RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Sunny Side Up

by Rebecca Silverman,

It's kind of amazing how a random old object, like the car in Sunny, can have such an impact on us as kids. My sisters and I built a log cabin out of all of the blow-down after a hard winter when we were eleven, nine, and seven. The logs had all been cut and just left in the woods, so we took it upon ourselves to clear a little space near a small pond and lugged those suckers from all over until we had a cabin I could stand up in. (It is worth mentioning that at age eleven I was still really short.) Then we went around pulling up moss to lay on the floor and begged an old tarp from our dad for a roof. The final touch was that we attempted to transplant flowers and chives that a summer person had uprooted and thrown away. We don't live where we built that anymore, but a couple of years ago I went back to look. The cabin, moss, and chives are all still there, although the flowers and tarp are long gone. It was pretty amazing to see that it had lasted – like finding, in a way, that you can, in fact, go back, despite what common wisdom tells you.

Well, no surprise as to what book made the biggest impact on me this week!


SUNNY
Vol. 4

(by Taiyo Matsumoto, Viz, $22.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

The fourth installment of this poignant series focused on the young lives of a group of foster children travels their trajectory from painful yearning to bittersweet belonging.

REVIEW:

Imagination can be the saving grace of sadness, but when does it begin to hurt you as much as the truth? For the children of the Star Kids Home in 1978, that's a fine line that they continually cross and re-cross. This volume of Taiyo Matsumoto's bittersweet story focuses on what the kids need to believe about their parents, whether or not those beliefs pan out in the end. Sei, whose arrival we were present for in volume one, suddenly stops receiving letters from his mother. If he accepts that at face value, does that mean that he has to deal with the idea that she's never going to come for him? His school friend (and sort-of girlfriend) tries to give him hope, but we have to wonder how long that's going to work before he becomes jaded like trouble-maker Haruo. Meanwhile Kiko's mother finally does send for her, but the joy is tempered by her mother's life choices, which from Kiko's memories we know landed Kiko in foster care in the first place. For every moment of happiness in this series, there's one of sadness to counterbalance it, and the titular Sunny is symbolic of that: the old car functions as an escape for the children, but when you come right down to it, the car is as stuck as they are. The only real way to leave Star Kids Home is in the imagination.

Matsumoto's art helps to enhance the bittersweet sensation of reading this volume, with its cluttered panels of the home juxtaposed with close-ups of faces that always seem to be holding something private back and surreal images of Taro, the gentle giant, lumbering through all sorts of weather in just a pair of shorts. Like the story, it isn't pretty, but it creates an atmosphere that feels inescapable, like we're not just reading a book but instead are actually looking through a window into the kids' lives. Both the story and art play on fears of abandonment, and while Sunny's fourth volume isn't easy to read, it is also hard to put down.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. It's pricey, but this is a book worth spending money on with its emphasis on the juxtaposition of who you think your family should be and who it actually is.


FOOD WARS: SHOKUGEKI NO SOMA
Vol. 2

(by Yūto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Leaving home for the first time in his young life, Soma moves into the school's Polaris Dormitory—a place run by an old crone and filled with crazy and eccentric students! Barely settled in, Soma quickly finds himself in one of Tohzuki's legendary cooking duels—a shokugeki! Who will his very first opponent be?

REVIEW:

You know what the best part of this volume is? Much less Erina. I cannot stand her, and her brief appearances here serve to reinforce my initial impression of the character – that she is a selfish twit who abuses her power shamelessly. For me the best part of this series is watching Soma take her down, along with her nearly as annoying cronies. Have I mentioned that I tend to get emotionally invested in my reading material?

In any event, Food Wars' second volume continues its underdog story in a winning way. Soma has to move into the somewhat suspect Polaris Dorm, where of course he has to engage in two cook-offs in order to gain first entry and then acceptance. Naturally he nails these challenges, but even though we know that's going to happen, Tsukuda and Saeki manage to keep the tension high. This goes double for when he takes on Erina's stooge Mito, a busty meat chef who wants to use Erina's power to shut down the Donburi Club. Soma rises to the occasion as we knew he would, but even with the near certainty that he's going to win, there's some serious edge-of-your-seat tension to the cooking battle, as well as a clear sense of personal investment for the reader. Mito and Erina are so smug that we desperately want them to fail. Soma's much warmer attitude towards both cooking and life make him a very good counterpoint to most of the school, a hero we can really root for.

The fanservice that was somewhat troubling in the first volume is still present, but very much now equal opportunity. If you prefer beefcake to cheesecake, fear not! Saeki has you covered with a new male character who prefers to wear just an apron or a loincloth. There are still scenes equating really good food with sexual pleasure, but now they're divided between men and women, with only one truly bizarre one of Mito naked in a beef bowl. Almost all of the recipes made in the book are provided with step-by-step instructions that look fairly simple (assuming you can get the ingredients in your area), so if you're in this for the food, you're in luck. The only major drawback here is that we're not really seeing a whole lot of plot advancement – just a series of cooking battles and kitchen theory. It's a lot of fun, but is it too much to ask for a little bit of story as well?

RECOMMENDATION: I'm torn between buy it and borrow it. I was irritated as much as I was enjoying reading this, which makes it difficult to just tell you to buy it. It is a good read...just most of the characters annoyed me.


CAGE OF EDEN
Vol. 16

(by Yoshinobu Yamada, Kodansha, $10.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL DOCTOR

Kokonoé's plan comes to fruition, allowing him and Ohmori to evade execution while also creating a diversion for Sengoku and his friends to escape the clutches of Nishikiori. As they make their way back to the others, Yarai reaches Nishikiori's camp where he comes to face the cold, hard truth about Kurusu-sensei's condition. But seeing a chance to turn things in his favor, Nishikiori makes a deal with Yarai. Will Yarai go through with Nishikiori's dastardly request for the chance to save the life of his teacher?

REVIEW:

Let's just get the most important piece of information out there: in this volume, we find out where they are. That's right – remember a few volumes ago when Mariya's group discovered the inscriptions on the Antenna? They allowed the resident genius (and his suspiciously well-stocked internet-less computer) to figure out precisely where the island is located. Clearly we are entering the endgame, because not only do we now know what the island was used for, we also know where it is. Of course, there's still the problem of getting off and home – not to mention the evil Nishikiori's latest plan for his chief rival, Akira. Nishikiori's crazed narcissism has led him to use Yarai's worry for his teacher/crush (even Yarai isn't sure about his feelings) to formulate a plan to take down much more stable leader Akira, and Segawa at least is really afraid that he'll go through with it. She's become one of the more interesting characters, even though we've seen much less of her than anyone in Akira's group, and in this volume she displays a maturity and sense of purpose that many of the other “follower” characters lack. She may be motivated by her crush on Yarai, but she's going to do her best to make sure that he doesn't do anything foolish, which in a way is more than we can say for Rion, who also does her best, but clearly sees herself as sticking to Akira's plans. The differences between how the adults and the children are handling the situation remains interesting as well, with Nishikiori's fear-mongering and abuse of his medical knowledge in direct contrast to Akira's more people-friendly leadership style, and we can clearly see the benefits of both – and that Akira is much more likely to get his people home safely. But we're not there yet, and the tensions remain high. Can Segawa stop Yarai? Will Mariya's plan work? How many more bath scenes of girls can Yamada throw in? Now that we've entered the final phase of the manga and it is no longer following its previous formula, we can hope we know how things will work out, but this volume makes it clear that we can't really count on them actually turning out exactly as we'd like them to.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Don't you want to know where they are? Besides, with each new discovery and a very real human threat, the story has left behind its formulaic days, making things much more exciting.


POKEMON ADVENTURES: BLACK AND WHITE
Vol. 5

(by Hidenori Kusaka and Satoshi Yamamoto, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

All your favorite Pokémon game characters jump out of the screen into the pages of this action-packed manga!

White tests out a Pokémon battleground prototype: the Battle Subway. Meanwhile, Black is happily reunited with an old friend...under unhappy circumstances. Then Gym Leader Clay reveals a dangerous secret. Now Black must prove himself to the other Unova Gym Leaders so he can join their team to fight a common enemy—an evil organization that might jeopardize the Pokémon League Championship itself! Will Black earn the trust of the Unova Gym Leaders in time...by ringing a bell?!

REVIEW:

Even as a full-grown adult, there's something really fun about Pokémon manga. (And the games, but that's another story.) Adventures: Black and White isn't quite as crazy as some of the other iterations of the franchise, but this fifth volume still has plenty of Pokémon action as well as the mystery of Team Plasma and their strange contradiction – if they want to “liberate” all the Pokémon, then why do they seem to have a huge containment facility, to say nothing of their drive to get their hands on Zekrom? Also, if artist Satoshi Yamamoto wanted them to look like a bunch of everyday people, why does one of them sport a Hitler mustache? (Although I admit I can be overly sensitive to those things – maybe the guy just has really scruffy nose hair.) That's not the only interesting artistic choice in this book either: White, while testing out a new moving battle system, meets Shauntal, who looks like she could have stepped out of a Tezuka manga. Apart from that Yamamoto's art is as pleasant and serviceable as ever, with everyone distinct and recognizable but not fussy in terms of details. His action scenes are a lot of fun, especially when there's flying involved, and since Black has to face off against Skyla and her flying-specialty Pokémon, there's a lot of that. Unfortunately Skyla also initiates a really annoying plot diversion: she wants Black to battle her before they go to stop Team Plasma from stealing Zekrom...but their plan depends on precise timing. Even the other members of the gang are irritated by this, and while Black does need to fight Skyla in order to fulfill his longterm goal, putting that fight here is not in the overall story's best interest. The other major downside to this book is the lack of White, who gets two chapters total, with Black taking the rest. Not that she's such a great character, but seeing a bit more balance between the two protagonists would have been nice, and to be perfectly honest, when I was in the targeted age group for this book, that would have been a major issue for me. That aside, this series remains a lot of easy-reading fun, and watching Black try to win over Tirtouga is a nice way to watch him mature as both a character and a trainer.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. It's fun, but this volume has some issues with the Skyla plotline that really drag it down. On the plus side, now you can imagine the author making his own Pokémon neckties. (Gotta love author commentary!)


JUDGE
Vol. 5

(by Yoshiki Tonogai, Yen Press, $12.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

It's time to clear the docket.

Who could possibly be responsible for this game? That question swirls among the participants, who grow more desperate as they are forced to make one horrific choice after another. The game is to conclude when the requisite four survivors have been determined. For these four fortunates, court will be adjourned...but what awaits them on the other side of the courthouse doors?

REVIEW:

With only one volume left and time running out for the group to decide the last person to die, things move very quickly. As in, you can read this book in under an hour quickly. Partially this is because the story is very fast-paced, but it's also due to the fact that Tonogai doesn't pack his pages with panels. A typical page in Judge has four to six large panels with between two and eight speech bubbles between them. Ostensibly this should make the art more important to the progression of the story, but that doesn't always feel like the case. In part that's because Tonogai isn't the most emotive artist, but it is also due to the fact that there's not a lot going on in the background. I really feel that there is a balance to be maintained between figures and background, and while some mangaka veer too far in one direction (Eiichiro Oda comes to mind), others go too far the other way. This series feels like it's written by one of them.

That aside, this is still a pretty gripping book. There's no real way out of condemning one of the remaining five to death, and Hiro is having a hard time coming to terms with that. Then there's the parallel game being played out somewhere nearby. It turns out that that has much worse implications than anyone could have expected, and that just killing one of the main cast might be the tip of the iceberg. This new piece of the puzzle is handled well and its implications not really fully explored until the end of the volume, which makes it a long time until February brings us the final installment. Judge may not be as compact as Doubt was, but it still does what a good suspense story should: keep you on the edge of your chair.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. It's a good book and handles the suspense well, but it isn't as tight as Tonogai's previous series and the art isn't as emotive as it could be. If you do plan it buy it, however, I'd suggest waiting until volume six comes out as well – this ends in a tough place.


DIGITAL SPOTLIGHT


CLEOPATRA
Part One

(by Ryō Kurashina and Seisaku Kano, Renta!, $2 for 48 hours or $3 forever)

FROM RENTA!:

Cleopatra was born in 70 BC and was an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh. Strong of heart, she is willing to do anything to restore her beloved Egypt back to its former glory. Possessed by an unfaltering love, Cleopatra engages in a bloody struggle for power. The story is provided by Kurashina Ryou, famous for his "Empress" series, and the illustration is brought to you by Kanou Seisaku, who uses a realistic art-style to depict the beauty of Cleopatra as she is torn between power and love...

REVIEW:

I did it! I found something to read at Renta that isn't smutty josei! Actually, there's a decent amount of it, but Ryō Kurashina's Cleopatra is not just not a romance, it's practically academic. These first 60 pages are mostly spent going over Cleopatra VII's early life up to the first time the Romans show up in Alexandria, following her sister Berenice's failed revolt against their father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. She looks suspiciously like Liz Taylor and indeed the background looks more like the set of the 1963 film “Cleopatra” than anything from history, but that doesn't stop it from being beautiful. The whole piece is in full color and tries for an epic scope, with no small panels and plenty of background pageantry. The story mostly holds up to history while still making room for the rampant sexualization of Cleo that has long marked her depiction in pop culture, featuring a full-frontal nude shot of her on the first few pages. This feels very much like a prologue, lacking in action and written in a semi-dry tone, but it is interesting to see this piece of history from a manga perspective. Cleopatra VII was a savvy woman who simply backed the wrong man at a pivotal time – it will be fascinating to see how she's depicted as the manga goes forward...and given that one of the lines on the cover is “I would sell my body for Egypt,” I think I can guess which depiction of her Kurashina and Saisaku are going to go with...

RECOMMENDATION: If you like Cleopatra VII, this is worth checking out for 48 hours, and $2 isn't a bad price. If you prefer your manga to be entertaining rather than semi-educational, however, you can safely skip this one.


THE UNFINISHED


LIZZIE NEWTON: VICTORIAN MYSTERIES
2 of 6 volumes published

(by Hey-jin Jeon and Ki-ha Lee, Seven Seas, $11.99)

FROM SEVEN SEAS:

Lizzie Newton, a young upper crust lady with a budding career as a mystery writer, is expected to know her place in Victorian society. Her father has arranged for her to marry the handsome Edwin White, who has put his rising career as a lawyer on hold to prove his love to Lizzie. While the headstrong Lizzie tolerates earnest Edwin, she is not yet ready to accept him as her fiance. Besides, Lizzie is distracted by something far more important: an apparent suicide has occurred in the manor, and Lizzie is ready to solve her first real life murder case!

THOUGHTS:

I am, I suppose, partially writing about this particular series because I hope someone from Seven Seas will pop up magically and tell me that they are eventually going to finish it. Regardless, Lizzie Newton: Victorian Mysteries' two published volumes are some of my favorites. Lizzie herself is a worthy heroine, a little like a female Holmes but with more in common with Baroness Orczy's Lady Molly of Scotland Yard and a secret career as a sensation novelist on the side. Like many contemporary Victorian heroines, Lizzie isn't content with her socially-planned role and, while she can be the lady she's supposed to be, she'd rather not, thanks. Society bores her, but mysteries stimulate her mind. She's joined in her casework by her steward, who is also a barrister and potential fiancé, and is the despair of the police department, who can't stand that she acts like she has a brain. The mysteries are good and the characters fun, while Lee's art is beautifully detailed and captures the perceived elegance of the period. Keep in mind that this isn't Kaoru Mori's Emma, though: there are some historical glitches and some definite confusion about what a steward does, though at least they avoid my pet peeve, the butler/valet mix-up. Regardless, this is one of the more interesting and mature (but not in a sexy sense) mystery manga to be brought into the English language market, and I keep hoping that the rest of it will come out. I can dream, right?


That's all for this time, so I had better go clean the snow off my car. The old lobstermen are telling me this is going to be a hard winter, and I'm inclined to believe them...See you in December!


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