Saturday, December 29, 2018

Tomo-chan is a Girl! volume 1 won me over (Manga Review)

Tomo and Jun
I started reading "Tomo-chan is a Girl!" volume 1 (Seven Seas) on a whim. I had no idea it was a 4-koma series when I started. I have never really liked 4-koma, even though two of my favorite anime are based on ones in that format (Sakura Trick and One Week Friends). I kept thinking I was going to stop reading volume 1, and certainly not buy the next volumes, but something strange happened, and I actually found myself really liking the series and will probably buy at least the next one to see if I keep liking it. Pleasant surprise.

Tomo-chan is a Girl! is the story of Tomo, a rough and tumble girl who has been best friends with Jun since they were little. At first, before going to school, Jun assumed Tomo was another boy his age. Over the years, from elementary, though to high-school, they have stayed close. Throughout, Tomo continues to beat people up (her family runs a dojo) and otherwise not act the part of a traditional girl. But as Tomo got older, she realized she loves Jun. Upon confessing to him, he was utterly oblivious to what she meant by it, thinking it was a total brotherly love. That opens up the comedy of Tomo and Jun, destined to be together, if they can only get out of their own way.

I suppose there is some plot, but being a 4-koma, it's more like reading the sunday comics, each page has it's punch-line, and they mostly consist of Jun not getting that Tomo is a girl and how his interactions make her feel or how clueless Tomo is about all the "boyish" things she does that keep Jun from realizing his own feelings for her.

Both leads are likable, but the star is Tomo's friend Gundou. She's the straightman that every good comedy series needs. But she's also a jerk in the most likable of ways. She antagonizes Jun, teases Tomo lovingly, and sets them both up for great punchlines. It is also clear that she does want the two of them to end up together in the end.

The art is okay. Sometimes it's clean and clear, but other times the lines seem a bit heavy (almost as if it was drawn smaller and enlarged) - some of this may be the reproduction and not the original art. Overall the art is pretty basic, and that may be due to the constraints of a 4-koma layout. It's nothing special, but the character Tomo is drawn with such great expressions and body language that it ends up working. The characters are all discernible from each other which is helpful, some series I can't keep track of people or they aren't unique enough to tell apart, so that much is good. Overall the art is nothing special, but it's decent.

If you like broad comedy, and you like high-school romance, then you'll probably really like this volume. It ended up endearing itself to me enough that I'm going to try volume 2. I'm going to give this volume a 7/10 due to being surprisingly, and unexpectedly, good - somehow, Tomo (the character) endeared herself to me that I'm curious where it will go from here.


Thursday, December 27, 2018

After the Rain vol. 2 keeps the slow, delicate, pace going (Manga Review)

I loved, LOVED, After the Rain volume 1 (by Jun Mayazuki, published by Vertical Comics). That was somewhat surprising given what could/should be a really creepy premise. In fact, it might be the best seinen manga of the year (a genre I don't typically read, either). So I am extremely pleased to say that Volume 2 continues with the softness, sweetness, slow pace, and delicacy of volume 1.

Akira is a former high-school track star, former because of a severe ankle injury (ruptured Achilles tendon?). She is now working at a local family restaurant. There she finds herself falling in love with her middle-aged, balding, nothing-special manager. This is how volume 1 begins, and that should be a really creepy warning sign to stay away. But instead, it's an incredibly kind and sweet story, that almost (almost) makes it feel plausible that Akira could fall in love with him.

Volume 2 picks up as Akira has met her boss's son from a previous relationship. We are also introduced to Kiyan, Akira's former (still?) best friend and track mate. However, it's clear that Akira has distanced herself from everyone in track, including Kiyan, even though she remains friendly with other students in her class. Combining the tension of their interactions with her boss's statement that Akira doesn't know anything about him, and we get the central emotional point of the volume. We also meet a friend of her boss's and discover more about his past as a writer. A depth of character, that if continued to be explored, will serve this series well.

I don't want to give away any details, because there is minimal plot to begin with (a good thing for a story like this) and so reading it for yourself is the joy. It's the small nuances of facial expressions, pacing, the minimal use of text, the subtlety that makes this series so incredible, not the actual events. Therefore, giving you the details of the chapters is both useless and potentially ruinous to your enjoyment.

Suffice it to say that Mayazuki-sensei continues the quality of volume 1 in volume 2. My only thought was that volume 2 didn't seem as revelatory to me as when I read volume 1. I don't think it's because of any difference in quality, but perhaps volume 1 felt so amazing simply because it was unexpected, so volume 2 isn't as much of a surprise. That's not a criticism at all, because volume 2 is wonderful.

Let's talk about the art. The facial expressions on Akira are incredible. She is so quiet, and appears as though she would be the stock haughty character from any other series, but instead, due to the range of facial expressions she is given, she has the most incredible emotional range and we immediately gravitate to her and empathize with her because of those feelings. She's adorable, not in a fluffy moe way, but adorable in that she is so earnest and wears her heart on her sleeve (face), even though she isn't trying to let people in. It's wonderful to see a character that visually suggests one trope (she's tall, thin, athletic, long perfect dark hair, etc...) but actually embodies another (the cutesy, love struck, teen). She is vibrant and fetching and unique and the art perfectly accentuates and adds to how her character is written. Volume 2 simply continues this amazing artwork.

Further, the line work is delicate and refined throughout. The use of screentones is closer to that of a shoujo series than a seinen, but still a bit more understated than many shoujo. I love me some good screentone use, and it's used well here. Any more would ruin the delicacy, any less would leave the work too bland. Excellent balance. The characters are drawn long and lean (my favorite style), with not a hint of moe outside of some intentional comedic moments (I don't mind when it's sporadic, I just don't love when a whole series is that way - although I can get over it if the characters and story are awesome). Overall, it is graceful art for a graceful series.

Volume 2 is a strong 8/10. It isn't higher simply because it isn't shockingly amazing (it's just plain great!), nor are there any big moments that create huge emotional epiphanies or amazing singular moments (although there are lots of beautiful, subtle moments).

We're still early in the series and that understatedness is as it should be. My hunch will be that there won't be any big moments at all, but instead the slow steady development and growth of Akira into a young woman, whatever direction that takes. In the end, I anticipate this series being a landmark series, more than just the sum of its individual volumes. We'll see, but I'm super excited by the quality of the first two volumes.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Edna O'Brien's The Lonely Girls - a study in subtle storytelling (Book Review)

Edna O'Brien
"The Lonely Girls" is the second in Edna O'Brien's 1960's masterpiece and under-read (at least in this country) trilogy of books about two Irish girls moving from childhood to adulthood.

Where "The Country Girls" introduced us to our lead character, Caithleen (Kate) and her friend Baba and watched them through a series of transitions through high-school both in and out of their small home town, "The Lonely Girls" spends its time almost totally within a single moment. This moment is stretched over months (exploring a relationship), yet it is is much more a case study of the dynamics between two people and the evolution of Kate's understanding of herself as a women. It is strong, clear, and subtle writing at its best.

In "The Lonely Girls" we find Kate and Baba living in the boarding house in Dublin and Kate working in the grocery. They go out dancing at night, try on new makeup and the latest fashions, when they can afford them, and then promptly forget those heavenly new shoes on the bus when weather forces them to wear boots.

Just as in "The Country Girls," Kate and Baba are far from perfect, angelic women. What they are is REAL women. It is so refreshing and endearing and rewarding to read a book with an imperfect heroine. Kate has some good qualities, for sure, but she's also figuring a lot out, and doing so in the midst of early feminism, Irish Catholic/Protestant conflict, young adult-hood, and a rapidly changing world.

She is no moral center, she is not an idol, she is not an angel on a pedestal, nor is she a morality tale. O'Brien is chronicling the very real life of a very real person, through very real, but mostly mundane things, including what it means to find one's-self romantically and sexually (not in a forced way, but simply because developmentally, that is where a 21 year old's head often is).

As the plot, such as it minimally (and thankfully - I'm not much of a plot lover) is, moves forward, Kate meets an older man, Eugene, around 35ish, separated from his wife but not yet divorced, and living alone. As they get to know each other, his worldly charms (he's a documentary film maker) and grumpy quirks (he's a mix of a hermit, a farmer, and an artiste) work their spell on Kate and in some odd way, her external simplicity fills a spot in him.

The entire book is devoted to the small amount of time they spend together, with Kate ultimately (and temporarily) moving into his house, the havoc that wreaks on her family and the community, but also on what it means for two very different people, who need very different things, and are at very different developmental stages, to try and make a relationship work.

Two things are fascinating about these characters and the dynamic of their interaction. The first, is that while Kate presents outwardly simple: she's a country bumpkin, trying to be fashionable, trying to fit in, but honestly doesn't; she's actually (at least as the narrator) acutely aware and attuned to the world. It is through this mix of knowing her as an astute narrator combined with seeing how she presents herself to others (the 21-year-old vs. the wise narrator) that we get a true feel that the "real" Kate lies somewhere in between - a person who may quite literally (the scene's with her dad, yikes!) have been held back by her circumstances all these years.

The other fascinating thing is Eugene and trying to understand what he "wants" from Kate in a partner. Eugene was/is married to an American woman who is spoken endearingly of by his friends. Why isn't he with her, it seems she might even still have feelings for him. They have a young daughter together whom he seems devoted to even though he rarely sees her now that they are in America. He is a man of words and books and travel. He is also 15 years older than Kate and in a very different part of his development.

What then, does he see in Kate? Is it that she has the ruddy good-looks of a healthy Irish girl? Is it her striking red hair? Could it be the way she seems naive and simple and gives him an opportunity to teach her about the world and thus feel important? It is never quite clear what he is getting out of it. It seems however, that she cannot "keep up" with him intellectually and over time, their relationship proves quite fraught as she wants earnest doting traditionality and he is uncomfortable with any perception of being "tied down" or hindered by her own idiosyncrasies, fears, and anxieties.

At first that last sentence reads as though O'Brien were somehow reinforcing traditional gender and social roles and presenting stereotypical archetypes simply through having her characters exemplify them so typically. But O'Brien presents these as factors of their experiences and age, not only their gender, although for sure these are undeniably mid-century roles.

What makes the writing brilliant, is that O'Brien isn't judging either person or role or their expectations for each other. She is not railing for or against anything, yet we certainly feel the feminist and liberating undertones in the writing, but thankfully her writing is too subtle to beat us over the head. O'Brien is exploring two people, people who very likely would have felt and thought the things they did at the time this story is set, and what happens as those lives collide in the midst of overall changes in society (which play a strong undercurrent in the work). This isn't writing in judgment, it is writing about people, flawed, beholden to social constructs, explored because it is needed to be explored, but never for the point of making a point.

You can guess that Kate and Eugene's relationship does not end well, but it is the journey from flirting to romance to realization that makes "The Lonely Girls" so well done. Nothing really "happens" in the strictest of plot senses, although certainly events take place. It is more the subtle shifts of how they look at each other, themselves, and their relationship that are the substance of this work.

As with the prior book, the writing is clear, simple (without being simplistic), beautiful, with brisk pacing, detail when needed, and speed when warranted. Whether you are able to relate to Kate's story directly or not, it is a story that feels very intimately real. Please consider reading the whole trilogy. I'll be back with a discussion of the third book "Girls in their Married Bliss" when I've finished it. But if the first two are any indication, it'll be amazing as well. Happy reading!


Monday, December 17, 2018

Hatsu Haru vol. 4 balances implausibility with endearingness (Manga Review)

Kai and Riko
Hatsu Haru vol. 4 (Yen Press) continues the story of two very likable high-schoolers destined to fall in love. Kai is the hot, smart, lady's man who used to tease Riko when they were growing up. But instead of being the victim, Riko was tough and always put Kai back in his place, more than able to hold her own. Now, in high-school, Kai has found himself uninterested in any of the girls and helplessly in love with Riko, who continues to balance her kindness with toughness and resiliancy.

Volume 4 starts with a confession, a confession that fails to register with Riko. This is where the volume is slightly (very) implausible. No matter how clear Kai is, Riko just does not believe he is actually confessing, and instead assumes that he's just trying to lift her spirits about her unrequited love with a long-time family friend.

Again, and again, Kai tries to make things clear, and Riko just isn't getting it. I find it hard to believe that when someone like Kai does all the kind things he does and then flat out says he likes you, that the girl wouldn't get it. BUT, even thought it's implausible, it's still executed well for the sake of comedy and keeping the series going. I'll excuse this lack of believability due to the nature of a comedy romance shoujo manga. Not fine writing, but it's a fairly common trope, so it's serving it's purpose. Other than that, the overall writing is well done with clear pacing and structure.

There is also a big reveal in this volume that furthers Riko's grieving over her unrequited love as well as a glimmer that maybe she could move on, and maybe even see Kai differently. So while the volume is mostly focused on the humor of Kai's failed attempts to get through to Riko, there is also some movement on her end.

Basically, if you like comedy/romance shoujo, this volume gives exactly what you would expect. It's also consistent with the prior volumes' tone and approach. The art is excellent! I love the style and quality. I love the way she does eyes.

This series is not about big thoughts, and it's not going to reveal any deep emotional epiphanies, instead, it's cute and predictable, but because the characters are likable and the art is great, it's a pleasure to read.

Volume 4 is a strong 7/10. It's not higher only because there isn't anything really original or novel and the thick-headedness/obliviousness of Riko goes a little beyond the believable. But if you liked the prior volumes, you'll like this one! It's a really fun series, even if we know where things will end, it's the journey that counts.


Friday, December 14, 2018

After Hours vol. 3 is an unsatisfying conclusion (Manga Review)

Kei and Emi
I loved the first two volumes of After Hours (Viz Media). But after reading After Hours volume 3, I was left confused and disappointed with the conclusion of the story. It felt so out of place and disconnected from the first two volumes that I had to go back and reread the first two to make sure I hadn't missed any foreshadowing that might better situate the third volume. On second read, maybe because the shock was gone, it wasn't as bad as I thought, but was still ultimately unsatisfying.

Volume 3 opens with Kei and Emi on the night of the big event. There is some mild plot thrown in that leads to Emi saving the day and supporting Kei's moment in the spotlight. We also get a lovely scene with the two of them afterwards, the "after hours" of the title.

BUT, then this oversized volume (6 long chapters compared to the other volumes' 5 short chapters each) can't quite figure out what to do with itself and gives us a random new-years eve chapter, an aquarium date, and then...

Then Kei goes missing. The next chapters are almost like a side-story or a story that could have been worked into the middle of the overall series, but stuck on the end, after the big night, it just feels out of place. Further, and this is why I went back to reread the first two volumes, the central driving plot elements come out of nowhere. In addition, Kei's motivation, when finally revealed, doesn't make a ton of sense for her character. Even if it does make sense in an abstract way, there was nothing in the prior 2 and a half volumes that suggested this in any foreshadowed way.

We get a sort-of resolution to this disappearance that doesn't actually resolve anything, and leaves the story in a wistful, open-ended state. This doesn't satisfy.

In the prior volume, Emi had come to terms with breaking up with her boyfriend and realizing she was in love with a woman. In this volume, she expresses some desire to build a life for herself and not just be a mooch at 24. Kei is presented as a mostly stable, grown woman, with a decent job, a rich social life and passion-project but who has some normal jealousy and insecurity within her relationship with Emi. NONE of that has anything to do with the final chapters and Kei's disappearance. 

So while not poorly written in and of itself, volume 3 mostly isn't tied to the prior two volumes. Once the concert is over after chapter 12 (the second chapter in this volume), the next four chapters just don't add anything or even make sense in the flow of the series. I almost wonder if it was originally a 12 chapter story, and when it didn't all fit right for publishing, if Nishio-sensei was asked to add more to fill it out. 

Too bad. If it had ended with the rooftop scene at the end of chapter 12 at least it would have been internally consistent as a unified story. I still think there was room to explore much needed growth and dynamics between Kei and Emi, changes that could fill a much longer series (and would have been well worth it). However, short and sweet is okay too, if it had been left at that. But the four additional chapters feel jarring and actually lessened the tightness of the first 12 chapters.

So nothing awful or horrible occurs to ruin the series, but it is a disjointed volume that doesn't end with the same tone or themes from the main story. The art continues to be top-notch. Somewhat moe but also unique and adult at the same time. Great use of grays and blacks, and a sketchiness that I like. There is a rapidness and movement in the linework that feels appropriate for a story about underground DJs. 

It had so much potential, the first two volumes really held up on re-read, but the final volume is a let-down. I give the final volume is a 5/10 due to not upholding the promise of the first two volumes. The series, because of the problems at the end, is a 6.5/10, but the first two volumes are so good, it's all still highly worth a read. 

For a different perspective on this ending, check out the review on Okazu.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Young Master's Revenge vol. 4 follows the script (Manga Review)

Leo and Tenma
Meca Tanaka-sensei's newest work, "The Young Master's Revenge" (Shojo Beat/Viz) wraps up in volume 4. As you may know, I'm a fan of Tanaka-sensei's art and writing, so I have felt a little guilty reviewing this series and not loving it as much as some of her other stuff. Volume 4 brings us the expected conclusion and it's quality is in line with how I've felt about the first three volumes.

First things first, the expected conclusion. One does not go into a Meca Tanaka series with any expectation other than the lead couple will get together in the end. It's the journey we're in to. So yes, Leo and Tenma get together here, no shock. But like with the first three volumes, the journey feels rushed, frantic, contains random plot elements - mostly to create humorous situations, and the characters display a lack of communication that would have made the whole thing simpler.

It's not that I dislike this series. The art is still Tanaka-sensei's wonderfully unique style and there are some beautiful moments:
Leo and Tenma

But the premise of the series was built on shaky roots (revenge due to turtle bite scars on his butt that caused embarrassment in front of the girl he blamed/liked-but-didn't-know-he-liked), Leo isn't very likable nor is his basic emotional state very evolved (and thus how he treats Tenma early on is NOT okay), nor is Tenma a very engaging heroine. I like my shoujo with a strong, self-determined heroine, and Tenma is pretty minimally sketched out and not the agent in her own story. It's also told from Leo's point of view, and I don't really care for him much.

Volume 4 starts with Leo and Tenma having both realized they love each other, but are too flustered by those feelings to say anything (and Leo too guilty to believe it is possible for her to forgive the way he treated her early on). A series or random things happen that causes plot to happen - a retreat, the amusement park, a rumor made up by the other high-school, etc... This leads to a confession and they get together. More or less the end.

I think of all the things I'm saddest about in this series, it's that Tanaka-sensei created a really great character in Tojo, the public high-school student council president, and then totally underutilized her throughout the series. She might have been the one character I would have actually loved to see a whole series around (also, I'm not sure about how her story was wrapped up in the bonus at the end...still processing).

I don't really have much else to say after reviewing the prior volumes. If you love Tanaka-sensei's work, then The Young Master's Revenge will be worth the read. The art is simple but fun and well done (for the comic side of shoujo), especially if you're already a fan. The story is pretty by-the-numbers, but the humor didn't work as well for me here as some of her past work because it felt more contrived and I didn't really care about either lead that much, so it really wasn't that funny.

I'm still really hoping that her series Faster than a Kiss gets translated into English because I love Pearl Pink so much! I even enjoyed Meteor Prince more than this (and wish it has been longer). But at least we're getting some of her works translated into English, that's a good thing.

If you liked the first three volumes or just want to support a wonderful mangaka, grab volume 4. I'm glad I have the whole series, even if it isn't one of her strongest ones. This volume is a 6/10 and the whole series really is a 6/10 (fine but nothing special). It's enjoyable, cute, predictable, with nice simple comic art, but doesn't rise up the way some of her other work has in the past. I feel so guilty...



Monday, December 10, 2018

Kimi Ni Todoke vol. 30 - an end and a celebration (Manga Review)

Volume 30
Kimi Ni Todoke is a landmark shoujo manga series. This week, it came to an end in its English translation in volume 30. It would be a grave disservice and completely inappropriate for me to review the volume in the traditional sense. Instead, let this be a celebration of an incredible work of art and storytelling. Because, needless to say, if you've read through to volume 30 you already love the series.

So right off the bat, volume 30 hits all the right notes in ending the series. It has the same beautiful, slow pacing, hints of comedy, gorgeous art, softness and delicacy, intimacy, and emotionality as the series as a whole. It doesn't try to do some big thing to end, instead, it is focused on how each "ending" is a new "beginning" but also a continuation. While the series is ending, it is clear these character's lives are only just starting. It is wistful, melancholy, loving, romantic, sad, hopeful and so many things, all without being overly dramatic or plot heavy. As Karuho Shiina-sensei has done throughout the entire series, volume 30 is a perfectly balanced "conclusion" to the series (if not their lives).

Kimi Ni Todoke tells the story of Sawako, a shy, brilliant, but odd and oddly-misunderstood young woman who finally comes out of her shell when two other misfits realize there is a real person inside of her. From there, the rest of her class gets to know her and embrace her. This isn't some story of bullying and awful peers and the terrors of being a teenager, but really one about how we sometimes get slotted into roles and with the right openmindedness by everyone (ourselves included), those roles can be overcome; that there is inherent good in everyone and we can be embraced by others.

One young man in particular, Shota, has always been intrigued by Sawako. As she comes out of her shell, is embraced by the class, they get to know each other. This is the story of their falling in love. The final volume concludes their highschool journey, already dating, and into the transition to college. Without giving any spoilers, it is a fitting advancement in their relationship, done with sweetness and delicacy and all the quirks we expect of these two shy lovebirds.

Sawako Kuronuma and Shota Kazehaya

As I said, volume 30 is the perfect, delicate ending to the series. But what makes this series so amazing? 

First, it isn't overly dramatic. It perfectly blends sweetness, comedy, angst, love, passion, anger, frustration, daily life, confusion, and a host of other real feelings in the day-to-day lives of a group of teenagers. There are no big plot points or dramatic reveals. There are no hidden pasts that link them together through tragedy. There are no terrible parents or accidents waiting to happen. Instead, there are kids growing up normally and doing so sweetly.

The art is also exceptional. The range of depictions (stylistically) as well as facial expression for Sawako are incredible. In one moment she looks like the gothy cursed terror people initially assume her to be and in the next we see her subtle, radiant, classical beauty. And everything in between, including lots of funny faces, shy faces, blushing faces, ecstatic faces, loving faces, etc...

The line work is always top notch, the use of screen tones going beyond the minimum, adding depth and sparkle to scenes. The art is mostly realistic, with the long lines of classic shoujo, but delving into super deformed for humor effortlessly and without breaking the feel or pace. It is quite frankly, some of the best shoujo art to be found anywhere (and I don't say that easily, I'm really pretty picky).

The writing is soft and subtle but clear. It is nuanced and slow and purposeful. It doesn't interject unnecessary events to create drama, instead the drama comes from the natural interactions and collisions between people.

And let's talk about the people. Sawako and Shota are wonderful, they are the lead couple, we get to know them both as real people. But there is SO much more. The side characters are really given lives of their own and their stories are just as powerful and meaningful as our leads. Sawako's two closest friends, Ayane and Chizuru, couldn't be more different than each other or Sawako, but together, they complement each other so well. 

Each side character (and the guys too - Pin especially is a fan and personal favorite - boy does he have some hidden depth!) is given a unique and meaningful emotional and relationship arc, without any judgment, and without any pathos. Each takes a very different path forward, but their journeys are well worth the read. It is a rare manga indeed whose side character stories are just as well constructed and deep as the main characters' stories. This alone has been a huge influence on my own writing. It really opened me up to what true character building and the interrelations between side characters and main characters can mean for a work of writing.

I could go on and on, but you probably already love this series and have bought and read the final volume. If you haven't, and you like shoujo, this is one of the finest shoujo series ever written and is an instant classic of the genre, certain to hold up over time, and remain an influence on works to come. 

If you're not sure about starting the series, feel free to start with the anime which covers the first few volumes and is close enough to give you a taste. Just know that the entire series goes so much further with such subtle beauty and brilliance that the anime, no matter how well done, cannot fully capture. 

Thank you to Karuko Shiina-sensei for a stunning and profound work of art, and to Shojo Beat for the English translation.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

My drafting and editing process (The Craft of Writing)

I haven't written about writing in a while, so I thought I'd talk a little about my personal drafting and editing process, especially since I've started writing my newest novel. Naturally, this is just what works for me and it might be a completely wrong approach for you. But none-the-less, since I like reading about how other people write, I figured I'd write about how I write in case you'd like to read it!

When I start a new work (Work in Progress - "WIP"), it usually starts with some key element that coalesces in my head. Maybe it's the penultimate scene, it might be a character, it might be a mood, a color, or even a style. From there, I tend to stew on it and let is just come in and out of my mind, often for months or even years before I decide to start writing.

During that time, I'm turning it around both consciously and unconsciously until it starts to take a basic shape. That shape, for me, is the character's emotional and development arc. I don't care about plot. Truly. Not in what I write, and not in what I read. I care about beautiful language and character development. The plot should be an organic and natural outcome of how the character thinks and acts in light of circumstances. If the character is well defined and their emotional journey makes sense, the plot naturally arises.

So when I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), what I have is a basic character emotional arc but usually not much else. So when I start the first chapter, all I'm looking to do is start this character in motion.

My first draft of my first chapter is usually a crude skeleton, just the structure of what the chapter will be. Sometimes it's a pretty good structure, sometimes it's awful and needs to be destroyed. But once I finish that first draft of the first chapter, I don't go on to the next chapter. Instead, I go right back and start the second draft of the first chapter.

The second draft will do a couple of things. If the first chapter's structure just didn't pan out, if it just isn't going to go anywhere, then the second draft will be a structural rewrite. If the basic structure is okay, then the second draft is nuancing dialogue, adding details, smoothing things over, cleaning up language, creating depth, etc...

Sometimes, it'll need a third or even fourth revision until that first chapter is strong enough in character, voice, and momentum that it makes sense to write the next chapter. Since everything in a book that follows is informed by what preceded, it makes sense to me not to forge ahead if the first chapter isn't basically in decent shape.

Once I get through a couple drafts of the first chapter, I'll move on to the second chapter. Now, mind you, I still have no idea what the plot is. Nor do I care, because the plot is simply what happens in everyday life that the characters respond to in authentic ways. It almost doesn't matter what happens, because it is the character's responses that we care about, so literally anything they can respond to will be rewarding to the reader.

Now, I'm not saying that plot isn't useful, but what matters is their journey, so my plots develop out of that journey and so without a sound foundation for each preceding chapter, the journey won't make sense. If I have a crappy chapter 1, do chapter 2, then have to go back and rewrite chapter 1 - then I'll HAVE to rewrite chapter 2 because it won't make sense anymore. I never move on to a new chapter until I've gotten the prior chapter in pretty solid shape. I see no value to writing all the way through a "first draft" straight away because of the interdependence of each chapter.

What has been cool about the process of multiple revisions on a chapter before moving on, is that it allows me to start embedding subtle hints and premonitions about upcoming things without actually having to have written those yet. Then, when I actually come to those later chapters, I've already got the glimmers embedded in the earlier chapters. It would be like building a house with no plans, getting to the roof, and then realizing you needed to double the size of a room on the first floor. What a waste of time an energy and all the missed opportunities for foreshadowing!

Now, I get that this won't work for everyone, but for me it's been very productive. Here's some of how it works though in practice, because it isn't as simple as writing a draft of a chapter, going back and editing it.

Starting the book, I've been stewing on the basic character arc for months or years. Then writing the first draft of the first chapter, often in two or more sessions. From there, I'll often take a break and just let the draft float around my brain. I do a lot of pre-writing in my head, tossing ideas around, playing with dialogue, looking for themes, unraveling motivations (frequently while in the shower or on the potty - sorry about that). I find the thinking time so much more valuable than the actual writing time. For me, the thinking IS the writing. The typing is just the process of getting it out.

When I actually go back to write and edit a second (or third or fourth...) draft of a chapter, I've spent so much time in my head living in the first draft, that the second draft is far more than just editing. It's more like taking a very rough pencil sketch and turning it into a photograph (or a painting).

After the second (or third or fourth...) draft of a chapter, I move on to the next. And for me, the process repeats. Get a chapter really solid, draft a new chapter, edit that new one until it's really solid, move to the next. I do this for each chapter until I finish the draft of the entire work. But that's far from the end. I consider this to the the "first draft" of the full book.

My next step is to go back to the beginning and start reading and editing it into a second draft, one that pulls the voice together across all the months or years of writing, that addresses any little threads and themes that got loose, and that ensures that dialogue is meaningful, language is well used, and that the work actually accomplishes what I wanted it to accomplish with emotion and character.

From there I might certainly do additional drafts. Additionally, during all the months or years of writing, I keep spreadsheets and other notes on what happened when, what will happen, why people did things, when they knew things, how they interacted, when we met people, etc... to keep track of the internal logic and consistency of the narrative. This has been really really helpful. It also lets me jot down editing notes for prior chapters that spring to mind while I'm working on a new chapter. It creates a reflexive back-and-forth with the work to bring it all together.

So that's how I work on a long piece. I'd love to know how you do it. Will you tell me in the comments? (Pretty please!)


Friday, December 7, 2018

Ao Haru Ride vol. 2 is everything I want in a manga (Manga Review)

Futaba and Kou
Warning: I'm going to gush about a nearly perfect manga volume for the next several paragraphs. You've been warned! :)

Ao Haru Ride volume 2 by Io Sakisaka (published by VIZ in the US) is a nearly flawless masterpiece of shoujo manga. No, I'm not being hyperbolic. In summary, it has everything I want: a self-directed heroine who is not stupidly head-over-heels in love, complex emotional interactions between people that are messy and believable, characters we actually care about, and gorgeous art. Do I have your attention yet?

Ao Haru Ride is the story of Futaba and Kou, who had their meet-cute in middle school but just as they were about to take a step forward, Kou disappears. We flash forward to high-school where Futaba is struggling to find her young-adult identity. Just as she is beginning to recognize that things aren't going the way she wants, a young man, taller, thinner, older, but reminiscent of Kou shows up as a transfer student. It is him, but it's not. Gone is the shy, calm, kind middle-schooler, and instead we get a pensive young man who seems to try and keep people at a distance, controlling the temperature of the room clinically, but doing it to hide something.

Unlike so many shoujo where the girl can't take her eyes off the bad-boy, we get a much more nuanced take on that tired set of tropes/archetypes. Kou isn't a bad-boy, he's clearly someone who is struggling through some things. Futaba isn't madly in love with the boy she used to know nor the boy in front of her now, she's really just curious what happened to him and why he's changed. In fact, Futaba regularly talks about the things she doesn't like about him now, even getting comfortable enough to call him out on it at times. She's not a perfect young lady either, she's a really complex, messy, snotty, imperfect, but kind and fun and caring, authentic person. What we have is the story of two young adults, trying to figure out who they are, and remembering (or choosing not to remember) a time long ago when their lives were simpler and clearer.

Volume 2 picks up at the start of a new school year where Kou has been moved into the same class as Futaba and her friend Yuri and they are joined by Murao and Kominato, two very different classmates. Futaba, determined to take the reigns on her own life, volunteers to be a class rep, and is soon joined by the other four.

Of course, one of many fascinating and revealing moments, is Kou volunteering to be the male rep. Supposedly he isn't interested in the work or even being friends with Futaba, yet he frequently, in quiet ways, shows that he is aware of her. This volume is full of his struggles to accept that it is okay to have authentic relationships with other people and not always hold them at a distance either through coldness, sarcasm, or putting on a fake happy act.

The majority of this volume focuses on a student council retreat that lets the reader explore the dynamic between the five characters, and provides some opportunities for Futaba and Kou to interact. Again and again, we see Futaba finding ways to explore her curiosity about Kou, and Kou's responses being inconsistent. Sometimes he pushes her away; sometimes he lets his hand linger in hers.

This volume contains my favorite scene from the anime, at night, at an empty table in the retreat hall, Kou and Futaba's heads are down on the table next to each other, feeling a moment, but unsure what it means. It's a delicately rendered and very real scene depicting the complexity of human interactions and emotions.

We get some good insight into Murao and Yuri as well and the sense that these five might be together for a while. We also conclude with yet another glimpse that the old Kou has not been completely lost. He tries so hard to hide his authentic self, but it keeps slipping out.

So the writing is fantastic, the characters are fantastic, the moments are believable and complex but subtle and not overwhelming. What about the art? It's some of the best contemporary shoujo you can find! It's got the fairly realistic (ie, not cutesy or moe) style going for it. The lines are delicate and crisp. There is a huge variety of facial expressions (especially Futaba who shows her feelings so acutely on her face). Characters are distinct from each other. The use of screentones is wonderful, not just for pure shading, but for atmosphere as well (sparkles and overlays). It's everything I want in shoujo art, wonderfully executed, and well printed in the US version.

Basically this is damn near perfect. I'm not giving it a perfect score because it's too early in the series, we haven't had any big penultimate scenes or other things yet, so it's basically a perfect introductory volume. That makes it a strong 9/10; but if it's any indication, the series itself is headed towards "classic" status. Thank you Sakisaka-sensei for an incredible work! Thank you VIZ for licensing it!

⚘ ✩ 🚺

Monday, December 3, 2018

Yurine is unraveling in Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl Volume 7 (Manga Review)

Haine and Aika
After not having essentially any Yurine and Ayaka in volume 6, volume 7 of Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl (by Canno, published by Yen Press) returns our favorite couple to the forefront of the story. Not only are they the main focus, but Canno-sensei gives us more depth and insight into Yurine and explores how she is changing and reflecting upon the past year and a half of her high-school life: what it means about how she perceived her younger years, how she defines herself, and how she might move forward. This is the sort of writing and story that makes the less-serious or less-developed portions of Kiss & White Lily (as a series) worth getting through.

In this volume, the gardening club gets a new middle-school member, Haine, and she presents as a breathless Yurine fan. It is clear from the beginning though that Yurine's head is not in the game. Yurine, seeing how she is perceived by Haine, begins to further sink into her own head and question whether she is empty as a person. We've had hints of this line of thought before, but volume 7 explores it in depth. In fact, Yurine's journey of self-exploration takes up the majority of three chapters. And rightfully so!

Yurine discovers that Haine is an excellent pianist, a rising young star, who clearly enjoys what she is good at. Yurine has never enjoyed almost anything, no matter how good she has been at it. As she reflects on her middle-school days, was it the dominance or the competition that she liked? She certainly didn't care about the actual skills or activities or hobbies she would try.

The realization that she hasn't ever actually cared about anything throws her for a loop, to the point where she and Ayaka actually tie for first place on the exams instead of Yurine's normal dominance (a first!). Ayaka, sensing that things have not been right takes no pride in tying Yurine and pushes Yurine to continue to explore her feelings in order to get back on track. Ultimately there is some growth for Yurine in self-reflection and some, noticeable, growth in her relationship with Ayaka.

I'd like to do a side bar here, If I may (and it's my blog, so I may). What exactly is the relationship between Yurine and Ayaka? I had assumed after a year and a half, many kisses, from both parties, hand holding, blushes, etc... that they considered themselves a couple and that Ayaka was just being stubborn and even a bit Tsundere but in her heart, and in their alone and intimate times together, acknowledges their mutual feelings. 

However, there are points in this volume where it feels less certain than that. I thought I knew from Yurine's perspective where things stood so could just excuse Ayaka's freakouts, pushing Yurine away, grudgingly kissing her, etc..., as just parts of Ayaka's stubborn personality and not a reflection of what they were actually doing together or feeling about each other.

BUT, from Yurine's reactions, particularly in the final chapter, it seems that maybe Ayaka actually had the stronger, clearer, feelings. I don't want to give too much away, but either Yurine hadn't realized her feelings to date (after more than a year!) or those feelings just suddenly got a lot stronger in this volume. From her reactions, it seems Yurine is now "aware" of Ayaka in a wholly different way than before which makes me think it wasn't really romance between them up to this point (at least not from Yurine's perspective - although it might have been for Ayaka in her own silly way). 

It is clear now though, that Yurine is seeing Ayaka in a very different (and maybe more romantic and/or sexual) way and I'm hopeful that this could translate into some advancements in their relationship in future volumes. I'd like this story to go beyond will they/won't they and cute blushes to actually exploring the nuances of complex people in complex relationships. This volume presented some interesting glimmers of that future possibility.

The volume also features a side couple, centering on Haine and her young aunt, who is only about 4 or 5 years older than her, a third-year in high-school (Haine is a second year middle schooler). Haine has been all but raised by her aunt and they are very close, but in an undefined way. Both explore whether it is right to be friends, to be mom-daughter, to be aunt-niece, to be dependent on each other, to spend so much time together, and when and how might be the right time to let go. It resolves in a lovely example of what a deep platonic relationship between women can be and can be a model of for a non-romantic, non-sexual, deep relationship between any two people. While it was a bit of a "tying it up with a nice bow" ending with some fairly overwrought emotions (but hell, that's what the series is for), it still had some emotional weight and overall worked for me.

So this was a fascinating volume. I loved the deeper exploration of Yurine's psyche. I loved all the Yurine and Ayaka interactions (boy was Ayaka attentive to Yurine's needs), and I loved that Yurine has moved beyond Ayaka being something sorta important but undefined, and into a genuine romantic awareness of her. Hopefully this hearkens to more good things to come in future volumes. I'm giving this a strong 7.5/10 (and my guess is that in rereads after the series concludes, that this will prove to be a pivotal volume).

For another cool take on this volume, read Christian Le Blanc's review over at Okazu.


Friday, November 30, 2018

Missing our favorite couple in Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl Vol. 6 (manga review)

Amane, Ryou, and Nina
Let's get this out right from the beginning. My favorite couple in Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl, Yurine and Shiramine, appear for only a single page in a side story in Volume 6. So right there, I'm going to have a very skewed response to Volume 6. I want my damn Yurine and Shiramine! :)

Kiss & White Lily volume 6 by Canno (published in the US by Yen Press) centers around my third favorite couple (Izumi and "Forehead-senpai" Chiharu) and their intersection with a group of three girls, Amane, Ryou, and Nina.  Amane's family owns a flower shop and the girls of the school are giving flowers to each other with a ribbon attached symbolizing friendship, apology, etc.., and a red one for love. Through a series of manga-typical confusions this leads to a mistaken understanding by Chiharu which causes Izumi to make a grand gesture of reconciliation.

Hoshino-senpai, who graduated, also comes back to visit prompting complex feelings in Chiharu and a slight reassessment of her feelings for Izumi. This leads to a really sweet that moment I won't give away, but let's say that it's clear that Izumi and Chiharu's relationship is moving ahead in a mutually honest way.

The bulk of the remaining chapters focuse on Amane and her relationship with Ryou and Nina. Amane and Nina room together and Nina feels very strongly about Amane. However, between Amane's sort-of confession to Izumi earlier, her relationship with Nina, and her pursuit of befriending (and more?) Ryou, it is clear that Amane has a different perspective on relationships than many of the other couples we have met.

Amane quite clearly professes that she believes a person can be in love and actively love (ie be in relationships with) many people simultaneously. This presents some serious conflict with Nina, who unfortunately acts in ways that don't seem very believable. However, the resolution at the end of the volume has a somewhat odd-feeling twist that doesn't yet seem authentic. I'm almost, but not quite, interested in what Canno might do with this love(?) triangle in future volumes.

So, the Izumi and Chiharu stuff was cute and okay, but they still aren't given the depth of character development and life stories we have from Yurine and Shiramine or second-favorite couple Moe and Mizuki. There were a couple of good moments, especially where we get insight into Chiharu's feelings for Izumi.

However, I'm really torn about the Amane character. In some senses she provides a very different perspective to look at relationships. This could add some freshness to the series. However, I'm concerned that it will not necessarily be dealt with at the level of honesty that we deserve in an exploration of someone who is polyamorous and the impact of that when trying to find romance with individuals who prefer monogamy. I worry that it will be handled either too simply, forgotten entirely, or some magic-wand-fixes-it-all sort of stuff will happen that could even invalidate Amane as a person or a sensitively handled bit of representation for the polyamorous community.

All that being said, I still wasn't really into those three characters. Six volumes in, I just don't need even more people added. I'd much prefer depth with the existing couples than to keep adding more. I liked how their story intertwined with Izumi and Chiharu's. However, I wasn't grabbed by the new characters, who we know nothing about, and don't have any depth, so I would have been fine with a totally different story in this volume. Izumi and Chiharu's setups could have come about through other means and the results would have been similar.

The art continues to be fine. Overall good depth and shading. Screentones are used for shading more so than expressive moments. The art is still a bit moe for me, but it could be worse. Characters are clearly defined and visually identifiable (although I'd like a listing of them all in each volume - but thankfully the main ones for each volume are identified in accompanying 1-page drawings). The pacing is fairly clear. So no real complaints, and no real thrills, about the art.

I'm giving this volume a 6/10 because it is fine, it's got some romance, hi-jinks, emotions, a kiss, but with our top two most interesting couples not in the volume, I just didn't care about it very much. Oh well, on to volume 7 and then I'll be caught up to the upcoming new releases.


Monday, November 26, 2018

Despite its title, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai is actually not awful (Anime Review)

Mai and Sakuta
Can't judge a book by it's cover but you can usually judge an anime by its title. However, the first half of "Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai" breaks the rule. I mean, as a lover of shoujo, josei, yuri, early feminist classic literature, critical theory, equity, etc...just putting the words "Bunny Girl" into any sentence is likely to make me turn my ears off and vomit. Thankfully, I took the internet's suggestion and started watching this show. This is a review of the first 6 episodes, or what I gather is roughly the first two light novels worth of content in animated form.

Basically, it comes across like a cross between "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" and "My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU" but missing much of those two series' charms. We meet Sakuta, a hard luck, but good guy, 2nd year high-schooler as he notices a beautiful girl in a Bunny Girl costume wandering through a library, seemingly unnoticed. She's perplexed when he notices her, believing herself to be invisible.

Turns out she is Mai, a former child actress that left the business and is not only being slowly forgotten, but is being ACTUALLY forgotten (invisible), even when she is physically present. Thus begins a romantic comedy/existential/pseudo science show based around what is translated as "adolescence syndrome" (not nearly as fun as Chunibyo apparently). Sakuta bears strange scars from his own earlier bout with it, and his younger sister even burst into spontaneous cuts due to her own trauma in school (a plot for later in the series apparently).

The first episodes deal with trying to get the world to physically see Mai again, while the next few deal with a new problem, a day that keeps repeating endlessly. What makes it like Haruhi Suzumiya is the power of people to alter the world, often unwittingly. What makes it like SNAFU is that it centers around a hard-luck, friendless young man to fix it all, even if he puts himself out to help others.

But it isn't quite weird enough to rival Haruhi Suzumiya or messed up enough lead characters to rival SNAFU. By the end of the first couple episodes, Sakuta's reputation around the school has been restored and now he's not disliked, and he ends up dating Mai who is seen by everyone again. So there's a quick anti-climax to the story before it launches into its repeating day arc. Although the series does manage to do more in three episodes than most do in a whole season.

However, what makes this series work is Mai. At first I was turned off by how she was written, but very quickly she becomes an extraordinarily written character. The banter she has with Sakuta is wonderful. They actually talk like teenagers in love, they tease each other and give each other a hard time but also talk about making out and they both clearly enjoy it. They aren't the overly prude teens we typically get in anime where it takes 3 years to get a single kiss even though they clearly love each other. No, here, they actually date, and actually enjoy being teens.

And she would too!

I'm always up for a good anime slap.

Even better, some of the dialogue is extraordinarily well written. There are scenes between the two of them where Mai's subtle personality, a mix of confidence, shyness, tenderness, aggression, smart-ass-ness, brains, compassion, annoyance, etc... all come out and flow from line to line in the most natural ways possible. Just when you think the writers are going off the cliff with her dialogue, they tie it all back together and she's just wonderful, and more importantly, real. She's an anime character who you can believe might actually (almost) exist and talk that way. Remarkable, really.

OMG so cute! SQUEEEEEEE >_<

Now, I have plenty of problems with this series. There is a definite male fantasy quality. Thankfully there isn't much fan service, but the general sense that the world revolves around this hapless boy and that he's the one that's going to fix it (and the fact that at least the first two, and maybe more, storylines revolve around his romantic life) do suggest a male-centric-bias.

I almost turned it off within seconds when in the first episode he wakes up and his younger sister is sleeping in bed with him. I just don't have any place in me to tolerate the whole sis-con stuff. Thankfully it's not too overdone, and there is a plot reason behind it (even if it doesn't make much sense). And what makes it almost worth it, is that she acts as the Greek chorus and says the exact same snarky responses to him that I'm thinking about how gross the setup is whenever it occurs in an episode. At least there is some self-awareness.

Also, a main side character, someone whom the third arc (not reviewed here) revolves around, is a young, smart woman, with a huge chest and glasses and luscious hair but doesn't think she's attractive. She's just a mess of tropes combined together. However, there may be something to it in the third arc that could redeem it a bit, we'll have to see when those episodes air.

For all the promise of some well written lines and one really great character (Mai), the art is really pretty bad though. The line work on the characters, especially in episode 1, is overly thick, but the backgrounds go between nearly photorealistic to really really simple and pastel washed-out. The characters don't sit in their backgrounds well at all, although I was less bothered as it went on, maybe just getting used to it. However, even with that, the quality of animation was fairly poor. There is minimal detail or shading in the characters, movement is fairly minimal, and it just has an overall indistinct look. If it didn't have killer cute lines between Mai and Sakuta each episode, it might not make the grade.

But thank goodness it does. Their little couple moments are so cute and well done, and the fact that they hint (but don't show) that they actually have a physical relationship that is realistic to teens, make this show worth watching. It'll be interesting to see the next arcs over the whole season (13 episodes?).

But for a show with an awful title, it is thankfully light on offensive stuff, at least compared to many other shows, and has some truly redeeming value. Some people will probably love the actual plots (I didn't really care either way) but if you're like me, you'll love the back and forth relationship between Mai and Sakuta. I'm giving the first 6 episodes a surprising 6/10 and will definitely watch the rest of the series.


Friday, November 23, 2018

Exploring the obvious in The Delinquent Housewife Vol. 2 (Manga Review)

Volume 2 of "The Delinquent Housewife" by Nemu Yoko and published by Vertical Comics arrived at my door this week, just in time to read it instead of spending time with extended family on Thanksgiving (they've gotten used to me pulling aside periodically to read under a warm blanket). But of course, it too is a story of extended family.

Volume 2 picks up right where Volume 1 left us with the fairly obvious setup of Dai falling for Kumugi, his brother's new wife. Komugi is an ex-gang member, hopeless with household tasks, and unemployed - and hiding this all from her new mother-in-law. Her husband, Tohru, has mysteriously left the country on an extended business trip with no definite plans to return. His mom, Komugi's mother-in-law, starts the volume confronting Komugi about her gang jacket. Sensing this is the perfect opportunity to come clean, Komugi confesses everything, except her gang affiliation witch Dai forces her to keep secret. One of the most interesting aspects of this volume is the underlying reason why Dai doesn't want his mom to know. We get a bit of insight into the family and some depth out of Dai's mother.

The focus of volume 2 was heavily on Dai's perspective with little time given to learning about, or seeing the world through the eyes of, Komugi. That's a shame. Komugi has all the makings of a classic character. We get some of her in the form of job hunting, but really this is a volume about Dai and his feelings about Komugi. We spend some time with two of his high-school friends, including Yoshino who clearly loves him and drives the central plot of this volume. But this focus on Dai is my one criticism of volume 2.

I firmly believe that Tohru is an ass. You don't just up and leave your new wife with no definite plans to return. So with Dai having feelings for Komugi, we're supposed to root for him to eventually win her over. However, I want to ask why?

Through two volumes, Dai is not a very well defined character. He's a random high-schooler, with no obvious personality other than general niceness. Even his younger sister is given more nuance in volume 1. Volume 2 doesn't help this much. All we see from Dai is constant (if somewhat amusingly done) perseveration on Komugi (his fantasies, hearing her name everywhere, etc... are well done). This begs the big question, a question that if unresolved will undermine the quality of this series: "why should the audience root for Dai other than because of his greater availability to Komugi compared with her husband Tohru?"

If the only thing  Dai has is that he's available, well, so are millions of other single people in Japan. Why would we want Dai to end up with Komugi? If she isn't going to stay with Tohru, and right now she seems totally devoted, why would we want her with Dai? What does he have to offer her? What uniqueness is there in his personality that makes him a better fit other than undying teen, hormone-driven, adulation? Komugi is a richly depicted and quirky heroine, Dai is random blandness. She deserves more.

As I stated in my review of volume 1. My hope for the series is that Komugi realizes Tohru is an ass, things develop slightly between Komugi and Dai, but that in the end Komugi realizes he's still a child and there is a greater world out there for herself, now that she's learned to stand on her own. Ultimately I want her leaving Tohru AND Dai. A melancholy ending.

While this is still my hope, its value would be undercut if Dai isn't developed more. It would still be my preferred ending, but how much more powerful would it be if Dai was truly a great fit, but also too young (and still Tohru's brother - so complexity!) and so things ultimately couldn't be?

We're only two volumes in, so there is plenty of time for Dai to be developed, but it needs to happen. Otherwise, this volume was a ton of fun. Dai's lack of identity was a huge hole however.

The art is fun and fluid. It's relatively simple, with almost non-existent backgrounds (however, there are two panels done in the negative - white on black that are pretty cool), and this style of fast bold art works with the brisk pace and constant humor of the series. Screentone use is very very simple, most of the art is just black and white line art with solid black coloring if needed. Not my personal favorite art style, but it works really well for this story. Characters are recognizable and there is almost no fan service of any sort, other than when Dai is checking out Komugi and that makes sense given his age.

Basically, both the series and volume 2 are fun and engaging but haven't yet arrived at the potential that exists. If we keep seeing Komugi's growth into adulthood, and get more nuance out of Dai, then this has the ability to be a really solid series. As it stands however, it is still a lot of fun and a bit different than other series out there and a worthy read. Volume 2 ranks a solid 7/10.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Kiss & White Lily For My Dearest Girl Vol. 5 pleasantly breaks the routine (Manga Review)

So I'd been seeing a pattern with Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl (published by Yen Press). The odd volumes were better than the even volumes for the most part, and also paid more attention to the main couple: Ayaka and Yurine.

Volume 5 is a bit different though. While it still continues the trend of the odd numbered volumes being stronger, we get very little of Ayaka and Yurine (although what we do get is very sweet and with some classic back-handed lovey-dovey from Ayaka). Instead, we get a fairly in-depth story about two side characters, Sawa and her kouhai, Itsuki. And more shocking, I liked them! (not as much as side characters Moe and Mizuki, but that's okay).

Sawa is on the newspaper club (or something similar) and is assigned to write an article about a student and chooses to focus on Ayaka and why she apparently skipped school. Ayaka is so shocked at the rumors that she tells Sawa the fairly mundane story about why she skipped.

However, Ayaka doesn't give all the details, but thankfully the reader does get them all. That story is a sweet and revealing glimpse into Ayaka's psychology and home life (with her mom), and a further reaffirmation of her love(?) for Yurine. As always, she pushes Yurine away forcefully, while being sweetly open to spending time with her, only to even more secretly love on Yurine when Yurine isn't aware. If only Ayaka could admit to herself and Yurine how she really feels, although the back-and-forth is cute in its own way.

However, this story makes up only a small portion of the volume. The real story is that of Sawa and her kouhai, Itsuki, who is assigned to help her with the story. Sawa gets the sense that there are two sides to Itsuki. Finally, it is revealed that they used to be friends a decade ago and Sawa has all but forgotten and Itsuki is mad about that. From here, Itsuki's true (and somewhat scary/obsessive) personality is revealed and we end up with a worthy coupling (rather than the somewhat perfunctory coupling of side characters in other volumes).

Since their journey is the joy of the chapter, I won't give any more away. But watching Sawa process things is really sweet. What makes this coupling (and volume) even more winning is the bonus mini-stories at the end from Itsuki's perspective each night over the course of the chapters as she thinks about each day's events. Really well done comedy!

The art continues to be average to above-average, but not necessarily a style I really respond to, however, I felt this volume left me happier with the art than the previous ones. There was some nice shading in the evening scenes, and two really really cute moments (and lots of just really cute moments, but only two that were really really cute...) and here they are. Hope they don't spoil anything for you:

"...and it's kind of...not really a problem." SQUEEEEEE!!!!!!

I love the tiptoes kiss!

While Itsuki's personality is a bit scary and not realistic, not much of this series is, so you just have to go with it. But, so far, they are the third strongest couple and story behind our leads (and the too cute Mizuki and Moe).

So I really enjoyed this volume and am looking forward to catching up on the rest to get up to the newest releases. If you've liked the series so far, you won't be disappointed by volume 5. I'm giving it a strong 7/10 (it still isn't pushing into "classic" territory as a series, but that's okay, it's just a really good, overall heart-warming series, and that's plenty fine).


Monday, November 19, 2018

Fruits Basket Another Vol. 2 is for...lovers? (Manga Review)

Natsuki Takaya
No secret my favorite mangaka is Natsuki Takaya. I love her series Fruits Basket (although her series Twinkle Stars is my all-time favorite ever), so we find ourselves in a hell of a good week with both the release of Fruits Basket Another Volume 2 and some sort of announcement about a Fruits Basket anime reboot. (WHAT?!?!?!?!)

Fruits Basket Another Volume 2 (published by Yen Press) is the 2nd of three volumes set years after the original series. It's clearly meant for fans of the original. Much like volume 1, there are almost too many characters to remember, but each of them is linked to a favorite character from the original series, so even when not made explicit, trying to figure out the relationship is fun.

Volume 2 steps things up a notch with lots of time in the Sohma house, including references to Kyo falling through the roof in the original series. We also meet someone, someone who might be Akito's child? Maybe? I'm not good at figuring out the relationships, but I want him to be! His name is Shiki and he's in middle school. And...I think he's in love with our lead heroine, Sawa. And, she might be falling for him too? Or maybe I'm just writing fan fiction in my head as I read this...don't judge me...

What's fascinating is that I thought the central relationship (if there is going to be one) would be between Sawa and Hajime, but he didn't have much presence in this volume, and I don't get any chemistry there. Interesting. We do get a lot of time with Yuki's brother's children with some nice back story on their relationship with their father. It's also really cute to see how Takaya-sensei blends the looks and personalities of their two parents to make the two children.

But Sawa, our heroine: While the first volume was a rush of characters and events and fanservice (of the non-creepy type), we do finally get some background on her relationship with her mom. A very strained relationship. Her mom seems quite manipulative and self-serving, maybe even borderline personality disorder. She's quite like Shiina's step-mom in Twinkle Stars. No one writes an awful parent like Takaya-sensei. Poor thing, I hope her own family is nice to her.

Oh, wait, I didn't even try to summarize the story! There isn't much, other than set-ups for Sawa to meet more Sohmas or get cutely frazzled. Basically, she meets Shiki and they have some sort of thoughts about each other, she helps out in Ayame's shop, she has more awful interactions with her mother, she gets closer to the Sohma family, and maybe starts believing in her self-worth a little (basically a Takaya-sensei-type-story, in a good way!).

Like volume 1, the pace is super fast, big jumps in time, location, plot. We get tons of new characters, again all with relationships to the original series. So reading this, it's hard to imagine really loving it if you aren't already a fan. It's not that it can't be followed, or that the plot (what little of it exists) wouldn't necessarily be enjoyable to someone new, but it really seems highly tailored to fans.

With that, I don't even feel I can comment on volume 2's objective value as a story. The whole point of the series is about being nostalgic and getting some glimpses into the life of our favorite characters from the original series through the adventures of their children.

The art is fantastic! It's everything I could want from Takaya sensei's art. You feel the characters emotions, even with her highly unusual style of eyes. Her use of screen tones for sparkles, and skies, and mood are unparalleled. This is a beautifully drawn story, presented in slightly larger than normal tankobon size by Yen Press. (BTW my spell check wants to change that to "anklebone"!)

Basically, if you loved Fruits Basket, you'll love this (and volume 2 is just as good as volume 1). If you've never read Fruits Basket, you might like this although you won't get as much out of it (so why don't you just read the original already, silly!). My rating here is a fan rating, not an objective rating: 8/10 (the pacing is really fast, and I'd love more depth, but the art is amazing, I could look at it forever - she really is my favorite mangaka). I'm really really intrigued by Shiki and sad that we're only getting one more volume. But I'll treasure every last drop that Takaya-sensei wants to give


Friday, November 16, 2018

Villette by Charlotte Bronte is affecting, heartbreaking, and beautiful (Classic Novel Review)

Charlotte Bronte
I'm a fan of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" (I mean, who isn't?) and intrigued by her sister's novel "Wuthering Heights," so I figured I'd track down a copy of Charlotte Bronte's under-discussed novel "Villette."

Reading it was a fascinating experience, particularly evaluating its style. Much like my first impression of "Jane Eyre," "Villette" was a somewhat tedious and difficult novel to get into, at least at first. In fact, the entire first 150 pages while interestingly written, were almost a slog to get through.

Bronte's writing style is ornate and dense. Entire paragraphs (which are far longer than most author's) might be entirely devoted to a side bar on a single thought before we return to the action of the moment. One can imagine writing an abridged version 1/3rd the length of the original without missing any actual plot. That's not a disparagement, simply an aspect of her style.

What perhaps made the first third so challenging is something that becomes central to the lead character, Lucy Snowe, which is that while she is narrating her story, she quite intentionally underplays her own presence in her very own life. Lucy elaborates with incredible depth and precision on every other element of the environment and everyone in it while almost completely ignoring her own existence. This is particularly true of the opening third.

 Lucy Snowe avows, sometimes through overt reminders to the reader, that she is simply trying to get through life and not very interested in having or desiring or hoping. However, as the novel progresses, we get the distinct impression that she is repressing those very real emotions and feelings due to the circumstances of her life to date. This ultimately spills over into the narrative as she slowly begins to allow herself feelings and the ultimately painful outcomes those feelings produces. It begs the central question, is it better to feel and hurt, or not to feel at all?

In summary, Villette is the story of Lucy Snowe. A young woman from an upper middle-class family in the first half of the 1800s. Unfortunately her family is not able to maintain their lifestyle and she goes out into the world to try and make her way, balancing her former position with her resolute understanding that she has no one and nothing to her name.

She spends considerable time in her youth with her godmother and godmother's son Graham as well as the daughter of a friend of the godmother, Polly. As she ages, she ultimately leaves Britain for France/Belgium and the region of Villette. There, penniless, jobless, but determined to live a prudent and useful life, she finds employment as an English teacher in a boarding school for the uppercrust girls of the region.

While employed there, she is reunited with Graham, now a grown man and prominent doctor in the region. As Graham flirts with a young lady from the school, Lucy and Graham rekindle their friendship. Upon Graham realizing how horrible the young lady truly is, he appears to deepen his friendship with Lucy. This is the beginning of Lucy releasing the bars she has placed over her feelings and desires as she begins wondering if perhaps there could be a future with Graham.

As time progresses, Polly, now a young lady of 17 reenters, her slightly strange ways as a child are replaced with an almost angelic look and personality. Graham is smitten, and despite her own feelings, Lucy feels compelled to acknowledge the incredible match between Graham and Polly, sealing up her feelings (and the letters from Graham) and burying them for all time under a tree in the courtyard of the school.

Throughout her time in the school, we are introduced to many other people, most prominently the owner of the school, Madame Beck, and a cantankerous, brilliant, moody professor of language M. Paul Emanuel.

M Paul Emanuel requires perfection, but he frequently vacillates between bombastic tempers and utter sweetness. We come to understand that he is acutely sensitive and empathetic to others and despite seeming to pick on Lucy, they develop an interesting almost-friendship. As this is developing over the middle of the novel, I kept feeling like there was something very special in Bronte's attention and depiction of M. Paul Emanuel despite his initially appearing as just a side character. I would not be disappointed.

I won't give away the final third of the novel, other than to say that in typical Bronte fashion (take your pick of which one), the journey and the ending are filled with melancholy, fiercely beating hearts, incredible emotion, and pain.

While the writing style and the early set-up were almost arduous, by the time I hit the middle of the novel, I was hooked. There is something so endearing about Lucy Snowe. She doesn't want anything for herself, but we want so much for her. If she is repressed, it is herself doing the repressing, and yet, when given the chance to feel, it often comes at great cost even if there is some small reward.

Like many novels of the time, there is a gothic quality that includes supernatural elements. But those are ultimately resolved in mundane ways that are almost like a Shakespearean comedy. The novel also explores religion with Lucy's Protestantism and M. Paul Emanuel's Catholicism leading to intense exploration and interactions for them and others.

This is not an overwrought novel, in fact it is so underwrought that a reader would be forgiven for giving up on it too soon. But the payoff comes from watching how Bronte uses Lucy's invisibleness in her own story to make her emotional journey that much more intense for the reader, despite the restraint in the actual events that occur in the novel.

While that aspect of the writing is brilliant, there are also spots within the novel that suggest somewhat less refinement than her seminal work "Jane Eyre." I, however, can more than forgive that because the core story is ultimately very affecting. While not a perfect novel, and while the style of the author's voice is one that may not translate well as a guide to contemporary authors looking to explore craft, the skill by which Bronte uses an unconventional narrative approach in the beginning to set up for the emotional weight and payoffs by the end is quite extraordinary.

If you are a fan of similar works and authors, of proto-feminist works, and melancholy and the complex reality of navigating feelings when feelings are not allowed, this is very much a work for you. I hope you give it strong consideration. I am very grateful for having read it.