The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko

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Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 11, 2016

Summary: Originally published in Japan in 1986, Koike’s novel is the suspenseful tale of a young family that believes it has found the perfect home to grow into, only to realize that the apartment’s idyllic setting harbors the specter of evil and that longer they stay, the more trapped they become.

This tale of a young married couple who harbor a dark secret is packed with dread and terror, as they and their daughter move into a brand new apartment building built next to a graveyard. As strange and terrifying occurrences begin to pile up, people in the building start to move out one by one, until the young family is left alone with someone… or something… lurking in the basement. The psychological horror builds moment after moment, scene after scene, culminating with a conclusion that will make you think twice before ever going into a basement again.

Review: Don’t read this book alone at night.

Let me repeat that. Don’t read this book alone at night!

That’s what I did. I kind of regret it, especially with the ending being what it is.

This dark and atmospheric novel isn’t my first dive into Japanese horror, though it’s definitely one of the better J-horror novels I’ve read over the years. The Graveyard Apartment, translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm, tells the story of a small family moving to a new apartment they’ve just purchased in Tokyo, an apartment that sold for a low price because of its location next to a graveyard. It’s not an ideal place to raise their young daughter, but the price was right, and it’s convenient enough for work and school, so Teppei and Misao are fine enough with living there. That is, until strange events start occurring, and their daughter Tamao gets mysteriously injured in the basement, and everyone in the building begins moving away…

Koike’s writing brings Japan to life, and Boehm’s translation adds those little explanatory touches to some concepts that those in the West might not be so familiar with. Happily, those bits are few, and only when necessary, letting the reader absorb the culture and atmosphere contextually, which I vastly prefer compared to when translators feel the need to either hold my hand and explain absolutely everything, or else don’t bother to add appropriate notes at all. This combo allowed me to take a mental visit to the spookier side of Japan, and the little idiosyncracies of Japanese life, without leaving my house.

Even if you can’t necessarily identify with Teppei or Misao, you certainly do feel for them. They’re trying to live a normal life, to give their kid the chance to get a good education, live in a good neighbourhood, not spend more than they can afford, and for all intents and purposes they are an utterly average family. They’re not supernatural thrillseekers, nobody’s secretly a psychic or a medium, but neither are they stuck on denying the paranormal nature of events in the building once they encounter them. Teppei probably has the hardest time with this, denying Misao and Tamao’s feelings over the matter, until he’s forced to confront it, which seems to me like a fairly classic presentation in horror fiction: women encounter the supernatural first and follow their uneasy feelings about it, while men take longer to convince and their eventual acceptance is the tipping point where things start to get serious.

While it may bother some readers that the cause of the haunting was somewhat vague and largely theoretical (probably caused by initial construction disturbing the bones of those buried nearby, but that doesn’t explain everything behind the paranormal events that plagued the apartment building and its residents) or that the ending was so downbeat, personally, I rather liked that some of it was open to interpretation. The characters themselves only had hints about what happened before they arrived, and had to put pieces of the puzzle together on their own; the reader knows as much as the Kano family, and even they, right at the end, aren’t entirely sure of everything. As for the ending, well, at a certain point you start to realise that there are really only two choices for how the story will end: either some too-convenient thing will rescue the lone family trapped in the apartment building, or they don’t get out at all.

I don’t consider that too big a spoiler because the horror genre isn’t typically about feel-good endings. A feel-good ending would have been so contrived and counter to the tone in the rest of the novel, and as you flip through those final few pages, the odds of it happening get slimmer and slimmer until all that’s left is to figure out how it happens, rather than if.

And then there’s the very last page, and if it doesn’t send even a little tingle down your spine, you’re made of sterner (or more cynical) stuff than I.

Horror fans are really in for a treat when they read The Graveyard Apartment, especially if they’re horror fans with a taste for non-Western settings or like expanding their horizons to include other cultures. It has good tension in all the right places, has a fantastically creepy atmosphere, and is overall just a damn good ghost story. Seek it out and prepare to avoid basements for a long time.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: Nine year old Satsuki dies after being pushed out of a tree by one of her friends. This is the story she tells of how it happened, and the lengths her friends go to in order to try and cover it up, not wanting to upset anyone. But she is soon missed, and her lost sandal provides a clue. The writing is both lyrical and stark, and the effect veers from horrifying to absurd as the people closest to her simultaneously search for her body, and try to hide it. Days pass and her body starts to decompose, while her ghost calmly narrates, and her panicked friends struggle to keep their secret.

The collection also includes “Yuko”, the story of a young woman who takes a job looking after an elderly couple. Kiyone enjoys her work, but is unnerved because she never meets Yuko, the wife. Yuko’s husband pretends that she is still around, while requesting half of their previous portions of food. He never allows Kiyone to clean the bedroom he shares with Yuko. And when she finally trespasses into their room, it is filled with dolls.

This is a little girl’s account of her life after death, and our unique version of The Lovely Bones. It defies the conventional definition of genres. A ghost story, yes, and YA, too. Dark fantasy with humor. Literary fiction with prepubescent innocence and manga sensibilities. It is many things but a simple story, too. You’ll be fascinated with the unique world of Otsuichi, a very young and prolific author, in his first published work.

Review: I’ve been making extra effort recently to read fiction involving non-Western cultures that’s actually written by people who have spent time living in that culture. It doesn’t guarantee a work free from cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, but it does allow me a better opportunity to experience works that came from other cultures, written in them rather than about them, if that distinction makes sense. Research came take you a long way, but only do far; there’s a level of experience that one can only get with immersion, and the depth of immersion also depends on whether you approach the culture as an outsider or as someone who was raised within it.

Japan has been a long-time love of mine, so reading things about it and from within it always appeals to me. And over time I’ve learned that fiction from the “about” perspective usually have their problems; ones which I can spot easily, and I haven’t even been there yet. Problems with the language, problems with names, problems with weird assumptions that people often get from having watching a few anime and spent a semester of university there and then never doing more research than that. It’s probably safest for me to dive deeper into books written primarily  by Japanese people when I yearn for fiction, especially SFF, about Japan.

Otsuichi’s Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is a republication of 2 short stories. The first one, told from the perspective of young dead Satsuki, seems simple enough at first, but gradually grows in complexity and creepiness. Satsuki tells the story of how her best friend accidentally-on-purpose killed her, and the subsequent attempts to cover up the death so that nobody discovers what happened. The narrative seems a bit distanced at times, though that does make sense since Satsuki is the passive observer to all the events, incapable of acting upon anything or influencing the story due to her death. She watches as her friend and her friend’s brother go to increasing lengths to hide the body, as the tension heightens and they worry they’ll be caught, and the eventual surprising assistance by an unassuming young woman who is no stranger to hiding dead bodies.

And that final reveal was baffling for a moment, and then utterly chilling. It actually made me stop reading for a moment to consider the ramifications, and to think that Satsuki’s story was actually only a small part of a larger and grander tale. Very disturbing, and that Otsuichi wrote this kind of compelling fiction while still in high school is impressive.

The second story in the book, Yuko, is told mostly from the perspective of Kiyone, a young woman who cooks and cleans for an aged man and his never-seen wife. Kiyone thinks little of this for a while, accepting that the unseen Yuko is very ill, until one day she starts putting pieces of the puzzle together, trespasses in the elderly couple’s rooms, and sees Yuko surrounded by a lot of dolls.

Yuko, who appears to be a doll herself.

Kiyone hears from people in town that the man she works for once had a wife, but the wife passed away years ago.

And yet, we see snippets of him sometimes talking to Yuko. But is he talking to a real woman, a woman so ill she often can’t move and appears lifeless, or a life-size doll that he believes is his dead wife?

The ending is actually a bit ambiguous, and it’s easy to interpret things in one way or the other. I have my own theories on what happened, but things in the story aren’t as clear as they seem to be, and there’s always another layer to the mystery, along with speculation. For all that it was short, it said a lot, both about the lengths to which we will go to delude ourselves, the assumptions we will make about people will illnesses and disabilities, and the danger of knowing too much or too little. It’s a story for reading and then for reading between the lines.

I’d say this was a good introduction to Otsuichi’s work, a nice teaser for what’s to come. It’s low-investment; you can finish both of these stories pretty quickly, and there’s an appeal to a wide age range, since they’re rather YA-oriented but still creepy and nuanced enough to appeal to adults who want to feel a quick tingle down their spine. It’s worth a real if you’re curious about the kind of ghost stories that can come out of Japan, and, if like me, you want to read more books written by people whose native language isn’t English.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Fellside, by M R Carey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

Review: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading Fellside. The author apparently did a fantastic job with another well-known and popular novel (I haven’t read it, which is why I say ‘apparently’), but that didn’t mean this one would be equally as great. Still, I was more than willing to take a chance and see where it all led me, to see if Carey could weave a story as complex and compelling as I’d been told by other reviewers.

Turns out the answer is yes. Yes, Carey can. Fellside turned out to be more than a murder mystery with a twist, more than a prison ghost story, but an exploration of expectations and falsehoods, of the lengths to which people will go to get what they want, and a story in which nobody is blameless.

The story starts with Jess waking up in a hospital, badly burned from a fire she’s being accused of starting, a fire which claimed the life of a young neighbour boy. She remembers this only vaguely, having been high on heroin at the time. Consumed by guilt and knowing that she’ll spend the rest of her life in a high-security women’s prison anyway, she makes the decision to end her life by starvation, a slow suicide to atone for her crime. That is, until she makes happenchance contact with a ghost, a ghost she firmly believes to be the boy she killed, who himself is convinced that Jess was not to blame for his death.

Murder mysteries in which a dead person helps the accused uncover the identity of the real killer aren’t unheard of, but they’re uncommon enough that even if the rest of the novel had focused solely on this plot, it would have held interest for me. But there’s so much more to Fellside than that. Life in Fellside prison isn’t exactly kind to Jess, though there are most certainly moments of rough kindness going on, but between a long-running drug-ring and other abuses of power, to Jess’s attempts to not only prove but also believe her own innocence, there’s a rich and varied tapestry of story at work here, told from multiple viewpoints of some extremely messed-up and flawed characters. Even when you sympathize with some of their positions, they’re often hard to sympathize with as people. Everyone is guilty of something, even if that ‘something’ is cowardice that allows a rotten situation to continue when they know a well-timed word could end it.

But some characters are more sympathetic than others, for certain. It’s hard to find much to like about Devlin or Grace, as they’re extremely self-centered and out for each other. The only point of sympathy I can find for Devlin is that he genuinely seems to want to please Grace and believes that the feeling is mutual, but even then, that’s slim sympathy, and he’s still someone I think would be better off dead. But even characters like Liz, scary as she is, become far more sympathetic when you learn more of her history, and when she was first introduced, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to feel so much for her character by the end. She’s a deeply hurt human being, struggling with numerous terrible scars, and while she’s still not exactly a character you want to root for, her story is brilliant and as compelling as Jess’s, in its way.

And then you get characters like Paul Levine, who is undeniably creepy with his misplaced affection for Jess, which drives his desire to do anything he can to please her, even when it means possibly sabotaging her appeal by finding irrelevent-to-the-case info. But that obsessive affection turns out to be the thing that has him looking in all the weird places and results in evidence coming to light that ultimately proves Jess’s innocence. With him it’s a weird case, because people like Paul are rather disturbing in their desires, but you can’t deny that those twisted emotions led to a good place in the end. How much does the end outweigh the means, or the motivation? How much bad gets to be done in the name of goodness and justice?

That’s not a one-time theme in Fellside, either. You see that thread run through multiple story arcs, in one form or another. It’s never a clear-cut issue, either. There’s a prison nurse who treats Jess extremely badly in early sections of the book, believing her to be a child-killer and thinking that Jess certainly didn’t need any gentleness as she was starving herself to death. And many people, I think, would agree with her assessment of that; why make comfortable somebody who committed a heinous crime and is trying to die in penance anyway? Only hindsight and third-person omniscience show that Jess didn’t commit the crime she was convicted of. Morality is a complicated issue, truth can be subjective, and yes, some people do terrible things in the name of justice. Everybody is guilty of something.

But my favourite theme of the book was how expectations shape reality. I suppose that ties back in with what I just said, given that whether or not Jess committed a crime, people believing she did affected how they behaved toward her. Jess’s expectation of her own guilt and punishment nearly led to her death. Paul’s expectation of Jess’s gratitude took him to extraordinary lengths to find evidence of her innocence. But far more than that, there’s the issue of Alex’s ghost, who keeps giving Jess contradictory information about his own life, about Jess’s hand in his death. How he and Jess are capable on influencing the dreams of people around them, and the far-reaching effects of that. I don’t want to give away too much of the story or too many big reveals, but suffice it to say that little is what it appears to be when it comes to Jess and Alex, that their stories run fascinatingly deep, and that perceptions can be true and yet still wrong.

So after all that, Fellside turned out to be an unexpectedly great novel that approached multiple complicated issues from multiple angles, and for that I think it deserves some praise. For the author being able to keep track of everything and make it a properly coherent story, if nothing else! It won’t appeal to all readers, since as much as I can say that depictions of brutality in prison were apt, they weren’t really to my taste in reading, and some scenes were very emotionally charged and difficult to get through. But it was, regardless, a wonderful mystery that kept me guessing on some things right to the very end, and it managed to wrap things up with only a couple of minor dangling plot threads when all was said and done. I’m certain now that I want to see more of Carey’s work in the future; if it’s anything like this, I expect nuance and complexity all over the place, in the right amounts to keep me intrigued and entertained until the last page. Recommended for those who enjoy a good supernatural murder mystery and are up for some frank discussions of unpleasant prison realities along the way.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Without Light or Guide, by T Frohock

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

Thoughts: By this point, I’m no stranger to Frohock’s writing, and I know fairly well in advance that I’m extremely likely to enjoy what she does. And given that the previous novella in this series, In Midnight’s Silence, tripped all the right triggers with me, I was very eager to get my hands on the sequel and continue with Diago’s story.

Without Light or Guide doesn’t disappoint. Picking up very shortly after where the previous novella left off, Diago’s loyalty to some of the Nefilim is still uncertain, to the point that even though those closest to him believe that he won’t betray them, Diago himself is unsure. His heritage is against him, his history is against him, the fact that he feels unwelcome makes him pull away further, and really, I feel for the guy, because that’s a lousy situation to be in. And when people who used to associate with him start turning up dead, he appears even more suspicious in the eyes of those who already weren’t inclined to think the best of him. And Diago’s father, Alvaro, beckons to Diago for purposes unknown…

As terrible as it is for Diago to be stuck in the middle in a completely different way than he was last time, it was also interesting to see how he copes with it all. The people most important to him believe him him, as I mentioned, which provides a point of stability when doubt plagues him, but we get to see some of the internal struggle as he battles with the push and pull of various expectations. And it’s not so much that he feels temptation to side with daimons as much as it is that he feels the urge to fall back on old habits and run from the things that are causing him problems in the first place, even if that means leaving good things behind. Maybe it’s a little bit of me forcing my own issues on a character, but I see in him a man who wants very much to reconcile so many parts of his life and keeps getting shot down.

It was the major scene with his father that really got to me, in that regard. Diago wants, in a way, to put some things behind him and help Alvaro despite their awkward history, and then when Alvaro betrays him once again… It was the kind of thing that hit very close to home with me, because I’ve experienced that pain of reaching out to someone again and again and being disappointed every time, to the point where you have to eventually turn your back on family and see them for the flawed individuals they are. You owe them no loyalty when they repeatedly betray you.

I mention this for a reason beyond just the personal: one of the marks of a good author is their ability to make you feel. Even if you haven’t been in a similar position to Diago’s, you can’t help but have your heart ache just a little bit during that scene, and with the following emotional rise as Frohock dips a toe just a little bit into the cheesy side of things and has the power of love save the day. Evocative prose bring it all to fantastic life on the page, and you feel every up and down as the story flows along and Diago’s journey continues.

I love this series. Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

Ink, by Amanda Sun

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 25, 2013

Summary: On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they’ll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.

Thoughts: I have an almost instinctive pull to books involving Japan, largely because I’m interested in the culture and language and like to immerse myself in both things as much as I can since I can’t actually go there at the moment. Unfortunately, for a long time I seemed destined to be disappointed, since almost every SFF novel I read that incorporated Japan in some way did it, well, badly. Poor use of the language, having every Japanese character act like they popped out of a mech anime, you name it. I was starting to think that the only novels that might actually portray Japan anywhere near accurately would be the ones actually written in Japanese. (And alas, I don’t read it well enough at the moment to make attempting that anything more than an exercise in translation, which wouldn’t really allow me to sink into a story the way I can when it’s in English.) I even found some of those issues in books that had been translated from Japanese into English, which, aside from being the sign of a poor translation, just didn’t give me much hope that I’d ever manage to find what I was looking for.

Then along came Ink, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Katie is living with her aunt in Shizuoka, after the death of her mother, and she’s not exactly happy with the arrangement. Her grasp of Japanese is just barely enough to get her by, she misses where she grew up, and that’s all on top of experiencing a major family tragedy. Then she gets involved with Tomohiro, a mysterious boy from her school who has a bad reputation but turns out to be an artist and athlete with a huge secret. He’s kami, a being somewhere between what we know as a god and a spirit, and far from being limited only to ancient stories and religious doctrine, he and his kind play a part in Japan’s affairs even now. Tomohiro would rather suppress his abilities, preferring to keep them in the dark rather than letting them out and risking hurting those around him, but when the yakuza get involved, he might not have much choice in the matter.

If what I described sounds like it’s also something right out of an anime, well, that’s a pretty accurate judgment. But Sun manages to balance that element rather well with actual day-to-day life events; it was, in the beginning, more like a slice-of-life anime than a shoujo story with supernatural elements. And I kind of liked that, since it portrayed living in Japan as realistic. Kids go to school, they go to school clubs, they go home, they eat curry-rice, they watch ridiculous game shows on TV. Then the paranormal stuff comes in and makes it far more of a YA urban fantasy, the plot kicks up a notch and things get far more action-packed as Katie and Tomohiro try to keep his powers a secret from the thugs who want to use them to their advantage.

Sun also incorporates Japanese words and phrases in a way that I actually like. Most novels I’ve seen try to do that end up making the dialogue seem awkward, in part because the author’s knowledge of Japanese seems, well, lacking. I don’t claim to be fluent, but I know enough to be able to tell when the grammar is stilted or verb tenses are being used incorrectly. Sun makes mention in the author’s notes that she actually consulted native speakers to make sure the characters were speaking like actual Japanese teenagers, a small step with big results. Those who are interested in the language can pick up a few new phrases, and those who already know enough to not need the glossary will be able to move along at a swift pace. (Personally, I was amused right from the cover, listing it as part of the Paper Gods series; the pun there is that depending on how it’s written, kami can refer to either a god or paper.)

Ink is a quick read, decently-paced and with writing that flows well. What works against is it that it does come across very much like an anime in the wrong ways, with a reliance on stereotypes that get tired quickly. It’s very predictable. The only character who seems to have much depth is Tomohiro, and even then it’s only within the rather strict confines of the Bad Boy With A Soft Heart stereotype. If you read this book expecting anything other than what you’d get in a shoujo anime, you’ll end up disappointed.

That being said, though, if that is what you’re looking for, then Ink is going to trip all the right triggers.

I’m curious to read the sequel, since this is so far one of the very few novels to actually portray Japan in a way that doesn’t grate on my nerves, and the plot got quite interesting toward the end, with Katie deciding to stay in Japan and with two sides fighting over Tomohiro’s powers. There’s a good amount of potential in that cliffhanger ending, and I want to see how it plays out. It’s definitely an indulgence read, like ice cream, a treat when you want something that doesn’t have to be amazing and blow-your-mind good but can still be enjoyable and fun. I can’t say I’d recommend Ink to everyone, but as I said, for fans of shoujo anime and manga, it’ll be right up their alley.

Libriomancer, by Jim C Hines

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 7, 2012

Summary: Isaac Vainio is a Libriomancer, a member of the secret organization founded five centuries ago by Johannes Gutenberg. Libriomancers are gifted with the ability to magically reach into books and draw forth objects. When Isaac is attacked by vampires that leaked from the pages of books into our world, he barely manages to escape. To his horror he discovers that vampires have been attacking other magic-users as well, and Gutenberg has been kidnapped.

With the help of a motorcycle-riding dryad who packs a pair of oak cudgels, Isaac finds himself hunting the unknown dark power that has been manipulating humans and vampires alike. And his search will uncover dangerous secrets about Libriomancy, Gutenberg, and the history of magic…

Thoughts: Imagine all the times you’ve read something in a book and thought, “I wish I had that. I wish that was real.” Imagine being able to magically reach through the book’s pages, into the story itself, and pull out whatever that thing was, so long as it was no larger than the page of the book you were reaching through. This is what a libriomancer can do, and I suspect the very concept will excite long-time bibliophiles, because really, who hasn’t wished for this ability at some point in our lives?

Isaac Vainio is a libriomancer, in forced retirement from field duty and instead working as a librarian and researcher, searching through library books for any technology or other items that can be plucked from books that would be beneficial to the organization of others like him, known as the Porters. It’s not the most exciting life, or so he thinks until he’s attacked by a group of vampires, meets a dryad, and gets thrown headfirst into a conspiracy set to bring down the Porters, those guardians of bookish magic founded hundreds of years ago by Johannes Gutenberg himself.

This is the first book I’ve read by Hines, but I could quickly see why he’s such a popular author. His writing is very accessible, and it’s easy to sink into the story and hard to pull away. Hines has a good knack for stringing readers along on an exciting mystery and for telling a complex story in a way that’s not hard to understand. The mystery he writes is multilayered, too, appearing at first to be one thing but actually being more complicated that I first expected it to be, and for that I was very glad. I do love to sink my teeth into a good mystery, it turns out.

Hines also has a great talent for dropping book-related in-jokes in just the right proportion, to give the reader a grin without making the book feel like it’s getting too bogged down in name dropping or attempts at humour. Poking fun at sparklepires by having a branch of vampires known as Sanguinarius Meyerii was comedy gold, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s the kind of humour you’re in for when you read Libriomancer. Isaac’s viewpoint and observations are witty and amusing enough otherwise to carry the levity for the rest of the story. And there’s an extra layer of fun in playing Spot the Reference, for not everything that gets magically lifted from books is said outright, and not every novel or author mentioned are done in connection to each other. It’s a little added bit of amusement for avid readers, to try to see which pieces of which stories Hines is lifting and combining in his own wonderful way here.

Isaac on his own was an interesting character, but for my part, I was far more interested in Lena. Not to give too many spoilers, Lena is a creature from a book universe, caught up in extraordinary circumstances that allowed her to be born and to grow in this world. Her nature is to be largely a sexual companion to whoever she becomes attached to, her own personality shaping over time to best fit that of her partner. And while that’s a problematic concept, it was quite interesting to see the way she had come to grips with that aspect of herself. She didn’t try to suppress it or deny it, but learned about it, accepted it, and grew comfortable with it, as much as any of us can grow comfortable with our own natures. And she was far more than just some sexual conquest for Isaac, I have to say, because even though she accepted that it was a big part of herself, she was defined by far more than just her relationship to the leading man. She kicks butt in her own right, and I loved reading about her. She’s got an underappreciated strength, I think, the sort that doesn’t show itself by constantly kicking ass and taking names and always doing so with a sarcastic comment on her lips. Honestly, I love characters like Lena, because they feel far more real to me than most characters who strive to fit that “strong female role model” archetype (which I personally find about as narrow as the “housewife” archetype, but that’s a rant for another day).

The Magic Ex Libris series is one that I can easily see myself getting hooked on, not just for the cool concept of taking things from books and the implications thereof, but for the characters, whose stories are just starting to unfold and I want to see more of them. There are clearly more mysteries to be solved, more information to uncover about Gutenberg and about Isaac’s role in things, and I can’t wait to dive into the next book and see what it has in store. Definitely worth checking out if you want a good and light urban fantasy that plays with so many bibliophile dreams in new and exciting ways!

Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 23, 2014

Summary: Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

Thoughts: Horrorstor is one of those rare books that actually manages to combine disturbing imagery and good tongue-in-cheek humour that pokes fun at not only foreign-sounding product names but also the unique experience that is Retail Hell. It’s hard not to grin when you get to read amusing descriptions of Tossur treadmill-desks and Rimmeyob shelving. The whole thing is an Ikea riff, which the book doesn’t pretend to hide; it cheerfully says that the whole Orsk store idea was a company deciding it wanted to do exactly what Ikea was doing, only cheaper!

The story of Horrorstor centres around Amy, a disgruntled Orsk employee who doesn’t get along with her manager and who finds her life at loose ends. Barely hanging onto her shared apartment, fearing having to move back in with her mother, a university drop-out who sees no real future except for mediocre employment at a store and company she doesn’t really feel any attachment to. So when she and model worker Ruth Anne get hand-picked to join the investigation team to find out who’s been vandalising the Orsk store at night, the only reason she agrees to do the extra work is the money and the fact that her supervisor will put in a transfer to get her to another store.

And that alone can provide some creepiness, as anyone who has ever been in a building after hours can attest to. Go into a store or school when the place is closed, dark, and devoid of the usual crowds of human life you’re used to seeing, and suddenly everything echoes, odd sounds are louder, the shadows deeper. So even when some of the mystery is explained by the unexpected presence of 2 other employees and a homeless man, this part of he novel is still creepy.

And then he real haunting begins.

I loved the book’s prodding of Retail Hell. I loved the characters, who were real and diverse and carried their own quirks admirably. I didn’t love the lack of originality that the story held, which was analogous to just about any one of a dozen or more horror movies that relied more on imagery than plot to keep you interested. The Orsk store was built upon the site of an old psychiatric treatment centre from the 1800s, run by a sadistic overseers, and right there I think you can see what I mean by the way it’s a little lacking in the originality department. The actual plot of the novels seems to largely just be a frame for the creepy images to hang upon, rather than a real driving force behind the novel’s progression.

Admittedly, the imagery was terrifying, and those with an active imagination are forewarned not to read Horrorstor at night. (And definitely don’t read it if you’re working after-hours security at a retail store!) If you don’t find the idea of a woman working her fingers literally to the bone in a madness-induced bid to claw an escape from the now-tangible monsters of her childhood to be disturbing, then you’re more jaded than I am. Oddly, the only part that I found decidedly undisturbing was the most action-packed scene in which the entire store is being flooded with dirty water and the remaining two employees are desperately trying to escape before drowning. At was at that point that I realised that I’d already hit my limit on being creeped out, that the balance had swung too far, and that what should have been a tense scene was just being read with detached curiosity.

However, this was, I think, an entirely person thing, as everyone’s limits for horror are different, and I suspect plenty of readers viewed this as being more intense than I did.

Horrorstor would make a fantastic movie. I can say that with utter certainty. Hendrix has a good flair for both approachable wry humour and characters that you want to know more about, and these aspects of the novel were brilliant, highly enjoyable! And the imagery was crystal clear throughout, so I was never in doubt as to what was happening even when things were chaotic. Seriously, I would love to see this transformed with visual media.

One minor downside I feel I should mention is that if you’re not reading this book on a tablet or as a dead-tree version, there are things you’re going to miss. The booked was packed with images that provided some more background detail, amusing little tidbits, and as I’ve seen mentioned in a couple of reviews, even the ads of Orsk products carry some small detail that really adds to the flavour of the story, and all of this was utterly missed by me because I read it on a basic e-reader that only displayed a small fraction of whatever image was actually there. Finding out there was more to it was disappointing, since it’s a drawback to anyone who doesn’t have the option of reading it in one of two specific formats. I can see why such formats would be needed to properly display the images, of course, but that doesn’t make the lack of them for everyone else any less disappointing.

Still, Horrorstor was a good horror novel, a quick read with a fast tight plot, excellent characters, and disturbing imagery that will stay with you long after the last page. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a good blend of horror and humour, or for those looking to hip their toes into the horror genre to see what it can provide.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Younger Gods, by Michael R Underwood

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 13, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Jacob Greene was a sweet boy raised by a loving, tight-knit family…of cultists. He always obeyed, and was so trusted by them that he was the one they sent out on their monthly supply run (food, medicine, pig fetuses, etc.).

Finding himself betrayed by them, he flees the family’s sequestered compound and enters the true unknown: college in New York City. It’s a very foreign place, the normal world and St. Mark’s University. But Jacob’s looking for a purpose in life, a way to understand people, and a future that breaks from his less-than-perfect past. However, when his estranged sister arrives in town to kick off the apocalypse, Jacob realizes that if he doesn’t gather allies and stop the family’s prophecy of destruction from coming true, nobody else will…

Thoughts: I must say, this is an excellent introduction to Underwood’s writing. The Younger Gods sounds simple enough in premise (guy tries to leave his cultist family to live a normal life but ends up getting drawn right back into their schemes) but a combination of the diverse cast and Jacob’s charmingly old-fashioned speech patterns create something unique, something that stands out from other similar-on-the-surface offerings. Jacob’s observations and his background alone could have made this novel great, honestly, and I’m impressed that Underwood managed to pull off such a creative blend of elements like this.

Like many presentations of fictional cults that actually involve some legitimate connection to the supernatural, Jacob’s family is part of a cult that draws a great deal of its mythology from the Cthulhu mythos. Which is a mixed bag; on one hand, there’s plenty there to work with, but on the other hand, it’s the go-to source for such things, which means it’s been done by so many people already. There’s always such a cult around. Rarely does anyone present a supernatural cult that doesn’t involve such things, and there are always horrible sleeping gods about to waken. Not that there’s anything wrong with the idea, but at this point in the game it’s hardly original, and so it does lose something.

In fairness, though, Underwood does throw in a lot more mythology than your run-of-the-mill Lovecraftian horror, and you see elements from various world faiths and legends. From omnipresent werewolves to less common things like rakshasas, to incorporating elements from Judeo-Christo-Islamic creation myths, you’re left with a mishmash of mythology that blends together surprisingly well, and gives the impression of a complex world filled with ideas that transcend the region of their creation. I loved this aspect of the book, since so often I see stories of the supernatural that take only one small part of the current myths floating about in the modern world and assume them to be entirely true and the rest entirely false, or else set the whole book in the area that gave rise to those myths in the first place and ignore the rest of the world.

If you love your novels action-packed, then The Younger Gods is a safe bet, since while the book may start off a little slowly, once it gets going it doesn’t let up its hectic pace for even a moment. Which does prove to be a bit of a detriment; after a while you find yourself relating very well to Jacob’s complaints about how he’s literally been running all over New York for a day or more without rest, and the book feels much the same way. There’s only so much action that a person can take before the frantic pacing should let up for a little while to give the reader a rest, otherwise it gets overwhelming and, unfortunately, a bit dull even when spells and flying and swords are being slung. This was the book’s biggest drawback, I found. Too much action, not enough chance to actually process what just happened before another crisis starts.

I was, however, impressed with the reactions characters had to Jacob’s heritage, and with Jacob’s characterization in general. Rather than managing to escape his family, Jacob still finds himself in the thick of things, even unwittingly playing his part in the prophecy his family worked for generations to complete. Though he tried to hide who he was, his reputation preceded him, and he faced understandable prejudice from those around him, even those he tried to help, since they’d heard tales of his families actions and goals and viewed Jacob with a jaundiced eye. And Jacob is very much how you would expect from someone who grew up fairly isolated in an apocalyptic cult; odd speech patterns, unfamiliar with the pop culture that permeates social interactions, hating what he was raised on but often falling back on old thought patterns. He’s an interesting character, one with plenty of redemptive potential, and I’d love to read more about him and to follow along as he tries to right wrongs and undo the damage he and his family caused over time.

Ultimately, The Younger Gods is a solid urban fantasy with an interesting premise and characters you can’t help but get invested in. It’s a smart ride with plenty of diversity, commentary on how equally odd myths and modernity are, and I have to give Underwood praise in setting the whole thing up, because it’s clear that an impressive amount of research went into the small details that make the whole thing so rich and realistic. It’s soaked in the supernatural, marinated in mythology, and is one of those books that will hold up well to a reread when the sequel rolls around.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Girl From The Well, by Rin Chupeco

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 5, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) You may think me biased, being murdered myself. But my state of being has nothing to do with the curiosity toward my own species, if we can be called such. We do not go gentle, as your poet encourages, into that good night.

A dead girl walks the streets.

She hunts murderers. Child killers, much like the man who threw her body down a well three hundred years ago.

And when a strange boy bearing stranger tattoos moves into the neighborhood so, she discovers, does something else. And soon both will be drawn into the world of eerie doll rituals and dark Shinto exorcisms that will take them from American suburbia to the remote valleys and shrines of Aomori, Japan.

Because the boy has a terrifying secret – one that would just kill to get out.

Thoughts: Chupeco takes the Japanese legend of Okiku and does something quite interesting with it, turning her from simply a ghost locked in a loop into an avenging ghost that punishes those who murder and abuse children, not just in Japan but wherever she’s called by the trapped spirits of said children. She isn’t, however, some sort of beautiful avenging angel, as one might expect. She alters from human to hideous, the remnants of the young woman she was in life running alongside the powerful and brutal ghost that hungers for the death of the wicked. It’s an interesting path to take with a traditional ghost story, and Chupeco managed the balance of Okiku’s dual-natured character quite well, I think.

Tied up with Okiku is the story of Tarquin, called Tark, a modern teenage boy whose mother is in a locked psych ward after trying to kill him. Tark  knows the strange tattoos that cover his body were put there by her, though he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t remember much of his life before that moment. He struggles not just with the social stigma of all of this, but with the fact that elements of the supernatural are entering his life. His ordeal will lead him from small-town America to small-town Japan in an attempt to understand and alleviate the growing menace that plagues his life.

Most vast majority of the story is told from Okiku’s perspective, from her observations of Tark and his family to her brutal  murders of murderers, which make it interesting to see justice from the shoulder of a spiritual vigilante, so to speak. Some parts of the story, however, are told without her being present to observe, with no change in tone, and sometimes even outright stating that Okiku is not present, leading to a very consistent narrative with an inconsistent narrator. Very good for the reader, so that the full story can be told, but not so good for internal consistency.

Okiku’s narrative is extremely good to read, though, and there’s a kind of poetry to the prose that goes beyond what I normally see in YA writing. The dialogue, however, is probably the weakest part of the book. With the exception of Tark’s sarcastic commentary, most of the dialogue feels forced or unrealistic, from the strangely perceptive and articulate elementary school girl to the verbose infodumps that characters occasionally give each other, most of the speech feels more like somebody said it in an online conversation than face to face.

(As a bit of an aside, I understand that in review copies, errors will be there, and I’m not supposed to comment on them because they may well not be there in the finished version. However, I would feel like I was doing this book a disservice if I didn’t mention it in this case, because part of the reason I’m not rating this book higher is because of some very awkward phrases and incorrect word usage that I found scattered throughout the book’s pages. It affected my reading experience, and as such affected my ultimate opinion of the novel. Not just typos and formatting errors, either; those I can and most often do overlook. If the errors I found in my review copy aren’t in the finished version, then great. Things get ironed out in editing, and that’s a good thing for future readers of The Girl From The Well. But I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that here. Consider that this book might have gotten 4 stars instead of 3 had that not been part of my reading experience.)

Fans of J-horror are going to love this book. I can say that with confidence. It’s the kind of book that I couldn’t read at night, due to some creepy and evocative imagery that reminded me of one too many horror movies and one too many playthroughs of the Fatal Frame video game series. Chupeco has a real gift for creepy narratives, and for providing a new and interesting spin on traditional tales, and it really shows well here. It was also one of the few novels I’ve read involving Japanese culture that didn’t make me wince from stereotypes and inaccuracies. There’s some real promise here, and for those who are looking for a YA horror novel that offers something different, then The Girl From The Well is a good choice.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)