Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

Translator – Ginny Tapley Takemori

“Irasshaimasé!”

I’m very late for my shift at the Smile Mart but I’m so glad to have finally walked through its doors. There have been eight managers and countless workers serving customers since it first opened eighteen years ago, but Keiko has been there from day one.

I really liked Keiko who, at thirty-six, has never fit into society’s mould. People have wanted to fix her since she was a child. But at the Smile Mart she feels like she fits perfectly.

While I suspect we’re all like this to a certain degree, Keiko’s speech and the way she dresses are an amalgam of the people she spends time with, morphing over time as new people enter her life and others fade away. Keiko doesn’t know how to be normal so it’s a good thing the Smile Mart manual clearly outlines how she is supposed to ‘human’ at work.

When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual.

Over the course of this quick read the rhythm of the convenience store became almost meditative. It got to a point where it almost felt wrong to be reading about any of the hours Keiko wasn’t spending inside the “shining white aquarium” because she was so comfortable there.

I love Keiko’s unfiltered honesty:

When I first saw my nephew through the glass window at the hospital, he looked like an alien creature. But now he’d grown into something more humanlike, complete with hair.

As someone who’s managed to accidentally subvert some of society’s adulting norms, I relate to the relief embodied in the following sentence:

Good, I pulled off being a “person”.

Quite frankly, that’s probably my favourite sentence of the entire book.

And I’m sure I’m not the first reader to think back on an early scene and fantasise about hitting Shiraha with a shovel.

Anyone who’s worked in retail will know Keiko’s coworkers and customers all too well. I worked in retail for seven years and so many of my coworkers and customers came to mind when I met Keiko’s.

Reading Convenience Store Woman actually had me wondering how my four years as Photolab Lady, in the days when negatives still existed and what you’d actually captured on film was one of life’s mysteries until you got it developed, would translate into a story. The stories I could tell about the photos I saw – some funny, some sweet, some heartbreaking, some creepy as hell …

I was really looking forward to this read and it was even better than I’d hoped. I definitely need more books by this author.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Portobello Books, an imprint of Granta Publications, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Convenience Store Woman is the heartwarming and surprising story of thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura. Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life.

In the store, unlike anywhere else, she understands the rules of social interaction – many are laid out line by line in the store’s manual – and she does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a “normal” person excellently, more or less. Managers come and go, but Keiko stays at the store for eighteen years. It’s almost hard to tell where the store ends and she begins. Keiko is very happy, but the people close to her, from her family to her coworkers, increasingly pressure her to find a husband, and to start a proper career, prompting her to take desperate action …

A brilliant depiction of an unusual psyche and a world hidden from view, Convenience Store Woman is an ironic and sharp-eyed look at contemporary work culture and the pressures to conform, as well as a charming and completely fresh portrait of an unforgettable heroine.

A Short Philosophy of Birds – Philippe J. Dubois & Élise Rousseau

Translation – Jennifer Higgins

Illustrations – Joanna Lisowiec

If we pay attention, birds have plenty to teach us, whether it’s their adaptability through unpredictable weather or their patience during the time of their ‘eclipse’ plumage, when some species that are moulting are unable to fly and are at their most vulnerable, allowing themselves to grow stronger before soaring once again. They live in the present, they are curious and willing to take risks.

While this book doesn’t reference many specific philosophers or philosophical schools of thought, which I expected a book with ‘philosophy’ in its title would, it does encourage introspection. A reflection of your own life, the way you spend your time and what you place value on. In short chapters this quick read touches on various lessons birds can teach us. Courage, freedom, beauty, romance and death are all mentioned.

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Often when I read books that have been translated it can feel like I’ve missed something vital that would have been captured in the original text. I didn’t experience that feeling here so commend Jennifer Higgins on her translation of the text into English.

I have a number of birds of different species that visit me each day and I love watching their behaviour. I’m in awe of the level of trust they afford me and it delights me when I discover something new about their individual personalities. I didn’t think I could appreciate them any more but some of the facts included in this book astounded me. Take the bar-tailed godwit, for instance:

In spring, the godwit migrates to make its nest in the Arctic. By tracking one of these godwits with a satellite tag, researchers have discovered that they are capable of covering the distance between Alaska and New Zealand – over 7,000 miles – in one go. That equates to flying for a whole week at forty-five miles per hour. Consider, too, that the godwit weighs just 250 grams. What’s more, during this non-stop flight, the godwit rests by allowing only one half of its brain to fall asleep at a time – thereby enabling it to fly continuously through its sleep.

I really enjoyed Joanna Lisowiec’s illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. The flamingoes and duck were two of my favourites.

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If I were to nitpick I’d tell you that when facts were stated I would have liked to have seen these backed up with references, such as when it’s mentioned that crows’ brains have “twice as many synaptic connections as that of any mammal.”

Given the majority of the birds discussed reside in the Northern Hemisphere (unless they’re migrating) I was unfamiliar with the behaviours of some of the specific birds, although I could easily compare these with the birds native to Australia that visit my garden.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and WH Allen, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, Ebury Press, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The greatest wisdom comes from the smallest creatures.

There is so much we can learn from birds. Through twenty-two little lessons of wisdom inspired by how birds live, this charming French book will help you spread your wings and soar.

We often need the help from those smaller than us. Having spent a lifetime watching birds, Philippe and Élise – a French ornithologist and a philosopher – draw out the secret lessons that birds can teach us about how to live, and the wisdom of the natural world. Along the way you’ll discover why the robin is braver than the eagle, what the arctic tern can teach us about the joy of travel, and whether the head or the heart is the best route to love (as shown by the mallard and the penguin). By the end you will feel more in touch with the rhythms of nature and have a fresh perspective on how to live the fullest life you can.

Hocus & Pocus #1: The Legend of Grimm’s Woods – Manuro

Illustrations – Gorobei

I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid and I’ve loved graphic novels since then so a combination of these in game form seemed like a trifecta that couldn’t fail. In Hocus & Pocus you have the choice of character and which magical creature you will take on your adventure. Aimed at kids in middle school this interactive graphic novel includes “choices, puzzles, mysteries, and powerups”. For this adventure you will need a die, pencil and eraser.

Pocus has pink hair so naturally she was who I wanted to be for my first adventure.

My choice of magical creature was also easy; the Boxobullfrog, “who keeps a bunch of weird things in its mouth to take when you need them”. I barely looked at the other options. Why wouldn’t I want a creature that produces handy weirdness when required?!

So with my character and creature chosen I took off on my adventure and fairly soon I was lost. I ended up on the exact same path in the forest several times and I thought for a while that I was going to be lost forever. There were times where I wandered around paths with no story. I went from a panel where all I needed to do was choose a number, flipped to the number and found another panel where all I needed to do was choose a number.

On my second adventure I decided to be Hocus with his hair sprayed pompadour. I kept my Boxobullfrog because “weird things in its mouth”! There was no other option for me although this little critter wasn’t as useful to me this time around. While I didn’t get lost on a path this time I had to return to the map of the castle so many times I felt the urge to scream in frustration. If I wound up at the Groundhog Day map again in a future adventure I’d write down each number I followed from it so I didn’t accidentally wind up at the same place so many times more than once.

There are rules to follow regarding whether your magical creature is awake or asleep which involve searching for its food in the drawings and marking boxes on your Adventure Tracker. I probably would have loved this part when I was in the age group the book is intended for but now that I’m old it felt too much like homework to me and so I may have cheated, deciding that my magical creature was always going to be awake when the story gave me the option of obtaining their help. I expect a lot of kids will enjoy making notes each time they find some food for their creature or a star.

Because my brain has a habit of connecting pieces of information that have no relevance to one another (thanks, brain!) this book reminded me of an article I read last week where someone was discussing the differences between Pass the Parcel from the good ol’ days and now. Back when I was a child sometimes the music stopped on you during a game and sometimes it didn’t. When the next layer was opened there’d be a cheap plastic toy or a lolly or nothing. Apparently every layer now has a toy (that’s not some cheap plastic thing) and everyone has to win something or they’ll feel left out. Hold on; my brain is about to try to connect the dots for you.

In this story it felt as though no matter what I chose everything would end up fine in the end and that it was more an illusion of choice than the real deal. There was always the possibility in the Choose Your Own Adventures of my childhood that the wrong choice could be dangerous for the character and potentially lead to their demise but when I read this graphic novel straight through I didn’t uncover anything dastardly, which was disappointing. I was encouraged by the amount of panels I came across when I read from cover to cover that I hadn’t already seen so you could potentially read this a number of times and discover different parts of the story, albeit with the same ending.

The illustrations were cute. I particularly liked the tree at the crossroads in the Woods of the Treemen that looked like it was shrugging, not knowing which path to choose either.

Thank you to NetGalley and Quirk Books for granting my wish and giving me the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Introducing a new series of interactive graphic novels – first published in France, and translated/transported to English language readers by Quirk Books.

Enter a world inspired by all of your favorite fairy tales – complete with gingerbread houses, a girl dressed in red, and seven children lost in the woods. Hocus & Pocus offers a new kind of reading experience – part game book, part graphic novel, and part Choose Your Own Adventure story. Readers can play as Hocus (a girl) or Pocus (a boy), choose a magic animal companion, and enter a colourful fairy tale forest of riddles, magical objects, and unusual characters. Succeed or fail, it’s all up to you! 

On Being an Introvert or Highly Sensitive Person: A guide to boundaries, joy, and meaning – Ilse Sand

On Being an Introvert or Highly Sensitive Person should have had me saying, “Me, too!” on every page. I was really excited to learn some cool new things to celebrate about being an introvert. I haven’t read any books about sensitivity so was hoping for plenty of lightbulb moments. Unfortunately I was disappointed. I felt this book read more as an introduction to introversion and sensitivity rather than an in depth study on either topic.

I expect that if you haven’t read anything about being an introvert you would gain new insights. However I’ve recently read Jenn Granneman’s The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World and Debbie Tung’s graphic novel Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story, and I personally found these previous reads more enlightening and uplifting.

Ilse Sand developed two tests for this book to use as a guide for where you sit on the introvert/extrovert scale and how sensitive you are. By testing myself I wound up with a score of +56 on the introvert/extrovert scale, where +64 is as introverted as you can get, -64 is as extroverted as you can get and around 0 means you’re ambivert (a new word for me). The sensitivity scale is much the same, except +40 is highly sensitive, 0 is moderately sensitive and -40 is ordinarily sensitive. My score for this one was +29. I’m not as introverted or as sensitive as it’s humanly possible to be but I’m right up there so while I think that should’ve converted to a “Me, too!” extravaganza while reading this book, I just didn’t feel it.

There’s nothing that wrong with this book but I lacked a connection with the writing style, which may be due to it having been translated from Danish for this edition. I found some of the sentences and phrasing clunky and there were some instances where I felt the writing could have benefited from another sentence between thoughts to connect them more cohesively.

There were a few parts I found cringeworthy, especially those where it read as though introversion is an excuse to sit on the bench of life rather than it being something to be celebrated. I doubt very much that this was the author’s intention so it may again come down to something being lost in the translation.

I quite enjoyed the information explaining Carl Jung’s work distinguishing personality types, Elaine Aron’s research into the highly sensitive character trait and Jerome Kagan’s studies into high-reactive children.

The author made good use of personal anecdotes and quotes from her work as a parish pastor and psychotherapist. I wondered why it was necessary for some examples to be fictionalised and others used anonymously as there weren’t any skeleton in the closet revelations.

Some readers may baulk at reading this book knowing it was written by an author who has worked as a pastor but I didn’t find it preachy. The examples that included the author’s church were primarily used to explore the differences between the introverted author and the church’s previous extroverted pastor. The serenity prayer was included, as was a reference to making something an idol in your life.

I encountered one of my pet peeves in this book on three occasions that I can recall, where the author tells you that you really need to know something and then rather than telling you this life changing piece of information, they refer you to one of their other books. Personally when someone does that I deliberately avoid the book they’re plugging but that could just be my stubborn showing. If you write a book well then I’ll seek out your other books myself, but if you tease me with the possibility of insight and then rip it away unless I buy another of your books, then I tend to search for that information elsewhere.

The author’s foray into mental health conditions towards the end of the book seemed to come out of left field and as someone who’s experienced PTSD I found the following sentences a tad weird coming from a psychotherapist,

“If you are extremely afraid, for example of the anger of others, you should be aware that you may have PTSD. If you do not remember it, ask your parents whether you were subjected to violence when you were a child.”

People, just because you have fear doesn’t mean you have PTSD but if you do think you may have PTSD please seek help from a medical professional!

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Jessica Kingsley Publishers for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a culture that ranks sociability and extroversion above the introverted traits of deep thinking and being alone, Ilse Sand shows how to find joy and meaning as an introvert or highly sensitive person. She debates whether these traits are caused by nature or nurture, and shows how someone like this can organise their life to keep them content. The advice and instructions are also quite applicable to people who are temporarily or, for some other reason, in a sensitive situation – for example, because of stress, trauma, or burn-out.

It describes the introverted personality type and the highly sensitive trait, highlighting the strengths that come with it such as good listening skills and rich imagination, and suggests ways to overcome the negatives such as the need to avoid overstimulation and over-critical thinking.

Including advice from other introverts or highly introverted people, and two self-tests for sensitive and introverted traits, this book gives readers a deeper understanding of introversion and high sensitivity and gives those with these personality types greater faith and courage in their own talents.

Generations – Flavia Biondi

Translator – Carla Roncalli de Montorio

Starting this graphic novel I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was initially wary because I knew it had been translated from Italian. I always worry I’m going to miss key elements in translated works but Carla Roncalli De Montorio has done a wonderful job.

Beginning with Matteo’s train trip to his home town after three years in Milan with his boyfriend, he is certain he will not be welcomed into his father’s home. Returning with no money, job or relationship, he lands on his Nan’s doorstep, greeted by his pregnant cousin Sara. Matteo is surprised to see his aunts A, B and C are now living with his Nan. He also meets Odina, his Nan’s caregiver and Francesco, his Nan’s nurse.

Through interactions with his family, Odina and Francesco, Matteo begins to learn to deal with his problems rather than running away from them. His individual family members, some more accepting of him than others, teach him about love, support, strength and what the generations can learn from one another.

I certainly didn’t expect to cry while reading something with so few words. I guess that tells you something about how powerful this story is. Flavia Biondi, who incidentally has done a brilliant job conveying the story both in words and images, created a cast of complex characters who I came to love more because of their flaws, not despite them.

The analogy of people being apples and our family being a tree was just beautiful. Exploring themes of love, loss, grief, sexuality, homophobia and acceptance, this graphic novel’s depth pleasantly surprised me.

Thank you so much to NetGalley, Lion Forge and Diamond Book Distributors for the opportunity to read this graphic novel.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

After three years in Milan, Matteo returns home to the provincial country town where he was born and from which he had fled. Coming out as a young gay man in a provincial country town had led to ugly clashes with his conservative father, and the urban metropolis of Milan had been a welcome change from the stifling small town life of his childhood and the anger and bewilderment of some members of his family. But now, Matteo finds himself with little choice but to return home, with no money, no job, and an uncertain future, like so many other young people of his millennial generation. Afraid of encountering his estranged father, he instead takes refuge with his extended family, at a house shared by his grandmother, three aunts, and his very pregnant cousin. As he tries to rebuild his life, reconnecting with the women of his family and old hometown friends, he warily confronts a few truths about the other generations of his family – from their bigotry to their love, and tolerance, and acceptance – and a few truths about himself, including his fears of confrontation and commitment.

Magic Words: From the Ancient Oral Tradition of the Inuit – Edward Field (Translator)

Illustrations – Mike Blanc

Sparse in words but full of wonder, Magic Words is an Inuit creation story that has been passed down orally and then written as a poem, now translated by Edward Field and accompanied by Mike Blanc’s gorgeous illustrations. Aimed at children between 4 and 12 years old, children and their parents alike will enjoy this book.

Magic Words invites us to imagine a time when humans and animals shared one language, when humans could become animals and animals could become human. We’re shown the magic of words, the power of speaking something into being.

Just like Vanita Oelschlager’s forthcoming book Fish-Boy it was Mike Blanc’s illustrations that sparked my interest in this book. I’m no artist but there’s something about Mike’s style that makes me want to linger over each illustration and I don’t know if I can describe this accurately but it is as though there is both a simplicity and depth to his artistry. You can glance at a page and know it’s a beautiful image but as you look closer you discover more and more intricacies.

Thank you very much to NetGalley and Vanita Books for the opportunity to read this book. Between Magic Words and Fish-Boy I’ve had a small taste of Inuit culture but I’m hungry for more and will be on the lookout for future publications by Vanita Books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Magic Words: From the Ancient Oral Tradition of the Inuit is a modern translation (1965) of a very old Inuit creation story by nationally known poet Edward Field. As a poem it captures beautifully the intimate relationship this Arctic people have with their natural world.

Magic Words describes a world where humans and animals share bodies and languages, where the world of the imagination mixes easily with the physical. It began as a story that told how the Inuit people came to be and became a legend passed from generation to generation. In translation it grew from myth to poem. The text comes from expedition notes recorded by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen in 1921. Edward Field got a copy from the Harvard Library and translated it into English.

Good Night Mr Clutterbuck – Mauri Kunnas

Mr. Clutterbuck is reserved and quite boring during the day, consistently turning down offers from people to join them in fun activities. However during his sleepwalking expeditions he becomes a town hero by singlehandedly putting an end to the rivalry between two biker gangs, preventing the impending bankruptcy of the sausage factory and helping a rock band out of a rut, amongst other exciting things. Gus, Mr. Clutterbuck’s faithful guinea pig, tags along to ensure Mr. Clutterbuck remains safe while he wanders around the town asleep.

Translated from Finnish by Jill Timbers, I don’t know if anything was lost in the translation but if it was it didn’t matter. The names of the characters are a hoot! Rip and Roar are leaders of rival biker gangs, Wally Wurst is a hippopotamus that owns a sausage factory and one of the policemen is called Constable Fuzz!

Kids are going to love hearing the jumbled words that come out of Mr. Clutterbuck’s mouth when he’s sleepwalking. I couldn’t tell you why but Mr. Clutterbuck’s voice in my head sounded exactly like Wallace from Wallace & Gromit.

Kids and adults alike will enjoy finding new things in the pictures each time they open the book, like a car on a roof or a snake playing drums in a rock band. Even if you had no interest in this book based on the story I’d still recommend it for the illustrations alone. They’re detailed, quirky, funny and the animals are fantastic!

I’ve already spent a lot of time looking closely at all of the pictures to try and ensure I haven’t missed anything but even so I’m sure I have. There’s just so much to look at! Keep your eye out for the cutest fuzzy little spider with a top hat and cane in the majority of illustrations, adorable bats, and the spoon thief who’s lurking around throughout the book.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Archipelago Books for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Mr Clutterbuck is blissfully unaware of his reputation as the fittest and busiest sleepwalker in town.