Don’t look now, but I read a light novel.
I’ll admit it – I’m biased against light novels. In general, I tend to avoid them, as they have more often than not proven tedious and irritating, not to mention poorly-written (or perhaps I’m only unkind and their wretched prose is a result of the translator, not the original writer). I can count the number of light novels I’ve enjoyed on one hand, and the number only seems to climb once every two years or so. I enjoyed Venio Tachibana’s Love Water, stupid title aside. The Twelve Kingdoms series is truly excellent (and is probably the only series for which I am truly sorry TokyoPop went under). And I feel an odd mix of revulsion and delight toward the Strawberry Panic light novels. As for the rest… pass. As such, I approached Book Girl with a healthy dose of trepidation, rave reviews fully aside. And I completely refused to touch it before it finally got its first volume released for my particular e-reader.
Having queued up the sample, found myself mildly intrigued despite some odor of teenagerhood’s self-importance, I took the plunge. A handful of paragraphs later, a clumsy, cutesy girl had just tripped, her childish panties in full description, and I was annoyed as hell – I just spent money on this?!
And that, really was the only thing that kept me going – that I’d spent the money already. Its very, very rare for me to stop reading a book just because it is bad, even rarer when I’ve coughed up the cash. Even with something that repulsed me as strong as In These Words did, I read it to the end of the volume (and then got it out of my living space as quickly as humanly possible). The only thing I stopped reading out of disgust or boredom or frustration in the past year was the first volume of Start With a Happy Ending.
Onwards… and upwards, as it turned out, which surprised me, and, honestly, still does. Because Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime was in many ways suffused with… LIGHT NOVEL. Sixteen year olds will never love again, flat chests are repeatedly referenced and teased, and panties, yes, are shown. But the tenor of the entire thing takes on a much darker tone as the story progresses, and it actually manages to pull it off, even to the extent that the pantyshot early on becomes a piece of something a lot more unsettling as opposed to an uninspired grasp after the otaku market.
Based on the subtitle of this particular volume (“…and the Suicidal Mime”), maybe the shift shouldn’t've been unexpected. But in a category of fiction infamous for the fact that the titles of its books describe the entirety of the plot, you’ll have to forgive my error.
While I could overlook the silly, annoying, navel-gazing bits, one bone of contention did continue to stubbornly stick out, and that was the whole conceit of the lead, Konoha Inoue, being a former award-winning novelist when he was fourteen. Early on, he reveals that he had a nervous breakdown as a result – he swore he would never write again! But he has been, for the titular Book Girl! Le shock! But what chafes me is how much it undermines a later revelation about Konoha’s past and why he is, outside of his Literature Club membership, fairly withdrawn. Sure, you can argue that the two matters are tenuously indicated to be of relation, but it just doesn’t gel here. Instead, its one chuunibyou’d-out fantasy of being a best-selling novelist in middle school (literally 8th grade syndrome!), and a truly tragic, life-changing event. There’s room for filling out the edges more in future volumes, but it doesn’t work here at all.
That aside, I did appreciate the ability, as I said before, of the book to shift to a more serious mood. However, my favorite portions of the book were easily those where Tohko, the book girl herself, expounded upon literature. I’m not big on lavish descriptions of the taste of food, but, somehow, when applied to novels and short stories, I thrill to it, as it turns out. And Tohko’s deeper discussions of written word are very believably that of an aficionado; it would truly surprise me were I to learn that author Mizuki Nomura wasn’t herself an avid reader.
While I would recommend this volume of Book Girl generally, I think Hyouka fans in particular will find that it scratches an itch. Both series concern themselves with small literature/literary clubs, mysteries, fairly withdrawn boys, and the girls who manage to bewitch them and slowly draw them out of their shells (although Houtarou’s withdrawl stems from a lack of confidence as opposed to past tragedy). Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime’s mystery is much grimmer than anything Hyouka ever tackles (the closest it gets is during the Niece of Time arc), but they remain comfortably of the same niche.
I read the Yen Press release of this volume on an e-ink e-reader (none of those fancy color ones, thanks), and while the formatting of the text was no issue, it did render the illustrations as eye-strainingly small. The draw was never the illustrations for me, so I didn’t care at all, but I know a lot of others will. If you have that sort of e-reader, then, you may wish to just read it on your computer or buy a physical copy. The transliteration of the book read a bit stiffly initially, but either I adjusted to the style, or it smoothed out, because after a while I didn’t notice at all. Given that Yen Press had a few years where editing errors were shockingly common (later volumes of Yen’s release of Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning really pissed me off on this front), I was, in fact, impressed with the quality of the release here.
If you’re still on the fence, I would at least encourage you to check out the sample of it – Barnes & Noble has one you can get. Curiously, Yen’s own Book Girl page doesn’t itself offer a preview, which is counter to my expectations from manga publishers’ websites, I’ll confess.
It occurred to me in writing this… maybe if this does well, maybe Yen would be willing to pick up Hyouka (or, more properly, Koten-bu)? They’re both Kadokawa titles… a bro can always dream, right?