As a child and young teen, I read many different kinds of books, but my favourites were always those which described exotic adventures steeped in mystery, with brave characters who embarked on fantastic ventures. So when The False Rose fell into my hands, I was beyond excited to read it and get lost in its pages.
The False Rose, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves and published by Pushkin Press, is the third instalment in the Sally Jones series (the previous ones being The Legend of Sally Jones and The Murderer’s Ape which are also available by Pushkin Press). You can easily follow and enjoy the story even if you haven’t read the previous books. There are several pages at the beginning of the book introducing the characters with wonderful black and white drawings for each one, and there is a mini recap of sorts every time an event or character from a previous book is referenced. So fear not and dive right in this delightful adventure with lovely Sally Jones and her friends.
The story opens in Lisbon, where we are introduced to the protagonist, Sally Jones, an ‘anthropoid ape’ that works as a ship engineer. Along with the Chief, they discover a rose-shaped necklace on their ship, the Hudson Queen, and they become entangled in the mystery surrounding its previous owner. Sally and the Chief embark on a quest to return the necklace to its rightful owner, a quest that leads them to the gloomy and shady parts of Glasgow.
However, nothing is as easy as it seems and the mystery of the necklace isn’t all that straightforward. Sally and the Chief encounter dangerous street gangs and the intimidating smuggler queen Moira, who will do everything in her power to obtain the necklace for herself.
The story is intriguing and gripping until the very end and I was at the edge of my seat with every twist and turn. I grew very attached to Sally Jones, who is also the narrator of the story, thus letting the reader in on her thoughts and feelings, since she cannot really speak in the book (but she can read and write, skills that come in very handy at times!).
I also really loved reading the descriptions of the places Sally and the Chief travel to or find themselves in. Not having been able to travel myself at all the past two years, it was a true delight to embark on a journey through the pages of this book from Lisbon to Glasgow, where the majority of the plot takes place, and later on to the Scottish Highlands and the French countryside. The mystery was also very interesting, although there were various other sub-plots that had to get resolved before the solution was provided at the end.
All in all, The False Rose is a perfect cosy read for those gloomy autumn and winter afternoons. Although it is targeted towards younger readers, it can be read and enjoyed by people of any age, as it has all the ingredients to keep you turning page after page – great writing (and a great translation, I’m sure), an engaging mystery/adventure plot and wonderful characters that will remain with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Reading this book was a thoroughly enjoyable experience that provided me with some much needed escapism and brought me back to my very early teens, when I was reading such gripping page-turners every chance I had.
The False Rose was published by Pushkin Press on 7th October 2021. A copy of the book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher.
Japanese literature, and especially by female authors, has certainly been on the rise these past few years, with authors like Yoshimoto Banana (Kitchen), Kawakami Mieko (Breasts and Eggs, Heaven), Ogawa Yoko (The Memory Police), and Murata Sayaka (Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings) to name just a few, becoming more widely popular. While I’ve read and loved the work of these contemporary authors, I’ve always felt there was a lack of slightly older, more classic female Japanese authors being published in English.
Luckily, there are still some books that can start to satisfy my appetite for more obscure (in English at least) and classic Japanese literature by women, and today’s book, Days & Nights by Hayashi Fumiko and translated by J.D. Wisgo is one such example.
Hayashi Fumiko was born in Japan in 1903, published widely and prolifically throughout her life and is considered one of the most important female writers of 20th century Japan. My first contact with Hayashi’s work was through her story ‘The Accordion and the Fish Town’ (tr. Janice Brown) which is included in The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore W. Goossen, and I’ve been very curious to read more of her work since.
Days & Nights is a collection of 9 short stories, perfect for those who wish to become acquainted with the author’s work. As the translator very aptly mentions in his introduction, the title, ” “Days and Nights” […] alludes to a theme running through many of these works: long term human relationships than span across months, if not years. Often, those whom we spend our days and nights with we would consider family, at least in some form” (p. ii). Indeed, Hayashi’s stories are largely about human relationships and their complex nature, about characters who are flawed human beings and make questionable choices, and about 20th century Japan in all its dreary glory.
A bleak atmosphere permeates most of the stories, as the author perfectly captures the precarious living conditions after the war and the urban working-class life of the time. The second story of the collection, ‘Downfall‘, is definitely the most somber and harrowing one, describing a man’s life right after the war, having lost everything and trying to go through life – it left me with a very heavy feeling on my chest and I am truly amazed at how deftly Hayashi describes these unfortunate moments of one’s life. War and poverty have affected the country as well as its inhabitants, and that is reflected on Hayashi’s characters as they seem to go through life as “in a daze” (p. 85), with “each day [being] like a terrible hangover” (p.20).
Hayashi doesn’t shy away from tackling even feminist themes and sensitive topics or from creating characters that are rife with flaws – illegitimate children, women in extramarital affairs and men that seek a second chance after life has dealt heavy blows on them are only some of the themes and characters that populate Hayashi’s stories.
The author also very skillfully manages to insert musings on life in her stories, such as the following passage from ‘The Tryst‘, a story about a woman who ran away with her lover and is now pregnant with his child, which illuminates the dark side of humans:
“I think that upon seeing a person’s downfall, what can be considered thoughtless misconduct, a surprising number of us would secretly harbor feelings of spiteful delight. For I have seen countless people watching someone suffering in a pit of despair and yet make no effort to toss them a lifeline, only criticize as they please…” (p. 80)
Quite often, the characters in Hayashi’s stories have a deep-rooted desire to escape, to run away and start building a life much better than the one they can imagine themselves in staying at the town or country that they are. ‘Employment‘ is a story about youth and this often inexplicable yearning to get away and make a better life abroad. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to make such a step, and those who are left behind can still harbour sour feelings of disappointment and abandonment. Hayashi manages to express all these complicated feelings so eloquently.
“It wasn’t simply the capriciousness of youth – there was some great surge of emotion compelling his young heart. Rather than stay here in the tiny country that was Japan, clinging to a small chair, he yearned to travel to a distant land and work to his heart’s content.” (p. 60)
Youth is often juxtaposed with old age, as some of the characters in the stories, such as ‘The Master of the Wanderer’s Tavern‘, the very first story in the book, are not at their prime yet they still want to make a fresh start and live the rest of their lives in a satisfactory manner (whether they achieve this or not, though, is something to discover while reading the stories). A quote from this story that particularly struck me is the following about the urgent manner things seem to get as one gets older:
“Young people, brimming with self-confidence, haven’t the slightest fear of unfinished business, but once you reach age fifty the unfinished becomes the ultimate source of anxiety, a vacuum bereft of even the slightest value.” (p. 1)
Overall, there is not a single story in this collection I didn’t like, although I did have my favourites of course (‘The Tale of the Seishukan Guest House‘ was my favourite one, as it combined humour, wit and the follies of youth in equal measure). Some stories might be darker than others, but I believe they all perfectly capture the uncertainty and at times dreariness of 20th century Japan. Hayashi’s writing is a real treat and the translation manages to convey the author’s talent quite successfully, too.
I would definitely recommend trying out Hayashi Fumiko’s works if you’re interested in more classic female authors from Japan, or if you simply enjoy reading about the 20th century in your literature. This particular edition also features some notes about the currencies of the time and some details about Hayashi’s life which might prove very illuminating, especially if you’re not very well acquainted with Japanese culture at the time.
Have you read Hayashi Fumiko or any other classic Japanese female writers? I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or recommendations! 🙂
A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Arigatai Books.
Written by Éric Faye and translated from the French by Sam Taylor, The Ghost of Frédéric Chopin is the third book in the ‘Walter Presents’ series published by Pushkin Press. Every book in the series is a standalone (so far), so there is no need to have read the others before delving into this one, although I would highly recommend you do if you’re a fan of mysteries from various corners of the world.
The novel is set in Prague in 1995, where Věra Foltýnova, a middle-aged woman claims to be able to see the ghost of Frédéric Chopin, the famed composer, who dictates some new music to her that he didn’t have time to compose himself before his untimely death. What makes Věra’s story even more intriguing is the fact that she has doesn’t have any particular musical education, apart from some piano lessons she used to take as a very young girl, and yet experts claim the music she produces (upon Chopin’s ghost’s dictation) perfectly fits with the rest of the composer’s oeuvre.
This story grabs the attention of everyone in Prague, and so the journalist Ludvík Slaný is commissioned to create a documentary about Věra and her story, although he doesn’t believe her at all. Set to uncover Věra’s purported fraud, the journalist enlists the help of Pavel Černý, a former secret police agent, who secretly follows the middle-aged woman and investigates her and her past. Is this all a very well thought out plot to deceive everyone, or is Věra truly capable of seeing Chopin’s ghost?
The novel is narrated through the point of view of both Ludvík Slaný, the journalist, and Pavel Černý, the police agent, each one of whom recounts their encounters and experience with Věra. Although it sounds completely fantastical, the plot is actually inspired by the true story of Rosemary Brown (1916-2001), an English composer who claimed that the spirits of several composers dictated their new music to her. It is a very atmospheric story, with the author transporting us to picturesque Prague, with its scenic views and mysterious stories, as we learn more about Věra and are led towards the solution of the mystery that surrounds her.
Delving deeper into Věra’s past, the author very eloquently blends her personal story with the history of Czech Republic itself, as the dissolution of the former nation of Czechoslovakia happened only a couple of years prior to the current events of the novel.
“We were all still in shock, I think, caught between euphoria and bafflement, astounded to wake up one fine morning in two countries when we had gone to sleep the night before in one.
Location 905 (Kindle version)
Faye’s prose is beautifully woven and I especially loved his descriptions, as I truly felt like I was strolling down the cobblestoned streets of Prague along with Černý, all while Chopin’s new musical scores resounded in my ears.
Overall, I really enjoyed this atmospheric mystery which transported me to autumnal Prague in a period where I can’t travel there myself. It’s definitely not a fast-paced mystery, but rather a mellower one, in which the journey of investigating takes the reigns and guides the reader through the characters’ lives and secrets.
This book combines a lovely writing style, an intriguing mystery and an encompassing atmosphere, so if you are a fan of any of those in your books, then you should definitely grab a copy as soon as possible.
A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.