A Winter’s Promise by Christelle Dabos

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A Winter’s Promise is the first in ‘The Mirror Visitor Quartet’ and follows Ophelia, a member of the Animist clan who is betrothed against her wishes to Thorn, a stranger from another clan on a different Arc (one of the floating islands featured on the cover). No sooner does Ophelia arrive on Thorn’s Arc than she finds herself caught in the midst of political intrigues between feuding clans, with her future in-laws proving to be every bit as devious and vicious as their enemies.

Ophelia has the unusual abilities of being able to read the history of an object by touching it and to travel through mirrors. Despite her abilities, Ophelia is such an unlikely heroine, a mumbling, clumsy and socially awkward slip of a girl, but she proves to be brave, determined, resourceful and honest, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she develops through the series.

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This was originally written in French, and the translation is generally very smooth with a few exceptions where the author used terms like trompe l’oeil that don’t have a clear translation and remain in French, which felt slightly jarring.

A Winter’s Promise is such a strange and whimsical story that it’s hard to describe; it’s not typical fantasy, there aren’t any great battles or epic quests, yet the plot trots along and there were enough twists to keep me hooked until the end. This quirky story is populated with such eccentric and scheming characters that it reminded me of a cross between Jane Austen and Gormenghast. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I thoroughly enjoyed A Winter’s Promise and I’m very much looking forward to seeing what happens next. Have a lovely week. X

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

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Convenience Store Woman is narrated by Keiko Furukara and right from the start it’s clear that she’s a little bit odd and doesn’t fit in, but Keiko is frequently as baffled by other people as they are by her. At times Keiko is hard to relate to as she questions her humanity and there are moments when her lack of empathy and violent impulses add a sinister edge to the story.

As a university student Keiko takes a part-time job in a convenience store, where she finds a reassuring sense of routine, predictability and purpose, and she finally starts to feel like an ordinary, productive member of society. Eighteen years later, at the age of 36, Keiko is single, childless and still working part-time at the convenience store, and feeling pressure to conform as she realises that concerned family members and peers view her with a combination of curiosity and pity because they can’t imagine how she could be content when she’s deviated from the path of career, marriage and children that everyone else followed.

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Then, into Keiko’s orderly and predictable workplace, comes a new employee, Shiraha, a mid-30s slacker with a victim mentality who looks down on both the work and the other workers, but who is on the hunt for a marriage partner to support him. Shiraha is an interesting foil for Keiko, and he becomes the catalyst that pushes Keiko to choose between pretending to be normal and conforming to social expectations, or accepting herself for who she is and doing what makes her happy.

Convenience Store Woman is a short book and easy to read, but also a thought-provoking and powerful exploration of self-acceptance, conformity and societal pressure. Have a lovely week! X

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

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Let me preface this review by saying that Kitchen is a book that shouldn’t be judged by the cover, as aside from the garish colours, the description and synopsis on the back cover are downright misleading. This slim book compromises of two standalone stories covering similar themes of grief and loss, Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow.

The first story, Kitchen, is narrated by a young woman, Mikage Sakurai, following the death of her grandmother – and last remaining blood relative. After her grandmother’s funeral, Yuichi Tanabe, a young man who knew her grandmother invites Mikage to live with him and his transgender parent, Eriko; feeling cast adrift and at something of a crossroads in her life, Mikage gratefully accepts. The title of the story refers to Mikage’s favourite room in the home, where she finds a sense of comfort and purpose preparing food for the people she cares about or even just cleaning and setting things in order in the midst of her own turmoil and upheaval.

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Kitchen explores the different ways that the three characters, Mikage, Yuichi and Eriko experience and react to grief. Rather than seeming macabre and depressing, Kitchen is an inspiring and thought-provoking reminder not to sleepwalk through life lost in our daily routines because our time is finite and every moment is precious. As the narrator wrestles with her own highs and lows, she also ponders if we can really appreciate joy and triumph without also experiencing sorrow and disappointment, and it is Mikage’s acceptance of her own loneliness and mortality that encourages her to consider new paths and possibilities.

Unfortunately, Moonlight Shadow is a bittersweet story with similar themes but it just didn’t resonate with me the way that Kitchen did.

This is a short book and so easy to slip into, yet it is one I savoured and will likely re-read. Have a lovely week. X

‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’ by Hiro Arikawa

‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’ by Hiro Arikawa

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a Japanese novel that tells the tale of Satoru and a stray cat he rescues and names Nana. Satoru is kind, easy going and whimsical with a deep affinity for misfits and strays of both the human and feline variety, while Nana is proud and independent but the pair quickly become devoted to each other. A few years after adopting Nana, however, Satoru begins to contact old friends and relatives to ask if any of them could re-home his beloved cat.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is as much about friendship and families as it is about cats, and each chapter focuses on one of Satoru’s closest friends and relatives, and through each chapter the reader learns more about Satoru and the lives he has touched. In a way, this story explores the regrets and hidden hurts that people often carry through life, and what happens when life seems to give us another chance to atone for our past mistakes and heal some of our old wounds.

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The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a bit predictable, and yet it is such a poignant story that I still enjoyed it and was moved by the ending. Have a lovely week. X

Review of ‘Umami’ by Laia Jufresa

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Umami is a novel set in Mexico City that follows the residents of five houses (named after the flavours sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami) all of whom are experiencing some form of loss or grief. The story has five narrators, there is twelve-year-old Ana trying to make sense of the death of her little sister, Luz; Marina, an artist recovering from anorexia who creates colours to describe emotions; Alfonso, an anthropologist mourning the death of his vivacious wife, Noelia (who was in life grieving her own childlessness); Pina, Ana’s friend and neighbour, trying to understand her mother’s unexplained departure from the family, and finally, Luz, describing the events leading up to her death.

Umami has an unusual and non-linear structure, each chapter focuses on one character during a particular year starting with Ana in 2004, switching to Marina in 2003, then Alfonso in 2002, Luz in 2001 and Pina in 2000, before returning to Ana and working backwards again. The time and character shifts can seem disorientating at first but it allows the story to unfurl gradually and shows how seemingly ordinary interactions between the characters can take on greater meaning and significance once the consequences are fully revealed.

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Umami is a short novel that tackles some big themes such as loss, grief and identity. As Ana and Pina take their first awkward steps towards adolescence, Alfonso is adjusting to his own transition from husband to widower and also describes Noelia’s struggle with her own identity as a wife and respected cardiologist but “only a daughter” because of her childlessness, while Marina attempts to overcome anorexia, an abusive childhood and work out who she is.

The sense of loss that permeates through the novel isn’t the tidal waves of sorrow, anger and shock that wash over us when grief is fresh, but the dull ache of missing someone that never really goes away no matter how many years pass, and of slowly trying to find a new purpose in life.

The slow and thoughtful pace of Umami has been a pleasant contrast to the busy-ness at work and home in my own life over the last few weeks, and Umami is a poignant but hopeful novel that lingers long after the story ends.