Monday, April 30, 2012
In just a couple of days we're on our way to Alaska, where we're helicoptering to a glacier and then hiking it, going snorkeling in survival suits, and who knows what else we'll find to do there. Of course the suitcases (and the Kindle) are loaded with books that in my leisure time I plan to read while just kicking back and doing nothing.
Part of the list definitely includes the following:
The Greatcoat, by Helen Dunmore
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (currently reading)
Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore
Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris
and whatever happens to be on my Kindle, which right now escapes me -- but I have two weeks worth of vacation reading with me so I'm prepared. Then when I get back home, it should definitely be pool weather so I'll extend my vacation until the end of the month while I go from one weather extreme to another.
I can't wait, both for Alaska and the books I've brought!
It's the end of the month and time to do the reading roundup for April. This month's focus was on literature of the weird -- and most of what I got finished this month definitely fell into that category. I didn't finish the last of the lot, Malpertuis, by Jean Ray, and that one will get carried over into May. I can state, though, that it's definitely the strangest of the lot -- a gothic tale with supernatural elements, including werewolves, captured gods and a strange house with bizarre powers. But more on that later.
So here we go:
The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Now You're One of Us, by Asa Nonami
Black Wings of Cthulhu, edited by S.T. Joshi
Radiant Dawn, by Cody Goodfellow
Ravenous Dusk, by Cody Goodfellow
Malpertuis, by Jean Ray (read, not reviewed)
fiction from India:
Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil
I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni
Liar Moon, by Ben Pastor
She's Never Coming Back, by Hans Koppel
Hour of the Wolf, by Hakan Nesser (read; to be reviewed May)
Holy City, by Guillermo Orsi
other book-related stuff:
1) The book group read The Tenants of Moonbloom, by Edward Lewis Wallant. Out of the group there were two who didn't care for it so much, but the rest of us found Norman Moonbloom's metamorphosis a thing of beauty. This one I can definitely recommend.
2) Added to the Amazon wishlist this month:
New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, ed. Caitlin Kiernan
Enemies: A History of the FBI, by Tim Weiner
3) Books bought this month:
A Caring Man, by Akira Arai
Murder in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted The Last Days of Old China, by Paul French
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, ed. Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer
The Book of Crows, by Sam Meekings
4) Currently reading:
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
The Flatey Enigma, by Victor Arnar Ingolfsson
5) April book giveaway, donation or one-way swap total: a whopping 42! Hooray! I'm beginning to see room on the floor again!
Monday, April 23, 2012
Perilous Press, 2002
trade paper ed.
"The world is insane, and there aren't enough bombs or bullets to fix it."
Having just finished Radiant Dawn, I couldn't just stay hanging on that precipice of a cliffhanger -- there was just too much at stake to leave it for another time. And whereas in Radiant Dawn I noted Goodfellow's few nods to Lovecraft, here the Lovecraftian scene explodes -- in and around the government conspiracies, the clandestine organizations within other clandestine organizations, and military action (including a legendary, truly badass group of soldiers called Spike Team Texas whose very name freaks the most hardened of regular army people), lie those who've been waiting "sleeping, since before the earth as men knew it came to be." For these beings, humans are of no consequence in the larger scheme of things; they're simply accidents of evolution and mutation who took over in the absence of the Old Ones. Everything human beings have inscribed upon their world down through the millenia turns out to have been illusory -- the truth is something so frightening it has led many who've glimpsed only shadows of it to madness. Here, in both Radiant Dawn and Ravenous Dusk, that madness takes several forms, but Lovecraft would be so happy with Cody Goodfellow if he could only read these books.
As in Radiant Dawn, Ravenous Dusk continues the story of the three main characters, who have emerged transformed from events in Radiant Dawn -- Stella Orozco, FBI Special Agent Cundieffe, and Ezekiel Zane Storch. This time around, however, the action is stepped up -- the conspiracies multiply, all hell breaks loose all around the globe, the secret war escalates, and the very future of humanity hangs in the balance, based on events chronicled by Lovecraft in his At the Mountains of Madness. The past eons have finally caught up to our current world, and how the three characters fit in to all of the ensuing insanity is at the heart of this novel.
Like its predecessor, Ravenous Dusk is a mix of sci-fi, horror, political conspiracy thriller, and military action; here it's all packed together in a Lovecraftian frame. There are some awesome moments in this book -- for example, in the installation at Mount Weather, Virginia, where Cundieffe reckons that
"some genius back in the Fifities must have reasoned that men, pushed to the brink of a nuclear exchange, would be kept from losing their heads at a critical reminder of all that was quaint and corny small-town America"
and where a group awaiting the worst makes plans to become the leader of the coming New World Order; there's also a white-supremacy cult in the mountains of Idaho who new neighbors just happen to be the relocated and reinvented Radiant Dawn hospice center. While much of the action in the story is way over the top, it's still so much fun that setting the book aside is impossible. And considering what's going on in this book, the ending is a surprise, but at the same time it totally fits.
Really, the only negative thing I have to say is that at some points the book is sometimes overly wordy, depending on a lot of conversation or discoveries to fill in the multiple backstories of events and people in the novel. I'd also say that it might be a good thing to have even some familiarity with Lovecraft's work; if nothing else, at least At the Mountains of Madness; if you run into a word like "shoggoth," for example, you'd at least be familiar with the term; otherwise, if you're not already a Lovecraft reader, you might be a bit lost. But together, Radiant Dawn and Ravenous Dusk comprise something very different than the usual post-Lovecraft Mythos fare I've read, and Goodfellow's imagination has run crazy wild in a good way. Personally, I don't get why people settle for the twee stuff like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Twilight when there are worlds upon worlds of coolness to be found in books like Goodfellow's; now I'm wondering who else I've missed that taps into this kind of bizarro but incredibly awesome wavelength.
Saturday, April 21, 2012
I have a copy of Defending Jacob, by William Landay, that needs a home. If you want this book, (US only, please) just be the first to comment.
Friday, April 20, 2012
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Perilous Press, 2000
Radiant Dawn is really only the first part of a two-book series, followed by its companion, Ravenous Dusk. The story mixes an apocalyptic, paranoid conspiracy thriller with military action, sci-fi and horror. As far as its weird quotient -- you couldn't ask for better -- once again mankind is threatened by forces that may be beyond its control, and the quest to wipe out the enemy to secure a human future on the planet may prove to be beyond mankind's capabilities. But the "good guys" aren't giving up. Starting "somewhere in the Tigris River Valley, Southern Iraq" in 1991 during Desert Storm, then quickly moving ahead in time to 1999 and California's Death Valley, Radiant Dawn tells the story of three people caught up in a bizarre fight where things are never what they seem.
Zane Ezekiel Storch was a Ranger in the army during Desert Storm, and after coming back home with a lot of damage he attributes to Gulf War Syndrome, he takes himself away to Death Valley. He lives there in Thermopylae, a haven of self-styled hermits who just want to be left alone. One July day he and a couple of his very odd friends are just hanging at the store when an RV pulls up, two tourists get out and the next thing he knows, there's a raid on the place by "black Kevlar-suited berserkers" wearing jackboots looking for a weapons cache. Storch knows nothing, but a call from his friend during the raid alerts him to the fact that "the future of our race is at stake" and that the weapons were there because he had "to do something " The second character is Stella Orozco, a Mexican-American ER nurse who blames everything on white people when things go wrong. She also has liver cancer with only another six months to live. She's on hand when a Life Flight chopper brings in a man who by all rights should be dead after losing a leg, a hand and having to wait some time for help to arrive, but who somehow manages to survive. He's also riddled with cancer. It isn't long until the patient is claimed by a Dr. Keogh of the Radiant Dawn Hospice Village. Stella goes out to find this place, awed at how strong the patient is considering his condition, and meets with Keogh to ask if she can stay at the village because she doesn't want to die. She's turned down, but Keogh insists there will be more Radiant Dawn hospices for her in the future. Finally, there's Special Agent Martin Cundieffe, a nerdy FBI agent who looks like the old actor Wally Cox, has no friends except "other geeks on the Internet," and lives with his parents. He's an admirer of J. Edgar, a by-the-book, bookwormy agent who is called to an emergency meeting in the Federal Building of Los Angeles after a security breach at the Naval Weapons Station at China Lake. It isn't long until he is moved up the ladder to take charge of a top secret operation that will ultimately become a life-changing event.
As it turns out, all three are forced to make choices that land them smack in the middle between a strange group of scientists operating out of an underground complex and even stranger forces whose leader has his own plans for the human race, a "foe before which governments, commandments and creeds are nohting but sticks and stones in the paws of dumb animals," ... the Test which humankind must pass to prove its right to exist." Who will win? Who is on who's side? Is the human race doomed? Who are the good guys, and are the bad guys really bad? These are all questions that, sadly, won't be answered in this book -- as the action picks up, as the conspiracy theories run wild, as the characters can't decide who they should trust, the ending comes slamming down to a wild crescendo, only "to be continued" in the next book, Ravenous Dusk. Crap. So I guess I'm not quite finished with Cody Goodfellow just yet.
Radiant Dawn is a fun read, one where the hackles go up on your neck while you're trying to decide where the conspiracies are, who you should trust, and what's going to happen next. There are strange cults, people who don't exist but really do, and nods here and there to HP Lovecraft. It's a very dynamic novel, never stalling in any one place, never getting dull for even a second. While it's very out there, which is a good thing in this kind of fiction, Goodfellow's plotting is solid and he keeps the reader on the edge throughout the book. But it's not all tense -- there's one scene, for example, where Cundieffe meets for lunch with the Assistant Director, which turns out to be egg-salad sandwiches and cookies from Cundieffe's mom, complete with a little note for her boy with lots of Xs and Os. It's a very wild ride, filled with a lot of action, but also highly satisfying for sci-fi and horror fans. But aarrghh!!!! Having to wait for the conclusion is maddening!
Monday, April 16, 2012
Penguin, 2012 (USA)
“This is the story the pipe told me. All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.”
My sincere thanks to TLC Blog Tours and to Penguin for sending me a copy of this book.
*******Halfway through the novel at a point where my brain demanded sleep, before putting the book down I wrote a brief note to myself on a piece of paper used as a bookmark: " Midway -- loving the book. Yes." And after reading the last word (which also happens to be the first word) of the story, my mind hadn't changed one bit. Although Narcopolis is a unique novel in its own right, it definitely belongs with the wave of incredible fiction that has recently been coming from India and other areas of South Asia. It is Jeet Thayil's first novel, filled with passion and poetic prose; it's a very good, one-of-a-kind read that captured me right away.
Much like the smoke that pervades Rashid's Bombay opium den on Shuklaji Street, Narcopolis has a somewhat swirly, surreal lingering effect, one that begins with its one-sentence prologue carried out over several pages, continues as it moves through the lives of the people who can be found on the street, and doesn't end even long past the time the last page has been turned. In this book, "the hero or heroin of the story" is the intoxicating city of Bombay, which over a span of about thirty years has had its share of upheavals felt by all who live there. In this novel, the people on the margins -- the whores, the addicts, the drug dealers, and other people who frequent the city's underbelly, the slums with "roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and the deranged..." are at the heart of this story, in which the author offers these people a chance to say things which might otherwise not be heard. Indeed, the novel is very much character driven, and the stories of Bombay over the last three decades and those of people filling her streets are relayed through the very odd set of people who inhabit the book. Their combined lives serve as a map through recent history, and through them the author introduces his readers to different facets of life on Shuklaji Street: drug addiction, poverty, increasing violence, corruption, the ebb and flow of life in Bombay's back alleys, and to a way of a life in which "a man could smoke a pipe or two a day and live a long and productive life" which ultimately vanishes in the face of newer, more lethal forms of escape.
As noted in the prologue, a single, sentence spanning just about six pages, there are two " I machines" telling the story:
"maybe the O is the I and I is unreliable, my memory like blotting paper, my full-of-holes, porous, shreddable non-memory, remembering details from thirty years ago but this morning a blank, and if memory = pain = being human, I'm not human, I'm a pipe of O telling this story over the course of a single night, and all I'm doing, the other I that is, I'm writing it down straight from the pipe's mouth..."
The novel is broken into four parts, the first part narrated for a while by the very human narrator, Dom Ullis, whose firsthand narration doesn't pick up again until much later, leaving the "pipe's mouth" to get on with the story. Ullis leaves Bombay for some time, returning in 2004, when the city he knew as a younger man has undergone a great deal of change. At the heart of the novel is Rashid's opium den on Shuklaji Street, an area known for its red-light district, a slum with a “fever grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, secret rooms that contracted in the daytime and expanded at night." Rashid's is a popular place for opium smoking, "the best on the street," visited by tourists who stretch out on the cushions and fill their pipes with the freshly-cooked opium, or sit around, drink tea and take photos. Then there are Rashid's regulars who go there to leave life behind for a while in a place where "we are all smokers here," despite their differences outside the hazy opium shop.
This strange assortment of people whose stories comprise this novel include Ramesh, called Rumi, a Brahmin business man who hates everyone and wears cowboy boots; Rumi has a penchant not only for opium and later garad heroin, but also for violence, including regularly beating his wife. Then there's Rashid himself, who became a hippie, got into drugs, and opened his own shop in the late 1970s after watching a movie called "Hare Krishna, Hare Ram." Helping Rashid in his chandu khana is Dimple, a prostitute who was given away by her mother at a young age, castrated and given opium to help deal with the pain, and who serves clients at the local brothel specializing in eunuchs. She brings Rashid opium pipes from her surrogate father Mr. Lee, whom she first met as a child. Lee had left China during the Cultural Revolution, then died in Bombay where he had settled because of the sea. [As a brief aside, Lee's story is one of the best parts of this novel -- it is set in China during Mao's Cultural Revolution. His story also closes a circle: his revered opium pipes come back to India, where the opium flow to China began with the British East India Company.] Lee teaches Dimple how to use the pipes properly, tells her stories, and after he dies, the pipes are part of her inheritance. They also become part of a deal -- Dimple wants to eventually leave the brothel and offers the pipes in trade for staying with Rashid. Dimple also wants to figure out and become who she really is; along the way she dons the burkha, is saved from a mob by being a Christian, obtains different first names, and it is she who drives a great deal of this narrative. Dimple is trying to put the past aside in order to find a measure of peace and beauty in the world for her future. Other people found in the area include Bengali, who deals with Rashid's money and keeps his ear to the streets, the gangster street boss Lala, and many other colorful people the author has created.
Thirty years pass quickly in this novel as it follows this generation of Rashid's customers and others through their less than happy lives. Bombay is rocked with floods, riots, corruption, etc; it also experiences the switch in preference from opium to garad heroin, "the unrefined shit they throw away when they make good quality maal for junkies in rich countries." Garad comes from Pakistan; in Urdu its name means waste. Rashid refuses to sell it, but that doesn't prevent its spread among his customers. With the introduction of "Chemical," where strychnine is added to the heroin to "give it a kick," it becomes more lethal, but is more readily available than food, because the sales of heroin are "protected" by politicians and crooks. As one character notes, "today the street belongs to whoever takes it. Today it's ours, tomorrow someone else will take our place."
Bombay's changes continue over the years, and when Ullis returns to his homeland, he finds that parts of the Shuklaji street neighborhood have received a face lift and have become more modern, trying to keep up with twenty-first century trends. Everything is shiny and new, with splashes of color everywhere. Rashid's son Jamal is now in charge of the family business, which has extended itself to making deals with the Russians. He and his wife Farheen go out clubbing in crowded spots bursting with the beat, where she drops the burkha in favor of more trendy clothes. But despite the glitz and the glamour of this new, modern life, some things remain the same: the demand for escape in the city is still high, as are the suppliers' twin drives for money and power. "Dance or we die," Farheen notes to Jamal, whose deals involve newer drugs of choice, including cocaine and ecstasy.
I realize I've barely skimmed the surface here, but it's because this book is very multi-faceted, with so much to capture one's attention and little time and space here to go through it all. There are exiles and eunuchs, poets and painters, ghosts and spirits, and dreams that leak from one person to another -- only a few examples of what you'll find in this incredible book. Narcopolis is a very human story, and although there's a bit of a surrealistic quality surrounding the characters' lives and experiences, it is grounded in the truth of Thayil's own experiences as a drug addict who left Bombay for a while, came to the US, and returned later to his homeland.
Toward page 55 of this novel, I wrote in my notebook that "it's hard to tell the drug-induced dreams and hallucinations from the reality," and I think that's not an unfair description of the way the author writes. His background as a poet is quite obvious in the way he writes his prose. Dreams and hallucinations meld into reality and it's often difficult to separate them, Shuklaji street comes alive with even the smallest of details, and while you may feel little but disdain for many of the characters, some of them, like Dimple, become people with whom you can't help but sympathize. There is a great deal of irony scattered throughout, and even a few moments of humor. Thayil also blends different types of texts (magazine articles, books, an imaginary book set in the future also written with opium pipe in hand, movies, lectures, etc.) into his own narrative, creating a multi-layered effect that heightens the reading experience to the point where I never would have guessed that the book is his first novel. I'm not an English major nor am I good enough at more in-depth liteary analysis to provide one here, and some of the symbolism more than likely escaped me. I'll leave that side of things to others far more qualified. However, as a reader who enjoys international fiction, constantly on the lookout for something fresh and different, this novel blew me away. I've never read anything like it, and I probably never will again. It's unique, a one of a kind book filled with passion; it's gritty and tough, real and surreal all at the same time.
There are a few things about this novel that may concern potential readers: summarized briefly, the novel sort of rambles so if you're into linear, clear-cut plot development and a story that moves quickly from point a to point b, has a climax and then ends on a high note, well, this book might not be for you. Also, throughout the novel there is a great deal of sex, graphic language, graphic violence and a rape scene here and there, not to mention the drug use. While these are all things that might actually happen given the environment, some people may be not quite ready to deal with the author's descriptions or subject matter. Frankly, Narcopolis is probably not going to be everyone's cup of tea; if, however, you can get past the usual and are attracted to something very different, then you might want to give it a try.
Although I was going to read this book on my own anyway, I jumped at the opportunity to read it as part of a series of TLC blog tours. The remaining stops for this book are listed here if you're interested.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Titan Books, 2012
(trade paper ed.)
“The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” -- Howard Phillips Lovecraft
There is no doubt about it: HP Lovecraft's original Cthulhu story has captured the imaginations of readers and writers all over the world for decades. There's an entire Cthulhu Mythos spawned from Lovecraft's bizarre imagination, and it has served as an influence on several modern authors, making its re-imagined way into several anthologies of eldritch tales. Black Wings of Cthulhu is such a collection, and while the stories are not limited to the dreaming god himself, he makes an appearance or two. For the most part, the cosmic horror Lovecraft was able to convey so well is maintained, as is his focus on the utter helplessness of human beings in the face of forces much larger than themselves. Another common thread throughout this book is that of humankind's inability to fully comprehend the immensity of the forces that lay hidden in unknown dimensions -- as one of Donald Burleson's characters notes in his contribution:
"It is possible for consciousness beyond the common grasp to reach across unthinkable gulfs of time and space and fasten upon the unwary dreamer."
The problem with reviewing an entire anthology is that each story is its own entity, and what may hold true for one entry doesn't necessarily equate throughout the entire book; reviewing individual stories is a lengthy process and would probably bore many readers out of their respective skulls. There are a few entries that were more gory or graphic rather than cerebral; I prefer the latter and like to feel that creeping and "profound sense of dread" when I read horror rather than have it all spelled out for me by the author.
Some of the stories in this book are by authors I've been following a long time: Caitlin Kiernan, Donald Burleson, Joseph S. Pulver, Laird Barron, W.H. Pugmire, Ramsey Campbell, and Michael Cisco. Many of these people have already shared their Lovecraft-inspired fiction in other anthologies or in their own books. Once inside the collection, there are three entries inspired by HPL's own "Pickman's Model," which he wrote in the late 1920s; there are some which feature HPL as a character; a story by Philip Haldeman (whose book Shadow Coast gave me a good case of the willies) that conjures up Bloch's Mysteries of the Worm, and even HPL's mom gets her own space in a story by Jason Van Hollander. Locations change as well -- from New England to the American Southwest to the Isle of Wight and other places. Campbell "annotates" a collection of letters belonging to Lovecraft, where HPL is insultingly called "Pulpcraft," and members of the original Lovecraft circle are similarly blasted by a bizarre "fan."
Out of the entire collection, my least favorite stories were by Michael Cisco, entitled "Violence, Child of Trust," and "Lesser Demons," by Norman Partridge. While both held true to the whole "cosmic horror" ideal and were well written, they were just a bit too graphic for my personal taste -- hearts being ripped out, bodies being noisily eaten at a graveyard , for instance. I also didn't care that much for Nicholas Royle's "Rotterdam," which just didn't do it for me. As noted earlier, I tend toward more cerebral horror where what actually happens and why is really left to the reader's imagination after the author constructs his or her story.
Although the Lovecraftian vision is at the heart of each story throughout this novel, you don't need to be a gung-ho Lovecraft fan to enjoy these stories -- if you're into the cosmically weird and horrifying, you'll get a lot out of these compelling tales as well.
"Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!"
The contents of the book are (with my favorites asterisked):
Caitlin Kiernan: “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” *
Donald R. Burleson: “Desert Dreams”
Joseph S. Pulver, Sr.: “Engravings”
Michael Shea: “Copping Squid”
Sam Gifford “Passing Spirits”
Laird Barron: “The Broadsword” *
William Browning Spencer: “Usurped”
David J. Schow: “Denker’s Book”
W.H. Pugmire: “Inhabitants of Wraithwood” *
Millie L. Burleson: “The Dome”
Nicholas Royle “Rotterdam”
Jonathan Thomas “Tempting Providence”
Darrell Schweitzer “Howling in the Dark”
Brian Stableford: “The Truth about Pickman” *
Philip Haldeman: “Tunnels” by Philip Haldeman *
Ramsey Campbell: “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash”
Michael Cisco: “Violence, Child of Trust”
Norman Partridge “Lesser Demons”
Adam Niswander: “An Eldritch Matter” by Adam Niswander
Michael Marshall Smith “Substitution”
Jason Van Hollander: “Susie”
|Howard Phillips Lovecraft|
I remember I was in a Borders bookstore once and was totally bored, looking for something to read. Skimming through the sci-fi/horror shelves, I came across this book,
then I had to have the reference books (these are but three):
then I started buying anything and everything to do with HPL, including books by authors who'd been influenced by him (here's a random sample... I have way too many to get into one or two photos):
Not being satisfied with only Western authors, I was elated to find Japanese Cthulhu:
Soon the books from RPGs hit my library, like the Delta Green series (I bought them all when they were still in print and still affordable), and then I started collecting original Arkham House editions (again, way too many to photograph).
My addiction was getting so very bad that my husband finally gave up and for my birthday one year, bought me a special gift:
t-shirts, and even a plush Hound of Tindalos:
I still have an incredibly strong addiction to eldritch tales, and it all started with one book. I'll probably be collecting them until I die -- some people collect souvenir spoons, I collect Lovecraft and those who came after.
Friday, April 6, 2012
originally published as Anki (暗鬼), 1993
translated by Michael Volek & Mitsuko Volek
(trade paper ed.)
"One thing's certain -- this family isn't normal."
The quotation above, taken straight out of this novel, may be the understatement of the year. While the concept of what's weird may be in the eye of the beholder, there's no mistaking that Now You're One of Us definitely belongs in this category. I finished it two days ago and couldn't even pick it up again to write this review. Ick. Although it's not as strange as say, books by Carlton Mellick III (who, for me, heads up the category of weird), it's pretty out there. The book is listed as mystery/horror on the back cover, and while it's definitely horrifying, it's more of a suspense novel where the author keeps you reading by edging ever closer to what's really going on but never quite getting there until the last moments. And while I liked feeling the tension ratchet as I was constantly scratching my head wondering just what the hell the big reveal is going to be, once I got there, it was a shocker.
A young woman named Noriko marries into the wealthy Shito family, which consists of four generations living under the same mansion roof. She can't believe her luck -- they're all so incredibly nice, heaping praise on her for the slightest thing, always calling her their "treasure," and making her life easy in her new home. As a new daughter-in-law, the situation is better than she could have imagined, although she still feels like she's an outsider in many ways and tries desperately to fit in. But while hanging up the family's laundry one day, a man approaches her, saying there's something he has to tell her. Noriko wonders what he could possibly have to say, but before he gets the chance, a family member comes out and he clams up then walks away. The man turns out to be one of the family's tenants in one of their many properties, a former ice vendor who has fallen on harder times. While Noriko is away on a visit to her family, she learns that the man's home has burned down and the man is dead, and she begins to wonder if perhaps something not kosher is going on here. Add to that some strange conversations overheard deep in the night, seeing things she couldn't possibly be seeing, and other odd things, and Noriko's suspicions continue to mount. After confiding her fears to her school friend Tomomi, things in the Shito household move swiftly into bizarro world, but Noriko's worries are always countered by the family's constant reassurance, to the point where Noriko begins to wonders why she's so mistrusting and hurtful toward this family who is so good to her, a family as she notes, she can "trust from my heart."
I have to admit to being sucked into this book pretty much all the way up until the end. The author's talent lies in ratcheting up the tension and suspense level all the way through the novel, and the reader is compelled to keep turning pages not only to see what's going to happen next, but also because he/she wants some kind of satisfying explanation for all of the bizarre things going on here. Noriko's oscillation between the real and unreal is a good reason to keep reading, as the creeping doubt in her mind transfers over to the reader, making it a highly-suspenseful story.
But there are also reasons this book bothered me. First, there comes a point where you absolutely must wonder why Noriko doesn't just go leave everything and run home to the protection of her own family, a question I kept asking myself many times over throughout the story. Any one with half a brain would have gone away and never looked back. Then there's the ending -- I won't say what it is, but my first reaction was literally that of "wtf??" and then a desire to run and take a shower. So maybe in some bizarre context it makes sense, but it's still unsettling even thinking about it now, two days after I finished it.
If you're really into the realm beyond strange, this one will make you really happy. The best part of the book is in the getting there, but once you've arrived, don't say I didn't warn you.
fiction from Japan
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
originally published as Ubume no natsu (姑獲鳥の夏), 1994
Translated by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander
(trade paper ed.)
"There is nothing that is strange in this world, Sekiguchi."
The Summer of the Ubume is Natsuhiko Kyogoku's first novel, the opening installment of an entire series featuring "Kyogokudo" Chuzenji, the owner of a used bookstore of the same name. Chuzenji is a former priest who moonlights on the weekends as an eclectic faith healer, curing possessions and performing exorcisms, obliging his clients by acting on their respective beliefs to help put their lives back in order. The book is a mystery story with strong supernatural overtones, one that starts out a bit slow but picks up and gets progressively more weird as it moves along toward its ending, which is the most bizarre solution to a mystery I've run across in all of my years of reading. And I've been reading a long, long time.
The year is 1952, the place Tokyo. The war is over, the American Occupation has ended, people are trying to get back to "normal" life but quite yet haven't figured out just what that entails. Buildings are still in ruins, the black market has recently been outlawed, and tabloid papers are all the rage. The novel is narrated by Sekiguchi, a freelance tabloid reporter who used to study slime molds but gave up his unprofitable research to focus on his writing and to make some money. He has come to visit his friend Kyogokudo to ask him his opinion about a story he's recently heard about a woman who has been pregnant for twenty months and has shown absolutely no signs of giving birth. Her parents are members of the Kuonji family, whose descendants have been practicing medicine since Japan's feudal period. The current Kuonjis run the Kuonji Clinic, once a prestigious institution, but one which has now fallen on hard times since the war, not only due to damage from air raids, but because of stories about babies disappearing from there shortly after their births. The pregnant woman's husband disappeared about a year and half earlier, never to be seen again after locking himself into a room in the annex of the clinic. After the indomitably rational Kyogokudo spends a great deal of time expounding on such topics as quantum mechanics, religion, collective delusions and the truth (as he sees it) underlying the supernatural, he suggests that Sekiguchi go to see their friend, a private investigator. There, by sheer chance, Seki meets Ryoko, the sister of the pregnant woman, a pivotal event in Sekiguchi's life and in the rest of the story, as she agrees to let the private investigator and Sekiguchi visit the clinic. From there the novel takes a number of bizarre twists and turns, all leading to an even more bizarre ending.
Despite Chuzenji's pervading rationality, there is a very potent creep factor at work throughout the novel and supernatural overtones form a frame for this story. The reader sees the story through the eyes of Sekiguchi, who is highly impressionable; his own infallibities work together with things he sees and hears, creating an atmosphere that keeps the tension at a high level. Among other things, he witnesses his private-eye friend's ability to "see" memories and posit questions based on his "visions;" when he goes to see the Kuonji clinic, evidence turns up of strange experiments; witnesses are either reluctant or missing; he has bizarre dreams, strange recurring memories and he periodically fades in and out of reality. The author's passion for strange yokai folklore that is woven throughout the novel also helps set the tone so that even though the reader starts wondering if there isn't more here than meets the rational eye.
This is such a bizarre story that I couldn't help but really like it. I can honestly say I've never come across anything quite like it; it is not only an intriguing mystery with a strange, twisted ending, but it's also odd enough to feed my weird monkey. Beyond the mystery story however, the author also offers his readers a look at a changing Japan which now has an opportunity to consciously detach itself from its old, destructive traditions and philosophies and move into the modern world. However, readers should be aware that much of this analysis is accomplished largely through the long discussions between Kyogokudo and Sekiguchi that begin this narrative (and are also found throughout the novel), taking up several pages of dialogue on various topics. While my strange brain digested all of this joyfully, unprepared readers may find it stuffy, boring or dull and wonder what it all has to do with anything. Hang in there: a) it has a lot to do with things, and b) the action picks up shortly afterwards.
I'll give The Summer of the Ubume an NFE rating, meaning not for everyone, although readers who embrace the strange or who already have an interest in Japanese writing will definitely appreciate it. Mystery readers looking for something outside of the ordinary may like this book, but it's not the usual crime fare most readers of that genre are used to and may prove a bit challenging. Now let's hope Kodansha will see fit to translate some of the other books in this series.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
- 03/27: The Wandering Falcon, by Jamil Ahmad
- 03/21: The Glass Devil, by Helene Tursten
- 03/17: The Torso, by Helene Tursten
- 03/08: River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh
total for March -4
total for 2012 - 18
- 03/26: The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura
- 03/26: Phantom, by Jo Nesbø
- 03/21: The Glass Devil, by Helene Tursten
- 03/17: The Torso, by Helene Tursten
- 03/14: The Mattress House, by Paulus Hochgatterer
- 03/14: The Sweetness of Life, by Paulus Hochgatterer
- 03/09: Nights of Awe, by Harri Nykänen
- 03/05: Budapest Noir, by Vilmos Kondor
total for 2012 - 21
oh dear -- nada
total for March -0
total for 2012 - 1 (oh,how embarrassing)
total for March -3
total for 2012 - 5
My poor result in the Aussie Authors is embarrassing -- but I have two on tap.