Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

my rating: ★★

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa

The Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles makes for a quick and wholesome read that will definitely appeal to bibliophiles. Like other fantasy coming-of-age tales, this novel features a talking animal who enlists our human protagonists in an adventure and acts as a guide of sorts into the magical world. Rintaro Natsuki, our protagonist, is a particularly introverted boy who sees himself as a hikikomori. When his grandfather, who was his primary carer, dies, Rintaro inherits his secondhand bookstore. Rintaro struggles to articulate his grief and is unable to truly express how much this loss has affected him. Rintaro stops going to school, staying instead at the bookstore. Here he meets Tiger, a talking cat who makes him join in a quest of sorts. According to Tiger, there are books in need of rescuing and Rintaro is the only one who can save him. Together they travel to four different mazes where they come across bad book owners who have lost sight of what caring & loving books truly means. One owner no longer reads for pleasure but because he wants to read the most books possible in his lifetime. Another one thinks that because people no longer make time to read, the only way to keep these stories alive is to literally ‘cut’ them. The third one cares nothing for old books and is interested in books that sell well. While the last one will truly force Rintaro to question what literature and books in general truly mean. The nature of Rintaro’s quest definitely brought to mind the structure of fairy tales. The lessons Rintaro teaches the owners instead reminded me of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Like the ghosts in Dickens’ novel Rintaro shows them the error of their ways. While at first these bad book owners seem unbending in their ways, Rintaro is always able to make them reevaluate their attitude towards their books by challenging their behaviour (hoarding books, reading books simply for the sake of ‘reading’ them, without actually connecting to the story, trying to condense books to short summaries, or caring only about the books that sell, well, this is not how someone who professes they love books should act).

Rintaro is the classic guileless male protagonist. More than once we are reminded that he is a nobody, no one of interest. And yet for some reason, Tiger chose him as his companion in his book-saving adventures. There is also the classic female character who is a bit of a busybody and for some bizarre reason kind of likes our male mc. There is also a popular guy whose function in this story is somewhat bizarre. He really served no purpose other than to remind us that Rintaro is not one of the cool guys. Tiger, the most interesting character of the lot, is largely underused.
The moralistic nature of the mazes also struck me as fairly simplistic. Still, the author does ask some thought-provoking questions about what books/reading mean, whether one should prioritize discovering new voices or deepening their relationship to books they love by re-reading them. Also, in one of the “baddies” says that now-days books don’t stand a chance as a source of ‘entertainment’ as one can’t read and multitask. Clearly this guy has never heard of audiobooks (i know it technically isn’t ‘reading’ but you nevertheless can ‘absorb’ a book). I also didn’t like that the final villain, who is portrayed as cold and slightly ‘off’ (in a not-human kind of way), is a woman.
I can see this book appealing to fans of Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura and Colorful by Eto Mori. Similarly to those novels The Cat Who Saved Books focuses on a Japanese teen who doesn’t really fit in at school but over the course of the narrative, and thanks to the aid of some fantastical elements, begins to connect with other people his age. Overall this was a fairly engaging read even if it was a bit too vanilla for my taste.

my rating: ★★★½

N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto

N.P. is textbook Banana Yoshimoto: we have a cheerful, occasionally off-beat, young woman, as our narrator, Daddy Issues, sucide(s), a bizarre love story, and… incest?!

I will say that N.P. does seem to attempt to include a mystery subplot (which doesn’t really go anywhere but still…). In this novel a writer published a collection of short stories called, you guessed it, N.P.. This collection has never been successfully translated into Japanese as every translator who attempted to do so died. Our narrator was the girlfriend of one of these translators and she finds herself becoming entangled with the writer’s children and their incest-y dynamics. In spite of this premise, the novel follows in the usual slice-of-life steps as Yoshimoto’s other works, and much of the narrative revolves around the narrator’s everyday experiences, focusing in particular on her conversations and encounters with the writer’s offsprings. The narrative explores grief and love, but it does so in typical Yoshimoto fashion so that the observations and conclusions our narrator makes or reaches seem at times a tad corny or just plain weird. I liked the queer undercurrents between the narrator and one of the author’s children, and part of me wishes that rather than going on about the taboo topic of incest and making the incesty couple a central part of the story, Yoshimoto had focused on the narrator’s attraction to this other woman, who happens to be an ex of the mc’s now dead bf (basically they dated the same guy who tried to translate N.P.). But no, it had to be about incest. The romanticisation of incest spoiled much of the story sadly and I didn’t find this as enjoyable or lighthearted as other works by Yoshimoto…which is a pity as the story had potential. The mystery surrounding this author and his collection is sadly sidelined in favour of the drama between his children.
The ending annoyed me a lot. It was profoundly cheesy & heteronormative (insta-love ahoy).
If you are curious about this author I suggest you try something else by them (such as Kitchen or Goodbye Tsugumi).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

While The Factory shares many similarities with The Hole, it lacked the eerie atmosphere that made the latter into such a beguiling read. The Factory switches between three 1st povs, without specifying who is narrating (we usually can guess by the job they do). They all work at ‘the factory, an industrial factory located in an unnamed city that size-wise is close to Disneyland. The factory has a large influence on the city’s inhabitants, kids and adults alike go on field trips there in order to learn more about its inner-workings, and parents are keen for their children to have careers there. One of our narrators is employed to study moss, another shreds paper, and the third is a proofreader. Throughout the course of this novel, the author highlights the nonsensical rules and tasks that characterize modern working environments. Many of the conversations they have with their colleagues verge on the absurd, and much of what happens in their daily working lives will strike us as peculiar. Two years ago I was a temp worker at this company that processed donations and lottery tickets for charities and it made for a very strange working experience. They had bizarre regulations and often gave us temp workers the most random jobs.
This is not the first book that I’ve read that satirizes the gig economy. The Factory wasn’t quite as inventive and engaging as say Temporary. Also, the use of multiple narrators resulted in a less focused storyline. Whether this was intentional or not, I found myself wishing for a more introspective read. The characters populating this book are half-formed caricatures that didn’t quite succeed in capturing a certain type of person/worker. Still, The Factory does read like a contemporary Kafkaesque tale. There is an interview scene very early on in the narrative that felt really spot-on.
While this wasn’t as quite a memorable read as The Hole it does make for a weird and fairly humorous read.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

海のふた [Umi no futa] by Banana Yoshimoto

海のふた (The Sea’s Lid?) is very much a typical Banana Yoshimoto​​ novel. We have the quintessentially Yoshimoto-esque narrator (usually a quiet young woman who is grieving someone or longing for something), a slice-of-life storyline and a small-town setting. This novel takes place during the summer months and Mari has just moved back to her hometown by the sea. Here she opens a kiosk selling shaved ice, opting for more natural flavours and less artificial colours. She observes how her town has changed, from the increase in the elderly population to how young people tend to leave as soon as they are of age. Yoshimoto is particularly attuned to the natural world and there are plenty of lovely descriptions of the sea and other nearby landscapes. Mari eventually is joined by Hajime, who is the young daughter of one of her mother’s friends. Hajime, who is grieving her grandmother, begins working alongside Mari and the two, over the course of summer, forge a tentative friendship.
The pacing is very gentle. Nothing of note truly happens, we are simply lulled by Mari’s narration. A sweet and quick read, this is one of Yoshimoto’s best novels. Mari’s melancholy is catchy and makes for a particularly nostalgic read. Her feelings towards her hometown, her kiosk, and Hajime, are all rendered with clarity and it was all too easy to understand and empathize with her.
Once again, Yoshimoto’s subtle prose perfectly complements the dreamlike atmosphere of her story.

海のふた was a perfectly bittersweet summer read that I would definitely recommend to fans of Yoshimoto or slice of life novels.

my rating: ★★★½

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People From My Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami

The extremely short stories collected in People From My Neighbourhood bear many of the trademarks that I associate with Hiromi Kawakami’s storytelling and work. Under Kawakami’s hand, slice-of-life scenarios are approached from odd angles and permeated by a sense of surreality that will make readers question what exactly is going.

As the title itself suggests this collection transports readers to a Japanese neighbourhood and each story reads like a short vignette detailing an odd episode involving a resident of this neighbourhood. The stories are loosely interconnected as we have recurring figures—such as Kanae and her sisters or the school principal—who make more than one appearance. Occasionally one is even left with the impression that they vaguely contradict one another, or that time doesn’t quite unfold as it should in this neighbourhood. This elasticity with time and reality results in a rather playful collection that is recognizably a product of Kawakami’s active imagination. Her offbeat approach to everyday scenarios does make for an inventive collection of stories. There is a story about the unusual lottery that takes place in this neighbourhood (the loser has to take care of Hachirō, a boy with a voracious and seemingly never-ending appetite), one about the bitter rivalry between two girls named Yōko, one about a princess moving to the neighbourhood, another recounting the origin of the Sand Festival, and many detailing people who are curses or are part of some sort of prophecy.

While I love Kawakami’s storytelling, which is full of zest and humour, as well as the almost Kafkaesque feeling of her narratives, I just found these stories too short and, ultimately, insubstantial. If she happens to be an author on your TBR pile I suggest you pick one of her novels instead, like, Strange Weather in Tokyo or The Nakano Thrift Shop.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Summer of You by Nagisa Furuya

“to me…you will always be part of my summer.”



The Summer of You will definitely appeal to fans of shounen-ai like Seven Says. I, however, found it rather generic and clichéd.
As the title itself suggests The Summer of You is very much a light summer romance. The manga follows Chiharu and Wataru, two boys who attend the same high school and find themselves bonding over their shared love for film. When Chiharu confesses that he’s in love with Wataru, and while the latter is surprised and confused he claims that this won’t affect their friendship. During summer break they embark on various day trips to see various filming locations from some of their favourite films. During this time, you guessed it, Wataru starts questioning his feelings for Chiharu…
This is a very mellow shounen-ai that makes for easy reading. While I wasn’t all that taken by the mangaka’s art style (something about the faces didn’t vibe with moi) I’m sure many other readers will fall in love with it. I liked the slow-burn friends-to-lovers dynamic between Wataru and Chiharu; however, I could have done without the ‘past meeting’ storyline. It was obvious and rather contrived.
All in all, The Summer of You was a more than decent read and I’m sure that will appeal to ardent shounen-ai fans.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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In the Clear Moonlit Dusk by Mika Yamamori

This mangaka’s style was chef’s kiss. Alas, the story reads like a very generic high-school shoujo. うるわしの宵の月, translated as In the Clear Moonlit Dusk follows Yoi Takiguchi, a high school girl whose princely appearance has earned her the nickname of ‘Prince’. Often mistaken as a boy, Yoi is not used to being seen as a ‘girl’. This premise did ring a bell as I remember reading a manga years ago in which the heroine had a masculine appearance and the hero a feminine one. There it kind of worked as the two leads (as far as i can remember) were comfortable quite comfortable with the way the looked. Here, sadly, Yoi isn’t keen on being seen as a ‘prince’ as seems to be indifferent to her female classmates’ attention (they routinely confess their feelings to her or simply stare at her in awe). Then she meets Ichimura, who is also nicknamed ‘Prince’ (i guess they couldn’t come up with something more creative?), and he seems to see her as a girl. Shocking. The guy calls her cute and Yoi becomes all flustered in a “who me?” way.

I found the both leads quite bland. I wish Yoi hadn’t been so easily taken by Ichimura. That the other girls become jealous of Yoi does not bode well as it promises a classic girl-on-girl hate side-plot that we could well do without. The main male lead is boring and so far his personality revolves around his beautiful appearance and his ‘ability’ to see Yoi as a girl.
The art is lovely, the story & characters mediocre. Maybe those who haven’t read many shoujo manga will be able to enjoy this more.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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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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