Friday, April 18, 2014

The deep web has never been so deep.

Alif is a cypher. The first letter of the Arabic alphabet, it is a single vertical line. A simple name for a person whose life takes place in the shadows between computers.

In G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen, Alif's life is turned upside-down, in more ways than one.

Alif lives in a pre-Arab Spring country somewhere in the Middle East. The censors have become more and more a part of the online life of the country, and Alif and his online comrades do their best to provide free movement of information to their clients. It means that The Hand could come down on him at any time, but with the confidence of youth he doesn't really believe that it would happen to him.

As it often does, Alif's problems start with a girl. Intisar is Alif's first love, a Muslim girl from a good family. He meets her online, on some of the message boards that the educated, free-thinkers tend to inhabit. Hardly a radical, she's as likely to defend the government as she is to question it. The computer world gives her the freedom to speak her mind in a way that her birth and culture do not, and Alif is absolutely smitten. They even go so far as to draw up a their own marriage contract, and while Alif's mother is away visiting her family he is able to have her over unchaperoned.

But a woman of her standing is hardly going to have the future she expects with the poor son of a second wife. When the reality of doing her own laundry settles in, she takes the easy route and accepts the husband that her father has found for her.

"Make it so I never see your name again." -Intisar

Heartbroken, Alif decides to disappear from Intisar's life. So he proceeds to do so. Since the majority of his life is spent online, he creates a program to track her, and make sure that whatever she does, she will never see his online presence again. Whether she changes usernames, or computers, or uses a VPN, this program will track her by her word usage and typing styles, and remove Alif's presence.

Such a program has never been created before. There are so many variables, and the program would have to be so complex, that it would almost have to be...alive...

Such a complex program would, by its very existence, draw the attention of a few very influential people. And when Alif finds himself in the possession of  The Thousand and One Days, he ends up with more problems than just The Hand.

G. Willow Wilson shines in her first long-form novel, masterfully weaving together the modern day with the ancient, religion with mythology, and love with loss.

Highs: The character of Dina is perhaps the most three-dimensional, honest females in recent fantasy fiction.

Lows: As with much fiction set in the middle east, as current events unfold the story may show its age quickly.

Verdict: Winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award, Alif the Unseen is a must-read for fans of fantasy and world fiction alike.

Further Reading: Throne of the Crescent Moon, Kabu Kabu, The Midnight Palace

Monday, April 14, 2014

Manga Monday: A sunny girl with an overcast life

Alongside magical girls and androids named Chi, CLAMP told the story of a lonely girl with a cheerful disposition in Suki: A Like Story Volume 1

On the outside, Hinata Asahi's life seems happy enough. She does well at school and has friends that care about her. She sees the sunny side of every situation and is always trying to cheer up the melancholy people that she's around. Nothing seems to faze this girl.

But a closer look reveals that perhaps her life isn't as perfect as it could be. Every night, Hina goes home to an empty house, with only her teddy bears waiting at the door for her. It's alluded to that she's moved out of her father's home because she wants him to be happy, but how could such a wonderful girl be bringing him sadness?

Early on in the volume, Hina gets a next-door neighbor. The house has been standing empty for awhile, so Hina is curious to see who might be living there. Shiro Asou is a young man who has just moved into the area, and as a matter of fact, is taking over for Hina's homeroom teacher. Hina is elated to have found a new friend, and promptly starts inviting him over for meals and the like. But a few side conversations we overhear Shiro having leaves us wondering if there's more to him than meets the eye.

Suki: A Like Story Volume 1 follows a lot of what has become traditional manga tropes. You have the perpetually cheerful girl, her retinue of friends, the older man to have a crush on, and the mystery of their backstory. The art is very 1990s shojo, and has many of the expected traits of a CLAMP title. In many ways, it's exactly what one would expect.

What you have to remember, though, is there's nothing wrong with that. The reason that titles like Dragon Ball and Yotsuba&! come back again and again is that they are the comfort food of manga. You know what to expect when you start it, and it's a welcome break from titles like Attack on Titan and Berserk. CLAMP consistently delivers a certain level of excellence in each title they do, and Suki is no exception.

Highs: Hina getting excited about her favorite author's new book is a feeling we're all very familiar with.

Lows: The mystery around why she lives by herself is going to get old quickly.

Verdict: A traditional shojo romance that is very well done.

Further Reading: Bunny Drop, Yotsuba&!, Chi's Sweet Home

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A sushi-loving werewolf must help two merfolk siblings recovered their embezzled money.

Gail Carriger takes a break from her Steampunk series with a slightly different take on the werewolf curse in 'Marine Biology.'

Alec never really expected to make it to 24. Born into a pack of werewolves, he was always considered a bit too...weak to make the change. In a family that looks like it just walked out of a biker bar, he swam instead of playing a more full-contact sport in high school, and is more likely to be spotted in a lab coat than a leather one. But family is family, and pack is pack, so when there's a get-together he shows up.

Even if he's more likely to bring a salad than a slab of beef.

This time, though, he's actually being given responsibility within the pack. There's been some funny business with the merpeople's finances, and a large chunk of money has gone missing. There's reason to believe that the selkies are in on it, and that's brought a brother-sister pair of mers to town. 

Giselle and Marvin used to be from around here, so they're the ones that were sent from the West Coast to figure out where the money's gone. Since they're not local anymore it's the pack's responsibility to keep them safe while they're investigating, and that's where Alec gets involved.

Nevermind that Marvin used to show up at Alec's swim practices to watch.

'Marine Biology' has an interesting premise and doesn't take itself too seriously. There's a ghost who lives at Butch's house and seems to take great pleasure in teasing the pack when it meets. Alec gets by in the aggressive pack politics by keeping his head down, but still gets made fun of for his sushi platters and job as a researcher. Even the merfolks seen a bit surprised with how badly he fits into this family. Nevertheless, this story has all the humor and clever dialog that readers of Carriger have come to expect, and is a welcome diversion.

Highs: Of course the Irish selkies would be the mafia of the water-weres.

Lows: I kept expecting the werewolf Biff to somehow tie into the character in the Parasol Protectorate with the same name.

Verdict: A quick, easy read that doesn't make itself out to be more than it is.

Further Reading: 'My Sister's Song', Soulless, Attachments

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A very busy time for Death.

World War II was a busy time for everybody. In Europe, as the fighting age forces were depleted, both the very young and the very old were pressed into the service. For those left behind at home, it was a time of desperation, as everything from food to metal to silk was diverted to supporting the war effort. There were a million stories written during this time, and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief tells a story that is fiction, but all too true.

The Book Thief tells a lot of stories. It tells is the story of Liesel Meminger. It begins on a train, with her mother and brother Werner. Her father's gone, and her mother is in danger as well. They're on their way to a foster home, where they will be safe. On Himmel Street, there will be soccer games, and foot races, and fistfights. There will be thin bean soup, and air raids, and the songs from an old accordion.

But only for one of them.

It tells the story of Hans Hubermann and his wife Rosa. They've already raised two children, one of whom despises them. Rosa is brash and loud, while Hans can be quiet, but both care much more than is safe in times like this. Their days are filled with hard work, and their nights are filled with worry, but there is still music and love to spare.

Taking in foster children isn't the first risk they've taken during these mad times, and it won't be their last.

There are other stories too. There's the story of Max, a young Jewish man whose father Hans knew back during the first War. There's the story of Rudy, who loves to run more than anything else. There's the story of the Ilsa Hermann, the Mayor's wife, whose life ended when she lost her son.

But mostly, it tells the story of Death. Death, who is overworked in these terrible times. Death, who takes special care of the souls of children that he has to collect. Death, who meets Liesel three times, and takes a special interest in her.

Death, who names Liesel The Book Thief.

Because the book is from Death's point of view, sometimes he spoils things. From the beginning, you know that things aren't going to go well for anyone involved. But rather than frustrating or disappointing the reader with these glimpses into the future, it brings a certain sense of dread to the story. The reader knows that these characters only have a little bit of time left, with so much left to do. And as the pages turn, the sinking feeling of dread only gets worse.

Markus Zusak has created characters that are amazingly sympathetic, even when they're not always likable. No one deserves what happens to them, but that's just the way life is. In a very crowded shelf of World War II books, The Book Thief deserves a place front and center.

Highs: The power of words, and of reading, comes up over and over in this book,and it's an important lesson to learn.

Lows: At first the narration from Death can be off-putting, but as the story goes on it makes more sense.

Verdict: There aren't very many World War II books that have something new to say, but this one is absolutely worth reading.

Further Reading: Between Shades of Grey, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What hunts bats?

For generations, the Wayne family has watched over Gotham City. Both figuratively, from the top of the original Wayne Tower, and literally. One would think that Gotham would be grateful of its protector and philanthropist, and most are. But as always, there is always two ways to view history.

In Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls, we get to learn about the history of the Wayne family in Gotham City. In the 1880s, Alan Wayne built the original Wayne Tower, and designed it in a way that visitors would feel protected by it. Towering over Gotham's Union Station, the gargoyles perched on its upper levels both watch over and welcome the residents of the city.

Bruce's parents were also not the first to die in a tragic way. Alan Wayne's body was found in the sewers after he disappeared. Tragic, but not necessarily unexpected, since he'd been declining mentally for a while. Becoming more and more paranoid about owls, he seemed to be falling farther and farther into his delusions, until one night he fell into a manhole while fleeing from his imaginary tormentors. 

But what if his demons weren't imaginary? What if the owls that he was so sure were stalking him really existed?

What if the owl's nest that a young Bruce Wayne found after the death of his parents wasn't a coincidence?

The speech that Bruce makes near the beginning of the volume encourages Gothamites to look forward; to envision what Gotham City can become, rather than dwell on its past or present. The danger in that, though, is that sometimes the past can come back to haunt you.

Highs: Seeing the entire Batman family come together while Bruce is indisposed shows that Bruce is hardly alone anymore.

Lows: Since I'm not a regular reader of DC superhero comics, it's hard to tell how much of this is new revelations and how much is part of the decades of Batman cannon.

Verdict: A fascinating look into Batman's past, and an ending that demands the next volume be acquired immediately.

Further Reading: Batman Volume 2: The City of Owls, Attack on Titan, The All New Batman: The Brave and the Bold Volume 1

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Is a different view of the world wrong?

One of the fastest-moving areas of science is psychiatry. Therapies performed as recently as the 1970s, such as lobotomies, are considered barbaric by current standards. Medications to treat mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have allowed patients who would have been institutionalized to be mainstreamed and live relatively normal lives. Advances in cognitive behavioral therapy let people with psychological disorders and traumatic brain injury gain the ability to live independently and even hold down jobs when before they would have been dependent on family or the state.

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, is a near-future look at autism. If Lou Arrendale had been born a generation earlier, he would likely be nonverbal, lost in his own mind, amid a world too overwhelming to be a part of. If he were born a generation later, the flaws that cause autism, either in-utero or in the first few years of life, would have been identified and able to be fixed, and he would never have been 'truly' autistic in the first place.

But Lou was born when he was, and nothing can change that. As autism was being understood better and better, psychiatrists were able to create therapies that teach the afflicted how to interpret the world. Computer programs are able to slow down speech sounds to a rate that an autistic child can understand, and then slowly speed them up to normal speech. Because 'autists' have a hard time picking up on social cues, therapists know to teach appropriate responses to common situations, and show the patient how to extrapolate what might be the correct response in new situations as well. The training is hardly perfect; stressful situations such as the security screening areas of an airport can still cause the person to freeze up, but for day-to-day activities, Lou's final generation of autists is now able to enjoy independent lives.

Lou has a very full, fulfilling life. He lives independently, in an apartment near his work. He enjoys weekly fencing lessons at a friend's house, and has feelings for one of the women that attends as well. He works for a pharmaceutical company, in a department staffed completely with autists, discovering patterns in research that neither computers nor neurotypical employees are able to find. He understands that the way he thinks is still different from 'normal' people, but it's the only way he's ever known.

Life never holds still, though, as much as one might want it to. A new member of upper-management wants to remove the special facilities that allow the autistic department to keep their focus and ability to do their work so efficiently. One of the women at the Center, where many of the autists spend their free time, has begun confronting Lou about his 'normal' friends. A jealous would-be suitor at fencing club may be even more unstable than the rest of the people Lou associates with.

And then Lou is faced with a decision: continue on with the only life he's ever known, or volunteer for an experimental treatment that may reverse his autism.

Elizabeth Moon creates a near-future world that is completely believable. All of the technological advancements posited are completely believable, given the current state of science. As the mother of an autistic son, Moon had eighteen years of research into autism to draw from, as well as countless hours of interviews with patients and doctors alike. The result is the most comprehensive, true-to-life work about autism written. With characters that the reader grows more and more emotionally connected to, a corporate conspiracy, and a vandal becoming dangerous, The Speed of Dark is a masterful work of fiction that needs more exposure.

Highs: Lou's direct supervisor is a more sympathetic character than I first expected.

Lows: Rather than trying to wrap up the book in just a chapter and an epilogue, I wish that Moon had ended this book with Chapter 20, and then written a second book that picks up there and more fully develops the 'what happens next.'

Verdict: An amazing, captivating read that, even with a flawed ending is well worth the read.

Further Reading: With the LightThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Machine Man

Monday, February 10, 2014

Manga Monday: The finer points of Japanese cuisine

The Japanese take their food very seriously. Focusing on freshness and quality of ingredients, the key is to showcase the food itself. Anyone who as been to a good Japanese restaurant or sushi bar has seen the minimalist presentation that the chef uses, as well as experienced the flavor of the food without heavy sauces or elaborate preparations that are the hallmark of foods from other countries.

In Oishinbo A La Carte: Japanese Cuisine, the reader is treated to the finest that Japan has to offer. When simplicity is the key, every detail matters. 

In Basic Knife Skills, an American named Jeff Larson has traveled to Japan to train as a chef. He's taken to a restaurant that mimics the Rodeo Drive aesthetic of California, and the chef there has an amazingly flamboyant presentation style. Unfortunately, the flavor leaves something to be desired. Will Jeff find a new place to train, and discover what went wrong at that first restaurant?

In The Right to Be a Chef, we meet the younger brother of a restaurateur called Ryozo. He had been apprenticed at one of the most prestigious gourmet clubs in Tokyo, but was ejected without any reason being given. Heartbroken, he's returned to his brother's restaurant to continue to train. Will he figure out what his fatal flaw is, and be able to return to the gourmet club?

The Ultimate Etiquette focuses on a part of a meal that many people overlook. While the taste of the food is important, the presentation of the food can be just as critical. Unlike in Western cuisine, the Japanese take great pains in choosing the best shape, color, and material of dishes in which to present their food. Even the chopsticks being used is a decision that a chef has to make.

The overarching plot of this is fairly thin. Yamaoka Shiro, a journalist working in Tokyo, is tasked with the mission of developing the Ultimate Menu as part of his newspaper's 100th anniversary celebration. As the son of one of Japan's most renown chefs, he seems the perfect choice for the task. What his bosses may not realize, however, is that he's badly estranged from his father, and this assignment causes their paths to cross much more often then either would like. Often accompanied by a female journalist, Shiro ends up in some of the best restaurants, and often has a lesson to teach either a dining partner or a chef. 

When Viz published this title, rather than simply publishing the chapters in order, they pulled chapters with thematic and culinary similarities into volumes based on topics like 'Sake' and 'Ramen and Gyoza.' While this 'best-of' format may have been the only way to publish a series that has been in print for 30 years, it makes the continuity of the main characters very hard to follow. Rather, the reader should simply focus on the situation in from of him, and not worry about the rest of it. Nevertheless, Oishinbo is an in-depth look into the world of fine dining guaranteed to make the reader hungry.

Highs: As amazing as Shiro's skills are, it's fun to see him one-upped every so often.

Lows: Having the chapters presented out of order, with very little background into the lives of our protagonists, takes a bit of getting used to.

Verdict: One of the best ways to experience a culture is through its food, and Oishinbo is a welcome peek into Japan that most manga doesn't cover.

Further Reading: Oishinbo A La Carte: Sake, The Drops of God, Neko Ramen