… by traveling, reading, writing, anime, manga, and video games.
“Sometimes it is the process of doing that makes things clear. If we don’t start, we never know what could have been. Sometimes the answers we find while searching are better or more creative than anything we could have ever imagined before.”
When I visited Japan several years ago I had a strange encounter. I saw a mysterious creature, a yokai.
It was during a walking tour. My sister and I were climbing up a long set of stairs toward a temple gate. Ahead of us we noticed some Japanese girls taking photos and exclaiming excitedly. What was this about? We climbed faster. In the bushes just off to the side, less than three feet away, we glimpsed a Japanese tanuki.
Some books I love from the moment I start them, others grow on me, so that by the end I love them.
I have four absolutely-perfect-best-ever books, and Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux is one. (I’ll try to talk about the others later.) My love for The Tale of Desperaux began at the very beginning, when the mother mouse declares, “All that work for nothing… It is so sad. It is such a disappointment.” She is a french mouse, and disappointed that her newly born son is alive. Oh my heart. Then she gives her son his name, “Despereaux, for all the sadness, for the many despairs of this place. Now where is my mirror?”
The book only got better from there. It was perfect. It was everything I ever wanted in a story, and more than that – it was everything I never realized I wanted.
I did not know I needed more sasquashes in my life. I was enjoying the book plenty before, but when the sasquashes showed up, then it really got my attention.
I hope its not too much of a spoiler to mention them, because they are kind of a surprise early on, but the sequel has the name Bigfoot in it, so it can’t be too spoilery. There are all kinds of unexpected surprises in this book, in the descriptions, in the characters and the crazy things they get up to.
I tried to explain what the book was about to someone at work today, and it took me a moment to grasp its essence. It’s good, yeah, but what is it about? Well, it’s about a guy who was exiled to another realm and is now returning to our world 25 years later. (It’s our world, but with magic. Sometimes, I believe our world does have a kind of magic.)
Finn is a fish out of water in this modern world, with its fancy cellphones and thin computers and ‘google’ – which he assumes is a children’s game when his niece suggests he ‘google’ something. Poor Finn is two decades behind everyone. Cue some amusing ironic situations. Plus, someone’s trying to send him back into exile.
I only sorta grew up in the 80s -so, I’m just barely kinda familiar with 1980s pop and geek culture – but if I ever needed an expect, then Finn’s got me covered. From Goonies to Star Wars, Star Trek, Prince and Pac-Man, he makes such classic references.
The family dynamics feel real, and I like how the brothers are struggling to relate to each other after all this time, and how their mother’s ghost still lingers around the house. For all the fantasy, and the sasquashes, having the family drama and Finn’s love situation, makes the book easy to relate to.
In the beginning Finn suspects his brother is out to get him, and the big reveal about who the ultimate-arch-enemy is, doesn’t happen until the very very end, which I found frustrating. I wanted Finn to know who his enemy was sooner. It would have been more dramatic. But everything comes together in such a satisfying way at the end, that I was okay with it. Plus, so much fun happened getting to that point. Like when Elvis showed up.
But I won’t say anything more, because I don’t want to spoil that part.
I feel so unproductive, unaccomplished, and very overwhelmed, but in a good way. The distractions are getting to me. (Curse you Korean manhwa.)
The Donut Making Game
I started a new job at a bakery last October, and about two months ago became an actual baker. That was my goal since last summer, after I took off to California and spent June and July figuring out what I wanted with my life. So, I’m pretty proud of getting a job as a baker, even if that means I’m the bottom of the totem – the donut fryer.
OK, let’s begin. Game start.
First, you make the french-style cruller
Then comes the regular cake donuts
And then the old fashioned (and if you finish up fast enough you get a break.)
Around 5:30 am you start on the raised donuts.
What kind? We’re talking bars, rings, fritters, persians, and bismarks. They come glazed, sugared, or frosted – with maple, chocolate, or white buttercream -also bavarian-cream-filled, jelly-filled, or german-chocolate-on-top.
You need to one type of each donut as fast as you can, and then extra maple bars, because everyone loves those maple bars.
The tricky part about this game? The customers, you can never quite guess what the customer will snatch up, or how quickly donuts will disappear off the shelf. (We’re out of maple bars! Already?)
Fry some. Frost some. Glaze some.
This is happening in real time.
Is it intimidating? Yes, but I had an idea how to conquer it. Instead of getting overwhelmed, I treated it like a game. I made myself a strategy guide – one for weekdays and one for weekends (Friday/Saturday/Sunday). Every day I get a little better, a little faster. The bavarian-cream-filled don’t look as pathetic as they used to. The chocolate rings aren’t swimming in chocolate.
I play the donut making game every morning. My shifts start at 3:30 am, and it’s pretty non-stop until about 7:30.
The last two months, I’ve also been living on bakers hours, about 5 hours ahead of everyone. (Or if you want to think about it this way, I’m living in Brazil’s time zone, instead of the mountain time zone.)
On my days off I still wake up around 4 am. What exactly do I do with myself?
Ah, Nodame Cantabile, an anime from 2007 that I first found on-line in 2011 and finally imported the DVD collection from Australia in February 2016. Now I legally own it and can watch it whenever I want. (I also own two of the Japanese DVDs.) This is one of my all-time favorites. As soon as I got it I had to test it out to make sure it worked. (Thank you cheap DVD player for becoming region free.)
I can report, that it is still a fantastic series. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in a quirky- romantic-music anime, except its hard to get a copy and it’s no longer streaming anywhere. Such a shame.
The story follows two college music students, uptight and proud, Shinichi Chiaki and the goofy, yet talented, Megumi Noda, aka Nodame. They happen to be neighbors, attend the same school, both as piano majors, and make a surprising connection playing a Mozart sonato for two pianos. The music is a highlight, so many great classical pieces, and the main characters are amusing, especially how they influence each other over the coarse of the show. There are some dated parts, the show is nearly ten years old, and some annoying characters, but most of that is confined to one or two episodes.
24 episodes on DVD available in English if you import it from Australia. There is a Korean drama version of the story available on hulu called Tomorrow’s Cantabile.
A more recent anime that I’ve fallen hard for is called Erased. It’s a winter 2016 season show, a sci-fi thriller about twenty-nine year old Satoru, who has a unique ability. He calls it Revival, a phenomena where he repeats about 5 minutes, or so, in time. In that short space of time he has the opportunity to prevent something terrible from happening – such as a truck running over a grade schooler, or a someone kidnapping a young child.
Everything changes when his mother is killed, and suddenly he’s framed for the murder.
Luckily, Revival kicks in. However, he ends up back in 1988 when he was ten years old. He has a chance to relive his grade-school life, and try to prevent a terrible series of abductions that is somehow related to his mother’s murder. Poor Satoru has it rough, and I can’t wait to see how the series plays out. The manga it’s based on is finishing up this March, so I suspect the anime will have a complete and proper ending.
It will have a total of 12 episodes, find it on Hulu or Crunchyroll, Funimation. Visit their website.
I recently discovered some manhwa available for free. There’s an app, or you can go to Webtoons.com, which features both amateur and professional comics. The company started in Korea, before going international, and I’ve been reading the popular Korean manhwa. Well, devouring them is more like it.
Nobelesse by Jeho Son, and Kwangsu Lee
There is an anime version on crunchyroll. It’s a short but decent introduction to the characters and the world.
But what about the story? Nobelesse is about a vampire attending high school in South Korea. He is the nobelesse, the most noble of noble vampires.
This is all action, with a bit of comedy. It features ridiculously overpowered vampires, modified humans and innocent teens who have no idea who their new classmate really is. This is fluff, action fluff: enemies become allies, buildings explode, powers collide, one of the characters is named Frankenstein, but (gasp) it actually works with his backstory. The main character Rai says very little, and drinks a lot of tea and eats ramen all the time, but he’s not so bad. My favorite chapters are the ones where Rai walks into a room of people who have never met him before, and they all gasp because of how utterly gorgeous he is. Their reactions are hilarious. Read chapter 201. I love it.
Winter Woods is a contemporary fantasy with a bit of romance. This one is more focused on character drama than action.
Winter was created hundreds of years ago by an Alchemist, and doesn’t have emotions, or a heart that works properly. He doesn’t know how to be human. The experiment begins when he is dropped off with a young woman named Jane and begins living with her and experiencing the world.
Slowly we meet the occupants of Jane’s apartment building. One man named Zoe is not who he seems, but someone who kills people for a living. Zoe also has a surprising connection to Winter – he was created by the same Alchemist, and suffers from the same lack of heart. However, Zoe once rescued a blind girl from prostitution. Their “love” stands in stark contrast to the “love” blooming between Winter and Jane.
The story unfolds piece by piece, some chapters devoted to Winter, and some to the other characters, like the blind girl.
There is not an excess of words in this story (except one which features Jane’s story. She’s a struggling unpublished writer.) It’s stunning how the blind girl is drawn, and how the comic shows visually how she perceives the world as only sound. Everyone here struggles. Winter tries to to understand things like kissing and grapples with emotions like sadness and despair, and the scientists meanwhile continue to observe. As a reader, we’re kind of like those scientists peering into the intimate lives of these broken, yet resilient humans.
How can I even explain this one? It’s a video-game fantasy, but it’s set in a secondary world and the characters don’t even know they live in a video-game world. No, that’s no good.
Tower of God is a character driven story about a young boy named Bam who just wants to be reunited with the girl he cares most about. Rachel visited him when he was all alone in darkness, when he knew nothing. She taught him how to speak and about the world. Then she left to climb the tower.
In order to find her, Bam must climb the Tower, but he was not chosen. He is an Irregular, talented and strong, and there are powerful people who want to use him for their own means. Will he be a pawn in their game? What awaits poor young Bam in the Tower? Friendship? Hope? Or betrayal and despair?
The story follows Bam’s journey floor by floor up the Tower. The art is rough in the beginning, but improves. The world is vaguely familiar with its video game elements: ranks are given to certain people, they have a “pocket”, weapons can be put away inside the pocket, and each floor has tests and games in order to get to the next one. Each floor is like a separate world, a different dimension with different creatures and rules.
The characters make the story vibrant. They are flawed, complex people. Each with their own desires and struggles. A fake Princess seeks revenge, a girl wants to see the stars at the top of the tower, a giant bipedal crocodile wants to hunt “turtles”. (Did I mention the other races? There are more than just humans in this world. There are lizard-girls and bunny-eared creatures and bunny-girls, horned people, bee-people and whatever alien-like creation the creators want to draw. Gender can also be a bit confusing, but that might be due to poor artwork designs in some of the early chapters. Don’t let that stop you.)
This story is utterly compelling. Addictive. The readers are passionate, and that excitement and energy is very contagious.
What I find most refreshing about the manhwa? They’re missing a lot of the Japanese cliches and tropes that fill so many light-novels and manga.
Some words of caution if you’re interested in these. The translations are sometimes iffy, and the art in the beginning of the really long running series is rough, but that does improve. They are not short series either. Chapters take me about 6 minutes to read, and there are hundreds available right now. Thank god.
If I find other good ones, maybe I’ll let you know. Such dangerous distractions. I should have put a disclaimer somewhere.*
* Warning: the above anime and manhwa may distract you from doing anything productive, such as dishes, other housework, like ironing or putting away laundry, writing, eating a proper lunch, or going outside.
This calls for a celebration. I finished my reading goal on goodreads! I somehow managed to sneak in one last book yesterday and that means . . . I have a total of 1000 books in my READ shelf!
I’m making a bit of fuss over nothing. There were no fireworks this morning. No CONGRATULATIONS. Nothing exciting happened when I input the latest book. I’ve certain read over 1000 books, but I didn’t always keep a record when I was younger.
Book number 1000 was A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn.
It surprised me by being quite ordinary. I kept expecting action and excitement and romance, but the book kept sliding down a different path. It was more about knowing yourself and your place in the world. For Marni, a princess who has a rather tragic background story – that world is one of magic. Of a forest that moves, that is full of strange laughter and tiny creatures, and, of course, there is a dragon.
This year I encountered five very different dragon worlds. Most of them did not come out this year, but this is when I discovered them.
I’m going to list them below and countdown to my favorite.
5 Best YA novels with dragons that I read in 2015
5. A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn
There is only one dragon is this book. He is something made of myth and story. “There is no familiarity here, no urge to reach out and stroke his razor scales. . . . Yes, there is his size, and his teeth, and his claws, but he is beautiful, pure, and I near wish he would eat me up . . .”
The language throughout Hahn’s book is stunning, and best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Don’t look for action here, but heart. Mostly confusions of the heart. Whether Marni is among humans, or inside the magic, nothing is ever simple.
4. Dragon’s Keep by Janet Lee Carey
The dragons on Wilde Island are predators.
“The dragon’s tongue lashed out like a devil’s whip. He lowered his head, saying ‘Sweet morsel.’ Dragons know many human languages, being sharp-witted and slit-tongued so the words did not surprise me.”
They are deadly monsters who hunt humans. Although the humans have their dragonslayers, they also have a memorial dragonstone to list all the victims the dragon has taken. It’s a very medieval world, and Carey captures that with all its superstitions and dangers.
The princess Rosalind has a strange curse. She was born with a scaly blue-green dragon’s claw, instead of one finger. This “cursed” deformity brings her a surprising connection to the dragons.
This is a story of surviving.
3. The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
A classic story of dragons that exist at the edge of the world.
The Farthest Shore is the third book in the Earthsea Cycle. It is a slow read too, but it builds as only Le Guin can do it. The Archmage Sparrowhawk and young Arren are on a quest, searching for answers. Why is magic fading from the world? This is not really a YA book, but it’s a coming of age story and masterful written.
The dragons are immortal and wild, both dangerous creatures and irresistibly fascinating.
2. Seraphina and the companion tale: Shadow Scale by Rachael Hartman
I highly recommend Seraphina. It delighted me in so many ways. The dragons especially. It was the best book I read last year. The companion tale Shadow Scale came out this year. It wraps up some loose ends, and explores more of the world, but just wasn’t quite as good as the first. The ending felt a little too much like a deus ex machina.
The dragons in Seraphina are numerous, and they have a human form known as saarantari. Dragons and humans in this world have formed a tenuous peace between each other. No longer trying to kill and destroy, but to learn and communicate. Harder than it sounds. The dragons here are not emotional creatures, like humans are, but rather they are scientific, rational and logical. Mostly. When they take human form they can experience emotions, but they are still dragon.
“I was eleven years old. Orma had been teaching me meditations for months. . . He thrust a mug of water under my nose. I grasped it shakily and drank. I wasn’t thirsty, but any trace of kindness …. was a thing to encourage.
‘Report, Seraphina,’ he said, straightening himself and pushing up his spectacles. His voice held neither warmth nor impatience.
I shifted on the hard floor. Providing me with a cushion would have required more empathy than a dragon – even in human form – could muster.”
A more traditional fantasy, but so unexpected, from the philosophical discussions, the strange inner world Seraphina keeps in her mind and the humanness of dragons, the dragoness of humans.
1. The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde
Ah yes, if you haven’t discovered Jasper Fforde then you have to try him. I cannot repeat this enough. His newest series is YA, although I could argue about that, but at least it has all the classic wackiness of Jasper Fforde novel. Instead of classical literature, or nurse tales or aliens – this time the world is all magic. Dragons. Quarkbeasts. Big magic. Little magic. I don’t know how this book doesn’t explode from all the humor and zaniness inside it.
Jennifer Strange is an orphan. There are plenty of orphans around since the Troll wars. Jennifer manages Kazam Mystical Arts, even though she is only fifteen, and as she explains, “Working with those versed in Mystical Arts was sometimes like trying to knit with wet spaghetti; just when you thought you’d gotten somewhere, it all came to pieces in your hands.”
There is only one dragon in this book and one dragonslayer. One dragon left in all the world, and the dragonlands are a highly valued property. Until the dragon dies no one can get their hands on it. Also, magic is dying out in the world. Jennifer’s boss the great Zambini has disappeared and it’s up to Jennifer to sort things out. Don’t worry. Even if she can’t use magic, she has a quarkbeast and the magicians at Kazam may be unusual and mostly old retirees, and, even if things get crazy, it will always be entertaining.
Currently Reading: The gaslight effect: how to spot and survive the hidden manipulations other people use to control your life by Dr Robin Stern
Current distraction: Playing Xenoblade Chronicles X