Three Japanese Short Stories

IMG_8225
Nothing is better than homemade matcha on a rainy day.

I have been making an effort to read more non-English literature, and these new Penguin Moderns are great bite-sized tasters for new authors and unfamiliar cultures. I’m already halfway through my second one, Four Russian Short Stories!

Heroes have always been monsters who crushed sentimentalism underfoot.

Behind the Prison: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lethally sharp satire whetted against uncomfortably relatable truths. Behind the Prison is at once uproarious and unapologetically pessimistic.

“No, nothing in this world is as oppressive and debilitating as blood ties.”

“For her I would gladly ferry across the Sumida on the coldest winter day to buy her those sakura-mochi sweets from old Edo that she loved so much. But medicine? Not even on the warmest day would I want to go buy her medicine.”

Closet LLB: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The most personally terrifying of the three. Like Otsukotsu Sansaku, I had “embraced the unshakeable goal of becoming a novelist” as a child, and I, too, steep myself in literature while I have supposedly settled into (and here is the most obvious difference) medicine. Thankfully, studying medicine was my own choice, and I hope to become something of a Paul Kalanithi or Atul Gawande. But my goodness, may I never be reduced to a Sansaku!

“How much fun are you getting out of life?”

General Kim: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This last story fits the blurb best: “beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising”. A delightfully surreal parody of Patriotism with a capital P to round it all off.

“To any nation’s people, their history is glorious. The legend of General Kim is by no means the only one worth a laugh.”

Overall rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Have you read any Penguin Moderns yet? If so, which ones were your favourites?

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

Is it just me or is reviewing a book you love a lot harder than reviewing a book you really dislike? Because I promise I do not normally take a month to write a review. I originally bought Six of Crows for my flight to New York, but ended up reading Being Mortal instead (I had just lost my phone in the Hong Kong airport so I was, ironically, not in the mood for an escapist book – I was too busy worrying). I was, however, in the mood once I had settled into my queen-sized hotel bed that night and sorted out how I would get my phone back. A mistake, because I only went to sleep at 5 a.m. after I had finished the whole thing in one sitting. #typical

To bookend the trip (pun intended), I bought Crooked Kingdom for my flight back to Hong Kong. But of course it did not download properly, and of course I did not find out until well into the flight (also #typical). So what was the obvious thing to do? Start it at 1 a.m. once I had settled down on my sofa at home. And only go to sleep at 5 a.m. after I had finished the whole thing in one sitting.

I have never read the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which is set in the same universe. I do not think I ever will – the premise looks a bit too plain-Jane-Mary-Sue, and from other readers’ comments, Six of Crows seems to be the darker, ‘edgier’ cousin. But that did not give me any trouble getting into this duology. Bardugo’s sleight of hand in the first chapter was a brilliant move. You are first introduced to an impressively fleshed out cast with histories and futures you quickly become invested in, only to be pitched into the next chapter to meet the real criminal crew. It was a splendidly sly opening, subtly foreshadowing the ingenious, labyrinthine plot in store.

This real crew was easy to love. Bardugo’s greatest strength is the rich diversity of her characters and world. Six of Crows is probably the most diverse fantasy novel I have read in at least the last few years. Few books manage to bring together comparably diverse characters – there are the logistical obstacles (the effort required to craft so many cultures, to devise convincing reasons for these very different people to be in the same place at the same time), and then there is the simple fact that it does not even occur to most authors to actively consider it in the first place.

There was justified criticism of the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Bardugo’s pick-and-mix inspiration from Russian culture. In Six of Crows, she was careful to inject three-dimensional cultural backgrounds into her characters, more mindfully shaping their languages, customs, dress, religions, values, even details like staple foods. With this elaborate arsenal, her duology was even able to touch on exoticization, genocidal indoctrination and state-sanctioned mistreatment of minorities. It is only with such diversity that an imagined universe comes alive – not just as an isolated, generic kingdom or woodland or gritty city. But as a sprawling, breathing, beating world.

Yes, the ‘impossible-beyond-impossible heist by some overlooked outcasts’ premise was a bit clichéd. But Bardugo made it work. Every member of the crew had talents that were incredible, but still believable. There were no deus ex machina magical powers, no deus ex machina ways out. This was where Kaz Brekker’s genius (which is to say, Bardugo’s genius) shone. There was never a moment when I could guess what his ultimate plans were. Just when you think he has finally been cornered, he pulls a Plan Z that flips the cards back into his hand. And because of this uncanny a-hundred-steps-ahead thinking, I was easily convinced that only he could lead a bunch of teenagers into an unbreachable fortress, steal an internationally hunted hostage and escape alive.

If you want a roller-coaster plot and a lucidly imagined world with unrivalled diversity, the Six of Crows duology will be right up your (crooked) canal.

Favourite quotes: Kaz leaned back. “What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?”
“Knife to the throat?” asked Inej.
“Gun to the back?” said Jesper.
“Poison in his cup?” suggested Nina.
“You’re all horrible,” said Matthias. – Six of Crows

“Have any of you wondered what I did with all the cash Pekka Rollins gave us?”
“Guns?” asked Jesper.
“Ships?” queried Inej.
“Bombs?” suggested Wylan.
“Political bribes?” offered Nina. They all looked at Matthias. “This is where you tell us how awful we are,” she whispered. – Crooked Kingdom

Ratings: Six of Crows 4/5
Crooked Kingdom 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

A Court of Mist and Fury

A bit late to the party, but yes, A Court of Mist and Fury was an enormous improvement both pacing and character development-wise. For one, I wasn’t tempted to skim entire chapters like I was for the first book. The fights and harrowing encounters were convincingly well-matched, but never drawn-out or gratuitous. There was an irksome amount of ‘telling’, but I suppose it highlighted the thunderstorm of confusion and self-hate and hurt and hopelessness that was tearing Feyre apart – if a little inelegantly. The sex scenes, on the other hand, were definitely drawn-out and gratuitous, especially with how frequent they became towards the second half. And given Maas’ very limited, very specific vocabulary for them, they were rather repetitive too.

Regardless, I am thoroughly impressed by how well she had handled the love triangle. Its purpose was nothing so trivial as creating unnecessary drama or anguish – it demonstrated, with raw emotion, how indescribable horrors can break people apart, jagged fragment by jagged fragment, until a borderline abusive relationship can pretend to be happiness’ false twin. It also brilliantly showed what love should represent – equality, honesty, vulnerability.

Some readers were indignant that falling out of love is normal, that Tamlin didn’t need to be painted a villain. (1) I don’t think that was the point at all. Under the Mountain had wrecked him, and it was the only way he knew how to react. He was always the shelterer, even in the first book, when he had sent Feyre away knowing that she could break the curse.

“Tell me there’s some way to help you,” I breathed. “With the masks, with whatever threat has taken so much of your power. Tell me – just tell me what I can do to help you.”

“There’s nothing I want you to do… It’s my burden to bear… I want you here, where I can look after you – where I can come home and know you’re here, painting and safe.”

– A Court of Thorns and Roses

(2) Let’s suppose they miraculously escaped less emotionally scarred. The slow, blurred unravelling of Feyre’s love would have taken far far longer, and with Maas’ evident pacing problems, I’m perfectly fine with the quicker way forward, thank you very much.

Feyre was also far more like the Feyre I had imagined when I first picked up A Court of Thorns and Roses. With a little help from her new family, she learned to conquer her panic, guilt and shame. To let herself realise her own worth, despite it all. And since her trials in the last book, she became wiser, shrewder – dangerous in her own right, and not because she unleashed a High Lord’s power. I’m glad I plowed on through the first book, because this was so so much better.

Favourite quotes: “I fell in love with you, smartass, because you were one of us – because you weren’t afraid of me, and you decided to end your spectacular victory by throwing that piece of bone at Amarantha like a javelin. I felt Cassian’s spirit beside me in that moment, and could have sworn I heard him say, If you don’t marry her, you stupid prick, I will.”

“To the people who look at the stars and wish, Rhys.” “To the stars who listen – and the dreams that are answered.”

Rating: 5/5 (originally 4/5)

For my review on A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book, click here.

North and South

‘He may care for her, though she really has been almost rude to him at times. But she! – why, Margaret would never think of him, I’m sure! Such a thing has never entered her head.’

‘Entering her heart would do.’

I struggled for a ridiculous length of time trying to articulate the fullness of my admiration for this masterpiece, and I still fear I do not do it justice. A novel significant enough to be included in the Penguin English Library, North and South has already been the subject of countless critics’ and academics’ far more eloquent and perceptive analyses. But since it is arguably my favourite book of all time, and since I have yet to speak to a single person who has heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, I will flatter myself into believing that this review is somewhat meaningful.

It is sometimes said that where Austen ends, Gaskell begins. And in Margaret Hale (whom Penguin very rightly calls “one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction”), I can certainly see the same study of restraint, propriety and unconventional elegance amidst an unsympathetic supporting cast. But North and South is so much more than an industrial Pride and Prejudice. No, it is an incredibly ambitious portrait of the class, economic and religious upheavals of Victorian England, intricately examined through multiple characters and relationships spanning all social strata. Individually, they offer refreshingly diverse perspectives, but together, they masterfully mirror and augment each other to illustrate the sheer profundity of the shifts in the turbulent (an understatement) social landscape. (To be clear, none of this is achieved with any dull, expository dialogues. Mrs Gaskell simply shows.)

The tone is also more serious – Margaret’s trials are far more devastating than Elizabeth Bennet’s silly sisters or obnoxious acquaintances. The characters are less excessively frivolous, so even though Gaskell injects just as much cutting irony, readers are more inclined to shoulder Margaret’s hurt and disappointment than to dismiss her acquaintances with a laugh.

And of course, there is the central relationship: Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale. Their differences are so much more entrenched, so heavily written into their very cores, and so sympathetically elaborated on either side, that their “antagonistic friendship” (as Margaret calls it) is also much more intriguing than the superficial misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. Not only were they raised in polar environments (physical and social), Thornton’s paternalistic, almost callous commercial attitude disgusts Margaret’s compassionate nature. She astutely points out that the masters are just as dependent on the workers as the workers are on them, but Thornton refuses to show them more than the minimal respect they secure by contributing to his profits.

But what Margaret cannot glimpse is the heart beneath his frigid veneer. So when we finally witness the profound changes in our hero and heroine – the slow unravelling of their pride, their tentative steps into the other’s perspective – the effect is incredibly moving. Where Austen is laugh-out-loud hilarious, Gaskell grounds her wit in poignant shades of grey (allusion to Milton wholly intended). But Miss Austen’s fans will also find witty repartee and literary references – all very apt for the Southern daughter and her father’s favourite student.

The main criticisms confuse me, but I believe both can easily be refuted. Some are exasperated by Miss Hale’s ‘selfishness’. Others want her to stop acting so ‘self-righteously’ and to grow a spine. For the former, I presume the ‘selfishness’ was observed in her disapprobation of Thornton (since in all other aspects of the novel, the latter complaint is perhaps the more accurate interpretation of Margaret’s temperament). I argue that this was entirely the point – although ‘selfishness’ is not quite the right word. Neither Thornton nor Margaret understood where the other was coming from (figuratively and literally), and yet they made dismissive comments about each other’s ways. Their dispositional clashes are precisely what makes their relationship one of Mrs Gaskell’s many nuanced explorations of “what divides people, and what brings them together”.

‘It is no boast of mine,’ replied Mr Thornton; ‘it is plain matter-of-fact. I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a town… I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes. ‘You do not know anything about the South.’

And for the latter, righteousness and having a spine simply are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Margaret’s outspoken disapprobation of Thornton is already proof of her independent spirit. But more importantly, I think Margaret always had an iron spine from the very first page. She agreed to leave Helstone not out of weak-willed compliance, but because she could not bear to think her father a hypocritical church leader much more than she could not bear to leave her picturesque, romanticised country home. Likewise, her other decisions to obey her father were carefully weighed, practical choices to limit the pain to herself (as she wisely knows she can bear it far better than her mother), rather than let her father butcher the job and exacerbate the collateral damage, even if it meant shielding him from his cowardice. Sacrifices can be symbols of strength as much as signs of weakness.

The 2004 BBC miniseries (four episodes) is also my favourite adaptation of a British classic, which stays remarkably true to the original novel (thank goodness!). Sinéad Cusack is the most formidable, domineering, incredible Mrs Thornton (not to mention her perfect Yorkshire accent). Richard Armitage’s brooding Mr Thornton is already a classic (forget Colin Firth – not that I ever considered him remotely attractive enough to play Mr Darcy). And Daniela Denby-Ashe makes a perfect Margaret. The changes that were made actually added to the plot’s richness, at least in the context of the small screen. But do only watch it after you have read the book! Although I think North and South is one of those rare novels that are just as engrossing even after watching an adaptation first (because so much of the delight is in the execution, not merely the concept), it becomes much easier to appreciate the details and subtleties of the miniseries.

Favourite quotes: Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and ‘an’t please you, sir’.

‘I don’t know that you would ever like him, or think him agreeable, Margaret. He is not a lady’s man.’ Margaret wreathed her throat in a scornful curve.

He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre.

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Side note: It breaks my heart that there is no Clothbound Classics edition of North and South. If anyone knows where I can find a beautifully bound hardcover edition, please tell me!

For more quotes, notes and my running commentary, please check out my Goodreads reading activity (only on desktop computers).

Vicious

There are no good men in this game, said Mitch. Only Mitch was not entirely correct. There are no perfect men – good and pure is a dangerous conflation. And good, being a relative thing, suited Mitch and Sydney well, at least. Victor was surprisingly good too. Sure, he hungered for sweet, sadistic revenge. Fantasised the exact places he would fire bullet after bullet into his former best friend. But said friend almost killed him first, so it was fair play. Or within the confines of understandable human reactions, anyway. (In V.E. Schwab’s other series, Lila relished the thought of carving Holland up, but no one would call her bad.) But even though Victor never grows into the villain that flared in the blurbs and summaries and mountains of praise, it did not matter in the end. This book is still dangerously enchanting.

I had said before that Schwab paints her characters in shifting shades of grey. In Vicious, she painted them in black. Some more than others (Eli is straight up Vanta), but all nonetheless a deliciously dark absence of colour. To be clear, black still does not necessarily mean bad here. In my books, Victor is arguably ‘good’. What it does mean is that this cast is on a completely different level than Holland. But not quite on the Dane twins’ either. They tore free of the pages with fascinating motives and wants and needs. Fascinating because with a little more blind ambition and a lot more arrogance, it becomes disturbingly easy to imagine ourselves in the protagonists’ shoes. That is how well Schwab crafts her characters – with deeply grounded motives, rationales, pasts, calculated trajectories. Even Eli’s depraved fanaticism and Serena’s similarly perverted, misdirected anger were, in a terribly twisted way, understandable.

The pacing was breakneck, even with the constant cutting back and forth between the past and the present. In Shades of Magic, the fickle dance between places and perspectives was the weakest strand. But in Vicious, Schwab doled out hearty, even servings of suspense. Every present chapter ended on the glinting edge of another precipice, but so did every past chapter. Even as I inwardly groaned whenever I was whipped away from the present timeline with a burning desire to know what happens next, I also had to feed another burning desire to know what happened next in the past timeline too. A cruel game, Schwab played. But a very clever one. Where there were slower (but alas, necessary) flashbacks, she wisely kept them succinct.

Some readers found Eli’s ‘religious’ fanaticism too abrupt or extreme to be believable. Personally, his ‘religion’ felt wrong even before he convinced himself that he was doing “God’s work”. As Victor wryly observed, what sane religious man would pray to Him for the strength to play God? Eli was worshiping himself, feeding his sickly inflated ego first by demanding that God make him into more, then by masquerading as a blessed angel. Besides, today’s grim reality shows how it is all too possible to twist religious zeal into something terrifyingly corrupt.

For a truly vicious tale spun from an original reinterpretation of superhumans and characters you will loathe and be intrigued by to the same disquieting degree, Schwab’s debut adult book is a thrilling, unputdownable read.

Favourite quote: “I want to believe that there’s more.” Victor sloshed a touch of whiskey over the edge of his glass. “That we could be more. Hell, we could be heroes.” “We could be dead,” said Eli. “That’s a risk everyone takes by living.”
Rating:
5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

For my review on Warm Up, the short story prequel, click here. For my reviews on V.E. Schwab’s other series, click here.

Caraval

I reserve five-star ratings for works so close to flawlessly crafted as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and Harry Potter. So when I decided on five stars for Caraval after only several moments’ hesitation, I knew I have to write a sound review, if only to assure myself that my discernment had not rusted away after such a long spell of mediocre fiction. To be clear, my ratings are strictly personal; if I were to rate an acclaimed classic such as, say, Lord of the Flies, I would unabashedly give it one or two stars. So while the cultural significance is still a factor (as I am sure it is for many readers), my own enjoyment of the plot, prose, characters and unique (or not so unique) universes is what ultimately decides my ratings.

Out of the novels that I have rated, the determinant that separated almost all ‘very good’ books from five-star status was the pacing. I gave The Night Circus only four stars because despite the sublime (an understatement) descriptions of the titular circus, somewhere along the journey, I grew as tired of the competition as the protagonists did. The intricate details became bothersome distractions, the build-up to the inevitable central romance too slow. A more recent candidate, A Darker Shade of Magic, suffered from a similar problem. The frequent shifts to less riveting perspectives created unnecessary delays, kindling frustration more than they did constructive suspense. Admittedly, some of the books that I did give five stars to do not have perfect pacing either (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was an especially slow read in the series), but it was not to an extent where the exceptional creativity or meticulous world-building and plot planning could not more than make up for it.

In the early hours of yesterday, I finished Caraval in one sitting. In itself, that may not prove good pacing. But this story flew – I was not even remotely tempted to skim over a single passage or flip to a more action-packed page (a terrible habit that occurs with the overwhelming majority of books I read; patience is not one of my virtues). The lists of wondrous items typical when setting fantasy scenes or the protagonist’s indecisive monologues were never too drawn out. Nor were the chases and fights, of which the difficulty to write succinct (yet sufficiently well-matched and theatrical) ones is far too often under appreciated. There was enough to show the author’s thoughtfulness, but not so much that it became pretentious or amateur.

The idea of a game or performance blending magic and reality is not novel, but the premise of Caraval was original enough to make this interpretation feel completely unlike anything I have read before. And the distinction between what was real and what was not became so increasingly blurred that I began to second-guess almost every explanation and event. For every reveal, another twist lay in wait. This ‘meta’ element of mystery was a major contributor to the book’s appeal, which, on top of all the mysteries embedded in the actual plot, sealed Caraval’s place as an exceptionally compelling story. And like Victoria Schwab, Stephanie Garber has a knack for knowing exactly when to reward her readers with answers. Questions ranged from being answered just a few paragraphs later to taking the entire book for the puzzle pieces to fall into place.

In a book where the impossible is possible, there is always the unfortunate threat of a deus ex machina happy ending. Thankfully, that did not happen in Caraval. I was sceptical in the final chapters, but the justifications were convincing and consistent with the capabilities and limitations that the rest of the novel had hinted at. Where there were slightly dubious explanations, or where the characters’ actions were contrived [highlight to reveal spoiler] (such as the reasons Julian gave in the tunnels and when Tella was driven to commit suicide), it ended up legitimate because it was all an ingenious ruse in the first place. In fact, retrospectively, the vague sense of something being ‘off’ was what made the book so incredibly brilliant. It was the perfect tightrope walk between where small but significant cracks could leave room for actual deception and where the reader could still easily brush it off as paranoia from the preceding plot twists.

As for the romance, the author was wise to keep it a supplement rather than the all-consuming focal point. Although the characters’ determined denial of their obvious chemistry would have been infuriatingly petty and cliché in many other books, the twisted lies the sisters were told for most of their lives, the manipulative nature of the game and the oft repeated warning to ‘not get too carried away’ were very sound reasons for caution. Not to mention [highlight to reveal spoiler] Julian’s express instructions to not encourage any romantic interest. The reasons for their mutual attraction were also much more meaningfully fleshed out than the all-too-common ‘two attractive people happened to be thrown together for a dangerous adventure’. The romance was responsible for the weakest passages (some were amateurish and abrupt), but all things considered, it added to the book more than it took away.

My other minor complaint was that Aiko was little more than a stock ‘enigmatic Far East Asian’. But she was at least less cringeworthy than the flat stereotype that Tsukiko was in The Night Circus. Hopefully this review adequately justifies my five-star rating relatively concisely. If you are in the mood for an immersive melange of mysteries bottled in a spectacular adventure, disguised alternately as a murderous race and a magnificent performance, I wholeheartedly recommend Caraval.

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟