Monday, November 29, 2010

Manga Monday: An overgrown adolescent ends up with a kid, but not in the normal way

Guys have a horrible reputation when it comes to children. For the most part, it's really undeserved; plenty of guys make at least as good a parent as the mother, if not better. But hundreds of episodes of Maury and Springer do a number on the collective psyche, and guys are labeled 'deadbeat' until proven otherwise.

It's prevalent in fictional media, too. Fathers are either incompetent (the Homer Simpson type), or absent altogether. The contrast between this and Bunny Drop Volume 1 by Yumi Unita might be part of what makes it so special.

Daikichi is a 30 year old, single salaryman. He's gotten himself fairly high up the ladder at his company, mainly by working long nights, attending alcohol-based social events, and by generally ignoring his family and social life. Admittedly, his less-than-stellar looks haven't helped him any in that department, either.

He takes off at the end of September to head home for his grandfather's funeral. He walks in to the barely controlled chaos that is most family gatherings, right past a young girl playing outside that he's never seen before.

Turns out, no one else there had known of her, either. It turns out, Grandfather kept himself busy in his golden years, and he's ended up with another daughter. Her mother is nowhere to be seen, and she's mostly quiet and just playing alone out of doors.

The most appalling turn of events, though, is how the family reacts to this piece of news. Each of Daikichi's family members comes up with some reason or another why they couldn't possibly take the girl in. When one person mentions finding a facility to place her in, Daikichi impulsively tells his family how horrible he thinks they're acting, and declares that he'll take the girl in himself. While this causes some concern for Daikichi's mother, the rest of the family is mostly relieved that someone else is dealing with the problem.

So, Daikichi has found himself with a quiet, six-year-old girl named Rin. All they're able to find of hers around the house is her mother-daughter health book (a sort of baby book with immunization records and the like in it), and a change of clothes.

The book goes on from here mainly as a slice-of-life story with a new father and daughter getting to know one another. Thankfully, perhaps because of her upbringing so far, Rin is fairly easygoing and as she comes out of her shell, she has no problem telling Daikichi what she needs at the mall, such as clothes and socks and the like.

Oh, and daycare too. Mustn't forget about daycare.

Later on, we start to see that Rin might not be as well-adjusted as she wants to seem. This comes out in the usual childhood ways, such as nightmares, a brief bout with bedwetting, and some problems when daycare starts, and she doesn't want to be left alone.

This is a very sweet story about Daikichi and Rin, and the way that a child changes every decision from that point on. The cast grows slowly, as we meet a working mother at Daikichi's office (more of a rarity in Japan than in the US), and another woman at Rin's daycare, whose child Rin seems to like.

This topic could easily become sickeningly sweet, but the fairly matter-of-fact manner of Rin keeps it grounded. It's simply a good hearted, slice-of-life story of what happens when good people try to do what's right, even when it's not exactly what they expect.

Highs: Seeing what every day life of a salaryman and child would be like in Japan, the way a normal, bickering family is portrayed

Lows: Very simplistic art at times, though emotion is shown quite well on the characters' faces

Verdict: Excellent josei slice-of-life storytelling

Further Reading: Chi's Sweet Home Volume 1, Honey and Clover Volume 1

Friday, November 26, 2010

Can maple syrup really save the world?

Live Free or Die is a really strange take on the First Contact subgenre of science fiction. Of course, when we’re first approached by an alien race, we’re vastly outclassed. We’d have to be, since we don’t have anything near the technology necessary to initiate contact with another world ourselves.

The first race to contact us is a friendly race of traders called the Glatun. But the Horvath…not so much. They put in an orbital, a space portal to quickly traverse long distances, and declare Earth their property, to be mined by the Humans for basic materials.

Since Earth is so very outgunned, and the more peaceful alien races have no interest in fighting our battles for us, the leaders of Earth have no real option but to capitulate to the Horvath’s demands.

Enter Tyler Vernon. He’s yet another lone wolf, science fiction author who knows something needs to be done and will take it upon himself to make sure it does. He gets himself into a position to interact directly with a Glatun trader, and finds something that only Earth can provide that the interstellar community wants. So, simply following the laws of supply and demand, he’s able to amass quite the fortune with which to defend the Earth.

There are a lot of parts in this book that people could, and do, protest. Ringo is a libertarian through and through. Therefore, most of his heroes are lone wolf, do-for-yourself types. This doesn’t sit all that well with the more socialist, government-does-for-me type.

Also, the Horvath are essentially a slaving race. Being more advanced than current and past slavers on Earth, they can put eugenics on hyperdrive to better their slave population and cull the ‘weak’ and ‘undesirable’ from the group. Who the Horvath determine to be the ‘undesirables’ will, of course, offend even more people.

Folks, this is how science fiction is. There tend to be a lot of libertarian science fiction authors, perhaps because there’s something appealing to the libertarian about the idea of science- and logic-minded people taking responsibility for the world on themselves and working to save it. Heinlein, a ‘great master’ of science fiction was the same way and had similar protagonists. Ayn Rand’s speculative fiction Is held up as suggested reading for the libertarian movement. And in Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells shows a parallel Earth thousands of years more advanced with us, where the libertarian creed rules.

The point is, the tenants of libertarianism and the ideas that populate science fiction go hand in hand. The problem is that it’s so unpopular to be anything other than firmly liberal that any other viewpoint will be distasteful to a significant portion of the reading audience.

If the reader can get past some politics that may or may not be in line with his, though, he’ll be in for an intelligent, inventive, and simply fun read.

Highs: Lots of humor and interesting tech ideas

Lows: Starts out a little bit familiar for people who have read Ringo’s other First Contact book, A Hymn Before Battle

Verdict: Fun storytelling that shouldn’t be missed

Further Reading: Schlock Mercenaries (, Citadel

Monday, November 22, 2010

Manga Monday: A reflective look at WWII by a resident of Hiroshima

Although manga has been taken seriously as a form of literature in Japan for much longer than graphic novels have been in the West, the West has a significant head start on the autobiographical and historical comic. Maus, first published in 1986, has been taught for years in high school and college courses. More recently, Persepolis has been made into an animated movie and Pyongyang has let Guy Delisle write several other books chronicling his travels throughout contested areas throughout the world.

Manga authors, on the other hand, haven't been as much a part of this movement. One of the first I've seen translated into English is Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms.

The author Fumiyo Kono was at first hesitant to write about such a dark time in Japan's history. Although born in Hiroshima, neither she nor anyone in her family was a survivor of the bombing. After a lifetime of avoiding the topic, and at an editor's request, she finally broached the topic with these two short works.

“Town of Evening Calm” takes place just a few years after the bombs fell. Having lost most of her family, either to the bomb or to the situation surrounding it, Minami lives with her mother in a shanty in town. Her brother had been sent to the countryside during the war, and since he escaped the bombing itself, was adopted out to his aunt. Beginning as a simple slice-of-life story, it shows both the physical and emotional scars left by the bombing.

“Country of Cherry Blossoms” begins in 1987, following the daughter of Minami's brother in Tokyo. This story is more of a contemporary look at the discrimination and near-superstition surrounding anyone connected to the bombings, no matter how remote the ties.

This is an important piece on many levels. Because of the reception of these stories in Japan, it seems like these topics are simply not discussed. Part of the reason Kono wrote the stories was to bring it up for discussion among the Japanese people. There is also a bit of an undertone of anti-Americanism woven into the anti-war message. It's not mentioned, of course, that it was a Japanese attack that brought the US into World War II in the first place.

Barring that, though, it's an amazing look into a piece of Japan's history that isn't discussed, and that many would like to pretend never happened.

Highs: The simplistic art style is clean enough to not distract from the story, and shows the fragility of human life

Lows: It's impossible to completely depoliticize a story based on a wartime act, though the author gives it a try

Verdict: An important book for both the Japanese and anyone else trying to understand the Asian front of WWII

Further Reading: Pyongyang, Persepolis

Monday, November 15, 2010

Manga Monday: An honest look at how girls grow up

Boy coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen. Half the shonen series out there are about 8-14 year old boys striking out on their own and finding their way, often with a pet dog (or dragon, or Pikachu) as their companion. Girl coming-of-age stories, however are a little harder to find. This is especially true in the manga world. They're usually less action-packed than the boys', and more slow-paced and reflective. When one does come out, however, it's a treat to read, and that's what is found in The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa.

The setting is rural Korea, but the era is a little harder to pin down. A steam engine train is seen near the end of the story, and it isn't seen as a novel technology. There doesn't seem to be electricity or running water, but I'm not sure when that level of infrastructure reached all areas of Korea.

We meet Ehwa at 7 years old. She lives with her mother, a widow who runs a tavern near a small town. Life is hard for a single woman trying to raise a girl, but she is proud of taking care of things by herself. We never really learn much about Ehwa's father, but we assume he died when Ehwa was very young.

Though Ehwa often stays close to her mother during the say, she also does go off either by herself or with other girls from town. It seems like the town kids aren't raised quite as well as Ehwa though, and she gets into a bit of mischeif above her age with them. It also might be because she's an only child, but she is a lot more innocent than the other children we meet. As she grows up, of course, she starts to notice boys, though in a fairly age-appropriate way.

Mirroring this blossoming of Ehwa, a traveling salesman stops by the tavern and seeks a place to stay for the night. As the years pass, the salesman and artist comes by on his travels, and he and Ehwa's mother become closer.

This first book of “The Story of Life on the Golden Fields” trilogy spans several years, from the time Ehwa is a young girl, to when she is becoming a young woman. Girls in more rural settings do tend to seek out marriage earlier, but of course she is still very close to her mother and is in no rush to leave her.

This book is certainly a slow, contemplative journey. Ehwa grows up, goes through the awkward first interactions with boys, and learns that it's hard to control who you love. It's nice to see growing up handled in such an honest way, and it would do girls everywhere a service if there were more authors like Kim Dong Hwa writing today.

Highs: Gorgeous backgrounds with honest storytelling

Lows: Pacing is at times perhaps too slow for the usual manga reader

Verdict: Not to be missed

Further Reading: Moribito, The House of Many Ways

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It's really not a good idea to make a werewolf nobleman mad...

Note:  Blameless is the third book in the Parasol Protectorate series.  If you haven’t read it already, check out my review of Soulless here and Changeless here. Otherwise, read on!