Book Review: The Tokyo Zodiac Murders

tokyo zodiac murdersThe Tokyo Zodiac Murders
by Soji Shimada
Japanese Crime Fiction
251 pages
Published 2005

Content Warning: Violence Against Women

One of my prompts for the Litsy Challenge is “Japanese Thriller” which took me some research to find one I could get my hands on. As it turns out, this isn’t really a thriller, just a mystery. It was the debut novel of this author, who has now churned out over a hundred mystery novels. It only came out thirteen years ago; he must write very fast!

In The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, two friends are trying to solve a 40-year-old serial murder case in which a man, his five daughters, and his two nieces were all killed. There was a curious note left by the murdered man detailing his plans to kill the women, take parts from each of them, and make the “perfect woman” called Azoth, who was supposed to become some kind of goddess and “save Japan.” His eldest daughter was raped and murdered in a crime that, besides timing, looked unrelated to the rest. The other six were not only killed, but chopped up and dumped with parts missing, all according to the murdered man’s plan. ….Except he was murdered first!

What starts the two friends on this path is one of Kiyoshi’s clients bringing him a letter her father had written before he died, confessing to having consensual sex with the eldest daughter the night she was murdered, then dumping the bodies as instructed by a blackmailer who knew about the encounter. He did not kill the girls; just took care of the disposal. This is brand-new evidence to the case.

This was definitely a mystery, not a thriller, but they’re largely lumped together in the lists of translated works of “Japanese Crime Fiction” so I’m counting it anyway. It was an interesting mystery; I liked that, unlike a lot of mysteries, all of the evidence is available to the reader. The characters tell the reader everything they uncover, but not the conclusions they draw. (Until the big reveal at the end, anyway.) Shimada actually put two author’s notes in the novel itself; one before the characters reveal anything, saying “You have all the information you need to solve the mystery now, can you do it before the characters reveal what happened?” and one after the murderer is revealed but before the How is answered, asking “Can you figure out how and why she did it?” before the complete reveal at the end of the book. It was a little surprising, but I really liked it.

I’ve never been big into mysteries, so I don’t see myself reading more of Shimada’s work, but for a book I wouldn’t normally have read, this was pretty interesting. That’s what reading challenges are all about, right? Stretching out your literary comfort zones.

From the cover of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders:

In this elaborate whodunit, private detective and astrologer Kiyoshi Mitarai faces his greatest challenge – in just one week he must solve a bizarre mystery that has baffled the Japanese nation for more than 40 years; who murdered the Tokyo artist Heikichi Umezawa, raped and killed his eldest daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six of his daughters and nieces to create Azoth, the supreme woman? Do you have what it takes to solve the mystery before he does?

Book Review: Little Bee, and World Refugee Day

little bee refugeeLittle Bee
by Chris Cleave
Contemporary Fiction
267 pages
Published 2009

Today is World Refugee Day. First observed in 2001, it is dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of refugees all across the world. African Refugee Day had been observed in some countries prior to the UN declaring it World Refugee Day, but the Organization of African Unity agreed to have the two days coincide.

To honor World Refugee Day, today I’m going to talk about Little Bee. Little Bee is a Nigerian refugee in the United Kingdom. She and her sister witnessed the destruction of their village by an oil company’s thugs, and were hunted down to eliminate the witnesses. In a chance encounter on a Nigerian beach, she met Sarah and Andrew, a couple from London trying to save their marriage by going on an exotic holiday. The encounter changes the lives of all three of them, and when Little Bee makes it to the United Kingdom, they are the only people she knows. She arrives at their home on the day of Andrew’s funeral, and Sarah takes her in.

The book switches between the viewpoints of Sarah and Little Bee, and it does suffer from that, a bit. I couldn’t wait for Sarah’s chapters to be done so I could get back to Little Bee. Her viewpoint – her voice – was enthralling. Some first-person views are just the person thinking to themselves, while some first-person views are the person talking to the reader. Sarah was the first type, and Little Bee the second. Reading her explanations of the differences between her old life and her new life, and how the girls from her village wouldn’t understand things, was amazing. I was hooked within the first ten pages of the book, specifically her note about scars:

I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.

The events Little Bee talks about having witnessed are horrifying. And she recognizes that. She could be bitter, she could be depressed, she could be insane, but she is not. She manages to have hope, and even joy. She sees other refugees around her commit suicide, and in fact always has a plan for how to kill herself “if the men come.” Because the stories of refugees always begin with “the men came and they…” and she’d rather kill herself than let herself be taken. Despite this, she has hope for a future. Or perhaps she simply takes joy in the present.

The book is not a happy one. Like Sing, Unburied, Sing, it’s an important book but not exactly an enjoyable one. There are enjoyable parts. But there are very hard parts, too. (I should note, here, a TRIGGER WARNING for a graphic description of rape, when Little Bee tells Sarah what happened to Little Bee’s older sister.) It did not end the way I wanted it to, though it ended in an unexpected way. I suppose it was too much to hope for a Happy Ever After when the vast majority of refugees don’t get one.

For all that there were very tough scenes to get through in this book, I’m still putting it on my Best of 2018 list. Little Bee’s voice and viewpoint is amazing, the story is well researched, and the plot absorbing. This is a book I’d like to have on my shelf.

This book fills the “book talked about in another book” (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) prompt for PopSugar 2018, and the “refugee MC” prompt for Booked 2018.

From the cover of Little Bee:

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book.

It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.

Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there . . .

Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds. 

Book Review: The Animators

animatorsThe Animators
by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Contemporary Fiction
386 pages
Published 2017

I hadn’t actually intended this to be one of my Pride Month reads, but Mel, the main character’s best friend and business partner, is lesbian, so it turns out that it counts! I read this book as part of Litsy’s “Buddy Reads” program, where everyone participating reads the same section of the book and discusses it before moving on to the next section. So I’ve been slowly reading this one over the past month. I’m not sure I would have read this if not for the Buddy Read.

This book surprised me! I enjoyed it, and I wasn’t sure I would. Mel and Sharon have been friends since college, spurring each other to greater artistry in their chosen field of adult cartooning. (Not porn, just not childish themes.) They work well together, with Mel coming up with most of the beginning ideas and Sharon hammering them into a shape that will work and keeping them on track through projects. But Mel has a drug and alcohol problem, and Sharon has a stroke, and working through all of those things are really what the book deals with.

The two go back to visit Sharon’s hometown in Kentucky at one point, and the way Sharon describes the town, and how surreal it is and how she never felt like she belonged, even when she lived there – that was a really hard-hitting passage for me. I went back to my own hometown last Christmas, and I felt the same feelings Sharon has in the book. Seeing those feelings actually put into words was….strange.

I honestly didn’t like either Mel or Sharon for the first few chapters, but as the story unfolds, they begin to open up. The book is about growing up in some ways; the two of them, though advancing in their careers, haven’t had to do a lot of maturing emotionally until the events of the book. I thought they both become much more likable as that happened.

The writing was excellent in this book, the character development outstanding, and the plot heartbreaking in places. Even though it’s not my typical reading fare, I really liked it.

You can find all my Pride Month reads listed here.

From the cover of The Animators:

She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.

Book Review: Mortal Engines

mortal engines

Mortal Engines
by Philip Reeve
Post-Apocalyptic Steampunk
296 pages
Published 2002

Through this entire book, I kept thinking “this feels like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” It’s a completely different setting, and a different plot, but it had the same atmosphere. Rollicking action, fantastical premise, crazy setting, huge machines with entire worlds within them. I loved Valerian – it may not have been a critically great movie, and I don’t think the leads had much chemistry, but the movie was just FUN. And that’s how Mortal Engines is, too.

It’s a crazy world, where cities have become mobile – think Howl’s Moving Castle – and they chase each other across a barren world, devouring each other for resources in a social order they call Municipal Darwinism. Some cities, like London, are huge, with six main levels, not really counting the Gut, or the center of the machinery. Other towns are small, one or two levels crawling along trying to avoid the notice of the larger, faster cities. The peoples of the Traction Cities think people who live in statics (stationary cities, or, horror of horrors, right on the ground!) or people who are part of the Anti-Traction League, are crazy barbarians. And then there are the airship captains and crews, based out of the one floating city.

It is a crazy steampunk world, and Tom Natsworthy stumbles into a conspiracy plot by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But as he travels with Hester across the wasteland, trying to survive their pursuers and avert catastrophe, he learns more about her, and more about how the world actually works.

I absolutely adore the last two sentences of the book, and I’m going to post those here because they aren’t terribly spoilery. And they’re fantastic.

“You aren’t a hero, and I’m not beautiful, and we probably won’t live happily ever after,” she said. “But we’re alive, and together, and we’re going to be all right.”

This book is the first of a quartet, and Reeve also wrote a prequel trilogy, so there’s actually three books before AND after this book. I’ll probably check my library for them, because I REALLY enjoyed this book.

Mortal Engines is also set to come out as a movie this December – I can’t tell from the teaser how closely it’s going to stick to the plot of the book, but the Traction Cities are well done!

This also fills the “Steampunk” prompt for Litsy’s Booked 2018 challenge.

From the cover of Mortal Engines:

Emerging from its hiding place in the hills, the great Traction City of London chases one terrified little town across the wastelands. If it cannot overpower smaller, slower prey, the city will come to a standstill and risk being taken over by another. In the attack, Tom Natsworthy, Apprentice Historian to the London Museum, is flung from its speeding superstructure into the barren wasteland of Out-Country. His only companion is Hester Shaw, a murderous, scar-faced girl who does not particularly want Tom’s company. But if they are to make it back to London, before Stalkers or hungry cities get them first, they will need to help each other, and fast. If Hester is to be believed, London is planning something atrocious, and the future of the world could be at stake. Can they get back to London before it’s too late?

Book Review: The Wolves of Winter

wolves of winterThe Wolves of Winter
by Tyrell Johnson
310 pages
Published January 2018

First off, I love this cover. Second, I am somewhat amused that Canadian dystopias always blame the US for the end of the world. It’s always, always, because the US decided to be stupid. I can’t blame them. It’s perfectly realistic. But it is slightly amusing. In the case of The Wolves of Winter, the US carried its War on Terror too far and started nuclear war. It’s unclear how widespread the nuclear winter is; the book is based in the Canadian Yukon where it’s already cold. There’s a brief mention of farmers farther south, so there is still some warmth somewhere. What really did humanity in, though, was the Asian flu. There’s rumor that it was a biological weapon deployed by the US, that then escaped their control, but no one’s really sure.

Lynn – Gwendolynn – lives in a small compound in the Yukon with her mother, brother, uncle, and uncle’s ward. (The son of his best friend – I’m inclined to believe he’s actually the son of the uncle’s lover, but nothing was actually verified.) The only other human they’ve seen in years is their scumbag neighbor who occasionally steals deer out of Lynn’s traps.

Until one day, while out hunting, Lynn comes across the mysterious Jax and his husky, Wolf. She brings him home for food and to tend his wound, and while her family is initially very wary of him, he starts to fit in. And then, of course, the brown stuff hits the fan.

I really enjoyed Lynn and her family. In flashbacks we see them before the flu, before they had to be survivors. I got the feeling her father always saw this coming, and was preparing her for it long before it actually happened. Lynn’s memories of her father are particularly vivid and help to explain exactly how she’s become who she is now.

I really enjoyed this book and read it in a single sitting, but I really like dystopias and winter settings. Ultimately, it’s a pretty average nuclear winter dystopia.

This is the 13th book for my Read Canadian Challenge, so while I do have more Canadian books I plan to read (I just picked up The Young in One Another’s Arms from the library!) I am actually done with the challenge! This also fits the “book about the outdoors or environment” prompt for my Litsy Booked 2018 challenge.

My other Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. The Clothesline Swing
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. this book!

From the cover of The Wolves of Winter:

In a postapocalyptic tradition that spans The Hunger Games and Station Eleven but blazes its own distinctive path, this captivating tale shows humanity pushed beyond its breaking point and features a heroic young woman who crosses a frozen landscape to find her destiny.

Forget the old days. Forget summer. Forget warmth. Forget anything that doesn’t help you survive in the endless white wilderness beyond the edges of a fallen world. Lynn McBride has learned much since society collapsed in the face of nuclear war and the relentless spread of disease. As the memories of her old life continue to haunt, she’s been forced to forge ahead in the snow-drifted Canadian Yukon, learning how to hunt and trap and slaughter. 

But her fragile existence is about to be shattered. Shadows of “the world before” have found her tiny community – most prominently in the enigmatic figure of Jax, who brings with him dark secrets of the past and sets in motion a chain of events that will call Lynn to a role she never imagined.

A stunning debut novel that delivers unforgettable images, The Wolves of Winter reminds us that when everything else is lost there are still things to fight for.


Book Review: The Clothesline Swing

clothesline swingThe Clothesline Swing
Ahmad Danny Ramadan
Fictional Memoir?
288 pages
Published April 2017

I had to force myself to finish this book. It was okay at the beginning – I was hoping it would get better, and it did not. The Clothesline Swing is the the story of two gay Syrian refugees. It’s an interesting framework; the narrator, one of the two, is telling stories to his husband to keep him in the world of the living. (The husband is dying from an unnamed illness.) There’s a catch, though – Death is also with them, as an actual presence that can be talked to and interacted with. He smokes a joint with the narrator at one point, and tells stories of his own – even plans a party – at another point. The story flicks back and forth between their past and their present with some unpredictability as the narrator tells his stories.

Because of the presence of Death, and the kind of hazy, in-between space that the stories reside in (between life and death, between awake and asleep, between fantasy and reality), the entire book is a little dream-like. I don’t particularly enjoy ever-shifting books that don’t have some kind of solid foundation for me to start on.

The book did a good job of showing the dangers of being gay in middle-eastern society, and also showed how hard it is to be a citizen of a country at war with itself. The list of friends who have died in violent ways is threaded through the entire book of stories. She was caught in a crossfire in an alley – he killed himself after being forced to marry a woman – he died when his office was shelled – she died from a car bomb.

I don’t know. It’s a strange book. I’m hesitant to say don’t waste your time, because it covers important topics, but the dreamy quality just ruined it for me.

Ramadan is a Syrian refugee living in British Columbia, making this book part of my Read Canadian Challenge. It’s also my pick for “book about death or mourning” for the Popsugar 2018 challenge, and “unconventional romance” for the Litsy Booked Challenge.

My other Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. this book!
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of The Clothesline Swing:

The Clothesline Swing is a journey through the troublesome aftermath of the Arab Spring. A former Syrian refugee himself, Ramadan unveils an enthralling tale of courage that weaves through the mountains of Syria, the valleys of Lebanon, the encircling seas of Turkey, the heat of Egypt and finally, the hope of a new home in Canada.

Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, The Clothesline Swing tells the epic story of two lovers anchored to the memory of a dying Syria. One is a Hakawati, a storyteller, keeping life in forward motion by relaying remembered fables to his dying partner. Each night he weaves stories of his childhood in Damascus, of the cruelty he has endured for his sexuality, of leaving home, of war, of his fated meeting with his lover. Meanwhile Death himself, in his dark cloak, shares the house with the two men, eavesdropping on their secrets as he awaits their final undoing.