A Little Life Update + January & February Favorites

As promised, I didn’t update last month because I was busy being 9 months pregnant. On February 3rd, my daughter Severina was born, a little late but in good health! In the ensuing weeks, I’ve been busy trying to learn how to do this whole “mom” thing, and just generally enjoying her presence. She sleeps a lot, of course, so I’ve had a chance to get a little reading done as I ease back into work, on top of the reading I got done before she arrived. That means this is a longer “favorites” post than usual — a nice challenge for me as I get back into the groove of writing!

I’m also trying something new this month. I’ve become an affiliate of Bookshop.org, a website that is seeking to redirect some of Amazon’s book sale profits to independent bookstores. I try not to preach too much, but I have serious concerns about Amazon’s affect on the publishing industry, so I’m glad to be able to provide an alternative option to readers. Full disclosure: If you order books through my links, I will get a percentage of that sale. I am obviously very grateful if you do choose to do that — but I would also encourage you to try to do more of your book shopping through the website itself when you can’t get to your local independent bookstore or comic shop, regardless of whether it kicks back to me or not. It will benefit other affiliate bookstores and folks in the world of book retail and reviewing.

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What’s Michael? Fat Cat Collection, Volume 1, by Makoto Kobayashi — published by Dark Horse Comics

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will likely have seen some of my ravings about What’s Michael? in the past, and will know that I’m a huge lover of cats. This hilarious series is about the quirks of cats, as shown through Michael, a sort of stand-in for all orange tabbies everywhere, and his cat companions. This is also, however, a series about the quirks of cat lovers; frequently the human characters are depicted as going above and beyond what seems reasonable in favor of providing the best for their cats. My personal favorite recurring characters are the yakuza member known as K who doesn’t want anyone to know that he keeps and dotes on a cat, and his rival yakuza member M who doesn’t want anyone to know that he is horribly afraid of cats. Each man is worried about shattering his manly image, you see. Makoto Kobayashi seems to enjoy the incongruity of stereotypically masculine men loving cats, and it is clear from his keen observation that he himself is a great lover of felines. Dark Horse had originally published this series in smaller volumes back in the 90s, and I’m really, really excited that they’re bringing it back in this “fatcat” edition for a new wave of cat-loving readers!

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Our Dining Table, by Mita Ori — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

I read a lot of BL, and the majority of it is…not great, honestly. I wade through a lot of excessive drama seeking out romances that are sweet, or comforting, or just plain pleasant. Luckily, those kinds of BL are becoming easier to find, and I would count Our Dining Table among them — though honestly, the romance is more of a bonus than a feature in this cozy food manga. Yutaka is a salaryman who has trouble eating around others. One day, he intercepts the young Tane, a little boy with a big appetite who becomes obsessed with Yutaka’s homemade onigiri. Through Tane, Yutaka meets Minoru, his older brother, and the three fall into a pattern of sharing meals together regularly. Obviously a romance buds between Yutaka and Minoru, but the real draw is the focus on shared meals — regardless of their quality — as a vehicle for creating familial bonds. As someone who grew up in an Italian household (and who loves food), this idea of sharing meals as a family is really important to me. I loved to see it utilized in a “found family” narrative, highlighting the importance of nourishing each other physically and emotionally.

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You Are New, by Lucy Knisley — published by Chronicle Books

Okay, I’m cheating a bit here. You Are New is actually a picture book that I bought for my daughter before she was born. But I’m including it here because it is another in an ever-growing collection of works by cartoonist Lucy Knisley about…well, babies. I haven’t forgotten my promise to write a piece about pregnancy and parenthood in comics, and I’m slowly accruing a small horde of books and links to use to that end. Knisley keeps churning out content that simply demands to be part of that future post! In this case, she speaks directly to children instead of parents, assuring them that their newness — whether it’s because they were just born or because they are meeting new people or whatever the case may be — is a wonderful gift of growth and change. We are constantly in the process of reinventing ourselves day to day, and none moreso than children. I’ve read this to Severina a few times now, both before and since she was born. Soon, she’ll be able to appreciate the lovely, bright illustrations that depict kids of all ages and backgrounds. Until then, well…she’s still very new!

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Kodocha, Volume 1, by Miho Obana — published by Tokyopop (out of print)

This also feels a bit like cheating, since this is actually a reread — though I first read this manga in 8th grade, about seventeen or so years ago! I have a soft spot for “old” shojo (stuff from the 90s and early 00s, basically), and on a whim realized that I wanted to revisit this series, which is so good at balancing absurd, slapsticky humor with intense, soap opera-style drama. Protagonist Sana is a famous actress, and she’s having trouble at school with a bully named Akito. As she tries to fight back against his classroom tyranny, she learns about his tragic past and is spurred to help his family overcome their issues through her performance in a movie that closely mirrors their experiences. It sounds trite, and perhaps in some ways it is…but there’s something so appealing about the characters that I find myself drawn in, anyway. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but if you can find old copies of Kodocha at your library or used somewhere, I do recommend checking it out, especially if you remember the good old bad days of North American manga publishing.

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Blue Flag, Volume 1, by KAITO — published by VIZ Media (available April 21, 2020)

This is one of those series around which there’s been a lot of buzz, so I was really excited to see it getting a print release through VIZ this year. In many ways, Blue Flag seems like a straightforward high school drama revolving around an uncomfortable love triangle. Protagonist Taichi is entering his final year of high school, and discovers that he’s in the same class as his childhood friend, Toma. While Toma doesn’t seem to think anything between them has changed, Taichi feels that Toma’s popularity and good-naturedness separate them, and he doesn’t really considering Toma a close friend. He happens to discover that a timid girl in his class, Futaba Kuze, has a crush on Toma. She asks for Taichi’s help to get Toma’s attention — and complications ensue. The three get along well, but Toma is hiding his real feelings about his own affections, and Taichi suddenly feels far more attached to Kuze than he anticipated, especially considering he rather disliked her at the outset of the manga. I had never read anything by KAITO before, but his artwork is absolutely lovely, and he manages to keep a high school love triangle (one of my least favorite tropes) interesting through genuinely likable characters. So far, there’s no overly-dramatic backstabbing or eyeroll-worthy declarations of romantic intention. And besides, there’s an LGBTQ+ angle here as well, and I’m curious to see how that’s handled in future volumes.

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My Androgynous Boyfriend, Volume 1, by Tamekou — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

Upon seeing my Goodreads rating of this volume, a friend with whom I didn’t think I had much discussed my love of androgynous men commented, “Oh brand.” And truly, this is a very on brand manga for me in so many ways. Wako is a hard-working manga editor who isn’t terribly interested in her own appearance, but who loves cute and beautiful things. This affection extends to her boyfriend, the fashionable and feminine Meguru. This unlikely couple loves each other fiercely, and the story mainly revolves around the misconceptions others have about their sexualities (since some people assume Meguru is a woman, or that he is gay). So far, even though Wako and Meguru both deal with some struggles in their professional and personal lives, this is a series without any malice. These two lovebirds are happy with each other, and they work hard to maintain their relationship with a great deal of mutual respect and admiration. The first volume was simply relaxing and enjoyable to read, and I look forward to seeing what future volumes have in store.

Well, there’s two months’ worth of recommendations for you, dear readers! I’ll be getting back to reviewing for Comics Beat soon, too, so continue to look for my long-form reviews there. Much as the time away has been nice (and brief!), I’m looking forward to diving headlong back into manga writing, as well as my other work. It’s important to keep the mind active, even when caring for a child! At the very least, I’ll be back again next month for another favorites post, so keep an eye out for it.

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March Favorites

It’s finally starting to feel like spring, and I couldn’t be more grateful. It’s so much easier to motivate myself to work when the sun is shining, especially after months and months of frigid winds and gray skies. March is always an odd month, sitting right at the edge of winter and spring, and it often makes me feel unsettled.

After over a month since my sweet kitty Mia’s passing, my husband and I decided we would start the process of looking for new feline companions, specifically hoping to adopt a bonded pair. We absolutely did not expect to adopt on the day we went to the local MSPCA shelter, but of course…the cats had other plans. On March 17th (Saint Gertrude’s Day, the patron saint of cats!), we brought home Zelda and Hilda, a mother-daughter pair of little black cats. They are charming in the extreme, so expect me to gush about them even more as time passes.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m going to be having my wisdom teeth removed this coming Friday. It’s long overdue, and I’ll be glad once it’s done, but I’m definitely dreading what I’ve heard is a rather painful healing process. But who knows, maybe it’ll afford me more time to read….

Which brings me to the point of this post! Last month I did a round up of my favorite comics reads, and I’m going to go for it again. If I do it twice, it’s a monthly column, right? I actually didn’t read a ton of comics this month, instead favoring some truly indulgent murder mystery audiobooks. But of what I did read, there are a few certain gems that I want to share.

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Star Light Woman, by Rie Kanou — available through Crunchyroll

At the start of the month, I decided to sift through the various reading-oriented apps on my tablet to find something new, and I came upon Star Light Woman on Crunchyroll. I was drawn by the image of protagonist Hoshi, rendered in what I think of as an 80s manga style, all puffy hair and cut-off shorts. I’m not sure what I was expecting — maybe a silly, slightly sexy sci-fi romp? And that’s more or less what it is, but somehow I really, really loved it. Hoshi just wants to lead a normal life, but she is the product of an experiment by an alien race to create the perfect weapon to save them from their enemies. She continually has to thwart these aliens while encountering other humans who have undergone similar transformations at their hands. It’s a short little series without much depth, but it’s truly funny and the artwork is stunning. I’m usually very critical of “sexy lady protagonist whose clothes don’t fit properly,” but Hoshi even gets my blood pumping, and I think that her strong, solid frame coupled with her highly moral principles lends a lot to her appeal. She’s like an embodiment of righteous female anger — a subject I’m always eager to see in my fiction!

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Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen, by Moyoco Anno — available through Crunchyroll

I love Moyoco Anno’s work, though I have to admit that this was only the second thing of hers I had ever read. Sakuran was a gorgeous and deeply provocative manga, so when I was scrolling through options on Crunchyroll’s manga app after finishing Star Light Woman, I remembered that I had been meaning to read Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen for quite some time. I was not at all disappointed, and in fact I read Buffalo 5 Gals immediately afterward, just to get more of Anno’s sassy sex working heroines. But Amorous Gentlemen is special, probably my favorite of Anno’s works thus far. She is incredibly sensitive with sex work while also not over-glamorizing it; Colette and all her co-workers go about their day-to-day business like at any other job, and in many cases care very deeply about their clients. But they also are in close quarters, so they fight and disagree, and sometimes they are all too aware of how they are doomed to this life. The sex scenes are sometimes clinical and sometimes genuinely sexy, and I think that knowing when to evoke which mood in a reader is an incredible skill on Anno’s part. I’m also always going to be a sucker for her very stylized artwork, all angles and frills and fashion.

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Candy Color Paradox, Volume 1, by Isaku Natsume — published by VIZ Media

The only manga on this month’s list that’s actually new this month, and the only one that has male protagonists! I was able to snag a galley copy of this right before it came out, and I honestly didn’t think it would be anything special. I’ll usually try to read new BL when it comes out, but I’ve been burned so many times with cliched plots or harmful tropes that it’s more a desire to keep up-to-date than an expectation that I’ll find something great. But VIZ’s SuBLime imprint has been knocking it out of the park lately, and I really liked this first volume. Protagonist Satoshi Onoe is a reporter who is proud of his body of work, but one day he is thrown onto a stakeout team with Motoharu Kaburagi, a photographer with a bad attitude whom Onoe believes stole his girlfriend away. The two start off on rough terms, but soon find that they work well together — and they begin to “catch feelings.” You know, that old gem. Honestly, it was cute and fluffy, and I feel like it’s been a long time since I read some straightforward “loathe to like to love” BL manga. The artwork is clean and appealing, with good sense of movement.

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Nana, by Ai Yazawa — published by VIZ Media

This month, I decided to embark on a reread of Nana, and I’ve gotten up through volume 7 so far. I honestly don’t remember how much if it I’ve read in the past, so I wanted to make sure I got the full experience. I had watched the anime with my husband many years ago, and it wrecked us both, so coming back to it now, as a woman approaching my thirties instead of a woman barely out of her early 20s, is kind of a weird sensation. I’m farther away from any chance of making rash young adult decisions, but also in a place where I can envy the energy and passion that the characters portray as they lead a dramatic, punk-poverty-chic lifestyle. The series is old now, at least in the timeline of manga, so I don’t feel the need to summarize it, though I may one day write a whole piece about its meaningfulness to me, personally. I remember it didn’t sell great at Comicopia, but it was one of those series that I was adamant about keeping around. Yazawa’s artwork is so strange, with leggy, large-eyed Blythe-doll-esque characters and gorgeous renderings of haute couture of the 2000s, and I’m always enthralled by it. And I genuinely wish there was more work like Nana, work that explored the fraught relationships between female friends who love each other so passionately but don’t have the outlet to express it — an experience that will surely be familiar to many who squashed down their feelings throughout their teenage years for fear of judgment, or just because they didn’t have the tools to recognize those feelings. Society fucks women over, and Yazawa does an incredible job of balancing that message with a lot of genuine sensitivity for two very different women who are desperately reaching for an unobtainable happiness.

So, fluffy BL aside, it seems like I’ve read a bunch of manga about women who are dealing with too many external pressures getting in the way of their desires. That sounds like an appropriate way to have spent Women’s History Month! Honestly, though, my favorite works are often those by women representing the trials of womanhood — not because womanhood is terrible! But because it is cathartic to see your own worries magnified and projected in media sometimes, to see those fears getting played out somewhere safe, allowing you to recognize their validity but also release them in order to achieve your own goals, always knowing that you’re not alone.

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