Thursday, September 29, 2011

You can't run away from your family, especially when there's magic involved

All Diana Bishop really wanted was a normal life as an academic. Gaining tenure at a prestigious East Coast school and getting to go back to Oxford to study their alchemical texts was a dream come true, born of years of dedication and hard work.

Unfortunately, having been born the last female heir to the Bishop line of witches causes its own problems. And when a truly ancient vampire appears right at Mabon (the autumnal equinox festival), problems are going to arise.

This is where we meet Diana and Matthew in A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. Diana has been refusing to use her innate magical gifts, to the point that she keeps a mental list of the handful of times she resorts to it a year. When she gets caught in a moment of weakness using magic to get a book down at the library, she feels the eyes of a vampire on her.

That vampire would be Matthew. An amazingly old vampire, with a rather motley crew of family members behind him, his every action has layer upon layer of motive beneath the surface.

Unfortunately, these two magical beings find themselves drawn to each other, both out of a reluctant love, and for protection. For when the governing body of the supernatural world finds out about their relationship, they will do whatever it takes to separate them.

It also doesn't help that Diana appears to be a magical key of sorts needed to unseal a long lost codex explaining the origin of magical beings. Or that each group of beings thinks that the codex will give them the power of life and death over the other two.

As a paranormal romance, some will find it wanting. Matthew gets very overprotective – and sometimes possessive – of Diana. It makes perfect sense that a man raised centuries before the idea of woman’s liberation would act in this way, but some will not be able to see the actions for what they are. Others will be offended that Diana ends up relying on Matthew so much instead of finding her own way out of every situation. Some may even find the will-they-won't-they throughout the book maddening. I won't necessarily disagree with any of these points of view, but I don't think that they detract from the story at all. In fact, I would think that dating a person from a culture so different from one's own would by definition cause many of these problems. Can you really blame a person born so long ago for being a bit old-fashioned?

In all, Deborah Harkness has re-imagined the vampire-witch-demon triumvirate in a fascinating way. The history and settings feel meticulously researched, and if the science aspect is a little cloudy, at least she tried to rationalize some of the magic. And it does make a certain sort of sense that the intelligent, long-lived beings among us would have a fascination with the evolution of science over the centuries.

Overall, though, it was much more the 'paranormal romance' than the 'horror' section placement that a certain chain bookstore gave it. A Discovery of Witches ought to please those who prefer their vampires to be of the intelligent, but not sparkly, variety.

Highs: Matthew's 'family' back home is absolutely spellbinding to watch interact with each other.

Lows: It's a flaw of most romance books, but being in love really shouldn't give a person leave to be as self-centered as many heroines end up.

Verdict: The last chapter leaves me eagerly anticipating the next book in this series, due out next year.

Further Reading: Soulless, The Society of S

Monday, September 26, 2011

Manga Monday: How can a kitten get lost so quickly?

Chi finally figures out how the doggy door works and gets to really explore the neighborhood in Chi's Sweet Home Volume 5.

Chi's Sweet Home Volume 5 is, of course, the sequel to Chi's Sweet Home Volume 4.  The review of Chi's Sweet Home Volume 1 is here and the review of Chi's Sweet Home Volume 4 is here.  Otherwise, read on!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Manga Monday: More rivals for Ranma!

It's mayhem as usual, with a particularly feline twist, at the 'Anything Goes School of Martial Arts' in Ranma 1/2 Volume 4.

Note:  Ranma 1/2 Volume 4 is, of course, the sequel to Ranma 1/2 Volume 3.  The review of Ranma 1/2 Volume 1 is here, while the review of Ranman 1/2 Volme 3 is here  Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A book for mothers and daughters to share together

Baby shower presents can be tricky. The standard gift-basket items are nice and all, but how many 0-3mo onesies and hooded towels can one family ever hope to use? Branching out to books and movies has its own pitfalls, though. Most children will eventually get all the 'safe' classics like Disney movies and Curious George books. So, if you want to leave an impression, you'll need to reach farther, without hurting Grandma's sensibilities.

If you're heading to a baby shower for a soon-to-be-born little girl, one of the best picture books to be written in years fits perfectly. That would be Blueberry Girl, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess.

A book that is essentially a mother's prayer for her child might step on a few toes. Gaiman neatly sidesteps this issue with the refrain “Lady of Darkness, Lady of Light and Lady of Never-You-Mind, This is a prayer for a Blueberry Girl.” Specifying that the 'prayer' goes out to the maiden-matron-crone archetype instead of letting the reader assume that it's directed to a god turns what would be an overtly religious book into an appeal to the spirits.

Beyond that, though, it's simply a recitation of what a mother would wish for her daughter. I'm sure that every mother wants to protect her daughter from “heartbreak and 16, bad husbands and 30,” but not many but Gaiman would put that as a verse in a children's book.

The verses could end up coming across as somewhat silly if it weren't for Charles Vess' amazing watercolor illustrations. Throughout the pages, the 'Blueberry Girl' changes in both age and race, making her an everygirl that anyone can relate to. Vess also masterfully keeps the magic of good storybook art throughout without crossing the line into true fantasy, keeping the book more-or-less grounded in reality.

This book is a wonderful present for both daughter and mother-to-be. It is inspirational to the mother when she's worried about what a child might bring, and most importantly, will help teach the girl to be bold, have adventures, and, most importantly, to trust in herself.

Highs: Gaiman's verse sums up a parents' wishes for their child perfectly

Lows: Sadly, not appropriate for a baby shower for a boy

Verdict: An amazing book for children of all ages

Further Reading: Instructions, Coraline

Monday, September 12, 2011

Manga Monday: Creating summer memories

Note:  Yotsuba&! Volume 4 is, of course, the sequel to Yotsuba&! Volume 3.  The review of Yotsuba&! Volume 1 is here, and the review of Yotsuba&! Volume 3 is here.  Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Indian orphan is haunted by his past in a most unusual way

The wait for books to be translated and released in a market other than the one in which it originated can be extremely frustrating.  Beyond the time it takes the translator to actually do the work of translating and regionalizing the material, there's extra layers of copyright and quality control that has to be attended to as well.  Anyone who has waited for a beloved anime or manga to make it to their own country, even after the rights have been picked up, knows this pain all too well,  But occasionally, the anticipation makes the results all the more enjoyable.  Such is the case with Carlos Ruiz Zafon's books, including his newest American release, The Midnight Palace.

This is more of a Stephen King style horror novel than the previously released The Prince of Mists. While there is still some introspection, as well as a supernatural villain, the majority of the book feels like a traditional supernatural thriller instead of the 'magical realism' that his adult books are so well known for.  

Our main character Ben is separated from his twin sister at birth and left at an orphanage in Calcutta.  His parents were killed by a man filled with almost unspeakable evil, and he wants to finish the job by killing the children as well.  This man's name is Jawahal, and after a brief meeting with the head of the orphanage, he promises to be back.

Ben must have been left at the best orphanage in Calcutta, because when we meet him again 16 years later, he's a fairly well-educated young man about to venture into adulthood.  He's made a group of friends and comrades-in-arms that go by The Chowbar Society, in the fashion of children's secret societies everywhere.  The members are fairly typical, from a bookish boy who wants to become a doctor (our narrator) to the spunky girl who wants to become a famous actress.  Ben is the adventurous type, but still prone to quiet spells, and everyone turns to him automatically as the leader of the group.

The story picks up as the members of the Chowbar Society are starting to age out of the orphanage.  Ian leaves first, on a ticket to medical school purchased by his friends.  That night, an old woman with a 16 year old girl come to talk to the headmaster, and history catches up with everyone.  We quickly learn the tale of Ben's origins, Seere's life growing up as something of a gypsy, and the origin of the man known as Jawahal.  But nothing in the ancient city of Calcutta is ever exactly how it seems

There is much to discover about Ben's father, his unfinished dream house, his distinguished career as a modern architect, and the mysterious Jawahal who brought it all down in a sea of flames.

To say anything more about the plot would ruin the joy of discovering it, so let's leave it there.

The actual prose of thee book is quite lovely.  This is one of Ruiz Zafon's earlier works, long before the amazing The Shadow of the Wind or The Angel's Game, so it's not quite as polished as those.  But even this early on, Ruiz Zafon knows how to pace a story properly and how to hide bits of information from the reader to reveal later without the reader feeling cheated.  While classified as Young Adult, The Midnight Palace will certainly please readers of all ages with its lovely characters and supernatural horror plot.

Highs:  Ruiz Zafon captures perfectly the magical, sad night at the end of youth when you realize you'll never see some of your best childhood friends again

Lows:  Several members of The Chowbar Society are very generic and not fleshed out well at all, probably due to length constraints

Verdict:  A great, scary read perfect for either the beach or a cozy chair

Monday, September 5, 2011

Manga Monday: Fighting demons to make himself whole

Osamu Tezuka is a legend in the field of manga for a reason.  Besides having been one of the men who developed the form from the traditional  4-panel comic strip to the graphic novel of today, he is also considered the creator of entire genres of the medium.  He helped get adults reading comics again with titles like Black Jack and Ayako.  He created the fictionalized biography Buddha years before Maus and Persepolis were taught in university classrooms.  He even created the half-boy, half-girl in manga idea with Princess Knight before Rumiko Takahashi began Ranma 1/2.  As he revolutionized shojo manga with Princess Knight, he also helped to create shonen manga with Dororo.

In Dororo Volume 1, Hyakkimaru has had a very unfortunate beginning.  His power-hungry Daimyo father promised a temple of 48 demons each a piece of his unborn son in return for being the ruler of the land.  They made good on their end of the deal, and when his son was born with no eyes, ears, limbs or internal organs.  And yet, his son refuses to die.

When he orders his son done away with, his mother sent him downriver in a basket.  Thankfully, while his father's prayers were answered and he comes into tremendous power in the area, so too do his mothers prayers for his safety.  Doctor Honma found the baby along the river, and was astonished at the the little creature inch its way across the floor to look for food.  Dr. Honma used a combination of medicine and magic to create the pieces that Hyakkimaru lacks, and raised him as a son.

Ever since Dr. Honma found Hyakkimaru, though, demons have been plaguing his house.  Eventually, when Hyakkimaru is old enough to look after himself, Dr. Honma has no choice but to ask him to leave.

Hyakkimaru eventually finds out his origins; a ghostly voice tells him the circumstances surrounding his birth.  And so begins his journey throughout the countryside, destroying the demons he fines to regain all that was taken from him.

Along the way, Hyakkimaru manages to pick up our titular character.  Dororo (babytalk for 'thief') is helped out by Hyakkimaru, and Dororo takes a liking to our hero,  He declares that he is the world's greatest thief, and that he is going to steal Hyakkimaru's sword.  That's going to be quite a bit more difficult than normal, as the sword is part of his arm prosthesis, but that doesn't deter our little sidekick.  Of course it's just a little street kid's excuse to tag along after a big brother figure, but Dororo's so likable that it's hard to mind.

Since this is such an early series, flaws that might be annoying in current manga are more easily forgiven here.  Panels of fight scenes are so cluttered that it's often hard to figure out where our heroes are in them, or what exactly is happening.  While a kid tagging along after the hero has been done over and over again, this might be given a pass the same way Ranma ½ is tolerable as a harem show because it is one of the first.  Also, anyone who has read manga, or any fantasy books at all, should know that something's up when Dororo won't bathe in front of Hyakkimaru.

Even when taken on it's own merit, without the Tezuka name attached, Dororo: Volume 1 is a good read.  As with many good shonen manga stories, there is more depth to it than it initially appears.  Themes of loss and rejection weave their way throughout many of the stories, along with the idea that everyone is flawed in some way.  The world is a hard place, and the heroes don't always get the credit and the credit that they are due.  They keep on, however, for their own reasons, and perhaps together they might both get a bit closer to what they're searching for.

Highs:  Watching Hyakkimaru's joy at regaining pieces of himself

Lows:  Many Americans new to manga might find the Japanese demons off-putting

Verdict:  The epitome of classic shonen, it's also a fun, compelling read

Further Reading;  Ode to KirihitoMoribito