The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes

From the back cover:

Old Witch likes nothing better than to fly about on her broomstick crying “Heh-heh!” and casting abracadabras, but now she has been sent away… by two young girls.

Amy and Clarissa love to tell stories about Old Witch… until one day they decide she is just too mean and wicked. Drawing a rickety old house upon a barren glass hill, the girls exile Old Witch there with the warning that she’d better be good—or else no Halloween! For company they draw her a Little Witch Girl and a Weeny Witch Baby.

Old Witch tries to be good, but anyone would get up to no good in a place as lonely as the glass hill… as Amy and Clarissa find out when Old Witch magics them into her world, a world of make-believe made real.

If you’ve got a clever and charming child and are looking for a clever and charming Halloween book that they might enjoy, The Witch Family just might fit the bill.

Amy and her best friend Clarissa, both “ordinary real girls,” are almost seven. Amy’s vivid imagination has been captured by the tales her mother tells about the wicked Old Witch, and she enlists Clarissa—who, with her faulty memory but pleasant disposition, is content with the sidekick role—in drawing a series of pictures that continue Old Witch’s adventures.

The story is presented in a really neat way. For example, it’s immediately clear through vocabulary that Amy is concocting Old Witch’s story herself. (She’s fond of big words, but doesn’t always know how to spell or pronounce them, so when she sentences Old Witch to live alone on a glass hill as punishment for her evil ways, she declares, “I banquished her!”) But a lot of the book is told from Old Witch’s point of view, so kids would probably enjoy the “is she really real?” mystery.

It’s certainly a fun Halloween tale, but I think Amy is the most fascinating character of all. What a bright little girl! Seriously, I found myself wishing for an epilogue that read, “And then Amy became a super-famous novelist” or something. There’s a real whimsy in the language used, and I love that she does typical little girl things like write the bumblebee who’d been in her yard into the story and give him a noble and heroic part to play. She’s also inserting herself into the story in a way, by giving Old Witch a little witch girl named Hannah to keep her company who looks so much like Amy that no one can tell them apart when Hannah comes to visit Amy on Halloween and goes trick-or-treating with her friends.

I find I haven’t a lot more to say about the book than this. It’s very cute. There are kitties and weeny witch babies and things to make adults giggle and the most adorable bee on the planet. Thanks for the recommendation, K!

Arata: The Legend, Vols. 1-6

By Yuu Watase | Published by VIZ Media

As a fan of Yuu Watase’s shoujo classic, Fushigi Yûgi, I expected that I would like Arata: The Legend, her first shounen series. Turns out, I had underestimated my enjoyment: I really like it!

The story begins in a world known as Amawakuni, where the child-like princess is preparing to yield the thrown to her successor after reigning for 60 years. There are no suitable females in the royal (Hime) clan to take her place, however, and so a fifteen-year-old boy named Arata is coerced into passing himself off as a girl until another suitable candidate can be found. During the ceremony, the twelve retainers of the princess—known as the shinsho, because they are masters of powerful sword-gods known as hayagami—revolt and the princess is cut down before Arata’s eyes. The shinsho pin the deed on him and his flight to evade capture takes him to the mysterious Kando Forest, where he is swallowed up and exchanged with his counterpart from another world: Arata Hinohara.

Hinohara has been having a tough time lately. In middle school, he was bullied so much that he eventually stopped going altogether. Now it’s his first year of high school, and at first everything seems to be going okay. He purposefully chose a school far away, where no one would know his old self, and is able to make friends quickly, thanks to his quick actions in capturing a train groper. After a month, however, his former nemesis Kadowaki arrives and the torment starts anew, capped off by the betrayal of Arata’s closest new friend, Suguru.

When he arrives in Amawakuni—and is taken for Arata by everyone he meets—Hinohara is thrust into Arata’s role as a wanted criminal. When his touch awakens a slumbering family artifact—what turns out to be a legendary hayagami known as Tsukuyo—he is suddenly recognized as a sho, which means he’s part of the battle for the the throne. The shinsho overthrew the princess because they were tired of the control she exerted over their powers, but now they must battle and dominate each other until one stands supreme. Like it or not, as a sho, Arata is swept up in the conflict and has two choices: submit himself (this essentially means death) or force others to submit. (Meanwhile, Arata contends with life in modern Japan, including going to school and eventually beating up Kadowaki.)

I really love how Watase fleshes out Hinohara’s complex character here, because everything he does makes sense based on what he’s been through. When he first arrives, he refuses to trust anyone, but when Arata’s childhood friend, Kotoha, makes good on her promises to stick by him no matter what, it has a profound effect on him. Too, the prospect of forcing others to submit reminds him too much of the domination he suffered.

Because of his experiences—and because of the unique property that allows Tsukuyo to safeguard the souls of other sho without actually causing their death—he is gradually able to win over a few sho by sympathizing with their own suffering, whether it be betrayal, isolation, or loneliness. In a conversation with the princess—courtesy of the special necklace that also occasionally allows him to converse with Arata—he promises to unite the hayagami under Tsukuyo and return to her before she dies completely. He’s got a long road ahead, and it’s one that can only be won by changing the hearts of others.

It is this mission of Hinohara’s—not unlike those usually assigned to magical girls—that makes me want to apply the demographic label “jounen” to this series. It’s definitely shounen in scope and feel, but it’s also attuned to its shoujo side. The slowly developing romance between Hinohara and Kotoha is very well done, for example, with Hinohara cognizant of Kotoha’s love for the real Arata and Kotoha confused because “Arata” is responding to her in a way he never did before. I also like that Kadowaki eventually arrives in Amawakuni because a) that is so very Yuu Watase, for two outsiders to come into a fantasy world and immediately assume powerful destinies and b) the ultimate test of Hinohara’s newfound bravery and purpose is for him to be able to sustain it in the face of Kadowaki’s unrelenting hostility.

The pacing of the series is also outstanding. There’s just enough foreshadowing of significant things—the gravestone that connects one of the shinsho, Kannagi, with his reasons for rebelling against the princess—to make the eventual reveal more significant, but one never has to wait too long for the answer to a question. Similarly, Hinohara frequently actually comes out and says what he’s thinking, so misunderstandings are not allowed to perpetuate for long. In fact, revealing the truth behind things—like when Hinohara finally convinces Kotoha that he is not her beloved Arata—gives the story more places to go rather than reducing all dramatic options.

My one complaint about the series is largely rectified by Kadowaki’s entrance into Amawakuni, and that’s that Arata is given very little to do. At first, there’s only a chapter or two from his point of view every once in a while, but once he meets an intriguing girl named Oribe—who can tell he’s an entirely different person than Hinohara—things begin looking up, especially when one of the shinsho is transplanted to Japan in Kadowaki’s place. Suddenly, Arata is in genuine peril, which is bad for him but good for the story!

In the end, while there’s a lot going on in Arata, it never feels like too much, always makes sense, and yet always leaves one wondering what is going to happen next. Not only am I genuinely excited about continuing the series, it has also rekindled my determination to read Fushigi Yûgi: Genbu Kaiden, of which I have heard good things.

Arata: The Legend is still in serialization in Japan; the twelfth collected volume was released there in August 2011.

Review copies for volumes one, two, four, and five provided by the publisher.

Kobato., Vols. 1-3

By CLAMP | Published by Yen Press

The plot of Kobato. sounds like a typical shoujo magical girl story. A dim-witted and clumsy heroine, who also happens to be guileless and compassionate, is tasked with filling a magic bottle with wounded hearts so that her dearest wish can be granted. But Kobato. isn’t shoujo.

If anything, it’s seinen, as it ran for seven chapters in Sunday GX before going on hiatus and reemerging in Newtype magazine. I’m guessing that the target audience, presumed to be young men with an appreciation for moe, is the reason why Kobato commences flailing, chibified panic mode on page two and falls down approximately fifteen times per chapter. (I may be exaggerating there, but honestly not by much.) The latter gag is run into the ground so relentlessly that I refuse to consider that anyone finds it funny, so CLAMP must be trying to inspire feelings of “Aww, she’s so cute and/or hopeless.”

The first volume of Kobato. is not very good. Kobato’s incompetency grates as does the constant browbeating she receives from Ioryogi, some sort of supernatural being currently dwelling in the form of a stuffed dog, who is testing her ability to “act according to the common-sense rules of this place.” If she passes, she earns the magic bottle. These tests—mainly centered around holidays—include taking out the trash, making nabe, and spending New Year’s day playing traditional games with an elderly woman.

Things improve somewhat in the second volume. Kobato’s got her bottle now and is ready to heal some wounded hearts. After moving into the same apartment building seen in Chobits, she starts work as a helper at Yomogi Kindergarten. The head of the school, Sayako-sensei, seems to have a heart in need of some healing, as does her hard-working part-time employee, Fujimoto. With Ioryogi’s assistance, Kobato tries to discover how best to help them, and gradually learns that Sayako is working to pay off a debt her father was tricked into incurring, that Sayako’s soon-to-be-ex husband is threatening harm to the school unless she pays up, and that Fujimoto is working himself to the point of exhaustion to earn money to contribute. They seem suspicious of Kobato at first, but her genuine sincerity eventually wins over even grumpy Fujimoto.

This is definitely an improvement over the first volume, but the kindergarten-in-peril storyline still seems to be occupying a great deal of space in what looks to be only a six-volume series. (Kobato. just recently came to an end.) There is a lot of room left in Kobato’s bottle, so I wonder how she will end up filling it after spending so much time working on these two hearts in particular.

Now that I’ve finished my litany of complaints, there are some intriguing questions about Kobato. that leave me inclined to stick with the series until the end. Where is Kobato from, exactly? What is her wish? How did she and Ioryogi meet? What is Ioryogi? (We’ve learned already that if he helps Kobato grant her wish, he may be able to get his original body back.) And, most peculiarly of all, why is it that Kobato is not allowed to take off her hat?

Kindergarten peril I can do without, but I really do want to know what’s up with the hat thing.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Pandora Hearts 2-5 by Jun Mochizuki

Reading Pandora Hearts is like mentally treading water. There is so much going on that one is constantly churning the plot waters, trying to stay afloat. It’s not that I’m saying this is a bad thing or that I object to thinking—far from it!—but that I never appreciated episodic lulls so much as when they weren’t around to give me a chance to understand and process what just happened.

The first volume introduced readers to fifteen-year-old Oz Vessalius, who is banished to a mysterious dimension known as “the Abyss” during his coming-of-age ceremony. He escapes by entering into a contract with a “chain” (denizen of the Abyss) named Alice, who wants to search for her scattered memories in the real world. When they arrive, ten years have passed and they are welcomed by a strange trio, one of whom (Raven) bears a striking resemblance to Oz’s childhood friend, Gilbert.

The search for Alice’s memories begins in the second volume, with strong hints that the answer Oz seeks—what was the “sin” that led to his banishment?—lies within them. Oz and Alice have agreed to help an organization known as Pandora (which has several goals regarding investigating and gaining control over the Abyss) and have been assigned by one of its employees, the eccentric Xerxes Break, to take down an illegal contractor whose chain is devouring humans.

Now, at this point, I was thinking, “Okay, here’s our episodic gimmick. Oz and Alice deal with the dangerous contractors and collect memories and it’ll be a sort of basic shounen fantasy.” But that’s actually not how it turns out. Any time Xerxes arranges some sort of encounter with a contractor or chain, it always leads to major plot developments. Sometimes this involves answering some questions—the identity of the braided man we keep seeing in Alice’s memories, for example—but just as often generates several more. I considered keeping a scorecard of questions raised and questions answered so that I could keep track of what issues were still outstanding.

Mangaka Jun Mochizuki also skillfully employs flashbacks to flesh out our understanding of Oz, who is far more complex (and clever and resilient) than he initially appears. His affinity for and faith in Alice, for example, persists despite various people advising him not to trust her, and we gradually learn that this is because he sees a lot of himself in her. Both he and Alice have cause to question why they exist, and since he, as a child, was afraid to pursue the truth regarding his father’s animosity towards him, he admires that Alice is fearlessly pursuing the recovery of her memories. Too, Oz displays an almost alarming equanimity about his situation, which can again be traced back to his father’s coldness, when Oz learned to “accept everything as it is.”

The end result is a story that combines a non-stop spooling out of multi-layered plot threads with some genuinely affecting character work. I particularly appreciate that the female leads—Alice and Sharon, a Pandora employee—are not the character types they initially seem to be (tsundere and meek girl, respectively) and just about any scene wherein Alice feels left out at the signs of affection between Oz and others or just vulnerable in general is a big favorite of mine.

Another aspect of Pandora Hearts that I must commend is the artwork, which, as MJ amply illustrated in a Fanservice Friday post on Manga Bookshelf, is definitely fujoshi-friendly. Consider the evidence:

Shallow confession: although I really like Raven for himself, I admit that I also enjoy just looking at him. It’s not all pretty fellows, though, as Mochizuki’s renderings of the Abyss are creepy and imaginative, and the inhabitants even more so. There are a few references to Alice in Wonderland scattered throughout, too, but it’s nothing that even comes close to dominating the story or its landscape.

As of the fifth volume, Pandora officials have vowed to protect Oz, who is destined to play a major role in their conflict with the Baskervilles, remnants of a clan that battled the four great families (who eventually formed Pandora) 100 years ago and sacrificed the capital city as an offering to the entity in control of the Abyss (not to mention being responsible for sending Oz there in the first place). Plus, Sharon has been abducted and someone just may be in league with the enemy. Many other questions—about both past and future—abound, which ensure that I will keep reading (and hoping everything is ultimately resolved) to the very end.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that Pandora Hearts is a slog, because it truly isn’t. It’s engaging, intriguing, and sometimes even funny. What it never is is tranquil or relaxing, so be sure to save it for a time when your brain needs a little exercise.

Review copies for volumes three through five provided by the publisher.

The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit

From the back cover:
It’s startling enough to have a Phoenix hatch in your house, but even more startling when it reveals you have a magic carpet on the floor. Conceited it may be, but the Phoenix is also good-hearted, and obligingly accompanies the children on their adventures through time and space—which, magic being what it is, rarely turn out as they were meant…

The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) is the second book in the trilogy that begins with Five Children and It. It’s November now and the children—Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, and baby brother “the Lamb”—are back at home in Camden Town. One day, after a small fire ruins their nursery carpet, their mother buys a new one from which emerges a shiny yellow egg. And when that egg falls into the fire, a talking Phoenix is hatched who informs them that the new carpet is actually magic and can take them wherever they’d like to go.

As with the first book in the trilogy, most of the story is comprised of the wishes the children make and their often unexpected outcomes. They wish to go abroad, for example, so the carpet takes them to visit a topless tower in France, where Robert promptly gets stuck on a window ledge. On another occasion, the cook accidentally accompanies them on a trip to a sunny shore and ends up being worshipped by the natives. Other wishes involve visits to India and a plethora of Persian cats.

What’s different this time is that more of the wishes are linked. When the children wish to do a bit of good, they find themselves back in France, where they find the rightful owners of the treasure hidden in the tower. And when a would-be burglar is arrested on suspicion of having stolen said Persian cats, the children rescue him from jail and convey him to the sunny shore, whereupon he promptly falls in love with the cook and they get married on the spot. The emphasis on helping people makes this installment of the series a little more like The Railway Children, which still remains my favorite Nesbit book.

While the adventures are fun—my very favorite is not a wish at all, but a visit the children make with the Phoenix to a fire insurance company who uses his likeness for their logo—Nesbit’s writing is really the main draw here. It’s warm, observant, and clever simultaneously, eliciting many a giggle. I love this evocative line about a cast-aside bit of correspondence:

”The letter… lay on the table, drinking hot bacon fat with one corner and eating marmalade with the other.”

That line not only conjures a vivid mental picture, but tells you something about the letter’s recipients, as well. And, indeed, the characterization of the children is more defined in this second outing, with the two eldest (Cyril and Anthea) showing signs of increased maturity. Nesbit never idealizes the children—“The children were not particularly handsome, nor were they extra clever, nor extraordinarily good. But they were not bad sorts on the whole.”—and their imperfections are what make them likeable. When they discover that sometimes things can get worn out through striving to please, one gets the sense that they’ve learned an Important Lesson about consideration without it coming across as some sort of moral.

Though less famous, The Phoenix and the Carpet is actually better than the first book in the trilogy, and I am definitely looking forward to the third and final installment.

13th Boy 3-6 by SangEun Lee

After I read the first two volumes of SangEun Lee’s 13th Boy, in which a pertinacious girl named Hee-So Eun does everything in her power to win the love of the handsome Won-Jun Kang, I had high hopes for the quirky series but apparently not high enough because, starting with volume three, the story veers into unexpectedly (and awesomely) dark territory. That’s not to say that the sense of whimsy—best represented by Beatrice, a talking cactus—has disappeared. Indeed, volume six has several silly moments. But both the reader and Hee-So discover that things are more serious than expected, with the result being that she reveals some admirable qualities that she had not previously displayed.

The bulk of the drama revolves around three childhood friends: Won-Jun, Whie-Young, and Sae-Bom. The three of them have been stuck in a love triangle for years, with Won-Jun pining away for Sae-Bom, and Sae-Bom pining for Whie-Young. But so much time has passed, they begin to question what it is they actually feel for each other. Won-Jun, for example, is staying near Sae-Bom partly out of guilt born of an awful secret that in turn led to a serious accident. Sae-Bom is stunted because of these incidents, behaving like her seven-year-old self (though she is now fifteen) in an attempt to return things to how they used to be. And Whie-Young doesn’t want much to do with either of them.

Into their group comes Hee-So, and though she first appears obnoxious (I didn’t like her much in the first two volumes) her bright outlook and unfiltered expression of what she’s feeling make a big difference in their lives. At first, she merely turns the triangle into a square, with Whie-Young drawn to her while she chases after Won-Jun, but soon begins to make an impact on the others as well. Although Hee-So initially befriends Sae-Bom because it hurts to see Won-Jun caring for his damaged friend so solicitously and she figures he’ll have to do less of that if she helps out, she throws herself into the friendship with true commitment and eventually helps Sae-Bom relinquish her tight hold (literal and mental) on Toe-Toe, a stuffed rabbit who at one point had been given life by Whie-Young, who has magical powers.

You might not think that convincing a teenage girl to give up her stuffed animal would be riveting drama, but it really is. There’s a lot of emotional baggage concerning Toe-Toe, like who was responsible for his death and what that has subsequently meant for Sae-Bom’s emotional state. Simultaneously, Hee-So’s ability to rebound after being snubbed by Won-Jun makes him relax, because even if he should hurt her accidentally, it doesn’t affect how she feels about him. In time, he grows to feel a profound peace in her company and once Sae-Bom actually starts to look at him instead of Whie-Young, it may already be too late for her, because Hee-So has gotten her wish at last.

Starting in volume three, each volume is full of major progress in the story, to the point where I began to think “And there are twelve volumes of this series?! We’re not supposed to find this stuff out until the very end!” But SangEun Lee continues to come up with unforeseen avenues for the story to travel, with the most recent development being that Beatrice, the talking cactus, has realized that he is in love with Hee-So. Although this results in some amusingly absurd dialogue, like “Please don’t say that. It’s an unworthy thought. I am a cactus. I don’t have the right to love her…” it’s still treated fairly seriously, and Beatrice’s wish to become human (something he already manages each month on the full moon) has the potential to complicate the story still further.

And yet, while the romantic feelings of each character are definitely important and inform their motivations, this is not a story that can simply be settled by Hee-So and Won-Jun getting together and living happily ever after. There are too many secrets and too many deep bonds for matters to wrap up so neatly. Will Sae-Bom succeed in redirecting Won-Jun’s attention onto herself? Will Won-Jun, now that he has conquered the symbolic hurdle of “crossing the bridge” into Hee-So’s neighborhood, regress back into childhood obligations or continue on his own path, which ultimately might not include Hee-So? Will Whie-Young, who purports to be tough but yet frequently grants magical favors at the cost of his own health, really fail to live to the age of twenty? In many series, I would doubt that the death of a major character would be allowed to occur, but not 13th Boy.

If you read only the beginning of the series and dismissed it as a romantic comedy, I urge you to reconsider, because 13th Boy is surprising, complex, and well worth reading.

Review copies for volumes three, five, and six provided by the publisher.

Alice in the Country of Hearts 6 (Japanese) by QuinRose and Soumei Hoshino

When TOKYOPOP announced in April that they’d be shutting down, I was bummed that we wouldn’t get the sixth and final volume of the surprisingly fun Alice in the Country of Hearts, which had been scheduled for July release. Happily, however, the volume is easily available in Japanese (I got mine from Unhappily, it’s a disappointing conclusion to the series.

When Alice was first brought into the game by the White Rabbit, she was given a vial and told that it would fill up as she interacted with Wonderland’s denizens. Now that vial is almost full, so it’s time—after some thoroughly boring and pointless territory negotiations—for her to think about going home. Even though she’s convinced this has all been a dream, Alice still worries what will become of Julius after she’s gone, since she’s been ensuring the workaholic clock fixer eats regular meals, and everyone else is depressed about her impending departure.

There are several things that frustrate me about what follows (spoiler warning). First of all, Alice has been shown throughout to be a very sensible girl. Why, then, would she fall for someone who has treated her as shabbily as Blood (the Mad Hatter) has? I honestly don’t get it. Sure, he looks like a boy she once loved, but it makes me lose respect for Alice that she’d fall for this guy. Secondly, Alice makes it back to the real world for all of ten seconds before Blood shows up and whisks her back to Wonderland. A montage of happy people ensues and then it’s over. Huh? What?

We don’t get any explanations about the nature of Wonderland. Back in volume one, she was told that it’s not a world she created, but one she wished for. So, is it a real place? Is it a delusion? Is she lying in a sickbed somewhere? Has this story been taking place in the imagination of an autistic boy with a snow globe? Alice never reunites with her sister, never makes good on her brief plans for the future… She just chooses to live in this fantasy world with a gun-toting jerk of a guy. It’s not as if the preceding volumes have been bursting with literary merit, but this final volume is so insubstantial it’s almost insulting.

I suspect this is all because there are more games in the series and the story can’t conclude here if they want to sell more, but it doesn’t make for a very successful or satisfying manga adaptation.

Shugo Chara! 1-9 by Peach-Pit

Shugo Chara! has all the basic requirements for a magical girl series: costume changes, loads of sparkles and hearts, and a focus on dreams, believing in one another, and protecting the people one cares about. And yet somehow, it doesn’t feel generic at all!

The main character is Amu Hinamori, a shy fourth grader who, because of her awkward communication skills, comes off as tough and cool. As a result, her classmates admire her but keep their distance. One day, Amu wishes for the courage to “be reborn as the person I want to be,” and the next morning, she wakes up with three brightly colored eggs in her bed. One by one, the eggs hatch into Guardian Characters. There’s perky Ran, who is good at sports; level-headed Miki, who is good at artistic endeavors; and sweet Su, who is good at domestic tasks, especially cooking. Each one represents something that Amu would like to be, and can lend these traits to her as needed.

Eventually, Amu is invited to join a group at her elementary school known as the Guardians. Each of the other students has a Guardian Character of their own, and soon they become involved in fending off the efforts of an evil corporation known as Easter, who is extracting heart’s eggs from children (these represent their dreams for the future) and casually destroying them in their search for a particular wish-granting egg known as the Embryo. This aspect of the story reminds me of Sailor Moon, specifically the S season, where the villains are targeting victims with pure hearts and extracting their “pure heart crystals,” which are then examined to see whether they happen to be a “talisman.”

So far, the action in Shugo Chara! has spanned nearly two years (it’s the winter break of Amu’s sixth-grade year in volume nine) and is paced very well. The Guardians go up against Easter time and time again, but actually make progress—usually by reforming its operatives by reminding them of their own dreams—instead of being stuck in a “monster of the week” loop. New characters come and go, characters harbor and hint at their secrets, and everyone powers up at a believable rate of speed. Of course, Amu is the awesomest, eventually hatching a fourth Guardian Egg, and has the most power and tranformation potential, but this is somehow never irritating, nor is the fact that several boys fall for her over the course of the series.

The interpersonal relationships between the kids are also important. Amu has long had a crush on Tadase, the “king” figure of the Guardians, and though he initially rejects her, then goes through a period where he’s infatuated by one of her transformations, he eventually comes to return her feelings. Complicating matters is Ikuto, the tortured high school senior who’s being manipulated by Easter into doing their bidding. Amu can’t help but be interested in him, and he’s certainly flirty enough in his own right, but this brings about conflict with Tadase, who hates Ikuto due to an incident that occurred before the beginning of the series.

Friendship is equally important. Amu quickly becomes close with Nadeshiko, the “queen” of the Guardians, but Nadeshiko has a secret that she still hasn’t shared with Amu, and which might damage their friendship. Rima, who replaces Nadeshiko as queen after the latter departs to study dance abroad, is rather obnoxious at first, but once Amu understands where she’s coming from, a friendship begins to develop between them that allows Rima to enjoy her life more. A similar thing occurs with Utau, Ikuto’s little sister, who worked with Easter for a time in an effort to save her brother.

Even while expertly managing a long-term plot and evolving character relationships, Shugo Chara! doesn’t forget that a magical girl series needs a lot of cute. As mentioned, sparkles and hearts abound, as do feathers and twinkly crystals, like the Humpty Lock Amu carries, which matches the Dumpty Key in Ikuto’s possession. Sometimes things are carried to a silly extreme, though, particularly in the realm of the Character Transformations, which occur when a child merges with one of their Guardian Characters. Yaya, the youngest and most immature of the Guardians, wishes to forever remain a pampered baby, so her character transformation is suitably ridiculous, with a bib and a mysteriously large posterior. Her attack moves involve rubber duckies and mobiles. Tadase, meanwhile, transforms into a frilly and ruffled princely personage known as Platinum Royale. Hands up if you think that sounds like a stripper name!

Ultimately, Shugo Chara! is a lot of fun to read. It’s the perfect shoujo blend of feelings and fighting, and emphasizes the importance of figuring out one’s own goals and desires. Though the series is rated for ages 13+ (presumably because of the slightly steamy interaction between Amu and Ikuto), it would probably be suitable for kids the same age as its protagonists.

Shugo Chara! was originally published in English by Del Rey, who put out the first nine volumes. Kodansha Comics then took over releasing the series, the tenth volume of which just came out on May 10th. (I’m saving that one for an Off the Shelf column on Wednesday.) The series is complete in Japan with twelve volumes, and will wrap up in the US in September. Kodansha has also licensed Shugo Chara Chan!, a spin-off four-panel manga, which will debut in November.

Review copies for volumes seven and nine provided by Del Rey.

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

From the back cover:
“From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.”

And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: disguised as a girl, Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.

But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.

Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins—one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.

For a period of several years, I was an administrator on an online roleplaying game based on a popular series of children’s fantasy books starring a protagonist with a peculiarly shaped scar. New players to this game would frequently submit applications for characters that read very similar to this:

“Ten-year-old Alanna has red hair, purple eyes, and a twin brother. She is very smart, determined, and brave. Plus, she has a great magical gift, so great that she will one day be able to succeed in curing a deadly sickness where all other healers have failed. She also excels at becoming the best at unarmed combat and swordsmanship (albeit with quite a lot of practice), distrusting bad guys instantly, and conveniently finding ancient, powerful swords with sparkly crystals on them.”

Okay, perhaps that’s a bit better than your average newbie attempt, but there are still some striking similarities. This resulted in me snickering out loud the first time Alanna’s looks—for, yes, that paragraph is describing the protagonist of this book—were mentioned, and in rolling my eyes every time her awesomeness was further established. The action in the book covers several years, and Alanna’s plan is to divulge her secret on her eighteenth birthday, after she is made a knight. It’s certainly welcome to see a female proving herself in that environment so adeptly. I don’t mean to suggest that awesome women cannot exist, but after a while I started asking myself, “What next?”

Perhaps such a heroine appeals more to young adults, the intended audience for this book. There are some good messages here about applying oneself when the things you want to do prove challenging and not letting anyone’s idea of your limitations get in your way. It’s just that everything kind of happens too easily. Even though we know Alanna is spending hours and hours practicing, her evolution from fumbling beginner to “a matchless swordsman” doesn’t seem to take very long. The climactic battle at the end against an immortal race of evil beings living in “the black city” also seems too simple.

In the end, I liked Alanna: The First Adventure enough to continue with the rest of the quartet. It appears to be the first book Pierce published, so it’s no wonder it doesn’t match up to my favorites amongst her works.

Witch Way to Murder by Shirley Damsgaard: C

From the back cover:
Ophelia Jensen wishes she was just your typical, thirty-something librarian. Unfortunately, she’s been burdened with psychic powers—an unwanted “gift” she considers inconvenient at best and at worst downright dangerous. Her kindly old grandmother Abby, however, has no compunctions about the paranormal, being a practicing witch with unique abilities of her own.

And sometimes the otherworldly arts do come in handy—like when the arrival of a mysterious, good-looking stranger to their normally tranquil corner of Iowa seems to trigger an epidemic of catastrophes, from the theft of bomb-making materials to a murdered corpse dumped in Abby’s backyard.

Luckily Ophelia and Abby are on the case and determined to make things right. But it’ll take more than magic to get out of the boiling cauldron of lethal trouble they’re about to land themselves in.

When a friend of mine mentioned on Twitter that she was indulging in some “fluffy fiction,” I—book fiend that I am—had to inquire. This ultimately lead to me borrowing a copy of Witch Way to Murder, which I believe was described as “chick-lit paranormal mystery” or words to that effect.

The basic plot is that Ophelia, a thirty-something librarian, has moved to the small town of Summerset, Iowa to escape the grief of her best friend’s murder four years ago. She eschews human contact, partly because of her past and also because she is trying to avoid acknowledging that she has inherited her grandmother Abby’s psychic abilities. Into Ophelia’s life intrudes Rick Delaney, a persistent reporter investigating a string of chemical thefts, which leads to Ophelia’s involvement in ferreting out a major drug ring as well as solving a murder, making a friend, and finally embracing her magical abilities.

Damsgaard’s writing was a major obstacle to my enjoyment of the book. Her sentences are often choppy, and dialogue is stiff and unrealistic. Like, for example, this bit in which Abby is talking to her granddaughter, Ophelia:

I’ve lived in this town fifty-three years and realize it isn’t the same here as in the mountains where I grew up.

Who would talk like that to their own granddaughter? My grandma grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, and if she were the one speaking, she’d say “it isn’t the same here as it was back on the farm.” And then of course we would all know it was the farm in Wisconsin on which she grew up ‘cos, like, she’s our grandma.

The book is also poorly edited, featuring a “picture perfect” without the hyphen, a “base” instead of “bass,” a “there” instead of “they’re.” There are some repetitive turns of phrase, and even some repeated actions, like when Ophelia is twisting a napkin back and forth on page forty-eight and then someone else is doing the same thing on page fifty. Maybe there’s so little to do in Summerset that napkin-twisting is all the rage!

Lastly, the mystery is not really that great, though at least it held my interest, and I was able to peg the culprit from his very first appearance. That said, though, I did like Darci, Ophelia’s new friend, whose intelligence is constantly being underestimated because she’s blonde and shapely, and it was unexpected that Ophelia and Rick did not get together in the end, despite the many, many, many scenes of him pestering her (we are informed he is charming, but he mostly comes across as annoying) and her responding in spite of herself.

Ultimately, even though this book was far from great, I still ended up borrowing the second book in the series. Maybe it’ll be better than this one.