January 2015 book haul

Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride was my last read book of 2014, and it will be my first of 2015. If I hadn’t paced myself at five chapters a day the first time around, I would have sped through it in a matter of hours. (UNFORTUNATELY, my availability is limited at the moment, so this could take a while…) Opening this book is tantamount to travelling back in time and stepping into late 1800s Malaya (present-day Malaysia). Yangze’s descriptions and cultural context are so rich and so real that I can’t help but crave more. To my heartbreak, The Ghost Bride is Yangsze’s debut novel. Rather than cruise over to her next story, I’m helplessly stuck revisiting Li Lan’s journey. Either until this intense need for more Yangsze Choo novels fades or her next book comes out (pleasepleaseplease), I did my best in searching for other rich and word-pretty books.

tlp

Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace! Gosh, what did I just buy? I don’t even know. The *ratings are high-ish, the cover is nice, but also: historical China! Romance! Mystery! And I don’t know what else! But I was pretty damn excited when I ordered this book, okay.

The Lotus Palace is the first in the The Pingkang Li Mysteries series—or, by the sound of it, The Jade Temptress might only be a companion piece or stand-alone sequel. It centers on maidservant Yue-ying, a street-smart but sensible girl. For Yue-ying, to live in the shadow of her mistress sounds like a perfectly agreeable lifestyle—but all this changes once Bai Huang enters her life. A privileged tomcat, Bai Huang’s leads a life that Yue-ying can only dream about. But as they work together in order to solve a “deadly mystery,” the two begin to wish for lives of different circumstances. Yue-ying’s status can never surpass a concubine should she marry Bai Huang, so which will she forsake: love or pride?

Oookay. (Love, Yue-ying! Love! Don’t settle if you aren’t HBIC. But why do I feel like it will all work out anyway?)

When I ordered The Lotus Palace, I was all over its historical Asian setting with a plot that encompasses both mystery and romance—all qualities shared with The Ghost Bride. What I overlooked is that Jeannie Lin’s novel is a Harlequin book, and Harlequin LOVES romance. They love romance A LOT. As in a lot more than me. I’m more of an action girl who likes romance on the side, slowly developing between characters as the narrative progresses. I worry, because Lin’s novel has the set-up of a very generic romance and commonplace mystery. I can only hope it proves me wrong.

(*It holds a 3.92 rating on Goodreads. Not bad… right…? For romance enthusiasts, maybe?)

uh

Uh, move over. My future love just walked in.

I may be wrong, but most  (not all) of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books give me heavy European vibes. Perhaps a day will come when I don’t feel baseless opposition to these settings, but at least for now, I’m staying away. But who knows—his strong fanbase promises a great fantasy no matter which book you go for. One might even break this aversion spell. For now, I’m only psyched about starting Under Heaven and River of Stars—both historical fantasies, and both brilliant (or so I am told, though I don’t doubt it).

Under Heaven takes place during the Tang dynasty of 8th-century China, following Shen Tai. As the son of a noble general, Tai lives out two years burying the bones of both armies from his late father’s last battle. In acknowledgement of his devotion, Tai receives the dangerous gift of 250 Sardian horses. It’s said that one is given as a reward; four or five to dignify and bestow mortal jealousy. But 250 is enough to overwhelm and make an enemy of an emperor. The gift, however, cannot be delivered unless Tai accepts in person.

(Not quite a sequel, River of Stars takes place in the same universe as Under Heaven and occurs approximately 400 years later.)

I’m personally stoked to read this. It’s been on my TBR list for years, and I figured there’s no excuse to put it off if I own it. One problem: I’m a library girl, and I often favor the public one over my personal collection. I did, however, list both books in my conquer-like-Azula shelf, which I made sure to keep preemie-small. Checking these off should be a breeze, especially if they’re as lovely and dazzling as everyone claims.

But I do have one VERY BIG GRIPE. If you look at Under Heaven, there is noticeable damage.

under heaven

Ideally, I like my books in perfect condition, but I acknowledge that it’s not always realistic. A scratch or two or a small bend to a jacket or page is bound to happen. But what is this? I purchased this on Amazon from -daily deals-, whose book description promised a “brand new, unread” copy. Ha ha, new, oh I get it. So it’s like tossed-in-a-grinder “new”? Oh, it’s supposed to be new-new. What? The spine has separated from the actual binding, and pages are in beginning division stages. The jacket shows crude scratch marks, and both the cover and book bear evidence of being bent and bumped. In other words: this is one worn-out book.

“New,” they said. “New.”

I was deeply disappointed, sure, but peeved. I paid close to $14 for a new hardback that, in truth, I wouldn’t pay $5 for. There are books kept in worse condition sold at higher value, but that misses the point. The product didn’t live up to the seller’s guarantee, and I stated as much in my two-star feedback. The seller did not like this! In exchange for removing my negative feedback, I was refunded my $13.86 and was allowed to keep the book.

So. Yeah… *shrug* But I’m still mad.

invid

I might be a really big nerd at heart, but I feel sorry if you don’t know what Robotech is. Mainly because it’s a great story that expands generations, but also because its initial airing was in the 1980s. For quality snobs like me, you will probably suffer—although you can hope that your love of story will conquer your love of quality. (It does happen.) I was fortunate enough to watch it during my growing-up years (thanks, Mom!), but I haven’t been able to ready myself for a re-watch.

In the event that a re-watch never happens, at least I have the Robotech novels, and ohmygod. I am impossibly excited. So excited that words fail to convey how I feel right now. These books are NOTHING like Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, obviously. But they’re likely to become my next new obsession, so watch out. I’m stealing my mother’s incomplete collection to read this series—which is why I put cash down on The Invid Invasion, the omnibus for books ten through twelve. Not all the books are easy to find, and books #13 – #17 are still amiss, so I’m on alert.

robotech

Discussion: Death Parade, Episode One

This post contains spoilers for Death Billiards and the first episode of Death Parade. I suggest watching both before reading any further.


Hellooo, Hot Stuff. I would pocket this gem into my favorites if it weren’t too early to do so, but whether Death Parade concludes in disappointing fashion or not, one thing is for sure: it kicked off to a smashing start. The anime’s origin, Death Billiards—a 25 minute short produced by Madhouse for the 2013 Young Animator Training Project—makes for tough analysis. It poses more questions than it provides answers, encapsulated in an air of mind-boggling mystery. Having watched it twice, trying to decipher answers or its intent feels like chasing my own tail. Billiards leads my thoughts toward dead ends, and I’m left to go on personal interpretation and to consider the OVA’s social critique. But now that we have an anime (and with Yuzuru Tachikawa’s name still attached!), you can bet I expect to solve some queries. With one episode down, Parade follows Billiards’ suit in that it blitzes the audience and walks away, smug at our simultaneous confusion and intrigue. The key difference is that Parade sprinkles information and offers future promise whereas Billiards intentionally leaves us to think.

dp 3

Parade starts similarly to Billiards in that we meet our two players—both equally confused as to where they are and how they got here—taking leave from their respective elevators. It doesn’t take long before they find Decim, the stoic bartender, who welcomes them to Quindecim (Latin for “fifteen”)—an interesting difference from Billiard’s spelling of “Queen Decim.” It could easily be a simple variation depending upon the translation or wordplay, or maybe someone more informed would like to clarify (please do), but I can’t help but want to connect this to mannequins. Of course, “quin” here is still pronounced like “queen,” and I may be reaching in desperation. However, Decim’s mannequin display is curious, which brings me to Quindecim’s purpose: to judge who will go to heaven and hell.

Decim informs his guests—newlywed couple Takashi and Machiko—that they are to play a game with their lives as wager. He reviews the usual rules:

  1. He cannot say where Quindecim is located
  2. The couple must play a game
  3. This game will be decided by roulette
  4. They will risk their lives by playing
  5. Neither one can leave until the game ends

Of course these rules ignite the same series of questions I had in Death Billiards. I roll with the obvious answer that Quindecim resides outside the earthly realm, but for the game itself, those who’ve seen the OVA know that the game of pool was pre-determined. Decim admitted that if the younger man had not changed the fate of the game, the old man would have won. Likewise, I assume Takashi’s and Machiko’s game of darts is set from the get-go. So who does the game favor? If the game is pre-determined with a predicted winner, does the outcome finalize who is reincarnated or not? Continue reading

Recommending: must-watch 2014 anime

I promised two recommendation posts during the last week of December, and while I altered my original schedule by bumping one post up by a week, this one is a couple days late. In my defense, I spent last week sick and sleep deprived, staying home to “rest up,” which resorted in a gross display of even more willful sleep deprivation. In fewer words: I was cranky and lazy. Okay, so this post is in the wrong year but it’s still in the right week. As my favorite Cheon Song-yi would say: SAWRY, not SAWRY.

Before I dive into my 2014 favorites, I’ll say that my love of good anime is an old interest revived. Code Geass wasn’t my last watched anime pre-2013, but it’s one of my more memorable and beloved shows before I “lost interest”—Last Exile, which I marathoned in 2011, is an exception. So, just when I thought anime was a thing of my past, the Shingeki no Kyojin wave buried my Tumblr dashboard. From its diverse and complex characters to its storyline and high-quality animation, SnK reminded me not only how addicting anime can be, but what anime can accomplish that live-action can’t. That’s not to say live-actions are incapable, but in similar fashion to books, anime presents fewer restrictions. They can prove much more imaginative and captivating. Many on this list could do well if acted through real people, but a universe like Akatsuki no Yona are better left as they are.

znt

Zankyou no Terror / Terror in Resonance
Episode Count: 11

>>Watch: FUNimation, Hulu

In present-day Japan, Tokyo is struck by terrorist attack when bombs explode in one of the city’s skyscrapers. Although the bombing leaves parts of Tokyo in a short-lived power outage, the attack takes zero fatalities. A video uploaded to the Internet prior to the incident reveals a masked duo—referred to as “Sphinx”—as the culprits. “Nine” and “Twelve,” together with the voluntary “aid” of Lisa Mishima, work to carry out an intricate scheme to ‘wake up’ the world. As they plant bombs throughout the city, ace detective Shibazaki scrambles to decode Sphinx’s riddled videos in time before detonation.

The perspective of ZnT is one namely of sympathy as viewers watch through the eyes of our protagonists, Nine and Twelve. What Sphinx initiates are, by definition, acts of terrorism—but a key point is that Sphinx doesn’t kill people, nor is it their goal. Sphinx’s plans are so thought-out and sophisticated in their execution that no one dies, which eases the audience into sympathizing with their motives. Or does it? I wasn’t sold but I couldn’t stop myself from simultaneously rooting for them either. However, ZnT goes wrong in its construction. It’s in thinking that everything presented can be patched up in eleven episodes, yet it would have faired better at 20+ episodes instead.

Even so. ZnT is one of those shows that dangle a hook at the very start, opening with one of the best heist and high-speed chase scenes. From that moment, I was a caught fish—and surely, I thought, a dead one once episode eleven comes to crush my soul. It’s a show I walked into not knowing what to expect, but between the mysteries and suspense lies a foreboding, melancholic touch that makes the heart ache. I left ZnT wounded and crying—confused, even—and throwing my hands up in ire, but damn, what a good anime. And well-made, too. Although I can pick out flaws in the writing of ZnT, the production and animation are five-star quality:

znt-break


haikyuu

Haikyuu!!
Episode Count: 25

>>Watch: Crunchyroll, Hulu

Middle school student Shouyou Hinata has a passion for volleyball, for despite what he lacks in height, he is determined to make up through agility and speed. With no on else interested in forming a team, Hinata practices on his own—even stealing the gym when the girls’ team steps out. But during his last year, Hinata accomplishes what he always dreamed about: participation in an official school match. His team, having little practice under their belt, prove second-rate. Their first match pits them against “King of the Court” whiz Tobio Kageyama, who swiftly trounces Team Hinata. Crushed and playtime-hungry, Hinata vows to exact revenge. Now in high school, Hinata applies to the Karasuno High School Volleyball Club, but he’s left in shock when he unexpectedly discovers that his rival, Kageyama, is also applying.

Well… I’m sorry for judging you, Sports Anime Genre. And I’m sorry that I still look down on you, even after latching on to Haikyuu!! with all my heart. But to be fair, I did watch Free! after binging on what had been the currently available Haikyuu!! episodes, and that show is nothing in comparison. (If you’ve seen Rei in his butterfly swimsuit, that’s a pretty good description of the show itself. And, also to be fair, Free! probably isn’t a good display of what the genre offers.) My disinterest in the genre derives from my disinterest in sports, but also from its tendency to lean on fanservice—no matter how small. (Because fanservice is everywhere and certainly not limited to sports.) Haikyuu!! is my exception, and I suppose what drew me to the show is my personal history with volleyball.

My love for the game doesn’t emulate Hinata’s, but his devotion became part of my weeks’ highlights. Even the show, with A grade animation and clean art, made my Sundays something to look forward to—a detail that I partly attribute to pace. Matches don’t drag out, and they succeeded in holding my interest. Because Karasuno’s volleyball club isn’t filled with prodigy players, or athletes with outstanding abilities (minus Kageyama), the show focuses more on their faults AND strengths, improving both through teamwork. Consequently, whether Karasuno’s matches become their victories are 50/50. When I expected Hinata’s weak point—his height—to make a 180 and become his strength by miracle of some crazy level up, I was left surprised. Karasuno turns Hinata’s “weakness” into an effective weapon rather than the show implementing a random power flux. Haikyuu!! had me glued to the screen, sometimes biting my nails in tension, rooting for our fallen underdogs. The game doesn’t always sway in their favor, but Haikyuu!! wouldn’t be as watch-worthy if it did.


barakamon

Barakamon
Episode Count: 12

>>Watch: Crunchyroll, FUNimation, Hulu

One might call Handa Seishuu a talented calligrapher, but a certain gallery owner disagrees. “Textbook-like,” he says, in reference to Handa’s works. “[It’s] written for the sake of winning.” But his words don’t stop there. “Did you try to overcome the wall of mediocrity?” he asks. “What an uninteresting piece.” With a burn-free history of winning, the critique is too much for the twenty-three year old to take in stride. Instead, Handa shows his wounded ego by punching the poor elderly man who uses a cane in the face. In order to reflect on his actions, Handa is sent to an isolated village on Goto Island by his father. It’s here he meets boisterous six year old Naru. The two form an unlikely friendship as Handa learns to overcome his artistic slump and, in the process, mature into a better human being.

If there’s one show on this list that I want everyone to watch, it’s Barakamon. Equally hilarious as it is heartwarming, what makes Barakamon worth watching are the characters who generate the story: Handa, childish and quick to anger; mouthy and aggressive Naru with a passion for bug catching; Hina, a shy girl who finds a reason to cry about everything; aspiring mangaka Tamako, infatuated with BL (but will profusely deny it); tomboy Miwa, always teaching Naru the things she shouldn’t; and Hiroshi, whose lifestyle in itself screams mediocrity. For a show largely about Handa’s arc of personal growth and self-discovery, he doesn’t undergo a complete transformation, but he’s well on his way—something that he can attribute to his newly formed friendships, and most of all Naru’s.

Barakamon is a real treat for all that it puts out, but Naru steals every scene with ease. No matter what anyone says, Barakamon‘s central storyline belongs to Handa, but the the true star is Naru. As a child, Naru lacks life experience, but nonetheless proves surprisingly insightful in her childhood acuity, and the manner in which she plays off Handa is a wonderful mix of hilarity and heartfelt moments.


gsnk

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun / Girls’ Monthly Nozaki-Kun
Episode Count: 12

>>Watch: Crunchyroll, Hulu

When highschooler Chiyo Sakura confesses to her crush, fellow student Umetarou Nozaki, she doesn’t expect a signed autograph in response—and yet that’s exactly what she gets. Nozaki, a shoujo mangaka that goes by the penname “Sakiko Yumeno,” mistakes Sakura as a fan rather than a girl in love (and he being the object of her affection). If only his ignorance stopped there, but it doesn’t. When Sakura further clarifies that she wants to be with him, he invites her over to his house… as his assistant.

GSNK, by synopsis alone, doesn’t sound like a winner, but it’s a mistake to brush it off as another common rom-com. What makes GSNK stand out among the stinking heaps of cliche rom-coms, or romance in general, is that GSNK is in fact a shounen satire of shoujo. That said, there is an entry bar one should meet in order to fully appreciate GNSK, which is to say that experience with shoujo tropes is beneficial for the viewer.

You don’t need to suffer through a swamp of generic romance to enjoy GSNK, but those who have will revel in it and take more from the humor. (And if you need a starting point, I will gladly direct you to at least twenty different shoujo. All different stories, of course, but how can you tell when they all fall victim to the same dull tropes, drama, and “twists”?) I’m not one for re-watches, but GSNK is a show I can watch repeatedly and still laugh through the same parts. I dare you to see why. *aggressive nudge*


any

Akatsuki no Yona / Yona of the Dawn
Episode Count: 24 (Ongoing)

>>Watch: FUNimationCrunchyrollHulu

There are a couple reasons AnY may repel you, one being the art. It sidles into generic form, and for someone who banks on great art and quality animation, I took a gamble. That leads me to the second reason: our pampered protagonist, Princess Yona. She is whiny and spoiled to the core, but what else can anyone expect from a coddled princess? Uh, a lot, apparently.

I made the mistake in backing out of the manga early on, repulsed by the unworldly and self-absorbed Yona, but this is what makes her character growth satisfying. Yona thankfully doesn’t sprout from the mean brand of spoiled brats, but a life lived in luxury exempted her from hardship—that is, until her cherished Soo-won murders her father. As Soo-won performs a successful coup, Yona flees with her loyal bodyguard Son-hak. The journey she takes hereon leads down a bumpy road, and she takes a beating in more ways than one, but it’s this path that builds her into a better person. Here I’ve only glimpsed at her developed future self, and seeing Yona transform from babied royalty to compassionate but cut-throat bad-ass is worth the watch—and that’s not the half of it.

AnY offers a flavorful dish of girl power for viewers to chew on, and it never runs short—but this is just an appetizer. The true selling point rests in the narrative’s rich context and overlaying conflict amidst action, adventure, and romance. It’s everything I’d hope Akagami no Shirayuki-hime would be but wasn’t, for whatever AnY lacks in art and animation is made up through fleshed-out characters and story. Of course, it’s not a show for everyone, and don’t forget that teenage girls own the target audience. It’s not as heavy or bleak as I’d prefer, meaning that subject matter isn’t presented in a more gritty, emotional way where I truly feel for Yona. Instead, comedic moments often (but briefly) overshadow the serious tone, but for all this show offers, I have little to complain about.


ylia

Shigatsu wa Kimi ni Uso / Your Lie in April
Episode Count: 22 (Ongoing)
>>Watch: Crunchyroll, Hulu

Called the “Human Metronome,” piano prodigy Kousei Arima once dominated the world of classical music competitions. Upon the death of his mentor—his mother—an eleven year old Kousei suffers from a mental breakdown mid-performance and vanishes from the music scene. For two years, he avoids the piano and insists that he can no longer hear the sound of his music, joylessly meandering through life. He gets up, goes to school, and comes home to an empty house and dusty, untouched piano. His mother’s death doesn’t manifest as mere shock, sadness, or even depression, but perhaps a blend of all that and then some. He is haunted by the memory of her: those overbearing expectations and his inability to meet them. He’s angry, sad,  afraid, and he’s disappointed in himself. He’s lost, but an encounter with carefree violinist Kaori Miyazono lights a new path. It’s one of healing, and it leads straight back into world of music.

What I both love and fear about Your Lie in April is its theme of love and loss. As emotionally invested as I am, nothing but horrified dread fills me at the prospect of what I may find at the end. At the same time, it’s what continually draws me back. No matter how small, there is a piece of everyone to be found in Kousei. You may not know a thing about classical music, but we all reach a point of feeling astray—and maybe even becoming used to that feeling. Even more relatable is the struggle to re-discover that one thing you pour your heart into. Only for Kousei, it’s learning that he never did, and now that he does, how can he implement these emotions into his performance?

Where this show turns ominous is through worrisome foreshadowing. (And excuse me if I’m getting ahead, as I am ahead in the manga.) Kousie’s top-notch talent grows through his experience of loss, so what will continue to push his ability forward? More loss. We can pray for a happy end, but I feel this is much more likely to conclude in I’M-REALLY-SAD-BUT-I-WILL-SURVIVE! tears. (Because the anime will adapt the manga in full!) I’ll be sad, super sad, but thrilled I came across such a touching story. And you should be, too.

Recommending: must-watch 2014 Korean dramas

In the ceaseless stream that is Asian dramas, there is a stockpile to sort through from 2014. (But isn’t there every year? Yeah.) Between finding time to dedicate to my binge-a-thons and getting so far as to even choose which drama to watch, I feel like I missed out on too many: Bad Guys (on episode two!), Witch’s Romance, It’s Okay, That’s Love, and N no Tame Ni—to drop some names. From what I did manage to get through, not all were great *cough*trotlovers*cough* but several managed to meet my entertainment needs, if not wiggle into my heart completely.

pnbPlus Nine Boys
Episode count: 14
>>Watch: SoompiTV, Viki

Plus Nine Boys comes from the fictitious superstition that anything “plus nine,” or ending in nine, brings misfortune. How unlucky for the Kang brothers and their uncle, Kwang-soo, whose ages all currently end in nine. Popular child actor Dong-goo, age nine, suffers when his acting becomes strained and robotic. He’s accused of undergoing a Macaulay Culkin, as in, he just isn’t cute anymore. But the final blow comes when girlfriend Baek-ji dumps him for the boy now outshining Dong-goo in the acting world. Meanwhile, Min-goo—nineteen—struggles to live down an embarrassing incident during his judo match while chasing after his dream girl. At twenty-nine, however, eldest brother Jin-goo seems to have his life in perfect order. Upon further inspection, we find he’s harboring a secret love for co-worker and friend Se-young. The two have an emotionally complex history, and should he confess, it could mean losing Se-young. And being with her—even if he’s not “with” her—is more bearable than not having her at all. But the brothers aren’t the only ones with love problems. Thirty-nine year old Kwang-soo hasn’t dated since his college sweetheart dumped him out of the blue and vanished. Since then, his primary motivation and focus has been his work as a PD, and even that disappears when a live show goes awry, and Kwang-soo is demoted.

As my favorite underrated gem, PNB keeps pace—never dragging or jumping, backed by solid acting and writing. When looking at the premise alone, it’s easy to see how the show could spin out of control. Add the superstition factor, I pegged this as silly-cute, but would it be believable? This is Dramaland, after all. The first episode proved itself to be much more than anything I’d imagined. It maintains appropriate balance between humor and drama, and it’s never short on wit. Despite the show’s basis of a “plus nine curse,” it blends into everyday occurrences that happen to very relatable characters. And, really, these are things that happen to us all. I walked in expecting a perky rom-com and couldn’t have been happier to find a sweet, introspective show about relationships instead. It’s rare—super rare (can I stress this enough?)—for me to feel wholly gratified by a show, least of all a rom-com. If I’m honest, I haven’t felt this satisfied with a rom-com since My Name is Kim Sam-soon: my Queen of Romantic Comedies, because for what others do wrong, Sam-soon does right. The writing is bullet-proof. (Never mind that it’s been years since I’ve seen it, but shh.) PNB marks the first time I’ve seen an equally sturdy and genuinely satisfying rom-com as Sam-soon, and for that alone I recommend checking this out.


misaengMisaeng
Episode count: 20
>>Watch: SoompiTV, Viki

Misaeng is a show I have unwittingly placed on an unreachable gold throne packaged in a state of perfection. I dare you to find something better! If given well-layered characters livened by good acting, it’s difficult for me not to invest—even when the script is duller than a butter knife. Once caught, I’m stuck until the end. (More often than not.) For better or worse, I form emotional ties with these characters that prove strong enough to make me cry even in in the silliest of rom-coms. Yet Misaeng is the sharpest show around, and it’s far from silly. Never have I bawled so much through a show as I have with Misaeng, and how could I not? This show earned it—deserved it—because every episode threw a direct punch at my chest. No way did I think I’d ever find a drama so meticulously put that it’d win every ounce of my love. Hardly, if at all, can I criticize this show. From the script, casting, acting, directing, editing… There remain a number of aspects that allow Misaeng to shine, and I only hope that others will see what makes it remarkably brilliant.

A former Baduk player, 26 year old Jang Geu-rae finds himself wandering without aim. After a period of part-time jobs, it is by luck (and through connections) that he finds himself as an intern at One International. With nothing more than his GED, Geu-rae is left to fend for himself in a pack of vicious trainees and survive office politics—a journey more difficult than he could have imagined. The webcomic by Yoon Tae-ho, which the show is based on, maintains a cult following, and its popularity stems from its ability to identify with its audience. The same can be said for the drama, only with a larger, vaster, assembly of die-hard fans. There is a reason this show speaks to such a variety of people, and that’s because Misaeng isn’t just about finding your footing—or even about the anguish of office politics and surviving it. At it’s core, Misaeng is about Jang Geu-rae hanging on the edge by a finger and desperately wishing to be part of society. More than anything else, he wants to belong. And if that doesn’t choke you up, I don’t know what will.

There are a couple reasons Misaeng can appear off-putting. Its first episode clocks in at an hour and a half, and you’ll scarcely find clips that offer settings outside of One International’s cubicles. Not to mention that most episodes run extra, ending between an hour and five minutes to an hour and twenty minutes. But if you think these are reasons to back away, I promise: those cubicles offer much more than typical mundaneness of office culture. Refreshingly, the show lacks elements that remind you this is Dramaland and kicks aside cliche tropes and plot twists. It gives a flavor so addicting that you’ll be thankful for those extra minutes, and when it’s over? You will miss it like crazy. (If you’d like to see more of my foaming-at-the-mouth praise, my thoughts on the first four episodes can be found here.)


liar game Liar Game
Episode count: 10
>>Watch: SoompiTV, Viki

Welcome to Liar Game: a reality show where contestants are expected (and encouraged) to lie and cheat their way toward the grand prize—a massive sum of money, which only grows as a narrowing batch of participants move on to new rounds. Based on the manga of the same name, Liar Game questions to what lengths people stoop when large sums of money are not only offered, but are at stake. The answer: pretty damn low. A few honest faces struggle to survive the high-stakes game, but how can they fare in a cesspool of two-faced cheats? Willing participant Nam Da-jung—naïve but honest and sympathetic—works with former psych prof and acquitted ex-con Ha Woo-jin, as the duo aim to come out victors.

The show struck me as mediocre at best when I handed my two cents on the first four episodes. The Korean adaption presents extreme changes to its central setting in comparison to the original, yet—at the time—still followed the manga’s timeline of events. (Or, it did to the best of my knowledge.) Granted, this offers up its own twists and tricks, and while Matsuda owns it in the J-drama adaptation, I find there’s much to like about the K-version’s cast. That said, Shin Sung-rok’s villainous Kang Do-young adds new dimensions. The questions is: will fans buy it? Speaking for myself, it took a while to warm up to, but I grew to accept it as an equally enjoyable but separate entity from the J-drama. It is by no means a personal favorite, but the show earns its worth in entertainment value.


my love from another starMy Love from the Stars / My Love from Another Star
Episode count: 21
>>Watch: DramaFever, SoompiTV, Viki

It’s easy to mistake Do Min-joon as human, for he looks no different. But his keen senses and special abilities to defy gravity and stop time are proof of his alien nature. Most of all are his longevity and youthful appearance, outlasting the average human by centuries. Arriving during the Joseon Dynasty, Min-joon becomes stranded, although he’s not alone. His first true human interaction is through a young girl named Yi-hwa, but her fate seems destined for tragedy. The event deeply affects Min-joon, as does her companionship, but with a long life of solitude ahead, he grows into a cynical being with no interest in forming relationships. Now in the present day, his life of quiet seclusion is flipped when the arrogant next door neighbor—favored actress Cheon Young-si—makes her intrusion.

You can consider this a 2013 drama, as it started in mid-December of last year, but the bulk finished during 2014. If you’re at all familiar with the drama scene, there’s no doubt that My Love from the Stars crossed your radar. The show shot to insane popularity levels where not only does every drama fan know about it, non-drama fans know as well. With six episodes under my belt, my current opinion might be insignificant yet it’d feel absurd not to name-drop this.

As a loving Kim Soo-hyun fan, he did serve as the hook (as did the AMAZING shots seen in episode one), but Jun Ji-hyun has me stunned—and I mean that in the best way possible. Although the script deserves credit, as it’s what leads every episode’s direction and shows us character depths, but what good is the writing if the actor doesn’t add dimension? Ji-hyun’s done well in capturing not just my sympathy, but my love, and the banter Young-si and Min-joon share easily become some of my favorite scenes in the show. That said, my belief that this was K-drama royalty crumbled upon watching it. Shin Sung-rok, my Villain King, you know I love him in Liar Game… but as much as I love this man, his role here disappoints me. It’s a reminder of both outrageous and typical ploys that dramas incorporate. If you want to impress me, stay fresh. Be like Misaeng.


ftlyFated to Love You
Episode count: 20
>>Watch: DramaFever, SoompiTV, Viki

Although his elders fuss about marriage and producing a new heir to the family-run company, president Lee Gun is in no rush. He’s in a committed relationship with long-time girlfriend Se-ra, and now that she’s returned from an overseas life as a ballerina, he believes now is the perfect opportunity to propose. Meanwhile, the humble Kim Mi-young goes about her days as a secretary for a law firm. Known as “Post-It” among her co-workers, Mi-young claims it’s no bother, although the nick-name is an insult labeling her a pushover—and her colleagues are glad to take advantage without apology. But for ordinary Mi-young, the extraordinary happens when she wins a resort vacation through her work. As it happens, it’s the same location Gun intends to make Se-ra his fiance. When their special days don’t go as planned, the two cross paths in the most unexpected of ways. After having a one-night stand, Gun and Mi-young part on cordial terms, but their lives entwine once more as Mi-young’s pregnancy steers them down an unforeseen path.

FTLY fans spread faster than wildfire, but perhaps not in the same way My Love from the Stars did. I hesitated in starting this one, but even so, I was quick to jump in. The high ratings and gushing weren’t for nothing—FTLY kicks off with a lot of laughs and a great serving of tender moments. I laughed—I laughed a lot—but I cried even harder, and it’s largely due to the actors. If it hadn’t been Jang Hyuk and Jang Na-ra or their chemistry, this show wouldn’t have pulled on my heartstrings the way it did. It’s too bad that even the leads couldn’t keep me past episode 15, which is where I chose to drop FTLY. I wouldn’t say that my dropping of the show implies anything terribly wrong, but rather: my patience ran dry. It’s a drama worth checking out, and it did well in pacifying my needs as a viewer and exceeded my expectations. Unfortunately for the show (or for me), Gun’s and Mi-young’s relationship was weighed down with SO MUCH DRAMA and dragged out BECAUSE OF SO MUCH DRAMA that I called it quits.


old goodbyeOld Goodbye
Episode count: 1
>>Watch: SoompiTV

Do yourself a favor and keep tissues on standby, because this one’s a tear-jerker ready to punch you in the chest every ten minutes. Ah, no. More like every five minutes. Or am I the only one with a mountain of Kleenex at her side? For just one episode, it’s an emotional overload but so good. (I promise.) Old Goodbye tells the fated love story of boxer Soo-hyuk and Chae-hee with a time-travelling twist. It’s present day, and when Soo-hyuk discovers that ex-wife Chae-hee is dying from a terminal illness, he struggles in grief to save her. Just as Soo-hyuk submissively resigns to his and Chae-hee’s misfortune, he discovers a way to travel back in time… Can he save Chae-hee, or is fate set in stone?

Part of MBC’s drama festival, Old Goodbye reunites Fated to Love You leading costars Jang Na-ra and Jang Hyuk—so if the premise sounds stale, you can can count on their chemistry to charm your pants off. I’m a huge Jang Na-ra fan, as I find that I can enjoy her in almost anything, but after seeing her share screen time with Jang Hyuk twice, I’m convinced they can make anything sell with their pizzazz. This isn’t a display for fresh storylines or unique plot twists, but it shouldn’t be dismissed for those reasons. The general layout is an antique, but the script moves the story forward by relying on the characters’ pure emotions, and—ultimately—allowing that to resonate with the audience.

First Impressions: The Ghost Bride & My Love From The Stars

tgb 2

The Ghost Bride (chapters 1 – 10)

Synopsis: It’s 1893 Malacca, a small port town of Malaya governed by British. Despite evidence of the town’s westernization, there remain Malaccans who adhere to their traditional customs—one of those practices being ghost marriages. With her family bankrupt and father shut in from self-isolation, Pan Li Lan’s prospects for a bright future look grim. That is, until the wealthy Lim family propose that she become their dead son’s ghost bride. Should she accept, she will be ensured a comfortable home from then onward, but at what cost? After a visit to the Lim mansion, the deceased Lim Tian Ching begins visiting Li Lan, drawing her into the afterlife. Separated from her body, Li Lan soon finds herself trapped between the world of the living and that of the dead. In order to rejoin her physical form, she races to unearth the Lim family’s secret—as well as her own family’s—before the separation turns permanent.

Thoughts: I attempted this book once before, only for classes to cut in on my free time and force me to sit it down. I read through a whole whopping three chapters! But from that I knew of Yangsze’s attention to detail, and I expected The Ghost Bride to traipse not aimlessly but slowly. These descriptions shouldn’t be glossed over, but savored. It’s not often that I discover an author who knows just the right amount of detail to pour into a narrative without weighing it down from verbosity.

It was bright, but there was no sun, merely the whiteness that comes from a fog at midday. And like a fog, parts of the house seemed to vanish as I passed, so that the way behind was shrouded in a thin white film.

True to its locale—1893 Malaya—real-world backdrops help reflect a setting’s image inside readers’ minds, but Yangsze’s imagery is mighty impressive at times. Now that I’m reading The Ghost Bride with renewed interest, I’ve found that the wording reels me in. Rather than slowing down to appreciate detail (or detail slowing the narrative!), Yangsze’s world comes alive and time passes by unnoticed. As a minor note of critique, however, Yangsze’s writing oozes foreshadowing. Much of this leaves me pondering in anticipation, such as the particular attention paid to the Mr. Lim’s third wife. From this I suspect her status to rise, but at the cost of Mrs. Lim—only I’m left to figure out why. (And I do love concocting scenarios.) But what my criticism applies to are moments of heavy-handed implications that are brazenly pushed in my face:

Madam Lim must have thought me simple or at the very least unsophisticated. I caught her sharp pigeon eyes studying me from time to time. Strangely enough, this seemed to relieve her. Only much later did I understand why she was so pleased with my gauche performance.

It’s deflating. Deflating, because I feel a fully heightened awareness of the situation. This particular passage is up for interpretation (I want to keep this spoiler-free), but other occasions remove suspense by how straightforward the statements are. All in all, this particular issue remains VERY minor when compared to The Ghost Bride‘s strengths, and I look forward to continuing Li Lan’s adventure.


mylovecapA

My Love From The Stars (episodes 1 – 6)
>>Watch: DramaFever, Viki, SoompiTV

Synopsis: Although his appearance may lead you to believe otherwise, Do Min-joon can hardly be called “human”—or perhaps “earthling” is a better term. 400 years ago during the Joseon Dynasty, Min-joon came to earth, but as circumstance would have it, was left behind. Now present day, Min-joon will soon have his chance to return home in three months, but life becomes complicated for the cynical taciturn when top Korean actress Cheon Song-yi makes a crash landing of her own.

Thoughts: Cheon Young-si easily wins top spot on my list of favorite sassypant divas (whom I love to love), because rude exterior aside (which is nothing more than bravado), she’s a character the audience can sympathize with. The writing certainly helps in this regard, but I appreciate that Young-si is never the first to strike nor is she intently malicious. She does, however, prove comically embarrassingly ignorant. Okay, so she doesn’t know how to order a mocha, but she’s more capable than she realizes. She craves affection and lives with the mindset that hate mail is better than no mail. I feel for her, and anyone who’s experienced isolation while surrounded by people can understand. People are quick to badmouth Young-si the moment her back is turned and perform a 180 when they speak to her face, but bad publicity is better than no publicity, right? Ehh, it’s really not, but I think Young-si will soon realize this if she already hasn’t. The girl has wounds, and she’s rubbed raw—continuously, but I’ll be happy to see those cuts heal as she grows.

(And I know I spent an entire paragraph on Jun Ji-hyun‘s portrayal of Young-si, but Do Min-joon (Kim Soo-hyun!) is just as good—as is the two leads’ chemistry. And when I ship, I ship hard. I fell in love with Kim Soo-hyun watching Dream High, and I literally bawled over Sam-dong and Hye-mi days after I finished the show. Please be kind, Drama; my heart is fragile.)

But even with all that praise, I feel let down. My Love From The Stars saw success so huge that even non-drama fans are aware it exists and an American re-make—pause for cringe—is in the works. Ratings aren’t everything, but the acclaim and large fanbase helped place it on a pedestal, and I’m sad to say I find it overrated. Upon saying that, I can hardly complain about the dialogue or acting, and the gorgeous cinematic scenes leave me quite impressed.

TBR: The Ghost Bride

A small update!

It’s been a several weeks since the last post, and unfortunately, a last minute work-related mess bombed me (followed back-to-back by Thanksgiving , my birthday, and a few other minor incidences). On the bright side: the mess is resolved, I survived, & this blog is ready for its regular schedule. Even so, drama reviews I’d hoped to write can’t write themselves, and I’m swamped—if time can allow it, these won’t be done until after New Year’s.

However! There will be two end-of-the-year recommendation posts published during the last week of December. Due to my complete lack of reading new publications, and the deficit of favorite 2014 reads, these lists won’t include books—but! You can find my favorite 2014 reads here. It’s short with only six titles, but I hope Yangsze Choo’s historical supernatural fantasy The Ghost Bride will join the list.

tgb

Starting next week I’ll begin buddy-reading Choo’s book, and having started The Ghost Bride once before, I know it’s a slow one to savor. Its story arises from the foundation of ghost marriages, a folk tradition in which both parties become bound through marriage. Reasons for ghost marriages vary, but some are performed when one partner has passed yet the other remains living—as is the case with our protagonist Li Lan. But for Li Lan, she neither knew nor was engaged to her dead suitor, and although her prospects look bleak, she rejects the idea of becoming a ghost bride. If only it were that simple…

Perhaps things might have been better had my mother not died during the same outbreak, leaving me behind at the tender age of four. The small pox passed me by with only one scar behind my left ear. At the time, a fortuneteller predicted that I would be lucky, but perhaps he was simply being optimistic.

“Yes, it is you that they want.”

“Why me?”

Updates will be posted at twitter, tumblr, and goodreads.

Book Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

sfSaving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
| Goodreads • B&N • The Book Depository |

I don’t remember the last time anyone looked me in the eye to speak to me. I’m frightened to look at myself in the mirror because maybe nothing’s there.

I miss the Stella girls telling me what I am. That I’m sweet and placid and accommodating and loyal and nonthreatening and good to have around. And Mia. I want her to say, “Frankie, you’re silly, you’re lazy, you’re talented, you’re passionate, you’re restrained, you’re blossoming, you’re contrary.”

I want to be an adjective again.
But I’m a noun.
A nothing. A nobody. A no one.

If I could admit to having read a shelf full of Melina Marchetta books, then I would happily name her as my new favorite author. That’s how confident I am in her writing, because after reading her second published novel, Saving Francesca, it’s nearly impossible to imagine any one of her books disappointing me. Saving Francesca is a charmer, and an addicting one at that. Not since my love affair with Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, and books like Between Shades of Gray, have I felt so drawn to a character that I sacrifice an entire night of sleep. With Marchetta’s novel, however, it’s not merely the main character that hooks me into the story. Just like the aforementioned titles, it’s everything these pages offer. It’s the characters, their relationships and stories, and the palpable world they live in.

Lucky Francesca Spinelli, for she is one of thirty girls attending St. Sebastian’s—only Francesca and her fellow female peers aren’t so lucky. Formerly an all-boys school, St. Sebastian’s has only recently opened as co-ed. What might appear as a paradise for teenage girls is anything but, as Sebastian’s becomes a breeding ground for sexism. The girls, if not ignored, are treated like inferiors and often seen as dolled-up eye-candy. The boys are far from suave, romanticized sex gods, but rather offensive with only a few male students who show redeeming qualities. A lonely, cruel place, Francesca must feel that Sebastian’s is a punishing institution worthy to be deemed a nightmare.

As Francesca’s old St. Stella’s clique attend a different school, she feels her closest friends slipping away. But were they ever her friends when they discourage the very essence that makes Francesca likeable? If they never call or invite her out? Hanging around such a scrutinizing bunch didn’t exactly ring Francesca dry of her buoyant personality, but she did bury it beneath an instinct to blend in. It’s a misfortunate characteristic to learn, and feeling friendless and miserable and confused over her mother’s sudden depression doesn’t make life at Sebastian’s easier.

“Tell me the story about when I almost drowned?” I ask her, so then she can be the hero and it’ll make her feel better. But she says nothing and I switch on the television and I pretend that what we’re watching is funny. It’s a sitcom about a family, two kids, a mum, and a dad. Their idea of tension is an argument about who gets the cottage out back. At the end, everyone’s happy because that’s what happens in television land. Things get solved in thirty minutes.

God, I want to live there.

But splitting up with “the Stella girls” is one of the best things that can happen to Francesca, because who needs judgmental “friends”? Slowly and surely, Francesca’s old friends are replaced by new ones: Tara Finke, the feminist, or simply the ‘Speak Your Mind About Anything-ist’; Justine Kalinsky, the solid and dependable accordion geek; and Siobhan Sullivan, reportedly “the Slut of St. Stella’s” and Francesca’s long-time-ago best friend. Then, by some shock and surprise, even a few boys turn up: Jimmy Hailler, who wouldn’t want to be anywhere else than at a Spinelli dinner; Thomas Mackee, always plugged into his Discman; and finally Will Trombal, Francesca’s giant crush.

“Forget it,” he says, walking away angrily.

“And what’s the name for people who kiss other people when they’ve got a girlfriend?”

He stops and turns around, looking me straight in the eye.

“A weak, spineless prick.”

Oh great, I think. Take the right to call you names right off me, you… weak, spineless prick.

Marchetta’s strength resides in her characters and her ability to write life. Her characters are perfect in the ways they are imperfect, not only likeable but relatable. They feel as real as you or me, because I believe—without a moment’s hesitation—that somewhere out there in the world is a Francesca Spinelli, a Will Trombal, and a Tara Finke and Thomas Mackee. Marchetta writes with depth, lighting up every crevice of their personalities. These are fully rounded characters, each and every one. Not even secondary characters can avoid this writer’s prowess—even if they are mentioned once never to be heard from again. As real as I believe these characters to be, however, I also recognize their own strengths.

I know from experience that high school isn’t easy, and it can be a challenging place to tackle. Feeling alone and unattached, having no group to belong to, doesn’t make it any more inspiring. Throw depression into the mix, and it all as well might seem hopeless. Depression itself is a bleak situation of its own, affecting not only the person who suffers from it, but those around the depressed individual. When depression strikes Francesca’s mother, it nearly rips the Spinelli family apart, but Francesca is stronger than she thinks—and so is her mother.

Saving Francesca isn’t a book about ideals, as the characters and their problems are far from that. What this book does have is sensibility and a resounding support system that fills me with envy. As Francesca’s mismatched group comes to accept each other, they display resourcefulness to help themselves and support their friends. They accept each other, flaws and all, with such genuine care and love that I find it difficult not to feel affected.

“I was born seventeen years ago,” I tell him. “Do you think people have noticed that I’m around?”

“I notice when you’re not. Does that count?”

Saving Francesca has more to it than the typical young adult contemporary novel, and I believe this has much to do with how realistically Marchetta writes from the teenage perspective. This is a book about moms and daughters, platonic love, and finding your spot among a crazy, intimidating herd. This is Francesca Spinelli’s story toward finding her own strength—strength to save and free herself, to let go of inhibitions—just as much as it is about personal growth. Equally heart-wrenching as it is heart-warming,Saving Francesca is peppered in pure, sincere emotion with delightful humor. It’s a book that will make you laugh and spill tears, and I am betting that it will be a book you’ll want to read all over again.

A great feeling comes over me. Because for a moment, I kind of like who I am.

5 hearts