BOOK REVIEWS

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake is narrated by the quintessential Banana Yoshimoto protagonist. While Yoshimoto’s sparse yet dreamy makes for an easy reading experience this is definitely not one of her ‘strongest’ novels.
Chihiro, daughter of an ‘unconventional’ couple, moves to Tokyo in order to pursue a career graphic artist. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and spends most of her time on her own. One day, as she is staring out of her window, she sees a young man staring back from a window across the street. The two quickly form a bond and begin to spend their spare time together. Nakajima, who has also lost his mother, is somewhat unwilling to discuss his past with Chihiro and when their relationship becomes more of a romance it becomes clear to her that he must have experience some childhood trauma.
This short novel is definitely not plot-oriented as the narrative mainly consists in Chihiro either navel-gazing or pronouncing two-bit aphorisms.
While Yoshimoto does evoke the places and sensations Chihiro visits/experiences, The Lake lacked the atmosphere and feeling of Kitchen an Umi no Futa (which I believe has yet to be translated in English). And whereas I usually enjoy how nostalgic ambience of her work, The Lake just came across as dated. Chihiro seems almost to relish the idea that Nakajima may be deeply traumatised and we also have a side-character who is affected by a mysterious illness and bed bound yet she is also omniscient and able to speak through others…
Overall, this was definitely one of Yoshimoto’s more banal stories as it lacked that vital zing which usually makes her books such zesty reads.

my rating: ★★½

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Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura

“The only place she could now go to freely from her bedroom was the castle. If I’m in the castle, she started to think, then I’ll be safe. Only the castle beyond the mirror could offer her complete protection.”

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a heartfelt slice of life novel with a magical twist. Personally, I don’t think that this novel has much in common with Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman…while I understand that yes, they both are authored by Japanese women and yes, they both are concerned with mental health but story and style wise the two have nothing in common. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is closer to the work of Ghibli (more When Marnie Was There than Spirited Away) or anime such as AnoHana or Orange.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is told by third-person narrator that primarily focuses on Kokoro, who is in seventh grade (first year of junior high). Kokoro, however, no longer attends school. The prospect of going to her class fills her with such unease that she often experiences anxiety-induced stomach aches. She’s unwilling to ‘confess’ to her mother the reason why she stopped going to school and spends her days at home, trying and failing not to think about her classmates. One day she notices a weird light emanating from within her mirror and finds herself transported into a castle that seems to belong in a faerie tale. Kokoro, alongside six other children/teenagers, has been selected by the Wolf Queen (whose appearance is that of small girl wearing a wolf mask) who informs them that within the castle is a key and whoever finds it will be granted a wish. The magical castle has opening hours and if they fail to leave by 5pm they will be eaten by wolves. The castle will be available to them for a year, until the end of March (school years in Japan go from April to March).

While this summary makes this story sound like a fantastical adventure, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is more of a character-driven story that just happens to take place in a magical castle. Kokoro and the other students spend most of their time playing games and slowly getting to know each other. For the majority of the novel they do not seem overly interested by the promise of a ‘wish’, nor are they worried by the possibility of being eaten by wolves. The castle becomes their playroom, a safe space in which they do not have to think about their home-lives. Although they differ in age they are all in junior high. While they realise immediately that they have all stopped going to school, they do not often broach this topic.
Overtime however they get to know each other. There are a few disagreements now and again, and their bond with each another is not always an easy or drama free one. Still, in spite of their different background and interests they do begin to view their time together as an escape from their intolerable ‘reality’.

While Mizuki Tsujimura touches upon sobering topics—such as bullying, domestic and sexual abuse—these do not weigh down her narrative. When discussions around these subjects crop up the author demonstrates great sensitivity and empathy. The friendship that blossoms between Kokoro and the others makes for some tender scenes. The ‘revelation’ behind the castle and the reason why they were chosen will probably were not all that ‘surprising’. Still, even if readers know more than Kokoro or the other characters, this will probably not detract any enjoyment from their reading experience (the story has a lot to offer without those final ‘twists’).
While I understand why the narrative mainly stuck to Kokoro, part of me wished that the story could have also focused on the other characters.
Tsujimura certainly captures the anxiety and fear that many feel at the prospect of going to school. When I dropped out of high school I felt much of what Kokoro was feeling.

“School was everything to her, and both going and not going had been excruciating. She couldn’t consider it only school.”

Although the castle lies inside of a mirror, it did not feel all that magical. There are very few descriptions about the way it looks, and I think that the story would have benefited from having a more vividly rendered setting. And, maybe I would have liked the story even more if there had been more fantastical elements (the Wolf Queen makes an appearance now and again but other than that the castle is very much like an ordinary playroom). Towards the end the story definitely has more of a fantasy feel and really reminded of a Ghibli film.
Overall, I did enjoy this novel. I think Tsujimura’s narrative succeeds in being both gentle and emotional. She allows time for her characters to develop and learn to get to know and care for each other. Kokoro, in particular, is given a satisfying character arc.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a novel about friendship, realistic issues (such as bullying), self-acceptance with some magical undertones.

my rating: ★★★½

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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Like most collections of short stories Mouthful of Birds has some stories that are hits and ones that are misses. I think the collection definitely showcases Samanta Schweblin’s creativity and versatility. While most of the stories are permeated by the surreal they differ in tone and subject.

Schweblin makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Many of the stories examine recognisable scenarios from an unexpected angle and it often takes a little time to catch up to what is going on.
One of my favourite stories, ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, had some very strong Kafkaesque vibes and the creepy yet bizarre atmosphere I would except in a story by Shirley Jackson. Another favourite of mine was ‘The Merman’, an unapologetically offbeat tale involving, you guessed it, a merman and that reminded me of Kevin Wilson.

As much as I appreciated Schweblin’s dark humour and the weirdness of her stories, there were a few unmemorable ones. The title story was a bit of a letdown (I didn’t find it all that ‘shocking’ or subversive) and the really short ones were rather, if not completely, forgettable. I also did not care for that story that relied on animal cruelty. Not only did I not find it to be ‘horrific’ but it just came across as gratuitous and voyeuristic (gore and violence are cheap ways to ‘inspire’ fear).
Nevertheless I would probably pick up more of Schweblin work as this collection did show some promise.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda

Where the Wild Ladies Are is a collection of short stories that traditional Japanese folktales a modern and feminist twist. The premise behind these stories is certainly interesting and I would probably recommend it even if it didn’t quite ‘work’ for me. Most of Aoko Matsuda’s stories are interconnected as they feature recurring characters and places. I quite liked this aspect of the collection as I was curious to discover how certain stories were related to other ones. The surreal atmosphere and zestful tone lend this collection a rather offbeat quality that brought to mind authors such Kevin Wilson and Hilary Leichter. These stories are unapologetically weird as they are populated by quirky characters facing some peculiar scenarios. Ghosts seem to be the norm and many characters undergo fantastic transformations.

My favourite stories were the very first two in the collection. One stars a woman who has been recently ‘dumped’ by her boyfriend. She spends time and money in order to enhance her looks (hair removal galore) but finds herself questioning existing beauty standards when her body hair begins to have a life of its own…and yeah, she also happens to talk who to her aunt who is a ghost. The following story has a vaguely Kafkaesque feel to it as it focuses on a unemployed man who finds himself answering the door to an unusual sales duo. The subsequent stories, in comparison, were very uneven. They had some interesting elements but they would eventually peter out, leaving me kind of wanting more and questioning what was the point of story itself. The writing was okay. It wasn’t particularly funny or insightful. The feminist ‘twists’ were kind of there…but kind of not. At the end we get brief summaries of the folktales that inspired each chapters but I still could not really see how Matsuda’s stories were all that empowering for women (yes, she acknowledges sexual misconduct in the workplace or that woman are often regarded as wives or mothers but acknowledging these things hardly means challenging them).
Still I do think Matsuda presents her readers with a vivid portrayal of Japanese culture and society today. If you enjoy eccentric stories with a dose of magical realism you might want to give this collection a chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

Well…that was disappointing. Given the hype around this collection and the comparisons to Shirley Jackson, I was prepared to read some truly unsettling tales. However, as with a lot of other contemporary authors of horror, Mariana Enríquez relies on body horror, gore, and animal violence to instil feelings of unease in her readers…and while her stories are certainly macabre, I wouldn’t call them gothic. The horror too was too splatter for me. Writing about bodily fluids, decomposing or mutilated bodies, doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. While reading these rather samey stories I merely felt a knee-jerk repulsion. Most stories are narrated by morbid and unsatisfied young women who are experience, or have experienced, something truly horrific: they loose childhood friends to haunted houses, they start seeing disturbing things such as chained “deformed” children, or they loose themselves in violent fantasies. They had more or less the same grunge-esque personality and or were aspiring to become part of their country’s counter-culture. I found their voices to be monotonous and, given all their attempts at subversiveness, surprisingly banal.

What frustrated me the most was the fact that not one of the story had a decent ending. I’m all for open endings, and I think that short stories suit ambiguous endings…but here the stories never reached their apex. Each story would have these ominous first few lines, foreshadowing the horrors to come…but then the stories seemed to cut off just when things start to get vaguely intriguing or disturbing.

Lastly, a lot of the stories relied on the appearance of “deformed” children or adults in order to unnerve its main characters…are we in the 1980s? Call me snowflake or whatever but I found the author’s obsession with deformed bodies to be rather outdated.

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

Once I started reading Piranesi I understood why so many reviewers disclosed very little about its story. The driving force in this novel is the not knowing what the hell is going on. The summary for Piranesi hints at the narrative’s peculiarity: our narrator, Piranesi, lives in a house, which happens to be his entire world, with many many rooms and many many corridors, his only companions are the statues adorning this house and The Other, a man he meets twice a week to discuss A Great and Secret Knowledge.

“Piranesi lived among statues; silent presences that bought him comfort and enlightenment.”

Although the publisher recommends Piranesi to fans of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Madeline Miller’s Circe, I think it would appeal more to readers who enjoy metaphysical and absurd narratives, such as the one penned by the likes of Kafka or Samuel Beckett. Similarly to Beckett’s Endgame, Piranesi‘s disorientating qualities are heightened by the repetitiveness of certain words or phrases. Piranesi, like Beckett’s Clov and Hamm, offers no explanations for his peculiar environment or strange circumstances, leading readers to speculate whether the house truly is in another world.

Readers will probably be baffled by Piranesi’s casual attitude towards his surroundings, his incomprehensible reasonings, his perception of time and death, and his devotion to his labyrinthine house.
Unlike Beckett however Clarke does eventually answer the reader’s questions, but I was ultimately unconvinced by her novel’s denouement. Nevertheless I enjoyed Piranesi’s absurd narration as well the humour that livens his story. If you are the type of reader to find puzzling reads entertaining, this might the right book for you.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson

A very Wilsonesque collection of stories: dysfunctional families, spontaneous human combustion, surreal scenarios, and plenty of eccentric characters. Each story in this collection held my attention, and while they share similarities, they also showcase Wilson’s range: from lighthearted tales (such as “Grand Stand-In” and “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth”) to more bittersweet stories (such as “Birds in the House”) and even ones that I can best describe as heartbreaking (“Mortal Kombat”).
Regardless of their tone, each story is permeated by surrealism. At times the surreal elements are overt (such as with the first story in this collection), while in other times they are more covert. Ordinary moments or exchanges are injected with a dose of the bizarre, and this weirdness was a delight to read. Wilson vividly renders his characters and their experiences (however unreal they were), and his mumblecore dialogues always rang true to life (even when the discussions veered in seemingly absurd territories).
This was a wonderful collection of short stories. They were extremely amusing and always surprising. Each story had a certain focus, and didn’t meander in other directions, seeming committed to expanding on specific feelings or ideas. My favourite ones were “Mortal Kombat” (as sad as it was), “Birds in the House”, and “The Museum of Whatnot”.
Funny, original, and tender, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is a marvellous collection of stories, one that I would thoroughly recommend it to readers who enjoyed other works by Wilson, such as Nothing to See Here.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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Blue Lily, Lily Blue & The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue Lily, Lily Blue is probably my second favourite book in the TRC series. Sad, funny, and magical Blue Lily, Lily Blue is a truly spellbinding novel. Each member of the Glendower gang is struggling with something, and even if it isn’t easy to see them fight with each other their bond is incredibly moving.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars


I have a hard time reviewing books that I really loved. The story and characters in The Raven Cycle seem so much more than ‘fiction’, so it isn’t easy to speak, or write, about them in those terms. Still, I will try to express the reasons why I love this series so much: Maggie Stiefvater’s writing (I have pointed out before but she has a way with words), the myths that are explored within these books, the atmospheric and incredibly vivid setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns), the balance of humour and sorrow, the tarot readings and ley lines, and of course, the characters, whose flaws make them all the more wonderful, and the relationships they form with one another. A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). Part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC. Ronan Lynch, I’ll be seeing you in your trilogy

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves is pure adrenaline. Ronan Lynch is my favourite asshole, which is probably why The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in The Raven Cycle series (and one of my favourite books period). Ronan is an incredibly complex boy whose ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude makes him say or do rude and reckless stuff. He’s addicted to trouble.
I love the shifting dynamics and knowing looks that take place between the various members of the Glendower gang. I also really appreciate how Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters or their motivations/feelings.

P.S. I’m not a car person, I don’t drive, I know nil abut cars…but damn, every time I read this book (or think about this book) I find myself agreeing with Ronan: cars are sexy.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater is a marvellous storyteller. The Raven Boys is a fantastic novel: we have an intriguing storyline, Welsh mythology, magic and curses, and a cast of unforgettable characters. Rather than presenting her readers with ‘heroes and heroines’, paragons of beauty and virtue, Stiefvater’s characters, regardless of their role, are nuanced and messy. The raven boys and Blue can be insecure about themselves, each other, and their future. Their friendship is an intense one, but things are never easy between them. Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters, so that they always retain a certain ambiguity, an enticing air of mystery. Stiefvater style carries a wonderful rhythm. I love the way she plays around with repetition and the way she describes her characters or how animated her scenes are (there are so many secret looks shared between the raven boys).
The Raven Boys is an incredibly atmospheric book that will always have a special place in my heart. Words cannot express how much I love this series.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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