the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘Japan

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

published May 2018

where I got it: purchased new

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I don’t know what I was expecting when I bought this book.  I’d heard good things about it, it got some buzz when it came out, and then it fell off my radar. I knew it was about a kid who attends an elite military academy, gets embroiled in a war, and has to risk everything.

 

when I read the back cover copy, my first thought was “is this a fantasy version of Ender’s Game?”   Hahahahah!!!!  yeah . . . . nope. More like Name of the Wind if written by Robin Hobb and then half way through Ian Tregillis took over in the vein of the Bitter Seeds books.

 

I meant to keep this review light and happy and talk about the plot and Rin’s adventures at school and how cute it is that she has no idea how to talk to boys she likes, and that she’s great at memorizing facts but shitty at martial arts.  I meant to write a super happy funtime book review.

 

That didn’t happen.

 

Good news first!  The Dragon Republic (book 2) is already out!  You can read books 1 and 2 back to back!

 

The Poppy War  does start out fairly light and happy – a war orphan, Rin, needs to escape her opium smuggling foster family before they marry her off, so she studies for the imperial exam and hopes for a scholarship.  Not only does she do well on the imperial exam, she has the highest score in her prefecture and gains a full scholarship to Nikan’s elite military academy Sinegard. Rin doesn’t care what she studies, she doesn’t care about dorm life, she just knows that school means she won’t have to marry a stranger and that she’ll get three meals a day, and that after graduation she won’t have to go home.

 

She’s by far the poorest most provincial kid at the school, and is relentlessly bullied by wealthier upper class students and a few teachers as well. But, like I said, none of them are forcing her to get married or get involved with opium smuggling, so she shrugs it off.  I thought it was so cute that Rin has no idea how to talk to boys she likes – she thinks they are cute, she ends up staring at them, but has zero idea how to talk to them. It was funny and adorable. And as dark as the end of this book gets, I was thankful for these cute light scenes at the beginning.

 

This is not one of those long, drawn out school chronicles, where each book is one year at school.  The Poppy War is ultra fast paced. Kuang deftly uses a few school scenes for worldbuilding, where the students are discussing world history, with the professor telling them what really happened.   Oh, and a whole shit-ton of other awesome stuff happens that I won’t spoil for you.

 

Before you know it, Rin’s first year of school is over and she’s pledged to study Lore under the school’s weirdest professor, Jiang. Doesn’t hurt that she easily recognized the hallucinogens in his garden.   He is saddened that her goal is to become a good soldier.

 

So, Jiang and Lore.  why would a military school offer classes on lore, mythology, and shamanism?  Why indeed.

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The Grass-Cutting Sword, by Catherynne M. Valente

published in 2006

where I got it: purchased used

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Before a girl circumnavigated fairyland, before John fell in love with Hagia,  before six super- heroines discussed their stories in the afterlife, and long before Space Opera, Catherynne Valente was taking the poetry and dreamyness of folklore and turning it inside out to show you the shiny bits you hadn’t known were there.

 

Valente’s novella, The Grass-Cutting Sword, was published in 2006, and if you come across a copy in some used bookstore somewhere, BUY IT.  (or even better, find a copy of Myths of Origin, which includes even more of Valente’s early work!) Especially if you like folklore. Especially if you like beautiful / weird / strange writing. If you enjoy C.S.E Cooney or Benjanun Sriduangkaew, you’ll love this.

 

In the story notes in Myths of Origin, Valente describes The Grass-Cutting Sword as “probably the most textually experimental and angriest” of her work. Yes, it is very experimental! But none of the characters seem overly angry. Driven? Absolutely. Tragic? That too.  Oh, and  as with all good fairy tales, there is a dragon and there is a sword.

The Grass-Cutting Sword is a retelling of the Japanese folktale of how the storm god Susanoo was banished from heaven by his sister Ama-Terasu. Instead of viewing it as a banishment, he takes the opportunity to seek his mother in her underground realm.  Recognized as a god by a worshipful man and woman, he undertakes the quest to save their recently abducted youngest daughter from an eight-headed serpent which has eaten the other seven daughters.

 

If he succeeds in the quest he has undertaken, the parents have promised him he can marry their youngest daughter as soon as he rescues her. Her parents say she is the most beautiful girl in the world, fit for an Emperor! And Susanoo wouldn’t be so insulting as to disagree, now would he?

 

The narrative flips back and forth between Susanoo’s point of view, and the serpent’s point of view.  Susanoo doesn’t mind hunting down the serpent, he’s not quite sure what else (other than look for the entrance to his mother’s realm) he’s supposed to do on Earth anyways.

 

 

As he travels the countryside looking for signs of the serpent, he tells the reader the story of creation – how his parents lived on an island surrounded by jellyfish, how his mother created the islands of Japan, how her fiery child was the last she would give birth to. Susanoo tells of his own creation, and that of his sister Ama-Terasu and his brother Tsuki-Yomi.

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break the demon gateYamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate, by Richard Parks

published in 2014

where I got it: purchased new

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Historical fiction about a time and place I don’t know much about combined with mystery, ghosts, demons, and political intrigue? Sign me up. As much as I love my space opera and low fantasy, I grew up reading historical fiction, and historical works have a very special place in my heart. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of Richard Parks’ short stories, so I was curious to read one of his novels.

 

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks takes place in 11th century Japan.  Yamada no Goji is a minor nobleman, lately welcomed at the palace compound, but since the loss of Princess Teiko, he has avoided crossing paths with the nobility.  What was the secret she was willing to die for? Was someone blackmailing her? And the larger concern is the safety of her son, Emperor Takahito. The power of the Fujiwara clan is rising, how far will they go to ensure one of their own sits upon the throne?

 

(quick language lesson: Monogatari translates to story, tale, or narrative)

 

The opening chapters of To Break the Demon Gate are just beautiful. Characters send metaphor laden poetry back and forth to each other, and this art of courtly poetry was a real thing in the court of the Heian period. Inflection, rhythm, symbology, and how it all came together in a very short verse was just as important as the information carried therein.  Many of the poems are explained, but I enjoyed trying to figure out the symbology before Yamada explained it to me. Colorful poetry aside, this was a very formal environment, with no room for public displays of affection. In these early chapters, it is implied that Yamada and Princess Teiko have a history, but exactly what that history is is never spe Read the rest of this entry »

starship haikuStarship and Haiku, but Somtow Sucharitkul

published in 1981

where I got it: purchased used

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It’s been a week for weird fiction, that’s for sure. Starship And Haiku came home with me from the used bookstore because it looked oh so strange. And as far as strangeness, it didn’t disappoint. A post apocalyptic story, Starship and Haiku has something to say about clashing cultures, honor, communication, and survival. It succeeds grandly in the sense that it’s ambitious, unique, and strange. But does it succeed in being a good book?

When Josh was ten years old, the skies over his home in Hawaii exploded. People rushed to the shelters as fast as they could, and that was the night his brother Didi was born. Now an adult, and responsible for his brother’s welfare, Josh works at a hospice for plague victims. Called “stranges”, some plague victims suffer radiation poisoning, others have odder diseases that come with telekinesis or precognition. Even Didi is technically a strange – he’s never spoken a work, and has been diagnosed as being mentally retarded. Didi may not have the power of speech, but he’s the furthest thing from being retarded. In fact, if he could just learn to harness his inner voice and his telepathy, he could “talk” to Josh all he wanted.

One evening, Didi sees a dying beached whale, and he has a telepathic conversation with the whale. The whales are in love with death, and see death as the ultimate beautiful act. Didi doesn’t view death like that, but he respects the whale’s alien thoughts, and Didi starts understanding how to speak in the ideogram language of the whales.

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The Secrets of Mariko, by Elisabeth Bumiller

written in 1995

where I got it: purchased used

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And now for something completely different, non-fiction!

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The Secrets of Mariko isn’t scifi or fantasy. It isn’t even fiction (although that would be a hella cool name for an SF book, wouldn’t it?).  this book is exactly as its subtitle explains – it is one year in the life of an ordinary Japanese woman and her family.

I’ve always been interested in other cultures, particularly how women in other cultures live their lives. In high school my foreign language was Japanese, and I spent two weeks in Japan after 10th grade. I still have a soft spot for all things Japanese – the language, the culture, the music, the religion, the food. So Yes, when a family member suggested a slower paced book about normal life in Japan, I jumped at the chance.

the author, Elisabeth Bumiller, is a professional journalist, and as such she isn’t afraid to ask tough and sometimes awkward questions. While in Japan for three years in the early 1990s, Bumiller decided to profile a completely ordinary Japanese housewife, to give Americans a view of how women in Japan live. Yes, I know this book is over 15 years old, and so may no longer be a completely contemporary view on Japanese society, but it was still a very satisfying read for me.

Through a translator friend, Elisabeth Bumiller is introduced to 40-something Mariko Tanaka, who lives in a suburb of Tokyo with her husband, three children, and aging parents. The Secrets of Mariko is equally about Mariko’s life as it is Bumiller’s reaction to many aspects of Japanese culture that us Americans find, for lack of a better term, foreign.

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Time for something completely different!  Work has been nuts lately, so I read something quick and easy. it had lots of pictures.

Oishinbo, volume 1, by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki

Where did I get it: the library

I’d been hearing about this title for a while “The manga that’s all about food!”,  “a bestseller in Japan!”, “everybody is reading this!”, so when I saw it at the library, of course I had to get it.  The title, Oishinbo, means Gourmet, so this had to be for a food lover like me!

The first few pages of Oishinbo are character profiles, and with a large cast, you will want to take the time to read these. The main characters are Yamaoto Shiro, a young man who was trained in the traditional culinary arts and now works at a news agency, and his father Kaibara, one of the city’s foremost experts in traditional cooking techniques.Yamaoto had originally trained at his fathers school, but the two had a falling out and are now barely on speaking terms. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Yamaoto’s friends and co-workers, and Kaibara’s business associates.

Yamaoto’s newspaper is working on an “Ultimate Menu”, and each chapter in Oishinbo covers a different aspect of traditional Japanese cooking from Dashi, the chopsticks, to the basics of sushi, to knife use and treatment to tea ceremony to the connection between environment and meal enjoyment.  This isn’t so much a plot centered story as it is a discussion of the beauty of Japanese food culture. The food culture and culinary traditions of Japan focus around presentation, and the time, energy, and love that went into creating and preparing the food, the utensils used to eat it, the plates it is served on, even the environment it is served in.

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Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

published in 1997

where I got it:  it was in the free box at work

why I read it: I loved the movie, have been meaning to read it for a while.

first things first:  Geisha are not prostitutes.  they are not home-wreckers, they are not call-girls, they are not exotic dancers. If you’re having even the slightest difficulty grokking that, Memoirs of a Geisha probably isn’t the book for you. Or perhaps it’s the perfect book for you.

With her parents no longer able to support her, Chiyo and her older sister are sold to a broker of sorts, who arranges for the girls to be taken to Kyoto. Perhaps they will be maids their entire life, perhaps geisha, perhaps something else.  Chiyo finds herself at nine years old as a maid in an Okiya alongside another girl named Pumpkin.   Coming face to face with Hatsumomo, the Geisha of the  okiya, Chiyo learns fast that her life will take one of two paths: become a geisha, or be a maid for the rest of her life.

After a chance encounter with a gentleman, Chiyo experiences her first crush and decides no matter what, she will become a geisha in hopes of meeting this man again.  Taken on as an apprentice by the famous geisha Mameha, who happens to be Hatsumomo’s chief rival, Chiyo is about to discover becoming a geisha is harder than she ever imagined.  Hours of education on music, dance, and the art of conversation, and still, no garauntee of anything unless she gains a wealthy and influential danna, or patron.  Meanwhile, her crush has turned into an obsession of sorts.  But Chiyo is young and naive, and doesn’t realize that everyone in her life, from Mameha to the Mother of her okiya has their own plans for her. Read the rest of this entry »


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.