Rocket Girls by Housuke Nojiri

From the back cover:
Yukari Morita is a high school girl on a quest to find her missing father. While searching for him in the Solomon Islands, she receives the offer of a lifetime—she’ll get the help she needs to find her father, and all she need do in return is become the world’s youngest, lightest astronaut. Yukari and her half-sister Matsuri, also petite, are the perfect crew for the Solomon Space Association’s launches, or will be once they complete their rigorous and sometimes dangerous training.

Review:
I was really looking forward to reading Rocket Girls. I’ve long been intrigued by VIZ Media’s venture into Japanese sci-fi, Haikasoru, but this is the first title in the lineup that I’ve read (unless you count Brave Story, which I read before it was grandfathered into the imprint). Alas, I ended up disappointed.

The basic plot is that Yukari Morita, a high school student weighing 37 kg. (81 lbs.) has traveled to the Solomon Islands during summer vacation to search for her deadbeat father. She ends up meeting scientists from the Solomon Space Association just when they’ve determined that they need a really light person to pilot their rocket, and when the director promises to help her find her father, she agrees. Later, her similarly petite half-sister Matsuri joins up to serve as backup. The SSA folks have a lot of trouble getting a rocket into orbit, but eventually succeed (sort of) and Yukari becomes a national hero.

I guess I was hoping for the novel equivalent of Twin Spica or something, but Rocket Girls doesn’t even come close to achieving the passion and poignancy on display in that series. In fact, it almost totally lacks any depth whatsoever. The book is about 80% dialogue, with very little insight into Yukari’s thoughts, let alone anyone else’s. As a result, many of the characters’ reactions and decisions are inexplicable. Here are some examples:

  • The director of the space program, Isao Nasuda, calls up Yukari’s mother to obtain her permission for Yukari to become an astronaut. Without asking any questions at all, her mother agrees. I could accept a similarly carefree mom in a manga comedy, but it’s harder to swallow in a sci-fi novel.
  • Very quickly, Yukari finds her father, who had no idea she even existed (having disappeared during his honeymoon). His reaction? “How about that?” What, that’s it?!
  • Yukari decides she doesn’t fancy dying in an unsafe spacecraft, but her father won’t come back to Japan with her if she outright quits, so she decides to gain weight so that Matsuri will have to take her place. And then, suddenly, she’s done with that idea. I think this is because one of the scientists guys waxed poetic about his spacefaring dreams, but I’m not sure.
  • Yukari then decides to become hyper-vigilant about the safety of the craft and goes on a hunger strike protesting some new fuel mixture. And then later, when she’s strapped in and ready to take off, the team finds a problem. Her response? “If we let every little thing scare us, we’ll never launch.” Uh, then what was that whole protest about? She even had a sign.

At first, I was bothered that none of the adults seemed to have any empathy for Yukari. They treated her as a tool and spoke dispassionately of bringing her to her breaking point so they could test the jungle-survival capabilities of the new skintight spacesuit they’d designed for her. But then I realized that I had lost all empathy for Yukari, too! Probably I was supposed to care when she nearly died during the flight, but I did not. I just wanted the book to end. After a kind of cool but very brief visit to Mir, I got my wish.

Is one slightly nifty bit near the end enough to recommend the book? I think not. There is also a sequel, but I’ve no intention of reading it.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

From the back cover:
Welcome to a surreal version of Great Britain, circa 1985, where time travel is routine, cloning is a reality (dodos are the resurrected pet of choice), and literature is taken very, very seriously. England is a virtual police state where an aunt can get lost (literally) in a Wordsworth poem, militant Baconians heckle performances of Hamlet, and forging Byronic verse is a punishable offense. All this is business as usual for Thursday Next, renowned Special Operative in literary detection, until someone begins kidnapping characters from works of literature. When Jane Eyre is plucked from the pages of Brontë’s novel, Thursday must track down the villain and enter the novel herself to avert a heinous act of literary homicide.

Review:
The Eyre Affair takes place in an alternate version of 1980s England wherein Winston Churchill died as a teen, Wales is a socialist republic, and technology allows for time travel but not recording security-camera footage on anything more advanced than a videotape. (Fforde can dream big but not dream medium, it seems.) Literature is a very big deal in this universe: original manuscripts are kept under armed guard, kids trade Henry Fielding cards, ardent fans of John Milton abound, and literary crime (frauds, forgeries, etc.) is rampant. To combat this last, the Literary Detectives division of the Special Operations Network was formed.

Thursday Next has worked in the London office for eight years, handling mostly routine cases. When the original manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and master criminal Acheron Hades suspected, Thursday is called in because she was once a student of Hades and can identify him. Through a long and winding road that involves a transfer to Swindon, a bizarre detour into vampire-fighting, and attendance at an audience-participation rendition of Richard III, Thursday pursues Acheron, eventually into the pages of Jane Eyre, where their confrontation changes the outcome of the novel (into the version we know).

My list of complaints is longer than my list of compliments. I didn’t like the alternate universe very much, nor the ubiquity of cloned dodos, nor the silly names for some characters, nor the plot about the corrupt weapons dealer attempting to extend the Crimean War (already in its 131st year). The main problem, though, was Thursday herself, who is irritatingly perfect. She’s practically revered by the general public and every man wants her. Her former beau is willing to ditch his new fiancée if Thursday will just give the word. Her new partner is instantly smitten. Acheron Hades is impressed with her and declares her his greatest adversary. Hell, even Edward freakin’ Rochester from Jane Eyre has taken a shine to her!

On the brighter side, parts of the story that seem random do come together in a reasonably clever way (even the supernatural excursion into Slayerdom was eventually relevant) and I found Acheron quite amusing. He’s gleefully, hammily evil, so his appearances are quite fun, though I wonder how Thursday was privy to what was said in meetings at which she was not present (this being a first-person narrative and all). One baffling point is that, once he makes it into Jane Eyre, Acheron sort of sits around docilely for quite some time. It’s puzzling, but by that point in the novel I was just shaking my head and saying “whatever” whenever such things occurred.

Ultimately, I am torn. You’d think that with my general meh feeling about the world and decidedly less positive view of its protagonist, I would be firmly opposed to continuing the series, but that is not, in fact, the case. I’m willing to give it one more shot, at least. Maybe it will grow on me.

Additional reviews of The Eyre Affair can be found at Triple Take.

Aqua 1-2 by Kozue Amano

Aqua is a slice-of-life charmer ideal for architecture buffs like me.

The year is 2301 and Akari Mizunashi has left Earth (Manhome) for Mars (Aqua), whose surface is now 90% water thanks to man’s tinkering. It is Akari’s goal to become an undine, or female tour guide who conveys sightseers by gondola through the canals of Neo-Venezia, a city modeled on Venice, which we are told existed until “the latter half of the 21st century.” She finds a place with the Aria Company and spends her days exploring the city and training to improve her skills.

Somehow, Kozue Amano (whenever I see this name I think “That’s what would happen if Godai’s girlfriend from Maison Ikkoku married Ginji from GetBackers!”) has achieved a story that feels extremely leisurely and yet which spans about ten months in two volumes. The most significant thing to happen is that, after six months, Akari graduates from apprentice status to journeyman. The rest of the time one gets chapters like “the president of Aria (a cat, by the way) feels useless, so he dresses up as his favorite superhero and returns a forgotten doll to a little girl” or “the gang takes a gondola ride to the floating island of Ukijima to watch fireworks.” This might sound dull, but it really isn’t.

One of the loveliest things about Aqua is its setting. Almost immediately, it seems as if one can feel the breeze, smell the air, and hear the lapping of the water. The anime must be gorgeous. One important thing Akari realizes is that even though life on Manhome is convenient and perfectly climate-controlled, she prefers the way things are done on Aqua, where every endeavor must first be preceded by a boat ride, where a crew of people maintains the giant cauldron that distributes heat across the land, and where the old-fashioned way of doing things evokes a feeling of nostalgia. One of the characters describes the planet as, “A treasure chest from long ago, filled to the brim with wonderful memories.”

I wasn’t sure whether I was actually supposed to laugh at some of the humor, or just sort of smile complacently at it. I think perhaps it’s the latter, because the overall feeling of the manga is a calming one. There are no spazzy characters here. No battles or drama or rivalries. There’s just a group of laid-back people enjoying where they happen to be at the moment, and there’s definitely value to be had in that.

Aqua was published in English by TOKYOPOP. It’s complete in two volumes, but the story continues in the twelve-volume series Aria. The change in title is due to a change in publisher in Japan; Aqua was serialized in Monthly Stencil for Square Enix, and Aria in Comic Blade for Mag Garden. Online sources indicate a variety of demographic classifications for Monthly Stencil, but I’ve gone with “shounen” for the purposes of this review, so as to match Aria.

I reviewed Aqua as part of the Manga Moveable Feast. Other contributions can be found here.

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke: A-

From the back cover:
Flung far across the universe, from star to star, faced with monsters, magicians, and maybe new friends… an Earth girl named Zita must find a way home.

Review:
I’m always impressed by children’s fiction that doesn’t underestimate its audience, especially stories with multiple plot threads that wind up stitching together in a way that’s both surprising and perfect. Holes by Louis Sachar is the best example of this that I can think of, but Zita the Spacegirl does an admirable job, too.

One sunny afternoon, Zita and her friend Joseph discover a smoking hole in a field where something fell to Earth. Despite fretful Joseph’s entreaties, Zita clambers down and discovers a big, tempting red button. She pushes it, as you do, and a portal materializes. Strange tendrils snake out and grab Joseph before the portal zaps shut. Though she flees initially, Zita is unable to leave Joseph to his fate, and so summons the portal once more, jumping into it herself. There’s no dialogue throughout this section, which employs some excellent nonverbal storytelling to convey Zita’s state of mind as she steels herself to do what she must.

She winds up on a strange world full of bizarre creatures and peculiar robots. Some are adorable, like the Miyazaki-esque grass-clod critter, and some are sweet, like the hulking and clay-like Strong-Strong, who carries her away from a robot altercation. In quick succession, she spots Joseph being whisked away, the button is stepped on, and she meets Piper, an unscrupulous inventor who offers to repair the button. After perusing a book of creatures (which contains an entry for “dozers,” which simply must be an homage to the doozers of Fraggle Rock) to identify Joseph’s captors, Piper points her in the right direction for a rescue and pretty much washes his hands of her.

Along the way, Zita is joined by a variety of creatures and encounters still more. First is Mouse, the giant mouse Piper travels with, but she later runs into a mobile battle orb called One, meets a rickety and timid robot calling himself Randy, and is reunited with Strong-Strong. All of these critters are loyal to Zita, who is smart and brave and emotive, and defend her against mechanized predators and turncoats alike. The plot is clever and satisfying, but it’s actually the bond between Zita and her friends that’s the best part of the story, and I was happy that she didn’t need to part with them all just yet.

Although I did like Zita the Spacegirl very much, a couple of things bugged me. First, the existence of how the button came to be is not explained. It’s powered by a missing part from Randy, so… did someone take that power source, affix it to a button, and send it to Earth specifically to transport Joseph? I think that they probably did, but it’s never outright specified. Also, One tells Zita she’s “many thousands of light years from home.” How does he know that? Does he recognize she’s from Earth? Are humans regular space travelers on this planet? What year is it supposed to be in Zita’s timeline, anyway? Probably these are the sorts of questions only a stodgy grown-up would ask so I should loosen up already.

Hatke’s art is beautifully suited to the story. As I mentioned, he does a terrific job conveying actions and character emotions through nonverbal storytelling, something I am always a huge fan of. All of the color is lovely, and he does some really nice things with light, from the warmth of a sunny scene to a brilliant beam in a climactic moment. Additionally, the creature designs are quite imaginative; I think I will always remember the little scavenger bot who emits a little heart when it spies a bit of scrap that suits its fancy.

In the end, Zita the Spacegirl is a thoroughly charming story that any kid would probably enjoy. Even better, the cliffhanger ending and author’s acknowledgments promise “many more” adventures for our plucky heroine. Count me in!

Additional reviews of Zita the Spacegirl can be found at Triple Take.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Better Than Life by Grant Naylor: C

From the back cover:
Life just couldn’t have been better—or maybe it couldn’t have gotten worse. Aboard the massive starship Red Dwarf, life was barely happening at all. Holly, the ship’s computer, had gone from super genius to so dumb that even a talking Toaster could hold its own with him. And the only surviving human aboard, David Lister—along with the holographic Arnold Rimmer; Cat, the best-groomed entity in the universe; and the cleaning robot Kryten—was trapped in a game called “Better Than Life.”

At one time Holly could have easily saved them. But right now Holly couldn’t even keep Red Dwarf from colliding with a runaway planet. It looked like Lister might be stuck in the game until he died—or until Red Dwarf was destroyed. Unless, of course, the cheap little Toaster and the cleaning robot could find the way back to reality without killing everyone in the process…

Review:
Every now and then it’s tempting to post a review that consists merely of the word “meh.” This is one of those times.

Better Than Life picks up where the first Red Dwarf book, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, leaves off: all four members of the crew are stuck inside the addictive virtual reality game, Better Than Life, leaving Holly (the computer) alone with only a talking toaster for company.

They do eventually make it out, only to discover that Holly, having followed the toaster’s advice, has increased his IQ to over 12,000 but has decreased his remaining runtime to about two minutes. Oh, and there’s an ice planet headed straight for the stalled ship.

From here on out, the book is basically a sequence of dire perils over which four rather moronic characters must somehow triumph. Lister performs a feat of planetary billiards to knock the incoming planet away, but then ends up stranded on it. As it thaws due to the proximity to its new sun, it’s revealed to be Earth, relegated to garbage planet status by the rest of our solar system literally eons ago. There are flying cockroaches. There is a black hole. There’s a fair amount of scientific explanation for things.

And that’s where the book falters. See, as a show, Red Dwarf is a sci-fi comedy. The science takes such a back seat it’s four cars back. Better Than Life, on the other hand, attempts to be comedic sci-fi, but it doesn’t even manage that, because hardly any of it is actually amusing. Even Chris Barrie’s narration—again, excellent with the voices but a bit dodgy with pronunciation—can’t resuscitate what is essentially an exceedingly dull story. There are a few good moments of characterization, however. I especially enjoyed anything that proved that Rimmer really does care about Lister.

We end on another cliffhanger, with Lister transported to a planet on another universe on which time runs backwards. I can only assume that this is what the later book in the series, Backwards, is about. The only thing is… that one’s not available on unabridged audio and though I did procure myself a used copy, I’m not inclined just yet to expend the effort and time that reading a paper book demands. Maybe someday.

Human Nature by Paul Cornell: B-

From the back cover:
“Who’s going to save us this time?”

April, 1914. The inhabitants of the little Norfolk town of Farringham are enjoying an early summer, unaware that war is on the way. Amongst them is Dr. John Smith, a short, middle-aged history teacher from Aberdeen. He’s having a hard time with his new post as house master at Hulton Academy for Boys, a school dedicated to producing military officers.

Bernice Summerfield is enjoying her holiday in the town, getting over the terrible events that befell her in France. But then she meets a future Doctor, and things start to get dangerous very quickly. With the Doctor she knows gone, and only a suffragette and an elderly rake for company, can Benny fight off a vicious alien attack? And will Dr. Smith be able to save the day?

Review:
Despite the fact that I own about ten of The New Adventures novels starring the Seventh Doctor, I’d never read any of them. It took a .pdf of Human Nature hosted on the BBC website (sadly no longer available) to compel me to finally check one out.

Why Human Nature? Because this novel is the basis for a rather emotional two-parter in the third season of the new incarnation of Doctor Who. I was curious to see how the original novel differs from the televised version (for those fortunate enough to snag a copy of the .pdf before its disappearance, author Paul Cornell does devote part of his endnotes to a discussion of the process of adapting the story for the screen) and also eager to read about Bernice (“Benny”) Summerfield, a companion of the Seventh Doctor whom I have previously encountered only in audio dramas.

The basic gist of the plot is the same in both versions. The Doctor has hidden away his Time Lord essence and is living as a human named John Smith, an unconventional teacher at an all-boys’ school in England on the eve of the first World War. As Smith, the Doctor writes fanciful stories and falls in love with fellow teacher, Joan Redfern. Bliss does not ensue, however, due to a family of aliens that has followed The Doctor and ends up attacking the school. It’s up to The Doctor’s companion to remind Smith of his true identity, and up to Smith to decide whether to remain human and pursue a chance at happiness with Joan or don the mantle of the Time Lord once more and save the day.

The differences are in the details. Why The Doctor chooses to live as a human, for instance. The identity of his companion and her relationship to Smith. The reasons the aliens have for pursuing him. These things don’t matter all that much, but in nearly every instance I prefer the televised version. It’s a much more emotional story—largely because it’s more easy to believe David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor as a romantic lead than Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh—and I sympathized with Smith’s dilemma more when I could physically see the agony the decision was causing him.

Too, boiling the story down to its most essential bits results in a tighter, more coherent tale. The book’s well-intentioned but random attempt at a gay romance is excised, for example, as is Benny’s brief and ill-fated friendship with a suffragette. (If you thought I’d pass up this opportunity to make a “Benny and the ‘gettes” joke, you are much mistaken.) Some of the dialogue in the book doesn’t sound natural, either, like this line from Joan when she’s meeting The Doctor for the first time:

‘Oh…’ Joan closed her eyes for a long, hard, instant. Then she opened them. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Doctor. Is there nothing about you that’s like the man to whom I’ve become engaged?’

I mean, I love me some grammar about twelve times as much as the next gal, but I’m pretty sure I would dispense with it in a moment like that! I do like the detail about her eyes, though.

Complaints aside, there is one thing that the book has that the televised version lacks, and it’s for this one thing alone that the book is worth reading: Benny. I positively adore Benny. She’s brilliant, competent, funny, bawdy, and a bit of a lush. Part of why I love her might be because Cornell based her on Harriet Vane, the awesomely independent and intelligent writer of detective fiction from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Whenever I snickered whilst reading this book, it was all due to Benny, like this description of a table of women at a beverage tent on some planet’s marketplace:

They looked like they all came from different places, and had clustered together out of the familiar realisation that internal gonads are best, actually.

Her presence gave me something new to look forward to in a story with which I was familiar, and I liked her so much that I am going to try to find time to read Love and War, another New Adventures effort from Cornell that introduces the character. Any other recommendations?

Immortal Rain 3-5 by Kaori Ozaki: A-

It’s been a year since I read the first two volumes of Immortal Rain, and though I was initially somewhat lost when I started the third, the heartbreaking nature of Rain’s backstory immediately pulled me back in.

Hints had been sprinkled through the first two volumes, but here we get the whole, terrible story. We learn about Rain’s relationship with Freya—the woman he once loved—and with Yuca, the friend with a dark secret that would ultimately lead to Freya’s death and Rain being cursed with immortality. Yuca is similarly cursed himself, being reborn over and over again while conscious of the memories of all his past lives. He’s ready for this cycle to end—ready for the whole world to end, in fact—and so has chosen Rain to be his perpetual executioner.

It’s Rain’s task to wait for Yuca’s rebirth, which he’s been doing for 600 years so far. If Rain feels like humanity is worth saving, then he must kill Yuca to protect them. If he should weary of humanity and the way they treat him, he can join forces with Yuca and work to end the world. Gentle soul that he is, Rain detests this duty but is resigned to it.

But then Machika comes along to complicate things, saving Rain from his loneliness but promising future sorrow. “Being with you hurts,” he tells her. “It hurts. Because you remind me of sadness.” Later he says, “You’ll disappear so quickly.” It’s one of those doomed immortal-mortal romances all over again, like Buffy and Angel or The Doctor and Rose, and I love it to bits. It’s especially satisfying that they confess their love for each other in the fourth volume, without playing any of those delaying games shoujo series often employ. In this world, loving each other isn’t enough to guarantee a happy ending.

In fact, it’s his love for Machika that weakens Rain’s resolve. He was prepared to kill Yuca—and his own heart—over and over again forever if not for her, but now he has found love. At the same time, if he doesn’t fulfill his duty and Yuca is allowed to run free, what does this mean for the world? When Yuca actually does return and Rain is unable to defeat him, Machika roams the world for a year, refusing to believe all evidence that Rain is dead and determined to find him.

It’s all very dramatic and poignant, and I enjoy it quite a lot, but sometimes it seems a little… surface-y. I can’t really explain it better than that. It’s such a quick read, and while everything seems to make sense while it’s happening, upon reflection one wonders, “Well, why does Rain love Machika?” It just doesn’t feel like we’ve had enough time with these characters when they weren’t running for their lives. This isn’t to say that their romance feels unbelievable, just that I wish this story were unfolding somewhat more slowly. The fact that some of Rain’s foes are kids is also an unwelcome note of silly in a series that otherwise has a serious, almost seinen, kind of feeling to it.

In the year since my first review, there’s been nary a peep from TOKYOPOP regarding the future of this series. The series doesn’t come out too quickly in Japan—the latest is still the tenth volume, which was released in October 2009—so it’s frustrating being so close to having all of what’s currently available. I hope that, even if these volumes never merit a print release, they’ll be available via the publisher’s new print-on-demand feature. We shall see!

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor: B

Book description:
The first lesson Lister learned about space travel was you should never try it. But Lister didn’t have a choice. All he remembered was going on a birthday celebration pub crawl through London. When he came to his senses again, he was living in a locker on one of Saturn’s moons, with nothing in his pockets but a passport in the name of Emily Berkenstein.

So he did the only thing he could. Amazed to discover they would actually hire him, he joined the Space Corps—and found himself aboard Red Dwarf, a spaceship as big as a small city that, six or seven years from now, would get him back to Earth. What Lister couldn’t foresee was that he’d inadvertently signed up for a one-way jaunt three million years into the future—a future which would see him the last living member of the human race, with only a hologram crewmate and a highly evolved Cat for company. Of course, that was before the ship broke the light barrier and things began to get really weird…

Review:
Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers retells a handful of episodes from the first two seasons of the BBC sci-fi comedy, Red Dwarf, and provides additional background information on its two main characters, priggish Arnold J. Rimmer and slovenly Dave Lister.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it takes place aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf. Rimmer is a lowly technician—just about the lowest rank on the ship, tasked with things like unclogging chicken soup nozzles on vending machines—and his only underling is Lister. While Lister is in stasis as punishment for smuggling a (pregnant) cat on board, Rimmer causes an accident that floods the ship with radiation, killing the entire crew.

It takes three million years for the radiation to reach levels safe enough for the computer to let Lister out, which triggers an iconic scene wherein Lister wanders around while the computer, Holly, repeats, “Everybody’s dead, Dave,” with varying inflections until the Liverpudlian finally gets it. Holly brings Rimmer back as a hologram, judging him to be the companion best suited to keep Lister sane, and they soon discover that the cat’s descendants have evolved into a highly fashion-conscious civilization, of which only one member now remains. Episodic silliness ensues.

The book follows this basic outline, too, but adds some scenes to flesh out the characters. For example, rather than meeting Rimmer and Lister aboard the ship, we first encounter them on Mimas, one of Saturn’s moons, in a scene in which Lister has stolen the equivalent of a taxi and picks Rimmer up as a fare. We learn that Lister joined the Space Corps solely as a means of getting back to Earth—and purposefully got caught with the cat so that he’d be put in stasis and the journey home would feel shorter—and receive additional insight on Rimmer’s desperation to become an officer. Both benefit from this treatment and emerge as more sympathetic characters.

Not every episode from the first two seasons is represented—Lister isn’t shown taking the chef’s exam in order to outrank Rimmer, for example—but some, like “Future Echoes,” are included almost verbatim. Because of this structure, there’s not so much a cohesive plot as a string of linear events, culminating in the crew believing that they’ve managed to return to Earth. The material, both old and new, provides quite a few giggles, but can also be extremely unfunny, like when Rimmer and his holographic double squabble interminably.

In addition, a few changes have been made that outright contradict the show. The captain, once male, is now female. Although Lister never was able to tell his long-time crush, Kristine Kochanski, about his feelings on the show, in the book they enjoy a month-long fling. There’s no obvious reason for these alterations, but it’s better to think Grant Naylor—the pseudonym adopted by the show’s creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor—made them for some purpose rather than merely by accident.

What this all boils down to is that the content of this book is decently entertaining, though not excellent, and probably deserves somewhere in the vicinity of a B-, which is the grade it likely would have received had I read the print edition. But I didn’t. Instead, Hubby and I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by Chris Barrie (the actor who portrayed Rimmer) and holy freakin’ crap! He was amazing!

Okay, true, Barrie mispronounces the occasional word—“irrevocably” being the most egregious—but his skill in impersonating his castmates is truly incredible. So good, in fact, that I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait until they discover Cat so I can hear Chris Barrie do his voice!” Every single one is great, and though Kryten is perhaps the most eerily accurate, I found myself most transported by Barrie’s take on Lister. Many, many times I forgot that I was not actually listening to Craig Charles in the part.

Barrie’s performance bumps the grade up a notch, and I’d go so far as to say that one should eschew the print edition entirely. He really does bring that much to one’s enjoyment of the book.

Karakuri Odette 4-5 by Julietta Suzuki: A-

When a manga’s back cover features the lines “She’s a hot robot in high school! What’s the worst that could happen?” one might be forgiven for expecting some sort of titillating romp to ensue. In reality, Karakuri Odette is about as far from that as it’s possible to get.

Odette is the crowning achievement of her creator, the genius roboticist Professor Yoshizawa, and when she expressed interest in attending high school, he made it happen. She’s now in her second year and has a small group of friends, only one of which (a misunderstood delinquent named Asao) knows her secret. Volume four begins with Odette making a delivery for the professor to the Ringozaka family, where lonely seventeen-year-old Shirayuki lives alone and still plays with dolls. Shirayuki is thus isolated because of a supernatural ability that allows her to hear the inner thoughts of others if she touches them. She can’t hear anything from Odette, though, and after learning Odette’s secret, decides to join her at school.

Prickly and awkward Shirayuki is a wonderful addition to the cast, and I love that most of this volume is devoted to the girls and their strengthing friendship. Shirayuki arrives at school with visions of being Odette’s protector, but discovering that Odette has more friends than she does makes her feel defective. When she learns that Odette’s being exploited for her friendly nature, however, she realizes that she’s needed after all. From Odette’s perspective, Shirayuki’s inexperience makes Odette feel much more like a real girl. When both of them are about to embark upon their first class trip, for example, Shirayuki’s nervousness causes Odette to happily think, “I’m just like Shirayuki.”

It’s those type of moments that I love best about Karakuri Odette. In terms of plot, it’s a gentle, episodic slice-of-life story that’s never boring but likewise not terribly dramatic. Odette’s progress, though, is really a delight to witness, and comes through in chapters like the one in which her friends all share photos of themselves as kids—and her dejection when she learns she has none of her own—or when her heart inexplicably feels constricted when Asao seems on the verge of befriending another girl. For a long time, Odette has struggled with the concept of what it means to like someone, and it seems she might be on the verge of a breakthrough.

Volume five is a little less satisfying, as it introduces a suave robot named Travis who’s looking for a bride, along with his unscrupulous creator, but there are definitely some good moments. One particularly nice chapter finds Odette worried that her strength makes her not cute, so she refrains from using her abilities when she and Asao fall victim to the grand shoujo cliché of being locked in the gym storage shed. Although some of the challenges Odette faces are a result of her particular nature, this sort of situation is something many a human girl has faced as well. Happily, Asao talks some sense into her and she ends up concluding that “using my skills is so much better than wasting them.”

For a feel-good story that simultaneously tugs at one’s heartstrings, I definitely recommend Karakuri Odette. To see what others have had to say about it, check out the Manga Moveable Feast archive over at Manga Report!

Bokurano: Ours 1-2 by Mohiro Kitoh: B

Fifteen kids—most of them, except for one boy’s kid sister, in 7th grade—are taking part in a summer program called “Seaside Friendship and Nature School.” Chafing at the instruction to go out and observe nature, the kids decide to explore a nearby cave, where they inexplicably discover a computer lab and a strange guy who calls himself Kokopelli.

Kokopelli tells the kids he’s working on a game in which the “chosen heroes” will pilot a giant robot as it faces off against alien invaders, and offers them the chance to play. Of course, they’re all interested and when he asks them to seal their contract before explaining the rules, they comply. It’s only when Kokopelli’s subsequent demonstration claims the life of a fighter pilot that they begin to grasp that the battle—and the damage it causes—is real.

Over the course of these first two volumes, the kids begin to learn exactly what they’re in for. After the disappearance of Kokopelli, “assistance” is provided by (possibly untrustworthy) Koyemshi, a floating creature almost cute enough to be a plushie if not for his menacing set of pointed teeth. He doles out information sparingly, and it’s not until two of their comrades have died that the kids learn the truth: the giant robot will fight to defend humanity from the invaders, but derives the power to do so from the life force of its pilot.

Obviously, the kids want to quit, but Koyemshi points out that they signed a contract and warns that if they should refuse to fight, Earth will be destroyed within 48 hours. The same fate awaits if they should lose a battle. As he puts it, “Win, save the planet and die… or lose and die when your planet is destroyed. Those are your options.” Believing that they really are helping to save the world, the kids soldier on.

At this point, the feel of the story reminds me a lot of another VIZ Signature title, Ikigami. For those unfamiliar with the story, Ikigami envisions a Japan in which the government attempts to encourage its citizens to lead a more productive life by instilling in them the fear of death. Anyone could receive a death notice (an ikigami) at any time informing them that they have 24 hours left to live, and the series follows each recipient in turn as they deal with the news.

Bokurano is structured similarly, focusing on each pilot as he or she “gets the call.” There are merits and flaws to this approach: obviously, the current pilot receives a lot of attention, and it’s interesting to see how each approaches the responsibility differently. One boy cares nothing for human casualties while another carefully takes the battle out into the harbor to minimize damage. One girl uses her final hours to sew morale-boosting uniforms for the group. Unfortunately, this also means that at any given time there are about a dozen characters relegated to the background, waiting for their turn to contribute to the story.

Because of lack of time spent with individual characters, it’s hard to care about them much, despite their awful predicament. I might realize I like someone based on how he handles his turn as pilot, but I know the opportunity to see things from his perspective will be brief. The most compelling aspect of the story to me is the notion of where these invaders came from in the first place, and what the human population as a whole thinks about giant monsters in their midst.

During Kokopelli’s demonstration, as he occupies the sole chair in a circle of many, he admits that he’s as much a pawn as the kids are and that he isn’t from our planet. It would appear, then, that he is the final pilot from a previous incarnation of this “game” who was sent to Earth to find a new set of players. Is this “invasion” real? Why are there precisely fifteen enemies and no more? This may not be a game for the young pilots or the humans threatened by these monsters, but is it a game for someone, somewhere?

Dark, grim, and mysterious, Bokurano is probably not for everyone, but I’ll definitely be reading more.

Bokurano: Ours is published in English by VIZ. The series is complete in Japan with eleven volumes.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Review copy for volume two provided by the publisher.