Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl-book-cover-medDescription:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Review:
I am one of those people who hears about a new movie generating some buzz and, instead of going to see it, thinks, “I should read the book that is based on.” And so it was that I came to read Gone Girl without actually knowing much about it. To sum up: Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. They were happy at first, but things have not been going well recently. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears and suspicion quickly settles on Nick.

For the first half of the book, narration alternates between Nick in the present and Amy in the past (courtesy of her diary). While Nick deals with the police investigation, a steady stream of unsavory discoveries about him ensues. He has also seemingly inherited his father’s misogynist rage, even if he is better at not speaking those thoughts out loud. Amy, meanwhile, recounts how they met and the early, halcyon days of their relationship before recent entries depict her as afraid that her husband might do her harm. This segment of the novel is perhaps the strongest, as it forces readers to question whether they ought to have sympathy for Nick or not. Dislikable though he may be, some apparently damning incidents are really just due to (occasionally excruciating) ineptitude.

And then there is a big twist, which I shan’t spoil. Alas, rather than making things more interesting, it ushers in a period of boring interludes and exposes even more character flaws, of the “crass and profane” or “snivelly and petulant” varieties. Granted, no one enjoys reading about perfect people, but I usually prefer there to be at least one character to legitimately care about. Still, I carried on, but was beginning to look forward to the book simply being over already. And yet it seemingly refused to end. Something would happen and you’d think, “Okay, that’s the revelation that wraps everything up.” But then it wouldn’t be! It would just keep going.

True, the final twist was something that, although the clues were there, I failed to see coming. So kudos for that. And yet, I find I can’t really recommend the book. I suspect that the movie is much better, because the story is condensed into 149 minutes, and presumably omits Nick’s often odious inner thoughts, but I doubt I’ll ever feel the urge to watch it. I must, however, award some points for the reference to the classic Pace Picante Sauce commercial, as my involuntary reaction to anyone mentioning New York City is to think, “New York City?!?!”

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

ketchup_cloudsFrom the front flap:
Zoe has an unconventional pen pal—Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer. But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell. A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other.

Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence. Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe’s letters, but at least somebody will know her story—somebody who knows what it’s like to kill a person you love. Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.

Review:
When a complicated love triangle results in the death of one of the parties involved, British teenager “Zoe” is wracked with guilt, especially since no one realizes the part she played in all of it. Unable to keep it in anymore, Zoe ends up writing anonymously to Stuart Harris, an inmate on death row in Texas for killing his wife, figuring he will understand how she feels. As her letters, written at night in the backyard shed, proceed chronologically through the events leading to the fateful night, Harris’ execution inexorably nears.

The whole concept of this novel put me in mind of John Marsden (a compliment). Initially, I thought of Letters from the Inside, though really the similarities are few between those works. More, this resembles something like So Much to Tell You or Winter, in which a teenage heroine attempts to get over a tragedy in her past that is gradually revealed to the audience.

Pitcher does a good job maintaining the suspense, and at varying times I desperately wanted either to peek or not to peek at the ending. Better still, and like Marsden, the true focus here is on forgiveness and healing. I found Zoe a very appealing character, the funny and creative sort I would’ve liked to be friends with in high school. (Bonus points for owning a fountain pen!) True, she makes mistakes, but never does anything outright dumb. And I liked her family, too, particularly the bond between the sisters and the way in which Zoe realizes she’s got someone closer to home who can relate to what she’s going through.

Another thing I really appreciated was how Zoe behaved around the two boys in her life, brothers Max and Aaron. She was never not herself, never downplayed her own interests and enthusiasms, and it was shown to be this quality that made her most attractive. The love triangle also didn’t resolve quite in the way I was expecting to, and while I mostly really like the ending, I will always be annoyed when a guy makes a decision on a girl’s behalf.

Ultimately, I liked Ketchup Clouds a lot. This was Pitcher’s second novel, and at some point I intend to check out her first, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece.

A Bevy of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the first in what will be a series of posts collecting reviews of these books in a somewhat shorter-than-usual format. In this installment: Afterimage, Bad Bargain, Blooded, Carnival of Souls, One Thing or Your Mother, and Portal Through Time. All are set during the show’s second season.

Afterimage by Pierce Askegren
I’m pretty sure Afterimage is set between “What’s My Line” and “Ted”—the former is a definite, despite the season being referred to as early autumn even though “What’s My Line” takes place after Halloween, but the latter is a guess based on a couple of thoughts Joyce has about needing to get out more, which the author (writing in 2006) might’ve intended as a lead-in to “Ted.”

The book gets off to a slow start and, in fact, not much seems to happen for the first sixty pages. Our heroes encounter some strange folks about town, and it’s pretty obvious to the reader that “Hey, these are characters from the movies being shown at the new drive-in!” but it takes quite a while for the characters to catch up. That said, around page 100 things begin to improve, which is right about where Jonathan appears. I knew he was in this, and was hoping for more of an active role. Sadly, all he does is go to the movies with Xander and then get afflicted by a mysterious sleeping sickness, along with 29 other Sunnydale residents.

Speaking of the drive-in, it occurred to me that this is totally a Sailor Moon plot. Creepy yet charismatic bad guy comes into town and advertises a free drive-in. The local residents swarm the place and then creepy guy feeds on their energy. Our heroine destroys the evil projector with her tiara machete, and the bad guy dissolves. He does not, alas, proclaim “Refresh!”

Still, this was a pretty enjoyable outing, and had some nice touches, like a glimpse at Xander’s bickering parents, a spot-on depiction of petulant Harmony, and Cordelia demonstrating her intelligence and leadership skills. In fact, while Buffy is important, I think Xander comes across more like the protagonist of this one, which is a nice change.

Bad Bargain by Diana G. Gallagher
Bad Bargain is set in season two (between “What’s My Line?” and “Ted” would be my guess) but written in 2006, three years after the end of the series, which allows author Diana G. Gallagher to use her knowledge of later events to color what would otherwise be a fairly dull tale of demonic critters infesting a rummage sale.

In another of her attempts to recapture a normal teen life, Buffy is volunteering at the school rummage sale to benefit the marching band. She’s roped Willow and Xander into participating, too, and this scintillating event has even come to the attention of Spike and Dru, who head to Sunnydale High for a spot of shoplifting. All goes awry when a spell to locate one kid’s missing amulet ends up inviting a host of microscopic Hellmouth beasties, who proceed to infect most of those present. The day is ultimately, of course, saved, though Willow theoretically suffers trauma from being parted from the cute-looking critter who beguiled her into becoming its protector. That part is kind of dumb (and I didn’t think Gallagher captured Drusilla’s mode of speech well, either).

What’s interesting, though, is that Andrew is in this. In fact, he and Jonathan have fairly prominent roles, which I thought was quite fun. In a nice bit of dramatic irony, Jonathan has become possessed by some demonic whip thing and subsequently angsts when he realizes that he nearly killed his best friend. In addition, Gallagher includes a few comments that suggest that these events spurred actions by the characters as seen in the show. For example, Oz muses about painting his van and, after the pests have been sent back where they belong, Princpal Snyder remarks, “Next year’s fund-raiser for the marching band will be something simple, like selling candy.” Hee!

Blooded by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder
It’s difficult to pinpoint the timeline for this one. Angel’s stint as Angelus is mentioned, as is the death of Jenny Calendar, but he was apparently able to regain his soul in a way that did not involve Willow. (This book was published in August 1998, and I have to wonder if Whedon wasn’t willing to give away the plot details for the season two finale, so Golden and Holder had to be super vague about it.) I do think this is the end of season two—despite what Wikipedia claims—because Oz and Willow’s relationship is still new, her hair is still long, etc.

Anyway, the gang goes to a museum for a field trip and Willow ends up freeing and being possessed by the spirit of an ancient Chinese vampire-sorcerer. She gathers minions, attacks Xander, and causes her friends to fret. Eventually, Xander gets possessed by a Japanese mountain god and there’s a big battle and spells and Giles wears a headband with a kanji on it. In the end the day is saved through teamwork (yes, really).

On the whole, this book is pretty boring. However, there are a few things to recommend it. For every two or three bits of clunky dialogue, there is occasionally one that is at least slightly amusing or which I can easily hear in the actor’s voice. It was also prescient about a few things. Cordelia’s lack of skill as an actress is mentioned, which will come into play on Angel, and she makes the comment, “I’ll never admit it if you tell her I said it, but I’d hate to think about what Sunnydale would be like if we didn’t have a Slayer in town.” This is interesting, because she is the one who allows us to see exactly that in season three’s “The Wish.” There’s also some good stuff here with Willow’s desire for power and strength, and how that made her vulnerable to the vampire-sorcerer dude. Most of the resulting darkness is played as his fault, but it dovetails nicely with her eventual character arc on the show.

In the end, there are far better Buffy tie-in books, but this wasn’t too bad.

Carnival of Souls by Nancy Holder
Carnival of Souls turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting. Wedged snugly between “Ted” and “Surprise,” the story is set around the episode “Bad Eggs,” which is a great place to put it because, hey, if the book’s at least moderately good, it’ll still be on par with that notoriously rather lame episode.

The premise is that a carnival has come to town, and its proprietor is some kind of devil demon thing that uses prisms to hypnotize visitors into giving in to the temptation of the seven deadly sins so that it might feed off of their souls. Our heroes are not immune, so Buffy becomes proud, Cordelia greedy, Xander gluttonous, Willow envious, Giles angry, Angel lustful, and Joyce slothful.

Really, the specifics of the carnival itself are not very interesting. What I most liked were the many scenes of the group all together, doing their investigation thing, and how good a lot of the dialogue was. Some of Xander’s lines are especially easy to hear in the actor’s voice, and I actually laughed at one of Buffy’s mid-slaying puns. Plus, I liked that they gave Jenny Calendar something significant to contribute.

All in all, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if not for the matter of the kittens.

Early on, Giles acquires a pair of kittens with the intent to use them as payment to Clem in exchange for information, fully cognizant they’ll be used as currency in a demonic poker game. And as if that weren’t bad enough, when Angry!Giles summons a demon that destroys his apartment, no one asks what happened to the kitties, including Buffy and Willow, who were loving on them in a previous scene! Still worse, if you interpret the text in a certain way, you might conclude that Giles sacrificed them as part of the ritual. Ugh! Why?! It was absolutely not necessary to include them and taint this otherwise decent book.

One Thing or Your Mother by Kirsten Beyer
One Thing or Your Mother is the best Buffy tie-in novel that I have ever read. Well done, Kirsten Beyer! I’m sorry that, as this is also the last Buffy tie-in novel to be published, you never got to write another one.

Set between “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Go Fish,” One Thing or Your Mother finds Buffy contending with several different problems. Aside from the recurring menace of Angelus, there’s the fact that Joyce has been contacted by the school about her daughter’s poor grades (with the end result that Buffy acquires a tutor), the disappearance of a young girl followed by sightings of a child vampire, and the strange behavior exhibited by Principal Snyder that ultimately imperils the whole town. True, none of these elements is particularly exciting, but each is competently executed, and done in a way that has bearing on what’s going to happen next in the series.

Where Beyer really shines is in capturing the characters—not just in dialogue, at which she admittedly excels, but in thought as well. Too many times to count, the thoughts attributed to Buffy and the others in these books have been downright insipid, but not this time. In addition, the scenes with the Scooby Gang together in the library are so spot-on they’re just about episode quality. Granted, this doesn’t match up to the very best of Buffy—a lot of which can be found in season two—but with a little reworking and simplifying, this could’ve made a solid episode better than the worst of Buffy—some of which can also be found in season two. I also thought Beyer did a great job with Spike.

Perhaps once I’ve completed this project I’ll have to come up with the Top Ten Buffy Novels for those who only want to read the cream of the crop. One Thing or Your Mother has definitely secured itself a spot on that list.

Portal Through Time by Alice Henderson
Set between “Bad Eggs” and “Surprise,” Alice Henderson’s Portal Through Time evidently takes place very early in 1998, because Buffy is still sixteen (she turns seventeen on January 19th) and Angel has not yet lost his soul. A vampire called Lucien has done a lot of research into time-traveling magic and recruits some assistants to help him with his plan: go back in time and kill four very famous Slayers so as to disrupt the line and allow the Master (of whom he is a devotee) to rise unimpeded. Angel gets wind of the plan, so Buffy and pals end up traveling to Wales in 60 C.E., to Sumeria in the time of Gilgamesh, to Tennessee during the Battle of Shiloh, and to Paris during the French Revolution.

Sometimes being a reviewer (or at least being one who sets geeky goals) means reading things so that others don’t have to. Such is the case with Portal Through Time. Although there are some things Henderson does well—I like her attempts to recapture the feel of the show by employing quick cuts between scenes to humorous effect, for example—the overall concept of a magical means to travel back in time is just not very well thought out.

For one, if such magic did exist, you can bet that Willow would’ve used it to wipe out Warren before he could do harm to anyone she cared about. And two, even within this book there are complications and possibilities that are not pursued. Near the end, for example, Buffy stakes Angelus and then reuses the incantation to go back in time to the same spot and keep that from happening. So why does everyone seem so secure that once they’ve thwarted the vamps in a given time period the Slayer is now safe? The vamps could just go back and try again!

On top of this, Henderson’s writing is frequently redundant, like when she reiterates several times that if the vampires arrive at their destination during the day they will have to wait until nightfall to take action, and sometimes just plain bad. During an interminable passage in which Buffy is creeping through the woods around the perimeter of Shiloh, she ends up getting shot in the leg and suddenly develops a fondness for deer. Behold:

She forced herself to focus on the grand trees and shadowed valleys, golden fields in which the deer gathered at dusk… She imagined the fields and groves of trees without the thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers, but instead full of foraging deer and black bear.

I should not be snickering when there are thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers in a scene. And maybe you see nothing wrong with that quote, but to me it sounds nothing like Buffy and is just the author clumsily inserting an anti-war message.

Sometimes it can be fun to read a lousy book, but in the end this one is just too long and boring for me to recommend doing even that.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

thousand-dollarFrom the back cover:
Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

Review:
I have been a fan of Veronica Mars from almost the beginning. I tuned in about midway through the first season, after reading about the show on the sadly now-defunct Television Without Pity website, and vividly recall how it quickly became appointment television, and how absolutely riveted I was watching the season finales for the first and second seasons. I mourned the show when it was cancelled, and when a friend forwarded me the link to the Kickstarter campaign for the movie last spring, I was practically delirious with squee. Finally, a few weeks ago, I went to see the movie (after pre-ordering tickets the minute they were available, naturally).

I admit I was a little disappointed the first time through—ninety minutes just wasn’t enough time to flesh out both relationships and the case—but I did like it more upon a second viewing. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues the story from where the movie leaves off, and while I was a little unsure at first, I was soon won over by the characterization and the luxury of more time to spend with these characters, inhabiting their world.

A couple months have passed since the events of the movie. While Keith has been recuperating from his injuries, Veronica has been manning Mars Investigations, not that any challenging cases have come along. When a college girl in Neptune for spring break goes missing, however, a representative from the city’s chamber of commerce comes to the Mars family for help, since Sheriff Lamb’s inactivity on the case is resulting in canceled reservations and the loss of tourist revenue. Veronica’s ensuing investigation feels a lot like an episode from the third season of the show, from her dorm room interrogation of one suspect, to her tried-and-true drunk ditz routine at a party full of suspects. When a second girl with surprising ties to Veronica goes missing, things get even more complicated.

I thought the case was reasonably well executed, and the personal stakes for Veronica were intriguing, as well. Dialogue for all characters was great and easy to imagine in the actors’ voices; I even giggled a few times. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about the book being written in the third person, saying that it lacks the same feel as the series, but I found plenty of internal contemplation from Veronica that read just like the show’s voiceover narration to me. (I can only imagine this will be even more true in the unabridged audio version, read by Kristen Bell. I bought that, too, and plan to listen to it very soon.) Plus, we’re able to get some insights into her thoughts that she might not even narrate, like this nice quote about Wallace: “There weren’t many people in this world who would let you be vulnerable and still believe you were strong.”

Speaking of Wallace, another complaint I’ve seen regards the lack of Logan in this book—he’s on an aircraft carrier thousands of miles away, so it only makes sense—but I actually welcome it. The movie put their relationship front and center; now it’s time to focus on Veronica’s other relationships. To that end, we get several really nice scenes involving Mac (who’s now a technical analyst for Mars Investigations), Wallace, and Keith. There was just enough Logan to my reckoning.

I did have one complaint of my own for a while—two if you count that nobody caught Gia Goodman being referred to as Gia Goodwin. I wished we saw Veronica embarking on an even bigger case, like actively working to expose the corruption at the Sheriff’s Office or to find out who was responsible for the hit and run that injured her father and killed Deputy Sacks. However, I eventually realized that there actually was a big plot on the go—bringing Keith around to the idea that Veronica is doing what she’s meant to do (as opposed to being safe, well paid, and bored as a New York lawyer) . The ultimate resolution here is extremely satisfying, and I find myself very excited at the notion that the two of them could really function as full-fledged partners on a future case. More Keith is always a good thing!

Currently, only a second book in this series is guaranteed, and it has neither a title nor publication date at present, though Rob Thomas has promised more Logan. I suppose it goes without saying that I really, really hope for more beyond that. Give the diehard fans an inch, and they’ll ask for a mile!

Catching Up with Lynley and Havers

carelessinredCareless in Red
It’s been a while since I talked about an Elizabeth George book on the blog. I did read With No One as Witness, but spent so long digesting my reaction to the surprise ending (which had, admittedly, been spoiled for me by the author’s website) that I forgot many of the other details. And I started the next book, What Came Before He Shot Her, but as it doesn’t revolve around our main characters and is massively depressing, I quickly abandoned it. Skipping ahead to Careless in Red runs counter to my typical completist sensibilities, but I’m glad I did, even if it is rather lame in various respects.

In short, a murder has been committed in a surfing town in Cornwall where many of the residents are sex-obsessed. The culprit is revealed to be exactly who I thought it was (though I didn’t know why) and then everyone proceeds to have a sudden change of heart. The much-put-upon husband casts off his horrid wife. The rebellious son decides to make a sincere attempt at learning his father’s business. The cantankerous grandpa decides to honor his granddaughter’s wish to become a nun. (Seriously, why were they even in this book? Their only contribution to the mystery was that the victim had once made a comment to the girl that she relayed to the police.) At least Lynley is the protagonist in this one and, even though we aren’t treated to any sections from her point of view, Havers has a decent role, as well. I swear she just brightened up the whole book when she appeared. I do so love Havers.

thisbodyofdeathThis Body of Death
Isabelle Ardery, a character from Playing for the Ashes who didn’t even merit a mention in my review of that book, is back, taking on the Acting Detective Superintendent role vacated by Lynley. And boy, is she unsympathetic. She’s an alcoholic for one and makes several bad decisions (often seemingly out of pride or pique) regarding the case at hand (a young woman has been murdered in a local cemetery). She is able, though, to get Lynley to come back to Scotland Yard, and in the end the thoroughly broken pair ends up as lovers. While I do not like her at all, it is at least in character for Lynley to have terrible taste in women (Deborah, anyone?) aside from Lady Helen.

Havers has more to do this time (yay!) but I object to some extreme rationalization at the end regarding her unwillingness to call for backup. Yes, Havers is very stubborn, but I just got the feeling that George knew a reasonable officer would’ve called for backup in the situation Havers found herself in, but in order to get her big, dramatic conclusion to work, she had to get Havers to wait. Also, is George trying to insinuate that Havers is in love with Lynley? Her reaction to Lynley and Ardery’s relationship makes me wonder. I really don’t want this to be true. They should be like Donna and The Doctor.

Overall, though, This Body of Death is an improvement over Careless in Red. The case is more interesting and twisty, with various elements that connect well in ways I did not predict. The only really obvious revelation—and I’m honestly not sure it was supposed to be a surprise to the reader, given the way the book is structured—regards one character’s involvement in a past crime. Not the best Elizabeth George, but not terrible, either.

believingthelieBelieving the Lie
AUGH! I HATE DEBORAH ST. JAMES SO FREAKING MUCH! I mean, I have intensely disliked her for some time, but her idiotic actions in this book, most irritatingly excused by Lynley and Simon, have caused my feelings to progress into outright hatred. When Lynley is tasked with quietly verifying that the accidental drowning of a rich dude’s nephew really was an accident, he enlists Simon and Deborah’s help. Deborah, true to irrational form, becomes obsessed with ferreting out a secret held by one of the peripheral characters and ends up running off on her own to pursue it, which ultimately leads to tragedy. And, of course, it all has to do with having babies, which is Deborah’s primary fixation, even though she’s such a damned moron that I’d feel bad for any kid growing up under her care.

The rest of the book wasn’t so great, either. Though it finishes with much drama, it starts off terribly dull. One subplot I could’ve done without entirely involved a tabloid reporter who was having trouble finding a story salacious enough to suit his editor. He ultimately served almost no purpose whatsoever, except to give Deborah a ride on several occasions. And I was mad at myself for getting a bit misty-eyed over the resolution to another subplot, since it replicates almost exactly one that appeared just two books ago! Lynley seems to be sleepwalking through most of what occurs, and though something spurs him at the end to begin trying to move on from Helen’s death, I’m not exactly sure what that was.

Once again, the best bits were the Havers bits. The volume ends with a cliffhanger that will lead us into the next book, and I’m glad I won’t have to wait years for it. I’m a little worried that Barbara is going to do something to jeopardize her career at Scotland Yard, but if it can lead to happiness in her personal life, or even a glimmer of hope for future happiness, it will probably be worth it.

justoneevilactJust One Evil Act
I wanted so much to love this book, but it persisted in being so thoroughly frustrating and awful that in the end, I very nearly hate it instead.

Angelina Upman, mother of Havers’ sweet nine-year-old neighbor Hadiyyah, returns to her former lover’s life briefly before absconding with her daughter to Italy, where her new man awaits. Azhar (Hadiyyah’s father) does something stupid to try to get Hadiyyah back, Angelina eventually ends up dead, and Barbara does so very, very many thunderingly stupid things throughout that she’s probably tarnished forever now in my eyes, which makes me quite sad indeed. It’s completely in character for her to do what she can for Azhar. I mean, I get that, and I get how he and his daughter are practically the only thing in her life besides her job, but she persists in believing she can bend a tabloid journalist to her will, but it only ever gets her further into the shit. (Meanwhile, readers are treated to innumerable, interminable conversations between the two of them. George also throws in tons of random Italian words throughout; it’s both annoying and pretentious.)

I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer. Instead, the best parts of this book were other people, namely Lynley, who makes progress in getting over Helen, and the charming Italian detective, who seems kind of sweet on Barbara.

It literally took me months to finish this. I cannot recommend it. And yet… can I give up a series I have stuck with for so long? Time will tell, I suppose.

Four by Laura Lippman

In the mood for a new mystery series, I decided to check out the Tess Monaghan books by Laura Lippman. They’re compulsively readable, inspiring me to proceed to the next in the series practically immediately, but I found I hadn’t much to say about each. Therefore, a column of brief reviews was clearly called for!

baltimorebluesBaltimore Blues introduces us to 29-year-old Baltimore native Tess Monaghan, underemployed former newspaper reporter and fitness buff, who undertakes a surveillance job for a rowing buddy whose fiancée has been acting weird. There wouldn’t be much of a book if this assignment didn’t turn out to be more than she bargained for, and in due course, a famous local lawyer is dead and the rowing buddy the chief suspect.

Now retained by the buddy’s lawyer, Tess continues to snoop about. She’s just supposed to be finding enough information to achieve reasonable doubt, but is instead driven to solve the mystery. And, ultimately, she does. It was an outcome that I didn’t expect, and the various plot threads and loose ends are wrapped up reasonably tidily, though the suggestion that a second killer is still roaming free was relegated to one blink-and-you-miss-it sort of line.

Tess herself is a little bit generic at this point, but she’s likeable enough. It’s interesting that she’s an investigator who isn’t technically tied to law enforcement, so she’s not obliged to divulge full details about crimes, with the flip side that because she lacks status she probably couldn’t divulge anything anyway without irrefutable proof. Baltimore emerges as a character of its own, too, and I loved that there was a Homicide: Life on the Street shoutout. Actually, there was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reference, too. Does Lippman know how to woo me, or what?

charmcityCharm City is the second in the Tess Monaghan series, set about five months after the first book. Tess has both a full-time job and a full-time boyfriend for the first time in two years, but her boss encourages her to accept an offer to investigate how an inflammatory story, originally not on the printing schedule, wound up on the front page of the local newspaper. Eventually, deaths ensue. Meanwhile, some shady guys hospitalize her uncle Spike and stalk Tess and her family members.

The good things about this sophomore outing revolve around Tess and her personal relationships. She comes into sharper focus as a character, first of all, but also makes some serious changes and/or mistakes in her personal life. And yet, this doesn’t read like one of those chick lit mystery series—my mind goes immediately to Meg Cabot’s dreadful Size 12 Is Not Fat—where the protagonist seems too easily distracted by the male characters. Tess just seems… normal.

On the negative side, the subplot (involving the aforementioned shady guys) was a real yawner and there were a couple of instances where twists were really obvious to the reader, making Tess appear incredibly slow on the uptake. And though the final big reveal did surprise me, in retrospect it shouldn’t have, because it was essentially the same gimmick used in the first book! Is a pattern forming? As I head into book three, I will definitely be looking for a certain type of character and setting my suspicious sights on them from the start.

Overall, Charm City was a little disappointing, but certainly not bad. Onward ho!

butchershillIn Butchers Hill, Tess has set up shop as a private investigator in a not-so-great part of town. Her first two clients are looking for children—one wants to make amends to the witnesses of a crime he committed five years ago, while another wants to know that the daughter she put up for adoption is doing alright. Neither client has been completely honest with Tess, however.

This was a really interesting installment of the series. I appreciate that Lippman was able to creative multiple African-American characters who feel like full-fledged, sympathetic individuals (though I do wonder what an African-American reader would make of them). There’s commentary here on race relations in Baltimore, among other things, but it doesn’t feel too heavy-handed. I also like that Tess is not strictly a homicide investigator, though her cases have all involved murder eventually.

Speaking of murder, after Charm City, I was a little worried that it would be easy to predict the perpetrators in subsequent books, but actually, I didn’t see this one coming. And that’s a good thing, though the reason why I didn’t was that it was a rather crackalicious twist. Despite that (and the one aspect of the ending that I predicted), the conclusion to this one is surprisingly affecting. I hope some of these new characters stick around.

inbigtroubleIn Big Trouble takes Tess away from her hometown of Baltimore and into the unfamiliar environment of San Antonio, Texas. When she receives an anonymous letter that Crow, her former boyfriend, is in big trouble in Texas, Tess ends up contracted by his parents to track him down. She finds Crow in fairly short order, but he is greatly changed and is also involved with a crazy young woman whose influential local family is tied to a notorious murder 21 years ago.

This was a bit of a weird one. I can’t say I disliked it, or that I predicted anything about it, but Tess is so off-balance personally for the duration that it sort of feels like the story never really gets… grounded, or something. Unlike the others in the series, I was able to set this one aside for a long time—like, weeks—and didn’t feel any particular urge to get back to it. That said, I did think the San Antonio setting was portrayed well, and Lippman successfully instilled a serious hankering for some authentic Mexican food.

In the end, I’m enjoying the Tess Monaghan series quite a lot! I’m going to take a break here for a bit, but I do intend to return to the series in the near future.

The CMX Project: Cipher

cipher1MICHELLE: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the second installment of The CMX Project, in which we turn our attention to Cipher! (Please kindly overlook the fact that this column was promised for February; life has a nasty habit of upending one’s plans.) This month we’ll also have a special guest, but before the big reveal, how about another of your fabulous summaries, Karen? (Since you did so well with
Land of the Blindfolded!
)

KAREN: Goodness, Michelle, all that praise is going to go to my head!

This month we have Cipher, by Minako Narita. Published by Hakusensha, it ran in Lala and Lala DX in the early/mid-’80s. Narita began working in the ’70s, with an eight-volume series (Alien Street) coming before Cipher. She would later go on to do a sequel to Cipher, Alexandrite, and her current work is Hana Yori Mo Hana No Gotoku, coming out very slowly in the bimonthly magazine Melody.

Cipher is the story of Anise, a girl in high school in New York City in the 1980s, and how she pursues a friendship with former child star Siva, breaking through his cool detachment with the force of her personality. Through Siva, she meets his twin brother Cipher, and discovers a mystery surrounding the brothers—that they’ve been changing places with each other for years. Which one is which? And why do they do this? I feel as if I’m not crafting a summary that does the story justice; instead, I hope our conversation will unfold just like the story—there’s a lot of layers to peel back, but I found the effort to do so very worth it.

But before I start going on and on, Michelle, please tell us about our special guest this month!

resized1MICHELLE: Well, I have the good fortune to be Facebook friends with none other than Asako Suzuki, who was director of manga at CMX from 2006 until its untimely death! I shared our Land of the Blindfolded column with her, and when she mentioned that her favorite CMX series was Cipher, I invited her to join us!

Welcome, Asako!

ASAKO: Hi Michelle and Karen! Thank you for having me, and thank you VERY much for this wonderful project remembering CMX! I am honored and excited to be with you today to talk about my favorite manga series, Cipher!

Cipher is a very special manga series to me, and I have lost count of how many times I read it. In fact, I have just read the entire series (of course in Japanese) not long ago.

MICHELLE: Can you tell us how Cipher came to be licensed and published by CMX?

ASAKO: Actually, I inherited Cipher with some other early acquisitions when I joined CMX. That being said, before I joined CMX, I assisted the acquisition team and made some suggestions. Cipher (and [a] few other titles that were eventually published) was one of the titles I recommended, but I didn’t know if DC Comics had acquired it or not until I started my position. When I saw it on our production schedule, I was very happy!

KAREN: Wow, Asako, that must have been a great surprise to come into CMX and see Cipher there!

resized3Now that I’m past the awesome summary-writing part, I can give my opinion—that I loved this title. I went in with preconceived notions—that this was That ’80s Manga. And while yes, it is very much set in the ’80s, it’s not done with artifice. It’s clear that Narita adored American pop culture—she even mentions doing a Thompson Twins doujinshi!—and it’s all done so lovingly. Real teens are a part of the music, movies, and current events, and it’s only in hindsight that the ’80s seem so cheesy. She also doesn’t gloss over some of the gritter aspects of the times—New York was still recovering from a terrible ’70s. Ironically, Cipher and Siva’s apartment is now in a very trendy area!

What surprised me was how the story was very much a coming of age tale—and not just for the heroine, Anise, but for the boys as well. At times, especially in the second half, she’s much more in the background, but her role seemed to be as much as a catalyst to make the bigger, darker story of the twins happen. Anise is still very childish at 16—there’s the very funny part where it’s pointed out that she really, really needs to start wearing a bra—despite her maturity and insight in some areas, she’s having a hard time seeing herself as growing up.

And then we have our former-child-star twins, Siva and Cipher (whose real names are Jake and Roy, respectively). Michelle and Asako, what’s your take on them? And do you still love the ’80s?

MICHELLE: Similar to Land of the Blindfolded, this is another case where focus drifts from the heroine and onto the two boys in her life, who each have past trauma to deal with. Anise isn’t as perpetually sunny as Kanade, but she’s still much less interesting than the twins. Or, rather, I felt like Narita-sensei was less interested in exploring her as a character. It was especially odd to me that we never learn what her focus is at the performing arts school! She narrates in volume one that “lots of people come to this school hoping to become painters, dancers, musicians, or actors.” So, which is Anise? What is her ambition for being there? As someone who actually attended a performing arts school, your “major” was vitally important.

So, that said, I feel a little grumpy that the boys got so much more love, but can’t deny that they’re pretty fascinating. I especially like when the story begins to focus more on Siva and we see events from his perspective that we later see again from Cipher’s perspective. Siva felt that Cipher’s openness made him more easy for his parents to love, while Cipher felt that Jake’s reliability made his own behavior seem childish in comparison. I also really liked how the friends they make while they’re apart affect them.

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ASAKO: I am a huge fan of Anise; she was my hero! The reason why I wanted to come to the United States was because I wanted to be like, and live like her. To me, Anise was more realistic and easy to relate to compared to other manga protagonists, thanks to Narita-sensei’s amazing psychological descriptions throughout the series.

Narita-sensei is an amazing writer; I can easily tell how much she loved her characters, and she treated each differently. The way she shifted focus from one character to another was just incredible. I actually had a deep conversation with one of the manga editors in Japan (can’t say who!) about Cipher and how talented Narita-sensei is!

See, Narita-sensei introduced Cipher and Siva to us through the eyes of Anise and once we got to know the twins better with Anise, we were able to learn more about them individually through the twins’ perspectives. If Anise stayed as the center of the story the whole time, the story would have been shallow. With appearance of Dana, the focus was subtly shifted to Jake, and we got to know the secret of the twins and why Jake was protective yet envious of Roy. Then we learn more about Roy in LA… I really enjoyed the multi-dimensional story telling.

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Speaking of details, have you noticed of the characters’ mix-and-match wardrobes? That’s amazing!

Also, there is something I have always wanted to know and never understood… can I ask you both a question? When you say “manga from the ’80s,” what does that mean? How do you distinguish the manga from the ’80s from the recent ones and why would you get less excited about manga from the era? That always puzzled me…

KAREN: Michelle—I wondered that too! I was really hoping she would have some great talent that drove her to commute all the way in from Queens!

I missed Anise during the second half of the series when the twins separated. She was still there, but the second half was really about the twins apart, and each making friends on their own, without having the other to hide behind. I don’t understand why some places categorize this as a shounen-ai title, the only love is friendship and the twin’s kissy-kissy… is anything but that.

There’s a lot of subtle tonal shifts in the story—the Dana storyline being one of them—a beautiful, talented young girl on the verge of falling in love and being loved is tragically, suddenly killed, and it has a way of breaking apart the entire premise of the story. The twins don’t just grow apart, they fly apart—Roy quite literally to the West Coast, leaving Anise behind. The ruse of one twin playing another will never work again, so they had to be apart, and make friends on their own terms, and the switching between coasts feels like two different stories but… they mirror each other, like Cipher and Siva did. Alexandra and Hal are different people, but they carry their own insecurities and pasts into their friendships—friendships they needed as badly as Jake and Roy did.

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I didn’t notice the wardrobes, except that I loved how detailed they were. Narita-sensei must have been importing magazines! It stuns me about the accuracy of the details—reading this series sent me into a flurry of research (yes, with the extensive use of Google Maps) and it’s amazing that she did this in the pre-internet era—unless she was here herself? Asako, do you know any of that background? She did three series set in the US so it really seems she had a feel for the place.

To answer your question, Asako, and “’80s manga” generally means the style of art that I think is viewed as rather old-fashioned—not as extreme as ’70s manga, but it still looks “dated.” However, Narita-sensei’s art doesn’t suffer as much in comparison, and I think the rep that this title has for being an ’80s manga has is because it’s set in the 1980s, and references to George Michael and Hall and Oates are funny to a modern reader who looks at it all through a lens of nostalgia. I personally adore older manga, and wish there was more of it, but sadly publishers have said it doesn’t sell—that’s one thing I loved about CMX was that they brought out Swan and Cipher.

Speaking of art, I found it very well done, and I really want to hunt down one of those out-of-print artbooks now!

MICHELLE: I think there’s a general sense of affectionate amusement about most things coming out of ’80s culture, really. I love ’80s manga, personally, but yes, I did find it pretty funny when a dancing Cipher is deemed to be as cool as Michael Jackson, or when Narita-sensei professes in the comments, “The source of my strength, just like always, has been The Thompson Twins.”

Asako, you make a great point about Narita’s layered storytelling. I didn’t think of it like that—introducing us to the twins first through Anise’s eyes, then widening the story’s scope with a purposeful sequences of events. I really loved each brother’s relationship with his newfound friend. We learn that Roy felt that he behaved childishly in his past, and so perhaps he had tried to grow up too fast and hadn’t enjoyed some of the simpler pleasures that Hal makes it his mission to introduce him to. Jake felt he always had to be the reliable one—in fact, he wanted to be needed—but then he makes friends with Levine (aka Alex, Alexandra), who is sensitive but also resilient and tough.

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When Jake first meets Levine, he can’t bear to think of Roy and Dana at all, but gradually he allows himself to think about them, and then to talk about them. When one of Dana’s relatives has a baby and names it after her, Jake instantly adores the girl, and ends up breaking down a barrier with his mother for her sake. It all seems to happen very naturally. Too, I love that when everyone meets up again at the end, Hal and Levine are completely baffled that anyone could’ve ever mistaken one twin for the other.

And I, too, appreciated the details that Narita-sensei got right. I was delighted to note that, in one scene, characters are eating an Old El Paso dinner kit of some sort.

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ASAKO: In the first volume of the Tankobon edition, Narita-sensei talks about her trip to NYC, and she shares some pictures that she took during the trip. It sounds like she toured different neighborhoods to choose the neighborhood where twins and Anise should live. I thought it [was] funny but I was impressed at the same time that Narita-sensei even took pictures of TV commercials she watched in her hotel room. (Did you notice Cipher was watching a Betty Crocker’s new cake mix commercial?!) Very detailed artist.

Ah, thank you for explaining about the ’80s manga. To be honest, I have never thought of manga [as] “dated.” Well, in retrospect, I did notice different printing/layout techniques and art style. Maybe I am more comfortable with the ’80s manga because that’s what I grew up reading. Haha.

Back to Cipher, may I ask who is your favorite character(s) and why? I’m curious.

KAREN:That’s great to know some of the background of the creation! I think we’re all so spoiled with just being able to Google everything that people forget how hard it was to do research on such mundane topics—like cake commercials—in those days.

Asako, since you’ve had the advantage of seeing the Japanese versions, I had two questions—what is volume 12 of Cipher about? I’ve seen it listed on information sites and on Amazon.jp—is it side stories or does it add something? Also, have you read the Alexandrite sequel series—how is it in relation to Cipher?

My favorite character in Anise. She’s the entry to the world, and even when she’s in the background, she plays an important role. For all of the ways that she seems a little less mature, she shows such kindness and understanding, and that’s what breaks the shell around the twins. She can tell them apart at the end of the “challenge” but chooses not to—but she’s already opened up their world. I like her spirit, and watching her mature through the course of the series. It may not be as dramatic as what happens to Roy and Jake, but she becomes an important part to helping Jake discover his new life and gives Roy the space he needs until a reconciliation can happen.

I also like Hal—he’s so goofy at first but turns out to be so endearing.

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MICHELLE: I really like Hal, too, but I’d have to say my favorite is Siva. I like his complexity in that he’s the reliable one who is secretly dependent upon being depended upon, and I like how experiencing love (for both Danas, the original and her namesake) frees him to become his own person and to begin to understand the pain of others.

ASAKO: To be honest with you, I don’t remember what was in the twelfth volume. As soon as the bunko edition came out, I gave my tanko edition to my best friend (here in the US). That was long, long time ago. I vaguely remember it was about Levine, but I am not entirely sure. I’m sorry!

Dealing with the difference between tanko edition and bunko edition was a challenge for CMX. We had to make the English edition of the original tanko edition off of the bunko edition—does that make sense?? (:D). The pagination and proportion differences required a lot of effort on our end, and what’s more, cover materials were provided in transparencies (positive films), so they had to be scanned, cleaned and color corrected before we could use on the covers. It happened many times for other CMX books, too, but some of the cover images were not available from the licensor, so we had to scan art books or whatever the resources we could find (and of course, with Licensor permission and extensive approval process) to come up with something.

KAREN: That’s great information, Asako—but I think CMX did a great job, the covers especially were very pretty. Other companies seemed to have problems reformatting the Hakusensha-style “box on the cover” design to something that works in the American market, but this was very well done. Speaking of artbooks, I’m going to have to chase down that out-of-print artbook that came out way back when.

Cipher is thankfully one of those titles that’s easy to collect—it’s all out-of-print, of course, but most volumes go for well below cover, and a couple of others are above cover but nothing crazy—it’s an easy one to collect, so that shouldn’t be a deterrent to hunting down and enjoying this title. Yeah, it’s set in the ’80s, but there’s so much more to it than that.

MICHELLE: We hope we’ve inspired you to check it out, and would also like to extend our very sincere thanks to Asako Suzuki for joining us for this conversation!

ASAKO: Thank you for having me! Looking forward to more CMX reviews in the future!

MICHELLE: You’re in luck, because Oyayubihime Infinity is up next!

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Book description:
It was a senselessly violent crime: on a cold night in a remote Swedish farmhouse an elderly farmer is bludgeoned to death, and his wife is left to die with a noose around her neck. And as if this didn’t present enough problems for the Ystad police Inspector Kurt Wallander, the dying woman’s last word is “foreign,” leaving the police the one tangible clue they have—and in the process, the match that could inflame Sweden’s already smoldering anti-immigrant sentiments.

Unlike the situation with his ex-wife, his estranged daughter, or the beautiful but married young prosecuter who has peaked his interest, in this case, Wallander finds a problem he can handle. He quickly becomes obsessed with solving the crime before the already tense situation explodes, but soon comes to realize that it will require all his reserves of energy and dedication to solve.

Review:
I reckon that most people would think, quite reasonably, that a mystery with a name like Faceless Killers would be riveting. Unfortunately, those people would be wrong.

I’d been aware of the acclaim that some Scandinavian crime fiction has garnered in recent years, and the Wallander series was the one seemed most visible—not saying it’s the best of the lot, but there is that Kenneth Branagh series on the BBC—so I decided to start there, and with the first book in the series.

It’s January 1990 when a seventy-year-old man wakes in the night, sure he’s heard something amiss at his neighbor’s house. He’s right—the couple inside has been brutally murdered, and wife’s dying words (as well as one particular detail about the crime) suggests involvement by one or more of the many foreign refugees flooding into Sweden. Wallander and his team investigate.

I like to think I could’ve pegged this for a first book in a series even if I hadn’t known. There’s just so much to give that away. Wallander has a set of stereotypical “detective issues,” for one, including a drinking problem, an estranged wife and daughter, a crazy parent, and a thoroughly random obsession for opera. (Perhaps the specificity of “opera” isn’t quite a stereotype, but I have definitely encountered several detectives who randomly groove to classical music while on the job.) The vast majority of the policemen in the background are utterly indistinguishable from one another, with the exception of one guy who might not be around in subsequent installments. Wallander’s personal issues miraculously resolve themselves off-camera in a fast-forward that happens towards the end of the book. Occasionally, characters engage in pointless debates/rants about immigration policy. And after much plodding around, the case is ultimately solved thanks to the conveniently (and implausibly) amazing memory of one witness.

It took me ages to get through the first half of the book, but things did pick up a little bit towards the end. Wallander’s transformation into someone more positive doesn’t feel earned, as it mostly happens during that fast-forwarded period, but it does make him a character that I’d have more interest in revisiting. Until the point he got over the wife and made up with the daughter and father, I was pretty sure I would not be coming back, but if he can shed at least some of the clichéd personal baggage, there may be hope.

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.

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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.

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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!