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review 2018-11-03 15:24
My Neighbor Totoro (book) art and story by Hayao Miyazaki, text by Tsugiko Kubo, translated by Jim Hubbert
My Neighbor Totoro: A Novel - Tsugiko Kubo,Hayao Miyazaki

Mei, Satsuki, and their father, Tatsuo, move into a crumbling old house in the country in order to be closer to the sanatorium where their mother, Yasuko, is recovering from tuberculosis. The girls adapt to their new rural life pretty quickly, although four-year-old Mei doesn't respond well to being left with their neighbor while Tatsuo is at work and Satsuki is at school.

Both girls realize there's something a little strange about their house when they first arrive. They briefly spot little beings called soot sprites, and Kanta, the boy who lives near them, tells them that their house is haunted. Then Mei starts talking about having met a being she calls Totoro and who Tatsuo believes is a forest spirit. Satsuki longs to see Totoro too.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I read this. Would it be a stiff and soulless adaptation of the movie, or would it be able to hold its own in the face of the movie's sweetness? I'm happy to say that it fell into the latter category. Although I still prefer the movie, the book was a breeze to read, added things to the overall story that the movie couldn't, and had much of the same charm as the original movie.

(I should briefly explain that I'm most familiar with the English dub of the movie. I'm not sure if I've even watched it in Japanese with English subtitles yet. Some of the information "missing" from the movie could possibly have been translation decisions when creating the dub, editing the script to better match mouth flaps. I won't know until I watch the movie with subtitles, and even then translator decisions are in play.)

The book was more direct about explaining exactly why Tatsuo, Satsuki, and Mei moved out into the country, explicitly naming Yasuko's illness. There were more mentions about what Satsuki and Mei's life used to be like, back in the city, and even one portion of the book where they briefly went back to the city. Yasuko was slightly more in the foreground - the book included letters she wrote to her children while at the sanatorium. I got a stronger picture of her personality here than I did in the movie. She seemed like a dreamer.

In general, I'd say that the bones of this book were about the same as the movie. A few scenes were added, and there were more details about the history of the house the family moved into, and Satsuki's efforts to learn how to cook different foods over an actual fire without burning them. I really enjoyed these additions.

One thing that disappointed me a little, however, was that the fantasy aspects were scaled back. In the movie, viewers' first exposure to Totoro happened when Mei chased after a little Totoro and ended up finding Totoro's napping spot. All of this happened on-screen. These same things happened in this book as well, but for some reason the author chose to focus on Satsuki instead of Mei. Mei told Satsuki and her father what she'd experienced, but there was no evidence that any of it was real, rather than the dreams or imaginings of a child. The first on-page appearance of Totoro didn't happen until the bus scene. The ending was also altered slightly - the scene where Mei and Satsuki watched their mother and father from a tree didn't happen. I was at least glad that all the Catbus scenes were included.

The focus of this book seemed to be slightly more on the relationship between the two sisters and their barely-spoken-of fear that their mother might die and never come home, as well as the girls' growing independence as they adapted to rural life. It was lovely, but, as I said, I did miss some of the Totoro stuff. All in all, this was an excellent novelization that I'd definitely recommend to fans of the movie.

Extras:

Several illustrations (black and white sketches with maybe a watercolor wash?), including a color map of Matsugo, the place where the Kusakabe family moved. The map also gives the exact year this story took place, 1955, so I suppose this could be considered historical fiction.

 

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

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review 2018-11-03 13:32
In the Miso Soup (book) by Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph McCarthy
In the Miso Soup - Ralph McCarthy,Ryū Murakami

Kenji is a "nightlife guide" for English-speaking tourists in Japan. Basically, he takes guys on tours of what the Japanese sex industry has to offer. Although Kenji gets quite a few customers via his little ad in Tokyo Pink Guide (a magazine about the sex industry in Tokyo), the work isn't as good as he expected it to be. He can never seem to save up enough for that trip to America he wants.

Kenji has seen a lot of foreigners, but his latest client, Frank, is different. On the surface, he's a loud and friendly New Yorker who wants to go everywhere and have some sex along the way. There are moments, however, when something dark and ugly peers out of Frank's eyes. Frank hired him for three nights, right up until New Year's Eve, and by the end of their first night together, Kenji becomes convinced that Frank is the serial killer who's been raping girls involved in compensated dating, killing them, and dismembering their bodies (not necessarily in this order).

This book could be divided into three parts. In the first part, Kenji is a guide and translator working with a strange and vaguely disturbing client. This section has a large amount of detail about how the various places Kenji and Frank visit work and takes place mostly during their first night together. I recall them going to a peep show, a lingerie bar (sounded a bit like a hostess club, only with the women dressed in nothing but lingerie), and some kind of club where they ended up going on a paid date that Frank had hoped would end with sex. They also spent some time at a batting cage, of all things. Considering what just the time with Kenji cost, it was a little surprising that Frank wanted to spend it just watching Kenji try to hit some baseballs. But Frank was weird, even at the very beginning.

The first part is surprisingly tame. No sex, on-page or otherwise. The closest Frank gets to having sex is a handjob at the peep show, which isn't on-page. Kenji asks the woman who did it for a few details, hoping for something that might tell him, one way or the other, whether Frank was the murderer. Some aspects of this part of the book could almost be viewed as darkly comedic. Even as Kenji worries that Frank might be a murderer, there are moments when Frank seems clownish and ridiculous.

In the second part, which occurs a little over halfway through, the violence and gore is cranked WAY up. It's basically just one scene, but it is not for the faint of heart. I didn't expect this level of nastiness and ended up skimming it for my own peace of mind. Even then, way more of this scene is burned into my brain than I'd like. There is

on-page torture, as well as a character who is almost forced into necrophilia.

(spoiler show)


The third part returns to the pacing and overall content of the first part. Kenji continues to act as Frank's guide, although Frank is no longer interested in finding someone to have sex with. However, whereas the first part was filled with Kenji's suspicions, more a fear of what his gut told him Frank might be capable of that anything, in the second part Kenji is

so far past fear that he's numb.

(spoiler show)


The last part also had a sharp increase in Frank's level of self-reflection, philosophizing, and societal analysis. Kenji, too, found himself thinking about what it is to be Japanese. And, to be honest, I really didn't care what sorts of insights Frank had or inspired in Kenji.

I don't know if his explanation of his childhood was supposed to awaken in readers some sort of empathy or understanding for him, but I, personally, just kept coming back to the utter horror of what happened at the book's midway point. Several of those people were annoying, or liars, or scammers, but none of them deserved what happened to them, and Frank made it pretty clear that he planned to continue on as he had been, after he and Kenji parted ways.

(spoiler show)


I didn't like this book. I suppose it was intense and focused look at the emotional impact of three nights with a guy like Frank, but I don't know that that time was worthwhile.

 

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

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review 2018-09-01 23:01
Spiral by Koji Suzuki, translated by Glynne Walley
Spiral - Glynne Walley,Koji Suzuki

Spiral begins hours after Ring's ending and stars Ando, a medical examiner who was once classmates with Ryuji, one of the main characters in Ring. Ando performs Ryuji's autopsy and is intrigued by several findings. First, Ryuji died of sudden heart failure despite being otherwise very healthy. Second, he has a mysterious ulcer in his throat. Further tests eventually reveal that Ryuji may have been killed by a virus that bears an eerie resemblance to smallpox. As Ando investigates, he learns of several other victims. But how is the virus transmitted? What does it do? And why did one man who was exposed to it, Asakawa, survive? The case takes on greater urgency when Mai, Ryuji's lover, disappears. Was she exposed via Ryuji somehow, and can she still be saved?

I highly recommend that those who haven't read the first book, Ring, do so before reading this one. And then maybe just stop there. Although Spiral tied up a few of Ring's loose ends, I didn't consider it to be a worthwhile continuation.

Suzuki attempted to make Sadako's curse more scientific rather than supernatural in this book, and it really didn't work for me. I could accept that the curse was virus-like in its transmission and requirements, but Suzuki also had it behaving

both like a sperm and an egg (just because it happened to sort of look like them?). Also, Suzuki envisioned DNA producing exact replicas of people, right down to their memories up to some point before their original death ("junk DNA" is a recording of a person's memories, or some nonsense like that). This went way beyond what I was willing to accept, even in a horror series featuring a killer videotape.

And the part where Suzuki gave Ryuji a special ability to communicate with Sadako made me want to bite something. There was no sign that Ryuji had any kind of paranormal abilities - he should not have been able to form an agreement with Sadako the way he did, or use his own corpse to create codes for Ando to decipher. And Sadako, considering her history, should have hated a rapist like Ryuji too much to let him somehow use her own abilities.

(spoiler show)


There were a few nicely creepy scenes, but for the most part Ring had a better and more unnerving atmosphere than Spiral. Ando spent a lot of time trying to figure out the stuff Asakawa had already figured out in the first book, and a little more time trying to figure out what Asakawa hadn't gotten wrong. There were a couple code deciphering sections that reminded me of parts of works like Soji Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, inviting readers to decipher the codes along with Ando, but those ended up feeling more like filler than anything particularly useful. And speaking of filler, there was a excruciating 20-page summary of everything that happened in Ring, because apparently Suzuki couldn't trust that readers of Spiral had read the book before it. Yes, this section tied in with a discovery later in the book, but Suzuki could have accomplished the same thing in a couple pages.

Spiral reminded me a great deal of Hideaki Sena's Parasite Eve in the way it tried to incorporate science into its horrific supernatural developments, and also in the way it crapped on most of its few female characters.

I was cautiously optimistic that Mai would be a main character I could actually root for, despite her unfortunate affection for Ryuji. She seemed to be reasonably intelligent and not too much of a wet washcloth. Whereas Ando developed an instant crush on Mai, she spoke to him mostly out of a wish to maintain a connection to Ryuji and wasn't the slightest bit interested in any other sort of relationship with him. At the same time, she wasn't so attached to Ryuji as to fall completely apart after his death. She kept her professional commitments in mind and tried to fulfill them.

Unfortunately, my expectation that Mai would turn out to be one of the main characters of this book, working with Ando the way Ryuji worked with Asakawa in the first book, turned out to be way off the mark. After a couple on-page appearances, she disappeared from the text except as occasional motivation for Ando. Her ultimate fate depressed me, as did

Suzuki's reduction of women of child-bearing age to nothing more than potential incubators for Sadako.

(spoiler show)


Some of Ando's thoughts about Mai were bizarre and made me wonder if Suzuki had any idea about how female bodies work. When I first started the book, I snickered at the way Ando instantly concluded that Mai must be having her period because of one vague sentence from her and the fact that she looked pale. While I realize that some women have overly heavy or lengthy periods that can give them anemia, considering the situation I'd have assumed that Mai was pale because she was in shock at having discovered Ryuji's body only a few hours earlier. This thing about Mai having her period came up multiple times in the book, with Ando concluding each time that his intuition must have been correct. Ando also seemed to think it was perfectly natural for a grown woman's used underwear to smell like milk (yes, there's a part where he sniffs her underwear - it's one of the first things he does when he's left alone in her apartment).

I doubt I'll be continuing this series, and I kind of wish I had stopped after reading Ring. The new developments in Spiral made me more angry than excited. One thing I was left with was a desire to find and read more Japanese horror written by women. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like much has been translated into English. I've already read Mariko Koike's The Graveyard Apartment and would welcome other recommendations.

 

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

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review 2018-04-15 03:03
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu, translated by Cathy Hirano
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit - Nahoko Uehashi,Cathy Hirano

The last time I read and reviewed this book was back in 2010, when my posts included spoiler-filled synopses that were as long or longer than the reviews themselves. I figured that a new review was in order, especially since my opinion of this book has improved.

After Balsa, a female bodyguard, rescues young Prince Chagum from drowning, she finds herself being roped into being his protector. Chagum is believed to be possessed by the same creature that once caused a terrible drought. It's thought that the drought will be averted if Chagum is killed, so the Mikado himself has ordered several assassination attempts against him. Chagum's mother, the Second Queen, enlists Balsa's help to save him.

While Balsa attempts to hide Chagum and keep him safe from his pursuers, she also seeks out several friends in the hope of figuring out what's going on so that she can somehow both save Chagum's life and prevent the drought.

The first time I read this book was, I think, too soon after having seen the anime. They're both good, but the time I spent noting similarities and differences to the anime made it hard to judge the book on its own merits (yes, I know the book came first, but my first exposure to the story was the anime).

Balsa makes me wish more than the first two books in this series had been translated into English. She's a great character - an experienced and talented warrior with an intriguing past. In general, the book had some nice gender role reversal, with its female stoic warrior character and male healer interested in the spirit world. There was a hint of potential romance between Balsa and Tanda, the healer, but it was handled in a very low-drama way. Tanda was a little frustrated at Balsa's lack of desire to settle down, but it never got to the point of wrecking their friendship.

The "found family" aspect involving Balsa, Tanda, and Chagum was nice. I enjoyed that restful period of the story before everybody had to worry about Chagum's safety again, and it was nice to see Chagum becoming more comfortable and confident in his life as a commoner.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the way the setting and its history mattered. This was very much a story about how knowledge is lost or changed over time. Near the beginning of the book, readers get the history of how New Yogo was founded, but it's entirely from the perspective of the Yogoese, who are currently the area's dominant ethnic group. Later on, readers get more sides of the story - the secret history that only the Star Readers know (which is, again, Yogoese history) and Yakoo stories.

The Yakoo were the people who originally lived in the area where New Yogo was founded. (Supposedly they fled out of fear when the Yogoese peacefully tried to contact them, and I think the Yakoo side of the story agreed with this or at least didn't refute it, but I don't buy it.) They'd lost much of their culture and traditions, and what was left was sometimes mixed with Yogoese culture to an uncertain degree. It gave me shivers to think how close everyone came to not having the knowledge they needed during the chase at the end of the book.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed rereading this. I haven't read the next book in the series yet, but I'm now looking forward to it even more.

 

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

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review 2018-04-09 12:44
The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm
The Graveyard Apartment: A Novel - Mariko Koike,Deborah Boliver Boehm

The Central Plaza Mansion apartment seems like too good a deal to pass up. Despite its location in the Tokyo metropolitan area, it's both cheap and spacious. It's also conveniently located near schools, shopping, and public transportation. Its only drawback is that it's surrounded on three sides by an enormous graveyard. Also, there's a very active crematorium nearby.

Almost immediately after Misao, Teppei, and their daughter Tamao move in, the family's pet finch, Pyoko, dies. Pyoko was young and seemed healthy and happy, but Misao and Teppei bury the bird and try to put it out of their minds. Unfortunately, there are other signs that moving into this building might not have been a good idea. Odd things keep showing up on their TV, and more people seem to be moving out of the building than are moving in. And then there's the basement, which somehow has an occasional chilly breeze despite having no windows.

I saw this on a list of "best horror novels by women" and immediately wanted to read it. I'm always up for trying another Japanese novel in translation, especially one written by a woman, and I was intrigued by the "creepy apartment" setting.

I really wanted to love this book. However, I had issues with a few very important aspects of the setting, and I disliked the way Koike used characters' stupidity to force scary scenes to happen.

I'll start with the setting. The apartment building had a basement with storage lockers that could be used by residents. For some reason the building was designed so that the elevator went all the way down to the basement but the emergency stairs did not. If someone went down to the basement and the elevator stopped working or there was a power outage, they were trapped down there. I had a tough time believing that such a building could legally have been built, but I also know nothing about Japanese building codes (the building was built in 1986 and the book was set in 1987).

I tried to ignore my issues with the basement's oddly restricted access, but the story kept slapping me in the face with things that didn't make sense. Characters would go down to the basement without telling anyone they were going there, or they'd decide to all go down at once rather than leaving at least one person upstairs who could call for help if necessary. Neither the elevator nor the basement had a call box, so if the elevator wasn't working there was no way to contact anyone for help. People kept going down to that stupid basement even after an incident that highlighted all the problems with its elevator-only access.

Which leads me to the issue of characters behaving like idiots. There were two big moments that really bugged me, one involving the elevator and one involving the way one particular character reacted to new developments in the basement near the end. That said, most of the characters could have died multiple times over because they kept using the elevator long after it was clear that it wasn't safe. Using the stairs to get up to the eighth floor every day would suck, sure, but after the first big incident in the basement I was a little surprised that Teppei, at least, didn't decide to go that route.

Large parts of this book were actually pretty good. Misao and Teppei's situation interested me, and I wondered whether it would get worked in the mystery of whatever was haunting the building. Seven years ago, Teppei was married to someone else and having an affair with Misao (not a spoiler - this is revealed in the first 16 pages). His wife committed suicide and Misao and Teppei got married sometime later. Teppei's first wife was the elephant in the room. Teppei didn't like to talk about her but also didn't feel particularly guilty about her death, while Misao seemed to feel at least some guilt. The way their marriage began also put a strain on their relationships with their family members.

I also liked the way other characters' warnings and move-outs gradually increased the tension. Unfortunately, it all fizzled out for some reason. I think it was partly due to how vague the supernatural stuff was. The stuff with the finch never went anywhere, and Koike never bothered to explain why the Kano family, in particular, had such a hard time getting away from the building. Also, some things that I thought would get more attention and become more a part of the supernatural happenings, like Misao's "blanking out" incident, were hardly mentioned again.

All in all, this was a quick but disappointing read.

Additional Comments:

If you're like me and worry about the fate of fictional animals, well, I've already mentioned what happened to the finch. The dog, Cookie,

probably doesn't survive either, but she's alive during her last on-page appearance and probably goes down fighting.

(spoiler show)

 

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

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