10

‘Points and Lines’ by Seicho Matsumoto ****

Seicho Matsumoto’s Points and Lines was first published in 1958 in Japanese and it became an instant bestseller and a favourite among mystery/crime literature enthusiasts. Having sold millions of copies worldwide, this book managed to establish Matsumoto as one of the most important post-war Japanese mystery writers.

I had purchased this book years ago, in a very old Greek translation (which I doubt was done directly from Japanese) and I finally got around to reading it last month.

The plot of this book revolves around the mysterious death of a man and a woman in a rather secluded Japanese shore, which, after some initial investigations, is rendered as a couple’s double suicide. However, the protagonist, Detective Mihara, suspects that something of much bigger importance is hidden behind those deaths and begins a more thorough investigation. Could this double suicide be somehow connected to a pretty dark political scandal?

I did enjoy reading this, and, being a rather short read of approximately 200 pages (depending on your edition) it did manage to capture my interest until the final revelation. The whole mystery exuded the feeling and atmosphere of a traditional cosy mystery novel, which felt both nostalgic and outdated at the same time. There were some passages that were a bit tiring and overwhelming, particularly where the author cumulated too much information in too small a space, such as the train schedules and timetables. I found myself skimming through those, not really being able to combine the knowledge of the facts surrounding the deaths with the information about the trains in order to reach a conclusion.

Apart from that, it was pretty fast-paced and the solution at the end left me satisfied. It was really interesting reading such a pioneer novel for the mystery genre in Japan, and especially seeing how literature started to develop in Japan after the war and its dire consequences. One could say that both the atmosphere and the events that take place in this book, all this chaos and disorder that is described, could be a reflection of the general situation as well as of the Japanese psyche in the aftermath of the war.

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10

‘Snakes and Earrings’ by Hitomi Kanehara **

Snakes and Earrings is a short novella written by Hitomi Kanehara and it has won the Akutagawa Literary Prize in 2003, one of the most prestigious and well-recognised literary prizes in Japan. The story revolves around Lui, a nineteen-year-old girl who, after meeting Ama, a guy whose body is full of tattoos and who also has a snake-like forked tongue, becomes mesmerised by this body transfiguration process and embarks on a journey to evoke it on her own body as well.

922711I was initially quite excited to read this novella, as the plot sounded rather intriguing and I had also heard it being praised by some literary people I admire and respect. Haruki Murakami’s brother, Ryu Murakami (whose writing is rather darker and more provoking than his world-famous brother’s) was a member of the critics team who chose the Akutagawa Prize winner and he characteristically said that Kanehara’s story was immediately recognised as the best among all works that had been submitted for the prize that year – a statement which certainly creates some expectations and raises the bar at a rather high level.

To my own disappointment, however, this book was nowhere near as good and gripping as I expected it to be. The writing seemed flat and immature, the dialogues were rather poorly written (one could argue that they were ‘realistic’) and I could not like or even empathise with a single character throughout the entire story. There is some mystery towards the end of the book, when a murder occurs and the plot gets a bit more complicated, but it sadly was not anything mind-blowing.

I understand that this book is targeted towards and tackles the issues of a specific generation of Japanese youth, but it just did not work for me. Instead of feeling the struggles of the characters and the hardships they had to overcome I only kept thinking how all the characters in this book belong to a specific category of people (the ‘rebels’ or ‘non-conformists’ or however you want to call them) who had nothing to do in their lives and just let their time slip away with drinking, having sex and the like.

Another issue I had with this book were the descriptions of the processes of getting different parts of your body pierced or stretched or, even worse, split, like Ama’s forked tongue. Now, I’m a very squirmish person when it comes to graphic descriptions of the sort, and so I really did not appreciate the way in which the author seemed to describe those processes, as if she was talking about a simple recipe or something.

Since it is a very short book (my edition was 126 pages) and not difficult at all, it makes for a very quick read. I can see why this book may have caused an uproar as a shocking tale, but I believe it had more problems than redeeming qualities for it to become such a best-seller and a prize winning novel. I admit it kept me thinking about the events and the characters for a quite a while after I read it, but the feelings it left me with were pretty much those of sadness at the realisation for one more time that this world can be such a dark and desperate place and disappointment because I expected so much more from this story.

I read this book as part of the 20 Books of Summer challenge and the Japanese Literature Challenge 9.

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13

‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino ***

My first encounter with Keigo Higashino’s works was by watching some adaptations of his novels on Japanese television, and, being a mystery lover already, I fell in love with his witty and subversive plots (my favourite tv show adaptation was “Ryuusei no Kizuna” (also known as “Ties of Shooting Stars”), but sadly the book hasn’t been translated in English – I should polish my Japanese soon so I can read it!). Needless to say, when I came across The Devotion of Suspect X, I ended up purchasing it in a heartbeat.

In The Devotion of Suspect X, Detective Kusanagi investigates a crime that is almost too perfect to be true. He seeks the help of Yukawa, a physicist who is incredibly apt to solving such mysteries and cases. This case in particular seems to be of great interest to him, since a former college colleague of his, Ishigami, a mathematician, appears to somehow be involved in this, as he is the neighbour of the prime suspect for this case, Yasuko Hanaoka.

Reading Higashino’s works is so very different from watching it. Taking into account that he is one of Japan’s best-selling authors is an adequate enough argument for the simplicity of his prose. Surely, due to the nature of his books, Higashino uses a lot of jargon from the field of mathematics and physics, but his writing style in general is quite easy to go through.

This book is so different from any other crime or mystery novels I’ve read so far. It’s not like the typical crime novel where you try to find who the culprit is – that’s information that’s already given to you from the very first chapters of the book. It’s also not like most of the Japanese crime novels I’ve encountered before, where you already know who comitted the crime. It is truly about the psychological state of the murderer and how they cope with what they have done more than about the crime itself.

The Devotion of Suspect X combines all these elements and diverts from them at the same time. Having started this book by being absolutely convinced I would adore it, I must admit that I had quite a few moments of doubt whilst reading it. The double perspective of the culprit (who knows everything) and the police investigators (who know but a few things) is certainly interesting, but I couldn’t find how that contributed to the plot overall. Also, I thought that the narrowing down of the suspects by the police came about in a bit of an absolute and sudden manner – one would expect them to investigate a bit further before deciding on pinpointing someone.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this book. It is definitely not one of Higashino’s best and the final plot twist is not as impressive as it would have been if the reader was unaware of the culprit from the set out. Still, it was a fast-paced mystery that makes you question the depth of human relationships and the human psyche more than anything else. The final question that this book will probably leave you pondering is how deeply can a person be devoted to another and in what lengths can this devotion actually lead someone?

I read this book as part of both the Japanese Literature Challenge 9 and the 20 Books of Summer challenge.

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8

Some More Reading Challenges

 

I recently stumbled upon some fantastic reading challenges, and even though I already have a couple of them still running, I couldn’t resist joining in those as well.

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Austen in August

Sometimes I feel ashamed that I haven’t yet read the entirety of Jane Austen’s books, so I think I found the best opportunity to mend this situation with the Austen in August challenge. Hosted by the lovely Roof Beam Reader, this is a challenge I’m really excited about. I don’t know if I’ll manage to read all of the books I have planned for it (since some non-fiction is included as well), but I’m hoping to get through most of them at least. So, my list is as follows:

  • Emma
  • Sense and Sensibility (which I don’t own a copy of yet)
  • Jane Austen by Carol Shields
  • Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England by Roy & Lesley Adkins

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(I had originally planned on including Persuasion as well, but I couldn’t resist the urge to read it now, so I have already started this one. I’m not including it in my list, but I’ll post my review on it during August.)

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Japanese Literature Challenge 9

Hosted by the wonderful Dolce Belezza, this challenge runs from June 2015 to January 2016. The aim is to read at least one Japanese book during those months. I have quite a few unread Japanese books on my shelves, and I certainly plan on purchasing a few more I really want to read in the following months, so when I stumbled upon this challenge I immediately knew I had to jump in. Now, about my list. I have included so far only the books I currently own, but since I certainly plan on getting some more Japanese books, the list will most likely change. In any case, my (temporary) list is this:

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  • Tokyo Express by Seicho Matsumoto
  • Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse
  • Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology edited by Ivan Morris
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Koritsuita Kaori by Yoko Ogawa (it’s not translated in English and since I have the Greek translation, I’m listing it with its Japanese title)
  • Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino
  • Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara
  • The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue
  • Almost Transparent Blue by Ryu Murakami
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  • The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (I feel this is going to be included in every month’s reading list until I finally finish it..)

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The last challenge I plan on participating for now, is hosted by the wonderful Cathy746books. I will not compose a list of books I plan to read for this challenge, since I feel I’m not going to stick to it if I do. With my birthday book haul coming closer and the books for all the challenges I’ve already participated in, I think I will have plenty of material to fill up the 20 books for this challenge. Since I’m a mood reader mostly, I would hate to have a set list and then divert from it because I feel more like reading another book which isn’t on my list.