Monday, December 31, 2012

Manga Monday: Miss Tarabotti has never looked so very...anime

The first book of the Parasol Protectorate has been turned into a manga by the good people at Yen Press, beginning with Soulless Volume 1.

This starts and ends just where the first  book does. We meet Miss Tarabotti after quite the incident at an evening party. She rather inadvertently kills a rogue vampire that tries to make a snack out of her, bringing her once again to the attention of B.U.R. and their chief investigator Sir Conall Maccon, Alpha of the Woolsey pack. As other young rogues are identified, and some of the usuals in town go missing, it's up to Alexia to figure out what's going on before more people find out about her...disability.

Of course the major players are all here. We meet Lord Maccon's Beta Professor Lyall, the ever-flamboyant Lord Akeldama, and even Miss Hisselpenny shows up for a brief scene. Mr. MacDougall and the Hypocras Club factor in prominently, and even Floote and Biffy get a panel or two.

The problem with the adaptation is that it's simply too short to do the original any sort of justice. The novel has the page count for Alexia to be more reticent about Lord Maccon's advances, as befits an assumed old maid of the era. The mystery of the Hypocras Club is cut short here as well; I'm not sure it's mentioned after the first scene at the breakfast table here. And most tragic of all, Miss Hisselpenny is only seen once, during a brief walk with Alexia.

I understand that Yen Press might want to mimic the original books with volumes that contain a complete story. The problem with this is that the charm of The Parasol Protectorate series is in the details. Miss Hisselpenny's penchant for rather distressing hats. Alexia's fondness for a good tea service. Lord Akeldama's outrageousness, yet fondness for the people closest to him. When the story is so pared down, all of this is lost.

Nevertheless, it's wonderful to see the gang together again, and the artwork is beautifully done. While Alexia may not have been showing as much of her assets as this artist tends to draw, the detail on the dress of both the women and the men is top-notch. Kudos to Yen Press for releasing this story to a whole new group of readers who may never have been exposed to it otherwise.

Highs: Seeing Lord Akeldama in all his pretty-boy splendor as a manga character is for me the highlight of the volume.

Lows: While Alexia loosens up quite a bit in later volumes, it's odd to see her be so sexually forward so early on.

Verdict: Perfect for someone who is already a fan of the series, but perhaps not the best introduction.

Friday, December 28, 2012

All this over a closed butcher's shop...

The fate of a cult-like religion, an alien race's noble class, and interstellar stability in general all hinge on finding a particular sheep in John Scalzi's The Android's Dream.

It started with flatulence. Admittedly, it was carefully scented flatulence emitted by a technologically-enhanced rectum, but the principle is the same. A traitorous official emitted a grave scent-based insult to the senior-most trade delegate of Earth's greatest ally, the Nidu. After both parties end up dead on the floor (though perhaps not as one would expect), the Nidu offer the government of Earth one chance to head off an interstellar incident: bring them a sheep. To successfully complete their coronation ceremony, they need a genetically-modified, 'Android's Dream' sheep.

But someone's been killing off these sheep. Rather efficiently, in fact. All the specimens the Nidu have were wiped out by a virus, and a band of sheep-assassins have been cleaning up the remaining hybrids on Earth.

Harry Creek is a veteran of one of the most brutal slaughters in the history of Earth's interstellar military. He now has a rather unenviable job for the government, but he's good at it and doesn't mind it terribly much. One of his old military buddies calls him in to find one last creature with the Android's Dream DNA. But beyond her unruly curly hair, she doesn't have all that much in common with her mother.

There's a lot going on in this book, but the best part is turning the pages to see what comes next. To keep from ruining any of the surprises, I'll simply say that the story involves a ghost in the machine (or two...), two religions spun off of the same hoax, and an alien on a spiritual journey which seems to involve eating quite a few people.

Best known for his 'Old Man's War' series, John Scalzi has combined humor, satire and science fiction in a way that most people fail miserably at. With laugh out loud absurdity reminiscent of Douglas Adams at his finest, The Android's Dream is a modern science fiction classic.

Highs: The portrayal of Judge Sn at the tribunal is spot-on for many lower-level members of the bar out there.

Lows:The reader is hit with so many ideas so fast that whiplash is a definite possibility.

Verdict: In the genre of science fiction humor, this belongs in the top tier.

Further Reading: Divine Misfortune, Judge Sn Goes Golfing

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Four British girls in India learn life's lessons the hard way

Jane Nardin has transported our beloved Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy to the British colonies in Little Women in India.

It's obvious that Nardin put some work into this retelling. She finds a plausible reason for Mr. May to be away, she gives the May girls each their own flaws to struggle against, and even has young suitors about to compete for the girls' hands in marriage. On the surface, it's a valiant attempt at a homage to one of the most beloved children's books.

There are also some very interesting parts of this book. After the period of unrest devolves into actual riots, the May girls find out what they're made of . As each girl is confronted with their flaws, she ends up overcoming it. Whether it be putting vanity aside to get necessary work done, or looking past what she's been taught to decide right from wrong herself, each girl becomes a better person for what she has been through.

That being said Little Women in India takes a very long time getting to that point. In showing the reader the girls' flaws, what we are left with are four insufferably vain, naive brats. Even their mother, Mrs May, becomes almost intolerable in her clinging to the old traditions that our girls have overcome. The fact that she mourns the loss of her daughter's fair complexion more than the idea that she almost lost all of her daughters marks her as a flighty woman who barely deserves the title of mother.

Other details of the period seem a bit off as well. At the dinner party, it's unclear who each girl was partnered with, and the conversation seems, if not stilted, then at least no in keeping with the event. The idea of being caught in a secluded area with a man should have caused more consternation than it did, if Victorian mores are being adhered to. Also, the idea of calling their laundry 'underwear' rather than 'small clothes' or another euphemism of the area was jarring.

In the end, Little Women in India is a valiant attempt that fell flat on many levels. With the recent dearth of Victorian and Regency historical fiction, from Steampunk to Shades of Milk and Honey, there is steep competition in the marketplace for this time period, and a higher mark to reach.

Highs: The girls' flight from the rebels and subsequent ride down the jungle river are nicely detailed and hold the reader's attention.

Lows: While it's one thing to give a character flaws to overcome, when each main character is made unlikable it's hard to care if they grow as people or not.

Verdict: For the further adventures of the March girls, check out Jo's Boys.

Further Reading: Shades of Milk and Honey, The Midnight Palace

Monday, December 24, 2012

Manga Monday: Sometimes when you dig up the past, you're surprised with what you find

Rin starts to get curious about her past, and launches a plan to find out about her origins in Bunny Drop Volume 7.

Note:  Bunny Drop Volume 7 is, of course, the sequel to Bunny Drop Volume 6. The review of Bunny Drop Volume 1 is here, and the review of Bunny Drop Volume 6 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Scrooge isn't the only person who learns the true meaning of Christmas

Retelling classic stories has long been a recipe for success. Fairy tales have been the fodder for many a fantasy novel, and the adding of vampires to classic literature has become something of a mainstay in teen fiction as of late.

Jacob T Marley by R William Bennett, doesn't rely on any of these recent tricks. More of a companion to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol than a sequel or a retelling, it picks up the story of a side character from the original and lets him tell his own tale.

Most people only know Jacob Marley as the character played by Goofy in the Disney adaptation of the story. But Marley had his own life, full of decisions that landed him in the chains that Scrooge eventually sees him in. This is Marley's story, and we see how both he and Scrooge became the men we know so well today.

It would be easy to say that Marley had a hard life, as many did in Victorian London. Perhaps his father was a drunkard, or he was raised by a cruel uncle, and never learned kindness as a child. Perhaps he grew up hungry and cold, attending school on charity money or not at all, and grew stingy out of a real sense of past desperation. Perhaps he had been burned, time and time again, by dishonest employees and thieving tenants, and he learned to harden his heart to their pleas by necessity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Jacob Theloneous Marley grew up the youngest son of a loving, well-off family in London. He was given the middle name of Theloneous after his grandfather, who sacrificed his life saving children from a fire. As a youngster, he was proud to carry the name of such a hero.

But pride can have its drawbacks as well. As he grew older, he learned that he was good with numbers. He eventually ended up running his won counting-house, but leaving behind a much different legacy than his grandfather. As his attitude towards others changed, so did his signature, eventually leaving his middle name out altogether. 

Ebenezer Scrooge came into Marley's life later, as a partner at what became known as Scrooge & Marley. While Scrooge already had the beginnings of a personality that would fit well with what Marley had become, he also learned some of his more hard-hearted traits from Marley.

But on his deathbed, Marley realized the error of his ways and truly repented before taking his last breath, though no mortal would be able to understand his last words. The angels heard, though, and that's what mattered.

The chains he wore, decorated with his beloved lockboxes and keys are his own out of a true desire to save Scrooge from his own fate.

Even though we know the outcome for Scrooge, and are familiar with his triumphant realization on Christmas Morning that it's never to late to change your life, Bennett manages to keep up a level of suspense that is truly impressive. It's hard to work within the confines of such a well-known and beloved tale, but he creates a new tale of redemption that both stands on its own and adds to the original story. When the cold of winter and the false cheer of the season starts to drag, this is the perfect book to remind you that the holidays can be about more than presents after all.

Highs: Nothing in this world is truly a coincidence, and the ring and the necklace in their desks prove it.

Lows: If you're a sucker for Hallmark commercials and the like, don't read the ending in public.

Verdict: A perfect pre-Christmas gift to get people into the true spirit of Christmas.

Further Reading: A Clockwork Christmas

Monday, December 17, 2012

Manga Monday: I don't think those pears are good anymore...

It's festival season, and Yotsuba's getting fed a whole lot of sweets in Yotsuba&! Volume 8.

Note: Yotsuba&! Volume 8 is, of course, the sequel to Yotsuba&! Volume 7. The review of Yotsuba&! Volume 1 is here, and the review of Yotsuba&! Volume 7 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The war continues, and alliances are constantly shifting.

As The Fifteen Realms braces for war, alliances crumble and new ones form in Maria V. Snyder's second Healer book, Scent of Magic.

Note: Scent of Magic is the sequel to Touch of Power. You can read the review for Touch of Power here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Imagine the air quality if we still used coal in cities today!

The year is 1859 and the Crown has more to worry about than usual in Cindy Spencer Pape's fourth story of The Gaslight Chronicles, Moonlight & Mechanicals.

Note: Moonlight & Mechanicals is the fourth story of in The Gaslight Chronicles series.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In Russia, it's hard to tell whether the darkness comes from reality or the old tales

It takes a certain mind to see the stories behind the items and people one passes every day. The seas of the moon. The pattern of the holes in an electric iron. A sock puppet in a counselor's bag. Each of these items and more, when brushed by a touch of magical realism and the mind of Ekaterina Sedia, becomes a tale in her first short story collection Moscow but Dreaming.

Some of the people in this collection are memorable enough to stay with the reader long after the covers are closed. The old man in 'Tin Cans,' confronting the nightmares of his youth every evening in his position as a night watchman. The orphan girl in 'There is a Monster Under Helen's Bed,' rescued from the human monsters of her orphanage in Russia, but unable to escape demons of a different sort. The man in 'Seas of the World,' born of the Caspian and not realizing how dangerous transformation magic can be until it's too late.

Even the objects in the stories burn their place in the reader's memory. The shape of the burns that the racketeers of 'By the Liter' leave on their victims, so like a Kabbalic symbol, that allow the spirit of the newly deceased to wander. The legendary bodies of water in 'A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas' and the societies that inhabit each, so like their names. An elusive, mysterious building in 'The Bank of Burkina Faso,' which is so eager to accept your money, but so reluctant to return it. Even the sock puppet in 'A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets' has more heart and more drive than one would expect from a toy with buttons for eyes.

Beyond the Eastern European setting that these stories share, there's also a thread of magical realism that loosely ties these works together. In the vein if Isabel Allende and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Sedia blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Nearly every story in this collection has some form of the supernatural appear at some point, often where the reader least expects it.

Even as these tale engage the reader and draw him in to these magical realms, a few of the stories broke the spell. As wonderful as the imagery and narrative can be, those without a good knowledge of Russian history will be sent scrambling to Google to help make sense of the backdrop. 'Tin Can' in particular sent this reader on an hour-long Wikipedia session, learning about Lavientiy Beria and the secret police of the USSR. Those who didn't live through the Cold War years may be a bit lost at times, but never enough to lessen the enjoyment of the stories at face value.

This isn't a collection to be read in marathon sessions. Doing so would lessen the uniqueness of each story. These should be savored for their individuality, not seen as simply the next story in a book. Each story of Moscow but Dreaming deserves to be examined and contemplated on its own. To do less would be a disservice to the author and the amazing worlds she creates.

Highs: In each story, the reader feels the darkness behind the great fairy tales peeking around the edges, waiting patiently for its chance to come out.

Lows: Because each story is so rich, the volume as a whole seems rather daunting.

Verdict: A perfect book for the reader who rarely has time to sit down for long, as each story will rattle around in back of his mind for days.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Merry Christmas Non-Fiction Shopping List

The Non-Fiction Shopping List 2012

It's the beginning of the holiday shopping season, and it's time to start checking peoples' Amazon wish lists and listen for hints. Book readers can be a squirrley bunch, though, and none more so than those who read non-fiction. Some people read non-fiction simply for the desire to learn about the world around them, while others look down at fiction readers as escapists. Whatever the reason, there's plenty of good true stories out there to be given. Here's a few, along with the suggest audience for each.

North Korea's been all over the news this year, with last winter's death of Kim Jong-Il, the rise of Kim Jong-Un and his wife Ri Sol-Ju, and the loosening of some of the restrictions there. This is a rather unique look into the most cloistered country in the world, through the eyes of an American POW.

Recommended for: the current-affairs and news junkies on your list.

This is a rare look into one of the less shiny subcultures in Japan. Writing with the pen name Oyama Shiro, this chronicles the life of a day laborer through the bubble years and following recession in Japan. Unable to fit into the salaryman role laid out for him, the narrator take the more difficult, yet ultimately more freeing life of manual labor. Living in a bunk in a boardinghouse, not only does he blame no one for his fall in status, he thanks his society for giving him the opportunity to live as he wishes, with no responsibilities to anyone but himself.

Recommended for: people struggling with the current American recession, those who believe Japan has no underside.

William Kamkwamba lived through some of the hardest times in Malawi. With his father unable to bring in a harvest, he couldn't afford to go to school. Even when he was young, though, he thought it was a shame that work and study had to end when it got dark. While trying to piece together an advanced science book in the village's library, he put together the bicycle lights he's seen around town and a picture of a windmill, and he brings a light in the darkness to his home for the first time.

Recommended for: with a strong message of self-reliance and a happy ending, this is a safe book for anyone from upper-middle-school to a grandmother.

Almost more of an art book than a real story, one of the women of the CLAMP manga writing group puts together a beautiful collection of both original and traditional kimono. She relates her experiences in wearing kimono in regular life, as well as ways to modernize the style of dress while keeping them feminine and pretty.

Recommended for: most female manga readers would appreciate the art of this book, even if they'd never dress like this themselves.

Known by many aliases since her death, this is the story of the life and family of a poor black woman in Maryland. Treated at Johns Hopkins, the cancerous cells that eventually killed her opened the door to the study of human cells outside of the body. What follows is the history of her family, who never saw a dime of the money that their mother's cells made, the scientists who used her biological material without her consent, and a fascinating look at the fields of bioethics and medical patents.

Recommended for: fans of science, civil rights and biographies alike.

China has one of the most controlled 'free' presses in the world. And yet, it's still much more relaxed than in decades past. In the 1980s, as radio was slowly able to show the country a more realistic view of itself, Xinran began a late-night call in show for women. Collected here are some of the most memorable stories from those years. Told in plain language, but with a journalist's ear for narrative, the lives of the women in this book will stay with the reader long after she closes the cover.

Recommended for: current events and history buffs, women's rights and civil rights activists, and anyone looking for poignant stories with a thread of hope woven within them.

So there it is. That should cover most of your shopping list. But again, as always, make sure to tuck that gift receipt into the front cover. Book readers are a wily bunch, and sometimes we read even the most obscure title without anyone knowing. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An Indian pickpocket finds more than she bargained for

Esme and Jed are back, and just as hard-headed as ever in the second story of The Bustlepunk Chronicles, Courting Trouble by Jenny Schwartz.

Note: This is the second story of The Bustlepunk Chronicles. The review of the for the first story, 'Wanted: One Scoundrel' can be found here. Otherwise, read on!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A horrific look into North Korea, through the eyes of a man who lived the worst of it.

South Korea, like Japan, has had a renaissance in the last century or so. With a national attitude of always striving to achieve, the small nation has international auto companies, a huge online presence, and is now beginning to export its music and culture as well.

Just to the north is a country that, during the same period of time, has travelled backwards by decades. Unable to feed itself with its rocky soil and outdating farming practices, the same ethinc population is nearly three inches shorter than its well-fed southern counterparts.

But even in this strange world, there is a deeper hell to fall into. Their prison camps, scattered across the countryside, are a nightmare within a nightmare. These are the places that are used to control a population that watched as much as 10% of its population starve to death in the 1990s.

This is the hell that is Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. In the worst of North Korea's prison camps, the people living there aren't being rehabilitated by labor. People sent to these are never expected to leave again. They're completely self-sufficient, with the prisoners even growing the food for the guards who live on-base. There's plenty of labor to go around, and even schools for the children.

At least the adults who are sent here have memories of their lives before they got here to hold on to. They remember a life outside of breaking rocks in the quarry, outside of less-than-subsistence farming, of the freedom to choose one's partner, rather than being assigned a mate for good behavior.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born here. For the first 14 years of his life, he had no idea about the world outside the fences of his camp. Unbelievably, the children of Camp 14 aren't even indoctrinated into the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung and his descendants. Where the Dear Leader's portrait hangs in virtually every classroom and public space in the country, the rules of the camp are posted. 

Violation of Rule Three, Subsection 2 - Anyone who steals or hides any kind of food in the work camp will be shot immediately - was the cause of his six year old classmate being beaten to death in front of the class. In this twisted mockery of society, ideals of filial piety and the value of children are mostly unheard of. Starving children steal food from their equally starving parents and are beaten for it. They're taught that they are here because of the sins of their parents, and that the way to redeem themselves is to accept the guards as their teachers. And as Shin learned early on, any infraction against these rules could, and did, result in a swift and painful death.

Escape never really occurred to Shin. He had no real idea that life would be different anywhere else. But when he was imprisoned and tortured following the failed escape attempt of his mother and brother, his outlook changed. He was placed in a cell with a man who had lived outside of North Korea for a time. It wasn't the brutality of his captors that made him dream of freedom. It wasn't watching his mother and brother be hanged, or a teen's curiosity at the larger world outside.

It was the stories of the banquets that the Chinese throw for any reason they can come up with. It was the dream of white rice and roast pork, from a child who had grown up on a thin gruel, with the occasional bit of Chinese cabbage and salt thrown in. It was the dream of eating until he was full that motivated Shin to be not only the first person to escape Camp 14, but the first person born in a labor camp to escape North Korea, and eventually make it all the way to the West.

This is no Elie Wiesel's Night. There is no holding on to their humanity for the children born here, because they were never taught to have any in the first place. There's no message of the strength of human spirit or any other platitudes like that. This is simply one man's story of growing up in hell, and escaping to a world he's never learned how to function in.

Highs: If nothing else, the reader learns to believe in blind luck, because after Shin manages to escape the prison camp itself, a string of much-needed good luck helps him along until he makes it to the South Korean embassy.

Lows: This is possibly the most unrelentingly brutal, despairing book I've ever come across.

Verdict: Perhaps the best accounting of a North Korean prison camp, but plan to follow reading this with something more uplifting.

Further Reading: Nothing to Envy, The Reluctant Communist

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When two people steal the same name, conflicts generally occur

A cat - who might be more than he appears - helps a young ballerina from France make it big in England in Mercedes Lackey's sixth Elemental Masters novel, Reserved for the Cat.

While this is the sixth book in the Elemental Masters series, it is certainly accessible to first time readers of the series.  While there are no real spoilers that I could tell, or anything beyond basic 'fantasy world magic' to know, there may be some that I missed, so be warned.  Otherwise, read on 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A fairy tale retelling that doesn't shy away from the darkness of the old stories

Wicked stepmothers, loyal brothers and the spirits of the woods inhabit this fairy tale retelling in Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest.

Despite the tribulations of her birth, Sorcha had something of a charmed childhood. If she had been born a boy, she would have been the twice-blessed seventh son of a seventh son. Not only was she born a girl, but her mother died in childbirth. While her father loved her, as he loved all her children, she was a painful reminder of the love he had lost, and besides, he was busy fighting wars and teaching her brothers to take their eventual places by his side.

So perhaps Sorcha grew up a bit wild by the standards of nobility. She was taught to read and reckon along with her brothers, and while other girls were stitching samplers she learned the healing arts. She ran through the woods barefoot well into her teens, and became a bit headstrong for it.

While she had no parents present to teach her to be a proper young lady, she had six doting brothers to raise her. When she got into some unpleasant plants in the forest, it was her brothers how pulled the stickers out of her hands. When she learned a new healing skill, her brothers were there to congratulate her. But even her brothers are not enough to protect her from what is to come.

For their father has remarried, and she has no use for his previous family in her plans. 

Daughter of the Forest, in the tradition of many other fantasy novels, retells the classic fairy tale 'The Six Swans.' Marillier pulls no punches with her characters, giving us some of the worst sides of human nature. The light only shines in the darkness, though, and the contrast between her and the loyalty, honor and faith of our heroine shows that even when faced with a seemingly impossible task, the human spirit can find a way to prevail.

Highs: Marillier creates a feudal world with a rich history, and imparts this backstory seamlessly within the plot.

Lows: While the beauty of the descriptions and the magic of the faerie realm would be loved by all ages, certain scenes of Sorcha's trials make this unsuitable for the younger fantasy audience.

Verdict: A lovely story that contains both the light and the darkness of the fairy tale that it's based on.

Further Reading: Son of the Shadows, The Fire Rose

Monday, October 29, 2012

Manga Monday: Can first love be anything but bittersweet?

Year 2 at Tokyo Space School begins, and Mr. Lion reflects on his first love, in Twin Spica Volume 5.

Note:  Twin Spica Volume 5 is, of course, the sequel to Twin Spica Volume 4. The review for Twin Spica Volume 1 is here, and the review of Twin Spica Volume 4 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sometimes the story behind the story is even more interesting

"Just a story? Tell that to the Greeks who fought at Troy...Tell the women burned as witches. The Rosenbergs. Sacco and Vanzetti. Tell the martyrs of all the religions and the millions who fell in all the wars since time began. Stories are the only thing worth dying for."
That speech, made by a man consumed by a story, eloquently sums up the beginning of an amazing new series from Vertigo, The Unwritten Volume 1 by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross. 

Tom Taylor can't help who his father was. Wilson Taylor created the world-wide phenomenon of the Timmy Taylor book series. He completed 13 books centered around this character before his mysterious disappearance, leaving his own son Tommy behind.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and Tom hasn't done all that much with his life. Really, besides money from his father's estate, he mostly just trolls the convention circuit signing his father's books and doing Q&A sessions for fans who have a dubious grasp of reality.

His whole life begins to unravel at London Tommy Con. As Lizzie Hexan brings light to the inconsistencies in Tommy's childhood, more and more of his life stops making sense. Finally, after he survives a kidnapping by a fan (with a little bit of help from Lizzie) he's hailed as a messiah, begged to lay hands on the sick and heal the crippled. And as he continues to track down figures from his childhood, it looks like there are outside forces determined to keep the past firmly in the past.

With a debut including Sandman and Hellblazer, Vertigo has been known from the beginning for bringing high-quality, innovative series to the comic store. With a current lineup including the hit 'Fables' along with this title, Vertigo is continuing this trend today. While this title could go in many different directions, history has shown that it won't lack for quality storytelling.

Highs:  The 'torture porn' version of Tommy Taylor make me giggle out loud.

Lows:  The the switch to the past in the last chapter was a bit jarring.

Verdict:  An extremely promising opening to the series, with some of the best lines about the importance of stories I've ever read.

Further Reading:  Fables, Y - The Last Man

Monday, October 15, 2012

Manga Monday: Looks like Happosai was a nuisance when he was younger, too.

Yet ANOTHER fiancee of Ranma comes out of the woodwork - and Mousse turns up again - in Ranma 1/2 Volume 8.

Note:  Ranma 1/2 Volume 8 is, of course, the sequel to Ranma 1/2 Volume 7. The review for Ranma 1/2 Volume 1 is here, and the review for Ranma 1/2 Volume 7 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One woman sheds light on a nation's oppression of women

All countries evolve. A person born a generation ago in America has seen a revolution in social issues. In the last 50 years, the US has seen great strides in the acceptance of minorities, homosexuals, the physically and mentally handicapped, and those with mental illnesses. The military has gone from a noble profession, to something to be despised, to a 'love the soldier, hate the war' mentality. We've had the Red Scare, watched the Berlin Wall come down and had the first large-scale terrorist attack on American soil.

All that, however, is nothing compared to what has been going on in China since the end of World War II, as seen in Xinran's Good Women of China. So much of it will never be know, because of China's strict control of the media. It's a wonder even that the Tank Man footage of the Tienanmen Square Massacre made it out intact, as military police stormed the hotels overlooking the Square, destroying any film and cameras they could find.

By the 1980s, however, China began to give the appearance of a free press. Author Xinran sought to give voice to the millions of women in China that had found themselves in truly horrifying situations. Created by a combination of thousands of years of a male-dominated culture, the huge social and political upheaval of the last century, and a pervasive national sense of not being able to change one's lot in life. Whatever the reason, though, there is no excuse for the horrors found in the stories included here.

The very first story in the collection is the story of Hong Yue. Hong Yue was a bright young girl who kept a diary while in the hospital. But the relative safety of the hospital was the best situation she'd ever been in. For at home, her father slips into her bedroom at night. And when she tells her mother about this, she is told that there is nothing to be done about it. The family needs its patriarch, and there is nothing to be gained by making a fuss and the family losing face over the issue. So Hong Yue learns how to keep herself sickly and confined to the hospital,  where befriending a baby housefly and sacrificing her health is better than the alternative.

But not every heartbreaking story ends in despair. Due to the lack of rural infrastructure, a massive earthquake in central China went completely unnoticed by authorities. Until people walked through the destroyed roads leading out of town, no one outside the village knew how bad the destruction was. Entire apartment buildings were shorn in two, as mothers watched their children buried in rubble. But from the devastation of the earthquake grew an orphanage that helped the childless mothers as much as the orphans themselves. Their days are filled with laughter and play, and both the mothers and the children share in the healing.

After working on her radio show for years, Xinran became a tremendously famous media personality in China. It came to the point where she would be stopped on the street by perfect strangers, and being offered their terrible stories, wherever she went. Eventually, it became too much for her, and she moved herself and her son to Britain. One good thing came of the move, however - outside of the influence of the Chinese media, she's now able to get her books published. Since then, she has also set up a charity teaching Chinese heritage to children who have been adopted out of the country. In this way, Xinran continues to help those without a voice, both in China and beyond.

Highs: These are stories that need to be told, no matter how hard they are to endure.

Lows:  Because there are no easy answers to the plights of those whose stories are told, it does leave the reader with a sense of despair at the end.

Verdict: An absolute must-read for anyone who wants to know how the rest of the world really lives.

Further Reading: Sky Burial, Half the Sky

Monday, October 8, 2012

Manga Monday: The past ten years finally become clear

The cause of the tension between Rin and Kouki finally gets some explanation in Bunny Drop Volume 6.

Note:  Bunny Drop Volume 6 is, of course, the sequel to Bunny Drop Volume 5. The review of Bunny Drop Volume 1 is here, and the review of Bunny Drop Volume 5 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Manga Monday: They call it the Vomit Comet for a reason

Marika begins to break away from her family, and Asumi works to overcome her physical limitations in Twin Spica Volume 4.

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

Monday, September 17, 2012

Manga Monday: Why won't anyone open the door?

Chi is introduced to the life of an indoors-only kitty in Chi's Sweet Home Volume 9.

Note: Chi's Sweet Home Volume 9 is, of course, the sequel to Chi's Sweet Home Volume 8. The review of Chi's Sweet Home Volume 1 is here, and the review of Chi's Sweet Home Volume 8 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Callie's first mission for the War Office hits close to home

Callie and Jasper get called in by the War Office in JK Coi's 'Broken Promises.'

Note:  'Broken Promises' is the second story in the 'Seasons of Invention' series. The review of the first story, 'Far From Broken', is here. Otherwise, read on! 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Manga Monday: Only a master blacksmith could dare to make Black Jack's scalpels

Doctor Black Jack operates out of spite, and is reminded to always be humble, in Black Jack Volume 5.

Note:  Black Jack Volume 5 is, of course, the sequel to Black Jack Volume 4. The Vertical edition is published not in chronological order, but in the preferred order of Osamu Tezuka, so spoilers are not generally a problem. The review for Black Jack Volume 1 is here, and the review for Black Jack Volume 4 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Manga Monday: Can Ryukku rise to the challenge of protecting his teacher?

Palace intrigue - and Shurei's temper - really flare up in The Story of Saiunkoku Volume 2.

Note:  The Story of Saiunkoku Volume 2 is, of course, the sequel to The Story of Saiunkoku Volume 1. The review of The Story of Saiunkoku Volume 1 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Manga Monday: It's a good thing I don't always get sick when I stay up too late, too!

Yotsuba learns to bake, takes a trip to the convenience store by herself, and discovers where cows live in Yotsuba&! Volume 7.

Note: Yotsuba&! Volume 7 is, of course, the sequel to Yotsuba&! Volume 6. The review of Yotsuba&! Volume 1 is here, and the review of Yotsuba&! Volume 6 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Does a person have default ownership of their own genome?

Who owns the biological waste that gets left behind at hospitals and clinics every day? What, exactly, defines informed consent and when does it apply? Can an organism or a snippet of DNA be patented? How does this change when it's human DNA involved?

These topics, and many others, are tackled in Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot was first introduced to Henrietta as a side-note in ah High School biology class.The HeLa line of cells was the first to be successfully cultured in a lab. This created a way for scientists to study how cells work outside of a human host. The ability to work with cells in this way paved the way for vaccines for polio and influenza and helped create some of the most popular drugs to fight cancer. It helped to found the study of chromosomes and DNA itself.

But what of the woman behind the cells?

The HeLa strain was discovered long before such things as 'informed consent' and HIPAA laws. Discovered in 1951 by a researcher at Johns Hopkins, it was cultured from a young black woman living outside of Philadelphia. She later died of the cervical cancer from which HeLa sprung, which metastasized throughout her body. She left behind five children and a legacy that would change science forever, but her existence as a person would be largely forgotten, even by her own young children.

Rebecca Skloot's journey to discover Henrietta Lacks takes her on a journey that she could hardly have imagined when she started out. Skipping through time, the book ventures from Henrietta's mother's upbringing in Lacksville to her youngest daughter's home. We meet the doctors and nurses who discovered the unique traits of her cells, the ones who put the cells to use curing and preventing a myriad of diseases, and the one young doctor who finally takes the time to explain to her children exactly how important the mother they didn't get to grow up with was to the world.

There's a host of failures on the parts of the medical community, society and the Lacks family shown here. Over and over, the doctors and researchers simply never too the time to explain to the Lackses what they were doing and why. In the 1950s, the Lacks children were never tested for the hearing deficiencies that doomed them scholastically. The family as a whole didn't see anything wrong with cousins marrying, probably causing a host of problems with Henrietta's first daughter and also possibly contributing to learning disabilities with her other children as well.

Even though the story skips through the decades, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a quick, easy to follow read. While the story of the Lacks family is interesting, the legal and medical information is even more fascinating. The author touches on other patients who have had biological material that was considered useful by the medical field, the legal advances in protection patients' rights, and the history of the care of patients. In an age where GMO food is starting to make headlines and patents and copyrights are making it nearly impossible for scientists to do research, the issues addressed here will only become more and more important.

Highs:  Watching Henrietta's troubled youngest son finally be shown how important his mother is to the world.

Lows:  I wish there was more about the legal aspect of some of the issues raised here.

Verdict:  Simple enough for a reader without much of a science background, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a fascinating ride through an aspect of medicine that most never see.

Further Reading:  The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, The Family that Couldn't Sleep

Monday, July 30, 2012

Manga Monday: Is everyone who can see yokai so very odd?

Takashi puts everything on the line to protect the Book of Friends and the yokai in his care in Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 3.

Note:  Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 3 is, of course, the sequel to Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 2. The review of Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 1 is here, and the review of Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 2 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sometimes it's best not to be so special after all

A room full of mechanical toys can become quite devious in Mary Robinette Kowal's short story 'Clockwork Chickadee.'

Somewhere, somewhen there's a magical room full of clockwork toys.  There's Clockwork Sparrow, flying around the ceiling on a string.  There's Clockwork Scarab, sitting with his lotus. And there's the Clockwork Chickadee, who flaps her wings and pecks at the shelf.

Clockwork Sparrow tends to think a lot of himself.  He is, of course, the only clockwork creature in the room who can actually fly.  It may not be the sparrow who is clockwork, though, only the device on the ceiling that makes the bird fly when the boy winds it.  Nevertheless, Clockwork Sparrow feels that he is special.

Being special can cause envy, though.

Clockwork Chickadee can't fly.  Her wings flap, her head moves, but she sits solidly on the shelf where she is kept.  Clockwork Chickadee does know a few things that Clockwork Sparrow doesn't, though.

Clockwork Chickadee knows Live Mouse.

Clockwork Chickadee knows that Live Mouse has the wind-up key.

And Clockwork Chickadee is very, very clever indeed.

Highs:  The story starts out seeming like a simple retelling of a parable, but by the end turns into something completely different.

Lows:  It's a very tight story, but it leaves me wanting more tales from this room.

Verdict:  A tale unlike the others I've read from this author, available for free here on her website.

Further Reading:  'For Want of a Nail', 'Tanglefoot'

Monday, July 23, 2012

Manga Monday: Perhaps Lydia needs to listen to her cat more often

A kidnapping, a betrayal and a death follow Miss Lydia to the Isle of Manan in The Earl and the Fairy Volume 2.

Note:  The Earl and the Fairy Volume 2 is, of course, the sequel to The Earl and the Fairy Volume 1. The review of The Earl and the Fairy Volume 1 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A half-fairy girl battles the fairy courts in 1930s America

1935 was a hard year, in the middle of a hard decade, for the Great Plains.  Beyond The Great Depression, which had the entire country in its grips, the Dust Bowl made a great swatch of the breadbasket of the nation unlivable.  People died of dust pneumonia and malnutrition, and millions fled the area.

But Callie, in Sarah Zettel's Dust Girl, is trapped.  Her mother owns the last hotel in the small Kansas town of Slow Run, and since Callie's father promised to come back to her someday, she refuses to leave.  Never mind that she hasn't heard word from Callie's father since before she was born.  Never mind that no one comes through town to stay at the hotel anymore.

Never mind the eternal dust, filling their house and their food and their lungs, slowing choking them to death.

But on April 14, 1935 that all changed.  The day of the worst dust storm in all of Kansas, Callie's mother disappears and Callie's life is turned upside-down.  

Turns out, Callie's father had a pretty good reason not to come back. Both the Seelie and the Unseelie Courts have a little something to say about his human love and half-breed daughter.    And in order to rescue both of her parents, Callie will have to master a world of magic and deception that she didn't even know existed.

The first in the forthcoming The American Fairy Trilogy, Dust Girl does a decent, if not spectacular job of setting up the world in which Callie lives.  Zettel assumes the reader has some basic understanding of the Dust Bowl, as well as the Great Depression, which is reasonable.  Novelties such as dance marathons are explained well, and add to the atmosphere of the era.  

The magical aspect, however, is much less well-defined.  Whether this is in an effort not to write herself into a corner in other books, or whether is simply a matter of magic being undefinable is hard to say.  The parts that are well-defined, though, show a rather interesting idea of a fairy or magic user being able to use the wishes of those around her to bring things into being is a fairly interesting concept.

Like most YA fiction, Dust Girl is a quick read.  The main characters remain engaging throughout, and even if their actions are at time a bit predictable, it's a comforting predictability that takes nothing away from the story itself.

Highs:  The descriptions of the dance marathons and the hobo camps show the reader what true desperation is.

Lows:  The lack of a defined method of magic among the fairies makes it frustrating at times.

Verdict:  A standard adventure story whose seldom-used backdrop puts it a bit above average.

Further Reading:  The Midnight Palace, Howl's Moving Castle 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Manga Monday: I suppose it makes sense that evil soul stealers would incorporate...

We learn more about Rinne - and his terribly dysfunctional family - in Rin-Ne Volume 4.

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