Book Review: The Shogun’s Queen


The Shogun’s Queen, by Lesley Downer, tells the story of Okatsu, the daughter of a minor Japanese lord, who is taken from everything and everyone she knows to become wife of the most powerful ruler in the land, the Shogun. It is set in the mid nineteenth century when Japan was invaded by those they referred to as barbarians – well armed traders sent from countries in Europe and America. The cherished culture and rituals of the Japanese way of life was thereby changed forever.

Okatsu has never known poverty but, as the political machinations of the lords and princes of her region propel her ever higher up the strictly preserved social and political hierarchy, she discovers wealth beyond comprehension. Those who have acquired these riches and the power it brings are loath to risk relinquishing it. They will stop at nothing to strengthen and secure their position.

As a woman Okatsu has little choice in the course her life must take. Whilst she accepts this she also rails against the loneliness she must endure. There are few she can trust. She is watched constantly and is required to obey. When she grows close to her husband this is seen as a threat as well as a distraction by those who demand her compliance, whatever the cost to herself.

The world depicted is close to unimaginable for modern sensibilities and offers an insight into a way of life that those living it fought to preserve despite the gross inequalities. The powerful men kept palaces of women locked up for their own personal use. When a ruler died this household was required to take holy orders and spend their remaining days praying for their master’s spirit. Some of the women were chosen for their youth and beauty yet never spent time with the man who owned them and could never belong to another. They endured a life filled with sniping and backstabbing, locked up forever in a luxurious prison.

The descriptions of the barbarians are particularly interesting – how what is unknown is feared, as is change. There were plenty who were intrigued by the gifts presented by the invaders – telescopes, cameras, steam engines, weaponry – but they regarded the smelly, hairy, meat eating giants as uncivilised if dangerous buffoons.

I found the pace of the story slow at times, as was court life for the women at the time. There was much repetition as Okatsu grappled with her assigned quest, her loneliness and her feelings of betrayal. The treatment of children in the Shogun’s household was particularly difficult to comprehend.

The story is a fictionalised account of true events. Each of the characters existed and their roles are as accurately portrayed as remaining accounts allow. The author has a personal fondness for the area and was meticulous in her research.

For those interested in Japanese history and in the effects of the spread of western influences around the world this is a worthwhile read. As a story I would have preferred a tighter telling, but it is a fascinating window into a way of life where change was opposed, yet where it is hard not to regard such change as a progression.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.


Book Review: The Translation of Love


The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake, takes the reader to a defeated and American occupied Japan at the end of the Second World War. General MacArthur is overseeing the transition of a country steeped in tradition and submission to a modern democracy. Amidst their shame at the outcome of the war, and still coping with their devastating losses, the indigenous population attempt to embrace the changes required of them as they battle to survive any way they can.

Fumi is a twelve year old schoolgirl whose older sister, Sumiko, had been supporting their family by working in a dance hall in a seedy area of the city. The work was regarded as demeaning, requiring the pretty young women employed to dress and act in a manner pleasing to the American GIs on whose custom they relied. When Sumiko fails to come home their parents will not talk to Fumi about what might have happened or where she may be sought. They wish to protect Fumi from the truth of the life Sumiko had been living. Fumi is desperate to find her beloved sister, who from a young age had cared for her while their mother worked, so decides to take matters into her own hands.

Aya is a Japanese-Canadian whose father chose repatriation when the war ended. Having spent the war years doing forced labour, before joining his daughter at a prison camp when his wife died, he harbours resentment at how they were treated by the adopted country which turned on his family and took everything they had. He is determined to make a better life for Aya in Japan. Aya feels cut off from all she knew and loved. The friendship Fumi offers is her lifeline.

Kondo is the girls’ teacher. His salary is meagre so he works as a translator during his free time. Most of his commissions come from dance hall girls. They wish to write to their GI boyfriends or discover the contents of letters the men have sent after their return home. Often the news is not of a promised ticket to enable a reconciliation but a final dismissal. American girlfriends or wives have been rediscovered and taken precedence.

Corporal Matt Matsumoto, a Japanese-American GI, is also a translator. His job is to process the endless letters that the locals send to General MacArthur who has told the people that they should write to him if they have a problem, that this is what democracy means. Matt knows that the letters are filed rather than acted upon. When Fumi gives him a letter begging for help in finding her sister he decides to try to do what he can himself.

As each of these characters’ lives intersect the clash of cultures comes to the fore. Japan is teetering on the brink of collapse with everything in short supply. Family businesses have been destroyed, the city reduced to rubble, morale is low. The only means of making money for food is via subsistence trading, the black market, or to be of service to the occupying forces. The Americans, with their chocolate, chewing gum, western clothes and ideas, are despised for their conduct but reverred for the plenty they represent.

The war caused each side to treat those they regarded as the enemy with barbarity. Now individuals are starting to rediscover their humanity, even as they condemn the perceived behaviours of those different from themselves. The author brings alive the differing mannerisms of the east and west and how these are seen by the other, the confusion and resentments that arise when divides are crossed.

Although providing a fascinating lesson in history and culture, the story is of people. It is a love story but not a romance. Despite the privations it is suffused with hope. A beautifully told tale, poignant yet uplifting to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan.

Book Review: Tokyo

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Tokyo, by Nicholas Hogg, is a story of loss and of the anchors that are grasped when a life is cast adrift. The writing demanded pauses for appreciation. It was a pleasure to read.

Social psychologist Ben Monroe studies group behaviour: the power of community, an individual’s desire to fit in, the benefits and drawbacks of crowd co-operation, and cults. Through his interest in the latter he meets his wife, Lydia. She is a strong willed woman who dismisses her husband when their toddler daughter, Mazzy, nearly drowns whilst in his care. However much Lydia may blame Ben for his momentary lapse it is nothing compared to the blame he heaps on himself.

Rejected by Lydia, Ben leaves her and Mazzy in California, traveling first to England and from there on to Japan. Whilst exploring this teeming yet fragile country he meets a beautiful young woman, Kozue, with whom he has a brief affair. Conflating good sex with love he struggles to forget her when he returns to England:

“this woman could bring me back to life”

Ben writes a book which will make his academic name and is subsequently offered the chance to return to Tokyo as a visiting professor. He persuades Lydia that Mazzy, now aged fifteen, would benefit by joining him there for six months. On her flight out she meets a young Japanese man, Koji. They speak only briefly but, unbeknownst to Mazzy, Koji becomes obsessed with her. It is not his first obsession.

Ben struggles to see his daughter as the beautiful young woman she is becoming. In trying to deal with his superficial perception he misses that underneath she still needs care. He takes to leaving her to pursue his will-o’-the-wisp of Kozue, a distraction that, once again, puts Mazzy in danger.

The style in which this book is written reminds me of Japanese authors I have read with its slightly surreal plot development and imagery. Characters are introduced but remain opaque. The reader is offered only glimpses of their depth, shadows emerging briefly as from behind the paper screen doors of the houses in which they live. Suggestion is powerful and no more is needed.

Japan is brought to life. I loved the observations on the irrelevance of so much that is valued by man:

“The earth moved […] oblivious to the act played out upon its surface”

When Ben visits the Fukushima exclusion zone he observes:

“In a shopping arcade grass shoots up from the steps of an escalator. How quickly the earth reclaims its space from our feeble endeavours.”

From “the safest country in the world”, despite the earthquakes, tsunamis and radiation, the descriptions of Japan darken as the tale progresses. The historical sex trade, where the geishas have morphed into hostesses, is explored alongside the attendant drugs and extortion. As the tension builds this distasteful side of Tokyo is offered up in contrast to the previously lauded order and honesty.

The plot of this story is compelling but it is the psyches of the protagonists that drew me in. The author captures the weaknesses of the middle aged man, the truculent teenager, and the let down wife with brutal honesty. He also takes the reader inside Japan, a country that I have never visited but, having read this book, feel I now know just that little bit better.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cargo.

Book Review: The Snow Kimono


The Snow Kimono, by Mark Henshaw, was described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘a thriller of the intellect.’ That being the case I suspect that I am not intellectual enough to appreciate the nuances of plot and complexities of interwoven character development. Put simply, I finished this book without understanding what the author was trying to say.

There are two main threads to the tale. First we have the Japanese story which revolves around Katsuo Ikeda, an apparently brilliant young author who also happens to be a narcissist and possible sociopath.

“he seemed to suck the light out of things”

His story is told during conversations held in a Paris apartment between his old friend, Tadashi Omura, and Auguste Jovert, a recently retired Inspector of Police who has his own story to tell.

This second tale forms the parallel thread. In his younger days Auguste worked in Algiers where he lived a double life as an undercover government operative. I found this strand particularly confusing. I did not pick up on how he ended up as Inspector of Police in Paris.

I harboured an expectation that at some point the stories would merge, or at least exhibit some similarities. If this happened then I missed it. Both men had difficult upbringings, numerous relationships and distanced children but these are hardly unusual life events. Their stories seemed to be building to more. The tangled threads contained many knots which I struggled to undo.

I suspect that one of the reasons for my confusion was the proliferation of unfamiliar names. I lost track of exactly who the many women with whom Katsuo became involved were. Likewise, the Algerian women became muddled together in my mind. To me this book resembled a mathematical puzzle that required note taking and relationship maps to enable the reader to keep track and understand key events. I could not simply read and enjoy.

The first chapter failed to grab my attention but by the end of the second chapter I was appreciating the quality of the writing, the imagery and the potential for a mystery to be developed and solved. That I got to the end without understanding left me feeling dissatisfied. Elements were explained, the Mariko, Sachiko, Fumiko strand being the most straightforward. The links between Auguste’s numerous relationships remained unclear.

That this book did not work for me need not mean that it will not work for other readers. The language, structure and phrasing are nicely done but, for this reader, the raison d’être remained obfuscated.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.



Book Review: Confessions


Confessions, by Kanae Minato, is a disturbing tale of blame and revenge.  Set in contemporary Japan, it introduces the reader to a group of young teenagers, their teachers and families, who are each struggling to deal with the impact on their lives of the death of a four year old girl.

On the last day of the school term the dead child’s mother, a teacher, accuses two of her pupils of murdering her daughter. She then reveals her revenge for this act, from which events spiral to their chilling conclusion.

The story is told from the perspective of a number of key characters, enabling the reader to better understand why each acted as they did. None come out well in the unfolding drama. The same weaknesses and blind spots are apparent in different guises, each participant justifying their actions with reasoning that blames others, only rarely accepting any fault for themselves.

The author presents the mind of a killer in a disturbingly believable way. The desire for attention and praise are explored alongside a lack of empathy. The effect that other’s actions may inadvertently have on critical decisions is presented alongside how acts of vengeance can cause ripples in the lives of those close by.

The style of the writing is sparse but engaging. Sympathies are won and then lost as the tale is developed, the shocking denouement denying the reader any relief from the relentless unravelling of lives that had previously been considered so ordinary.

The book leaves much to mull over, not least how blind families can be to fault amongst their own. No answers are offered, except perhaps a warning against seeking revenge. There are no winners in this tale.

I liked the exploration of prejudices, how society judges those who do not conform to an ideal. I recognised and was discomforted by many of the observations. The actions of these protagonists may be extreme, but the catalysts which drove them to act as they did are all too obvious in a society that may not be as civilised as some would like to believe.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mulholland Books.