Archive for December 2018

Book review – Out

I’ll be honest and say that I was attracted to Out, a 1997 novel by Japanese author Natsuo Kirino, by the promise of a ‘dark’ and ‘gruesome’ piece of work.  Well the premise certainly lives up to that. The novel focusses on a group of women working the night shift in a boxed lunch factory.  One of the group, Yayoi, strangles her husband, who’s gambled away the couple’s savings as well as being obsessed with a hostess in a night club.  Yayoi seeks the help of her colleagues in dismembering and disposing the body.  As you’d expect, things don’t quite go to plan and the group’s problems start to pile up and grow more complex, when others outside of the group begin to suspect what has happened and see opportunities to make money.  All the while relationships within the group start to strain…

I’ve read a number of Japanese crime fiction books and they appear to follow a similar formula:  you reach a point, after a bit of a slow start, and about half way through the novel, where you wonder where the book is going to go next.  Things then take a turn as something comes from left field which you’d never have thought of.  Out fits this formula perfectly.  It took a while to get going, and the book could certainly be shorter than its 400+ pages, but it certainly picks up pace and gets more interesting as it goes on.

The boxed lunch group itself is a diverse foursome each part of which is battling with their own problems like debt, caring responsibilities, wayward family members, etc.  And here the author does a fine job in bringing the members of the group to life, so much so that we’re fully behind one member of the group, Masako (who sits at the heart of the story telling), while hoping another might die a gruesome death!  Outside the foursome, the novel features a handful of other interesting characters, who come from the seedier end of the spectrum but all bring something to the party and add colour to the book.

As for gruesomeness, the novel didn’t really live up to expectations as, for example, the dismemberment ‘scenes’ were written in a quite matter of fact way, as per the way in which the dismemberment was carried out.  But that’s a minor quibble and I’m sure one person’s gruesome is another’s horror.

Out does exactly what it set out to do.  It’s an enjoyable and well written page-turner (once it gets going) and worth adding to the reading list.

Book review – The Shipping News

Annie Proulx’s 1993 novel The Shipping News has been on my radar for a while.  I’ve seen it in the Pulitzer prize for fiction winner’s list (1994) and know that they made a film of it but I was put off by some reviews referring to the author’s prose being ‘too forceful’, ‘clever’ or ‘unusual’.  I obviously decided to take the plunge.

The Shipping News follows our protagonist, Quoyle (pronounced ‘coil’), from New York to Newfoundland, following the death of his repeatedly unfaithful wife, Petal, in a car crash alongside her lover.  The serially downtrodden and tragic Quoyle is left in sole charge (both of his parents committed an act of double suicide in Quoyle’s youth) of his two daughters and is persuaded by his aunt Agnis to join her in starting a new life in the family’s ancestral home of Newfoundland.

The ancestral home in question is nothing more than an old dilapidated building miles from anywhere and in need of desperate repair and a road to get there.  The only positive thing going for Quoyle is the fact that his sole friend, Partridge, a fellow reporter back in New York, has set Quoyle up with gainful employment at the Gammy Bird, Newfoundland’s local newspaper.  The Gammy Bird is staffed by a handful of ‘characters’, and an owner with a predilection for stories on sexual abuse and car crashes, the latter of which Quoyle ends up owning, such is Quoyle’s life.  Quoyle also takes on the shipping news; which ships are coming in and out of the harbour.

I could go on but then I’d just be summarising the book for you; I wouldn’t be giving too much away either.  While there are some family secrets that become unearthed they’re not really fundamental to the plot.  The Shipping News is one of those books where it feels like not an awful lot is happening; you’re just being served up a slice of someone else’s life and that someone being an everyday person, rather than a spy, etc.  In that sense the book is reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge (a more recent novel and reviewed within these pages), i.e. Olive Kitteridge in Newfoundland rather than Maine.

Proulx does a good job in bringing the small town of Killick-Claw to life, the inhabitants of the Gammy Bird, particularly so.  It’s the little things, like the awful coffee served in the local hotel that the locals have grown accustomed to, that help in preventing the book from becoming as dull as ditch water.  Though it’s a close run thing, despite the book being well written enough for you to keep turning the page, as Quoyle gradually finds himself immersed in the community and making the slow but steady transition towards peace, and perhaps even happiness.

I’ve read a number of reviews of TSN and a part of one review seemed to sum it up for me: ‘It is the kind of novel that wins prizes’.  I’d totally agree.  It’s well written and earnest and, as with a number of Pulitzer Prize-winning novels I’ve read, there’s normally a journey involving some form of redemption or salvation.  But did I really care?  Not a lot, frankly.  There are many who love this novel and many who don’t.  I think this is one where you have to make your own mind up.  Same as it ever was…

Songs from the Vault

There’s no theme this time round, just random cool tunes.  So let’s get cracking…

First up is Gotye (featuring Kimbra) with his 2011 tune Somebody that I used to Know.  It’s a tune that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time round but it’s a tune that I listen to fairly regularly.  The tune’s a bit of an oddity for me in that I can’t quite work out the attraction.  It certainly seems like a tune out of time in that it sounds like something I would have seen on Top of the Pops in the 1980’s.  Maybe that’s what it is, as well as the fact that it’s a really well put together tune…

Talking of the 1980’s our next song is from 1986:  Absolute Beginners by David Bowie, from the movie of the same name.  I’ve never seen the movie in question and understand that it’s average at best.  I’m of the view however that pretty much anything with David Bowie on it is worth listening to and this tune is a case in point.  It’s not Bowie’s best tune by far but it’s one that’s perhaps a little overlooked.  It also features British jazz legend Don Weller on tenor saxophone soloing over the tune’s outro…

It’s time to shift gear.  The next tune, Heartbreaking by Angelo Badalamenti, featured in the third season of Twin Peaks (2017).  Those familiar with the work of David Lynch will also be familiar with Badalamenti’s.  Badalamenti composed the music for Blue Velvet. Wild at Heart, and, of course Twin Peaks.  Heartbreaking’s a very brief solo piece and I guess you’ll have had to have watched Twin Peaks to really have the tune get under your skin.  Season three of Twin Peaks featured a live piece of music at the end of every episode, with bands like Chromatics and Nine Inch Nails sharing the honours.  What was special about Heartbreaking was the way in which the action came to a total standstill and a very simple melodic line introduced (at the 20 second mark in the clip below).  By the way, the individual sitting behind the piano isn’t Badalamenti but Robert “Smokey” Miles (who can actually play the piano).  At the time of filming Heartbreaking had yet to be composed so I guess Smokey was doing ‘air piano’!

I’m going to stay downtempo and go with When it’s Cold I like to Die from Moby’s 1995 album Everything is Wrong.  EiW is a diverse beast, going from metal to house to downtempo.  The main theme from the movie Heat is on there too as well as a tune quite like Heartbreaking.  When it’s Cold features the vocal talent of Mimi Goese and has a strange ethereal and marine vibe to it.  When I bought EiW it came with a bonus CD titled ‘Underwater’ so there was definitely something aquatic going on!  I see the tune has seen a resurrection of sorts owing to its appearance in the first season of Stranger Things (which I’ve never seen) which means there must be something going for the show…

Last up is Heavenly Peach Banquet from the 2008 album Monkey: Journey to the WestJourney to the West is one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature (the abridged version is worth reading) and tells the story of a monk’s pilgrimage to India, accompanied by disciples including Monkey.  If that sounds familiar it’s the basis of the Japanese TV series Monkey which graced British television sets in the early 1980’s.  The 2008 album was composed by Damon Albarn of Blur and is based on the stage production of Journey to the West, i.e. it’s not a live cast recording.  I’m not a big fan of the album and suspect that I’d feel differently if I’d seen the stage production.  HPB however is a standout tune, which combines traditional Japanese instruments like the Pipa with more modern electronic sounds, and without sounding contrived…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this random selection of Songs from the Vault.  The vault is virtually bottomless, so watch out for more!