“The Vanished” review: disappointingly cliche.


I first noticed this book because of the traffic it was bringing to my old post about Tokyo’s Sanya district. “The Vanished” seems to be making a lot of noise in the Japanophile, and not only, circles – and the premise of the book is promising: telling the stories of the “Evaporated People” – johatsu –  the deliberately missing people of Japan, those who have fallen through the cracks of the system and ran away to start a new life in a different part of the country.

But from the start, there are a few problems with the premise. For example, is Japan really a place with unique numbers (and categories) of disappearances? The book quotes the number of the missing, for any reason, at 120-180,000 a year. But in UK, with half of Japan’s population and with no natural disasters, there are 200-300,000 people going missing every year. It would seem the French author might find a more interesting story across the Channel, rather than traipsing half-way across the globe…

Another problem I notice early on is that, although the book was published in France just two years ago, there is already a sense of it being out of date. Most of the interviewees “evaporated” during the Lost Decade of the 1990s, out of fear of debt collectors and the mafia, or because of economic hardships their companies had suffered – which is hardly a uniquely Japanese experience. The Sanya as described in the book is not the Sanya I know today, with the slums and “extended stay” hotels being torn down to make place for trendy backpacker hostels, boutique cafes and art galleries. Abenomics may be controversial, but it’s changing the surface of the places described in the book at a pace that’s difficult to keep up with, and it would perhaps be more interesting to read about how the forces of gentrification and a flood of cheap yen tourists impacts the local population, rather than slog through another cliched description of the homeless sleeping at the train station (as they do all over the world), or a woeful tale of the author getting lost in the meandering, narrow streets of suburban Japan (it’s the 2010s, don’t you have a GPS in your phone?).

andon.png
Shining future: one of the trendy new hotels in Sanya

The one unique aspect of the Japanese “evaporation” that is, indeed, worth exploring and reading about – and which is the supposed main topic of the book – is the organized and efficient manner in which it is happening. Instead of the government or the NGOs dealing with the scale of the problem, everything is left in private hands. The stories of the secretive companies engaged in the “night escapes“, which provide everything from unmarked removal trucks to cash-in-hand jobs in remote parts of the country, make for a good, intriguing read, but they are too sparse and too few to make up for the rest of the book, petering out after a few chapters. The authors seem to be aware of it, spending far too long explaining how difficult it was for them to find enough contacts to fill out the 200 something pages.

Half-way through, the narrative degenerates into a rambling sequence of non-sequiturs, brief essays only vaguely connected to the theme of “vanishing” or escaping, and veering dangerously at times into the “wacky Japan” or “mysterious Orient” territory: the seclusion of the hikikomorithe suicide cliffs, maid cafes, the Tohoku earthquake, the North Korean abductees; these are all topics worthy of separate research, and having them thrown in among the other stories only compounds the feeling of not having enough proper material for what is, for the price (£12 in half-price e-book deal) a fairly short collection of words and photos.

These cliches accumulate until, at last, I am almost forced to give up reading further, as Mauger begins quoting from the antiquated and often discredited Chrysanthemum and the Sword“. This only confirms my suspicions that her understanding of Japan is merely skin-deep and full of preconceived opinions. It is a pity: a better author could take the subject and go into some really interesting places with it. Perhaps somebody having more sympathy to Japan and the Japanese way of life might notice that the “evaporations” seem, after all, a better way of dealing with the hardships of modern urbanized life than suicide or turning to a life of crime. That even though places like Sanya or Kamagasaki are considered “slums” in Japan, life there is still infinitely easier, and safer, than that in actual slums of Africa or South America. And finally, perhaps somebody would find a way to write an entire book about this single topic, one more deserving of the hype and raving reviews than this jumble of random, forcefully cobbled-together stories.

japan-maid-cafe1
Apparently, these girls also count as “evaporated”.

Kamagasaki: Japan’s biggest slum


Kamagasaki, Home to approximately 25,000 people — absolutely dwarfing Tokyo’s equivalent, Sanya — the area is a far cry from the neon-lit, modern image of Japan’s sprawling urban centres. Although as a cruel reminder, Abenobashi Terminal Building, the country’s tallest, now looks down on the district and its residents with cold, unseeing eyes. Just like the city that sanctioned it. A nameless place, with faceless people.

I just stumbled on this article about Osaka’s equivalent of Sanya, which I wrote about before a couple of years ago. Go read the rest of it here.

From what I hear, like San’ya, Kamagasaki has become a backpacker destination due to cheap hostels. It would probably be my choice of accommodation as well, had I ever needed to stay the night in Osaka… I can only expect it to eventually gentrify, again like San’ya, though where will its current inhabitants go when that happens is anyone’s guess.

 

The Year the Music Died #ripgreglake


Come share of my breath and my substance
And mingle our streams and our times
In bright infinite moments
Our reasons are lost in our rhymes.

In a year that started with the death of David Bowie, and went downhill from there, I didn’t think anything else would have the power to affect me this much so near the end. We’re still three weeks off, and who knows who else will join the super-group in the sky (Fripp? Wakeman?), but, like the straw on camel’s back, what finally broke for me how horribly awful this year was for all my music heroes was the news of the death of Greg Lake.

Maybe it’s because of the double whammy of Keith Emerson dying in March – you rarely get two sets of #rips under one band’s YouTube videos in one year. Or maybe because Greg Lake was the first actual prog rock singer I’ve listened to consciously – long before I discovered the likes of Genesis and Yes – though back then I didn’t even know his name.

That song was “The Lucky Man” by ELP, taped from a late night radio show to a blue Stilon cassette, and played incessantly until I knew every glissando in Emerson’s mad final Moog solo by heart.

Greg Lake was the Galahad of the prog rock Round Table, with his baby face and an angelic voice. Possibly the only vocalist to match a mellotron’s rising cadence, he was the man without whom King Crimson would probably remain just Robert Fripp’s niche experimental fusion jazz combo – and the history of rock as we know it would never happen. On the 21st Century Schizoid Man he sounded less like the cherubim, and more like a wrathful archangel, come down to fight Satan’s hordes. In those pre-internet days of music copied from radio, it took me a while to realize the same man sang the Schizoid Man and Epitaph. You could always easily recognize Ian Anderson’s shrill or Peter Gabriel’s hoarse bellow, but Lake’s voice was always the most surprising.

In ELP, Lake brought poetic calmness and medieval whimsy to counter Emerson’s feral virtuosity. Like Galahad and Percival, with Palmer’s help, they searched for prog rock’s Holy Grail, and, admittedly, got lost along the way in the end – but before they did, they produced some of the finest music this side of the Beatles, like this little Yes-like ditty from the Trilogy album:

2016 was a bitch of a year, and considering nobody’s getting any younger, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get any better going forward. Eventually everyone we knew and thought great will die – such is the passage of time… At least their work remains with us forever.

Confusion will be my Epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh.
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying,
Yes I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.

COUNTDOWN TO PREORDER – DAY 7: PREORDER LAUNCH!


KingYes, it’s finally here! After four long years, the story of one memorable year in Japan’s fictionalized history – and in a certain Welsh boy’s life – at last comes to an end in The Last Dragon King, Book 8 of The Year of the Dragon series. The Amazon preorder launches today – the full release on all platforms is scheduled for December 27th.

It all started in the summer of 2012 – though preceded by two years of writing and editing – with the simultaneous release of The Shadow of Black Wings and The Warrior’s Soul. Four years later I have eight finished books,  over 700k words published (a lot more written!), nearly 30,000 copies sold, and, most importantly, an invaluable experience in writing and publishing that will hopefully make my next projects go a lot more smoothly! AND I’ve managed to tie up all the plot threads and lose points by the end – I bet you didn’t expect that! 🙂

Reminder: this is the end of the countdown – and end of all the deals: from tomorrow, the Smashwords coupons expire, and the Year of the Dragon Bundle returns to its usual price of $9.99, (the Paperback Giveaway has already ended) so it’s your LAST CHANCE to snatch those bargains!

All the countdown posts so far:

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6


And finally, here are some stats on all the eight volumes of the series, for all you stats lovers out there:

The Shadow of the Black Wings

Released: June 2012. Word count (final edition): 70k. Sold: 2300*

The Warrior’s Soul

Released: June 2012. Word count: 70k. Sold: 2100

The Islands in the Mist

Released: October 2012. Word count: 80k. Sold: 1600

The Rising Tide

Released: April 2013. Word count: 85k. Sold: 850

 

The Chrysanthemum Seal

Released: May 2014. Word count: 90k. Sold: 1050

The Withering Flame

Released: June 2015. Word count: 85k. Sold: 600

The Shattering Waves

Released: May 2016. Word count: 85k. Sold: 300

The Last Dragon King

Released: December 2016. Word count: 150k. Sold: ?

Bundles:

The Year of the Dragon Bundle, 1-4

Released: April 2013. Word count: 310k. Sold: 15000

The Year of the Dragon Bundle, 5-8

Released: January 2017. Word count: 410k. Sold: ? (that one’s up to you!)

*) The Shadow of the Black Wings has been a free download for the last couple of years, totaling about 70k downloads.
**) all sales Amazon only. Ca. 4300 copies sold on all other platforms altogether.

 

 

 

COUNTDOWN PREORDER – DAY 6


It’s day 6 of the countdown – the pre-order launches tomorrow! Today, the final treat, is a sneak peak on the final cover of the series.

I know, you’ve seen the cover to The Last Dragon King already – but there’s still one more book left to release: the second of the two four-volume bundles, containing Books 5-8, with working title “The Serpent’s Head”.

As before, the cover will be produced by Collette J. Ellis of Flying Viper Illustrations. The release is still some time away – I have it scheduled for January, both in e-book and paperback, so what we have for you today is just a sneak peak of a preliminary sketch – but you can already see it’s going to be the most powerful of my covers to date!

cover_bundle

Don’t forget – tomorrow is the launch of the pre-order, and the last of these countdown posts!

COUNTDOWN PREORDER – DAY 5


It’s day 5 of the countdown – only 3 days left until pre-order launch, and for today I reveal the final map in the series!

As you may know, I like to have a new map in each volume of the Year of the Dragon, and this time it’s no different. The map in The Last Dragon King is in a new style: a late-19th century tactical map. It shows the Dan-no-Ura Straits and surrounding area, in the day before the launch of the decisive Battle of Kokura – one of TWO major battles in the book! (did I mention this volume is more action packed than any before? 🙂

kokura-colour

Visit tomorrow for the final reveal in the countdown, before the pre-order is launched on Wednesday!

COUNTDOWN TO PREORDER – DAY 4


It’s day 4 of the Preorder Countdown – we’re half-way there!

Today’s treat is the exclusive, never before seen, unedited sample of the Last Dragon King’s manuscript! A sample of Chapter 5, starring Captain Fabius of the Soembing.

SPOILERS ABOUND! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK!

The ship’s boards creaked again. Captain Fabius winced at the sound. One hadn’t plied these waters for twenty years without recognizing when a vessel was close to shattering.
            His first officer shared in his concern. With his head tilted towards the creaking, he notched a quick note in his journal.
            “Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Fabius asked, for the fourth time.
            “Either that, or our navigator’s lost her mind,” the first officer replied, for the fourth time.
            Another wave, crested with thick white foam, struck against the ship’s bow with an unearthly wail. Hemmed in between the walls of the grey and black clouds, surrounded by whirlpools, water devils and water spouts, the Soembing stood reluctant against the dark wall of the Sea Maze stretching before it. Its engines purred quietly, just enough to maintain the course – whatever the course was in this forsaken place. Fabius insisted on them running all the time, even if the ship hadn’t changed position for three days, as they waited either for the navigator to correct her mistake, or, by some miracle, the wall of black clouds to open and allow them inside, as it always had, for the past two decades.
            “With all due respect, Captain,” the First said, looking at his notes, “I think it’s fair to say they don’t want us back.”
            “If we turn to Huating, we won’t get any pay for our trouble.”
            “If we move forward, we won’t get any pay ever again,” replied the First, his face soured.
            “Let’s stay a while more. I have a good feeling about today.”
            “Really?” The First raised his eyebrow, then glanced at the Sea Maze. “I’m surprised you’re able to have any good feelings around this place.”
            Fabius nodded in agreement and forced a smile. He knew what the First meant. For twenty years he’d sailed the Ship – in its various incarnations – across the “Divine Winds”, as the locals called them, and he’d never got used to it. The magic of the East always unnerved him with its alien ways, but this was something else altogether. On his first journey, he had been naturally wary of the random storms, the unpredictable currents, the insanity of the compass readings and star charts – all the things the more experienced sailors had warned him about before setting off. But he’d soon learned all of that was just a minor nuisance compared to the real terror of the Maze: the wailing.
            The clouds wailed and howled all through the night. Not the usual howl of a winter wind in the ropes – but a sound that could only be produced by a horde of tormented souls: a piercing cry of anguish, wordless but full of meaning, coming from a thousand suffering throats hidden somewhere in the black clouds. There was no hiding from it: it penetrated into the deepest cabin, into the cargo hold and engine room, through cotton wool and hands covering one’s ears, almost as if it wasn’t coming through the ear canals but entered straight through the brain.
            What nameless Spirits had been tortured to create this monstrosity, Fabius dared not imagine. But it suited what he’d suspected about the Yamato magic in general: abuse of souls, forbidding them from passing beyond the veil of the mortal world to do the bidding of the priests and the shamans. They thought they managed to keep this a secret from the Westerners, but Fabius had heard enough rumours and gossip over the years to piece together the truth.
            He stared at the cloud wall. What’s going on beyond it? The control of the Maze belonged to the government at Edo. Every year, the Dejima Oppertovenaar received an envelope from Edo with coordinates of the secret path leading towards the Kiyō Bay, sealed with the Taikun’s crest. The path was different each year – but it should have stayed unchanged until the next summer. Of course, that was before the civil war erupted in Chinzei, before the Gorllewin landed in Shimoda, before the Soembing was sent out to buy Dracalish weapons for a Yamato warlord… Had the rebels won without them, but didn’t know how to control the Divine Winds? Or was Edo in such chaos that nobody bothered to pay attention to keeping the path open?
            First was right to be concerned. But Fabius couldn’t help feeling the wind would soon change. Maybe it was something in the wailing coming from the wall of clouds – a quality he sensed, rather than heard. Or maybe he was just being stubbornly optimistic for no reason at all.
            “You’re right, it’s hopeless,” he said. “Tell Verle to plan a course for Temasek.”
He heard his men cry out in distress. He turned just in time to see a giant black wave break over the deck.

 

COUNTDOWN TO PREORDER – DAY 3


smashwords_sqIt’s Day Three of the preorder countdown, and for today’s treat, I offer Smashwords discount coupons on ALL SEVEN BOOKS released so far. With these discounts, every book costs only 99c!

The coupons expire on December 7th, when BOOK 8 is released, so this is your best chance to catch up to the series so far!

Here are the coupon codes, feel free to share these among your friends, the number is unlimited as long as you use them before expiry date – and only when buying the books from Smashwords:

NEW_BUNDLE_1000

 1-4 BUNDLE IN ONE VOLUMEWV89Q

Seal_Cover_1000px V3


VOL. 5 CHRYSANTHEMUM SEAL
: VF76M

Flame_Cover_1000px V3

 VOL. 6 THE WITHERING FLAMEGS48Q


Waves

 VOL 7. THE SHATTERING WAVESAC37M

COUNTDOWN TO PREORDER – DAY 2


It’s day two of the Amazon Pre-Order Countdown – and today’s treat is the best yet: I’m giving away a FREE copy of the Year of the Dragon bundle IN PAPERBACK – worth $20!

The+Year+of+the+Dragon,+Books+1-4+BundleJust click here to enter the Amazon Giveaway. You must be located in the US, I’m afraid – I don’t set the rules… This is a proper, thick book – 830 pages, with the beautiful cover by Collette J. Ellis of Flying Viper Illustrations, who also drew the cover for the upcoming Volume 8, so it will look great on any bookshelf!

The giveaway lasts for this whole week – make sure to notify your friends about the chance to win this beautiful FREE book!

See you tomorrow for another announcement.

COUNTDOWN TO PREORDER – DAY 1


THE COUNTDOWN IS ON.

In seven days, the eighth and final installment of the Year of the Dragon saga will be available for preorder, exclusively on Amazon! The story is about to reach its conclusion – and you might be among the first to find out how!

The+Year+of+the+Dragon,+Books+1-4+BundleTo celebrate, every day for a week I’ll have a little treat for you, so keep coming to see what’s going on – better yet, subscribe to this blog or add me on twitter for updates. Today it’s simple: The Year of the Dragon Books 1-4 bundle is for $0.99 on Amazon.com only for the whole week – probably for the last time ever! This might be your LAST CHANCE to get it for this super-low price!

See you tomorrow for another announcement.