Sunday, May 22, 2016

Book Review: “The Strange Library”

by Haruki Murakami (translated by Ted Goossen).

All I did was go to the library to borrow some books.

Murakami has such a brilliant ability to lift the layers off the most mundane places and everyday events, and reveal a world that is so eerily fantastic. I was really fascinated by this short story of a boy who is imprisoned in the hidden depths of an old library by an evil librarian who will eat his brains if the boy cannot memorize three thick books on Ottoman tax collection.

While imprisoned, two very unique characters visit the boy - and it is through the alternating visits of the beautiful girl who only speaks through her hands, and the intriguing Sheep Man, that we find ourselves in a world that is as unreal owing to the fantasy element, as it is made real by invoking some very real human fears.

Set at the end of an enormous underground labyrinth in a world of irrational tyranny, emerges a cocoon of friendship and bravery, and - above all - a surreal mirror to a very real world.

One final word, even though this is categorized as a children's book, don't forget that this is also Murakami. Nothing he says can be taken at face value. Everything he says has endless layers of interpretations.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Book Review: “Ao no Exorcist” - Tankobon vol. 10-11

Written and illustrated by Kazue Kato

After a mighty battle that ends with Rin, Yukio and Shiemi's encounter with an ancient whale-deity, the team returns to face a new rescue mission in the form of classmate Godaiin, who sees demons against his will. Mephisto has the cure for this, but of course, in return he asks for them to deal with "The Seven Mysteries of True Cross Academy".

[Ao no Exorcist is an ongoing manga series. Individual chapters are currently being collected into Tankobon volumes. I have decided to categorize my thoughts based on adventures. In this third part of my review, I look at Tankobon volumes 10 through 11, which contains chapters 38-47].

As far as missions go, I found this section to be a little weaker than the others. The concept of timeless mysteries attached to the Academy was brilliant, and - as with all the other missions - it was wonderful to see the strength and ingenuity of the Exwires - as individuals as well as a team. However, the power of this concept got diluted a little bit, especially when confronted with such entities as a transvestite ghost with confused sexuality.

But this was also the series where a gate to Gehenna opens up, and I cannot wait to follow that story arc. And discovering that opening was one of the greatest characters in this story, Arc Knight Lewin Light. Right-hand man of Paladin Arthur A. Angel, he is an awesome combination of wit and intelligence presented in a deceptively unkempt look and lazy behaviour.

The Art, which has been outstanding throughout, goes up yet another level with the True Cross Academy Festival. Colours, events, food, people, and all the smells and sounds of the celebrations came alive in a wildly unbelievable way.

Somewhere about half-way through the 12th Tankobon, this adventure ends, and - amid rumours of a spy among the members of the True Cross Order - a fantastic new story starts, revolving around Izumo Kamiki and an ancient family curse. This, so far, has been the absolute high point of this series for me. Till the point that I have read, this story has not yet concluded and I will re-visit this review when the current saga in Hachinohe concludes.

I'm not your weapon, demon king, or savior! I'm Rin Okumura! And when I'm done, I'm going to be the best exorcist you ever laid your eyes on!
~ Rin Okumura

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Review: “Ao no Exorcist” - Tankobon vol. 5-9

Written and illustrated by Kazue Kato

From the hallowed hallways of True Cross Academy, where Rin Okumura is training to become an exorcist, the story now shifts to the heart of Kyoto, as exorcist-turned-demon Saburota Todo steals the powerful "Left Eye of the Impure King".

[Ao no Exorcist is an ongoing manga series. Individual chapters are currently being collected into Tankobon volumes. I have decided to categorize my thoughts based on adventures. In this second part of my review, I look at Tankobon volumes 5 through 9, which contains chapters 16-37].

Hoping to prevent a catastrophe, the exwires travel to Ryuji Suguro's hometown to help the exorcists of the "Myoda Sect". Nestled between an estranged father-son relationship on one end and a shocking deception by a respected exorcist on the other, a stolen artefact releases a poisonous miasma that poses a widespread and deadly risk to the entire city of Kyoto. As the story unfolds, historical secrets are revealed, great alliances are formed, and powerful magic is displayed .. but, eerily, there always seems to run a thread of something greater, waiting in the wings.

While the previous chapters were all about introducing the key characters in this saga, this is where we start going deeper into each person's life - and, to my endless fascination, the author maintains this trend throughout the series. There is no one single "hero" of this tale. Everyone has a part to play; every action makes a difference. And I really loved seeing how each character - driven by his or her unique quality - helped to make a tangible difference every step of the way.

Sure, there was some silliness in this section too! ... A trip to the beach aroused a lot of comments from the boys, surrounded as they were by Shiemi Moriyama's mortification at having to wear a swimsuit, and Shura Kirigakure, whose everyday clothes are never that much more than a swimsuit anyway. But it all felt in good fun, and did not deter from the main danger they were fighting to control.

The Art, as I mentioned in my previous review, is as powerful as the words, and adds such great value to this entire tale. Not only do characters continue to look distinct, there is so much of "movement" in the art; nothing is static, nothing looks fake. And of course, locales continue to look stunning - giving the reader a deep sense of being present along with the protagonists.

With an ancient whale-deity aiding a mission to hunt down a terrifying Kraken, I will end this review. I shall be back to talk about Rin's deal with Mephisto himself!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: “Ao no Exorcist” - Tankobon vol. 1-4

Written and illustrated by Kazue Kato

Weaving together the supernatural and the action genres is this fantastic tale set in a borderline world between Assiah and Gehenna. At the heart of this saga is Rin Okumura - the son of Satan - whose quest for revenge for his father's death, sets him upon a journey where he not only meets a variety of characters, both human and demon, but where he also discovers his own inhuman powers.

[Ao no Exorcist is an ongoing manga series. Individual chapters are currently being collected into Tankobon volumes. I have decided to categorize my thoughts based on adventures. In this review, I look at Tankobon volumes 1 through 4, which contains chapters 1-15].

After a deadly encounter with a demon who wants to drag Rin down to hell, Rin's guardian Father Shiro Fujimoto dies trying to protect him. Unleashing a hitherto unknown power by unsheathing the Komaken sword, and armed with the resultant knowledge of his own secret identity, Rin contacts Mephisto Pheles, chairman of the True Cross Academy, in order to train to become an exorcist so that he may avenge his father's brutal death.

True Cross Academy becomes the base for a series of adventures as humans from Pages and Exwires to Arc Knights and Paladins come together in this epic battle against the demons of Gehenna. Of course what drew me to this manga, and keeps me constantly in awe, is the story being set in a supernatural world. Even while they wait to take the Exwire exam to graduate from their starting positions, they are attacked by monsters. In a fast-paced saga, every magical moment is but a preparation for more fantastic and dangerous moments.

Amidst all the powerful magic and evil surrounding Assiah, the story still manages to present heart-warming tales that showcase what really makes up these people who they are. One such incident was Fujimoto's familiar, the Black Cat, Kuroneko whose fierce reaction to its master's death is handled so beautifully by Rin.

What is also brilliant about this story is that even though we meet quite a large number of characters in a relatively short period of time, each and every one is so unique and memorable, that not once did I need any reminder on the who's who of this strange world. From the self-conscious Shiemi Moriyama, to the strong willed Ryuji Suguro with a dark secret of his own; from the wild and dominant Shura Kirigakure, to the deceptively terrifying demon Amaimon, to the immortal Honorary Knight in top hat and cape and matching pink stockings, gloves and umbrella: the very powerful and truly fascinating Mephisto Pheles ... everyone came so alive in my mind.

And finally, the amazing Art. Every character is so unique, so beautifully drawn. Every location is so gorgeous, every building so stunning. Just as much as the words that create this story, the art wields a unique power to tell a tale.

Forced to reveal his true identity in a fight against demon Amaimon, Rin is captured by Paladin Arthur Auguste Angel and taken to the Vatican for a trial. Saved only by an intervention by Mephisto, and guided by Yukio and Shura, Rin launches on a very strictly regulated training session.

And as a brand new adventure starts in Assiah, I will end this review. I shall be back to talk about "the Impure King"!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Book Review: “Fragile Things”

by Neil Gaiman.

If you've been following my blog you know I am a huge fan of Gaiman, and this collection of short stories and poems took me one step deeper into that magical world where the mind can truly run free. While all the stories were essentially wild and fantastic, as his tales always are, a weird and dark strain runs through them all, and that was a whole new experience.

Such beauty in so much ugliness in "Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story". The fantastic saga of the "Sunbird". The old lady in the attic and that terrifying image of the head of a cat in "Feeders and Eaters". Twelve snapshots of love, of silence, of memories in "Strange Little Girls". The unique exchange of storytelling in "October in the Chair". Every story had something unforgivably dark, something stunningly beautiful.

Some of the more memorable stories for me included "A Study in Emerald", a brilliant fusion of Sherlock Holmes and a Cthulhu murder mystery in a setting that was as unique as its final denouement was surprising; "Other People", a tale of undying grief and everlasting terror in one endless cycle; and "Goliath" (a short story written specially for 'The Matrix') a story of love and loss that is as real as it is fabricated, as momentary as it is eternal.

This collection also showcases Gaiman's poetry (I had no idea!)
Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that witches are often betrayed by their appetites; dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always; hearts can be well-hidden, and you can betray them with your tongue.”
Created as a guide to what one does upon finding oneself in a fairy tale, "Instructions" was my absolute favourite poem in his collection.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Book Review: “King Solomon’s Mines”

by H. Rider Haggard.

A lost mine deep in the bowels of earth, brimming with precious diamonds. An endless treasure protected eternally by an ancient curse. Into this - largely unexplored - world, three travellers enter. With fantasy woven into history, this is the story of a journey into the heart of Suliman Berg.

The story does start off slow, but I suppose one has to account for the sensibilities of the times. In 1885 there was probably no tearing rush to get to the crux of the matter in a few choice words. And so, while it took me some effort to get through the initial descriptions of, for example, how to save oxen from certain diseases, and it certainly took me a lot of effort to get past the subtle but somewhat consistent references to black and white cultures; I found the story amazing enough, to be able to move past those setbacks.

As they follow a mysterious map drawn in blood by a 16th-century Portuguese explorer, the journey to the fabled Mines bestows amazing roles upon the trio. From being hailed as white men from the stars with magical capabilities, to donning the role of warriors fighting bravely for the rights of a usurped king, this tale is fascinating because it does not rely solely on a secret horde of precious stones. The journey itself is a great adventure.

As far as the characters that make up this journey, while we do, in essence, follow hunter Allan Quatermain, aristocrat Sir Henry Curtis and sailor Captain Good, for me, this was not necessarily "their" story. I felt this was more of a saga about Kukuanaland, and the story of what happened to the different people that lived in, or visited, its mysterious lands. The strange travellers on a doomed mission, the shameful secret of a murdered king, the heartbreaking loyalties of a rescued maiden, the united bravery of a rebellion uprising ... this story belongs to each and every one of them.

I do however have to make a special mention of "immortal" Gagool. Chief advisor to the king, witch hunter of the land, and armed with uncanny powers of prophecy, her character is as unique as it is a powerful presence in this tale. Additionally, it is she who brings this fascinating tale to a close by leading the three protagonists on the final leg of their journey into the mines, the secret location being known to her alone. Carved deep inside a mountain, the stunning mines - as much a storehouse of treasures, as a homage to past rulers of the land - present a whole new journey fraught equally with extreme risk and reward.

At one point, during the war, it is said of the battle: "Now it seemed to be a love song, now a majestic swelling war chant..." - I can actually say that of this entire story.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Book Review: “Along Came a Spider”

by James Patterson.

The first novel in the ‘Alex Cross’ series, this story follows the forensic psychologist as he works on two cases: that of a brutal murder of two women and a child, and a high profile kidnapping of two children from an exclusive private school. Totally unrelated at first, the story soon leads us to one common factor: the brilliantly psychotic Gary Soneji.

Other than the smooth reading, what kept my interest consistently alive was the fact that every time a mystery was solved or a plot point concluded, something new came up. Quite early on in the story, we are introduced to the perpetrator and his grand plans; and even while I was wondering what was left to read, the story revealed yet another dramatic turn of events.

I did not care for the two biggest relationships in this story - that of Alex Cross and his grandmother, and that of Alex Cross and Jezzie Flannagan, the head of the missing children's Secret Service detail. Both seemed to be written by someone who was not comfortable discussing relationships and had to resort to clichés to tell that part of the story. Only the fact that one of them is integral to the story, made me keep reading through those sections.

Other than that small hitch, this was a great story told really well - moving rapidly from morbid obsessions to brutal murders, from hypnosis sessions to unlikely witnesses ... with some really surprising twists.