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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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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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