Archive for the Novel Category


Yoshiya Nobuko’s Hana Monogatari, Part 1 (花物語 上)

January 10th, 2016

HMono1If I bothered to make New Year’s Resolutions at all, my one resolution for 2016 would have been that the first Japanese novel I completed would be Yoshiya Nobuko’s Hana Monogatari, Part 1 (花物語 上). It was, for most of the 20th century, the definitive collection of girl’s literature in Japan, as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series was in the 20th century for American girls, and as The Babysitters Club is to people younger than I am. ^_^ It is also considered by many people to contain early proto-Yuri work.

And so, after many days of diligently plowing through some amazing – and some amazingly awful – stories, I have fulfilled that non-existent resolution. ^_^

Hana Monogatari, “Flower Tales,” were originally serialized in girl’s magazine Shoujo Gahou from 1916-1924. Each story is named after, and sometimes refers in the story, to a specific flower. The stories follow young women in their teens and early twenties, most often in school, but sometimes as they strike out into adulthood.

The first part of the collection begins with a ribbon story – that is, a scenario that is meant to tie the stories together. In this case, it is a number of middle-aged women, sitting together and reminiscing about their youth. The first dozen or so stories are presented as a flashback, but about midway through the volume, the ribbon story slowly fades and we’re left with a remarkable collection of stories about girls and young women, written by a young woman in Japan in the 1920s.

I’m not going to summarize every story. I honestly couldn’t, simply because there were some where my comprehension was tenuous, to say the least. And I’m kind of on the side of grumpy old folks who say Japanese kids’ reading comprehension has gone down, if this was what was popular with middle school kids in the 1920s! Compare this to most Light Novels being published for adult otaku and Hana Monogatari is practically college-level reading. ^_^;

After reading a number of stories, I started taking notes when a piece really stood out. The first such story was “Cosmos,” sometimes noted as a clearly proto-Yuri story. I’d disagree with that, but that’s an argument for another time.  Cosmos is made up of a girl’s letters to her onee-sama as her mother is in the hospital, ending with her mother dying and the girl having to leave school forever. My note says only “Brutal.” It’s not the only one. Death is a common factor in many of the pieces. The worst of these often had a red shirt on the character from the get-go, such as the younger brother in “Tsuriganesou.” It was instantly obvious the kid was gonna die, but still, the news was presented without a hint of feeling or compassion and I actually flinched when the neglectful uncle bothered to tell his sister. “Ah, um, so…he’s dead.”

“Shiroyuri” was sweet and hopeful, while “Fukujusou” is one of the few stories with what can be considered a “happy ending” when a girl who was parted from her onee-sama meets her again as a young adult.

“Hinageshi” started really beautifully, with two girls meeting at school, dancing in a patch of red poppies flowers and talking while in the rocking chairs in the waiting room, but ended up rather emptily.

“Himomo” was a strange little tale of a girl who is giving and kind, so of course the other girls make fun of her for her sense of responsibility. She has a habit of taking care of what we might think of as a lost and found box. In it, she finds a little set of bookshelves, with lovely letter from a teacher who had to leave the school. I believe this was the first story I read that did not end in a melancholy fashion.

The first story with anything approaching what I would consider to be Yuri, was “Tsuyukusa.” Akitsu and Ryouko love each other, they “yearn” for each other. When they are parted it is harsh and abrupt – and rather cruel on Ryouko’s part. I immediately note the use of the name “Akitsu” – the same name given to one of the protagonists of Yaneura no Nishojo. I wonder who Akitsu was, and what she meant to Yoshiya-sensei. ^_^

“Benibara, Shirobara” was a sweet story that was sweet without melancholy. With the Red Rose/White Rose contrast, I of course saw the kernel of the Rosas of Lillian Academy. ^_^

There were two stories that were really the standouts for me. Of these, we’ll start with “Dahlia,” as I have already brought up Maria-sama ga Miteru. ^_^ This story follows a woman out of school, Touko. Touko has become a nurse in the town in which she attended school. When a former classmate is admitted to the hospital, the former classmate’s rather wealthy and prominent family asks Touko to be their daughter’s private nurse. The head of the hospital strongly encourages her to do that, as it will be good for her both monetarily and prestige-wise. But that night Touko is on the ward comforting a small child whose mother isn’t there and she realizes that this was why she became a nurse. She rejects the offer in order to help people who really need the comfort and companionship. Shades of Marimite‘s Matsudaira Touko lay heavily over me as I read this story, remembering Touko’s own story of early life in a hospital and the nurses there who were kind to her.

The last story of note was really noteworthy. Called “Moyuruhana,” which Dr. Frederick (the scholar who brought us the superb translation of Yellow Rose from Hana Monogatari, which I reviewed in February 2015) suggested be translated as “Smouldering Flower”. This story was…well, it felt sort of like a vampire story without any vampires. Midori becomes infatuated with “Mrs. Kataoka” a new teacher at school. The use of the English “Mrs.” is emphasized, rather than calling her Kataoka-fujin or -sensei. Midori comes to Mrs. Kataoka’s  room one night, where the teacher is described like a “Snow Queen”, pale in the reflected light of the snow outside. Mrs. Kataoka embraces Midori, whispering that young girls like her “are the best.” At this point I read the rest of this story as if it were a kind of Carmilla-esque tale and it worked *perfectly*.  Midori becomes increasingly obsessed, but when she tries to see Mrs. Kataoka again, she’s stopped from entering by a mysterious older woman who strokes a black cat (!).

A guy in a black suit arrives to try to pay off the principal, Wagner-sensei (ya see what I mean about Carmilla, yes?), to hand Mrs.Kataoka over, Wagner-sensei tells Mr. Suspicious to bag off, he threatens the school.

The climax of the story is in fine Gothic form as the school buildings go up in flame and neither Mrs. Kataoka nor Midori can be found and both disappear from the story completely. In the final pages, Wagner-sensei suddenly becomes the protagonist of the story by saving the school.

This was so eyebrow-raisingly amazing a story, I couldn’t wait to tell you about it. ^_^

The initial chapters/stories are short, but as her work grew in popularity, clearly she went from shorter stories to longer ones. As a point of contrast early stories run about 6 pages in this edition and the later stories go as long as 30 or more pages.

Color, too, plays a big part in the stories, as one might expect. Frequently the color of a flower is one of it’s significant qualities. Red roses, violets, tiger lily, daisies, and so on, so you can imagine the scene quite spectacularly clearly when I say “a field of red poppies” or “violets in the garden.” The mood of the story is often tied up in the color associated with it. Lavender twilights and melancholy, golden sunshine and daises, that kind of thing.

My admiration for Yoshiya-sensei jumped up by significant amounts reading this book. While many of the stories were tinged with a melancholy, she manages to play around with tone and voice quite a bit – especially as the stories progress.

Ratings:

Overall – 9

This was not an easy read, there were any number of deaths to deal with, but as I read her work, I’m coming to appreciate it more and more. Hana Monogatari deserves it’s status as the definitive example of early 20th century Japanese girls’ literature. I’m really looking forward to getting to Volume 2!

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Summer Reading: The Grave Soul by Ellen Hart

September 30th, 2015

GSELHJLOne of the most delightful things about the novel Maria-sama ga Miteru ~Ibara no Mori was the description of Sei, the compulsive reader, looking for stories that reflected what she was going through, this unspoken, confusing and many ways, distressing love of another girl. She found things about homosexuality, of course, that treated it as a pathology and, based on the descriptions of the stuff she read, she found herself staring down the Well of Loneliness and other dire lesbian classics.

I loved this section of the novel, because I too was young, and combing through the library, trying to find books that didn’t make me want to stab myself. I wasn’t, thank the gods, looking for confirmation…I just wanted to read a good book with lesbians.

I was lucky. I found Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule and Beebo Brinker,  by Ann Bannon and I found lesbian mysteries. Murder at the Nightwood Bar by Katherine V. Forrest launched me into a 1990s full of volumes of lesbian-protagonist mysteries. Naiad Press was publishing them in droves and I was haunting Barnes and Noble, (this was so long ago Borders did not yet exist and B&N’s “Gay and Lesbian Fiction” shelves were a second home) buying them and borrowing them at the library, Dozens, maybe hundreds of lesbians with long-dead lovers, with drinking problems who weren’t out, who were out and suffering from institutional homophobia, being stalked and tortured and beaten and eventually catching the bad guy. So, so many mysteries. So many, in fact, I became absolutely sick to death of mysteries.

At then end of the decade, there were two authors left I could stand. Forrest kept writing, left Naiad for a major publisher and her character, Kate Delafield, out and comfortable at last, became more comfortable for me to read. And Ellen Hart, whose Jane Lawless mysteries scratched an itch for lesbian characters who were not suffering from homophobia, alcoholism, or trauma. Although Jane had the prerequisite long-dead lover, she ran a restaurant, had a female Oscar Wilde as a side-kick and was quite likable. I always liked Jane.

But, as I mention, I left mysteries behind me. And I had not realized that Ellen Hart was still writing them. Until last year, when I discovered Ellen Hart on Facebook,I also discovered Jane once more. And just after I had caught up to Hart’s last book, (the Fates must have found this hilarious, I swear I can hear them giggling,) it tuns out that her new publisher is an imprint of a large publisher and her editor is a friend of mine.  And so, with thanks to the publisher, I had a chance to make the last of my summer reads, Ellen Hart’s newest Jane Lawless mystery, The Grave Soul.

It was an excellent book.

The construction was turned inside out a bit, so we begin with the aftermath of the crisis, then work our way back in to it. We, the reader, always know that aftermath and so the tension is turned way up throughout the book without us actually having to go through the crisis itself. When all too many novels these days are merely prologues to violence, stalking and torture scenes in the name of “suspense,” this approach worked to create a lot more suspense without having to subject us to violence porn.

It was good to revisit Jane Lawless, the restaurateur who sleuths on the side, good that she broke up with her horrible girlfriend in the last novel, good that they did not get back together in this one. Cordelia, her side-kick, is always too much to be believable, but that is what we like about her. She’s the comedic relief in the Shakespearean sense of the word.

The story was tightly written. The mystery was a classic small-town murder, but one in which Miss Marple had to come from out of town in order to make sense of it. And the ending was appropriately Agatha-Christie-like as well.

All in all, an excellent revisit to an obsession of my youth, long before Yuri manga, and long before Jane (or I) was so comfortable with saying the word “gay.” In this case, I was able to come home again and find that what has changed, has changed for the better.

It was a good read, and I’m glad that Ellen Hart is still out there plugging away at it. ^_^

Ratings:

Overall – 8

Facebook is your friend. Ellen Hart, Katherine V. Forrest, Ann Bannon and many other lesbian writers of the past and present are there and you should totally take a look at their books. This is your literature.

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Summer Reading – Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas

July 26th, 2015

81GCH6FO7nLFirst, the good news. My bathroom renovation is finally, after 9 weeks of crazy, finished.  I hope that means my life will return to normal and I’ll get back to regular reviews. (If not…oh well. ^_^)

Today I want to rave about the book that sustained me through the last few weeks, Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas, by Kazuki Sakuraba, translated by Jocelyne Allen.

The novel follows three generations of a rich manufacturing family in remote western Japan: Illiterate, clairvoyant, Manyo, a daughter of the mountain people who was abandoned as a child, her daughter Kemari, who ruled the girl motorcycle gangs of western Japan, then left it to become a famous manga artist, and her daughter Toko, the narrator of the book.

The synopsis had me intrigued. But you know I keep my expectations low, and I’ve read a lot of Japanese novels, so I’m aware of the slow-to-fast pacing that dominates their writing style. I did not expect to love this book.

I loved this book.

I enjoyed reading it so much, I did something that is unheard of for me – I stopped reading quickly. I started parsing out chapters, then half chapters, slowly, night after night, so I wouldn’t finish too soon.

The language in the book is quirky and strange. My first thought when I started reading was that the translator was a genius – how exciting for me, then to find that the translator was my friend Jocelyne Allen! What a fabulous job she did, communicating the richness of the words, the tones of the speech, and the all-out strangeness of the book. Did I forget to mention that it’s strange? It is. It’s really, really strange. Captivatingly so.

The isolated location, the overview of Japanese 20th century history as seen through the eyes of utterly unaverage, but completely sane, people, coupled with the fantastical visions, and fictionality of their lives, tied together with unnerving precision of description of humanity makes for a fascinating read. This is a super, dark, super, rich, super bitter dark chocolate of a book. The flavor is complex and delightful, but it requires an adult palate to appreciate it.

That said, I found the book especially delightful when it wandered directly into my own playground full of girl gang manga. I’m not going to lie  – those bits were extra specially tail-wagging for me. ^_^ Kemari’s manga, Iron Angels! bore a striking resemblance to Hana no Asuka-gumi, which put a smile on my face through that whole section.

But what surprised me most was how good (strange, but good) the ending was. It had been such a delightful read that I had no hope at all that the ending would be good. It was perfect. Strange, but perfect.

This is the first Haikasoru book out of Viz Media that I had ever read. If this is the kind of stuff they are putting out, I’m going to have to go browse through their catalog. This was an  amazing bit of summer reading, a great translation and a damn fine novel.

Ratings:

Overall – 10

I couldn’t have imagined a book this perfect for me to read this summer.

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Lesbian Novel: Dolly Dingle, Lesbian Landlady

February 2nd, 2015

DollyDLLA few years ago, I discovered Monica Nolan’s genius with the Big Book of Lesbian Horse stories. Following that, I’ve read and reviewed Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher, Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, and Maxie Mainwairing, Lesbian Dilettante.

Dolly Dingle, Lesbian Landlady continues the saga of the lady-loving ladies of Magdalena Arms in Bay City. Like the earlier entries in the series, Dolly Dingle, is simultaneously a romp through lesbian pulp novel tropes, a drawing room comedy and a mystery story.

The elderly landlady of The Magdalena Arms is taken ill and resident Dolly steps in until Mrs. DeWitt is well again.  While acting as stand-in landlady, Dolly starts cleaning up the old place, until she learns that it’s not just that the carpets that are worn and out of repair. The finances are in serious disarray and if Dolly can’t think of some way to get them all out of a predicament, the Arms will be closed and torn down!

Unfortunately for her, Dolly is also trying to balance her own career, and not one, but two, love affairs, neither of which seem to be going quite the right way.

Will Dolly decide whether it’s Kay or Arlene she loves? And what is with all that stuff in the basement? Will Dolly and the gals save the Arms? Find out in this thrilling – well, highly amusing – installment of the Bay City series by Monica Nolan! /end AM radio announcer voice/

As always, I adore Nolan’s campy mixture of mid-century YA literature and pulp prose (that is, apparently, entirely on purpose.) The mystery this time started in one place and ended in another, but it was a terrific ride getting there. And ultimately, the mystery part was more developed than the love affairs.

A notable addition to the ever-changing cast is Jackie, an African-American nurse. I hope we’ll get her story in the near future…and I’m still holding out for a barracks romance story one day. ^_^

Ratings:

Overall – 8

As always, I’m looking forward to the next pulp novel adventure in Bay City. ^_^

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LGBTQ Novel: Atashi no Kanojo (あたしの彼女)

January 22nd, 2015

anknWe’re very familiar with Mori Natsuko-sensei’s work here on Okazu.So, it comes as no surprise really that her newest Atashi no Kanojo (あたしの彼女) is another romp through various forms of adult play and BDSM.

Notably, this novel comes with a cover drawn by Morishima Akiko-sensei which, as far as it goes, actually is pretty good illustration of the content. There are no other illustrations in the book, as it is not a light novel.

Sae is a college student, in love with her classmate Hanano. Hanano returns the feeling, but in a private conversation, explains she is not interested in sex, only masturbation. If Sae wants to be her “lover”, she’ll use Sae’s sexual exploits as masturbatory fodder. (The word in Japanese for this, btw, is “Okazu”. That was one of the meanings I had in mind when I chose the name for this blog. Okazu is more commonly use to describe little dishes of various food items, as well, which fit into the idea that the blog covers this and that. And, finally, it’s a nickname for lesbian sex, as it’s not “the main course”, but a “side dish.”)

Sae agrees to Hanano’s term and find herself torturing a nice, attractive male classmate, Eiji, for Hanano’s pleasure. Hanano also sets up a session with a butch lesbian Midori. Sae becomes increasingly unsatisfied with her “relationship” with Hanano, as she never gets to so much as touch the other woman. When she meets up with Midori on what she thinks is her own, she finds that Hanano is already there and is watching them.

One last time, Sae is the top to pretty (and rather sweet) Eiji, but Sae’s thoughts stray towards Midori. She’s attempting to break away from Hanano, but finds that her “lover” is two steps ahead of her. Midori straps Sae down, then calls both Hanano and Eiji to join them, As Midori directs Eiji to have sex with Sae, Sae suddenly realizes that all along, Hanano was the sadist and she, like Eiji, has always been a masochist.

Like Sae, I grew a little tired of the “relationship” about halfway through the book. It was an easy read and I suppose it was sexy, if that’s what one is into, but there was never any kind of emotional development for any of the characters that convinced me to like them. This was very much a case where I would have liked to see Sae be plucked out of this book and find someone nice in another story. ^_^

Ratings:

Overall – 6

It was okay. All of Mori’s typical fetishes, without any of her fabulous outrageous humor or geeky wonderfulness. In the end I decided that the one thing I never, ever want in my porn is an ironic ending. ^_^;

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