Sunday, July 31, 2016

Southern Reach Trilogy: ACCEPTANCE by Jeff VanderMeer


The Southern Reach Trilogy has been a polarizing reading experience for me; mostly because of the meandering second installment Authority. That being the case, I don't think I could give this entire series a perfect grade in spite of all the overwhelmingly positive reviews it got from a lot of critics and even veteran authors like Stephen King himself. There are, however, amazing aspects to the first and third novels that I really found myself deeply immersed in, and these deserve due credit for this review. The one thing that stopped it from becoming one of of my top favorite sci-fi novels (next to Frank Herbret's DUNE, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End) is most probably because of its experimental nature that was unevenly delivered and executed on paper. 

An off-beat favorite sci-fi books of mine that was not a classic like the ones aforementioned is Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days. Much like that one, The Southern Reach trilogy focused on different character perspectives for each book with varied themes and narratives. But where Specimen Days only accomplished its purpose in one book divided into three interconnected stories, this series became a trilogy--but not exactly a trifecta that I always enjoyed. The Lost-esque influence invoked the same feelings as that show did, but much like said TV show, this trilogy has problems with consistency which a less critical reader may overlook because of the many flashes of brilliance that Annihilation and Acceptance have exhibited. I was swept by those installments but Authority still left a bitter aftertaste.

But this review is about the final piece of the trilogy, and it was quite the unexpected treat. Still reeling from the unpleasantness that was my experience with the second book, I almost gave up on finishing this trilogy. The two things that prevented me from not calling it quits are (1) I always stick to my self-imposed readables and (2) I have hard copies of all of these books, and it would be a damn shame to just let the last book of the series sit there untouched from my shelf. Besides, I'm still interested in finding out about the pay-off, and if the mysteries will be solved. The characters, actually, were the least interesting part of the trilogy for me. And that is why this sci-fi series didn't strike an emotional chord unlike with the other. I connected little with them because The Southern Reach trilogy is foremost plot-centered, and I've mentioned a lot of times that I enjoy character-centric stories and this trilogy is hardly that.

With that in mind, Acceptance came as a pleasant surprise to me. While Annihilation was supposed to be a story of the alienation one feels whilst trapped in a wilderness, and Authority was about the paranoia of losing control over one's own memories and actions, Acceptance was more or less the long-awaited finale where everything comes into focus; and the questions that the characters have asked and mulled upon in the first two books received answers that didn't exactly give them the closure they're all looking for--but it's all there is anyway. Acceptance also had varied POVs unlike the first two books which were limited third-person perspectives of the biologist and the new director of the Southern Reach, John Rodriguez. Here, we get the two of their accounts mixed in with the psychologist/former director's second-person POV which detailed her fixations and desperate search for answers about her home that became what is now Area X, and Saul Evans' accounts, and he was known only as the lighthouse keeper who may have been Area X's first "victim".

It's quite an exercise of mental endurance to read this trilogy, honestly, especially with a meandering middle installment, but Acceptance proved for me that the journey will be worth it. I did care about the characters in some way but more as representations of deeply-rooted fears and insecurities that humans have when faced with something they could not comprehend or even co-exist properly with. Area X is viewed as a contamination, a vast of unknowable wilderness spilling into human civilization without any adequate explanation or readily understood malicious intentions. This was what was frustrating about is progress of growth as it spreads across the globe. Countless clandestine expeditions have been sent to gather data, all of them pointless, while authority figures in Southern Reach have kept the deception going even to the scientists and experts in their field who joined the expeditions. One of them was the biologist who chose to stay behind Area X and become a part of its ecosystem. She's actually the only character in this trilogy I connected with since Annihilation. Her fifty pages or so of accounts here in this book had to be my favorite.

This final installment offered so many great things for readers to chew on and enjoy because of the many different accounts that were evenly spread out across its three-hundred-plus pages of narrative. Every voice was compelling even if certain scenes or even concepts don't entirely make sense. Area X is an anomaly and is more than just an infestation growing on Earth. There must be something alien-like about it; maybe it's even a doorway leading to another dimension--no one really knows or could be absolutely certain. Being faced with the inevitability of extinction for humans will always be a disconcerting theme explored by science fiction novels but The Southern Reach trilogy takes it to a more intimate and claustrophobic level of hopelessness. Its constant mentions of a 'brightness' infiltrating a human person's vessel was quite alarming--one would think the description should be that of a darkness or a black hole that could consume someone to nothingness. But no, author VanderMeer named it as a 'brightness' that his characters cannot escape from.

This review is spoiler-free because I don't want to discuss the revelations and certain key moments in all three books if any of you did decide to read the trilogy yourselves. What I can say was that it's an uneven, inconsistent story yet endlessly engrossing and dismantling once you get to the passages that are haunted and poignant. I will always find the second installment Authority wasteful and the least interesting of the series, but it was a necessary one because it established some plot points that need exposure before we get to the finale. I could still recommend The Southern Reach trilogy. It was beautifully written because VanderMeer does have a gift for descriptive language in a way that I think elevates the genre into something poetic. What I'm only critical with, however, was that it could get self-indulgent that character development had become hollow for others, and the pacing a tad too leisurely if not entirely wasteful.

This was a great series that deserves its praise, but I caution readers to check your expectations at the door before going into exploring what this trilogy offers. You may find yourself too lost in it, whether because you are entranced by its writing and landscapes, or because you couldn't make sense of anything and therefore left disappointed in the end. Fortunately, I'm in between caught between those two receptions.



RECOMMENDED: 8/10



OVERALL TRILOGY RATING: 8.5/10

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hana Wa Saku Ka (Does the Flower Bloom) by Shoko Hidaka


Hana wa Saku ka or Does the Flower Bloom is definitely one of the more mature and reflective yaoi mangas out there, and one I was very happy to encounter. Spanning for over five volumes, the story tackles not only a relationship between two men but also that of two people with differences in experience because of a twenty-year age gap. It opens with a man named Sakurai who is a thirty-seven year old senior manager at an advertisement agency who seemed burned out by a career he used to have so much passion for in his younger years. He has also gone through the motions of a few uninteresting relationships with women, and had for a time believed he could never find fulfillment in his personal life. One night he crossed paths with a college student named Youichi Minagawa whom he had what seemed to be a humdrum interaction with at first while both on their way home. Two more encounters later and Sakurai was intrigued though initially uncomfortable with Youichi especially since Sakurai perceived him as rather dismissive and rude, typical of a privileged nineteen-year-old student.

The realization that they are attracted to each other was not nearly as momentous as one might hope; it didn't take a while at all for Sakurai to acknowledge that he might be interested in Youichi romantically which had shocked him since he had only been with women before meeting the younger man. Youichi, meanwhile, is a closed-off, tortured artist who could not flourish under the shadow of his late father who was a renowned painter. He lived with cousins in an old yet elegant house which was located in the outskirts of town, and has never had friends let alone romantic relationships before, given that he was only nineteen, and a very peculiar person who doesn't express himself outside of his art. 

It was only by hanging around with Sakurai that he realized that he was actually interested in getting to know someone, and since he was naive in a lot of ways, he couldn't understand why he was drawn to the older man, other than he thought Sakurai was not like most adults that surrounded him, who all cling to the ghost of his late father and therefore expect so much from Youichi. The moments leading for both men to recognize that there is a strong attraction shared between them was nerve-wracking yet ultimately sweet and hot especially whenever they can't help themselves and just start making out!

For all you fujoshis out there, here is a sample of such a scene:


Ovary-melting make-out sessions between two cute men aside, Does the Flower Bloom does have a wonderful plot in itself, and the characterizations for both Sakurai and Youichi were layered and meaningful. After all, the more serious conflict about their relationship has less to do with the fact that they are of the same sex but more about the fact that Sakurai is twenty years older than Youichi. That age gap is definitely something much more worth discussing and exploring especially in the context of a romantic relationship. Mangaka Hidaka does a terrific job examining the repercussions and obstacles to overcome. 

The most notable of which had to be their reticent personalities. Sakurai is withdrawn due to his passivity on things but after meeting Youichi, he started showing more interest and dedication to his work again, much to the joy of his co-workers who had so much respect for him. Meanwhile, Youichi learned that people do genuinely want to get to know him and not just because he was his father's son, and it's up to him to open up and communicate his feelings to other people especially those who already care about him.




This is a highly recommended yaoi manga because it has depth and real character development but not at the expense of some really sensual moments that do happen with the couple, or vice-versa. It has the perfect balance of substance and showmanship if you're both into great storytelling and really sexy-hot moments. The simplicity of Hidaka's writing is a good foundation for genuinely poignant moments in between, where Sakurai does care about how their age gap could be detrimental to Youichi's future, and where Youichi does grow up and acknowledge that his cold ambivalence has to change if he ever hoped to become more than just friends with his first love. There are other important events that transpired in this manga, particularly Youichi dealing with his parents' death, and his friendship with a certain classmate from the university whose intentions are not as innocent after the first glance.

And don't worry, hardcore fujoshi fans! The build-up and drama would definitely reward you with hot action at the last volume when Sakurai and Youichi finally do consummate their love affair. It was made all the more intense by the fact that you see them truly falling in love and finding a way to make it work in spite of the initial struggles. There is a lot of grueling conversations about the difficulty in their communication styles, but with Sakurai's patience and Youichi's openness, they both do decide together that they are willing to endure a lot for each other if it meant staying together. It's not going to be easy, however, because Youichi still had decades of his life ahead of him while Sakurai doesn't and that experience gap is a challenge they're going to have to keep weathering together as their relationship hopefully continues thriving. Unfortunately, Hidaka only kept the story to a minimum of five volumes and I would definitely like to see this get picked up again.



Does the Flower Bloom by Shoko Hidaka is a true gem and one that you must read if you ever claimed to be a fujoshi. And if you are a hardcore one, chances are you have already encountered this and loved it to pieces. I can say that there is a slow burn aspect to this manga series that proves to ignite very hot once you get the engines running! Sakurai and Youichi's chemistry is undeniable, and it shows whenever Hidaka gets them in a scene or in a secluded room together. Her depictions of their amorous scenes are just so wickedly sexy! But the selling point for me, really, is that these scenes are not just there for fanservice. These love scenes were always pivotal for the progress in their relationship, and as a reader I really did feel like I was falling in love alongside them! 


RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Monday, July 18, 2016

INDIGO BLUE by Ebine Yamaji


After I finished reading this 200-paged girl-love manga written once again by Ebine Yamaji (whose Free Soul I also reviewed last month), I was also able to read her Afterword of the work. She revealed that her editor wanted her to write a lesbian story where men still have a role to play in the dynamic, and Yamaji found this a challenge she was eager to write about. The result is Indigo Blue which definitely involved a male perspective into a manga that is also still about two women being in love, and I have to say that Yamaji had done it justice.

Indigo Blue is about a writer named Rutsu Nakagawa who is in the process of publishing a novel after her debut anthology. Her editor is also her lover named Ryuji, a man she had great admiration for since they were in a creative writing seminar years before and she always thought he should have also been a novelist. Through the artist of her upcoming novel, she was introduced to another editor from a magazine named Tamaki Yano. Their meeting left an impression all because Tamaki asserted that in one of Rutsu's short stories entitled A Brief Moment, the character named Y had never been given gender-specific pronouns, leading her to theorize that Y could have been another woman whom the protagonist had sexual relations with. Rutsu was intrigued by Tamaki and tried to form a friendlier acquaintance. Tamaki was hesitant at first but she gave in and revealed to Rutsu that she had been attracted to her since that first meeting, and the fact that Rutsu was also her favorite author was a happy coincidence. The two women gradually enter into a passionate relationship.


Rutsu began to question her sexuality and its awakening is the premise of Indigo Blue. The consequences and fall-outs of her newfound identity are the integral elements of the manga. Rutsu's dishonesty about her situation is given more weight with the fact that she was cheating on her boyfriend-editor, and never disclosing to Tamaki about her relationship with a man in the first place. Afraid of actually rejecting Ryuji, this caused said man to believe that their relationship can now be taken to the next step which is marriage. Ryuji was devoted to her not just as her boyfriend but also as her editor who believed in her talent, and was hoping that by getting intimately acquainted with her literature, he would also be privy to her girlfriend's inner life and private thoughts. Rutsu had always been distant towars Ryuji, but he perceived this as something that he can work on if he made her feel loved enough by him. Meanwhile, after Tamaki became aware of Rutsu cheating on her and the boyfriend, she immediately ends the affair with a rather efficient and sensible explanation that made her character so dignified and secure in her own identity as a lesbian woman.


What was notable about this manga was that it was infused with Yamaji's thoughtful retrospection as well as rhetoric about lesbian sexuality, which was also present in her other work Free Soul. Comparably, I much enjoyed and approved of the romance found in this manga rather than the latter, but Free Soul had a more definitive conclusion while Indigo Blue sort of meandered by the ending, unable to give the readers a satisfying ending to all the characters. Going back to Yamaji's literary approach to lesbianism, this manga had insightful discussions about it that I agreed with. Rutsu's own confusion about her feelings for both Tamaki and Ryuji was also heftily explored where both relationships are valid dimensions of her personal growth. As Yamaji disclosed in her Afterword, her own editor wanted men to play some importance in this manga, and it showed with the way she examined how Ryuji had to deal with Rutsu's alienating treatment as his girlfriend, and the subsequent reality where he was spurned when he realized that she never wanted him as a person at all because he was a man and she essentially led him on over the course of their involvement.


Another thing worth pointing out was the artist-friend that Rutsu had conversations with all throughout the manga. He was a father in his mid-thirties with a daughter, and he became Rutsu's confidant while she struggled about her infidelity with Rutsu and finally coming to terms that she wanted to be with women after all, especially with Tamaki. This artist-friend expressed that he has sympath for what Rutsu was going through but also asked her to consider Ryuji's feelings as a man for being rejected by her. In Free Soul, the protagonist had the same conversation with her father who blamed himself for her becoming gay. Said protagonist made sure he understood that her lesbianism is no one's fault, and that it's simply who she is. Yamaji provided the same conversation but under a different context, and I appreciated her for touching upon what a male lover might feel if ever found out that the woman he loved turned out to not only be cheating with him but also devoid of any kind of romantic and sexual desire towards him. It's understandably damaging.

Tamaki Yano is the real star of this manga even if she was simply Rutsu's lesbian love interest. Her confidence about her identity and uncompromising ways were admirable, and I especially loved her after she never diminished Rutsu's feelings for Ryuji. She claimed that a part of her did love that man; but those feelings are just different from what Ryuji had for her. It was a touching moment, marked by Yamaji's understanding that even homosexuality has gray areas, leading me to personally believe that perhaps Rutsu may be more homoflexible or even bisexual. The downside is that we will never learn which because Yamaji never resolved it. I would have loved to learn more about Ryuji's life after it, and how Rutsu and Tamaki's relationship progressed after the cheating.


That being said, Indigo Blue was yet another great installment from Ebine Yamaji-sensei. Its take on a male perspective regarding a lesbian relationship was respectable for both parties involved. I'll definitely read her other two works after this.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

Friday, July 15, 2016

PRINCESS JELLYFISH by Akiko Higashimura


It just occurred to me as I start writing this review that Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime) is a josei manga that I feel was sort of what The Big Bang Theory would be like if the genders were reverse, and the group of scientist geeks were instead female otakus, while the hot girl next door is a cross-dressing pretty boy and a son of a politician. Basically: IT'S A ZILLION TIMES NERDIER AND MORE AWESOME. That's guaranteed. Spanning for fifteen volumes, this josei manga is incredibly entertaining as it is endearingly eccentric filled with balls-out fun as it both pokes fun and celebrates otaku culture through a female perspective. If Tina Fey was a Japanese otaku, this would be something she would have written, and the lead heroine Tsukumi Kurashita has the kind of social awkwardness and geeky passions that are as oddly charming and sweet as Geek and Sundry founder and gamer Felicia Day's.

When I first encountered this manga, I was so pumped up to get to it but I had to schedule it for this year instead of the last. The wait was more than worth it! I thought it was going to be a more mature version of the Perfect Girl Evolution: The Wallflower series by Tomoko Hayakawa which was my favorite shoujo manga as a teen; I wasn't wrong. I eventually got over PGE since IT WENT ON FOR SO LONG WITHOUT THE SHIPPABLE TWO CHARACTERS OF THE SERIES EVER BECOMING AN ACTUAL FUCKING COUPLE, DAMMIT! At this point in my life, I would trade my collected hard copies of Perfect Girl for copies of Princess Jellyfish instead because the latter is better written and has less slapstick comedy and ship tease.






















The plot revolves around a group of otaku women living in a place called the Amamizukan which is an apartment that prohibits men. They even fancied it to be a nunnery of some sort because these women (who call themselves Amars which means 'nuns') don't interact socially with people who don't share their hobbies and interests that lean on odd fixations of varying degrees. One of these women is the our protagonist Tsukimi Kurashita who looks exactly as the trope of what the token geek girl is supposed to be; average-looking with glasses and who only wears plain sweats as her daily clothing. She lives with fiveother women who all preoccupy themselves with interests that may be perceived too niche. I don't want to give away too much details of their said interests, but they are definitely a wacky bunch, and their quirks are the source of this manga's hilarity and conflict. 

The sixth housemate in particular is a mangaka who never even shows herself in the story, but is more or less the only one who has an actual professional job. But because of social anxiety, this mangaka is confined in her room, and the other women communicate with her by writing a message on a piece of paper and slipping it on her door. The Amamizukan women are also uncomfortable interacting with people who are 'fashionable' and 'beautiful' while also avoiding formal work, wasting their allowance from parents on their weird preoccupations.





Tsukumi's own fixation is that of the many species of jellyfish which she also draws almost daily. She meets a very pretty girl one night who helped her buy a jellyfish she later named Clara. This pretty girl just inserts herself into Tsukumi's apartment and her life--but not before the shocking revelation that she is a he and a certain politician and his mistress' youngest son named Kuranosuke Koibuchi. He identifies as a straight man who is just very, very, very fond of women's fashion, and dresses up as one because it has something to do with his abandonment issues with his mother. Tsukumi was at first adamant not to be involved with him since her apartment prohibits men after all. 

That being said, these two unlikely friends certainly clicked especially when Kuranosuke later discovers Tsukumi's hidden talents in making unique and enthralling dresses via use of her jellyfish designs. Soon, Kuranosuke involves everyone, the Amars, to help him and Tsukumi make dresses for his friends at a theatre troupe. What started as a spur-in-the-moment group activity slowly and surely turned into an aspiring clothing line/empire which Kuronosuke hopes to bring into fruition with Tsukumi as the designer and him as the model while the rest of the Amars women as the seamstresses. 

Much of the manga's plot shows the process of how Kuronosuke and Tsukimi struggle to sew the high-fashion dresses and advertise them to potential clients, all the while to earn enough money to buy their apartment back which is under redevelopment; a project approved by Kuronusuke's own father as facilitated by her older half-brother Shu. Mangaka Higashimura knows her fashion stuff to a fascinating tee, and we get chapter breaks about her daily life as a mangaka and fashion trend lover as she illustrates tales of her adventures through amusing anecdotes. She is absolute gem when she does this!










Princess Jellyfish's cast is amazing! They are all memorable characters with depth and humor. From the kimono-wearing Chieko who collects dolls, Mayaya who is an avid history buff obsessed with Records of Three Kingdoms and often quotes and reenacts the text, Banba with her natural afro, predilection to trains and food quality, and to Jiji who is sexually attracted to older men and anything associated with classic and antique things. Tsukimi is also the adorkable introvert who is really quite pretty whenever she is forced to wear make-up and nice clothes (even Mayaya who actually is transformed into a model for their spontaneous clothing line fashion shows even though she's quite stressed about it whenever it happens). I really adored these characters because, hey, I'm one of them. I obsess about my geekeries and I'm very passionate about them to the point that I'd rather lock myself up and just read books, watch shows and write stories all day long. 

Kuronosuke and Tsukumi are definitely great in their leading roles and both have unresolved issues with their mothers. Kuronosuke's mom had to give him up and send him away to live in Japan, and his love for women's clothing is just an extension of his mother's own interest in fashion. Meanwhile, Tsukumi's mother passed away and left her only with memories of their time at the aquarium where she fell in love withthe jellyfish for the first time. Both of them are so lonely but are creative in their own ways. Kuronosuke is very intriguing as a crossdresser because he has no shame about it even if he is still a heterosexual man. Tsukumi meanwhile definitely lacked confidence but through Kuronosuke's vision and fiery ambitions, her potentials as a designer were brought out. Kuronosuke was also able to bring out the other Amars women from their shells by giving them the opportunities to do professional work, inspiring them to dedicate themselves to something that could be both enjoyable and profitable all at once. Kuronosuke became a positive force for these other women. 




The Amars women don't even care about fashion or doing actual work but thanks to Kuronosuke always driving them to be better, and Tsukumi's amazing talent, they all start to achieve things together as a unit. Tsukimi herself immerses herself in her creativity too, as inspired by Kuronosuke who just looks so damn good in the jellyfish dresses Tsukumi makes. I cannot for the life of me fathom that a boy could truly be mistaken for a woman.









































The great thing about this series is that the romance is more or less a subplot that isn't always utilized to move the story forward. The author herself seemed to be very fond of fashion trends and its industry both local to her homeland Japan and foreign, and that's what this manga covers eighty percent of the time especially starting from volume 6. 

That being said, the romantic subplot was well-written enough to hold interest especially since it involves a love triangle between Tsukumi and the brother, Kuronusuke and Shu. His older half-brother is a 30-year old aspiring politician who also happened to be a virgin. He is conservative yet surprisingly sweet, romantic and thoughtful. He initially doesn't recognize Tsukumi without her make-up which made me think he only liked her because of physical reasons but then when he did find out what Tsukimi normally looks like, he still found her alluring and it's so funny how much he tried to pursue and court her which often lead to disastrous misunderstandings. Tsukimi definitely likes him back but is so burdened with low self-esteem and experience that she hardly shows her reciprocation; at least until Kuronosuke and Shu's personal driver/friend/ladies' man push them both forward to admit that they have feelings for one another and would like to be in a relationship.

Kuronosuke's unrequited side of things is definitely complicated. For one thing, he was more driven to pursue a career in fashion, and he only wants what is best for both his brother and Tsukimi. It took him some time to admit that he even likes Tsukumi and it was probably too late since it was also around the same time Tsukimi realized she has feelings for Shu. I personally ship her and Shu a lot even if Kurosuke an Tsukimi have more interactions. The conclusion to this romantic subplot has yet to be seen, considering this manga is still ongoing and had just released its 16th volume which I have yet to read. Tsukimi still has plenty of stuff to accomplish, and her relationship with both brothers has a lot of room to grow from.

Princess Jellyfish is not really a coming-of-age story about self-acceptance but more about the pressures and choices that women like Tsukimi have to face every day just because society deemed their hobbies and interests as abnormal or inappropriate. The Amars women are actually comfortable with their lifestyle and only avoid other people because such people have no appeal to them whether for conversation or a long-term relationship. The portrayal and representation of gender fluidity in Kuronosuke's character were also commendable. Higashimura shows great understanding and acceptance for people who cross-dress or have unusual hobbies, whether male or female, and she demonstrates it deftly and sincerely in her writing of this cast. Higashimura also respects the Amars women enough to showcase their quirks as something that don't necessarily have to exist for comedic effect. 

I could tell as a reader that she is neither pandering nor cynical about how she portrays both the otaku and the fashionable people, considering that she's a combination of both worlds in real life, going by her autobiographical chapter breaks. This is definitely the manga's selling point. It doesn't try too hard to be edgy and charming, but rather it oozes with both qualities in earnest amounts because Higashimura speaks from the heart as someone who is passionate about her interests and is not afraid for the world to know just how much and how far she would go pursuing them.

My enjoyment of Princess Jellyfish isn't over yet! The manga is still ongoing after all, and there is both an anime series and a live-action film that I could watch, and I'm certainly looking forward to doing that soon enough! In a nutshell, Akiko Higashimura's Princess Jellyfish has my seal of approval!







RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Friday, July 8, 2016

Southern Reach Trilogy: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer


This was a polarizing installment of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and for very valid reasons. I heard such praises about this trilogy for a while, and I was very happy buying the complete series in one swoop last year. When I finally decided to start reading, I was incredibly intrigued by the atmosphere and premise of it especially with the first book Annihilation which definitely gave me some Lost-esque vibes. That being said, this next book Authority was nothing like its predecessor. There is a disparity between their length, content, tone, and overall approach to the narrative. 

Annihilation introduced us to a first-person perspective from the character of a biologist whose name was purposefully withheld. She was a member of the four-women twelfth expedition sent to the pristine wilderness of mystery known only as Area X. That first book focused on her insights about the inexplicable events happening in that remote location, as well as memories and recollections about her past with a husband who was a previous member of the eleventh expedition. The biologist had always been a loner and I rooted for her survival and remained quite invested in her personal story because something about her reminded me of my own solitude, and hers was even more heightened by the fact that she's trapped in a land that may or may not be sentient--or actively trying to either kill her, or change her into something else. With roughly only 200+ pages, the suspense was compact and precise in Annihilation. It had me glued right to the very end even if it was an ambiguous resolution.

A few people whose reviews I follow on Goodreads don't even like the first book, and therefore had no plans to go through the trilogy altogether. I was not like them. I had enjoyed Annihilation a lot because to me it was a creepy, unforgettable and well-written science fiction tale that was at times very worrying and intense; there are moments in that book I did feel essentially lost and abandoned much like its POV narrator. When I got to Authority, however, the abrupt tonal shift was rather disruptive, but I was an optimist so I didn't mind and tried my best to keep up. It was actually easy, most notably because the second installment started with a snail's pace and with double the length of its predecessor.

The biologist from the first book was still here but she was now a secondary character in hindsight, and the POV is switched to the third-person limited to the thoughts and actions of a man named John Rodriguez who fancies himself with the nickname 'Control'. He was a former counterintelligence operative and he was feeling rather out-of-place in his new work environment as the new Director for the Southern Reach Facility which is the one in charge of trying to untangle the secrets and mysteries of Area X. Much like with Annihilation, readers get to follow the story through a character's POV but while the biologist's accounts demonstrate a sense of urgency and danger where she has to be constantly on guard, the second book tried to capture that same thing--only that it just didn't work.

This wasn't a bad book; it couldn't be considering what the critics and fans have been saying about it. However, the parts that make up the sum do leave a lot to be desired. The execution of the narrative is faulty, riddled with pages upon pages of exposition concerning office politics between John "Control" Rodriguez and the assistant director Grace. Other times it meanders on small revelations regarding how Southern Reach operates and facilitates, and certain facts about the circumstances surrounding the expeditions to Area X were presented. In doing so, however, I feel as if it robbed some of Annihilation's impact to me as a reader. When all is said and done, I think I much rather prefer the not-knowing at this point because the first book was something I thoroughly got immersed in. In this book, I got to find out that there have already been more than 12 expeditions, and that the director of SR herself was the psychologist from the first book--and she may even know the lighthouse keeper from that mystery photo that the biologist found. 

At first, finding out these things were great because at least they answered the questions I may have had after finishing Annihilation. And yet as soon as I finished this book and got to go over my overall experience about reading it--those revelations seem hollow to me now. As much as Authority strived to illuminate the lies and conspiracies; about what was going on behind the scenes concerning the Southern Reach and its purpose of study with Area X, it also made me realize that whatever is happening behind the scenes WASN'T WORTH KNOWING. Ultimately, it was pretty bland and confusing! The author seemed to purposefully kept it just as ambiguous as the last time only that it's something he can only successfully pull off once in the first installment. In this book, the trick felt entirely cheap. I really can't help but feel this was all a strategy to make the reader want to read the next book, not really to satisfy the curiosity but more so to appease whatever lingering irritation he or she may have formed after being given such a half-baked resolution.

That's exactly how I felt after finishing Authority. I read reviews about this being a slow-burning spy story, and I conditioned myself for that and I was pretty interested about it being just that. However, I seemed to have overestimated my own expectations because as soon as I was somewhere around the two-hundred seventy-plus pages, I ended up staring blankly at a paragraph I was reading going, "Wait, so that happened because of this? And this other thing is now about to happen because of that other thing--and what were those again exactly? Is that this?" I swear that I myself can't even follow my train of thought as I read. It became a challenging mental feat to demystify myself and stay on track, and not even in the fun way that I usually like when I read literature.

As for the character I'm supposed to care about, the POV character of Control started personable enough but as soon as he started believing he was being hypnotized/brainwashed all this time, he becomes even more of an unreliable narrator. And this epiphany doesn't even happen until two-hundred plus pages! That means I endured reading through a supposedly slow-burning espionage tale whose direction seemed rather pointless especially with that pay-off at the end that happened without the kind of build-up that was supposed to act as its foundation and prepare the reader for it in some way. There was no said build-up leading to that moment, and even if there was, the author wrote far too many expositions and tons of passages of Control just reminiscing or analyzing his life and choices that I must have missed it. Looking back at all of this now, I barely remember what happened except the last sixty pages or so where finally, FINALLY some action does take place.

I don't even trust myself to rate this book objectively, but I'm giving it a six out of ten anyway because I still like the plot of this trilogy, and those action-oriented pages at the end did get me excited for a while. That being said, Authority as the second installment of the series did not live up to the established atmosphere and enigma that Annihilation was able to do, and something that kept me on my toes. I also wished this prequel was shorter and more succinct. Do I really have to know so much detail about his office politics and findings in the facility when it was revealed later on that his memories may have been implanted, and that he was never completely in control of his mental faculties since this book started? I don't even know what else to say anymore. I'm just thoroughly disappointed, but since I made a commitment to finish the trilogy, I'll be reading the last installment Acceptance. Hopefully, this series will wrap up better than its middle arc.


RECOMMENDED FOR POSTERITY: 6/10

Friday, July 1, 2016

FRUITS BASKET by Natsuki Takaya (Volumes 1-12) Part I


It was last year when I realized that I am so done with shoujo manga stories (especially in a school setting). It wasn't as if it was a constant presence in my life growing up or anything, but after a while I realized that its formulaic sweetness and often predictable climactic moments just doesn't appeal to me anymore. In fact, there are only three shoujo manga stories I was really into and two of them were adapted to anime which I preferred (Ouran Kouko Hostabu and Kimi ni Todoke), and one was a manga series I followed and read because I related to the heroine (Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge). 

But last year I read a fairly recent and popular one alongside a josei manga (Sakamichi no Apollon, baby!). I even forgot its title and NO, I'm not even going to bother googling it. The fact on the matter is that I'm a twenty-six year old woman and, as much as my nerdy inclinations make it seem like I'm not an adult functioning in my fullest capacity, there are just some stories about teenage relationships that don't click with me at this point in my life. I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, true, but the ones that get to me were usually the ones I've come across back when I was also a teenager on the verge of self-discovery and sexuality. So reading a shoujo manga series now at my age presented problems.

That's never to say the shoujo romance genre isn't producing good stuff anymore. In fact, there are two series right now which I adore, but were more or less a parody of the genre (Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun), or a change in perspective where the male love interest is the protagonist (Ore Monogatari). Those two for me were exceptions. Others are the same formula of girl-meets-boy (girl is bland/clumsy/pure-hearted while boy is popular/bad-boy/pretty-boy/emotionally closed-off) and the entire volumes would stretch out their will-they-won't-they as they get into shenanigans with their oddball friends and the run-in-the-mill bully, etc. You know, that formula. Anyway, enough about me and let's talk about Fruits Basket.


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Much like any shoujo romance in a school setting, Fruits Basket has those same elements that adhere to its genre's conventions. If you've been reading manga long enough, you'd catch my drift. The reason I chose to read this series was because it was commercially successful and received rave reviews and praises for its story and characterizations of its ensemble cast. It ran for twenty-three volumes, though, and since I have other material to read and review for this month of July, I have to cut down to finishing only twelve of them. I'm probably going to pick up this series again...next year. I have plenty of things scheduled for 2016 and this wasn't that much of a priority. So please keep in mind that my official review for this series is based on the first 12 volumes and only those.

Let's keep it simple: I thoroughly recommend this series. If you're a teen looking for something sweet, earnest and heartbreaking, then Fruits Basket fits the criteria to the tee. If you're my age, and you could look past genre conventions or don't even have my personal bias, then this manga will tug at your heart-strings as well. Let me break it down for you:



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THE STORY


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Tohru Honda is your average nice girl whose mother just passed away so she had to live on her own. She became neighbors with a mysterious family who has a dark secret they keep under wraps. This family belonged to the Souma clan whose members were apparently cursed to transform into the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac every time someone of the opposite sex hugs them. It's a pretty quirky premise that could be potentially wacky and entertainingly disastrous which was why you will never see coming the underlying poignancy and emotionally stirring revelations that Fruits Basket impressively tackles. 

The story is at its most heartfelt whenever it focuses on a character's struggle with self-love, pursuit of acceptance from his or her peers, and courage to stand up for themselves in the face of diversity. As much as there are moments in the volumes that annoy me because it still has those shoujo romance antics that I find grating by now, Fruits Basket can be an immense tear-jerker too. I find that it's when I underestimate the series that it finds a way to shine. Sure, a few volumes out of the twelves ones I read made me skim the pages a bit, but there were four or six of them that were solid in both content and substance. 

Those were the volumes that got high ratings either because they touched upon a delicate topic and handled with maturity, or they focused on a particularly favorite character and made them evolve as better people. This is definitely one shoujo manga series that may not be always interesting but when it drives home a point, that resonates with a reader, even with someone who can be a tad cynical about PG-13 romances. 

Hey, I told you I don't like this genre anymore, so the fact that I'm singing praises for a manga that is beholden to said grating genre should say something!




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THE CHARACTERS


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In the course of the series, Tohru Honda gets introduced to each new relative from the Souma clan, all the while there are three core male characters she interacts with on a daily basis after she moved in with them. They're the dog, mouse and cat signs of the zodiac: Shigure, Yuki and Kyo respectively. The last two were the ones she has a love triangle with. Tohru is also surrounded by two close female friends whose backstories will be revealed as the manga progresses. Meanwhile, each chapter would feature a new relative from the Souma clan who were also cursed, and their characters and conflicts will be then explored if not resolved just a little through their key interactions with the lead heroine Tohru. 

In a sense, there is definitely an established formula to how the stories is framed and patterned. It could get a little worn-out in some chapters; even Tohru with her bleeding heart and good intentions can be such a cliché (if not altogether bland), and the pacing and main conflict with the antagonist were both drawn out since that's just how the genre works.

However, they say that the strength of an ensemble cast can make or break the plot of a book or show, and Fruits Basket was able to accomplish the former because each secondary character introduced is well-developed with core weaknesses, issues and surprising warmth and humanity. These characters have been cursed to live with shameful secret of transforming into animals, and while the manga does play up on the cuteness factor of those transformations, the trauma and alienation that it entails with were still addressed and explored.

I believe what made Fruits Basket such an awesome series and why it got such an acclaimed reception is the way the mangaka lovingly crafted each character that instantly makes them personable, sympathetic and gosh-darn endearing. The manga series has 23 volumes, so it does take its time weaving plots and progressing through meaningful climactic moments, but the slow-burn quality of the journey has fantastic moments of character insights in between that more than makes up for whatever flaws its narrative has. This is still a slice-of-life manga after all. I can't count all the ways so many moments between or among characters have made me tear up, especially when the mangaka delivers emotionally resonant themes about family politic, friendships, self-acceptance and bereavement. 

Tohru's role as the protagonist does make it seem like she's often standing still, serving more as an anchor or as someone who merely reacts with a new character in a way that makes it accessible to readers. That being said, she eventually gets some depth and character development later on. Kyo and Yuuki, the lead males, also grow and evolve alongside her. I have a strong preference over the tortured and hot-headed Kyo as her love interest than Yuuki, mostly because I like getting to know Kyo better, and Yuuki just came off flat to me at times (but he's beginning to change too, and that's great).

This is my ship, yo!


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FAVORITE QUOTES


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In a nutshell, Fruits Basket is a splendid shoujo manga series that almost breaks the formula every now and then, starring a beautiful and relatable ensemble cast you will easily love, and tackles real-life issues in an earnest way that doesn't pander to the readers, or diminish said issues' seriousness by belittling their message.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10