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.


Monday, May 20, 2019

Maiden Railways - short love stories on trains (Manga Review)

Asumiko Nakamura
Maiden Railways - 7/10

I don't know where I came across "Maiden Railways" to think to add it to my Amazon wish list, it might have even just been a recommendation by Amazon. All I knew going in was that it was something about romance and trains and maybe yuri stories. And in the end, that's more or less what it was, a collection of several romance-ish stories, in a handsomely printed volume, with uniquely pretty art. Not bad actually.

The first story is about a young female pickpocket getting caught up with a feuding couple on a train. It's got some cute moments, but the couple really just needs a good therapist to teach them how to talk to each other, and a less meddlesome brother-in-law. It's not really a believable story, and I'm a little creeped out at the suggestion that the brother-in-law and the pick-pocket might end up together, she seems too young for that, but overall, it is mildly entertaining if a bit silly.

The second story is a more high-school romance story, or more properly put, its about what probably happens after every high-school romance series ends. This is the story of a young lady on the day of graduation (I think) or maybe just the day she moves away (to Germany - do Japanese parents really go overseas for work as much as they do in manga?). She has broken up with her high-school boyfriend because she has always secretly loved another boy and is going to confess, even though she is going away. It's definitely romantic and a little sentimental. And even though I liked it, I must say that it feels like unburdening yourself at someone else's expense to confess on the day you are moving away.

The third and fourth stories are connected. This is really the closest to yuri that the volume gets and it's unclear exactly where it's going. In the first story, one character has lost her girlfriend who is now marrying a man, and the other character has to turn down a female friend who has confessed to her. But somehow, these two characters end up together despite what seems like a big age difference and also that character two doesn't seem to necessarily be into girls romantically. This story takes place on a rail platform, almost exclusively.

The second of their stories concerns the older one watching the younger one in her school baseball game, and it's just a little quick story. Still unclear if they are actually together or hanging out as friends, but something about the pairing doesn't feel right (it's mostly the age difference).

The fifth story is about another married couple who needs to learn how to communicate, but the underlying cause of their mis-communication is an old model-railway that the community now tends after its original owner passes away. It's got a few nice moments, but also a bit unrealistic in how the characters act.

The sixth story was my favorite, and I won't spoil the twist ending for you, but it involves two women, worried about their relationships, with some interesting connections that come about through their conversation one night on the rail platform.

The final story adds an element that slightly ties together all the other stories around the life of a station attendant. It is a slight and minor story.

The mangaka, Asumiko Nakamura, must either love trains or have wanted to really study them, because the technical detail of the lines, the trains themselves, some of the history, the stations, etc... is evident in the writing and art. The art itself is relatively simple, but it has a loose, languid geometry to it that separates it from other styles. At least this isn't cookie cutter art. It's also not cute or moe, thank god. I would overall describe this as a josei genre set of stories and the art appropriately supports that. It isn't really detailed art, there isn't much screen tone use, the backgrounds are almost non-existent, but it works overall.

This is also the first release by the manga publisher Denpa that I have purchased. It is well constructed with fold around thick glossy color covers and the quality of the interior paper is quite high. I like that the interior paper has good tooth as well as not being stark white, but also clearly above the average quality of tankobon paper. I don't like the stark white of some high end releases, I like the more newspapery coloring with the black and white art. Here, we have high quality paper that is just a touch grayed, so it's perfect.

I like that Maiden Railways is a self-contained volume, that overall (other than age gaps) it isn't very problematic (oh, there is one panty shot, crap), that it focuses on women's points of view, that it's josei and not shoujo so the characters are older and the experiences aren't all in high-school. The art is okay, at least it's lines are quite different than other mangakas. I didn't feel particularly moved by the stories, but they were pleasant. And I think that's how I would sum up the whole volume, pleasant, but not amazing. I'm going to give this a perfectly nice 7/10.


Friday, May 17, 2019

Laura Jane Grace's Memoir "Tranny" is a powerful and essential read (Book Review)

Laura Jane Grace
"Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout," the memoir by Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace, is a powerful depiction of life in a band and her struggles to recognize and then accept herself as a transgender woman. As is my practice for all memoirs and autobiographies, I will not be offering a numeric score nor a critical review. How could I ever judge someone's life? Instead, please accept when I tell you that this is a fast paced, well-written, eye-opening, and impactful memoir covering more than 15 years of Laura's life from teen to coming out with the crazy band stuff in the middle!

As I am working through my own transition and slowly coming out, I've been searching for people (in real life and in books) to learn from and find mirrors in. I was familiar with Against Me! from my days in the music industry. Although anarchist punk isn't really what I listen to, several of my clients were heavily influenced by them and were big fans, so I knew they were important. Several years ago, I cheered from afar as Laura Jane Grace came out to the world as a transgender woman. I had no idea what her life had been like, how sad, crippling, and dangerous her journey was.

Starting life as the child of a military father, Laura (who does not shy away from using her deadname while telling her story, but I feel uncomfortable using here so I will go by her chosen name) bounced from town to town, including a long stay in Italy. It was there that her parents separated and she was ultimately raised by her single mom back in Florida. There was no one like her there, it was a conservative swamp away from anything that could bring joy. It was a land of bullying, disenfranchisement, and targeting by police. It was there that Laura put her band together.

Against Me! started as a true DIY indie punk band (not even with a real drum kit!), hell-bent on leading a life in line with its anarchist beliefs. The memoir chronicles their rise to fame, the hatred of old fans when they released an album on a major label, the fights, the drugs (OMG the drugs!), the drinking, the changes in the lineup, the loves, and the losses. It does so in vivid, stark, and forthright passages. Laura admits just how messed up and unpleasant she was. She presents with total honesty and self-reflection of her own role in so many destroyed relationships.

However, during her entire life, going back to a young child, she was aware that there was something different inside and over time experienced harsher and harsher dysphoria. Many times in her life she could not fight the urges to present as a woman, if only in private. On and off, rejecting it, hiding it, denying it, fighting against it, this struggle for acceptance seems intimately woven into the other (often poor) choices she made in life, particularly the high level of drug use, a form of self medication possibly.

The memoir ends with her coming out and losing her wife as a result. It also depicts the horrible double bind that being famous and coming out puts on a trans person, who then must conform anew to what society expects from a transgender person. Rather than allowing Laura the freedom to experiment and explore in safety, she was forced to wear this new persona just as she had worn her old gender: in a way that matched other's expectations. How absolutely crushing that she wasn't given the space she needed at the time.

Perhaps though, the passages that most upset me were her discussion of the process of accessing hormone replacement therapy (HRT). She describes in several painful scenes the barriers put up by psychotherapists and endocrinologists, the acts she had to put on to convince them, and the lack of autonomy they provided her back. It is an absolute travesty that trans health-care is not more accessible and less insistent upon playing stereotypes. Many endocrinologists require that people have "lived" as their new gender for a year before starting hormones. However, what else have they been living their whole lives? They may have been expressing a different gender, but they were always living as whomever they were, even if they hadn't realized it yet or chosen to publicly express it. The requirement to be wearing a wig and a dress, as Laura was made to do, just to convince someone else of your gender is unconscionable.

It's hard to tell exactly, but by the end of the memoir, it appears that Laura is settling into her continued transition and the new realities as well as a new era for her music. The whole book is interesting, fast-paced, vividly described and a window into a complex and nearly tragic life. Whether you are looking to understand one person's journey as a trans women or a lover of popular music and curious about the inner workings of the industry, this memoir succeeds. As a combination of both, it is excellent.

While I didn't find as many direct parallels into my own journey with Laura's story as I have with others, there are so many powerful and eye-opening moments that I am so glad I read it. This is a must-read.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Our Dreams at Dusk Volume 1 - an important LGBTQ manga (Manga Review)

Yuhki Kamatani
Normally I give a numeric score as part of my reviews. However, for some things like memoirs and autobiographical graphic novels, it is simply not appropriate for me to "judge" someone's life. While Our Dreams at Dusk Volume 1 (Seven Seas) is a work of fiction, given the importance of accurate depictions and representations of LGBTQ teens in media of all types, I am also disinclined to give a numeric score here out of respect for this important series. I am simply glad that there is a manga addressing this community in a sensitive and realistic fashion, hopeful that it will provide one more mirror for those looking for validation and affirmation as well as serving as one more piece of normalizing the LGBTQ experience.

That being said, had Our Dreams at Dusk vol. 1 been trashy, poorly written, poorly illustrated, problematic, etc... I would have no compunction about tearing into it. So thankfully, I am glad to say that it lived up to its billing as a critical piece of LGBTQ representation and storytelling. Many manga that features LGBTQ characters fall into genres or tropes where the true social ramifications of being queer are not really addressed. Most yuri for instance tends to place no burden or stigma on women in relationships, and yet society clearly still marginalizes them, excludes them, and makes it outright dangerous at times to be out. There seem to be only a few titles that tackle the true complexities experienced by LGBTQ individuals, and Our Dreams at Dusk volume 1 appears to be a solid and needed bit of quality representation.

We meet Tasuku Kaname as students in his school are teasing him and alleging that he is gay. Unwilling to out himself, he denies it. This is the fiercely horrifying position that many LGBTQ individuals who are not out face on a regular basis: a) lie about who they are to prevent ostracization and being forced to come out ahead of schedule which means they are denying their own identity or b) confirm it before they are ready to be out - thus being outed by someone else. Tasuku has that impossible choice to make, and refutes that he is gay.

While contemplating attempting suicide, an all too real outcome of this sort of social and societal stigma and bigotry, Tasuku believes that someone next to him has just done the same by jumping out a window. (If you need help, please call the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255). Worried, he goes in search of her and to let people know what he saw.

He stumbles into a "drop in center" where other guests explain that this mysterious young woman is named "Someone-san" and that's how she goes out for a walk, so she's just fine. Over the course of the volume, he has interactions with the mysterious Someone-san who helps him begin to unpack his feelings (even though she refuses to actually tell him anything, at least he's talking out loud about things) as well as meeting others in the drop-in center, some of whom are also members of the LGBTQ community.

The drop-in center was established by a non-profit that restores crumbling historical homes in the area. Tasuku starts volunteering with this work, meeting a young woman who is married to another young woman. These two women are at different places in their own comfort with being out and their process helps Tasuku also begin to face himself.

In all, this is a volume that accurately depicts many of the confusions, questions, fears, stigmas, and complications that LGBTQ youth face. It also depicts some healthy role models and does so in a story that has some intrigue and mystery. The writing is solid as is the pacing. The art has a nice, clear, crispness to it and there is plenty of detail in the art without being hyper-detailed. From what I can tell in this one volume, it seems like it will live up to what I heard about it (from its original Japanese release) as well as my hopes and expectations for a truly emotionally valid and relevant LGBTQ teen journey.

I would highly recommend you check out this volume and I am very excited for the rest of the series. I think this could be a very important series for many youth (and adults).


National suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Monday, May 13, 2019

Kaguya-sama: Love is War has moments within its mediocrity (Anime Review)

Kaguya-sama: Love is War - 5.5/10

People on Crunchyroll seem to really like "Kaguya-sama: Love is War" with 92% giving it 5 stars as of the time of writing this review. I, however, was really luke-warm on it. It had moments of brilliance and even some laugh-out-loud episodes but those were few between some totally boring episodes and some problematic structures and messages.

Based on a manga, the series is about the four members of the student council at a rich-kids school. Primarily, it is about the vice-president, Kaguya, and the president, Shirogane. At first, we know that they probably actually are in love with each other but they are unaware of their own feelings. Instead, they seem to have a fierce rivalry of refusing to be perceived as the weak one. Over time, they both realize that they are in love with the other, and then it becomes more about fear of rejection and fear of making the first move. All this is done as broad comedy and wrapped in the idea that one or the other must "win" each day's "battle."

And that's where the show really didn't work for me. The first episode is actually the worst with making love seem like a win-lose proposition, that people who share feelings are weak, etc... it just reinforced awful misconceptions about what it truly means to care for another person. And unlike "Special A" which has wonderfully fun and light (in tone) competition between two idiots who clearly love each other and are just blissfully unaware, but kind to each other, this show has an overall twisted streak that is not pleasant.

Thankfully, after the first few episodes, it does become kinder. We never get much background on the two characters, although by the end of the series we start getting some insight into Kaguya's painful life of rejection by her father. As the two leads start acknowledging their own feelings, we get some sweetness and likability.

Sadly, the majority of the series takes place in the student council office. So between the basic setup of several short segments per episode of the two leads refusing to actually have a meaningful conversation and all taking place in the same setting, it does get boring and repetitive.

Episodes 7-12 of the 12 episode show are mostly really boring. Where episodes 3-6 start to give us some more interest, I felt the second half of the series was just more of the same, episode after episode. Except for the second half of episode 7 which had me laughing so hard at the ridiculous middle-school level jokes about a wiener. It was handled so perfectly that it was actually, genuinely funny in a yes-it's-sophomoric-but-we've-all-had-that-time-in-our-life sort of way.

The first few episodes were problematic with the messages about relationships they were sending, the last half of the series was boring, and in the middle? Well, there were some kind moments, some funny moments, and some sweet moments. However, the best part of the series was another student council member, Fujiwara, who ends up stealing pretty much every scene she's in.

She's presented as a combination of a ditz and a shrewd observer of humanity with an amazing comedic streak and some real brilliance. It starts with a dance number at the end of the third episode, continues through her amazing decision to rap during a game, and her working as a love detective. Every scene she's in, she steals.

(enjoy this very silly song/dance)

Sadly, that's not enough to save the show. We also have some minor service, mostly related to Fujiwara's big breasts and and another scene with Kaguya's servant in the bath. Coupled with the problematic setup that relationships are a battle, the boring last half of the series, the limited location scope, and the lack of character backgrounds, it's just not great.

There are moments of genuine levity and sweetness, but those are so few and far between boring repetitive setups and problematic statements. Eventually the show reveals that it doesn't actually believe it's own conceit about love being a battle and the characters do start to change and open up, which is good, I just wish it was more interesting in the process.

The voice acting is great, especially Kaguya who goes between the cold, upper-crust voice and a squeaky, whiny voice when she's not holding herself together. The animation however, is pretty bad. It's rigid, simple, and dull with fairly bad colors. The student council room, where 90% of the show takes place, is all browns and dim lighting. It's just not an attractive show visually.

It has a few moments, but overall, it wasn't very good. I'm giving it a 5.5/10 because its mostly boring and repetitive. Probably skip this one.


Friday, May 10, 2019

Shotcake Cake Volume 4 spins its wheels...until it doesn't (Manga Review)

Shortcake Cake volume 4 - 6.5/10

I've liked, but not loved, Shortcake Cake as a series and volume 4 elicited the same middling feelings from me.

It's the story of Ten, who moves into a boarding house to be closer to school and who is being pursued by two of the boys who live there. One, Chiaki, loves books and goes to her school. The other, Riku, is a known skirt-chaser and goes to another school. A little while before this volume, Riku confessed to Ten who didn't totally believe him, but after he kissed her in the last volume, she's starting to think about him more frequently. On the other hand, Chiaki finally admits to Riku that he too likes Ten.

In this volume, Ten takes a job working at a local grocery, the strange young man Rei makes another brief (but meaningless) appearance, and despite the new awkwardness between rivals Riku and Chiaki, the two of them go with Ten to the beach on summer vacation. Further complicating things (because no one actually tells anyone what they're thinking in manga), Chiaki has let Ten know that he likes someone (it's her) but she doesn't realize it's her. So Ten, instead of even considering Chiaki, is pretty much only thinking about Riku.

To be completely honest, both boys are sort of blandly nice. Neither has really developed much of a personality or backstory by this fourth volume. Ten is a pretty classic shoujo heroine, in that she's spunky and cute and nice but she doesn't have much of a nuanced personality either. The story it told third person, so we don't get much inner dialogue either.

And there isn't much that actually happens in this volume (or series, yet). I want character driven stories, but I like some plot that helps us explore those character's inner workings in how they respond to situations. In Shortcake Cake (as a series), the plot is like random scenes of every day things (but not in that great Iyashikei genre way) in which someone is thinking about how they like someone else. Oh, here she is walking with groceries thinking about Riku, here's Riku cooking dinner thinking about Ten, oh here's the three on a bus and Chiaki is thinking about Ten while reading a book, and on and on for four volumes so far.

It's not exactly boring, but it's not exactly emotionally resonant either. I like the characters, but they are meant to be likable. I just also don't know anything about them or how they really work. They are a bunch of nice people living together and the guys like the girl and the girl...well, she might like one of the guys. That's perfectly adequate, just not awesome.

But the mangaka keeps dropping Rei into the series. He's the only character who is actually interesting (even if he is very odd), but after four volumes, she hasn't done much with his plot although we're led to believe that he might be a linchpin in Riku's story. Hopefully something comes of this soon. I have a feeling that Rei's stated hatred/infatuation with Ten might boil over if Ten and Riku end up together at any point. So here's hoping that's handled in an emotionally interesting way.

The art continues to be nice, but middle of the road. There are some good uses of blacks, line widths, and screen tones, but backgrounds are mostly pretty simple. The draftsmanship is quality. However, I can never tell Riku and Chiaki apart unless a) they are in the same panel or b) they have drastically different hair colors. In scenes with only one of them and where their hair is some level of gray, I have no idea who is whom until the text helps me identify them. That's not great.

I'm going to keep reading the series, but that's only because the people are nice and I like romance, not because it's terribly interesting. At least they treat each other kindly so it's not one of those awful shoujo series where boys are mean and the girls think that's alright. I'm happy to support a mangaka who lets her lead men treat the women like partners and human beings and not something to be toyed with and controlled. Hopefully the days of that being the norm in shoujo have passed.

With that all said, volume 4 is pretty much just going through the motions, at least until the very very very end where we're given some hope that we might get some forward momentum. I've struggled with how to rate this volume, but I think I'm giving it a 6.5/10 due to a general sense that it's just passing the time.


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Time out of Mind by Rachel Field is a forgotten masterpiece of early 20th century literature (Book Review)

Rachel Field
Time out of Mind by Rachel Field - 8.5/10

I'm not sure how I stumbled upon "Time out of Mind" by Rachel Field, but it is a forgotten masterpiece. Written in 1935, but set in late 1800s Victorian America, it is a quietly heart-wrenching story about the impact of classes and gender on the fate of a young woman. Basically, it's like my favorite sort of book, a proto-feminist exploration of the complex strictures placed on womanhood by society.

Rachel Field is probably better known for some of her children's books, and her novels are fairly hard to track down (one of her main three novels is pretty much only available from the Australian project Gutenberg - I just got the other used this week). I'd never heard of her before, so my guess it it came up on some list of unknown female writers (I'm always scanning other people's lists for gems just like this) or I picked it up by chance because of the cover and blurb.

Time out of Mind is the story of a young servant girl's devotion to the misfit heir of a failing ship building dynasty in Maine and a masterly look at class dynamics in the Victorian age. It is a slow, thoughtful and heartbreaking story of a young woman, her place in society, and the subtleties and tragedies of love.

Time out of Mind is set in Maine in the later part of the 1800s, in a shipping town centered around the shipbuilding magnet Nathaniel Fortune. He owns the land, the trees, and employs many of the men in building huge multi-masted ships for international shipping. At the same time, steam powered vessels are just arriving on the scene and the writing is on the wall for wind-powered ships. But after generations, he cannot see the writing on the wall.

But this isn't really his story, although it is the essential backdrop for all the human drama. Instead, this is the story of Kate Fernald who comes to Fortune's Folley (as the manor house is known) as the child daughter of Fortune's new housekeeper. Upon arriving she meets Fortune's two children, Rissa (Clarissa) and Nat (Nathaniel III). From there, Kate lives a life half-way between the luxury of a rich family and that of a poor servant's daughter.

Rissa is the classic, somewhat spoiled, daughter of the town's wealthy family, the apple of her father's eye. Nat on the other hand is a small, delicate, sensitive soul, nothing like his father, and nothing like the robust sailors his father aspires him to be. Instead, Nat is drawn to music, but this is forbidden for him. Ultimately, he is sent as a young teen on a long voyage around Africa and to India on his father's new ship, the Rainbow, a ship with a tragic beginning as a man nearly dies launching it. Nat too nearly dies as a result of the voyage and Rissa vows then and there to protect her brother and his talent at all costs.

All this is told through Kate's eyes. She is an insider and and outsider at the same time with the Fortune children. They are her closest friends, and yet, she recognizes that there is no real closeness with Rissa. But Nat, she would do anything to watch him play music, to listen to his melodies, to study his face, unaware that these are the first blushes of love - a love for Nat that develops moment by moment, almost undetected. At the same time, as she enters her teen years and into adulthood, she is pursued by Jake Bullard, a hard-working and industrious young man hell-bent on making a name for himself in the town. On paper, they are a good match as he will elevate her beyond servant-hood and he treats her well during their long, 7 year courtship.

But this is only the setup to this incredible epic of love and loss. This is a long book, told with a slow, detailed pace, and we have only begun the dramatic climb. Rissa steals Nat away, against their father's wishes (by selling off land she was given for her 21st birthday) in order to fund his study of music over in Europe. After years away, with Kate and her mother continuing to serve Fortune and his failing business, Nat is ready to conduct his debut symphony back in New York. Kate promised Nat and herself when they were children, that she would hear his debut. Despite never having left their small town, she takes a risk that destroys her betrothal to Jake, and travels to New York to hear Nat's symphony.

From here, the tragedy of the Rainbow (the ship) and the collapse of the ship building industry collides with the fragility of masculinity (Jake Bullard and his jealousy), the downfall of Nathaniel Fortune, the rigid class system in which Kate is near the bottom, the destructive nature of fame and wealth (Nat), and the silently enduring love Kate feels for someone she can never truly be with. All this comes to a head and into the third act of this extraordinary novel beginning with her trip to New York.

Make no mistake, this novel does not have a happy ending, it is melancholy but resolved. That tone is perfect for the level of tragedy, restrictiveness of society, and the characterizations Ms. Field has set up. It's a slow-burn love story that gives the reader just enough payoff but also recognizes the ultimate futility of an inter-class relationship during Victorian times and handles that with quiet devastation and determination.

Kate Fernald is one of the greatest heroines I have ever read. She is sure of herself despite her "station," she is a hard worker, she is loyal, she combines a resolve with responsibility with a huge heart and a self-less nature. She is also stoic, a mirror for the hard salty townspeople, bearing her burdens silently and with dignity.

When the only way to keep herself and the house above float after the decline of the Fortune business, is to collect wild berries and sell them door to door to the rich summer families, she does it and finds the beauty in her time in nature, never concerned that she is humbling herself too much. She also holds her love for Nat sacred and close to her heart, it may be all consuming, but it also doesn't define her person-hood. There is a silent, honorable resignation to the realities of the world that keep her from being tragic.

But she is also an outcast. She is the daughter of a servant, but has spent most of her childhood learning the ways of the wealthy and befriending the wealthiest two children in the area. Many in the town look down on her for adopting some of the wealthy's mannerisms and speak. But she is also repeatedly shunned by the aristocracy and constantly put in her place as a servant. She moves through this with a singular focus on making the most of her life, preserving the Fortune home she loves, and being there should Nat ever need her. And after some tragedy, he finally does.

I won't give any spoilers to this final portion of the book, but it is emotionally intense, yet flows so naturally from all that came before. If I had any complaint about this section, it is that I'm not entirely certain there was enough insight into Nat's feelings over the years to fully justify his turn towards Kate (however temporary it may be). The very ending passages are also written in a more detached tone compared to the intimate writing which came before, almost feeling tacked on. But that style change could be interpreted as a manifestation of the great loss that was just experienced.

The writing is fairly dense. This is not a fast or breezy read. I could imagine cutting out half the words and the beauty of the story would survive. But at the same time, it's not a difficult read. It's not florid writing either, it's just a bit dense. And yet, the threads that weave themselves throughout the novel are all well supported and well resolved. The tragedies and setups link logically (other than perhaps a slightly dramatic final moment that breaks the overall subtlety of the rest of the novel).

Time out of Mind is a novel, set in the Victorian era, with a silently heroic female lead, determined to accept her place in society yet deeply in love with a young man she cannot be with, multiple threads that tie people and events and outcomes together in a masterly crafted story, with heartbreak, tragedy, and a lead who silently bears her lot in life and the inequities of the times.

If novels like Jane Eyre, The Awakening, Little Women, Wuthering Heights and similar works are your cup of tea, then Time out of Mind is an essential read (although written later). The writing is a bit long and some of the ending a bit overly dramatic compared to the restrained tone of the bulk of the style. But overall this is a gorgeous and affecting piece of literature. It gets a strong 8.5/10 and will stay in my thoughts for a long time. I can imagine rereading this again and again.


Note: you may find this very hard to purchase as it is out of print. In the US, a work is not in the public domain until 95 years after the authors death (1942 for Rachel Field). As this book is not part of the commonly studied literary cannon, is not widely known, and not yet in the public domain, it is also not yet available on Project Gutenberg. There are a few hardcover copies available on Amazon, Ebay, Albris and other sites, but I had a hard time finding another copy of the 1971 paperback edition I read. I'm not even sure where I purchased this copy. You may have better luck borrowing it from a library or finding a copy in a used book store.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Hatsu*Haru volume 6 is a delight (Manga Review)

Hatsu Haru Shizuki Fujisawa
Hatsu*Haru Volume 6 - 9/10

This series is a delight, and Hatsu*Haru volume 6 is probably the most delightful volume yet.

Warning SPOILERS: I can't talk about this volume without some spoilers, so skip to the last paragraph if you don't want to know anything.

We pick up with Kai having just spontaneously kissed Riko at her childhood friend Suwa's wedding. Riko had been sad and wistful and happy for Suwa, and so Kai couldn't contain his love for Riko any longer with her looking like that.

There are all sorts of non-consensual spontaneous kisses in manga, and really, that is not okay. So it was my supreme joy that the spontaneous kiss here was turned into an absolute ass kicking by Riko. When we first met her in volume 1, she was protecting other girls at school by beating guys up. That aspect of her personality had been downplayed lately, but it came back in full force here and with great comedic fall-out. Apparently, shocked by the kiss, she beats Kai senseless and his family's reactions (and his made up tale about rescuing a cat to cover for his injuries) are priceless. Good to see the message being delivered not to kiss someone without consent.

Again, here are the real spoilers, so turn away if you must. In a prior volume Kai had failed to properly communicate his feelings for Riko. However, after the kiss, Riko hasn't been able to stop thinking about him - having already started on her feelings journey over the past volumes anyway - it reaches a head here and she can't deny it any longer. Just as Kai is going to call to apologize, she calls and asks to talk with him. Kai is desperate to meet with her and instead of letting Riko talk, he profusely apologies but finally, clearly, tells her his feelings for her. The moment is perfectly handled by Riko who says its not fair that he's doing all the talking since she invited him out and then proceeds to tell him she thinks she likes him too. He's shocked, can't quite figure out what to make of not being rejected, and then...

More great comedy. I won't spoil his reaction, but it's perfect, and again, there are some great scenes with his family reacting to the fall-out. I also don't want to give away the last few chapters of the volume where we begin to see their next steps, because those chapters had me non-stop smiling between the good feels and the comedy. The author has perfectly captured these two idiots and the interaction of their personalities in such a winning and authentic way, that it's impossible not to enjoy this volume.

In addition to the joyous follow up of their confession (a mix of cuteness and comedy), we also get an interesting side story with Kai's friend Misaki which will likely lead to further developments with his fake girlfriend Shimura. She was an annoying character at first, but has really come into her own, and this final chapter with the two of them really works (despite a somewhat shoujo manga cliche'd back story for Misaki).

Basically, this was a nearly perfect comedy/romance shoujo volume. The series has a light tone (in contrast to the more intense mix of drama, sadness, and light comedy of Ao Haru Ride) and the kindly funny tone is emphasized here with some absolutely perfectly crafted comedic moments. These aren't really gag moments, instead the comedy comes naturally from the way Kai and Riko interact (or don't). It's authentic comedy that really works.

As always, the art is really good. Fujisawa-sensei has a unique character design aesthetic, great use of screen-tones (including some nice screen tones in Riko's hair in one shot), lots of detail, and varied line widths. There are occasional panels where the anatomy doesn't seem quite right, but overall, this is very high quality art checking all the boxes for what I like in manga.

The series has been great (although I always wish we had more of Riko's inner dialogue) and this is my favorite volume so far. If you like romance/comedy shoujo manga, this is a great series and a great volume. Hatsu*Haru volume 6 gets a strong 9/10!