Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

Some time ago, I did a review for An Ember in the Ashes, with a one-sentence review for each chapter. I had a lot of fun with it, so I thought I would bring a similar format (with a couple added sentences) back for Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krüeger. Spoilers ahead.

The novel follows Bailey Chen, a recent college graduate ready to flex her new business degree. She’s not exactly taking Chicago by storm, though, instead working as a lowly barback in The Nightshade Lounge, owned by her best friend’s uncle. While closing up the bar one night, she discovers that cocktails, when made exactly right, grant the drinker magical abilities. Bartenders, like her friend Zane, imbibe these drinks to fight off monsters called tremens, demons that prey on drunks. Bailey eventually joins the ranks of the bartenders, mixing magical drinks and fighting demons while navigating her career and the politics of Cupbearer’s Court.

Last Call is a fun romp through Chicago, and there’s plenty of humor throughout the book. There’s some funny and self-aware moments that really made me smile. Some of the jokes do fall flat, particularly the character Bucket’s Canadian pride. The gag goes on so long that “Canadian” becomes Bucket’s one and only character trait, culminating into the reveal that his van has a huge Canadian flag on the side. I wanted to laugh at this, but after 90 or so pages of Canadian jokes, it just got old.

I was a little wary about a female protagonist being written by a male author, because it’s not uncommon for men to write women very poorly. This could be anything from oversexualizing female characters, having goals that only center around men, being a ditzy doormat, or just being a boring badass. (If you really want some entertaining examples, search “describe yourself like a male author would” on Twitter). I was pleased that I didn’t encounter any of these pitfalls. Bailey’s smart, ambitious, and she’s not afraid to take risks to do what she thinks is right. She makes mistakes and has to learn from them. Ultimately, her tenacity is what lets her triumph over her supernatural and mundane adversities.

The love triangle was far more problematic for me. Bailey develops a crush on Zane, who she had hooked up with once shortly after her high school graduation. Zane, however, has already found love with his fellow bartender, Mona. Mona is serious and quiet, and…that’s about it. The problem with this love triangle is that it doesn’t challenge the reader. The story structure is pretty predictable, so we can already guess that Bailey and Zane will end up together. What solidifies this, even before the end of the book, is just how boring Mona is. She’s great at killing demons, but she doesn’t share any of the characters’ excitement, or their interest for making a legendary Long Island Ice Tea. Mona had the potential to be a really intriguing character, but just ends up being flat and dull.

Because Mona is so boring and at times downright unlikable, there’s no reason for the reader to want to see her stay with Zane. The love triangle is cut and dry. We all know how it ends long before Bailey and Zane kiss.

Overall, though, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is a fun, light read, for anyone who likes cocktails and magic.

Now, the (mostly) one-sentence chapter breakdown!

Prologue: Is the cop going to show up again, or is this just in media res for no reason?

Chapter 1: The writing is actually funny, if a bit predictable.

Chapter 2: Hooray, the main character knows what the audience should have already known just by reading the back of the book.

Chapter 3: It’s moving pretty simply so far: Call to Adventure, Meeting with the Mentor and now answering the Call to Adventure.

Chapter 4: I’m hoping that the love triangle becomes somewhat more interesting, but I’m not holding my breath.

Chapter 5: Finally, we get to see Bailey fail at something!

Chapter 6: I’ll forgive the kiss because adrenaline makes us do crazy things, but I really doubt Bailey hasn’t seen Zane since high school.

Chapter 7: Good, an escape from the love triangle.

Chapter 8: The author does a good job making sure that Bucket being transgender is no big deal, but never stops reminding you that he’s Canadian.

Chapter 9: Okay, this was pretty awesome.

Chapter 10: How does Zane make the leap from “we just fought off an army” to “we need to make the alcoholic version of a philosopher’s stone”?

Chapter 11: The stuff at Bailey’s interview is funny, but could the book yell, “these guys are douchebags” any louder?

Chapter 12: I don’t know if I should complain about Mona’s blandness here, or the obvious foreshadowing that she’s probably immortal.

Chapter 13: Man, it’s awfully convenient that the person trying to brew the McGuffin is giving Bailey a job interview.

Chapter 14: Vincent’s my favorite, but being the mentor character, he’s about to get written off.

Chapter 15: YOU KILLED THE DOG?!

Chapter 16: Curious how Vincent thinks Bailey stabbed Bowie in the back by…using what he taught her to accidentally stumble on a devastating secret that will get people killed if she doesn’t do anything about it?

Chapter 17: I want to appreciate the Sailor Moon reference in this chapter, but Tuxedo Mask doesn’t wear an actual tuxedo. He wears a white dinner suit, which is one of the many reasons why Tuxedo Mask is just the worst.*

Chapter 18: Oh no, whoever thought the boring, stoic, and mysterious Mona would be the bad guy. Gasp.

Chapter 19: After watching Bailey kick ass throughout the book, she needs to get saved by someone at the last minute.

Chapter 20: Oh my God, Bucket. You’re Canadian. We get it.

*This is the most pedantic thing I’ve ever written, but seriously. Get your shit together, Tuxedo Mask.
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Paradise Kiss 10 + Omake

Well, it’s finally time to wrap up Paradise Kiss.

The final chapter is also the shortest in the book, but I’ll start with the cover page.

Isabella more appearances
Me too, Isabella. Me too.

I remember liking Isabella’s character the first time I read through Paradise Kiss. Isabella was the first transgender character I was aware of who wasn’t treated as a punchline. One of my favorite side stories showed her shared childhood with George, when she was being raised as a boy. The first dress George made was a gift for her, and helped her find her identity as Isabella. Throughout the manga she shows herself to sweet and caring, and has a deep bond with George, sticking with him through thick and thin.

The first volume focused mostly on Yukari and Miwako, so there wasn’t a lot of room for Isabella this time around. But this cover page almost makes me want to continue reading Paradise Kiss just to see more of her.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen in this book’s final chapter. But we do see Yukari start to grow up. Up to this point, she’s idolized her crush, Tokumori. But in this chapter she starts to see his flaws, too, and realizes he can be mean and petty. Instead, she turns her attention towards George, waiting for him to call her.

Except that she pretends that she’s not. This is another instance of “so high school”: acting like you’re not waiting for him to call, or pretending that this guy isn’t in your mind all day. When they finally do meet up, Yukari shouts at George for making her wait and for not calling, and George gives her a chance to back out of modeling. Tears running down her face, Yukari says that she’ll keep working, and she and George finally share their first kiss.

There is a lot of high drama and angst, and Yukari and George’s relationship ultimately doesn’t last. But it’s still rather sweet: your first kiss, and your first love. That’s also pretty high school, but in a good way.

The last section of this book is the “omake”, or bonus. Omakes are sometimes at the end of a manga volume that might show behind-the-scenes creation, or just have the characters being silly. What caught my attention, though, was just how dated it was. There’s a reference to the Sega Dreamcast, discontinued in 2001, and Geocities, closed in 2009.

Time waits for no man, I suppose. For no man, and no manga.

Paradise Kiss 9: So High School

This chapter reminded me why Paradise Kiss is a great series for high schoolers, and  no one else. After her close call with George, Yukari meets back up with Miwako, who’s been crying and is clearly upset.

Something struck me about Paradise Kiss here, which makes it stand out from other drama/romance manga. The “Ordinary World” portion of the story is barely there.

In a lot of manga, particularly shojo manga, the first chapter is normally dedicated to showing the protagonist’s every day life before her world is turned upside down by a handsome stranger. This usually includes friends, family, and school life, if she has one. But Paradise Kiss doesn’t give us that introduction. It starts with Yukari running into Arashi and Isabella by chance, and goes from there. We don’t really see what her life was like before this.

Then again, we don’t really need to. At the start of the manga, she doesn’t have much personality, but develops as a character over time, with the help of her colorful new friends. Her backstory unfolds throughout the story, and here it focuses on her crush on Tokumori. Later books will also explore Yukari’s relationship with her demanding mother, and the rest of the characters’ pasts as well.

Here we learn that Yukari is a good friend, even if the only person in her “ordinary world” we’ve seen her interact with is Tokumori. When she sees that Miwako’s been crying, she wants Miwako to tell her about what happened, even if it’s something that Yukari won’t like to hear.

As Miwako explains the love triangle between her, Tokumori, and Arashi, the only thing I wrote in my notes was, “so high school”.

I don’t think that teenagers are too young to fall in love and have deep and meaningful relationships, or that relationship drama magically ends when you graduate. What tipped the “so high school” balance for me wasn’t just the drama, but Miwako’s idealization of Arashi and and Yukari’s naive advice to her.

For some context: when Miwako lived close to both Arashi and Tokumori, she fell for both of them, and they fell for her. Arashi demanded that she choose between the two. After Miwako chose Arashi, he said that he never wanted her to see Tokumori again. Arashi’s already shown himself to be rude and brash, and we can add “jealous” and “possessive” to his list of negative traits. These are traits that Miwako could have romanticized. He’s jealous because he cares so much about her, while ignoring the other implications of his jealousy.

20180729_1843315851879524899115920.jpgYukari doesn’t help much when it’s her turn to give advice. She admits that she’s probably the worst person to give Miwako advice on her love life, and when she does, it sounds like…well, it sounds like it’s ripped straight of a shojo manga.

In this situation, it’s the blind leading the blind, and with no other experience to build on, they both have to let their emotions be the guide.

And that is why this is “so high school”.

Paradise Kiss 8: Frozen Yogurt of Romance

The eighth chapter of Paradise Kiss begins and ends with shots of Miwako and her talk with Tokumori, but for the most part focuses on the budding relationship between George and Yukari. I mentioned before that I don’t like the way George goes out of his way to get under Yukari’s skin, and Yukari explains exactly why.

Yukari hits the nail on the head with her narration:

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There’s an ambiguous zone between flirting and an actual relationship, and being stuck there indefinitely is maddening. George is keeping Yukari there because it’s fun for him to see her flustered, even if he does actually like her. George is the frozen yogurt of boyfriends:

tenor

Yukari decides to take control of the situation, rather than let George keep manipulating her. She challenges him in a way that kind of sounds…well, just as bad as George’s attitude.

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As they are about to kiss, George gets a call, and answers his phone instead of paying attention to Yukari. This was a pretty telling moment for the character: he cares about fashion and his work more than he cares about her. This is also a great moment of foreshadowing. Spoiler alert for an almost twenty-year-old* manga: George and Yukari do not have a happily ever after. In the end, they drift apart, focusing more on their careers than each other.

Chapter 8 was short, and I don’t have a snappy way to end this, except to say that George is a heel, but so is Yukari.

 

Paradise Kiss 7: The Trouble With George

Chapter 7 begins with Yukari going Tokumori to get tea, and (unbeknownst to him), reunite with Miwako. As they head to the cafe, George passes by them, and doesn’t say anything. Yukari doesn’t know what to think of this, and spends a page just trying to figure out why George ignored her.

Some of Paradise Kiss has gotten better since I’ve gotten older, but not this scene. Yukari over-analyzes George’s non-reaction to her as only a teenage girl can. I would know. I used to do it, too. What might have been relatable to me ten years ago is now just annoying, and it makes me glad that I’ve matured beyond that mentality. Well, mostly.

Tokumori notices Yukari acting weird, and asks her if something’s wrong. This leads to a discussion about school and their futures, and Yukari learns that Tokumori has the same doubts that she does. Yukari is surprised by this, and her reflections confirm my suspicions that this is actually the first real conversation she’s had with him.

Lazy editing job is lazy.

This is a strike against Yukari in my book. Through this read-through, I found that I liked her because she had her own doubts, along with a fairly cynical attitude that often matches mine. But idealizing someone without even trying to talk to them, this “love from afar”, just seems so immature.

When Yukari and Tokumori meet Miwako at the cafe, the two childhood friends are reunited in…a very awkward fashion. Yukari hadn’t warned either of them that the other would be there, wanting it to be a surprise. She hadn’t taken into consideration that Tokumori may have had feelings towards Miwako when they were younger, but that Miwako had chosen Arashi over him.

Yukari makes her escape from the awkward situation, leaving Tokumori and Miwako by themselves to catch up together. She decides to head, of all places, to the Paradise Kiss studio. There she runs into George, who tells her he didn’t greet her because he was jealous of seeing Yukari with another guy.

At this point, I’m sure that Yukari’s attraction to George is largely because she’s the only guy she’d been able to speak candidly with so far. Arashi is nothing but rude to her, and her relationship with Tokumori is distant at best. He also balances Yukari out in some aspects. He has passion and drive, whereas she is full of doubt and uncertainty. In fact, that’s the key difference between Yukari and the Yazawa Arts students: Yukari doesn’t know where she wants to go, but they know exactly what they want in their futures.

The end of this chapter marks the beginning of a possible relationship with George, but it feels rather superficial. This is maybe the fourth time we’ve seen Yukari and George talk to on another, and most of those conversations have been about modeling for the fashion show. He treats her more as a vehicle to showcase his work than as a person.

I’m trying to find the right words to explain just why I don’t like George, but I think what bothers me most about him is his sense of entitlement. Apart from his conversation with Yukari at the library – which he planned – he’s largely indifferent to her. Yet, he admits he was jealous of seeing her with someone else, a classmate who Yukari was well within her rights to be with. Additionally, he asks Yukari, almost mockingly, if she’s falling in love with him. Since the chapter ends there, we don’t see Yukari’s response other than some nervousness, and we don’t know if George will reciprocate a confession of feelings…or if he’s just trying to get under Yukari’s skin.

 

Paradise Kiss 5-6: Shall We Model?

I’ve decided to combine chapters 5 and 6 in a single post, as not a whole lot happens in chapter 5. Yukari agrees to model for the Paradise Kiss studio, and the Yazawa Arts kids throw a party to celebrate. Thinking the champagne at the party is non-alcoholic, Yukari accidentally gets drunk and falls asleep at the studio. She misses cram school, and George takes her home.

There’s not a lot of substance in this chapter. As I read through it, I only ended up making two notes: there wasn’t a lot of George this time around, and the art is very pretty.

The sexual tension ramps up at the end of the chapter, when George takes Yukari home. He leans in, and it looks as though he’s going to kiss her. Instead, he only tries to wipe her makeup off, so Yukari won’t get in trouble with her parents.

A lot of romance fiction, as I understand now, is really about the build-up between the presumptive couple. I don’t really feel this moment of a potential kiss, though. Maybe it’s because I already know where the series is going, or because George still hasn’t gotten a lot of screen time so far. Maybe romance stories just aren’t my cup of tea.

At least it’s nice to look at.20180709_1158188767141281503960383.jpg

The next chapter has a bit more story to it, and goes back to the potential love triangle between Yukari, Miwako, and Tokumori. Love square, if you include Arashi in that as well.

I also noticed another moment that might not translate well to American audiences. After several instances of non-sexual physical contact between Yukari and George, Yukari wonders, “why does he always touch me?” It was something that I wouldn’t have even thought of the significance of when I first read this.20180709_1157294692829488967709785.jpg

I took three semesters of Japanese in college with a professor who taught the class with a large focus on Japan’s culture. The personal stories he told us and some of the cultural difference between his life in Japan and in America are things that I remember long after I’ve forgotten katakana and how to conjugate verbs.

In college, many of my friends were very physically affectionate. There were always lots of hugs, play fighting, and back scratches. During my first semester taking Japanese, there was a girl who sat next to me and often hugged me. Then one evening, my professor addressed the class about our American habits that wouldn’t be permissible in a Japanese classroom.  Make sure your cell phones are off, always arrive on time, and please, cool it with the hugs. The lesson was further reinforced when we watched the Japanese film Shall We Dance? Our sensei explained that the film had been inspired by the fascination of American couples, openly taking each other in their arms, and dancing. Watching the American version of the film only further accentuates the differences between American and Japanese culture when it comes to touch.

Americans still like their space, but casual touching between friends or relatives isn’t uncommon. Whereas in Japan, touching others, particularly those you don’t know well, wouldn’t happen often. George constantly touching Yukari could be seen as downright weird, or George may be implying that they have a deeper relationship than they actually do.

Chapter 6 also gave me the first real reminder of how much time had passed since this manga was published. The first volume of Paradise Kiss was released in 2000, and for the most part, it holds up well. However, there are a few instances where (as TV Tropes puts it) Technology Marches On. Here’s the first one, when Yukari and Miwako exchange phone numbers.20180709_144952104498298163815428.jpg

Had this come out today, those phones would have looked very different. Furthermore, Miwako has to teach Yukari how to become “pen pals” with her. There’s no way a seventeen-year-old today wouldn’t know how to do that. Later in the chapter, Yukari wants to invite Miwako, Arashi, and Tokumori out for tea but doesn’t know how to get in touch with them. Then she remembers that she has Miwako’s phone number. Had this come out today, or even five years ago, Yukari wouldn’t even have had to wonder. Texting has basically become second nature.

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The reason Yukari wanted to invite Arashi and Miwako out to tea is so they can reunite with their childhood friend, Tokumori. Yukari had been startled, and a little jealous, when she realized that Miwako and Tokumori knew each other. This is because Yukari has a big crush on Tokumori, or at least is trying to convince herself she does.

When Yukari’s mind wanders over to George, she tries to shove him out of her mind. Instead, she even makes herself list the things she likes about Tokumori, and manages to come up with about three things. Then, when she asks him to tea, the conversation is…incredibly awkward.

All this makes me wonder: Has Yukari ever actually had a conversation with Tokumori before, outside of exchanging pleasantries? Until now, we’ve seen him compliment her new haircut, and nothing else. No wonder she’s attracted to George: he’s handsome, interesting, and they’ve had real conversations together, even if it’s only once or twice.

Paradise Kiss 4: Childhood Friends

Something didn’t occur to me until just now as we dive further into Paradise Kiss: we’ve never seen Yukari’s “ordinary day”. Most stories, particularly those that follow a monomyth structure, usually have this “ordinary day” at the beginning, where we can see what the main character’s life is like before the adventure starts. This gives us a frame of reference for how the character’s life is about to be turned upside down, be it by hatching a dragon or meeting someone new. But we haven’t gotten your typical “ordinary world” with Paradise Kiss. There’s maybe two pages in the beginning of the book that focus on Yukari’s thoughts before she gets spotted by Arashi and Isabella, and taken to their studio.

And yet, without a typical ordinary day sequence, we get a good sense of what her life is like. School, then cram school, all the while wondering what she wants out of her future. I think the strangeness of going to the studio and meeting George and his crew would have been better emphasized by showing this ordinary day, particularly for non-Japanese audiences, but it’s not necessary.

I only noticed this because chapter four is the first time we actually see Yukari at school, but we know from her narration that school is one of the biggest stressors in her life. We also – finally – meet Hiro Tokumori. Tokumori is one of Yukari’s classmates, and she has a big crush on him. In the first chapter, Yukari accidentally leaves her student passbook in the studio, where she happens to have a picture of Tokumori. She is

mortified at the thought that George might have seen the picture.

However, the day at school doesn’t last long, and we don’t see much of Tokumori. What I like about the Paradise Kiss studio crew is that, even if they haven’t had much screen time yet, I can already see some of their inner worlds, Miwako’s in particular. But not so with Tokumori. I’ve read the entire Paradise Kiss series before this, and honestly…I can’t remember a thing about his personality.

At this point, Tokumori’s presence and the photo is really only there to show Yukari’s budding attraction to George, though she won’t admit it yet, and probably doesn’t know it herself. It turns out George never saw the photo of Tokumori, and Yukari’s incredibly relieved. Here we see the beginnings of a conflict that has nothing to do with the fashion show. Yukari has a big crush, and she doesn’t want George to know about it. As I mentioned in my last entry, a good romance should have some realism to it, and this is exactly it.

After school, Yukari goes back to the studio, though she hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to model or not. She receives 20180625_102741133643277095666020.jpga shock after interrupting Arashi and Miwako making out on a pool table in the studio. Even though Yukari has stopped looking down on the art school kids by now, there’s still a gulf between her and them. It’s not that she’s shocked at the making out, that would surprise most people. But rather, Isabella, who is transgender, helping Miwako button up her shirt after.

While Miwako and Arashi are both pretty comfortable with Isabelle, Yukari can’t help thinking of her as a man, and it’s one of those things that gets brought up a couple times in this volume. To her (and Yazawa’s) credit, Yukari doesn’t say anything hateful to Isabella about her being transgender. Right now it’s just something she’s geeked out about, but as the series progresses, that strange feeling Yukari has towards Isabella fades away, and soon Isabella’s gender identity isn’t an issue for her.

Embarrassed about the situation, Yukari offers to go out and get tea for everyone, and Miwako tags along. While they’re alone, Miwako asks Yukari about the photo of Tokumori in her student passbook, incorrectly assuming that Tokumori is Yukari’s boyfriend. As it turns out, Miwako, Arashi, and Tokumori used to live together in the same apartment. When I first read this, I assumed that they meant the same actual apartment, but now I realize that they could mean just the apartment building. It’s not entirely clear.

I only recently learned that before Paradise Kiss, Yazawa published another manga, Gokinjo Monogatari, which follows Miwako’s older sister, Mikako. Gokinjo Monogatari may answer some of the questions I have about Miwako’s and Arashi’s past, but I’ve yet to read it.

As far as the childhood friends turned lovers trope, I don’t hate it, but it’s not my favorite, either. I just don’t see it as all that realistic, depending on the age of the characters. I can buy high school sweethearts who fell in love, parted ways, and came back together. But I don’t think falling in love with your childhood friend that you’ve spent most of your life with is that realistic. Part of this is the Westermarck effect, which hypothesizes that children who live closely together during their early years will not find each other attractive as they grow older, seeing each other more as brothers and sisters than potential mates. Like most social theories, it can’t be proven or disproved, so I would like to offer up one of my own:

You just get sick of each other.

When you spend almost all of your days with one person, there are times when you’re going to get tired of each other. You’ll get irritated and fight, and need to take a break, be it for a few hours or a few days. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about each other, it just means you need a break. This happens with friends, siblings, lovers, just about anyone who lives in constant close contact with another person. Often, the root cause of many of the fights I had with my sister were just because we’d spent too much time together.

This is actually addressed in the manga, when Arashi and Miwako are going through a rough patch. Miwako is concerned about Arashi’s silence, and he just tells her that when you’ve talked to someone else almost every day of your life, at some point you’re going to run out of things to say. The usual cutesyness of the childhood friends trope gets undercut by the problems in their relationship, one of which is the love triangle between Miwako, Arashi, and their childhood friend, Tokumori.

Most of the chapter is dedicated to Yukari getting to know Miwako better, and her shared past with Tokumori. Miwako is quickly becoming my favorite character in the book. While referring to herself in third person drives me crazy, she’s adorable and chipper, like a ray of technicolor sunshine. Between Arashi’s brash attitude and Yukari’s cynicism, Miwako brings some joy into an otherwise dramatic series.