March 21, 2014


Humor is really hard to define.

For instance, I don't consider myself a funny person. I cannot tell a joke to save my life. While I am the queen of deadpan and snark, I forget punchlines and narrative order too often to risk telling jokes, and anyway, I find most of them unfunny or at least, not funny enough. So, to read a book by an author who has already descending into punning with the title - well. It was a risk, but I did it for you, my chickadees.

This book has a seriously immature, self-absorbed, untrustworthy narrator, an array of stereotypes, plenty of demon action, and a wrap/outfit made of cow intestines. The narrator doesn't change much until the very end, and then there is a Deus Ex Machina moment that may make your laugh - or roll your eyes. The novel is best described as "frothy," and will appeal to young readers assaying their first romances, who are looking for a smile.

Concerning Character: Mari Kato is sixteen and sure that she deserves what everyone else has: a driver's license. If she had a license, she could do things - mostly unspecified things, since she doesn't really have friends or much of a life - but she wants the "grown-up" card having a license confers. And so, she takes her driving test. Again.

Of course, driving tests are fraught, and when the unemotional energy takes its toll, the steering wheel is melted, the turn indicator has broken off and stabbed the instructor in the shoulder, and despite parallel parking well enough not to hit anyone or anything, Mari's failed. Again. Worse, her voice has gone weird and her eyes have gone red -- bad signs. When her horns sprout, and she roars at the driver's test guy, she knows the drill: they're moving. Again.

Mari's father - a Buddhist monk, now - was an Oni demon for a thousand years. He's been expecting Mari to demon-out on him for awhile now - it's her birthright, after all. The "gift" passes from him to her, when she turns sixteen. Mari is in Egypt, she's so far in denial and frankly, she's acting a little unhinged. Most people accept that wishing things doesn't make them true, and that pretending they're not happening doesn't make them not happen, but... Mari lives in a world with her own delusions, and she seems to rather like keeping them close. What the heck, she's the one manifesting horns.

A convenient job offer for her geologist mother seems promising. The isolated and über-green town's lack of internet connectivity, lack of cell towers (apparently satellites somehow don't work there), the weird deaths of cows - totally stripped to the bone in their fields - have Mari nervous. Despite what her parents seem to think, SHE'S not the one eating the cows. (SHE'S obsessed with chicken nuggets, not raw beef.) Instead, moping over her lack of license and horrified that her vegan parents have brought her to a town so small that it'll be hard to sneak out for meat, Mari's self-absorption lifts only long enough for her to become obsessed Juan - a gorgeous, gentlemanly, too-mature-to-be-true boy who is the ONLY one not wrapped up in pandering to the stereotypical blonde villainesses who rule the school. The only one - everyone else is in Stepford lockstep.

There are no real surprises when the demons appear, and as Mari's worldview finally extends to embrace the other people in the world with her, she manages at the eleventh hour to Save Everything - and act like the awesome demon she's always been.

Reader Gut Reaction:There were things which came up in the story which I feel were missed opportunities to give the main character more depth of personality and emotional resonance.

First, Mari is half Japanese. Her mother is a tall, willowy Nordic blonde (the one blonde in the novel who isn't Autopilot Bad) -- and her father is a short, slight-bodied, Japanese Buddhist - down to the saffron robes and expression of benevolence. Mari never comments on this - that it's unusual, or normal in her world, to be biracial, how it makes her feel, to see her parents together, about their atypical height pairing: nada. She never even seems to think about it, how it looks to others, seeing them for the first time.

Second, her father's Buddhism is painted in the broadest, shallowest, most stereotypical brushstrokes - he's constantly spouting wisdom and aphorisms, and lecturing on Buddhism - as if Buddhists have no other role in society. I was surprised Mari's father didn't ever wear modern clothes, and wondered how the main character felt about that, when she remarks on the outfits of the father of her nemesis: nice suits, silk ties. She tells her obsession, Juan -- in a whisper -- that her father is Buddhist, like this is a deep, dark (and, should have been obvious, given the robes) secret, making me wonder what anti-religious place she'd lived in before -- surely not Seattle, where the novel opens. I have it on good authority: there are Buddhists there.

I wondered about oni. Beyond the fact that her father gifted her this demon, we're not really told anything about the demon in Japanese mythology. As this is part of Japanese cultural history, I would have loved to know more, and to feel the author knew something about it.

And, then, there are the blondes. The Mean Girl trope aside, that a half-Asian girl goes on and on about "the Blonde Mafia" gave me pause... racism is a tricky thing, and while in a comedic novel, there may not be room for self-assessment on the part of the protagonist, I think it's important for the author to make it clear that this is not a personal prejudice - maybe by having other characters of the blonde persuasion be indifferent, tentatively friendly, etc. - letting the reader see that the blondes in the book have a range of responses and attributes, that their blondness doesn't make them bad or good. Also, it would be nice if the villains were not single dimensional "everything I want, I get" henchwomen -- but in this case, that's definitely their role, played for laughs.

Despite the various issues which kept throwing me out of the story, I like this novel. It's quirky and over-the-top ridiculous, and though Mari only takes responsibility for herself once, fails to recognize or apologize for her faults, which cause her family to be constantly moving; and though I wish the author had allowed the protagonist emotional resonance -- had asked those questions of her which allowed her to reveal herself as more "real," even in a comedic, fast-paced novel, than a paper-cutout stereotypical selfish, self-absorbed teen -- this is a novel with "good bones, which will probably best appeal to tweens looking for a quick, ridiculous story to fill an afternoon.

We were supplied this ARC courtesy of the lovely NetGalley. You'll find ONI THE LONELY by Jamie Brazil at an online bookseller near you!

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