chomiji: A chibi cartoon of Hotaru from the manga Samurai Deeper Kyo, with a book. Caption: Manga Joy (Manga joy!)

Hey, long time no post, and this one will be short, but I've got to start getting back to posting somehow.

So I just started what looks like a delightful new-to-me manga series. It comes with an impeccable pedigree for being delightful: it's by Ouran High School Host Club's Bisco Hatori.

Behind the Scenes!! stars awkward, terribly introverted Ranmaru Kurisu, who was the odd one out in his family of hearty, hardy fisherfolk. Now at university, he's been creeping around trying not to draw attention to himself. One day, he encounters an apparent Zombie Apocalypse and is so shocked that he passes out. When he wakes from his faint, he discovers that it was a movie scene and that he has been rescued by the eccentric, creative members of the Art Squad, who provide costumes, makeup, sets, and special effects for the university's three film-making clubs.

Can Ranmaru find himself with this bunch? The answer is, of course, yes, and it's as much fun for us as it is for him.

There are two more volumes so far (I only have vol. 1 currently), and I will be picking them up ASAP. It's a good (if temporary) antidote to the current sociopolitical horror show.

chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

Caleb Altemoc is a young man with a steady job (mid-level corporate risk manager) in the big, sophisticated city of Dresdiel Lex. He has enough income to pursue his hobby of gambling at cards, go drinking with his friend Teo, and have a place of his own. Of course, his company, Red King Consolidated, is run by a deicidal lich of considerable necromantic power, but no one's perfect. The King in Red treats his employees pretty well, after all, and provides a dependable water supply for the desert city. And Caleb is, as his boss of bosses notes at one point, rather unambitious.

There is the little issue of Caleb's father, a caring family man who is also a powerful priest of the gods that the King in Red destroyed. Temoc Almotil's religion involved human sacrifice, and he's now on the run as a terrorist for attempts to bring down his old enemy, Caleb's boss. But he still makes time to pop in and see his son from time to time, usually when Caleb least expects him.

Caleb's life takes a sharp turn for the weird when he's called into work one night on an emergency involving one of Red King Consolidated's largest reservoirs, where things have gone horribly, necromantically wrong. Caleb finds an attractive woman there, an enthusiast of the sport of "cliff running" (think of parkour on steroids). She's a trespasser and possibly worse, but Caleb is totally smitten with her. She seems like the most magical of Manic Pixie Dream Girls, both to Caleb and (on first read) to me. But very little is as it seems here, as Temoc keeps reminding his skeptical son.

I liked this much better on my second read, which was after the release of Last First Snow (starring Temoc). On my first read, I was missing the presence of Tara Abernathy and Elayne Kevarian from Three Parts Dead and got very impatient with Caleb. Now I'm beginning to see that Gladstone is focusing on person-to-person bonds other than the usual ones in genre literature. In this one, for instance, we have rather different father-son relationship and a powerful non-romantic male-female friendship (Caleb and Teo). That tendency adds more depth to Gladstone's imaginative world building.

This one is still the bottom of the Craft Sequence stack, though, when it comes to how much I liked the book. Three Parts Dead and Full Fathom Five seem to be tied for first, then Last First Snow, and then this volume. Still, this is well worth reading.

chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

Hugo Award Nominee

Maia Drazhar is the youngest son of the emperor of the Elflands, but his mother was a goblin princess whom his father married for diplomatic reasons. He has spent all of his eighteen years in exile, first with his mother but most recently alone except for his guardian, an embittered drunkard. But then Emperor Varenechibel IV and Maia's three older half-brothers all die in the same airship accident, and the unwanted boy wakes up to find that he has become the emperor.

The outline of the story is a classic fantasy trope, but Maia never obtains a magic sword nor leads a troop in battle. He finds the imperial palace to be every bit as lonely as the dreary manor house of his exile, at first, and his deprived upbringing has left him ill-prepared for the task of ruling a large, complex empire on the verge of an industrial revolution. And that airship accident? Wasn't an accident … .

On the basis of my own reading and the writeups I've seen from others, your enjoyment of this book will depend a lot on whether you can deal with a lot of (fairly well done) antiquated formal language in your dialogue and whether you would like something that "fulfills … wishes about nerdy, bullied people achieving great things through peaceful means" (to quote writer/editor Nick Mamatas, who did not find the book to be his sort of thing at all). I enjoyed it enough that it's already become a comfort read.

Cut for more, including some spoilers )

Note: Katherine Addison is a pseudonym of Sarah Monette, a/k/a [livejournal.com profile] truepenny.

chomiji: A chibi cartoon of Hotaru from the manga Samurai Deeper Kyo, with a book. Caption: Manga Joy (Manga joy!)

Goofy, childish folklore scholar Kantarou Ichinomiya (the English translation uses Western name order) ekes out a living by writing books from his research, but his actual passion is encountering and befriending youkai. In his youth, his ability to see youkai caused him to be shunned by other children, and he became convinced that his problems would all be solved by finding the famous demon-eating tengu (a classic Japanese monster with birdlike characteristics, although the only birdlike thing about the two tengu seen so far in this series are their feathered wings). When Kantarou finds the tengu in the opening chapter of the series, he binds the creature by giving him a name, Haruka. The handsome humanoid becomes part of Kantarou's household, along with a fox youkai woman named Yoko who serves as cook, maid, and menial-of-all-work. She's the one who has to go out and earn them all a living when Kan-chan's slacking off.

The outline of the story sounds roughly like Natsume's Book of Friends, but notice that Kantarou is binding youkai, not releasing them. Also, instead of the touching, lonely little child Natsume that we see in flashbacks in that series, li'l Kan-chan is an absolute parody of a cutesy manga tot, and the English translation has him speak in the kind of twee childish lisp that Dorothy Parker parodied when she said (in her review of The House at Pooh Corner) "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Kantarou is feckless, bossy, has no sense of boundaries, can't seem to acknowledge that he has enslaved Yoko and Haruka, and does things like drag them off to a hot springs resort (paid for by his editor) and then complain that they still look sulky.

Man, do I want to smack the living shit out of him.

I disliked him rather less on my re-read before writing this, enough so that I ordered the rest of this shounen series secondhand (Tactics was a victim of Tokyopop's demise and ends in official English translation with volume 8). The plot mainly involves Kantarou's investigations of strange phenomena that typically turn out to involve youkai. Sometimes things end relatively happily, but when they don't, Kantarou proves himself a true cousin of Yuuko (xxxHolic) and Count D (Pet Shop of Horrors) in arranging for unpleasant fates for the wicked.

Cut for more, including some spoilers )
chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

Brilliant and determined young Tara Abernathy has overreached herself in an attempt to make use of her training in the Craft and seems likely to pay with her life. Fortunately, fate intervenes in the form of Elayne Kevarian, a senior adept with the necromantic firm of Kelethras, Albrecht, and Ao, who makes Tara a job offer she can't and in fact doesn't want to refuse. Soon they are deeply enmeshed in the affairs of the great city of Alt Coulomb, which has been until recently ruled by the benign god Kos Everburning … who turned up dead recently during the regular post-midnight watch of the young cleric Abelard, whose cigarette addiction is an act of devotion to Kos' fiery nature.

The might of Kos will linger until the next dark of the moon, powering the trains and furnaces of his city, but Tara and Ms. Kevarian are running out of time to solve the mystery of the deity's death and arrange for his resurrection to keep Alt Coulomb from falling. There are plenty of other mysteries to be solved as well, which may or may not have to do with the death of Kos. For instance, who killed Judge Cabot in such a spectacularly grisly fashion? With Abelard in tow, Tara runs errands and does research for her boss in a city filled with unlikely wonders, and when the advocate for Kos' creditors shows up, both Tara and her boss come face to face with pasts they'd sooner forget.

Blogger-critic James Nicoll said of these books: "I am very annoyed at the people who have been selecting my reading material for the last 13 years for not having ever sent me a Max Gladstone book and with Gladstone for not having more books in print now that I have discovered them." I feel much the same way. Magical technology, technological magic, women who are badass mage-lawyers, female mentor-apprentice relationships, men and women who are old buddies but not lovers, dead and resurrected deities, vampire pirate captains, cities with jammin' nightclubs and living gargoyles, and so much more: this is one of the most exciting new fantasies I've read in decades.

One other really great thing to note. See this cover for Three Parts Dead? It's accurate in its portrayal of Tara, who is described at one point as "Dark skin, five seven, curly black hair, curvy, freckles. Last seen surrounded by a halo of flame …." Oh yes, Gladstone has no trouble at all with presenting a very diverse cast of characters.

chomiji: A chibi cartoon of Hotaru from the manga Samurai Deeper Kyo, with a book. Caption: Manga Joy (Manga joy!)

Subaru Sumeragi is the latest head of a respected family of onmyogi (interpreted here as magicians and exorcists). He is also only sixteen years old, and what little of his life that is not devoted to either school or performing exorcisms is essentially run by his twin sister Hokuto, who bosses him around and cooks for him. The twins live on their own in Tokyo, an arrangement that seems particularly unwise in light of the fact that Hokuto believes Subaru should become the lover of their acquaintance Seishirō Sakurazuka, seemingly a mild-mannered veterinarian who happens to be nearly a decade older.

Hokuto, who never seems to wear the same outfit twice (and most of them are pretty extreme), jokes that Seishirō must be a member of the Sumeragi clan's dark rivals, who use their mystical powers in assassinations. Whether he is or not, he does seem to be following along with Hokuto's suggestions with regard to her twin, declaring his love for the innocent Subaru and cuddling up to the boy suggestively. Subaru, meanwhile, has creepy dreams about a youth who tells him that cherry blossoms owe their color to corpses buried beneath them, which does not seem terribly surprising for a sensitive teenaged boy who spends a great deal of his time exorcising the ghosts of suicides.

Cut for spoilers …  )

I see that it's been nearly two years since I've done an in-depth review of a manga (the last one was Gunslinger Girls in April 2013). Wah.

chomiji: A silhouette of a couple watching a famous kiss in a movie, with the caption I've Seen that Movie Too (film - I've seen that movie too)
So this what happens when the Mr.and cho have a date night: we go see a cartoon!  Actually, it was a lot of fun, and I cried continuously for the last 20 minutes or so because it made me so happy.

Best buddies Maria, Joaquin, and Manolo have a lot of fun getting into trouble together in their small Mexican town, until Maria's father decides to send her away to Spain to be educated to be a lady. Joaquin and Manolo, under the tutelage of their grandfather and father (respectively), train as a soldier and a toreador (also respectively) -- except that Manolo really wants to be a musician.  Unbeknownst to the kids, however, the underworld deities La Muerte (lovely queen of the remembered dead) and the sinister trickster Xibalba (lord of the grim land of the forgotten dead) have placed a bet as to which boy will wed Maria when the kids grow up.

If you want a movie where the good guys win for the right reasons (with the help of their families) and the man and woman kick tremendous ass together, you should enjoy this.  Also, some of the big animated spectacles are amazing.
chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

This is going to be brief (for once). The series is still interesting. Toby is still creating "Oh, Toby!" moments, but this time, she's joined in her faux pas by most of the cast. Toby's liege sends her after his missing (adult) niece, who is in charge of a small independent Faerie political unit named Tamed Lightning. Most of Tamed Lightning is a computer company, and it turns out that the place is hosting a serial killer: especially problematic for Fae, who otherwise can expect to live forever. What follows is a semi-locked room mystery, because communications in and out of Tamed Lightning are ... problematic.

Cut for lots of spoilers )
chomiji: A chibi cartoon of Hotaru from the manga Samurai Deeper Kyo, with a book. Caption: Manga Joy (Manga joy!)

In modern-day Italy, a shadowy but seemingly benevolent organization takes in young girls whose futures are hopeless: Henrietta, the only surviving member of a family that was slaughtered; Rico, who was born without limbs and whose parents were increasingly unable to care for her; Triela, a child of mixed race from Tunisia who had been kidnapped and spoiler and squick/trigger warning used as a victim in a snuff film; and so on.

In truth, the Agency for Social Welfare (excellent choice of name: so bland and boring, no?) "treats" these girls by surgically altering them and brainwashing them to forget their former lives, turning them into near-unstoppable assassins that the agency calls cyborgs. This process also shortens their overall lifespan considerably, although because the program is still pretty much experimental, good data on the life of a cyborg is not really available.

Each girl is paired with an adult male "handler." Given that this is manga, this set-up could have been skeevy as hell, but although the sexual element is not totally ignored (Triela, who seems to be around 13, is definitely grappling with romantic feelings toward her handler), it's mostly a very minor element in the relationships. The pairings are called "fratellos" – that is, basically, a set of siblings.

There's an ongoing plot involving a terrorist group, which provides opportunities for the agency to use the girls' powers (although they are also involved in some very cold-hearted murders for general political expediency). We are shown the terrorists' interactions with each other, during which they discuss their political philosophies, so that they are not just faceless targets. Personalities and relationships, in fact, are the focus of the series: the girls' relationships not only with their handlers, but with each other. We get lots of scenes of their training and their down time in their dorm, when they talk about life in general as well as what they have been doing.

Despite a persistent feeling that this is all going to end in tears, I'm fascinated by this series and am enjoying it. The attitude of the trainers toward their doomed charges makes me think a bit of CLAMP's Clover, while the brainwashing and training of the girls recalls similar scenes in the childhoods of the azi (programmed clones) Catlin II and Florian II in C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen, who are destined for security work.

The artwork is more utilitarian than striking, but it gets the work done. It's very detailed and provides a lot of gun porn: wikis detailing what weapons each girls uses can be found easily online. There's a certain amount of male gaze – this is a shounen series – but it's not quite voyeuristic. We see girls changing their clothes, stretching (in spandex exercise gear), and in hospital gowns for procedures, but the treatment of these scenes mostly seemed to me more expository than exploitative. (And I was surprised to find that this was not a seinen series. The relationships between the girls and their handlers seems like prime moe.)

Read more ... with spoilers! )
chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

October (Toby) Daye is a half-fae, half-human, and in a whole lot of trouble from start to finish in this tale of fairy folk of the scary, impressive type living in modern-day San Francisco. The story opens in a flashback as Toby takes on an investigation that ends disastrously. For the rest of the book, more than a dozen years later, she's a semi-stranger in a partially strange land, a tragic figure with a massive stack of chips on her shoulder who insists on following her assigned quest through all sorts of perilous encounters.

Read more ... with some mild spoilers )
chomiji: Chibi of Muramasa from Samurai Deeper Kyo, holding a steamer full of food, with the caption Let's Eat! (Muramasa-Let's eat!)

The review of the Peruvian place will have to wait, because right now I want to talk about the awesome Chinese meal we had last night.

Washingtonian magazine does two big sets of restaurant listings every year: 100 Best and Cheap Eats. The 100 Best just came out, One of the places they mentioned was Sichuan Jin River (formerly called Sichuan Pavilion). Szechuan is not generally our favorite (neither the Mr. nor I care for really spicy food, and I simply can't eat bell peppers), but the review this time was so enticing (and we usually agree about 85% of the time with these writeups) that we decided to give it a try.

Really, the only problem that we had was that the review's recommendations weren't necessarily easy to match up with items on the menu once we got there. But with the things that did match up, the waitress' advice about the specials, and [personal profile] smillaraaq's suggestions, we did really well.

We started off with lotus root salad. I had been wanting to try lotus roots for a while. The salad was light, tangy, and slightly spicy; the slices of lotus root are crunchy and a bit crisper than water chestnuts. There were some bell peppers (red and green) in it, but they were easy for me to avoid. Then we had a scallion pancake, something we also get at A&J: this one was even better, a little lighter and with more scallions.

The first main dish was flounder with black bean sauce, one of the specials. It came in a huge, shallow dish, with scallions, some minced fresh hot peppers, and the black beans scattered on top. The fish was excellent, bits of fillet that were very fresh in flavor, with a great texture, and not at all overcooked. The sauce was spicy but not too hot for me and the Mr. As we started to work our way through it, we discovered a treasure trove of beautifully cooked vegetables underneath the fish: snow peas, fresh bamboo shoots, and carrots. Then we had a beef hotpot with young taro: tender, moist, lightly flavored with five-spice and soy. I didn't know what to expect from the young taro chunks, but they were like fluffy mashed potato balls. Our vegetable dish was snow pea leaves with garlic: one of my favorites anytime and very well made here. It was tender, flavorful, and a beautiful bright green.

We packed up most of it (we had overordered, of course, with all those tempting dishes on the menu), and then we had dessert! They actually have a range of desserts: eight choices. We had hot sweet tofu in rice wine and then eight-treasure rice: molded steamed sticky rice with red bean jam filling, jujube chunks scattered throughout, and hot rosewater-scented syrup with sesame seeds poured over it. This was a complete sugar overload, obviously, but we loved it (and took home more leftovers).

We're going to have to go back with more people sometime soon, and we may also try using Sichuan Jin River as the carryout for dinner at our next tabletop RPG session.

chomiji: Badou Nails from DOGS, with the caption And that's the truth (Badou - truth)

In a futuristic dystopian world, it's always winter. The government seems to have no interest in anything but the basic utilities and transportation. Rival crime organizations war in the streets and in tunnels underground, and genetic manipulation is common enough that random citizens in the street won't blink at seeing a person with cat ears or a pig' snout.

Four characters - Mihai Mihaeroff, an oddly compassionate middle-aged assassin; Badou Nails, a red-headed young information broker with a missing eye and a dangerous addiction to nicotine; Naoto Fuyumine, a young swordswoman with a tragic past and a horrific scar on her chest; and Heine Rammsteiner, an hyperviolent albino gunman with an inhuman ability to recover almost instantaneously from physical injuries - form the core cast. Their attempts to find missing information about their pasts and what is currently going on in their world are the strands of this extremely violent and occasionally very grisly seinen series.

Read more ... with some spoilers )
chomiji: A cartoon image of chomiji, who is holding a coffee mug and a book and wearing kitty-cat ears (Muramasa - food)

We had some errands to run in Rockville, so we took the opportunity to visit A & J. We've eaten here several times, but this time we brought [livejournal.com profile] smillaraaq along too.

A & J, which has one location in Maryland and one in Virginia, is a northern Chinese dim sum restaurant with minimal decor and piles of awesome, inexpensive food. (Inexpensive for DC, anyway.) The selection of small plates is decidedly different from the Cantonese or Hong Kong-style dim sum restaurants that are typical in the DC area.

Today we started with shredded bean curd with carrot and celery salad (light and savory), pickled cabbage (very crunchy, strongly flavored, and not at all sweet), and bean curd roll with mushrooms. Then we had a massive bowl of dan dan mian (spicy peanut noodles, which smilla said tasted much more like the real thing than usual, and which used A & J's wonderful homemade noodles), moist and tasty pan-fried pork dumplings (which come stuck together in a two-layer, four-wide block), and a solid but flavorful scallion pancake. We finished up with delicious tea-smoked chicken (sliced right through the bone, which I've heard is the traditional way), a big pickled radish bun (odd to my taste, but the Mr. likes it), shredded beef on sesame biscuits (meh, a little dry), and a lovely bowl of more home-made noodles in chicken broth with baby bok choy.

This mountain of food set us back $42 before tip. It wouldn't be good for me to eat at A & J every day, but wow, is it worth it every so often.

chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

I actually thought I had blogged Yumi Unita's manga Bunny Drop, but it looks like I haven't (I can't find a review here, anyway). Basically, for the first four volumes it's a surprisingly deep "slice of life" manga about a bachelor, Daikichi, who adopts a four-year-old girl who is, in strict family tree terms, his aunt. Little Rin is serious, intent, and surprisingly independent, and the relationship between the two grows in a way that's heart-warming without being cutesy. [personal profile] rachelmanija wrote it up here.

The current volume marks the point at which this series, for me, basically jumps the shark. ==> Spoilers spoilers MAJOR spoilers: It time skips ahead to where Rin is 16 years old, and most of this volume was just the sort of high school teen manga that I avoid like the plague. In the last third, it went on track again for a bit with the heart-warming slice of life, but I understand - my husband's fault, he read ahead online - that in fact, Rin and Daikuchi are going to become an item in the future, and ewwwww! Anyway, if I continue further with this series, it will be merely from "OK, how do they get there?" curiosity and not from the affection that I felt for the first four volumes.

I was really happy to see Eiji Ōtsuka and Housui Yamazaki's Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service back in business. The volumes always come shrink wrapped and with Parental Advisory stickers, but usually all that is because of one or two grotesque scenes of nude corpses. This time, the protective measures are made to earn their keep thoroughly in the first story - and I realize that any more details would blow a reveal, so I'll stop right there. I like the second story, which is about a couple (male and female) of aspiring comedians, best: it managed to be spooky, grotesque, and sweet, a feat that Kurosagi pulls off every once in a while. The Asian-inspired doll collecting fad shows up in the final story. And in the notes at the end, volume 13 is mentioned, so yay! I was afraid that the hiatus had meant that the series was ending.

Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys has been getting more and more grim. This volume is a bit of a break, but I imagine it's just a false dawn before the ultimate crisis. Still, I'll take it: I enjoyed this one quite a bit. The mysterious guitar-playing wanderer "Yabuki Joe" (yes, I knew who he really is, as do most readers long before this point, I'm sure) and naif police office Chono try to cross a deadly checkpoint on their way into Tokyo. Yabuki Joe has a confrontation with a slimeball character that we haven't seen for many volumes, and it turns into a Moment of Awesome. All in all, a welcome breather from the ongoing disasters of the series.

chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

Moon lives on a planet peopled with a number of intelligent races, and as far as he knows, he doesn't belong to any of them. He is a shapeshifter, with one form that allows him to blend in with the various "groundlings" (terrestrial humanoid races) and another shape, winged, that bears an unfortunate resemblance to one of the variants of the rapacious, predatory beings known as the Fell. As the first book opens, Moon's latest refuge fails him (he never really expected anything else), but he is rescued from likely death by what turns out to be an elder of his own true race.

Our hero discovers that he is a Raksura, a member of a reptilian species with two major subspecies and a complicated social system. The Raksura colony to which Moon's rescuer belongs, the Court of Indigo Cloud, is on the brink of disaster, and Moon turns out to have more than one special role to play in its salvation. The first book closes with a horrifying conflict with the Fell and the decision to move the entire colony to the ancestral home only remembered by Moon's aged rescuer.

The second volume picks up exactly where the first ended. The Raksura of Indigo Cloud arrive at their new (to them) ancient home, a mountain-sized tree, and start to settle in, only to discover that the tree is dying because someone has stolen a crucial component of it. The rest of the book is taken up with a quest by Moon and a small band of the Indigo Cloud Raksura to find the missing part and restore it. The journey takes them to other Raksura courts, where they have to deal with extravagant manners and dirty politics, and to a wonderfully fantastic multi-racial city, where they must engage in espionage, combat, and sabotage so that they may take back what is rightfully theirs.

(Read more ... I'm trying to avoid serious spoilers) )
chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

Twelve-year-old Ciel Phantomhive is an orphan and a victim of a horrific past, but he is also a special agent of Queen Victoria, a head of industry (toys and sweets), and master of a palatial estate near London. Keeping house for the young master are a set of curiously and comically inept servants - Finnian the air-headed gardener, Mey-Rin the horrifically klutzy housemaid, Bardroy the lethally bad wise-ass cook, and Tanaka the (mostly) inert steward - plus Sebastian Michaelis, the super-efficient and multi-talented butler.

The charming yet steely Sebastian is, in fact, a demon from Hell. Literally.

This beautifully drawn series careens vertiginously from horror-tragedy to broad comedy. Ciel investigates Jack the Ripper, is befriended by a feckless South Asian princeling who gets the household involved in a very serious curry-cooking battle, and most recently delves into a strange circus that may be playing a role in the matter of some missing children. Flashbacks reveal the nature of Ciel's relationship with Sebastian, why Ciel has that eyepatch, and what happened to the rest of the Phantomhive family. And Queen Victoria is not the only 19th century celebrity to make an appearance. Read more ... with spoilers! )

chomiji: A cartoon image of chomiji, who is holding a coffee mug and a book and wearing kitty-cat ears (Muramasa - food)

The Mr. wanted to eat out tonight, so I flipped through Washingtonian's "Cheap Eats" listing, which just came out for this year, and we picked this place in Wheaton (MD).

Ren's Ramen is a tiny shop (although apparently larger than their original location in Bethesda) with maybe seven tables and a counter in the front window that seats another five diners. And the menu consists of really only four things: shoyu ramen, miso ramen, salt ramen, and veggie salt ramen. The non-veggie ramen soups all come with bamboo shoots, ground pork, scallions, and one slice of roast pork, plus you can add things like additional roast pork, a soft-cooked egg, seaweed, and so on. (You can also order gyoza - but they ran out of them by 6:30 p.m. - and steamed or fried rice as a side, and coke, diet coke, ginger ale, or bottled green tea to drink.)

I had the miso ramen with seaweed and cooked cabbage added; The Mr. had shoyu ramen with extra pork and an egg. It was a good-sized portion (although you can get a larger one if you really want!) and completely delicious. I thought The Mr.'s was rather too salty, but I can be sensitive about that (and it was shoyu ramen, for heaven's sake ... ).

The shop imports its ramen from Sapporo. Service was friendly if slightly harried, but then, they were very busy at that moment. We waited about 10-15 minutes for a table.

chomiji: A chibi cartoon of Hotaru from the manga Samurai Deeper Kyo, with a book. Caption: Manga Joy (Manga joy!)

High school kendo instructor Toraji "Kojiro" Ishida (English name order is used) is perennially out of money, and he's also threatened with the loss of his job because his team never seems to get anywhere. When his former kendo upper-classmate, now also a kendo instructor, challenges him with a prize of a year's worth of sushi if Ishida's team can beat his in a year, Kojiro is galvanized into action. When he manages to convince petite, unworldly kendo prodigy Tamaki Kawazoe to become part of his five-member girls' team, he figures that he's well on his way to winning.

Although Kojiro's situation starts the series off, the vast majority of the screen time is given to the girls on his team. In addition to Tamaki (who is also a huge fan of the imaginary anime series Blade Braver, which becomes significant from time to time), the girls' team features "Team Mom" Chiba Kirino, a cheerful, hard-working girl from a family that runs a deli; her best friend Sayako Kuwahara, the tallest and strongest girl on the squad, who wants to become a rock guitarist; sweetly pretty Miyako Miyazaki ("Miya Miya"), who is actually a bit of a thug (and has "pink" and "black" sides, similar to Hatsuharu's "black" and "white" sides in Fruits Basket); and later on, Satori Azuma, who is very talented at kendo but a complete ditz and a failure at just about everything else. There are also two boy kendoka: Yuji Nakata, who is a pleasant, athletic kid, and Danjuro Eiga ("Dan-kun"), who is played as complete joke. Dan-kun is Miya Miya's boyfriend, but after the first volume or so, he is always drawn as a simplified, unattractive chibi super-deformed figure ... and this fact actually gets mentioned from time to time in the story, smashing the fourth wall to bits.

The overall story arc is about the girls' getting better at kendo, of course, and in the first couple of volumes, especially, the manga explains a lot about modern sport kendo and how team tournaments work. Several arcs cover actual tournaments, where the girls are challenged not only by the skills of their opponents but also by some less-than-sportsmanlike behavior. But the heart of the manga is "slice of life" mini-arcs about the girls: Kirino's attempts to keep things going when there's an illness in her family, Miya Miya's problems with her female stalker-with-a-crush from middle school, Tamaki's efforts to save enough for a boxed set of her beloved Blade Braver, and so on.

The striking thing about this, to me, is how girl-centered it manages to be without being terribly "girly." OK, Miya Miya's part-time job is in a cutesy boutique; in the latest U.S. volume, the girls go on an expedition to a big shopping mall; Kirino and Saya insist on giving everyone cute nicknames; but otherwise, their concerns and activities were very approachable to geek-tomboy me. The girls talk together about schoolwork, kendo, their families, and each other - almost never about fads, clothes, or boys. Dan is the only boyfriend in the picture, and he's part of the squad - and played for laughs. The whole thing passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.

This seinen series has become a complete comfort read for me. The artwork is loose and sloppy (rather like Gravitation but with a more shoujo flavor), but it has a lot of heart.

 

chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

It's highly unlikely that Maxine Kiss would ever fall for a sparkly vampire.

Maxine is the latest scion of a millennia-old family of demon hunters who are always female. She is also a living embodiment of the trope "Good Is Not Nice." Aided by a quintet of specialized demons who have assisted the Hunters throughout their history, Maxine ruthlessly annihilates evil wherever she finds it, and then she and her Boys go looking for more. Their usual prey are zombies, which in this scenario are humans possessed by relatively weak demons, but greater demons are in just as much danger whenever Maxine detects them.

This is not to say that Maxine is cold-hearted. In fact, she is fiercely loving. But her vulnerabilities are those of many badass male characters: her friends, her loved ones, her sense of honor. It makes me ferociously happy that her femininity is not used as a weakness.

During the course of these three volumes, Maxine discovers that she might, in fact, be not only the latest of the Hunters, but the last. She uncovers secrets about her family and her ancestry, learns about some of the other major players in the fate of the world (and finds that some of them are much closer to her than she would ever have guessed), and kicks a lot of ass. This is an Earth in which demonic chaos is constantly lurking behind the scenes, but most people are going about their ordinary lives with no knowledge of it. There are lots of pop culture references and in-jokes, and sometimes I think that Liu is working some of her shticks a little too hard, but generally the storyline races along with vivid language and terrific momentum.

I've seen these billed as paranormal romance, but although there is a small amount of romance during the course of the series, these are probably better classified as urban fantasy. There's considerable violence, too.

chomiji: Doa from Blade of the Immortal can read! Who knew? (Doa - books)

Meliara Astiar and her brother Branaric are the Countess and Count of Tlanth, a small, rural province of a not-very-large kingdom named Remalna, which is ruled by king who's a nasty piece of work. The siblings and their supporters start a guerilla revolution. They are hopelessly outnumbered but wilderness-crafty, and they cause the king considerable grief before Meliara ends up in one of her side's own booby traps, gets badly injured, and is captured by the Marquise of Shevraeth, known as a wealthy fop but a cool head in battle. She eventually escapes but is recaptured - and then discovers that her current captor has also decided to overthrow the king.

At the end of what was originally the first book (this was first published as two volumes), Mel and her brother are awarded a considerable part of the king's ill-gotten gains. As the second book opens, Mel has used these funds to reverse some of Tlanth's general dilapidation and is refusing all invitations to court in the capitol because she distrusts and despises courtiers. Branaric arrives from his own court sojourn with an irrefutable reason for Mel to accompany him back, and she is soon involved in a much more civilized form of warfare. Her actions in the war against the hated king have made her something of a folk heroine (which, as Diana Wynne Jones observes, is something very different from a hero), and various factions court her with the idea of using her as a tool. At the end, she find her place and her love.

I liked this - well enough that I plan to look for some more of the author's work - but I didn't love it. Head-shaky things happened for Important Plot Reasons, and I didn't get along with Mel - who is the first-person narrator - very well. She seemed to me to be a different person than various characters and she herself wanted me to believe she was. There are also stereotypes at work: Mel is in many ways a red-haired Spirited Princess straight out of Tough Guide to Fantasyland, for example, and bad people are much more likely to be overweight than good people are.

Read more ... with spoilers and lots of nitpicking )

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