By Susan Spann
Book #1: CLAWS OF THE CAT
Setting & details: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Authenticity of characters & dialogue: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Translation quality: N/A
Entertainment value: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
My recommendation: A beyond-the-history-books journey into the fascinating and uneasy lives of the first foreigners allowed to stay in Japan
Claws of the Cat is a tale set in the fascinating 16th-century period in which a handful of Jesuit priests were allowed to live in Japan as missionaries. Father Mateo is Catholic and Portuguese, but—like many foreigners—he’s gradually changed by the experience of living in Japan, and by the people he comes to call friends. Among them is his “translator,” Hiro Hattori, who has been secretly ordered by the shōgun to protect the priest, and whose training in the subtle arts of the shinobi make him the perfect partner when Father Mateo is thrust into investigating a murder that’s being blamed on one of his flock.
What’s wonderful about Claws of the Cat (and the other books in this series) is that the author deftly (and accurately) imagines how a 16th-century foreigner would deal with the Japanese laws, customs, and subtle social pressures that stand in the way of uncovering the truth. The mystery is solved through a true partnership, using the samurai ninja’s social position and skills when an insider is required, and the foreigner’s bluntness and outside-of-the-social-structure standing when insiders are blocked by the cultural taboos they can’t help but obey. Throw in a few geisha, arms dealers, and a healthy dose of arcane ninja lore, and there are plenty of peeks into forbidden worlds to make this a most satisfying read!
Book #2: CLIMB
This month’s second giveaway is Susan Spann’s wry and moving new memoir, CLIMB. Two and a half years ago, her life appeared to be rocketing along quite nicely—not only was she a successful lawyer, she was jaunting off for extended annual stays in Japan to write a popular mystery series. No one would have guessed that behind the enviable facade, she was living with paralyzing anxiety.
She finally decided that the thing she most wanted in the world was to to step outside her comfort zone and face her fears, so she left everything she knew behind and set out to summit a hundred Japanese peaks within a year.
And that’s when Fate said, “Be careful what you wish for.”
Because two months before heading off to conquer her fear of the unknown, she heard three words that shined a light on an even bigger fear lurking in the shadows: “You have cancer.” This where her real journey begins, and CLIMB is her account of how the fear she had chosen helped her get past the one she didn’t.
Here are some excerpts from a conversation we had about the experiences that resulted in CLIMB:
JP: What makes climbing in Japan different from climbing elsewhere?
SS: The way the peaks are all considered—and treated as—sacred places.
JP: Was reaching the summit always the best part, or were there some other moments that turned out to be even better than reaching the top?
SS: Getting to the summit was nice, but the tricky thing about climbing mountains is that, technically, the summit is only the halfway point. The best part was usually relaxing in the onsen (Japanese volcanic hot spring bath) when the entire thing was done.
JP: What’s the funniest thing you encountered while climbing?
SS: A Japanese man (also climbing the peak) in a full-body chipmunk suit.
JP: What was the scariest thing you encountered while climbing?
SS: The unresolved issues and fears that lay inside me.
JP: If you were going to make a t-shirt about your climbing experience, what picture would go with the words PUBLIC ENEMY #1?
SS: Biting flies – in the book, I call them Enormous Winged Biting Things.
JP: Did you ever run up against a barrier you didn’t expect?
SS: Yes. It was a cloudy day at the base of the mountain, but on the way to the summit, I climbed through the clouds and emerged into the sun. I stood on the summit and looked down on the “sea of clouds” – something I didn’t think I’d ever see, except from the window of an airplane. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen—until the bees showed up. (For the record, I’m allergic to bees.)
JP: What’s the one thing you would tell people never to do on a climb in Japan?
SS: Forget your hat and bug spray.
JP: Were there any special foods or supplements you ate to fortify you for this quest?
SS: My friend (and fellow novelist) Annamaria Alfieri flew from New York to Tokyo to join me in the mountains. We headed south to Kyoto, where we discovered that although she handled the mountain climbs just fine, she’s allergic to just about every component of a typical Japanese meal (including soy sauce—which, in fairness, she didn’t know before she came). The only thing she could really eat was dessert. Fortunately, we discovered a really cool restaurant near our hotel that offered over 100 different kinds of dessert parfaits, and we did what any responsible adults would do: we ate dessert for dinner two nights in a row. On one of those nights, I ordered a “Blue Hawaii Parfait,” which included Blue Hawaii-flavored ice cream and blue Hawaii jelly (think a cross between a gummy bear and jell-o, made with vegetable-based agar instead of gelatin), whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, and a cherry. It was actually delicious.
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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had