Toradora! Volume 2 by Yuyuko Takemiya

The story so far: Takasu Ryuuji and Aisaka Taiga are the most feared kids in their high school. In Taiga's case this is a well-earned rep, but Ryuuji is a good kid who had the misfortune to inherit his yakuza father's mean looks. Ryuuji and Taiga are both in love with the other's best friend (Kitamura Yuusaku and Kushieda Minori) and agree to help each other. Along the way Ryuuji ends up taking care of Taiga, who has been abandoned by her parents in a luxury apartment next door to the Takasu's tenement. By the end of the first book, Taiga was practically living in the Takasu place, only returning home for bed (when she didn't fall asleep in front of the TV). This causes problems when other students notice the situation and conclude Taiga and Ryuuji are a couple. Which, you know, kinda puts a damper on their romantic plans. Nonetheless, they'd developed enough of a codependent relationship by that point that they couldn't quit each other, so they had to settle for convincing Kitamura and Minori that nothing's going on.

Book 1 ended with the establishment of a status quo, which is death for romantic stories, so Book 2 begins with a complication. Raymond Chandler once said that if you can't think of what happens next, have a man come through the door brandishing a gun. The rom-com version is to have a beautiful woman come through the door in a sexy dress. And so the book opens with Ryuuji and Taiga having lunch at a restaurant when Taiga notices a beautiful woman enter. And not any beautiful woman -- this is Kawashima Ami, the famous fashion model. And she's accompanied by Kitamura! They join Taiga and Ryuuji, and Kitamura explains that Ami's an old friend of his family who's in town visiting.

Ami seems like a sweet girl if a bit of an airhead, but when Kitamura and Ryuuji go to the bathroom, she reveals her true, bitchy self to Taiga. They get into an argument that ends with Taiga slapping "the stupid chihuahua" ("Sorry, you had a mosquito on your cheek. Oh, you have a fly on the other one.") But the guys didn't really go to the bathroom -- Kitamura knows about Ami's mask, and he wants Ryuuji to see it as well.

We find out why the next day in class when the teacher introduces a new student, none other than Kawashima Ami. The situation quickly deteriorates as Ami decides to crush Taiga -- and unfortunately for Ryuuji, she picks him as the tool for doing it.

Ami makes a great addition to the cast. Takemiya does a wonderful job portraying her dual personalities -- and making her inner bitch more likable than the "stupid chihuahua" facade. Sure, she's mean, petty and mercenary, but no worse than Taiga. It's her "Ami-chan is so cute," act that makes her such a perturbing character. There's a scene where Ryuuji and Ami get caught in the rain and her mask slips, which is the first time they're able to have a real conversation instead of Ami manipulating him with smiles and gentle caresses, and for a moment, before she falls back into her act, it seems they could be friends.

As a foil for Taiga, Ami is perfect. Anyone else, Taiga could simply intimidate, but if she tries that on Ami, the other girls in class, who absolutely adore Ami-chan, would turn on her. All Taiga can do is wait for Ami to make a mistake and pounce, such as a moment when Ami tells the class that she's just naturally thin and doesn't need to diet, which of course pisses the hell out of all the girls who eat salads at lunch and spend hours at the gym.

The first book was essentially a prologue that established the set-up for the series. This volume is where the real story kicks in. While it contains a plot in its own right, with a beginning, middle and end, it also establishes an ongoing conflict between Ami and Taiga, of which this is merely the first installment.

(NOTE: Don't expect to find this book on Amazon or in your local bookshop. From what I've read, there's no interest from American publishers in the series (most of the companies that publish Japanese fiction focus on sci-fi and fantasy). Even the anime adaptation only got a half-hearted release -- the distributor didn't even spend money on a dub track, a sure sign that they weren't expecting it to be a mass success -- so it's unlikely that an official release will happen in the foreseeable future. However, all ten books have been translated by fans, and you can easily find them by googling "Toradora epub".)

Toradora! by Yuyuko Takemiya

Toradora! is just your typical romantic comedy. You know, boy meets girl, girl punches boy, girl breaks into boy's apartment and tries to murder him, girl makes boy her slave and forces him to clean her apartment and prepare her meals. Classic Tracy and Hepburn stuff.

Ryuuji is a nice boy. Really he is. You'll never find somebody as kind, even-tempered and clean as Ryuuji (seriously, this guy is OCD about mold). He takes care of his mom, a hostess at a businessman's bar who spends her life alternating between being drunk and hungover with no period of sobriety between. Unfortunately he inherited his looks from his deceased yakuza father, particularly a pair of eyes that make him look like he's going to murder anyone who pisses him off. It took him most of his freshman year in high school to convince his classmates that he's not a thug, and now that he's starting his sophomore year with a new class, he's afraid he'll have to start over.

On the first day of school he discovers that Kitamura Yusaku, one of his friends from the year before, will be in his class, which is good. Even better, Kushieda Minori, the girl Ryuuji has a crush on, is there as well. So maybe this won't be such a bad year after -- hey, what's this! As he's entering the classroom, Ryuuji bumps into (literally) the only person in school more intimidating than himself: Aisaka Taiga, more commonly called "the Palmtop Tiger" for her diminutive size and fierce nature. Students immediately gather round to witness a clash of the titans, only to be disappointed when Taiga delivers a first round TKO. Well, at least everyone's less inclined to believe Ryuuji's a hardass.

A few days later, Ryuuji's doing his homework when he finds a love note from Taiga to Kitamaru in his bag. Apparently she screwed up and put it in the wrong backpack. The problem is, she realizes her mistake and breaks into his apartment that night to retrieve the letter. When Ryuuji catches her, she tries to beat him to death with a kendo sword. He fends her off and placates her by fixing her dinner. Turns out she's living on her own (in the posh high-rise apartment across the street, no less) and though her parents give her plenty of money to survive on, she has no housekeeping skills and has been subsisting off convenience store food. This is the first genuine meal she's had in weeks.

Ryuuji tries to cheer her up by showing her the box full of poems, mix tapes (well, mini-discs) and letters he's made for Minori. Finally he offers to help her get with Kitamaru -- or at least that's what he thinks he offers, though Taiga thinks he's offering to become her "dog". And Ryuuji's intimidated enough to go along with her demands, cleaning her apartment, cooking her dinner, and concocting ways for her to talk to Kitamaru. But these plans fail because, under her tough exterior, Taiga is actually a shy girl who gets nervous as hell when she's around a boy she likes. And to make matters worse, rumors start circulating that she and Ryuuji are a couple ...

I was a little trepidatious about picking this up since a ten volume rom-com epic isn't normally my thing. (Ten books might sound like a lot, but they're all what the Japanese refer to as "light novels" of only ~200 pages apiece. 2000 pages is still a lot for a romantic comedy, though it's short by light novel standards.) However, after about ten pages I was flying through the story. Ryuuji and Taiga make an hilarious odd couple, with him as the beleaguered straight-man to her insane tsundere, but with a genuinely sweet friendship that develops as Ryuuji comes to realize that beneath her hellcat exterior, Taiga is broken and lonely, and that for all her talk of him being her slave, she genuinely needs him to keep her from falling apart.

As a side note, don't expect to find this book on Amazon or in your local bookshop. From what I've read, there's no interest from American publishers in the series (most of the companies that publish Japanese fiction focus on sci-fi and fantasy). Even the anime adaptation only got a halfhearted release -- the distributor didn't even spend money on a dub track, a sure sign that they weren't expecting it to be a mass success -- so it's unlikely that an official release will happen in the foreseeable future. However, all ten books have been translated by fans, and you can easily find them by googling "Toradora epub".


Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime

Konoha Inoue is a high school sophomore with a dark secret. Tohko Amano is a book scarfing goblin. Together, they fight crime.

No, that's not right. Together, they make up the entirety of the Seijoh Academy's literature club. Club activities consist almost exclusively of Konoha writing stories for Tohko to consume (great literature is yummy, but printed works just aren't as fresh as a handwritten story). However, Tohko's getting bored with things, so she's experimenting with ways to attract new people to the club.

Enter Chia Takeda, a first year who wants the Literature Club to help her write love notes to a boy she's fallen for. The boy in question is Shuji Kataoka, apparently the dreamiest member of the archery team. Konoha reluctantly agrees -- or, more accurately, Tohko agrees and Konoha doesn't feel like contradicting her, so he spends the next several days composing the best love note ever. Unfortunately, he tells Chia that it's just something he dashed out over lunch, so when the note goes over well she asks him to write one every day. This wouldn't be so bad if she didn't come to his class each morning to get the note. Given that she's barely pubescent, this leads Konoha's classmates to speculate that he might be into lolicon, particularly Nanase Kotobuki who becomes deeply antagonistic towards him. (This being the first volume in a series, I'm guessing she's going to turn tsundere soon enough.)

Eventually Konoha grows curious about Shuji, so he asks a classmate from the archery club about the guy -- but the classmate has never heard of him. Konoha and Tohko investigate and determine that there's no such person at Seijoh Academy. When they confront Chia, she gives them a note Shuji wrote to her, a very dark, disturbing letter that would send any sane woman running away in fear. But not Chia. Tohko recognizes several passages in the letter as being influenced by Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, which I gather is an existential novel similar to The Stranger or Notes from Underground.

Things get even more mysterious when Chia takes Konoha to an archery practice to meet Shuji. Some alumni from the team show up to watch as well, and they rush to Konoha when they see him. Turns out, he looks exactly like an old team mate of theirs who committed suicide ten years ago -- Shuji Kataoka! Dun-dun-dun!

This popped up on my Amazon recommended list after I bought the Haruhi Suzumiya books. The description -- book club, weird girl, magic -- sounded like a knock-off, but I decided to give it a try anyway. Despite some superficial similarities, the two are very different. Tanigawa's series is a sprawling, genre-bending parody of anime/manga tropes, whereas Nomura plays things pretty much straight. I was quite surprised by how dark the book was -- to me "suicidal mime" is a funny concept, but it turns out to be a metaphor Shuji uses (taken from Dazai?) to describe the mask he wears to hide his true sociopathic self. Although when I say, "dark," I don't want to give you the impression that this is a bleak tale about how the world is a giant crapsack. Rather, it's dark in the way Byron and Emily Bronte were dark -- a key moment near the end involves Tohko explaining how most of Dazai's books are actually fun, and anyone who judges him on No Longer Human alone is missing the point.

My biggest disappointment with the story comes two-thirds of the way through when we find out exactly what's going on, and it turns out to have a rational (if convoluted) explanation. Such a Radcliffian twist seems out of place in a story with a Goblin who eats books. Nonetheless, I pushed through to the end, partly due to the fact that the book's only 180 pages, and partly to see how Nomura would fill the remaining pages after the main mystery was resolved. I'm glad I did, for after a brief lull the story picks up again with a twist that makes up for the main plot fizzling out.


The Wavering of Haruhi Suzumiya by

The sixth volume in the saga of Haruhi Suzumiya turns out to be yet another short story collection, this one focusing on events from November through January.

Live A Live is essentially an epilogue to the second book, picking up exactly where Sigh left off. It's the day of the Cultural Festival and Kyon has just delivered the final cut of The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00 to the film club. Not having any breasts, he's not part of Haruhi's marketing strategy for the movie, and his class only conducted a lame survey for the festival, so he's free to enjoy the rest of the day. He grabs Taniguchi and Kunikida and they head for lunch at the cafe Mikuru's class is running.

Afterwards, Kyon, who stayed up all night editing the film, decides to rest in the auditorium where various student bands are performing. Just as he's dozing off, he sees Haruhi and Nagato take the stage as part of an all-girl rock band. As though that's not a big enough shock, the band turns out to be really good.

On Monday Kyon learns the whole story from Haruhi -- the band's lead singer/guitarist broke her wrist that morning and couldn't play. Haruhi overheard the band members trying to figure out what to do, and on the spur of the moment she volunteered her services as a singer; she also figured that Nagato would know how to play guitar and dragged her into the band. But the experience has weirded Haruhi out -- she's used to being the oddball, and having people appreciate her for her talent is a foreign experience. The story ends with a touching moment between Haruhi and Kyon.

The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00 is a summary of the infamous film produced by Ultra Director Haruhi Suzumiya. It's hard for me to judge this story because by the time I read it I'd watched the anime version, which is just so perfect that the short story is like reading a Wikipedia summary.

Charmed at First Sight LOVER, despite the awful Engrish title, is the best story in the book. It begins just a few days after the end of Disappearance with Kyon resting at home when he receives a phone call from Nakagawa, a classmate from middle school -- not a friend, just a guy Kyon sorta knew. A few months back Nakagawa saw Kyon walking with a girl and immediately fell in love. Kyon naturally assumes he means Haruhi or Mikuru and is going to warn him off when he receives a shock -- Nakagawa's fallen for Nagato.

After some cajoling, Kyon agrees to copy out a message to deliver to Yuki, though he instantly regrets it when he hears the drivel Nakagawa spouts -- the guy feels he is in no position to take out the goddess Nagato at the moment, so he asks that she wait ten years so he can go to college, get a job and start his own business, at which point he'll be rich enough to treat Yuki as she deserves.

When Kyon delivers the message the next day, Yuki's reaction is as expected -- no. Unfortunately for Kyon, he doesn't dispose of the letter properly and Haruhi discovers it. She immediately leaps to the wrong conclusion and tries to strangle him. When he finally explains what's going on, the other Brigade members agree that Nakagawa's request is ridiculous, but they are nonetheless interested in him -- even Yuki admits that, though she can't wait a decade for him, she would like to meet him. So that night Kyon calls Nakagawa and arranges for the Brigade to attend a football game he'll be playing the next day.

But this is the Haruhiverse, so there's more going on here than a simple date.

Where Did the Cat Go? is a sequel to both "Remote Island Syndrome" and "Snow Mountain Syndrome." It's New Years Eve and the gang is still at Tsuruya-chan's ski chalet, recovering from the encounter at the mysterious mansion from SMS. Koizumi had promised to put on a new murder mystery for Haruhi -- but this time everyone knows from the start that it's all a game.

The whole cast from the island returns -- Mori, Arakawa and both Tamaru brothers, though all Keiichi does is lie in bed pretending to be dead while Yutaka ... well, honestly I don't remember him doing anything. And that's the problem. For this grand mystery that Koizumi's supposedly been working on since summer, it turns out to be too simple. He gets his cohorts from the Agency to reprise their roles from the previous mystery, but they don't do anything, except for Arakawa and Mori answering a few questions while serving food. I know Tanigawa can write a decent mystery because he did it with RIS, and he can make a game interesting as he did with "Boredom" and "Day of Sagittarius III," but here he fails on all levels. It feels as though he's mentioned this party enough that he has to show it, but he doesn't have his heart in it.

The Melancholy of Mikuru Asahina is a much needed remedy to the flanderization poor Mikuru's gone through. In the first book she was the most intriguing Brigade member after Kyon and Haruhi -- a time traveling secret agent who becomes infatuated with Kyon despite not being allowed to have a relationship in the past, who must subject herself to Haruhi's bizarre whims as part of her mission, and whose boss is her future (badass) self. But as the series has progressed, she's become little more than a giant doll for Haruhi to dress up on whim. She exhibits no agency of her own and acts like she's stepped out of The Perils of Pauline. This is of course why Haruhi chose her -- the brigade needs a moe character to attract new members. But even when the Ultra Leader isn't present, Mikuru isn't that useful. Nagato and Koizumi and even Kyon figure out what's going on long before Mikuru, and when an actual danger appears, such as in "The Mysterique Sign," she doesn't do anything.

At this point in the series, she's starting to fade into the background as nothing more than a piece of eye-candy that Haruhi drags everywhere. This story largely fixes that by examining why Mikuru acts the way she does.

The plot begins with Mikuru asking Kyon to accompany her to the tea-shop on Sunday, which he interprets as a date. Alas, it turns out she's doing this under orders from the future, and her mission is to bring Kyon to a certain street corner at a certain time where he must perform a certain action that will be important to the future. Mikuru doesn't even know what that action is until after it happens, at which point she's shocked to discover how important her mission was. Yet she wasn't allowed to perform the action herself -- seems the time travelers don't want to interfere with the past directly, though their definition of "interfere" strikes me as mighty strange.

Overall this is one of the weaker installments in the series. It suffers from an inverse Star Trek syndrome -- the odd numbered stories are good ("Charmed" is more than good) while the even ones are weak. That's still 60% good, but it's a letdown after the previous two volumes.


The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

The story so far: On the surface Haruhi Suzumiya seems to be an ordinary if hyperactive Japanese schoolgirl, but in reality she is a being of immense power, possibly even God herself. Luckily for the rest of the us, she doesn't realize any of this. She's surrounded by the SOS Brigade, a club she started for the purpose of discovering aliens, espers, sliders, and time travelers. Ironically, the Brigade is filled with exactly the kind of people she's seeking, though none of them have any intention of telling her. Yuki Nagato is an android created by the alien Data Overmind; Itsuki Koizumi is an esper with highly specialized powers for dealing with Haruhi's reality-warping; and Mikuru Asahina is a time traveler. The only normal Brigade member is Kyon, the guy who had the misfortune to sit in front of Haruhi in class.

Disappearance begins a week before Christmas. The SOS Brigade has been in service for about seven months, and the stress of keeping Haruhi in check is starting to take its toll on Kyon and one of the other Brigade members -- though not who'd you expect. After listening to Haruhi's grand plans for a Christmas party (plans that violate a number of school rules and the fire code), Kyon returns home and falls into bed.

The next day begins normally enough, but on his way to school he notices a number of oddities, most notably that his entire school seems to've come down with the flu overnight -- except his classmates insist that that the epidemic started a week ago. Even Haruhi is absent.

Or so he thinks.

At lunch, SHE arrives. The girl who sits behind him in class. Except SHE isn't Haruhi. SHE is someone who should not be here -- cannot be here. Yet no one else notices anything wrong. They think SHE has been here all along. When he asks about Haruhi, no one knows what he's talking about. He rushes from class to find the other Brigade members, only to discover that Koizumi's whole class -- the classroom included -- has disappeared. When he approaches Mikuru, she doesn't know who he is and his attempt to convince her he knows her by revealing personal information -- yeah, going up to a girl and telling her you know she has a mole on her breast, not a good idea. Even Nagato seems to be an ordinary school girl now, sitting quietly in the Literature Club room reading, exactly as she used to before Haruhi took over the room.

Kyon faces a tough decision -- this is the ordinary world he's been craving since Haruhi forced herself into his life, yet it's not his world. This is what he's wanted for the last three books, but now that he has it, he has doubts. And so he sets out to restore the world to the way it was, and he must do it without the help of the other Brigade members.

This book is amazing. Up until this point, I've found the Haruhi Suzumiya series amusing but fluffy. The first volume was an origin story, so it got away with being a bit plotless since the focus was on establishing the world and characters. The second novel was an old-fashioned, "Let's put on a show!" story right out of the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney Musicals, with the added spice of Haruhi's reality-bending powers blurring the line between film and reality. It succeeded primarily because the characters were so much fun to be around, but by the end I was doubting how far these sorts of stories could carry the series before it would become nothing but inconsequential incidents more fitting for a daily comic strip than a novel series.

I have no more doubts. Put it this way, the anime series adapts four of the first five books. This is the one they skipped. Why? Because they were saving it for the movie. That's not to say this is some grand epic -- it's actually the shortest volume so far, at a mere 180 pages, and the only major fight happens off stage. There's a lot crammed into the story, but it's almost entirely introspective as Kyon comes to terms with the altered reality.

The most memorable moments are Kyon's interactions with the alt-Nagato. With the real Yuki's alieness removed, what remains is a sad, shy girl so lonely that one act of halfhearted kindness will make her fall in love.

Haruhi chose the wrong moe girl.

Just as with the real Yuki, this Nagato hardly ever speaks, but unlike the real version she's able to convey her feelings with small gestures that reveal the depths of her misery -- tugging at Kyon's sleeves, handing him an application for the Literature Club in the hope that he'd come back and see her even though any sane woman would be filing a restraining order.

This one image is the most emotion Nagato has ever shown.

The revelation about what this alt-Yuki is and what Kyon must do to her to restore the world is absolutely heartbreaking to the point that I'm not sure he made the right choice, though he does make up for it somewhat in the penultimate scene when he discusses events with the real Nagato and reveals how far he'd go to save her.

(As a side note, the movie version hasn't received an official US release yet, but it is -- ahem -- available. The TV show was a pretty good adaptation of the books, but ultimately just light entertainment. As such, I was completely shocked by how powerful the film is. They completely nail it. Howard Hawks once defined a great film as having three great scenes and no bad ones, and this certainly meets his criteria and more.)