The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

From the back cover:
Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.

Review:
The Eyre Affair takes place in an alternate version of 1980s England wherein Winston Churchill died as a teen, Wales is a socialist republic, and technology allows time travel to exist yet prohibits recording security camera footage on anything more advanced than a videotape (Fforde can dream big but not dream medium, it seems.) Literature is a very big deal in this universe: original manuscripts are kept under armed guard, kids trade Henry Fielding cards, ardent fans of John Milton abound, and literary crime (frauds, forgeries, etc.) is rampant. To combat this last, the Literary Detectives division of the Special Operations Network was formed.

Thursday Next has worked in the London office for eight years, handling mostly routine cases. When the original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and master criminal Acheron Hades suspected, Thursday is called in because she was once a student of Hades and can identify him. Through a long and winding road that involes a transfer to Swindon, a bizarre detour into vampire-fighting, and attendance at an audience-participation rendition of Richard III, Thursday pursues Acheron, eventually into the pages of Jane Eyre, where their confrontation changes the outcome of the novel (into the version we know).

My list of complaints is longer than my list of compliments. I didn’t like the alternate universe very much, nor the ubiquity of cloned dodos, nor the silly names for some characters, nor the plot about the corrupt weapons dealer attempting to extend the Crimean War (already in its 131st year). The main problem, though, was Thursday herself, who is irritatingly perfect. She’s practically revered by the general public and every man wants her. Her former beau is willing to ditch his new fiancée if Thursday will just give the word. Her new partner is instantly smitten. Acheron Hades is impressed with her and declares her his greatest adversary. Hell, even Edward freakin’ Rochester from Jane Eyre has taken a shine to her!

On the brighter side, parts of the story that seem random do come together in a reasonably clever way (even the supernatural excursion into Slayerdom was eventually relevant) and I found Acheron quite amusing. He’s gleefully, hammily evil, so his appearances are quite fun, though I wonder how Thursday was privy to what was said in meetings at which she was not present (this being a first-person narrative and all). One baffling point is that, once he makes it into Jane Eyre, Acheron sort of sits around docilely for quite some time. It’s puzzling, but by that point in the novel I was just shaking my head and saying “whatever” whenever such things occurred.

Ultimately, I am torn. You’d think that with my general meh feeling about the world and decidedly less positive view of its protagonist, I would be firmly opposed to continuing the series, but that is not, in fact, the case. I’m willing to give it one more shot, at least. Maybe it will grow on me.

Additional reviews of The Eyre Affair can be found at Triple Take.

Rurouni Kenshin 1-6 by Nobuhiro Watsuki: B+

It feels like I last read Rurouni Kenshin eons ago, even though it’s only been five years since the US edition came to an end. The siren call of a potential reread has been increasing in volume lately and finally, I could take it no more. Joined by my friend and fellow Kenshin fan, K, I’m yielding to temptation and diving back in! Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be reviewing the entire series, starting with the individual volumes and finishing up with the final VIZBIG edition, which contains some bonus material not included in the series’ original run. You can find an archive of both K’s and my Kenshin posts at Triple Take.

To summarize the general premise, during the Bakumatsu era a skilled young swordsman named Himura Kenshin fought on the side of the ishin shishi (pro-Emperor) patriots and earned the nickname hitokiri battōsai (essentially: a manslayer who has mastered the art of battōjutsu) before vanishing and becoming a figure of legend. While many of the ishin shishi eventually took up powerful positions in the new Meiji government, Kenshin was not interested in profiting thus from his actions, since he had fought only with the aim of providing a more peaceful future for Japan’s people. Instead, he becomes an unassuming rurouni (wandering samurai) and wields his sakabatō (a reverse-blade katana nearly incapable of killing) on behalf of those needing his help.

Before commencing this reread, my recollection was that Rurouni Kenshin gets good in volume seven, when one of Kenshin’s old enemies (the awesome Saitō Hajime from the pro-Shogunate Shinsengumi) pays him a visit. It turns out, though, that that’s not exactly true, since the first two volumes are very good.

The story begins in Tokyo during the eleventh year of the Meiji era (1879 or thereabouts). As he travels through the city, Kenshin is accosted by Kamiya Kaoru, the feisty instructor of Kamiya Kasshin-ryū (a school of swordsmanship that emphasizes non-lethal techniques), who is searching for the murderer who has tarnished the name of her school (and driven away its students) by claiming to be one of its devotees. Kenshin helps out, since this fellow is also claiming to be the hitokiri battōsai, and during the course of events, Kaoru discovers some of his violent past. Still, she asks him to stay, saying, “I don’t care who you used to be!” He agrees to stay put a while and moves into the dojo.

Like any good shounen series, our hero needs a band of friends, so volume two sets about fulfilling that requirement. The first addition to the cast is Myōjin Yahiko, an orphaned boy of samurai lineage who has been forced to steal in order to survive. He becomes Kaoru’s first student, and though somewhat obnoxious at first, he matures a lot in a short time, especially after he gets confirmation that all the training is paying off. Next is Sagara Sanosuke, “the fight merchant,” who was once a member of a civilian army that was betrayed by the ishin shishi. He has been hired to fight Kenshin, but realizes the rurouni is different from the other, corrupt patriots and ends up becoming his right-hand man.

In addition, much is made during these first two volumes about the Meiji government not delivering on many of its promises. Watsuki also works on building the relationship between Kenshin and Kaoru, showing the former contentedly helping out with the chores and the latter putting herself at risk when Kenshin is challenged by another former hitokiri simply because she’d rather be in danger than be alone again. It’s significant that when the battle triggers Kenshin’s battōsai mode, Kaoru is the one who prevents him from killing his opponent, for which Kenshin is profoundly grateful.

Volumes three and four are not quite as good, but close. I just can’t summon much interest in Takani Megumi, a woman from a long line of doctors who was coerced into making opium for a greedy industrialist, and she frustrates me by attempting to take her own life after Kenshin and Sanosuke have weathered some tough fights attempting to rescue her. Still, the introduction of Shinomori Aoshi, a former guard of Edo castle who is bitter about not seeing any fighting during the war, is significant, and the fates of his less-able-to-move-on-with-their-lives companions are compelling.

Where the story really sags, though, is in volumes five and six. Watsuki’s sidebars are full of comments like he can’t believe the series is still ongoing, how much work it is, and how certain stories were written “during a period of extreme exhaustion.” I must say that it shows. First, Yahiko defends a young girl named Tsubame against some dudes who are making her an accomplice to a burglary. Then a swordsman tries to recruit Kenshin to the cause of reviving a more lethal version of “the Japanese art of swords.” Lastly, Sano encounters a former comrade from his army days and must decide whether to participate in his anti-government plans. Zzz. Volume six, in particular, was a bit of a slog to get through.

Artistically, Watsuki’s style is attractive, featuring quite a few bishounen characters (somewhat to his apparent dismay, this results in a lot of female fans) as well as bizarre-looking ones. It takes a few volumes for the characters’ looks to settle down, and sometimes the metamorphosis is even faster (Aoshi looks a good bit different even just two chapters after his original appearance, though he’s still immediately recognizable.) One thing I find slightly weird is how often Watsuki openly admits to borrowing character designs from other sources (though in at least one case he specifies that he had the original artist’s permission to do so). Tsubame, for example, appears to be an exact replica of Tomoe Hotaru from Sailor Moon.

So, to sum up… Kenshin starts strong, but gradually falters, culminating in the rather boring volumes five and six. Take heart, though, because if memory serves, volume seven is truly fabulous, and sets off the Kyoto arc, which most Kenshin fans will probably name as their favorite part of the series. I’ll be reviewing the first half of it next time, so watch this space!

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke: A-

From the back cover:
Flung far across the universe, from star to star, faced with monsters, magicians, and maybe new friends… an Earth girl named Zita must find a way home.

Review:
I’m always impressed by children’s fiction that doesn’t underestimate its audience, especially stories with multiple plot threads that wind up stitching together in a way that’s both surprising and perfect. Holes by Louis Sachar is the best example of this that I can think of, but Zita the Spacegirl does an admirable job, too.

One sunny afternoon, Zita and her friend Joseph discover a smoking hole in a field where something fell to Earth. Despite fretful Joseph’s entreaties, Zita clambers down and discovers a big, tempting red button. She pushes it, as you do, and a portal materializes. Strange tendrils snake out and grab Joseph before the portal zaps shut. Though she flees initially, Zita is unable to leave Joseph to his fate, and so summons the portal once more, jumping into it herself. There’s no dialogue throughout this section, which employs some excellent nonverbal storytelling to convey Zita’s state of mind as she steels herself to do what she must.

She winds up on a strange world full of bizarre creatures and peculiar robots. Some are adorable, like the Miyazaki-esque grass-clod critter, and some are sweet, like the hulking and clay-like Strong-Strong, who carries her away from a robot altercation. In quick succession, she spots Joseph being whisked away, the button is stepped on, and she meets Piper, an unscrupulous inventor who offers to repair the button. After perusing a book of creatures (which contains an entry for “dozers,” which simply must be an homage to the doozers of Fraggle Rock) to identify Joseph’s captors, Piper points her in the right direction for a rescue and pretty much washes his hands of her.

Along the way, Zita is joined by a variety of creatures and encounters still more. First is Mouse, the giant mouse Piper travels with, but she later runs into a mobile battle orb called One, meets a rickety and timid robot calling himself Randy, and is reunited with Strong-Strong. All of these critters are loyal to Zita, who is smart and brave and emotive, and defend her against mechanized predators and turncoats alike. The plot is clever and satisfying, but it’s actually the bond between Zita and her friends that’s the best part of the story, and I was happy that she didn’t need to part with them all just yet.

Although I did like Zita the Spacegirl very much, a couple of things bugged me. First, the existence of how the button came to be is not explained. It’s powered by a missing part from Randy, so… did someone take that power source, affix it to a button, and send it to Earth specifically to transport Joseph? I think that they probably did, but it’s never outright specified. Also, One tells Zita she’s “many thousands of light years from home.” How does he know that? Does he recognize she’s from Earth? Are humans regular space travelers on this planet? What year is it supposed to be in Zita’s timeline, anyway? Probably these are the sorts of questions only a stodgy grown-up would ask so I should loosen up already.

Hatke’s art is beautifully suited to the story. As I mentioned, he does a terrific job conveying actions and character emotions through nonverbal storytelling, something I am always a huge fan of. All of the color is lovely, and he does some really nice things with light, from the warmth of a sunny scene to a brilliant beam in a climactic moment. Additionally, the creature designs are quite imaginative; I think I will always remember the little scavenger bot who emits a little heart when it spies a bit of scrap that suits its fancy.

In the end, Zita the Spacegirl is a thoroughly charming story that any kid would probably enjoy. Even better, the cliffhanger ending and author’s acknowledgments promise “many more” adventures for our plucky heroine. Count me in!

Additional reviews of Zita the Spacegirl can be found at Triple Take.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett: B

From the back cover:
Unrepentant book thief John Charles Gilkey has stolen a fortune in rare books from around the country. Yet unlike most thieves, who steal for profit, Gilkey steals for love—the love of books. Perhaps equally obsessive, though, is Ken Sanders, the self-appointed “bibliodick” driven to catch him. Sanders, a lifelong rare book collector and dealer turned amateur detective, will stop at nothing to catch the thief plaguing his trade.

In following both of these eccentric characters, journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett plunged deep into a world of fanatical book lust and ultimately found herself caught between the many people interested in finding Gilkey’s stolen treasure and the man who wanted to keep it hidden: the thief himself.

With a mixture of suspense, insight, and humor, Bartlett has woven this cat-and-mouse chase into a narrative that not only reveals exactly how Gilkey pulled off his crimes and how Sanders eventually caught him, but also explores the romance of books, the lure to collect them, and the temptation to steal them.

Review:
When a man depicted in a nonfiction narrative is described on the back cover as someone “who will stop at nothing to catch the thief” who has been victimizing members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, a reader might be forgiven for expecting some sort of chase. The clever thief. The details of his crimes. The dogged pursuer. The final, satisfying capture. The end.

But that’s not what one gets with The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. I don’t fault author Bartlett for this—she probably had little to do with the way the book was marketed—but it’s rather disappointing all the same. Instead, the book is more a profile of John Gilkey, a mild-mannered guy who used a combination of identity theft and manipulative politeness to steal vast quantities of rare and valuable books. It’s not as if his methods are ingenious, it’s just that he found one that worked and employed it over and over again until enough booksellers finally pooled their information and got him caught. Until he made bail. Then stole again. And was incarcerated again. Then stole again.

The details of some of his crimes are provided, and the scenes of police investigations and sting operations are genuinely fascinating. I liked, too, that Bartlett began to wonder what her responsibilities were regarding some of the information Gilkey had divulged to her, and how much she herself had become a part of the story. Even the fact that Bartlett is more interested in why Gilkey steals than what or how is fine, but after being told for the fourth time that Gilkey steals because he wants a collection others will envy and feels entitled to have it, regardless of whether he can afford it—and how, but for “his crimes and his narcissistic justification of them,” he’s not that different from law-abiding collectors—I began to grow weary.

I admit to some peevishness over the title, as well. Gilkey is not a man who loves books, but a man who loves the status owning an impressive array of recognizable titles will bestow. Granted, that’s a little long for a book title, but as someone who genuinely loves books—for their content!—I am annoyed that someone who merely desires their sheer presence on a shelf gets to make the same claim.

Ultimately, those looking for a detective-style story with a definitive ending will be disappointed. Gilkey is brought to justice for only a fraction of his crimes and shows no intention of stopping any time soon. As the portrait of an obsessed thief with a grudge against those who would keep him from what he believes he deserves, the book is more successful, though somewhat repetitive.

Additional reviews of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much can be found at Triple Take.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit: A

From the back cover:
When Father goes away unexpectedly, Roberta, Peter, Phyllis and their mother have to leave their happy life in London to go and live in a small cottage in the country. The children seek solace in the nearby railway station, and make friends with Perks the Porter and the Station Master himself. But the mystery remains: where is Father, and will he ever return?

Review:
This is the story of three children—Roberta (Bobbie), Peter, and Phyllis—who move with their mother from the city to the country after their beloved father mysteriously goes away. Though it’s initially a culture shock, they’re soon fascinated by the railway and make many friends among its staff and patrons and end up helping quite a few people—and receiving help in return—along the way.

Perhaps the best compliment I could give The Railway Children is that I wish it had gone on for about three times as long. But, as Peter sagely opines, everything must end.

‘There’s no end to this tunnel,’ said Phyllis—and indeed it did seem very, very long.

‘Stick to it,’ said Peter; ‘everything has an end, and you get to it if you only keep on.’

Which is quite true, if you come to think of it, and a useful thing to remember in seasons of trouble—such as measles, arithmetic, impositions, and those times when you are in disgrace, and feel as though no one would ever love you again, and you could never—never again—love anybody.

The passage above exemplifies several of the qualities that make this book such a charming read. The narration, for example, has a comradely air, evincing sympathy for the child’s point of view while utilizing humor that would please any audience. Here’s another bit at which I giggled—it takes place right after the children have gone out to pick cherries and end up preventing a terrible accident:

Bobbie said nothing. She was thinking of the horrible mound, and the trustful train rushing towards it.

‘And it was us that saved them’ said Peter.

‘How dreadul if they had all been killed!’ said Phyllis; ‘wouldn’t it, Bobbie?’

‘We never got any cherries, after all,’ said Bobbie.

The others thought her rather heartless.

I could go on quoting similar diverting passages, but must address a second strong point in favor of this book: the characterization of the children. Now, it may be said that it’s idealistic to expect children this clever and honest to truly exist, but Nesbit is also careful to give each of them flaws. Peter is a bit hot-headed, Phyllis is self-absorbed, and Bobbie is… well, Bobbie hasn’t really got faults, and yet I love her best of the lot.

Bobbie’s the eldest, and poised on the brink of growing up. She still has fun playing with her siblings, but she’s the one attuned to her mother’s sorrow, and realizes that asking about their father’s whereabouts would only cause more pain. When she discovers the truth, and thinks how it would affect her younger siblings, she understands why her mother did not reveal it. She’s brave, kind, sensitive, and thoughtful. The family owes their happiness to her, though they know it not.

The end result is a story that is wholesome, but never saccharine. The children invariably do the right thing, but that doesn’t make them immune from quarrels. Unfair and frightening things happen, but likewise people are willing to offer help when asked. Cleverness and simple goodness are prized more than foolhardy exploits, and the children are extremely proud of their mother, who uses her gift of storytelling to support the family after the move. It’s a story that makes one feel good about people, and oh, that ending! “I think that just now we are not wanted there. I think it will be best for us to go quickly and quietly away.”

Clearly I must read more E. Nesbit.

Additional reviews of The Railway Children can be found at Triple Take.

The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson: B

From the front flap:
The world needed a hero, but how would an editor with no off-switch answer the call? For Jeff Deck, the writing was literally on the wall: NO TRESSPASSING. In that moment, his greater purpose became clear. Dark hordes of typos had descended upon civilization… and only he could wield the marker to defeat them.

Review:
After a college reunion spurs the realization that he hasn’t done anything to change the world, unlike some of his impressive former classmates, Jeff Deck decides to play to his strengths—editorial skills—and embark on a cross-country trip to correct typos. A few friends join the initiative and TEAL (Typo Eradication Advancement League) is born. With his trusty vehicular steed, Callie, and stalwart companion, Benjamin (and armed with a kit full of markers and correction fluid), Deck sets out on his quest.

The Great Typo Hunt chronicles his journey, both physically and figuratively. In simplest terms, he and Benjamin travel from town to town, spotting typos and attempting to fix them, aiming for a correction rate of 50 percent or higher. Sometimes they correct typos on the sly and sometimes request permission to do so. It’s pretty satisfying when a fix has been achieved, especially when pictoral evidence is furnished. Alas, many of the people they talk to are apathetic—one actually says “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign”—while a few are downright hostile. Happily, some also prove receptive and appreciative of TEAL’s efforts.

Meanwhile, Deck has much cause during the trip to consider the real purpose of his mission. In an early interview he states, “It’s not about making anyone feel bad or… look stupid or something, it’s just really about going after the errors themselves.” And that’s pretty much where he ends up at the end, though it takes time for his thoughts to coalesce into a mission statement that has more to do with clarity in communication than in adherence to specific rules. After a setback involving federal charges for vandalizing a historic sign in a national park, TEAL seems poised to embark on future endeavors that revolve more around education than correction.

It’s a worthy goal and one with which I can sympathize, as a some-time editor myself. Still, I will admit that reading encounter after encounter in which willful ignorance rules the day becomes extremely depressing after a while. I, too, lay the blame at an education system that has failed to provide people with the tools they need to make sense of writing in English. This shaky foundation has made people feel insecure about writing, which in turn makes them feel stupid—or like they’re being called stupid—when an error is pointed out to them, when that was never anyone’s intent. Thankfully, Deck and crew do not feel as hopeless about the situation as I do!

To conclude, I shall share a personal story of typo correction:

Back around 2002 or so, my husband and I went out for subs at a place with a sign shop for a neighbor. On their street-side sign, the sign place was advertising a “Crazzy Eddie” sale. Hubby penned a note and slipped it in the door. A few days later, I was driving by and happened to spot this. A return trip with a camera was clearly called for.

I suppose this could have been done in the spirit of fun, but to me it seems to say, “Screw you, buddy.”

Additional reviews of The Great Typo Hunt can be found here.

The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages: A-

From the back cover:
It is 1943, and while war consumes the United States and the world, eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan lives with her father in a town that—officially—doesn’t exist: Los Alamos, New Mexico. Famous scientists and mathematicians, including Dewey’s father, work around the clock on a secret project everyone there calls only “the gadget.” Meanwhile, Dewey works on her own mechanical projects, and locks horns with Suze Gordon, a budding artist who is as much of a misfit as she is. None of them—not J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project; not the mathematicians and scientists; and least of all, Dewey and Suze—knows how much “the gadget” is about to change their lives…

Review:
Eleven-year-old Dewey Kerrigan is used to being apart from her father. She’s been living in St. Louis with her grandmother while he’s off doing “war work,” but a sudden stroke renders Nana unable to care for Dewey any longer. With the whereabouts of her absentee mother unknown, Dewey is packed up and sent halfway across the country to the officially nonexistent town of Los Alamos, New Mexico where her father is a physicist working on what the residents of “the hill” refer to only as “the gadget” but which is actually the atomic bomb.

Dewey isn’t like ordinary girls. She’s fascinated by science, especially radios and other mechanical gizmos, and doesn’t make any attempts to fit in. Still, she’s got a lot of independence on the hill and there are many adults nearby to answer her questions and help with her various projects, so she’s reasonably happy, if a little lonely, what with Papa spending most of his time in his lab.

Her classmate, Suze Gordon, isn’t like ordinary girls, either, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to get them to like her. Unfortunately, like most awkward preteens in this position (and, believe me, Suze’s efforts conjured up some depressing sixth-grade memories of my own!), Suze’s attempts to fit in never work out. For a significant portion of the book she’s not very likable, and mounts a sullen resistance when, a little over a year after Dewey’s arrival on “the hill,” Dewey’s dad travels to Washington and leaves his daughter in the care of his friends, the Gordons.

Friendship does not automatically ensue between the two girls, but after Suze undertakes one last attempt to be cool—victimizing Dewey in the process—President Roosevelt dies and suddenly she realizes how shameful her behavior has been. Slowly, the girls bond and at this point the book finally becomes so good I wished for it to be quite a bit longer! The girls are delighted to finally have someone with whom they can share ideas on their projects—scientific ones for Dewey and artistic ones for Suze—and love of geeky pursuits. I hadn’t realized how hard it was to be a girl geek in the ’40s! Inevitably, the popular girls get wind of their friendship, and Suze is placed in a position where she must make a choice and makes the right one without a second’s hesitation.

Alas, all good things must end. Suze’s mother, normally so adept at being a good maternal figure in Dewey’s life, completely and utterly fails to realize when Dewey’s upset about something quite significant, leading to a particularly ridiculous bout of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

In the end, I enjoyed The Green Glass Sea quite a lot. I liked Dewey all along (though I was less keen on the bizarre shifts in verb tense the narrative underwent when switching to her perspective) and warmed up to Suze eventually. I was immensely glad to learn there’s a sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, and shall be reading it soon!

For additional reviews of The Green Glass Sea, please visit Triple Take.

Planetes 1-3 by Makoto Yukimura: B+

Planetes is the story of Hachirota Hoshino, dubbed “Hachimaki” by his crewmates for his propensity to wear a headband (hachimaki), who dreams of earning enough fame and fortune to buy his own spaceship and achieve complete freedom. As the series begins, however, he’s part of a crew of “extraplanetary sanitation workers” who clean up space debris.

The first volume introduces readers to the crew of The Toy Box. In addition to Hachimaki, there’s Yuri, a Russian of indeterminate age whose perpetual staring into space (literally!) is explained when the story of his wife’s demise in a space liner crash is revealed. Yuri achieves some closure in the first chapter, when he finally finds a compass that was precious to his wife, and becomes a livelier character (and occasional font of wisdom) from then on. Tomboyish pilot Fee is a Floridian with a family back home and an ardent passion for cigarettes, which prompts her to go after some environmental terrorists who’re going around bombing smoking lounges.

The environmental terrorists become a more important factor in volume two. Hachimaki, who has been somewhat of a slacker up until now, learns that a rich inventor is mounting an expedition to Jupiter. Hachimaki develops a single-minded determination to be on the Jupiter mission, which leads to him working out endlessly and being sort of an ass to Tanabe, the (female) newcomer to the crew set to be his replacement. The environmental group—the Space Defense League—attempts several times to sabotage the protect, since the purpose of the mission to Jupiter is not exploration but to mine its resources. Hachimaki isn’t particular about the reasons—he just wants to go—and when his former friend, Hakim is revealed to be the terrorist mastermind, Hachimaki nearly kills him, saved at the last minute by Tanabe.

Hachimaki makes the crew for the Jupiter mission and by volume three is participating in mission training simulations. He’s haggard, though, losing weight, having visions of some sort of mystical cat, and feeling disconnected from everything around him. His crewmate, Sally, attempts to get through to him, and eventually succeeds (via boob therapy). Hachimaki has spent a great deal of time pursuing solitude, but Sally makes him see that in the end that Tanabe was right all along—“space is too dangerous and wonderful a thing to face alone.” Like his father before him, Hachimaki marries before heading out into space in order to anchor himself with a home.

Planetes is definitely an interesting tale, offering a mixture of science fiction and philosophizing about what it means for humans to go into space. One might notice, though, that in each of the paragraphs above dedicated to a particular volume of the series, Hachimaki seems like a different person. And, indeed, an inability to identify with the lead is what prevented me from awarding these volumes an “A.”

These volumes take place between 2074 and 2077, and it makes sense that a person could change a great deal in that time, especially given what Hachimaki has experienced, but sometimes I couldn’t trace the path between one incarnation of Hachimaki and the next or fully buy into his feelings for Tanabe. Also, even though it would have been unfortunate if Hachimaki had remained on the debris-collecting crew forever, I really missed Yuri and Fee as the story moved away from them. The first volume may be the most episodic of the first three, but it’s also a little less heavy than the others.

Ultimately, I liked Planetes a lot, though it wasn’t a quick read for me. I’m looking forward to the fourth and final volume.

Planetes is published in English by TOKYOPOP. There are technically five books in this series, but the last two comprise volume four, which was split due to length.

Additional reviews of Planetes can be found at Triple Take.

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R. L. LaFevers: B-

From the back cover:
“Frankly, I’m not fond of surprises, as ones around here tend to be rather wicked.”

For poor Theodosia, however, surprises abound. She spends most of her time at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London. There, all the artifacts that her parents dig up around the world are put on display and studied. But what her parents can’t see—and what Theodosia can—is the curses and black magic still attached to the ancient pieces. And it’s up to Theo to keep it all under control. Quite a task for an eleven-year-old girl!

Then Theo’s mother brings home the Heart of Egypt—a legendary amulet belonging to an ancient tomb. Theodosia’s skills will certainly be put to the test, for the curse attached to it is so vile and so black, it threatens to bring down the entire British Empire! Theodosia will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned in order to prevent the rising chaos from destroying her country—and herself!

Review:
Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos is like a sandwich. You might assume I mean that it starts and ends strong but has a disappointing middle, but I actually mean just the opposite.

1906, London. Theodosia Throckmorton, age eleven, is cleverer than most. Her parents work at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities, specializing in Egyptian artifacts. Theodosia claims many of these items are cursed, though no one else ever notices this fact, and describes the spell preparations she uses to nullify the curses before they do any damage. For a while, I regarded her as an unreliable narrator because I couldn’t tell whether we were supposed to believe that this was all true or if it was all an elaborate game of make-believe devised by an intelligent, lonely girl; many of her spells involve rather mundane ingredients like bits of string, after all.

When confirmation of the existence of curses as well as Theodosia’s talent for detecting them comes from adults in The Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers, I began to enjoy the story much more. She gets involved with the Brotherhood after tracking men whom she suspects of having stolen the valuable artifact the Heart of Egypt from her parents’ museum. It turns out that this artifact brings a curse upon the nation responsible for removing it from its tomb and that Germans facilitated its removal by Theodosia’s mother in order to bring chaos upon Britain. To forestall plagues, famine, and the like it must be returned to its original resting place. The whole middle section, in which Theodosia enlists the aid of her little brother and a pickpocket named Sticky Will to get back the Heart of Egypt is pretty entertaining, if improbable.

Alas, things take a turn for the ridiculous when the leader of The Brotherhood asks the eleven-year-old Theodosia to convince her parents to take her to Egypt so that she can put the Heart of Egypt back where it belongs. And she can’t tell them what’s up or have any backup, since all the other Brotherhood agents are injured or elsewhere. Nevermind that a group of murderous Germans wants it back or anything. The final few chapters are pretty tiresome, full of scenes of evading the bad guys and Theodosia reminding readers over and over of her assigned task. Everything wraps up exactly as one would expect, of course.

Another thing that bothered me a lot at first was the writing. A superfluous mention of “frocks and pinafores” gave off the distinctive aroma of “someone trying really hard to sound British,” so I checked and, yes, LaFevers is an American. After a while it ceased to bother me as much, but every time Theodosia said “smashing” I did cringe a bit inside.

I went from being dubious, to being pleased, to being rather bored throughout the course of this story. There are currently two more books in the series, with a fourth due out next spring, and at first I thought I wouldn’t bother with them, then I thought I would, and now I am not sure. There’s definitely a lot of potential here, but the execution is uneven. Perhaps what is needed is for Theodosia to have a team to work with; those parts were much more interesting than when she was alone. Now that she’s become an honorary member of the Brotherhood and grown closer to her brother, such an outcome seems possible. I suppose this means I’ve convinced myself to read at least one more and see how it goes.

More reviews of Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos can be found at Triple Take.

Geek Chic: The Zoey Zone by Margie Palatini: C

From the back cover:
MEET ZOEY
Age: Eleven. Well, almost eleven. Backspace. Halfway to eleven.
Factoid: 198 days to sixth grade.
Problem: Coolability (see glossary inside).
Connect the dots: A bad hair situation… Growing earlobes…

WANTED:
1. A fairy godmother.
2. A molto chic makeover [molto = very in Italian].
3. A seat at the primo lunch table. [Primo is also Italian. It means best.]

THE SOLUTION:
Tune in!

Review:
Ten-year-old Zoey Zinevich is interested in all kinds of things, like big words, frogs, and presidential trivia. Mostly, though, she’s obsessed with the idea of achieving coolness by the start of sixth grade, and convinced that having better hair and the ability to accessorize like her popular classmates Brittany and Ashley will make her dreams come true. In this somewhat scatterbrained semi-journal, Zoey tells the story about how she managed to become cool without sacrificing her individuality.

It’s a decent message, but on the whole, I found the book to be annoying. Here are some possible reasons why.

1. I am way beyond the target age for this book. In fact, I am so old I could have given birth to someone old enough to babysit members of the intended audience.

2. Though I remember that prissy pretty girls were fairly abundant once I got to sixth grade and made me feel inadequate and schlubby, I still think it’s really sad that a ten-year-old is obsessing about her hair.

3. The writing style reminds me of my own pretentious high school journals, except where mine would devote a whole page to the word “gurg” or a drawing of a fish, Geek Chic employs the same technique using the word “Hair!” (with a spiky aura for emphasis). Palatini has many, many of these space-killing pages. At least this makes for an extremely quick read.

I don’t know. Maybe a geeky fifth-grader who’s insecure and wishing to be like everyone else might take something valuable away from this book. At my age, it’s the inherent charm of a children’s book that really gets me (see Betsy-Tacy), and that’s a quality in which Geek Chic is lacking.

More reviews of Geek Chic: The Zoey Zone can be found at Triple Take.