The Full-Time Wife Escapist, Vols. 1-2

By Tsunami Umino | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Mikuri Moriyama is a 25-year-old licensed clinical psychologist who hasn’t been able to find a job after grad school. She’s been living with her parents and working for a temp agency, and when she’s laid off her father arranges for her to assume housekeeping duties for a guy he used to work with. Hiramasa Tsuzaki is 36 and single. He seems humorless and particular at first, but Mikuri finds that working for a hard-to-please guy makes it easier to know when she’s been successful. She performs her duties well, even managing to nurse Tsuzaki through an illness in such a business-like way that it’s not awkward for him. Things go well for a few months, then Mikuri’s father prepares to retire and move to the countryside. Rather than lose their mutually beneficial arrangement, Mikuri and Tsuzaki decide that she’ll move in with him and, for the sake of propriety, become his common-law wife. They proceed to perpetuate the ruse that they’re actually a real couple.

I am really enjoying The Full-Time Wife Escapist so far! Mikuri is an interesting character. She’s outwardly educated and competent—equally able to engage in conversations about globalization and maintain a meticulous budget—but has these inward flights of fancy that only the reader is privy to. She often imagines herself being interviewed about the state of her life, be it with an unsympathetic talk show host or a man-on-the-street segment about middle-aged virgins (which Tsuzaki appears to be), or performing heartbreaking Les Miserables-style songs about the woes of unemployment. The injection of whimsy is fun and reminds me a little of Tokyo Tarareba Girls, but Mikuri is a lot more practical (and a lot less boozy) than the characters of that series.

As Tsuzaki’s coworkers learn that he’s gotten married, his social calendar suddenly fills up in a way it never did before, while Mikuri notices that her aunt Yuri, with whom she’s very close, has been hesitant to invite her out as much as she used to before Mikuri got married. Spending time with Numata and Kazami is enjoyable for the couple, but it’s also risky, because nosy Numata snoops and learns there’s only a twin bed in the bedroom, and by volume two, Kazami is convinced that they’re faking it. Kazami is perhaps as equally developed as Tsuzaki himself, as we hear a great deal about his reservations about marriage, which all leads up to the big cliffhanger ending of volume two (which I shan’t spoil). Tsuzaki, meanwhile, is attempting in vain to keep from developing feelings for Mikuri. She persists in being business-like, and he 100% believes there’s no chance she’d ever reciprocate, so he often looks emotionless in front of her, only revealing his feelings when he’s alone. I love that neither one of them is spazzy; they’re in a somewhat trope-y arrangement, but they’re handling it like adults.

I really can’t wait for volume three. There’s so many interesting ways the story could go, though I admit I actually do want it to go in the standard “they fall in love and live happily ever after” direction.

The Full-Time Wife Escapist is ongoing in Japan; nine volumes have been released so far.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Dreamin’ Sun, Vol. 1

By Ichigo Takano | Published by Seven Seas

Even without knowing much about Dreamin’ Sun, I was sold by the fact that it’s an earlier series from Ichigo Takano, creator of orange, which I loved dearly. Dreamin’ Sun is more of a straightforward and comedic shoujo story in which characters do not contend with letters from their future selves or how to save a suicidal friend, but it still has a few poignant moments.

Shimana Kameko’s mother died in a car accident three years ago. Now, her father has remarried and with her new step-mom and baby brother, Shimana only feels visible when she’s being criticized. “I feel like this isn’t even my home anymore,” she thinks, as she decides to run away. Promptly, she encounters a weird kimono-wearing guy in the park named Taiga Fujiwara who offers her a cheap place to stay. Luckily for her, he isn’t a creep, and after assigning her the task of finding a spare key for his place (since he’s locked out), he also gets her to admit the real reason she left home: accepting the new arrangement felt like betraying her mother.

Thus, Shimana moves in with Taiga and two of her male classmates, Zen Nakajou and Asahi Tatsugae. Zen is the hyper, panda-loving one and Asahi the considerate, studious, princely one. Soon Shimana is developing feelings for Asahi, but he’s in love with his childhood friend who is, herself, in love with someone. In fact, there’s a lot of unrequited love going around. Zen seems to have unacknowledged feelings for Shimana, one of Taiga’s coworkers fancies him, but knows she’s not the one he really wants, etc.

These wistful feelings elevate Dreamin’ Sun beyond the “plain girl lives with several hot guys” trope. In addition, I really loved how much Taiga cares for the kids in his charge. He’s the one who’s able to convince Shimana’s parents to let her remain at his house and concocts a few situations to help her maybe get something going with Asahi. He also encourages each of them to have a dream, and claims his dream is “for all of you to grow up.” Could he be atoning for something? Too, at the end of the volume, we learn that he’s actually a prosecutor and that his father helped out Shimana’s family three years ago. Will some accident-related secret be forthcoming?

Even if no mystery arises, Dreamin’ Sun is still an appealing series, and I definitely plan to continue it.

Dreamin’ Sun is complete in ten volumes. Seven Seas will release volume two in July.

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. Melinda 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.

A Silent Voice, Vols. 1-7

By Yoshitoki Oima | Published by Kodansha Comics

asv1In elementary school, Shoya Ishida often engaged in foolhardy stunts to stave off boredom. When hearing impaired transfer student Shoko Nishimiya joins his class and causes disruption within the class, she becomes Shoya’s target. Initially, the other kids laugh at Shoya’s antics but when he goes too far and destroys several hearing aids to the tune of $14,000, they swiftly condemn him. Now he’s the one who’s ostracized and this status continues into high school, long after Shoko transferred out again. Full of self-loathing, he’s preparing to commit suicide, but a chance reunion with Shoko inspires him to try to change.

One of the first things Shoya does is accept the friendship of a tubby, pushy classmate called Tomohiro Nagatsuka. Tomohiro doesn’t have much depth or subtlety as a character, but he proves to be a reasonably faithful friend and helps Shoya become more sociable. Soon, he meets Yuzuru, Shoko’s tomboyish sister, and reunites with more girls from his elementary school class. Many of the middle volumes involve frictions between this group of people, particularly between a volatile girl named Naoka and Shoko. Shoya tries to help patch their relationship, but things do not go well at all. There is a lot of punching and hair-pulling, in fact.

asv4Back and forth things go, with this group continuing to try to establish themselves as friends without seeming to genuinely like each other much. Eventually, they decide to film a movie together. For one scene, they need to acquire permission to film at their old elementary school. Shoya is the unwilling emissary, and an encounter with his odious former teacher leaves him feeling so awful about himself that he ends up lashing out at all his friends, seemingly trying to drive them away as he feels he deserves. This has the unintended side effect of causing Shoko to feel like she’s the cause of his unhappiness, prompting a desperate act.

Throughout, I enjoyed Shoya’s arc. I like that gaining some people to hang out with is not enough to immediately banish self-hatred or prevent negative feelings. Only at the end of the series does Shoya gain the courage to face people honestly, accepting criticism for his faults and misdeeds while also being open to the possibility that not everyone is hostile towards him. I do wish we got more emphasis on Shoko’s inner life, however, even though I liked the direction she’s headed at the end of the series.

asv7Less clear is what Oima was aiming for with their group of friends. Even though Naoka was far more outwardly nasty to Shoko, at least she was open about it and expressed a great deal of self-loathing because of her behavior. With the help of another friend, Miyoko, she is encouraged to have a bit more optimism, and will probably end up doing okay. Even though she could’ve been fleshed out further, I do like Naoka as a character. But man oh man, do I hate Miki. She makes everything about herself—at one point revising the bullying narrative so that she and Shoko were co-victims—and doesn’t seem to grow at all. Everything she does seems fake, because most of it is, and I was baffled when the boy she fancies declared her to be “kind” after some weepy episode. Miki should get hit by a bus.

Lastly, there were some thoughtful depictions of how characters perceive the spoken word. In later volume there’s a chapter from Shoko’s point of view where all of the dialogue in the speech bubbles is only about sixty percent legible. It’s a neat effect. Too, on several occasions Shoya seems to overhear his classmates making derogatory comments about him. The scenes are depicted in such a way that the reader has doubt—is he just imagining what they’re saying, or are they really saying it? This struggle to interpret conversation is something he and Shoko have in common.

Despite a couple of complaints, I’d say A Silent Voice is well worth reading!

A Silent Voice is complete in seven volumes, all of which are now available in English.

Several from Seven Seas

In the past couple of months, Seven Seas has published several new releases of interest to me!

Bloom Into You, Vol. 1 by Nakatani Nio
Koito Yuu has just begun her first year of high school. Pressured by her friends to participate in club activities, she ends up assisting the student council, where she meets elegant second-year student Nanami Touko. Yuu has been trying to figure out how to reply to the male friend who confessed his love for her at their middle school graduation, and when she overhears Touko rejecting a confession with the words “I don’t intend to go out with anyone, no matter who asks me,” she thinks she’s found someone who’ll understand how she feels.

Or, rather, doesn’t feel. Yuu wants to experience a soaring, sparkly love like she reads about in manga. She tried, but she couldn’t, and with Touko’s support, she’s finally able to let the guy down. What she isn’t prepared for is for Touko to reveal that they’re not alike after all because “I think I might be falling in love with you.”

At first, I was annoyed by Touko’s declaration. It was too soon; it felt unearned. However, the more we get to know her, as Yuu spends more time with her while working as her campaign manager for student elections, it becomes clear that Touko has devoted a lot of time and effort into projecting an image that isn’t really her. She wanted to be special, and now she must maintain that perfect facade. Around everyone, that is, except Yuu, who is seemingly incapable of finding anyone special. For you see, Yuu doesn’t feel anything when Touko confesses either, nor when the other girl steals her first kiss. She’s not excited, and she’s not upset. She feels nothing. I actually began to wonder… has she suffered some kind of deep, psychological trauma?

I like both Yuu and Touko, I like the Maria-sama ga Miteru sort of atmosphere, I like Yuu’s continued detachment, and I have high hopes for how this story might unfold going forward.

Bloom Into You is ongoing in Japan, where three volumes have been released so far. Volume two comes out in English on May 16th.

The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún, Vol. 1 by Nagabe
It doesn’t happen all that often that I read something and conclude, “This is a five-star manga that everyone should read.” So, please keep that in mind when I say… This is a five-star manga that everyone should read.

The back cover blurb sets up the tone of the series marvelously, so I’m going to quote it. “In a land far away, there were two kingdoms: the Outside, where twisted beasts roamed that could curse with a touch, and the Inside, where humans lived in safety and peace. The girl and the beast should never have met, but when they do, a quiet fairytale begins.”

I knew I’d adore this series the moment a black-as-pitch creature approaches a little girl who’s snoozing unaware and instead of menacing her, he scolds her for wandering off. Indeed, the creature—whom Shiva, the little girl, refers to as “Teacher”—is gentle, gentlemanly, and valiant, protecting Shiva both physically (when paranoid human soldiers think she must be cursed and try to kill her) and mentally (by shielding her from the truth that she has been abandoned). He also possesses medical knowledge but forgot that he told Shiva he’d been a doctor. Was he once human himself? His concern for Shiva radiates from him—I was particularly struck by a panel depicting his fists clenched in worry—and I love him deeply.

While humans and their fear are one threat, we’re introduced to another at the end of the volume, making for a chilling cliffhanger. I can’t wait for volume two of this lovely and captivating series!

The Girl from the Other Side is ongoing in Japan, where three volumes have been released so far. Volume two comes out in English on May 16th.

Kase-san and Morning Glories by Hiromi Takashima
Kase-san and… is a series that is technically comprised of a succession of one-shot stories. This first volume, entitled Kase-san and Morning Glories, includes the title story as well as interludes like “Kase-san and the Bicycle,” “Kase-san and Sneakers,” and “Kase-san and the Spring Breeze.”

Yamada doesn’t fit in with her classmates well. Though she has noticed popular Kase-san, the boyish star of the track team, she never thought she was on the other girl’s radar. But it turns out that Kase-san admired Yamada’s dedication to the thankless task of weeding the school grounds. The girls eventually start hanging out together and it isn’t long before Yamada is having Feelings with a capital “F.” There ensues the typical angst about “but she’s a girl.”

There are a couple of other moments that I’ve seen elsewhere, too—an indirect kiss via a shared thermos, the first real kiss in the nurse’s office—and it’s certainly fluffy and insubstantial, but it’s still really cute. The art style is pleasant, and I wonder whether Yamada’s friend—who warns her about Kase dating girls—might provide some drama down the road. In any case, I’m on board for the next volume.

Kase-san and… is ongoing in Japan, where three volumes have been released so far. The second, Kase-san and Bento, comes out in English on May 23rd.

Kindred Spirits on the Roof: The Complete Collection by Hachi Ito, Aya Fumio, Toitentsu, and Liar-Soft
I was initially under the mistaken impression that the manga version of Kindred Spirits on the Roof was a retelling of the storyline from the yuri visual novel. Instead, it focuses on new girls attending Kokono-Tsuboshi Girls’ Academy of Commerce with some of the original couples returning as side characters or cameos.

In side A, written and illustrated by Hachi Ito, we are introduced to shy Shiina Shiori, who is in the art club. She comes out of her shell a bit while helping to create scenery for the play her class is putting on for the school festival, and by the end of the volume—after much dithering and conversations about “what does it feel like to love someone?”—has decided to stop running away from the feelings of her childhood friend, Kanda Mako. The moment where they become a couple is the only time the original kindred spirits are glimpsed, buy they don’t do or say anything.

Side B, written by Toitensu and illustrated by Aya Fumio, has a little more meat on its bones, but only just. Hase Chiharu and Ichiyama Tokino are fans of “friendly girls,” and decide to join the quiz club so that they can squee over the relationship between their sempai, Tomoe Natsuki and Sasaki Rika. They endeavor to help cool Sasaki admit to her feelings, and there is, of course, the implication that they themselves will form a couple someday. There were very brief glimpses of the girls at their quiz tournaments, but it was very far from being the focus of the story.

Ultimately, I didn’t hate Kindred Spirits on the Roof. It’s sweet and not lecherous. But it’s also a very frothy concoction without much depth. I can’t see myself ever desiring to reread it.

Kindred Spirits on the Roof is complete in two volumes.

Review copies for Kase-san and Morning Glories and Kindred Spirits on the Roof provided by the publisher.

Giant Killing, Vol. 1

By Masaya Tsunamoto and Tsujitomo | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Although I genuinely, deeply love shounen sports manga, I can’t deny that most follow similar story beats. I knew going in that Giant Killing is actually seinen, but wasn’t prepared for what a breath of fresh air it would be.

Instead of some first-year joining his high-school team, the protagonist of Giant Killing is Takeshi Tatsumi, a 35-year-old former pro soccer player turned coach. The series opens with Yuri Nagata and Kosei Gotou, the PR rep and general manager of East Tokyo United (a struggling Japanese team) finally locating Tatsumi at his job in England, where has led a team of amateurs to a top-32 finish in the Football Association Cup. They have even managed to crush professional teams.

It turns out that Tatsumi specializes in leading underdog teams to victory against highly favored opponents. He sees it as a David-and-Goliath scenario, hence the title of the series. Initially, the English club president doesn’t want to let Tatsumi out of his contract, but when he learns that Tatsumi used to play for ETU and that there are desperate fans in his hometown waiting to be helped, he relents and lets him go.

Tatsumi doesn’t seem to particularly care either way and it’s this neutrality that makes him an interesting character and effective coach. For instance, at his first practice session with the ETU team, he makes them run sprints for 45 minutes. Those with the most stamina turn out to be the younger guys, but they’re also merely the alternates on the team. With his guidance, they manage to defeat the older starters in a scrimmage. The stalwart veteran of the team, Murakoshi, gets his pride wounded by this, but rather than suggest that he’s no longer useful, Tatsumi instead points out that what he needs is to find his own secret weapon to overcome these odds. Tatsumi is adept at seeing a team or an individual’s shortcomings and offering strategies to overcome them, and that’s the kind of reliable leadership that Murakoshi has done without all these years.

On the one hand, Tatsumi exemplifies the gifted protagonist that this genre is full of, but his gift is not in his own athletic prowess (or not merely that) but rather his ability to furnish others with the tools they need to succeed, to reinvigorate failing franchises, and to rekindle fan enthusiasm. And, of course, the clubs don’t mind the boost in revenue that inevitably results. Giant Killing is every bit as addictive as a shounen series, but with grown-up stakes and nuance. I can’t wait to read more!

Giant Killing is ongoing in Japan, where the 43 volumes have been released so far.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Ace of the Diamond, Vols. 1-2

By Yuji Terajima | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Eijun Sawamura really wanted to make some good baseball memories with his middle-school friends, but even though they practiced hard, they couldn’t win a single game. Although he shows talent as a pitcher, his unsportsmanlike behavior after a bitter defeat means most of the good baseball schools are no longer interested in him. And, because he is a hot-headed yet enthusiastic idiot, he totally forgot about the entrance exams required for other schools.

Luckily, Rei Takashima pays a visit and scouts him for Seido High, a big-name school in Tokyo that’s been to Koshien many times. He’s torn between testing his skills in this new world (the baseball club has over 100 members vying for nine positions on the roster, so competition is fierce) and loyalty to his old friends, but after they encourage him to seize the opportunity, he’s off to Tokyo. Of course, because he is such a hot-headed yet enthusiastic idiot, he clashes with the strict coach right away, flubs a chance to show off his pitching potential, and is barred from participating in practice.

After the Spring Tournament, in which Seido’s lack of a pitching ace becomes obvious, Eijun gets one more chance to show what he can do in a first-years versus upperclassmen game. The upperclassmen immediately dominate but Eijun isn’t intimidated or discouraged, and the second volume ends with the cliffhanger… will he and another first year succeed in scoring against overwhelming opponents?

So far, Ace of the Diamond is a lot of fun. I can’t claim that Eijun’s personality type is especially endearing, but he’s got his admirable qualities, too. More, though, I am having fun with the rapidly expanding cast. Beyond the upperclassmen, which include Eijun’s roommates at the dorm and a genius catcher with a troublemaking streak, we also meet Satoru Furuya, another first-year pitcher who’ll likely become Eijun’s fiercest rival; Haruno Yoshikawa, a clumsy first year manager and presumed love interest; and Haruichi Kominato, a diminutive wallflower with a talent for precision batting.

The pace is fast, the characters are fun, the protagonist has a lot of room to grow, the series is 47 volumes long with a sequel… All of that sounds spectacular for a sports manga geek like me. Thank you, Kodansha!

Side note: I keep wanting to call this series Aim for the Ace!, but that’s something completely different. (I still really want to read it, though.)

Ace of the Diamond is complete with 47 volumes. However, a sequel series—subtitled Act II—is still running. The seventh volume came out in Japan last week.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

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.

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.