January 2023 Summary

Hasn’t this been the longest month ever? Cold, dark, busy at work, but not quite as miserable as the months preceding it because at least we have all been healthy. I’ve mostly snuggled in my burrow and read – even more than usual, now that I’ve decided not to worry about reviewing every book. 18 books this month, of which 7 fit with the January in Japan challenge (although one of the seven was not written by a Japanese author, but was a non-fiction book about the Japanese criminal world). Nine books in translation, three non-fiction books, ten by women writers, four that could fit under the crime fiction label. A good mix that I can live with.

Here are the books that I have reviewed this month (I am putting the Japanese author names in the Japanese order – surname first):

And here are very brief thoughts on the others I read:

Charlie Higson: Whatever Gets You Through the Night – entertaining, madcap, quick read, made for the screen – as so many current thriller books seem to be. This one is perhaps slightly funnier and slyer than most, fits a bit into the Knives Out/Glass Onion universe.

Percival Everett: The Trees – this one I regret not reviewing properly, as it is a quite unforgettable, excoriating view of the South of the United States and its history of lynching. By taking an almost absurd premise and bringing in lots of fierce humour, it brings this dark story to a wider audience. A surprising novel, with moments of true poignancy, although perhaps a few too many repetitive descriptions of crime scenes (deliberate, no doubt, and I can understand why).

Robert Thorogood: Death Comes to Marlow – my son goes to school in Marlow, so I go there nearly every day and I can see a big splash being made with this book in the local bookshop. I’m always going to read a book set in a place I know well, although I was disconcerted to discover that I know the real vicar’s wife (the mother of one of my son’s best friends) and she is nothing like the one featured in the book. Although I appreciated having three middle-aged women investigators, I couldn’t help feeling that their quirks are being exaggerated for comic effect, that the secondary characters are rather one-dimensional, so all the book really has going for it is the puzzle element. Of course I will continue to read this series, even if I complain about it, simply because of its familiar location.

Elin Cullhed: Euphoria, transl. Jennifer Hayashida – just like I will always read something about Sylvia Plath. This novel is a fictional account of the last difficult year of Sylvia’s life, sticking quite closely to the known facts and trying to combine elements of Sylvia’s real voice from the letters and diaries with a speculation of what must have really been going on in her mind. I am familiar with this kind of fictional recreation of an artistic life from France, where this is a much more common type of literature, but I am not sure what it adds to our knowledge of Plath. Instead, I see this more as the universal portrait of a marriage and a clash of two very strong and creative personalities, two tremendous artistic egos, particularly at a time when it seemed harder to accept equality within married couples.

He loved me as a motif. He loved the picture of me. He loved the type. The American, the emotional one, the poet. He loved my high demands (and hated them). He loved having a thinking wife. He loved having a wife. He loved that I was thinking and grinding my own thoughts, then there was nothing left of them later in teh writing. He loved that I tried by failed. That I got up and was stabbed, like a goat. That I was not who I wanted to be. He loved my imperfections, and I stood in the middle of it and tried to be perfect.

Fiona Spargo-Mabbs: Talking the Tough Stuff with Teens – trying to educate myself and not talk too much, yet encourage a rather silent teenager to open up. An encouraging, non-judgemental book, with many real-life examples.

Bec Evans & Chris Smith: Written – I’ve been following the authors on their Prolifiko website and subscribing to their newsletters, and this is a book about finding the writing routines and habits that work for you, instead of slavishly imitating others. Encouraging, friendly, with lots of good exercises and suggestions for further exploration.

Sara Gran: The Book of the Most Precious Substance – impossible to categorise this book, no wonder the author struggled to get it published and so created her own publishing house for it. It is not as chilling as Come Closer, but you can see elements of anger and grief here too, as well as the quirkiness and humour of the Claire DeWitt crime series. Although touted as a sex magic book (and it certainly contains elements of eroticism and supernatural), it probably won’t fully satisfy fantasy or erotica fans. I like the underlying ‘normalness’ of it, which keeps it somewhat grounded even when we are off travelling in a world of unimaginable luxury. Basically, it is a story of grief, of clinging to a sense of injustice, of the wisdom (and ability) to move on, and the hunger for power and money.

The trick isn’t to protect yourself. It’s to accept life. Not push it away when it gets messy.

The past is over and done. You have no choice but to live with it. There’s no getting over, there’s no making up for. But there;s a chance to see and create something new. That’s the only chance…

…a wall I’d built around something too broken to trust the world with it. But that wall had never kept me safe. It only locked me in with my pain, leaving it to fester and spoil. I’d locked out all hope, all pleasure, and now, with a force like th eocean, the wall had crumbled, and my protection had gone.

Antoine Wilson: Mouth to Mouth – a story within a story, with a supposedly neutral account of the wild tale told by an acquaintance. Another novel about the hunger for power and money, full of self-justification. Quite clever but nor terribly memorable. On the plane to Switzerland I read another book like it translated from French (not featured above, as I will present it as part of my personal French February reading initiative).

I read Balzac’s Lost Illusions for the winter long read for London Reads the World Book Club, and will review it of course during my French February. I still haven’t seen the film, which apparently is only available to stream in Canada. However, I have watched (and rewatched) quite a few good films this month – more than usual by my standards, partly because my older son the film buff was around for 9 days at the start of the month.

I really enjoyed rewatching My Neighbour Totoro for the nth time (especially after seeing the very innovative, delightful staging of it at the Barbican) and the beautiful, warm Portrait of a Lady on Fire, although I was perhaps somewhat less mesmerised by The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction this time round. I was moved by the Korean film Memories of Murder but even more so by the very recent Aftersun (which cut a little too close to home, so there were floods of tears). Stellar performances by Paul Mescal and young Frankie Corio.

By the way, I’ve had some friends asking who is hosting the #FrenchFebruary initiative – and the answer is no one, I just created this personal challenge for myself because I like alliteration and reading French language books. But if you would like to join in and read some books from France, Switzerland, Belgium, Quebec, French-speaking Africa etc. then please do! The more the merrier! Always happy to expand my understanding in this area.

#JanuaryInJapan: Two Crime Novels

Apologies, I still call this January in Japan, because I love the alliteration, but it is actually the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza for the sixteenth year(!). I eased myself in with two books at the opposite ends of the crime fiction spectrum.

Matsumoto Seicho: Tokyo Express, transl. Jesse Kirkwood

This author’s work spanned most of the 20th century (born 1909, died 1992) and he is considered one of the classics of Japanese crime fiction. The blurb on the Penguin Classics edition of the book entitled Ten to Sen in Japanese (literal translation: Points and Lines) says ‘His exploration of human psychology and Japanese post-war malaise, coupled with the creation of twisting, dark mysetires, made him one of the most acclaimed and best-selling writers in Japan’. But I didn’t see much psychology in this book – on the contrary, it is the type of mystery that relies very much on tiny details and an encyclopedic knowledge of train timetables to break an alibi, more reminiscent of the work of Freeman Wills Croft (who was a railroad engineer before he started writing crime novels). It comes as no surprise to hear that the author holed up in Room 209 of the Tokyo Station Hotel with the train timetables while writing this in 1958.

Needless to say, this kind of story heavily reliant on accurate train times (with four minute gaps and consecrated platforms for each train) could only work in that particular place and time. Can you imagine trying to replicate that in the current chaos of train travel that has become the norm in the UK? (Let alone how expensive it would be to take a train to commit a murder – you’re better off hiring a contract killer!) It turns out that there is a whole subgenre of Japanese literature based on crimes occurring near or on trains (most recent examples: Bullet Train), or else where alibis rely on a timetable. Although commercial domestic flights had begun in Japan in the 1950s, it was not a widespread form of transportation yet.

The death of a young couple on a beach in Fukuoka is instantly classified as a double love suicide, which was still quite common at the time in Japan (Dazai Osamu died in this fashion less than ten years before this book was published). Interesting and rather sad sidenote: double suicide (or homicide-suicide) for couples is now far more common among the elderly in Japan, for economic or health reasons. A wily old local detective doesn’t quite buy it, and his Tokyo counterpart becomes equally obsessed with proving that there is something more behind it, possibly linked to government corruption. But all of their efforts to find evidence to support their theories seem to hit a brick wall, at least at first (and for most of the book). I thought it was an interesting look at the sheer drudgery of police work, checking and double-checking every minute detail, especially before the age of computers.

What spoilt the mystery element of it for me, however, was that the very first chapter pretty much gives away the whodunit and why, although not the details of how. We also gain next to no insight into the private lives of the two detectives, nor get a glimpse into the psyche of any of the characters, perpetrators or victims. Tthe entire focus of the book is on the puzzle – how all of the pieces fit together.

Onda Riku: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, transl. Alison Watts

By way of contrast, Onda’s book is all about psychology, about observing and outwitting each other, about digging deep into the past, into trauma and guilt. In fact, we are not even sure if a crime has been committed, or if it was an accident, although the two main protagonists blame each other for it.

Hiro and Aki, a man and a woman, have packed up all of their belongings and are sitting for one last night in their shared flat before going their separate ways. Their relationship has broken down, they no longer trust each other after going on an excursion in the mountains a year ago, where their guide had a fatal accident. They buy food and drink to last them through the night, and see this as an opportunity for a ‘face-off’, i.e. get the other to confess that they were responsible for the death of their guide. Along the way, of course, they unravel all sorts of feelings of guilt and resentment about their own unconventional love story.

Just like with the Aosawa Murders by the same author, this is not the kind of book you read for the crime element. Although it is a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, it is above all a sad story about loneliness and the need for connection. The fish metaphor of the title hints that there are hidden depths here, and that we can only ever hope to catch glimpses of the true nature of people and the essence of a relationship, but those are things that will always ultimately escape us.

If I were younger, I might have been able to let the emotions of the moment carry me along, and throw everything away. Or I might have been capable of ending our relationship with a single stroke and leaving on the spot. But the older one gets, the harder it is to do that kind of thing. All manner of compromises and caluclations must be taken into account, and above all the fear of loneliness is real. If a few sad memories and hurt feelings are the sole price, then closing one’s eyes to the other’s faults and curling up in retreat is easy enough to do.

The backstory feels a little far-fetched to me, but the author does a good job of drip-feeding us more details, with the chapters alternating between the two narrators, Aki and Hiro, which allows us to see differences in their approaches and ways of thinking. While not quite as ambiguous and clever as The Aosawa Murders, this is perhaps a more comfortable entry point for Onda’s work.

So this book was all psychological depth but no proper investigation, while Tokyo Express was all investigation and no psychological depth. If you want to read a book that combines both, I would recommend Higashino Keigo’s A Death in Tokyo, which made my best of the year list in 2022.

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