Sunday, February 24, 2013

Anime review: "Beck"

Although "Beck" is an older anime (2005.) that I would have usually watched without any second thoughts (daily life, great rates, classic, compared to "Nana", etc.) for some reason I long resisted it. I am happy that I have rectified this mistake now.

"Beck" is anime telling a story of members of the band with a same name, during several (two or three) years of life of Yukio Tanaka, nicknamed Koyuki. At the start of anime, Koyukio is 14 and still in his middle-school, without any goals or talents in life. After accidental encounter with Minami Ryuusuke, a few years older guitarist who spent childhood in USA, Koyuki enters the world of music and rock, and we follow them and their personal life as they try to establish themselves...

I have always liked anime that depict daily-life of characters, shounen seined and josei. "Beck" is such combination that plays on the line between shounen and seinen. In this respect it is similar to "Bakuman" (or vice versa), and I think that fans of "Bakuman" will also like "Beck". By this, I mean that even though they are focused on shounen audience, the anime doesn't follows a typical maxim "if you just want something really hard, you can do it" that is, for me, the most distinctive trait of shounen anime. On the other hand, "Beck" has some ridiculous premises, which are strongest evident in later stages: their decision to stick with Chiba is totally illogical and impractical; also, wouldn't a band need to have more than three songs. One more thing I liked about this show is that it doesn't idealize teens - they are spiteful, promiscuous, drinkers, they swear (there is a lot of English curses)... There are some usual shounen characters like a bully or spoiled rich kid that compete with main characters, but there's more than that, also.

"Beck" has a very slow start - for first two episodes you have no idea what is happening. Plot goes very slowly, but the show has a really great build-up of characters. Most focus is put on Koyuki, and his relationships with other characters, but Ryussuke also gets his almost individual sub-plot. I noticed that plot sometimes get a bit rough - maybe they had to skip some elements from manga to fit it into 26-episodes anime. Curiously, anime incorporates lots of characters from out of Japan, but not in a way of the usual transfer-student. There is a lot of humor here, including some slapstick, but most of it is light and intelligent.

What I don't understand is how a music-manga can be successful. It surely can: "Beck", "Nana", "Nodame Cantabile" are all great anime, and they wouldn't get an anime adaptation without being a popular manga first. I will really have to try to read one such manga. I am not really into music, and I don't stick with any particular genres or band/performers, and I can't discuss the musical side of the anime, but I found music fine and catchy. There is a lot references and influence by real-life rock bands and famous performers.

My favorite part of anime was the stop-and-go romance between Koyuki and Maho, Ryussuke's younger sisters. I am glad that anime didn't put too much focus on it and left it on us to imagine the result. Best part of anime for me was at the end when Koyuki enters the stage alone. This is a typical shounen ending - a miracle. But that is the reason why we watch shounen anime... After that, the last two episodes almost ruined this anime for me with degrading resolution, and I started wishing it ended immediately after festival, but the actual ending wrapped things very fine.

From visual side, "Beck" is not very inspiring. Especially after watching "Nekomonogatari", animation and colors are pretty drab. Characters mostly look ugly, even when they should be good-looking. On the other side, there is a lot of attention put to details, like clothes, posters, instruments... As I said, music is very good, and so was voice-acting.

I am very glad that I finally watched "Beck" and would recommend it to anybody who like real-life anime and don't require action in it (except in case they don't like music). Even though it is not perfect, "Beck" definitely deserves it high grades with its interesting story and great characters.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Anime review: "Nekomonogatari (Kuro)"

As I mention, I plan to watch few anime shows in next weeks. I wanted to watch "Nekomonogatari" since I've seen it on AniDB in December, and planned to watch it in between "Towers of Midnight" and "A Memory of Light". But when aMoL arrived, I was still at "The Gathering Storm", so it got delayed. But watched the anime this weekend, and its only flaw is that it has only 4 episodes.

"Nekomonogatari" follows the same principles as "Bakemonogatari" and "Nisemonogatari", a mix of fantasy, romance, Japanese mythology, ecchi and comedy. For those who didn't like "Nisemonogatari", but liked the original "Bakemonogatari", you will be happy, because NKMG (short for "Nekomonogatari") is much close to BMG that to NMG. So, after this hard sentence, let us continue with the review. NKMG was a New Year's special, and it has only 4 episodes - one arc.

It actually takes place immediately before NMG, but after the "Kizumonogatari", which will describe the actual beginning of series. The arc here deals with bakeneko (Monster-Cat) Oddity, and the female obsessed by it Hanekawa Tsubasa, best friend of main character Araragi Koyomi.

As you can surmise for last paragraph, this whole series is pretty non-linear. The particular "seasons" are linear, but they are pretty much mixed up. This may presents some difficulties to occasional viewer, but I find it very appealing.

The story itself is very interesting. Even though it deals with a topic usual for Japan mythology-based anime (bakeneko - I think this is third anime dealing with it), it is in no way dull or familiar. Especially when it is placed in "Bakemonogatari" setting. As usual, this means a lot of talking scenes and lots of flashbacks with no explanation. Ecchi element is much less expressed than in "Nisemonogatari", but it is present. I didn't expect such action scene at the end - but I liked it. There is a very dark streak in background, dealing with domestic violence, but this has always been a part of this series.

One of strongest points of "Nekomonogatari" (and other from this series) is beautiful art. Backgrounds are CGI, very nicely done, and characters are drawn, even better. I just love such bright and vibrant colors. The show also has very good sound effects.

"Nekomonogatari" is a great treat for fans of "Bakemonogatari" and a tease until we wait for "Bakemonogatari: Second Season", sometime later in this year. I really enjoyed there four episodes.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Plans for next few weeks

Last four months I've spend dedicated to "The Wheel of Time" series, and because of it I mostly neglected my PhD efforts. Now, after I have finished reading "A Memory of Light", I plan to dedicate more time to study, so I next few weeks I will watch few anime series, and maybe read some single book - no lengthy fantasy series for some time for me.

I also plan to read some non-fiction books, which I won't review here. But here's the short list:

  • "Essentials of Business Communication" by Mary Ellen Guffey, 8th edition, 2009 (great book about business comunication - lots of it is obvious, but lot of it is not, and it is nice to have it compressed in one place)
  • "System Identification: An Introduction" by Karel J. Keesman, 1st edition, 2011 (currently reading it, looks very solid and readable for now)
  • "Complete MBA for Dummies" by Kathleen Allen and Peter Economy, 2nd edition, 2007
  • some short book about HVAC and floor heating systems by Croatian author
  • "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, 1st edition, 2011 (few years ago a professor lend my some books and I still didn't return them - I plan to give him this book as apology when I return them, after I read it)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book review: "A Memory of Light" by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Well, we have come to this. This book signifies end of several periods: four months of my reread, nine years of my personal acquaintance to "The Wheel of Time" series, and twenty three years since publishing of first book, "The Eye of The World". I first one to say, that even though I am sad for the end, this last book, "A Memory of Light", give a wonderful closing to the whole series.

I have a special connection to this series: it was my first series after I have started buying books. Before that I've read some fantasy (there was very restricted selection at my local library, but I have read it and reread it more than few times), including "The Lord of the Rings" and first few books of "A Song of Ice and Fire", but this was a first big ("Knife of Dreams" was the first book I had to wait for to come out) epic series. Since that time I've read it a lot (ASoIaF, "Malazan Book of the Fallen", "Midkemia" sagas, "The Belgariad" and "The Malloreon", R. Scott Bakker, etc.), but WoT has stayed my favorite series. Not best; I think that ASoIaF and MBotF (even more so) are better series. But WoT is my favorite, period.

I haven't read a book in such short time for a while now. I started reading "A Memory of Light" at Saturday afternoon (without reading at evening), read whole Sunday (except for two or three hours) till midnight, continued at Monday late afternoon after work, and finished at after midnight of the same day. I planned to write this review yesterday, but I was too exhausted yesterday and had to recover some of my energy.

"A Memory of Light" is a final book of fourteen book longer series, so things are pretty much all set for the final clash between Light and Shadow. Rand, who started as young shepherd, has become almost King of the world. His announcement that he will break the Seals that keep the Dark One imprisoned has successfully gathered almost all armies of humanity at one place. Mat has done great things in the past, but he now has one more thing to accomplish - to persuade Fortuona, Empress of Seanchan to join Rand's battle. Perrin has also become a leader of men. Even though his part is not so visible, he is one of three ta'veren that have to support Rand. Egwene, now a  secure Amyrlin Seat, and as such viewed as one of most superior authorities, doesn't agree with Rand's decisions - but is Amyrling Seat's authority above that of the Dragon? Elayne is one of the strongest Aes Sedai, now ruler of both Andor and Cairhien, and also lover of the Dragon Reborn - she will have to balance a lot of roles in this book.

This covers five main characters of WoT (I used to include Nyneve, but she was a bit neglected in last books), but even though they got most coverage, they represent only a fraction of POVs from this book. I think that most of the characters from previous books got at least a short POV part. The book has 900 pages, so it is not the longest book in series, but it feels quite long nevertheless.

So you can expect this to be a very complex book. I think I will have to do a reread eventually to grasp it all (as I have to with MBotF), but not this year I think. I don't even have to mention multiple changes of POVs in chapters - diagram showing characters vs. chapters structure will definitely be even more complex that the one in "The Gathering Storm" (link). Maybe it would have been better if last two books were split in three. This would gave them more clarity, but than they would lose much of their intensity, especially this one. And "A Memory of Light" is intense!

I first had an awkward feel, but I was able to recognize it. It is strange to have so many POV characters at the same place without knowing the thoughts of every one of them. Lot of characters get ignored for a long times (e.g. Taim, rulers), but there is simply no help to that. Also, even though all plotlines in this book happen in same time-frame, Sanderson used a trick that time doesn't flow at the same speed for everyone. He justified it quite soundly in book, and reaped much of benefits from it, but you will have to decide for yourself whether you are OK with it (as I am) or you think it as cheap trick.

When I started with this book, I also started with keeping notes of my impressions (I started doing this during this reread, to help me organize my thoughts), like
  • Wow! It is rare to see the inner workings of Shadow like with the Town, and
  • Plotline in the Black Tower is simply great! Especially the dual bond.
But soon I had to abandon it because really too much happens in here. Also, I want to avoid spoilers in this review. Nevertheless, here are some of my biggest impressions:
  • I kept trying to guess who Demandred is hiding as. This particular point was stressed during series, and even at the beginning of this book, so it was only normal to wonder. The answer is here, don't worry. On the other hand, maybe you should worry, because he proves himself as one of most capable and deadly of Shadow's proponents.
  • I was very surprised when Rand entered the Pit of Doom before the end of book. Even though this sounds as expected course of events, Jordan (I don't think that this was Sanderson's call, but maybe I am wrong) take an unconventional turn.
  • This book is one big battle! Well, six battles actually, but most of this book is made of battle and fighting scenes. Also, it has the longest chapter in WoT history: 189 pages.
  • There is some great humor in this book, but one line was really LOL moment: Androl's and Pevara's "You look good in black". Also, even though Mat is a touch too expressive (outspoken), he has a bunch of funny scenes. I especially like his bragging fight with Rand! And also, Knotai!!!
  • Well, I can't believe I missed the thing with the Horn of Valere!!!
One more thing I want to mention is Padan Fain's disappointment. His part was very promising, in this book and in series also. He had a potential to become the unknown element, Joker, hidden ace... But then he was cut short. There are some good lines here, but it is only a part of what it should have been.

I saw some comments describing this book as emotionally draining - it is! I spent last couple of hours with tears in my eyes - whether from sadness, happiness, laughter or anger. It really provides a full scale of emotions. There are some really unexpected things here, even deaths of characters you would never expect to be gone.

A good new element this book introduces is inserting the gray morale with the Seanchan. Is rooting for Tuon a good thing or not? I wonder was this Jordan's or Sanderson's decision.

You are probably wondering about the ending. Don't worry: it is a wonderful ending, one of best ever. It doesn't provide too many answers. I think this is better than it would be explaining and elaborating everything (like, these two lived there for years, got two child...). Also, it feels more natural, without any forced celebrations or gathering of main characters. You are really left wondering about many things, but not frustrated for it. I wonder was the ending written by Jordan? I think it is - I don't belittle Sanderson, but Jordan was the master of "The Wheel of Time".

So, with bitter-sweet feelings, I can say that "A Memory of Light" provided a wonderful ending for "The Wheel of Time". Not perfect, but even better for that!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Wheel of Time reread: "Towers of Midnight" by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

So, after more than four months of rereading, I am finally done with my "The Wheel of Time" reread. I don't usually write my post immediately after reading the book, and instead I wait for some free time, but this time I wanted to do it right, and do it cleanly. So, after this I can start "A Memory of Light" unencumbered with any unfinished business.

"Towers of Midnight" is a penultimate book of "The Wheel of Time" series, and as such is really preparing us for the final blast and Tarmon Gai'don. Rand has finally found balance with the Dragon Reborn, and now is fixing loose ends and past mistakes before he starts the Last Battle (which is exactly a day away at the end of the book). You could say that he is "cleaning the rubble". Perrin wasn't "lucky" as Rand, so he is still searching for his peace with the wolf and leader inside him - and at the same time he has to take care for tens of thousands of people, sue for peace with the Whitecloaks, and avoid traps set by Forsaken. Mat had his balance since beginning, but that doesn't mean that he is without problems: gholam is after him still, and now very close. And before he finds a solution for it (the invulnerable creature immune to the One Power), he cannon go on quest to find Moiraine and save her from snake and foxes. The White Tower is now joined behind Egwene, but she still has a problem with a hundred or so Black Sister and a Forsaken hiding in the Tower. Elayne has also consolidated her rule, but after Andor there are another two big bites for her: the rebellious Two Rivers and chaotic Cairhien.

Except the five of them, a bunch of other characters get their time in this book. There are much more changes between POVs (even more than in "The Gathering Storm"), even throughout chapters - which makes a faster pace. I would say that maybe there is a bit too much happening in this book. But I presume they (Jordan and Sanderson) had a lot to add in last two books. So clarify my statement, there are two pictures from a site Encyclopaedia WoT, which has a very detailed recaps of chapters from WoT. I use it sometimes when I am not sure about some details (like, how many chapters Mat had in a book). First picture shows the structure of chapters vs. character's POVs in "The Fires of Heaven", while the second one shows the same for "Towers of Midnight". You will notice how more complex ToM is...

I really like the first POV by Lan - it is very honorable and epic, but also funny at the same time. I like even more the first chapter with the new Rand, especially when you compare him to Rand in TGS. And even more I like the second chapter with him, when he finally meets Egwene (after some seven or eight books) as Amrylin Seat. I was a bit unsympathetic toward her because of her opinion that Rand has to be "handled" and "contained", but Rand really blows her mind this time. And not just her...

This book is very much about meetings after a long time: Mat and Elayne, Perrin and Elayne, Mat and Perrin, Elayne and Galad, Galad and Morgase, Morgase and Elayne, Gawyn and Elayne, Gawyn and Morgase, Moiraine and Mat (and Thom), Rand and Egwene, Egwene and Nyneve and Elayne, Rand and Tam (for real), Aviendha and Three-Fold Land, Rand and Almen Bunt (after twelve books!!)... There are two really great scenes: Mat's letter to Elayne (I got a really good laugh there) and Perrin "easing the badger" that Mat caught (there is a tavern called "Easing the Badger" in "The Dragon Reborn" where Perrin wonders where the name comes from - things really go in circles in these books).

This is the first time that book takes different time-frames and that plotlines are displaced in time. We had a case or two when when book started at the time before ending of last one, but nothing like this one.

After the debacle with Mat in last book, Sanderson got him right this time, right to the point. There is only one thing that really bothered me: the "confession" between Thom and Moiraine. OK, it was announced in last books, but it nevertheless sounded forced and fake. Although the blame cannot be put wholly on Sanderson... The part with snakes and foxes was done great and it justified the hype about it.

There are several very intense action scenes with Perrin here. I think that Sanderson did better job with him than even Jordan had. You could say that Perrin is the most outstanding main character in this book. It is very funny when Perrin patronizes Egwene in World of Dreams (not that I have anything against her).

There are several great POVs with Rodel Ituralde. I dont' know why I like this guy so much, but I really do. But the crowning moment is when Rand saves them - this was really something.

I can say this without any reservations: "Towers of Midnight" is a really glorious book. So much more positive and funnier book (especially after "The Gathering Storm"), it is much focused on finishing the various (and numerous) plotlines. It contains so much good scenes that I could say it is one of my favorite books in series.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Wheel of Time reread: "The Gathering Storm" by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I've read "The Gathering Storm" in very short time, only few days. I am currently at half of "Towers of Midnight", hoping to start with "A Memory of Light" soon.

First I have to mention that this is first "The Wheel of Time" book written by Brandon Sanderson. Robert Jordan has passed away after writing "Knife of Dreams", so the fate of WoT was in question for a time. Jordan's widow Harriet McDougal picked Brandon Sanderson, at that time relatively unknown writer, to finish the WoT. Jordan's death didn't come sudden, so he was able to prepare lots of notes for what was supposed to be the last WoT book, and even write some parts. Thanks to that, Sanderson had a skeleton of story, and he "only" needed to flesh it.

In "The Gathering Storm", we have two major plot-lines. Rand, after losing his hand by Semirhage in "Knife of Dreams", is continuing his preparation for Tarmon Gai'don. But the stresses, wounds and betrayals he has survived has left a great toll on him. He becomes increasingly harder and darker - and not all Dark One's seduction is obvious. Egwene is still a captive in Tar Valon, but everything points that her efforts are paying off and she is winning the fight for Amyrlin Seat. But what will happen when she is forced to confront Elaida directly - is is better to bend like a willow, or finally make a stand? Nyneve is only major character with important part in this book - as the only Aes Sedai and advisor that doesn't send Rand into fits. Mat and Perrin present, but more with cameos than with real story, and Elayne is completely absent, thus making her the last main character to be absent from one of the books.

First POV in prologue is a great introduction to the book. Until now, we have had a direct insight into fight between light and dark, but always from the highs. But now, this struggle has reached even the common little man. Prologue in general is very good.

This is definitely Rand's book, as it not had been since "Lord of Chaos". He has been under an unimaginable stress for years now, and the time to release it had finally come. I must confess that I never expected Jordan (because I presume that it was his original intention) to make Rand so dark, even evil.  There is a curious part of chapter with Rand and Moridin - it is strangely pity for Rand that he can feel comfort near his greatest enemy, who is actually his antithesis. His parts are disturbing, but they are very well written. "I have been forced to revise this particular inclination" - I think this quote gives goosebumps to every fan of WoT. Even though it is not good, I must it is funny to see Cadsuane finally cowed. Book has a very strong ending.

Egwene is only slightly behind Rand in importance in this book. Her parts have been very good for several books now, so there is no need to praise them anymore. She has one of the best action scenes in series, comparable to battle in tFoH or earlier battles (Rand against various Forsaken). Elaida is on pinnacle of disgust here.

As I mention, there is lot of Nyneve, who is left as one of last person with some influence on Rand. She didn't have this much attention since Ebou Dar, if ever. There is also lot of Min, who sometimes look unobtrusive, but she is an important characters. We also have few POVs from Aviendha, which are rare.

Both Mat's and Perrin's parts are not really important in this book - they are "saved" for next one, ToM, and they are here only not to be absent. I don't mind this as such. Perrin's part is actually pretty good, except the small spoiler for next book (meeting between him and Galad). But what I do mind is Mat's POVs. Sanderson blundered with Mat. It is not written badly, but Mat and his humor are very off, and the story is unnecessary and irrelevant. Thankfully, he accepted the criticisms and did much better in ToM.

All in all, Sanderson did a very good job with continuing "The Wheel of Time". There are no major differences in writing, although there are some words and phrases that Jordan didn't use. There is one apparent change: shorter chapters to fasten the pace, with lots if jumps between POVs. My version of the book (Orbit hardcover) has a mistake - Sulin is mentioned as with Rand, except with Perrin. I hope this will be corrected in newer editions.

In general, "The Gathering Storm" is a great book, itself and as part of "The Wheel of Time". Much darker that any before, it really presents struggle, in various forms. And it finally puts in focus the Tarmon Gai'don, the Last Battle.