BOOK REVIEWS

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet?
Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).

minor spoilers ahead
The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”.
He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior?
I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).

If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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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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Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

“It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.”

Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a gentle and life-affirming novel (novella?). The book’s central figures are discriminated against because of their pasts: Sentaro is a middle aged man who works at a dorayaki shop has a criminal record; Tokue, an elderly woman, had leprosy as a teen and was subsequently forced into exile in a leprosarium. Sentaro is unenthusiastic about his job and future, seeming resigned to a life of despondency. This changes when Tokue begins working alongside him. Although Sentaro is initially reluctant to let Tokue work with him he changes his mind once he tastes her delicious bean paste. Tokue’s dedication to this culinary process earns his respect and loyalty but the shop sees an increase in customers. However, gossip about Tokue’s disfigured hands threatens Sentaro’s newfound happiness.
As the cover and title suggest this was a very sweet read. While the tone of the story was by no means schmaltzy, there were times in which the narrative struck me as a bit too fluffy (i.e. not particularly deep). Sentaro is a fairly simple character and to be honest I didn’t find him nearly as half compelling as Tokue. The narrative does shed light on how harmful stigmas can be as well as providing information relating to the history of leprosy in Japan.
I do wish that Tokue had remained the focus of the narrative as Sentaro and the schoolgirl (who was an entirely forgettable character) were very dull by comparison.
Still, even if this isn’t a particularly complex or thought-provoking story I do think that it will appeal to fans of The Housekeeper and the Professor as it has a similarly tranquil atmosphere.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

Comparing this novel to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sayaka Murata seems somewhat misleading, if a bit lazy.
There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job has elements that may bring to mind certain aspects of Convenience Store Woman but it has almost nothing in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, I could have enjoyed Kikuko Tsumura’s novel if it had something interesting to say or if it was written in a particularly inventive or catchy way. Sadly, I found There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job to be an exceedingly boring story that is written in an exceedingly boring way. Some of the issues I had may be due the translation (more on that later) but for the most part Tsumura’s prose is kind of dull. Her protagonist, the classic unnamed narrator, lacks the deadpan tone of Murata’s mc, nor does she have the same upbeat voice as the lead in Temporary (a novel that explores modern workplace in an absurdist fashion).
Tsumura’s book is divided in five sections, each one focusing on a different job: in the first one our mc works a surveillance job (this happened to be the only section I enjoyed), in the second one she records ads for a bus company (advertising the shops that are on the route of that bus), in the third one she has to come up with ‘fun/useful facts’ for a packet of crackers, in the third one she puts posters up, and in the final job she works at a park maintenance office. We never gain any real insight into her private life (I’m fairly sure she lives alone and her parents are still alive) and we never learn anything about her past (other than she left her job because of burnout syndrome).
The jobs she are peculiar and yet they never held my interest. I liked Temporary much more because the jobs the mc does there are really weird. Yet, I think I could have tolerated reading about a relatively ordinary workplace if the dialogues or mc’s inner monologue had been amusing, as they are in Murata’s novel (which managed to make tedious tasks entertaining).
Even if I where to judge Tsumura’s novel without drawing comparison to other novels, I still can’t think of anything positive to say about it. The narration lacked zest, oomph. She recounts her routine in a very prosaic way, and she offers no real insights into why ‘modern’ work culture makes her feel so uninspired.
Usually when I read a translated book I don’t really notice that the prose was not originally written in the language I’m reading but here the writing had this stilted quality that made me kind of aware that I was indeed reading a translation. Certain word choices struck me as awkward. There are many instances in which the narrator’s colloquial style is interrupted by high-register and or antiquated words (such as nigh!). Maybe this was simply reflecting the original Japanese but I can’t say for sure as I’m afraid my knowledge of Japanese is abysmal. And yes, I understand that translation is not an easy chore (in the past I tried my hand at translating) but that doesn’t change that the prose There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job offers some eyebrow-raising phrases/passages.

Usually I read books of this length in two or three days but it took me five days to finish this novel (and I nearly fell asleep while reading it…which is new for me).

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”

I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love.
Within this slim volume Meg Rosoff conjures up the feelings of summer, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.

“The actors assembled, the summer begins.”

During the summer holidays a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family.
As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.

Although at its core this is a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings.
Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them.
I just really loved reading this novel and I already want to re-read.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler — book review

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“You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man. Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.”

Redhead by the Side of the Road is a slender but tender novel. In her deceptively spare style Anne Tyler relates a quotidian tale about a rather ‘finicky’ man. Micah Mortimer, who is in early forties, lives a quiet life. His days are punctuated by his morning runs and his cleaning schedule. As the owner and sole-employee of TECH HERMIT Micah solves his customers’ IT-related problems. Given his chaotic childhood, as an adult Micah finds comfort in his routine. As the novel progresses Micah finds himself in rather challenging situations: Cassia, his ‘woman friend’, is risking eviction, and the son of his first true love shows up at his doorstep.
Redhead by the Side of the Road presents its readers with an ordinary story about an ordinary man. Tyler’s characters are vividly rendered. Regardless of their role in the narrative they struck me as real. Tyler certainly has a knack for portraying different personalities. She manages to capture an individual’s idiosyncrasies, the way they talk, their mannerisms and habits. Micah’s interactions with his neighbours, his customers, his family, and Cassia are filled with an abundance of awkward yet genuine moments.
Tyler is wonderfully empathetic towards her characters. She never criticises Micah for his reticence to connect to others or his many particularities, nor does he undergo a complete character change.
Through her perceptive prose and quiet humour Tyler tells a heartwarming story. It follows ordinary people doing ordinary things, yet in many ways it’s so much more.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Just Enough by Flavia Biondi — review

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Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with the chance to read this stunning work.

Although I’m Italian, before coming across Just Enough on NetGalley, I’d never heard of Flavia Biondi. As soon as I saw her artwork I fell in love.
I can best describe this as a ‘slice of life’ that depicts the ‘what now?’ that might come at the end of your twenties, when you feel the pressure to ‘settle down’ or start a ‘real’ career and become a ‘real’ adult. I liked the realistic dynamics between the various characters, the way their silly conversations could turn serious—and vice versa—and the imperfect and down-to-earth portrayal of love (romantic and platonic). The story captures the dissolution felt by Italy’s younger generations yet there is a sense of hope for happier—or more ‘stable—times that made this into an easy read. The artwork and writing perfectly convey the nostalgic atmosphere of the story. I thoroughly loved this graphic novel and I am already looking forward to reading in again and again and again.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5)

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KITCHEN: BOOK REVIEW

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Kitchen
by Banana Yoshimoto
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars of 5 stars (4 stars to Kitchen, 3 stars to “Moonlight Shadow”)

Yoshimoto’s distinctive style perfectly captures grief and its ramifications. After the death of her grandmother Mikage, an orphan, finds herself without a family. Mikage, unable to bear another loss, attempts to withdraw from others.
Yoshimoto renders the emptiness and sadness experienced by Mikage in a rather matter-of-fact way. And Mikage’s grief and depression feel all the more real because of it. Yoshimoto manages to imbue ordinary objects and places (ie. a kitchen) with incredible feeling. By paying attention to small details (such as the way that sunlight shines through a glass) Yoshimoto brings to life seemingly mundane moments. Her writing style really lends itself to the depiction Mikage’s grief. In her estrangement from her daily life she is empowered by small or normal things (such as kitchen utensils and or a beautiful dish).
Overall, Kitchen was a really good novella. I sympathised with Mikage’s and I understood the numbness that overwhelms her. The few interactions she has with other people were really lovely, and of course, her relationship with Yoichi and Eriko was incredibly sweet. And with time, Mikage finds some sort of solace.
“Moonlight Shadow” lacked the realism of Kitchen. It was much shorter and, since I read it immediately after Kitchen, I couldn’t help comparing the two. Kitchen packs so much more feeling and character. “Moonlight Shadow” might also deal with grief but it does it in a far more rushed and predictable manner.

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR: BOOK REVIEW

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The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yōko Ogawa
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

A poignant and gentle tale of a friendship between a professor (whose memory lasts approximately 80 minutes), his housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, who goes by the nickname of ‘Root’.
The narrative of The Housekeeper and the Professor although brimming with compassion avoids being over-sentimental. There is plenty of kindness and love to be found in this novel. Ogawa’s style depicts with honesty the friendship between an old and vulnerable man and a hard-working single mother. The housekeeper, a good-natured woman, becomes interested in maths thanks to the professor, who prior to his brain injury was a professor of maths. While living in solitude, cut away from the world, he still possess his love for numbers and a knack for teaching.
Nothing eventful really happens, and this is not a plot-driven novel. The narrator recounts this friendship and a particular time of her life in an almost wistful manner. Her reminiscing provides some beautiful observations and some lovely phrases.
As silly as it might sound, there was a bit too much talk of numbers&maths and baseball, so I did feel a bit distanced from the story at times. Nevertheless, if you fancy a quick and moving story, look no further.

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THE NAKANO THRIFT SHOP: BOOK REVIEW

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

I thought about how what I felt for him now and what he felt for me at that moment must be totally and completely out of sync. Trying to imagine it made me dizzy.

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Hiromi Kawakami can really capture the most ordinary thoughts and moments of everyday life. While Strange Weather in Tokyo was focused on a woman’s evenings in a bar, leaving out her day job, The Nakano Thrift Shop is all about our protagonist’s job. We don’t know much about Hitomi other than that she is employed at the Nakano Thrift shop. The story is concerned with a particular time in her life, and avoids adding unnecessary information.
In her new job Hitomi meets plenty of interesting, eccentric, if not downright weird, people: from her employer, Mr. Nakano, to his sister, Masayo, her colleague, the nervous Takeo, to the many different customers. The novel is divided in twelve chapter, and each one of them tells of a particular period in the Nakano shop, focusing in turn on Mr. Nakano’s love life, or Masayo’s, or even on a set of cursed bowls. There are plenty of colourful characters who provide funny anecdotes or peculiar conversations. Each chapter is self-contained given that they tell of different moments of Hitomi’s time at the thrift shop.
Kawakami excels in capturing the misunderstandings and awkwardness that can arise between two people, wherever they are romantically involved or not. The characters’ conversations and arguments are incredibly believable given their propensity for ‘going nowhere’ or ‘around in circles’. Unlike other books, (I’m looking at you Normal People and Outline), this novel relays clumsy interactions, evincing the limitations that our words often have, in a truly credible manner. There are these moments of sullenness over what’s been said or what hasn’t been said or even the way it has been said in.
I also love the way in which these ordinary moments can almost seem surreal or fantastic.

I liked the way Masayo held those scissors. It was like she had a small woodland creature playing in her hand.



Kawakami is not for readers who seek plot, action and meaning. If you don’t need these things, and if you are looking for a read that will fill you with a sense of nostalgia and make you smile, look no further.

I hear somewhere that human cells renew themselves every three years. His name might still be Takeo, and he might look just like him on the outside, but this guy was a totally different person.



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