Thursday, December 29, 2011

If spirits inhabit both the consensual world and the Otherworlds, it only makes sense they'd wander into cyberspace as well

Spirits inhabit every piece of the Earth in Newford.  Some, like the cousins, prefer the more open, untamed areas like the woods or the Arizona desert.  Others, like hobs, have no problem thriving in town, as long as the have a place to call home and a human or two to take care of.

But humans have created an entirely new realm in the last few decades.  The internet and 'cyberspace' may not physically exist in the same way that a forest or a city does, but spirits have always been the masters of the Otherworlds, and they tend to pop up where you least expect them.  This is the situation that creates all sorts of trouble in Charles de Lint's 13th Newford book, Spirits in the Wires.

We start out with two women with very different, yet similar, backgrounds.  Christiana Tree is the shadow of the fantasy and paranormal author Christy.  A shadow is the parts of one's personality that he casts off to fit in to society.  Christiana came into being when Christie was seven, and from then on developed a life of her own.  Where Christie is reserved, Christiana is outgoing.  Where Christie is deliberate in his actions, Christiana acts rashly, relying on her gut instincts.  She only revealed her existence to Christie relatively recently, and has a bad habit of reading his journals while he's asleep to get to know him better.

Saskia also had an interesting origin.  The website Wordwood was created by a group of book lovers who wanted to help people gain access to literature and information, but has seemingly gained a life of its own.  A user can ask any question in its search bar, and the Wordwood will do its best to provide the information requested.  An oddity of the site, though, is that it answers in the cadence of someone close to the user, usually a deceased relative or friend.  Saskia's origins are a bit of a mystery, especially to her, but it seems as though she was spawned fully formed from the Wordwood itself.  She simply woke up one morning, having a mind full of information, but no experiences to go with them.  Eventually, she learns to get by in the consensual world, but she also gives up a large part of her strangeness to do it.

Both of their lives collide one night shortly after they meet in a bar.  A hacker is blackmailed into uploading a virus onto the Wordwood as a way to get back at Saskia by taking down her 'favorite' site.  As the infection grows within the site portals open up through the monitor of peoples' computer screens, teleporting everyone using the site at that moment into the realm of the internet.  Saskia is on the computer at Christie's house when this happens, and she is taken right in front of his eyes.

Thankfully, Saskia's experiences so far have left her a bit more suited to an Otherworld kidnapping than the average internet user, and she is able to contact Christiana through the phone lines, eventually taking up residence inside Christiana's head.

Eventually, two rescue parties are formed.  One is led by Christiana and Saskia, and the other is led by Christie, Geordie and even the original blackmailer himself, a book reviewer named Aaran.

The spirit in the machine idea has been explored many times, from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Ghost in the Shell.  But the mixture that de Lint uses here, of traditional spirits moving into the cyber realm to me.  The spirits he uses, such as a guardian of entryways seems perfect to inhabit a search engine such as the Wordwood.  The take is classic de Lint and even in this strange new world of technology, familiar faces and themes make this a book for people of any technological aptitude.

Highs:  Some of our favorite citizens of Newford, including Christy, Geordie, and the bookseller Holly Black get the spotlight here

Lows:  People who are more technologically inclined, or even just younger that de Lint, will find his descriptions of technology to be rather archaic and awkward

Verdict:  A new realm to explore from Newford, and well worth reading

Further Reading:  Tapping the Dream Tree, Ghost in the Shell

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Merry Christmas Manga Shopping List

The Manga Christmas Shopping List 2011

It's the holiday season, and no matter what the reason for celebration, gifts generally make an appearance in some form or another.  It's been a great few years for manga, so here's a few suggestions for the manga and anime lovers on your list, or simply anyone who enjoys a good story.

For Shonen Fans:

These are often the type who, and any age, still get up early on Saturday mornings to watch their Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Naruto.  They probably enjoy other anime and manga as well, but they still let their inner 7 year old out to play

The casual anime fan in the US might not even know that there is a whole serie before Gohan is even a twinkle in young Goku's eye.  Here, we get to see the origins of our favorite characters, from Goku and Krillin to Turtle Elder and later, even Demon King Piccolo.

Before even Dragon Ball, Osamu Tezuka created a series around Hyakkimaru and Dororo.  Hyakkimaru's father made a deal with the demon inhabiting a shrine, promising each demon a piece of his unborn son.  Now Hyakkimaru, abandoned by his father, travels the countryside fighting these demons to win his body back, with a young pickpocket named Dororo tagging along.

For Shojo Fans:

Mainly the domain of the 8-16 year old girl, just like the Shonen manga it appeals to the girl in women of any age.  Not just filled with magical girls in sailor suits anymore, it spans all sorts of eras and topics.

Princess Knight
Another Tezuka classic, this is the manga that set the groundwork for the shojo genre.  Due to some…mischief up in heaven, poor Sapphire is born with both a boy’s heart and a girl’s heart.  And to make things worse, the poor girl has to pretend to be a boy to inherit the kingdom and keep her evil uncle off the throne.  With an ensemble cast including the angel-in-training that caused the problem in the first place, an evil witch trying to steal her girl heart for her own daughter, and a Prince Charming from the kingdom next door, this is an epic fairy tale for girls of any age.


These are the manga that you can give to someone who wouldn’t be amused by the shonen/shojo offerings.  Seinen manga, targeting young men, and Josei manga, targeting young women, have been coming to the US in larger and larger numbers in recent years, and some are of outstanding quality.

It sounds like the premise of a terrible sitcom, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.  30-year-old Daikichi, at his grandfather’s funeral, is confronted with a bizarre truth: his grandfather has a 6 year old lovechild, whose mother is nowhere to be found.  When the family discusses giving Rin to a children’s home, he impulsively declares that he will take Rin in.  This slice-of-life drama revolves around finding daycare, changing work schedules, and making it through flu season in one piece.  A very sweet, touching story.

It might seem odd that a comic based on a kitten and her family would be found in a seinen magazine, but Chi’s Sweet Home tempers its sweetness with a sense of longing and nostalgia that appeals to both men and women who are growing up and leaving old friends behind, as they are making new ones too. 

The new series by Emma: A Victorian Romance’s Kaoru Mori, this takes place not in Victorian England but in 19th century Mongolia. The first volume focuses on Amir, the bride of a boy five years her junior.  While the series moves slowly, the meticulously researched and detailed characters and art make this a fantastic success.

So there you have it.  These books should just about cover anyone on your shopping list.  But always remember, since geeks can sometimes have the most surprising items already in their collection; tuck that gift receipt in the front cover.  Just in case.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dragons have returned, and it takes a village to defeat it

Graphic novels have enjoyed a renaissance as of late.  Once the domain of men wearing capes and tights, comics evolved in the underground comic culture with the likes of Eisner, Spiegelman and Gaiman.  With the introduction of Japanese and Korean comics to chain bookstore shelves, as well as the newer trend of the graphic novel memoir, there are many options for the discerning adult.

But with the explosion of options for adults, there are fewer choice than ever for children who aren't interested in manga.  While there are plenty of shonen and shojo comics out there, many superhero comics are either too dark or too sexualized to hand to a mid-grade child.  The ones based off of the cartoons, likeTeen Titans Go! and The All-New Batman: The Brave and The Bold are still fine, but again, these are of the capes and tights variety.

Jane Yolen is a well-respectd author who has won awards as varied as the Caldecott medal and two Nebulas, as well as a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.  If anyone could bring the graphic novel back to children, it would be her, and she does.

The Last Dragon, illustrated by Rebecca Guay, delivers a well paced, dramatic, enchanting story from beginning to end.  A healer with three daughters, called Rosemary, Sage and Tansy after their father's affinity with herbs, disappears one day while he's out gathering.  Just the day before, Tansy found a flower that could only be Dragon's Bane, known for burning any flesh that it touches, and being powerful enough to set fire to dragons.  Legend has it that Dragon's Bane only flowers when there's dragons nearby, but none have been spied here in centuries.  But as more and more large animals, and eventually people, start disappearing, only one conclusion can be made.

Dragons have returned.

As the boys in town go off in search of a hero, the Healer's daughters cope in their own ways as well.  Rosemary, kind but not pretty, starts being approached by suitors who see her father's house and status and want it for themselves.  Sage, pretty but not bright, holds out hope the longest and is the family cheerleader.

Tansy, on the other hand, set to follow in her father's footsteps as a healer, starts researching the folklore about dragons and how to defeat them.  When the boys come back with the most heroic man they can find, perhaps Tansy will make good use of the knowledge she's gathered to help their "hero." 

The story teaches a lot of the lessons that young adult literature tends to teach.  It shows that being heroic isn't the same as not being afraid.  It shows that cleverness can come in just as handy as brawn or a sword.  It shows that a town can come together, each doing what they're able, to face a seemingly unbeatable foe.

But something must also be said about Rebecca Guay's amazing art.  Beautiful, painted scenes set the tone for a classic fairy tale without putting off the younger crowd by being childish.  Tensions is built up by avoiding showing the monster in its entirety until later in the story, and while the panels are wonderfully detailed, it never comes off as too fussy or cluttered.

This is the perfect book for the reader who has grown up with Diana Wynne Jones and Brian Jacques, but might not be ready for Fables.

Highs:  Not every guy telling stories at the tavern qualifies as a bona-fide her, you know.

Lows:  Does every dashing hero have to win a maid's hand?

Verdict:  An amazing addition to young adult literature, and a great bridge from picture books to graphic novels.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Manga Monday: A woman who steals others' lives, and the consequences of those actions

As a person grows, she can be likened to the stages of an insect's life.  As larva, she absorbs her surroundings, eating voraciously, like a child learning about her environment and developing many talents at once.  As a pupa, the insect cocoons herself away from the world, focusing and changing, as a person might in High School and college, slowly focusing down into one or two fields.  Then, as an adult, the insect springs forth, fully formed and ready to face the world in her new form, as a graduate would be ready to enter her chosen field. 

But what about when someone doesn't want to grow up?  Such is the case of Toshiko Tomura, in Osamu Tezuka's Book of Human Insects.  She's made a life of absorbing field after field of interest, not caring who might be in her way, and after achieving fantastic success, throwing it all away to pursue a new field.

And she doesn't just take on the field she's pursuing.  She chooses one of the most promising rising stars in the field and steals everything away from them.  She stole the troupe right out from under the director while she was acting.  She stole the blueprints from an amazing architect she dated.  And she stole the research from an author, submitting her book first and stealing an award out from under her.  She leaves a trail of broken careers, and broken people, behind her.

We meet several of the people whose lives she's stolen, both in flashbacks and in the current time, including the architect and the director.  The victims never really regain their momentum, and end up simply working along in middling jobs afterwards.

But when a paparazzi becomes fixated on her, and makes it his job to follow her, we learn that perhaps the saddest character in this story is Toshiko herself.  Even though she takes great pleasure and pride in each metamorphosis, as well as some glee in the idea of swindling people out of their own work, she never is able to come into her own talents.  She still runs back to her mother's home for comfort between transformations, and has a bizarre, infantile existence there.  Since she can never stay in one adult form, she can never really become her own person, either.

Osamu Tezuka gets accused of both misogyny an racism in several of his books.  Some of the stores in Black Jack show indigenous people with the stereotypical big lips and kinky hair of earlier cartoons.  Ayako has the main character of a girl who has been locked in a shed for almost all of her life, and therefore has very twisted relationships with the family members who interact with her.  Even Dororo has the majority of the female characters as either victims of the men in their lives, or demons themselves.  I do believe that this is more a product of the times in which Tezuka was raised and wrote, rather than a personal opinion of the women in his life.

In prewar Japan, a woman's role certainly was in the home, and she was still treated as property, as women were treated in American and Europe in centuries past.  In a society such as Japan, with even now the strong emphasis on conforming to society's expectations, women generally didn't have a chance to be anything else.  So when a woman with as much ambition as Tomura hits the scene, odd things are bound to happen.

Highs:  Tezuka has always been great at understanding human motivation and portraying full, well-rounded characters.  As damaged as some of the people here are, they can hardly be accused of being stock, one-dimensional characters.

Lows:  The problem with any book like this is the characters who don't get their stories told.  There are so many side characters that inevitably can't be given their own side stories, but it leaves the reader wondering exactly where they came from.

Verdict:  A very strange read, but worth the time to decipher the threads woven together to make the whole.

Further Reading:  Ayako, Pluto

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A boy faces starvation and accusations of witchcraft to bring power to his village

People complain about not having enough opportunities to advance themselves.  Generally what they mean by that is the quality of education in the public school systems, or the perceived nepotism and racism in the corporate world.  And yes, these situations may cause people to lose hope in their ability to climb the social and economic ladders as high as they would like to.

But imagine living in a place where your neighbors explain electricity and other phenomena that they don’t understand by saying that it’s magic or demons.  Where your father has to pull you out of school before you reach your teens. because he simply doesn’t have the few dollars for tuition.  Where instead of watching your pet dog starve to death you have to put him down yourself.

This is the country of Malawi, and this is where The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind takes place.  William Kamkwambe grew up here during some of the worst draughts and famines that the country has seen.

This isn't the story of a hard-luck kid growing up in the projects who ends up lifting himself out of that situation.  It isn't that William didn’t have enough to eat because his father didn’t want to work or his mother spent it on liquor.  William didn't have more than a few mouthfuls of food a day because there literally was no food to be had in the country.  Years of devastating droughts and corruption coupled with bad management from the top down left Williams family, as well as his neighbors with no fertilizer to grow even subsistence crops.  And when their is no food, it doesn't matter how much money you have, because there’s nothing to buy.  He spent years watching people simply lay down on the side of the road, on the way to town to try to beg, and not get up again.  He watched people try to make a gruel from grounded grasses, dirt and water, and watched as the mud solidified in their stomachs killing them even faster.

But William and his family did their best.  As long as there were still birds in the skies, William and his friends did their best to snare them and try to bring something home to eat.  Any time it looked like they might get enough rain to put crops in the ground, they made sure to try, and with the first successful crop, they were finally able to eat until they were actually full again.

The very best bit of luck that William received was that his family is, if not properly educated by Western standards, then at least not so backwards as to explain away the workings of the universe as “magic.”  William always valued his schooling, and of the biggest disappointments  he faced at the beginning of the drought is when his father wasn’t able to give him the money for tuition to the school he had been going to.

For other, less determined boys this would mean the end of their education.  But he was lucky enough to live in a village with a library.  While he wasn’t really able to keep up with all his classmates on his own, he was at least able to find out about the things that interested him, and apply them to his own life.

One of those situations that he always lamented was that once it gets dark out, the day is done.  Without electricity to the house, a dozen hours is wasted each night.  William has seen bicycles with lights on the front that are powered by the person pedaling the bicycle.  He’s taken apart enough radios and basic electronics work, but the matter of how to keep the generator turning eludes him.

Until one day, reading at the library, he sees a picture of a windmill.  Suddenly, the curse of darkness might be at an end.  With enough electricity, perhaps he could even work a stronger pump at the well to bring up enough water to irrigate the family’s crops.

It’s amazing how much the technology that so many take for granted can mean so much to others.  Even after William figures out the difference between AC and DC, he still nearly burns his house down using scavenged bits of wire to bring a light into his bedroom.

That’s the determination that William continues to put forward.  And he has the ability to live in any country he wants now.  But after his schooling is over, he wants to return to Malawi to help bring his country up, and introduce technology and more schools to the country in which he was raised. And thats something great.

Highs: His trip to the TED conference, and his reaction to the Vegas casinos.

Lows: More than half the book id devoted to the hardships he faced but i’d have liked to have seen more of the turn afterwards, and how he is now

Verdict: Both an uplifting story about one indomitable human spirit and a motivation to do what one can with all that they have themselves

Further Reading:  Persepolis, The Reluctant Communist

Monday, December 5, 2011

Manga Monday: It falls onto one dumb High School kid to save the world? Again?

Some guys are just destined to have bad luck.  Ranma Saotome is a good example.  Most people would thank that having dozens of people falling all over themselves to be with him a good thing.  But when those people include both genders, and all are martial artists, love spats can get a little out of hand.

Tanaka-san from Neko Ramen would be another good example of luck gone horribly wrong.  Somehow, he's become involved with this terrible ramen stand, and everything he does to get a decent lunch, including trying the new curry restaurant in tow, is in vain.

Ataru, though, probably takes the cake, in Urusei Yatsura Volume 1.  When an alien race chooses Earth to invade next, it uses a computer program to pick Earth's one chance at salvation.  Out of 6 billion people, the Oni's computer picks Ataru Moroboshi, a luckless, lecherous, rather dumb High School student from Japan.

But even though Ataru is dumb, and even though it takes his girlfriend agreeing to marry him if he wins, it's still just a dirty trick that gets him the win to save the Earth.

And yet, he can't seem to get that right, either.  For when he tells his girlfriend Shinobu that he'll marry her, the alien Lum that he's been trying to catch thinks that he's proposed to her.  And she promptly accepts his proposal.

So now Ataru has a very angry girlfriend who he'd intended to marry, as well as a green-haired alien babe in a tiger-striped bikini calling him Darling.

And hitting him with lightning bolts when she gets mad.

The worst part is that his bad luck doesn't end there.  The crises continue, from taking a taxi ride that inadvertently costs the world's supply of crude oil, to being tormented by all sorts of demons and demon-hunters.  And as much as Ataru wants to get rid of Lum, more often than not, she's the only one that can get him out of the predicaments that he finds himself in.

This is Rumiko Takahashi's first ongoing series, and it shows.  The art is becoming more and more dated, and the characters aren't nearly as well-developed by this point in the series as we see in Ranma 1/2 or Rin-Ne.  Still, it is a series that helped shape the love triangle genre of manga and anime, and the stories are funny enough to keep the reader engaged.  If Rumiko Takahashi or romantic comedies are your thing, might as well see where it all started.

Highs:  Ataru's poor, poor parents

Lows:  The art really is nearly unbearable in the anime as well as in the manga

Verdict:  If nothing else, a good way of seeing how far manga has come

Further Reading:  Maison Ikkoku, Ranma 1/2

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christmas plus Steampunk plus Romance equals fireside reading

Romance novels touch on every genre of fiction.  They've nearly claimed vampires and werewolves for themselves, and there are historical romances set in every era from Ancient Rome to World War II Britain.  But generally, the genre-based romance novel is just a normal romance with a fancy dialect and a few more paes describing how everyone dresses thrown in.  They aren't truly a book of that genre.  A true Civil War buff will be sorely disappointed Philippa Gregory's A Respectible Trade, for example.

But that's the beauty of A Clockwork Christmas.  Steampunk isn't a genre of its own, exactly.  It's more of a window-dressing for another genre, such as a period historical story, or a zombie apocalypse, or a vampire and werewolf situation.  Steampunk is a setting, and the authors here write their stories with that in mind.

In 'Crime Scene in a Corset', Cornelia Peabody has made a terrible mistake.  A former street urchin turned sneaktheif and inventor, she's stolen a Faberge egg from a University professor.  He makes his way into her hidden office, and incapacitates her.  While she is out, he affixes a magnificent little piece of technology to her wrist, and explains her new situation: steal back the egg, or on Christmas Morning the device will go off and electrocute her.  Will she manage to get it back, or would stealing it away again be an even worse crime?  And why does this Roderick fellow keep appearing in her chambers?

Rather than finding new love, 'This Winter Heart' is about finding a love that they both thought was gone forever.  Ophelia couldn't help that she was a construct; her father, in mourning for his lost wife, used both his and her DNA to grow a flesh-and-blood daughter around a steel frame with artificial lungs and heart.  And when she met Leonides, the golden boy heir of the South, they fell in love and quickly married.  But family is important to Southerners, and when he discovered the truth about her, as well as the fact that she likely couldn't have children, he casts her out, back to her father's house.  Now, 8 years later, and with an 8 year old boy in tow, she's on her way back to her husband's home.  Her father has died, and she's hoping that seeing the son that Dario never expected to have will soften his heart towards her.  But will Southern pride get in their way?

Esme, in Jenny Schwartz's 'Wanted: One Scoundrel,' however, is campaigning to show Australia that women don't need men to support them.  A suffragette during Australia's beginnings, she was raised by a prospector on the continent's frontier and wants to establish the vote for women from the start.  There's only one problem: the men in the area are moving their political meetings to a gentlemen's club, where she cannot participate.  So she told her uncle to be on the lookout for a scoundrel on his next ship over.  One who would have no problem being the mouthpiece of a rather...opinionated, well-to-do lady and being paid handsomely for his trouble.  She thinks she's found him in Jedediah Reeve, a man cunning enough to be the ship's card sharp, but charismatic enough that no one had any hard feelings about losing their money to him.  The Outback is filled with men with the morals to have been transported, though and many a man wuld do drastic things to get at Esme's inheritance.  Will Jed probe to be more than a scoundrel after all?

Jasper Carlisle in 'Far From Broken' is hardly a scoundrel himself.  While on a mission for the military, his wife Calliandra, a former prima ballerina, is tortured nearly to death by some men after Jasper himself.  The War Council is just starting to work on mechanical replacements for the body parts of soldiers, and Jasper made a horrible deal with one of the commanders of the Council in order to save his wife's life.  But no one asked Callie if she wanted to be saved.  With both legs, a hand, and an eye replaced, she's lost the grace and looks that have come to define her.  Will Jasper and Callie be able to rebuild their life together, and what happened to the torturer Jasper hasn't managed to track down yet?

I've never been one to read many romance novels, and I admit I was pleasantly surprised by these.  For the most part, I was quickly engaged by all the plots, and the characters were well thought out and stayed consistent in their actions.  I've never liked damsel in distress stories, but even Ophelia in 'This Winter Heart' developed a backbone when the chips were down.  'Wanted: One Scoundrel' perhaps took the longest to capture my attention, but only because most Americans need so much narrative about Australia's founding and environment at the time.  

I loved Cornelia in 'Crime Wave in a Corset' from nearly the first page, and the longer the story went, the more I liked her.  'Far From Broken' had me rooting for both Jasper and Callie.  

A Clockwork Christmas is a perfect balance of love, lust, revenge and intrigue custom-made for reading next to the fireplace.  Perhaps the best praise I can give the authors is that I would read a series based on any of these stories.  With the Christmas theme, this makes a perfect stocking-stuffer for the Steampunk romantic in your life.

Highs:  Watching Cornelia in 'Crime Scene in a Corset' learn to get past her upbringing and be able to show her heart

Lows:  Some of the stories have a bit too much setup and can be hard to get into.

Verdict:  As the stories are a bit longer than in some collections, be sure to block out enough time in the evening to savor each story curled up with a cup of tea.

Further Reading:  Soulless, Ganymede