REVIEW: All Together Now

In April 2020 I was supposed to see Alan Doyle at Copps Coliseum (I guess people nowadays call it the 1st Ontario Center though) here in Hamilton, Ontario. The last time I saw him live was back in 2013 for a Great Big Sea anniversary tour, and while that night ended up horribly, the time I spent in the plush theatre seat singing The Night Pat Murphy Died at the top of my lungs while a drunk couple next to me did a jig in the aisle was one of the best concert experiences I’ve had.

I grew up on his music and on Great Big Sea.

And then the pandemic hit.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, 2020 was a hard year for a lot of us. It was – and still is in 2021 – isolating and hopeless and just hard… So when I heard that Alan Doyle had a new book meant to be full of silly stories he’d tell at the pub I thought maybe that would cheer me up. Seeing it was called All Together Now: A Newfoundlander’s Light Tales for Heavy Times had me hitting “purchase” immediately.

Right off the bat, this book had me smirking and it wasn’t long before I was actively laughing while reading along with the audiobook narrated by Alan himself playing through my headphones. Not even a full story in and all I could think about what how aggressively and heartwarmingly Canadian this book is. I’ve never been the most patriotic of people but I do love my country and many of these shorts reminded me why. Right now our government is failing us and while there are more regular people that are also failing us than I’d like to count, a lot of what Alan wrote about reminded me of the good in Canada. The people that come together to help one another, the strangers who ask if you’re okay on the street or in a store, the people in a pub who chat over a pint or something stronger like they’ve known you for years.

I miss a lot of my friends. I miss my family. I want to be there for the people in my life who are not only struggling mentally to keep going but the handful who are at their physical limits, too.

These silly shorts by a goofy Canadian folk-rock star lifted my spirits when I was reading. It reminded me of the pleasant things in the world after so much of it is dark and sad.

Maybe one day I’ll get to see Alan Doyle in concert again and maybe I’ll be one of those lucky fans who meets him at the pub. If that ever comes around, I want to thank him for this book. It truly was light tales for heavy times and if you’re a Canadian like me who’s having a rough go of things, I highly recommend picking it up.

Cheers.

REVIEW: Rashomon & Other Stories

I have been wanting to get a hold of some of Akutagawa’s short stories for a while now, and finally got my hands on the Tuttle collection that contains six stories. Considering I started reading this on March 1st (Akutagawa’s birthday) and finished it on the third (an important date in the final story), it seemed like fate brought this collection to me.

As much as I would have loved to have bought a larger collection, Tuttle Publishing always has really quality translations and I love supporting a company that does so much work producing educational material and language studies books (like 90% of my self-study Japanese textbooks are from Tuttle). Of course, that being said, I think this is a great edition for anyone who wants to get a taste of not just classic Japanese literature, but also a taste of Akutagawa in general. The stories in this edition include In The Grove, Rashomon, Yam Gruel, The Martyr, Kesa & Morito, and The Dragon.

I primarily wanted to read this collection for Rashomon and In The Grove as they are the most famous of his work due to the Kurosawa Akira film adaptation of the latter (although it was called Rashomon). Both stories were exactly as I expected them to be. Rashomon is a story of morals and while being short and cynical, really forced readers to question what they would do if they were starving and the choice was between your own survival or the survival of others in the same situation. In The Grove was a classic murder mystery with nothing but unrealiable narrators and the lack of closure is so interesting and unique as it leaves the decision up to the reader. The lesser known stories in the collection were are so different from each other while keeping that cynicism towards human nature and human desire that gives Akutagawa his edge.

What I found the most interesting is how, despite the difference in translators, I can see where Akutagawa influenced the works of my personal favourite, Dazai Osamu. Dazai held Akutagawa in a high regard (the two even died the same way) and I can see where their questions towards human nature crossover. That was my main reason for wanting to read these stories and I’m so happy I was finally able to. I look forward to tracking down more of Akutagawa’s work in English and – hopefully with some help from my textbooks – Japanese when translations are not available.

Happy [belated] birthday, Ryuunosuke.

ARC REVIEW: Date a Live – Tohka Dead End

Thank you to YenPress and NetGalley for a copy of the ARC

Despite this series being around for several years now, the first I heard about it was when Sword Art Online author, Kawahara Reiki, was tweeting about the mobile game in Japan. Knowing he enjoyed it, I requested to review this light novel that’s being translated into English at long last.

Going in completely blind like I did, I can’t exactly say that it wasn’t what I was expecting, but… Date-a-Live was definitely not what I expected.

The series – as described by the author, Tachibana Koushi – is a big “what if a dating sim was the key to saving the world from an unearthly power?” In the future, there are tears in reality that cause mass destruction and chaos and death. These tears, known as “spacequakes” are caused by Spirits, beautiful girls with massive amounts of power, and an elite team of warriors are equipped with special gear to try and take them down. However, these warriors aren’t making much progress and a special team has decided to take matters into their own hands and having a high school-aged civilian seduce the Spirits into peace.

Shindo is a ridiculous protagonist who cares a lot for his younger sister and is absolutely useless with girls. So naturally he is tasked with seducing the Spirits. In the first third of the book, he reminded me a lot of Rentaro from Black Bullet, especially with his relationship with his adorable younger sister (whose appearance even reminds me of Enju from Black Bullet). And then the dating sim (for anyone unfamiliar with the term, it is like a choose-your-own-adventure video game where you date a cast of characters) aspect happened and I wasn’t buying it. At first it came off as very “this is just another gimmick to use towards the harem trope”, but then it continued on to when Shindo meets with the Spirit, Tohka for the first time and it got me intrigued.

It’s my own fault for expecting an all-out action story, but the comedy aspect of the novel was an unexpected bit of fun. I’m iffy on where the story is going since I’m not the biggest fan of the harem trope, but I think this is definitely a series worth giving a chance to. It’s goofy, the art for the illustrations is cute, and it’s a finished series over in Japan.

Back to Back with THE MOSQUITO COAST

One of the things I’m lucky to be able to do during lockdown is still being able to spend Friday nights having dinner and watching a movie with my mom. This past Friday we sat down to watch Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, but of course once I heard it was a book, I needed to read it first.

The Book

Mosquito Coast follows the Fox family as the father, Allie Fox, decides he has had enough with the filth, corruption, and violence of the United States and moves his family to the depths of Honduras to begin anew. As the heat and the realities of living off the grid begin to settle in and Allie’s lofty ambitions grow more and more chaotic, the Fox family is pushed to their very limits in order to survive.

Told in first-person narration from the perspective of the eldest son, 13-year-old Charlie Fox, Paul Theroux’s novel is some of the most beautiful first-person writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading in my life. As Charlie watches his world – his father – falling apart around him, you truly feel like you know this young man who was forced to grow up in the blink of an eye simply because his father told him to. This book is clearly a classic you may never have heard of and Theroux just captures this young boy’s life in such a way that the depths are endless. It’s an adventure story, a family drama, and a question of how far you are willing to trust someone when that trust can get you killed just as much as walking away could.

It’s also an incredibly complex story. While everyone is very sympathetic, the Fox family is complicated. Charlie and his siblings are children so their choices cannot be judged too harshly by the readers, but when it comes to the mother – only referred to as Ma, Mom, or Mother – her dedication to Allie as he falls deeper and deeper into his own head is questionable at the very least. She’s someone I desperately want to understand but her loyalty reached a point where it could only be compared to a woman in a heavily abusive relationship that has been convinced she has nothing else but the man in her life. Allie as well. He is a lunatic who’s rantings and ravings are like that of a drunk throwing a temper tantrum or pleading for something that’s already there, but he cares about people. He wants to give better lives to those around him, whether it’s helping the immigrant workers in the states who live in squalor as if they were slaves or if it’s showing indigenous people of Honduras how to be self-sufficient without living in rags and huts that blow away with every storm.

I enjoyed how complicated of a character study this book is and how it forces you to make decisions about the world and about people as Charlie is making them. While I will say the language of this book is extremely dated, and is therefore uncomfortable at times for that reason, the points made about child labour and sweatshops as well as capitalism killing society as a whole are still incredibly relevant to today.

The Movie

Starring Harrison Ford alongside Helen Mirren, and with a young River Phoenix as Charlie, the film has a heavy hitting lead cast for the time it was released.

That being said, I felt that as solid the movie is, it misses out on a lot of Allie’s build up to complete insanity by leaving out the key moments that show just how manic he already was. Scenes where he pushes Charlie and manipulates Charlie’s faith in him we’re missing and while I know how difficult some of them would have been to film in the late 80s, I wish they had been kept.

Nitpicking aside, the cast is amazing. All of the people – actors or not – as the people of Honduras were fantastic and the children were all wonderful as well. Seeing a young Helen Mirren was neat as I’m only familiar with her more recent work, but this film makes it clear she’s always been a heavy hitter of an actress. Her love for Allie is so evident while her fears of what he’s capable of comes across even when her dialogue is limited. What I enjoyed best though was seeing Harrison Ford in a role that is entirely different from what he’s most famous for. Everyone knows smart-ass Han Solo. Everyone knows smart-ass Indiana Jones. But was anyone aware he can also be a villain? He is capable of playing a role full of manipulation and control and rage and passion and madness? Looks wise, I knew right away that Harrison Ford was the obvious choice for the role at the time, but seeing him pull it off was amazing. It was like seeing Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire and craving to see more of that evil from such an “all American action hero”.

While watching though, I found myself curious about how River Phoenix felt during filming. Not to turn this into a true crime op-ed or anything, but considering River Phoenix grew up in and was traumatized by the pedophilic cult known as The Children of God, I wonder what went through his mind playing a role of a helpless boy in the middle of nowhere, frightened by his commanding, controlling father. I can’t imagine that was easy for him.

All in all, the movie was worth watching but definitely read the book. Before, after, it doesn’t matter but it’s a phenomenal piece of writing and a fantastic piece of cinema.

ARC REVIEW: Reign of the Seven Spellblades #1

Thank you so much to YenPress and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this (now available) incredible light novel!

When this series was announced to be licensed by YenPress, I had it on my TBR instantly. The cover was so beautiful I was here for the character designs immediately and the little blurb that was shared alongside the reveal had me interested for sure. So when I received the email from NetGalley that I was approved for a copy, I was so excited!

Right away, this light novel wasn’t what I was expecting. Really cute and funny right off the bat, it gave me Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya vibes with how ditzy but determined Nanao was and Oliver’s exasperation with all of his new friends was very much like Kyon. However, the comparison is more of a personal one, and each of the characters is honestly so much fun and I loved all of them right away. Then we get to Kimberly Academy, a magical school where death is damn near imminent at all times and the risk of losing your mind to the darkness of magical studies is a constant threat. As fun and light-hearted as the first half of this book is, it does get dark around the half-way mark as the true dangers of Kimberly begin to show themselves and hidden traits are revealed in the students themselves.

I got entirely sucked into this light novel and, again, I loved everything about it. The ending was such a drastic 180° flip from the rest of the story but that only makes me more desperate to get my hands on volume two. I can’t wait to see what Oliver does and how his relationship with Nanao develops! Someone give this series an anime deal immediately.

ARC REVIEW: The Album of Dr. Moreau

Thank you to Tordotcom and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of the eARC

This novella was amazing. I 100% requested it because of the amazing, Warhol-style pop-art cover, but wow this book is just as wonderful inside as it is on the outside.

A douche of a music producer is dead, and the suspects are all the members of the band he managed. But this isn’t a regular boy band. Each other members is unique in an entirely different way… they’re all humanoid animals. Bobby the ocelot, Matt the megabat, Tim the pangolin, Devin the bonobo, and Tusk the elephant all make up the hit boyband known as the WyldBoyZ and now everything is at risk with Dr. M’s death. Not only that, but the investigating detective, Luce Delgado, only has 24 hours to figure it all out before the feds get involved and potentially cause even more trouble.

This novella is a fast paced, locked-room murder mystery full of twists and turns that kept me guess right up until the big reveal. Every major player is incredible sweet and fully developed, drawing you to their side with ease. Not to mention the anthro aspect of each of the boys is such a neat idea and done so wonderfully. This isn’t a “furry story”, but the furry part of my brain was on cloud nine reading about these characters. I wish there was more because I loved it so much, but it’s the perfect length for what the story was and I’ll definitely be purchasing a physical copy come May because wow. I loved this so much.

NON-FICTION REVIEW: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Murakami Haruki is best known for his quiet magical realism, and he brings that same careful hand to this non-fiction book of testimonies regarding one of the most horrifying acts of violence to strike Japan.

True crime fans may or may not know of the Japanese death cult known as Aum Shinrikyo that was responsibly for the horrifying serin gas attack on the Japanese subways back in March of 1995. It was a horrible event that could have been much worse had their plan gone exactly as they had planned. To most, 27 deaths from something like this doesn’t seem like much at all, but the hundreds of people who were injured and that are affected to this day is something that I don’t think many people – especially North Americans – truly comprehend.

Murakami Haruki does an amazing job with the care he put into interviewing the victims of the attack who agreed to step forward and be a part of this book. Their testimonies (while repetitive due to the similar nature of their routines) are so human and heartbreaking, especially when they speak of collegues and friends who died, of the PTSD they suffer, of the rage they feel on behalf of their family members. It is fascinating to read about so many people be so nonchalant about the event and then the contrast against those who are upset about what happened. It’s been three years now since Asahara Shoko (the founder and leader of Aum) was executed as per his death sentence, but it has been on a long time since 1995. I know that reparations are still owed to the victims even to this day. Their suffering continues on even though the source of that pain is finally gone from the world.

I think Underground is an important read to consumers of true crime. It is a very humanizing and humbling read that reminds you that these victims are real people who went through a very real and traumatizing event. It’s easy for us to look at the numbers and not think much of a domestic terrorism attack like this, especially when next to other death cult numbers (such as Jonestown at 909 deaths), but that doesn’t make the event itself any less significant.

I recommend to take this book slowly, reading a testimony or two at a time before setting the book down again, but I recommend it all the same.

REVIEW: re:ZERO ~ Starting Life in Another World 1

As the world awaits for more SAO, Crunchyroll ads seem to be doubling down on promotion for the latest season of re:ZERO. I decided to give this series a try because of all of the Crunchyroll ads across social media. It got me curious. Not to mention how obsessed the anime side of the internet is with Rem. I’m a sucker for an isekai these days, so I jumped right into it.

re:Zero follows Subaru as he is just randomly thrust into a fantasy world while walking home from the store. In the real world he had no goals, no friends, no aspirations. He was constantly cutting class to watch anime or work out and has done nothing with his life. Now in a strange world and armed only with a small bag of snacks, Subaru learns very quickly that something strange is going on. As he offers to help a beautiful girl find a lost item of value, things become an anime version of Groundhog Day, and every time Subaru is killed from biting off more than he can chew, the day starts over in the exact same way it began.

While I loved the premise and the murder-mystery Groundhog Day (or Mystery Spot if you’re a fan of Supernatural – season 3, episode 11, by the way), I found this first volume really struggled with pacing issues. The story doesn’t move fluidly and some of the lengthier parts just felt unnecessary. The translator did a great job of getting the sass and the silly jokes to land properly in English, but despite the entertaining factor in his character, I still don’t know if I like Subaru as the protagonist. He’s funny, sure, but I feel like his growth as a character is going to take a lot longer than it should. I’ll probably continue to the series out of curiosity since Rem and Ram didn’t show up in this volume, but I find myself debating on just watching the anime without reading the books.

REVIEW: JK Haru is a Sex Worker In Another World

Note: This novel is basically hentai and involves heavy amounts of sexual violence as well as gaslighting, physical abuse, gore, violence against sex workers, and toxic relationships

JK Haru is a Sex Worker In Another World was a title I just stumbled across and thought I’d give it a go out of curiosity. I’m often really curious about the depiction of sexual content out of other countries, especially when the countries aren’t as liberal as we are here in Canada, so I was intrigued by the concept of a light novel involving sex work. Especially as an isekai novel (meaning the character is from the “real world” and is transported into a fantasy land).

I won’t lie when I say this wasn’t exactly a good read. I’m not sure if it’s a translation issue or if the writing was originally choppy and disoriented, but the other possibility for why I wasn’t super into it was it felt like it was less of a novel about a sex worker and more of a hentai on paper… I might not have minded that so much had the content not including a huge amount of sexual violence and humiliation towards the girls who worked in the brothel. Maybe the “story” would have worked better in an adult manga or as a straight-up hentai animation series, but there was a lot lacking in terms of depth.

What I will say though, is that it did have some pretty great lines targeting the misogyny of isekai fantasy series and fantasy in general. It also talked a lot about toxic relationships and the value of self-worth while also being pretty sex positive when it came to the fact that Haru was a sex worker and she didn’t feel bad or guilty about her job – in fact she likes and excels in it which is nice to see.

The best line was most definitely from one of Haru’s internal monologues, “A person’s worth is decided in ways that they can’t do anything about. All you can do is decide how you’ll live your life regardless of your worth.”

Will I continue reading this series? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Also probably not. But it was at least a fast enough read that I don’t regret giving it a go.

Murakami Double Feature: Piercing & Audition

Note: both of these works by Murakami Ryuu contain intense levels of violence, gore, self-harm and references of sexual trauma and child abuse.

One of the most well known Japanese horror films is Audition from the incredibly director Miike Takashi. To be perfectly blunt (so excuse my language here), that movie is one hell of a mind-fuck that is not only confusing but so incredibly nasty, I don’t ever recommend it to anyone even though it’s a move that completely captivates me. A few years ago, I found out that this classic of a film was actually based on a book by “the other Murakami”, the twisted mastermind, Murakami Ryuu.

However, Audition wasn’t the first book of his that I read. Late in 2020, I read through Piercing during a 12-hour shift at my day job, and absolutely fell in love with it. Adapted into a film more recently (but far too white and far too different to be worth watching, save your time for better movies), the only thing I knew about Piercing is that it was graphic. But wow did that book hit me in ways I was certainly not expecting. Both Piercing and Audition are incredibly intense books but I’m so pleased to have finally read them. Now to get onto the reviews!

Piercing is about a man struggling with violent urges from his childhood that are once again plaguing him as an adult and about a young sex worker unable to manage her childhood trauma. As both find themselves in a situation where they are equally trying to kill each other, the realisation of being cut from similar clothes leads to a strange ending that will not be what one expects.

The graphic violence in this book borders on extreme that may be off putting for many readers, even ones who enjoy horror. Murkami’s horror is on a different level than most to say the least.

Given how short this book is (and the same goes for Audition) I don’t want to give too much away, but when it really boils down to it, Piercing is a story about broken people. Both lead characters have been abused, the trauma of their youth bleeding into their adult lives. As the cat vs cat (because neither of these people are the mouse) game continues onward over the course of the night, the realisation hits just how much their individual trauma resonates with the other’s. To me it was a book about accepting your baggage as much as accepting that you can’t be responsible for other people’s baggage. It’s a complex narrative that I felt really hit the nail on the head when it comes to trauma and dealing with trauma in unhealthy ways. As horrible of a visual this novel gives, I felt uplifted by it. As weird as that sounds…

Audition is a very different novel when compared to Piercing. It’s quieter, softer around the edges, while still addressing the harsh violence that comes with unhealthy trauma processing. It follows a man who misses his deceased wife, who’s son suggests he settle down again. Though middle-aged, he follows his skeezy friend’s idea to hold a fake audition to find a refined young woman to settle down with.

It’s not his fault that things go sideways.

Fans of the film will be familiar with the gruesome torture scenes, the implied sexual violence, and of course, the piano wire. But much of what Miike put in the film doesn’t actually occur in the book, and I would probably be more likely to recommend the book to people within my circles than I would be to recommend the movie.

The flashback sequences of what Asami went through, the visits to her apartment and the restaurant where he were. Visceral scenes that are signature to Miike’s film style that were entirely made up. While the film is somewhat non-linear and full of drug induced hallucination scenes, the book is more linear and straight forward (and also far less graphic until the infamous ending). That being said, I found the film added far more to Asami’s character, making her more alluring while also more terrifying. The book, while more palatable and easier to follow, felt like it was missing some greater threat while it built up to the ending. I felt it needed more to really suck someone in.

That being said, as a huge fan of the film, I am incredibly happy I was still able to read the source material in English. It’s a must read for fans of the movie.

Murakami has a very distinct style that is visceral and gut-wrenching while somehow simultaneously being quiet and tender. He writes messy stories about messy people, most of them just wanting to live their lives as best they can manage. He reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk in some ways if I’m being honest. I really hope that as 2021 continues, I’m able to read more of his translated works (especially Coin Locker Babies since Miike was in talks to adapt that one before the project was cancelled).