Sand Chronicles 3 by Hinako Ashihara: B+

From the back cover:
Sweet 16-year-old Ann returns to rural Shimane from Tokyo for the summer, eager to reconnect with her boyfriend Daigo. But will the allure of their close friends—wealthy brother and sister Fuji and Shika—sunder the romantic ties that have bound Ann and Daigo since they were 12?

I didn’t like this volume quite as much as the first two because it was missing that special feeling of nostalgia. Instead, it focused mostly on relationship and family angst, which was entertaining in its way, but didn’t elicit the bittersweet vibe that usually elevates this title above its fellows.

There was more focus on the Tsukishima siblings in this volume, which was welcome, as both of them separately tried to break free of the stifling mold their family has imposed upon them. Ann and Daigo begin by being worried about the Tsukushima in their town, but it’s probably only a matter of time until things escalate. I’m not really looking forward to that happening, since it will cause so much pain all around, but it will undoubtedly be interesting.

I’m also looking forward to farther down the line chronologically; will the series depict Ann in her early twenties, and follow right up to where she is as the story begins? That would be really neat.

Although these chapters here were not the best, the cliffhanger ending was pretty cool and I’m definitely looking forward to volume 4.

Sand Chronicles 2 by Hinako Ashihara: A

From the back cover:
Just when Ann has adjusted to life in the countryside—and even has a boyfriend!—her father invites her to live with him in Tokyo. Now she must choose between a father she hardly knows and a young man she is just beginning to know. But she soon discovers that they aren’t the only ones vying for her affections!

In a recent post on his blog, David Welsh said, “It’s entirely possible that Hinako Ashihara’s Sand Chronicles is less a great graphic novel for teens than a great graphic novel for former teens who remember the pointed moments of awkwardness and uncertainty of that time of life.” I kept remembering that comment as I read this volume, and I think it’s very true.

There’s a definite sense of “this was once terribly important to me and I wanted it to last forever, but now it’s all just a memory” about it all. This is bolstered by the way the story is structured—like a series of recollections and snapshots in time, with the shortest interval between chapters so far being six months. It induces strong nostalgia in me for those days—the me I was, the things I did, the people I used to see every day—and I think a distance of some years from one’s adolescence is required for that kind of wistful retrospection to flourish.

As regards the story itself, I really love both chapters included in this volume. In the first, Ann must decide whether to remain in Shimane with Daigo and her friends or to return to Tokyo to live with her father. The depiction of her divided loyalties and struggle to decide is very well done and I was impressed by how much of an emotional response the conclusion to the chapter provoked in me. In the second, the love triangle that’s been developing since the first volume gets explored. I really like that neither of the boys involved is an easy shoujo stereotype. One is more reserved than the other, but there are no fiery hotheads involved.

Seriously, y’all. Read this manga.

Sand Chronicles 1 by Hinako Ashihara: A-

From the back cover:
After her parents get divorced, Ann Uekusa and her mother move from Tokyo to rural Shimane. Accustomed to the anonymity of city living, Ann can’t get used to the almost overbearing kindness of the people in her mother’s hometown. But when personal tragedy strikes, Ann discovers how much she needs that kindness.

This was really good, with an original structure that made the story feel special. It started with Ann around age 26, packing and getting ready to get married and move overseas. A memento from her past triggered some memories, and the rest of the volume featured Ann at age 12, then at 14. The setting was also original, taking place in rural and snowy Shimane rather than an urban environment. The essence of a small town was captured nicely, and I swear the snowy scenes really looked cold.

The first story dealt with Ann and her mother in their new surroundings, with Ann meeting some kids her age as well as an old friend of her mother’s, who provided some background information. In the second, she and her friends went on a camping trip, which might sound like a set-up for lame filler, but which actually provided many good character moments. There were some things about the stories I didn’t like, like the predictable outcome of the situation with Ann’s mom in the first story or her obnoxious romantic rival in the second, but they were greatly outnumbered by the things I did like.

I thought it was interesting that the second chapter dealt in part with Ann’s menstrual cycle. That’s a topic I’d never seen in manga before, so it was pretty cool to see a character discussing it with her good friend and just boosted the realism of the series even further. There weren’t any wacky hijinks here, just an “honest girl with a strong will” making her way through some painful times while attempting to cherish each moment of life. I’m looking forward to the next volume.