6

‘Lonely Castle in the Mirror’ by Mizuki Tsujimura

Lonely Castle in the Mirror (かがみの孤城), written by the Japanese author Mizuki Tsujimura and translated to English by Philip Gabriel, is a magical and moving coming-of-age story that was published by Doubleday only a couple of weeks ago. The novel won the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018 and has been lauded and praised by many since. I was planning on reading it as soon as I heard about it, so when the English translation was announced I was over the moon with joy.

English version published by Doubleday on April 22nd, 2021.

Before we get on with the story and my thoughts on it, it’s worth mentioning that this is a YA novel and its protagonists are junior high schoolers and not adults. It has already been likened with the quirky tales of Sayaka Murata (author of Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings), while the Guardian has called it “the offspring of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and The Virgin Suicides” (cannot find a link, but this quote is all over the internet), but I feel both those comparisons don’t do the book any justice and only serve to mislead and possibly disappoint the reader who comes expecting something along the lines of the aforementioned books. As long as you know what sort of story this is, you will be able to truly enjoy it for what it is.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror borrows many western fairy tale elements and creates a whimsical and enchanting story that will certainly tag the heartstrings of many readers. If I had to compare it to another novel, that would definitely be The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, although Lonely Castle goes in an entirely different direction.

Set in modern day Tokyo, the novel recounts the story of Kokoro (meaning ‘heart’ in Japanese) Anzai, a 13 year-old girl who, after a rather traumatic event that has left her unwilling to go to school, one day discovers that the mirror in her room is shining in a peculiar way. Upon examining the mirror, she gets transported through it to a castle, where she meets six more children around her age, as well as the Wolf Queen, who seems to be the person in charge. The Wolf Queen gives them about a year to find a key which will grant only one of them a wish. However, after the wish is granted, all of them will forget about the castle, the moments they have spent there and one another. The children can enter the castle through their mirrors at any moment they want, but they are forbidden to spend the night there, although they each have their own rooms in the castle. If they overstay, then the wolf will come out and devour them.

As the story progresses, we learn more about each teenager, all of whom refuse to go to school for their own reasons, and we follow them as they get to know one another and discover that they are not alone in whatever they are going through. The narration is in third person, but we follow Kokoro’s point of view as she reveals more and more about the incidents that made her unable to go to school, and as she unravels the mystery of the castle along with her new friends.

I really loved the fairy tale elements and the magical atmosphere that Tsujimura creates, as well as the way she uses those fantastic elements to talk about real-life problems that many of us will have also experienced as teenagers. Through the themes of friendship, bullying, losing people close to you, social insecurity etc., Tsujimura explores what it is like to be an outsider, to not be able to fit it and to find friendship and meaningful connections even when you least expect it.

Japanese cover of the novel, originally published in May 2017.

There is also the underlying mystery of the castle and its goings-on, which I also found quite interesting (can never resist a good mystery!), although I was able to figure out most of its solution pretty early on. It definitely gave the novel a unique flair, though, engaging the reader and keeping them eager to uncover the mystery. I also really liked the seven teenagers, I thought they were all unique and I was eager to know more about their specific circumstances and what led them to be invited to the castle.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is almost a 400-page novel, and I have to admit that it does drag on at times, especially during the middle. The writing is simple, as is the case with many Japanese novels, so if you’re looking for flowery and poetic language, this book is not for you. The translation is very well done (as is to be expected by a renowned translator like Gabriel), but there are still some nuances and cultural differences that readers may need to be aware of when reading. For example, in many scenes we see Kokoro or the other children staying silent and not talking back when scolded or reprimanded, even if they are not in the wrong. Although this attitude isn’t very common in the western world, it is quite common in Japan.

According to the Publisher’s Note at the end of the book, Japanese children’s mental health is second to last among 38 developed and emerging countries, a fact that is shocking and alarming, yet one that makes this book even more important for all the teenagers and young adults that are going through difficult times for one reason or another. No wonder, then, that Tsujimura’s novel resonated with so many young Japanese people, and I’m certain it’s going to equally resonate with many young people outside Japan as well.

Literature has the power to pull you out of the darkness, even momentarily, offer you consolation and company, and show you that most problems have solutions. The castle in the mirror was a much-needed escape for Kokoro and the other six teenagers, a way out of their gloomy daily lives and unbearable circumstances, much like what literature and even more so fantasy literature is to all of us. However, while providing this escapist quality, the castle (and fantasy) equips the children with the necessary means to pluck up their courage, face their fears and dispel what makes their reality unbearable. In the end, this is exactly what this book does, too – it works as an anchor, as a speck of light, as a warm hug that gives its readers the necessary courage to fight their own battles and face their own unpleasant realities, creating their own path in life.

Overall, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a wonderful and magical tale, deeply rooted in reality despite its fairy tale and fantasy elements. It’s a heart-warming and touching novel that will resonate with many, regardless of their age, as we can all see a part of ourselves in Kokoro, Aki, Rion, Masamune, Ureshino, Subaru or Fuka, the seven students.

This also serves as my first post for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder, the month-long event that runs through May, celebrating fantasy and the fantastic. If you’d like to learn more about it and sign up, head over to this post.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

3

‘The Majesties’ by Tiffany Tsao (20 Books of Summer)

Ever since I first heard of The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao, I’ve been intrigued by the novel’s plot and underlying mystery. Published by Pushkin Press and characterised as a ‘riveting tale’ of betrayal, revenge and family bonds, The Majesties is a haunting read about the dark side of wealth and the lengths people with power are willing to go to maintain what they have.

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The plot follows two sisters, Gwendolyn and Estella, heiresses to the Sulinados, a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family and their journey to unravel the deep-seated secrets that their family harbours. The novel begins in quite an eventful and shocking manner, as the entire family has just been poisoned by Estella while attending a wedding. Gwendolyn (affectionately called ‘Doll’ by her older sister) is the sole survivor of this incident and she is currently in a coma, trying to piece together the events that led her sister to commit such a heinous act.

As Gwendolyn lies in the hospital bed, unable to move or speak, she delves deep into her memories taking the reader along, recounting various events such as their university days, her sister’s meeting with her future husband, their aunt’s sudden disappearance, while attempting to understand and reveal Estella’s breaking point that led to this tragedy. Although seemingly perfect and superficial, the sisters’ lives are filled with deception, lies and abuse, and the novel depicts this slow escalation of the events until we reach the day of the incident.

Tsao has managed to build her plot masterfully and create a steady pace that gradually intensifies as more and more secrets are revealed and the Sulinados’ entire life is being deconstructed. The story starts with the mystery of finding out the reason why Estella resorted to poisoning the nearly 300 members of her family, yet the suspense keeps on building up as we discover more and more about this rich but deeply problematic family. Gwendolyn’s own narration of her recollections start as very simple, coherent and clear, but as the plot moves forward they culminate in a hazy and feverish recounting of the last conversations she had with Estella before the poisoning.

The Majesties combines the elements of a psychological mystery with a literary style, and, along with its fast-paced plot and suspense, it manages to keep the reader at the edge of their seat until the very last page. What initially appears like ‘rich people problems’, superficial worries about mundane things, quickly escalates to much more serious themes of abuse, both physical and psychological, deception, loss of freedom and, eventually, loss of identity.

The premise of two sisters, one of which ends up killing their family (and herself in the process in the case of The Majesties) initially reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in The Castle. Although they are two very different books in their respective plots and eventual execution, Tsao has crafted an equally intriguing psychological mystery, exploring the darkness that resides in one’s heart and the lengths certain people are willing to go to in order to keep up appearances and preserve their supposed image.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed The Majesties and Tsao’s portrayal of the seemingly ideal yet corrupt world of this Asian family, as well as exploring the psychology of both sisters and their attempt to cope with a reality that seems to increasingly suffocate them and entrap them.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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4

‘The Cat and the City’ by Nick Bradley

Nick Bradley’s debut novel is a collection of intertwined stories that take place in Tokyo, this fascinating, terrifying, overpopulated and lonely city. Although the stories initially seem separate from one another, the reader will quickly recognise the recurring characters and realise that they are all connected in one way or another. And, of course, there is a calico cat that makes an appearance in every single one of these stories, leaving its mark in the lives of all these struggling characters. 41zU1ZzTcRL.SX316.SY316

Japanese literature is known for its frequent fascination with cats, and Bradley, having himself lived and worked in Japan, attempted to weave a story of this complicated city where anything and everything seems possible. Instead of an ode to Tokyo and Japan in general, Bradley often seems to view certain events and practices with a critical eye, which is quite refreshing, since most foreigners who write about Japan tend to over-romanticise the country and everything they have experienced whilst there.

I also enjoyed Bradley’s prose and writing style a lot. While I started this book with a certain level of caution and apprehension, I was quickly drawn into the author’s words and found myself reading one story after another, curious to discover which character we are going to follow next and what kind of role the calico cat will play in the story. I also loved how Bradley’s writing seemed to change and shift according to the needs of the story, while some stories surpassed the boundaries of conventional prose as they were enriched with pages of a manga comic one of the characters was writing, the case notes of a detective, etc.

Although my experience reading The Cat and the City is mostly positive, there were a couple of things that I had an issue with. Firstly, there were a number of words that were purposely left in Japanese throughout the text (but especially in the first few stories), although there was no need to. I understand that since the stories are set in Japan and most of the characters are Japanese it seems more natural for them to use certain Japanese words, but when there is an English equivalent (which was often used right after the Japanese word anyway), it seems rather redundant to me to use the Japanese word. Also, although I gather that most of the book’s readers might have an interest in Japan, not all of them will be acquainted with the Japanese language, so it might be quite bothersome and interrupting for them to encounter random Japanese words.

Secondly, even though Bradley created very solid characters and stories that covered a wide spectrum of personalities and interests, I still felt like I was reading Japanese characters written by a non-Japanese person. Of course, I understand that the author is not Japanese and this is to be expected, but I simply couldn’t shake off the feeling that quite often his characters would behave or speak in a way that felt a bit unnatural for a Japanese person.

Still, The Cat and the City is a very entertaining, unique and well-written book that is definitely worth reading, especially if you have an interest in Japan and its culture. As a debut work, it is quite promising and Bradley is definitely a writer I will be looking forward to read more of in the future.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

18

Short Story Fridays: 5 Unique and Compelling Fantasy Short Stories

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It is no lie that most of fantasy literature consists of chunky tomes and series that go on for multiple volumes. A well-built fantasy world needs space and time to be fleshed out, since it’s something completely new to the reader. As much as this is true, however, one can also find shorter pieces of fantasy that might lack the volume but are equally captivating and well crafted in their world building and execution.

So here are 5 fantasy short stories (some might be considered novelletes, but they are all less than 50 pages long) that I have read recently (some not so recently), and which I believe are excellent bite-sized stories for anyone who craves a quick dose of quirky and enchanting fantasy without needing to invest in hundreds of pages. From Indian and Chinese inspired fantasy settings, to steampunk and fairy tale worlds, you’ll definitely find at least one story that tickles your fancy.

(Most of the following stories are available to read for free online. I have provided links to their official sites where applicable for those interested.)

‘The Shadow Collector’ by Shveta Thakrar

“In the garden where girls grew from flowers, their days washed in the distant trills of the queen’s wooden flute, a gardener toiled. His name was Rajesh, and in his spare time, he collected shadows. Shadows of nectar–loving hummingbirds, shadows of laughing fathers, shadows of hawks who preyed on squirrels.”

‘The Shadow Collector’ is one of the most unique fantasy short stories I have ever read. In just a few thousand words, the author manages to create an enticing and mesmerising world inspired by South Asian culture. Her writing is lyrical and evocative, so much so that you can almost smell the fragrances and paint a rich mental picture of the scenes described. I loved every single word of this story and my only complaint is that I wanted more of this world and more of Thakrar’s writing (luckily, she’s coming up with a full-length novel in August).

You can read ‘The Shadow Collector’ at the Uncanny Magazine Issue 6 here.

‘The Terracota Bride’ by Zen Cho 29387827._SY475_

After reading Sorcerer to the Crown in April, I’ve been mesmerised by Cho’s writing style, so as soon as I found out about ‘The Terracota Bride’, I dove right into it. The story is set in the Chinese inspired underworld, where Siew Tsin, the main character, finds herself after her untimely death. Conspiracies, revenge, love and heartbreak, as well as a mysterious artificial woman made out of terracota are intertwined in a gripping story with a truly relatable female protagonist.

 

10290982 ‘Clockwork Fairies’ by Cat Rambo

Not only is Rambo’s ‘Clockwork Fairies’ set in a re-imagined version on Victorian England, but it also features a female woman of colour who is also an inventor and a brilliant steampunk setting. Desiree is a talented engineer who creates mechanical fairies and has to face the prejudices of the men-dominated society she inhabits. The story is told through the eyes of Claude, her fiance, who is a truly unlikeable character. I wouldn’t want to reveal more about the story, but I do enjoy a refined steampunk world and ‘Clockwork Fairies’ certainly lived up to all expectations.

You can read ‘Clockwork Fairies’ at Tor.com here.

‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ by Theodora Goss redasblood

Steeped in fairy tale elements and tropes but featuring a dark twist (and not the kind of dark fantasy twist you might imagine), Goss’s ‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ is a charming fairy tale-like story that punches you right in the gut by the end of it. Klara is a young and rather naive kitchen maid who, having grown up as an orphan, is a strong believer of fairy tales. One day, a ragged woman appears outside the castle where Klara works, and the girl immediately assumes she is nothing but a princess in disguise…

I really enjoyed the story and the fact that it was written like a fairy tale made the ending even more powerful in my opinion. Whether you enjoy fairy tale retellings (although I wouldn’t really call this story a retelling, rather simply inspired by fairy tale traditions) or you just want a story with an expected twist, ‘Red as Blood and White as Bone’ is a perfect choice.

You can read it at Tor.com here.

brightmoon‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ by J.Y. Yang

Last but not least, ‘Waiting on a Bright Moon’ is one of the most original and imaginative tales I’ve read lately. J.Y. Yang is mostly known for their Tensorate novella series, about one of which I had talked a bit more in my Favourite Books of 2018 post. Yang weaves fantasy worlds that are inspired by Chinese tradition and folklore and yet are so original and inventive that are truly a delight to sink one’s literary teeth into. This story is filled with starmages, ansibles (people who use their singing voice to open portals), queer romance in space and schemes to overthrow the government, taking the reader to a wild ride through its wholesome world.

You can read it at Tor.com here.

Have you read any of these short stories? What are your favourite fantasy short stories? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Better late than never, they say, and so my first contribution for the Wyrd and Wonder 2020 event is of course posted a couple of days before the end of the month 🙂 I’m thinking of making Short Story Fridays a weekly staple, in order to talk about short stories and short story collections/anthologies in a more regular manner.

6

‘Sword’ by Bogdan Teodorescu

Sword, translated from Romanian by Marina Sofia and published by the brand new publishing house Corylus Books, is an innovative political thriller set in modern day Romania.

41tvda1yzRLAt the very beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the mysterious killer who appears to only target the criminals of Bucharest that are of Roma descent. He kills them in one blow using a sword, thus gaining the nickname Sword by the media, who are fast to spread the news (and subsequent panic) about the killer to the wider public.

With the police having trouble finding any clues as to the killer’s identity and whereabouts, and with the media and public putting the blame on the current government, the Sword case quickly spirals out of control. The public opinion about the killer seems to be divided, thus giving birth to an array of political and racial issues as well.

The premise of Teodorescu’s novel sounds utterly fascinating, especially for fans of crime/thriller novels. Although the Roma criminal killings are at the core of the novel’s plot, there is much more emphasis on the political side of the story and how the politicians and journalists are handling and effected by this case. Teodorescu’s clear and concise prose (aided by the excellent translation in English) along with the short chapters that present alternate points of view create a fast paced narrative that keeps the reader at the edge of their seats, longing to know how this mess is going to be resolved.

Although the political figures and the journalists are characters that appear frequently in the narrative, I believe there is no actual main character in this novel. The government, the police and the media are all on the lookout for the elusive Sword killer, while also trying to face the racist outbreaks regarding the Roma community, as well as the general outrage and distaste of the public about the way this case is handled. The Sword killings, then, seem to threaten much more than the public safety, as political interests are also at stake.

I really enjoy books that are not afraid to tackle sensitive topics that are not frequently touched upon, especially when they are interspersed with a gripping and fast-paced plot, and this is exactly what Sword did for me. Teodorescu managed to create a political noir that reads like the Romanian version of House of Cards if a mysterious killer was introduced in the plot. The Roma community is a difficult issue for many South European countries and I really liked the way the author brought this topic into his plot and used it to construct a solid thriller with political implications that seems to  essentially be a depiction of the tumultuous state of his country (even though there is no killer on the loose in real life).

I had never read any Romanian literature before, and I’m very glad that Sword was my introduction to it. I will certainly be looking forward to reading more titles by Corylus Books as well, as I think it’s really important to support new publishers who are trying to bring something new to the English-speaking bookish world.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Corylus Books.

4

‘The Sheltering Rain’ by Hanmura Ryo

The recipient of the Naoki Prize in Japan in 1975, Hanmura Ryo’s The Sheltering Rain (Amayadori, 雨やどり) is a novel that is set in Shinjuku, the entertainment district of Tokyo in the 1960s/70s. Translated by Jim Hubbert, the novel was published by Kurodahan Press in 2019 and consists of eight chapters, each one of which narrates a different event in the lives of its characters. The chapters can also be considered and read as independent short stories (in fact, they were published separately in magazines between 1973 and 1974 before coming together to form this volume).

51324300._SY475_Through its interconnected stories, the novel transports us to the night world of Shinjuku in the late ’60s, where we are introduced to the bartenders, bar owners and hostesses that make up the nightlife of the area. Initially, we become acquainted with the “main character”, Senda, who at the beginning is a bartender at The Pot Still and in later stories he manages to open his own bar, Lui. Alongside Senda we encounter an array of characters, from Yoshie and Kyoko, the two female co-owners of another bar, to hostesses, gangsters and past loves and acquaintances that form part of Shinjuku’s history through their stories. Although their world is often engulfed in deceit and quite unhappy endings, the characters of this novel have managed to form a kind of community between them, where instead of rivalry they show unexpected kindness and help each other out when needed. This has got to be the most surprising and pleasant part of the book for me, as I never expected to feel a sense of ‘family’ and ‘homeliness’ in a story about people who live after dark.

One of the main themes Hanmura brings up in this novel is definitely that of nostalgia and of dealing with a world that is eminently changing. The 1960s and 1970s, also called “postwar boom years” according to the book’s introduction, due to the rapidly growing economy of the country, were certainly a liminal period for many Japanese, who had to grow accustomed to a new normal as their country was developing more and more. Yet, as is evident in the words and reactions of some characters in The Sheltering Rain, these changes were not always easy to swallow, and a nostalgia for the past and the way things were before still seems to linger.

Another issue that this novel tackles and which can be related to all the changes the Japanese society and its people were undergoing at the time is that of age, or, more appropriately, ageing. Many of the characters that populate Hanmura’s story are around or nearing their middle age, and although they are all active and striving to do their best with what they have, they (and the reader) are often reminded that “with each new dawn, everyone was getting older. To forget, they gathered after sunset to drink alcohol. And what was wrong with that?” (p.29) I found this particularly interesting, since I think this kind of brings us to a full circle, as the reason most of the bars and clubs that the characters of the story are working at were created was in order to help the hard working salarymen of Japan to relax and have some fun after work. Senda, Takako and the rest of the characters may not be salarymen and women themselves, but they do manage to find solace and momentary peace from their troubles when gathering to enjoy a drink together, thus fulfilling the purpose of their jobs in more than one way.

The Sheltering Rain may at times deal with difficult issues and present a way of life that is far from ideal, but it reads very pleasantly and is also a great form of escapism (which I’m sure many of us are in dire need of at the moment). Hanmura has crafted a world filled with society’s drop-outs and people who have fallen in between the cracks, yet people who are more ordinary than most and in which we can all find fragments of our selves. Despite everything life throws at them, they have all found a home in this underground business, they have developed strong bonds and connections with one another, they have found, to somehow echo the title of this collection, their shelter in the rain.

I’d tried to live the “smart” way. I was scornful of of screwups and hated to cut people slack, that had been a basic principle of mine. But now I saw my whole life for what it was – a chain of accidents and mistimed decisions.

– p. 176-7

A copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

 

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‘Highfire’ by Eoin Colfer, or On Reading Favourite Childhood Authors as an Adult

Some of the books I read as a child have deeply shaped who I am as a reader and a person today. Apart from the kid classics and the adventure tales, a huge majority of the books I consumed as a child belonged to the fantasy genre. Especially after the huge blast the release of the Harry Potter series brought along, a plethora of fantasy books targeted towards young audiences (and not only) suddenly became widely available. Of course, most of them were simply copies of the magic school trope, but there were a select few that managed to distinguish themselves from the mass and offer something entirely fresh and innovative. 50699113._SY475_

One of these books for me was the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Although I haven’t read the series since then, so I don’t know if I would still feel the same about it as an adult, these books were the first ones I had read that combined fantasy elements (fairies, gnomes, etc.) with high-tech technology and the prodigy teen protagonists I so used to love reading about.

But that was just a very lengthy introduction the purpose of which is simply to illustrate the importance Eoin Colfer’s books had for the juvenile me as a reader. Having read nothing else by the author for more than a decade, I was enthralled when I found out that he would be releasing a brand new fantasy book, for adults this time around.

Highfire is the story of the very last dragon on earth (nicknamed Vern from wyvern, as he’s not a large Game of Thrones type of dragon), who has successfully been hiding from humans in his ‘lair’ in Louisiana. That is until Squib Moreau, a teenager whom disaster tends to follow, accidentally finds out about his existence and a whole lot of chaos ensues.

The novel is teemed with Colfer’s well-known humour and casual writing style, as well as with his characteristic action-packed scenes. Although some readers might recognise traces of Colfer’s other characters in those of Highfire, it is actually rather evident that this book in not meant for children, as there is strong language throughout the book and some rather gory descriptions.

And now comes the difficult part. Although I did enjoy reading Highfire, and it did make me nostalgic about reading Colfer’s books as a kid, I was also slightly disappointed by it. At times, the language felt way too casual for my taste and it seemed like the only thing that made the story one geared towards adults was mostly the profanities and the gory descriptions.

This does not mean that Highfire is a bad book, not at all. It’s a very action-packed urban fantasy novel filled with humour and the classic good versus evil battle with a lot of twists. I am sure readers looking for a fantasy book that breaks the mould and differentiates itself from most fantasy that is out there will definitely enjoy reading about Vern and Squib’s shenanigans, as long as they know what sort of story they are getting into. I was falsely expecting a different type of story, and this is the main cause of my disappointment.

Have you read Highfire? What did you think of it? Have you read any of your favourite childhood authors as an adult and had a different opinion on their writing?

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

4

‘The Five Wonders of the Danube’ by Zoran Živković

To all those of you who are well versed in translated fiction, Zoran Živković might be a familiar name, as he is one of the most translated and acclaimed contemporary Serbian authors. If you have never heard his name or read any of his works before (let’s not really talk about all the underrepresented non-English speaking authors now…), let me talk to you about one of his books that was my personal introduction to his oeuvre, and which also made it to the list of my Most Memorable Books of 2019.

43706056._SY475_Translated into English by Alice Copple-Tošić and published by Cadmus Press, The Five Wonders of Danube consists of five chapters, each one taking place in or around a different bridge of the Danube river.

Although each story has a different set of characters and appears separate from all the others, they all very cleverly come together at the end. All five stories have surreal and often absurd elements that make Živković’s prose so interesting and unique. Apart from an academic, the author is also an art enthusiast, something which is apparent in all of the stories.

For example, in the first story, titled ‘First Wonder: Black Bridge, Regensburg’, an enormous painting mysteriously and unexplainably appears on the Black Bridge, causing a big uproar since the passersby and the police alike are trying to solve the mystery of how it got hung up there without anyone noticing a thing. In ‘Second Wonder: Yellow Bridge, Vienna’, the longest story of the bunch, five unconnected people are going their own ways on the bridge, when they happen to stop short on their tracks at exactly the same time. Two artistic homeless people are the stars of the ‘Third Wonder: Red Bridge, Bratislava’, my personal favourite of the stories. One of them is an avid Dostoyevski reader and an aspiring writer himself, while the other one adeptly carves figures out of wood, when the fire of their inspiration turns into an actual fire that engulfs their minimal belongings.

In ‘Fourth Wonder: White Bridge, Budapest’, a famous composer looks back on the incidents that have led him to write his most acclaimed masterpieces, and very shockingly realises that death eerily plays a big part in his creative process (not in the way that you might think, though). Lastly, the ‘Fifth Wonder: Blue Bridge, Novi Sad’, is perhaps the strangest and most surreal out of all the stories, but it ties some loose ends together and sort of makes a full circle back to the first story.

While Živković might deal with some rather heavy themes such as suicide, homelessness and death, his writing style is infused with such wit and clever humour that it becomes a fun and whimsical reading experience that truly makes the reader ponder.

The surreal elements might sometimes get a bit overwhelming for those who are not very familiar with reading such stories steeped in the absurd, as many things do not make much sense until later on in the book. What I personally loved was how the bridges turned into a (sometimes metaphorical) portal of some sort, where things (the painting in the first story) and even people (the characters in the second story) are transported almost magically. Unexplained and absurd things take place on those bridges, turning Danube and its banks into a liminal space of wonder where everything is possible although eerily unexplainable.

My first contact with Živković’s work was definitely a very pleasant one and I’m very much looking forward to experiencing more of his works. In my opinion, The Five Wonders of Danube is a great introduction to his whimsical writing, and I do hope more people get to discover the magic quality of his pen.

Have you read any books by Zoran Živković before? If yes, what did you think of them and which one is your favourite? Feel free to share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below 🙂

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Cadmus Press.

2

‘Somehow, Crystal’ by Tanaka Yasuo

Thanks to wonderful events such as the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 organised by Meredith at Dolce Belezza, as well as #JanuaryinJapan originated by Tony at Tony’s Reading List, January is almost synonymous with Japanese literary escapades and, of course, I couldn’t be happier.

Although not the first book I read, I wanted to kickstart my reviews for those events with the much controversial Somehow, Crystal, written by Tanaka Yasuo and translated by Christopher Smith, a novel that some consider as a modern classic, while others dispute even its categorisation as a novel.

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English translation of the novel, published in 2019 by Kurodahan Press.

Somehow, Crystal was originally published in Japanese in 1980, winning the Bungei Prize that same year. However, due to the novel’s rather peculiar structure and the way its story and content differed from most typical novels of the time, many were baffled by this outcome. Alongside the main narrative, the author has inserted a large amount of notes (exactly 442, which, for a 127-page novel is quite an excessive number), which give the text a rather characteristic feel. In the English version, the story can be found on the left page, while the right page contains all the notes.

The story of Somehow, Crystal is quite simple at first glance, as it follows a young university student who also works as a model and cohabitates with her older musician boyfriend. Obsessed with (foreign) brands, listening to (foreign) songs and living a life seemingly without caring too much about the how’s and the why’s appears to be what the ‘crystal’ lifestyle the characters of this book, as well as the young people at the time, seem to have adopted. The novel is full of descriptions of places and specific shops, an exorbitant amount of songs and singers/bands, and of course branded goods, so much so that the reader momentarily gets lost amid all this flood of names and information.

And although this was one of the arguments the critics of this novel held against it, I believe the author simply meant to provide a chaotic portrayal of the inner and outer turmoil the Japanese society of the ’80s was facing. Young people who care only about superficial things and don’t seem to have any goals or pursuits in their lives might be perceived by the older generations as lazy or indifferent, but isn’t that a form of rebellion in itself? A way to show their displeasure with how things currently are and a way for them to discover what resonates with their generation instead of blindly following what the previous generations did?

The brands and the music aren’t the only foreign products that have taken over young people’s lives, as a lot of the words they use in their everyday speech also come from English or other European languages. Of course, the impact of this is much greater in the original Japanese text, which shows a language so distorted that the only way for someone to understand it is by reading the supplementary notes.

Apart from a critique on society and its norms, Tanaka also criticises literature itself and its conventions that have come to define it so far. He achieves this through the peculiar structure of his novel which is inundated by notes that either explain a certain word or expression used in the text, or simply provide an extra comment or insight, often quite cynical and poignant. As Takahashi Gen’ichiro points out in the Introduction, those notes are equally important as the story and they can even be read as a parallel story in themselves.

Somehow, Crystal is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not a book that is read for its gripping story or its poetic use of language. Rather, it’s a book that helps readers understand that society, literature and the world around us isn’t as much of a set piece as we might think, and that’s perfectly fine.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

12

Akylina’s Most Memorable Books of 2019

Here we are in the very last day of 2019, yet another year that flew by in the blink of an eye. I did manage to read more this year (68 books) compared to 2018 (52 books), and although I read some really great books, I can’t really say I have many new favourites. This is why, instead of a Best of 2019 list, I come to you with my most memorable reads of the year. Although not all of these books were 5-star reads for me, they are all books I still remember vividly and fondly today.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the books that made my 2019 a little brighter:

Masks by Enchi Fumiko 25304404

Perhaps one of the most memorable books of 2019 was the very first book I read, Masks by Enchi Fumiko, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. A tale of deception, revenge and punishment like nothing you have read before, Masks is an excellent showcase of the narrative capabilities of Japanese female writers of the 1950s, who are significantly less talked about compared to the men writing in the same period.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When any form of media is suddenly widely popular and talked about, I’m always very skeptical about it, as I don’t always tend to agree with those popular opinions. Eleanor Oliphant, however, proved to be the bright exception to my own rule. I started reading it having absolutely no expectations, just wanting a light read for my daily commute, and I ended up becoming so attached to Eleanor and her story that I devoured it before realising it.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 29777060._SY475_

One of the most revered classics of Russian literature, Bulgakov’s masterpiece had been on my TBR list for a very long time. Numbering more than 500 pages, The Master and Margarita is a satirical and at times comical and, of course, controversial novel that takes place in Soviet Moscow. It was written during Stalin’s reign, but was published much, much later due to the severe censorship of the time (which, of course, is mentioned and criticised in the novel as well). Employing magical realism and a series of absurd events, Bulgakov weaves a tale that will remain in reader’s minds and hearts for a long time.

39980637._SY475_Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist by John Nathan

Natsume Soseki was undoubtedly one of Japan’s biggest literary figures and John Nathan has done a really impressive job compiling his life and accomplishments in this tome. Soseki’s life story is truly fascinating to read, even though his character was not as praise-worthy as his literary production and contribution was. Nonetheless, no one can deny his massive role in shaping modern Japanese literature and the author of this book has done a wonderful job letting us in on some of his genius.

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin 30039170._SY475_

I find Shirley Jackson one of the most intriguing modern authors and I always crave her writing, although I haven’t really read that much yet. A Rather Haunted Life recounts every detail of the author’s life (and I do mean every detail), from her childhood and college years to her married life and unfortunate death. I developed a massive dislike towards her husband, Stanley, since cheating is a behaviour I cannot tolerate, but overall it was very enjoyable reading (or rather listening, as I had this as an audiobook) about Shirley’s life and literary adventures.

 

43706056._SY475_The Five Wonders of Danube by Zoran Živković

Živković is one of the biggest literary figures of Serbia, so I was very excited to finally get to read some of his work. The Five Wonders of Danube is a whimsical and quite original homage to art of every kind and the artistic creation. The book consists of five parts, each one describing a separate incident/”wonder” that takes places in a different bridge of the Danube River, and all connecting somehow at the end. It was translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić and it was an excellent introduction to this great author’s work. I plan on posting a full review of it in January, so stay tuned if you want to hear more details about it.

Ο Κίτρινος Φάκελος [The Yellow Folder] by M. Karagatsis 6938031

Karagatsis is one of my favourite Greek authors and I’ll always lament the absence of his works in English translation. The Yellow Folder (my translation, as there’s no official one) is an excellent character study with drops of mystery and the consequences of attempting to control people’s lives and play with them just to see what happens. Chilling, unforgettable and utterly enjoyable, this novel is a treasure trove of literary allusions, musings on life and rich character study of the kind only Karagatsis can deliver.

18114976Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyabe Miyuki

Apart from Miyabe’s evocative writing, Apparitions is perhaps one of the best translations I’ve ever read from Japanese, as it truly read like a work originally written in English, without any phrase or passage of awkward phrasing, all thanks to the magic pen of Daniel Huddleston. Apparitions contains several short stories, all set in the Edo (former name of Tokyo) period of feudal Japan. Miyabe’s Old Edo is rife with vengeful spirits and malevolent ghosts, creating a thoroughly creepy and chilling atmosphere, but one which the reader truly cannot get enough of.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri Print

I don’t think I can call Tokyo Ueno Station a favourite book, mostly because it’s theme and plot are so harrowing and heartbreaking that just thinking about it even months after having read it just makes my heart ache. However, I do believe it’s an extremely important read, simply because sometimes we get too caught up in our lives and problems and don’t become aware of the people who might be suffering right next to us. On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, after having lost his family, our protagonist finds himself homeless at Ueno Park near the station and he starts remembering bits and pieces of his life. His son was born at the same day as the Emperor’s son, and yet his fate ended up being entirely different. Tokyo Ueno Station is nothing short of a punch in the gut, as it exposes the ugliest side of life and the inevitability that chases around people who are not privileged. It was translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles.

These are some of the most memorable books I read in 2019. For 2020, I’m hoping to read a little more broadly, read some new to me authors and read literature from countries I haven’t yet read.

Have you read any of these books? What were your most memorable reads of 2019? What are your 2020 reading goals?

Happy New Year to everyone, and I hope 2020 brings you health, joy and lots of bookish delights! 🙂