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!

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 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.