Summer reading 2021: I’m not procrastinating, you’re procrastinating

Ctrl+C/Ctrl+V: “Wow, it’s been absolutely ages since I’ve posted a round of book reviews on my blog! Probably because I’ve been busy doing…”

I know, I know. But I have been a bit busy with my own writing, plus the weather. The Weather! It’s been insane. Far too hot to stay inside but, also, far too hot to stay outside. I’ll admit I’ve been sacking off reading and writing to go out on my skateboard (I’ve totally got the bug at the moment) and eat ice cream, but you only get so much summer a year. I’ll be better now the weather’s getting back to normal. Promise.

Anyhow, here’s what I have been reading lately. (Coincidentally, to go nicely with the Tokyo Olympics and the dominance so far of Japanese skaters – love to see the host country doing well! – in the first ever skateboarding event at the games, I’m starting with some excellent Japanese authors, and the Japanese thread will continue through the post.)

Astral Season, Beastly Season by Tahi Saihate, translated into English by Kalau Almony (Honford Star, 2020 [2018])

I picked this book up because of its cover – the full wrap of it is amazing, just incredibly stylish, like something ripped from a creepy notebook. It almost looks vandalised, like there’s something hidden behind the image.  Instead of a blurb, there’s a snippet of text from the novel on the back that reads: “A long time ago, in a passage for either English or modern Japanese class, I read that at seventeen you stop being human. You stop being human and you become either a star or a beast.”

Sold!

The story follows two high school boys, Yamashiro and Morishita, who decide to take drastic action to prove the innocence of their favourite J-pop idol, Mami Aino, when she is accused of a shocking, gruesome murder.

Split in two, the first half of the narrative is told by Yamashiro as he gets in over his head with Morishita. Something of an outsider, Yamashiro’s obsession with Mami is a mixture of love and loathing. He affects disdain for her while he lusts after her, and there’s something of the teen incel internet culture that author Saihate has nailed on the page – not in gross caricature but in a way that feels earnest and complex. There’s shame and confusion hidden behind Yamashiro’s words that you get right from the opening address to Mami:

“You’re cute – that’s all you are. You’re plain and weak-willed… That’s why I could resent you. When you were far away, when you were dancing, I thought I loved you. Why? Why did you kill someone?”

The second half examines the fallout among Yamashiro and Morishita’s former classmates years later. It asks big questions about how we view people who have done terrible things and what it means for their family and the people who knew them, as well as the family of the victims. This is narrated by Watase, who is in both camps. This is something that will divide readers – sympathy for the devil is certainly not in vogue at the moment, yet true crime documentaries and fictionalised dramas about real-life serial killers have never been more popular. This human contradiction is at the heart of the story and answers are not easily forthcoming.

So, did it live up to the cover? Absolutely!

Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated into English by Stephen Snyder (Vintage, 2004 [1997])

Recently, I was talking to an editor about I story I’d written when he asked me what books inspired my writing. Naturally, my mind went absolutely fucking blank. What books have I read? Have I ever read any at all? What’s a book?

Now, all too late, I have an answer: Out by Natsuo Kirino. When Yoyoi – who juggles looking after her kids with working nightshift at a boxed lunch factory – kills her philandering husband after he gambles away all their savings, three of her co-worker pals band together to help her do the decent thing: dismember his corpse, dispose of the pieces in various bins throughout the city, and split the life insurance money.

There’s not much to be had in the way of belly laughs but there is a dark comedy to the entire, absurd situation, counterpoint to the bubbling tension and gritty depiction of the Tokyo underworld which they get drawn into. Four ordinary people pulled into an extraordinary situation, discovering they may not be that normal after all.

I loved it when I read it a good number of years ago having found it in Langside library and it’s definitely a key reference to my own writing and the above-mentioned story in particular. I’m currently rereading Out after I spotted an edition of it with an amazing new cover [pictured] in Waterstones. (I know, I’m a sucker for a good cover – especially paperback gatefold covers. So sleek!) Does it hold up to my memory of it? So far, yes!

There’s a way Kirino has of casually dropping in short moments of extreme violence (“He put his finger in the wounds he’d made on her body, sliding it in under the knuckle, but the woman seemed not to notice and merely whispered over and over, ‘Hospital.’”) or tiny profundities (“Why was it you could talk to dead people in your dreams?”) among the mundane and immediate concerns of the women’s home lives as they try to carry on the normal burdens of work and childcare and domestic chores and paying the bills that is just perfect. If it’s gritty noir, the grit is shot through with sparkles of gold dust.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber, 2021)

What have I done to Mr Ishiguro that drives him to try to make me cry all the time?

The new book from the Nobel Prize-winning author is, as ever, exquisite and moving, returning once again to his favourite themes of memory and companionship. A genre shapeshifter with a singular and inimitable style that stamps each of his books, throughout Ishiguro’s oeuvre he has applied his literary talents (and the prestige of that genre) to historical, detective, romance, fantasy, and now, for the second time, sci-fi.

Klara is an AF – Artificial Friend – to a poorly teenage girl called Josie. Klara can think and feel as a human can and as with Never Let Me Go, there is a thread about what it means to be human which develops as she learns more and more about Josie and her friend Rick.

One of the key themes of Ishiguro’s stories is the way in which memory can be warped and even obliterated and his narrators often hide things from the reader as they seek to hide them from themselves also (done with absolute mastery in 1989’s Booker-prize-winning The Remains of the Day). With Klara, Ishiguro seems to be playing off his previous work a little. With seemingly no filter, she relates with complete openness and honesty everything that happens and how it makes her feel, yet there are moments when she appears to be malfunctioning which leaves space for hidden meaning and interpretation.

You can tell there’s heartbreak on the cards from the beginning but it’ll still get you. Such is Ishiguro’s power with words. And it’s no surprise Klara and the Sun has been listed for the Booker – his fourth nomination out of eight novels (what a ratio!) – and will certainly be one of the bookies’ favourites to win.

Killtopia Volume 3 by Dave Cook (writer), Clark Bint (art), NL Ashworth (colours), and Micah Myers (letters) (BHP Comics, 2021)

Once again, we’re back in Neo Tokyo with a bunch of gaudy, loud, robot-killing maniacs and a small team of no-hopers trying to cure the world from a futuristic nano-disease called ‘the rot’. When sentient mech, Crash, attempts to heal human protagonist Shinji’s sister, everything goes south and Crash finds himself on the run and being courted by a murderous AI called Yurei who operates through robo-sex dolls. Meanwhile, everybody’s favourite wrecker, Stiletto, is trying to rehabilitate her image.

It’s violent, bloody, fast, and funny. Despite being set in a kind of retro-future Japan with its roots in the cyberpunk classics, Cook brings his Scottish sense of humour with him, giving Killtopia a unique flavour. He swipes at contemporary issues, apparently rewriting as he goes along to keep up. How could a comic about a pandemic disease (started well before COVID 19 was a blip on anyone’s radar) not reflect – and poke a little cynical fun at – the current situation? Panels contain scrolling headlines such as: “President: super-rot is a bigly hoax” and “Injecting Kaiju Cola could be a cure”, delivered with a wry chuckle.

Art has changed hands in this issue from Craig Paton to Clark Bint, whose style – while every bit as vibrant and dense in detail – has a more chaotic, less mainstream feel and, surprisingly, an even more lurid colour pallet. This marries with the material just as well as Paton’s work did and it’s exciting to see another artist’s interpretation bring the story to life – one of the cool things about comics in general, really.

The Kickstarter for the fourth volume launches soon and there’s no reason to doubt it’ll smash all its targets again as the cult Killtopia following grows (I wore my now quite care-worn Kaiju Cola t-shirt to the cinema recently and the usher saw it and said “Oh, I know Dave [Cook]!”) and clamours to find out what happens after the revelations in Volume 3.

Extra Teeth Issue Three (2021)

My dog tried to take a bite of this book as it came through the letter box as a pithy joke – another tasty edition of Extra Teeth, Scotland’s newest literary magazine which continues to make a storm in the scene, not only for the utterly unique, boundary-pushing authors it publishes but also for its incredible style.

This issue’s guest illustrator is Ryo Tamura, a Japanese artist living in Edinburgh with her feline assistant, Shit Cat. While I loved the artwork in the first two issues, this one is my favourite yet. Tamura’s work goes from splashes of washed-out colour like Rorschach blots to sketchy, cartoon line drawings and an amazing grey, Death Valley landscape with brightly coloured cacti and cats in the foreground to compliment Okala Elesia’s short story ‘Raul Will Answer to His Shareholders’.

The subject of Alice Slater’s ‘Blueberry, Fig, Lemon, etc.’ is presented like a code, with food-related headings – “poppy seed”, “lentil”, “blueberry”, “kidney bean” and so on – breaking up the narrative (here’s a hint: they get a little bigger each time) and the following block of text linking in that specific food item as the story of a bad relationship plays out. You’ll be angry by the end of this one, guarantee it.

Another highlight is Ross McCleary’s ‘Can I Have a Word?’, a spiralling, absurd, and hilarious Kafkaesque tale of an office temp’s work evaluation, and Catherine Wilson’s choose-your-own-adventure tale ‘Fight or Flight’ is just beautifully written. Its clever veneer of the fantastic and use of language is the kind of the thing that makes me want to strive to improve my writing and expand my imagination. Also, is this the first ever “literary” choose-your-own-adventure story? Quite possibly, what a claim to fame!

I also really enjoyed Rebecca Tamás’s essay ‘On Everest’, where she argues that the dick-measuring contest of climbing the highest peak is turning the once-worshipped mountain into something profane (and a bit of a dump – rubbish clearing quite literally can cost the lives of the local guides who do the clean-up job – which is strewn with frozen bodies).

While I have no desire to climb mountains myself, I do like reading stories and watching films and documentaries about it from the comfort of my own home. I find the search to establish what drives people to do it interesting – bragging rights, for sure, but there’s certainly something else that’s harder to pin down going on inside your head if you’re willing to risk life and limb to stand on top of a mountain for only a minute after days of arduously hauling yourself up it while you struggle to breathe and your brain cells are dying and your ribs have broken from coughing constantly.

She also examines the power dynamic between those who climb – mostly very wealthy westerners – and the local Nepalese guides who drag them up there. She discusses practicalities and symbolism and the economics of the whole Everest tourism trade in an interesting and thoughtful read which includes the memorable lines: “Do men who climb Everest want to fuck it?” and “If any bit of nature is Nazi, mountains are Nazi.” (The latter attribute to her pal, Lily.)

Excellent issue, bring on number four!


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