Penguin Gentlemen

Penguin Gentlemen by Kishi Ueno

The premise of this manga – penguins who happen to run a cafe where they are all very buff men wearing tuxedos – seemed so ridiculous I couldn’t help wanting to check it out. This single volume manga certainly gets the deluxe treatment, with a hardcover edition and plenty of color pages. Now and then I really enjoy a didactic manga, and that’s what Ueno delivers. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of a storyline focusing on penguin cafe work, because I enjoy a good food manga as well, but for readers who want to dramatically up their knowledge of penguin behavior, species variants, and random facts about penguin habitats this is the book for you!

Penguin Gentlemen

The character designs are one of the most amusing aspects of the book, as Ueno showcases differences in penguin markings and size into the hair styles and tuxedo uniforms of all the waiters. The main boss of the cafe is the King penguin, who is dwarfed in size by the stoic Emperor penguin who looms over everyone. The penguin gentlemen discuss their characteristics in the setting of the cafe, with plenty of comedic bits. The characters switch back and forth often between their anthropomorphic human forms and their natural states as penguins, but Ueno is great at rendering the heightened emotions of the characters even when they are in bird form. I read this book in several sittings, simply because I was not able to absorb all the information about penguin egg hatching, body language, and markings without a break here and there. The last section of the book that focuses on penguin courtship rituals is particularly hilarious. If someone wants to learn many scientific facts about penguins and be entertained along the way, Penguin Gentlemen certainly delivers.

Soulless: The Manga Vol. 1

Soulless: The Manga by Gail Carriger and Rem

I generally tend to steer clear of manga adaptations of books I’ve already read. I have read the first three books of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, and then I stopped following it, because of plot element that I usually find extremely annoying in romance novels. I spotted this manga version recently at my local library and decided to give it a try.

Soulless the book is a witty take on the steampunk/paranormal/historical romance genre. Heroine Alexia Tarabotti is a bit of a black sheep in her own family due to her intelligence and looks taking after her father instead of her mother. She’s also a unique and rare specimen of supernatural being because she’s a preturnatural, someone born without a soul. This gives her immunity to vampires and werewolves, which comes in handy as Victorian era London is overrun by supernatural beings.

Alexia has an encounter with a rather stupid vampire after she ducks out of a party in an attempt to find something decent to eat. This doesn’t sit well with the overbearing werewolf Lord Conall Macon, who is working for the government. Alexia and Conall insult each other and stalk off, only to find themselves thrown together again as unusual things begin to happen with the local London vampires. As a heroine, Alexia is very entertaining. She doesn’t hesitate to rescue herself by staking the odd vampire, and her status as a spinster ensures that she’s going to speak her mind without much regard for social conventions. On the other hand she has a hard time believing that anyone, even a werewolf would be attracted to her, because she’s been the topic of frequent put-downs by her family.

It is difficult to adapt an almost 400 page book into a 225 page manga. A certain amount of world building and character development does get lost in the process. The book goes into much more depth with Alexia’s relationships with the foppish vampire Akeldama and Ivy, Alexia’s good friend with horrific taste in hats. Some of the details about what exactly a preturnatural is and the more steampunkish aspects of this particular London were glossed over. But the essential plot and the developing romance between Alexia and Conall was maintained, so overall I can’t really quibble with the adaptation choices.

The art by Rem is detailed and fluid, with distinct designs for each character. The occasional lapse into chibi/wolf puppy style when Conall was in the grips of werewolf emotion was funny, and overall the art was extremely appealing. The illustrations did a good job at portraying the humorous reactions the characters have to each other even while they are dealing with plenty of suspicious supernatural incidents. Overall, I thought that this adaptation was one that fans of the book would enjoy. It also reminded me of what I liked about the prose series, so I might give the fourth book a try now.

Alice in the Country of Hearts Omnibus Volume 3

I enjoyed the first few volumes of this mash-up of Alice in Wonderland. Here are my previous reviews of volume 1, 2, 3, and 4. I was glad that Yen Press picked this series up after Tokyopop imploded, and it seemed to me at the time fairly sensible since I believe many of the other volumes of this series ended up on the New York Times manga bestseller’s list. All along this mash-up of Alice in Wonderland and a Japanese dating game has been more interesting than I would expect from a dating game manga adaptation, but the final volume has some extra creepiness and an open-ended conclusion.

The Country of Hearts is about to have a grand ball, but Alice doesn’t know how to dance and doesn’t have anything to wear. Julius and Ace help her prepare, but she’s unable to avoid the Mad Hatter, Blood Dupre, at the ball. Alice is simultaneously repelled and curious about him, and she gradually learns a little more about the Hatter and how the system of chaotic government works in the Country of Hearts. This series has always been long on atmosphere and short on plot, with various hints that there’s a central mystery behind Alice’s journey away from the real world. This is solved somewhat by hints that suggest that Alice’s journey is really more of an unhealthy psychological defense mechanism, as she can’t deal with a specific event that took place in the real world. There’s also a suggestion about who the White Rabbit’s real world analogue is that makes his obsessive behavior seem even creepier, and I didn’t think that was possible.

Even though Alice in the Country of Hearts isn’t all that eventful, I did enjoy the series as a whole and was happy to read the final volumes. This manga is basically all about cute guys, random moments of homicide, occasional references to psychological issues, and awesome costuming. Even though the plot might not be all that detailed, it is much more interesting than any other manga that I’ve read that is based on a dating game, but perhaps I am just a sucker for random bullets flying in shoujo manga. Yen Press’ new omnibus editions will likely tempt fans to replace the old Tokyopop single volumes. I am too cheap to do this, but I did enjoy the larger size, character galleries, and color pages in this volume. I enjoyed this series enough that I’m planning on picking up the spin-off volumes from Seven Seas too.

A Bride’s Story Volume 2 by Kaoru Mori

Well, the first volume of this series had the meticulously researched slice of life stories that I expected from the author of Emma, but the second volume gives the reader a surprising amount of action. Amir is starting to get more settled into her new life as a married woman in the village. She even makes a new friend, the outspoken Pariya. Pariya has had trouble finding a husband due to her snarky personality, but she quickly forms a friendship with Amir. Amir continues to be a captivating heroine, partly due to her frequent unorthodox actions. When Pariya gives Amir an intricately decorated loaf of bread, Amir is momentarily distressed because she doesn’t have a present to give in return. She runs inside, grabs her bow, and shoots a bird for Pariya. Amir comments that the birds are “very tasty roasted.”

The gulf in age between Amir and her husband Karluk is preventing them from having a real marriage yet, but Karluk is doing the best he can to be a good husband to his new wife. The village idyll is interrupted when Amir’s tribe comes to take her back. They’ve run through all their marriageable women, and decide that they’re going to marry Amir off again to foster a new alliance. Amir’s brother seems slightly ambivalent about kidnapping his sister back, but he goes along with the orders of the older men in the raiding party. Mori’s sense of humor is part of what makes her manga so fun to read. All the historical detail might seem dry in the hands of another author, but even in a tense situation she manages to build in some funny bits of character interaction. When the researcher Mr. Smith sees Amir being menaced by her family, he decides to drive a herd of sheep towards the group to form a distraction, but not before he undertakes a lengthy apology to the Shepard by saying, “I know beyond the cold descriptions in books, that domestic livestock is a vital factor in inheritance. But…given our present circumstances..I want you to know that the actions I now take have been forced upon me.”

Amir’s tribe severely underestimates the fighting potential of the villagers, and there are some exciting and unconventional battle scenes as the villagers defend Amir in the middle of the night. While Karluk is forced to stay at home with Amir instead of fighting with the other men, he manages to pull off his own heroic moment. The rest of the volume focuses on the growing emotional connection between Amir and Karluk, and there’s a great episode that focuses on the tradition and symbolism attached to the embroidery patterns that are handed down between the women of the same family. Embroidered cloths end up being a way to hold on to memories of the women who created them, serving as a storytelling mechanism as they are unpacked to be shown off to a new generation. These hardcover volumes continue to be a manga collector’s dream. This is a special series, and it is nice that Yen Press is keeping the production values for A Bride’s Story so high.

A Bride's Story Volume 1

I think it is nice that Kaoru Mori’s manga inspires special treatment. The editions of Emma from CMX featured matte paper stock that gave the volumes an old timey feel. A Bride’s Story gets the deluxe treatment from Yen Press, with the first volume arriving as an over sized hardback with a lovely wraparound illustration on the dust jacket. The painstaking research, sympathetic characters, and lovely detailed illustrations that readers enjoyed in Emma are in full effect in A Bride’s Story, with the bonus of a heroine who enjoys hunting rabbits from horseback with a bow.

The story takes place along the Silk Road in the 19th century. Amir is twenty years old, and she’s sent to marry a twelve year old boy named Karluk. Amir comes from a more nomadic tribe than Karluk’s family, with the result that she brings with her some skills that her new family hasn’t possessed in awhile. Amir seems anxious to fit into her new place, trying to be helpful whenever possible and she seems to be waiting for her new husband to grow up. Evidently twenty years is an unforgivably old age for a bride, and the backstory behind the marriage isn’t shown. Karluk is an uncommonly calm twelve year old, who seems to take his responsibilities very seriously. He jumps at the chance to try to locate his uncle’s clan of shepherds, wanting to be reintroduced to his relatives as a married man.

I’d always thought that Mori’s slice of life stories are particularly good at portraying children and how they negotiate the world. Rostam, the youngest member of the household, becomes fascinated with the local woodcarver and he neglects his chores to observe him. This gives Mori the excuse to showcase some dazzling panels of woodcarving patters, as well as showing the reactions of Rostam’s family. His mother sends him to bed without dinner, then tasks Amir with sneaking him food later. When it is clear that this is a general pattern of Rostam getting punishments that his mother immediately regrets, Amir declines to participate. She’s nervous and wants to please her new family, but when they start discussing rabbit stew she seizes the opportunity to grab her bow (part of her dowry) and race off on her horse to hunt.

A Bride’s Story would be plenty entertaining if it just showcased Mori’s research and charming illustrations, but she decides to introduce a note of suspense when it seems like Amir’s family has started to regret sending her off to marry Karluck. Amir gets an unexpected ally when the matriarch of the family (an enjoyable example of the kick-ass grandma character that often appears in manga) decides to defend the new bride. Karluck’s grandmother received a bow with her dowry too! With publishers going out of business and series going out of print or left unfinished, I’ve been feeling a little less enthused about manga lately. Reading A Bride’s Story has reminded me about the possibilities for storytelling unique to manga, and I’m happy to find a great new series to read.