The Last Taxi Ride by A X Ahmad

July 30, 2014 3 comments

last-taxi-ride-ax-ahmad

The Last Taxi Ride by A X Ahmad (Minotaur Books, 2014) is the second book to feature Ranjit Singh and it proves something of a revelation. We meet our hero driving a taxi in New York. As everyone else who finds themselves trapped in this job will tell you, “It’s only temporary.” meaning there’s little chance of escape. Nevertheless, our hero knows large numbers of the drivers and, despite differences based on nationality and religion, he’s fairly well-liked by everyone. As we get underway, he’s lucky enough to pick up a very familiar figure from India. It’s none other than the Bollywood movie star Shabana Shah. Of course, taxi drivers all over New York have the chance of picking up the rich and famous, but this actress has made a real career out of natural acting, something of a rarity in Indian cinema. When he drops her off at the Dakota, he’s amazed to see an ex-colleague from his days in the Indian army. Mohan has fallen equally far down the ladder and is now a doorman. They agree to meet later that night for a drink. Later, Ranjit realises the actress has left an expensive dress in the back seat. It’s therefore convenient he should be going back to the Dakota because he can return it when he meets his friend.

 

The evening moves slowly because our hero has an evening job as a security guard, but it ends well because, with Shabana Shah away, Mohan shows Ranjit her apartment and they eat food from her refrigerator. When the body of Shabana Shah is found dead the following morning, her head smashed by a statue of the elephant god Ganesh, the police find Mohan and Ranjit’s fingerprints everywhere. We experienced readers should not be surprised Mohan is missing, so the police not unnaturally arrest Ranjit and propose to bring him before a grand jury to decide whether there’s a prima facie case to charge him. This gives our hero ten days in which to find Mohan and clear his name.

A X Ahmad

A X Ahmad

 

What follows is a twin track narrative. On one track, we follow the backstory of Shabana Shah and her family, watching as she proves to have the photogenic quality her sister lacks. This means stardom beckons for Shabana while the best her sister can hope for is the role of manager. She gets to count the money and organise her sister’s appointment diary. At first, everything seems to be going well, but problems emerge when criminals muscle into the production side and take control of the lives of the stars who can earn such large amounts of cash. Then one, and then a second film fail to find box-office success. As she ages, Shabana is forced to come to New York, but even that fails to rescue her career.

 

On the other, we meet Ranjit who’s trying to find his feet after all his troubles as a caretaker for a US Senator. Inevitably, he finds problems when he meets “ordinary” Americans who fail to distinguish between Sikhism and Islamic extremism indicating membership of a terrorist organisation. Now add in the antisocial hours and the difficulty of making enough money to put down as a deposit on a good place to live, and you begin to get a sense of life in New York for all the different ethnic groups who take on the job of taxi driver. The other factor is that many of the Indian and Pakistani service workers are beginning to feel the threat of violent gangsters arriving from Mumbai. Just as America has experienced waves of criminals coming from Italy, Russia, China and other slightly lawless places, Indian gangsters have also begun to realise just how much money can be made in America. But, in addition to the traditional drugs, alcohol and prostitution as sources of profit, they are also exploiting new commercial opportunities like providing human hair for wigs and hair extensions. In fact, Ranjit works as a part-tine security guard for one of these importers who, perhaps, has less than savory connections in India.

 

It’s fascinating to compare this book with the unsuccessful Invisible City which dealt with the Hasidic Jewish community in New York. This exploration of Indian and Pakistani immigrants (plus some Guyanese as well) is completely fascinating as our hero finds the only thing he can rely on is the fragile strength of his community. Although there’s a moment of melodrama at the end which would not be out of place in a Bollywood film, the overall tenor of the book is quietly thoughtful and entirely plausible. With everything told in crisp prose, The Last Taxi Ride delivers a genuinely pleasing package combining a reasonable mystery for us to solve all wrapped up in beautifully rendered pictures of life in India and New York.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

Bunshin or 分身 (2012)

Great Rift - Programme One

Bunshin or 分身 (2012) is a five one-hour episode serial based on Keigo Higashino‘s novel “Bunshin” published September 20, 1996. To give you the theme, “Bunshin” literally means “Doppleganger”. Over the course of the first two episodes, we meet two women, Mariko Ujiie and Futaba Kobayashi. They are played by played by Moka Kamishiraishi as children, and by Masami Nagasawa as adults. This is mystery meets near future science fiction. We’ll leave all questions surrounding the precise mechanisms involved before and during the birth of the children to one side and focus on the early life of Mariko Ujiie. She’s deeply concerned because she looks nothing like either parent: Kiyoshi Ujiie (Shiro Sano) and Shizue Ujiie (Sawa Suzuki). Yet when she gets a copy of her birth record, it shows her as the natural child of her parents, not adopted as she had assumed. To make the parent-child relationship even more distant, they send her off to a covent boarding school. When she comes home for the Christmas break, there’s a fire at her home. Her mother is killed and her father is injured. When she recovers consciousness, she’s outside the burning building. When she analyses her memories, she thinks both she and her father were drugged by her mother, who then turned on the gas and used a cigarette lighter to commit suicide. She assumes her father rescued her first, and was then injured by trying to rescue his wife. Now she’s grown up and has begun to specialise in child welfare.

Mariko Ujiie (Masami Nagasawa) and Megumi Shimojo (Asami Usuda)

Mariko Ujiie (Masami Nagasawa) and Megumi Shimojo (Asami Usuda)

 

Futaba Kobayashi was brought up in Tokyo by a single mother, Shiho Kobayashi (Satomi Tezuka). Although there have been times when she felt in social difficulties because she did not have a father, her mother always explained this as an advantage. Fathers, it seems, are constantly telling their daughters what not to do, whereas single mothers are benign and encourage their daughters to be positive and world-beating at whatever they do. Yet when she thinks back, she also remembers her mother sitting quietly in her bedroom weeping. In fact, Futaba Kobayashi is the trigger for the the modern sequence of events because she’s interviewed as a student in a television news item on the reaction to the latest earthquake (curiously, a government minister, Shunsaku Ihara (Masato Ibu), is deeply shocked when he sees the television program). In fact she’s pretty well known around Tokyo because she fronts a band popular on the university circuit, so she’s very surprised when her mother tells her she must never appear on television again. This instruction comes at entirely the wrong time because the band is approached by a television producer who wants them to appear in a series of Battle of the Bands. Mother and daughter have a big argument. The daughter goes off and, after getting drunk, sleeps with Yusuke Takizawa (Ryo Katsuji) one of the band members. That night her mother is killed in a road accident as she’s cycling home. Mariko Ujiie also comes to Tokyo and with the help of her friend, Megumi Shimojo (Asami Usuda) who’s studying medicine, begins to track down the story of her father at university. They are lucky enough to find two professors who remember him and one promises to dig out old photographs from their days in the hiking club. But things start to heat up when several students “recognise” her as the singer. Now she knows the “twin” is real (down to having a mole on her shoulder), she’s out to find out the truth.

Futaba Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa) sings with the band

Futaba Kobayashi (Masami Nagasawa) sings with the band

 

The explanation for the police believing Shiho Kobayashi’s accident to be murder is simple and elegant, but none of the obvious people would have had either motive or opportunity. At the funeral, we get some information of the circumstances in which Futaba Kobayashi’s mother briefly came home to the family farm and then disappeared. Later she came back for a quick visit with a baby in her arms. When Mariko Ujiie looks through an album of photographs of the hiking club, a number of the photographs have been removed. Studying the notes beside the empty slots shows all the missing photographs feature one particular woman. Now things heat up as Mariko Ujiie overhears her father talking on the phone and distancing himself from the “murder” in Tokyo. When Mariko Ujiie discovers Shiho Kobayashi has died, she goes to the flat where she meets Futaba Kobayashi’s boyfriend. When they look around the home, they find out she cannot be an identical twin because the evidence on display suggests there’s one year between the girls. That means they must be the result of in vitro fertilisation with donor eggs from the woman missing from the photographic album. Meanwhile Futaba Kobayashi has agreed to go to Hokkeido to meet with a professor who knew her mother. It’s only when Mariko Ujiie finally tracks down a photograph of the missing woman that the identity of her mother becomes clear.

Yusuke Takizawa (Ryo Katsuji)

Yusuke Takizawa (Ryo Katsuji)

 

The story now morphs into a gentle political thriller, i.e. it’s a rather poor melodrama, and a quietly sensitive meditation on what it means to have a different form of conception and birth. I confess I’d assumed the basic plot mechanism from the outset, but made a number of critical errors in predicting how the plot would be worked out. The explanation of Mariko Ujiie’s mother’s death proves genuinely more tragic than I had expected. The reason for killing Futaba Kobayashi’s mother is also more interesting. All in all it boils up into a good climax which is mostly talk and all the better for it. Too often shows which have deaths and some political overtones become fixated on the need for some “adventure” or just general violence. Although this does have a little chasing around, it’s most a question of our two young women deciding how they are going to adjust to their new understanding of how they came to be born. This is made all the more difficult by their meeting with their “mother”. In the end, single mother Shiho Kobayashi and married parents, Kiyoshi and Shizue Ujiie, come out of it quite well. The situation in which everyone found themselves produced pressures difficult to resist. That the same pressures reassert themselves at the end is somewhat ironic, but no less dangerous. When you put all this together, Bunshin or 分身 is an impressive attempt to deal with a difficult emotional and ethical issue, and well worth watching.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

July 28, 2014 1 comment

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

It’s always fun to see how coincidence can play a part in this reviewing game. It can throw up very interesting comparisons when you’re least expecting it. A few books ago, I was transported back in time to Japan. This is, as you might expect, an opportunity for culture shock since, even at the best of times, Japanese culture can be very difficult to understand. Although we’re in contemporary America with Invisible City by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books, 2014), we’re dealing with the equally opaque world of the Hasidic Jews. As is always required when I approach a subject that may have controversial overtones, I always disclose any personal factors that might skew my opinion. Through this disclosure I give readers the chance to judge the extent to which I may be biased in the opinions I offer here. So, as I have mentioned on several occasions, I’m a confirmed atheist. But what I have not mentioned earlier is that through the paternal line, I have Jewish blood. Since Judaism is matrilineal, I’m therefore not officially Jewish, but you may feel this influences my views of this book. I should also say that, some twenty-five years ago, I had the opportunity to meet some members of the Hasidic community. This means I started this book with some insight into the lives of the people who live according to this strict code.

 

In a way, this book is a coming-of-age story on several different levels. This is a young woman who’s looking to convert her theoretical knowledge of journalism into the practical working skills a reporter needs to get the story that will sell newspapers and bring traffic to the website. Not everyone can make this transition and so a portion of this book is devoted to discussing how a new graduate survives in her first freelance job. The problem with this and the other elements is that there’s a fair amount of exposition. Instead of there being content embedded in conversations or internal monologue that can pass by seamlessly, there’s quite a lot of young person angst and some infodumping to get through. Our protagonist, Rebekah Roberts, is slightly more naive than I was expecting and she’s lucky to survive on the journalism front since she seems to have little or no enthusiasm for the activity of writing. All we do see is a slowly emerging curiosity to put pieces together to make up a possible story, but she remains extraordinarily diffident until quite near the end. I have the published articles, books and more than one-million words on this site to prove I’m a writer. This protagonist has no interest in writing for fun. In my “book” that makes her an unrealistic hero.

Julia Dahl

Julia Dahl

 

At a personal level, she’s also unexpectedly pitched back into a personal identity crisis. By coincidence, the first major crime she’s sent out to cover involves the death of a woman who turns out to be a member of the Hasidic community in Brooklyn. This is not what she would have wished because her mother was a Hasidic Jew who had left the Brooklyn community with a Christian man. Immediately after her birth, her mother disappeared and there’s been no contact with her mother since. When she goes to the house of the woman who was killed, there’s a second major coincidence because she meets a man who knew both her mother and father. He proves to be the major catalyst to get her started in the more serious business of being a reporter.

 

And then there’s the Hasidic community itself. Although it does its best to insulate itself from the outside world, it’s inevitable that some members are contaminated by external ideas. Some of those who grow weak in the faith, like Rebekah’s mother, look for ways to either distance themselves from the community or to leave entirely. For this purpose, there’s a kind of halfway house and an underground railroad for those who want to leave altogether. We therefore see the community as a whole held together by the ties of shared history. To that extent, an outsider might say the community is refusing to come of age, i.e. it remains a historical anomaly because it refuses to adapt itself to contemporary culture. For the few who find it impossible to remain, there are emotional and practical problems in adjusting themselves to a different pace of life outside.

 

This leaves me with two questions to answer. The first is the obvious, “Is this a good mystery for our rookie journalist to solve?” To this, I give an unqualified yes. This is a tragedy because the culture refuses to adopt what the rest of the world would consider a proper investigative approach to deaths within the community. The protocols to be applied for dealing with the bodies and the speed with which they are to be buried, raises barriers to a thorough investigation. The second question is, “Is the delivery of the plot handled well?” The answer to this is negative. Ignoring the horrendous coincidences (there are others which I have not mentioned), there’s altogether too much exposition and not all the behaviour on display is convincing. Now some of you may say it’s hardly surprising the behaviour is not very credible because the focus of our attention is the Hasidic community and, by modern standards, they do not act in a very reasonable way. In some respects you would be right. But that’s where my original point of comparison with Japanese culture comes into play. At the time the shogunate was at its full power, Japanese society was distinctly dangerous and unpleasant. Yet the way in which the author approaches the analysis of this very different culture is nonjudgemental. We see people treated in an appalling way, but the events are explained and the author passes on. Sadly, this author comes with an agenda to find fault. She’s into conspiracy theories about implicit corruption with the Hasidic community buying themselves power and influence with their money. Not only does this lead to a distortion of the usual process of divorce and issues of child custody, but it also potentially enables people within the community to get away with murder or other serious crimes. It’s entirely possible this is true, but the author’s approach smacks of tabloid journalism with all the facts lined up to reach her damning conclusions. I concede that, in the final pages, there’s a brief balancing explanation both for this community’s insularity and for the general desire of Jewish communities to be low-profile. But if you were not looking for it, you might easily miss it. This is a shame. Invisible City could have been a very interesting book. Instead it’s something of a disaster.

 

This book was sent to me for review. If you are interested, the book is also available as an audiobook from Macmillan Audio. Here’s a sample clip from the audiobook.

 

Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

July 27, 2014 6 comments

Dreams-of-the-Golden-Age-Carrie-Vaughn

Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn (Tor, 2014) gives us the sequel to After the Golden Age (2011). Moving forward some twenty years or so, Celia West is now a dedicated mother and dynamic business woman. She’s married to Dr. Arthur Mentis, a superhero with mental powers, and has two teen daughters, Anna and Bethy. Having watched Celia work her way through the early years of living with two superhero parents, we now get to watch her try to make a better job of bringing up her own two girls. All of this is, of course, under the shadow of superpowers. Being a numbers person, she’s calculated there’s a 40% chance of the next generation having superpowers. Even if the genetic quirk does not kick in on one generation (she did not have any superpowers), the same percentages apply to the next. That’s why she’s not only watching her own children like a hawk (well-known detective without superpowers), but also monitoring what’s happening to the other families that were exposed to the trigger radiation all those years ago.

 

To avoid repeating myself, I invite you to read the review of the first book After the Golden Age, because all that stuff about parenting is relevant to this sequel. Once you have that under your belt, you can absorb the idea this is both an adult and a YA book. We get the parental angst as teen daughter Anna is doing the secretive thing and not talking with those who could give support and advice if she’s developing superpowers. Indeed, so bad does it get that Celia tells her best friend, the police chief, to put the children under surveillance and try to keep them out of trouble if they begin fighting someone a little out of their league. From the teens point of view, we see them trying to come to terms with their powers and decide what to do with them. Naturally, they almost immediately see themselves as superheroes in waiting but, when one tries to interfere in a robbery, he finds himself outclassed and is badly beaten. His problem, like Anna, is that his power is slightly more passive than aggressive. The other three who can freeze things, sorta control the weather, and blow stuff up with laser beams, do a lot better because they can disable their opponents.

Carrie Vaughn

 

Anyway, with the addition of an out-of-towner who can jump (he’s much in demand for basketball), these teens do the usual thing of forming a gang, bickering, getting jealous, falling out, wondering who to go to the prom with, and so on. The parents do the big corporate superhero thing of trying to save the city by making it a better place in which to live. Needless to say, a supervillain is in play. He or she may be nicknamed The Executive and works entirely out of sight, manipulating people to get what he or she wants. It’s fairly obvious from an early point who the villain must be, but the confirmation of The Executive’s identity is one of these really elegant jokes that comes in the final quarter of the book.

 

This should be leading you to my conclusion that this is a very good book in parts. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not simply throwing away all the YA stuff. In fact, some of that proves to be interesting as they discuss whether to tell their parents about their powers, or how to strike the right balance between a positive use of their powers and avoiding serious injury or death by recklessly exposing themselves to danger. However, all that becomes academic when Celia is yet again kidnapped. The scenes with her tied to a chair and exchanging opinions with the villain are the highlight of the book. Unfortunately, although elements of the rescue are done well, the whole sequence goes on too long and is, at times, confusing. So this is a brave attempt to write a sequel to an outstandingly good book and, as sequels go, this is good of its type. I just wish authors did not feel under such commercial pressure to revisit the same themes quite so relentlessly. This means you buy Dreams of the Golden Age if you enjoy superhero fiction and don’t mind it being of slightly patchy quality.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

July 25, 2014 1 comment

Blade of the Samurai Cover

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann (Minotaur Books, 2014), the second Shinobi Mystery, is attempting something inherently difficult. As a historical mystery, it’s always problematic to take the reader back in time to a different culture. The challenge is perhaps less demanding when the number of years travelled is relatively small and the reader is moving back to an earlier time in his or her own country. As a British reviewer, I’ve had a lifetime to immerse myself in contemporary culture, but I also have the benefit of oral history from family members and older friends about how the culture has changed over the years. School began the process of introducing earlier times and subsequent reading has filled in some of the gaps. However, this all breaks down when the reader comes to a completely different culture and, in real terms, you can’t get much more different than Japanese culture in June, 1565. Our heroes are Matsui Hiro, a shinobi assassin, and Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. For reasons unknown, someone has paid the relevant guild of assassins to send one of their more experienced members to guard the priest while he’s in Japan. Ostensibly, our ninja is a translator but, through his guidance and practical assistance, he actually keeps the priest alive. From our point of view, it also gives us the chance for a running critique on how well (or badly) the Portuguese man is fitting in with local culture. This is an elegant device because it unobtrusively allows the author to explain how this rather opaque class structure and less overtly emotional culture actually works. For once, an author has satisfied my Goldilocks tests. Too often, authors overexplain, leaving the book as dry and rather didactic. This is just right!

Susan Spann

Susan Spann

The second impressive feature is the prose. If you’re going to write about Japan. it’s better to do so in a minimalist style. If you pick up any modern Japanese text in translation, authors do not go in for flowery language. It’s an essentially functional means of conveying meaning with very little adornment. As in the spoken version, there’s an implied subtext of meaning the reader is expected to supply from the few pointers given. While allowing for the need to explain much of what’s going on, Susan Spann has contrived to produce a text that’s surprisingly Japanese in spirit.

This leaves me with the plot which is set against a fairly well-travelled background of practical politics in the higher levels of the shogunate. As the shogun is the most powerful man in Japan, more important than the emperor, there’s always plotting to depose him and then control who succeeds based on family status and political power. Since a visit between the shogun (one of the Ashikaga clan) and one particularly powerful faction led by Lord Oda is about to take place, the murder of Saburo, a senior individual (and the shogun’s cousin) within the shogunate, is a dangerous warning sign, particularly because it was this individual’s job to set the schedule of guards within the shogun’s enclave. Because his knife was used, suspicion first falls on Ito Kazu, Matsui Hiro’s drinking companion and fellow assassin, who makes life difficult for himself by refusing to say where he was. When it’s explained why this man is unlikely to be the killer, suspicion then falls on Saburo’s wife, the current mistress, the stable boy who also loved the mistress, the master carpenter, and so on. This is also an excuse to look at different people within the rigid Japanese class structure and to see how they relate to each other. Put all this together and you have a beautifully balanced historical mystery with a clearly articulated murder puzzle to solve set in a particularly unstable time at the top of the political tree with different factions pushing for more power and influence. Blade of the Samurai is strongly recommended.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12

Naniwa_Shonen_Tanteidan-p1

Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) continues the story from the Keigo Higashino novels Naniwa Shonen Tanteida (1988) and its sequel Shinobu Senseni Sayonara (1996). Episode 9 sees us in full teacher mode as our doughty hero, Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe), has some of the girls over to her apartment for study. Except, of course, they are far more interested in using her make-up and machines for a facial than actual studying. The studying gets even more remote when the boys turn up with pork skewers to eat, closely followed by Taeko Takeuchi (Keiko Matsuzaka) with other goodies to snack on. Meanwhile Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike) and Susumu Urushizaki (Yasunori Danta), our two detectives, have been called to what could be a burglary gone wrong. An elderly lady, about to move into an old folks home, has withdrawn a large sum of cash from the bank to pay the first year’s fees. That night, a man enters her home and she kills him by bashing him with a mallet (the sporting variety or unsporting since she may have hit him from behind). What follows is outstanding as our hero’s neighbours, a single mother and her young daughter, get sucked into the investigation. It’s the balance between the mystery and the social pressures that produced this particular situation that makes this such a perfect episode. Perhaps if the neighbour’s parent’s had not so strongly disapproved of her marriage, or if her first husband had not died in an accident, or if the little girl had not broken her arm. Life is full of these what-ifs and, for once, everyone on the system proves to be full of understanding. At first it looks as though our hero has opened her mouth and will cause great problems for everyone but, albeit in a sad way, it all comes out right in the end.

The teacher and the cohort of detectives

The teacher and the cohort of detectives

 

Episode 10 is another of these very ingenious mysteries in which we have a young woman found dead. There are drugs in her system and her wrist was slashed with a knife. She bled out in the shower-room of her apartment. Remarkably the knife turns up in one of these quite exotic fresh fruit and cream cakes the Japanese so love. It’s a unique way of disposing of the weapon used to cause death (to prove the point, the local CSI units confirms the blood on the blade is indeed the victim’s so there’s no cheating). But why would anyone put the knife in such a place? Then there are the stories going round the neighbourhood of a UFO. This is not just one person making a sighting. There’s a pattern to people reporting something strange in the sky.

Yoichi Nukumizu and Yuki Saito running their BBQ pork shop

Yoichi Nukumizu and Yuki Saito running their pork skewer shop

 

The last two episodes run together to make the grand climax to this serial. There are three parts to the ending. Obviously, there’s a mystery, we need some resolution for our hero and guidance on what the future holds for her, and there’s a general paean to the profession of teaching and this teacher in particular. For the final case, there’s a murder and one of the mothers who has a child in the hero’s class has a very odd accident. The Japanese culture comes very much into focus with an interesting insight into the attitudes both of the “elite”, i.e. those who have been to the top universities and so command the maximum respect in whatever professions they choose to enter, and of those lucky enough to work for or with these elite individuals.

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike) walk beside each other

Shinobu Takeuchi (Mikako Tabe) and Shuhei Shindo (Teppei Koike) walk beside each other

 

There’s also a fascinating discussion of how best to air a futon. Although this thread in the plot is not without interest, the solution ultimately depends on the coincidence of our hero happening to have the girl in her class. There’s also a chance for the junior detectives to get into the action as we have an overly long confrontation with the killer about two-thirds of the way through. The romantic climax plays absolutely fair as one of the two suitors makes a proposal and the other decides not to make a fool of himself — I leave it to you to guess whether Yoshihiko Honma (Koji Yamamoto) makes the proposal. Her answer is predictable even though you can see she’s tempted to give a different answer. It’s the element dealing with the teaching profession that emerges as the most problematic. I don’t in principle object to a series deciding to make such a feature of the role of teachers, but this is excessively sentimental and goes on far too long. No matter how interesting a character, and this teacher is certainly interesting, there comes a point when you just wish the end had come, but see there’s still ten minutes to go. This is a shame because the serial almost manages to go out on a high, but this two hour finale overruns by thirty minutes.

 

Looking back, Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida is a very pleasing ensemble piece with the community strongly represented through the children and their parents. It’s been good to see Yoichi Nukumizu and Yuki Saito as the semi-comic relief. They run the pork skewer bar and represent a social hub through which all the main characters pass. With their older son off fighting crime alongside his teacher instead of going to the graduation ceremony, they have a chance to shine in straight drama terms in the last two episodes. Put all this together and this serial emerges as fairly undemanding in mystery terms but a nevertheless enjoyable set of twelve episodes with Mikako Tabe as Shinobu Takeuchi creating a memorable character on screen.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

July 23, 2014 5 comments

The_Drawing_of_the_Dark_by_Tim_Powers

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a reprint of a book that first appeared in 1979 (yes this author is beginning to get a little long in the tooth). So while you can expect some of the writing style and flourishes that have become trademarks, this is the third book by an author of just twenty-five summers. It’s reasonably good, but don’t expect it to be one of the greatest books by Powers. As you might expect, we’re in an alternate version of Europe in the sixteenth century with Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary, who’s been trudging from one fight to another for many a year. After minor difficulty in Venice, he accepts a job from Aurelianus as a “bouncer” (an interesting anachronism) in the Vienna inn where the famous Nertzwesten Beer is brewed. Unfortunately, this job coincides with the arrival of Suleiman the Magnificent accompanied by the pick of the Ottoman Empire’s army. This gives us our theme of West vs. East with physical forces and magical powers (pun intended) ranged against each other with the fate of Europe in the balance. For those of you interested in the history, Vienna did come under siege in 1529 and the failure to win decisively produced a loss of momentum. Had Vienna fallen, the Ottoman forces could probably have overrun the major European armies and produced an empire of vassal states.

Using the history as an excuse, Powers has both sides pulling out the best (and worst) of their magical weaponry. For the West, the defence hinges on the the ability of Merlin, acting on the instructions of the Fisher King, to find the reincarnated Arthur and let him lead the fight for the future of the West. During the course of the book, it becomes obvious that several other “heroes” have been reincarnated, or are guided by their supernatural abilities, to spend a few months in Vienna to help in the fight. However, as is always the case once you open the mythic box, the lineage of heroes has centuries to draw on and we also get a brief view of the Norse gods as well. As the physical battle reaches its climax, the magical forces also lock horns (and anything else they can fight with). It’s not a spoiler to reveal the book stays true to the historical outcome to this siege.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

As linear narrative historical fantasies go, this is reasonably well constructed and the plot dynamics all come together well in the climatic battle. There’s also some humour — the description of the hunchback’s funeral is a gem to treasure. But there are one of two fairly major flaws. As everyone will quickly realise, our hero Brian Duffy is the reincarnated Arthur but, to prolong the suspense, this is not revealed to him until quite a way through the book. The problem for the reader, therefore, is to reconcile the character we first meet with with occasional glimpses of the Arthur legend tells us to expect. Since he’s profoundly stubborn, Brian lives in denial of his “heritage” and mostly manages to keep his own personality and fighting abilities to the fore. I’m not sure this is managed successfully, particularly because we have a doomed love affair with the Guinevere reincarnation. To my jaded eyes, this is not handled well. And compounding all the problems with character, I’m still not quite sure what the effect of the dark is supposed to be. The brewery in Vienna which is the real target for the invaders, not the city, produces three varieties of beer. Needless to say, the dark is the most potent and needs a long time to complete its “fermentation”. But having arrived at the end, there are two issues left unexplained. First, the production process for all three beers seems almost entirely supernatural. I was expecting a real brewery but this is completely unreal without any hint of how it’s supposed to produce enough beer to keep the city and its troops supplied throughout the siege. Second, the book finishes before the dark is ready to be drunk and we therefore have no understanding of who gets to drink it, why they would drink it, and what the results are. Unless its only function is to keep the Fisher King alive which, in turn, will keep the spirits of the West high. But that would not explain why others have drunk it before and are now pestering Merlin for more of it now. Since the beer features in the title, you would think the author would have condescended to explain it a little better.

So here comes the short summary. I read The Skies Discrowned when it first came out and didn’t bother picking up the next two books by Powers. Fortunately, I did buy a copy of The Anubis Gates and, for the most part, I’ve been a fan of Powers ever since. The Drawing of the Dark has its moments, but it’s fairly generic historical fiction by modern standards. If you’re a Powers completist, you will buy this to get a sight of the early writer at work. If you have not yet tried Powers, this is not the right place to start. Read The Anubis Gate first to see whether you like his approach.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see
Hide Me Among the Graves
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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