In the Walnut 1-2 by Toko Kawai: B+

More mystery than romance, this BL series features some unremarkable “cases” but a pair of interesting leads who are already an established couple when the story begins! Shocking!

You can find my review for Manga Bookshelf here.

In the Walnut is published in English by Digital Manga Publishing. The series is still ongoing in Japan; the third volume was just released there on October 9th.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Café Latte Rhapsody by Toko Kawai: A-

I reviewed this cute yet complicated love story for this month’s BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf. I really, really enjoyed the romance between a somewhat relationship-scarred bookstore employee and his huge younger lover, and it made me realize I haven’t read anything by Toko Kawai that I didn’t like!

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Garden Sky by Yuko Kuwabara: C+

I reviewed this quasi-BL collection for this week’s BL Bookrack column at Manga Bookshelf. The book is divided into two sets of stories that are boring while underway, feature extremely similar characters, and go nowhere in the end. This makes for quite a dull read.

You can find that review here.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Three from DMP

Welcome to the first installment of Tidbits, a periodic column featuring short reviews of multiple titles. In this post, I check out the latest volumes of three continuing series in the Digital Manga Publishing catalog. First up is volume two of Alice the 101st, followed by the third volume of the shoujo classic Itazura Na Kiss, and the second volume of Maiden Rose.

Alice the 101st 2 by Chigusa Kawai: B-
It’s contest time at Mondonveille Music Academy, and while the upperclassmen are getting ready to compete, the first years are working on their pieces for a special concert of their own. Aristide “Alice” Lang has the ability to play well when motivated, but his inability to read music prompts his professor to assign the rudimentary “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as his concert piece. Alice requires a lot of help from his friends and would-be rival, Max, but manages to execute a… unique performance on the big day.

While I continue to like the music school setting as well as some of the supporting characters—including Georges, the pianist introduced in this volume, who was actually the protagonist of Kawai’s La Esperança!—the main issue preventing me from really enjoying this series is Alice himself. He slacks off in both class and practice, mouths off and issues challenges to his classmates (evaded at the last minute courtesy of a development right out of the Wuthering Heights School of Plot Writing, which mandates that anyone who gets wet while outside instantly comes down with a fever), then gets panicky and petulant when his friends are too busy with their own lives to help him.

I have zero sympathy for this spazzy, self-absorbed kid and yet… He is showing a slight tendency to take things more seriously, and when he is able to display his strengths, which include perfect pitch and an incredible memory, I am genuinely happy for him, especially as he seems to be gradually earning the respect of some of his classmates. I can only assume there will be more of this to come and that the personality traits to which I currently object will eventually be replaced by discipline and maturity.

Itazura Na Kiss 3 by Kaoru Tada: A-
Because each English volume of Itazura Na Kiss is equal to two Japanese volumes, and because I am a slow reader, it took me a couple of hours to finish the latest installment in this shoujo classic. It’s so good, though, a comfort food soap opera of the best kind, that I probably could’ve happily gone on reading it for another ten!

Those who have read the first two volumes will find more of the same here: Kotoko pursues Naoki vigilantly, most of the time revealing how hopelessly inept she is (seriously, the chapter in which she manages to get a waitress job at the restaurant where Naoki works is positively painful) but occasionally demonstrating a quality that spurs Naoki to notice her in a new light.

Indeed, though it be subtle, there’s some definite progress in their relationship. Naoki’s words may still wound, but his attitude toward Kotoko has noticeably softened. Early on, he admits that he doesn’t mind living with her and later implies that if it wouldn’t fit in with his meddling mother’s plans so well, he might actually have been interested in taking advantage of a cozy moment between them. More importantly, having realized that he enjoys the struggle and challenge that Kotoko has introduced into his life, Naoki decides to give up his complacent existence in his parents’ house and have a go at supporting himself. It’s unlikely that he ever would’ve taken this step without her. The last few pages of the volume are also fabulous.

Though the comedy is sometimes cringe-inducing—I appreciated ardent Kotoko fan Kin-san at first, but his one-note nature is starting to annoy me—as are some of Kotoko’s attempts to get closer to Naoki, I can’t help sympathizing with her and being pulled into this story. I hope someone licenses the anime someday, because that might be one I would have to watch.

Maiden Rose 2 by Fusanosuke Inariya: B
Taki Reizen is a flower-scented military commander and Claus von Wolfstadt is his foreign lover, a huge man who has a tendency to be rough with Taki but nonetheless will endure major personal sacrifice to do his bidding, a trait that prompts Taki to dub him his knight. In this volume, a train originating from Eurote, ostensible allies of Taki’s country, is about to cross the border without permission. In defiance of headquarters, Taki rallies his troops to prevent the crossing and sends Claus and another soldier into a “no man’s land” that is rumored to contaminate all who enter.

For a boys’ love series, Maiden Rose has a terrific amount of plot. In fact, the sole explicit scene in the volume is markedly brief and the focus instead is on Claus’s willingness to undertake a dangerous mission because it’s important to Taki, Taki’s concern for Claus, and in showing how strong each of these men are. I particularly like that Taki, although he is often on the receiving end of Claus’s unrestrained advances, is still a very competent leader and capable of merciless action when need be. The relationship between the two leads is complicated and conflicting—Claus seems to regard Taki with a certain degree of reverance, but this doesn’t quell his violent sexual desires. Taki, for his part, seems to wish that Claus would be more tender, but always ends up yielding to him anyway.

Unfortunately, although I certainly praise the series for its ambitions and individuality, there are still many holes in the plot. For example, I’m still not sure what Taki’s country is even called. This volume also contains a lot of cryptic hinting about Taki’s floral aroma and how it relates to some unfulfilled promise, which is terribly vague. With no new volumes printed in Japan since 2007, and with the “End” graphic appearing at the conclusion of this volume, one would be forgiven for assuming the series ends here without ever explaining these references, but it appears that half a dozen or so chapters beyond those included here have appeared in (the Japanese BL magazine) Comic Aqua but not been collected into a third volume. Hopefully one day we’ll see them in English; Maiden Rose might not be perfect, but I definitely would like to read more of it!

Review copies provided by the publisher.

When the Heavens Smile by Aki Senoo: B+

Book description:
Takagi, a rather cute and innocent guy, is best friends and classmates with Kumoi, a tall, intellectual guy. One day, Takagi is stunned to find a pencil sketch of a man between Kumoi’s notebook pages that resembles his older brother… who passed away six years ago! Could Kumoi have possibly known his brother?

I’ll admit that what initially appealed to me the most about When the Heavens Smile was its pretty, muted cover. It was quite a pleasant surprise to find that all eight of the stories within are quite good.

A common theme for the collection seems to be “friends in love,” though this isn’t true for all stories. “Fragment,” for example, is the tale of two students who meet, feel a connection, and give in to their impulses before they even learn each other’s names. “Absolute Condition” is about gentle-seeming Kusaka who turns out to be a closet mole fetishist and “Sirens” is about a high-school student and his relationship with an older man (though it’s clear that it was the student who made the first move). The first two are particularly good and both feature a take-charge uke.

The first of the “friends in love” stories is “I Love Strawberries the Most, Followed By My Dad,” which is a very sweet story with another take-charge uke. I love how the boys compare their affection for each other to how much they love various fruits. “Fever Mark” features another pair of friends becoming more, and “That Which Falls From Heaven” and “That Which is Still Here” are about Takagi and Kumoi who share a chaste love while being watched over by the ghost of Takagi’s elder brother.

My very favorite story in the collection concerns men rather than boys and is called “I Can’t Remember Now.” Midori works in a bar, and his friend Katsuhiro comes in constantly and gets plastered. Every time, Katsuhiro professes his love to Midori and tries to grope him, and all the other employees just assume they are a couple. Alas, Katsuhiro remembers nothing the next morning, which is painful for Midori since he does have feelings for his friend. Eventually, Midori can’t take it anymore and puts some distance between them. When a tipsy Katsuhiro tracks him down, Midori forces him to sober up before they can talk and, of course, they end up happily in bed with Katsuhiro comically uncertain if that was their first time or not.

Senoo’s art suits the stories well and there were several panels I had to pause and admire, even though the style is simple and backgrounds largely nonexistent. I like the character designs, and too I liked that none of the sex scenes (all of which are consensual, incidentally) are explicit. They’re plenty sexy as they are, without the need for details and slurpy sound effects, because the characters are interesting and their connections meaningful.

On the whole, this was exactly the sort of BL I like most; I hope more of Aki Senoo’s work is licensed in the future.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Solfege by Fumi Yoshinaga: B+

I reviewed this one-shot BL story for the new BL Bookrack feature at Manga Bookshelf. It’s less of a romance than it is a character study of a really crappy person, and I liked it all the better for that!

You can find that review here.

Don’t Say Any More, Darling by Fumi Yoshinaga: B

I reviewed this collection of short stories, some BL and some not, for the inaugural edition of a new feature at Manga Bookshelf called BL Bookrack. A couple of the stories are really quite weird, but I truly loved the final story, “The Pianist,” about an aging musician who has convinced himself he’s a “debauched fallen genius” rather than someone who simply didn’t have the talent to succeed.

You can find that review here.

Maiden Rose 1 by Fusanosuke Inariya: B

Taki Reizen and Claus von Wolfstadt should be enemies since their countries are at war. But a bond forged at school abroad leads Taki, a nobleman, to make Claus his knight, fighting by his side while Taki takes the role of division commander, marshalling his humble subjects as they seek to defend against the enemy’s advances. Many view Claus with suspicion, despite his apparent devotion to the commander, and are more apt to regard him as a “mad dog” and possible spy than as a trustworthy ally.

The two adjectives that best describe Maiden Rose are “promising” and “confusing.” For a boys’ love manga, this story is extremely complex, and features many character types and conflicts not traditionally seen in this genre. The character designs are also terrifically varied, from beautiful Taki to gruff Claus to the myriad middle-aged men who make up the rest of the division.

Confusing, though, is the exact nature of Taki and Claus’ (sexual) relationship. A flashback to their first encounter makes it clear that Taki wanted this, but now it seems like Taki is simply allowing himself to be violated by Claus after each battle. This makes for some disturbing scenes, but what’s good about Maiden Rose is that it doesn’t shirk from the consequences of Claus’ roughness. Too, Taki has enough depth as a character that one can read his passivity here as a desire to be punished for getting innocent people hurt; he’s commanding them because he must and it’s better than remaining ignorant while they die, but it’s definitely taking a toll on him.

So, yes, a very promising boys’ love manga indeed. It’s perhaps not for the faint of heart, but it’s definitely something different.

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

Yokan 1: Premonition by Makoto Tateno: B-

Akira is the lead singer of a visual kei band and has somewhat of an attitude. He doesn’t care about the fans’ enjoyment, only his own, and refuses to sing anything he didn’t write himself. That is, until he overhears mainstream entertainer Hiroya Sunaga singing one of his own compositions. For the first time, Akira’s obsessed by someone else’s music and makes it his mission to get Hiroya to abandon his “adequate” career and really sing seriously.

Once again, Makoto Tateno has crafted a BL story with a fair amount of plot and a minimum of romance. Yes, Akira and Hiroya eventually become lovers, but there’s always an atmosphere of challenge to their encounters. In dragging Hiroya back into a world he left behind, Akira is creating a rival for himself, setting up a standard to be surpassed.

While this concept is promising, Yokan is far from perfect. When Akira first expresses interest in singing his song, Hiroya demands payment. Readers expect this to be sex, but in fact, he only claims a kiss. This led me to hope the story would be free from a nonconsensual scene, but this is unfortunately not the case. The bonus story, “Sinsemilla,” is also pretty horrible, featuring one character dosing another with an aphrodisiac and said victim later suggesting that the drug made him gay. “I was completely hetero before!”

I liked Yokan well enough to continue to the second volume, but it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

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

Our Kingdom: Arabian Nights by Naduki Koujima: B-

This one-volume spin-off of Our Kingdom stars Raoul, a former supporting character of that series, as he attempts to recover from heartbreak by taking a trip to a swanky Middle Eastern resort. His plans go astray when he is captured by a good-hearted yet foolish prince named Ashif, who plans to use Raoul as a pawn to ensure his sister’s marital happiness.

Raoul is naturally upset at this turn of events and when his temper flares, he takes it out on Ashif in the form of some forcible groping. Unlike some other BL characters who engage in such behavior, however, Raoul wallows in self-loathing because of it. As they spend more time together, Raoul begins to develop feelings for Ashif, who is able to show him good qualities about himself and motivate him to become a better person.

Even without knowledge of Raoul’s time in the main storyline, his desire to move forward from those events is still appealing. So, too, are his uncertainties about Ashif. Being with the prince has helped ease much of Raoul’s bitterness, but their friendship is also a source of anxiety, since Raoul must overcome the compulsion to hang on too tightly to something he fears might slip away.

It’s too bad that the actual plot of the manga cannot support Raoul’s turmoil in any meaningful way, for it is the personification of flimsy and occasionally borders on ridiculous. Secondary characters offer little to the story, and I have absolutely no idea why Raoul’s little sisters are present, unless they are intended to be the comic relief. These flaws ultimately mean that the story isn’t as good as it might have been.

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