Saturday, 25 May 2013

Princess Ai: A Whimsical Autobiographical Manga of a Rockstar

A Review By: Amelia

A diva torn from chaos. A savior doomed to love. Take an amazing journey with a mysterious young woman searching for identity and salvation in this world and beyond. She must piece together clues about who she is but the forces of chaos are closing in around her and her ceaseless love may not be enough to protect her.

So begins Princess Ai, a three volume series of mangas about a young, beautiful, alien girl name Ai who has been mysteriously transported to Tokyo. She has no memory of her past and the only clue to help her is a heart-shaped box. While trying to sort out her muddled memories and blend into modern Japan, Ai makes her living as a rock star (as her voice is hypnotically beautiful) and falls in love with a mortal man named Kent. As the story progresses Ai is pursued by gun-toting talent agents, demons seeking to take control of her homeland, and things only get stranger when she sprouts a pair of small pink wings!

Princess Ai was co-created by four people: Ai Yazawa, Misaho Kujiradou (who wrote most of and illustrated all three volumes), DJ Milky, and (believe it or not) Courtney Love. Yup, that Courtney Love–musician, grunge-girl extraordinaire, and widow of Kurt Cobain. Hard to believe right? What could Courtney Love possibly contribute? Well, more than you’d think. The main characters are actually based on Courtney and her late husband Kurt Cobain. And although Courtney love may not be from another world, Ai’s rockstar life is a vague, whimsical autobiography based off of her own life.

The characters followed most throughout the three volumes are Ai and her mortal love interest Kent. Ai is beautiful and talented, Kent is beautiful and talented. They seem to be meant for each other! At first, they seem a little flat as characters but they are surprisingly well-rounded people. Kent is a little too soft-spoken for his own good, making him appear apathetic, even bland, but he’s smart and more caring than most. Ai is self-centred, a little vain, and has the temper of a diva, but she’s mostly friendly and incredibly trusting. She believes people can change and always gives those around her a second chance.

There are also a few other characters tossed in there to help round out some of the traits Ai might be lacking. Hikaru, who is Kent’s gay roommate, is fiercely loyal. Jen, who befriends Ai, is sweet and completely unselfish. Nora, who is a prominent part of Ai’s past, is noble and righteous. These characters, and a small host of others, lend themselves nicely to the story without making you forget that it really is all about Ai. They add to Ai and you see more of her character through them then you could ever see if Ai had the whole story just to herself.

The art style in Princess Ai is very beautifully done, albeit lacking in originality: big eyes, blonde hair, yada yada yada. Of course, this doesn’t detract from the manga at all. The characters are attractive and detailed, their clothing (especially Ai’s) is superbly drawn, and overall, the art style very much suits the manga’s fantasy/romance based plot. Like other similar mangas, Princess Ai will differ from panel to panel. Panels with dramatic scenes are very detailed where as a comedic or action scene will have almost all details stripped away from it. By increasing or decreasing details, it creates a sense of emotion and urgency that might be lost if all the panels were always the same.

Princess Ai was a real treat to read. It has a great plot, well thought out and composed characters and a beautiful art style. Most surprising of all though, was how funny and thoughtful it was. It had themes of racism and self-hate; themes of not being able to fit in no matter how hard you try. And the characters grow and change and evolve through their struggles and it adds such realism, no matter how unrealistic the fantasy becomes.

My final thoughts on the manga Princess Ai are that it is a great manga–don’t be put off by Courtney Love’s name on the cover, or that it’s ‘technically’ a romance manga, there’s something in it for almost everyone be it plot, humour, fantasy, or the beautiful art style. All in all, Princess Ai is a fun manga. It’s light, it’s easy to get into to, and Ai’s fashion sense alone is enough to keep you enraptured until the end!

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Secret Daughter: A Book That Should Be Kept Secret

A Review By: Amelia
I don’t usually read books that people go crazy over in huge numbers. I didn’t read The Hunger Games, I didn’t read The Help, but I did decide to read Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s highly praised book Secret Daughter. Based on the plot sum-up on the inside cover, I thought that it would be an interesting book, that perhaps it would show me something new and innovative in fiction. I mean, it’s so popular, so many people are gushing over this book, so it had to have something in it worth reading, right? I wish now that I had stuck to my principles and stayed far away from Secret Daughter as it turned out to be a tedious waste of my time.

The book follows the lives of two families: one a husband and wife that are both successful doctors living in the states and the other a poor Indian family trying to stake their claim in India by making rupees and having a son. Their bland and trite storylines intersect in the most predictable of ways: the Indian family has a baby girl, doesn’t want her, puts her up for adoption, and the American family adopts her. The adopted girl grows up in America wishing she were in India, and the Indian family, after finally having a son, come to discover that perhaps all that glitters is not gold. As if that wasn’t exactly what would happen from within the first chapter of the book.

As far as I can tell, this book was written with one intent in mind: to be emotionally deep. Hence why all the themes of the novel are laid out for the reader to know/guess within the first five chapters. You’ve got these constant and miserable ongoing themes of exclusion because the white American woman can’t have her own baby, her husband’s Indian family doesn’t like her, plus a million other things that she bitches about. Then you have the adopted daughter, feeling the exact same exclusion as her mother with her added self-pity that she’s apparently the only Indian girl in San Francisco! There’s no coming together of these two female characters and when they do finally start getting along right at the end, you can tell the mother’s only faking it and the daughter is still bitter about that. It makes you feel sorry that this is what the author figures is a healthy mother/daughter relationship.

Now, the thing I hated the most about this book: the characters. The main characters are as follows: Somer is an American doctor who can’t have her own children so she adopts from India, Asha is the baby that gets adopted, Kavita is Asha’s biological mother that had to give her away or let her husband kill another baby girl, and Jasu is Kavita’s husband who only cares about having a baby boy. I’d expand on these character descriptions but I literally can’t because the characters are so flat, one-dimensional, and stereotypical. In the American side of the story, Somer is self-pitying and self-centered to an extreme and Asha grows to resent her mother because she’s adopted and there’s so much angst in this fact. Heaven forbid she be happy with what she has, right? In India, Kavita wonders forever what became of the little girl she gave away, Jasu is a miserable sack of shit until his wife births to a boy, and then their son, who is an even bigger sack of shit than his father, is so flat and awful I can’t even remember his name!

The characters are just so poorly planned that no matter what they do, they come off selfish, stupid, arrogant, insert-any-other-nasty-adjective-here. Do the characters learn their lessons by the end and grow as people? Sure, like five pages from the end of the book; but they’re not happy about them because they had so little in their character to begin with that to suddenly deviate from what the previous three hundred pages said about them just makes the whole novel feel cheap and lazy.

From the other side of the storyline, there’s themes of regret from Kativa for doing what she did to her daughter and then, late in the novel (like I’m talking last five pages), these same feelings of regret come through her husband Jasu as he realizes the son he wanted so badly is shit but his abandoned daughter is wonderful. Blah. Blah. Blah.

The positive reviews for this book are a sham. Usually I don’t take such offense to positive reviews of books I don’t like because everyone has different tastes, but Secret Daughter has really raised my hackles. When I’m reading something I always try to focus on what I like about it and not what I don’t. Secret Daughter did not have one thing in it that I liked. It seems harsh, but it’s true. It has been praised as revolutionary by so many people but it’s done nothing new. Nothing.

My final thoughts are do not, kind reader, buy into the hype of this book. It’s boring, tedious, and flat. I suggest you keep away from this book at all costs because you will feel nothing after reading it except regret for having wasted your time. Secret Daughter’s actual secret, is how it has become so popular!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Crow: A Comic That Both Dehumanizes and Amplifies Romance

A Review By: Amelia
The Crow, by James O’Barr, is a graphic novel about Eric and Shelly, a young couple just starting to make their life together, that are needlessly killed by a group of degenerate street thugs. Shelly is raped repeatedly and dies at the scene of their attack; Eric dies some thirty hours later in the ICU. Eric however, doesn’t stay dead. With the mystic, otherworldly powers of the Crow (believed by some ancient civilizations to be Death and the keeper of the underworld), Eric comes back to avenge his and his girlfriend’s death in the most brutal ways he can imagine. With no powers beyond his refusal to die, he barrels into the fights with nothing more than a couple of handguns, undying love for Shelly, and hate for those who wronged him.

This being said, The Crow is not a comic book written without compassion or human feeling. O’Barr wrote The Crow when he found the grief from his own girlfriend’s death to be to much. He translates his emotions perfectly into the story and makes it hard for the readers not to empathize with Eric’s brutal - but justified - killing spree.
The graphic novel is divided into five sections, and then, within the sections, further divided into chapters. Most chapters follow Eric’s bloody trail through the course of his revenge, but a few are devoted to his memories of better times spent with Shelly. These, unless you have no heart, will leave you teary-eyed more times than you’ll admit to your friends. Also, as an interesting way to divide up the gore and action, O’Barr has scattered numerous songs, poems and quotes all relating back to whatever happened in the last chapter or to the story as a whole. Joy Division and The Cure make appearances, as does the famous philosopher Voltaire. Overall, it’s an interesting and original way to add extra emotional content and pacing to the piece.
The art within The Crow is done in very simple black and white ink sketches. Eric’s memories are done in a soft, watercolour-esque style while everything that takes place in the present is harsh lines and an overall grim décor. To some, the minimalist art style adds to the overall macabre feel of the comic. To others, it leaves something to be desired. In a few interestingly placed panels, O’Barr inserts small black and white photos, the most noticeable being a picture of an open door in the last chapter of the comic. Do these pictures hold something significant to the grieving author? Do they bring back good memories, or bad? As the reader, we’ll never know exactly why these panels are actual photos and not just sketches, but it definitely adds a certain aura of mystery. Unfortunately, mysterious photos or not, if you haven’t found yourself relating to the story and dialogue, the art won’t be able to win you over. At its high points, the art is perfectly gruesome: so brutal and bleak that it really is beautiful. At its low points, the art is dated and the eighties hairstyles will leave you cringing.

Brandon Lee as The Crow
Comparing all this to the movie, well, no doubt more people of seen the movie than read the comic. Looking past media exposure though, there are a few obvious differences. In the movie, the addition of Sarah to the story arc makes Eric seem like less of a ghoul and more of a relatable character; and T-Bird’s gang is part of something bigger - not just a random group of monstrous thugs - which (towards the end of the film) makes Eric’s journey less of a selfish one. What’s left as the biggest question in the comic is whether Eric really did come back from the dead. In the movie, you watch him crawl out of his grave. This is left completely ambiguous in the comic. One group of readers may be left thinking that perhaps he never died but recovered from his wounds (hence why he takes his revenge a year after the attack) while another group may believe that his revenge against the gang was nothing more than delusions as he lay dying in the ICU. Either way, it’s left more up to the reader to interpret and react to, instead of just seeing it done one way and reacting to that.

The comic book, as a medium, is a much harder one to judge than say, a standard Hollywood blockbuster, and the fact that The Crow is radically different from a lot of comic books available makes my closing comments even harder. Eric isn’t your usual superhero in your usual comic book setting. That being said, there are a few things that make The Crow a graphic novel that should not be passed by; the most notable being that anyone who has ever felt the pain of losing a loved one will immediately empathize with the pain Eric goes through as he tries to find his revenge. Also, those looking for a unique comic experience should enjoy it for its content and stark art style.

My final say is that The Crow is a fantastic piece of comic literature, filled with raw emotion that’s comparable to actually having lost someone yourself. The art fills you with a beautiful sense of dread, the original story will have you engrossed beyond turning the last page, and the ever prominent themes of love and hate are as eternal and presented as beautifully as Eric’s love for Shelly.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Last Living Slut: The Last Living Book of True Depravity

A Review By: Amelia
The Last Living Slut: Born in Iran Bred Backstage, by Roxana Shirazi, is the outrageous, yet surprisingly moving memoir of a girl who fled the Iranian Revolution and found her salvation in the deliriously sexy life of a groupie. It is the memoir of a girl who was raised traditionally in Tehran but is led far astray by the sound—and the sex appeal—of rock-n’-roll. Caught between her sexual appetites, passion for music, lust for musicians, and fear of being a bad seed (as she was brought up in a strict Islamic country), Shirazi bares her soul to offer a raw account of her life as an eager-to-please rock groupie.

The book begins with Shirazi’s life in Tehran: her family, friends, and the political turmoil of an Islamic country on the verge of civil war. Her younger years were spent without a father, and with a mother that vehemently protested the tyrannical government. Very early on in life, no more than five years old, Shirazi began to explore her sexuality, something that most woman never even contemplate, let alone carry out at five years of age. Her first act of self-exploration happened when she thought about the soldiers that would march through her neighbourhood and raid her house on a near daily basis: she dreamt of being degraded and admired by them: “The spectacle of the SAVAK, who terrified me, gave me a delicious dark thrill… it wasn’t supposed to. (pg. 33) As a child, she would also flaunt herself to the neighbourhood boys and bask in their total admiration of her. Of course, this confidence about her body coupled with her total ignorance to the conduct of sex led her to some rather unsavoury situations including older men taking advantage of her pre-teen body. Disguising these incidents as karmic retribution for being a ‘bad seed’ she barely hints at the trauma caused by this abuse; but when it comes to accounts of rock stars’ sexual proclivities, she doesn’t hold back.

When she was forced to immigrate to England with her grandmother, escaping the dictatorship rule of Iran and the abusive nature of her step-father, she was made to acclimate in a foreign country where she was ostracized and bullied because of her ethnicity. Coming from a world where family and community were an integral part of everyday life and where Shirazi was used to being fawned upon by men and boys alike, her first years in England were more than tough on her. There was, however, a silver lining to it all. Although feeling completely alone in English society she found a home in her books and school work and, when one day at the age of thirteen she comes upon Axl Rose rocking out on MTV, she comes (pun definitely intended) into her own and proceeds to build a life that is filled with academics and ‘sexcapades’ with various bands all across London and the world.

The rest of the book can be seen as a strung-out raunch fest. One thing that may leave you puzzling is that unless you knows the bands and members she's referencing, it can get confusing to tell them apart as they cycle in and out of view. But her recollections of her sexual encounters are very clear and entertaining to read, her voice a humorous and sometimes self-deprecating force that presents these rock gods with all the veneration (or sometimes unease) she was feeling at the time. Eventually, all the fun and games get interrupted by some emotional hiccups that include, most prominently, falling in love: which inevitably comes with getting her heart broken. Along with acknowledging that rock n' roll is not a place to harvest emotions of love and fondness, she also addresses the strain of her broken heart on her life: “I had to remind myself that I was here in a groupie capacity, not to have a fucking romantic time.” (pg. 152) It’s clear that her emotions get the better of her as her life becomes a downward spiral, years worth of pent up angst, anger, depression and confusion overtaking her. Overall, Roxana Shirazi's time in the limelight as the most infamous groupie is recounted with intimate, humorous, outrageous detail that can, at times, be a riotous and fun read or a gut wrenching, heart breaking tale of a woman who is more than she appears to be.

Shirazi in the flesh
Overall, as a memoir of a life-less-ordinary, Shirazi offers something very unique. Aghast readers may lose track of Shirazi's rock star conquests, but her shocking sexual exploits are chronicled in such can't-look-away prose that it's impossible to close this X-rated book until the last bad boy has been put to bed. While the author's explicit descriptions of backstage orgies, threesomes, and random hook-ups might make even the most world-wise readers blush, memoirs like this are rarely written with such edgy prose: “I was hysterical because I needed my vibrator to work properly.” (pg. 272) Even as she pursues a Master's degree in English, Shirazi trysts with members, or hangers-on, of Guns N' Roses, Mötley Crüe, and assorted has-beens of the ‘80s hair-band scene still clinging to their former glory. However, when the author allows herself to fall in love, her memoir takes a turn that proves disastrous in myriad ways, rubbing much of the sexy veneer off of her shenanigans and showing her as she is: an original soul with a need to be wanted and a want to belong. Ultimately, no matter how readers judge her salacious life, no one can deny that she has a raw talent with words: “From top to toe, I am fully covered in black Islamic garb. But underneath I’m wearing no panties. Just in case.(pg. 313)

My final thoughts on The Last Living Slut are that it is an amazing recount of a life not many people get to see, but because of this, it is not a memoir for everyone. Shirazi writes honestly, provocatively, and vividly but the squeamish will constantly be put off by her acts of depravity. For those who can stomach what she has to say, The Last Living Slut is a moving memoir of growing up in the political turbulence of Tehran; an unflinching portrayal of teenage cultural dislocation in London; a backstage romp that makes Pamela Des Barres's I'm with the Band read like a nun's diary; and a white-knuckled tale of jilted love and brutal revenge.