Hello from Tokyo! I’m halfway through a six-week stay here and have been busy with Japanese lessons, seeing the city and eating unseemly quantities of food, but I’ve managed to squeeze a few books in too.
I started with The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction, edited by Michael Emmerich, to get me into the mood for my trip. It’s a collection of short stories set in Tokyo by ten different authors, some of whom – such as Banana Yoshimoto and Hiromi Kawakami – but most of whom were new to me. As is often the case with anthologies, the differing themes and styles of the stories made this a bit hit-or-miss for me, and the translation of one or two of the pieces felt a bit stilted. It was well worth reading to find a few gems, though: I particularly liked The Owl’s Estate by Toshiyuki Horie (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies) and An Elevator on Sunday by Shuichi Yoshida (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) and will definitely be reading more of their work. There are also books on Dhaka, Khartoum and a few other cities in the same series, so a great way to discover new authors from other parts of the world.
I finally got around to reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, which I loved: really clever, great pacing and characterisation, and very moving. My Spanish book this month was one I randomly picked up in Ibiza Airport (admittedly not famed for its literature selection) but it turned out to be quite good: Por Una Rosa by Laura Gallego, Benito Taibo and Javier Ruescas, a trio of retellings of Beauty & the Beast with some really nice illustrations by Mar Blanco. My favourite by far was Benito Taibo’s, in which ‘la bella’ is a young girl called travelling from Honduras to the United States, and ‘la bestia’ the train that takes her there.
It was a good month for new YA, most notably The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I had ridiculously high expectations for this, and it was even better than I’d hoped – it actually makes all the hype about it seem almost understated. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s timely and political and so important, all of which is heightened by how much love and warmth there is between the characters. Starr, the protagonist, is incredibly well-drawn, as are her friends and family (Maverick and Lisa are hands-down my favourite parents in YA) and even the minor characters feel rounded and real. It’s also really funny, something that surprised me given the subject matter. This has raised the bar for YA in my view, and I can’t wait to see what Thomas writes next.
I also adored The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli, a contemporary YA about Molly, who gets a new crush (her 27th) on a boy just as her twin sister meets her first girlfriend. I found Molly so relatable, and it’s great to see a character who is fat but whose story doesn’t revolve around their weight – something that’s really important for fat readers, and for other young readers too. Albertalli is great at slipping important messages into her characters’ dialogue without it seeming forced, and I loved how naturally diverse the book was: Molly and Cassie have two mums, one bi and one lesbian, who are an interracial couple; Cassie is also gay; her girlfriend is Korean-American and pansexual; Abby from Simon Vs. is their cousin and also features… Simon gets a cameo too!
Next up I read The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas, a lovely British YA centred on a 15-year-old autistic girl. In the few book I’ve read with autistic protagonists, they’ve all been male, so it was refreshing to see a female take on this, especially one by an autistic author. It’s well written, Grace is a very real and relatable character, and it manages to handle important themes without being an ‘issues book’.
I finished with another UK YA: Out of Heart by Irfan Master, about a teenage boy who befriends the man that his late grandfather donated his heart to. Personally, this wasn’t really my thing – I didn’t click with the characters and the style was a bit sparse at points for my liking – but it was really well written and an interesting concept, so I’d still recommend it to others, who I’m sure will love it.
I’m in Japan for another three weeks and am travelling around for two of them, so May will probably be another quiet month reading-wise. I’m planning on reading some more Japanese novels, and there are tons of great YA books out this month too, including Patrick Ness’ Release – very excited about that one!