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Found 15 results

  1. Review of Record of a Night too brief by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Lucy North Record of a Night Too Brief is a collection of 3 stories by Kawakami, originally published in Japan in 1996, each is about 50 pages long. The first was the title story about a girl and her porcelain girlfriend take on a journey in a dream, followed by a mist and meeting various things like kiwis and moles. The second story Missing was told by a girl whose brother vanished, but she could still see him at times. The brother was engaged so the family decide the second brother to take his place in the engagement. The third is about this girl who gave up teaching and now work as a shop assistant in a shop selling buddhist rosary beads (is if right to call them rosary beads. The story does refer to them as such). In her apartment, she comes across a snake in human form. I think the setting bore similarity kawakami's splendid the nakano thrift shop. However apart from girl in shop and a boss, that is where the similarity ends. As each story is short, one sitting reads, I don't want to say too much but I found these to be wonderfully surreal reads, told with a clear voice. My favourite was missing, for me this was a 5 star story while the title one was my least favourite but still a really good 4 star read. The third story was 4 and a half read so overall. * * * * 1/2
  2. Seventeen

    Seventeen bills itself as "an investigative thriller in the aftermath of an air disaster". Truly, it isn't.Instead, Seventeen is a competent and intriguing evocation of the inner workings of a local Japanese newspaper, the North Kanto Times, using the backdrop of an air disaster on the paper's doorstep to allow simmering resentments and rivalries to boil over. We are introduced to Kazumasa Yuuki, who is trying to make an ascent on Tsuitate rock face some seventeen years after making a promise to his colleague, Anzai, to climb the face with him. This leads Yuuki into a spiral of reminiscences of the events seventeen years ago, where the planned ascent of the rock was interrupted by the crash of a Japanese Airlines 747 into a nearby mountain, causing the deaths of 524 people.Seventeen years ago, Yuuki had been a roving reporter with the North Kanto Times, assigned to lead the Air Crash desk. He was responsible for sending reporters out into the field, editing their stories, deciding the layout and, ultimately, which stories would make the cut and which would not. Yuuki was the most experienced reporter at the paper who had not gone into management, leaving him both respected and shunned.The paper itself was constantly compromised in its effort to sustain circulation. It could not make political statements, could not ally more with one side than another (a problem in a province where the two main rivals in Japan's ruling political party held their bases), and shunned real news in favour of reporting local school sports fixtures, naming every player in an effort to sell the paper to kids' parents. But politics loomed large in the boardroom where the chairman and managing director were engaged in a bitter power struggle, sucking staff into one faction or the other.So when the 747 went down in the paper's area - despite not being on a major flight path - the paper entered an existentialist crisis. The natural instinct of a journalist is to go after a scoop, but when the scoop comes, the fear is paralysing. Nobody knows how to play it, and the temptation is to retreat to the familiar comforts of routine basketball games and ceremonial openings of arts festivals. This is the context into which Yuuki is thrust - with all eyes on him. And at the same time, Yuuki has his own personal issues to resolve, not least of which is the sudden collapse of his climbing buddy Anzai from the circulation department...Seventeen is a very complex novel with many characters and a network of relationships between them. It can be tricky to keep up with exactly who is who, particularly for anglophone readers who are not attuned to Japanese names. Hideo Yokoyama includes little summary lines when reintroducing a character to remind us of their role - this can feel irritating and repetitive, but without it I suspect the reader would be hopelessly lost. A further issue raised by the complexity is the uneasiness the reader will have in discerning what is actually the focus of the novel. Is it the plane crash? Is it the office politics? Is it Yuuki's personal situation? In truth it is all of these and none of them. It is really a slice of drama, a fly on the wall, from a newspaper office at a time of crisis. There is no particular beginning and no end. There is no great narrative arc, no moral, no winners and losers. It just is.And then there's the present day, climbing Tsuitate. I can see that there was a need to have the odd period of relief from the intensity and claustrophobia of the North Kanto Times - and the open air and focus on small, technical details of the climb provided that. It also offered an opportunity for Yuuki to put some distance between himself and the events of the past. But this came at the expense of elevating one strand of the story - Yuuki's personal life - above the others in significance even though it was perhaps not the most prominent line at the time of the disaster.Overall this is a complex, thoughtful and thought-provoking novel that has been somewhat cruelly mis-labelled to give a sure-fire guarantee of disappointing many of its readers. ****0
  3. Review of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell. The Nakano Thrift Shop is set in a thrift shop in Tokyo. The main character and narrator is Hitomi, a girl who gets a job in the shop owned by Mr Nakano. The other main characters with them is Mr Nakano's sister, Masayo and employee Takeo. Each of the chapters is named after an object that the thrift shop uses but this isn't about the shop itself but those that work there. This is the second novel of Kawakami's that I read after Strange Weather in Tokyo Hitomi has a little thing for Takeo, a guy that was damaged through the effects of bullying in school, he is also somewhere between asexual and demisexual. Mr Nakano is married but having an affair with a woman that works in a similar line. Masayo is seeing a married man. Quite an endearing read, I enjoyed both Kawakami's style and the gentle humour in the novel. This novel revolves around quite an endearing cast of characters, ok I've used endearing twice in this paragraph so time to wrap up the review.This is just a novel I loved, once I got out the comparison between the shop and Auntie's Wainwright's shop in Last of the Summer Wine * * * * *
  4. Murakami’s third novel continues the story of the Rat, a character that featured in the first and second novel. The Rat is once again not the main character, more a catalyst for the exploration of mystery the unnamed narrator is sent on. Apart from the Rat I don’t think anyone is named in the novel. Even the narrator’s girlfriend is just talked about as she etc. As always Murakami heads down avenues of thought that on the surface seem commonplace but with just enough twist to make the tale seem surreal. I always come away from a Murakami book with more questions than answers and perhaps that’s another reason why I love them. They don’t explain everything. Life is mostly an unresolved wander to death and Murakami seems to reflect that in his writing. This novel seems to be the beginning of his interest (obsession?) with religion and cults. Having read some of his later novels I can now see the germinating seeds of thought in this novel. The story flowed easily as good tales of travel and mystery do, possibly making this a good place to start if you want to explore the other horizons found in Murakami’s work. Also even though it is the third in the Rat trilogy you don’t need to have read the first two to follow this story. http://www.murakamibooks.co.uk/books/info/?t=A-Wild-Sheep-Chase#reviewsbox-5
  5. Occupied City

    Occupied City is a short novel, but it's not an easy one. Ostensibly, it is about the poisoning of the staff of a Tokyo bank. Twelve people die. In reality, the novel is about war and its aftermath; research into chemical weapons, war crimes and what happens when the rules change. Through a series of 12 first person narratives - many of them very fractured - we see different facets of the murder investigation, the weapons research and the world of gangsters. A common theme is the need to adapt or die. The structure of the novel matches a traditional Japanese ghost story game where narrators sit around a circle of candles. As each concludes a ghost story, he or she extinguishes a candle. The room gets darker, the atmosphere gets heavier, until in the end there is darkness. But in this novel, it is not the stories that are ghosts - it is their narrators. Some of the stories are lucid and take the narrative forward - although with 12 narrators covering common ground, there is an element of repetition. Other narrators, though, are in the depths of madness and serve to create atmosphere. As with other David Peace novels, the repetition is not confined to the plot; many of the narrators repeat mantra like phrases over and over again. It is intense. David Peace doesn't provide easy answers. This is not a whodunnit where the culprit is unmasked in the last scene. One man, Sadamichi Hirasawa, an artist, is destined to be convicted of the poisoning despite clear evidence in both the real world and in the Dark Gate of stories that he could not be the killer. We do eventually meet the killer but his identity remains an enigma. In a sense, it doesn't matter. We know what he is, even if we never know the name on his birth certificate. This is not a novel where things join up. Things touch, they overlap, they diverge, but there is no single answer. We see a city that was secure in its reverence for the Emperor, justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect him, brought to its knees, occupied by foreign powers and those who were most diligent in their support for the Emperor are now those who are held up to be the worst war criminals. Unless, of course, they can remain hidden in the shadows. The powers of the state - and the powers of the occupiers - are focused on creating a mutually acceptable outcome. They manipulate, distort and treat individuals as expendable. As living people, the twelve victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as ghosts seeking justice, again, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Occupied City is a difficult read but a very satisfying one. It towers over the its predecessor in an apparent trilogy, the somewhat lacklustre Tokyo Year Zero. In fact, it is so radically different in style and content that most readers would probably not place them in the same set at all. ****0
  6. Tokyo

    Tokyo is a really complex, intriguing novel. We meet Ben Monroe, an American academic who moved to Japan via London after his marriage collapsed. He has a thing about death cults. We meet his daughter Mazzy, nearly 16, who is coming out to stay with him as she spends a reluctant semester at an international school in Tokyo whilst her mother, Lydia, stays back in the States and worries about radiation from Fukushima. And we meet Koji, the man who sat next to Mazzy on the plane and seems to like her – perhaps a bit too much. The star of the show is the sense of place. Hogg evokes a perfect image of Japan. The strange mix of seaminess and sterility; the perfect but soulless nightclubs and bars; the contrast between the wholesome ryokans and the anonymity of the capsule hotels and love hotels. The food and drink feel authentic; the weather, the stations, the alleyways. It’s so accurate you can almost touch it. The story itself involves Ben spending too much time searching for a mythological woman (a hostess he met on a previous trip to Japan) whilst spending too little time looking out for a real woman (his daughter, who appears to be in great peril). Bad call… The story poses questions about how far a separated man should feel beholden to his former family and how far he should be getting on with the rest of his life. Nicholas Hogg avoids giving an answer to this – we just know that Ben hasn’t got the balance quite right. In any case, even if Ben is right to put distance between himself and his past life, he lacks a viable game plan for the future. Spending big money on crazy whims, is no way forward. Ben displays the detachment from reality of the worst kind of ex-pat; he behaves as though rules and societal expectations apply only when he wants them to; his actions may have immediate consequences, but as soon as he gets back to his apartment the slate is wiped clean and he can start the next day afresh. Basically, Ben is on one long, indefinite holiday. The pacing is superb. As the novel builds – and it’s not a long novel – the sense of menace and peril ratchets up. The reader starts to see hidden monsters lurking in the shadows. And the zipping of the narrative from Ben’s first person to Mazzy’s third person – and the occasional viewpoint of Koji keeps a pacy feel. If there is one reservation, it is the final sections when things go very surreal. For a novel that has felt very real and open, it is a bit jarring. It is explained in subsequent epilogues, but it didn’t feel authentic when being read. It may have been a bit of artifice to bring the novel to a rapid end without having to unfold events in a step by step sequence – which overall is merciful (nothing worse than the tension of a good psychological novel being lost by faithful adherence to the timeline of the denouement). And, in fairness, the handling of the ending is memorable… Nicholas Hogg really is a first rate writer – engaging, lucid and original, but never showy. Each of his three novels is quite different, but all of equally high quality. Bring on the next one… *****
  7. Hotel Iris

    Hotel Iris is not the best hotel. Located in a seaside resort that appeals mainly to the domestic market, good hotels are close to the beach or have great views. Sadly, Hotel Iris doesn't. Mari lives at the hotel. Her mother owns it; her father, grandfather and grandmother are all dead. Mari's mother treats her as a skivvy, working longer hours and for fewer thanks than the actual staff maid. Mari is young, naïve and lonely. So when she runs into a translator who offers her companionship, she jumps at the chance even though she knows he has a dark side... This short novel is carefully written to generate an atmosphere of seediness, decay and menace. We know that Mari is exposing herself to great risk, yet she embraces it as a viable alternative to her hopeless existence at the hotel. It's a difficult balance to strike, but Mari manages to avoid the role of helpless victim; she has a feistiness and determination to get what she wants. Insofar as she is a victim, she is a completely willing one. One might safely assume that Yoko Ogawa's parents have long since passed because there are some scenes you wouldn't want your mother to read, especially if you had written them yourself. They are intimate and they are graphic. But they contrast with scenes of great tenderness and affection. Hotel Iris is not straightforward; it creates complex people that you never fully know. It is a novel as much about what is not said as what is written down on the page. As well as the characterisation and story, Ogawa has a great ability to create images and scenes with very few words. The reader stands with Mari and the translator on the ferry, feeling the salt spray in the air; the reader knows the layout of the translator's house; sees the peeling paint in the hotel. The economy with words means the pace never slows, but neither does the novel feel rushed. And when it comes, the ending is ambiguous and most unsettling. It suits the novel perfectly. Hotel Iris is a quirky, haunting addition to extensive canon of Japanese weirdness. Unreservedly recommended (except to my mother). *****
  8. Confessions

    Confessions is a lurid, gothic, stylised shocker. Yuko Moriguchi is a school teacher, announcing her retirement to her class on the last day of term. She sermonises on the differences between good teachers in films who are able to drop their lesson plans to focus on the problems of the one recalcitrant student, whereas she feels that teachers should concentrate on the able and willing students. She theorises about HIV and AIDS, the topic of the book the class was supposed to read. She is wry, sarcastic and bitter. Oh, and she mentions that part of her reason for wanting to leave the teaching profession is that her daughter was murdered and the culprits are sitting in the classroom. But because the juvenile justice system is toothless, she has her own plans for revenge. The narrative baton is then passed on to four other characters, each taking a different form (letter, diary, website, etc.), each telling us what we already know but seen through a different lens, and each taking the story that little bit further. And what a sordid little tale it is. Confessions does not set out to be realistic, although some of the themes of teenage alienation, ambitious parents, popularity and so on are faithfully depicted. But the plot and narrative voices are very melodramatic and absolutely engrossing. Retelling the story so many times without it becoming stale or repetitive is no mean feat. The pacing is perfect and the characterisation, for all the luridness, feels right. The whole piece is a rollercoaster of emotions as we first feel sympathy for characters, then that sympathy turns into revulsion, and then back to sympathy again. Or vice versa. The novel is short and the reader is left wanting more – always a good sign. It's a quick and easy read, but the ideas at its heart are really disturbing. This is Japanese Noir at its peak. *****
  9. Strange Weather In Tokyo is a short book, but somehow feels longer. Tsukiko is a middle aged woman who seems to have done little with her life. She finds herself drinking in a bar next to her former Japanese teacher, Sensei. Sensei remembers Tsukiko, despite her modest scholastic abilities, and they embark on a gentle friendship. This is essentially a novel of manners; we see the tentative steps taken as a friendship develops with neither Tsukiko nor Sensei wanting to overstep the mark and scare the other away. This unfolds, oh so slowly, across a variety of Japanese settings such as the pachinko lounge, tatami rooms and Disneyland, composing haikus. The pace is a problem. There is little to hold the reader's attention and although it is great to see two lonely people finding some solace in each other it is apparent that their loneliness was not an accident. There is, perhaps, a small element of watching inter-generational relationships; Sensei is always the master and Tsukiko is always the pupil. There is an opportunity to see old traditions jarring against a modern society; samurais doing battle against Pokemon. But it is all so languid and so little actually happens. We don't really see much character development and encounters with secondary characters such as Satoru the bartender as they go off hunting mushrooms just feel like padding. I know many reviewers have hailed the beauty of the book and found it deeply moving. For this reader, though, it just felt sterile and the relationship at its centre never felt real. **000
  10. Parade

    Parade is a novel that is less than the sum of its parts. The novel centres around a 2 bedroom Tokyo apartment with a changing cast of residents. Naoki has been there the longest, and working for a film company, he is the most successful of the residents. The other longish term residents are Ryusoke, a student; Kotomi, an unemployed woman who watches daytime TV all day; and Mirai, an alcoholic artist who seems to be a bit of a fag hag. Oh, and there’s Satoru; nobody knows much about him, but he just turned up one day and never really left. Each resident contributes a longish narrative, before handing over to the next resident. The five narratives piece together into a whole. It’s not exactly a linear story and not much really happened. More, it is about the five characters themselves; who they are – how they perceive themselves and how they are perceived by each of the others. Various truths become clearer – or sometimes less clear – as the voices add together. The trouble is, the five narratives are written in a very similar voice and such difference as there is takes the form of clunky “Japanesey” type syntax. It sounds stilted and self-conscious. There’s no spontaneity or depth of character. The five are defined by what they do rather than by what they say, think or feel. The Tokyo that is depicted is similarly grey and featureless. Just some bland shopping arcades, some identikit bars and grey pavements, grey carparks and grey tenements. Even though Naoki supposedly gets to go on work trips overseas and Kotomi is having a relationship with a TV star, there’s no sense of pleasure or joi de vivre. Everything is just workmanlike. Including the writing style. The two areas of intrigue – what is happening at the neighbours’ apartment and who is stalking girls in the neighbourhood – are underplayed and even though they are both resolved, neither resolution seems entirely satisfactory. The ending of the novel is enigmatic and actually quite unsettling, but getting there is a real slog for a novel that is so short. I am sure Parade is technically brilliant and others seem to have liked it. But for this reader, it did not add up to something that repaid the time invested in reading it. **000
  11. Asia

    I read books set in Asia, books about Asia, books by Asians (regardless of where in the world they may reside), books about the immigrant experience, and basically anything that can by any definition broad or narrow be called 'Asian'. I have deliberately made this broad, broad, broad because I don't want to get bogged down in discussion ending arguments about who or who isn't Asian and if a book is or is not 'Asian'. If it is about Asia, Asians, an Asian experience or written by some one who is Asian - its in!
  12. I'm a fan of Ryu Murakami and have read most of his other works translated into English. Popular Hits, though, has not proven to be terribly... um... popular. The novel is short and absurd; we find some of the common ingredients of Murakami's work in a group of six misfit men who spend their days playing fantasy computer games, singing karaoke and drinking. They have no social skills and don't actually like one another, they just stick together because it's (slightly) better than being alone. Like other Murakami novels, the individuals have little character; the character pertains to the group. OK, one or two of them have small individual traits, but only on order to drive the plot. One of the men, Sugiyoka, decides he would like to experience loss, but because he has no friends or family he cares about, he kills a stranger. The stranger, it tuns out, is one of a group of six middle aged single women who all share a common name (Midori) and have resigned themselves to being left on the shelf. Like the men, they don't really seem to like one another and simply band together to avoid being alone. They are a direct opposite to the men. And once the remaining five learn of their colleagues murder, they set out on the path of revenge. The plot then escalates in absurdity as these two unlikely groups arm themselves to the teeth, set out on some kind of Albanian blood-feud. These are the Hits of the title. There is plenty of comic dialogue and misplaced values. There is a soundtrack of karaoke songs - both western and Japanese. There's irreverent sexism and a creepy schoolgirl. But unlike some of Murakami's longer novels (Coin Locker Babies, From The Fatherland With Love) there isn't the space for the group characters to fully form. It feels rushed; it feels plot driven. And unlike some of Murakami's shorter works (Almost Transparent Blue, Piercing) there is not so much of a sense of dystopian Japanese society. Popular Hits is a bit of a misfit; it has some reasonable ingredients but the recipe is faulty. They don't make cake. ***00
  13. Translated with an introduction by Edwin McClellan. Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is a novelist of the Meiji period (1868-1912) and remains one of the most widely read authors in Japan. Kokoro can be translated as "the heart of things" or as "feeling." It was written in 1914, two years after the death of the Emperor Meiji, and two years before the author's death. The translator tells us that the style of writing is intentionally simple and the translation manages to retain that simplicity. The novel is concerned with man's loneliness in a modern world. Perhaps. It is about a love that both key characters can't express either because of their reserve or fear of ridicule. It is very cleverly done. The narrator describes his relationship with the man he calls "sensei" which is fairly straightforward but also involving. And then later in a long letter to the narrator, sensei writes of his background and this is the affecting part of the book. I can't imagine this book being written by a western author in 1914. It is so expressive in exploring the characters in a way that western literature didn't begin to explore for another ten to twenty years. I can understand why the author is still so widely read. Apart from a few anachronisms and the authors view of woman, this book could have been written this year. If you have the opportunity to read this I don't think you will be disappointed.
  14. A Tale for the Time Being is a very strange novel. Broadly, a lonely and isolated writer of Japanese heritage called Ruth (who could that be?) finds a diary washed up on the beach, wrapped up with a watch and some other papers in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, on the beach in British Colombia. In equal measures, Ruth reads the diary (written in first person by a Japanese 15 year old called Nao) and has her own story told in third person narration. The story veers constantly between the very mundane of at school, poverty, loneliness through to questions of purpose, existence, suicide and time. At its core is the Buddhist idea of the butterfly flapping its wings – everything causes ripples and the ripples change history. There are multiple possible futures and, if so, there are multiple possible pasts. Until a future or a past is known, it can be anything. Ruth Ozeki plays mindgames with the reader constantly in this dense novel; but the reader only really catches on half way through. It is quirky and eccentric; also fairly difficult to get to grips with. This is not helped by digressions in Japanese and French that are footnoted. In amongst the philosophy, there are some excellent depictions of loneliness on the edge of civilisation in Canada, and social isolation for those who do not have career success in Japan. There are culture clashes as east meets west but Ozeki drives home a pretty forceful message that the west is not the best. The two narratives interweave in ever less probably ways and the ending, when it comes – and it takes its time doing so – feels unusually satisfying for a text that has got so weird. I suppose that is because the weirdness is grounded in such everyday situations. The characterisation, especially in the Japanese sections, is deep and convincing. Information is fed to the reader to allow the situation to be constantly re-appraised and people to be seen in new lights. The people in Canada feel more like devices designed to allow ideas to play out – but as devices go, they are good ones. A Tale for the Time Being is not going to be a light read. Don’t take it to the beach – not even one in British Colombia – but give it room to breathe, just stick with it if it gets weird for a bit and all will be right in the end. Glad to see this one on the Booker longlist – hopefully it will last through to the shortlist. *****
  15. Villain

    Villain is a literary novel, originally written in Japanese, concerning a young woman Yoshino Ishibashi who is murdered one night in a remote and spooky mountain pass. Unlike many thrillers, Villain does not concern itself with whodunnit. The culprit is quickly revealed and the novel centres far more on who he is, what makes him tick, and how he relates to those around him. In this sense, Yoshino is almost incidental - her murder is a salient episode in the Villain's life in terms of the personal consequence for him, but the act itself was no more meaningful than his prior relationship with a prostitute or with his subsequent relationship with a woman he met on the Internet. The society described by Shuichi Yoshida seems to be very bleak. It is devoid of any real emotion or happiness. Connections between individuals seems to be at best superficial, often temporary and often inspired by connections made online. Contrary to expectations, most characters in Villain have money worries and prices are set out frequently. Many of the events that take place break down into individual (financial) transactions. This leads protagonists to find themselves evaluating whether they got good or poor value. It leads to a joyless life; a life of perpetual desperation and unsatisfied want. Aficionados of Japanese novels will spot more than a passing resemblance to Natsuo Kirino's Real World where the focus of a murder was on the subsequent life on the run; the protagonist only felt really alive when competing in a real life (and short-lived) game of chase. If the idea behind Villain is borrowed, the execution does go beyond Real World. The characters feel more developed; there is more commentary on a soulless society; there is a more three-dimensional feel to the disaffected youth. There are also moments of great comedy - not least Fusae's ongoing battle with the health-food hucksters. As thrillers go, Villain is slow moving and not especially thrilling, It deals in fatalism rather than dramatic tension. And the structure of five long, very distinct chapters makes it quite slow to take off. But when it does, it is a good literary novel that does offer some insight into a very different society to the Anglophone world. Some of the issues simply don't translate - apparently there is a dimension of social class in Japanese society which doesn't really come through. But that is a small thing; there is plenty enough that does shine through to make Villain a very well worthwhile read. ****0
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