Saturday, May 23, 2015

Some Portraits

I've been practicing in the past several months. Here are some pencil sketches of portrait exercises my younger sister provided me. She's in a special program for the arts in high school, an opportunity I was never given when I was younger. Ever the opportunist, I thought this might be a good time to start with the basics.

Note: I copied the portraits from my sister's portfolio. We both aren't the original artists. Unfortunately we do not have the name of the author of the workbook.

A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

The events here in A Dance With Dragons, the fifth installment of A Song of Ice and Fire series, run parallel to A Feast for Crows.  Readers can follow Jon, Tyrion, Daenerys, Davos, and Brandon once again after the events in A Clash of Kings. Halfway through this book, some of the characters from A Feast for Crows reappear indicating that the split of narratives from two locations have merged.

Tyrion Lannister is a renegade fleeing King's Landing and the wrath of his sister. While Jon Snow, the new lord commander of the Night's Watch, has to deal with brothers constantly questioning his decisions, a demanding Stannis Baratheon, the Wildlings they have defeated, and the looming threat beyond the Wall. Daenerys is torn between her desire to go home and her duty to the people she freed. Her rule in Meereen is challenged and rumors of forces gathering to oust her only made her position vulnerable. What's more, she seems to have lost control of her dragons. Davos on the other hand needs to find allies for Stannis in White Harbor. He has nothing to offer but he has to try anyway. Meanwhile, Bran and company are still searching for the three-eyed crow.

Nothing has changed much in the narrative and style except a slight tendency for most characters to spend more time brooding than usual which I also noticed in A Feast for Crows. The book was narrated from the point of view of sixteen characters, excluding the prologue and epilogue. The new POVs include Melisandre, a man first referred to as The Lost Lord, and Barristan Selmy. A few new characters are introduced, some of whom surprised me and just made the scramble for the throne more exciting.

I think the appeal of the series is its characters. If you look more closely, most of the events (particularly warring factions fighting for the Iron Throne) have similarities in history. Moreover, the series has not offered anything new in terms of magic system, fight scenes, creatures and worldbuilding, but it's revolutionary in how it has portrayed different characters. The television series has helped complement the inadequate fight scenes in the books. There's a tendency to jump to events after the fights. Clever but it borders on laziness. Some fans might hate me for saying this but everything else in the series is cliche, predictable, and even boring because it's been done before. Except for the characters.

I'm also glad I didn't start reading the series years ago. The waiting would have been frustrating (it's good that some fans can refresh their memory by watching the TV series though). So, is it worth the wait? If the rest of the series do not seem exciting, I think the characters alone are worth the wait.

The book series might seem intimidating to people who are not into high fantasy (just look at the thick volumes!) but it has opened a door to the genre. The narrative is lengthy but not complicated. There are a lot of characters to remember but the series does not have convoluted plots and too many missing pieces that you're not sure if they matter in the story or not. 

Rating: 7 out of 10

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Set a thousand years after the the now tyrant Lord Ruler saved the world, Mistborn introduces a dark dystopian world where the Final Empire rules unchallenged, the society clearly delineated by the classes of the nobility and the skaa, and where ash covers everything.

This immortal Lord Ruler has managed to repel uprisings from the oppressed skaa for so long that everyone thinks he cannot be overthrown. But conspiracies of another uprising are being planned somewhere. The new rebellion found an unlikely hero in a thief gang leader and an escaped prisoner sent by the Lord Ruler himself to a notorious prison camp. Kelsier believes that the uprising will succeed this time, especially after meeting another Mistborn like himself, the street urchin Vin. But it will take more than two Mistborn and an experienced thief crew to pull it off. Not only do they have to face an overwhelming opposition in the Lord Ruler's minions, but they also need the help of disheartened skaa to succeed.

The first time I read the book, I already felt that the challenged posed to Kelsier and Vin were too great and how the author would handle the story will make or break the novel for me. I guess that's what made Mistborn so intriguing. The mood was so oppressive, dark and hopeless that it was almost unbelievable. It was so impossible that that alone would compel you to see what they would try to do to even the odds. I was apprehensive at how the author would make the characters find a solution such problem but I think handled it well without ruining the reading experience. 

The story is told from the point of view of three different characters, Kelsier, Vin and another hinted as the hero. The characters are cliche but not the type you'd forget after you finish the book. Kelsier is the charismatic leader with great skills but has a dark past involving a woman; while Vin is the cold, skilled protege whose weakness might also be love.

The magic, Allomancy, is perhaps the most interesting part besides the worldbuilding. Allomancy is well-thought out although I see some improbabilities in ecology in his worldbuilding.

Overall, the book is okay for a first installment in a series. It's good enough to keep me interested in reading the rest of the series. I guess I was turned off by the obvious good versus evil theme that was clear from the start. Its best features are Allomancy, the well-written fight scenes, and the memorable characters.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Egyptians by Cyril Aldred (Third Edition)

There have been several publications of studies of Egypt but none as organized as The Egyptians by Cyril Aldred. The third edition also has several helpful additions and revisions such as a list of kings of Egypt.

The book includes a survey of Egypt's geography and natural resources, the archaeological and anthropological sites, and an introduction of its art, architecture, science, literature and religion.

The chapters on prehistory and history are in chronological order and there are plenty of illustrations and photos as well. Students and enthusiasts of Egyptian history will find the book informative and detailed but still reader-friendly. Those who are looking for an in-depth study of Egyptian religion or mythology however might find this book lacking. Most of the details are on architecture and art, and some explanation on how the excavations and studies have pieced together Egypt's history.

I recommend the book to those already familiar with some studies of Egypt (or history, anthropology/archaeology in general) as the text could be too academic for some casual readers.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

In this first installment of The Kingkiller Chronicle, the protagonist Kvothe is introduced. Kvothe's past adventures are rumored to have led to the ongoing war. He is currently hiding in a town as the innkeeper Kote with his assistant Bast. The story is divided into two timelines, the present and the past which is narrated by the main character himself to Chronicler. Kvothe met the scribe Chronicler when he saved the latter from an attack of the creatures called Scrael. Kvothe agreed in a later meeting to tell his story.

The novel is recollection of Kvothe's early life,  a refreshing approach to an epic tale of a hero.

The series is not without some cliche. Like most heroes in epic myths, the young Kvothe had a knack for many things usually only adults with vast experience and education are capable of understanding. He also had to undergo severe psychological and physical trauma, a bitter-sweet first encounter at romance, and has a talent for getting into trouble. If you look more closely at him, he's not that different from most heroes. Unlike most heroes however, he wasn't a natural fighter or arcanist or destined to perform some task. Those skills he later became famous for he had to learn over time.

I think one of the novel's appeals is the approach in the storytelling---Kvothe is already a living legend and he is telling the story himself---which adds to the depth with which readers come to know him. The author also has an interesting approach to some typical fantasy creatures like the dragon and its similar forms. His approach to magic isn't unique but neither is it too easy to grasp or too complicated even for first-time readers of fantasy. He also left enough clues and mystery to make the sequel exciting but not to the point that the lack of information becomes frustrating.

Kvothe is easy to like and hard to forget once you're into his story. This debut has enough appeal for both new and hardcore fantasy readers. The Name of the Wind is both familiar and refreshing.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Skip Beat!

Mogami Kyouko works hard to support her childhood friend and romantic interest Fuwa Shoutarou, Fuwa Sho to his fans, and has forsaken her education and personal needs. Sho had earlier asked Kyouko to run away with him to Tokyo so he could pursue a music career instead of inheriting the family business. Kyouko was more than willing to support Sho in his dreams, but one day she overhears Sho complaining about her to his manager. He claims she's a boring and gullible woman; someone he had only used as a willing housekeeper.

Instead of crying, Kyouko vowed to make Sho regret using her and playing with her feelings. Sho responds by telling her the only way he could be defeated is for Kyouko to become a bigger star than him. Thus began Kyouko's entry into the show business. But it seems her path to vengeance won't be easy. Sho's star rival Tsuruga Ren despises Kyouko's reasons for entering showbiz. His treatment on Kyouko will change however when he sees her potential and her hard work. Will Kyouko's determination be enough to make her stint in showbiz successful? And will she regain her self-confidence and find a new hope for love?

Fuwa Sho
Tsuruga Ren carrying an injured Mogami Kyouko
Kotonami Kanae and Kyouko of Love Me section

Skip Beat! is perhaps one of the best 25-episode romance series I've watched. It does not have the usual formula of a shoujo romance. Firstly, the setting is not in a school and the romance angle has unique circumstances. The lead female character has an old love interest she has not fully forgotten and a new love interest that was not developed overnight. That romance was developed over time. Kyouko and one of the male protagonists were not forced in a situation where they have to be constantly in contact with each other like most romance series. Also present is one of the things I have been looking for for a long time is the element of jealousy and rivalry between two males, instead of the usual female rivalry over one guy.

Kyouko herself is an interesting character to follow. She  is neither too smart or too talented or too feisty. Neither is she the typically cute and sweet heroine, but she's resourceful, cunning, and a fighter. Her story is about getting back up and finding her self-respect and worth she had lost because of her devotion to her first love. A few of the supporting cast get their own stories highlighted too, but it's mostly about Kyouko and how she has affected those characters. 

Because of how she solves her problems, there are a lot of funny scenes and surprises in how she handles them. You'd come to like her not because she's pretty, cute or smart, sexy and destined to be great, but because she's a well developed character who's easy to relate to. She can be as depressed or as happy as a real person. Kyouko is intriguing and not typical. In Skip Beat! you follow the story not only because you want to see how Kyouko's love life will develop but how she overcomes her trials.

The ending might not be satisfactory (the manga is ongoing as of this writing), but that only adds to the appeal of the series. If you're tired of usual and predictable story formula and cliche characters of shoujo romances, Skip Beat! is a welcome change even if the anime series was released 6 years ago.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Sunday, May 17, 2015


The captain of the spaceship Aloha Oe, Dandy, and his buddies QT and Meow are on a mission to hunt rare aliens from across the universe. Once they spot one, they bring these aliens to the space alien registration center and they're rewarded for the effort. Unfortunately, the trio are so unlucky and they get into trouble almost every time. 

This 13-episode first installment of the series introduces the easygoing and cool Dandy, the outdated but resourceful robot QT, and the gullible and lazy Meow. Unknown to the trio are the agents of the Gogol empire who are in active pursuit of them. But for a guy like Dandy, disposing of these pursuers is as easy as getting into trouble.

Dandy, Meow and QT

Dandy with the ladies from Boobies

Dr. Gel and Bea talking to Admiral Perry of the Gogol empire

If you're looking for a break from all the serious and mind-numbing series, Dandy is your guy. He's cool, funny, and has a nice pompadour. I love the animation and the humor and how they kept the first season short.

The series is engaging because of the characters and the exaggeration. There's a lot of fanservice, but you won't really mind when you start to get to know Dandy.

The plot seems kinda pointless, but hey, it's supposed to be about fun right?

Rating: 7 out of 10

Tokyo Ghoul √A

Kaneki Ken finally accepted that he is both a ghoul and a human after being kidnapped and tortured in the first season of the series. But even though he stood at the crossroads and has an advantage of being able to understand both sides, it seems it isn't enough. For Kaneki, the only way to gain even greater strength and to protect those who are important to him is to follow a dark path. To do so, he would have to distance himself from those who have helped and accepted him in his painful transition from a human to a ghoul, the people at Anteiku.   

Kaneki transforms
Suzuya Juuzou, Yoshimura, and Shinohara Yukinori
Amon Koutarou and Mado Akira

One of my complaints in the first season are the censored bloody scenes. I don't have problems of the idea of trying to keep the series dark but still classy by minimizing the show of blood, but it was done distastefully. Tokyo Ghoul √A still has a few of such scenes but are done much better. That alone is an improvement. As for the fight scenes in general, these also improved even if there were encounters with unsatisfactory outcomes.

The pace has also slightly changed, probably to complement the change in its lead character's demeanor. Kaneki is more broody and the series has a contemplative and darker mood in general. I welcome this transformation of the lead character (it was one of the good things that happened in the first season) as well as the pace and the character point-of-views in which this sequel has decided to focus. I even liked the animation done in the opening theme.

The supporting cast made a lot of difference in the quality as well. Some complications arose because of the new characters, although admittedly I found some of them to be so cliche. 

The first season tried to be intense, dark, gory but mature but it didn't quite achieve that. Instead it wasn't so different from all the explosive and fast-paced series that has dominated the market for a while now. I think they did a better job in this sequel, regardless of what some viewers think of how the ending was handled.

Kaneki Ken resembled the tragic anti-hero here more than he did in the previous series. The last episode in particular was impressive for me because it showed a mature but broken anti-hero who realized that he had forgotten the only person he should have protected all along; the one who stood by quietly watching him both as human and ghoul.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Mushishi Zoku Shou 2nd Season

Ginko is back in the second installment of Mushishi Zoku Shou and is the third of one of the best supernatural series ever made.

The series has 10 episodes of beautifully animated, though-provoking encounters with the mushi. By now most viewers who have followed Ginko in his stories see a certain pattern in each of the episodes, but there are still some surprises around the corner. No matter how much mushi that mushi masters encounter, there's still a lot to know about them.

One thing I have been looking for are episodes that shed a light on Ginko's past, and probably his fate in the future. But what little we know about Ginko, like the mushi, may be one of the factors that makes the series so exciting to watch. Well, exciting doesn't really fit the pace of Mushishi, but you know what I mean.

If you have been enchanted by Mushishi so far, there's no reason to skip this one.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Kuroshitsuji: Book of Murder

After the incident with Noah's Ark Circus, Ciel Phantomhive's ability to serve the Queen came into question. The Queen's butlers posed that challenge to Ciel and Sebastian. Thus the head of the Phantomhive household decides to host a banquet and invite distinguished guests. 

Ciel was a gracious and polite host and the party was going well until a storm forced the guests to stay at the mansion. The situation worsened when they found a murdered guest. But that was only the start. Once again, Ciel and Sebastian will have to prove their mettle... before someone decides to get rid of one of them.

Arthur, an author and one of the guests

This two-episode special follows events, but is not a direct sequel, of Kuroshitsuji: Book of Circus. If you have been enjoying Ciel and Sebastian's adventures, you should not miss this. Ciel's cunning here is especially noteworthy.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Psycho-pass 2

More than a year after the events between Kogane and Makishima, season two of Psycho-pass follows Tsunemori Akane's stint as inspector at Public Safety Bureau's Criminal Investigation Division. In the last season Akane chose to obey and work with the Sybil System, an omnipresent sensor which monitors the mental state of the people. Akane has gained an understanding of the system which some from the bureau do not fully grasp. Her unconventional ways of apprehending instead of executing criminals with only slightly higher Crime Coefficients has been looked down by some.

Despite Akane's abilities and understanding of how the system works, a new nemesis is working elaborate schemes to challenge Sybil once again. He leaves behind the message "WC?" written in blood. What's more, the man does not register on the Dominators, leaving the inspectors and enforcers at a loss as to what they're supposed to do. This 11-episode series is a direct sequel of the thought-provoking Psycho-pass. Akane faces her biggest challenge yet in a phantom enemy challenging the very existence of the Sybil system.

Tougane Sakuya and Tsunemori Akane

After that disturbing revelation in Psycho-pass, I wondered how they're going to pull off a sequel. Makishima was an effective antagonist so topping him off with a more cunning enemy will make or break the series. I thought Akane already asked all the necessary questions when she faced the Sybil, but there were still some that were brought up in Psycho-pass 2.

If you were scratching your head at all the information in the first season, season two will not disappoint as well. I also thought Akane was going to be a frustrating lead without Kogane at the helm, but she handled the
lead role very well. Admittedly this series is less intense than season one, but it's as though-provoking and disturbing as the first.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun

Chiyo Sakura decides to confess to her crush Umetaro Nozaki, but when she blurted out that she has always been his fan he gives her his autograph. In an attempt to salvage her embarrassment, she adds that she has always wanted to be with him. To which Nozaki responded by asking her over to his house so she can help in his drawings. Sakura discovers that Nozaki writes for a shoujo magazine under the pen name Yumeno Sakiko and is actually famous.

Seizing the opportunity to get even closer to him, Sakura falls even more in love with the manly, kind and talented Nozaki. This encounter also gave Sakura a chance to get to know his friends who serve as inspiration to make characters for his manga. 

Sakura and Nozaki trying out a romantic scene for his manga

From left Wakamatsu Hirotaka, Hori Masayuki, Kashima Yuu, Chiyo Sakura, Umetaro Nozaki, Seo Yuzuki, and Mikoshiba Mikoto

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun is one of the most fun romance series I've watched. Sakura isn't annoying, gullible and timid, instead she's resourceful and persistent but not overly smart or talented, while Nozaki is adorably ignorant and lacks so much experience with girls, but he's dedicated, talented and sensitive despite his manly and intimidating looks. The supporting cast are also fun to watch. Sometimes you tend to forget that this is a romance series because of the humor. I've also picked up a lot of things about Nozaki's work. This is how romance series with so many side characters getting some spotlight should be done. Some side stories of the supporting cast in other series can get tedious sometimes.

The animation isn't bad, the humor is just right, the romance a bit frustrating (wait till you see episode 12), and the characters are cool. It's so fun to watch that 12 episodes seems like a bit of injustice for such a good series.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Ao Haru Ride

Yoshioka Futaba and Tanaka Kou once had a blooming romance in junior high. However Futaba is self-conscious about her image to her fellow girls and one statement Kou overheard one day turned him away from her. Kou and Futaba planned to meet at a summer festival but he never showed up.

Now that Futaba is in high school, she's more determined to change her image so she won't be left out and bullied by girls jealous of the attention she used to get from the boys. But as fate would have it, she meets Tanaka-kun again, who now goes by the name of Mabuchi Kou and tells her he felt the same way years before, but claims it is no longer possible to be lovers. This only adds fuel to her curiosity and soon she feels that the new Kou, cold and cruel, is as attractive as the gentle and timid Kou from years before.

Kou and Futaba in one of their encounters in junior high

Futaba and Kou

Ao Haru Ride is not without similarities to most romance series --- the setting is in a school, the girl is chasing after the boy, the boy has some troubled past he hasn't dealt with yet, the boy is cold but kind while the girl is energetic and persistent. What made it slightly different is the past encounters of the main female and male protagonists. It was made clear that Futaba and Kou were in love years before, although they were not officially a couple. The point of the series therefore is not starting a new, and often fast, romance but to give both a chance to puzzle out the possibility of starting over again.

It is also unusual that the series sometimes switches to the point of view of the male. This 12-episode series has plenty of romantic and heartwarming scenes for the young and young at heart. Some scenes will get you frustrated, while some make you almost convinced that the two will finally admit they still love each other.

The animation is beautiful and some of the supporting cast are interesting but unlike other romance series they will not get a lot of screen time (which is good enough for me). If you're looking for a slightly different romance series, Ao Haru Ride will deliver. Just don't expect a clear ending however (which is to be expected nowadays).

Rating: 8 out of 10

Gugure! Kokkuri-san

Ichimatsu Kohina wanted answers and so she summoned a spirit through the Kokkuri game. When the fox spirit Kokkuri-san did not satisfy her, she sent him away. But seeing her unhealthy lifestyle, Kokkuri-san decided he would haunt Kohina and make meals for her.

Kohina is fond of instant noodles, considers herself a doll, has no friends and doesn't like to do stuff normal little girls do. She has attracted notice from spirits however. Besides Kokkuri-san, the dog spirit Inugami is greatly attached to her and the lazy tanuki spirit Shigaraki adores her. Not only do the trio try to make Kohina's life easier, but they also want to show her that life can be fun.

Ichimatsu Kohina and Kokkuri-san

From left: Tengu, Jimeko-san, Shigaraki, Kokkuri-san, Inugami, and Tama 

This 12-episode series is hilarious. Kohina is an unusual kid and is likable because of her habits. It's also fun to see a fox, a dog, and a raccoon dog take main roles in a series for a change. And because the three have different personalities, they always end up arguing and competing with each other. There are also plenty of funny characters on the side.

The series does not seem to have a overarching plot other than Kokkuri-san's attachment to Kohina because of gratitude. But if you like comedy, supernatural and cute little girls minus the squeaking and cutesy acts, Gugure! Kokkuri-san isn't so bad. The series was made to be fun and it didn't fail at that.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Kamigami no Asobi

In a time when the bonds between gods and humans are weakening, one of the most powerful beings devises a plan to teach young gods the meaning of love and restore that connection.

Kusanagi Yui was born and raised near a Shinto shrine. By all standards she's a normal girl with a normal life. One day on her way home from school, she discovers a sword which transports her to a sanctuary created by Zeus. She is given the task to act as the human representative in Zeus' school to teach young gods from different countries the meaning of love. If they succeed, it will prevent the destruction of the school and release the gods trapped in the realm. But every time there is a complication, the force holding the place together will weaken.

Kusanagi Yui (center) with the gods

Yui is hardworking and persuasive and manages to befriend the young gods with the help of her new friend Melissa, a doll sent to look after her. She meets the Greek gods Apollon, Hades and Dionysus; Japanese gods Takeru and Tsukito; and Norse gods Balder, Loki and Thor. Zeus is assisted by Egyptians Thoth and Anubis.

This 12-episode series based on an otome game begins like most series of the same genre. The female protagonist is forced to deal with several boys and help them in some way, then others try to catch her attention, and ultimately she has to choose from among the boys.

If you have seen series of this type so many times, Kamigami no Asobi might just be the most cliche of them all. Although she has to live with gods, the setting is in a school, the only probable venue where you can gather reluctant characters. Yui is also predictably less worried why she was picked as the human representative and instead is more worried about the unusual task given to her. She spends more time looking after the guys than herself, but in turn the guys fawn over her after being helped by the girl.

Kamigami no Asobi meets expectations when it comes to series based on otome games. Whether that is a good thing depends on one's taste. This was slightly disappointing for me however. As a mythology fan however, it still caught my interest (just don't mind the names) and there is an interesting turn of events near the end.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Cowboy Bebop

Years after the accident at the hysperspace gateway to Earth, most of the humans have moved into the planets and moons in the solar system. Despite advancement in technology, humans haven't lost their habit of preying on each other for survival. These criminals need to be brought to justice but the enforcers are having a hard time. That's where bounty hunters known as Cowboys come into the picture.

Jet, Spike and Faye

The duo of the spaceship Bebop are among these bounty hunters. They are having a hard time apprehending criminals however. Empty stomachs and lack of funds bring Spike Spiegel and Jet Black to various adventures and introduce them to vain but impoverished Faye Valentine, intelligent but troublesome dog Ein, and an elite hacker named  Edward Wong Hau Pepelu Tivrusky IV.

This 26-episode critically acclaimed series isn't just about half-starved desperate companions out for criminals, there is an overarching story involving Spike and his former partner in a syndicate. The other supporting cast also have stories of their own; pasts which will catch up to them eventually.

If you have watched and enjoyed Samurai Champloo, I think you will find some similarities in this series. I enjoyed the humor and the action scenes. The characters are fun and unforgettable, which made the ending even more heartbreaking.

The series might be a bit hard to appreciate if you're not into guns, spaceships and the music, but the characters are something else. If you enjoy the good old fighting scenes and natural humor, Cowboy Bebop is one of the best there is. 

Rating: 8.5 out of 10