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review 2017-09-13 18:22
Parasite Eve by Hideaki Sena, translated by Tyran Grillo
Parasite Eve - Hideaki Sena

Parasite Eve begins with the death of Kiyomi Nagashima. While driving, she suddenly blacks out and has the same dream she had previously only had on her birthday, a dream in which she is a worm-like being swimming through fluid. She recovers from her dream just in time to hit a telephone pole.

Toshiaki Nagashima, Kiyomi’s husband, is a researcher specializing in mitochondria. When he hears about Kiyomi’s accident, he drops everything and rushes to the hospital. Unfortunately, Kiyomi is brain dead. Toshiaki and Kiyomi’s parents agree to honor Kiyomi’s desire to be a kidney donor, but Toshiaki has one secret request of his own: he would like a sample of Kiyomi’s liver.

Kiyomi’s kidneys go to an unnamed man and a 14-year-old girl named Mariko Anzai, and Toshiaki gets the liver cells he so badly wanted. While Mariko struggles with guilt and fear over her latest transplant, Toshiaki is happily convinced that since Kiyomi’s liver cells are still alive and thriving, she isn’t actually dead. What no one realizes is that there is a monster hiding inside Kiyomi’s cells, and it’s slowly becoming strong enough to take the next step in its evolution.

I’m going to start by saying that I’ve never played the game of the same title and I have no idea how its events compare to those in this book. According to Wikipedia it’s a sequel, so my only hope is that it left Mariko and Asakura alone.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Parasite Eve, but it left me feeling so underwhelmed and disgusted that I’m glad it was a library checkout rather than a purchase. I’m a horror wimp, and even I wasn’t scared by this book. It was more gross and ridiculous than anything.

It started off okay. I was intrigued by the mystery of Kiyomi’s cells. I wanted to see how things would play out with Toshiaki’s creepy liver cell project and Mariko’s transplant. It was clear that Mariko had a lot of issues where transplants, her transplant surgeon, and her father were concerned, so I also wanted to know what had happened with her first transplant - the kidney she received from Kiyomi was actually her second kidney transplant. The author’s medical- and science-related descriptions were sometimes more detailed than I would have preferred, but I did learn a few interesting things about transplants, particularly how they were viewed in Japan at the time the book was written. I hope attitudes have improved since then.

I became more and more impatient as the story progressed and nothing much happened. Kiyomi’s cells continued to grow, the being in Kiyomi’s cells wriggled happily whenever she thought about Toshiaki (the being was female), and Mariko became increasingly closed off. I was wishing for Kiyomi’s cells to do something long before they actually did.

For a book in which femaleness played such an important role, the female characters were incredibly disappointing. Asakura, Toshiaki’s assistant, was simply a way for readers to see how odd Toshiaki was acting. Mariko became little more than a host and incubator for Kiyomi’s monster. I enjoyed the scenes of Kiyomi’s childhood, but it wasn’t long before the flashbacks revealed that her life had been taken from her long before she slammed into that telephone pole. It was depressing.

Even the being in Kiyomi’s cells was disappointing. Even though she was millions of years old, Toshiaki, a man whose life should have been barely a blip in her existence, was suddenly her sole focus. When she

finally began to create a body of her own, she designed it primarily to please Toshiaki, starting with lips, and then a breast with a perfectly formed nipple, then a vagina and womb, and finally a finger, which she promptly used to masturbate and make sure all her parts were ready for Toshiaki.

(spoiler show)

The being’s hyper-focus on Toshiaki did turn out to have a point beyond “Toshiaki understands me best,” but it was off-putting all the same.

I was glad when the action finally began to pick up in the last third of the book, but I came to regret my decision to continue reading when the monster rape scenes happened. There were two,

one involving Toshiaki that was presented more as sperm theft than as the horrifying rape it actually was, and one involving 14-year-old Mariko. While I was thankful that Mariko was unconscious throughout both her rape and her monstrous pregnancy, I sincerely wish that the author had written her rape with less detail. I did not need to know how much pleasure the being derived from that act. Also, it upset me that the things that happened to Mariko were presented as more horrifying for her father, who witnessed some of it, than for Mariko herself. Even though she was unconscious, it was her body that was invaded and her body that was horrifically used.

(spoiler show)


The final showdown was just ridiculous. In my mind I pictured it with cheap special effects and bad acting, like something out of a B-movie. All in all, I don't recommend this book.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2017-09-03 18:32
The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman
The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa,Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

 

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

 

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

 

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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review 2017-08-22 17:25
The Accusation, Bandi
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith,Bandi

As tensions rise with North Korea, my sympathies remain with its citizens, those who truly suffer under the regime and the sanctions placed upon their country as a result of their leaders' actions. This collection of short stories--written by a North Korean, as far as can be verified--puts a face to the individual lives living there, like a present day dystopia. Each story reveals characters disillusioned or betrayed by a system that punishes even those who believe in it and live according to its rules. The stories are often heartbreaking, yet they didn't beat me into submission with desolation. Somehow the fact that these characters come to recognize their situation lends them dignity, though that's not to say suffering is noble. People suffer around the world, but the mystery under which North Koreans live seems to compound the appearance of that suffering when we get glimpses of it.

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review 2017-08-18 20:57
The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod
The cost of sugar - Cynthia Mc Leod

This is a lively, melodramatic work of historical fiction set in mid-18th century Suriname. At that time, the small nation on the northern coast of South America was a Dutch colony consisting of sugar and coffee plantations carved out of the jungle, many of them run by Jewish owners who arrived in Suriname via Portugal and Brazil, and all of them worked by slaves. Unlike in North America, however, proximity to the jungle meant that slaves often escaped to form their own communities, which were in constant conflict with the colonial government.

The story spans 14 years and has a large cast for under 300 pages, but its protagonists are stepsisters Elza and Sarith, both daughters of Jewish plantation owners. The two are best friends as girls, but soon find themselves opposed, primarily because Elza is a sweet young woman who treats the slaves well while Sarith is short-sighted and willing to ruin the lives of everyone around her in order to get her way. Yes, it’s that kind of book. The book focuses on Elza early on, then shifts its attention later in the story to Sarith, Sarith’s slave Mini-mini, and a young mercenary named Jan.

Which is to say that there’s no single plotline, and characters come and go rather oddly (I expected Alex to become more important than he did, and Amimba, as the first character we meet, to have something more than a walk-on role). But as a story about a place and a society, rather than any single protagonist, it flows well. The plot moves quickly and stays interesting, the translation is fluid, and the characters – if not particularly complex – are sympathetic, except when not intended to be. It presents a detailed picture of a historical era that doesn’t feel overly influenced by modern views, though it can be a little ham-fisted. The author has clearly done her share of research on Surinamese history and is able to bring her cultural knowledge to the pages.

Interestingly, most of the novel was originally written in Dutch, but slaves at the time were forbidden from learning Dutch, so conversed among themselves and with whites in Sranan, a creole language related to English as well as other European and African languages. The author originally wrote conversations involving slaves in Sranan, which is evidently still sufficiently widely-spoken in Suriname for the original audience to understand. In the English version, the Sranan dialogue is translated, but you can see the original in the footnotes. Helpful footnotes also explain those words or concepts that will be unfamiliar for the English-speaking reader (there’s a glossary at the end too, but I didn’t need it).

Overall, this is an entertaining work that will likely appeal to those who enjoy popular historical fiction. It’s not great literature but doesn’t try to be. And props to the author for writing a book for a country she was told “doesn’t have a reading tradition” – this book is now apparently beloved in Suriname after all.

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review 2017-07-18 03:27
The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku (book) story by Muya Agami and cosMo@BousouP, art by Yuunagi
The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku - Yunagi,cosMo@BousouP,Muya Agami

You have no idea how excited I was to learn that 1) a Vocaloid light novel existed and 2) it was available in English. I ordered a copy for myself a few weeks after finding out about it.

A few years ago I was really into Vocaloid (singing synthesizer software). I wasn’t interested in using it myself, just in listening to other people’s songs and reading about the various Vocaloid and UTAUloid avatars. I gradually found a few Vocaloid/UTAUloid tuners I particularly liked (kyaami is my top favorite) and developed a few Vocaloid/UTAUloid preferences (Kaito was probably my first favorite Vocaloid, and Ritsu continues to be my favorite UTAUloid).

I went into this book with an okay background knowledge of Vocaloid in general and Hatsune Miku in particular. Also, I was familiar with the song the book was based on (here's one version on YouTube), enough to know that the book probably wouldn’t have a happy ending.

The Disappearance of Hatsune Miku stars Shinosato Asano, an ordinary university student who spends his days going to class and doing tedious work at a robotics lab and his nights working as a bartender at a nightclub. He’s shocked when the professor in charge of his research lab singles him out to do a field test of a very special new android named Hatsune Miku. The professor wants a student like Asano, who’s responsible, can keep a secret, and doesn’t know too much about artificial intelligence, to see how well Miku can pass for human out in the real world. He’s not supposed to tell anyone, not even his family members, what Miku really is, and he has to make sure Miku goes back to the professor for regular data collection and weekly maintenance.

Miku’s speech and behavior is a little odd and stilted at first, but it rapidly improves. Asano introduces her to everyone as his very intelligent cousin from England (in order to explain why a 16-year-old girl whose Japanese is still a bit rough is suddenly attending university classes), takes her on a tour of the university, and invites her out to lunch. Lunch becomes their regular activity together, and Asano gradually incorporates activities relating to music once he realizes that Miku particularly enjoys it. He starts to realize, to his dismay, that he might be falling for her. What will happen once the field test is over?

I really wanted to love this. I’m generally drawn to android-human romances, and I was already looking forward to the Vocaloid aspects. Miku has never been my top favorite Vocaloid, but she had a lot of cute moments in the book, and I really felt for her. The way the author used Vocaloid-related details in the story was absolutely wonderful. The realization that Asano’s over-the-top love of green onions was a reference to the way Miku is often depicted holding green onions was nice, but there was one revelation further on in the book that I thought was particularly clever and unexpected.

That said, the romance was utterly terrible. It wasn’t so much Asano’s blandness - as much as I disliked how boring he was, it wasn’t unexpected. I did find myself wishing that Asano had more ideas about what to do with Miku than constantly taking her out to eat. I mean, right from the start he was told that she couldn’t eat much, and yet almost all of their outings involved food. It didn’t have to be anything special or expensive - they could have gone for a walk in a park, or gone out grocery shopping, or watched a movie. Pretty much anything they might have done would have been a new experience for Miku and would have provided the professor with more data.

I had two main problems with the romance. First, the way Miku based so many of the things she liked on things that Asano liked. For example, I don’t think she was able to taste food, and yet she’d tell Asano that a particular food tasted good because he liked it and therefore it must taste good. Asano just accepted these statements and was happy about them, but they bothered me - it was one of the reasons why I liked Miku’s budding love of music, because it seemed more purely hers than anything else she’d said she liked.

Second, it gradually became clear that Asano wasn’t so much a nice guy as he was a “nice” guy. His reactions and feelings were more important than hers. Later on in the book, for example, there were strong indications that something was wrong with Miku, to the point that it affected her physically. Rather than noticing this and worrying about her, Asano instead focused on how he felt when he held her and her statement that she wanted the two of them to be together forever. When something drastic either happened to Miku or was done to her, all Asano could think about was how much it hurt him that Miku no longer behaved as warmly towards him as she used to. His first instinct was to abandon the field test rather than investigate what had happened to her and why.

It did eventually dawn on the idiot that he was being a selfish jerk, but it took much, much longer than it should have. I was left feeling like Miku would have been better off leaving Asano in her dust and going on to become a massively popular superstar. Considering what was done to her during the course of the story, maybe leaving all of humanity behind wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

Asano continued to be useless as the sci-fi suspense storyline became more prominent, and pretty much the only reason he was able to get anywhere was because his two friends, Aika and Juuhachi, weren’t as utterly useless as he was. The various sci-fi developments near the end of the book were pretty bonkers, and the big climactic scene was way too over-the-top and ended up feeling silly rather than dramatic or tragically romantic. Although the Vocaloid fan in me did love the bit with the mysterious file.

One last thing: although the writing/translation wasn't terrible, it wasn't great either. I noticed that the author tended to be a bit repetitive. A character would do or say something and then Asano would tell readers what that character had done or said, even though the text had just described it. Once I started noticing this, I realized it happened a lot.

If you’re a huge Vocaloid fan, this might be worth giving a shot. Like I said, the way Vocaloid details were incorporated was wonderful. Everyone else would probably be better off trying something like CLAMP's Chobits or maybe even William Gibson’s Idoru (not romance, and I don’t recall the AI having much of a speaking role, but Rei Toei is practically another incarnation of Hatsune Miku).

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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