Reading Wrap-Up: April 2017

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In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami (My Rating: 4/5) The great strength of this book is how it deals with culture shock, both from the perspective of a Japanese man dealing with an American who is not on the up-and-up and how he attempts to describe his own culture to the reader. There is a lot of comparing going on between Japan and America by Kenji, our narrator. The thing I found most interesting about that is how he says the same thing about Americans that I’ve heard Americans say about the Japanese, and it puts context, for me personally, into how similar we actually are deep down. Murakami entirely captures that feeling of “well, you just don’t understand because you’re not from here.” It makes the book more than a simple thriller for me, because of how well he explores this.

Yet it is a thriller. So how does it manage there? Pretty well. The writing is great, which means the translation work is also great (translated by Ralph McCarthy, by the way). The writing style had a good flow. But a couple of plot points were not fantastic. Frank, the requisite American that Kenji is taking around the sex clubs in Japan, has an ability in particular, that I probably shouldn’t spoil, that doesn’t feel… possible. Maybe I don’t know enough about said ability, but it veers into speculative fiction for me there, and it clearly wasn’t supposed to. Also, Kenji suspects Frank immediately, for no other reason than intuition. He tries to give Frank as much oddness as humanly possible to give Kenji good reason to think what he does about Frank, but it still comes off as Kenji must be psychic. Master detective! From intuition alone. I always have a little trouble suspending disbelief for that sort of thing. Yet I’d still highly recommend this, especially if you’re interested in Japanese culture and literature. Also, there’s a scene in particular that, if you’re a horror fan, really delivers the shudders.

The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin (My Rating: 4/5) I’m a fan of Ira Levin and am still making my way through his bibliography. This was probably my least favorite that I’ve read so far, but it was still a fairly strong political thriller. If you’ve never encountered Levin’s work, his writing style is more on the minimalist side. Often this works to make his stories feel kinetic, keeping the pace very quick. In this case, there was so much exposition regarding the mystery and secret plot that it felt a bit slower. Which means the writing style stood out and came off as merely workman-like.

That aside, the story is good. Leibermann, our hero, is a fantastic lead. The story, as strange and off-the-wall as it is, doesn’t actually seem that far-fetched, making it a horrifying journey. It’s a novel that, despite being set in the 1970s, feels very contemporary. It proves that politics and their ability to get under your skin does not change. I recommend it as a timely read, in a way. But also as a thriller that still manages to pack a punch.

The Blood of Roses by Tanith Lee (My Rating: 4/5) Reading this book was a labor of love. Every so often, Lee got very experimental with her writing, characters, and plots. If you’re familiar with her work and have read Heart-Beast, you’ll know what I mean by that. Sometimes she went very far into poetry and symbolism, with her characters feeling so alien that they’re barely human and not at all easy to relate to. But the work is beautiful. While those things might be deal-breakers to some readers, the final, full portrait of what she was creating is incredibly rewarding.

Still, it has to be faced that getting through all that can be a challenge. There were times when the writing was so dense and the plot so convoluted that I really just wanted it to end. This was a nearly 700 page book that was so totally bizarre that I can’t describe the plot properly. Not without creating a mire of confusion. It was sort of about vampires and sort of about gods and sort of about Catholicism and sort of about a family (boy, I’m using that term loosely) of vampire gods… Every few chapters something so unbelievably weird would happen that I didn’t know how to move on from that moment. But like I said I can’t deny that I was entirely overwhelmed by the amount of work she put into this, the intricate weaving of the plot, and the reveal of the mosaic as a complete, stunning piece.

Baal by Robert McCammon (My Rating: 1/5) This book commits so many sins I’m not sure I can sum it up. The first thing I want to say up front is this book was setting off my “unfortunate implications” radar like crazy. An excess of rape that was used merely to entertain rather than address a sensitive topic, for instance. Or the fact that any time a non-white character or group shows up, they’re stereotyped in the worst possible ways. I did a lot of cringing and “written in 1978” became my inner mantra.

But don’t think it ends there. The first hundred pages of the book are this over-the-top terror fest. Fine. Great. Bring it on, I thought to myself. Then suddenly he decided the book needed a plot. So rather late in the game, we’re introduced to some very ineffectual protagonists, and the book slows to a crawl. Every once in a while we get a horror set piece, but most of them are so cliche, much like the story’s bargain bin villain. If you’ve read or seen any religious horror, then the chances this will shock you are low.

Therein lies a major problem. This was clearly part of a trend going on in horror at the time. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty created a whole new subgenre that everyone started contributing to in enormous waves. Until the supply was a lot higher than the demand, and most of those books are Satanic Panic leftovers by today’s standards. Thus we have Baal. I don’t recommend it.

A decent reading month, considering I’m in the middle of about 2,359 books (slight exaggeration) and finished one that could be considered a tome. I hope to accomplish even more next month. Until then, happy geeking!

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