The CMX Project: Land of the Blindfolded

MICHELLE: Welcome to the first installment of a new feature called The CMX Project. Back in October, Karen Peck and I talked about the CMX series Canon for that month’s Manga Moveable Feast, and had such fun that we decided to start a recurring feature focusing on some of the other series they released during their all-too-brief time with us. For the most part these will be shoujo works, but not exclusively so.

Hi, Karen! Do you want to introduce our featured title for this month, or shall I?

KAREN: I’ll go!

blindfolded9Land of the Blindfolded, or Mekakushi no Kuni, is a nine-volume shoujo manga series by Sakura Tsukuba. It was one of CMX’s debut titles back in 2004, along with some classic titles like Swan and From Eroica with Love. Land of the Blindfolded originally ran in Hakusensha’s LaLa and LaLa DX magazines, and CMX would later go on to pick up another one of her series, Penguin Revolution. Besides these two works, her other series is the Christmas-themed Yoroshiku Master. The rest seems to have been mostly one-shots in different Hakusensha magazines—too bad I missed the two she did in Melody!

Kanade Outsuka sees a world full of people wearing “blindfolds.” But every once in a while, for her, that blindfold “slips” and she gets to see what others can’t—in her case, she can see a person’s future. Having a big heart and a determined spirit (as any good Hakusensha heroine should), Kanade will try to intervene if the future she sees will cause someone harm—even if the person she helps thinks that she’s just being weird. Two boys come into her life—Arou, who can see the past and carries around the heavy burden of his own past—and Namiki, who can also see the future but has a very different attitude about it than Kanade does. A sweet romance develops between Kanade and Arou… and I wouldn’t say “hijiinks ensue;” this title is entirely too gentle for much of that.

Michelle, what were your impressions?

MICHELLE: Initially, I was torn. There were certain elements of the story that I liked—the fact that Kanade and Arou become a couple with minimum fuss, Kanade’s spunky best friend (Eri), the neat side abilities that Arou’s power gives him…—but the first few volumes are very episodic and feature chapters with plots like “a plucky abandoned puppy is rescued from his doom during a rainstorm by an angsty boy affected by the protagonist’s shoujo heroine powers.”

The stories begin to take a more interesting turn in volume five, when Arou first uses his power in a new, freaky way to track Kanade after she’s swept away at the beach. And then shortly thereafter, he’s reunited with a classmate from junior high who wants him to use his powers to benefit society by helping to solve murders.

LotB-Arouwater

The rest of the volumes are all pretty good, though I’m most fond of volumes six and seven. I note, though, that Kanade really gets the short shrift after a while. She truly is the least interesting character of the bunch, and there is much more time devoted to the traumatic pasts suffered by Arou and Namiki than anything involving Kanade (excepting her decision to come clean to Eri about her ability).

KAREN: It is very episodic, and for me that’s what lead to my assessment of this as being very “gentle”—when stories wrap up each chapter, nothing really seems that dire. Instead, we get a series of ordinary events—the school festival. A clash with student government. The class trip. Hot springs hijinks (okay, so there is a little hijink-ing). The summer festival. And so on.

However, the banality of these events is contrasted with the very unordinary main characters. Here we have a girl who can see the future, but like any other girl her age, she worries about the very ordinary things—will people like the real me? Will I fit in? Can I tell my best friend all of my secrets? It’s this relatability that I think really speaks to the reader. Everyone has insecurities, even these “special” kids.

confession

The “plot” really does pick up later on. I was kinda hoping that Arou’s uncle would be more of a revolutionary character—he seems to have some rather dark intentions—but that fizzled out. I’m not sure if that was a red herring or Tsukuba sending off signals that she didn’t mean to.

I do agree with you, Michelle—Kanade seems to downright disappear in some of the stories, and I wish she had more of a presence. I also like that the coupling happens without a lot of drama—and while the back cover tries to play up the triangle, Kanade and Arou only have eyes for each other. Poor Namiki. At least he got a puppy.

MICHELLE: And possibly the world’s most adorable turtle!

turtle

I did find it interesting that although Land of the Blindfolded does include some stock shoujo scenarios—in addition to the ones you named there’s a trip to the amusement park, a trip to the beach, Christmas—they didn’t really annoy me as much as they do in series like, say, Ai Ore! Probably the likeable characters are responsible for that.

And yes, it’s largely the disclosure of the leads’ insecurities that make later volumes more compelling. Learning about Arou’s painful past wherein he was feared and shunned for his abilities makes the present where he is warmly liked and trusted by his classmates that much more significant. Now we can see how much it really means to him. And, too, we learn how scarred Namiki was by his mother’s timidity, and how this contributed to his rather jaded attitude when we first meet him. My absolute favorite scene in the whole series occurs between Namiki and Kanade’s mother, in which she tells him he’s a good boy and he starts to cry. I’m getting a little sniffly just thinking about it, actually.

goodboy

Yeah, the Sou thing did rather fizzle out, but it all played in to the warm and fuzzy “you are not alone” ending, so maybe that was all Tsukuba intended.

KAREN: That turtle was cute. And the pet-sitter bonus chapter was very cute.

I think it’s because Arou and Namiki had those much heavier pasts that Kanade gets lost. Well, she did see a vision of her grandfather’s death, but she’s from such a kind and accepting family that it becomes something to be overcome rather than something creepy that results in her ostracism. I agree with you, Michelle, about how affecting that one scene with Namiki and Kanade’s mother is—it’s really a moment when this story works. It’s a message that would work for any child that was rejected—that you are good. However, if every chapter/story in Land of the Blindfold was this emotionally wrenching, we wouldn’t be able to get through this review!

Of the secondary characters, I also liked Kaicho-san, the student council president. Her attraction to Arou was handled well, and I’m glad that it didn’t devolve into a Marmalade Boy-style Love Dodecahedron. I did like that it was hinting that Kaicho and Namiki might perhaps hook up, but it that was played well, and I think realistically. They would be good together, but for now they still have their hearts somewhere else. By not rushing them together, Tsukuba didn’t compromise their characters and what they had been about.

kaicho_namiki

The other beta couple, Eri and Ezawa, were presented as the Doomed Couple, but turned into something else, and so much of it was done in the background, as their story would pop in and out, showing their evolution as a couple.

I did want to say one thing about CMX’s presentation—I remember comments at the time about the tightness of the bindings, and wow, the first three volumes were very hard to read. I’m glad that they worked that out for later volumes so I didn’t have to worry about ruining the book when I opened it. The art… works, if that’s a way of putting it. Sakura Tsukuba isn’t one of the great shoujo artists, but her work is expressive and the humorous moments were very cute.

MICHELLE: I liked Kaicho a lot, too (though we eventually learn her last name, we never learn her first one), and was totally bracing for an eventual pairing off with Namiki. I think she could’ve been the heroine of her own manga series, actually.

We don’t learn too much about the inner workings of Eri and Ezawa’s relationship, but I definitely like that he became more interested in her once she showed she wasn’t going to fawn over him mindlessly like everyone else. She basically learns quickly that attempting to change yourself for someone never works, and then they turn out to be a stable couple from then on. Also, Tsukuba makes a few suggestions that they’re doing more than kissing while still keeping the content within an “E for Everyone” rating.

And yes, those fiendish bindings! I actually have the first five in that style and was desperately sick of them and so relieved when volume six came around. I hadn’t realized it, but I guess I hadn’t read any of the really early CMX volumes before this, so I didn’t know how terrible they were.

I don’t seem to have too much to say about Tsukuba’s art, actually. There were a few sequences that I quite liked, but that was more about what was happening in the scene than her skills. She does mention repeatedly how much she loves drawing animals, and adorable critters did seem to be her strong suit.

LotBPUPPY

KAREN: I caught that too with Eri and Ezawa. And how it totally flew over Kanade’s head.

Like most CMX series, Land of the Blindfolded is long out-of-print but easily and inexpensively obtainable on the secondary market. The infamous tight bindings vary—Michelle’s go up to volume five, mine only up to three, but they’re still readable. It’s a good title for the younger YA reader, because there’s nothing objectionable and it is such a sweet story—no questionable misogyny, for example. This is the sort of title that CMX did so well—and something that’s very much missed in the current market. (I’m sure there’s many YA librarians who agree!) Thankfully, though, they did manage to get so many titles out during their time—I’m looking forward to the next title we’re going to cover!

MICHELLE: Which is… drumroll please… Cipher, by Minako Narita! I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, so I’m really excited about next month’s column.

Thanks for joining us this month, and we hope you’ll be back next time!

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann

From the back cover:
On a hillside near the cozy Irish village of Glennkill, the members of the flock gather around their shepherd, George, whose body lies pinned to the ground with a spade. George has cared for the sheep, reading them a plethora of books every night. The daily exposure to literature has made them far savvier about the workings of the human mind than your average sheep. Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), they set out to find George’s killer.

The A-team of investigators includes Othello, the “bad boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. Joined by other members of the talented flock, they engage in nightlong discussions about the crime and embark on reconnaissance missions into the village, where they encounter some likely suspects. Along the way, the sheep confront their own struggles with guilt, misdeeds, and unrequited love.

Review:
I’m not sure where I first heard about Three Bags Full, but the promise of a mystery with a team of sheepy sleuths on the case guaranteed that I had to read it. Originally published in German as Glennkill, this English edition has been translated by Anthea Bell.

Despite its bucolic setting, things are not very peaceful in the Irish village of Glennkill. One morning, George the shepherd is found dead in his pasture and his sheep, particularly several whose intelligence has been greatly increased due to George’s habit of reading aloud to them, set out to find justice. What ensues are various scenes of the sheep surreptitiously observing humans—“It was the first time Othello had been to a funeral, but the ram behaved beautifully.”—and filtering the information they glean through a sheepy lens. Usually, they get things a bit wrong, but the logic of their reasoning is quite endearing. They still manage to behave like sheep and often, certain of the flock complain about all the thinking and learning and must be cajoled from backsliding into blissful ignorance. Metaphor, much?

This was Swann’s first novel—a sequel, Garou came out in 2010 but no English translation is yet available—so perhaps it’s not surprising that, while the sheep are charming, the mystery itself is not as well-developed. George had apparently discovered a dirty secret of some of the villagers years before, but nothing much actually comes of this. Then, we also learn George was a drug dealer—with a rather clever method of transporting his goods—but nothing much actually comes of this, either. That said, the way in which the sheep encourage the truth to come out—though they’re convinced that what needs to “come out” is some kind of tangible thing lurking in the shepherd’s caravan—is pretty cute to envision, so I can’t complain too much.

Lastly, a couple of compliments! I applaud the English translation by Anthea Bell, which is so well done—and retains so much wit—that one would never guess it wasn’t the original text. Also, I happened to “read” Three Bags Full in unabridged audio format and the narrator, Josephine Bailey, was simply superb. Each sheep had their own easily recognizable voice, and the lambs were nothing short of adorable.

Here’s hoping Garou eventually makes its way to our shores!

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

pointofhopesFrom the back cover:
It is the time of the annual Midsummer Fair in the royal city of Astreiant, and the time of the conjunction of the spheres approaches, heralding the death of the monarch. Each year a few youngsters run away from home to go on the road with traders, but this year a far larger number of children than usual have gone missing during the Fair. Someone is stealing them away without a trace, and the populace is angry.

Nicolas Rathe, a city guard, must find the children and stop whatever dark plan is being hatched before the city explodes into chaos.

Review:
It took me nearly three years to finish reading Point of Hopes, and two months to write this review after I finally completed it. Those facts should give you a good indication of just how riveting this mystery isn’t.

Nicolas Rathe is a “pointsman” (basically a policeman) in the city of Astreiant. When dozens of children suddenly go missing, Rathe is on the case. He enlists a few friends to help—Philip Eslingen, a foreign mercenary to whom Rathe seems to be attracted, and a necromancer buddy from the local university who was, for some reason, played in my head by Paul Bettany. Primarily, Rathe’s investigation consists of visiting various parts of the city and talking to people to no avail, until finally a bit of evidence turns up on page 279. The three guys collectively put the pieces together, and I really liked the bits where they were working in concert. Too bad they were only together in the final 70 pages!

Thankfully, the setting of Point of Hopes is more intriguing than its central mystery. For one, gender equality is absolutely the norm. Just as many women as men participate in professions seen as traditionally male in our society, and many women are in positions of power. In the fantasy setting of Astreiant, your occupation is determined by the alignment of the stars at your birth, which reads to me as a metaphor for objectively selecting people for a job based solely on their abilities. Equality of sexual preference is also a facet of life in Astreiant—it’s not that same-sex relationships are merely tolerated: they’re commonplace. No one would think of considering them invalid or sinful.

Aside from not being very exciting, the most irritating aspect of Point of Hopes for me was the dire need for better editing. There were many, many, many instances where a comma was used in a spot that needed a semicolon and many pages that suffered from wall o’ text syndrome. I can’t help but feel like it would’ve read faster if it weren’t so dense-looking. Lastly, I wonder at some of the names. I tend to think characters’ names “aloud” in my head, and while this is obviously not a problem for the lead characters, I was stymied by names like “Cijntien.” Plus, it’s weird to have fantasy names like that alongside such normal ones.

Anyway, there is a sequel to this entitled Point of Dreams. I own it, so will likely read it someday, but at the rate I’ve gone with this story thus far, I wouldn’t expect a review until at least 2015!

Additional reviews of Point of Hopes can be found at Triple Take.

Chatting About Canon

The following discussion contains spoilers.

MICHELLE: As we did for the CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast, special guest Karen Peck and I decided to collaborate on a contribution. This month’s MMF theme is vampires, so we opted (actually, this was totally Karen’s brainwave) to talk about Canon, the four-volume Chika Shiomi shoujo series published by CMX. I really didn’t know what to expect, having never read it before, but I think you had, right, Karen?

KAREN: I read it years ago, as I am a total Chika Shiomi fangirl, and figured the MMF would be a great excuse to talk about a lesser-known CMX series. A little background on Chika Shiomi and the series—Canon was her first series after her 1993 debut, running in Mystery Bonita Special. She’s one of those mangaka who’s had her work released by several English-language publishers—Night of the Beasts by Go!Comi, one volume of Queen of Ragtonia by Aurora, and Viz has most recently released Yurara and its sequel series Rasetsu. Her current work is Yukarism, a time-travel tale running in Bessatsu Hama to Yume, which is currently on hiatus.

Canon Himuro, ill with an incurable disease, was the sole survivor of a massacre that left her classmates dead. Months later a reporter runs into her, and she looks healthier than before—and carries a secret. Her classmates were attacked by a vampire, who then turned Canon into one. Horrified and wracked by guilt, she declares revenge on the vampire with silver hair and blue eyes. Holding onto her humanity, Canon refuses to drink blood, and wears a cross necklace given to her by a kindly foreigner, as explained in the second chapter. She is also accompanied by a vampire crow, Fui, who helps keep the story going and provides the humor. Canon is out for vengeance; Fui would just like a snack.

So, Michelle, what did you think of the series? Beyond the ’90s fashion, that is?

MICHELLE: I shall tell you, though we really must get back around to the fashion topic!

I ended up enjoying Canon quite a lot, though moreso in the first two volumes. The story begins episodically, and after a first volume that I’d describe as “not riveting, but entertaining,” the second volume packs a real wallop as Rod (such an intimidating name!)—the silver-haired, blue-eyed vampire—makes his entrance. By this point, Canon has met Sakaki, a smug and violent half-breed who’s also out for revenge against Rod (who murdered his parents), and they’ve formed an alliance. Fairly soon, though, Rod’s servants are telling Canon that their master lives as a hermit and couldn’t possibly be responsible for the attack upon her classmates, and suggesting that the real culprit is Sakaki. Canon resists the truth until Fui overhears a conversation confirming it (and is gravely wounded by Sakaki as a result).

I probably should’ve seen this reveal coming, but I was sort of enjoying the series in an uncomplicated way and wasn’t expecting it to veer into territory this dark. Ultimately, you’ve got Canon unable to forgive Sakaki, Sakaki unable to forgive Rod, and some uncomfortable parallels for Canon to navigate as her own hatred (fueled by the humiliation of having been tricked) threatens to undo her efforts to retain her human heart. It’s good stuff, really!

That said, I thought the entrance of Glenn as a common enemy kind of squandered the momentum a little. I mean, I’m glad that Rod and his awesome servant, Machua, got to become good guys, but Glenn lacks any real depth as a character, and I found his sudden change of heart regarding Canon—he’d previously been adamant about the need to exterminate her—rather baffling.

KAREN: The names crack me up, too. “Rod” just doesn’t sound… menacing. Rod and Glenn sound like they’d be assistant managers at an Office Depot, not powerful vampires.

It is good stuff! One thing I dislike about vampire stories—in manga and in print—is the angsty, boohoo I’m a vampire aspect. Canon does not wallow in that too much, the action is swirling around her and she’s a part of it all—she’s not a passive character. I think the shortness of this series helped as well; she had to stick to the unexpectedly twisty story–everyone has a motive, and they’re bound by vampire laws and revenge. Except Glenn. I agree with you, Michelle, that his change of heart is baffling–he’s the person that exists to move the story in one direction yet doesn’t seem to be upset that his purpose in the story is nullified by that direction. It’s a bit sloppy, but given how well she plotted out everything else, I’ll give Shiomi-sensei a pass since this is her first work.

As for the Canon/Sakaki relationship, at first I didn’t get it. After some consideration, though, it does fit in with what Canon was trying to get through to Sakaki and Rod–to stop the cycle of vengeance, that everyone can move on. Yes, Sakaki created Canon and messed with her memories to create a weapon to get at Rod in an exquisitely personal way, but her own words apply just as much to herself. She could kill him for her own vendetta, or she could remember that little boy who was left bleeding next to the corpses of his parents and understand what drove him. There’s a theme of forgiveness and breaking cycles here that I think is (mostly) well-done.

So, back to the fashion. Canon’s ankle boots have actually come back around to being fashionable again, but I fear that Rod’s overcoat on top of a turtleneck overcoat look will never be repeated. I suppose hermit vampires who feel bad about killing their best friends are just naturally chilly?

MICHELLE: I hadn’t actually seen that about Rod’s garb until you pointed it out, but once I did, I couldn’t stop noticing it. I think I thought the black one was a cloak at first, but upon closer inspection, it clearly has sleeves.

You’re absolutely spot-on about Canon remembering the terrible things that had happened to Sakaki that caused him to inflict terrible things upon her. And though it might feel like a betrayal of her classmates, she can’t stop loving him. This reminded me a lot of Shuri and Sarasa in Basara, actually, where she is able to forgive him for the atrocities committed as the Red King, even though other villagers will never be able to. And, of course, any time something can be compared to Basara is a good sign!

Speaking of comparisons to other works, the side story in volume four about the other half-breed who briefly takes care of orphaned Sakaki reminded me a lot of Shion’s backstory in Please Save My Earth, as another example of a boy in such tremendous need who tragically loses yet another person who could’ve shown him love. And Sakaki’s physical appearance reminds me some of Tokyo Babylon‘s Seishirou, especially round about the shoulder region.

Actually, Sakaki’s got some fashion challenges of his own to surmount. In this picture, his coat’s billowing so much it looks like a frickin’ hoop skirt!

KAREN: I know–why does he need two coats? I think it’s a little hypocritical of a vampire to wear turtlenecks anyway.

Now you’re reminding me that I need to finish reading Basara! But it’s a good comparison, and one that reflects favorably on Chika Shiomi–I think a lot of people can write a love story, but it’s harder to write one where it makes sense and is right for the characters. Hand-waving with a “that’s how love is!” is lazy, and she doesn’t take the easy way out. The ending offers a further complication, but again, it goes with the feeling that the characters really need to want this instead of just engaging in relationship fanservice.

The art—especially for Sakaki—really had a CLAMP-circa-X vibe going on, but this was 1994. I also enjoyed Machua’s style, even if it wasn’t as flamboyant and flowing.

MICHELLE: I liked her, too, though at first I thought she might be a dude!

The art really is frequently lovely in that early-’90s kind of way. Below I’ve included an image of one of my favorite two-page spreads, where you’ve got all sorts of overlapping panels, huge flowers, leads superimposed over a background of space… My cynical side wonders if Shiomi had a checklist of specific items to include, but the overall effect is still one I enjoy. And, of course, I can’t help thinking that Melinda Beasi, with her well-documented love for old-school shoujo art, would just love this to pieces. (Click image to enlarge.)

KAREN: This is some lovely ’90s art, and it holds up pretty well—Canon herself (sans ankleboots) could just as easily be a design in a modern Chika Shiomi work. I also enjoyed her eye for action–I was a little unsure about how the vampires were always leaping about, but I assume it’s a case of Our Vampires Are Different. The pages you picked show how nice a page with flashbacks and conversations can be–it’s not just good storytelling, it also sets an emotional mood that really sells the scene for me.

I’m glad there was a Vampire MMF to make me get this series off the shelf and re-read it. It’s one of those quiet CMX series that came and went with little fanfare, but shows how well-curated their shoujo line was–I’m sure they could have found a more sensationalistic vampire manga with prettier, broodier boys, but this is one with an overall strong story and a tough heroine. It may not be a classic on the lines of contemporary works like X, but it’s cheap on the used market and, in my opinion, a good short series.

MICHELLE: I definitely agree! Thank you for suggesting it!

And now, an announcement: because Karen and I had such a good time reading Canon, it really fanned the flames of “Damn, we miss CMX.” And so, to help offset our still-lingering pain, we’ve decided to embark upon a monthly feature called The CMX Project, where we will revisit both the lauded and the lesser-known works from the CMX catalog. Look for the first column—featuring Land of the Blindfolded—in January 2013!

Hating on Season Eight

I was invited to participate in the “Anniversary of Hate” going on at The Hooded Utilitarian this month. My contribution, “Hating on Season Eight,” is now up, if you’d like to read some fangirl ranting about Buffy comics.

A Place of Hiding by Elizabeth George

From the back cover:
A shocking murder calls forensic scientist Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah, to an isolated island in the English Channel. An old friend of Deborah’s, China River, stands accused of killing the island’s wealthiest benefactor, Guy Brouard. There is little evidence pointing to China—and Deborah and Simon are certain that their friend didn’t murder the inveterate womanizer. But if China didn’t kill Brouard, who did?

As family and friends gather for the reading of the will, Deborah and Simon find that seemingly everyone on the history-haunted island has something to hide. And behind all the lies and alibis, a killer is lurking.

Review:
Every once in a while, a strange thing happens to me: I get an incredibly strong craving to read a mystery by Elizabeth George. This isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve only got five left now ’til I’m current, and I wonder what’ll happen then. Anyway, in the case of A Place of Hiding this craving was strong enough to trump the off-putting fact that this novel prominently features Deborah St. James, a character whom I dislike most intensely.

Before I get into the ways in which Deborah caused me to contemplate violence upon her fictional person, I should probably talk about the actual mystery, such as it is. Guy Brouard, wealthy war orphan and inveterate womanizer, has been killed on the island of Guernsey the morning following a party announcing his plans for a war museum. Among the attendees was China River, an American and old friend of Deborah’s, who has now been arrested for the crime. China’s brother, Cherokee, comes to London to enlist the aid of Deborah and her forensic scientist husband, Simon, in proving his sister’s innocence.

Simon’s credentials convince the local force to allow him to poke around, and he, as one might assume, soon discovers additional suspects with various motives. He also entrusts Deborah with an important piece of evidence, and when she fails to do with it what he requested, he gets chewed out about it by the local DCI, which obviously leaves him feeling rightfully irritated with her. Deborah fails to see how this is her fault, and indulges in repeated hissy fits about how Simon views his rational approach to the investigation (and life in general) as superior to her own “passionate, unpredictable” one.

This eventually culminates in Deborah idiotically interrupting a stakeout and, once again, making Simon look unprofessional in front of the local police. Elizabeth George tries so hard to make us sympathize with Deborah that she introduces characteristics in Simon that I had never before noticed, like a patronizing form of sexism. So now, not only do I hate Deborah, she’s making me start to dislike Simon, too! Great.

Some of the secondary characters are fairly odious, too, but honestly I am ready to put them (and this book) behind me. I will say, however, that this is the first Elizabeth George novel to ever make me cry happy tears (the last scene involving Paul Fielder), so it’s obviously not all bad.

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Book description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

Review:
It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was a kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out their doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

Additional reviews of Tomorrow, When the War Began can be found at Triple Take.

Chatting About CLAMP

The following discussion contains spoilers.

MICHELLE: For this month’s CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast, special guest Karen Peck and I decided to weigh in on couple of the quartet’s shorter works, namely Suki (complete in three volumes) and Legal Drug (unfinished in three volumes, but newly relaunched in Japan under the name Drug & Drop). I’d heard these series were related in some way, too, though that turned out to be little more than a cameo.

Anyway, let’s start with Suki! Child-like Hinata Asahi is a first year in high school who is extremely book smart, but trusting to an excessive degree. She lives alone with two teddy bears, and when the guy who moves in next door turns out to be her substitute homeroom teacher, Hinata takes a liking to him. Shiro Asou is kind of prickly, but does a few things for Hinata that make her feel all warm and fuzzy, like patting her on the head and helping her sweep some leaves in her yard. Hinata’s obvious affection for Asou-sensei troubles her friend, Touko, and it’s Touko’s concern (coupled with hinting about Hinata’s past) that lends a welcome ominous vibe to the story.

KAREN: Ah, Suki! I read this when it first came out, and thought it was a nice little trifle—enjoyable but not especially notable. Hinata is one of those CLAMP heroines who is impossibly sweet and naïve, but it’s forgivable—because she should be a darker, sadder character, what with living alone in an empty house, her father only a distant figure, and having been through some intense events in her past. In Cardcaptor Sakura, you could see where all of [Sakura’s] abundant sweetness comes from—she comes from a world of love and security. That Hinata is still such an innocent, despite her situation, is very interesting.

It’s that ominous vibe you noted, Michelle, that does make this story a little more interesting—I think three volumes of Hinata and teddy bears would have been adorable, but pure fluff. Reading through the series, I also like the ambiguity of Asou-sensei—despite HInata’s affection for him, the story really feels like it’s building him to be another bad thing in Hinata’s life.

MICHELLE: HInata actually reminded me quite a lot of Sakuya from Natsuki Takaya’s Twinkle Stars, both in her demeanor and with the family secrets lurking in the background. (I think the similarity also sprung to mind because it was another case where I was used to reading a creator’s fantasy-infused manga but was now reading something taking place firmly in the real world.) But yes, one has to wonder how she was able to maintain her trusting spirit despite, we later learn, having been kidnapped nine times as a child.

I definitely enjoyed the build suggesting Asou-sensei was going to do something nefarious, and I admit to being disappointed that he merely turned out to be a bodyguard sent by Hinata’s father. The whole setup—lonely, selfless teen falls in love with enigmatic older guy—reminded me a little of Tokyo Babylon, but in the end CLAMP follows a more stereotypically shoujo storyline by offering redemption and a happy ending. It felt like all of the wonderful worrying Touko got up to just kind of petered out into very little payoff.

KAREN: Maybe Hinata maintains her child-like spirit by reading cute books about teddy bears? The book-within-the-book, another Suki, is precious.

I didn’t mind the payoff/ending. Terrible things happened to Hinata—and I’m sure that this kidnapping was a good deal more personal than past ones—but she remains unchanged. Hinata is still the same trusting person she always was, as was foreshadowed in a conversation with Asou-sensei—after he warned her that she would be sorry for living in her dream world, she replied, “No, I won’t. The people around me are all people I love. None of them are bad people. Not now, not ever.” And this plays out in the end—not only does she forgive her kidnappers, she convinces her father to help them. While a dark ending would have been more interesting, this story, for all the hints otherwise, was always going to be sweet. Like in CCS, a kind-hearted girl is tested but not broken, and continues on to share her loving nature with those around her.

MICHELLE: Yeah, you’re totally right. And I guess they can’t all be shocking endings, otherwise they would cease to be shocking!

I did like the book-within-a-book segments, something that we also see a little later in Chobits. If it didn’t involve a lot of physical labor to unearth my copies, I could check to see if the author of those picture books was the same Tomo! But I am lazy.

KAREN: I’ve not even read Chobits, so I’m no help whatsoever!

So my old assessment—that it’s a nice little story, prettily told—remains true for me after this re-reading. Not one of the great classics of CLAMP’s, but enjoyable all the same.

MICHELLE: I can agree with that!

Moving on to Legal Drug… as mentioned in Friday’s Let’s Get Visual post, this is a series that gets compared a lot to xxxHOLiC. Seventeen-year-old Kazahaya Kudo has run away from home and been rescued by Rikuo Himura. Both of the boys are live-in workers at Green Drugstore, managed by the enigmatic Kakei, and also take on the occasional odd job for their employer, which typically involve using Kazahaya’s ability to see visions when he touches people and objects to find various items.

Kazahaya and Rikuo aren’t friends, and fall into the spazzy/stoic dynamic characteristic of the early Watanuki/Doumeki relationship. There seems to be more overt romantic chemistry between them, however, which CLAMP plays up in the third volume, which finds them going undercover at an all-boys’ school.

KAREN: First, on a totally shallow level, I love Tokyopop’s presentation for Legal Drug. Vellum! Color pages! I’m totally a sucker for things like that.

I get the xxxHOLiC comparison; it’s one I’ve used before to describe it. However, Kakei isn’t quite Yuuko, luckily for Kazahaya and Rikuo!

My enjoyment of this series has always been tempered by its unfinished status—I really was wanting more details about the boys’ past which had been teased throughout the entire series. But what did you think of the stories—the “jobs,” Michelle? I think that they tended to be more personal than the stories in xxxHOLiC, which made them a little more central to the story.

MICHELLE: I think that if I had read this previously—before the resumption of the series in Japan—I would’ve been extremely frustrated by the lack of follow-through with the hints and glimpses we get of Kazahaya’s twin sister, Kei, and the mysterious woman in Rikuo’s past, Tsukiko. Now, I can feel more confident that CLAMP will address those story elements, even though there’s no guarantee we’ll ever see Drug & Drop in English.

As for the jobs, it’s been so long since I last read xxxHOLiC that I can’t really compare them, but I do agree about them seeming very central to the story. What first comes to mind is the cat that the boys rescue, who initially seems ordinary, then is revealed to be something supernatural, and then thanks its rescuers by showing them images of Kei and Tsukiko. That’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about, I think.

KAREN: Drug & Drop is now being published in a seinen magazine, so if we ever get to see it here, it will be interesting to see how it changed—will Kazahaya be in a dress as often?

Going back to our first title, there is a cameo by Hinata and Asou-sensei from Suki in volume two (chapter nine) which only shows that sometime after the events of that series, Hinata is still the same girl—who would think that there’s nothing odd about a strange boy asking for her school uniform, and who is able to draw others out. It’s a nice callback for a cameo.

Because the jobs tend to be about objects rather than people, the stories don’t have the larger emotional punch that some of the xxxHOLiC ones do, but that does allow Kazahaya and Rikuo to have more of the focus. I also liked how most of volume three was about one job—and that gave the story of the school and Nayuki room to breathe. It was a little dark at times, and maybe rambling, but it worked…

MICHELLE: I liked that about it, too, though I admit being a little annoyed at how much flailing about Kazahaya seemed to do during that story. It almost seems like the manga takes a sharp turn into generic BL, with the sudden schoolboy dynamic, Rikuo doing a little too well with his pushy seme impersonation, and the random school traditions of voting for a pretty boy to be a “bride” who wears the costume of his fans’ choice, but there were some nice ominous turns to keep it from worrying me too much. I am fairly certain the seinen Drug & Drop will definitely have less of that, though.

KAREN: There was a lot of flailing through the entire series, and I agree with you that it could be annoying. I get it, there’s tension/chemistry. But I like Kazahaya and Rikuo, and Rikuo is never creepy in his pushy seme moments, so I don’t mind it overall. But I don’t like being teased—I hope that running in a seinen mag, the new series can build their relationship with less blushing into something more concrete to where we see some solid character development.

Post-xxxHOLiC, I like Legal Drug less than I remember. Hopefully whatever CLAMP has in store with the characters in Drug & Drop will provide some satisfaction. As Kakei said in the last chapter of volume three, “We’ve been waiting a long time… for that boy and Rikuo to meet,” so hopefully we’ll see where this is all supposed to go.

MICHELLE: Well put! We share the same hopes for this series, it sounds like.

Thank you for joining me in this conversation today!

KAREN: And thank you for the opportunity!

Let’s Get Visual: A Tale of Two Series

MICHELLE: You didn’t think we were going to let a CLAMP MMF go by without devoting a special Let’s Get Visual column to it, did you? (Insert a Hokuto Sumeragi “ho ho ho” laugh here.) It’s an absolute must for a group like CLAMP, whose output is so diverse, not merely in the realms of story and demographic, but also artistically speaking. In fact, I had a pretty tough time choosing which images to talk about today. How about you, Melinda?

MELINDA: Yes, there’s so much to choose from! Though CLAMP is nearly always clearly distinguishable as CLAMP, they manage to do that while also significantly varying their style from series to series, especially when they’re writing for different demographics.

MICHELLE: I wish I had the artistic vocabulary to really thoroughly describe these subtle variations, but I’m afraid I don’t. Still, this diversity inspired Melinda and I to compare two CLAMP series with different art, but similar stories. Legal Drug has been described as a prototype for xxxHOLiC, as it features a hyper protagonist (Kazahaya) and his more stoic companion (Rikuo) who are asked to perform various odd, supernatural-related jobs by the precognitive manager of a store (Kakei). Kazahaya is quick to proclaim that they’re not friends, but is forced to begrudgingly thank Rikuo for several timely rescues. This is a setup very similar to the initial relationship between Watanuki and Doumeki in xxxHOLiC.

MELINDA: Personally, I think you could even make an argument for Kakei’s companion Saiga as a weird prototype for Mokona.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I guess he does spend the majority of his time either sleeping or pulling off surprising domestic tasks.

Anyway, how about you start us off with the pages you’ve chosen?

MELINDA: Sure! I’ve picked out a couple of different scenes from volume twelve, and the reason I chose that volume is that it’s really where Watanuki’s reality starts to fall apart. At first, he’s simply having a series of strange dreams, but by the end of the volume, dreams and reality are melding into each other, one after the other, to the point where it’s impossible for him to tell the difference between them.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

xxxHOLiC, Vol. 12, Pages 30-32 (Del Rey)

The first scene I’ve chosen comes in early in the volume, and it’s very obviously a dream world. The ever-present blossoms in the wind, Yuuko’s train of butterflies, the wind in the air, and even just the sense of space feels entirely like a dream—like something clearly outside our waking reality. It’s beautiful, but it’s expected, and even when there’s a sense of eeriness, it feels friendly and familiar.

xxxHOLiC, Vol. 12, Pages 138-141 (Del Rey)

The second scene, on the other hand, comes in much later, when Watanuki is being shuttled from dream to dream to dream, never knowing if he might finally be awake. The scene starts out simply with the kind of lunch picnic he might have with Himawari any day of the week. The backgrounds are sparse and the panels sort of matter-of-fact. The only hint at first that something might be off, is the hole Watanuki notices in the wall behind Himawari. And even though the scene becomes comedic, with the scaly hand popping out of the hole to steal Watanuki’s sherbet, it feels very sinister to me—not just because Himawari never notices what’s happening, but because it’s intruding on what feels to Watanuki like normal life, letting him know that he’s somehow *still* not awake. Unlike the earlier dream scene, which feels so perfectly dreamlike, this one reads as something more like madness, which is much scarier to me as a reader.

MICHELLE: My first reaction when I saw the scaly hand stealing the sherbet was to deem it “cute” but that’s because it’s been so long since I read xxxHOLiC that I had utterly forgotten the context of this scene. Now that you’ve informed me, I read it as sinister. It’s definitely something that could look like “Watanuki’s everyday life” to the casual reader as much as to Watanuki himself, at first.

MELINDA: I probably am letting the context influence me, which maybe makes this not the greatest example for a Let’s Get Visual column! But I do think it’s interesting how differently CLAMP treats these two scenes, when they’re both representations of Watanuki’s dream world.

MICHELLE: Oh, I think they’re fine examples! What you’re basically showing here is that in xxxHOLiC, or at least in these scenes, CLAMP draws the supernatural in a way that blends in with the everyday world. It’s a very simple approach, free of some of the bells and whistles that my images from Legal Drug possess.

MELINDA: Well, let’s take a look at those, then!

Legal Drug, Vol. 2, Pages 40-43 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: These pages are from a scene in the second volume of Legal Drug. Kazahaya and Rikuo have just rescued a magical kitty, and in gratitude, the kitty has led them to the park where its powers are strongest and transformed into the images of the person each boy wants to see most.

What struck me strongly here is the way the kitty begins to unravel. Seriously, the fact that it’s just one little toe of his little paw really gets to me somehow. Somewhat like xxxHOLiC, there’s that feeling of “You thought things were normal, but really they are not.” As the transformation is underway, we get several reaction shots from the boys (with a bevy of speedlines), resulting in a page layout far busier than xxxHOLiC. The two-page spread is quintessential CLAMP: two slim and lovely ladies with long flowy hair speckled with white ink. The tight panels of the boys’ eyes include more speedlines to help convey their shock.

Honestly, besides the slightly more ornate style here, it’s the speedlines that really convey the biggest tonal difference between these series to me. It’s presumptuous to declare that CLAMP “matured” between the two series, but it really does feel as though they realized they no longer needed to rely on such tricks to convey the protagonist’s feelings. Less is more!

MELINDA: Well, I think it’s probably worth bringing up the fact that Legal Drug ran in a shoujo magazine, where those kinds of flourishes might have been expected, unlike xxxHolic, which had to fit in to the style of a seinen magazine. I mean, CLAMP is always CLAMP, but there’s always a clear sense of what demographic they’re drawing for—even in two series as similar as these.

MICHELLE: That’s a good point. I certainly don’t mean to disparage the style of Legal Drug or insinuate that it’s inferior, but in terms of personal preference, I simply like the cleaner, restrained style of xxxHOLiC more. I mean, just check out how the panel shapes themselves are different. It’s really neat to compare them!

MELINDA: Oh, I completely agree! And though I also have a preference for the artwork in xxxHolic, I do appreciate the shoujo flourishes for their classic flair. More and more, I find the differences fascinating, and I was really surprised, actually, at how easy it was to tell which demographic CLAMP was writing for simply by looking at the artwork of their series in preparation for this Feast. I don’t think I expected it to be so obvious.

MICHELLE: I wouldn’t have, either. But going forward I’ll be making a special point to notice how they adapt their style to the magazine!

Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard

From the back cover:
Rewind to junior year in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, to a winter break no one has ever heard about.

Fat snowflakes fall onto manicured lawns, quilted stockings hang over marble fireplaces, and everyone is at peace, especially Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer. Now that Alison’s murderer is in jail and A is dead, they can finally relax. Little do they know there’s a new A in town…

What happens on holiday break stays on holiday break—right? But guess what. I saw. And now I’m telling.

-A

Review:
This will probably be the last full-length review I write of a Pretty Little Liars novel. Mostly that’s because I’ve run out of ways to say “it isn’t very good, but I still enjoy it,” but also… egads, this one was pretty bad.

Although published earlier this year, Pretty Little Secrets is actually set between books four and five of the series, so I opted to go ahead and read it now. The premise is that this is the winter break between those books and the new A in town is observing the four girls before beginning to seriously harass them. It feels a lot like a media tie-in novel, to be honest, shoehorned in between more pivotal events with decidedly lame plots that are designed not to contradict anything that comes afterwards. (Although, I’ve actually heard that are some discrepancies.)

In “Hanna’s Little Secret,” Hanna is despondent when her boyfriend, Lucas, goes on vacation with a hot chick, so she binge eats a while, then joins a fitness boot camp, where she competes with another girl to win the affections of their instructor. In “Emily’s Little Secret,” Mrs. Fields is upset over the theft of her precious ceramic baby Jesus (yes, really) from a church nativity scene, and enlists Emily to infiltrate the clique of girls presumed to be responsible. In “Aria’s Little Secret,” Aria’s old Icelandic flame shows up randomly and they decide to get married (yes, really). And in “Spencer’s Little Secret,” Spencer and her sister compete for the affections of a tennis player while their parents are having some angst related to the DiLaurentis family. There are small things connecting the stories, mainly the references to a vile-tasting vitamin water called AminoSpa.

I thought the Hanna and Spencer stories were structurally pretty similar, as both involved bitchy sisters/step-sisters as well as the protagonist getting duped by another girl who was actually after the same guy who turned out to be a player who used the same lines on them both. Though it’s really just as dumb as the others, the Emily story is probably the best because it contains a few snickerworthy lines.

All in all, please feel free to skip this collection. You’re not missing much of anything.