Friday, November 19, 2010

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 1 by CLAMP

Cardcaptor Sakura Omnibus Volume 1
Dark Horse, 2010
576 pages

Dark Horse Comics has my undying love. Just like Cardcaptor Sakura the anime, and now Cardcaptor Sakura the manga, a classic of the shojo "magical girl" genre, and one that anyone seeking to round out their manga experience should probably read.

Some background:

I have been keeping my eye out for this one for a while. Not an omnibus volume, per se, but the entire Cardcaptor Sakura manga from the beginning. When I somehow stumbled upon the fact that Dark Horse was going to do an omnibus edition, I just about fangirl squee'd myself hoarse. And then I was informed that Volume 1 had been preordered for me for my birthday, and you can well imagine the heights of excitement I reached.

I can't recall when my love affair with this story started, or how it came to be exactly. I had been watching Inuyasha (the neverending story, but awesome) for some time, and we watched the entire series of Last Exile (interesting premise, never reached its potential). But then somehow this one came into the mix, and it took one episode only for me to be hooked. This is my favourite television show ever. It beats out Mythbusters, and that is saying something, considering that my desktop background is currently a walrus photoshopped to look like Jamie Hyneman. That's probably too much information. ANYWAYS.

So yes, I was predisposed to like this as a read. I wasn't even really worried that it might not follow the anime (and really, it would be that the anime didn't follow the manga, which came first.) I was prepared for some pretty significant departures, even. There aren't many, and the details that are different are pretty insignificant, at least in this first volume of two. The most noticeable differences are that there are a few battles present in the anime that are only mentioned in passing in the manga, and the relationships are much more clearly spelled out earlier in the manga, I think.

And oh, the relationships... but wait, I should probably summarize for those of you who have no idea what the hell I'm talking about.

Okay, so. This is all told in flashback in the manga, but the basic premise is this: Sakura Kinamoto is an ordinary third-grader when she accidentally opens a strange book in the basement of her house (and what a basement! it's a FREAKING LIBRARY). Out of this book fly dozens of strange cards, leaving Sakura with nothing but an empty case -- and a strange, adorable flying teddybear named Cerberus (hereafter known as Kero, the nickname Sakura gives to him, which he protests strongly). Kero informs Sakura that a) he's the guardian of the cards, and b) she must have strong magic to be able to open the book, and d) if the cards he guards escape, a disaster of unmentionable proportions will befall the world. So... oops. Now Sakura is going to have to get them all back, with the help of a very pink magic staff and the attention-loving Kero-chan at her side. The trouble is, the cards have minds of their own, and many of them aren't so keen to be returned to card-shape and be stuck in a book, so there are plenty of episodic adventures to go around as Sakura attempts to capture them all. By the end of the first volume, we're nearing her summer before fifth grade and she hasn't captured all that many cards yet, but it appears there may be some competition coming. (Also: volume ends on a brutal cliffhanger. Be warned. I am not getting Volume 2 until Christmas *wails*)

BUT. The cards aren't really what this story is about. This is the plot driver, but what we're really looking at here are the relationships, at love in all its forms from friendship to family to crushes and hero-worship to the romantic ideal of true love. There are not just love triangles here. There is a love geometry of astounding complexity. There are opposite-sex crushes, same-sex crushes, teacher-student relationships (there are at least three, one of which seems very iffy but somehow also not? I guess I was suspending disbelief pretty hard there, because if I wasn't I might have been pretty upset and as it was I winced a lot), loyal friendships, wonderful family relationships, love lost through death or marriage to another, and of course the glimmerings of true love.

As an example, we have Sakura's crush, which is probably the most straight-forward relationship in the book. All of us who have been in middle school remember the absolute heart-pounding, terrifying and yet somehow wonderful, all-consuming crush, and the desperate fear as well as the desperate hope that the object of our obsession might find out. Sakura handles hers with a lot more balls than I ever did and is veeeery adorably transparent. But then we also have a quieter, more mature crush on Sakura from her best friend Tomoyo. Sakura here is completely oblivious, but it's pretty clear to the reader how that relationship works. It's also pretty clear that Tomoyo has no illusions about Sakura's sexuality, and that she's okay with Sakura crushing on someone else. That relationship is one of those "pure, courtly love" kinds, never to be consummated and barely to be spoken of. Lest you worry that this might be the only form of same-sex relationship in the book, rest assured it's not, and that the other same-sex storyline is really, really sweet and entirely romantic. But to tell you more would be spoiling things, so I leave it for you to discover.

(most of the book is black and white, but there are some really lovely colour panels throughout)

Anyway. It's complicated, and affirming of love in all its forms. Another of my favourite relationships is between Sakura and her older brother Toya. They're at each other's throats constantly, with Toya pushing all sorts of buttons and driving Sakura nuts, and Sakura giving back as much as she can given her age and size. But when it comes down to it, they adore each other. Toya has some awesome (and hilarious) protective big brother moments, and there's a very touching story in which the tables are turned and it's up to Sakura to save him.

There's something about this story that makes me so happy to be loved by the people who love me. It's not that there's a single terrible relationship in Cardcaptor Sakura (except maybe the aforementioned teacher-student one, which you will notice when you get to it, and it's more that it seems like a terrible idea) -- it's not a "there but for the grace of god go I" kind of feeling, it's more a warm and fuzzy appreciation of the fact that I've got good people around me, and that I'm lucky to do so. It's an interesting and pleasant side-effect even if I'm not sure exactly where it comes from.

The story is light-hearted, mostly, and humourous, mostly, with depth at the right parts. It's a little silly and a little over-the-top (nothing like Ranma 1/2, not that I think it's even possible for any other work to touch that) but there are touching moments that are a pleasant counter-balance, and a reminder of what is at stake. Though one might suspect at first glance this story would be too saccharine, there's way more to it than that, and it's absolutely worth a second look.

Highly, highly recommended. Some of the humour is very manga-conventional, especially around Kero, and the art is intricate and often beautiful in a very manga way, which occasionally makes it a little hard to follow. On the other hand, the characters are easily distinguishable if highly stylized (I think Toya has to be around, like, 11 feet tall, or Sakura is perhaps only 2 feet tall?) and the facial expressions are perfection itself. No cookie-cutter, hard-to-read characters here. I would actually recommend watching the anime first if you can get your hands on it, and then reading this after; it adds dimension and a lot more depth to the anime, and makes the action very easy to understand. I'm about to start watching the entire thing again.

Just a quick practical caveat that I feel I should mention, lest anyone feels the need to jump out and buy this immediately: if you are international to the US, don't be ordering these volumes through the company linked at Dark Horse. The shipping fees are astronomical and not stated up front. The Book Depository or your favourite local store are probably much, much more economical options.

Also: my desktop image has changed over the course of writing. Just saying.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog)
by Jerome K. Jerome
Collins Classics, 1970 (originally published in 1889)
222 pages

It has taken me quite a while now to finish this book, wanting to read it before I delve back in to Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog. I have enjoyed it, but found it slow. I think it is maybe one of those books that get better with sitting. I like it more now that I've had time to think on it. I'm not going to offer much of a summary, because there's not much to summarize, other than perhaps point to the title, and mention that the boat is on the Thames, and the time is Victorian. That's about it, really.

There are a lot of references to places and history I know nothing about, and most of the time it makes me wish to know more, and very occasionally I had trouble discerning between what's exaggerated for fun and what might actually be historically accurate. Also, while I do find Jerome's sense of humour to be funny, I did find a lot the humourous parts to be a little samey. On the other hand, there are some flashes of brilliance both when he's being funny and when he's being serious that have made me very glad to read this book. For example, upon stepping out into the night:

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god they have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

Just for that passage alone I am glad to have read this book.

In the same way that much of the description and humour is overstated, much of the action is understated. One gets the impression that J. and his friends George and Harris (to say nothing of fox terrier Montemorency) are on their way down the Thames, and that things are happening, but one is never quite sure until very occasionally something of note happens. And once I realized that it was going to continue in that vein, with more asides about stories J. has heard and flights of fancy about history and a few memories, the happier I was to just settle in. It has a bit of a feel of a long dinner-table conversation, over which plenty of delicious food is consumed and the wine glasses keep getting refilled. Some things get mentioned that I wish were filled out a bit more, and other stories take strange but almost always amusing and interesting tangential turns. I got a tantalizing taste of the Victorian, in a way that makes me feel steeped in that moment. This is a relaxed read with almost no plot, and when approached that way is very satisfying.

One thing of note, that made me realize just how human this book is and that not much fundamental has changed: How many of us have, when confronted with a series of symptoms, looked up those symptoms on Wikipedia or some other internet site? And then read on, convinced that one has contracted something absolutely horrifying and likely exceedingly contagious? I've heard it mentioned that this is a particular problem of the internet: it feeds hypochondriacs. Not so. There is an extended moment (they usually are) near the beginning of Three Men in a Boat in which the narrator, upon looking up a condition in a medical tome in a library, becomes convinced that he has everything in the book, save housemaid's knee. It was a passage I recognized myself in, even if my tools are different.

Overall, it's an excellent armchair travel book, both in time and in geography even if you're not familiar with the locations Jerome talks about, although it wouldn't hurt to be prepared that you might feel a bit lost every once in a while. It's charming (and the illustrations by Elizabeth Odling in my edition add to that charm), it's very readable, and it makes me wish quite strongly for a river trip. We don't have a navigable Thames here in Canada, but I've heard good things about the Rideau...

A thanks to Nymeth, who originally brought this book to my attention well before I was told to read the Connie Willis. If you want to read it and can't find yourself a paper copy, which proved rather challenging for me, the Gutenberg Project has a copy online for free.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Shakespeare: The World as Stage
written and read by Bill Bryson
HarperAudio, 2008
5 discs (unabridged)

So, you may have noticed a theme with these audiobooks. I appear to be hooked on Bill Bryson. It's possible the next audiobook I'm going to look into will be written and read by him, too. No promises, but sometimes when I find a good thing I like to stick to it.

This was one of those serendipitous finds; someone brought it back to the library and I just happened to be on the desk. I had no idea Bryson had written a biography of Shakespeare. But how could it go wrong, I thought, and signed it out myself.

What I got was a very concise, rather informative, and mostly quite entertaining biography of Shakespeare. In short, just what I was hoping for. It kept me interested for a good week of commuting, which is about as much as any audiobook can hope to do. And this time, unlike the first Bryson audiobook I listened to, I knew what to expect with his delivery, so it took me no time at all to get into the flow of things.

One may wonder what the heck Bryson has to add to the piles and piles of Shakespeare biographies out there, and the answer is: not substantially much, which is kind of the point. This is a bare-bones biography, with Bryson mostly looking for the established facts from primary evidence, and fastidiously avoiding speculation, myth, legend, and heresy, of which we are informed there is a surplus. Actually, we're informed of this multiple times; the one irritation I had with this book is that there is a substantial amount of repetition of certain themes and phrases. How many surviving signatures are there? Six you say? I'm sorry, I thought there were six. Oh yes, only six signatures in Shakespeare's own hand survive. Three signatures might not even be in Shakespeare's own hand, which would be rather a blow, as that would be half of the six surviving signatures.

You perhaps get the idea. It's possible I'm exaggerating for effect.

That said, I suspect the repetition wouldn't be so obvious in a printed version, and may seem thematic or like tying up loose ends instead. I have a pretty decent auditory memory, so it's possible that I'm a little sensitive. I am much less likely to notice repetition in print.

We are taken chronologically through the little we know about Shakespeare's life, with copious asides about life, language, literature and culture in Elizabethan England at various important moments. Each of these asides attaches itself to some critical point about Shakespeare, his family, his contemporaries, the atmosphere he would have been working in, and so forth; there really isn't anything superfluous in here. The pace of the book isn't breakneck, but it's definitely snappy, which helps in keeping my attention, though it will be interesting to see how much of what I learned (which was quite a lot) gets retained. After a while, I got pretty good at keeping track of dates in my head. And remembering what went before -- because while there is excessive repetition of some facts, others are of the blink-and-it's-gone type.

Bryson also spends some time telling us about Shakespearean scholars, mostly in relation to either their expert opinions on some facet of Shakespearean knowledge, or to skewer their more fanciful suppositions and speculations. Occasionally he delves a little deeper into their eccentricities, of which Shakespearean scholars seem to have many; he clearly finds the people who have devoted their lives to Shakespearean scholarship to be fascinating, and fairly so.

I think my absolute favourite chapter was the final one, in which Bryson systematically and thoroughly debunks any suggestion that Shakespeare may not have in fact written his plays himself. It's a perfect structure; he has just spent the entire book laying out the various facts of Shakespeare's life, so it seems ludicrous to the reader in the first place that anyone would doubt the authorship of the plays, poems and sonnets. But Bryson gives each major theory careful (and really funny) consideration, and this section provided some of my favourite passages of the entire book. Because it's so simple, and because it's so concise, I must say Bryson has me completely convinced that Shakespeare was the only one who could have authored the work his name is on, and it would take something pretty earth-shattering to move me from that position.

All in all, a very worthwhile and interesting book, and I'm very glad I decided to pick it up. The next Bryson audiobook that passes by me will almost certainly be snapped up for my listening pleasure.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation by Tom Siddell

I. Heart. This. Book.

It has been since the last Harry Potter, folks. It has been that long since I was so wrapped up in a story. I loved this, and then I went online and proceeded to read the rest of the story, and loved that too. And now I am stuck because Siddell publishes updates every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and I desperately need to know more. It's like waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows except that it's released one page at a time. I knew, when I finished the book, that I should have controlled myself and just waited for the next published copy so I could read it all at once. But self-discipline is not one of my strong suits.

I'm not sure how to summarize it, either, especially since the story is ongoing, but I guess I can stick to the first published on-paper volume. Antimony Carver is sent to Gunnerkrigg Court, nominally an English-style boarding school, after her mother's death. Antimony had been living with her mother in the hospital, and it was her mother's wish that she would attend Gunnerkrigg Court. Antimony's father is completely absent, in a way that makes the reader angrier the more we know. We meet Antimony when she's first breaking school rules, less than two weeks into her stay, by helping a shadow creature escape the school. We meet her friend Kat as Antimony meets her, and start to untangle various mysteries about the school that all seem to be leading to one overarching mystery beginning in the Court, or perhaps beginning in Gillitie Wood, which is forbidden territory across the bridge from the school.

I can't be much clearer without getting into spoilers and/or taking up several hundred more words. This is an extremely complex story, with themes of love, betrayal, friendship, grief, humanity, technology, and magic all tangled up in it. Suffice to say, seeing it through Annie's eyes is helpful, as she's clever, witty, dry and trying her best to stay neutral while being extremely loyal to the few friends she has. Annie's a bit of an outsider, on account of her coming to the school a bit late, and especially on account of the fact that she has the ability to see spirits and interact with them and doesn't seem to care to hide it. It means that we see quite a lot of the picture, while still being mostly limited to Annie's perspective. And did I mention the wit? Annie's generally really funny, and there's a really wonderful mix of very moving moments, frightening moments, and very funny moments throughout the story. I laughed out loud a couple of times. I also got a little teary at points, too.

The supporting cast is just fantastic. They're also complex; I'm 31 chapters in and still completely confused about most of their motivations, but not in a bad way. I'm also thrilled to report that we're not that close to solving the big mystery yet, nor even really knowing fully what shape it takes (or even if it's one big mystery, or two or three loosely connected mysteries), so there's likely to be more of Annie and Kat to keep me enthralled in the future. I certainly don't want to let these characters or this story go any time soon. Each chapter can usually stand alone as its own story, but we're building towards something. My concern is that it will be pretty anticlimactic when we get there.

Anyone with an open mind about graphic novels and fantasy will find something to love here. The art is just lovely, the story blows my mind. If you can't find a paper copy, be prepared to spend a couple days in a row sneaking a peek at the website every time you have a free minute at a computer. And be prepared that your mind will wander its way into the story when you're not reading it, too. Many thanks go to darla for the heads-up on this one. I wouldn't have even known it existed otherwise, and her enthusiastic review encouraged me to recommend it for purchase at our library sight unseen.