RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Fragmented Incarnations

by Rebecca Silverman,

My sister and I have inadvertently made our guest room as creepy as possible. You see, Jenn collects dolls and I have quite a few china ones from when I was little that I can't bear to part with for various sentimental reasons. As I've mentioned before, we also have seven cats, so finding a single spot to put the most fragile dolls that we could make a No Jumping Zone seemed like a good plan. That turned out to be the guest room. So now visitors to our home can settle down to sleep under the watchful gaze of resin and porcelain figures of young girls in period dress and a couple of lovely ball jointed ladies with horns and hooves. I was in there putting away some books when it struck me how alarming that can be. At least we won't have visitors overstaying their welcome?


D-FRAG!
Vol. 2

(by Tomoya Haruno, Seven Seas, $12.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

FIGHT YOUR WAY TO THE BOTTOM!

Kazama Kenji thought it would be easy to take over Fujou Academy – just beat up a few thugs and BAM!: You're king of the school. That was before he crossed paths with the notorious Game Development Club, four psychopathic girls who forced Kenji to join their ranks. At first he fought them tooth and nail, but Kenji now finds himself settling in and growing used to the girls' strange antics. Yet when Kenji realizes that he will never achieve school-wide domination just sitting around playing games all day, he turns his back on his newfound friends and sets out to take down the school's biggest gang: The Demon Band of 14! Can the Game Development Club rescue Kenji in time before he's utterly destroyed?!

REVIEW:

How long can you milk a joke before it starts to get stale? That's a conundrum for D-Frag!'s second volume, which wobbles between “still really funny” and “getting a little old.” The latter half of the book is really much funnier than the first, which at times feels kind of like a slog to get through – to be perfectly honest, I almost stopped reading a couple of times as recycled jokes about Takao's breasts and the GDC members' “powers” felt like hold-overs from the previous volume. The second half, however, really picks up. This is when the girls not only actually develop a game but also Kenji decides that maybe he'll start living the thug life again. Of course, it takes crazy masochist Ataru to jump start it, but he's consistently funny enough not to feel recycled. Roka and Takao also remain pretty entertaining, with Roka getting more and more bizarre in terms of her reputation. Takao makes a good straight man to everyone's antics, albeit in a different way than Kenji – he's only a straight man in the GDC, still harboring his thug ambitions for school domination, whereas Takao really just wants to run her club in peace. The use of these two different “straight types” is surprisingly effective, and one of the few facets of the story that doesn't get old. (As long as they leave Takao's boobs out of it, anyway, although the sink hole joke was funny.) What's particularly interesting about this volume is that it is really apparent that Haruno wasn't all that keen on writing a cute girl story as required by his editor – he obviously has much more fun with the Demon Band of 14 to the point where he pokes fun at himself (and his editor) in the afterword. He's trying to keep the girls the focus, but you can tell his heart isn't quite in it, which may be a factor in why the second half of the volume is so much stronger. Regardless, that second half really does make for a fun time, so if you enjoyed the first book, it's probably worth slogging through the first few chapters of this one to get there.

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. D-Frag!'s second book isn't quite as funny as its first, although the whole series so far reads like a funnier Oresama Teacher. There is still some good wordplay, but the first half drags a bit and the translation suffers from some repetitive word choices.


WHAT DID YOU EAT YESTERDAY?
Vol. 4

(by Fumi Yoshinaga, Vertical, $12.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Shiro turns down an offer to become a celebrity and Kenji's culinary adventures are reprised in a manga about a gay couple for mature – in the true sense – readers.

REVIEW:

Fumi Yoshinaga is back on track with this fourth volume of her deceptively simple slice-of-life manga. While the second book was more about slicing veggies than depicting life, volumes three and four mingle cooking with living in a symbiotic way, with four really focusing on the way Shiro uses cooking to express his feelings. This book touches on his insecurities about being gay in a heterocentric society as he worries about dining out with Kenji's gay friends and simply copes with his own social anxiety. Shiro's exterior hides a very insecure person, something Yoshinaga shows us without ever outwardly stating it. In this volume, it is best seen in the first chapter, where he's too nervous to enjoy going out with the other couple and then has a near melt-down when Kenji invites them to dinner – can he possibly make a good enough meal for a man who cooks on a professional level? His frantic behavior and need to please (although he would never phrase it as such) comes across both here and whenever he's worried about something – work, family, Kenji, whatever the cause, his stress takes him straight to the kitchen where the methodical nature of cooking allows him to work things out, or, in the case of tempura, at least gives him something else to fret about. This volume also offers us more insight into Kenji, the easy-going half of the partnership, as we see him delight in the fact that he gets to take care of Shiro once in a while. While we never get the impression that Kenji objects to the way the two of them live, this volume gives us the idea that maybe he'd like Shiro to rely on him a bit more, even while understanding that giving up that sort of control isn't something Shiro is comfortable with. All in all the book encourages us to view the characters as fully-realized people, not stereotypes or vessels to give us cooking knowledge, and that is probably its greatest strength.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. Yoshinaga's back on track and this volume is particularly wonderful. Now if only I could find a good Asian market nearby...


SOUL EATER NOT!
Vol. 3

(by Atsushi Ohkubo, Yen Press, $13.00)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
The attack on Eternal Feather is a cruel reminder that there is very real danger out there for the weapons and meisters of DWMA. Tsugumi is more determined than ever to develop her skills so that she can defend her friends in the future. But the road ahead is filled with challenges...and silliness!

REVIEW:

Eternal Feather may have been attacked, but the aftermath of that is in no way the meat of this volume of Soul Eater Not. In fact, it might be said that there is no real “meat” to it – this book is pretty strictly fluff. It's fun fluff, to be sure – cultural differences are explored (does throwing water on the ground really make the air cooler?), baseball is “played,” and Dr. Stein reveals the fruits of his operation on Eternal Feather...more or less. It's an easy read that makes you smile, but overall the book does pretty much nothing to either further the plot or expand the world of Soul Eater in general. So really the major question is why you are reading the series to begin with. Is it because you enjoy the adorable antics of three cute girls who just happen to live in Death City? Then this book is an enormous success, because Ohkubo maintains a certain moe quality to the stories without overdoing it, making nearly every chapter (or chapterette) a delight. Are you reading because you're really into Soul Eater? Then maybe this is not the right volume to read, because apart from some silly information about kids born and raised in Death City, there's really not much here. We can make educated guesses based on Eternal Feather's outfit and whatever Dr. Stein did to her, but other than that, there's really not much going on. Tsugumi and Co. are adorable, yes, but shouldn't books have some plot to go with that?

RECOMMENDATION: Borrow it from a library or a friend. It's cute and fun, but I'm afraid I have to call it out on having pretty much zero plot, although Ohkubo's art has improved dramatically since the original series began. It's fun and nice looking, but really only takes about half an hour to read with no re-reading necessary – the manga equivalent of marshmallow fluff.


ALICE IN THE COUNTRY OF CLOVER: KNIGHT'S KNOWLEDGE
Vol. 2

(by QuinRose and Sai Asai, Seven Seas, $13.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

I just want one person. One person who understands me.

A terrible night with Ace in the forest has left Alice reeling. Even if she's willing to face the darkness inside him, is she only doing it out of pity? Now that the mandatory assembly--run by Nightmare--is starting up in the Country of Clover, all the role-holders are gathered for a peaceful summit. Alice plans to use the event to try and untangle her feelings about Ace. In the meantime, Elliot is also falling for her, and love triangles, even tentative ones, can get deadly in Wonderland.

REVIEW:

There's a hit-or-miss quality to QuinRose's obsessive Alice in the Country of _________ franchise, and Knight's Knowledge is looking like one of the hits. A bit more psychological than some of the other iterations of Alice's romantic adventures, this second series focusing on Ace looks into his role as the bad boy of the harem in the more traditional sense – he's the troubled loner that the heroine desperately wants to save. We in the real world recognize that that is not a healthy start to a relationship, and to a degree Alice is aware of that too. She spends a lot of time worrying about her attraction to Ace because she knows that what she really sees in him is herself back when she had a crush on her tutor. She recognizes his yearning for Julius as the same sort of hopeless feeling that she had, and while she knows that she can't really make it go away, she wants to try. At the same time, she sees that he's pretty unstable – he definitely freaked her out at the end of volume one, and she's a bit leery of being alone with him at first. The degree of his instability is underlined by the way all of the other characters worry about Alice spending time with him; even Peter isn't so much jealous as really worried as to what Ace might do. Boris, in fact, takes on a solely protective role because of his concern. The only real romantic contender besides Ace is Elliot, and he, too, shows some more aggressive qualities, although he's much faster to back off. This is one of the more dangerous feeling Alice stories, and while Sai Asai isn't the best artist to grace the series (she's still miles ahead of Job), she conveys the sense of urgency and the idea that Alice is really playing with fire this time. It's enough of an edge to make this one of the best stories in the franchise in a while.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. The plotline is more developed than some of the other recent books in the franchise, and the edge of danger makes it different. After the fiasco that is the Nightmare books, this is very faith-restoring for Alice fans.


MY LOVE STORY!!
Vol. 2

(by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko, Viz, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

Takeo Goda is a giant guy with a giant heart. Too bad the girls don't want him! (They want his good-looking best friend, Sunakawa.) Used to being on the sidelines, Takeo simply stands tall and accepts his fate. But one day when he saves a girl named Yamato from a harasser on the train, his (love!) life suddenly takes an incredible turn!

New at love, Takeo and Yamato excitedly begin their romantic relationship…but between friends who badmouth Takeo and a judo tournament that will separate the two for a month, are they going to survive as a couple beyond the honeymoon stage?

REVIEW:

I have to say, My Love Story is one of the cutest romances I've read in a long while. The warmth of Takeo's feelings, not just for Yamato, but for his best friend Sunakawa as well, makes him a terrific hero, and seeing others realize that he's not just a big hulking scary guy is one of the draws of the series for me. That Yamato and Suna can see him for who he is is also wonderful, and Suna really shines this volume himself as he helps Takeo to plan the best birthday possible for Yamato. That he does so when he might prefer to have Takeo's support for something as well also speaks strongly of the bonds our hero inspires. Of course, it can get to be a bit much, and I also really admire Suna's restraint for not throwing up when he's hanging out with what would have to, in real life, be one of the most nauseatingly sweet couples to be around. My Love Story works wonderfully as fiction, but there's a definite suspension of disbelief required to read it. While this is the norm for just about any work of fiction, My Love Story at times takes it to the breaking point.

That can be a good thing sometimes, of course. Takeo's at his manliest this time as he charges into a burning building and tosses bowling balls around (I guess they don't play candlepin in Japan), to say nothing of his new part-time job as a waiter at Macho Café. Aruko does a grand job with his facial expressions, and Kawahara's writing emphasizes not only his charm, but also how easily he can be misunderstood by those who cannot look past his exterior. This volume also includes four recipes with measurements in both grams and cups for readers everywhere, and they all look very doable and relatively uncomplicated – not to mention tasty.

RECOMMENDATION: Buy it. This is a fun take on the traditional shoujo romance and is totally devoid of the Creepy Factor that can be such a problem in the genre. It can get to be a little much at times, but really this is a heartwarming and adorable story that romance fans should enjoy.


DIGITAL SPOTLIGHT

MURDER INCARNATION
Chapters 1 - 7

(by Keita Sugawara and Shinji Inamitsu, Crunchyroll, premium subscription)

FROM CRUNCHYROLL:

A tragic loss. The endless despair that accompanies losing a loved one. A mysterious girl who appears at just the right moment. An unbelievable offer. "I can bring your lost loved one back to life, if you complete a simple task for me. Please kill three people, any three people, in the next 24 hours. Do that, and without fail I will revive them just as they were." Could YOU take three lives to bring someone you love back from the dead? What value do you place on human life?

REVIEW:

The first seven chapters of Murder Incarnation each tell variations on the same story: someone dies unexpectedly, via accident or suicide. A mysterious young woman wearing a high school uniform appears and tells the bereaved that she can bring back the dead if only you'll kill three people for her. The bereaved takes her up on her offer, but the results aren't always what you might expect. Very much in the vein of W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," it implies that being careful what you wish for is, two times out of three, a really good idea. The first two stories, one of two chapters and one comprising three, are very similar to each other up until the end, which makes them a bit of a drag to get through, but the third one is much more interesting, showing us a case that works and some implications of one that had some unintended consequences. This is the strongest of the first seven chapters, and the one that made me decide to go back and read the rest of what CR has available when I have a chance.

The major issue with Murder Incarnation is not the sameness of the first five chapters, however – it's the art. Like Toshiki Yui, the artist of this story uses the computer pretty exclusively for the art, however unlike that other mangaka, this art is painfully stiff and weird. It looks like 3D modeling software was used or some poor choices of filter, making the art awkward and difficult to cope with at times. It's a shame, because the story itself could have benefited from complimentary artwork to enhance it.

RECOMMENDATION: This gets the digital equivalent of “borrow it.” It's good but, so far, not great, and the art really brings it down. It's a shame, because the premise is a good one.


UNTRANSLATED GEMS

FANCY LALA
2 volumes

(by Rurika Kasuga, price and publisher vary by country)

FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:

Miho Shinohara is a care-free third-grader. One day, she encounters Mogu and Pigu - two lost fairies disguised as stuffed animals. In exchange for staying at her home until they find a way to return to their own world, the fairies give Miho a special sketch pad and pencil that enable her to magical create real objects from what she draws. With the pen, Miho can also transform into Lala, a beautiful teenage girl created from her manga art. As Lala, she is discovered by a talent agency, and so begins her adventures from an ordinary school girl to a model to an idol singer.

THOUGHTS:

The much more compact manga version of Studio Pierrot's magical girl series is actually a far better telling of Miho's story than the anime. In part this is due to the aforementioned compactness – where the anime dragged a bit, the manga gets to the point and spends a bit more time looking at Miho/Lala's relationships with the other characters, especially Hiroya. We get a real grasp of why it is that he likes her, and their romance is more developed, actually becoming very sweet and making us sad that they can't be together. (It's also totally innocent, so don't worry.) There's also a bit more closure here as the story ends – Lala actually gets to say good-bye to everyone rather than just losing her powers for good. Simply put, the manga version allows to really come to know the characters as people, and that improves the story a whole lot.

Rurika Kasuga's art is a far cry from Akemi Takada's original designs, but it is winsome and works quite well, and Pigu and Mogu are actually a little bit cuter in the manga. Each volume also has a short story unrelated to the main one, so we can see that she's a fun creator in the younger shoujo demographic – very much late 1990s Ribon fare, but charming in a way we don't always see anymore. There's pretty much no hope of this ever getting an English release, but if you can muddle your way through the Italian, Chinese, or Japanese and are a magical girl fan, this is a good one, and even improves on its source material.

DON'T WORRY! READ IT IN: Italian, Chinese.


Well, that was a nice break from the Preview Guide, but now it's back to it! I actually enjoy Preview Guide time, but after about two days I do start to crave the written word...I practically start shuffling around the house like a zombie muttering, “Books...books....” I guess the guest room isn't the only creepy thing about my house, huh?


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