Grass for his Pillow: Lian Hearn

★★★

Tales of the Otori: Book II

After an unconscionable delay of more than a year, I’ve finally got round to reading the second book in this appealing Japanese historical fantasy series. While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first one, this was due to the typical problems facing the middle book of a trilogy. The characters have been separated: the grand opening salvo has already been made; and I presume that Hearn has saved all the set-piece battles for the final novel. Instead, we follow the young lovers Takeo and Kaede on their diverging paths, as Kaede learns to make her way in a male-dominated world, and Takeo seeks to hone his supernatural powers under the guidance of the Tribe.

Continue reading

Six Four: Hideo Yokoyama

★★★

There’s definitely something very distinctive about Japanese fiction. It lavishes attention on the apparently inconsequential, the trivial, the minutiae of life, in a way that creates a strangely detached picture of life. I’m pleased to report that I found Six Four more engaging than other Japanese novels I’ve read recently – Parade or Slow Boat – but it’s still very definitely not a Western novel. Focusing on a cold-case kidnapping from fourteen years ago, it follows the staff of a provincial police station as their investigations become caught up in internal power struggles, distrust and mutiny.

Continue reading

Parade: Shuichi Yoshida

★★★

My journey through faintly baffling Japanese fiction continues. I stumbled across this novel in the library, having decided to explore backwards from Z for once, and it caught my eye with its promise of an insight into the dislocation and atomisation of modern Japanese society. And yet, once again, it has turned out to be one of those books that I suspect Heloise has the patience for much more than me: a study of the pointlessness of contemporary life, and the strange dynamics of communal living.

Continue reading

The Samurai of Seville: John J. Healey

★★★½

Until I read this book, I’d never heard of the extraordinary Japanese embassy that arrived at the court of King Philip III of Spain in 1615. Its members had come halfway round the world, encouraged by the need to seek new trading markets and made curious by the stories of Christian missionaries. Led by the ambassador Hasekura Tsunenaga and escorted by a party of samurai, this remarkable entourage arrived in Europe to be feted and gawped at by peasants and nobles alike. Healey’s readable novel spins a tale around this encounter between two great empires and, even if the writing isn’t always the most gripping, it’s well worth seeking out for its fascinating and very unusual subject.

Continue reading

Slow Boat: Hideo Furukawa

★★★

A Slow Boat to China Rmx

This new Japanese novella, published by Pushkin Press in a translation by David Boyd, is an odd beast. I asked to review it as part of my mission to read more from other cultures and because I’ve been generally impressed with the Japanese fiction I have read. The tale of a man wandering in Tokyo on Christmas Eve 2002, pondering the boundaries of the city, the body and the self, it’s a curiously hallucinogenic mix.

Continue reading

Flame in the Mist: Renée Ahdieh

★★★

Since childhood, Hattori Mariko has always been regarded as a bit odd: too curious, too inventive for a girl of her high station. But even oddness can’t protect her from fate. As she travels by litter from her parents’ home towards the imperial city of Inako, she feels no different from any other well-born young woman, being forced into a marriage not of her choosing. Far away in Inako, in the enchanted precincts of Heian Castle, her betrothed waits: Minamoto Raiden, son of the emperor himself. But between the Hattori lands and Inako lies Jukai Forest, the haunt of ghosts, spirits and desperate men. And Mariko’s entourage, having entered the Forest, will never emerge.

Continue reading

The Goddess Chronicle: Natsuo Kirino

★★★½

Back when the Canongate Myths series was introduced in 2005, I bought the first three in a boxed set and swore I’d read all of them as they were published. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. And so, when I realised that Natsuo Kirino (whose Grotesque I admired) had contributed a story to the series, it was a welcome chance to catch up. Retelling the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanaki, this is an eerie tale of joy and sorrow, light and darkness, love and vengeance.

Continue reading

Pachinko: Min Jin Lee

★★★★

One of my plans for this year is to read books that take me beyond my comfort zone of European history and settings, whether that’s fiction based in other parts of the world, fantasy influenced by other cultures, or travel books and memoirs. I’m especially keen to learn more about Asia, thanks to my recent travels. Pachinko, which came up for review just before Christmas, is a good place to start. An ambitious historical novel, embracing almost the entire 20th century, it follows five generations of a hard-working Korean family and their efforts to earn security in their adopted country of Japan.

Continue reading

Grotesque: Natsuo Kirino

★★★★

I’ve been meaning to read more Japanese fiction, but nothing quite prepared me for Natsuo Kirino’s twisted tale of female bitterness. It has made a great impact. Brutal and crude, it’s told in a detached manner that verges on the soulless. It’s also a sobering story of three young women fighting for empowerment and recognition in a world where the only accepted currency is beauty. The tale is grotesque; the setting is bleak; there isn’t a single sympathetic character in the whole damn book and yet, despite all of this, Kirino manages to create something completely gripping.

Continue reading

Winter Raven: Adam Baker

★★★★

Path of the Samurai: Book I

When I began reading this book, my heart sank. The first couple of chapters were nothing but historical exposition, with no dialogue or attempts at characterisation. I feared it was going to be one of those lifeless, over-researched attempts at a novel, and prepared myself for a hard slog. But I plodded on nevertheless and, presently, the characters began to speak, and the story unrolled in front of me, painted with the spare, spartan beauty of a Japanese landscape on a scroll. Soon I realised that in fact, far from being a penance, this book was going to turn out to be my favourite kind of adventure story, full of dignity, honour and grey areas of morality, revolving around a central conflict between two equally brilliant and equally doomed men. I’m happy to say I got it wrong. This isn’t a slog at all but really a stonkingly good book.

Continue reading