyer has a gift for interpretation that I have not seen done better by many other writer of fairy tales. The ideas she comes up with are incredibly unique, yet they perfectly represent what they're supposed to in the original story (I mean Cinder's foot falling off instead of a shoe? Brilliant.) And, it's all done naturally.

Now all my gushing praise aside, it is true that I didn't enjoy this book as much as Cinder, however I think that is less Meyer's fault and more a personal preference. Scarlet has a slightly different feel to it. The main character is slightly older, the situations a bit more, and Wolf is much more... dramatic that Prince Kai.

The beginning also didn't catch my interest and it was slow reading for a while. If I didn't have the parts with Cinder to follow, I don't know if I'd ever gotten past that point where suddenly I was hooked.

The Lunar Chronicles stick out among fairy tales. I think it's obvious what a success they are, when a new book comes out all the blogs are reviewing it. But, there is a reason for the hype, they are written well, they are written creatively, and they are unique takes..


Sunday, June 22, 2014

E-Readers & Japan

I thought I might update random things related to Japan on Sundays when I think of something, or if I think it might be interesting or relevant to my book reading life!
So today, I thought I might talk about what I've noticed when it comes to Japanese and E-Readers.

I have owned e-readers for a pretty long time. My first one was a Kobo that I got the Christmas of 2010 (It broke twice within its guarantee period, god they were fragile). It was really useful since I'd always had problems choosing what books to bring with me to college. I also have had a Kindle and currently have a Kindle Paperwhite (which I love). These have been essential in Japan, as I could only bring about ten books with me from the States and it makes buying new books in English way easier and faster.

The thing about Japan is that E-Readers haven't really caught on.

In the Fall of 2011 I did a study-abroad in Chiba and brought my Kindle. No one had ever heard of an e-reader out of my Japanese friends and they were intrigued by it. I also didn't really see advertisements for them anywhere. I think they might have been around, but it was only the beginning of their arrival here.

When I came back in August 2013, most people I talked to still didn't know of e-readers, but Kindle as a brand name was very well known from the Kindle Tablets.

There is however advertisements for them around. So who is the e-reader king of Japan? Surprisingly, Kobo Books snatched themselves a rather good deal. They formed a partnership with the of Japan, Rakuten. Rakuten has found its way into many bits of Japan life. I'd say they're a bit more non-internet-user friendly than Amazon as there seems to be a presence. There is also ads for Rakuten EVERYWHERE.
English Rakuten logo w/kobo
Due to this Kobos, are known as a brand name as well here. Of course Nooks might as well not exist.

I bring my Kindle to work and it's always really interesting to see my co-workers responses to it. One even mentioned she was thinking of getting one and wanted to inspect mine. The hardest thing to explain in Japanese, however, is e-ink, the reason why I love e-readers in the first place, but it seems like I get the idea across.

Does anyone know how e-readers are seen in other countries? Is it just as prevelant in Europe as it is in the States? Before I came to Japan with it, it was really easy to assume EVERYONE knew about e-readers lol.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Review: Hero by Alethea Kontis

Hero (Woodcutter Sisters #2)

Alethea Kontis

Review of Enchanted (Woodcutter Sisters #1)

Publication Date: August 1st 2013

Publisher: Harcourt Books

Pages: 304

Genre:  Fairy Tale, Adventure, Young Adult

Rough and tumble Saturday Woodcutter thinks she's the only one of her sisters without any magic—until the day she accidentally conjures an ocean in the backyard. With her sword in tow, Saturday sets sail on a pirate ship, only to find herself kidnapped and whisked off to the top of the world. Is Saturday powerful enough to kill the mountain witch who holds her captive and save the world from sure destruction? And, as she wonders grumpily, "Did romance have to be part of the adventure?" As in Enchanted, readers will revel in the fragments of fairy tales that embellish this action-packed story of adventure and, yes, romance.
Here lies the review of the sequel to the enjoyable Enchanted. And personally, this book showed improvement in Kontis's writing, and stole my heart even more than the first.

This time around we are following Saturday, the second youngest out of the Woodcutter sisters. She is the "non-magical" one, having received only an axe from her fairy godmother as opposed to the amazing things her sisters received. Of course, this has changed since she became indestructible at the end of her younger sister's adventures and it becomes obvious that she has a destiny to fulfill and until then she has to stay intact due to the logic of this world.

This time around it doesn't seem like Kontis focuses on any one fairytale and instead alludes to several while turning a few traditional fairytale tropes on their head. This time around we have a heroine saving a "prince" and it's lovely.

The writing style has shifted to fit Saturday's voice, becoming less dreamy and more practical. This especially shows in the romance in which the book doesn't even try to dress up (despite being insta-love) with drama, emotion and reasons. It presents it as "romance happens this way in fairytales, I guess we'll just go with the flow" and surprisingly this ends up working rather well and being very effective.

Where the last book suffered from Sunday feeling a little less developed, all of the characters in this one are fantastic. Saturday and Peregrine are layered characters (even without their gender-bending scenario to deal with) and all the side characters are memoriable.

I also applaud the fact that this can act as a stand-a-lone book, separate from Enchanted, though it does seem like there will be slightly more direct sequels after this one.

Even if you haven't read Enchanted or didn't feel like you enjoyed it very much, I highly recommend getting your hands on Hero. It's a book that deserves to be read by lovers of the fairytale. I also think that those who are fans of Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest books will enjoy this book as well. If Kontis continues to improve, the next book, Dearest, is going to be phenomenal.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Feature and Follow: Favourite Books So Far

Question of the Week: What are your favorite books of 2014 so far?

Ahhh, this is hard. I guess if we're going by the ones I've read recently, rather than what has come out (I have yet to read many 2014 releases) I would have to say... the Parasol Protectorate and Finishing Academy books by Gail Carriger that I plowed through

 Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. 
First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.
Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire--and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.
With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is the bane of her mother's existence. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper etiquette at tea--and god forbid anyone see her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. She enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.
But little do Sophronia or her mother know that this is a school where ingenious young girls learn to finish, all right--but it's a different kind of finishing. Mademoiselle Geraldine's certainly trains young ladies in the finer arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but also in the other kinds of finishing: the fine arts of death, diversion, deceit, espionage, and the modern weaponries. Sophronia and her friends are going to have a rousing first year at school.

Book Review: Splintered by A.G. Howard

Splintered (Splintered #1)

A.G. Howard

Publication Date: January 1st 2013

Publisher: Amulet Books

Pages: 371

Genre:  Adventure, Romance, Young Adult

This stunning debut captures the grotesque madness of a mystical under-land, as well as a girl’s pangs of first love and independence. Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now.
When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.
I'm rather up in arms about this book. On one-hand I adored the writing. Howard was able to entrance me with the prose. On the other hand I didn't enjoy the triangle and some of the ways the romantic interests were. On one-hand I was heads over heels for the world created here, and on the other, something would be just off with the plot to keep me from falling in love completely.

I guess I should rewind and start this review from the beginning.

Splintered is a fantastic, unique take on the world of Alice in Wonderland. It follows a girl whose long ago ancestor was the famous Alice Liddell, inspiration for Carroll's book, and every girl in their line had gone crazy. So pretty much, Alyssa, our main character, is terrified of ending up in an asylum like her mother. She already hears bugs and flowers talking, she's sure eventually she'll just break.

As a character, I was two ways about Alyssa (my obvious theme for this book). There were some points where I really liked her and other times where I would be practically pleading out loud with her to stop making certain choices (usually when Jeb was involved). The quirks that Howard established for her in the beginning, however, were brilliant.

The world of Wonderland... I really enjoyed this interpretation. I enjoyed how Howard re-imagined the major players of the original story, giving a grotesque and creepy vibe to everything. There were some things (such as the somewhat forced-feeling reference to them as netherlings) that sat weird and unnatural. But, when it comes down to it I am more than ready to revisit this world.

And... there is a love triangle. I personally could have done without it in all honesty.

I recommend this book to people who want to read a very fantastical (and grotesque in the best way) re-imagining of Wonderland. If you don't dig love triangles, I think the world and plot overshadow the one in here, but I guess tread lightly just in case. I happened to enjoy this book a lot despite it, however. 


Extra Note:I was wondering if any of my readers/other bloggers classify Alice in Wonderland as a fairy tale or not. I, personally, do not, and probably won't ever. It's a classic book for me, but I think the way that it is adapted so often (and in the common domain) makes it easy to lump it in our minds as one.

Of course that's only my opinion on the subject.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review: The Sweetest Spell by Suzanne Selfors

The Sweetest Spell

Suzanne Selfors

Publication Date: August 12th 2012

Publisher: Walker Childrens

Pages: 416

Genre:  Fairytale, Young Adult

Emmeline Thistle, a dirt-scratcher's daughter, has escaped death twice-first, on the night she was born, and second, on the day her entire village was swept away by flood. Left with nothing and no one, Emmeline discovers her rare and mysterious ability-she can churn milk into chocolate, a delicacy more precious than gold.

Suddenly, the most unwanted girl in Anglund finds herself desired by all. But Emmeline only wants one-Owen Oak, a dairyman's son, whose slow smiles and lingering glances once tempted her to believe she might someday be loved for herself. But others will stop at nothing to use her gift for their own gains-no matter what the cost to Emmeline. 

Magic and romance entwine in this fantastical world where true love and chocolate conquer all.
When you first encounter The Sweetest Spell, it almost seems like an author wrote it from a challenge that required the inclusion of: making chocolate, guardian cows and husband auctions. But, this book is much more than the sum of its parts.

Additionally, the summaries given for it officially do not do it justice. So let me try my hand at it. The Sweetest Spell is a retelling of "The Ugly Duckling". Emmeline, our main character, is born with a curled foot, and is left in the woods to die on the day of her birth due to the fact that a "dirt-scratcher", a low-caste farmer, cannot afford to raise a child who cannot work themselves. However, that night, the milkman's cows didn't come home, and instead they are found standing over the babe, guarding it. From that point forward, Emmeline is regarded with superstition and revulsion.

At sixteen a series of tragedies occur, leaving Emmeline homeless and thrust into another society, one that considers "dirt-scratchers"primitive, less than human. While there she discovers that she has an ability that has been thought to be lost forever: she can churn butter into chocolate.

Though the story is meant to mostly focus on "The Ugly Duckling" many, many fairy tale tropes are borrowed and incorporated into it. It honestly stands alone as it's own fairy tale, a new one. But, I think that what really sets The Sweetest Spell apart is the themes it deals with. There is racism, prejudice, and re-writing of history to benefit the race currently in power, among other things. Many of the characters carry layers to them (a few were very unexpected) and there is a light exploration of what the promise of money can do to people. Unfortunately, some that were not layered, ended up being rather caricatured (especially our villains, though it's hard to not caricature villains in a fairy tale retelling).

I definitely recommend this book for people who enjoy fairy tales. It is most certainly the storytelling style of one. I also urge prospective readers to not glance over this book because of the chocolate or cow thing, everything in the book has a reason and when it is explained makes absolute sense in a very natural way. It only sounds weird when you try to summarize it out of context. 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

I have a Confession to make.

That sounds rather dramatic, doesn't it? It's nothing bad though, just an update about my personal life that I thought might be interesting to share.

A while ago I mentioned my struggle to get a job and joked about shipping myself off to Japan.

Well... about that... the joke sort of became... a reality.

Since August of last year (2013), I have been living and working in Osaka, Japan! I am an Assistant Language Teacher (if you know the JET Programme, that's pretty much what I'm doing) for Elementary School. Hurrah! It's pretty exciting. And I can't believe it's almost been a year already.

What's great about my job, however, (other than my awesome kids) is that I am left with a lot of freetime between classes. I mean hours of freetime even after I finish making lesson plans and preparing materials for upcoming classes. And, I am allowed to read during this freetime (although I only realized it was okay, recentely).

My Kindle and I have become best friends to say the least, and this blog has become very active!

It feels great to have time to read again.

P.S. If you guys ever have any questions about Japan, feel free to ask! I may not have all the answers, but I can try.

Book Review: The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani

The School for Good and Evil (The School for Good and Evil #1)

Soman Chainani

Publication Date: March 14th 2013

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 488

Genre:  Fairytale, Fantasy, Middle-Grade

The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.

This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

The School for Good & Evil is an epic journey into a dazzling new world, where the only way out of a fairy tale is to live through one.
For a while I had forgotten what a book has to do to earn a full 5 bookmarks from me. I found myself rating books 4.5 and wondering if maybe I was being too picky. Then I finished reading this book and it fully reminded me what I felt like after finishing a book that rates 5.

Where do I start this review? I guess at the heart, with our two main characters. Sophie and Agatha are as different as night and day. Sophie has shimmering, bright blonde hair and works hard to do good deeds. Agatha cares very little for her appearance, lives in a graveyard, and is cynical. Of course as soon as you see things from their points of view, it becomes clear that appearances are only skin deep with these two. I love how strong these two characters are and how they grow and are influenced, yet still remain themselves at their core.

They are layered characters. Sophie seems to only think of herself for most things, but there will be times when something more shines through. Agatha's journey of self-love is also pretty amazing to go through.

The world is imaginative and although I have seen similar things before, this is hands down my favourite rendition of the fairytale/myth school idea. The writing is both light and nuanced. Things are hinted it throughout the book and I found myself realizing things only slightly faster than the characters. The book also walks a fine line between falling into cliches and breaking them as there were times where I was about to think something predictable was about to happen, before things would suddenly change.

The ending is incredibly satisfying as well, which is important. A rushed or messy ending can lower the enjoyment of an entire book.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fantasy, fairytale or school stories. I recommend this book for anyone who finds strongly defined characters a pleasure and those who don't mind being in the head of someone quite selfish (though this did not bother me as I loved the writing of it, I understand that some people find this unbearable). I know that I will be picking up the next book as soon as I can!