Colorful by Eto Mori

First published in 1998 Colorful is narrated by an unknown soul who is given a second chance at life. He will occupy the body of fourteen-year-old Makoto Kobayashi who has attempted suicide and during this ‘homestay’ our narrator has to remember the big mistake he made in his previous life.

At times ‘Makoto’ is aided by the angel Prapura, easily the most entertaining character of the novel, who gives him information on the boy’s family and past. It appears that Makoto had no friends and was not particularly close to his family. His older brother was often mean to him and his parents both were up to ‘no good’.
After being released from the hospital this ‘new’ Makoto attempts to resume his ‘host’s’ life. He goes to school where he discovers that he has a crush on the girl Makoto had a crush on and that someone in the school seems to know that he’s changed.

The story definitely reads like something that was written in the 90s. While I appreciated that the author tackles topics related to mental health and addresses how difficult middle and high school can be, there were certain issues that were touched upon in a rather superficial way (such as suicide and bullying) and quite a few narrative points that were incredibly clichéd (someone has an affair with their flamenco instructor, a beautiful girl sleeps with older men because she wants to buy cute bags and clothes).
It didn’t help that I found Makoto to be a really irritating character. His sanctimonious behaviour irked me, and his attitude towards his parents was childish to the extreme. He was also a bit of a perv.
The author’s portrayal of female characters left me wanting (they are the kind of female characters that are usually written by male authors…so i was actually amazed to discover that the author of this novel is not a man).

Still, this was a harmless story with an ultimately positive, if cheesy, message (acceptance, forgiveness, yadda yadda). If you are looking for a more contemporary release that explores similar themes (being a teen in Japan) I highly recommend Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

 

“You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you make different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story. And they all exist in the Midnight Library. They are all as real as this life.”

Matt Haig presents his readers with a touching and ultimately life-affirming tale of second chances. The Midnight Library follows Nora, a lonely thirty-five-year-old woman from Bedford, who has just hit rock bottom. She’s single, her only maybe-friend lives in Australia, her brother seems to hate her or at least he makes a point of avoiding her, and she has just been fired from String Theory, the music shop she worked for the past twelve years. Nora is tired of being sad and miserable, of being eaten up regrets. She’s exhausted of living.
What awaits Nora is the Midnight Library, a place that sits “between life and death” and where “the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices”. Each book presents Nora with another version of her life. What if she had kept training as a swimmer? What if she had married her ex? What if she’d stayed in her brother’s band? What if she’d kept on studying?
The possibilities are infinite and Nora finds herself wanting to experiences them all. As she jumps from book to book Nora soon realises that there isn’t such a thing as the perfect life. Even in the life in which she has pursued swimming her relationship with her father isn’t great. By living all these different lives, Nora’s no longer feels guilty for not doing what others expected or pressured her to do. Happiness is a tricky thing, and it cannot be achieved by simply acquiescing to others desires.
Haig’s imbues Nora’s story with plenty of humour. Although the story touches on mental health (depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, panic attacks, addiction) the narrative maintains an underlining note of hope. Haig showcases great empathy, never condemning anyone as being responsible for another person’s unhappiness.
Although the novel isn’t too sentimental it did feel a bit too uplifting (I know, I am a grinch). Perhaps I wanted to story to delve in darker territories but Nora’s story is rather innocuous. Still, this was a heart-warming book, and the ‘what if’ scenarios could be very entertaining as I was never bored. Haig as a penchant for dialogues and discussing mental health related issues with both clarity and sensitivity. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Carey Mulligan, who does an exceptional job (I just really loved her narration).

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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Afterlife by Julia Alvarez — book review

Afterlife.jpgAfterlife is a slim novel that covers many topical and important issues, like mental health, in a not always satisfactory way. Alvarez’s style was at times a detriment to her story. While I could have moved past the lack of quotations, I had a harder time buying into the recursive narration. I sort of understood what Alvarez was going for, trying to render Antonia Vega’s inner monologue in what seemed to be a slightly less sporadic take on stream-of-consciousness, but I can’t say that it worked (for me). Antonia’s observations, reflections, and various thoughts often seemed far too contrived. For one, she was perpetually baffled: each interaction she has with another person has her wondering why certain customs exists, why society expects us to behave a certain way or why we adhere to certain etiquettes. At times it seemed that she had lived under a rock for the entirety of her life, when in actuality she was a teacher and therefore must have accumulated some life experiences.
While I appreciated that she wasn’t portrayed as inherently selfless, I wish we could have seen her in a more positive light. Her relationship with her sisters and husband seemed to reinforce this image of her interacting with them not because she wanted to or because she cared for them but because it was expected of her. Her two younger sisters merged into one blurry character, while her older sister’s personality was entirely reduced to the being the ‘problematic’ one. Alvarez presents us with a rather simplistic take of mental disorders and the sister who is possibly bipolar was a mere plot device that would enable Antonia to embark on her ‘new life’.
The book does pose some thought-provoking questions, especially regarding what people owe to each themselves and each other, but stylistically it just wasn’t for me. I hope other readers will be able to connected with Alvarez’s story and her characters more than I was.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

It isn’t surprising that American Gods is regarded as one of the genre-bending novels of all time.
Over the course of 500 pages Neil Gaiman deftly blends together fantasy, sci-fi, horror, noir, myths, history, theology, as well as physical, spiritual, and emotional road-trip. The end result is an incredibly imaginative novel, on that is quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

In the preface to the tenth anniversary edition Gaiman describes his novel as ‘meandering’: “I wanted it to be a number of things. I wanted to write a book that was big and odd and meandering, and I did and it was.” It is indeed meandering, wonderfully so. Gaiman’s consistently entertaining storytelling more than makes up for it. Also, given how many different storylines and characters there are in American Gods, it’s safe to say that I was never bored.

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

Summarising this novel isn’t easy. The first time I read it I didn’t know much about it so I found myself experiencing a lot of ‘what the f*ck is going’ moments. This second time, even if I knew what was coming and where Shadow’s story was headed, I still managed to get lost in Gaiman’s heady prose.
The novel’s protagonist, Shadow, gets out of prison and is hired by the mysterious and relentlessly charismatic Mr. Wednesday. We soon realise that Shadow’s new boss is an endlessly scheming conman, and not quite human.

What follows is an epic journey in which Shadow meets many disgruntled and modernity weary gods and deities, some of whom share snippets of their history or lore with Shadow, while others remain far more unknowable. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters recounting their arrival to America. From heroic battles and bloody sacrifices to tales of worship and faith that span centuries and cultures, these sections were thoroughly interesting.

Over the course of his road trip Shadow comes across a lot of weird stuff. We have the sense that these encounters are leading to something far more big. Yet, Gaiman keeps his cards close to his chest, and it is only after many many pages that we start to understand where the story is leading Shadow, and us, towards.
There are plenty of things that will keep us engaged in Shadow’s story. A dead wife, coin tricks, cons, sex (with divine beings…so things get pretty freaky), some horrific scenes (of slavery, of war, of death), satire, a small town which gives some serious Twin Peaks vibe, a hubbub of different cultures and voices…and so much more. There is also an ongoing juxtaposition between the past and present, ancient customs and modernity, old lore and modern believes which provided some serious food for thought.

Gaiman presents us with a narrative that is wickedly funny, frequently mischievous, and always brimming with energy. I loved the way he writes about myths and how distinctive and morally ambiguous his characters are. As interesting and beguiling as the various gods and deities are, once again I found myself caring the most for Shadow.
Gaiman’s dialogues and scenes too are memorable and compelling. And while his narrative does wander into obscure and mystical terrains, it always held my undivided attention.
American Gods gives its readers a bonanza of flavours. It is funny, moving, clever, and constantly surprising.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Platform Seven by Louise Doughty — book review

In spite of its flaws Platform Seven is a lot more thoughtful than one might expect from its murder mystery premise.

“There was a man on the station only two hours ago who will never go home again.”

One of the weakest aspects of this book is that it tries, and doesn’t really succeed, in combining two different genres and concepts together.
The first 30% or so of this novel proposes a slow and atmospheric take on the ghost story. Louise Doughty’s use of the supernatural, although patchy, allows her to create a mosaic of the lives and troubles of the people working at Peterborough Railway Station. Forgotten and largely overlooked, they are forced to deal with horrific situations such as suicides. Through Lisa Evans, the ghost of a suicide victim, we follow some of the night staff in their everyday lives. Lisa is somehow able to tell what these people feel and think, and there is a sense of quiet resignation in the people she observes. Although depressive, very much so, it was interesting to glimpse the fears and desires of the people observed by ghost-Lisa. I found Dalmar, Tom, Melissa, and Andrew’s lives interesting and affecting.

“What is the point where a human being stops being a human being and becomes a thing? Most people think it happens with death but Dalmar knows it can happen a long time before then if it needs to, so that other people can bear what they are seeing. ”

At times being reminded that we were seeing their lives through ghost-Lisa seemed to offset how realistic these characters were. Ghost-Lisa herself seems to fluctuated between being a ghost, invisible and silent, nothing but consciousnesswho doesn’t have memories of her past, a body, or a sense of her own humanity (“When you don’t have a body, time is no longer even or consistent: it stretches and bends, folds in on itself. ”) little more than an impassive and intangible observer, and yet, she also comes across as the cliché of a ghost, one that wouldn’t be out of place in A Christmas Carol.
As the narrative slowly progresses ghost-Lisa seems increasingly incongruous. Although she initially stresses that she is a mere consciousness with no links to her past, she can also ‘see’, ‘float’, and move her human-shaped-ghost-body.
Because of this I was never able to immerse myself in what she was narrating, and part of me wishes that it had all been narrated from a third perspective as it would have made ghost-Lisa slightly less off-key and more convincing.

As ghost-Lisa becomes preoccupied with the latest suicide on ‘her’ platform she somehow becomes able to remember her own past. The switch between ghost-story to a tale of an abusive-relationship is quite jarring.
Rather than presenting us with Lisa’s whole life, Louise Doughty focuses on the last few years before her death, depicting a detailed, occasionally frustratingly so, portrait of the relationship between Lisa and her boyfriend. We follow them through nerve-racking dinners to conversations and fights that draw attention to the secret and concealed violence that dictates her boyfriend’s behaviour towards her. Lisa recounts how time and again she glossed over his increasingly manipulative behaviour towards her. The realisation that her beloved boyfriend Matty is a toxic little sh*t is a slow one and first we are forced to watch as Lisa becomes increasingly alienated from her life and daily existence because of him.

While I could sort of emphasise with Lisa’s difficultly in reconciling herself with her abusive relationship it a bit weird that this came to her as a ‘surprise’…from their very first meeting he acts in a perturbing way towards her. Other people think that he is charming-golden-boy…but I never saw that either. Late in the novel he sings her song during her birthday party but I’m not sure that singing one song would make her friends and family believe that he is the perfect boyfriend. As ghost-Lisa sort of pre-warns us about Matty’s true character, my perception of him never changed: from his first appearance to his last one he struck me as a horrible manipulator.

The scenes which feature their deteriorating relationship could at times be very repetitive and part of me wishes that we could have been properly introduced to Lisa before her relationship with Matty. At times her role seems to be confined to that of ‘victim’ (not that she isn’t a victim but her roles seemed to be restricted to that of Matty’s girlfriend) . I wish more of her personality had come through rather than having such a large part of the narrative focus on how paranoid and anxious she became during her relationship with Matty. More could have been made of her relationship with her family and best friend, so we could have at least seen Lisa ‘without’ Matty.

The pacing of the story was rather uneven. Occasionally the slow and ambiguous narrative could create and build tension. For example, Doughty emphasises Lisa’s unease during a fight with Matty at their favourite restaurant by dragging out the description of a pepper mill:

“As he turned it over our plates, coal-black chunks of pepper fell from the end and the grinding blades made a squeaking sound like the iron wheels of a very old train creaking slowly into motion. I felt plunged into seriousness, all at once, as if I had been missing something important in the debate we had just had, as if I should have known what it was but was too dim to work it out. The squeaking of the pepper mill set my teeth on edge. I realised the waiter was going to keep going until I told him to stop, so I lifted my hand.”

In other instances however Doughty seems to loose herself in detailed and irrelevant descriptions. A few pages are wasted on ghost-Lisa taking a gander through a Waitrose where she is repeatedly amazed by the items they sell:

“Since when did doughnuts come in so many flavours; lemon icing, raspberry icing, salted caramel icing? It isn’t just the doughnuts. I traverse the aisles. Ice cream sauce comes in creamy fudge flavour, Belgian chocolate flavour, raspberry coulis flavour and – my favourite – Alphonso mango, passion fruit and yuzu. What is a yuzu? Is an Alphonso mango significantly different from any other kind of mango […] then I go and confirm my suspicions about carrots: they are, of course, even more orange than I remember […] on my way out, I drift along the salad bar, glancing into the tubs of salad one by one, wondering why so many of them contain kidney beans.”

That scene lasted way longer than it should have and it didn’t really serve any purpose other than a weak reassertion that ghost-Lisa has few memories of her life.

Overall I think that the idea was better than the execution. There were scenes which were both powerful and horrific, but more often than not these were lost in a painstakingly redundant narrative which repeatedly looses itself in digressions that added very little to the overarching story.
Platform Seven seemed to contain two different books. A not entirely convincing supernatural ghost-story (where much is made of the coincidence of two suicides at the same platform) in which ghost-Lisa follows others around, making occasionally thought-provoking deliberations but frequently resorts cookie-like musing. The other narrative is an uncomfortably close look at how vicious and insidious an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship can be. We see how Matty uses his job as a doctor to guilt-trip Lisa, how he deliberately works to erase her sense of self, her self-esteem, and her happiness.
While I wouldn’t necessarily say that I ‘enjoyed’ reading this (given that the novel deals with many different forms of abuse) Doughty’s approach to this subject was interesting and refreshing.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak — book review

Shafak never disappoints!
In her newest novel Shafak explores many of the themes she has already touched upon in previous novels in an innovative manner as the narrative bridges the gap between the life and death of its protagonist.
There is something about Shafak’s prose that really resonates with me. She can address serious and complex issues without jeopardising the creativity of her story or the nuances of her characters.

After she is killed Tequila Leila is not quite dead-dead. Her consciousness seems to ‘survive’ long enough for her to revisit some of her memories. In each chapter Leila remembers a certain event in her life, however mundane it might be, and the narrative beautifully conveys the feelings, smells, and landscapes that make up these memories.
On the one hand, through these memories, we get to know Leila and watch as she forms relationships outside of her familial ones, on the other, we glimpse the city of Istanbul, some of its history and its many different faces.
Ultimately, in spite of the tragedies and traumas that Leila or her friends experience, there is love and hope to be found in this beautiful book. The story brims with empathy and humanity, depicting the distressing yet beautiful life of Leila.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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