Tuesday, December 30, 2008

#61 of 2008 - The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi

One of the greatest things about mystery novels, in addition to the prospect of solving a case before the solution is revealed on the page, is the amount of emotional depth that can be lent to the characters. Nothing brings out familiarity and camaraderie between an author and their audience like conflict and mortal danger, and crime novels have both in spades.

Crime is also an incredible vehicle for social observance. Reading foreign mysteries are the best way, aside from spending large sums of money at your local travel agent’s office, to get a feel for a country’s many overlapping societal layers. You have criminals, law officers, academics, local businesspeople, religious officials and many others weaving their way in and out of the narrative, sometimes the focus of a chapter and sometimes the colorful background.

This is a book written for the Japanese by a young Japanese writer. Both the novel’s date of birth and setting are 1947, just after the country’s defeat in World War II. Though there is little outright hostility directed towards the Western occupiers, there is a pronounced sentiment of loss, regret and bewilderment that permeates the narrative as thick as beef and potato stew. These people are survivors; ordinary citizens who’ve been conscripted and sent to hell only to return to a half-destroyed city, or people who never left and witnessed the air raids firsthand. Nobody in this story is untouched, innocent or naïve. Criminal or not, they’re all damaged in one way or another.

The crime appears early in the novel. A temptingly beautiful yet troubled young woman is brutally murdered, her torso and parts of her arms and legs carted away. Her head and the remaining portions of her arms and legs are found in a locked bathroom with the faucet still running, washing all the blood down a drain in the floor. Her home has been ransacked and her belongings stolen. Even the tattoos that adorned her body are gone, every bit of her that was inked having disappeared. From here we are led through twists and turns, given information about the then-prohibited Japanese tattooing underworld, in the hopes of finding this woman’s killer. Instead, what we find are more bodies and a deepening sense of dread as the case goes from very hot to tepid to cold.

When the killer, the killer’s motives and the methods employed are finally revealed at the end, the solution is obvious enough to cause the reader to nod and say, “Yes, that makes perfect sense now!” But nothing is so obvious that it would make the reader feel stupid.

This is Takagi Akimitsu’s first novel, written before he was 30, and the first to be published in English by SOHO. Two others, The Informer and Honeymoon to Nowhere, have been published in the years since The Tattoo Murder Case’s debut.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

#60 of 2008 - Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

I had to buy a dictionary for this one, an Oxford American with additional thesaurus features.

I didn’t know if I’d make it through this book in a reasonable amount of time. The premise is intelligent, captivating, but the language is dense with lesser known words and product references and the sentences are constructed so oddly that I was sure this was going to be one of those books that looks and feels fantastic but you-as-reader are never able to sink below the surface with. The kind of book that makes you feel inadequate, stupid even, as both a writer and a reader. The kind of book that’s just too much for you.

Like David Foster Wallace, or Pynchon, or DeLillo, all of whom I have unread works of sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me to attempt to take them on. Tomorrow, I tell myself, or next week, or next month, I’ll give them a whirl. But right now I’m reading for pleasure, damn it, not to tax my brain or grant me some kind of temporary bragging rights that will last until the next epic work shows itself to me. Not right now.

And, of course, those days have yet to come. Even The House of Leaves is still waiting for me, I’m sad to say.

However, things didn’t turn out the way I’d expected them to. Pattern Recognition takes a while to pull you into its orbit, and even longer to achieve rhythmic balance between mind and prose, but once you’re in you’re golden.

Just make sure you have your dictionary beside you and a browser open to Google, should you need them.

At the heart of this story lies Cayce Pollard, an uber-nerd living and working in the heart of chic as a “cool-hunter” for advertising agencies. In her spare time, she posts on an Internet forum devoted to a series of nameless, unidentifiable bits of film footage that emerge in random on different websites, seemingly out of sequential order. Who creates the footage, why, and how? She cannot figure it out, despite lengthy debates with her online friends, and eventually her online and real world realities blend together when she is hired by one of her current clients to begin a new job, actually a partnership, of finding the footage’s creator.

On top of this, Cayce has a severe allergy to several well-known corporate insignias, a mix of physical and neurotic reactions that leave her nearly unable to function at the mere sight of them. Didn’t know the name of the Michelin Man was actually Bibendum? You will after reading this. You’ll know what a Curta calculator is as well, but only after looking it up so you can picture it as it’s described on the page. Prada, Tommy Hilfiger, Apple and several dozen other recognizable logos make appearances here, either as severe allergens or harmless artworks.

Considering what Gibson is best known for (cyberpunk), this felt oddly mainstream, too close to real, actual life. Pollard’s father has gone missing in the 9/11 tragedy, and her mother’s coping mechanism includes going to live in a hippy commune with people who analyze recorded audio for ghost whispers. Between the constant references to pop culture, current (or very recent) events and corporate giants, this could be one of those “ripped from the headlines” type of stories, or even a cheap cyber-thriller. It is both of these, and yet it is neither as well.

What it really is, at its core, is an explanation to the rest of the world, the people who don’t understand the duality of Internet enthusiasts, of how people can live and befriend online, and how eventually the digital world spills out into the real.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sometimes You Can't Say It Better...

So you just repeat what the other guy said.

I’m probably the (at least) ten-thousandth blogger to toss their two cents in about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. I’ll keep my opinion as short and sweet as possible, then. It’s a series of books. They’re very popular with both the YA crowd and the adult women crowd. They serve a purpose not unlike Harry Potter in that they bring young people, people who could be spending their time texting, playing video games or talking on the phone into libraries and bookstores. Unlike Harry Potter, there isn’t anything grand or epic about these books and, if you hold them up to older, acclaimed works, they fall woefully short.

They’re still coercing people into reading, and hopefully picking up other titles, so I can’t complain too much.

However, and this is a big however (imagine it in seventy-two point font if you will), the characters are horrible. Bella is a Mary Sue under a very thin veneer of narrative viewpoint and her two would-be suitors are a prudish, bullying stalker and a whiny teenaged narcissist.

I think one of the reasons I dislike Jacob so much isn’t even his own fault. Any time he, or any tribal members, show up they are immediately described as being “russet-colored.” Meyer uses the word “russet” the way Anne Rice used the word “preternatural,” which is to say too damn much and too damn often.

I’m not sure if Meyer is a bit racially insensitive, is unimaginative or just really likes potatoes, but if I never have to see her use the word “russet” again I will die a happy woman.

TrebleClef over at LibraryThing said everything I wanted to say and more in a review of Twilight that I would like to repost here today. I couldn’t have said any of this better.

Essentially what happens when you walk into Hot Topic, pick out the first twelve year old you see, and then have her write an Anne Rice novel. Twilight is a shallow blunder, and it sure is proud of it. The book reads like fan-fiction from a horny teenager (though that phrase may be redundant) with a mental problem, instead of providing any form of good writing we get every vampire cliché known to man until you're guaranteed every scene-fag that reads it will adore it. It is truly astounding how Meyer is able to say so, SO little in the course of 500 pages.

More than half of Twilight is just characters giving wry smiles, chuckling, hissing, glaring, flaring nostrils and raising eyebrows during some vapid, angsty conversation. The whole thing is narrated by some chick named Bella Swan, someone so lacking in human characteristics that it is more than easy to forget this is your main character. Reading this book makes it no surprise the only people who like this are around thirteen years old, both the main characters are covered in disgusting gloss and teenage perfection. Bella Swan and Edward Cullen are two of the dullest characters I've ever become acquainted with.

Bella is just another "average, ordinary, everyday girl" typical of romance novels. She is the "new girl in school" cliché and instantly becomes popular by doing nothing. She is made essentially perfect in every manner, but in an attempt to hide this the author decides to make her clumsy. The problem is that anyone familiar with these stereotypes knows that when it comes to these characters this is actually a "plus". It also doesn't help she spends a large amount of time I could have spent hammering a nail into my foot whining about how she always falls down. That is, of course, when she isn't using insane amounts of adjectives to describe the "dreamy" vamp of her life, Edward Cullen.

Oh, Edward Cullen. How I loathe thee. This talking mannequin is spoken about for pages upon pages with what looks like a late-night session on fanfiction.net with a teenager and a thesaurus. Like Boring Bella, Ennuyeux Edward is without depth and without flaw. Know what else Bella and Edward are without? CHEMISTRY. This is pretty much the book version of Neo and Trinity from the Matrix, except even worse. A third of the book is spent with these two Barbie dolls enjoying fake, unrealistic sexual tension akin to an episode of InuYasha until an awful plot forms. The important thing is that it ends with Cullen and Bella at the prom... AWWWWWWWWW, NO ONE SAW THIS COMING. AWWWW.

There is a lot more to say about this offense against literature, but this is just a quick little review from me. Despite all of this bullshit, the most infuriating thing about this 4-part story is that it isn't rotting on LiveJournal where it belongs. It is out there making millions with people who wouldn't know quality if it punted them in the vagina. It offers nothing to the reader. Just some clever marketing, some clever abuse of the masses. It is a superficial story that leaves readers with the image of a girl who discovers her own worth and gets all she ever wanted, by giving up her identity and throwing away nearly everything in life that matters. For this reason, Twilight's fame is far more understandable. For this sacrifice of self for the shallow and meaningless truly captures the spirit of the generation it's written for, or at least, the lack thereof.

This deserves a bit of applause, I think. Thank you for braving the anger of a legion of lovestruck young girls to point out Meyer's shortcomings. Hopefully the bulk of them will move on to something more substantial now that the series is (mostly) over.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

#59 of 2008 - Tea From an Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan

Every once in a while I make an impulse purchase on Amazon, usually of a used book, that looks decent, has predominantly positive reviews and has that complex something that catches my eye and says to me “Hey, this looks like something really interesting, you should check it out.”

If we’re going to be perfectly honest here, I’ll come right out and admit that this happens a lot more than “every once in a while.” It happens fairly often and I’ve got an exceptionally high percentage of success with these purchases. Most of the books I pick up I end up loving. My entire run of Japanese crime fiction began this way, when I decided to pick up some Miyuki Miyabe novels on the fly.

Funny how I should start out praising Japanese novels, because the Japaneseness is what makes this book so terrible. I should actually call it “wannabe Japaneseness,” because it’s a piece of cyberpunk detective fiction written by an American-born, British-emigrated authoress who apparently decided that this genre still doesn’t have enough Nihon-influenced gobbledegook floating around and writing a book full of loosely-connected Japanophile crap was a great idea.

Hell, even Gibson wrote a blurb for the front cover.

There are two intertwining story lines going on here in alternating chapters. First, in the Empty Cup chapters, you have a young full-blooded Japanese woman named Yuki who is about as Western as you can get because her homeland was destroyed by a vague natural disaster some decades back. At least she appears to be Western, though you don’t know much about her or anyone else in this book because back stories are apparently for other cyberpunk novels. This one is too hardcore for anything like that. Yuki is apparently obsessed with her on-again-off-again friend Tom, another full-Japanese who doesn’t care for her as anything more than a friend and occasional roommate when he needs a place to stay. He’s apparently been in and out of her life for a long time, but she cares enough to go searching for him when he stays gone for too long and the rumors begin to swirl that he’s become one of Joy’s Boyz, some kind of gigolo for a weird cosmetically-Asian woman with a color-changing tattoo who may or may not be a flesh broker of some kind.

Next, in the alternating Death in the Promised Land chapters, you have a detective devoid of personality who can’t stop thinking about or commenting on her ex husband responding to a death in an Alternate Reality parlor. Someone has been murdered while traipsing around online and now she’s on the case to find out what happened and why. Her fellow law enforcement officers are a large claustrophobic man and a bunch of women with mustaches and muttonchops, and the coroner is a self-inflicted midget who belongs to the Church of Small-is-Beautiful. Apparently the near future is all kinds of wild, but that doesn’t matter because you see very little of these characters and you won’t give a single shit about anybody in this book, no matter how much time you spend with them.

On top of all of this, there are rumors of an Out Door that leads to something not reality nor cyberspace, and people have begun to whisper about the resurrection of Old Japan as some kind of hidden AR level that only the genetically Japanese can find.

Does this sound like some kind of anime-inspired Japanophile fan fiction to anybody else yet? I bought this book thinking it would be some kind of cyberpunk crime novel, and that the Japanese characters were incidental, but what I ended up with is the literary equivalent of watching a grown white woman dressed up as Sailor Mars standing on a busy street corner screaming Japanese at cars, phrases she picked up from repeated late-night marathons of old anime videos.

The more I read the more I wanted to face palm.

There are things about this novel that could have made it a success. The idea of dying inside and outside of a simulation is interesting, if not slightly cliche, but had Cadigan had either one of her characters find out something interesting during their forays into cyberspace it might have been a pleasant ride. Instead we get to watch the mundane plodding of two apparent Luddites as they make their mundane way through a digital world of freaks and fake gods. Yawn. Neither one can even go down a street without having to consult a cleverly-disguised help file to find out where they are, who they are, where they need to go or what they need to be doing.

If you set most of your story in AR you apparently don’t need to worry about such things as plot or coherency. You can just blip your characters in and out of locations, warp reality and change things to whatever you want them to be without having to go to the trouble of explaining anything. There were times, several of them, that I wanted to put the book down or re-shelve it or even throw it out but I refused because I wanted to see it to the end. I wanted it to somehow redeem itself, even though I knew something like that happening was a long shot.

It didn’t happen, obviously.

Did I mention there’s a sequel, and I bought it around the same time I bought this book?



Thursday, December 4, 2008

#58 of 2008 - Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

This is one of those books that I picked up and put down numerous times over the course of the summer. I’d read a chapter, set it down, pick it up, read another chapter, lather, rinse, repeat. Due to the complexity of language and the technical details, the Clear Island chapter near the end kept me from finishing the book time and again.

I finished the book today, and I must say that despite the lapse between reading the first seventy percent by July and what I’ve read today I am very impressed. This is an excellent debut novel, full of detail, layers and layers of people crossing each others’ paths and back again.

I’m not going to be able to do this novel justice by reviewing it now, so I won’t. It’s a definite reread candidate, though, and this time I won’t be slowing down or stopping until I’m done.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

#57 of 2008 - Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore

There are books for the serious literary reader, and then there are books for the person who values reading for pleasure over reading for enlightenment. Some people spend their entire lifetime reading nothing but books from one column or the other, never mixing, never broadening themselves. I find myself often pitying them, usually the literary types more than the pop culture types, simply because I mired myself in the world of horror fiction (a vast wasteland, according to many “serious” types, including an obnoxious WASP-wannabe I dated in college) at a very early age and never intended to find my way out.

In the last year, though, I have found myself in the midst of an amazing transformation. Not only am I reading books I might have previously blown off as “snobbish” or “intentionally difficult,” but I’m also reading for fun. Fun. Me, the vampire addict, the ghost story enthusiast, leave the beaten path of morbid and morose?

It seems now that I avoided the funny, laugh-out-loud books on purpose.

I devoured everything written by Max Barry that I could find this year and moved on to Paul Neilan before returning to the familiar books of my youth, books I’d been remembering fondly while simultaneously suspecting they hadn’t been that good. Somewhere along the way I stopped seeking out the humorous again, but when I found a copy of Christopher Moore’s You Suck: A Love Story in Borders the other day, I bought it. Remembering it was a sequel, I dug up its predecessor Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story out of my vast TBR pile (or, more accurately, piles, seeing as I have them stacked up everywhere there’s open space in my bedroom) and sat down to read it.

As it turns out, with some novels you don’t have to turn in your horror lover’s card to find humor. There are some that mix the two rather well, and Moore seems to have quite the knack for it. Murder and the supernatural make room for the bizarre and nonsensical as a young woman named Jody finds herself attacked for no reason and shoved under a Dumpster, her clothing stuffed with money. When she wakes, her hand, which has been sticking out from under the can, has been burnt by the sunlight and her sleazy wannabe stockbroker boyfriend doesn’t care about her ordeal. She can’t even get him to call the police, and throws a potted plant at his head before leaving the apartment they share.

On her own, the newly turned vampire realizes quickly that she needs a get, someone who will guard her vulnerable body and home during the daylight hours, but she also finds herself incredibly lonely. Being a serial monogamist, and missing the company of a live-in boyfriend, she picks up Tommy Flood, a 19-year-old “novelist” from Incontinence, Indiana, who has been in San Francisco for only a few days. From there, the two of them will encounter the homeless Emperor of San Francisco (and protector of Mexico), his two canine “soldiers,” a rowdy crew of grocery store night stockers, the taunting vampire who turned Jody and two exasperated policemen, plus an extended cast of weirdos and wannabes that pepper the story with amusing dialogue.

It’s a fast read for a three hundred-page novel. It felt, time wise, like a book half its size. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, along with the rest of Moore’s body of work, which seems to be nearing a dozen at this point. A quick look at his Wikipedia page shows me that he’s labeled an “absurdist” author, which seems readily appropriate.

As soon as I’m done slogging through David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, a book I’ve been picking up on and off over the course of about six months, I’ll be making a return to San Francisco’s vampiric night life in You Suck: A Love Story. I can’t wait.


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