Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka

Suzuki is in way over his head in Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka. But then, it’s true that revenge never goes according to plan…and especially not in an Isaka novel. When we meet him, Suzuki is in a very awkward position. He’s managed to infiltrate the organization run by the father of the guy who killed his wife. Suzuki hopes his plan will get him closer to his wife’s killer. It’s not a bad plan, except that Suzuki is not nearly as good an actor as he thinks he is. His “supervisor” devises an awful test for him and, just when Suzuki has to make a decision, the plot erupts to life. Isaka takes us on a wild ride across Tokyo as plans collide with schemes and get tangled up in last-ditch efforts. It’s an intricately plotted mess involving a lot of very dangerous people.

While Three Assassins begins with a revenge plot stopped in its tracks, it quickly turns into a bunch of narratives bouncing off one another. Suzuki’s bumbling intersects with the efforts of the Cicada (a master with knives who specializes in eliminating entire families) to make his name in the “industry” of killers for hire and with the Whale’s (who specializes in forcing people to commit suicide) attempts to settle scores that have been racking up over the course of his shadowy career. And then there’s the Pusher, who kills people with a timely push in front of a car or train. All three of these assassins are people you never want to meet. Unfortunately for Suzuki, he’s on a collision course with all of them.

I can’t say too much more about Three Assassins without giving things away. Suffice to say, this book is an excellent thriller. Isaka’s intersecting plots and mordant humor are a delight to read. The hints of the supernatural make things even better. Readers who want a fast, fierce read should pick this one up.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Bullet Train, by Kōtarō Isaka

Just minutes out of Tokyo and mere sentences into the open chapters of Bullet Train, by Kōtarō Isaka, the action begins. We barely get a chance to breathe as the characters collide on the Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Morioka; the plot twists come fast and furious. I completely understand why someone turned this book into a movie.

It’s hard to know who to root for in Bullet Train. In most stories, it’s fairly clear who’s the protagonist and who the antagonist. The first chapters present us with different scenarios, only to turn things on their head almost immediately. In one car on the Shinkansen, a man who wants to murder a teenager in an act of revenge is taken prisoner by that teenager. A pair of hired gunmen, in another car, have just realized that the kid they were hired to rescue has mysteriously died on them. In a third car, we meet the closest thing to a protagonist, in the form of a very unlucky man who has also been known to kill people for money. Nanao is only on the train to steal a suitcase when he spots someone who, on spotting Nanaro himself, decides he needs revenge then and there.

See what I mean about not being able to catch a breath? The plots never stop.

Shinkansen Trains, 2012 (Image via Wikicommons)

As the various characters run into each other—and eventually start trying to kill one another—we pick up more pieces of information about what the hell is going on. I won’t spoil anything here by giving away details; part of the fun of reading this book is learning what brought all of these people to this particular train and who is really pulling the strings behind it all. The rest of the fun comes from watching all of these professionals fighting each other. I could see the action in my head as Nanao and Lemon and Tangerine and the Prince throw punches, dodge, and try to outsmart each other.

This book was an amazing read and I’d definitely recommend it to any reader who wants something exciting to read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Village of Eight Graves, by Seishi Yokomizo

Trigger warning for brief sexual violence.

It’s always a gamble when you read a twentieth-century mystery that a publisher has rescued from obscurity. I’m not sure what the odds are, but there’s a chance that the book was allowed to languish for a reason rather than tastes have changed. Pushkin Vertigo has been republishing the work of Seishi Yokomizo, who created detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Depending on which list you consult, The Village of Eight Graves is the third, first, or fourth book in the Kindaichi series. It’s also a curious choice for Pushkin Vertigo because the detective doesn’t appear on stage very much. Instead, this installment is narrated by an unfortunate man who gets involved in a conspiracy that is (seemingly coincidentally) being investigated by Kindaichi. Because our narrator, Tatsuya, and Kindaichi don’t have many reasons to spend time in each other’s company, Tatsuya isn’t a good vehicle to show us Kindaichi’s brilliance most of the time. He is, however, perfectly placed to show us a very strange village and an even stranger family.

The first hurdle to reading The Village of Eight Graves is the prologue. In this prologue we learn that the village has witnessed two scenes of mass murder, one of which gave the remote village its name. These mass murders were perpetrated by members of the Tajimi family. One instance might be excused, but two argues that there is something sinister in the Tajimi family. So when a possible heir to the Tajimi family shows up in the first chapter in the form of our narrator, everyone eyes him sideways when he comes to the village. Tatsuya is the son of a woman abused by the perpetrator of the second mass murder, who may be his father. When he gets the news that he might be a possible heir to the Tajimi fortune, he is tempted to go back to the village What really gets him there is when his grandfather is poisoned right in front of him. Tatsuya knows that the only way out through the mystery and the possible inheritance is to figure out what’s going on.

The mystery elements of The Village of Eight Graves are wild, intriguing—and I really wish that Tatsuya had a better perspective on those parts of the story. He has a ringside seat to a series of poisonings and accusations about who the murderer might be and we learn plenty about what’s going on that way. (Readers who are smarter than I am might be able to figure out whodunnit before Tatsuya and I did.) Unfortunately—at least for me and modern readers—Tatsuya and the misogyny in the narrative were so prominent in this book that I had a hard time finishing it. The attitudes about gender in this book have not aged nearly as well as the fiendish mystery. The women in this novel are either emotionally or physically fragile, scheming and old, or femmes fatales with more than their fair share of wiles. I was disgusted by the way that women are dismissed or demonized, not just by the narrator but by every character (even the female ones).

I know I missed a lot in The Village of Eight Graves, in spite of the excellent, albeit very British flavored, translation by Bryan Karetnyk. I know that mid-twentieth century Japanese fiction owes a few things to Western Golden Age mysteries, but it’s still very much a new field for me. This blog post from My Japanese Bookshelf helped explain some of those things. I wish I had found it first. That said, I doubt anything could’ve helped me weather the repellent attitudes towards women on display here. I rolled the dice on this one because I was intrigued by the idea of a mystery in Japan but, sadly, I lost this one.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Decagon House Murders, by Yukito Ayatsuji

One would think that a group of mystery novel enthusiasts would know better not to take up a strange invitation to an island that has a bad reputation. One of them even references And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie on the boat ride over. But then, most of the characters in the excellent The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji (translated by Ho-Ling Wong) are college students who think that they’re clever enough to outwit any dangers. It isn’t long before the characters of this novel start to die off in spite of all their supposed brilliance, even as they try to figure out who’s behind an astounding number of murders.

The misdirection begins immediately in The Decagon House Murders. We’re in Japan, near the island of Kyushu, but details about the exact location are obscured. Also, everyone we meet in the first chapter is known by the name of a Golden Age mystery writer. There’s (John Dickson) Carr, Agatha (Christie), (Gaston) Leroux, and more. They’re all members of a Mystery Club at their unnamed university. In addition to devouring mysteries, they also write stories for their own mystery magazine. The idea behind their trip is to use the atmosphere of Tsunojima island—the site of a mass murder/suicide—to inspire them for their new issue, as well as put their minds to the still not-quite-solved mystery of what happened. Things seem all right for the first day, but they don’t stay that way. Within 48 hours, the first victim dies.

While one clump of protagonists runs around the strange decagonal house of the title trying to figure things out and not get murdered, an ex-member of the Mystery Club receives a letter accusing him and the rest of the Club of killing yet another member of the Mystery Club the previous year. (The members of the club now on the island encouraged the deceased girl to drink so much that she died of alcohol poisoning.) The ex-member—mostly known as Conan even though he doesn’t like it—follows a thin trail of clues to the father of the deceased girl. Conan knows something is seriously wrong on Tsunojima. Worse, he as no way of contacting his friends and doesn’t have enough information to go to the police.

The two plots run in tandem, throwing up red herrings and genuine clues alike. It’s not until near the end that I was able to confirm my suspicions about what was going. Ayatsuji follows the rules of fair play, but this is still one of the most devious mysteries I’ve ever read. The Decagon House is a brilliant story in the style of Golden Age mysteries. It definitely lives up to the hype.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Where the Wild Ladies Are, by Aoko Matsuda

Trigger warning for brief domestic violence.

In one of the stories in Aoko Matsuda’s collection, Where the Wild Things Are (smoothly translated by Polly Barton), a character reads Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. This classic children’s story captures the character’s imagination but, in the end, the character is shocked when the creatures start to chant their love and desire to eat the protagonist at the same time. Although this isn’t the first story in the collection, this moment helped me realize one of the major themes in these linked stories. Matsuda’s stories show us characters who find happiness and purpose in letting go of social constraints. Wild things need to be wild, this collection tells us, even if they’re not sure they’re wild yet

A narrative starts to appear after the first few stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are. Character names start to reappear. Soon, we see Mr. Tei recruiting for a company that no one can remember the name of. This company—which we later learn is staffed by living and dead employees—seems to be the latest incarnation of a whole host of Japanese folk lore and myths. One department hires out Child-Rearing Ghosts. Another manufactures incense that has extraordinary powers. Thankfully, Matsuda included a series of notes at the end of the book that has brief summaries of all the stories and texts that are referenced in the stories. It was nice to know the backstories of all the supernatural characters and ghosts that show up in Where the Wild Ladies Are.

At first, I wasn’t sure about Where the Wild Ladies Are. The first story was a little long. Others in the collection I read with my eyebrows all the way up—especially the story about the woman who has so much jealousy that she buys cheap and/or easily repairable things that she can throw at her husband or destroy during her regular rages. It was strange to read an entire series of stories all about letting go of restraint to embrace their wilder emotions. So much of the literature I read features characters learning to stifle their passions, to “grow up.” I enjoyed seeing character go the other way for a change.

Linked short stories are my favorite type of short stories. Novels will probably always be my favorite kind of narrative, but I appreciate how varied linked short stories can be. The focus doesn’t have to stay on a small group of characters. Instead, we can see how characters’ own arcs brush up against others’. Also, as a frequent mystery reader, I really love watching for clues about the overarching narrative. It’s like a bonus story on top of all the other ones. Where the Wild Ladies Are is a terrific example of the genre.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Inheritors, by Asako Serizawa

Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors tells the story of a Japanese family caught up in history and questions of identity from the early 1900s to a few decades from now, always wondering what might have been if different decisions were made. Even though it’s made up of linked short stories, I found this book to be a slow burn—most of the “action” happens off the page and we generally see our characters wrestling with feelings of survivor’s guilt, regret, and anger.

The first story in the collection, “Flight,” is one of the oldest in the book’s chronology and is one of the few that’s not set in Japan. These differences are superficial, however, as this story introduces a theme that will play out over and over in the decades that follow. A child of this particular family (their surname is not given) will be separated from the larger family, either through choice or by accident. Ayumi, the protagonist of “Flight,” is separated by a bit of both. Like so many of her nieces and nephews, she will always wonder if she made the right choices.

Many of the later stories revolve directly around World War II. Several members of the family are dissidents, but two end up serving the Imperial Japanese Army. Tanaka went so far as to change his name so that he could sign up as a soldier. Another is dragooned into working for the notorious Unit 731. Later, two “brothers” meet up after finding each other years after the Tokyo firebombing ruined one life and transformed another for the better.

Because much of this book deals with the emotional aftermath of momentous events, we are given plenty of opportunities to think about how family and history push us into certain identities. For most of his life, Maasaki knew that he was the adopted child of Masaharu and Masako. Learning that he is not actually Japanese but the child of Korean workers throws him for such a loop that it destroys his relationship with his American wife and half-American children. One weight of history is suddenly swapped for another, apparently heavier, one.

Inheritors is a meditative look at history and identity. It was a little slow for my taste, but I very much appreciated the way it looked at choice and fate.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Aosawa Murders, by Riku Onda

There are many layers to Riku Onda’s hypnotic novel, The Aosawa Murders (seamlessly translated by Alison Watts). At the center of this particular onion is a mass poisoning in 1973. Then, there is a deliberately ambiguous book published about the murders that blurs the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Lastly, the book in our hands: a collection of interviews and documents collected by an unnamed narrator. We are given clues to try and understand what happened but this book is more about how rumors travel, can change reputations in an instant, and make us obsess for years.

It’s little surprise that the mass poisoning of the respected Aosawa family is still the talk of the town of K—, even thirty years after the fact. While a culprit was identified, no one knows why a man with no connection to the family would decide to poison sake and sodas and then deliver the beverages to the Aosawas. The fact that the police and the community never find out why keeps tongues waging in K—. Part of the appeal of The Aosawa Murders is trying one’s hand at figuring out what the police were unable to uncover at the time of the poisonings.

As I read The Aosawa Murders, I realized that there was another mystery afoot. When the unnamed narrator interviews the author of The Forgotten Festival, the “definitive” book on the murders, there are clues that the author had ulterior motives in writing the book. This author was apparently a master at getting people to reveal information they thought they had forgotten or just hadn’t realized the significance of. The unnamed narrator follows this author’s trail and re-interviews many of the author’s informants. We hear the same basic story, from different angles, but there are new pieces of information that the police didn’t have at the time. These clues point to something much more sinister than the more believable story of a lone madman.

The Aosawa Murders is an unusual crime novel. Unlike so many other books in the mystery genre and all its sub-genres, this novel reads like a deconstruction. The unnamed narrator leaves much of the work to the reader to put the pieces together from the texts and interviews they present. We have to decide what’s significant and what can be discarded as irrelevant. It’s always a little startling to me when I’m reminded of the overlap between an English major and a detective. Both hear stories and have to make meaning of what we’ve been told. The Aosawa Murders, on top of being an unusual case to puzzle over, is also a fascinating piece of literature to try and understand.

Echo on the Bay, by Masatsugu Ono

To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, all happy villages are alike and all unhappy villages are unhappy in their one way. At least, this is the impression I got as I read Masatsugu Ono’s Echo on the Bay (solidly translated by Angus Turvill). When Miki and her family arrive in Oita after her father’s transfer, the family expects a quiet life in the coastal village. After all, why would they send a man who cannot pass the promotion exams to be the top police officer in Oita?

At first, the family is treated to a bit of pomp and circumstance (and a lot of gifted alcohol) by the village’s wheelers and dealers. Their biggest annoyance is that the village drunk constantly visits their house to drink until he’s legless. (This mostly bothers Miki’s younger brother, as the drinking prevents him from watching TV.) Things start to go off the rails a bit as election season heats up. The top candidates are brothers-in-law who are competing to buy up as many votes as possible. The corruption becomes so outrageous that Miki’s father is forced to act. Each side gives up two men from their election campaigns to be arrested—which Miki’s father does after a long day trip to a pachinko parlor with his “prisoners.”

Eventually, the town’s gossips (four men with silicosis who live off of government benefits) grow comfortable with their new chief of police to start revealing the village’s dirty secrets, stretching all the way back to the Japanese occupations of Manchuria and Korea. The men repeat stories about curses that affect certain families—curses that are really just bad decisions and/or family histories of abuse. The sleepy facade of Oita is constantly belied by all of the crimes and shenanigans committed by its inhabitants.

By stripping away its apparent quietness, Ono turns the story of a village on its head. Where other novels (I’m thinking of British pastoral novels here mostly, apart from my beloved Cold Comfort Farm) highlight the charm of the surroundings, Ono’s narrator frequently remarks on the stench and pollution of the fish farm. Where those novels unravel complicated family histories, Ono’s story unravels tangled webs of criminality. Echo on the Bay is a disturbing little book, perfect for readers who like to read about the gritty reality the lies beneath small-town life.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, by Natasha Pulley

I’ve been waiting impatiently for Natasha Pulley to write another book featuring the all-knowing Keita Mori and synesthetic Thaniel Steepleman, first introduced in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. The characters were too good and too original to be one-offs. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow brings the lovers to Mori’s homeland, Japan, where events seem to be spiraling into open war between Russia and Japan.

We learned in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that Mori has the ability to remember the future. Yes, you read that correctly. Mori remembers the future and is able to manipulate events to achieve his goals. These manipulations are small, usually in the form of a word dropped in someone’s ear or a meeting between two people who will achieve great things. In spite of (and because of) this awesome power, Mori lives a low-key life with Thaniel in London with their adopted daughter, Six. But, as The Lost Future of Pepperharrow opens, Mori is beginning to make things move. The only problem is, this time, he can’t remember why. All he can remember is that it has something to do with microscopes.

As they do when Mori is involved, events begin to conspire around the pair. The growing crisis leads the Foreign Office to dispatch Thaniel to Tokyo to translate for the British legation, with Six in tow, at the same time that Mori returns from his mysterious errands in St. Petersburg and Paris. Even though the three travel together to Japan, it isn’t long before plans laid years ago start to pull them apart. Pulley ratchets up the tension throughout the novel by revealing that Mori’s future memory is getting worse. Without Mori’s deft control on events and no clear goal in sight, no one really knows what’s going to happen. Thaniel has hope that it’s all going to work out for the best but he’s the only one. Worse, Mori is facing up against a very bad man who has just become Prime Minister. The Minister is spoiling for a fight against a world power and a way to replicate Mori’s ability so that Japan can become a great empire.

I was on tenterhooks for most of the book. I just had to know how things would end up in the end. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow was beautifully plotted, with twists and turns that seemed so impossible I couldn’t imagine any way out for the fantastically drawn characters. This book was definitely worth the wait.

Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami

Where Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 presents a Korean everywoman without diving too deeply into her thoughts and feelings, Mieko Kawakami’s portrait of a Japanese writer, Breasts and Eggs, is all thoughts and feelings. Natsuko Natsume lives in Tokyo, eking out a living as a freelance writer. She lives alone. Although she socializes with friends and stays relatively close to her sister and niece, Natsuko is a lonely woman. She’s used to shuffling along, shifting for herself; she tends to listen more than speaking. But, over time, she starts to wonder how she—a single woman who doesn’t like sex—might have a child. This slow moving book closely examines what it means to have the ability to bear a child. Sam Bett and David Boyd did an incredible job translating Kawakami’s prose. The conversations are particularly lively, given the overall pace of the book.

Breasts and Eggs is a novella paired with a longer novel. The title is much more on the nose in regards to the novella. In it, Natsuku hosts her sister, Makiko, and her niece, Midoriko. Makiko is investigating plastic surgery clinics in the hopes of getting breast implants. Meanwhile, Midoriko has stopped talking except through notes. Midoriko’s journal entries reveal her preoccupation with ova, ovaries, and menstruation and her unhappy bewilderment at her mother’s obsession with breasts. Thankfully, all of this emotional angst resolves in a highly symbolic moment of catharsis.

The longer novel moves much more slowly than the novella. It focuses almost solely on Natsuko. Other characters make brief appearances to converse with Natsuko, who then spends pages digesting what people have told her. The result is that we spend a lot of time thinking about why people have children. Characters are variously horrified (most of them) or encouraging of Natsuko’s decision to be artificially inseminated by a sperm donor. Natsuko’s sister is initially horrified. Even though Makiko had a child at a young age and quickly separated from the father, Makiko argues for a traditional family set up as the only way to have a child. Another character, a child who was the result of artificial insemination and suffered sexual abuse, vehemently argues against having children at all, declaring that bearing a child is an act of egotistical violence. I was struck by all of the thought and deliberation and argumentation about having children. I know very few people who planned to have a child. I’m fairly sure my siblings and I were all happy accidents. (My mother blames shore leave and good wine.)

The novel reaches a conclusion about whether or not Natsuko should have a child in her unconventional way. I appreciated this, given how opinions ranged from character to character. I wasn’t sure until the very end if Natsuko would follow through on her plan. That said, I think Breasts and Eggs would be a fantastic choice for a book club. There are so many questions to think about. When should someone have a child? What is an acceptable reason to have a child? What does a parent owe to their child if they use artificial insemination? There are so many nuances to motherhood and womanhood to unpack; a book club could talk about Breasts and Eggs for hours.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.