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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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review 2018-03-18 17:47
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Land of Sand (book, vol. 1) by Makoto Inoue, original concept by Hiromu Arakawa, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Rich Amtower
Fullmetal Alchemist: The Land of Sand - Makoto Inoue,Alexander O. Smith,Hiromu Arakawa

This volume is composed of two stories. The primary one is "The Land of Sand." The shorter bonus story is "The Phantom of Warehouse 13." Both of these stories were adapted into episodes in the original anime series.

"The Land of Sand":

Edward and Alphonse arrive at the dying former gold mining town of Xenotime and are shocked to learn that two boys who say their names are Edward and Alphonse Elric have been living in Xenotime for a while, researching how to make a Philosopher's Stone in order to revitalize the town. Who are these imposters, and how close are they to finishing their research?

This wasn't bad, like bland but reasonably well-written fanfic. It's been a while since I watched the anime adaptation of this, but I remembered liking that more than this story. Ed and Al seemed to be pretty accurately depicted (although I've never thought of Al as being "bronze-hued" (14)), but the text did have occasional clunky moments. There were times when I could tell that the humor would probably work on-screen but was a bit awkward and weird on-page, like the time Ed and Russell transitioned from a physical battle to a verbal one.

One thing I really liked about this story was the "little brother" aspect. Both Al and Fletcher were the level-headed younger brothers, but whereas Al could talk to his brother and expect to be listened to, Fletcher was afraid to tell his brother what he was really thinking. I loved the scenes where Al and Fletcher bonded, and watching Fletcher slowly become more confident was nice.

I didn't see anything that contradicted anything I recalled from the manga (although it's been ages since I last read any of that). I agree with those who wondered why Ed didn't just pull out his State Alchemist pocket watch to prove his identity, though. I suppose you could argue that the Xenotime townsfolk were so convinced that their Edward and Alphonse were real that even that wouldn't have swayed them, but it was still a bit odd that he didn't even give it a shot.

"The Phantom of Warehouse 13":

Colonel Roy Mustang gets roped into helping his men investigate reports of nighttime ghostly activity near Warehouse 13. Several people said they heard sounds of digging and weeping. Since Warehouse 13 doesn't exist, Roy is pretty sure everything's happening near Warehouse B. He's determined to get to the bottom of it all before Eastern Command becomes both a laughing stock and a tourist attraction.

This story was goofy and ridiculous, and I enjoyed it anyway. It made no effort to even pretend that it might advance anything in the overall Fullmetal Alchemist storyline. Roy Mustang, Fuery, Havoc, Falman, and Breda were like a group of little boys taking part in a sleepover and scaring each other silly with ghost stories.

I couldn't tell whether the ending was predictable or whether I just remembered too much of the anime episode. Either way, this was a fun bit of fluff.

All in all, this volume was a quick and relatively decent read.

Extras:

  • One full-page color illustration and several black-and-white illustrations created by Hiromu Arakawa.
  • A couple pages of sketches - Fletcher and Russell, plus Ed imagining how tall and suave he'll be at age 19. Also, a 4-panel comic about the planning stages for the book that's a bit horrifying if you know what happens to Maes Hughes in the series. Poor Makoto Inoue.
  • A 3-page afterword written by Makoto Inoue.

 

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

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review 2018-03-11 20:01
Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Noriko Ogiwara, translated by Cathy Hirano, illustrations by Miho Satake
Dragon Sword and Wind Child - Miho Satake,Noriko Ogiwara,Cathy Hirano

Fifteen-year-old Saya is the only survivor of an attack by the army of the God of Light on her village when she was a child. Although she occasionally dreams about the attack, she now lives with her adoptive parents in the village of Hashiba, which has accepted the God of Light and his immortal children, Princess Teruhi and Prince Tsukishiro. Saya has no memories of her birth parents and loves the Light just as much as any other person in Hashiba, so it's a shock when several strangers arrive and tell her that she's a princess of the Children of the Dark. Unlike the immortal Children of the God of Light, the Children of the Goddess of Darkness can die and then be reincarnated, and Saya is the reincarnation of the Water Maiden. Before she has a chance to truly process this, Prince Tsukishiro arrives and takes a sudden interest in her.

Saya is faced with several choices: she can become one of the prince's handmaidens and eventually his bride, knowing that he doesn't really love her; she can kill herself like the Water Maidens before her; or she can somehow find a way to escape. She chooses the third option and discovers both the Dragon Sword, a weapon so powerful it can kill gods, and Chihaya, a Child of the God of Light who is seen as a failure by his siblings because he has always been drawn to the Darkness.

I honestly didn't know where Ogiwara was going to go with this book, most of the time. Saya figured out that her love for Prince Tsukishiro was foolish surprisingly quickly, although it took a bit longer for her heart to catch up. Chihaya was...unexpected. I had caught the mention of a third Child of the God of Light, but I hadn't thought that Saya would be meeting him so soon and taking him along with her.

The immortals, Chihaya in particular, came across as somewhat alien. Chihaya had the ability to switch bodies with various animals and didn't seem to be aware, or maybe didn't care, that the animals wouldn't necessarily be okay if they got injured while he was using them. He could experience pain and certainly disliked it, but any injuries would usually disappear in a day or less. He cared about his horse and Saya, in that order, and I'm not sure he truly realized, during a good chunk of the book, that Saya could die.

The book's pacing was a bit slow for my tastes, but I liked reading about Saya's efforts to understand Chihaya. She had to struggle to convince the Children of the Goddess of Darkness to keep him free as he kept doing things that indicated he was more dangerous to have around than they'd initially thought. Watching how Chihaya changed as the story progressed was fascinating.

I wish, though, that Saya hadn't come across as more a supporting character than a main character. I went into the book expecting her to be more active. There were moments when she had choices to make and things to do, but mostly she existed to support Chihaya while he gradually came into his powers and got a better look at the Darkness he'd been drawn towards all his life. Saya supposedly had the power to pacify gods but never got to the point of being able to use them, unless her ability to connect with Chihaya counted.

I kind of wish this had been a friendship-only book, since I felt Chihaya and Saya worked best as friends, but I suppose their eventual romance fit with the "God of Light and Goddess of Darkness" theme. The way I felt about the two of them reminded me a little of how I felt about the sudden romance in Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. It felt forced.

All in all, despite its problems this was pretty good. I look forward to the next book, although I wonder how it'll be related to this one. I don't recognize the character names in the description and, honestly, the way Dragon Sword and Wind Child ended makes it work just fine as a standalone.

Extras:

The book includes two full-page, full-color illustrations. One is a larger version of the cover illustration.

 

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

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review 2018-03-04 00:27
The Master Key by Masako Togawa, translated by Simon Grove
The Master Key - Masako Togawa

This is set in Tokyo, at the K Apartments for Ladies. I didn't write down enough of the mentions of exact years to be 100% sure, but the book's "present" is probably the late 1950s.

The K Apartments for Ladies were originally meant to help "Japanese women emancipate themselves" (17). All of the women who live there are unmarried. Men are only allowed into the building if they check in first, after which they're escorted to whichever apartment they plan to visit. All the rents are frozen at wartime levels, so it's a cheap place to live. In the book's present, the entire building is about to be moved four meters in order to make room for a road-widening project. This can supposedly be done without disturbing any of the building's residents, who have all opted to stay inside until the project is finished.

Togawa gives readers glimpses into the particular stories and secrets of several of the building residents. In every instance, the weight of their secrets either begins to overwhelm them as the date of the move nears, or there's a strong possibility that the move will force their secrets into the light. Some of the residents mentioned include: Chikako Ueda, who once worked with a male accomplice to bury a dead child in an unused communal bathroom in the building's basement; Toyoko Munekata, who is supposedly hard at work correcting her late husband's manuscripts; Noriko Ishiyama, who has taken to living like a mouse, existing off of others' scraps; Suwa Yatabe, a violin instructor; and Yoneko Kimura, a retired teacher who spends her days writing letters to every single one of her former students.

I heard about this via a list on Goodreads. Although it's been tagged as a mystery, it's not really a traditional mystery, and readers who approach it as one are likely to be disappointed. There are certainly plenty of crimes mentioned - kidnapping, murder, arson, theft - but it's only in the last half of the book or so that anything like sleuthing happens, as Yoneko investigates one of her fellow residents on behalf of a former student.

Even then (I'm trying to avoid spoilers), there is the issue of appearances and reality. Some readers may love the twists at the end, while others may feel like the author cheated. I fall somewhere in between. I admired the way Togawa set things up so that readers would expect that they were dealing with one set of rules when they were actually dealing with a completely different set. She managed this without, as far as I could tell, ever really lying to readers, although I suppose that could depend upon your definition of "lie."

That said, the revelation concerning one particular character really bugged me. It required the character to be completely and utterly bound up in the building, the residents, and all their stories, to the point that that was their personal story. My suspension of disbelief was severely strained. I also had trouble believing that this person could do everything they would have had to have done without anyone ever being the wiser.

I thought that Togawa was going to end the book with a few "realistically" loose threads, and I was fully prepared to be mad at her for that. Instead, she included a short epilogue that answered that last question and left me feeling absolutely furious at one of the characters, the only one who'd escaped the story completely unscathed. I'm actually angrier at that character than I am at the one who literally murdered another character.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this book. The structure was a bit strange, the timeline and characters weren't always easy to keep track of, I disliked a lot of the revelations in the chapter just before the epilogue, and there were parts that were ridiculous enough to make me wonder whether this could be considered a black comedy. Still, it was fascinating seeing characters' stories get tangled up together. I'd probably be willing to try another one of the author's works.

Additional Comments:

This translation seemed decent enough, although potentially a bit over-localized. I wonder, was the spirit medium really named "Thumbelina" in the original, or was that just the closest approximation the translator could come up with? Thumbelina was repeatedly described as being dressed in "a white robe with loose red trousers" (15) or something similar. I figured that she probably looked very much like a miko, not that there were translator's notes mentioning this (and the word miko was never used - the translator's choice, I'm guessing, because I doubt the original Japanese text would have gone out of its way to avoid using the word).

Names were almost always in Western order, given name first and then family name. I noticed one or two instances of the translator messing up and using the Japanese order, which unfortunately contributed a bit to my difficulty with keeping track of all the characters' names.

 

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

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