Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

I'm working my way through an omnibus edition of Maugham's work, and man, he can write. I'm torn between the impulse to swim leisurely through his prose or just gleefully cannonball into it. Unlike some writers of this time, Maugham is not particularly flowery, but he has an interesting way of presenting ideas and constructing sentences that makes you want to read over them several times, just to appreciate their ideas and form.

MOON AND SIXPENCE, which could just as easily be called "Portrait of the Artist as a Douche," is based loosely off the life of the artist, Paul Gauguin. I tried to pronounce his name several times, ineffectively, ranging from gewgaw, to Google, to gaijin. As it turns out, the way it's actually pronounced makes him sound like a creature from a Japanese monster movie (it rhymes with "Rodan"), which is only the first way this book surprised me.

Strickland seems like he has the ideal of the moderately successful life: a wife, children, a good job with steady pay. But he is discontent, and one day, coldly decides to leave his wife and job and go to Paris, living in squalor. Why? So he can paint. The confusion of his family, neighbors, and the narrator himself is palpable. To paint? Not because of madness, or because of another woman - but just... for art? For art's sake, and not for fame?

The narrator follows Strickland, as he wrecks yet another marriage, paints more art, and eventually goes to Tahiti, where he finds the climate agreeable and even obtains one of the locals as a "wife." The whole time he is cruel and scornful, dismissive of others' feelings, wants, or desires, and even his own comfort. Everything must be sacrificed for art. Ultimately, I'd say this is a tragedy, because that vision ends up consuming Strickland; he pours his entire being into his art, and like many artists, it isn't until he's dead that his work becomes first a curiosity and then something far more powerful.

A lot of my friends did not enjoy this book and I can certainly see why. Strickland is a jerk, and so is the narrator. There's a casually dismissive attitude towards the things that people generally consider worthy in a human being: compassion, empathy, loyalty, family, kindness, charity, etc. Art here is portrayed as something wholly selfish, and the message here seems to be that it is somehow okay; that an artist is allowed to be an egotist, because self-absorption is necessary for introspection. I don't like that message, so I can see why some people might write off MOON AND SIXPENCE as too dark and grim and irritating. However, I found myself fascinated by these terrible characters.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I've read Maugham before and really liked his work, so this isn't really surprising. His other book was more of a comedy of manners, though; it was nothing like this. I'm really looking forward to working my way through his repertoire and seeing how his stories vary, while enjoying his beautiful writing and compelling, yet flawed characters.

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, October 16, 2017

Red-Hot Lover by Rieko Hamada

Clara is the sweet girl who plays a villain on a soap opera. Her last boyfriend ditched her publicly because she had no interest in living up to her primadonna stereotype, but luckily the handsome and rich Jared Blackheath was there to pick up the pieces and whisk her away to his love mansion for weeks. She had such a good time that she forgot about her own sister's wedding.

When Clara and Jared get to the wedding, Clara finds that Jared is acting odd - he's tense and angry, and it seems to be directed entirely towards her new brother-in-law. But why?!?!?!

I bought this HQ manga because it was only $0.99. I really like the format of these books, and I think it's a great way to rekindle interest in old romance novels (the original version of this story was published in 1998). They have a fun, old-fashioned feel that makes them charming rather than outdated. Tellingly, no one in these books, not even the rich people, have mobile phones or laptop computers.

The art in here is good. It's not amazing, but it definitely suits the story and doesn't do anything weird... except for Clara's face on the cover. The derpy thing she has going on with the duck face is a little strange. Also, these manga usually open with a full-color panel and for SOME reason, the one in here looks as though it's been colored in with crayon.

As for the story... ehhhh. I've read a lot of "family sekrits" romance novels and this one is pretty stock. I felt bad for Jared, but I was glad he was able to come to some sort of closure in the end (albeit, at terrible cost). There's an incredibly insensitive old lady character in this book who oh-so-casually drops a tragedy bomb after being all, "Oh, I remember you!" ...Guess who's not getting invited to any more dinner parties?

For $0.99 this was decent, though. Manga is usually pretty pricey, and for what I paid, I have to say that this was pretty solid.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Whisper by Naomi Watanabe

Just when you thought that those Harlequin Presents romance novels couldn't get any fluffier, someone got the ingenious idea of turning them into Japanese-style josei manga. God bless that person, I say. Truly a woman (or man) after my own heart.

Genna is a lawyer hoping to make partner. One day, while sitting outside, she hears this sexy-voiced dude in the garden of her law firm sweet-talking a lady under a magnolia tree. She couldn't see them, but her imagination ran away with her and now she can't get that guy's voice out of her mind.

Nick, Genna's friend, is her friend and her boss. She likes him like a brother, but there's something between them that's not quite platonic.

When her firm has a Halloween party, Genna goes in costume and recognizes the man from the garden (wearing a mask). They end up having an affair, but always in the dark, always anonymously. Part of her wonders who it is... but she's not quite ready to shatter the illusion. I'm a sucker for mistaken identity tropes, so obviously when I realized what this was, I was like :D

I really enjoyed this manga. The art style is gorgeous (sometimes the styles can be a bit hit-or-miss). It actually reminds me of some of the manhwa I really liked in college - for whatever reason, Korean-style manga is much more elaborate and ornate, and that's the style Watanabe's work reminds me of.

I also really liked the story. It's hot. There's great chemistry, the dialogue is good, and the case Nick and Genna are working on parallels their own relationship, in a way, which I always like. Meta is the new black, and all that. I honestly would have given this five stars, except Genna punches Nick in the face and bruises his mouth when he does something that she sees as a "betrayal." And honestly, I'm so over that "women impotently expressing outrage via physical violence" shtick. Hitting is not okay, and she literally had no reason to hit him. It was an overreaction in the extreme.

Apart from that, though, WHISPER was a great story, easily the best Harlequin manga I've read so far. I'm really growing to love these. I rolled my eyes a little when I first saw them, thinking they were a silly cash grab, but some of these artists are incredibly talented and really bring the stories to life. Plus - the outfits! And the scenery! It's glorious!

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Portrait of M and N, Volume 1 by Tachibana Higuchi

This is what happens when you buy all your manga secondhand: you end up with really popular books that everyone has read and really weird books that nobody has read. PORTRAIT OF M&N doesn't even have an English summary on Goodreads, and hardly anyone has read it at all compared to the author's far more popular series, Gakuen Alice.

PORTRAIT OF M&N is probably one of the strangest stories that I have ever read. It's about a girl named Mitsuru and a boy named Natsuhiko. Both of them have dark secrets and connect over an incident that reveals both their dark secrets.

Mitsuri was forced to leave her last school due to a scandal. She is a masochist who is sexually aroused by beatings because her mother beat her when she failed as a child, so beatings make her feel "safe" and "valued." When a kid at her old school hurt her by accident, she came onto him and begged him to hurt her more, much to her family's chagrin. The same thing happens here, with Natsuhiko, only instead of freaking out about it, he feels... well, awkward but mostly chill, much to Mitsuri's surprise.

Mitsuri looks like an awkward, nerdy kid, but without his glasses, he's actually supermodel gorgeous. Clark Kent syndrome, I guess. His dark secret is that he's attracted to his own reflection, like Narcissus, and enjoys gazing at himself in a trance-like state. He also had a scandal at his last school. The most beautiful girl in school hit on him, and he agreed to go out with her because she was his "rival", or equal when it came to looks. But when she came to his house and saw all the mirrors, as well as the shrine he had built for himself, she freaked out and told everyone how stuck-up and perverted he was. Now he wears coke-bottle glasses of a strong prescription so he can't see how attractive he is while also hiding his good looks from other people.

The story is basically these two trying to keep other people from guessing at their issues while avoiding the bond they feel for one another out of shared "hardship." Tension arises when one of the other boys finds out Mitsuri's secret and I thought for sure that this kid was going to turn out to be a sadist or something - but no, he has a dark secret all right and it's not what you would expect.

PORTRAIT OF M&N reads exactly how you would imagine a young adult story about sexual fetishes would read like - awkward, watered down, and... weird. There's another short story called "A Girl in a Bird Cage" at the end, which seems like the textbook example of an abusive relationship at first. By the end... well, to me, it still felt like the textbook example of an abusive relationship but I think the twist at the end was supposed to make it seem sweet. Um, no, still weird and uncomfortable.

I'm giving it three stars because I found it morbidly entertaining in the vein of 70s bodice rippers and pulpy horror novel from the 80s.

3 out of 5 stars

Trump Is F*cking Crazy: (This Is Not a Joke) by Keith Olbermann

The title is self-explanatory.

TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY is adapted from Keith Olbermann's series, The Resistance, which can be found on YouTube if you're interested. I haven't watched it, but from what I gleaned, it's comedic political reporting in the style of Samantha Bee, intended to criticize the Commander in Tweets: DT.

I despise DT, so obviously one look at this title and I was down. Because, you know, as a liberal-leaning woman, I'm so deep in this echo chamber that all I can hear is the sound of my own "shrill" screaming.

*eye roll*

You do know why we're repeating ourselves, though, don't you? Because nobody's listening. Or else they're pretending not to.

To be honest, I'm not sure which is worse.

I should note that if you are Team DT, you will not enjoy this book. If the news reports don't change your mind ("fake news") and the words of DT himself didn't change your mind ("locker room talk"), then this book is nothing but a single drop of "alternative facts" in the great lakes that compromise your cognitive dissonance. You're welcome to read it anyway, and probably should read it anyway, but I doubt it will make you happy. However, if you come onto this review with the intention of changing my mind or "sharing your opinion," you should know that I'm going to delete your comment and/or block you. I have zero interest in hearing your opinion, because I hear it from the man himself every g-d day, and it disgusts me. He is a despicable human being who is alienating our foreign allies while running this country into the ground and hurting the people in our society who need our help and protection and support the most, and if you support him, knowingly, despite every example to the contrary that says you should absolutely do otherwise, you're despicable, too. I stand by that.

Feel free to unfriend me over this. I no longer take it personally. I have a shelf of book reviews that have caused me to lose right-leaning friends (at this point, I'm not even sure I have any left - ha ha, "left" - but it's possible), and I'm always happy to add to it. I mean, talk about good advertising: "this book is so controversial, people will unfriend you over reading it!" I'd slap that on the front cover.

Back to this book - TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY knows its audience and caters to it with ruthless single-mindedness. I saw someone saying that it got repetitive after a while, and I must say that I agree. Up until about 275, I thought this would be a four-star read, but I lost steam around p. 300, and after that, I grimly skimmed the chapters until I reached the end. Olbermann is great at summing up issues and articulated many passing thoughts I had but couldn't fully express, but there's just so much going on with this administration that reliving it - again - left me feeling fatigued.

What alarmed me the most as I read through this book was how much of this I had forgotten. With new scandals happening every day, it's nearly impossible to keep everything in the forefront of one's mind. TRUMP IS F*CKING CRAZY begins during the election season, when Olbermann is certain that this clown is going to lose, and by the end, he's as bitter and jaded and angry and frustrated as all of us on the left, who are watching this demagogic, deceitful administration fan (either intentionally or inadvertently through great ignorance) the flames of hatred among our nation's most xenophobic, bigoted, violent extremists, whether it's condemning the NFL players peacefully protesting racial violence or ignoring Puerto Rico in the aftermath of a terrible national disaster, or initiating a ban that targets people not just on the basis of ethnicity but also on their religion... because one is not enough.

It's depressing, when you think about it too deeply, which is probably why most people don't. In fact, CollegeHumor just put out a video called "Now Is the Time to Do Something" that criticizes all the people sitting idly by, or acting like this is the very first instance in history where acts of injustice or incompetence have been committed on the administrative level. DT is just a symptom, not a cause. It's time for Americans to take a long, hard look in the mirror and decide for themselves what kind of a country they want to be citizens in... and why.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Just Haven't Met You Yet by Cate Woods

As of 10/14/17, this book is $1.99 in the Kindle store!

For the most part, I don't like Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham books. Something about her heroines put me off, and for the longest time, I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. Then one day I realized: all her female heroines lie like they breathe. They lie over unimportant things, lie whenever they're cornered, lie to avoid conflict, lie to avoid solving problems. Lie, lie, lie. They take pathological lying to the next freaking level.

And you know what reaaaaally annoys me about that?

The way it's written, you can tell that we're supposed to find these liars so quirky and adorable and awkward. "Oh no, Ella Pants-on-Fire is afraid her boss is going to find out who released confidential information to the competitors, so she lied and said an angry mime did it. How funny! How awkward! How quaint!"

JUST HAVEN'T MET YOU YET features a heroine, Percy James, who could be fresh out of a Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham. She's in her twenties/thirties, with relationship issues and uncertain prospects (typical) and desperately wants to achieve happiness. So how does she do this? Lies on her CV to an interviewer to make herself more interesting. Lies to her boyfriend about where she's going and who she's seeing (she's actually going on her date with her alleged "SoulDate"). Lies to her SoulDate about not just whether she's single, but also that her mother has Malaria.

The plot is interesting and was a huge reason behind why I wanted to read this. Percy receives an invitation from an online dating company that claims to use browsing and consumer data to match people with their SoulDates - all the sites you visit and the ads you click are factored in to determine your personality and interests and, from there, your ideal match.

The problem is that Percy already has a boyfriend - a long-term boyfriend who she's about to move in with and who she's practically engaged with. Her friends caution her against the SoulDate idea (sort of - some are less opposed than others), but Percy eventually decides to do it... only, when she meets who her SoulDate actually is, she's surprised as all get out.

I felt really bad for Percy's boyfriend because he's my type of guy - you know, socially awkward, old-fashioned type. I felt like she treated him really badly. And yes, on the one hand, I get it: you can't stay with someone just to make them happy if you have no feelings at all, but you also can't just drop people like garbage. People have feelings. They aren't disposable. Percy treated romance like this thing she felt she was entitled to, and all her potential love interests in this book were just pieces that would help her to her end goal of having her happiness, and to hell with whatever they wanted.

Also, while I appreciated how one of the characters questioned her sexuality, I found it annoying how badly that was handled, too. I thought one of the other characters raised a fantastic point: you can't just use people as experiments to figure out what your sexuality is - especially if you aren't up front about the fact that you're questioning. Etiquette for LGBT+ couples is exactly the same as it is for straight couples: if one person is expecting a relationship and you're just "experimenting," for God's sake, say so up front so the other person can refuse, while fully informed, if that's not what they want.

This book annoyed me quite a bit. I couldn't put it down - I was oddly fascinated by the repulsive main character's shenanigans - but I didn't really like her as a character, and her constant lying and manipulation really got on my nerves. I think if you like Sophia Kinsella/Wendy Markham, you will like this author, as their styles are similar. Otherwise, though... no.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Husband-to-Be by Kakuko Shinozaki

I'm really starting to get into these Harlequin manga. The short, breezy romances translate really well to comic book format & have plots that wouldn't be out of place in most shoujo or josei storylines. This one, HUSBAND-TO-BE sounds cheesy AF, but it's actually pretty cute.

Rachel has a degree in zoology but right now she's hopping from job to overqualified job, mostly as a temp or a secretary. One day, she meets an explorer millionaire named Grant who wants her to work for him because of her unique background.

Both Grant and Rachel are engaged to other people. Rachel's seeing this mansplainer named Driscoll who resents her for her intelligence and sees her as either a tool or an impediment to his own future, depending on what he wants from her at the time. Grant is seeing a woman named Oliva, who is the stereotypical classy blonde mean lady that is so common in romance novels, but she's also smart and runs Grant's affairs for him when he's not around. Despite this, Grant and Rachel feel a connection, & find themselves attracted to one another despite knowing they shouldn't.

I don't normally like stories about cheating and this book was no exception. I take issue with the fact that the author went out of her way to make both fiance(e) as unappealing as possible in order to make the cheating "okay." One of my friends on Goodreads actually posted a review about this pretty recently regarding her feelings on the subject and I really agreed with what she said: she said that if your relationship is that messed up, it's better in the long-term to just break up, and that having another relationship on the side just makes you the bad guy, in a way. Which I think makes sense.

I did like Rachel as a heroine, though. She has a pet tarantula, has short hair, and dresses kind of like a hipster. I liked that she was smart and into science, and she was capable, too. Later on in the story, when there's danger, she doesn't scream and panic. This story was quite a bit different from the last Harlequin manga I read, which was SALZANO'S CAPTIVE BRIDE, and that was much more in line with the stereotypical tropes of alphahole hero and uber-passive heroine.

Overall, I quite liked this book for what it was, although I don't think the title does it justice or even really conveys what the book is actually about. That is one seriously crappy title.

3 out of 5 stars