Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Oct 9th 2011
Book Girl and the Captive Fool
Life for Konoha Inoue is pretty basic – he goes to classes, avoids getting too close to people, and after school he writes improv stories for his club president, Tohko Amano, a book-eating goblin. With her bibliophilia acting on the levels of both food and entertainment, Tohko is beyond horrified to discover that someone has been removing key scenes from some of the school library's stock of Japanese classics. Determined to uncover the culprit – and maybe put on a play for the school festival – Tohko gets Konoha enmeshed in yet another one of her schemes. But this one will have repercussions beyond the everyday as it delves into some of the mysteries of Konoha's own tragic past.
Light novels struggle to find the success of their more illustrated counterparts here in the U.S., despite a small but devoted following. This makes Yen Press' choice of Mizuki Nomura's Book Girl series, if not puzzling, a bit odd. Not based on or the basis for any popular anime or manga (although an unlicensed movie and several OVAs exist), Book Girl is, for the first three volumes at least, based heavily on classic Japanese literature. Given how little exposure that gets in the west, readers may find themselves feeling a bit of frustration as they struggle to understand some of the more oblique references. The book this novel is based on, Mushanokoji's Friendship, is available in English, although it is out of print.
All of that aside, this is the most interesting volume to date. We have known about Konoha's troubled past since Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime: in middle school he wrote a novel that won a major award, but he submitted it under a pen name that combined his last name with his crush's first name. Somehow this resulted in her jumping from the school roof in front of him, telling him that “he could never understand.” This occurrence is mentioned with relative frequency this time around, often in reference to Mushanokoji's work. The central mystery, who is destroying library books, appears to be solved early on, leaving time for Nomura to develop the characters more. This is, perhaps, why this novel succeeds more than its predecessors. Most of the players have been introduced in the earlier two books: Konoha and Tohko naturally have large roles, but three classmates make up the remainder of the main cast. Kotobuki will be most familiar as the girl who appears to dislike Konoha intensely, and readers with good memories will remember Akutagawa as Konoha's male acquaintance and homework-checking buddy. Takeda, one of the main characters in the first novel, rounds out the cast. Her role is the least surprising, and some aspects of Kotobuki will not shock readers as they do Konoha, making Akutagawa the most fascinating of the bunch. His role touches on some difficult issues, such as self-inflicted wounds, bullying, and child neglect, and ultimately it is he who moves the series forward as a whole.
The early twentieth century novel Friendship is the story of a love triangle between two young men and a woman. Both men love the woman, but she is in love with the best friend of her initial suitor. Yen Press quotes Oscar Wilde on the back - “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” - and the quotation is well-chosen. Tohko chooses Friendship as the basis for her literary club's play, starring all of the aforementioned characters. The pasts of the two boys specifically mimic Mushanokoji's work in different ways, bringing a new life to the old text. While readers will undoubtedly get more from the parallels if they are familiar with Mushanokoji, Nomura sufficiently explains and quotes from the book to enable clear comprehension. The mystery aspects of the story are less reliant on supernatural or contrived devices than the previous two volumes, instead focusing more on psychological issues that may have more relevance for some readers. Interestingly enough, the multiple plots are only partly resolved. The mysteries are solved, yes, but Nomura leaves herself open for the next book, something that she has not previously done. Readers will find it harder to walk away from the series after reading this installment.
The translation firmly plants itself in young adult territory in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. Japanese, because of its structure and stylistics, does not always transition to English fluidly, but Karen McGillicuddy has done a good job making it sound natural. Tohko suffers the most, largely because of her long-winded speeches relating text to flavors. These can drag a bit, and the flavors she chooses are not always familiar to a western palate. It would be foolish to complain about the foods in a Japanese novel not being similar to the fare in the English-speaking world; the issue here is more that these lists are far too long and occur much too frequently. Presumably they are meant to showcase Tohko's eating habits and the many ways in which she enjoys the written word. Regretfully they serve only to remove the reader from the story. Also detracting from the flow of the plot are Tohko's heavy handed explanations of the title and what it means to be a “captive fool.” This lacks subtlety and is repeated too often, making the mistake that many novels for younger readers do of assuming that “younger” means “slower on the uptake.”
Miho Takeoka's illustrations are few and far between this time around, without even a count of one per chapter. The eight color pages in the beginning are the most striking. Her art is a bit wispy and ephemeral, qualities that translate better in full color. One black and white illustration of Tohko in full costume for the play towards the end of the book is particularly striking; other black and whites are simply there. In her afterward she discusses the covers for the series, which may confuse some readers who haven't realized that Yen Press has been altering them for American audiences. The only real objection that can be made without calling “purity” into question is that all three volumes look very much the same, and without numbers on the spines, it may be difficult to recall which goes where on your shelves.
As a series, Book Girl is neither as exquisite as Kieli nor as annoying as My Girlfriend is a Geek. It serves as an interesting mystery story with the conceit of the titular book girl to drive it. Frequent light novel consumers will be familiar with the concept of the brow-beaten protagonist and the strong-willed female, and fans of the Haruhi Suzumiya books looking for something new may enjoy these. Up until this point it has been a vaguely forgettable experience, but this installment promises more development of Konoha and some of the recurring side characters. It isn't terrific, but Book Girl and the Captive Fool is an enjoyable, slightly atmospheric read to sit with before the fire as the weather gets cooler.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Good character work, a more involving mystery.
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