Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

conveniencestorewoman_murataConvenience Store Woman
Sayaka Murata

Publisher: Granta Books
Publishing year: 2018
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Pages: 163
ISBN: 9781846276842
Genre: Contemporary
Rating: 4/5

Keiko is thirty-six years old. She’s never been into a relationship and she has been working at the same dead-end job in a convenience store for eighteen years. She’s happy with her life as it is, but her parents wish she’d just find a ‘real’ job. Her friends also keep pestering her about finding a boyfriend.

This short novel begins with Keiko explaining that she’s always been a strange child. Practical to a fault, as a child she came up with solutions to problems that weren’t exactly accepted by society (such as hitting another child with a shovel to break up fight). As she got older, Keiko realised that it was better to try and act normal. Her job at a convenience store makes this much easier: there is a manual that explains how to behave in different situations, which gives her something to hold on to. However, most people tend to move on towards either a ‘decent’ career or marriage (or both), but Keiko’s life remains in service to the convenience store. Eventually, she notices that, despite her efforts to appear normal, people begin to judge her for not moving on.

Convenience Store Woman is a short novel. The prose is straight to the point and easy to read, and the deadpan and practical way in which it is written makes the book a little quirky. In regards to its themes, however, there is a lot to unpack. Most notable is the theme of conforming to expectations. Japanese culture is quite strict (more so than my own Dutch culture, in any case) in terms of meeting these expectations. Though Keiko has a job to support herself, which should be enough, she still experiences pressure to find a ‘real’ job and a husband even though she’s not interested in doing either. This pressure influences her actions throughout the novel, even though, as a reader, you do get the sense that conforming to these wishes isn’t a good thing for Keiko herself. She obviously gets satisfaction through her work in the convenience store, and she’s good at it, yet there is still pressure to change. When she begins to mention her ‘relationship’ with some freeloading bum to others, people begin to treat her differently. Or rather, it becomes evident that her coworkers weren’t really treating her like a normal person before, yet this new treatment unsettles her.

Another interesting aspect relates to the novel’s portrayal of identity. Keiko has maintained her ‘normal’ appearance by copying the people around her to a certain extend. Considering people tend to behave differently when in different groups, the fluid sense of identity is quite remarkable to think about. Finally, there is the extend to which Keiko’s sense of self relates to her job, which becomes evident throughout the story in various ways.

Convenience Store Woman has some interesting food for thought, but considering it’s a rather short book, it doesn’t delve too deeply into these topics. The freeloading bum that Keiko hooks up with, Shiraha, got on my nerves as well. Though I realize that’s the point of his character, he got a little repetitive with his views on society. Keiko herself is also a rather passive character; practical and not emotional. Though I think it works for this kind of story, it does make the novel a bit quirky, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, if you’re looking for a short read narrating some relevant issues without becoming too heavy, Convenience Store Woman is definitely worth a shot.

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Six Books to Read After Game of Thrones

Unless you’re living under a rock, this won’t be anything new: Game of Thrones has ended. Whether you liked the ending or not, it’s hard to deny the impact this fantasy series has had. So now what?

Obviously, there are the original books, A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as several related works: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, The World of Ice and FireThe Ice Dragon, and Fire & Blood. But maybe you’ve already read them, and you’re waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish Winds of Winter. Or maybe you’re not inclined to read ongoing series because you’re worried about it never being finished. Whether you’re looking for something to fill the gaping hole Game of Thrones has left, or a new series to tide you over until GRRM releases Winds of Winter, here are some book series you might like as well!

Of course, none of these are Game of Thrones 2.0, but if you like GRRM’s world,  I’m sure there’s at least one among these titles that will catch your interest.

The Warlord Chronicles
Bernard Cornwell
fdaa13c5-f644-4036-8a49-4a1dc2cf03fdimg100Did you enjoy the gritty medieval setting of Game of Thrones? Look no further. Set during the Saxon invasion of England during the middle ages, this trilogy follows a soldier in the army of King Arthur, Derfel Cadarn. Considering the main character is a soldier, there is a lot of warfare, but there is also some political intrique and religious fanatics. Cornwell doesn’t shy away from portraying violence and the unpleasant sides of war. In this more historical-ish retelling of the Arthurian legend, the presence of magic in this trilogy is mostly ambiguous, but if you can live with the lack of dragons, this is definitely worth a shot. The trilogy consists of The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur. It’s also finished, so no worries about never knowing how it ends.

Temeraire
Naomi Novik

hismajestysdragon_naominovikIf you love dragons, then Temeraire might be just the thing. This is basically the Napoleon wars, but with dragons! We follow the honorable and somewhat uptight British naval officer William Laurence as he stumbles upon a dragon egg while conquering an enemy ship. The dragon, Temeraire, soon hatches from his egg and chooses Laurence as his handler. Considering dragons are so valuable, Laurence has no choice but to abandon his position in the navy to become an aviator. With Napoleon wanting to conquer the world, Britain included, Laurence and his dragon companion are needed in the war. The best thing in this series is the bond between Laurence and Temeraire as both character grow because of the things they go through, but Novik has also managed to incorporate dragons in an interesting way. As Laurence and Temeraire visit other locations over the course of the book, we get to find out about how dragons are incorportated in other cultures. There’s also some political intrique, gray areas, and Napoleon is portrayed as an affable character despite being on the opposite side. This series begins with His Majesty’s Dragon and consists of nine books in total, excluding the short collection called The Golden Age and Other Stories.

 

The Farseer Trilogy
Robin Hobb

hobb_assassinsapprenticeI have to admit that I haven’t finished the full trilogy yet, but judging from what I’ve read of the first two, it’d be a crime not to include this. Anyway, we follow FitzChivalry, the bastard son of the crown prince who ends up in court. After being raised in the stables, King Shrewd eventually decides to have Fitz trained as an assassin. Considering most of these books take place at court and our main character is trained as an assassin, political intrique is definitely a thing here. However, the world building is also a great part of what makes this trilogy so interesting. There is also some magic, such as Fitz’ ability to bond with animals that he must keep a secret, and the threat of raiders who do something terrible to those they capture. The Farseer Trilogy consists of Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assasin, and Assassin’s Quest, but if you didn’t quite get enough of Fitz and/or this world: there are a lot more books taking place in the world, called The Realm of the Elderlings

 

Gentleman Bastard
Scott Lynch

lynch_theliesoflockelamoraIf you don’t mind to committing to another unfinished series, I’d like to draw your attention to Gentleman Bastard by Scott Lynch. The main character is Locke Lamora, a thief/con man in a world where such elaborate schemes are not as prevalent. Politics eventually find their way into the heists of Locke and his crew, however, and they sometimes have dire consequences. The characters are the main draw of this fantasy series, but the worldbuilding is also quite interesting. This series starts off with The Lies of Locke Lamora, but continues with Red Seas Under Red Skies and The Republic of Thieves. According to Scott Lynch’s own Twitter account, the author has also finished the first draft of the fourth installment: The Thorn of Emberlain!

 

Iskari
Kristen Ciccarelli

LastNamsara_CiccarelliOkay, that’s all great, but what about some different perspectives with some politics? And dragons? If you like YA fantasy, Iskari might be a good fit for you. The first installment, The Last Namsara, follows a princess, Asha, who hunts dragons and wishes to escape her arranged marriage with a jerkass. Ciccarelli has also included a lot of worldbuilding and lore into her story, which she expands on in The Caged Queen. This second installment follows a character we were already introduced to: Roa, who chose to marry Asha’s brother to save her country. She offers a different perspective to the world we got to know in the first book. She’s in a hostile country, however, and political intrique is everywhere around her. The third and final installment, The Sky Weaver, will be released this fall and will follow two other characters: Safire, Asha’s niece and military commander, and Eris, a pirate.  

 

Draconis Memoria
Anthony Ryan

thewakingfirefinalA gritty fantasy with excellent worldbuilding and different POVs; there are a lot of things this trilogy does right. The dragons are a great bonus. The dragons are exploited for the magical properties of their blood that allow some mages (called bloodblessed) to perform magic. Clay is a thief from the slums who is secretly a blood-blessed. When he is caught, he has to go on an expedition to find the mysterious White Dragon. Other POV characters include Lizanne, a spy who has to infiltrate the hostile empire to gather information, and Hilemore, a navy captain. The first installment, The Waking Fire, is doubtlessly the strongest with its sense of mystery, but the two sequels (The Legion of Flame and The Empire of Ashes) definitely have their own merit as they narrate the ensuing war and the desperate attempt to save the world.

 

And there we have it, six series to fill the gap that Game of Thrones has left. I have not purposely stuck to only fantasy novels, but they happen to be the ones I find most suitable from what I’ve read. Do you have suggestions of your own? Do feel free to leave them in the comments!

Book Presentation: Echo by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Last week, the new book by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (writer of horror novel Hex) was finally released in Dutch! Accompanying this was an official book launch on May 10, which I was lucky enough to attend. The event was held in Pakhuis de Zwijger, an event building close the IJ river in the centre of Amsterdam. A pretty location, I might add.

Though I usually hold off on discussing Dutch publications because this blog is in English, Olde Heuvelt’s new book Echo will most certainly get an English translation after the international success of Hex (not sure when, though). Therefore, I figured this might be interesting for international readers as well.

echothomasoldeheveult

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YalFest NL 2019

This year on the 21th of April, I have spent my Easter not at home looking for (chocolate) eggs, but on YalFest NL! This is a Dutch event about young adult books, held in Hoevelaken this time around. Though this event was held for the fourth time, it was my very first time attending, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Luckily, the admittedly pretty hefty ticket price (40+ euros) was justified!

The event was organized by a few young adult publishers: Blossom Books and The Best of YA Books. The organization had invited six international young adult authors:

  • Benjamin Alire Sáenz (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe & The Inexplicable Logic of my Life);
  • Nic Stone (Dear Martin & Odd One Out);
  • Kristen Ciccarelli (the Iskari series: The Last Namsara & The Caged Queen);
  • Karen McManus (One of Us is Lying & Two Can Keep a Secret);
  • Samira Ahmed (Internment);
  • Teri Terry (Slated trilogy). 

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To Review or Not to Review, That is the Question…

In my personal opinion, reviews are pretty much the backbone of every book blog. Though I do enjoy reading discussions posts or themed lists a lot, I do actively seek out reviews of books I either just read (because I’m curious what other people took away from it), favourites, and more importantly: to determine whether to go ahead and buy a a book or not.

That said, my own reviews are a bit scarce. It’s not necessarily because I do not enjoy writing them, but simply because I don’t always have anything worth mentioning about a book I have just finished — be it positive or negative. As a result, I do not review every single book I’ve read.

The benefit of not having a posting schedule is that I can review any book whenever I feel like it. When I’ve read a book and I feel it has something I’d like to discuss, I’ll review it. If not, I won’t review it. I might need some time to think about the book for a while when I do decide to review it, but I’m generally able to decide whether a book is something I’d like to make a post about right away. That doesn’t necessarily say anything about the quality of the book. Also, review requests are obviously the exception.

The scarceness of my reviews the past months is still striking, though. I suppose I haven’t read much that I’d like to discuss, and it made me reflect on my reading for a bit. I think it has something to do with trying to get through my physical TBR pile. Some books have been on that pile for years, but my tastes and interests have changed. A lot of my reads thus far were three stars: I did enjoy them, but I also didn’t find them memorable. Coincidence? I don’t know. The implications of going through your TBR and finding mostly three star reads among the books that have been on your shelves for years could be another post altogether. Point is: I don’t have the urge to review them, so I don’t. It does make my list of books I’d like to discuss really short for the time being, but I suppose that’s okay.

What about you? Do you review every book you’ve read? If not, how do you determine whether to review a book or not?

Review: My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

lesbianexperience_kabi.jpgMy Lesbian Experience With Loneliness
Nagata Kabi

Publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment
Publishing year: 2017
Translator: Jocelyne Allen
Pages: 143
ISBN: 9781626926035
Genre: Nonfiction, autobiographical, manga
Rating: 4/5

Trigger warnings: depression, self harm, eating disorders

I was toying with the idea of occasionally discussing manga on my blog. I didn’t expect this one to be the first!

That said, this is a bit of an odd title to review. I usually do not review nonfiction, much less autobiographical work, because I either do not know enough about the topic or I feel that it’s not my place to make any comments. My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness hardly seems any different, especially because the author is very honest and personal about what she’s been through. Who am I, some random person on the internet, to say anything about her experiences? Still, this manga left an impression, so I still wanted to discuss this.

The author is in her late twenties, a college dropout, a virgin, and doesn’t have any friends. Her mental struggles, her eating disorder, her self-harm, and her inability to take care of herself causes her to lose her part-time job. The author is devastated, because the job represented a place where she could belong, which she hasn’t been able to find after finishing high school. She ends up going home to her parents because she doesn’t have any other options. She struggles with gaining the approval of her parents and the expectations both parents and society place on her; she mentions how her eating disorder stems from feeling as though she didn’t deserve the food, only to result in hunger and binge eating.

All of this may sound depressing, but there is also a sense of hope. We get to see the author slowly taking steps to find her place in life. She tries living like ‘a normal person’; getting out of bed, eating three meals a day, trying to find a job. We discover she has a passion for drawing manga, and she shows us how she realized she is attracted to women. Eventually, she finds the courage to hire an escort service. It seems the notion of going to an escort service helped her to take better care of herself; to eat well, to wash herself, clean her clothing. All of these things might be simple, but for someone dealing with mental health, it’s a victory. She also learns that she doesn’t live to please her parents, and that she should pursue her own goal of publishing manga even if that isn’t the traditional career path. It’s what makes her happy!

A lot of the themes that appear in My Lesbian Experience of Loneliness are universal. It’s about dealing with expectations and the lack of approval of your parents/society, about growing up, and about finding your place in the world and doing what makes you happy. The manga also conveys a strong message about self-love and learning to take care of yourself, both of which are important. Finally, the manga offers insight into mental health, that people are struggling even if it might not be noticeable at a glance. All of these are great messages to convey. There is no real solution by the end, and the implication that the struggle is ongoing is definitely present, but it looks like the author is in a better place by the end of the manga compared to where she started out.

Despite the cover and title, sexuality wasn’t as big as I had expected. That said, the author’s analytical journey of (sexual) self-discovery and her eventual hiring of the escort service did seem to be a positive step for her, even if she learns that she is lacking in social and communication skills which leads to a lot of awkwardness. I couldn’t personally relate to her descriptions of how she felt when being held by her mother, but it was still fascinating to read. The discovery and her acting upon her sexuality appeared to be a part of her healing process and self-acceptance.

The cute art style with the exaggerated expressions helps making the arguably pretty heavy themes a bit more digestible, which I definitely think is helpful in not making this too depressing. Some of the image are even humorous! I like how the artwork also included the color pink along with the black and white that’s typical of manga. There is some nudity, but nothing erotic.

This autobiographical manga is more about mental health than sexuality. It’s personal and honest, and touches on some heavy themes, but does so in a digestible way that is partly aided by the artwork. Because the themes are so universal and (unfortunately for the author) touch on a wide range of subjects, I think there is definitely something a lot of people can relate to in My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness. I definitely did.

On Manga and Comics, and the GoodReads Reading Challenge

A.k.a. in which I write about #firstworldproblems and arbitrary distinctions.

Anyway, most people are familiar with the GoodReads reading challenge. You set a certain amount of books to read for a year, and you try to read that amount of books. When I first joined GoodReads back in 2011, I just got out of what I refer to as my ‘initial anime and manga phase’ (short version of the reason: I needed a break) and I began studying English literature. Other than Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which I read for class, I only added ‘normal’ books to GoodReads because… that was what I read. Makes sense, doesn’t it? During my master degree, however, I followed an election on graphic novels, so I ended up adding a few more comics. Graphic novels. Sequential narratives. Whatever you want to call them.

After graduating, though, I picked up a few more comic book titles such as Fables and Saga. At the same time, I also slowly began getting back into anime and manga. Part of the reason was my voluntary writing for a Dutch magazine about Japanese pop culture, but I also discovered titles that were right up my alley, such as Golden Kamuy and Vagabond. I now find myself actually following series again; buying the physical volume, reading it, and then waiting another month or two to find out how the story continues. I’m picky with the series I choose to follow, but I do read manga again, alongside ‘normal’ books.

Now, I used to not add manga to my GoodReads. They don’t take a long time to read most of the time, and felt it was unfair to include them in my book count or reading challenge. Besides, I already had an account on MyAnimeList to keep track of my manga reading! However, because I too have hypocritical tendencies, I did add Western comics. Sure, Watchmen was read for class and can be considered ‘literary’, but I wasn’t making any such distinctions for ‘normal’ books. If I read a book, I added it, despite whether I did or didn’t read it for class, or whether it was or wasn’t literary, and not taking into account whether it was a quick read or not. I realized that it was a bit silly to make a distinction between books and sequential narratives, or even manga and Western comics; adding one, but not the other. So I added manga to my GoodReads as well.

When setting my GoodReads challenge back in January, I set the number with my physical TBR books in mind. As of right now, I have completed 45% of the challenge. Not because I have read so many books of my TBR (though I’m doing my best and did read a couple), but because I ended up reading manga that I hadn’t previously taken into account. I borrowed The Girl from the Other Side (5 volumes) for a review and picked up The Promised Neverland (currently at 8 volumes), another review copy or two, and the new volume of Golden Kamuy. Of the 29 books I have read for my challenge this year, ‘only’ 13 are ‘normal’ books. That’s less than half. And I have not even bothered including my reread of Monster in my challenge.

Admittedly, this offers a bit of a skewed view of my reading count this year. The first volume of The Promised Neverland is a much quicker read than, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, but they both count as one read book each. It felt a bit unfair to count manga towards my challenge. However, the same ‘issue’ could be brought up for children’s books, or short stories and novellas. I’ve read Legion by Brandon Sanderson, which was a measly 80 pages, which definitely didn’t take me as long to read as The Count of Monte Cristo. A volume of Vagabond, a manga, definitely took me longer than Legion. Where do you draw the line?

I briefly considered raising my reading challenge to compensate for the manga. I did so last year, when I decided to read the entirety of Dragon Ball. But you know what? Pardon my French, but f*ck that. I really don’t want to think about arbitrary distinctions about what I should or shouldn’t include or worry about when I’ll pass some challenge. The manga I’ve read has no bearing on my intention to read most of my physical TBR this year. My progress can be seen when I decide post a picture of my TBR pile either here or on Instagram. And the GoodReads challenge that I’ll likely pass way before the year is out? It’s just a number that has no bearing on anything. In the end, it’s about the content of the book(s) themselves. So I’m just going to happily read my books and manga, and continue to add both of them to GoodReads, without worrying about reading stats or distinctions.

So, if you also happen to read comics, manga, picture books… what do you do with your GoodReads reading challenge? Do you pick a high number? Not include them? Or do you have your GoodReads challenge set at 1 and be done with it? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!