The title of this post may no longer be relevant – it’s getting hard to decide whether lockdown is still actually a thing or not. However, the maybe-good-maybe-bad news for people in England is that bookshops are now open again and are doing brisk trade. Good because bookshops are brilliant and the chance to open the doors now could prevent the smaller independents from going bust; bad because, you know, the Coronavirus is still out there and there’s still no vaccine and still no system in place to track and trace it. So, if you do head out to browse the bookshelves, do your best to stay safe, and maybe think about picking up one of these:
The Only Gaijin in the Village by Iain Maloney (2020, Polygon)
Scottish author and Shoreline of Infinity collaborator Iain Maloney (First Time Solo / The Waves Burn Bright / Silma Hill) first moved to Japan some fifteen years ago. In 2016, he and his wife decided to move out to the countryside to live the good life. The Only Gaijin in the Village is his account of their first year in Gifu, detailing the trials and tribulations – and successes – of working the land and fitting into a small community.
More than that, Maloney delves into the culture of his adopted homeland, drawing on all his years living as an immigrant in Japan (Maloney sneers at the term ‘expat’ as an example of British exceptionalism and rightly calls out the double standard it indicates), the chapters bursting with anecdotes from his early impressions to learning the language, marrying into a Japanese family, and living with the threat of earthquakes and nukes from North Korea. He touches on personal subject matter with an openness that sits well with his sense of humour.
The title itself is a testament to Maloney’s love of puns (though that one in particular will have diminishing returns as reappraisals of Little Britain are seeing the sitcom consigned to the ‘iffy humour of the past’ archive along with Jim Davidson and minstrel shows) and his runaway use of comic similes will keep readers chuckling throughout. Is there a Japanese translation for ‘good patter’?
I was already sold on Japan before reading The Only Gaijin in the Village – I’ve been on holiday once and am desperate to go back someday – but the book has opened my eyes to a different side of the country, away from the skyscrapers, the neon, and the busy big city shrines. The only thing that would make me think twice about a trip to Gifu would be the monstrous size of the centipedes – and, of course, the snakes. (Why did it have to be snakes!?)
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990, Serpent’s Tail)
“I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s bar… When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.”
This is the opening of Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley, his first published book, and the world’s introduction to iconic private investigator, Easy Rawlins. It has the power and style of Raymond Chandler but with a massive shift in perspective. It says: This is a book that will grab you and turn you upside down.
First published in 1990, Mosley is still one of the most famous Black crime writers working today in a genre dominated by white people. (See S. A. Cosby’s article about the furore around his forthcoming novel Blacktop Wasteland for an insight into how far there still is to go.)
Although Mosley’s Rawlins tales are historical – Devil in a Blue Dress being set just the other side of WWII – it resonates with contemporary issues even thirty years since its publication and over half a century after its setting in a segregated post-war LA.
Told in first person, Rawlins faces the injustice and casual brutality of white police officers who are keen to frame him up for the crimes he himself is investigating. Easy is a compelling protagonist, his voice quippy and smart but with a sincerity about his hopes, fears, and failures that is touching.
The tale is in the classic hardboiled mould – Easy takes on a seemingly simple job (find girl, report back) that turns out to be a tangled web of lies and murder – and keeps you guessing to the end with a series of seemingly chaotic twists that Mosley then pulls together like a master of the genre. Any white readers questioning the enriching quality of hearing different voices and exploring different perspectives and cultures within genre fiction needs to read this book.
Eden by Tim Lebbon (2020, Titan Books)
Fresh off the press, Tim Lebbon’s near-future eco horror novel Eden is an intense page-turner, following a group of adventurers as they set off on a race through one of the world’s ‘Virgin Zones’ – huge swathes of land which have been left to return to nature in an attempt to combat human-made climate change. People are banned from entering by military cordons, guarded by mercenaries of dubious intent.
Jenn and her crew of extreme sports fanatics – including her father, Dylan – sneak into the world’s oldest Virgin Zone, Eden, where something spooky has taken hold.
This is a great concept and Lebbon’s descriptions of the nature and scenery of Eden are as wondrous as they are unsettling. The opening third skilfully ratchets up the tension before the story bursts into a gory thriller that would deserve a place in Springfield airport’s King & Chrichton book shop. (Hans Moleman: “Have you got anything by Robert Ludlum?”/ Bookseller: “Get out.”)
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – where a team of scientists explore the seemingly alien territory of Area X that has sprung up on Earth and works its supernatural effects on anyone who enters – is an obvious comparison but Eden plays its horror a bit straighter. Though still plenty weird – images of dead bodies becoming host to Eden’s exotic plants are memorably creepy – it doesn’t have the ambiguity of VanderMeer’s more experimental work. What it does have in spades though is excitement, terror, and action while still retaining some breathing space for deeper characterisation in between everything going horribly wrong.
I had the pleasure of reading at a Cymera Festival event featuring Tim Lebbon a few wees ago. The panel discussion, which also included M. R. Carey and Kit Power, was really interesting and can be seen here.
Akira Vol. 5 by Katsuhiro Otomo (1990, Kodansha Comics)
I honestly can’t remember when I began reading Katsuhiro Otomo’s sprawling cyberpunk manga masterpiece Akira, but in the space between starting Volume 1 and finishing Volume 5, I’ve moved home several times, gotten married, and become a father. And there’s still one more doorstop of a book to go.
Now in the ruins of Neo-Tokyo – the city once again decimated by a psychic cataclysm – protagonists Kei and Kaneda are reunited briefly before separately going off to wage war against Tetsuo, who is slowly being eaten by the power of his psychic abilities and occasionally melts into the scenery in a gooey mess.
Every time I pick up the next volume of the series I’m amazed all over again by Otomo’s attention to intricate detail in the huge, busy panels he creates. There’s a popular story about the iconic image of the explosion that destroys Tokyo: Otomo painstakingly crosshatched the explosive flash – depicted as a monstrous, black hemisphere swallowing the city – in thin line pen until it was fully blacked out rather than just using a marker pen. The purpose was for each tiny stroke to represent a human life lost in an instant. The man is an artist in every sense, and this focus never lets up across the entire comic, whose pages total in the thousands.
In Volume 5, the image of Tetsuo punching a hole in the moon as a show of force is one that will stay with you for a long time.
(I’m also increasingly impressed by how good the anime adaptation is – Otomo, who directed it himself, manages to pare down six huge tomes of story into a lean couple of hours without it feeling lacking or thin. With the near-mythical Akira live action film still in development hell thirty years on, I’m now of the opinion it should just be forgotten about unless Otomo wants to direct it himself.)