The Monster in the Middle of the Road is Me, by J.P. Romney

monstermiddle

Aside from having a name long enough to make my post-title formatting sensibilities cringe, this was a pretty good book. I had some other thoughts about it too, which I’ll address after the break, but at first blush it’s good fun: a young adult paranormal mystery set in Japan. I’m glad my friend gave it to me when I asked for something new to read.

First of all, yes, I enjoyed this book. Which is not to say that I didn’t have some concerns while reading it, or after finishing it, but I did enjoy it a great deal. On the purely physical level, this book (the hard cover version) felt really nice. I liked the feel of the paper, which has visible fibers, and the cover underneath the dust jacket was very pretty, with an embossed crow surrounded by scattered stippling. Plus, the dust jacket’s cover design appeals to me. Your mileage may vary.

The story’s pacing felt right, and the voice of the narrator was delightfully comedic even as it was often dark and cynical. I guess I’m a sucker for paranormal YA mystery with some horror elements; fuse murder mystery with folk lore and an interesting cosmology, and I’m there. So yes, Romney did this one well as far as I’m concerned. But there were some really odd bits in there too, starting with the narrator’s position with relation to his own culture.

This was obviously a book set in Japan, with a Japanese narrator, but intended for a non-Japanese (ahem, American) audience. For one thing, Japanese words are italicized. For another, there’s often extra context given for Japanese things (especially culture), with the narrator commenting on them almost as though he were an outside observer… which somehow worked for me in the text even though I knew what was going on and felt weird about it. There were a few Japanese segments which weren’t translated, which seemed fitting, but they inspired me to wonder about how I should feel when the characters otherwise conversed in “English.”

All of this was hardly a surprise, however, given that the author is an American and the book is being published in the United States. I honestly don’t know enough to say whether Romney did sufficient research, but while the framing felt strange it didn’t feel disrespectful to an uninformed individual like myself. Apparently Romney spent a decent chunk of time living in Japan and teaching high schoolers, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

But this brings me to the other things which snagged at my critical-brain while I was reading, and which I had to ignore in order to fully enjoy the book. There’s a conversation to be had about cultural appropriation, and I’m not going to get into that even though it continues to nag at me. There’s also a conversation to be had about…

*MODERATE SPOILERS*

…mental illness as magical powers, though I think Romney dodges that bullet by having us realize that the protagonist’s diagnosis was wrong all along; Koda doesn’t have narcolepsy, never had narcolepsy, and it was just some insufficiently in-the-know doctor who presumed that he had narcolepsy instead of having weird & inconvenient paranormal powers. Because what doctor today would assume that you were a thought-thief instead of being narcoleptic? It helps that this misdiagnosis fits with the narrator’s overall cynicism about the world in general and humanity in particular.

And, of course, there’s a question as to whether *SPOILING THE ENDING* Moya the kitsune ends up as a fridged manic pixie dream girl… but again I think Romney dodges that bullet despite some superficial similarities. Moya feels like her own person, with her own desires and character arc, and while her death changes Koda’s motivations it didn’t feel like she died in order to advance Koda’s emotional plot. It’s an important distinction, I think, and one which I believe Romney lands on the right side of. I could be convinced otherwise, I suppose, but Koda’s reaction to her death felt more like what the characters of Redshirts wanted and less like a facile and misogynist plot device.

*END OF SPOILERS*

So yes. I had some concerns. I still have some concerns. But I think it’s a good book, and I had a good time reading it. I think I finished it in under 48 hours. Unless my description makes it sound like it’s written for your bespoke infuriation, I’d recommend it. Enjoy!

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