Takane & Hana 2 by Yuki Shiwase

In many ways, Takane & Hana reminds me of Boys Over Flowers: we have the romantic lead as somewhat of a nitwit and conceited but also surprisingly sweet contrasted against a more grounded but spirited heroine. Granted, Takane & Hana is more of a comedy where Boys Over Flowers was much more serious. But I am continually surprised by this title and hope the mangaka can keep the plot flowing.

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Story: Hana is still quite unsure about the whole Takane situation. When Takane’s grandfather requests (commands) Takane to bring “Chiaki” to a dinner party, Hana is forced to come along to once again pretend to be her sister. But she is far too young to really pull off her older sister and there are those who are starting to question “Chiaki”‘s age and suitability for Takane. Should Hana have had her sister go instead? Meanwhile, Takane’s estranged friend shows up looking to see the girl that has attracted Takane. Can Hana bridge the gap between the two and help them find their friendship again? And hana questions her own feelings – should she really be with Takane when she is a liability to him?

The real treat of this title is the humor – especially the really silly things the two manage to say to each other. E.g., in this book, Hana is defending Takane by saying, “A minute ago, you called Takne boring. But you’re dead wrong. Takane’s only good point is that he’s not boring!” To which Takane replies, “HEY!” The stubborn hubris of Takane paired with Hana’s realistic optimism are the draw and charm of this story.

We also get some cute moments of Takane trying to take Hana out on a normal date – which will, of course, end up with Takane kissing a sea cucumber instead of Hana. I can see that a running joke in the rest of the series.

In all, this is a fun series that doesn’t take itself seriously but has great presence and charm all the same. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card 1 by CLAMP

Much of the original CLAMP touch is evident in this sequel to the original Cardcaptor Sakura series; seeing the characters again was a true joy. But this first volume was light on plot and centered more on bringing the characters back to Sakura’s sphere of influence in little vignettes. We have a mystery of why Sakura’s cards have turned clear, why she has a new key, and how Syoran and Eriol are involved. So although there is much promise, I would have liked to see more – this was very short and felt like it was missing a whole chapter.

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Story: Sakura begins middle school with friend Tomoyo. She is overjoyed, though, when Syaoran appears and is back permanently to attend the same school. But then she has strange dreams of clear cards and finds herself with a new key. Worse, the powers of the new cards and new mysterious figure cannot be sensed by Cerberus or Yue – causing worry among the crew. Will Sakura create new clear cards – and why have they suddenly appeared?

Part of the treat of a story like Cardcaptor is in the interactions – Tomoyo’s selfless devotion/cute outfit designs, Cerberus’ hunger for sweets, Yue/Yukito’s alter egos, Syaoran’s fierceness, the fun banter between Toya (her brother) and Sakura, and even the mystery behind Nadeshiko – Sakura’s mother. Cardcaptor always had a cuteness and sweetness factor that just wasn’t matched in similar CLAMP titles such as Angelic Layer. All of that was here including character development as Sakura and Syoaran are able to admit their feelings for each other.

It will be interesting to see if this goes the way of previous Cardcaptor books: finding/creating the cards in the first half and then using them to end the chaos in the city that they created in the second half. At least the new cards created do have unique qualities to them. But I have to admit, regardless of direction it really is wonderful to see this story continued again. CLAMP has matured over the last two decades and the story will hopefully do the same. In the beginning, Kodansha has helpfully given us a short introduction with reminders of who the characters are and how they relate to Sakura. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Red Rising Sons of Ares by Pierce Brown, Rik Hoskin, Eli Powell (Illustrator)

Instead of a paragraph review, I found it easier to just put points:

– You’ll want to have read the books to appreciate this. Although it takes place before the events in the book, it’s not going to be as interesting without the bigger picture of what comes later.

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– The art is extremely problematic – murky, crowded, obscured, and heavy. It was impossible to see expressions, features, nuances, and even the action scenes were confusing. I had no idea what was happening most of the time and I really had a hard time wanting to read this graphic novel because the art was so frustrating of disenchanting.
– The book’s tone is very heavy and depressing (like the origin story). Lots of “life sucks and then you (get tortured until you) die” scenarios. People are evil, selfish, greedy, and vain. It grates after awhile, more so than the book did.
– We get the reason Ares started his little rebellion showed much clearer – more than the forbidden romance so much as he was always an outcast anyway.
– The writing is as heavy as the art and plot – this is a dense book to get through with few light moments.
– For those who have read the books, especially to the end book, you’ll like Sevro even more, though he only figures as an infant here.
– The story is nicely non linear – we get Fitchner fighting a battle for reasons we aren’t told yet. The plot is nicely laid out with reveals coming at the right moments to start to put context to the main thread.

In the end, I wish it had a different illustrator. He’s not bad but it was just too murky for a prose-inspired source. I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I should have as a result – and therefore can’t rate this higher. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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White Sand Volume 2 by Brandon Sanderson

Where the first volume focused on world building and setting the stage for the current situation, this second volumes takes a more leisurely approach, focusing on the politics and the interpersonal connections. There is still plenty of action, though, since Kenton faces daily assassination attempts, frustrations and triumphs while wooing politicians, and a growing relationship (not romantic) with the Duchess from the Darkside.

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Story: Kenton has to marshal what is left of the Diem and try to rebuild it after the devastating betrayal that destroyed nearly all the Sand Masters. With the Duchess choosing to remain at his side and the addition of a hated enemy who has been forced to protect him, Kenton goes to each of the major power players to convince them to vote for the Diem and support it. But those power players have their own perspectives and motivations, many of which Kenton has no control over whatsoever. At the same time, the Duchess is making interesting discoveries about the nature of the Sand Masters – though a betrayal close to her could endanger them all.

Kenton spends most of the book either a) fending off assassination attempts, b) talking among his small group of followers; or c) meeting with the politicos and negotiating with them. It sounds mundane but I appreciated that we got so much character development while also finding out more about the backgrounds and histories of Kenton’s ad hoc group. As well, there are some fun “Game of Thrones” machinations that gives the story latyers.

Most of the illustration work is the same from the first book. I can’t say that I liked or appreciated it, if I am being honest. The Duchess especially looked more like a circus reject than an elegant Darksider. The last chapter had a new illustrator and though the line work wasn’t as detailed, the characters seemed a lot more elegant. The huge change in art styles was jarring, admittedly. I don’t want to read a book and find the author changed and so did the tone; similarly it is frustrating to start a book one way and then end up with everyone greatly changing in appearance midway.

As with all of Sanderson’s works, we have an interesting magic system that will be fully explored. But there are the usual quirky individuals and very distinct characterizations that make the ride worthwhile and fun in the process. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Again!! by Mitsurou Kubo

Again!! features the somewhat overused plot device of people going back in time in order to redo their life in high school. In this case, Imamura and Fujieda – each with a very different perspective on high school life – get into an accident and wind up three years in the past. Each has a chance to redo school life – but what will they do differently? The book does defy many conventions, whith Imamura acting more out of boredom at the thought of 3 more lonely years of high school and Fujieda following Imamura around seeing what he will do.

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Story: Imamura always looked tough and as such, never had any friends in high school. He was practically invisible as far as the school went. Upon graduation, he ponders about how things came to this point and remembers the girl pep squad leader who stood out at the entrance ceremony. When he goes to investigate what happened to her and the pep squad, he runs into Fujieda; after a misunderstanding/accident that sends them both fatally down a set of stairs, they wake up 3 years in the past, this time at the entrance ceremony. Fujieda wants her old life back and Imamura can’t stand the idea of three years of boring school again. So he decides to help that pep squad girl keep her club from disbanding. The problem is – the girl doesn’t want his help!

For a book with two main characters, we don’t see much of Fujieda; we don’t even know her name until 3/4 of the way through the book. In fact, it is only after several chapters that we get to know her and her story. Thus far in volume 1, her story is weak and I am wondering why she was included at all.

The manga bucks several cliches in that Imamura doesn’t really care much why he is in the past and decides to work with the pep squad girl because he’s bored. This time, he will help her succeed and the club won’t disband. Unfortunately, she is stubborn and hide bound and Imamura has a tough task cut out for him. The conflict in the story comes from the head of the cheerleaders – she wants the pep squad completely disbanded and isn’t afraid to use her popularity and cheerleaders to destroy the club.

It’s a shame that this has to include the nasty uptight cheerleader trope – the catty girl who uses dirty and underhanded tricks to get her way (including seducing boys to her bidding). And the pep squad girl is probably the most unlikable character I’ve seen in a manga in a long time. So it will be interesting to see if the author can keep this interesting or if we’ll just get cat fights between the two girls, with Fujieda popping in occasionally to cackle over Imamura’s failures. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Jimmy’s Bastards 1 by Garth Ennish, Russ Braun

Ever have a kid in one of your classes that tried so hard to be cool but failed miserably? Usually by making really stupid fart jokes or sex jokes all the time? If so, then you will find a lot of familiar territory in Jimmy’s Bastards. It’s a one note: macho crass. As much sex, violence, and manly jokes as you can possible stomach, all the while being told that you must not be a ‘cool’ person if you don’t find them funny (let’s not mention the repetition making things even staler). And I have to hand it to Ennis, he’s managed to create a whole man-child meme in one book: instead of the women in this book being populated only by nuns and whores, his story is so macho-enthused that the women only fall into the categories of mannish or bimbo. #comicgate should make this their bible.

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Story: Jimmy is a top Mi6 agent – the best in the business. He makes killing easy and spends most of his time nailing women. Unfortunately, after a lifetime of doing so, he seems to have amassed an army of children who have an axe to grind with ‘daddy’. Enter mannish agent McEwen, ready to assist Jimmy but not fall for his wiles. Together, they will have to foil the plot of the bastards while also saving London from becoming gender fluid. Because as the book notes, you’d be totally distracted and having sex all the time if you suddenly gained genitalia from the opposite gender, right?

I’ll be honest, this felt more like a joke than an actual read. If you like uberviolence for the sake of violence, people making constant references to male or female genitalia or sex, and endless jokes about Jimmy being paired with a black woman so he can make ‘token’ comments, this is your nirvana. For everyone else with half a brain and less interest in the alt FAR right, perhaps find a better written piece. Ennis has pretty much written a piece justifying the alt right turning the world into the future of the movie Idiocracy.

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Voltron Legendary Defender Vol. 2: The Pilgrimage by Tim Hedrick, Mitch Iverson, Jung Gwan, Rubine

This story nicely hits a sweet spot of its target audience – grade school kids looking for a bit of mindless adventure and some humor. While definitely not on the same level as e.g., Avatar, it’s a fun little romp in space and original storyline not in the series that never takes itself too seriously.

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Story: When the castle answers a distress call, they find a race of cat-like humanoids fighting desperately against Galran mobs. As the Voltron crew soon discover, the people were betrayed and brought to the Galra by a traitor. They need to find their legendary protection grounds – a treacherous journey that the Voltron lions and castle can help with finding. But the traitor also knows where they are heading….

The theme of this book is Hulk – nearly every scene and every moment is about him and his unique talents. From being able to sniff out a special cake in a maze to recognizing that a new alien may not be an adversary and that there are better ways to deal with conflict than with more conflict. A running gag is that the cat people has two sisters who want to marry Hulk because they respect size and strength most in their culture.

The first part of the book is the battle to free the cat people and the rest is the journey and dangers to find their sacred grounds. The story is fairly straightforward and younger readers will have no problems following the plot.

The illustrations look exactly like the animation. Some of the action sequences may be a bit confusing but otherwise, this is the Voltron that everyone knows and loves. I think younger kids will especially appreciate the action, adventure, and admittedly simplistic storyline. But fans can also appreciate the humor interspersed throughout. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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