About Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has been writing reviews of books and comics (of various persuasions) at her blog Soliloquy in Blue since 2006. From 2008 to 2010, she wrote for PopCultureShock's Manga Recon, serving as the Senior Manga Editor from 2009 onwards. She has also written for CBR's Comics Should Be Good and participates in The NANA Project series of roundtables (along with Danielle Leigh and Melinda Beasi) that are hosted there. After contributing to Manga Bookshelf for a year, she finally caved to peer pressure and officially joined the team in June 2011. Aside from reading, Michelle's main passion is music (especially popular music produced between '71 and '74), though she also enjoys fountain pens, nail polish, genre television, and attempting to broaden her culinary horizons. She lives in Florida.

Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, Books 5-8 by Deborah Crombie

dreaming_of_bonesDreaming of the Bones
After making my way through the first four books in this series with reasonable alacrity, I really stalled out on Dreaming of the Bones at first. A large part of the problem for me was that it had to do with the death of a poet five years prior, and was thus strewn with quotations of both poetry and flowery letters.

Once I summoned the fortitude to continue, however, I ended up enjoying the book well enough. We are introduced to Victoria, Duncan’s ex-wife, and I appreciated that both of them are painted sympathetically. Their relationship falling apart was no one’s fault in particular, and both have the wisdom now to recognize that. Victoria is on the English faculty at Cambridge and is working on a book about poet Lydia Brooke, whose death was presumed to be suicide. Victoria suspects otherwise and Duncan (as usual) keeps an open mind about her instincts and agrees to look into things even though the local police are not exactly enthusiastic about him poking around.

Although I generally prefer stories where Duncan is assigned to the case of a stranger, Vic’s involvement did offer many emotional consequences for Duncan. Too bad there really weren’t any consequences for the rule-breaking and jurisdiction-trampling he engaged in throughout. Also, I really disliked that Gemma works out the big reveal through a spate of poetic interpretation. Ugh. At the same time, there’s a scene at the end that made me verklempt, so… not my favorite, but still definitely worth reading!

kissed_goodbyeKissed a Sad Goodbye
Duncan and Gemma are assigned to the case of a body found lovingly laid out in a park on the Isle of Dogs. They soon learn her identity—Annabelle Hammond, the beautiful and determined director of Hammond’s Fine Teas who has several lovers on the go. But is what happened to her the result of romantic jealousy, or could it be tied to something else entirely?

Two months have passed since the events of Dreaming of the Bones, and Duncan is still struggling with (spoiler alert!) his newfound fatherhood. The perspective, however, is mostly on Gemma, who is having some trouble figuring out what she wants and who she wants to be. Initially this manifests in a decision to take piano lessons, but soon involves another man.

Honestly, I failed to be convinced by Gemma’s little side romance with Gordon the clarinet-playing busker, who showed up in some earlier book in a greatly diminished capacity. I recall in his earlier appearance that he was brusque and uninterested, but here we get a retcon about how he was secretly intrigued by Gemma all along. It’s played up to be this mutual attraction that she must decide whether to pursue, but he’s just not accessible enough as a character to really make this convincing.

That said, I liked the mystery itself. There were flashbacks throughout to the ’40s, when some of the characters were evacuated to the countryside as children, and they not only elucidate the present but reveal one particular character to be more sympathetic than one might ordinarily assume. On the whole, definitely worth reading, even if there were parts of it I didn’t especially like.

finer_endA Finer End
A Finer End is somewhat tough to review, because I did genuinely like some of the characters that Duncan and Gemma encounter in Glastonbury, where they’ve traveled as a favor to Duncan’s cousin, Jack, whose vicar girlfriend has been injured in a hit-and-run accident. The problem is that Jack has supposedly been receiving messages from a long-dead monk in the form of automatic writing, a claim that Duncan and Gemma accept without question. On top of this, there’s a painter who receives visions not only of one particular little girl but also the whereabouts of the thing that the monk is trying to lead Jack to find. And because the narrative confirms the verity of these paranormal happenings, other elements of the story are thrown into question. Did the “old gods” and the tribute they’re due actually play a part in what happened, for example?

It’s not that I dislike stories about the supernatural; it’s that it’s really bizarre when the supernatural suddenly shows up in the seventh book of a series about Scotland Yard detectives. It also bothered me that the one character who’s a skeptic about all of this is a flagrant asshole who eventually comes unhinged. In addition, I dearly hope that the paternity of a particular child was supposed to be glaringly obvious to the reader, because it sure was. Too, the conclusion is muddled, and the final line was so incredibly cheesy that I actually said, “Barf!” out loud.

All in all, this was profoundly disappointing and I hope it doesn’t signify a new trend for the series.

justice_noneAnd Justice There Is None
It is with profound relief that I proclaim that I really, really liked this one! There are absolutely no supernatural elements whatsoever, thankfully, and the investigation itself is a change of pace, too. Instead of being dispatched to some bucolic locale on Scotland Yard business, a murder is committed in Notting Hill, where Gemma is now assigned as a Detective Inspector. Moreover, she and Duncan and their respective sons move into a house nearby, which puts her family in proximity to the crime and, ultimately, the culprit.

The case involves the wife of a well-off antiques dealer who recently discovered she was pregnant by her lover. Duncan recalls a similar killing that took place a month prior, so he and Gemma work together on the case. Interspersed throughout is the story of “Angel,” a young woman who is orphaned in the mid-sixties and finds herself swept up in the London drug scene. All of the pieces eventually come together, and even though there’s one clue that lets readers know who the murderer is before Gemma has figured it out, she doesn’t end up seeming slow on the uptake. Rather, it adds an extra layer of menace when the perpetrator just happens to be strolling past their new house and has a chat with Kit (Duncan’s son).

And oh, what a house. I love that Gemma and Duncan are establishing their own family, especially given the new addition on the way. I love, too, that the pets are 100% accounted for, and that Gemma adopts a sweet new dog. Best of all, though, is that it’s Christmas. Duncan’s present to Gemma makes both her and me verklempt. I also liked seeing Gemma and Duncan working with other people, and hope that some of the nice people she encountered in the neighborhood make appearances in future books.

Random Reads #1

All hail the debut of a new recurring column of sorts, collecting reasonably short reviews of disparate books.

banquetA Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
While A Banquet of Consequences is not the best Lynley and Havers mystery I have read, it’s still great heaping loads better than the last one (Just One Evil Act). In fact, in my review of the latter, I wrote “I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer.” And that’s pretty much what we did get this time around.

When Claire Abbott, respected feminist author, is found dead in a hotel room while on a book tour, her death is first ruled a heart attack. After her persistent friend and editor insists on a second opinion, a more thorough toxicology screening reveals the presence of poison. Having met the author and her truly odious personal assistant (and chief suspect), Caroline Goldacre, Havers begs Lynley to pull strings for her so that she can investigate, which doesn’t go over very well with Superintendent Ardery. Happily, Havers does do a competent job, though this doesn’t go very far in improving Ardery’s opinion of her.

Mystery-wise, there were elements that I guessed, but I did still enjoy the element of ambiguity that remained at the end. Too, I liked that in the next volume, the Italian detective from Just One Evil Act (probably the best thing about that dreadful book) is going to be visiting England. He was quite sweet on Havers, as I recall! My one real complaint is that Lynley had hardly anything to do, except intercede on Havers’ behalf, contemplate his relationship with Deidre, and look after an admittedly adorable dog.

Still, it’s good to have my faith in this series somewhat restored!

endofeverythingThe End of Everything by Megan Abbott
Lizzie Hood and Evie Verver are thirteen years old and have been BFFs and next-door neighbors for as long as they can remember. Lately, though, Lizzie has begun to realize that Evie is no longer the open book she once was. (“I know her so well that I know when I no longer know everything.”) When Evie goes missing, Lizzie does all that she can to help bring her home, while being forced to acknowledge that maybe there had always been a darkness hidden within her dearest friend that she had never noticed.

In addition to the mystery of what’s happened to Evie, this book deals a lot with Lizzie’s burgeoning sexual feelings. Though she has some contact with boys near her age, she’s really smitten with Evie’s gregarious father. She longs to be close to him, to provide clues that give him hope, to take his mind off what’s happening. She exults in her ability to affect him. In the process, she somewhat usurps the place that his eldest daughter, Dusty, has filled. What I actually liked best about the book is that Abbott leaves it up to the reader to decide—is Mr. Verver’s relationship with these girls crossing a line? Perhaps his intentions are utterly pure (and, indeed, it seems like he might be crushed to hear someone thought otherwise), but there are some things he does and says that just seem so inappropriate.

Ultimately, I liked this book quite a lot (though I feel I should warn others that some parts are disturbing). Abbott offers several intriguing parallels between relationships to consider, and I think it’s a story I will ruminate over for a long time to come.

ex_burkeThe Ex by Alafair Burke
Twenty years ago, Olivia Randall sabotaged her relationship with her fiancé, Jack Harris. Now he’s the chief suspect in a triple homicide and Olivia, a defense attorney, is hired by his teenage daughter to represent him. Initially, Olivia has absolute faith in Jack’s innocence (and feels like she owes him because of how she treated him) but mounting evidence eventually makes her doubt whether she ever really knew him at all.

In synopsis form, The Ex sounds pretty interesting, but the reality is something different. Olivia herself is not particularly likeable. Setting aside how she treated Jack in the past, in the present she drinks too much and is having a casual relationship with a married man. I think we’re supposed to come away believing that this whole experience enables her to grow past some parental issues inhibiting her ability to find real love, but it’s glossed over in just about the most cursory way imaginable. And because the narration is in the first person, other characters who might have been interesting—namely a couple of other employees of the defense firm helping with the case—are exceedingly undeveloped.

The mystery plot itself is average. The final twist wasn’t something I predicted from the outset, but once a certain piece of evidence was revealed, it turned out to be very similar to another mystery I’d just read so it was a bit of a slow slog to the inevitable conclusion. The writing is also repetitive, with the significance of various clues being reiterated over and over. One genuinely unique aspect of the book is that because Olivia is a defense attorney and not law enforcement, she wasn’t overly concerned with actually solving the case, so much as finding plausible alternate suspects to establish reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why some things the culprit did were left unexplained and some evidence unaccounted for, though it could have just been sloppy writing.

I don’t think I shall be reading anything else by this author.

girldarkGirl in the Dark by Marion Pauw
Set in The Netherlands, Girl in the Dark is told in alternating first-person chapters between Ray, a man with autism who has spent eight years in jail for the murders of his neighbor and her daughter, and Iris, a lawyer and single mother who discovers by chance that Ray is the elder brother she never knew she had. She is convinced of his innocence, despite evidence that he is capable of destructive rage, and begins investigating the case and pursuing an appeal, while trying to get her icy mother to talk about her past.

Although the book is advertised as a thriller, most of the time I was more infuriated than thrilled. Leaving aside the question of Ray’s guilt or innocence, the way he was/is treated by others—including Rosita, the opportunistic neighbor who used and then rejected him, as well as one of the employees of the institution he’s been transferred to, who seemingly frames Ray for smuggling drugs into the facility (there’s no resolution to this minor plot point)—generates a great deal of empathy. In particular, there is an especially cruel scene near the end of the book that made me literally exclaim, “Jesus Christ!” Although he occasionally exhibits frustrated fury, Ray is also shown to be sweet and thoughtful, at one time a skilled baker (thriving in an environment that prioritized both routine and precision) and obsessed with the welfare of his tropical fish (currently in his mother’s care).

I didn’t come away with as vivid a sense of Iris as I did Ray. The scenes involving her job and clients were, in a way, mental palate cleansers from the stress of Ray’s situation, largely bland and unmemorable. When she finally gets her hands on Ray’s case files, her end of the story improves, but there are aspects of the final resolution that are kind of ridiculous. That said, I thought the ultimate ending was satisfying and I doubt I’ll forget the book any time soon.

kiss_and_tellMr. Kiss and Tell by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Mr. Kiss and Tell came out in January 2015. I had pre-ordered it the previous May, but when it arrived I just couldn’t get into it, despite a few attempts. A couple of months later, iZombie debuted. It had all the hallmarks of a Rob Thomas show and, lo, I love it. So much so, in fact, that I started to feel like I’d be okay without further adventures in Veronica’s world. Mr. Kiss and Tell spent the next two years occupying various spots in my living room. Then, finally, I read it. And I remembered how deeply I love these characters and now I am totally sad that there aren’t any more books beyond this one. Yet.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first Veronica book, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, did not follow up on the movie storyline about police corruption ion Neptune. Happily, that plotline gets some attention in this book. Weevil is acquitted of the charges against him, but his reputation and business has taken a hit, so he agrees to a civil suit against the county. Keith works to find others who’ll testify about evidence-planting, and meanwhile a candidate enters the race against Lamb, who’d been running for reelection unopposed. There’s some closure on this by the end of the book, but still plenty of room for more going forward.

Veronica, meanwhile, is hired by the Neptune Grand to investigate a rape that took place in their hotel. The case has quite a few twists and turns, although it surprised me some by not twisting as much as I expected. (So is that, therefore, a twist?) By far, however, the best parts of the book are the conversations between the characters. Veronica and Logan, Veronica and Keith, Veronica and Weevil… I could vividly imagine each being performed by the cast, which is almost as good as not having to imagine. I especially liked that things still aren’t 100% perfect in Veronica’s world, and Logan is only home for a few months before the accidental death of one of his friends means that his shipmates are a man down. Veronica struggles to understand why he feels so strongly that he must return early, leading to my favorite scene, in which Logan reveals what his life was like in the years she was gone, and how he ended up in Officer Candidate School. It’s a bit implausible that they hadn’t had this conversation before, but it’s riveting nonetheless.

In fact, my only quibble is a bit of timeline fluffery near the beginning. On the whole, this was immensely satisfying and I will continue to hope for more books in the future. After all, never giving up hope has worked out for Veronica Mars fans in the past!

stylesThe Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
This was a reread for me, but one I hadn’t yet reviewed, since I read it shortly before creating this blog. (I did review Christie’s second and third books before getting sidetracked. This time I shall persevere and read them all!)

A soldier named Hastings, invalided home from the front, runs into John Cavendish, an acquaintance who invites him to recuperate at Styles Court, where Hastings had often visited as a boy. It is Hastings who narrates the story of what happens there. In brief, instead of John inheriting Styles Court upon the death of his father, the property was bequeathed to his stepmother, Emily, upon whom he is presently dependent for funds. When Emily is poisoned, suspicion initially turns to her strange (and substantially younger) new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, and then ultimately onto John himself. The cast of suspects is rounded out by siblings, spouses, friends, and servants. Hastings suggests bringing his old friend Hercule Poirot in to investigate.

I did remember “whodunit,” along with the explanation for one perplexing aspect of the case, but otherwise, most of this felt new to me. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Oh, I still find Hastings annoying, but Christie’s depiction of Poirot’s appearance and mannerisms struck me as especially vivid this time around, and I was left with a more distinct impression of him than I’d held previously. (I had somehow acquired a mental picture of Poirot that had him looking like Alfred Hitchcock!) Although some of the clues are a bit convoluted and/or improbable, the overall solution is satisfying and makes sense. What’s more, my enthusiasm for tackling the rest of Christie’s oeuvre has been rekindled!

outpostThe Outpost by Mike Resnick
In an effort to broaden my horizons and read more science fiction, I went looking for books that might appeal to fans of Firefly. In the course of that search, I came across The Outpost. The notion of a bunch of space-faring outlaw types gathering at a bar on the edge of the galaxy, swapping stories, then banding together to fight off some aliens sounded appealing. Don’t be fooled like I was.

While it is indeed true that a bunch of space-facing outlaw types do gather to swap their stories, these recitations are actually highly embellished tall tales, and they seem to go on for an interminable amount of time. Finally, during a brief middle section of the book, the bar’s patrons go off and fight some aliens, and getting a glimpse of reality, including several pointless and unheroic deaths, was the best part of the novel. All too soon, they’re back at the Outpost, telling their war adventures with varying degrees of embellishment. It’s at this point that several very boring arguments on the ethics of “improving” history ensue.

It’s true that sometimes, I did smile or laugh at something, but on the whole this book just riled me up. None of the characters has any depth whatsoever, and several are positively odious. Many of the stories told by the guys involve busty and lusty women, and it’s fine if the characters themselves are sexist (to be fair, one of the female characters does call them out on this eventually), but most of the female characters created by Resnick are also vampy vixens whose stories are sex-oriented and bodily proportions repeatedly emphasized.

I listened to the unabridged audio version read by Bob Dunsworth, and I cannot recommend it. He frequently misreads and mispronounces words, so that at one point someone is wearing “flowering” robes instead of “flowing” ones, “defenestrating” loses a syllable, “etiquette” gets a “kw” sound, et cetera. Making it through the book was a tremendous slog, and more than once I cursed my completist nature.

theseviciousmasksThese Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
I can’t for the life of me remember how I heard about this book. I immediately put in a materials request with my library, but when it arrived I didn’t remember it at all. It does have hallmarks of something that would appeal to me, though: a setting of England in 1882, superpowers, romance, one of the authors mentioning Buffy in the dedication… It boded well.

I found it a bit disappointing at first, however, despite an independent and snarky heroine (Evelyn Wyndham, and is that a Buffy/Angel reference?) and dialogue that made me snicker right from the start. It just seemed so like “Pride and Prejudice with superpowers” that I began to wonder who was meant to be who. (“That charming fellow Mr. Kent, set up as a romantic rival to surly and brooding Sebastian Braddock, must be the Wickham surrogate!”) Too, the constant bickering between Evelyn and Sebastian, as they work together to rescue her sister the healer from a scientist who wants to experiment on her, did grate after a while.

However, in the end the book surprised me. Not just by deviating from the Pride and Prejudice mold or by imbuing people with unsuspected powers, but by taking the plot in a direction that absolutely made sense and which I absolutely did not see coming. A sequel (These Ruthless Deeds) has just been released and verily, I shall read it.

Tokyo Tarareba Girls, Vol. 1

By Akiko Higashimura | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

I spent all my time wondering “what if,” then one day I woke up and I was 33.

Thirty-something Rinko Kamata and her two best friends from high school, Kaori and Koyuki, are still single. They’ve happily spent the last decade getting together regularly for girls’ nights out, during which they get sloshed and speculate on what might’ve happened with past romances or how they might meet Mr. Right in the future. When it’s announced that Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics in 2020 and it dawns on the trio that they might still be single amidst all the celebrating, they abruptly realize that they might have missed their chance to snag husbands.

Ten years ago, Rinko had a chance with Mr. Hayasaka, a dull but sweet coworker, but rejected him. Their work—she’s a scriptwriter and he’s a producer for a television production company—still brings them together, however, and when she seemingly has a second chance, she considers accepting this time, wondering if women must choose being loved over being in love once they’re over thirty. Of course, she’s drunk at the time, so her thoughts are whimsically presented in the form of conversation with her snacks! Specifically, tara (milt) and reba (liver), whose names combine to mean “what if” and thus supply the pun of the series title. They’re cute little creatures, and tara especially gives me some Little Fluffy Gigolo PELU flashbacks (in the best way).

Of course, we wouldn’t have a series if things worked out with Mr. Hayasaka, and losing out to younger women in romance, work, and at a courtship party, where the “tarareba girls” discover that even schlubby guys their age have pretty young things competing for them (because the younger guys are all under- or unemployed), sends her somewhat off the rails, hopping in a taxi to capture some blackmail evidence and winding up at a hot springs resort, drinking alone and feeling unwanted until Key, a snarky male model who’s observed the rowdy trio at their favorite pub and was critical of Rinko’s writing—essentially unrealistic wish-fulfillment fare for daydreaming middle-aged women—shows up to forestall disaster and ends up proving himself to be the ultimate “what if” scenario that Rinko hadn’t even considered. Plus, he encourages her to see her recent failures as a chance instead of a setback, and I hope this means we’ll see her write what she claims she really wants to write and achieve success after all.

This is quite a madcap volume, what with the talking food, and there are also several quick cuts to Rinko guzzling alcohol that make me think this would be extremely amusing in either animated or live-action format. I also really like the way we her conversations with friends via text are depicted. Ordinarily, I might be bothered that these ladies are so fixated on husbands, but Higashimura-sensei has some author’s notes at the back wherein she makes it absolutely clear that she does not think that marriage is the key to happiness or that it’s a requirement for women. It’s just that she had some friends who were beginning to experience some of these things, and she decided to write about them.

Before Kodansha’s announcement, this series hadn’t even been on my radar, so in addition to being grateful for more josei in any format, I’m especially glad to be introduced to this fun story. I’m looking forward to volume two!

Tokyo Tarareba Girls is ongoing in Japan where it is up to seven volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Chihayafuru, Vol. 1

By Yuki Suetsugi | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Chihayafuru is a long-running josei sports manga series about a girl who discovers a passion for the Japanese card game, karuta. The very factors that made me sure I’d love the series also made it an unlikely licensing prospect. Happily, Kodansha Comics has started releasing it digitally! I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happened.

In the opening pages, we get a glimpse of a teenage Chihaya Amase during an intense match, then promptly travel six years into the past. At twelve, Chihaya had no dream other than seeing her older pageant-entering sister, Chitose, become “number one in Japan.” When she befriends transfer student Arata Wataya, who’s been shunned by classmates for his poverty and regional dialect, he tells her that her dreams should be about herself. Fired up by Wataya’s speed and intensity at karuta, Chihaya can’t help but attempt to score at least one card off of him, and the delight on Wataya’s face as he finally makes a friend who shares his passion is poignant.

As Chihaya (and the audience) learns more about karuta, Wataya eventually gains the respect of his classmates for his skill, prompting Taichi Mashima, the ringleader of the bullies, to cheat against him in a school tournament. I quite liked that we see Mashima’s motivations—his horrid mother flat out tells him that if you don’t think you can win at something, you shouldn’t even try—and that, afterwards, he makes his own decisions about what is right and what is important to him. The three kids become friends and, after joining a karuta club in their neighborhood, conclude the first volume by entering an elementary tournament as a team.

In several ways, Chihayafuru reminds me of Hikaru no Go. You’ve got the sixth-grade protagonist discovering enthusiasm for a traditional game. She makes a small group of friends who share a deep love of the game, and they compete together as a team. And yet, there is the inescapable fact that they won’t be able to stay together forever. Mashima’s path will take him to a prestigious middle school while the ill health of Wataya’s grandfather compels him to return to his hometown. Will Chihaya continue on her own? Presumably, like Hikaru, she will make new friends at each stage of her journey, and potentially face Wataya again as a rival in future.

As usual, what I really loved most was Chihaya finding the place she belonged, and the outlet in which her specific skills—quick reaction time, acute vision, and an extremely keen sense of hearing—are recognized and appreciated. Her sister becomes positively odious as she realizes Chihaya now has something in her life to work towards besides Chitose’s fame—“All Chihaya needs to do is look at me and tell me how amazing I am”—and I wonder how far she’ll go to sabotage her little sister’s ambitions, but the opening pages show us a Chihaya still deeply dedicated to the game, so I’m sure she’ll remain undeterred.

I really, really loved this debut volume and eagerly look forward to more!

Chihayafuru is ongoing in Japan, where the 34th volume will be published next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Note: This is the rehearsal script edition. A definitive collectors’ edition will be released at a later date.

hp8Harry Potter and the Cursed Child joins Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight in the category of “ostensibly canon series continuations that I shall henceforth pretend do not exist.”

The play begins with an abbreviated version of the Deathly Hallows epilogue. Albus Potter, Rose Granger-Weasley, and Scorpius Malfoy head off for their first year at Hogwarts, where Albus and Scorpius are soon sorted into Slytherin. That’s an interesting development and I was still rather optimistic at this point, but sadly there’s hardly any exploration of this event before Albus is in his second year. Then third. Along the way there are brief episodes of scorn and failure and glimpses of his strong friendship with Scorpius—along with lines like “he’s all I need” that make me want to see them fall in love—but it’s all very cursory.

On the eve of his fourth year, Albus happens to overhear Cedric Diggory’s family asking Harry (now head of Magical Law Enforcement) to use a recently confiscated time-turner to go back and save Cedric. Harry declines, and Albus—who has become a surly teen full of angst and bitterness—decides that he and Scorpius are going to show up his uncaring father by saving the day themselves. Of course, they end up screwing up the timeline (though not before successfully accomplishing some things that really ought to have been made more difficult) and the adult characters must help them set things right. Meanwhile, Harry’s scar has started hurting again and he’s hearing whispers of parseltongue.

I would’ve liked this a lot more if it was a book about the boys and their time at school. As it is now, the plot’s too accelerated and simplistic, and there are some scenes with the adult characters that I really could have done without (though I did like seeing Harry and Draco work together to save their sons). That said, probably the best thing about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is its treatment of Slytherins. Not only does Draco show himself to be a decent, wounded person, but he’s raised a truly adorable, geeky son who has his share of heroic moments. Too, one of the timeline variants allows us another glimpse at Snape, still honoring Lily by fighting for the cause she believed in even when all seems lost.

Ultimately, I’m glad I read it, because I do really, truly love Scorpius. I’d love a whole book about Scorpius, in fact, provided it was a proper book written by Rowling and not more of this.

Wave, Listen to Me!, Vols. 1-2

By Hiroaki Samura | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

In the opening scene of Wave, Listen to Me! we meet Minare Koda, an attractive twenty-something drinking too much and pouring her heart out to a guy she just met forty minutes prior. She’s ranting about her ex, Mitsuo, and after a certain point, she has no recollection of events. To her surprise, when she’s at work the next day (as a waitress in a curry shop), she hears her own voice being played over the radio. Turns out, the guy she met was Kanetsugu Mato, who works for a radio station and recorded their conversation. (One of the things she’d forgotten was drunkenly giving her consent.) Minare is temperamental and feisty, so when she marches down to the station to give him a piece of her mind, she ends up going live on the air and impressing Mato with her facility for impromptu eloquence.

Bored with doling out radio spots to local idols and placating sponsors, Mato decides that he’s going to mentor Minare and turn her into a radio personality. Of course, the only shift on offer is in the wee hours of the morning once a week, so she can’t quit her waitressing job yet. (She’s always on the verge of being fired as it is.) Still, she begins to truly contemplate her future for the first time. Coworker Nakahara is interested in her, but more in the “one day I’ll have my own shop and I want you there beside me” kind of way. But after she witnesses him offering a new (female) hire a place to stay, her gaze turns ever more resolutely to her new gig.

Volume two is where things really get great. Mato has inventive ideas for Minare’s show, and I think I will let readers discover those for themselves. What I really loved, though, was the continued exploration of Minare’s personality. For example, when she has the jitters and receives reassurance, she cries, “I can feel it rushing back! My usual baseless, overflowing confidence!” She might have come off as an unsympathetic and abrasive character, but that line shows that she’s fully aware of her flaws. Later, after a brief (and awesome) reunion with Mitsuo, she displays a knack for more self-analysis, reflecting that while she usually doesn’t take shit from anyone, she has a certain weakness for pathetic guys who need someone to dote over them. I expect that this capacity for reflection will allow her to make the most of the opportunity she’s been given.

Her path toward achieving success and truly making a name for herself doesn’t proceed in a straight trajectory, especially with financial realities keeping her tethered to the restaurant, but it’s very satisfying to see a formerly unambitious character discover a goal to strive for. The second volume ends in the middle of a show designed to put thoughts of Mitsuo firmly behind her. I am very much looking forward to seeing what lies ahead!

Wave, Listen to Me! is ongoing in Japan, where it is currently up to three volumes.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Sweetness & Lightning, Vols. 1-3

By Gido Amagakure | Published by Kodansha Comics

sweetness1Widowed math teacher Kohei Inuzuka wants to do his best when it comes to raising his daughter, Tsumugi. It’s been six months since his wife passed away, and because he has never had much of an appetite and hasn’t fared well with cooking in the past, he mostly relies on store-bought fare for Tsumugi. However, after they run into one of his students, Kotori Iida, while looking at cherry blossoms, he can’t help but notice how fascinated Tsumugi is by the home-cooked lunch Kotori’s been eating. To make his daughter happy, he ends up taking her to Kotori’s family restaurant, which leads to regular dinner parties where they experiment with making different things together.

Sweetness & Lightning is not the only food manga currently being released in English, but it does offer something a bit different. Whereas Food Wars! features students enrolled at an elite culinary academy and What Did You Eat Yesterday? focuses on an accomplished home cook, Sweetness & Lightning is about neophytes. Almost everything is new to Inuzuka, and though Kotori is an enthusiastic fan of food with a chef for a mother, her own fear of knives has prevented her from doing much beyond making rice. With her busy mother helping with recipes and easy-to-follow instructions, the trio learns how to make things like Salisbury steak, sweetness2chawanmushi, and some seriously drool-inducing gyoza. Recipes are included, and for the first time, I feel like they’re actually something I might attempt.

The secondary focus of the story is on Inuzuka’s life as a single parent. Between having to leave work to pick a sick Tsumugi up from preschool, or losing sight of her at a crowded festival, or reacting to her leaving the apartment while he’s sick, he does his best to parent her in a loving and rational way. After being reunited at the festival, for example, I love the way he shows her that he’s been scared and upset, and yet recognizes that she feels bad about running off and is not a bad kid at heart. Tsumugi is a girl with a great deal of enthusiasm for life, and Inuzuka wants to preserve that as much as possible. Their bond is very sweet.

Of course, the questionable propriety of afterhours teacher-student socializing isn’t lost on Inuzuka, who consults with a colleague (and Kotori’s mother) prior to agreeing to the arrangement. sweetness3He and Kotori maintain their distance at school, and he frequently worries about inconveniencing her mother. And yet, the gatherings make Tsumugi so happy—and even lift her spirits when she begins to truly comprehend the permanence of her mother’s absence—that he gratefully accepts the Iidas’ hospitality. He behaves professionally at all times. Kotori, however, seems to be developing feelings for him, though it’s all mixed up as she sees him as both a guy and as a father figure. I wouldn’t be surprised if the manga ends with them getting married, but I hope nothing romantic ensues for a very long time.

Ultimately, this is a sweet, occasionally poignant, slice-of-life story about a father learning to prepare food for his daughter. It’s adorable in a non-treacly sort of way and I very much look forward to continuing.

Sweetness & Lightning is ongoing in Japan, where it is up to eight volumes. Kodansha will release volume four in English later this month.

The GGK Project, Part 1: The Fionavar Tapestry

For over a decade, I would’ve named Guy Gavriel Kay as my favorite author. And yet, I have never reviewed any of his books here. Having failed to love The Last Light of the Sun when I read it back in 2004, I think my enthusiasm for him just waned, and though I bought his subsequent novels, I hadn’t felt particularly compelled to read them. Now, though, I am determined to tackle GGK’s full bibliography, from old favorites that I’ve reread before (like my most-beloved The Lions of Al-Rassan) to one that I somehow only read the once when it came out twenty-four years ago (A Song for Arbonne) to the newer books I haven’t yet read. But I will start, as is customary, with the very beginning.

When Jordan moved in across the street from me in the late ’80s, she really did influence my life in some significant ways, not the least of which was introducing me to “GGK” through his first series, The Fionavar Tapestry. My love was deep and abiding and, because of that, I definitely had some trepidation about revisiting the trilogy. My genre preferences have evolved over the years, for one thing, and I no longer read as much fantasy as I used to. More, though, I remember this as the first series to make me cry my eyes out. Would it still have the same effect on me after all this time? As it happens, I shouldn’t have worried, because now I apparently get verklempt at the drop of a hat.

Spoilers ahead.

summertreeThe Summer Tree
We begin with a conference at the University of Toronto where a group of five students is invited to meet afterwards with one of the lecturers. To their surprise, he reveals himself to be a mage named Loren Silvercloak from a world called Fionavar, sent to bring guests from our world to a festival for the High King of Brennin. What he doesn’t reveal, while feeling guilty for the deception, is the fact that Brennin is in turmoil (a punishing and unnatural drought, an ailing and elderly king, the return of some nasty creatures, an evil god imprisoned under a mountain…) and that he feels they are needed there somehow.

The five quickly decide to take Loren up on his offer and the story’s scope widens considerably once they arrive in Fionavar. In addition to meeting one of my favorite fictional characters ever, seemingly frivolous Prince Diarmuid (more on him later), the Canadians are swiftly swept up in events, changed by their experiences as they discover individual destinies even Loren had no inkling of.

Perceptive Kimberly Ford, for example, becomes the new Seer of Brennin, inheriting the knowledge of her predecessor and destined to be the one to call “The Warrior.” Witty Kevin Laine is accepted as part of Diarmuid’s band of men, though there is more to come for him down the road. Paul Schafer is grappling with tremendous guilt after surviving a car accident that killed the woman he loved, yet an experience in Fionavar allows him to finally see that it wasn’t his fault. Emotionally guarded Dave Martyniuk finds a place he belongs among the Dalrei, the nomadic hunters of the plains, and begins to open up to friendship. And Jennifer Lowell, proud and reserved, yet not unkind, is captured by the evil god (Rakoth Maugrim) and mentally and physically violated before Kimberly is able to rescue her.

I admit Jennifer’s fate does trouble me a little. Of the five, she probably receives the least attention in this first installment before undergoing a terrible ordeal at the end. Rakoth has already issued a dramatic proclamation of his freedom and war is at hand by the time her friends learn of her fate, so it’s not as though her rape is solely responsible for spurring them into action, but they are extra motivated because of it. I do still think, though, that this plotline is ultimately about Jennifer and the choices she will make going forward.

Lastly, I’ll note that Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing style might not be for everyone. Occasionally it can be portentous, namedropping legendary figures, and maybe a little too poetic at times, but overall I still love the wistful, languid, and bittersweet feeling of his prose. There’s so much emphasis on what events mean to the characters that I got sniffly over and over again. (I found Dave’s arc especially moving.) At this rate, I will be a puddle by the third book!

wandering_fireThe Wandering Fire
Although there are many important things that happen in The Wandering Fire, I think what I like best is the continuing character development for the five Canadians. This time, it’s Kim whom we don’t see very much of, and that’s honestly fine by me, since she had so much of the focus the first time around. We spend a lot of time with Paul, whose survival of the summer tree has given him the ability to compel the lesser gods of Fionavar, and with Dave and Jennifer, too. (And I am indeed happy to report that she ends the volume much stronger for having endured all that she has been through.) But shining above all of them is Kevin.

After Kim brought them home at the end of The Summer Tree and everyone saw what had been done to Jennifer, Kevin declared, “To this I will make reply, although he be a god and it mean my death.” When they returned to Fionavar, however, and he saw how effective Dave was in battle, how everyone else had something to contribute, he felt terribly useless and bitterly derided himself for his proclamation. And then he accompanies a group on a journey to the territory of Dana, the goddess, to try to discover how Rakoth Maugrim has caused the unnatural winter that plagues Fionavar. There, he awakens to his fate as Liadon, lover and sacrifice to the goddess. It is fitting that when Paul went willingly to the tree, he needed to properly grieve the loss of the woman he had loved, and thus brought rain, and now bright and warm Kevin is the one responsible for bringing spring. It’s not his death that makes me sniffle, but the fact that he found the thing he was meant to do, and struck an enormous blow against the dark in the process. He was very far from useless.

So, too, do I love the reactions of the others to what has happened to Kevin, especially Dave, who mourns Kevin, with whom he never got along in school, to a degree that surprises him. I like to think his grief was colored with regret for so much time wasted when they could’ve been friends. My one complaint, though, is that we never see inside Diarmuid’s head. He liked Kevin, and we can tell he is upset, but we are not privy to his thoughts, nor indeed to the love he evidently discovered he feels toward Sharra, to whom he proposes. Every time Diarmuid does something brilliant and brave, which is often, my heart swells a bit with love of him, but he still remains somewhat of an enigma. The same is true for his brother Aileron, actually. For the most part, we follow the points of view of outsiders.

There’s more sorrow yet to come in the final volume, and I must ready myself to face it.

darkest_roadThe Darkest Road

In this concluding volume of the trilogy, the armies of the Light and the Dark have their final confrontation. Our heroes taste defeat, bittersweet victory, loss, glory, and pain. I am pretty sure this was the first book to ever make me cry my eyes out over a beloved character’s death, and it did so again this time. Hiding his serious hatred of the Dark under a flippant facade, Diarmuid is the first of two characters to willingly sustain a killing blow in order to deliver one. The way Kay describes this scene playing out is so cinematic, I’m left desperately hoping this’ll be the next fantasy epic to be adapted for television.

Contrasting Diarmuid’s end, where he passes surrounded by loved ones and is given a proper farewell (another vivid image is Aileron, devasted by grief, cradling his brother’s body to his chest as he carries him from the field of battle), poor Darien dies alone and uncomforted in Maugrim’s crumbling fortress, never knowing whether anyone will know what he achieved. Thankfully, they do know and the bravery of his deeds and the choice he made is celebrated in song.

Revisiting this series as an older, more attentive, reader has been an interesting experience. Only at the very, very last do we get a glimpse inside Diarmuid’s head. I doubt younger me even noticed that. Nor, I think, did I notice that alongside the three central Arthurian figures reliving their fate, another takes the part of the Lady of Shalott. Lastly, and most significantly, I have a greater appreciation for the statement Kay is making about free will. Obviously, the roles some characters play are tied to destiny, but the importance of Darien’s freedom to choose between the Light and the Dark is repeatedly emphasized, Paul chose to take the king’s place on the summer tree, Jennifer chose to have Darien and refuses to attempt to influence his decision, Diarmuid chooses to take on an impossible foe, Kim chooses not to conscript an ancient power that would surely have been an advantage, and more. I hope that I will find more to love about Kay’s other works—maybe I’ll even like The Last Light of the Sun more next time!

Stay tuned.

One-Punch Man, Vols. 1-11

By ONE and Yusuke Murata | Published by VIZ Media

opm1My name is Saitama. I am a hero. My hobby is heroic exploits. I got too strong. And that makes me sad. I can defeat any enemy with one blow. I lost my hair. And I lost all feeling. I want to feel the rush of battle. I would like to meet an incredibly strong enemy. And I would like to defeat it with one blow. That’s because I am One-Punch Man.

One-Punch Man is much loved on Manga Bookshelf, and now I can finally be included in the group singing its praises!

Three years ago, depressed after botching a job interview, Saitama encountered a crab monster. Defeating it was much more enjoyable than looking for a job, so he decided to become a hero for fun. Since then, he’s been vanquishing the monsters that plague his city but not getting any credit for it. (Who is receiving the credit is a later plot point.) Overwhelming strength has become boring, but when he meets Genos, a cyborg driven by revenge, he gains a disciple and also learns about the Hero Association, which employs heroes of various classes and dispatches them as needed to counter various monstrous threats, which have been on the rise.

opm6The balancing act ONE and Murata achieve here is impressive. On the one hand, One-Punch Man is gloriously silly. Heroes and foes alike are apt to be ludicrous, and some of the former have terrific names like Tank Top Vegetarian or Spring Mustachio (although I actually think he’s pretty cool). On the other hand, there is a lot of excellent shounen manga storytelling going on. The way Saitama lives his life without criticism for others makes me think he’d get along well with One Piece‘s Luffy, and the devotion his pupil Genos shows for him means they can always rely on each other. Too, after Saitama joins the Hero Association, we get regular updates on how his rank is improving, and this puts him in contact with even more heroes, some of whom are inept, some of whom are capable, and one of whom might actually be an enemy. He doesn’t seek glory, so many are unaware of his true strength, but I assume that eventually he will attain the rank he deserves (currently, due to poor performance on the written test, he’s far below Genos).

Although I don’t ordinarily comment much on art, Murata employs quite a few innovative tricks that make reading One-Punch Man different than the average manga. For one thing, Saitama is almost always drawn with a simple, bland expression, making the few times he looks determined or actually heroic a nice treat. Plus, I love how we get back-to-back two-page spreads from time to time. Some of these depict combatants exchanging blows, first with one landing a punch and then the other, but he also uses them to zoom in from, say, an attack that is heading Saitama’s way down to his fist that is about to get serious. It’s a fun way of depicting the action while continuing to incorporate humor. (Oh, incidentally, Saitama’s special attack, almost never required, is awesomely called “Consecutive Normal Punches.” We’ve only seen the finishing move—Serious Punch!!!—once so far.)

As of volume eleven, there are several plotlines in play. Monsters are appearing everywhere, and appear to be organizing. Is this tied in with the prediction of an extinction-level event within the next six months? What about that hint of a possible traitor that was dropped a few volumes back? While a rogue martial artist named Garo is hunting heroes, Saitama is off at a martial arts tournament to learn more how to defeat Garo (not knowing that he totally already did) and seems destined to face off against another strong fighter who is desperate for a challenge. I admire how this story has widened in scope in a natural way, without compromising the balance of narrative and humor. It could conceivably go on for a very long time, and I deeply hope it does.

One-Punch Man is ongoing in Japan, where it is up to twelve volumes. Currently, VIZ has released ten volumes in print and eleven digitally.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Scum’s Wish, Vol. 1

By Mengo Yokoyari | Published by Yen Press

I admit that I initially judged this book by its cover, assuming that it was on the smutty side and aimed at a decidedly male audience. While it is true that Scum’s Wish is seinen, the mangaka (Mengo Yokoyari) is female, and the end result (for me, at least) feels more like dark shoujo.

Hanabi Yasuraoka has been in love with Narumi Kanai, a family friend, since she was little. He was around when her mother couldn’t be (Hanabi’s dad is out of the picture), and promised to always be there for her when she’s lonely. Now, Hanabi is in her second year of high school and Kanai has just started his first teaching job… as her homeroom teacher. Pretty quickly, he becomes smitten with another young teacher, pretty Akane Minagawa, and Yokoyari-sensei masterfully conveys through facial expressions just what Hanabi thinks about that. Soon, she meets Mugi Awaya, a boy who is in love with Minagawa (she used to be his tutor) and they strike up an odd sort of friendship as they hang out together, pining for their unrequited loves.

Eventually, through boredom, loneliness, and hormones, Hanabi and Mugi end up making out, each envisioning that the other is actually the one that they love. While there are a couple of bosom closeups during this part of the story, there are such complex emotions being felt in the scene that it doesn’t feel at all salacious. Ultimately, they decide to publicly become a couple so that they can fulfill each other’s physical desires as needed, though one of the rules they establish is that they won’t be having sex, so I’m assuming this arrangement leads to a great deal of frustration.

The concept of a young couple in a purely physical relationship reminded me of A Girl on the Shore, but happily there’s no disturbing power imbalance between Hanabi and Mugi. No one is merely accepting what they can get from someone who belittles them. They have a lot in common and there’s an inkling, too, that something more might develop (even though they made a rule forbidding that, too), with Hanabi thinking that Mugi has never let her down, unlike Kanai, and feeling possessive of him.

As the scope of the story widens, we meet other characters who are in love with the leads. In addition to a boy who hasn’t received a name yet, Hanabi’s admirers include a girl named Sanae Ebato, who appears for the duration of one chapter and has yet to be mentioned again. Mugi’s overly enthusiastic admirer is Noriko Kamomebata, who has worked very hard to become a princess worthy of him, and gives the impression of a newly hatched chick who imprinted on him.

The introduction of Noriko—who prefers the name Moka, for “most kawaii”—does lead to my one complaint about this volume. Although I’ve presented the story of Hanabi and Mugi in a linear fashion, it’s actually largely told through flashbacks. I followed all of these fine until Noriko is introduced, at which point she refers to herself and Mugi as both being first years. In the first chapter, though, Mugi and Hanabi are both confirmed to be seventeen years old, they discuss their scores on a test, and Hanabi clearly mentions being in the second year of high school. So, is Mugi a second year like her or is he a first year? The timing of when Noriko arrives and objects to their relationship, therefore, is fuzzy and confusing.

All in all, though, Scum’s Wish was far better than I had originally assumed. I have no idea where the story will go from here, so I am very curious to see how it develops.

Scum’s Wish is ongoing in Japan and seven volumes are available so far. Yen Press will release volume two in English later this month.

Review copy provided by the publisher.