A Variety of VIZ

In which I cover several new(er) series and a digital one-shot!

Daytime Shooting Star, Vol. 1 by Mika Yamamori
Fifteen-year-old Suzume Yosano has been going to school with the same kids in her country town for as long as she can remember, but when her dad gets transferred to Bangladesh for work, Suzume ends up transferring to school in Tokyo and living with her uncle. When she faints on the way to his house, one of his customers (he runs a café) helps her find her way. The next day, she learns that her savior is her homeroom teacher, Mr. Shishio.

I don’t generally like student-teacher romances, but Daytime Shooting Star runs in Margaret, a magazine that many of my favorites have come from, so I was willing to give it a chance. And, indeed, I do like it! Suzume is a fun lead character. She’s much more forthright than one normally sees in a shoujo heroine, particularly with how she deals with a mean girl (Yuyuka Nekota), and yet kind of humble at the same time. She’ll state clearly her position and unabashedly apologize when she’s wrong. I like her a lot.

Shishio is fairly likeable, too. Twenty-four years old and handsome, he’s popular with the girls, but rather than coming across as skeevy, so far he seems genuinely interested in helping out kids who might be struggling. It might be a little dodgy that he’s willing to come privately tutor Suzume after she spectacularly fails a quiz, but it’s apparently something he does for all of his students who need extra help.

What makes Daytime Shooting Star acceptable is that, so far, Shishio does not seem to have any romantic interest in Suzume whatsoever. Some promising retrospective narration adds, “At that time, even if I had known he was out of reach like that star, I was still drawn to him.” If this is the story of a girl’s unrequited first love, I am totally here for that. If Shishio starts to reciprocate, it’ll be time to reevaluate.

Daytime Shooting Star is complete in twelve volumes. VIZ will release the second volume in September.

Komi Can’t Communicate, Vol. 1 by Tomohito Oda
Serialized in Shounen Sunday (and possessed of that unique charm that many series from that magazine possess), Komi Can’t Communicate is the story of Shoko Komi, a girl so lovely she’s seen as an unapproachable beauty possessed of cool reserve when actually she has a communication disorder and, though she would love to make friends, can’t manage to talk to anyone. One day, her timid classmate Hitohito Tadano happens to hear her talking to herself and ends up befriending her—over the course of a sprawling chalkboard conversation—and vowing to help her achieve her goal of making 100 friends.

The pacing of the series is very much like a 4-koma manga, but the panel layout is more like standard manga, so even though each page kind of has a punchline, it also feels like a through-composed story. Throughout the course of this first volume Tadano helps Komi make friends with Najimi Osana, his junior high friend of ambiguous gender, and Himiko Agari, a super-nervous girl for whom Komi feels particular affinity. Various hijinks ensue, including Najimi seeming to use Komi as an errand girl by sending her off to fetch a complicated coffee order—though perhaps this really was intended as useful practice for her?—and Tadano and Komi attempting to join in on some classroom games and faring terribly, with Tadano ultimately sacrificing his own reputation in order to spare Komi’s. I only laughed out loud once, but overall, it was pretty cute.

The elite prep school they attend has a reputation for admitting many quirky individuals, so presumably Oda-sensei won’t want for material any time soon. I shouldn’t expect anything deep from this series, or any sort of social renaissance for Tadano, so if I keep that in mind, I foresee this being an enjoyable, easy read for a long time to come.

Komi Can’t Communicate is ongoing in Japan, where the thirteen volume comes out this month. VIZ will release volume two in August.

Snow White with the Red Hair, Vol. 1 by Sorata Akiduki
Shirayuki is renowned in the country of Tanbarun for her apple-red hair. When the infamously foolish Prince Raj decides that she’s going to be his next concubine, Shirayuki cuts her hair and flees. She winds up making the acquaintance of a boy named Zen, who turns out to be the younger prince of the neighboring Clarines kingdom. After they defeat Prince Raj’s henchman, they decide to stick together. Zen returns home to the Clarines capital city where Shirayuki starts studying to become a court herbalist.

I really liked the characters in this one. Shirayuki is smart and has a definite goal that she wants to earn for her own merits and not through Zen’s benevolence. She is never once spazzy. Although her unique beauty (and a developing reputation as a “treasure even a prince failed to nab”) makes her a target, which sometimes requires Zen to come to her rescue, she is suitably defiant and resourceful enough on her own that this does not play out like a typical shoujo trope. For his part, Zen is wonderfully supportive of her goals and, furthermore, demonstrates that he understands her when he dismisses someone’s suggestion that he should just appoint her to be court herbalist.

This is kind of a low-key series so far, but it’s exceedingly charming and I very much look forward to continuing with it.

Snow White with the Red Hair is ongoing in Japan, where 20 volumes have been released so far. Volume two comes out in English tomorrow.

That Blue Sky Feeling, Vols. 1-2 by Okura and Coma Hashii
When friendly and outgoing Dai Noshiro transfers to a new school, he can’t help but notice that one student is always alone. Kou Sanada insists that Noshiro doesn’t have to go out of his way to talk to him, but Noshiro is convinced that Sanada is lonely and keeps trying to befriend the boy, even after hearing rumors that Sanada is gay. He chastises others for treating Sanada differently, but must confront his own reaction when, after Sanada backtracks after admitting the rumor is true and instead claims to have been joking, relief is his primary emotion. To his credit, he realizes the impact of his words and swiftly apologizes.

The bulk of these two volumes concerns these very different boys getting to know each other. Noshiro is big and loud but profoundly innocent in the realm of romance. He had notions of protecting Sanada, but soon realizes, “He’s way more grown-up than me!” (Sanada has had at least one boyfriend, Hide, who is 26. Seeing as how Sanada is in high school, this is a little creepy, but Hide actually proves to be a decent guy who gives Noshiro a lot of helpful advice.) Sanada is reserved and prefers to keep out of the spotlight, which is difficult when someone as boisterous as Noshiro is around.

Sanada is also pretty anxious, and I loved that every time he worried that Noshiro wouldn’t accept him or that he should continue to keep parts of his life separate, Noshiro would surprise him. One good example is when Sanada meets up with a guy he met online and Noshiro spots them walking around town together. Sanada expects the worst. “The more he gets to know me the more Noshiro will be weirded out by me. I just know it.” But the truth is… Noshiro is just upset that other people can make Sanada smile more easily than he can, and this bugs him for some reason.

By the end of volume two, it’s clear that Sanada is starting to have feelings for Noshiro, and that he’s jealous when another boy starts crushing on him, too. It’s unclear whether Noshiro is feeling the same—he’s so clueless romantically that he actually thought Sanada might start dating a female classmate simply because she is his friend—though he does at least realize that what he feels for Sanada is special. I do hope they get together in the end, but a more bittersweet ending would be satisfying, too.

That Blue Sky Feeling is complete in three volumes. The final volume will be released in English in October.

Will I Be Single Forever? by Mari Okazaki
As a big fan of Okazaki’s Suppli, I was delighted when VIZ decided to offer one of her titles in a digital-only format. Based on an essay by Mami Amamiya, Will I Be Single Forever? features the interconnected stories of three unmarried and proudly self-reliant women in their thirties.

Mami is 36 and a successful writer, though her mother pities her for her singlehood. “I’m finally capable,” Mami laments, “but she feels sorry for me.” Reuniting with family for a funeral reminds Mami how others have assumed their places as wives and mothers, but it’s her free-spirited single uncle who really seems to be enjoying life. She wants to be like him.

Yukino has broken up with a guy who she didn’t really like that much, but is upset nevertheless. After a brief attempt at rekindling with an old flame—and realizing with horror that she was so scared of being alone that her memories of why they broke up temporarily vanished—she decides to go on the trip she and her ex had planned to take by herself and has a blast.

Shimizu has a lover she forgets about for weeks at a time and turns down a rendez-vous with him in favor of work, which she finds more fulfilling. She ponders if fixating on random projects is just protecting herself from something, but in the end concludes the work is honestly rewarding. “I want to keep going down this path.” (My one complaint here is that the exact nature of these projects is kept vague, something that also bugged me in Suppli.)

In the final chapter, the women convene after Mami almost gets married. Her fiancé was a jerk from a family of jerks, and she emerges from the experience literally and figuratively battered and bruised. The final scene is marvelous, as the trio creates their own definition of happiness: “Eating good food. Reading your favorite books. Telling yourself “Good job!” at work. Eating a whole bag of potato chips in the middle of the night. And getting those things for yourself with your own strength.”

In the interview at the end of the book, the creators assure readers they bear no ill will towards married ladies and stress that it’s the independence, the having of one’s own life that is most important. I think I would’ve preferred a much longer series fleshing out these characters, but it was a good, affirming read nonetheless!

Will I Be Single Forever? is complete in one volume.

My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 1

By Gengoroh Tagame | Published by Pantheon Books

Yaichi is a single dad who works from home managing the rental property his parents left to him and his brother, Ryoji, after being killed in a car accident when the boys were teenagers. He considers his real job to be providing the best home he can to his daughter, Kana. On the day the story begins, Yaichi is expecting a guest—Mike Flanagan, the burly Canadian whom Ryoji married after leaving Japan ten years ago. Ryoji passed away the previous month and Mike has come to Japan to try to connect with Ryoji’s past and see for himself the many things he’d heard stories about from his husband.

Initially, Yaichi is reserved and wary around Mike. It’s not to his credit that the first thing he thinks when effusive Mike moves in for a hug is “Let go, you homo!,” though he at least mostly keeps a lid on his feelings. Mike is never anything but lovely, and Kana quickly comes to adore him. It’s through her openness and innocence, untainted by prejudice, that Yaichi comes to rethink some of his actions concerning Mike. Why did he hesitate to invite Mike to stay with them, when he’d recently insisted a visiting cousin do the same, for example? Kana is able to ask Mike things that Yaichi feels unable to, and he benefits from Mike’s super-patient explanations, eventually realizing how wrong he’d been about various aspects of the gay experience.

Not only wrong, in fact, but willfully ignorant. When Ryoji came out to him as a teenager, Yaichi didn’t object but never talked about it with him, either. He never considered how difficult that conversation was for his brother, or what other kind of turmoil he might’ve been experiencing. Too late, he’s realizing that he missed the opportunity to truly know his brother. I did appreciate that Yaichi is willing and able to recognize his own failings, and that he vows to protect Kana from others’ negative opinions about Mike and from being as closed-off as he was. True, he’s still not able to introduce Mike to an acquaintance without downgrading his relationship to Ryoji, so he’s got a ways to go. But at least he is headed in the right direction.

“Heartbreaking yet hopeful” is how Anderson Cooper describes My Brother’s Husband in his endorsement blurb, and he is definitely right. MJ also wrote movingly about the series in our latest Off the Shelf column.

My Brother’s Husband is complete in four volumes. Pantheon Books is releasing the series in two-in-one volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Hallowed Murder by Ellen Hart

From the back cover:
The police call Allison’s drowning a suicide, but her housemates at her University of Minnesota sorority insist it was murder. That’s when alumnae advisor Jane Lawless steps in to find out the truth.

Abetted by her irrepressible sidekick Cordelia, Jane searches for clues, and what she finds is as chilling as the Minnesota winter—for in those icy drifts, at a lonely vacation house, she risks everything to ensnare a cunning killer…

Minneapolis restaurateur Jane Lawless has volunteered to serve as an alumnae advisor for her former sorrority, Kappa Alpha Sigma. One morning, while out exercising with her reluctant friend, Cordelia Thorn, Jane discovers the body of one of the girls, Allison Lord. When the local police are quick to dismiss Allison’s death as suicide (which they attribute to confusion over her sexuality), Jane decides to do a little investigating of her own, eventually concluding that she’ll need to set herself up as bait to catch the killer.

I didn’t outright dislike Hallowed Murder, but it does have some major problems. Most significant is the fact that the culprit is not a surprise, thanks to a brief opening chapter that reveals their motive. Other aspects of the mystery are less transparent, though, and Hart at least managed to make me briefly suspect other characters. And speaking of the characters…. Jane is okay, and I like the aura of sadness that clings to her after the death of her long-time partner, Christine, but her friend Cordelia seems to have just one mode—obnoxious. Jane’s brother makes a couple brief appearances, but he is utterly insubstantial. Then there are the victim’s three closest friends, one of whom we scarcely meet before she apparently drops out of the sorority off-camera. Again, it’s not exactly bad, but it’s all quite superficial.

The same can be said of Hart’s writing style. As I look now at the quotes I jotted down, they don’t look so objectionable, but while I was reading they were jarringly simplistic. Too much tell, not enough show. Here are a couple of examples:

The early morning mist had settled around the base of the old bridge, making it appear to float above the water. It looked like a stage set. A perfect setting for a murder. Cordelia shuddered at her own morbidity.

Jane looked around at the young man taking notes. She had never been interrogated by the police before and did not like her words being cast in stone on some stenographer’s pad.

That second one could’ve been “Jane looked uneasily at the young man taking notes,” and it would’ve communicated all of that without seeming so… prim. This was a common problem, with dialogue and character thoughts frequently coming across as stiff and unnatural. Characters were also exceedingly forthcoming with their prejudices. Now, true, this was published in 1989, so perhaps open homophobia was more common, but characters with these opinions don’t even try to disguise them, and generally have no other positive attributes that would make them more three-dimensional—they’re just being used as ignorant mouthpieces. Here’s a quote from Susan Julian, another sorority advisor, after she learns about Allison’s sexual preference:

Having allowed a—I even hate to say the word—lesbian in our midst would destroy our reputation. We can only hope it doesn’t make the papers. I mean, no one would feel safe joining.

I haven’t yet decided whether to read Vital Lies, the second Jane Lawless mystery. The excerpt included in the back of my paperback was not very promising, but some mystery writers do improve over time. And, of course, Hart earns bonus points for managing to mention both Richard III and Doctor Who.

Additional reviews of Hallowed Murder can be found at Triple Take.

Wandering Son 1 by Shimura Takako: A

Book description:
The fifth grade. The threshold to puberty, and the beginning of the end of childhood innocence. Shuichi Nitori and his new friend Yoshino Takatsuki have happy homes, loving families, and are well-liked by their classmates. But they share a secret that further complicates a time of life that is awkward for anyone: Shuichi is a boy who wants to be a girl, and Yoshino is a girl who wants to be a boy. Written and drawn by one of today’s most critically acclaimed creators of manga, Shimura portrays Shuishi and Yoshino’s very private journey with affection, sensitivity, gentle humor, and unmistakable flair and grace. Volume one introduces our two protagonists and the friends and family whose lives intersect with their own. Yoshino is rudely reminded of her sex by immature boys whose budding interest in girls takes clumsily cruel forms. Shuichi’s secret is discovered by Saori, a perceptive and eccentric classmate. And it is Saori who suggests that the fifth graders put on a production of The Rose of Versailles for the farewell ceremony for the sixth graders—with boys playing the roles of women, and girls playing the roles of men.

Wandering Son is a sophisticated work of literary manga translated with rare skill and sensitivity by veteran translator and comics scholar Matt Thorn.

The main thing I kept thinking about while reading Wandering Son—beyond the continuous undercurrent of general squee—is how things that seem insignificant to one person can be secretly, intensely significant to someone else.

Wandering Son begins simply. Nitori Shuichi (the translation retains Japanese name order) is an extremely shy fifth-grade boy, and as the volume opens, he and his sixth-grade sister, Maho, are preparing for their first day at a new school. Upon arrival, Shuichi is instructed to sit next to Takatsuki Yoshino, a girl so tall and handsome that she’s called Takatsuki-kun by her classmates. They become friends.

One day, when Shuichi goes to Takatsuki’s house to work on some homework, he spies a frilly dress hanging in her room. Perhaps Takatsuki didn’t mean much of anything when she suggested that Shuichi should wear it, but it’s an idea that refuses to leave his head, despite his protests that he isn’t interested. He ends up taking the dress home and giving it to Maho, but its presence in their shared bedroom taunts him.

At this point, Shuichi isn’t thinking about things like gender identity. He’s ten! Instead, he’s dealing with processing the new idea that he could wear a dress and that he might even want to. Slowly, and bolstered by interactions with another encouraging classmate, he begins experimenting. First, he buys a headband. Then he tries dressing as a girl while no one else is home. Finally, when Takatsuki reveals her own treasured possession—her elder brother’s cast-off junior high uniform—he tries going out as a girl in public, with Takatsuki (as a boy) at his side.

One wonders what would’ve happened to Shuichi without Takatsuki to set the example. Would he have become aware of these feelings within himself eventually or been somehow unfulfilled forever? Her comments and her acceptance mean more to him than she knows, as he has a habit of internalizing things that are said to him. After an adorable turn in a female role in a drag version of The Rose of Versailles at school, for example, Maho conversationally notes, “You should have been born a girl.” Again, this is a concept that’s new to Shuichi, but one he gradually comes to believe is true. When his grandmother promises to buy him a present, he visualizes his female form and realizes it’s what he most wants. “Even grandma can’t buy me this.”

I had no problem seeing Takatsuki as a boy throughout, because of her inner certainty and obviously boyish appearance, but Shuichi was more problematic. The moment he confronts the mental vision of what he feels he should be, however, and realizes that he truly wants to be a girl, he starts to become one for the reader. By contrast, it’s shocking when the onset of her first period reminds readers that Takatsuki is biologically female. Though she mostly projects a confident air, her anguish at the undeniable truth that she is not really a boy is intense.

The story is subtle, simple, poignant, and innocent. The tone is matched by Shimura’s uncluttered artwork, which features big panels, little screentone, and extremely minimal backgrounds. These factors combine to make the volume go by quickly, and all too soon it’s over. While waiting for volume two, in which Shuichi and Takatsuki will progress to the sixth grade, I suspect I will have to console myself with the anime adaptation, currently available on Crunchyroll.

The first volume of Wandering Son—published in English by Fantagraphics—will be available in June 2011. The series is still ongoing in Japan, where it is currently up to eleven volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

After School Nightmare 1 by Setona Mizushiro: A-

From the back cover:
You have just awakened to find your darkest secret revealed to a group of people who would do anything to destroy you: your classmates! That’s what happens to Ichijo Mashiro, whose elite school education turns into the most horrifying experience of his life when he’s enlisted to participate in an after-hours class. The only way for Mashiro to graduate is to enter into a nightmare world where his body and soul will be at the mercy of his worst enemies. Can Mashiro keep the lifelong secret that he is not truly a “he” nor entirely a “she”—or will he finally be “outted” in the most humiliating way possible?

Mashiro Ichijo (also confusingly referred to on the back cover as Ichijo Mashiro) is first-year high school student with a big secret—although the top half of his body is male, his lower half is female. For some reason, despite concrete evidence that Mashiro possesses ovaries, he was raised as a boy and is trying hard to maintain that identity. Mashiro has never discussed his body with anyone, but one day he’s approached by a school nurse he’s never seen before. She not only knows all about his secret, but assigns him to a special after-school class that involves entering a dream with five other classmates. If he succeeds in completing an unknown task, he’ll graduate from the school. It’s all very strange and immediately made me think of Revolutionary Girl Utena.

The identities of the other students in the dream are not immediately known to Mashiro, but he’s able to figure some of them out in the course of this volume. The other students’ appearances change while in the dream, as they take on forms that symbolize their real heart. His cute classmate Kureha, for example, takes the form of her five-year-old self on the day she was sexually assaulted by a strange man. Others are more bizarre—one girl has neither face nor heart, another student is a bundle of arms and hands—but Mashiro himself doesn’t change much, beyond wearing a girl’s uniform, because he thinks that his own body is already the most distorted thing of all.

The students are tasked with finding a key, and often inflict injury upon each other while in search of same. Mashiro decides that he will protect man-hating Kureha and help her graduate, since the dream experience is so traumatic for her that she doesn’t even attempt to play the game. While he’s trying hard to fulfill this manly role, his insecurities still run deep, and he’s convinced that the reason he couldn’t stop the black knight (later revealed to be antagonistic classmate, Sou, who is inexplicably obsessed with Mashiro) from slicing up his uniform and revealing his body is that he’s really a girl. Mashiro equates being a girl with weakness, which makes me wonder if that’s what he’s been placed in this class to overcome.

Although the dream sequences are fascinating, the truly compelling part of this story so far is Mashiro’s desperation to be something he’s not sure he is. He begins a relationship with Kureha, but right before their first kiss, panicked thoughts of “I’m about to kiss another girl!” flit through his mind. Kissing her is something he should do, he convinces himself, but when Sou later inflicts a kiss upon him, Mashiro is torn once more. Mashiro clearly feels something for both of the others—a need to protect Kureha and a grudging interest in cruelly enigmatic Sou—but each option symbolizes a particular gender identity, and Mashiro is presently as incapable of choosing between them as he is of definitively seizing an identity for himself.

This dramatic and captivating first volume serves as an excellent introduction into the series, and I’m eager to read more.

Although I am tardy, this review is part of September’s Manga Moveable Feast. To read what others have to say about After School Nightmare, check out this post at A Case Suitable For Treatment.

Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller: B-

9780449210079From the back cover:
Early in the nineteenth century, in a puritanical New England town, two women did something unspeakable, something unheard of—they fell in love with each other. With nothing and no one to guide or support them, Patience and Sarah tried to follow their hearts.

And when family pressures separated them, the two women dreamed of leaving their homes, of being together. Defying society and history, they bought a farm and discovered they could live together, away from a world that had put limits on them and their love.

Patience White has been provided for. Her father’s will made certain that there would always be a place for her in her devout brother’s Connecticut home, but that isn’t enough to make Patience happy. She doesn’t want the things that a woman of her age (late twenties) should want, and though she helps out around the house, Edward’s wife, Martha, makes her feel guilty for desiring privacy to work on her paintings. When she meets Sarah Dowling, conscripted to serve as “Pa’s boy” in the absence of any male siblings and entirely unaware that her manners shock more proper folk, she is immediately intrigued.

Kisses soon ensue, followed by Sarah’s inability to realize that some things should be kept secret, a journey in boy’s clothes, vague yet plentiful sex scenes, manipulation by Patience to get Sarah to agree to come away with her, familial discovery, further journeying, and finally settling into farm life in New York. The narrative alternates between perspectives with occasionally amusing results (I enjoyed their differing accounts of their final parting with Edward) but with much repetition, since each woman experiences periods of insecurity as well as triumph in the knowledge that she can leave the other wanting her. One strange side effect was that although I disliked Sarah at the beginning of the novel, due to her remarkable lack of common sense, by the end I thought she was by far the better (and more genuine) of the two, since Patience could be deceitful in her quest to get her way.

I had expected, owing largely to the rhapsodies experienced by the leads in Annie on My Mind as they read and reread this book, that Patience & Sarah would be at least a little romantic, but really, it is not. Instead, I’d describe it as carnal. When I say that “kisses soon ensue,” I mean really soon, and with little preamble as to why these women are drawn to each other. Suddenly, it’s just instant passion. There are some parts of the novel that I liked—slice-of-life passages about chopping wood and sewing curtains, card games they play with Sarah’s mother, or the stray dog that promptly adopts them when they get to their new home—but I couldn’t care much about the characters or their relationship. Plus, all the parts that I liked are sullied by the ending, in which Patience declares that now that they have their own place they will “make the bed gallop,” which makes it seem that everything they’ve done has been with coital goals in mind.

Another thing I noticed is that nearly everyone else in the novel is made to desire the protagonists. Sarah’s sister offers to do for her whatever Patience does (eww), it’s suspected that Edward likes to imagine the two of them together, Sarah’s traveling companion tries to put the moves on her (granted, he thinks she’s a boy at the time), and one of Martha’s main objections to the relationship is that Patience is fooling around with someone “outside of the family.” I’m not sure what to make of this, honestly. With Edward and Martha it could be a case of pointing out their hypocrisy, but what of the others?

In the end, Patience & Sarah was not what I’d expected it to be. If this had been a straight romance, I might not even have finished it.

Additional reviews of Patience & Sarah can be found at Triple Take.

Eat or Be Eaten by Jinko Fuyuno and Yamimaru Enjin: B-

Masaki Ashizawa is employed by a management consulting firm and is renowned for rehabilitating struggling restaurants and persuading his clients to his way of thinking. His current project involves finding the perfect chef for a new French restaurant being secretly opened by Chef Yanaginuma, a big name in the business, and when Ashizawa tastes the cooking of Chef Tsubaki, he knows he’s found his man. Unfortunately, when he first mentions the proposal to Chef Tsubaki, he manages to insult the man and must resort to rather drastic measures—volunteering to work as a waiter in Tsubaki’s restaurant for a month—to learn what makes the restaurant a success and simultaneously show that he can be trusted. Gradually, Ashizawa’s attempt to secure Tsubaki as a business partner becomes a quest to better know and understand the man, culminating in Ashizawa’s realization that he wants more than a purely professional relationship.

There are several major things to like about Eat or Be Eaten. For one thing, it has an actual plot and takes the time to educate the reader on various facts about French cuisine. For another, the scenes where Ashizawa is learning the tasks that need doing around the restaurant—like tablecloth wrangling, for example—are a lot of fun. The biggest factor in its favor for me, however, is the age of the protagonists. Both Ashizawa and Tsubaki are grown men in their thirties with professional goals and Tsubaki, at least, is openly gay. Though Ashizawa sometimes acts like a self-proclaimed high school girl as his feelings for Tsubaki manifest—there’s a lot of clutching at his palpitating heart—the fact that the protagonists in a yaoi novel are preoccupied with something besides their romance is a refreshing change.

Of course, it has its flaws, too. Like most light novels, the language is simplistic and features some cheesy lines. Here’s my favorite:

Bright red blood dripped from Tsubaki’s hand. It looked like his heart was crying.

Ashizawa’s characterization is inconsistent; he’s initially described as being “flinty,” but that would be the last word I’d choose for someone who gets flustered as often as he does. The explicit scenes are also a bit odd, as Fuyuno uses the adjective “disgusting” a number of times to describe those excessively slobbery kisses that seem prevalent in this genre. Not that I disagree, but it’s an unexpected word choice. Lastly, the first sexual encounter between Ashizawa and Tsubaki is possibly nonconsensual; it’s one of those times when “no” seems to mean “yes”; given our access to Ashizawa’s thoughts at the time, it seems he’s merely ashamed of his own desires.

There are also some issues with the production of the physical book itself. On many pages, the margins seem to be off, resulting in excess blank space near the spine of the book and text that comes perilously close to being cut off by the edge of the page. Also, while I was doing nothing more than simply holding the book open a pair of pages popped free from the binding.

Ultimately, Eat or Be Eaten is fun fluff. To indulge in a bit of culinary metaphor, think of it as the literary equivalent of meringue.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

S 4: Afterglow by Saki Aida and Chiharu Nara: B-

Masaki Shiiba was a detective investigating the manufacture of illegal firearms and Keigo Munechika was his “S,” an informant who played a key role in Shiiba’s information gathering. At some point in the past, the two began a romantic relationship, but a powerful yakuza boss with a grudge against Munechika wants to see him suffer and so hires a hitman who’ll receive one million yen every time he shoots Munechika.

As the fourth volume begins, Munechika lies hospitalized and Shiiba has turned in his resignation and bought an illegal gun with the intention of killing the man responsible—Takanari Godou—who also might’ve had something to do with the death of Shiiba’s sister eight years earlier. Shiiba gets as far as confronting Godou at gunpoint, but the other man manages to exploit his weaknesses in such a way that he agrees to do Godou’s bidding in exchange for the hit against Munechika being called off.

Let me be clear on one thing: I am not comparing S to great works of literature. As far as yaoi novels go, however, it seems to be better than most. True, the writing is facile, with a blatant disregard for the admonition “show, don’t tell,” but at least the story is trying to be about something more than sex. In fact, there’s only one sex scene in the whole book and it’s between two men who genuinely love each other. Despite Godou’s attempts to humiliate Shiiba while the latter is in his clutches, no nonconsensual scenes result. That alone is worthy of praise.

The basic plot is “the good guys versus Godou,” and I had no trouble getting into it, though the finer details never really coalesced for me. Nearly all of the characters are conflicted in some way, especially Shiiba, whose ruminating upon past events fills in the blanks pretty well. Throughout, I could easily visualize the action, so it felt a lot like reading a novelization of a story originally told in manga format.

There are some problems, though. After much is made of Shiiba needing to stay at Godou’s house in order to protect Munechika, there are no consequences when he leaves. When Shiiba is reunited with Munechika, who has some powerful connections himself, Munechika’s people simply say, “Oh yes, we know about the hitman,” and that’s that. It’s all very anticlimactic. Also, two characters, including the main villain, have similar angsty backgrounds that involve a mother’s inappropriate love for either her son or her son’s half-brother and her subsequent early demise. I’m not sure what the author was trying to say there.

DMP’s packaging is a mixed bag. A color illustration is included, which I appreciate—Chiharu Nara’s art is quite nice and depicts both Shiba and Munechika as mature, masculine men—but there are many grammatical errors in the text. Most of these are things that should’ve been easily caught, like “the wings itself aren’t blue,” while others, like “He took the bouquet from the employee’s hands, who looked conflicted,” conjure up amusing mental images of unusually expressive appendages.

If you’re looking for a yaoi novel with an emphasis on plot, then S might suit you to a T.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Desire: Dangerous Feelings by Maki Kazumi and Yukine Honami: C+

The boys’ love manga Desire, published by DMP in 2004, was one of the first titles I read in that genre and remains one of my favorites. The story’s original creators team up once again for Desire: Dangerous Feelings, a novelization of the manga’s events that also includes some new material continuing where the original left off.

Timid high school student Toru Maiki has secretly loved his popular friend Ryoji for a long time. One day at lunch, Ryoji unexpectedly and shamelessly tells Toru, “When I look at you, I get turned on.” Toru, paranoid about his feelings being discovered, reacts angrily. Later, however, when Ryoji insists they sleep together so he can see what it’s like, Toru goes along with it with the hope that doing so will get thoughts of Ryoji out of his system. This, of course, does not happen, and as the boys continue their purely physical relationship, Toru suffers a great deal of heartache from sleeping with someone he loves who does not feel the same way about him.

Because I am familiar with the original story, it’s hard to know how well the text-only version would work for someone who can’t bring Yukine Honami’s expressive artwork to mind to accompany the action (the sporadic illustrations don’t add much). The language used is very simple and, though the smattering of new details is welcome, some poignancy is lost in this format. In the manga, we’re able to see Toru’s face as he struggles with his thoughts and feelings. In the novelization, those same moments are presented in an almost clinical fashion. Here’s an example:

Toru felt like he was going to have a breakdown just thinking about it. He thought if every day would be this stressful then he would die.

The novel also fares poorly in regards to Desire’s one serious flaw: non-consensual scenes. Ryoji basically forces Toru to have sex with him a couple of times and though Toru eventually relents, I doubt that Ryoji would’ve stopped even if he hadn’t. Though unpleasant in any format, these scenes are worse to read in the novel because it’s more clear how much discomfort and pain Toru is experiencing.

At this point, it may seem like the novel is at a complete disadvantage to the manga, but it has an ace up its sleeve: a second half comprised entirely of new material. It’s not much of an ace, though, as the continuation of Toru and Ryoji’s story relies heavily on misunderstandings and each boy doubting the other’s feelings for its plot. It also seems like all they ever do is have sex. They don’t hang out outside of school or go on dates or anything. They just boff, and when they aren’t boffing, they’re talking about boffing.

Ultimately, I must conclude that the novelization doesn’t add much to the original story. Completists might appreciate knowing what happened next, but really, it’s nothing to get excited about.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

The Drowning of Stephan Jones by Bette Greene: D

From the back cover:
Hate. It’s the farthest feeling from sixteen-year-old Carla Wayland’s mind. She can’t believe people would persecute others just because they are different. But she isn’t about to worry about the injustice surrounding her because she’s in love with handsome and popular Andy Harris. Although raised to act on her ethical beliefs, Carla finds that her enchantment with Andy makes her a silent partner in his hate campaign and harrassment of gay couple Stephan Jones and Frank Montgomery.

At first Carla manages to overlook and explain away Andy’s atrocious behavior toward the men. but Stephan drowns as a direct result of what Andy and his friends do, and Carla can no longer deny the truth. Carla must decide before the trial which side she’s on and what she stands for. Will justice prevail?

Okay, I give this book some credit for condemning persecution of gays. The story is memorable, and I do like Frank. But wow, the writing is bad! The general tone is childish, there are many instances of dialogue not sounding natural, and the use of exclamation points is excessive. In one 11-page chapter, I count 36 of them. Later, on a single page containing a hateful letter Andy has written, there are 27.

There are plenty of examples to choose from, but here’s an excerpt that’s fairly illustrative of several flaws simultaneously. To set the scene: Andy has just finished ranting about how gays should be given a mandatory death sentence. Note how this does not deter the protagonist from fawning over him.

“Know what [Dad] tells me? He says, ‘Peabrain’ — I love that little joke of his, calling me ‘Peabrain.’ He says, ‘Peabrain, marry yourself a good woman and forget all this religious stuff, ’cause she’ll do praying enough for you both!'”

“He calls you ‘Peabrain’?” Carla protested. “That’s so cruel, and not one bit fair because anyone can tell that you’re… I mean… you’re really intelligent. I hope you don’t let him get away with that!”

I’m not exactly sure if it eventually got better when the subject matter got more serious or whether I just became accustomed to it. Either way, the problems became less glaring toward the end, but never wholly went away.