Tokyo Heist by Diana Renn

tokyo heist

Standalone, Viking, 2012, 373 pgs.

Violet was prepared for her summer vacation to be average, if enjoyable: a visit to her artist father’s place while her mother does graduate research means getting to study his technique while she works on her own. She doesn’t expect a sudden trip to Japan, home of her favorite comics and cartoons, where her father is commissioned to paint a mural for a museum. Or for the museum to give her access to some of Japan’s most important historical art, anime, manga, or otherwise. In a lot of ways it’s a dream trip for her as an artist and a huge fan of all things Japanese. What she certainly doesn’t expect, though, is to become involved in a case of stolen Van Gogh sketches that the museum was using to demonstrate ukiyo-e’s wide-reaching influence. But with her family and friends being threatened by a mysterious third-party until the sketches are handed over, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to solve the mystery.

This book poses me with an interesting conundrum: how do you review a mystery novel that only sort of works as a mystery novel?

You’d think something that mostly fails in the genre it advertises itself as would fail as a piece in general, but that’s not really the case here. This, instead, works on other levels, and it’s more that the mystery aspects never managed to be the main draw.

Or, at least, they never manage to fully hold together, for multiple reasons. Oh, it has the structure of a classical mystery plot, with the initial crime to set the scene and enough clues to let the audience figure it out for themselves. As much as I usually like mysteries, though, this one never really worked for me.

The first, most obvious, reason for this was that I thought the whodunit was glaringly obvious, from about the first thirty pages of the book. That naturally kills a lot of the tension, but I’m also willing to forgive the novel for it a little bit. Sometimes with a mystery you get lucky and the right thing just sticks out to you right away.

No, the real, and probably more legitimate problem, comes from the second issue, which is that Violet, our lead, makes for an incredibly unconvincing detective.

See, this wants to be a sort of mystery solving teens thing, a la Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, but Violet is far from Nancy Drew. She’s not meticulous, or sneaky, or even particularly logical. Instead, she’s an overemotional teenage girl, with a giant chip on her shoulder because of her deadbeat dad, a tendency to overreact because she doesn’t really understand her own feelings, and a complete willingness to barge her way into situations she doesn’t belong in.

And while the last serves her well among a group of adults who aren’t taking her seriously, the other two cause problems. Part of the reason the whodunit was so obvious in this was because a lot of the red herrings involve Violet making Grand-Canyon-sized leaps of logic based on personal dislike. Lady who’s dating her dad (and replacing her mom) is kind of awkward around the surprise stepdaughter and frustrated with said father’s inability to commit? Obviously the culprit. Someone’s sort of a jerk to her, or even just has issues with a teenager in the middle of an international art theft case? Wait, new top suspect!

She never even suspects the actual culprit until late in the game, even though she knows the huge stakes he has in the whole ordeal, because he’s nice to her and panders to her need to be important to the case.

It’s not that she can’t be clever, but her tendency to jump to conclusions often undermines the parts where she is. She’s good at finding the pieces of clues that she needs, but really bad at actually putting them together. This makes it hard to rejoice in her cleverness in figuring things out, or in her success when she has it. It’s hard to celebrate someone tripping face-first into an accidental win.

But she’s also a lot of the fun of the book. She’s a pretty strongly written character, and a pretty authentically teenagery one at that. She’s insecure and is only barely starting to understand herself. In fact, for large chunks of the story self-awareness is something she can’t manage: even the issues with her dad’s girlfriend are mostly issues with her dad that she can’t or won’t connect to him out of love.

That’s relatable, and I appreciate it. Ditto her squealy, excitable friendships and her awkward, painful crushes.

Also relatable: the stories she creates. She’s an artist working on a manga (in the style of her favorite comics) that gets every bit of personal drama she experiences shoved into it. She, in classic self-insert style, becomes the heroine, everyone she dislikes become villains, and it’s so full of enthusiasm and lacking in polish that it’s the most true-to-life teenage creation I’ve ever seen in a fictional world. I mean, I know that’s exactly the sort of thing I was writing when I was fifteen. Tying it all together is the prose, which would be a little overly poetic for either an adult or a more logical lead, but fits perfectly for the character established here.

Suffice to say, she’s about as charming as she is frustrating, and that really works to the book’s benefit.

In fact, the only thing I was disappointed in with regards to Violet on a personal level was the romance. Given the fact that I normally don’t like romance, I usually wouldn’t say this, but it really needed more time and development than it was given, especially considering it factored so heavily into the ending. Instead, up until that ending, we get some base establishing stuff, and then barely anything at all over the course of the middle of the book.

I feel like I’d also be remiss if, as a fan, I didn’t mention my slight disappointment in the anime/manga theme here. It’s a little strange, really; you can tell the author’s not a fan herself and is getting her information from people who have been out of the fan base for a while. The story was published in 2012, and most likely set pretty close to that date. And for that, the references are pretty dated, and the timeline is pretty off.

I haven’t heard a thing about Fruits Basket since probably 2004, which Violet is supposed to be a huge fan of. Where Inuyasha was airing on Cartoon Network for years after everyone had forgotten about Furuba, Violet says Rumiko Takahashi is too old-school for her.

And that’s not even mentioning that nothing that came out after 2006 is ever talked about, which is odd for a character who’s supposed to be actively paying attention to the subculture. I haven’t really been paying attention for a good ten years, and I was still waiting for the author to name-drop something that made up the 2010’s anime landscape, like Baccano or Haruhi.

It’s not a major part of the story, nor would I really want it to be, so it doesn’t interfere too much. But, well, it’s just off enough to be bothersome, especially if you know the fandom and have been around for a while. And since it’s not a huge part of the story, and it’s clear it’s not really coming from the author’s investment, it sort of makes me wonder why it’s here. You could have replaced any purpose it had with a general interest in Japanese culture, which was given a lot more love and research anyway.

Which brings me back to the initial conundrum. I can’t recommend this for mystery fans, and I can’t recommend this for anime fans. It fails as a mystery novel and as a nerdy theme piece.

So who can I recommend it to? Well, if you want general teenage hijinks or a decent character piece, then you could do worse than giving this a look. It’s not exactly brilliant, but it’s perfectly light and fun in its own way.

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Snacktime Reviews II–Paperback Boogaloo

So, once again, books have been piling up far faster than I can review them, and my personal backlog is becoming unreasonable. And you know what that means! Put out a bunch of tiny reviews to blow through the to-do list. Thankfully there are always a couple of titles on that to-do list that, for whatever reason, I find I can’t dig into too much. As always, these are just books where I don’t have that much to say about them. It doesn’t make them good, it doesn’t make them bad, it just means I didn’t find that much to talk about. Without further ado, then.

#1—The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

the vast fields of ordinary

Standalone, Speak, 2009, 309 pgs.

Dade’s house is downright stereotypical; it has everything an upper-middle class home in the suburbs should. A huge, sprawling layout with way more space than his family needs. Ridiculous gadgets like a refrigerator that has an inset television. A collection of broken relationships formed by a group of desperate people, all struggling to find any shred of meaning in their lives. You know, the usual. Ok, so maybe Dade’s life isn’t perfect. In fact, it often kind of sucks: his boyfriend’s still incredibly closeted and throwing around slurs to compensate, his dad’s cheating on his mom, and neither of his parents are willing to get off his back about his nonexistent life plans. What’s a boy to do the summer before college, except try to find some kindred spirits and sort out his life as best he can.

The takeaway here is pretty simple: the prose and characters were good, but this book felt outdated in a multitude of ways, beyond it not being my sort of story at all. Trying to avoid suburban ennui and people angsting about their ordinary lives is half the reason I don’t much bother with literary fiction. Beyond that, I typically have a huge amount of trouble connecting at all to characters who care too much about being cool, or worry too much about being cringey. As such, this was never going to be my book, but if that is your sort of thing, this is pretty solid. Sure there are the points where this feels like it should have been set twenty years earlier than it was: the author seems to not have noticed that malls as both shopping centers and teen hangout spots have gone into a free fall, or that hip-hop is not talking about the same things it was in the mid-90’s, or even that the boredom of a comfortable life in the suburbs is a worry that not that many people have today. But, as I said, the characters feel real and three-dimensional enough and the writing itself is a step above the typical YA standard. If this is your genre, there’s a good amount here to like.

#2—The Stars Never Rise by Rachel Vincent

the stars never rise

The Stars Never Rise Book 1, Delacorte, 2015, 316 pgs.

Life under a totalitarian religious state would be hard for any teenage girls, let alone two whose mother has decided to commit to a very important schedule of lying in bed all day. Without anyone to support them, it’s incredibly hard for Nina and Mellie to get enough money for food, keep appearances up in their very strict school, and avoid the interfering eyes of the church. And that’s not even mentioning the demons that run rampant outside the walls of their town. Suffice to say, life is tough. So, when Mellie comes to Nina with a life-destroying secret that she can no longer hide, it leads to Nina making some rash choices. And if that leads to Nina discovering her own life-destroying secret, then? Well, then life becomes nearly impossible.

Out of the three, this was the one I probably remember the least about. It didn’t leave much of an impression on me at all, even closely after I’d finished it. What I do remember boils down, mostly, to two points. The first is that it was trying to say way too many things at once. Good dystopias work when they pick an issue and think that through in-depth, but by around page sixty we’d touched on everything from prison labor, to reproductive rights, to the sort of generically oppressive government that censors news broadcasts and forces people to become members of The Party in order to have any chance at a future. And that’s even cutting a couple of topics out. Slow down book; you are allowed to let things breathe. The other is what is possibly the stupidest love triangle to ever exist, even in YA, which is saying something. I won’t give anything away, but be prepared for some hearty laughter if you do end up reading this. That said I did like the way this book went about portraying its post-apocalypse. An equivalent to the zombie uprising may have happened, but aside from quadrupling down on the “safety” side of the safety/freedom divide, society is still basically functioning. Technology exists, social institutions are still up and running, and we even get mentions of countries that aren’t America! It’s a little refreshing to have something in the genre that’s more twisted modernity than desert wasteland.

#3—Shanghai Faithful by Jennifer Lin

Shanghai faithful

Standalone, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017, 332 pgs.

In 1949 Chairman Mao took power and created the People’s Republic of China, splitting Jennifer Lin’s father, and his wife and children in Philadelphia, from the rest of the family in the Mainland for decades. When travel resumed between the two nations in the 1970’s, the family then jumped at the chance to reunite, and Dr. Paul Lin brought his young children with him. For all the joy of the long-delayed reunion, though, it was clear that something had broken in the family. Christian for generations, and seen as unforgivably tainted with foreignness in a nationalistic, communist China, the intervening decades had been hard on them. That trip, and all the things left unsaid, the deep cracks left unhealed, would haunt Jennifer for years. This memoir is her attempt to find out what caused those cracks, to fill in the family history left untold. It stretches from her great-great-grandfather, a fisherman in the 1800’s, when Christian missionaries were just beginning to forge their way into the country, to the present day, with her still living family.

This is mostly a short review because I have a hard time reviewing non-fiction, meaning, when I can’t talk about plot structure or character development I find myself at a loss as to what I can talk about. That said I really enjoyed reading this. Its two main topics, the history of Christianity in China and the way that interacted with China’s Cultural Revolution, are both absolutely fascinating on their own, and I probably would have enjoyed the book for that alone. Beyond that, Lin clearly took this project on as a labor of love. Her research here is as detailed and rigorous as it could possibly be, and when translating that into a coherent story she’s very good at painting beautiful, emotive pictures for the audience. The book does presume you have some background on Chinese history and culture already, and so can get a little confusing if you don’t; I found myself looking something up about every thirty or so pages. That said, if you find the topic at all interesting and either have the background or are willing to do a little legwork on your own, I highly recommend this.

Stranger Than Fanfiction by Chris Colfer

 

strangerthanfanfiction

Standalone, Little Brown and Company, 2017, 295 pgs.

Cash’s life should be going well. He’s rich, and famous, and plays one of the most beloved characters on a TV show with a huge, dedicated following. He has thousands of fans cosplaying his iconic look, obsessing over his character’s fictional relationships, and even just milling around hoping to get a glimpse of him. Instead Cash’s life is sliding downhill. His secrets are eating him alive, to the extent that his annoying costars are staging interventions and he’s even thinking about quitting the show that made his career. Maybe that’s why, on some reckless whim, he accepts an invitation for a road trip from four fans. Because Topher, Mo, Sam, and Joey certainly didn’t expect him to accept, however much they’ve built their lives and friendships around being fans of Wiz Kids. It’s a life changing offer for them, the opportunity to spend a week hanging out with their favorite actor. Just, maybe, not exactly in the way they expect.

Hoo boy. This is gonna be a doozy.

There are many, many problems with this book. Many of these many problems I was going to excuse by way of this being the author’s first, but, having looked it up, apparently that’s not true. I don’t know how you manage to publish more than one novel and have things come out so confused and flat, but here we are.

Let’s start with the basics, though, because really, this could have been very interesting.

The story centers mostly around Cash, a former child actor who plays the lead in the eminently popular Wiz Kids, a show which, from the description, sounds like some unholy Harry Potter/Dr. Who mashup with the aesthetics and production values of something that aired on TeenNick in the late 90’s. On a whim he agrees to take a road trip cross-country with a group of four super-fans, and together they have adventures and grow and learn about themselves, and all that jazz.

Ultimately, though, it’s a tale about fandom, as seen through the eyes of an actor who’s the focus of that sort of devotion. And that could have been both fascinating and timely, especially when written by someone who’s actually experienced the weight of a fairly crazy group of fans.

Especially today: the internet connects people. One way it’s done that is by making access to fandom easier for everyone, but by the same token it’s also made access to content creators easier for everyone, for better or for worse.

How many stories of creators quitting social media altogether over fan interactions have we gotten in the past couple of years? More than I’ve ever seen before. What I’m saying is, a book exploring the ways in which you can now just link your favorite actor to your porny fantasies, or send a writer death threats over a plot twist you disliked, as well as the ways in which you really, really shouldn’t, could have been important.

Even just a book about the way that it can be a burden to constantly have fans’ simple, non-intrusive hopes and expectations put on you could have been great. It’s a side of things that those of us invested in media don’t often think about, but one that we’re going to have to start taking into account as we gain more and more access to the people who make the stuff we like.

So this is a great premise, but, well, there’s a but here.

The problem comes two-fold in the execution.

The first issue is that the novel seems to be fairly unsure of what it actually wants to be. You could easily go the send-up route with this, and parts of the book do trend that way. Unfortunately, other parts of the novel want to be a deep, heart wrenching story of five people’s lives changing irrevocably, and while these two things could work together, here they have a tendency to undercut each other instead.

Case in point: Colfer has to establish early on that Cash’s life is a little screwed up, so he opens with him tossing back some unnamed pills, some pot-infused candy, and washing it down with some alcohol before going out to face his fans at a convention. This is standard, but it’s standard for a reason; it’s effective at conveying what needs to be conveyed. But then he ends this very depressing section with “His preconvention cocktail had done the trick!,” exclamation point included. Whee! Isn’t numbing your emotional pain so fun!

I would like to read that bit as nihilistically sarcastic, but honestly, so much of this is so earnest that it’s hard to. It’s actually hard to read the tone in general. In fact, because of the novel’s pretensions at being deep and meaningful even its obvious jokes fall flat. Half the time they feel less like jokes and more like barely veneered finger-wagging. Now kids, did you know transphobia is wrong?

The constant back and forth makes the narrative non-functional, as either a send-up or a drama. It’s too serious for the former, and too silly for the later.

The other problem also relates to the novel’s need to be deep and meaningful, and it’s, put bluntly, that Colfer can’t quite pull it off. Most of the big emotional moments here feel more like soap-opera level melodrama. There’s a very heavy, melancholy car ride at the very end that I just couldn’t help but roll my eyes at because nothing in the story had earned it.

Some of this has to do with the tone-deaf prose style, yes. There are so many exclamation points in this thing that I spent half the novel with that Pratchett quote about underpants on heads floating through my mind. But most of it is the symptom of a much larger problem, which is the author’s unwillingness to give actual depth to anything.

Gay people are all perfect angels, who never have any nasty personality quirks and are just “so accepting of every race, culture, and nationality” that they’re nearly god’s chosen (p. 85). I, uh, guess “no femmes, no fats, no asians” isn’t a thing in this world? There’s a scene where our characters balk at the idea of partying because they’re nerds, and lord knows nerds never do anything like go out with their friends. Groups are hivemind stereotypes here.

Even Cash’s issues eventually get boiled down into some Live For the Moment, I Hope You Dance blah, because dealing with character flaws and resolving internal personality contradictions is hard.

It’s not that I think the novel really needs to go into the intragroup conflicts of the queer community or show its teenage protagonists talking about how they’ve totally gotten drunk hundreds of times before; those would all be unnecessary tangents. But I do need it to give me something more than one-note flatness to dig into. Those examples up there are up there not because I want to see those things actually addressed, but because they’re indicative of the general demeanor of the book, which is all very surface level.

Which is the real issue here; everything is just surface level. Its understanding of fandom: surface level. Colfer’s clearly aware that cosplay and fanfiction exist, but knows very little about the dynamics underlying those communities. Its understanding of how to create drama: surface level. Have someone be dying, that’ll do the trick, right? And worst of all, his characters: surface level.

Look, I just really need your characters to be more than Gay Dude, Trans Dude, Child Actor, and Nerds #1 and #2. To illustrate just how bad this gets, consider: I read this book a couple of months ago and had forgotten entirely that Nerd #2 (the girl one) existed at all. That is, until I started going through my notes to write this and had a moment of “wait, crap, there were four of them!?”

That? Should not happen. Characters are incredibly important, and having them be that forgettable is a major problem. For the leads all I can tell you is what boxes they tick. I know nothing about their actual personalities. Cash probably gets the best of it because he’s allowed to be a little snarky and something other than a wide-eyed ingénue, but even he falls into some blatant stereotypes.

Which, deep and meaningful? Not being willing to do more than scratch the surface fundamentally undercuts that. You want me to buy your take on a subculture, then you have to do the research. You want me to weep at your drama, then you need to be willing to let it grow by digging into the details. And you want me to care about your characters, you need to be able to give them more than a school-cafeteria table designation. And if you can’t, for god’s sake, at least try to make it funny.

Eon by Alison Goodman

eon cover

Eon Series Book #1, Firebird Fantasy, 2008, 531 pgs.

Four years ago Eona cut her hair, donned a pair of trousers, and ran, as fast as she could, away from the salt mines, to become the boy Eon in the house of her grouchy, exacting master. He pulled her away from that life of poverty and abuse because she has the rare ability to see the energy dragons that protect their kingdom, and the even rarer ability to see all of them. She’s valuable, even as a girl, when women are forbidden from becoming one of the Dragoneyes who wield the dragons’ energy. Talented enough to be worth the risk of hiding her gender to get her into the test. It’s a gamble for everyone involved: Eona desperate to avoid being sent back to the mines, the servants she’s grown up with pinning their hopes on her to keep from becoming destitute outcasts, and her master urgently trying to return to a position of influence in the court. Because the balance of power is shifting there; has been for years, with the Emperor growing older and more feeble. And with her connections to the former Tiger Dragoneye, Eona is about to find herself right in the middle of the growing war.

Minor Spoilers Ahead

I always say that good characters can make up for a lot of sins with me, and conversely, that it’s hard to have a novel I really love without them. Your book may have the most beautifully thought out world, the most intricate magic system, the most artfully structured plot, but for a lot of people (including myself) that’s going to generate, at most, academic interest.

Stories build their flesh and blood on the characters that populate them, and most live and die by whether or not they can make their audience care about those characters.

And I think this book is the best example of that principle that I’ve come across in a good, long while. I’ll be honest: there’s a lot about it that’s frustrating. Not anything particularly heinous, given, but I do admit that in the early parts of the story I was rolling my eyes and thinking this was going to be a slog.

First, there’s the setup, which is incredibly generic, at least for YA and Midgrade fantasy. It’s Ancient China instead of Medieval Europe, but that still comes with a society that’s very hierarchical and patriarchal, leading to a beginning that has everything that usually comes with that territory. Princes, politics, brewing revolution, and most notably, women being forbidden from performing Dragoneye magic. Naturally, our lead is a girl pretending to be a boy in order to use her talents.

She’s also an underdog in pretty much every way, from having been essentially a slave before her master discovered her power, to said master being poor and out of favor at court, to having a bad leg that makes it impossible for her to perform some of the more physical aspects of the magic.

Oh, but then she’s secretly more powerful than all of the other Dragoneyes and destined to reawaken the lost Mirror Dragon, because she’s Special.

Put simply, the opening lays it on thick with, simultaneously, the general misery of her situation and with how much she is the chosen one. And it does it in a way that somehow feels both like everything that’s coming out today and also exactly like a Tamora Pierce novel that I might have picked up in 1998.

And while that setup is the worst of the problems, there are still plenty of little annoyances scattered throughout the novel. The love interest is kind of a jerk, and not in a fun, bickering couples sort of way. Eona, our lead, spends a solid two thirds of the book bullheadedly ignoring the obvious trick to making her powers work, which is incredibly frustrating, if true to the character’s worldview. And, silly and petty as it is, Goodman names one of her characters “Swordman Jian” which basically translates to “Swordman Sword.” So, there’s that.

For all that’s wrong with it, though, the problems never seem to overwhelm the book’s strengths. If the magic system doesn’t have much going for it in the way of actual structure, then the political background to the plot is meticulously thought out and fascinating. If the patriarchal society is a little cliché and overplayed, then the way Goodman uses it to inform Eona’s interactions with the world around her is poignant and striking. The plot of this is still fun, engaging, and adventurous, for all the clichés that make up the trappings of it.

And if Eona is a little frustratingly dense at points, you still feel for her because of the situation she’s been caught up in.

Like I said, the book’s saving grace really is its characters. With few exceptions they’re all wonderfully well developed, and as good as parts of the plot are, the people are really what kept me reading. I do honestly care what happens to them, and that’s the thing that’s probably going to lead me to buy the sequel.

They are also, for the most part the one wholly un-cliché aspect of the novel. Sure, Eona’s entire setup I’ve seen before, but the way her story plays out breaks type; having the girl-dressed-as-a-boy need to embrace her femininity isn’t groundbreaking, but having her need to do so to fight is a twist I can’t say I’ve seen. And the rest of the characters, pretty similarly, diverge drastically from where I would have guessed they’d go, based on their archetypes.

Given, a lot of what I’m trying to get at, especially with Eona, is in the development of the characters and the way they’re played, which is hard to describe, even with specific examples. Suffice to say that, aside from the beginning, almost none of what happens to them feels like it happens just because that’s how stories are supposed to go.

There are two standouts here. The first is Dillon, Eona’s friend from training who ends up being apprenticed to her main antagonist. Where he could have easily just been portrayed as a simple traitor, a minor villain for Eona to deal with, his slow slide into desperation and insanity after abuse at the hands of his master physically hurts to watch. He manages to be genuinely tragic in his own right, even without the broken relationship with the protagonist to back it up.

The second is Lady Jila, the favored courtesan of the emperor. Her type would usually be played as manipulative and scheming, and while I can’t say that’s completely absent here, she’s also genteel, kind, and loving. She plays the court’s games mostly to keep her people safe and her child alive.

But while those are the most genre-bending, my two favorites were probably Lady Dela and Ryko, both of whom have awesome, heart-wrenching backstories, both of whom serve as our main “in” to the revolution brewing in the background of the court, and both of whom are not the sort of characters who usually get love subplots. The two have a very sweet, almost Sam and Frodo-like relationship, except that this is likely to turn canonically romantic, and I find myself needing to see how it plays out.

And that’s really the best you can do as an author, isn’t it? To write characters so human and engaging to your audience that they’re willing to overlook any multitude of sins to get more of them? Plot details fade in a reader’s mind, but the way you feel about the people in the story rarely does.

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

snow country

Standalone, Perigree, 1957, 175 pgs.
Translated from the Japanese Yukiguni by Edward Seidensticker

Along the western coast of Japan, in the mountains, the snow falls oppressively every winter. It’s a bleak and remote area, a somewhat barren countryside, not at all the place for an often-bored urbanite from Tokyo. Something there keeps drawing Shimamura back to it though, something revitalizing about the mountains and the forest, something charming about the tiny hot springs where he stays. Something intriguing about Komako, the geisha who he visits every year and who he’s been having an affair with. She’s a nice girl, sweet and bright, and strangely loyal to a man who she sees for maybe one week out of fifty-two. Shimamura can never quite bring himself to actually love her.

So, uh, funny story. I initially picked this up at a secondhand store, knowing absolutely nothing about it. I read the back, thought “Oh, a cheesy geisha story! I love cheesy geisha stories,” and bought it.

And then I started reading. This book began with an introduction from the translator, talking about the novel’s “haiku-like” prose and the author’s place in the new lyrical movement that was happening in Japan around the beginning of World War Two. Which is emphatically not the sort of introduction they put in front of cheesy geisha stories.

Confused, I looked it up. Yeah, this author won a Nobel Prize for literature. This novel was one of the three named specifically as reasons for that win.

I am officially out of my depth here: I know next to nothing about Japanese literature. I’ve watched a decent amount of anime and know what a haiku is, but that’s the equivalent of trying to really dig into Shakespeare on the basis of Doctor Who and the vague idea of iambic pentameter. I’m not sure I’m qualified to review this; I’m possibly qualified to review a modern light novel, but that’s about it.

So this is going to be more exploration than review, I guess. I don’t want to make a lot of hardline statements, because I know that I’m missing a lot of context, both culturally and in a literary sense.

I also don’t want to go too academic, partially because that could get really dry, really quickly and partially because several days of frantic googling do not an expert make. This did require some research on my part, though, and a short introduction to what the movement Kawabata was a part of was about, where it came from, and what it was reacting to isn’t a bad way to begin to work into this novel.

So, very shortly, Kawabata was part of a literary movement called the Shinkankaku-ha, or New Sensationalist School, which came up in Japan around the 1920’s and 1930’s as capitalism and urbanization became more prevalent forces in the country. Like a lot of literary movements, it was concentrated around a core group of authors who all had a roughly similar artistic ideology.

This specific group seems like they were trying to do something similar to the western Romantics, in that they were looking to inspire a more honest and spontaneous emotional reaction in their audience, and to get closer to the heart of a matter through that. The ideal here was to create “new sensations” or “new impressions” for the people reading their stories, in opposition to the, to their minds, stagnant and entrenched Japanese Naturalist movement, and to work under an ethos of “art for art’s sake,” unlike the political, proletariat literature that was also common at the time.

Their main influences, though, were the Modernists, specifically Paul Morand. Which makes sense, I suppose; they were reacting to a lot of the same societal forces that the Modernists were.

And, from a fairly ignorant perspective, Modernist is my overall impression of this piece. In everything from the style of the prose, to the way the characters are written, to the overall feeling of melancholy and loss that permeates the book, I kept coming back to the idea that this feels like a book written in the 1920’s while reading.

Let me pick out some of the major points here, though this is a pretty non-exhaustive list. I guess I’ll start with the prose, which is not quite disjointed, but definitely has elements of that. The mood or focus will switch quickly, characters speak in half-thoughts or things they want to say but can’t, and dialogue tags are almost non-existent. It’s the sort of book where you’ll have to reread a page because it’s sometimes a challenge to figure out who’s saying what, let alone what they’re actually trying to say to each other.

The emotions that a woman’s eye reflected in a train window inspire in Shimamura, our lead, are described in detail, but what each of these people are actually thinking about each other is never clearly spelled out.

The characters don’t feel like people I might have known, but they also don’t feel flat to me. They have that thing where they seem almost like walking reminders of what a culture has lost: disaffected from society, dissociated from their own feelings, but with sporadic bursts of intense emotion or connection that belie their underlying humanity. They trend toward the outcast, the unwanted, those that society has left behind.

I don’t know that I can say they feel real, but there’s still depth there. Even if human connection is hard to come by; one of the points the author keeps coming back to with Shimamura is the idea that if he understands something too much, if he can’t keep it idealized, then he can’t love it and has to throw it away. And this applies to everything, including his lovers.

It seems less experimental in form, to me, but there’s every chance that’s a combination of my lack of knowledge in the Japanese literature that preceded it and my reading it in translation.

I can’t say I’ve ever read any of Morand’s work, but I do know that if Joyce of Woolf don’t do much for you, even at their less crazy, not stream-of-consciousness points, this is also probably not something you’ll like. It has a similar feeling to those things; everything is loss, and jilted hope, and the characters’ lives not being what they want, all told in strange, small moments.

Which is not to say this feels entirely like a western Modernist piece. The beauty in transience, a particularly Japanese ideal, weighs heavily here: the setting is a country bath house, a place people pass through but never stay at. As is, I have a sneaking suspicion, the lead’s being drawn to Komako because she’s rough, natural, and unpretentious.

That said, I’m fairly certain I’m missing a lot of what this book is trying to do. It’s the sort of novel that cries for essay-length analyses of single paragraphs, done with far more knowledge of where this author is coming from than I have. I can’t say it wasn’t an interesting read, though, and I may have to do some more research and come back to it.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

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Wayward Children Book 1, Tom Doherty Associates, 2016, 169 pgs.

Nancy was once an attendant to the Lord of the Dead himself; after she went through her door, into that other world, she learned quickly to stand still as a corpse, to let the quiet of those colorless halls overtake her. Then the Lord of the Dead sent her back to her own world, so she could be sure she wanted to stay, as though she wasn’t already. Back to her parents and their movement and color and noise. And then, because she refused to denounce her “kidnappers,” from her parents to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Everyone at the school is like her, once the chosen hero of a fairyland or the favorite daughter of some mixed-up, candy colored world. And like her, all of them are trying to heal, trying to cope with the idea that they may never get home again, and trying to keep up hope that they will.

You know, I really thought this book was going that hit me where I live. This was sold to me, basically, as a story for the people who never got to go through the looking glass but always really wanted to, and yes, well, I guess I have to raise my hand there. I was generally expecting to imprint on this book.

I didn’t quite.

Which is not to say that this wasn’t good, or that I wasn’t emotionally invested at all. Just that I was sort of thinking this was going to be another Fangirl, and it wasn’t for me.

That sort of thing is pretty subjective, though, and I can see where and why others could imprint on this in the way that I didn’t. This is only the second book of hers that I’ve read, but in both of my experiences, McGuire’s been a wonderfully solid and inventive writer. Not only does she seem to be consistently good with story structure and character building, she also seems to be consistently interesting.

I’ll get back to that last bit later, but the takeaway here is that, while I didn’t feel some soul-deep connection to the novel, I did really enjoy this book. I was just expecting a little less murder mystery and a little more soul-searching. This is more a question of scale than of content, and even emotionally it definitely had its moments.

I liked pretty much all of the leads, and their struggles and tragedies were relatable. From Kade’s knowledge that he was kicked out of his world, essentially solely, for being trans, to the unfair suspicion leveled against Jack and Jill because of the darkness their world involved, to Nancy’s desperate longing for her world’s stillness and quiet, they all scan pretty well to issues that people might actually have to deal with.

And there are some beautiful, heart-wrenching passages here that detail exactly what it feels like to finally be seen as yourself, to finally find the place where you belong, and then to lose that. McGuire’s prose is beautiful throughout; I started pulling out quotables around page one and never really stopped. It didn’t strike straight to my heart, but this is clearly a story where the author has something to say. I may not have had that soul-deep connection to it that I was looking for, but, again, I can see where others would.

I want to be clear on this: my saying I wasn’t as emotionally invested in this as I was expecting to be in no way does justice to how much I actually enjoyed this book. I was expecting a lot, going in.

And it’s also that my enjoyment of it had more to do with something else. Like I said, McGuire’s always interesting, and in a different way than I usually mean that. Usually I’m praising a unique environment or a plot element that I’ve never seen before, or maybe a different take on a stock character, when I say something is “interesting.”

Given, a lot of that is here. McGuire, though, seems to have an almost academic interest in dissecting and classifying stories. Indexing may have been using the pre-existing Aarne-Thompson-Uther index to do that, but here she’s created her own scale to classify the relatively modern genre of portal fantasy, a sliding X and Y axis between Virtue and Wickedness, and Logic and Nonsense, respectively. And the characters spend so much of the novel discussing their own worlds and where they fit in to that rubric that you almost find yourself doing it too, with your own favorite fantasy worlds.

The entire plot is, also, notably, the part of this story that no one ever tells. What happens when you come back from Oz and know it’s not a dream, but everyone is telling you it is? What happens when you step into the wardrobe again and find that now it’s just some musty old coats and a wooden back-board?

How do you deal when the place where you were hero and ruler and chosen one spits you out and you return home to be a powerless child? Only with all your memories and scars and trauma intact?

It takes the sort of person who thinks deeply about genre and genre conventions to write a story like this, the sort of person who takes joy in picking at what-ifs and loose threads. And McGuire certainly seems to have thought about this particular problem for years; my introduction to her was this song, which I first found almost a decade ago.

While I can’t say I’ve read her entire catalogue or anything, I think that unapologetically meta element may be a feature in a lot of McGuire’s books. It’s definitely part of what’s drawn me to the two I’ve read.

That ability to think of your narrative as a story first and foremost, to use all the variations on a type that you can think of to explore all the ways that a given genre could go, and to pick out the problems caused by the typical tropes is something I really appreciate. It speaks to me of expertise and broad understanding; McGuire knows the genres she’s writing in, loves the genres she’s writing in, and is willing to take them apart like Tinker Toys and reassemble them. It’s less uniqueness and more critical thinking, that makes McGuire’s books really interesting.

I liked this book so much because you could so easily take the structures it provides and apply them out to everything else. It’s the sort of novel that makes you think about genre as a whole. That was one of the things I appreciated about Indexing, too, and whoops, we’re back to “stories about stories.”

Basically, this book fed the part of me that likes that sort of classification, that likes to take apart the mechanics of a story. And even if I had been completely uninvested in any of these characters, I think that still might have made it worth it for me. When you add in about the amount of investment I would have for a novel I generally liked, well, you get the idea. Indexing made me want to pick up more of this author’s work, and I can only say Every Heart a Doorway has continued that trend.

Dark Girls and Moral Ambiguity

 

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So, I recently finished reading The Bone Witch, and while it was far from a perfect novel, the…let’s say interesting route the protagonist’s story took crystalized some things I’ve been thinking about for a while with regards to YA novels, the kind of characters I like, and the kind of characters that get written. I think, maybe, that young adult books are starting to be willing to write darker characters? Or a least starting to write darker characters better?

Let me start here by saying that this may honestly just be selection bias on my part. These are often the characters that I like, so I guess it makes sense that those are the books I’m drawn to.

That said, I feel like for the past couple of years those books almost haven’t existed for me to be drawn to. Since around 2012, at least, most of the leads I’ve been seeing have come in one of two flavors. The first: shy mousey girls who can barely interact with their peers and would rather be sitting at home. The second: brave, hard-edged warriors who were tough because of the bad lot life had given them.

And while it’s easy to write the second type with some darkness to it, the way they were written never quite worked for me. For a long time they were like Katsa from Graceling or Rhine from Wither, both of whom did some dark things but were still written as perfectly morally justified in their actions. Usually they were even still the moral centers of their novels, with the characters who react or think differently than them being positioned as completely in the wrong.

Wither, specifically, has always stood out to me on that front. I stopped reading it after the author had Rhine go off about how stupid and useless the suicidally depressed woman and brainwashed twelve-year-old being held captive with her were, with the audience supposed to agree, because Strong Female Characters. And I’m not a person who quits a book halfway through; I may get distracted and wander away, but I can count on one hand the novels I’ve put down without any intent to pick back up.

I think this is why I have such a hard time with novels where the lead seems like they’re written to be a role model. That sort of character writing completely nixes the idea that an opposing viewpoint might have anything valid in it. It completely ignores the role that circumstances have had on any of the characters’ development, especially the lead’s.

Even characters that I like in that style, like Allie from Immortal Rules, have a little of that to them: dark but seen as generally justified. It’s almost as if there was a point where authors thought that, unless they made clear that their characters were always in the right, an audience couldn’t possibly have sympathy for them.

I’m aware that this break I’m seeing in style isn’t entirely fair. Character writing of the kind that I do like, where the morality isn’t placed only in the protagonist, has never really gone away. Holly Black and Catherine Fisher stand out as two authors that are very good at it who have been popular for a while. But when I think back to a couple of years ago, there aren’t many dark leads in the style I want, especially among the girls.

And maybe it’s not even “darkness” that is the crux of what I’m picking up here, maybe it is just that feeling of the main character seen as good regardless of what they do. But it’s easier to explore the things I want to see, namely the lead making mistakes and being in the wrong, with a protagonist that does have a darker gray tinge.

Thankfully, these things have a tendency to go in cycles, though. You see it with villains, in the way they waver between tragically broken and always-evil psychopaths, and you see it with heroes, who range between perfect angels and flawed but trying.

This is why I’m glad to see something like The Bone Witch, which arguably has a straight villain protagonist. It’s a sign that things are swinging back around to the sort of stories I like. You come out of it completely understanding how Tea, the main character, has gotten to the point that she has, but she’s still portrayed as a little frightening, a little wrong, and a little letting her demons get to her.

And it’s not the only book that gives me that hope. The Crown’s Game has dual leads, and you come to understand each of their diametrically different viewpoints. A major theme in Every Heart a Doorway is the bias people have against darker stories, and against people who aren’t like them. And even something sillier, like Red Queen, has Mare questioning whether what’s she’s doing is right fairly often. .

All of this is pointing to a slew of novels that are willing to admit that, sometimes, more than one person can be right in a situation, and to authors who are no longer trying to have it both ways, making their characters do terrible things to add complexity in one breath, while taking that complexity away in the next by expecting the audience to not question it. A lot of the things I’ve been reading recently have been trending more towards my taste and my view on morality, which is that it doesn’t change regardless of whether the person doing something is on the “right” side or not.

Suffice to say, I’m seeing more dark characters, and more among those where their darkness is acknowledged. I’m definitely looking forward to what the next couple of publishing years are going to bring. At the very least, it seems more likely to bring me far less frustration in my entertainment.

Photo by Mallory Johndrow on Unsplash, sourced through Pexels