Gray Men

Gray Men
Tomotake Ishikawa

Gray Men book coverRyotaro has had enough of the relentless bullying at his workplace. As he is sitting on a park bench ready to commit suicide, a mysterious man in a gray suit sits down next to him, claims to be able to see what Ryotaro is up to and convinces him otherwise. After Ryotaro has helped the man with a jewellery heist in broad daylight, he is introduced to other people who were saved from the brink of death. Together, they are ready to implement and even die for Gray’s plan to destroy the current rule of the One Percent and to give power back to the disenfranchised of society.

This is an extraordinary thriller I found hard to put down. The things the rich and powerful do – and get away with – are depicted in gory detail at times. And when at the end push comes to shove and Gray threatens to take it all away from them, you see the real lengths they are willing to go through to protect who they are and what they have. You are left wondering how far fiction goes and what might really go on behind those expensive facades.

Tomotake Ishikawa, born in 1985, works in an office as a salaryman like millions of other Japanese. He writes in his spare time and on commutes. Gray Men is his debut novel and in 2011 won the Grand Prize of the second annual Golden Elephant Award (an open literature award for full-length novels written in Japanese).

If you need something quick and easy (and a bit disturbing at times), Gray Men is available at amazon.

A Midsummer’s Equation

A Midsummer’s Equation
Keigo Higashino

Cover for A Midsummer's EquationHari Cove is a sleepy resort town that has seen better days. The most exciting thing happening at the moment is the plan for underwater mining just off the coast, which has divided the people still living there and has brought physicist Prof. Yukawa to the town. But then, after one of the mining company’s meetings, a man is found dead and is later declared murdered. He turns out to have been a retired policeman from Tokyo, and thus Yukawa is drawn into the case. He finds himself unveiling a well-kept secret and, against his usual inclinations, must consider protecting the guilty – not just of this crime, but of another one from many years before…

Another first class crime novel by Higashino. I loved the twists and turns that brought me from Hari Cove to Tokyo and back again, and back and forth in time for more than 20 years. As usual in a Higashino novel, what really happened is only revealed on the last few pages and comes as a surprise. However, when reading the novel carefully (or a second time), you cannot help wonder if Yukawa hadn’t figured out everything right from the start already.

Keigo Higashino was born 1958 in Osaka and started writing while still working as an engineer for a Japanese automotive company. Already his first novel won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Award and he was able to write professionally. Since then he has written more than 60 novels and collections of short stories, his books have been made into movies and TV series, and he has won many more awards, mostly for his crime fiction.

If you’re keen on solving a Midsummer’s Equation in your own holidays – it’s available on amazon.

Return to Tsugaru

Return to Tsugaru
Osamu Dazai

Return to TsugaruTsugaru is the old name of the northernmost peninsula of Honshu, which today makes up part of Aomori prefecture. The people in Tsugaru have always been poor and, as the part of Japan from which to set sail for Hokkaido, has had a reputation of a certain backwardness in cities like Tokyo.

Osamu Dazai, considered among the foremost Japanese authors of the 20th century, was born in Kanagi, a small town on the Tsugaru peninsula. In this memoir from 1944, he takes us on a trip to his hometown and nearby places, like the castle town Hirosaki, the village where he went to school, etc. Travelling chiefly on foot, he pays visits to family members and relatives, as well as old friends, where he is always welcome and served sake and crabs, his favourite food.

This book is part travelogue, part history – both of Tsugaru as well as his own family – part commentary on current events and the war-time of 1944. Throughout the book shines Dazai’s deep love for the land and the people living there.

Osamu Dazai was the pseudonym of Shuji Tsushima, born in 1909 as the eight (surviving) child of a man from humble origins who eventually became a respected local politician. From an early age on, Shuji wanted to become a writer and he eventually moved to Tokyo as a student of French literature. Aged only 26, he was nominated for the very first Akutagawa Prize, and although he did not receive it, his reputation was made. His most important works were published after WWII. Always the family’s enfant terrible, he finally committed suicide with his mistress in 1948, at only 39 years of age.

A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place
Seicho Matsumoto

Cover of A Quiet PlaceTsuneo Asai is on a business trip in Kobe when he recieves the news that his wife had died. Eiko had had a weak heart, so, while her death was sudden, the heartattack causing it was not exactly a surprise. The circumstances of her death, however, are puzzling: What did she do in that neighborhood in a part of Tokyo they had never visited before?

When Tsuneo visits that neighborhood to apologize for the trouble caused by his wife’s death, he notices a number of love hotels on top of the hill. Immediately, the idea that his wife must have had an affair takes hold, and Tsuneo is determined to find out the truth.

This is not your typical “whodunit” crime novel, since the death of Eiko was from natural causes. Still, Tsuneo acts like a sleuth on his quest to unravel his wife’s apparent double life, which makes this a compelling read. Once the truth is found, Tsuneo must make a decision, which turns the story into a direction of obsession and what can happen when you don’t let sleeping dogs lie…

Seicho Matsumoto was born as Kiyoharu Matsumoto, an only child, in Kyushu in 1909. He never finished secondary school or university, and worked as an adult making layouts for Asahi Shimbun. His first short story was entered in a 1950 competition and won him third prize. Six years later, he had quit the newspaper and worked full-time as a writer and until his death in 1992, he wrote more than 450 works, only a handful of which were translated into English. His detective and crime fiction, where he not only depicts the crime but also Japanese society and its ills, was very popular in Japan. He won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1952, the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1970, and the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1957. He chaired the president of Mystery Writers of Japan from 1963 to 1971.

Recently, I discovered Seicho Matsumoto, and his crime novels are well crafted and fun to read. Try for yourself and get the novel from amazon.

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle
Natsuo Kirino

Cover for The Goddess Chronicle16-year-old Namima has just – against her will – been ordained to become the priestess of darkness on a tiny island called Umihebi. Obviously not content with her lot of living on the cemetary and watching the dead for the rest of her life, she flees with Mahito, her secret lover, who is just as outcast from the island’s society as she is. But when Namima gives birth to their child, she is killed by Mahito, who returns to Umihebi with their daughter. Meanwhile, Namima descends to the netherworld, where, grief-stricken, she becomes a priestess of Isanami, the powerful goddess of Death. Will the goddess allow Namima to return to the world of the living to seek closure – or maybe even revenge?

This is a beautifully tragic story about what women are often expected to bear under the name of tradition, or religion, or simply because they are considered “the weaker sex”. And even so, the women are the important and strong characters here, both in life and in death.

I love this book, I keep coming back to it ever so often. The story of Namima – the parts about the priestess of darkness on Umihebi – is based on ancient Okinawan traditions; whereas Izanami and Izanaki are the two gods who – according to the Kojiki – once created Japan. The stories are masterfully interwoven although totally different – and still they have something in common: the female Namima/Izanami has to suffer death, while the male Mahito/Izanagi lives happily ever after – until something unexpected happens…

Natsuo Kirino is the pen name of Mariko Hashioka, a female Japanese novelist born in 1951. She earned a law degree in 1974 and dabbled in different kinds of jobs before starting to write about 10 years later. At first, she wrote romances for women, but as this genre is not very popular in Japan, she turned to mysteries. Although she is very successful as a mystery writer, and even received the renowned Naoki Prize for fiction, she says that she does not like to read mysteries herself. For The Goddess Chronicle, she received the 2009 Murasaki Shikibu Prize for Literature.

Find out for yourself what happens to Namima and Mahito and if there is a happy ending after all: get the book from amazon.

The Pillow Book

The Pillow Book
Sei Shonagon

Cover of "The Pillow Book"The Pillow Book is hard to describe. It is an ancient diary, not a novel, so there is not much plot. The entries are undated and although there are references to this or the other festival in this or the other season, it is hard to get a feeling of the flow of time. On the other hand, the little entries tell of a time and place so strange, that whatever moved the writer at her time seems to come from an entirely different universe and sounds like fiction after all. The individual entries talk about the routines of daily court life, interesting outings to festivals, and there is gossip of course, about friends, foes, and lovers alike.

The book is very strange, and every time I read it, I feel differently about it. Her stories, although they seem trivial at times – as diary entries are bound to be – still have an eerie way of drawing you in. I don’t know much about the customs of that time, but I wonder what people with a better understanding of them think about The Pillow Book.

Sei Shonagon (c. 966–1017/1025) was a court lady of the Heian court in Japan at about 970 – 1020. She began writing The Pillow Book when she received a book of fine writing paper as a gift, and her diary ends when the paper was used up. Her little vignettes tell of a time long gone and of strange customs that even at her time only a few people were privy to.

Go find out for yourself and get your copy from amazon!

Beauty and Sadness

Beauty and Sadness
Yasunari Kawabata

Cover of Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari KawabataIt is New Year’s Eve and Toshio Oki is on his way to Kyoto to hear the temple bells ring in the New Year. He is also about to meet his mistress of 24 years ago, Otoko Ueno, whom he hadn’t seen since he left her. Otoko, now a famous painter, unsure about his intentions, comes to the meeting with her young protegé Keiko.

While Otoko has forgiven Toshio all the pain he caused so long ago, Keiko, knowing the story behind the old lovers, is furious about it and is ready to take revenge on him and his family in Otoko’s name. So, Keiko sets out, using her beauty and cunning to ensnare both Toshio and his son Taichiro in her dangerous web. In the end, her plans prove to be deadly effective…

In this novel four completely different characters meet and eventually clash: Oki, whose affair with the only 15-year-old Otoko was the basis of his literary career, and who wants to reminiscence on the past without giving up his present. Otoko, however, who had to start over in Kyoto after he had left her, is content where she is now and prefers to look forward. Keiko, in love with Otoko, is ready to do anything to get the revenge she thinks Otoko wants and deserves. And Taichiro is fascinated by Keiko, but is unsure how to proceed. In the end, only Keiko’s determination is strong enough to get her what she wants – and the others can only stand in awe at the distruction her strong will causes.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was a Japanese writer, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. This is his last published novel.

This is the perfect book to read over New Year, with Kyoto’s temple bells ringing in the background! Even if you’re not in Kyoto, you can still get in the mood by getting this book from amazon.

The Key

The Key
Junichiro Tanizaki

Cover of "The Key" by Junichiro TanizakiIn our diaries, we may write our most intimate thoughts and desires, safe in the knowledge that no eyes other than ours will ever read them.

This is not the case for an elderly professor and his attractive young wife. Their married life has become dull and although they would never openly admit this to each other, they cannot suppress their desires for ever. So, each of them starts a diary to write about the things they cannot say openly. Although they carefully hide the books, they do expect the other to find and read it. The diaries, mutually read, soon provide the key to spice up their marriage, but things become rather complicated when Kimura, a young colleague of the professor’s arrives on the scene and arouses not only the daughter of the house but also the wife.

We read the entries of both diaries and follow the story of love and jealousy, sexual desires and their fulfillment. Both partners play their respective games, innocent in their talking, but highly dangerous in their writings. In the end the fire of their lust is all-consuming – was this what they wanted all along?

An interesting book, almost a psychological study. If you know something about your partner you shouldn’t know – how do you deal with it? Confront him openly? Get what you want – or what he wants – by sly manipulations? The end of the book comes with a shocking confession and nothing is what it seems…

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 – 1965), born in Tokyo, was one of the most popular modern writers of Japan. He began his literary career in 1909, and only a year later, he was well-known in literary circles. Many of his writings have sexuality and desire as their focus. In 1923, when he moved to Kyoto after the great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed great parts of Tokyo and Yokohama, his career was boosted to new heights, and after WWII, he was regarded as Japan’s greatest contemporary author. In 1949, he won the Asahi Prize and was awarded the Japanese Order of Culture, and in 1964, he was elected as honorary member in the merican Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, as the first Japanese writer. He died of a heart attack shortly before his 79th birthday.

Interested in spicing up your own marriage? Well, have a look what Tanizaki is doing here and get the book from amazon!

The Briefcase

The Briefcase
Hiromi Kawakami

cover of "The Briefcase"Tsukiko is a 38-year old office lady in an undistinguished Japanese company, leading an average life. One evening, as Tsukiko orders her dinner at a small bar, she is addressed by the old man next to her. Surprised at the approach, she finally recognizes him as her teacher of Japanese literature from high school. From that evening on, they keep meeting each other – always unplanned – and marvel about how similar they are. Sensei and Tsukiko like the same food and drinks and eat the same snacks to their sake. After a while, they begin to meet on purpose, for short little trips to the local market or to the high school reunion. Their feelings for each other and the perceived unlawfulness of them leads to internal struggles for both. Will they overcome their fears and stop hiding their feelings?

This is a wonderful love story between two soul mates who struggle not only to overcome an age difference of 30 years, but also their own perceptions of what an “appropriate” relationship should look like.

Hiromi Kawakami, born 1958 in Tokyo, studied science, taught biology, and wrote short sci-fi stories before her first book was published in 1994. She counts among the most popular authors of Japan. This book received the Tanizaki Prize in 2001, and has been made into a movie.

If you want to find out whether Tsukiko and her sensei get together at the end, get the book from amazon!

The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan

The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan
Yasushi Inoue

cover for The Samurai Banner of Furin KazanTakeda Shingen is the daimyo of Kai province in central Japan and one of the greatest warriors of the Sengoku period. This book tells his story as seen through the eyes of Kansuke Yamamoto, one of Shingen’s 24 generals. The crippled, disfigured Kansuke is an excellent swordsman and a brilliant strategist, and his shrewd ideas win many a battle for his master.

Not only the men are scheming in this period though, the women are their equals, and sometimes even their betters. Princess Yuu, who wanted to kill herself upon her father’s defeat, becomes Shingen’s concubine, and, through a number of open and hidden plots, she secures the succession of her son as Shingen’s heir.

In the end, Kansuke dies in the battle of Kawanajima in what would turn out to be his greatest victory. Shingen himself however, is ultimately killed by the armies supporting Oda Nobunaga, one of the major players of unification of Japan.

Takeda Harunobu, 1521 – 1573, later named Shingen, was one of the strongest warriors in the Sengoku period, a time of uproar and fighting throughout Japan. The shogunate was very weak at that time, and the hierarchical order broke down, so that anyone who had the power and ability could aspire to lead and rise through the ranks. The banner Shingen carried in his campaigns bore the four characters fu-rin-ka-zan from Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War”, which can be translated as: Be as swift as the wind, as silent as the wood, attack as fiercely as fire, be as composed as the mountain.

The book starts shortly before Yamamoto Kansuke entered Shingen’s services and ends with his death on the battlefield. The main focus lies on the battles that Shingen fought with Kansuke’s help, but we also get some insight into the daily lives of the people of this period. Interesting to see is how Shingen keeps acquiring women as concubines for his pleasure – very much to the dismay of Kansuke, who is very devoted to Princess Yuu, maybe even more so than to Shingen.

Yasushi Inoue (1907 – 1991) was known as the master of historical fiction in Japan. Before becoming an author, he worked as a journalist, and already his first novel Togyu (A Bullfight) received the renowned Akutagawa prize.

If you’re interested in historical fiction, this book is for you – of course available on amazon.