Parade by Shuichi Yoshida

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“The me who lives here is most definitely the Apartment Me I created, and by that I mean she’s someone who just doesn’t do serious. The me who gets along well with the other residents (Ryosuke, Koto, Naoki, and Satoru) is Apartment Me… But maybe they’ve also created their own Apartment Selves, too. Which would mean that they, too, don’t actually exist in this apartment. Conclusion? No one is in this apartment.”

Five people. One Tokyo apartment.

Ryosuke Sugimoto is a college student from a small town. Kotomi Okochi doesn’t go out. She spends her time by the phone at the apartment, waiting for her maybe-boyfriend, an upcoming actor, to call. Mirai Soma is an artist who works at an imported-goods boutique and spends her nights drinking (and drinking and drinking). Naoki Ihara is the only one who seems to resemble an adult. He has a job at a film company but also has a strange relationship with his ex-girlfriend. The fifth person only enters the apartment some chapters in. Satoru Kokubo is 18 and at first everyone presumes he’s Ryosuke’s friend but it turns out he isn’t?

Then there is something strange about the visitors, often young girls and old men, emerging from the apartment next door. And there have been attacks on young women on the streets around their neighbourhood.

But really, it’s a story in which nothing very much happens. It’s the daily lives of these four (then five) young people. As I read on, seeing things from each character’s perspective, I realised that they didn’t really know much about each other. They lived together, the girls sharing a room and the guys in another, and they would sometime go out together but there seems to be a lot of disconnect. The use of the different points of view is very effective in this story – the characters reveal their innermost thoughts, as well as their true feelings about their flatmates. Although as much as I followed along with these secrets and hidden thoughts, I was still surprised by how it ended.

“A cowardly college student. A love-addicted girl. A freelance illustrator who likes to hang out with gay guys. And a health-obsessed jogger. If I hadn’t met them there, there’s no way I would ever talk to people like that.”

I found this quite a fascinating read. No way as weird and puzzling as some of the other Japanese novels I’ve recently (I’m looking at you, Earthlings) but it has that sense of alienation and detachment that seems to haunt a lot of Japanese fiction I’ve read.

The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura; The Stranger by Albert Camus

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A college student is walking late one night when he comes across a crime scene. A dead body with a gun in hand. He picks up the gun and takes it with him. Although he is also afraid as he’s breaking the law. He becomes obsessed with the gun. It brings him a strange joy.

“Once again, its overwhelming beauty and presence did not disappoint. I felt as though I might be transported – that is to say, that the world within myself could be unlocked – I felt full of such possibilities.”

This is Nakamura’s debut novel. It was first published in 2002 (English translation published 2016).

I come from a country where guns are very strictly restricted. And now I live in a country where lots of people own lots of guns. It first really hit me when I had to fill in a questionnaire for a well-child check-up, something along the lines of “do you have guns in the home and are they locked up securely?”. We don’t. But I started to wonder, do my neighbours? How about school classmates’ families?

I still marvel that this is a country where you can walk into a sporting goods store and buy a gun, and there’s a gun store about five minutes’ drive away from my house. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever feel ok about.

At any rate, The Gun is a young man’s obsession with a gun that he’s convinced is rightfully his. A gun he polishes and admires. A gun that he cannot stop thinking about. He does already have some sociopathic tendencies and this gun seems to just make things a whole lot worse.

The Gun is a rather unsettling read about an obsession.

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It was quite a similar read to The Stranger by Albert Camus. In that they both have main characters who are very detached from the world around them. Was Fuminori Nakamura inspired by The Stranger? Both characters have little or no feelings for the women they are involved with, nor their friends and neighbours. Perhaps The Gun is a modern, Japanese take on The Stranger.

I guess I should talk more about The Stranger here. I guess I didn’t expect it to be told so simply, and so effectively. It was a quick read that left me with many questions, which I suppose may be the point of all this.

Meursault has few (if any) opinions on anything, few (if any) feelings and emotions about anything that happens in the book. Is Camus’ point of this to allow the reader to project herself into his shoes? As we went through the trial, I kept thinking of how so much of it annoyed me, how the witnesses at the funeral pointed out that Meursault didn’t cry, and instead smoked and drank coffee. That he wasn’t sure of his mother’s age. As if all these were definitions of whether he had been sad about the death of his mother.

Typing this, I realised that I had an emotional reaction about a character who doesn’t seem to feel much emotions.

Was I glad to have read this book? I still do not know. But I suppose I am glad to finally know what the book is about. It wasn’t in any way a pleasant read, but perhaps in the future it may be something I reread.

I read The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura for January in Japan; and The Stranger by Albert Camus for Back to the Classics.

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

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I hadn’t heard of this book before the movie adaptation, Midnight Sky, came out on Netflix. You might have seen it or heard of it, maybe? It has George Clooney acting and directing.

The movie was ok. It left me with many questions and a general feeling that a lot was missing. But reading the book allowed me to fill in many gaps, especially about Sully.

(I’ll try not to reveal spoilers but will talk a little about the plot. So skip this post if you haven’t seen the movie/read the book yet and don’t really want to know much about it! But come back when you have!).

Essentially the story is about an ageing (ageing in the book, sick in the movie) astronomer, alone in a research centre in the Arctic, after everyone else has evacuated because of a major global catastrophe that isn’t exactly detailed. But he’s lost contact with the rest of the world, and he’s alone, until he comes upon Iris, a young girl who doesn’t say much. What is she doing by herself in this outpost? The other part of the story is on board Aether, a spacecraft on its return trip from Jupiter. Because of this catastrophe, they have not had contact with Mission Control for some time now. And they’re wondering if they can get back to Earth.

It’s a contemplative journey.

However, I was really surprised by the many changes made in the script. Not just Sully – actress Felicity Jones was pregnant during the filming, which resulted in a pregnancy being introduced to the film. Also small things like different characters used, the fact that Augustine wasn’t actually actively looking to talk to Aether (in the book it seems like a coincidence that he picks up their signal), and the way a death and mishap happen. I suppose it was to spice it up and make it more dramatic for the movie audience. Although one of them made no logical sense at all. How can you crash through ice and live through it when you’re out in the middle of nowhere in the freezing subzero temperatures?

But for me, the ultimate difference was that small nuances were lacking in the movie. It didn’t feel like they were all that anxious about being out of contact with Earth. They didn’t explore more about the other characters. Everyone seemed like they were fine with being on the spacecraft – I suppose this also comes from my watching the Netflix space TV series Away in which one of the characters has space blindness, and all kinds of things (too many perhaps) happen to their spacecraft. So the movie was definitely an “eh” and a “meh” for me.

Also, the endings were so different! When I finished the book, I marvelled at how so many small changes were made. And so, while I cannot recommend the movie (except for its cinematography) , I would not hesitate to recommend this book. It was a great read, a reflective one, and a different take on the dystopian novel.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

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“With the coffee in front of her, she closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply. It was her moment of happiness. As per his insistence, the coffee had been made from mocha beans with their distinct aroma, which coffee drinkers either love or hate. Those who enjoy the aroma, like Kohtake, can’t get enough of it. In fact, you could say that the coffee picked the customers.”

A book about time travel. But one with limits. It takes place solely in a cafe. And there are very strict rules. There is one particular seat at the cafe that allows time travel. The person cannot move from the seat. And the time traveler must return before the coffee gets cold (and also drink said coffee).

It all takes place in Cafe Funiculi Funicula (if you aren’t familiar, Funiculì, Funiculà is a song to commemorate the opening of the funicular railway on Mt Vesuvius back in 1880). There are a few regular customers of the cafe which is owned by Kei and Nagare, who are married. Kazu, who is Nagare’s cousin, helps out when she’s not at university. Kazu is the one who has to pour the cup of coffee that allows the time travel.

In this book, there are four time travellers in this book – and also another four in a separate book titled Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe (although known as Before Your Memory Fades in Japan).

It was only after reading the book, then reading a review of it that I learnt that this book was originally a play. That may explain why I wasn’t enamoured with the writing. The writing was fine, nothing to shout about, and you have to put aside your doubts about the way the time travel works (why is it only Kazu who pours the coffee? was a constant question for me!). But I really appreciated the thoughtfulness put into how their stories unfolded, the emotions touched on.

It was a slightly quirky, quick read that doesn’t feel like a quick read. It’s a gently told tale. It made me long for a day when I can finally go sit in a cafe and read a book – no indoor dining or even outdoor dining at the moment in California.

It made me think of the days when I worked at a newspaper in Singapore. I worked odd hours. At first, for the online edition, working the early shift, starting around 6am I think? Then later, sub-editing which meant we put the paper to bed and finished after midnight. Also, that meant I had to always work either Saturdays or Sundays, and had a weekday off. All those weird hours meant I would often find myself having time off but no one to hang out with. I would often take myself out to a cafe, sit down with a book, and enjoy a flat white.

Gimme Everything You Got by Iva-Marie Palmer

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I love it when a book surprises me. And this one really did. I honestly wasn’t expecting very much out of it. But this was a fun read that explores first love and also, women’s sports!

It’s set in 1979 in the US. And while I have lived here for some years now, I didn’t know about how Title IX (established in 1972) was set down to establish access to any activity that receives Federal financial assistance, and that includes sports. So in this high school, a new athletics coach arrives to set up a girl’s soccer team.

It helps very much that he is good looking and wears shorts when he’s first introduced to the school. The shorts “hugged his butt like it was a package wrapped by an overachieving Christmas elf”. And lots of girls sign up for the soccer tryouts. Most of them drop out though, not realising soccer means more than standing around and ogling the cute coach.

Susan sticks it out, along with some of her friends. She begins to enjoy the game, and is getting to be quite good at it. But there aren’t many other girls’ teams to play against (they only have one game set up by their coach). She still has this hope that she’ll get close to Coach Bobby. And her infatuation for a teacher may mean that she’s missing out on some more age-appropriate boys.

It was especially interesting for me to learn about Title IX and the attitude that people had towards girls in sports at that time. One of the most amusing moments is when the parent of a boy Susan baby-sits sees her practising and asks if it has affected her menstruation. Oh boy. I suppose this was some kind of old-fashioned way of thinking that sports and exercise affects a woman’s ability to have children? Luckily Susan and her teammates chime in.

Susan is a great character – flawed, definitely, but she learns and grows so much, not just about her attitude towards sports and boys, but also with her relationships with her friends and family.

Gimme Everything You Got was a surprising, funny, fearlessly feminist read!

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

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I don’t know where to begin with this book. Perhaps I should start with, it’s not for the faint of heart. It is intense. It is full of taboos. There is abuse. And so very much more. And there is the way the mind works to handle all this trauma. It is, in its strange way, about survival. Don’t be fooled by that kawaii cover.

The story opens with a young Natsuki, age 11, who is convinced that her stuffed hedgehog is an alien from Popinpobopia. She shares this with her cousin Yuu, who is also her boyfriend, when they meet in the mountains at a family gathering.

(Something happens at this gathering but I don’t want to unleash any spoilers). But after the first two chapters, we fast-forward to Natsuki at age 34. She’s married, but to someone who has a similar mindset, both of them feeling alienated from society, preferring to believe that they themselves are aliens.

“Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory. My husband and I were people they’d failed to brainwash, and anyone who remained unbrainwashed had to keep up an act in order to avoid being eliminated by the Factory.”

Natsuki and her husband return to the mountains where Yuu is staying and the three of them decide to train to avoid becoming Earthlings, to come up with their own ideas for living on a planet that isn’t their own. And it descends into something shocking and bizarre, that, as I said, isn’t for the faint of heart.

“I want to use the form of the novel to conduct experiments,” Murata once said in an interview. And this is one extremely outrageous experimental story. Yet to be honest, is it really all that outlandish? The trauma that a young girl experiences from the various abuses she suffers, from people who ought to be her defenders, has led her to believe that she’s not of this earth. For who would want to be, if you were in her shoes? And that feeling of being alienated, not fitting into the norms of society, is something many of us can relate to, I reckon, although the three characters take it to such an extreme level.

Earthlings is an uncomfortable read, it’s dark and twisted. It’s not for everyone. I hesitate to say “read this” because I know some are likely to be put off by, well, many parts. But for me, it was something I couldn’t stop reading. It’s way out of the box and unconventional but well, this past year has been anything but ordinary. Maybe I just needed something extremely bizarre to kick off my 2021 reading. Whatever the reason, Earthlings is a book I’m definitely not going to forget.

Furia by Camille Saied Méndez

(A review I had somehow forgotten to post. This was a book I read in November.)

It’s been a while since I’ve stayed up to read a book – ok so I usually sleep at 1030 and staying to finish this book just meant that I slept closer to 11 last night. But I just really wanted to finish reading it! It was such a great read full of heart, full of energy, full of dreams.

Camila Hassan is 17, she lives in Rosario, Argentina, and hides her passion for football from her family. Her brother is a professional player but that world is not a place for girls, or so her family thinks. But Camila is not just good, she has talent. On the field she becomes La Furia. If she were a boy, football clubs would be snapping her up. But her only way to succeed in this game is to hope someone will take a chance on her and let her make her way to the US. 

Camila is such an awesome character. I love her passion for the sport. She will not back down, and is determined to stay on the right path that will take her there. And the focus is on her dreams, her terms, not by following a boy. 

FURIA doesn’t shy away from the expectations and realities that Argentinian culture has on women. But we also sense the love that Méndez has for Argentina in all the immersive details of everyday life there.

Highly recommended!

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

This was the book I didn’t know I needed last night. I’m not from Malaysia but there are enough similarities between Malaysia and its neighbor Singapore for me to feel at home when I was reading this. I couldn’t sleep last night and while a ghost story wasn’t exactly what I was looking for at that moment, the library ebook was due in a couple of days. So The Girl and the Ghost it would be then

The ghost is a pelesit, a dark spirit who takes the form of a grasshopper to stay hidden. His master, a witch, dies and he has to find a new master. The witch had told him a pelesit needs a master to control his craving for destruction and chaos. As he is bound by blood, the new master has to be of the same blood. And so it is to be Suraya. Suraya is a lonely child, her father is dead and her mother withdrawn.

“Maybe that was what she was. The durian of friends. Maybe people would learn to like her one day. Maybe she just had to meet the right ones.”

So quickly she and Pink become inseparable. But Pink’s dedication to her has a dark side as he lashes out relentlessly at those who bully her, then takes an even darker turn when she makes her first real friend.

It was a dark and endearing read, full of the sights and sounds and smells of Malaysia. It was a beautiful and emotional tale of friendship and family. It made me long for home and made me tear up as I thought of my family and wished I could be there for them, especially this week, with the passing of my grandmother

The Deep by Alma Katsu #ripxv

Creepy book set on both the Titanic and the Britannica (its sister ship that also sank) that is perfect for Halloween season. Also since I’m not going any where near a cruise ship in the near future, perfectly fine to be reading about water spirits and that unsettling feeling of being on the deep sea (at least for me). I don’t know much about the history of either ships but later learned that a few characters in the book were real life passengers and that indeed there was a staff member, Violet Jessie, who served on both ships – and survived. Fascinating. Also rather disturbing… I can see how she served as inspiration for this book.

But back to The Deep. Like Katsu’s previous book, The Hunger, this is historical fiction with a supernatural twist. But it is done so very skillfully and woven into the plot and brings in both ages-old mythology and superstition as well as the spiritualism that was popular at the time. 

I loved all the detail and research that went into this book. Even the minor characters are just felt so well-rounded and believable. And while we all know the fates of these ships, I couldn’t put this book down thanks to great characters both real and imaginary, all those small historical details, and that delightful satisfying feeling about reading a well-written book.

Recent reads: There’s Someone Inside Your House; Sex and Vanity

These are just super short reviews of books that didn’t quite make it for me.

There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins

This reminded me of those teen slasher movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. The villain has a tendency to move objects around victims’ houses (I don’t really know why – to freak people out perhaps?) and so that finding out that kitchen drawers are open or the egg timer has suddenly appeared in a different place was really creepy. I liked the main character Makani, who has recently moved from Hawaii to small town Nebraska, and she is half black and half Native Hawaiian, also there are hints at a big dark secret.

And here we have to keep in mind that Perkins is a writer of cute romances like Anna and the French Kiss, so she’s got a romance thrown in here, and that slows the plot down a bit. But when we get back on track with the murders, the pace picks up. So that part was fine with me.

However, once we got to the villain’s reveal, the story just went downhill from there for me. And then it ended so quickly after the big finish that it felt that the author got tired of writing the story. It was an ok story, some good build-up at the beginning, but a 3* read for me.

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

A fun escapist read perhaps? I enjoyed all the descriptions of the wedding in Capri but the main character was a bit boring and I found it hard to root for her. And about half way through the book, I actually thought, ok how many more pages of this do I need to get through? Admittedly, I was not fond of Crazy Rich Asians, never read the rest of that series, but thought I would give Kwan’s new book a try, so you ought to take my opinion in that light.