The Salaryman's Wife by Sujata Massey (Harper Books)

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I’m a product of a bi-cultural family. My father is American and my mother is Japanese. So whenever I come across a story that features a main character with the same ethnic background as me, I cannot help but be biased towards liking the story. Sujata Massey, a British national, who has taught English in Japan, has created such a character in Rei Shimura. The only difference between me and her character, Rei Shimura, is her father is Japanese and her mother is an American. 

This book is Massey’s debut novel and is also the first in a continuing series featuring Rei Shimura. It was published almost twenty years ago but the story does not seem dated at all. Set in a rural town of Japan at a traditional Japanese inn. A story full of interesting characters and even more interesting interaction among the characters, Japanese and foreign alike.

Rei is a twenty-seven year old woman who was raised in the U.S. and is currently living in Tokyo, Japan teaching English. She lives from paycheck to paycheck on her meager salary. Her parents want her to come back to the States and she does have a one-way ticket home that she can use at anytime, thanks to her parents. However, that is the one thing that Rei doesn’t want to think about. She loves her independence and going back home not only means giving up that independence but means she failed at living on her own.

Rei is also interested in Japanese antiques and travels to an old castle town called Shiroyama, located at the foot of  the Japanese Alps. It is there where she finds the dead body of a woman lying in the snow close to the inn she’s staying at. The local police arrive on the scene and ask Rei for her help in translating to question the other Western guests staying there. She discovers that the woman is the wife of a guest who is also a very influential businessman. The local police want to wrap up the case in a quick and timely manner.

Rei is not fully satisfied with the lack of effort in her mind, of the local police that she decides to continue to try to solve the mystery on her own. She does this by crashing a funeral, pretending to work as a hostess which endangers her life as well. Not only is she upsetting the police and the locals as well, she is now being chased by the police, the Yakuza, and a paparazzi! In the midst of all this activity, she also finds time for romance with a Scottish man named Hugh Glendinning. 

If you love mysteries and find the concept of cultural clashes interesting, then this is a good place to start. Rei Shimura tries to fit in as a Japanese but she cannot help but let her American side dominate as she clashes with conservative Japanese and is determined to solve the mystery to its conclusion. Exciting scenery, great character development. Once you have plunged yourself into the world of Rei Shimura, you can’t help but to want more and fortunately, other mysteries and adventures await in following novels. ~Ernie Hoyt

The Shanghai Free Taxi by Frank Langfitt (Public Affairs)

 Before college, Frank Langfitt’s summer job is driving a taxi. Later, as a National Public Radio correspondent in Shanghai, he resumes his old job because “everyone talks to a taxi driver.” 

When he discovers that foreigners can’t drive cabs in China, Langfitt finds a way out. His taxi is free, exchanging transportation for conversation. “In a cab,” he reasons, “no one else can hear what you say.”

Even within the glittering affluence of Shanghai, the Free Taxi is irresistible and Langfitt’s radio stories become popular. Within the cab’s privacy, passengers can be candid. Some become his friends.

When Langfitt offers a free journey during the annual migration of Chinese New Year, the five-hundred-mile drive brings him close to Ray, a young lawyer. While waiting for customers, he meets Chen, a man whose wife has a green card in California, where he hopes to join her and his daughters someday. Max, a barber who owns his salon, rides with Langfitt regularly to a senior citizen complex where he gives free haircuts to the residents. From Michigan, Crystal, a Chinese woman who follows the free taxi on NPR, asks Langfitt if he will help her find her missing sister, who disappeared near the lawless border country of the Golden Triangle. And when Langfitt, realizing the parallels between The Great Gatsby and contemporary China, uses social media to find Chinese readers of Fitzgerald’s classic, he meets Ashley, a management consultant with a privileged background.

Tracing the lives of these passengers and many others. Langfitt is given insights into Chinese society on a multitude of levels and in a variety of geographic areas. The conclusions that he draws aren’t his own but ones he has been told by the people he’s come to know. Chen, successful in his dream of reaching America, welcomes the opportunities he sees for his daughter; “America was so accepting of differences...while being a less competitive environment than China.” Ray after Trump’s election, praises the United States while saying of China, “We don’t want to tear up the system. We just want to play a more important role.” Crystal, after a fruitless search into the world of sex and violence that claimed her sister, returns to a comfortable middle-class American existence. “I never thought I would live like this. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.” Ashley rejects an enviable life in the U.S. to live in Shenzhen and work in Hong Kong, pointing out the flaw she’s found in democracy. “I think if you give people power, you have to prepare for stupidity, because most people are ignorant. That’s just the truth. They’re very easily manipulated by politicians.” 

In a rich and sometimes confusing mosaic of stories, Langfitt makes one thing clear: the Chinese Dream and the American Dream are dazzlingly similar, while the cultures of each country are separated by a yawning chasm of differences. It’s going to take more than one Free Taxi to achieve the understanding that just might bridge that gap.~Janet Brown

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大家さんと僕 by 矢部太郎 (新潮社)

*Japanese Text Only

“The Landlady and Me” by Taro Yabe (Shinchosha)

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I have been living in Japan since 1995. For the first twenty-one years, in Tokyo, and for the last three years, in Aomori City. A city that’s located in the northernmost prefecture on Honshu island and is also called Aomori. In Tokyo, I worked for a large record store chain that also housed a large English language book section. We carried everything from novels to computer books, self-help books to language books and of course we put a lot of effort into carrying books about music. I had access to a variety of materials that were available in English. Then I moved to Aomori City. Access to English books became scarce. I know I could order books off the Internet but I’m still very weary about making online purchases. In order to fulfill my desire to continue reading, I started buying books in the Japanese language. Many novels are still beyond my reading and comprehension ability so there are oftentimes I would  purchase a manga (comic book) or a graphic novel of which this is one.  

Taro Yabe is one half of a manzai combi nearing his forties. Manzai is the Japanese term for stand-up comedians performing a comic dialogue. His partner’s name is Shinya Irie and they call themselves Karateka. Japan’s manzai profession is very competitive in which the upper echelons of the manzai shi or stand-up comedians make a lot of money and are often seen on television. They may also host their own television or radio shows and are often one of the commentators on news variety programs. However Karateka is not one of the them. Their appearances on tv are minimal and usually not during prime time but are either on after midnight or are on cable.

Due to an episode on a late night television program which Yabe’s current landlord had seen and said was funny, the landlord still asked Yabe not to renew his apartment contract and to find another place to live. Having no choice but to move, Yabe goes to a real estate agent. The agent informs Yabe that there is a room available at a house in Shinjuku but includes an unusual condition - it comes with a landlady in her eighties who lives on the first floor. The low rent and the house’s location are two things that makes Yabe sign a contract. When he meets his landlady for the first time and she asks him about his job, he explains that he sometimes appears on the stage and on television. The landlady then asks if he’s an actor and he tells a little white lie and says, “Yes.”

This comic is based on actual events as seen through the eyes of Yabe. Having lived with his landlady for a while, Yabe decides to chronicle some of their conversations and adventures they have, in comic form. After receiving permission from his landlady, the comic gets serialized by Shinchosha. The publisher then compiled the comics into a book and published it in 2017. It surprisingly became a bestseller, selling two hundred thousand copies within three months of its release. It also won the 22nd annual Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize for Short Work Prize and turned Taro Yabe into a household name almost overnight.

The story begins with Yabe moving into the landlady’s home on the second floor. His landlady was born and raised in Tokyo. She is a very classy lady and always greets Yabe with gokikenyou, a very dignified way of saying “hello”. Her favorite place to shop is Shinjuku’s Isetan Department store and she enjoys watching NHK, Japan’s public television broadcasting network. Yabe’s writes and draws many episodes of his conversations with his landlady. Some of my favorites being when Yabe asks her, “What kind of man is your type?” and she solemnly answers, “General Douglas MacArthur”. The landlady fills Yabe’s days with stories of her life before and during the war. One of her wishes before she dies is to go to Churan in Kagoshima Prefecture. Yabe gladly says he will take her, not even knowing where Churan is. Other episodes include going to a local udon shop and not noticing the fast food restaurants that are in the same neighborhood. She tells Yabe she used to come to this udon shop before the war because it was the only place that had a telephone. She tells him how you could see fireflies by the river. She also tells Yabe how she would one day like to eat cotton candy as her father was very strict and she wasn’t allowed to go to festivals. She also had Yabe take pictures of all her possessions so she could write the names of who should get what item. Yabe thought it was strange that she was already preparing for her death. She tells him, she’s even made funeral arrangements already so if something were to happy to her, everything would be taken care of.

The simple fact that a not so popular middle aged comedian shares a nice friendship with his elderly landlady in her eighties and enjoys her stories enough to put it to print is refreshing and heartwarming. The story shows us that two people, generations apart, can live together under one roof, albeit living on different floors, and have a relationship with mutual respect for each other and become friends in the process. The landlady was proud and happy for Yabe that he found success in the publication of this book. This is one of those few books that actually makes you laugh out loud. One should be careful of where one decides to read this.

On a sad note, in August of 2018, the landlady passed away. As she was not a celebrity, the cause of her death was not made public. ~Ernie Hoyt

おもしろい!進化のふしぎ 「続ざんねんないきもの辞典」by 今泉忠明

*Japanese Text Only

English translation: Encyclopedia of the World’s Most Unfortunate Animals 2 edited by Takaaki Imaizumi

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From the man who brought us Zannen na Ikimono Jiten or “The Encyclopedia of the World’s Most Unfortunate Animals” in English, comes the much anticipated sequel Zoku Zannen na Ikimono Jiten or “The Encyclopedia of the World’s Most Unfortunate Animals 2”. As a reminder to non-Japanese readers, zannen can be translated as “too bad”, or “unfortunate”. Ikimono directly translates to “things that are alive”, thus “animals” and jiten translates to “encyclopedia”.

This book begins by introducing us to the different types of evolution many animals have gone through. Evolution of the body. For example, the crocodile may have the strongest bite in the animal kingdom but the strength to open their jaws is really weak that an elderly gentlemen can hold it shut. Evolution of the way of life. A fine example being the dolphin. If the dolphin was to sleep, it would drown. How unfortunate! Evolution of abilities such as the scorpion that shines a blue-green color due to ultraviolet rays but has absolutely no meaning and the scorpion itself doesn’t realize that it is shining.

The first chapter discusses the unfortunate evolution of peculiarities. For example, the meal of the vampire bat. This animal only feeds on the blood of living animals. However, because blood is a liquid, it readily digests and the bat remains hungry so continues to suck more blood. Usually more than half of its body weight. But then the bat becomes too heavy to fly and hops its way back home. How unfortunate! Or the least weasel, which is a very small rodent but will willfully prey on another animal fifty times its weight and sometimes may be eaten in the process.

Here’s something interesting on the evolution of bodies you will learn. Did you know that in a group of clownfish,  the largest one will change genders and become a female? Or that the flapjack octopus has very short tentacles and cannot spit any ink? More interesting yet is the nautilus which may have sixty to ninety legs but can’t walk! My goodness, how unfortunate for these animals! One of my favorites is the marine iguana that’s indigenous to the Galapagos islands. They are the world’s only lizard that spends time in the ocean and will “sneeze out” salt after being underwater for a period of time.

Then the book focuses on the evolution of different lifestyles. We all know that squirrels bury acorns so they will have something to eat later. What we are not told is that the squirrel usually forgets where it buried its treasure. We are also taught that koalas only eat eucalyptus leaves. What we learn from this book is that koalas were not born with this ability. Their ability stems from eating the feces of its mother! WHAT?  REALLY? It’s their baby food. Apparently, the baby food poop has no odor. But still, poop is poop. What an unfortunate animal.

What about some unfortunate abilities? The pronghorn can run really really fast but doesn’t have a predator to run away from. The little tern is so small that to drive away their enemies, a flock of them will shower their foes with bird droppings! Then there is the armadillo. The strength of its armor can deflect the bullet of a gun. If they manage roll up into a ball, they can protect themselves from all kinds of enemies. But of the twenty or so species of armadillos only two types can actually roll up into a ball. How unfortunate for the other eighteen species. However, this abilitly also makes it easier for humans to catch and to carry home for later consumption. Once again, most unfortunate!

What I learned from reading this series is that life is one continuous evolution. Change may be gradual but necessary in order to survive. Who knows how we as humans will evolve next. Perhaps with global warming, we will evolve to have thicker skin to protect us from ultraviolet radiation. Along with us humans, more animals will evolve and change. If not, they will go extinct and is probably something all animals, us humans included, want to avoid. ~Ernie Hoyt


On the Other Side: 23 Days with the Viet Cong by Kate Webb (out of print)


Kate Webb was twenty-three when she came to Saigon in 1967 as a journalist.  By the time she was twenty-eight, Webb was the UPI bureau chief in Phnom Penh, taking the position after the former chief had been found lying dead in a paddy field.

Cambodia was “a different war” from the one Webb had reported in Vietnam. Reporters drove down highways to the front lines of battle and returned to a graceful colonial city when the day was over. When Webb made that trip in April 1971, going only thirty miles down the road from Phnom Penh, it was three weeks before she came back.

She and her Khmer colleague were walking near the front lines when they and four other journalists took shelter in a ditch as bullets whizzed past them. Running on all fours, they found a safe spot in the jungle where they spent the night. In the morning, they were captured by enemy rifles. Two Vietnamese soldiers removed their shoes, tied their arms behind their backs, and gave them tree branches to carry as camouflage from passing aircraft. “You will be taken to a pleasant place for food and drink,” a soldier told them.

At first the journalists felt “like cattle,” sticking their faces into jungle waterholes and gulping down black water. Their feet became infected and a soldier closed the cuts on the soles of one of his captives by stitching them shut with a needle and thread. Within a few days they were given flip-flops, “from Highway Four,” they were told. Walking in the shoes of dead men, hiding from U.S. bombers, they marched slowly toward an undisclosed destination, accompanied by a group of Vietnamese soldiers.

Slowly a weird camaraderie developed between captors and prisoners. During interrogation sessions, Webb assessed the different personalities of her questioners and gave them private nicknames. “We were always hungry,” Webb says, but they were given the same Spartan nourishment as the Vietnamese ate themselves. Webb began to have vivid fantasies of eating oranges while she marched, and savored every cigarette she was given.

After their first week, the journalists were given new clothes, the men green fatigues and Webb  the black pajamas worn by Vietnamese women. She felt a stab of terror when she put them on; now from the air she would be just another black figure running through the jungle, another target.

“We combed our hair, did not cry, joked…”

Webb found a silent rapport with a man she called the Carpenter and another soldier teased her for being unmarried at her advanced age. A field doctor treated the prisoners’ infected feet with Mercurochrome and crumbled bits of penicillin pills, “like a very serious Boy Scout.”

Webb’s biggest fear was that the statements she was told to write would be taken out of context and read over Radio Hanoi as support for North Vietnam. During her interrogations, she struggled to clarify the role of journalists as impartial reporters, a concept her questioners found hard to believe.

And yet, after twenty-three days, all six prisoners were released, unharmed, and were guided to a place where they were found by government troops. “Miss Webb,” she was told, “You’re supposed to be dead, “ and Webb discovered her obituary had appeared in the New York Times.

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“We will miss so much your soft voice,” Webb was told as captors and prisoners said goodbye. That night in a Phnom Penh apartment, after three hot baths and “fifteen or sixteen” glasses of iced orange juice, while lying in a chilled air-conditioned bedroom Webb missed her hammock. Thinking of her captors, she wondered if there would ever be a time when they would meet again, “sitting down and talking--over beer, not rifles.”~Janet Brown

Tour Bangkok Legacies by Eric Lim (available at Amazon in paperback and on Kindle)

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With all the information that’s available online, who needs a guidebook? Looking for a hotel, a good restaurant, sightseeing attractions? It’s all on the Internet. But what if you’re a traveler who wants to see the heart of a place, the spots that go beyond the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China?

You have a choice. You can wander on your own, absorbing the life around you in neighborhoods not mentioned in the big fat guidebooks or you can turn to another sort of travel guide, one that takes you to places never mentioned by the big books.

Eric Lim is an urban explorer who’s found parts of Bangkok that many of its inhabitants don’t know. Bypassing the crowds of tourists whose phones are busily sending posts to Instagram, Tour Bangkok Legacies makes its mission clear right from the start: “...we won’t be going down Yaowarat Road; almost everyone visiting Bangkok’s Chinatown has done it.”

This sets the guidebook’s tone. Lim’s passion is history and he has spent over a decade tracking down the places in Bangkok where its history hasn’t been packaged and commodified. He gives just enough background detail to add an essential dimension to what’s being seen, and he provides careful directions on how to get there. From temples to street markets, from quirky museums to the homes of artists and craftsmen, Eric Lim reveals a side of Bangkok that’s irresistible and almost invisible to the casual traveler--or the clueless resident.

Carving this confusing city into coherent sections, Lim includes the stories behind the life that swirls around the visitor along with essential information--where to stop and have something to eat. Within the wild confusion of Chinatown, he points out an old shophouse that serves traditional porridge, and explains exactly what should to be added to it for the best flavor. Hungry for seafood? He tells how to reach Bangkok’s five-kilometer mangrove forest that is the city’s only seafront and the name of a restaurant perched on a pier that’s only accessible by boat. He recommends relaxing at a floral museum, where tea and local desserts are served on the terrace or in the garden; having lunch in an artist’s house by the side of a canal, where vendors sell food from their boats; or eating at one of the city’s floating markets while watching a Thai boxing match..

Lim doesn’t ignore the universal yearning to shop but he believes in going straight to the source: where to buy paintings from the artist, where to find the makers of bamboo flutes, khon masks, Thai bronzeware, and silk by going to the communities that these craftspeople live in.

Best of all, Lim tells how to get to these places on local transportation: buses, passenger pickup trucks, the subway, skytrain, and, the supreme choice, the boats that travel the Chao Phraya. Yes, these options take time but they’re frequently faster than a taxi in Bangkok’s traffic-clogged streets--and for people-watching, they can’t be beat.

For an unforgettable journey, dust off your passport, pack your suitcase, pick up Tour Bangkok Legacies, and get ready to explore a secret city. ~Janet Brown

The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha (River Books)


Once upon a time two sisters lived in a house of infidelity and bitter silence. Chalika, the oldest, could remember when the house was filled with the noises of daily living but her sister, Chareeya, was born into quietness and only knew a world of sound when she went outdoors. In this loveless home, the two sisters depended on each other for support and affection, but they differed in the other forms of solace that they turned to. Chalika escaped into novels while Chareeya took refuge in nature.

When the girls were still young, their father died and their mother soon followed him with the same spiteful possessiveness she’d bestowed on him when he was alive. Orphaned, the sisters were joined by their uncle, who broke the silence of their home by filling it with European classical music.

Long before this, while out walking with Chalika, Chareeya had seen a little boy, sitting all by himself. Pierced by his loneliness, she decided to take him home with her. When Chalika told her it was impossible to adopt the boy as if he were a stray dog, she forgot all about this solitary child. When she was older, Chareeya dove into the river that flowed past her home, certain she’d find an undiscovered city beneath its surface. That same boy saw her disappear, thought she was drowning, and came to her rescue. Although Chareeya was furious that he ruined her exploration, her uncle, in gratitude, welcomed Pran into the family and gave the boy a home.

The children all grew up searching for love: Chalika in romance novels, Pran in Chareeya, and Chareeya in a passing stranger who ran away with her.

Years later, in a nightclub, Pran saw a girl who looked familiar, one who recognized him immediately. Happily reunited with the man she thought of as her brother, Chareeya took him home to a refuge that she had made delightful with music and flowers. Enchanted, Pran fell back in love with the girl who only cared about men who didn’t love her.

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Returning to his childhood home, Pran took comfort in Chalika’s affection, but his true passion refused to go away. Tied together but following separate pathways, Chalika, Chareeya, and Pran drifted toward unavoidable tragedy.

This novel carries the familiar conventions of fairy tales into the realm of myths and legends. With the languid, seductive pace of a tropical afternoon, its story is folded into intricate shapes, skillfully introducing characters who are given unforgettable life; describing flavorful meals that readers can taste while devouring the words that convey them; evoking the essence of grief with the truth, “Forgetting is hard, but in the end, anyone can forget.”

Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s style is subtle and lyrical, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez but steeped in a delicate sensibility that is completely Thai. Winner of the 2018 Southeast Asian Writers Award, her novel, in a graceful and seamless English translation, introduces Western readers to the gleaming radiance and magic realism of Thai literature at its best. ~Janet Brown




The Most Dangerous Place : Pakistan’s Lawless Border by Imtiaz Gul (Penguin Books)

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There was a time when I was fascinated by the drug trade and would buy and read all sorts of books on the subject. I would read books about the “Golden Triangle”. I would read about the leaders of the drug smuggling trade - General Khun Sa of the Shan State in Burma, Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa, the founders of the Medellin Cartel in Columbia, just to name a few major figures.

Then I read the news of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and saw the photography books by Magnum photographer,Gilles Peress. This spawned my interest in reading books about crimes against humanity. The Holocaust during World War 2, the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the Tigers of Tamil Eelam recruiting children to fight in their wars. Sometimes I would imagine what it would be like to travel to such dangerous places. This led me to read Robert Pelton Young’s book The World’s Most Dangerous Places which is currently in its 5th edition.

My interest in the drug trade and crimes against humanity would be shelved after the rise of terrorism, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden. However, most of the books I would read on the subject were by Westerners who are not the most objective voice when talking about the rise of Islamic militants and whom I believe were just as ignorant about the countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While the U.S. increased the “war on terror” and put a bounty on bin Laden’s head, our country was having an even more difficult time getting the cooperation of another country - Pakistan. That’s the main focus of this book. Our government believed that bin Laden was hiding out in the country’s tribal region of Waziristan which shares the border with Afghanistan. Our government were also weary of the Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence because they believe many members supported the militants and let them handle problems in the area as proxy agents.

In this book, we get an even better insight into the rise of Islamic militancy from a Pakistani native who is also a journalist and has been reporting on the area for over two decades. Gul not only interviews Pakistani government officials and members of ISI, he also interviews militant leaders and their followers. You will learn more about the tribal areas and get a better understanding of how ultra-conservatism and a lack of wealth and education contributes to the rise of militancy. Gul also informs us why the Pakistani government is complacent when it comes problems arising in these lawless areas.

The appendix in the book gives you a list of militant leaders, the group they are a part of, and what tribal region the strength is located. We may not hear much about Al Qaeda in the news after bin Laden’s death, but Islamic militancy continues to grow and expand and now the most current threat against democracy is Isis or the Islamic State. I can only wish for a future where we really will have world peace, but as long as there are extremists, Islamic, Christian, or otherwise, we need to stay vigilant and learn as much as we can to strive to make a better world.


Rain Fall by Barry Eisler (Signet Books)

Author Barry Eisler, who gained the rights back to all of his books, has changed the name of all of his titles that feature his character, John Rain. This, the title of the first book, was changed to “A Clean Kill in Tokyo”. It is the beginning of one of my favorite series featuring a protagonist who is half-American and half-Japanese. As a half-American, half-Japanese myself, I couldn't help but be biased towards liking this character. Also, the story is set in present day Japan, mostly in a neighborhood that I called home for over twenty years – Tokyo.

Meet John Rain, a half-American, half-Japanese hitman for hire based in Tokyo. He specializes in making his targets die as if by natural causes. He doesn't care who or why but he does have some rules of his own. The target must be guilty of the crime he is accused of. The target must not be any women or children, and most important, Rain works alone.

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Rain was a former operative in covert operations during the Vietnam War. It is where he learned his current trade. He also continues to study judo at the prestigious Kodokan International Judo Center to keep his body fit, especially necessary in his line of work. His lastest target is a government official. Using his mode of operation, Rain conceives of a way to have the man's pacemaker short-circuit while riding the subway, making it look as if the man suffered a heart attack. While the man is dying, Rain notices a Westerner frisking the man's coat as if in search of something.

With the death of a government bureaucrat, not only do the Japanese police get involved, but the information the man was holding is also wanted by the Yakuza and the CIA. What both groups are after is a disk the man was carrying which would expose the corruption of many other politicians. And he was about to hand over this sensitive information to the press. As Rain was also spotted on the subway through security cameras, the police are searching for him as well. Once Rain delves deeper into what went down on the subway, it leads him to the bureaucrat's daughter, Midori Kawamura, a Julliard-trained jazz pianist.

Rain befriends Midori, who has no idea that he is the man who killed her father. At first he keeps his distance but when he sees intruders enter her home and that her life is in danger, he goes against his own principles and involves himself in saving her. As the mystery deepens, Midori also wonders what it is about John Rain, this man who appears out of nowhere into her life and saves her from thugs breaking into her home.

This is one exciting ride from beginning to end. As you read the story, it makes you feel as if you are in the heart of Shibuya where the action happens. It is fast-paced and very character oriented. The friendship that blossoms between Rain and Midori makes for a romance that's bound to go awry but you can't help hoping that things will work out. The story just sucks you in and leaves you wanting more.~Ernie Hoyt

The Winter Station by Jody Shields (Little, Brown & Co.)

The time is 1910. The place is the small Russian settlement of Kharbin located in Manchuria which is still governed by the Chinese. There is a very unstable truce between the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese. In this small and nearly forgotten city, Jody Shields weaves a story that was inspired by the actual incidents of the times. People are dying from an unknown cause and before the Baron, a Russian aristocrat and also the town's medical commissioner, can examine any bodies, they have mysteriously disappeared.  He also finds it troublesome that he has not been notified of the deaths. When the casualties keep mounting, the Baron realizes the town is suffering from an invisible enemy – the plague. Although he is determined to eradicate the sickness, he encounters hostilities from other doctors and government bureaucrats, including his own, to share information with each other.

The Baron does have a few allies who try to help him. A French doctor named Messonier, a smuggler and black market dealer named Andreev, and a Chinese dwarf named Chang. As the invisible death continues to take lives, the Chinese who at first wouldn't accept help from the Russians are forced to do so. The Russians blame the Chinese for the plague claiming they are dirty and uncivilized while the Japanese stick to their section of the city, isolating themselves from the others. But as each government official can no longer hide the fact that there is a serious health problem, only then do the doctors unite to come up with a strategy on how to fight the disease.

Some of the Baron's colleagues want to autopsy the Chinese bodies. This leads to more strenuous relations between the parties involved as Chinese custom forbids the desecration of the deceased. Adding to the dilemma is the cold winter which forces many people to gather in small spaces huddled together. If only one person is affected, the others would soon follow. With the epidemic in full force, the newly appointed young and arrogant Chinese doctor has received permission from authorities in Beijing to conduct autopsies on the dead. However, the local population believes the Russian are stealing the bodies and cutting up the bodies to sell the organs.

To establish some type of order and to combat the increasing death toll, the government of China with the help of Russian soldiers has ordered some extreme measures such as confining people on a train. If they show no symptoms of the disease after five days, they were free to leave. Victims and bodies of the dead are being picked up by the “plague wagons” and transported out of town where the bodies were burned. People suspected of having the disease are forced out of their homes and taken to makeshift hospitals while their homes and businesses are burned down to cleanse the area. Families fearing for their children and loved ones often hide the bodies of the dead making finding a solution even more difficult than it already was.

The deeper you get into the story, the deeper your worry gets for the Baron, his Chinese wife and his associates and friends. The Baron and other foreign doctors are working virtually without rest but the city is losing over a hundred citizens a day and their seems to be no end in sight. Will the doctors be able to find a cure? Will they be able to find the cause? Will the Baron even survive this epidemic? What will happen to the city?

Curiosity got the best of me and I had to research what really happened in Manchuria in 1910. As Shield's narrative states, there was an outbreak of plague. However, it wasn't bubonic. It was a pneumatic plague. People in the medical profession believe the plague was spread by disease-carrying marmots that were hunted for their fur. The locals knew to avoid killing sick animals but as the demand and price went up for marmot fur, many migrants and inexperienced hunters would kill and sell diseased animals as well. I couldn't help but see the news about an Ebola outbreak in the Congo where history is repeated itself because of poor hygiene, illiteracy, and a belief in old superstitions.

This book is a fascinating bit of history I was unaware of until now. If you enjoy a good medical thriller with a historical background, then this is a story for you.~Ernie Hoyt


Ekiben : The Ultimate Japanese Travel Food by Aki Tomura (IBC Publishing)

I am an army brat. My father was in the army. My mother is Japanese. I spent most of my elementary years living on a base in Tokyo, Japan in the early '70s. We lived on a base called Grant Heights which was located in Itabashi Ward, near Narimasu station. Every summer, my brother and I would look forward to going to my grandmother's house in Maizuru, a small coastal town on the Sea of Japan that was located in Kyoto Prefecture. ot get there, we would take the “bullet” train, commonly known as the shinkansen, where we would look forward to sitting in the dining car and having a bowl of curry rice.

I moved back to Tokyo, Japan as an adult in 1995. After settling into my new job and surroundings, and saving a bit of money, I was able to visit my grandmother's home in Maizuru again. This meant I would be taking the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. I was so looking forward to sitting in the dining car and having a bowl of curry rice again. It was over twenty years since my first shinkansen experience--imagine my shock when I found there was no longer a dining car on the route from Tokyo to Kyoto. It had been replaced by a moving cart, similar to what’s found on the airlines, except you had to pay for your own drinks, snacks, and food. But then, I discovered something else. I discovered the world of the ekiben. (Eki is the Japanese word for “station”. Ben is a shortened form of bento, the ready-made box lunch.) 

This book, Ekiben, has a  subtitle that’s direct and to the point, The box lunch you buy at the station and eat on the train. The book also provides a short history of the ekiben which I wasn't familiar with. When the railroads were being built during the Meiji era (1868-1912), bentos were made available at every station. They are still available but they have evolved quite a bit. The ekibens are usually eaten on a long train journey and there is an incredible variety of the types of ekibens you can buy.

This book provides you with just the tip of the iceberg concerning ekibens. It can be used as a guide to show you at which station the ekibens are available, providing a full color picture of the package and its contents.

The book is divided into seven regions, starting with Hokkaido and the Tohoku area (which includes Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Yamagata, and Akita Prefectures), the Kanto region (which includes Ibaraki, Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa Prefectures and the Tokyo metropolis), the Hokuriki region (which includes Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui Prefectures), the Chubu region (which includes Aichi, Gifu, Nagano, Shizuoka, Yamanashi, and Mie Prefectures), the Kinki region (which includes Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama, and Shiga Prefectures), the Chugoku region (which includes Shimane, Okayama, Yamaguchi, and Hiroshima Prefectures), and ending with the Shikoku and Kyushu regions (which includes Kagawa, Tokushima, Ehime, Kochi Prefectures in Shikoku and Fukuoka, Oita, Miyazaki, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Saga, and Okinawa Prefectures in Kyushu).

For every ekiben, each page will show you the name of the bento, the type of bento it is (there are about nine different types introduced), the name of the railway, the name of the station where its available, the package appearance, an image of the box, an image of the contents, and at the bottom of the page, a description of the bento.

These days, you don't even have to go to a particular station. There is an ekiben specialty store inside Tokyo station, where you can buy ekibens from all over Japan. Many department stores have ekiben campaigns from time to time as well.

Although I miss eating curry rice in the dining car on the shinkansen,  I still look forward to long train journeys which gives me a chance to try the different types of ekiben. When visiting Japan, eating an ekiben should definitely be on your list of things to do!~Ernie Hoyt

So Sad to Fall in Battle by Kumiko Kakehashi (IBC Publishing)

I was very impressed when director Clint Eastwood made his two movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima. One was seen through the eyes of the American soldiers, based on the book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley. However, I was even more impressed with Eastwood's portrayal of the Japanese soldiers as seen through their eyes for his film Letters from Iwo Jima. In the movie, it shows that a lot of letters were found on the island after the war. However, before the American invasion, the Japanese soldiers had sent many letters home. Author Kumiko Kakehashi wrote this book based on survivors’ testimonies, families of the survivors, and also on the letters that the families gave the author access to.

Most Americans will be familiar with the iconic photograph of the six Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi which also won the Pulitzer Prize. What most Americans probably don't know is that the U.S. Military thought the capturing of the island would only take no more than five days. But it was not as easy as they first thought.

Much of the book centers around the letters written by the commander of the Japanese forces, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Unlike other commanders, he did not believe in the Japanese strategy of a beach landing assault, as he had already seen the results in Guam and Saipan and other places and knew it would be futile. In fact, in his letters, he was already resigned to losing the island, but not after putting up a fight until the death of every soldier.

What makes this different about other books about the Battle of Iwo Jima, is how human the general and his men were when sending letters home to their families. Kuribayashi, as a general, managed to write a few lines criticizing the war and his superiors which went against the grain of the times and even managed to pass some of the Japanese censors.

When reading the letters from the General to his wife and children, it's almost hard to picture this nice family man commanding over 20,000 soldiers to defend a small island in the Pacific from a nation with a far superior force. He writes to his wife about the smallest details: how she should not send him anything, or how to fix a draft on the floorboard of their home, complete with pictures on how to do so.

We learn how Kuribayashi motivated his soldiers to defend the island at any costs. We know this from the letters that were found or shared by survivors and the survivors’ families. We know they defended the island to the best of their ability, hoping to delay or to try to change the mind of the American army in invading their homeland. Another truth we learn about Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is that he was a great strategist and a thorn in the American force’s side. What was to be a five day mission lasted for more than thirty, and came with the high cost of casualties. For American and Japanese soldiers alike, the Battle of Iwo Jima can really be considered a living hell. For those of us who don't know war, this can be an eye-opener that war should never  be glamorized.~Ernie Hoyt

おもしろい! 進化のふしき 「ざんねんないきもの辞典」 今泉忠明 (監修者) Encyclopedia of the World's Most Unfortunate Animals edited by Tadaaki Imaizumi

Sometimes I love to challenge myself to read a book in the language of my adopted country – Japanese. Although it takes me a while to finish, I find that it helps me improve my vocabulary and my comprehension. Recently I picked up a book titled Zannen na Ikimono Jiten. Zannen can be translated as “too bad”, or “unfortunate”. Ikimono directly translates to “things that are alive”, thus “animals” and jiten translates to “encyclopedia”. The English title would be The Encyclopedia of the World's Most Unfortunate Animals.

My wife, who is not an avid reader, was also interested in reading this book. Upon its release, it shot up the Japanese bestseller lists in a very short amount of time and is enjoyed by both children and adults. The writing is easy to understand,  incorporating a lot of humor, and the book is filled with cute illustrations.

The book is separated into four parts. The first part gives a little history about evolution, how animals have evolved or changed to survive as a species. One of the examples given is the giraffe.

One of their ancestors was born with long legs which helped them run away from predators. But the giraffe with long legs had a hard time drinking water and once again became easy prey for the carnivores. Then, another one of their ancestors was born with an extremely long neck. This made drinking water easier and the species survived.

The second part talks about how many of the animals have evolved. There were many that evolved in a most unfortunate way or at least, we as humans, may find strange. Did you ever wonder why hippos spend most of their time in the water? As large as they are, the skin of the hippo is quite sensitive, even more so than a human baby. They can get sunburnt just by standing out under the sun. Or did you know that the brain of an ostrich is smaller than its eyeballs? Or the tuatara (a type of lizard), which has a third eye on its forehead, but can not see out of it clearly – most unfortunate!

Part Three explains how some unfortunate animals evolved to stay alive. For example, the stinkier a skunk is, the higher its probability of finding a mate. Or how about the sea cucumber that spits out its intestines to protect itself from being eaten by larger fish? The sea cucumber has the ability to regenerate its innards – a most unfortunate way of staying alive.

And finally we have a section about the unfortunate abilities of various animals. For example, consider the stink bug whose own smell can be so overpowering, that it will faint from its own odor. Or a flea which has the ability to jump very high, however cannot stand on its own feet – most unfortunate.

There are so many tidbits of interesting animal information which not only makes for great reading but can be used as great conversation starters! You can tell your friends or people you just met, “Hey, do you know why koalas spend most of their time sleeping? Because they eat eucalyptus leaves which contains a lot of toxins. But toxins are toxins and the eucalyptus leaves have almost no nutritional value so they need to store up energy. They do that by sleeping all day.” Even if you are not an animal lover, you will love reading about the “unfortunate” evolutions of many of these living things!~Ernie Hoyt

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little Brown)

This is a fairy tale inspired by the author's travels through Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. The hero of our story is a young girl named Minli. She lives in a small house with her mother and father in the shadow of a large mountain. All the villagers call it Fruitless Mountain because nothing grows on it and no animals or birds make their home there. Minli's family is very poor, as are most of the villagers.  

Although Minli is a child, she is always smiling and ready for adventure. The villagers thinks her name (which means quick thinking) is well suited to her. Sometimes her mother thinks it suits her too well. What makes Minli happiest is hearing her father tell her stories of far away lands, of magic and dragons, of imagined worlds where anything is possible. One of her favorite stories that she likes to have her father tell is how Fruitless Mountain got its name. Minli loves this story and always asks her father what could be done about the barren state of the mountain to which her father always answers, “That is a question you will have to ask the Old Man of the Moon.”

Minli believes her father's story and asks him where she can find the Old Man of the Moon. He tells her that it’s been said he lives on the top of Never-Ending Mountain. Then Minli has a great thought. She tells her father that if she could find the Old Man of the Moon, she could ask him how to change the family's fortune. This time the mother scolds the father for putting such ridiculous thoughts in their daughter's head.

The next day is not an ordinary day. A goldfish seller walks through town calling out “Goldfish. Bring good fortune into your home.” Minli asks the man how a goldfish can bring good fortune to which the man replies, “Don't you know? Goldfish means plenty of gold. Having a bowl of goldfish means your house will be full of gold and jade.” Minli has two copper coins given to her when she was a baby and without another thought, runs back home and offers them to the goldfish man. He only takes one coin and gives Minli a bowl with a goldfish in it. When she brings it home, her mother is not pleased, saying it’s just another mouth to feed.

Minli thinks about what her mother said and sneaks out at night to set the fish free. She sighs just like her mother and says out loud if she can only go to Never-Ending Mountain, then she would be able to ask the Old Man of the Moon how to change her family’s fortune. As she is about to head home, the fish speaks  and says it can show her the way to Never-Ending Mountain.

This is how Minli's true adventure begins – starting with a talking goldfish, then meeting a dragon that can't fly, and having to solve riddles to find her way to Never-Ending Mountain where she can ask the Old Man of the Moon her question. Will she get there? Will her family's fortune change? Are there really talking goldfish and dragons? Only one way to find out--finish reading the story!~Ernie Hoyt



 

Return to Tsugaru : Travels of Purple Tramp by Osamu Dazai (Kodansha International)

As a fairly recent transplant from the metropolis of Tokyo to the Tohoku area of Japan, also known as Tsugaru, I have become more interested in exploring the literary history of my newly adopted home. When my wife and I explored our new surroundings last summer, I couldn't help but notice the number of monuments dedicated to one of the area's most prolific writers – Osamu Dazai. I did not know he was originally from Aomori Prefecture. I also didn't know Dazai was a pen name he used. (His given name was Shuji Tsushima.)

I decided to introduce myself to Dazai by reading a book he had been commissioned to write. One of his friends in the publishing business had repeatedly suggested he write a travel piece about his hometown and he willingly accepted. It was meant to be a special volume in the New Fudoki Series.  (Fudoki 風土記means the records of the culture and geography of a province.)

Dazai spends three weeks exploring Aomori Prefecture and says, “Though I was born and brought up in Tsugaru and lived there for twenty years, the only places I knew were Kanagi, Goshogawara, Aomori, Hirosaki, Asamushi, and Owani. Of other towns and villages I knew not the least bit.”

This book was originally published in 1944 by Oyama Shoten and titled Tsugaru.  The English edition was translated by James Westerhoven (who had taught English at Hirosaki University for about ten years) and was published in 1985.

It was by pure coincidence, or maybe it was fate, that my travels with my wife around Aomori Prefecture last year seemed to have followed in the footsteps of Dazai's own wandering. Almost every chapter Dazai wrote was about a village or town we had also visited. Aside from his hometown of Kanagi and the closest large city, Goshogawara, Dazai takes us through towns with names like Kanita, Yomogita, Imabetsu, Minmaya and Cape Tappi.  He also has another goal in mind when he sets out on his trip: to see Take Koshino, the woman who raised him, whom he hasn't seen in thirty years.

What was intended to be a travel guide turns out to be more of a personal journey as Dazai shares with us not only his thoughts about the small towns and hamlets but also offers his opinions on the people of Tsugaru as well. Dazai's novels may have a reputation for being bleak and depressing but this travelogue and reminiscences  take the reader on a journey that's more fascinating than just reading facts about an area’s culture and geography.~Ernie Hoyt

The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong (Penguin Books)

This psychological mystery and suspense novel by Korean author You-Jeong Jeong is one of the most disturbing books I've read in quite a while. The story starts with twenty-six-year-old Yu-jin waking up to the smell of blood. He has been off his medication and thinks he may have passed out after having an epileptic seizure. But that smell of blood...

He is also covered in what he thinks is mud, his clothes are crusty, and his hair is matted. He wonders if he fell in the mud on the way home the night before.  As he slowly tries to remember the details of what happened, the phone rings. It is Hae-jin, his good friend and adopted brother. Hae-jin asks about their mother who had called Hae-jin in the middle of the night. This is so out of character for her that it makes Yu-jin a bit worried. He seems to recall his mother calling his name but wonders was she calling for help? Or was she begging for her life?

He thought he had heard the voice of his brother as well. Yu-jin had a brother named Yu-min. When they were children, they would play a game called “Survival” with their BB guns that shot small plastic pellets. They would shoot each other and the one who got hit the most would win. He remembers a time when he almost lost his BB gun along the bridge of a railway track. He bumped his elbow and dropped his gun. At the same time he could see the train coming towards him, but he didn't want to lose his gun and ran back for it. Although he managed to get his gun, his uniform was torn and his face covered in dirt. He remembers how Yu-Min covered for him at school and he wishes Yu-min were here now to help him. However Yu-min has been dead for a long time.

Yu-jin comes to realize that his clothes and his body aren't covered in mud--he’s covered in blood! He knows he has to deal with the situation himself. He is still unsure of what happened. But he finally has the strength to check on his mother. He finds her lying on the floor with her throat cut from ear to ear. The shock is overwhelming. What to do now? He believes that maybe he should call the police. He think she may have tried to fight off a burglar in the night. He dials the emergency number only to come to realize what the police would think--“a dead woman with her throat cut, lying in a pool of blood next to her dazed, bloodied son.”

This is only the beginning of the mystery as we learn of another murder. A young woman was found with her throat cut, dumped into the sea. She was found in an area where Yu-jin would run at night.

The deeper you read, the deeper you are pulled into the mind of Yu-jin. More mysteries begin to unfold. Why was Hae-jin adopted? Exactly how did Yu-jin's brother Yu-min and his father die? And if he doesn't have epilepsy, what is he suffering from? Fast-paced and at times more graphic than any slasher film, this book makes it impossible for you to do anything more than read it to get to the bottom of its mystery.~Ernie Hoyt


 

The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius (Norton)

I'm not a science nerd or should I say I am cyber-impaired? This thriller about a race to make the first working quantum computer, which in theory would be able to decipher any encrypted messages in a short matter of time, is a book that I found fast paced and exciting. The race is between the U.S. intelligence community (aka the CIA) and China's Ministry of State Security, (MSS) who seem to be one step behind the Americans every step of the way. The CIA has discovered that there is a mole in their own department but have no clue as to who it is and how to catch him or her or them. At the same time, Chinese-American field agent Harris Chang is sent to investigate a small company in the US that the CIA believe has been contacted by a front company of the MSS and has been compromised by a Chinese informant.

We next find Chang in Singapore with a Chinese national, one Dr. Ma Yubo. Dr. Ma has been on the take, accepting bribes to support a mistress in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to keep his daughter in school at Stanford University in the U.S., and to keep his relatives off of his back as they ask him for money and help. Dr. Ma is a scientist who, the Americans know, works for the MSS. What they don't understand is why.

Ma agrees to meet with Gunther Krause, a private wealth advisor for a company called the Luxembourg Asset Management. However, Krause shows up with Chang, much to Dr. Ma's disapproval. Ma soon learns that Krause and Chang work for the same company --the CIA-- and the CIA is determined to get Ma to help them find the mole in the Company. As Chang meets with an unwilling Dr. Ma, he alerts some of his colleagues to search Dr. Ma’s hotel room to find his mijian, a small diary where he wrote his private thoughts. Most Chinese officials have them as they were deemed safer than electronic devices and were to be used to protect the Ministry, but officials knew the diaries were kept for their own protection.

Chang manages to get Dr. Ma to submit to become a CIA “asset”, as they have his mijian. Ma is told if he doesn't cooperate, the notebook will be sent to those authorities in China who investigate corruption within the system.

The CIA had gathered enough information to confirm that there was a mole who had access to top level security items and how the contacts were established. They learned of a Chinese program called Xie (Scorpion) and found that the Chinese asset's name for their mole is Rukou, (Doorway). What they didn't foresee was that Dr. Ma realizes he is not in a win-win situation as Chang has suggested.  Before any of the CIA operatives could prevent him, Dr. Ma hangs himself. Now, with such little information and no way to make contact, how will the CIA find their mole?

David Ignatius is a writer for the Washington Post who has been covering the Middle East and the CIA for over twenty-five years so his descriptions of assignments and covert actions make you feel as if you are really in the story itself as well. Anybody interested in a thriller will enjoy the twists and turns of the novel as it deals with ethics, racism, loyalty, and betrayal in a modern day setting where real change is happening in the world of technology.~Ernie Hoyt

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (Grove Press)

My wife has been a convenience store worker for over ten years of her life so I couldn't resist reading this book. Fortunately for me, my wife is nothing like Keiko Furukawa, the protagonist of this story. Keiko seems to be different even as a child. When other children cry over a dead bird, Keiko doesn't feel the same emotion and asks her mother if they can take it home and use it to make yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer). She says to her mother, “Father likes yakitori so we should make it for him.” She can't understand why all the other children are sad because to her it's just a bird. (I'm glad to say that my wife would not think of making yakitori from a dead bird for me either.)

When Keiko grows older, she knows that she isn't like other people. However, all she wants to do is fit in and be a “cog in the machine”. So when a new convenience store opens near her university, her sister suggests that she should work there. For Keiko, it's the perfect opportunity to be the kind of person everyone expects her to be. All she has to do is follow the job manual, as if the manual was her bible of how to live and act. It tells her exactly what she has to do and what she should say.  Looking at her co-workers, she begins to copy their speech patterns and the way they dress because she thinks that will make her a normal person who will function in society for everyone's benefit.

Flash forward eighteen years:  Keiko is still working part-time at the convenience store. She has never had a boyfriend, she has few friends, she doesn't have any hobbies but she really enjoys her life. She has no complaints. However she knows she's not living up to other people's expectations, certainly not her mother’s nor her sister’s. Still she continues to do her best to live her life as they expect her to.

When the manager of the convenience store hires a young man who feels that working at a convenience store is below him and that people who work there are “losers”, Keiko takes it upon herself to try to show him how things are done. However, the manager and other employees can’t tolerate his unwillingness to do anything and he's eventually fired.

When Keiko meets her old co-worker a few months later and finds that he has no place to stay, she offers to let him stay at her apartment. As she has no experience with men, she calls her sister, who of course is overly excited at the prospect of Keiko finally finding a man. Her co-workers and even her boss, who up to now hasn't shown much interest in her life outside the convenience store, are curious about how the two got together.  Everyone wonders if they're going to get married, have kids, and do everything else one would expect of a couple living a normal life.

Sayaka Murata's first book kept me intrigued;  I couldn't stop reading until I found myself at the end of the story. The author is still a part-time worker at a convenience store which inspired her to write this novel. It also won her the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in Japan, which is not an easy accomplishment. If you want something new and fresh to read, then I recommend that you read about the life of a Convenience Store Woman.~Ernie Hoyt