Friday, August 16, 2019

Love Lives Here - an important memoir of a transgender ally (Book Review)

Amanda Jette Knox
"Love Lives Here: A Story of Thriving in a Transgender Family" is the memoir of Amanda Jette Knox, the mother and wife of a transgender daughter and spouse. She has been active in the advocacy community for years and is an exceptional ally in so many ways. I was overjoyed when she finally published her memoir and eagerly devoured it. As with my reviews of other memoirs and personal stories, I will not do a critical review of the story because who am I to judge someone's real life. Instead, this review is just some thoughts to help you decide if this is a book that you too should read.

In brief, Amanda Jette Knox grew up with some severe mental health and substance abuse challenges despite a supportive family. Her journey to adulthood alone would make a highly compelling memoir and was an exceptional part of this one. As a 16-year-old she met her current spouse, who at the time was still presenting as male.

They built their life together, she working on completing high-school correspondence courses, her spouse working up through the IT industry. From houses to kids, they were building an ideal life. But her spouse was always chronically sad, grumpy, and frustrated.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ao Haru Ride volume 6: kisses and confusion (Manga Review)

Io Sakisaka
Ao Haru Ride volume 6: 7.5/10

Ao Haru Ride Volume 6 (Shojo Beat/Viz) picks up with the school festival. Futaba knows she has to tell Kou about her feelings, but out of nowhere, another girl shows up! (OH NO!) Narumi is a figure from Kou's past, the years where Kou was away, a time Futaba knows nothing about.

Kou seems concerned with Narumi but also a bit indifferent towards her. Futaba goes to watch a show where the cute guy who has a crush on her is playing bass! Kou leaves Narumi's side to stand by Futaba at the show. As Futaba and Kou are trying to talk to each other over the noise, their heads turn towards each other...and...and...

Maybe they kiss? What does it mean? Who the hell knows, because they never actually talk to each other when it matters. (LOL)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Missed It Monday - Takane & Hana Volume 1 (Manga Review)

Yuki Shiwasu
Missed It Monday - a series where I review manga and anime I missed when they were new in the effort to find more great series to read.

Takane & Hana volume 1 - 6.5/10

Takane & Hana Volume 1 (Shojo Beat/Viz) is the story of a 16-year-old young lady, Hana, who pretends to be her older sister and attends an arranged marriage meeting with a 26-year-old heir to a large corporate conglomerate, Takane. Hana's father works for Takane's grandfather's company so keeping those two happy is important. But right off the bat, Takane knows Hana isn't the older sister, and displays his characteristic rudeness. Hana does what she does best and immediately puts him in his place. She thinks things are over, but now Takane is intrigued.

Takane & Hana is filled with all the classic plot and tropes of this type of story (common girl and rich corporate heir, totally different personalities, but find each other interesting anyway). However, what separates it so far, and perhaps overcomes the ickiness of a 10 year age gap with an adult man interested in a high school girl, is how rotten (but never actually mean or misogynistic) Takane's personality is, and how sassy and brash and bold Hana's personality is. What will sell you on this, if it does, is their personalities. Because the plot is so old in the genre, and there are definitely problematic elements. But if you feel like wading through that (acknowledging its problems while also looking for something of value) then you might really like the lead characters.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Untangling Cocoon Entwined Volume 1 (Manga Review)

Volume 1
Cocoon Entwined volume 1 - 5.5/10

Gross. Yup, that's the word for the setup in Cocoon Entwined volume 1 (Yen Press).

Cocoon Entwined might best be described as a "class S" yuri manga. It is set at an elite all girls boarding school (with some commuter students). What makes this boarding school different is that the high school students make the uniforms for the middle school students who are about to become first years.

Innocuous enough. However, the fabric for the uniforms is made from the hair of the third year students. Yes, their hair. They grow it out for years until it is nearly down to their feet, then have a cutting off ceremony (pretty much against their will - problematic), and then it is turned into fabric to make the uniforms of the younger girls.

Putting aside the socially constructed "ick" factor of clothing made from human hair, I was determined to investigate what the historical and practical possibility was of hair and clothing in order to overcome my own bias. Turns out, there is almost no use of human hair for practical clothing throughout history. There are some head-dresses, jewelry, and a few other ceremonial things, but as every-day wear, none.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami (Book Review)

Haruki Murakami
Dance Dance Dance - 7.5/10

I am a huge fan of Haruki Murakami's books. "Dance Dance Dance," originally published in English in 1994 is the eighth book of his I've read. It also might be the most fun of his books. It had the chance to maybe be one of his best, but the ending let it down.

Unbeknownst to me when I picked it up used a few years back, it is the sequel to "A Wild Sheep Chase" which I liked very much, and which thankfully, was a bit different too than his other works. His brilliant novel, "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle," has a similar structure to his novels "Kafka on the Shore" and "1Q84" amongst others with multiple interweaving stories and timelines. While some hints of that exist in both "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Dance Dance Dance," both are focused on one protagonist throughout and tell a fairly linear story (at least as linear as Murakami is going to get!).

"Dance Dance Dance" picks up with our unnamed protagonist back from his sheep chase, back in Tokyo, no longer working with his long-time business partner, and instead picking up freelance journalism doing puff pieces for random magazines. It's a living, it makes good money, he doesn't mind it, someone has to do it. But he is being called, years later, back to the rundown old Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo from "A Wild Sheep Chase". He is being called by Kiki, only he hadn't yet learned her name, the girl with the ears from the prior novel.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Missed it Monday - Waiting for Spring volume 1 ends with a tease (Manga Review)

Missed It Monday is a feature where I review manga or anime I didn't get to when they first came out. It's my attempt to see what quality might be out there that I missed.

Waiting for Spring vol.1 - 6.5/10

Waiting for Spring volume 1 (Kodansha Comics) was first published in English in 2017. I've had it on my list to check out since then, but I just didn't know if it would be any good and I wasn't hearing about it anywhere. This week, I finally bought a copy and, you know what, it wasn't bad. It was slightly different, and then...and THEN...I either have trans stuff on the brain or there was definitely a trans-baiting cliff hanger at the end of this volume. But more on that to come.

Waiting for Spring starts to look like it might almost be a reverse harem shoujo story. Mitsuki ends up befriending the four most popular boys in school. They are all on the basketball team and they are every girl's fantasy, apparently. From the beginning though, it appears that it is Asakura who will win Mitsuki's heart.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sound Workshop Series 34 EQ rack project - FINISHED!!!!!!

EQ Rack Project
Sound Workshop Series 34 EQ rack project
In a former life, I was a full-time record producer/recording engineer. When one of the main studios I worked out of closed, I got 8 channel strips from their Sound Workshop Series 34 console, a good 80s-ish workhorse console. My gole was to take the EQ modules out of the strips and rack them up as a single 8 channel EQ outboard unit.

Several years ago I racked up just the 8 mic preamps from those strips into an outboard chassis. All it required was a dual rail 16 volt power supply with phantom, a chassis, and some connectors. The outputs are unbalanced, but I have A/D converters that switch from +4 to -10 so I just use the converters on -10db making it a really simple project. Here's a pic:

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Update on my own writing - Do We See The Same Ocean?

In addition to reading and reviewing manga, anime, and books, I also am an amateur writer. My first major project was the scripts for an 82 chapter yuri manga-style comic series called "In the Morning, I'll Say Hello." (just let me know if you want to read it - its only scripts since I can't draw!). Since finishing that project last fall, I've been developing a screenplay for an animated movie called "Do We See The Same Ocean?".

After months of thinking about it, doing treatments, character development, etc... I am finally at the drafting phase of the screenplay. The basic synopsis is this:

Rebecca Lewis is a tom-boy-ish teen whose parents move to a seaside town when her mother gets the job as headmaster at a prestigious private school. Rebecca is pushed to be an intellectual by her parents, but she loves being outside and becomes transfixed by the fishing industry. In her walks along the coast she stumbles onto a female shipwright. From a distance, Rebecca watches this woman planing the wood, sanding, staining...she watches her tanned muscles glisten in the sweat. Over time, Rebecca realizes she's falling in love with this woman.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Missed It Monday - Forget Me Not Volume 1 is problematic (Manga Review)

Mag Hsu and Nao Emoto
Forget Me Not Vol. 1 - 5/10

I picked up "Forget Me Not" Volume 1 (Kodansha Comics) solely because I really like Nao Emoto's art. The story is written by Mag Hsu and that's where I'm a bit concerned. Emoto-sensei's art is great again, but the writing has me both slightly intrigued and very very concerned. There are many red-flags in the writing and I'm not sure I'm going to keep reading this series because of them. I might give the next volume a try to see if the red-flags are actually resolved responsibly or if it is an indication of a fairly misogynist viewpoint.

The story is complex in that it bounces between present day and episodes in the lead character's past (middle-school through college so far). Yusuke Serizawa crashes on his scooter leaving work one day as he's distracted by a familiar looking woman. She then calls the ambulance, but when Serizawa awakens in the hospital, she's gone and hasn't left a name. However, she calls him and seems to know him, but won't tell him who she is before inviting him to meet with her.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Our Dreams at Dusk volume 2 is painfully insightful (Manga Review)

Shimanami Tasogare 2
Our Dreams at Dusk Vol. 2 - 8/10

With "Our Dreams at Dusk" volume 2 (Seven Seas), we pick up with highschooler Tasuku having come out as gay to some of the folks at the drop-in center. He's also beginning to think about his project for the abandoned home the non-profit he helps with (and runs the drop-in center) is refurbishing. But this volume focuses more on Misora Shuji, a young person at the drop-in center, and how his interactions with Tasuku helps Tasuku begin to broaden his own understandings.

Misora Shuji, who I will use "he/him/his" pronouns for here only because he's struggling with his gender identity and hasn't yet changed his own pronouns (although is probably a trans girl at heart), is a late elementary school (6th grade presumably) child who presents as a girl at the drop-in center.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Love, Stargirl - the sequel to Stargirl, and maybe the better book (Book Review)

Jerry Spinelli
Yes, this blog (and my twitter handle @yuristargirl) is named after the book "Stargirl" which means this review of its sequel "Love, Stargirl" isn't going to be very objective (no review ever is) but also is likely to go off the rails compared to typical reviews. I put off reading this book for a long while, uncertain whether I wanted to disrupt the strange magic the first book left with me. I'm so glad I finally read it. It's probably the better book even without all the critical acclaim of its predecessor.

"Stargirl" by Jerry Spinelli (whose wife's work has a special place in my family's heart) told the story of Leo when a strange, homeschooled girl, named Stargirl, starts attending his school. He's terrified and awestruck by her at the same time. Ultimately they become friends, then a couple, then he cannot fully digest what it means to be good to her, nor can she fully tolerate what she's giving up to be good to him, and the whole thing collapses just as she moves out of town.

"Stargirl" was celebrated for its championing of non-conformity (Stargirl's given name is Susan) through all the "wacky" things she does to bring joy into the world. I'm dating myself, but for fans of the show "Dharma and Greg," she's much like a teenage Dharma.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Missed It Monday - Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty Volume 1 (Manga Review)

Megumi MorinoMissed It Monday is a feature where I review anime and manga that isn't super current, but that I missed the first time around. I'm going back to try and find awesome series.

Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty Vol. 1 - 7/10

Wake Up, Sleeping Beauty Vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics) was first published in English in 2017. We meet Tetsu, a short but hardworking high-school student who wants to skip college and go straight to work to support his family, particularly his mom who is in the hospital in a coma (naturally, cause this is a shoujo series!). His father wants him to go to college, so to settle things, his father lets Tetsu work for his housekeeping company so long as he maintains his schooling. If he can prove that he can balance both, then his father won't complain if he heads straight into the workforce.

Tetsu is employed by the wealthy family in a mansion at the top of the hill. There is a ghost story about a straight haired girl that appears in the windows of the building in the back. Tetsu finds out that the family's daughter is ill and unable to leave her special house at the back of the property (again, shoujo!). One day, while tending to the gardens, he ends up meeting this mysterious girl, Shizu.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Reviews will return next week

Sorry, my manga order hasn't come in yet and I haven't found any good anime to watch recently, so no reviews this week. But we'll return Monday with a "Missed it Monday" column (probably) as well as new reviews. Thanks for sticking around!

Friday, July 12, 2019

O Maidens in Your Savage Season volume 2 shows the quality is for real (Manga Review)

Mari Okada and Nao Emoto
O Maidens in Your Savage Season vol. 2 - 8/10

A series about five naive high-school girls learning about sex through 18th century literature should be good, but could easily be awful. It is with much relief that the second volume of O Maidens in Your Savage Season (Kodansha Comics) shows that the quality and promise of the first volume wasn't a fluke. This series is for real, and deftly balances comedy, nostalgia (for our own youth), romance, and messaging with great art and great writing quality.

At the end of volume 1, the literature club (our club of five high school girls using literature to learn about sex - having deemed that ages written expression to be a pure form of sex over whatever their peers are constantly talking about) is being shut down by the principal. One of several arcs in volume 2 consists of gaining student support and a new adviser for their club. Those are fine, but its in the more character driven arcs that this series flexes its muscle.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Komi Can't Communicate Volume 1 exceeds expectations (Manga Review)

Tomohito Oda
Komi Can't Communicate Vol. 1 - 7/10

I'm not a fan of shounen manga generally, and I was skeptical of the premise of Komi Can't Communicate vol. 1 (Viz): Komi is a beautiful, but alone, high-school girl who can't talk and her underwhelming classmate Tadano takes her under his wing to help her achieve her dream of making 100 friends. Yikes, that sounds like it could be fairly condescending to women. Further, while not a strict 4-koma, it is a comedy manga that is scripted in short comedic bursts, also not my preferred style. So I was pleased to discover that it was a well balanced, kind, and funny manga.

Komi is beloved by everyone for her beauty, her grace, and her aura of perfection. But no one really knows her because she doesn't talk (which ends up adding to her mystique as most people don't even realize she's not speaking). It turns out, whether from some speech issues or social anxiety (I'm not a speech pathologist, so I have no idea where this communication disorder is coming from), she doesn't talk in school at all, and any attempts to do so get barely a single sound or puff of air out. That hasn't hurt her popularity, but it has left her completely alone and without any friends.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Missed It Mondays - Reviewing the problematic Gakuen Polizi by Milk Morinaga (Manga Review)

Milk Morinaga
Missed It Mondays - The first in a periodic series of Manga and Anime reviews where I review older series I didn't read at the time of publication.

Gakuen Polizi - 4.5/10

I'm not quite a "fan" of Milk Morinaga, but I have really enjoyed some of her work. My favorite is "Secret of the Princess" (one of the least talked about of her yuri manga - and which holds a special place in my heart for reasons unrelated to anything Morinaga-sensei could have planned). But I also really liked "Girlfriends" and at least the Nana and Hitomi chapters from "Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink." So it was somewhat surprising that I had never read "Gakuen Polizi."

SPOILERS (because it's a 2012 manga, so deal with it) and Content Warning (transphobia and sex trafficking of minors) to follow.

Gakuen Polizi (Seven Seas) is a two volume series that follows Aoba and Midori, two high-school girls in the special undercover high-school police department known as the Polizi. They are placed as partners in a peaceful all-girls high-school because Aoba is a rookie and Midori had a problem on her last case and her father wants her somewhere safe this time. Along the way, Midori's old partner comes back to stir things up, and a few cases are investigated, two of which are actually quite serious.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Daytime Shooting Star Volume 1 doesn't shoot for much (Manga Review)

Daytime Shooting Star vol. 1 - 6.5/10

I've been waiting for the publication of Daytime Shooting Star (Viz/Shojo Beat) for awhile. I've had it on my list since it was announced, but I'm pretty sure I encountered the name of the series even before then.

It was originally published in 2011 in Japan, so making its English debut 8 years later presents some problems for me as a reviewer. When it reminds me of several other manga I've read (and it frequently does), it can be tough to figure out whether I would have felt differently about it if I had read it before the other ones, is it lacking only in comparison, or is it genuinely bland?

Daytime Shooting Star Volume 1 introduces us to Suzume Yosano. She has just come to Tokyo from a small farming town after her dad gets transferred over seas and her mother is more worried about him than her ("I'm worried about your dad going by himself"... so we'll send you to live with your uncle in the big city). And so, just like so many other manga, it's another one about a girl without parents striking out on her own (I don't actually mind the trope, it's the parents leaving for work part that is the stupid part - give me a runaway or dead parents or something dramatic like that!).

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Futaribeya volume 2 ups the ship-baiting (Manga Review)

Kasumi and Sakurako
The colors in this photo of the cover don't do it
justice, the pastels in the actual print are beautiful!
Futaribeya Vol. 2 - 9/10 (if you are a fan of moe yuri-ish 4-koma); 6/10 for everyone else

I just can't quite wrap my head around the purpose of Futaribeya now that I'm two volumes in to the series. I don't know who it is written for and that confuses me. However, I also can't help but care about the two main characters, Sakurako and Kasumi. Despite the fact that it isn't the type of series I normally read, and the actual plot is all but non-existent, I find myself enjoying the series.

Volume 2 (Tokyopop) definitely upped the pseudo-yuri. What is intriguing about this light comedy series is that there isn't any explicit guidance on whether or not Sakurako and Kasumi are just friends and room-mates, or if one or both want more, or if they are actually more. In that sense, it's like "ship-baiting" - ie. the series is set up to make people imagine them in a true relationship without providing any sense that it is actually occurring. For people who love "shipping," this is definitely a series for them. And volume 2 really ups the baiting.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Awakening of Faith attributed to Asvaghosha (Buddhist Text)

"The Awakening of Faith" is a probable Chinese origin Mahayana Buddhist text likely composed between 400-600ce. However it is attributed to Asvaghosha (80-150ce), so you can already see the complicating factors. It is considered a keystone treatise on "suchness," and deservedly so, but it is not without its flaws. The version I read was translated by Yoshito S. Hakeda and published by Columbia University Press in 1967. There are many versions out there (seeming print on demand reprints of another translator's version), but you can get this one used for cheap!

"The Awakening of Faith" is sometimes titled "Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana." In this case, one should not mistake Mahayana in the title with the sect of Buddhism bearing that name. Here, it is another term for "suchness" or "thusness." At its core, The Awakening of Faith is a brisk treatise that connects suchness with the tathagatagarbha and the wisdom literature. For that alone, it was well worth the read.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Love in Focus vol. 1 doesn't have much to show (Manga Review)

Mako, Kei, and Amemura
Love in Focus vol. 1 - 6.5/10

Love in Focus vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics) is a shoujo manga about a first year high-school student, Mako, who moves into a boarding house at a distant school when her caretaker grandfather passes away (and of course both her parents work away from home). She's an avid photographer and chose the school because of a renowned photographer who consults with the photography club and her long-time childhood friend, Kei, also goes to school there.

When she arrives in town, she meets another boarding house resident, the somewhat reclusive and closed off Amemura. Thus setting us up for the eventual love triangle of Mako being pursued by both Kei and Amemura. There isn't much else to say about the plot of this volume as it's basically just setting up their three personalities and a bit of their history. Some photos are taken, dinner is eaten, Mako trips and falls on Amemura, there is a declaration. Whatever. Honestly, nothing too interesting or earth shattering.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

O Maidens in Your Savage Season Volume 1 - a careful balance of comedy, sex talk, and high-school (Manga Review)

Mari Okada and Nao Emoto
O Maidens in Your Savage Season Vol. 1 - 8/10

I knew nothing about O Maidens in Your Savage Season Vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics) when I bought it. Somehow it made it to my wishlist on Amazon where I keep track of manga to read. When it arrived, I noticed that it had been written by the creator of the Anohana anime, one of my favorites for its tough balance of grieving and loss, love, comedy, and melancholy. Would this be more of the same? Well, yes actually, although with perhaps an even tougher topic than childhood death - childhood sexuality! Yikes!

O Maidens in Your Savage Season is set in high-school, where the five female members of the literature club seem hell-bent on reading novels that, for whatever reason, have a fair amount of sex in them. We're told, and through a host of literary references throughout, that these are well respected pieces of literature, and that the girls interest is purely literary. After all, how can one eventually write classic novels, if one does not know and understand the world of adults?

Monday, June 24, 2019

Hatsu*Haru Volume 7 is our reward (Manga Review)

Hatsu Haru vol. 7
Hatsu*Haru vol. 7 - 8/10

Unlike many series which end once the characters get together, Hatsu*Haru (Yen Press) is giving us the joy of watching two loving newbies grow and change together in their fledgling relationship.

Hatsu*Haru volume 7 picks up with Kai and Riko having finally started dating after Riko eventually understands that Kai was truly interested in her and she comes to terms with her own feelings for him. This volume is the treat we get for all the past will-they-won't-they (which I love, too) as we watch the first months of their new relationship unfold.

The first chapter is so exceedingly cute it's almost painful (in a good way). Eating together at lunchtime, Kai notices that Riko only buys bread for lunch. She tells him that her mom is so busy that this is what she's always done. Kai, thinking that poor nutrition is why she's so short and petite, takes it upon himself to learn to make lunches. It turns out this is a hidden talent for him and suddenly he's making the most adorable bento creations each day. He is incredibly nervous to give it to her the first day and insists that it's from his mom. She knows its actually from him and the sweet and sensitive way she let's him know that she knows is one of the best written moments I've come across in a long time. The whole chapter continues from there in sheer joy.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Whenever Our Eyes Meet - another bland yuri space filler (Manga Review)

A Women's Love Anthology
Whenever Our Eyes Meet - 5.5/10

"Whenever Our Eyes Meet... A Women's Love Anthology" published by Yen Press is another middling yuri one-shot manga. I'm really starting to wonder if I'm so desperate to see two women together in comics that I'll buy anything, because my reviews of these type of manga have not been too favorable. The question is how to tell the quality releases from the mass-produced filler (which this more or less is) made just to appease the current yuri "craze". I don't really know how to tell them apart from just the Amazon descriptions, so I'll probably keep buying any that come out (so long as I am sure they don't have explicit content) in the hopes that one will be brilliant. Unfortunately, that isn't the case with "Whenever Our Eyes Meet".

Now, that's not to say this one is all bad. It's just really really average (or maybe a bit below average). Whenever Our Eyes Meet is an anthology, which means there are many short stories collected together. I'm not super up on all the creators our there, so I couldn't tell you if any of these ones are famous, but from the quality of writing and art, my guess is "no." For the most part, the stories were by-the-numbers (if even that) and much of the artwork had a distinctly amateurish feel. Let's do a "The Good" and a "The Bad" list to expedite things, shall we?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Emanon Volume 1 - a sci-fi manga set in the past (Manga Review)

Volume 1
Emanon vol. 1 - 7/10

I took a flyer on Emanon Volume 1 (By Shinji Kajio and Kenji Tsuruta, published by Dark Horse). I knew nothing about it. It wasn't what I was expecting, but it was pretty cool.

The manga is based on a series of sci-fi-ish short stories about a mysterious woman named Emanon originally written by Shinji Kaijo. This is science fiction in a way, but it could just as easily be mythology, or legend, or religion. Or none of the above.

What will be most challenging in reviewing this volume, is not giving away the central tenet of the story for those who have not read it. Reviewing this without talking about that is going to mean that I won't have much to say, but that's okay, because for those that do read it, you should probably go in blind. No spoilers!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien (Book Review)

The newest edition
Girls in Their Married Bliss (on it's own) = 6/10
The Country Girls Trilogy + Epilogue = 9/10

Girls in Their Married Bliss by Edna O'Brien is the third in her classic trilogy: "The Country Girls." Originally written in the 1960s, my edition came with a new epilogue written in the 1980s and wow, what a difference that addition made.

I absolutely loved the first book, "The Country Girls" and I really liked the second book "The Lonely Girl" although it was fairly depressing (you can find my reviews HERE and HERE). What I didn't see coming, but maybe can now in retrospect, is just how sad and miserable and, dark and strange the final book would be.

Friday, June 14, 2019

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up was less problematic than expected (Manga Review)

Kodama Naoko
I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up - 6/10

I purchased "I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up" (by Kodama Naoko, published by Seven Seas) with mild trepidation. With a title like that and the premise that two women fake a marriage then really fall in love, I was skeptical that it would handle a gay relationship with any validity. Surprisingly, it wasn't bad, and actually had a few solid moments.

As premises go, this one is pretty flimsy. Two young woman (Morimoto and Hana), who have known each other since high-school, decide to fake being married in order to get Morimoto's parents to stop setting her up with various eligible men.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

All My Darling Daughters - catching up with a classic (manga review)

Fumi Yoshinaga
All My Darling Daughters - 8/10

I came across All My Darling Daughters (by Fumi Yoshinaga) in a list of top josei manga. It is a single volume that tells interrelated stories about a woman, her friends, her mother, and other relatives. Published in English in 2010 by Viz, it remains a powerful set of stories. I am so glad to add another quality josei volume to my collection. As far as I can tell, they are too few and far between in English. As always, please let me know your favorite, legally published in English, josei (or shoujo or yuri) titles because I'm always looking for more!

The first story concerns a young woman, living at home with her mom. Her father passed away when she was young and out of nowhere, her mother has just remained someone younger than her own adult daughter! These three people form the backbone for all the stories in the volume and all three are wonderfully, and fully, realized people. They have faults and good qualities, unique personalities, back stories, motivations, and they grow and change. To do all this with these three, plus the other characters, in a single volume, is simply incredible writing.

Monday, June 10, 2019

After the Rain volume 4 (manga review)

Akira x Kondo
After the Rain vol. 4 - 8/10

After the Rain continues its slow, delicate, low-stakes story in volume 4 (Vertical Comics). Like the volumes before it, very little happens (at least of consequence), but one can sense the subtle shifts in the characters under the surface narrative. It also continues to suggest that the romantic plot is hardly the point of the series at all (and that's a good thing).

Quick catch up: Akira is the injured star of the track team, who has refused physical therapy to heal after surgery and given up running. She works at a diner and has fallen for the slightly balding middle aged divorce manager. He is a former writer with a young son. Even though she has expressed her feelings for him, nothing is happening, and propriety remains between them. This could all be icky, but it isn't, because of the extremely sensitive writing of Mayazuki-sensei.

In volume 4, Akira is showing more and more outward feelings about track. At one point she tries to throw out her track spikes, but ultimately tells her mom not to. She and her friend (and track mate) Haruka continue their awkward meetings, unable to say the things they need to say to each other. Akira even visits an up-and-coming "rival" at another school (and by visit, it's in typical Akira fashion which means she stands, says nothing, then leaves!). Kondo, too shows his conflict about writing, this time mirrored through comments and interactions with his novelist friend. There is a birthday party for Yuto (his young son), co-planned by Akira and Kondo, there is more work on the Christmas scarves, and even a little tension between Akira and Kondo as he becomes more and more uncomfortable around her.

Lots of little things happen, but as with the other volumes in this series, it is the unsaid feelings expressed through subtle changes in facial expression that show so much under the surface. Nothing is ever said, it's just people going through the day doing what they can to move forward in the face of life's roadblocks. Akira and Kondo continue to be a very similar pair, but while Akira still says she has feelings for him, and Kondo begins to think he might have feelings for her, I just can't shake the sense that they will never get together (that's good) and instead slowly get back on track with their true loves, track and writing, respectively.

The subtlety of storytelling, the slow moments, the wistful lost-in-thought expressions, exemplified in this volume as Akira and Haruka both reflect on Akira's former love of running, the way the wind sounded in her ears, are beautifully drawn. The art, while not realistic, is also not cute. Its long forms, telling eyes, and perfect pacing complement the writing exquisitely. The backgrounds have care taken, there is good use of shading and screen tones, and each character is uniquely portrayed. The art manages to be both simple and revealing at the same time. Just like the writing.

If you've liked this series so far, this is a great volume, even though there are really no specific plot developments worth belaboring. It continues the slow steady march of time, slow slight growth in the characters, and just enough progress to suggest where things are going.

I for one am loving this series and hope it continues in the same fashion and allows each of our lead characters to grow organically. I love how nothing has been forced in this series, and no matter where they go (together or apart) as long as it happens at its own pace, rather than through overt plotting, I'll continue to be happy. This volume gets an 8/10 (it's somewhat a time-passing volume, with no real developments, so that's why it isn't higher, but for what it is, it's excellent).


Thursday, June 6, 2019

Ao Haru Ride Volume 5 is nearly perfect (manga review)

Kou x Futaba
Ao Haru Ride Vol. 5 - 9/10

Ao Haru Ride (Viz/Shojo Beat) continues to be one of the greatest shoujo manga series I have ever read. Volume 5 exemplifies that trend and hits all the marks - romance, emotions, will-they-won't-they, the feels (oh the feels!). I can't stress enough how much you need to read this series if you are a fan of thoughtful highschool romance.

We left off with things warming up between Futaba and Kou. Yuri has confessed to Kou and Kou turned her down. Futaba and Yuri agreed not to let their mutual affection for Kou get in the way of their friendship.

In this volume, Futaba and Kou make plans to go the festival, the same one they weren't able to attend during middle school when Kou mysteriously disappeared. Unfortunately, something comes up and Kou backs out. Unlike last time, at least he lets Futaba know. Despite her sadness and frustration, she's determined not to get down.

Complicating things, the new boy on the scene, Toma, briefly introduced a few volumes back, clearly has his sights set on Futaba, who seems ignorant to his gentle flirtations. Kou, on the other hand, is very aware of this new boy, yet can't seem to take the next step with Futaba. We begin to understand why when he shares that he has been supporting a mysterious friend who also lost a parent recently and doesn't feel he can give Futaba his all yet.

This volume really shines with the growth that both Futaba and Kou are experiencing. Futaba was determined to be herself rather than trying to live up to others fake expectations for her or down to her own thoughts about herself. She shows her classic stubborn resolve, what makes her so appealing to Kou and so appealing as our heroine.

Kou is desperately trying to dig himself out of the deep depression following the death of his mom, for whom he was the sole caretaker during her illness. Futaba doesn't get mired in the fits and starts with Kou, and Kou shows more emotional resilience than he has at any other time in the series, yet is still somewhat trapped in his feelings. These are not static characters, but real, living, changing people. Such good writing.

We also get so many "almost" moments between them in this volume, where things are so close, but the past traumas just aren't resolved enough to free Kou; and Futaba can't quite find the timing to tell Kou how she really feels. The way Sakisaka-sensei writes their inner feelings, their outward dialogue and actions, and depicts their emotions through her effortless art, is such a joy to read and has such vitality without devolving to pathos, drama, or sensationalism.

As always the art is extraordinary. Beautiful lines, beautiful character drawings, strong sense of anatomy, great use of shading and screen tones, detailed background without being distracting from the characters. This mirrors beautiful writing with fully realized people. People who are kind but have been through things, are teens and still confused by life, all imperfect, but all nice people. This isn't a manga of plot and big reveals and enemies or villains. It is the reality of people growing, changing, hurting, healing, and finding each other. The art and writing are perfectly in sync.

I know I seem like I'm gushing, but that's because I am. If you've read this blog long enough, you know I won't pull punches when I don't like something. Ao Haru Ride is really that good and Volume 5 is nearly perfect.

Why didn't I give it a "ten" then? What would make it better, if everything is as great as I say? When I asked myself that, the only thing I could think of was how amazing it would be if they were both girls! (LOL, there's my bias showing through) But I do wonder why I can't find a yuri manga of this depth, delicacy, honesty, and normality? Are they out there and just not in English*? Please let me know any suggestions you might have. That being said, not every story can be two girls, so it's really not a criticism of Ao Haru Ride at all! >_<

In truth, I can't really find any fault or imperfection in this volume, and yet, I also don't quite feel like I can give it a perfect score. As amazing as this volume is, it just feels too early in the series to go a full ten. So for no other reason than propriety (and what a lame reason that is!), I'm giving this volume a 9/10. But so far the series itself is going to get a perfect rating if it can keep this quality up (and I'm betting it can)! Do yourself a favor and buy this manga!


*UPDATE 6/7/19 - obviously there are the landmark series Sweet Blue Flowers (Aoi Hana) and Maria Watches Over Us (Maria-sama ga Miteru). I'm just greedy and want more like those!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Futaribeya - A Room For Two - Volume 1 (manga review)

Futaribeya Vol. 1 - 6.5/10 or 9/10 YMMV ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Sakurako x Kasumi

This will be a simple review for a simple story. If you love comedy moe 4-koma manga, then Futaribeya (Tokyo Pop) is likely to top your list of best series this year. If you tend to like deeper stories and more complex emotional ranges, then you might find this lacking in depth (as in totally). For what it is, it is well done.

Volume 1 is the story of two high-school 1st years, Sakurako Kawawa and Kasumi Yamabuki, who share a room in the local boarding house near their school. Sakurako is very good at school without trying, loves to cook, is dependable, but easygoing. Kasumi is drop-dead gorgeous but doesn't care at all, bad at school, always cold, and always hungry. The volume covers much of their first year, what they eat, where they shop, how they sleep, and many other random assorted moments. 

As is the norm for most 4-koma, this is a gag manga. Each "strip" ends with some sort of humorous moment, mostly silly, sweet, cute, or goofy. But all very very light. There is no service to speak of (which is great). It's basically two nice teens going about their day, but doing so in a cutely funny way. Like I said, if this is your thing, then this is really well done!

I tend to want more depth in my manga, even in comedy ones, and so I don't typically read 4-koma which by its very structure doesn't lead to much depth. I had similar feelings reading Futaribeya as I did reading Tomo-chan Is a Girl! It was cute, but not really my thing. 

However, I did find myself still interested in these two girls' lives even though it isn't the style I most enjoy. Those who know me well know that I LOVE the Sakura Trick anime (even though I don't normally like moe and it has WAYYYYY too much and totally unnecessary service). I haven't read the manga its based on, so I wonder if Futaribeya would similarly benefit from the expanded storytelling power of anime? (Yes, I am a feminist and yes I still love Sakura Trick, it's called cognitive dissonance folks! But I also think it would be defensible if anyone wanted to talk about it.)

The art in Futaribeya is well done for this style, with more attention to detail and shading than is typical of many 4-koma. A bit too much of the time, the characters are drawn superdeformed for emotional (read: "silly") emphasis. But when Yukiko-sensei goes into normal (but still moe) mode, they really show their artistic ability. It may be moe, but it's well done. 

Now, for the big question. Is this a yuri manga? Wikipedia says it is. But I'm thinking, not really. At least for volume 1, we only get the very slightest moments of possibly maybe hints that something might somewhere in the distant future become maybe yuri-ish. But the truth is, any yuri that exists, exists only in your mind (or some of the extra images between chapters) because there isn't anything textual to suggest it (except maybe there when Sakurako gets a bit jealous of her younger sister's attention on Kasumi). There certainly isn't even the slightest bit of overt relationship beyond normal friendship though. But we'll have to see. It certainly could go the yuri direction or it might just stay where it is and let people read into it or "ship" the characters if they want.

Do you like moe teen girl light comedy with no service (sort of like K-On! but without that anime's TOTAL AMAZINGNESS)? If so, this is well done, a strong 9/10. If you like shoujo/josei manga with any substance, nuance, emotional depth, or realism then you'll find this wanting (it's also considered a seinen manga). However there is something to the characters that might make you come back for more, so it gets a 6.5/10 for fans of more intricate stories. You make up your own mind, you know yourself better than I do! As for me, I will probably keep buying it, but it won't be first on my limited expense list each week.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Essence of the Heart Sutra (Book Review-ish)

Dalai Lama and Geshe Thupten Jinpa
When I read Buddhist sutras and commentaries, they are mostly Mahayana. And of those, an increasing number fall in the category of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras. Perhaps the most meaningful of all to me was the "Large Sutra on Perfect of Wisdom" translated by Edward Conze.

After much searching for the "right" copy of the Heart Sutra, perhaps one of the most famous of all sutras, and part of the Prajnaparamita cannon, I settled on a copy that includes a discourse and commentary by the current Dalai Lama, "Essence of the Heart Sutra."

As with all sutras, there are frequently versions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese, and while all similar, not all necessarily agree exactly. From that, I only speak English, so I need a further translation. This makes the choice of which version I buy all the more important - which language tradition did it start from and how is it being translated into English?

For while the Buddha, himself, has made clear that the words in the sutras should not be mistaken for the actual Dharma, they are part of the pathway that people use to bring their understanding closer to the Dharma. Hence, a translation can ease that understanding or obscure it. I am proud to say that the English translation of the Heart Sutra by Geshe Thupten Jinpa used in this volume, "Essence of the Heart Sutra - The Dalai Lama's Heart of Wisdom Teachings", is extraordinary. Also delightful was the Dalai Lama's commentary. Not only was it profoundly revealing of this text's meaning, but it rang with his voice, even through the English translation of his original writing.

I'll leave reading this extraordinary, and very readable, book to you for the full understanding which I could never hope to convey. But as a starting point for those who may not be familiar with the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita), it is considered the deepest level of understanding the Dharma. The perfection of wisdom is expounded in many sutras, often referred to by their line numbers, some supremely long. The Heart Sutra, is one of the shortest of them, and yet contains the full perfection of wisdom in its several short paragraphs. "Essence of the Heart Sutra" also provides a history of the schools of Buddhism, the central tenets of Buddhism, and the place of the perfection of wisdom in all that (as explained by the Dalai Lama). It then includes the full text of the Heart Sutra as translated from the Tibetan by Thupten Jinpa (who also translated the Dalai Lama's portions of the book), and then the Dalai Lama's exposition and commentary on the sutra.

The perfection of wisdom holds dear two key beliefs, the first is in the emptiness of intrinsic (absolute, inherent) existence. The second is in the profound path of the boddhisatva, who is pursuing the Dharma, by means of the perfection of wisdom, for the benefit of all sentient beings to help all sentient beings achieve full understanding of the Dharma themselves.

Here's my best quick attempt to unpack that: Emptiness of intrinsic existence is often mistakenly taken to mean that nothing really exists. That couldn't be further from the truth the Buddha is expounding. Instead, the two truths doctrine explains there is a conventional reality, the reality that we taste, touch, smell etc... where things come and go, are born and die, break and are made, etc... But there is also a second reality, the "ultimate" reality. And in that ultimate reality, there is no intrinsic existence. Things and sensations and thoughts and ways of being "exist" only in relation and dependence on each other. Nothing came into being out of nowhere and nothing ceased with an absolute end to its existence. This is the culmination of understanding dependent origination at its deepest levels.

The principle of emptiness here is about recognizing that there is no everlasting, unchangeable, "essence" of a thing or feeling of thought. The Buddha is saying that there is no inherent existence, no intrinsic existence of a thing independent of anything else. Another way of saying this, is that somethings "own-being" is emptiness/no-self (or lack of inherent existence). When we come to accept the intrinsic emptiness of all things in ultimate reality and see that emptiness at the same time we touch and feel and think in conventional reality, then we can truly experience the Dharma. Early in our practice, a person may be able to accept the emptiness of intrinsic existence at one point (say, during meditation) but then when they notice something (perhaps touch their own skin as they shift position) they lose the ability to hold both thoughts simultaneously. And yet, holding those two thoughts simultaneously is only the beginning, we must work to end the cognitive dissonance between ultimate and conventional reality see how they are one and the same, not two truths, but a single truth. But please don't take this explanation from me. This of course, is only my fabulously mangled summary of a beautiful level of wisdom. That's why you are supposed to read these sutras and commentaries!

In the Dalai Lama's writing in "Essence of the Heart Sutra," he begins by working through the schools and beliefs of Buddhism, ultimately finding a path of reconciliation between them and a warning not to judge others by which school they work through. His heart and kindness, his magnanimity shines through so clearly in embracing all parts of Buddhism but also all other faiths. This section also serves as a pretty good primer on the basics of the first two turnings of the wheel of dharma. However, no brief introduction, as this is, should be seen as sufficient.

I would say the same thing about his commentary on the sutra itself. Having read the Large Sutra and some of the middle length Prajnaparamita sutras, the Dalai Lama's commentary here was perfect and valuable. I could read it and compare and contrast against the thousands of other pages I had read. Had this been my first foray into the Prajnaparamita, I think I would have liked it and recognized its significance, but not necessarily understood it well given that it doesn't spend time going into much depth. However, this short commentary would likely have started me on the journey just fine if it was my introduction. And as an introduction, he does a marvelous job. Basically, either read this to further your knowledge and thinking about the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) because the Dalai Lama has some key nuance in his commentary, or use it to start down a deeper exploration of other texts that you can compare and contrast with his nuance here. The order in which you read these is really inconsequential.

Either way you go at this, at any point in your studies and thinking, this is a profound sutra, beautiful really, as well as a clear, well written, and lovely commentary. As the Buddha also said, you cannot read or learn or think to arrive at the Dharma, the Dharma is a lived experience. The more you surround yourself with it whether through reading the sutra or commentaries, or just puzzling over it in your own life, acting on it where you can, then the more you will begin to be the Dharma - realize your buddha-nature (Tathagatagharba), and develop, live, and cultivate your bodhicitta.

At first I wanted to give you the entirety of Thupten Jinpa's Heart Sutra Translation because for me, it was far more beautiful, far clearer, and far more meaningful than others I have found. However, I also really want you to buy this book. So I will leave you with just the middle passages, the ones that expound the "essence" (pun intended) of the prajnaparamita as contained in the Heart Sutra, to whet your appetite:

When this had been said, the holy Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, spoke to the venerable Shariputra and said, "Shariputra, any noble son or noble daughter who so wishes to engage in the practices of the profound perfection of wisdom should clearly see this way: they should see perfectly that even the five aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty. Therefore Shariputra, all phenomena are emptiness; they are without defining characteristics; they are not born, they do not cease, they are not defiled, they are not undefiled; they are not deficient, and they are not complete. 

"Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental objects. There is no eye-element, and so on up to no mind-element including up to no element of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance, there is no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; there is no wisdom, no attainment, and even no non-attainment.

Please, no matter where you are in your studies, or even if you have no interest in Buddhism at all, no matter what your faith, no matter who you are, buy yourself a copy of "Essence of the Heart Sutra" by the Dalai Lama.

tadyatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Akiko Higashimura
"Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey" Volume 1 (Seven Seas) is the beginning of Akiko Higashimura's autobiographical series. As is my general policy when reviewing autobiographies, I won't be giving this a numeric rating. It just feels rude to rate someone's actual life. That being said, I really enjoyed this volume and can't wait for the next.

The story itself is quite simple. Akiko is in high-school, terrible at school, horrible grades, and she doesn't care because she fancies herself a brilliant artist and bound for art college. That is, until she finds out she isn't as good as she thinks she is. It starts with taking classes at a small local studio run by a militantly aggressive teacher who actually takes very good care of his students, just in his own mean way. He prods and pushes them to excellence but also shows a deceptive sweet spot for when they are truly suffering. He is their anchor and their buoy.

Akiko is certain she will succeed on recommendation to the college of her choice, but doesn't get in. She ultimately must do the traditional route of multiple auditions. Traveling to small college after small school to find someplace that will accept her. She just wants to be a manga artist, she knows she's great, so why is it so hard for everyone else to notice?

And that is the real beauty of this story. Akiko is so full of herself. That the now-adult Higashimura-sensei is willing to present herself as so brazenly unlikable (but not actually unlikable at all) is wonderful. And yet, I can't help but wonder if the story isn't really about her as much as it is about her art teacher. There are multiple times where Higashimura-sensei talks to this art teacher as if he no longer is around. We also get the sense that the adult Higashimura-sensei might be living in the house that was his art studio during her teen years. Something makes me think this will have a melancholy turn at some point. I can't wait to see how Akiko grows up from being a self-assured brat and into the successful and brilliant Higashimura-sensei.

The art is great as you'd expect from her. Clear character designs with a lot of expression. No one is perfectly perfect, they all feel like real people. The backgrounds are detailed, the use of screen tones and various grays add a lot of depth. The style has realism without being too realistic. And overall, there is just so much emotion and energy on every page.

If you are a fan of Higashimura-sensei's work, or love a story about a bratty art-student, or just want a good manga, then "Blank Canvas: My So-Called Artist's Journey" volume 1 is a great place to start. It was an entertaining read with the promise of more depth to come.


Monday, May 27, 2019

Booksmart is absolutely adorable (Movie Review)

Kaitlyn Dever Beanie Feldstein
Booksmart - 8/10

I don't review movies often on this site, but "Booksmart" was so adorable and has a really well-done lesbian lead character so I couldn't resist. All you really need to know is that this film is absolutely adorable, and even if not quite perfect, it's well worth watching.

The movie is about Molly and Amy, two studious, awkward high school seniors about to graduate who face the realization that while they spent their entire high school careers studying to get into great colleges, many of their peers managed to balance studying and fun and still get into great colleges. Right there we see what separates this film from other typical teen comedies, and especially the "we're geeks who squandered our time and now we must leave in a blaze of redemptive glory" type movies. For while it is that second one, it consistently delivers welcome messages along the way - queer acceptance (nonchalance really), active consent, and no visible peer pressure to drink or do drugs (although there is a little of both in the film).

The plot follows Molly and Amy, who aren't exactly popular, as they attempt to make their way to a giant house party on the night before graduation. The goal is for Amy to finally tell her feelings to the girl (Ryan) she likes, and maybe hook up along the way. For Molly, it's mostly about having people see a more complete side to her, but also a little about her crush on the popular boy too.

Molly and Amy's dialogue, actions, and general awkwardness are exactly like real teens. They reminded me so much of my teen daughter and her friends. Unlike most media with teens who don't act anything like true teens, these two come off very authentic (for a comedy movie that is). Because in real life, even the popular kids are still awkward teens, the way they move in their still growing bodies, the way they speak somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and this movie nails it for the two leads. Sadly, it doesn't totally hold true for the side characters who are mostly played for stereotypes (and all seem much older than 18), but at least the stereotypes are so well written (and the actors seem to be having a lot of fun with them) that it's excusable.

I love the queer representation in this film. Having an out lesbian lead character where the film isn't about coming out is awesome. Unlike "Love Simon" which was okay, but not great, this film normalizes being queer. In addition to Amy, there are at least several other likely queer characters, and even though it isn't made explicit, having at least 3 queer characters is starting the process of eliminating tokenism. Also, actor Austin Crute absolutely crushes his scene playing some sort of Norma Desmond/Carol Channing over-the-hill 1920s actress in a murder mystery themed party they end up at (he pretty much kills every scene he's in). The writing is just so sharp, and manages to be funny without ever making fun of any category or group of people.

Some of the other great things in this film:
1) Active consent - although it occasionally feels forced, the film explicitly advocates for active consent (usually in a funny way) at least three times. Even if it is a bit obvious, I'd rather my kids get obvious affirmation on consent than other things that are usually in teen films. Way to go!
2) There are so many subtly funny lines. Punchlines that had me giggling even if most in the audience thought were just throwaways. There are also so many honest scenes and moments. There is a scene where Molly and Amy are watching something inappropriate on their phone and the subtly different ways each character reacts is a testament to the acting and also the truth of where each is at - its comedy without being broad or mean.
3) The actress who plays Gigi steals nearly every scene she is in. She's a recurring gag that really works. The actress sells it so well.
4) There was an absolutely perfect joke about coming out. It went more or less like this:
     Ryan (the girl Amy likes): "I always wished you'd come out."
     Amy: "Oh, uh, I did, like in 10th grade."
     Ryan: "No, I meant on the weekend to hang out."
It was done with some simplicity, like, "duh Amy, we all know your gay, no big deal." And was both funny and sweet at the same time.

However, despite my raves so far. The film isn't quite perfect. Here are some things I wished had been tightened up:
1) Some early scenes drag - the film could have used another pass at editing, especially the first act where some scenes just went on too long, or might have been able to be left out. In fact, cutting 10 minutes out of the film would have helped its pacing overall.
2) While most of the writing is SOOOOO good, there were a few moments, a few scenes, where it just went a little too "teen movie" for my taste and broke from the sincere (but funny) realism of the majority of the film.
3) The vomit gag. This really really should have been cut out. There's actually another perfect spot (pun intended for those who have seen the film) that could have been used instead to end the scene between Amy and Hope instead of needing a gross-out joke. This was one of the few times where I felt like the writing let the film's otherwise consistent over-achievement down.
4) Molly, one of our two leads, wasn't given enough background. I think there's more there that I would have liked to see explored. There is a hint that maybe her parents aren't around. They aren't in the film, she lives in a weird apartment complex, and no one is home to greet her after she gets back from the party. But I didn't totally know her motivation, and although they set up her character well early on, she isn't actually given as much growth as it might seem (although the actress nails what she has to work with).
5) There was a teacher hooking up with a student - AND THIS IS NEVER OKAY - no matter that the student was held back and is 20. This demeans teachers, it teaches kids the wrong thing about adults and people they should trust, and just served ABSOLUTELY NO NARRATIVE PURPOSE in the story. It also undermined a really great character in the teacher. She had some great lines and this hurt.
6) Which brings me to diversity. This film was better than some, with a black student, a black teacher, a probably bi-racial student (or two), a latinix student, an Asian student, the gay and queer students. But in truth, we had two white leads, and it seemed like very little diversity in the extras that filled out the scenes. Sadly, it was the funny black teacher who was the one that slept with a student. Now, it's not that I needed her to be lionized either, it just sucked that they gave her such a shitty moment. Also, let's get some disability and neuro-diversity in a film too while we're at it (if I'm being greedy, that is).

Now that feels like a whole lot of problems. But the truth is that 95% of the film was great, with some areas where it could have been slightly improved. Nothing is perfect, but the writing is so strong, the lead actresses are amazing, the queer rep is great, the comedy so kindly funny, and just the whole thing had this adorably charming quality to it. It wasn't trying to be "Superbad" even though everyone compares it to that (I'm a huge Michael Cera fan, and that's actually one of my least favorite of his films). Booksmart proved that comedy can be kind and still funny and that teen coming-of-age comedies don't have to be gross-out, drunken, make-out fests (because really, very little in high-school is actually ever like that). I highly recommend seeing this film. I'm 39 and enjoyed it, I bet teens will too. Booksmart gets an 8/10.


Friday, May 24, 2019

Kiss & White Lily for my Dearest Girl Volume 9 is one of the best in the series (Manga Review)

Asuka x Mikaze
Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl vol. 9 - 8/10

Kiss & White Lily has been a slightly up and down series for me. I really love the main couple, and most of their story has been well done. It's been hit or miss for each side couple with each volume though. However, volume 9 is one of the strongest yet with very well constructed and told stories for both of the couples. It's also making me eagerly await the final volume with the resolution (hopefully) to the burning question for our main couple.

The side couple this time is Asuka and Mikaze who meet while cosplaying as some sort of magical girl duo. Asuka has repeated a year due to a sports injury and turned to cosplaying to fill the void in her life. Mikaze is then at least two years younger. They have quite different personalities, and it is the exploration of those personalities and their own expectations for themselves that pervades this story. They aren't easy on themselves even while being supportive of each other.

The story actually starts the reader off just after Asuka breaks Mikaze's heart and leaves her in the future, and then backing up to when they met. Thankfully the story chooses to advance beyond the breakup as they both continue growing, even when (temporarily) apart. It was a well written story with two well conceived characters whose emotional journeys are firmly grounded in the storytelling (and...SPOILER...we do get a happy ever after).

Our main couple, Ayaka and Yurine, are at a very different point in their arc. Ayaka, always number two to her "rival" Yurine, finally beats her and is number one again in the school. With this, Yurine reminds Ayaka of what she needs to do - confront her mother. We finally get this long needed confrontation between Ayaka and her harsh, expectant mother and its handling is superb here. Canno-sensei rises above the cliches of the genre to give us a true moment (I won't spoil it because it's so well written).

What this moment does for Ayaka frees her but also messes with her at the same time, prompting some real progress in her relationship with Yurine. Yurine, true to form, is slightly clueless about Ayaka's mood afterwards. However, she too takes some important steps forward.

Again, I don't want to spoil all the good stuff, because there is a lot of it in this volume. But both couples have some great lines, some great kisses, some great moments. We get well written scenes, we get emotionally honest and real writing. Canno-sensei really did some of her (jeez, I'm assuming Canno is a her, but I don't really know honestly) best work in this. Other than the volume with Ayaka and Yurine on the beach at night, this might be some of the strongest writing in the series.

The art continues to be good overall, but the character's body postures are still stiff. However the use of deep blacks (often with a white outline) as well as shades of gray and screen tones are well done, the characters are mostly very recognizable (although by now there are so freakin' many of them that I can't really remember all their back stories as they pop up in the main story).

So Kiss & White Lily for My Dearest Girl volume 9 is well done all around, one of the best so far in the series, and seems to be setting up a very fulfilling climax in volume 10 (what I believe is the final volume of the series). If you've been enjoying this series so far, definitely read volume 9, and if you've never read the series, it seems that it's going to end strong, so now's a good time to get caught up before the final volume comes out. I'm giving this volume an 8/10.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Provenance is a ridiculous true-crime art caper at its best (Book Review)

Laney Salisbury Aly Sujo
Provenance (Penguin Books) - 8.5/10

I love paintings, and I love art forgery! There is something magical about learning to copy another artist's style and creating something new like theirs. Now, I'd never condone swindling someone by passing a forgery off as the real deal. It's more that I love the idea of getting into the artist's head enough to really learn their techniques - to see through their eyes while mastering their technical gifts.

So in addition to viewing the paintings and reading about the artists I love, I also spend a fair amount of time reading about famous art forgers and forgery circles. But never, in a million years would I have conceived of the scope of forgery and the intricate nature of the crime contained in "Provenance" a true-crime non-fiction book by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo (Penguin Books).

"Provenance" is a detailed, but fluidly told account of one of the largest and most complex forgery cases in world history. It is also the story of one supremely strange and intriguing man, John Drewe, the screw-loose mastermind of this elaborate scheme. The authors bring a reporters eye and a storytellers heart to this true crime book. Even if art history and art forgery aren't interesting to you, their writing style and research have created a fast-paced, engaging, and fascinating book.

John Drewe claims to be a physicist consulting with the British government, including some of its covert branches and foreign governments. He also has claimed to be just about everything else imaginable. But he is also strange, boastful, manic, convoluted, rampantly creative with his narratives, and seemingly has convinced himself of each of his lies. What he isn't however, is a painter.

Instead, in the midst of whatever other lies Drewe is currently engaged in, he stumbles onto the once-and-failed painter John Myatt. Myatt is now divorced, raising his two children, and working as a part time art teacher struggling to make ends meet. Drewe convinces Myatt of Drewe's self-proclaimed awesomeness, Myatt feels as though Drewe is taking him under his wing and looks up to Drewe as a mentor of sorts. Recognizing Myatt's talent, Drewe commissions him to make some paintings "in the style of..." Drewe is able to sell these and splits the funds with Myatt who desperately needs the money.

Over time, and despite a growing awareness of what is really going on, Myatt finds himself falling in love with his new success as a painter, even if it isn't his own original vision being sold. When Drewe invites him to the unveiling of two works in a major museum, Myatt finally has to come to grips with the fact Drewe has been passing of his works as the real deals. There in the museum, are two Myatt fakes being received as if they were the originals.

But this is only the very beginning of Drewe and Myatt's deceptions. Myatt would remain the painter throughout, challenging and pushing himself to ever greater heights of artistry culminating in about 240 fakes. Drewe would push to ever greater depths of deceit to sell these fakes. The story spans continents, multiple museums, galleries, artists foundations, appraisers, libraries and investigators all told with stunning clarity and empathy.

What was most upsetting to me about this crime, and was consequently Drewe's biggest innovation, is from where the book draws its title. There are few ways to sell a major artist's unknown work (as the forgeries were trying to present themselves) without a proper provenance. Provenance is the history that records the paintings creation through its chain of ownership up to the present. Along with scientific analysis and a trained eye, provenance is the third leg of the art appraisal world. It is essential to have good provenance to sell an unknown painting by a major artist at auction.

Where Drewe was succeeding with minor (and some major) art galleries relying on their eyes alone, it was the major works - whether with the large auction houses, major collectors, or museums - that required impeccable provenance. Something no fake could ever have. But Drewe found a way.

Like Myattt would forge paintings, Drewe would forge provenance. By using his growing renown as an art dealer to worm his way unfettered into various museum libraries and archives, Drewe would actually insert forged documents into the archives then request copies of them which would then bear the stamps from the institutions, thus validating the fake documents as if they were the real things. He would insert photos into gallery logs from the '60s stored in these archives, he would make faked exhibition catalogs from 100 year old exhibitions inserting Myatt's paintings into these exhibitions despite their having been painted only weeks before. He wrote letters in peoples names, he made his own stamps bearing a monastery's logo, and he edited log books amongst many tricks.

This was both brilliant, and supremely evil, and really riled me up. Fake paintings are one thing (and the stupid people who didn't do the scientific analysis that would have easily spotted them as fakes). But Drewe, by corrupting the archives, was actually rewriting history. Now Myatt's fake paintings looked as though they genuinely existed. The very places art historians and researchers trust as having unimpeachable evidence - the museum libraries and archives - were now filled with Drewe's lies, forever altering "objective" history. That is what made me so mad. Even after the enter charade was exposed, and museums did their best to clean the archives, there are still countless forged documents yet to be found (along with dozens of Myatt's paintings still in circulation).

By the third act, our criminal investigators are hot on the trail, Drewe might be involved in a murder, and Myatt is doing everything he can to get out and away from Drewe and back into an honorable life. The scenes of the police finally arriving at Myatt's home are heartbreaking. He is allowed to get his children on to their school bus before being arrested. He helps them uncover all he has done, ultimately turning star witness against Drewe. Myatt proves sympathetic as a struggling father with previously unrealized talent who got caught up by a master manipulator, a manipulator who rarely even paid Myatt his fair share of their earnings.

The book does a brilliant job tying all the stories, interviews, and lose ends together into a highly readable narrative. It blends direct quotes with pieced together journalism. It is told from each major character's point of view, at least as much as one can get into Drewe's head. It is incredible how many people in the art world were willing to speak to the authors to flesh out the full story.

Ultimately Drewe, Myatt, and others would face justice for their acts, but the damage done to history, the purchasers who still own fakes that have yet to be unmasked, and the undermining of the sacred processes of art-vetting (or the exposure of that process as a fraud in and of itself) leave us with an unsettling feeling that there was no true resolution to this decade long scam.

Provenance is crime caper of epic proportions, beautifully told, true to life, and thoroughly researched. It is well written and a fascinating, emotional read. I highly recommend this book regardless of whether you have a thing for art forgery or not. It is a strong 8.5/10.