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2020 50 Book Challenge

Geoffrey Firmin

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70. Rage, by Bob Woodward

Oh the joys of looking behind the curtain at the Trump administration. January 20 will be a fine day...
I was at the library the other day checking out a book and an older gentleman was checking out Rage. He saw me looking and simply said ”thank god they got rid of the bastard“.
 

samtalkstyle

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52. Mexico Set - Len Deighton

Finally completed the collection of 9, now time to read London Match and then Charity.

I'm surprised I've managed to read this many books at this point.
Have always been an avid reader but never tracked my progress until this year.
 

FlyingMonkey

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79. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
Another Eco I hadn't read before, this one is a dense collage of imagery that takes place largely inside the mind of Yambo, an ageing antiquarian book dealer who has suffered some kind of aneurysm and has been in a coma, which has left him without much of a memory of anything in his life. At the urging of his wife (who of course he also can't remember), Paola, he takes a trip to his childhood home, a palatial country house that he still owns but rarely visits, leaving most of it, likes his memories, locked up and inaccessible. As he sorts through his and his family's books, records, comics, photographs and diaries, his mind wanders in all directions, fictional and real, a palimpsest of personal, cultural and political history, tracing the subjects of childhood, often obscure Italian and American pop-culture, sex and fascism. It even has illustrations. It's all of Eco in one book and it should be great but even though the writing can at times be sublime, too often it's just lists of things and Yambo's directionless musing and his frankly tedious obsession with his 'perfect woman'. And the ending is such a cliché that it really puts a cap on it. A long way from his best.

80. Palm Beach Finland by Antti Tuomainen
Apparently this guy in the 'king of Helsinki Noir', but this, his third novel, is supposedly a dark comedy crime caper. The set up is that a clueless entrepreneur, Leivo, has converted an ailing Baltic beachside motel into a Miami Vice-inspired resort, which is about as ridiculous as it sounds. To make it perfect he wants a marina and for that he needs the land next door owned by a lovely and stubborn middle-aged divorcée, Olivia Koski. Unfortunately his useless minions' clumsy attempts to persuade her result in a man being killed and thus both an undercover detective from Helsinki, Jan Nyman, and the psychotic gangster brother of the dead man also get involved and come 'on holiday' to Palm Beach Finland. Unfortunately, despite the promising set-up, this is not Coen Brothers territory, nor is it much like Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard, the writers he is clearly trying to emulate. It's an easy read, there are some farcial situations, but it's at once too nice and not ridiculous enough to generate much in the way of laughs. Or maybe I just don't like the comedy crime sub-genre.
 
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FlyingMonkey

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Well I got down to 81. Earthlings by Sayaka Murata...

The short version is that @Geoffrey Firmin is entirely right. Immediately after you've finished you will feel that this is an utterly repulsive novel, as disgusting as it's possible to be by the end, and worse because whatever has come before you were still rooting for the protagonist, Natsuki, until the last chapter. After Convenience Store Human (which is a better translation of the Japanese than Covenience Store Woman - I don't know why they did that, and the marketing and book design completely missed the point), I had Murata pegged as a champion of neurodivergent feminism, of noncompliant insider-outsiders all around us but not buying our neurotypical bullshit. Earthlings is for the most part more of the same: we meet Natsuki as an elementary school student, a weird girl who feels she doesn't fit, who copes with her divergence from familiy and social norms by conjuring a life of secret magic and other worlds for herself, and the one other person she knows who shares some of her traits and attitudes, her male cousin, Yuu, who she only gets to see once a year at Obon (the Buddhist festival of ancestors). Natsuki and Yuu share an intense friendship which becomes physical (and as 'sexual' as undeveloped kids can be) after Natsuki has been sexually abused by her cram-school teacher, and this sparks what by the end of the book, we realise is a spiral to the worse kind of tragedy. But all the while, Natsuki still seems to be more of a catcher-in-the-rye type of acerbic and anarchic outsider, an unwilling participant in what she calls 'the factory' (the production line of birth-school-work death) than any kind of a monster. She seems to find a sort of balance with an asexual 'husband', Tomoya, who she meets through a 'dating' service for people who don't want a sex life, and they live what appears to outsiders to be a 'normal' existence, but it's not normal enough for her family or his, nothing it seems ever will be in 'the factory.' When people find out and try to break up the marriage, Natsuki and Tomoya and Yuu decide to make a genuine break from all social conventions and indeed from humanity itself, and from then things just get extreme. Really extreme. In fact so extreme, that it leads me to question my previous assessment of Murata's politics and commitments.
 
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Geoffrey Firmin

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58.The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink

I remember the impact that The Reader made years ago in relation to national guilt and social redemption. This novel follows a similar line but its focused on the release of a RAF terrorist in Germany post 9/11.

A group of friends gather in a decaying county manor to welcome back a just released terrorist. The conversations held deal with with ideology, guilt comparison between the SS and RAF are made, redemption and overall were their actions justified.

Well paced narratively but I was left wanting more of an explanation behind and for the actions of these groups in the 70’s. I do understand the logic, anger and reasoning of these anticapitalist revolutionary movements but if the central character and his friends after twenty five years thought their and redemption was to be had for their activities then Schlink does not provide it.

Back to Vinnies with this on Monday.
 

FlyingMonkey

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82. The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem.
Last year my friend, Tim Maughan published his excellent novel of the end of the internet / technology, Infinite Detail. It got some attention, even appearing on a few book of the year shortlists. At the back end of this year, we have two novels with a similar premise, one, The Silence, by increasingly pretentious twerp, Don DeLillo, and the other, this one, The Arrrest, by the former bright young hope of American literature, Jonathan Lethem. Both are being praised as unprecedented and 'original'. They clearly aren't either - even Tim's novel wasn't that original in the sense that the end of technology dystopia goes back at least as far as E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops, published more than a century ago, in 1909. But are either any good? I didn't even get as far as buying the DeLillo because on looking at it in the bookshop, I burst out laughing. The 'novel' looked suspiciously small and thin to begin with even in hardback, and on opening it, you can see that they've used a very spacious font in a massive point size and huge margins. In other words this may not even be a novella. DeLillo apparently couldn't quite deliver on his promises, and I'm not paying novel price for an extended short story - I'll get it out of the library or wait until it inevitably appeats for 0.99 on kindle...

But I did buy The Arrest. It too is a short novel, in bite-size chapters, some no more than a page. The protagonist, Sandy Duplessis AKA Journeyman is a superannuated delivery boy in a post-technology society, which is maybe a reference to Fry from Futurama - it wouldn't surprise me, because as with all Lethem novels, The Arrest is stacked with pop culture references. This isn't hard science-fiction: the way in which the end of the internet and fossil fuels and everything has came about is vague and magical in a 'just don't ask' sort of way. Instead the novel plays with being a meta-dystopia, which might or might not be the product of a film script that Journeyman had been writing off-and-on for years with his college buddy, later employer and highly irritating Hollywood somebody, Peter Todbaum, from an idea at least partly suggested by Journeyman's sister, Maddy. Now after the Arrest, Maddy, and in his lesser, ineffectual way, Journeyman, are both part of self-sustaining organic cooperative township way up on the Maine coast, away from all the turmoil that is apparently going on elsewhere. And then suddenly Todbaum turns up... in a nuclear-powered chrome supercar-cum-tunnelling machine that looks like something straight out of a 1950s Popular Mechanics fever dream, that he has apparently driven all the way from Malibu, complete with the world's last espresso machine. And guess what? He's still a major asshole.

Anyone who's read Lethem will know that he can write. He's still got that smart-alecky thing going on that he's always had, but it's dialed back a bit these days. However he knows enough about genre writing and his forebears in this particular enterprize not just to make reference to other dystopian and post-apocalyse novels and films, but also to deal with that little issue that always seems to haunt such works - why don't any of the characters ever seem to know anything about science-fiction etc.? Well, in this novel they do. Journeyman and Todbaum have been writing an SF script for years after all, and Journeyman has become quite the expert on the disaster novel. George R. Stewart's classic, Earth Abides, is mentioned a couple of times, I think to emphasize that in this reality at least, we don't have a super-patriarchal society but a strongly feminist one: the women are by far the most capable characters in The Arrest, with the main make characters a mixture of posturing, irritating, or pathetic.

But is the book any good? I don't know. While it flirts with various SF tropes of alternate worlds and so on, it doens't actually go there, and the story is actually quite linear and while somewhat unlikely in the specifics of its denouement, it won't come as much of a surprise in any general sense. It's okay, I think is my verdict. It's not Lethem's best. Neither challenging nor shocking. A little bit more boring than I was expecting, but a well-written, engaging read that doesn't outstay its welcome.
 
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LonerMatt

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1. The Tangled Land
2. The Test
3. Grace of Kings
4. Wall of Storms
5. Where there was Still Love
6. The Secret Commonwealth
7. Children of Ruins
8. Hunger
9. Legacy of Ash
10. When we were Vikings
11. The Yellow Notebook
12. A Couple of Things Before the End
13. Agency
14. Sword of Fire
15. How to Fix the Future
16. The Topeka School
17. Beijing Payback
18. The Lucky Country
19. A horse walks into a bar
20. The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
21. The Secret Scripture
22. Stone Sky Gold Mountain
23. The Return
24. The Lost Decade
25. Shop Class as Soulcraft
26. Makers
27. Between the World and Me
28. How to do nothing
29. Amusing Ourselves to Death
30. The Bear
31. Eden
32. The Medium is the Massage
33. The Book of Koli
35. The End of Education
36. Exploded View
37. Quarterly Essay: Cry me a river
38. Water Knife
39. Dance Dance Dance
40. Norwegian Wood
41. Snow Crash
42. Being Ecological
43. The Trials of Koli
44. A Deadly Education
45. New Dark Age
46. The girl and the stars
47. Demon in white

46. The girl and the stars

Mark Lawrence's continuation of the universe he build in the grey sister trilogy is ok, but can be a bit drawn out. He's previously have two series in one universe and it worked quite well, so I'm hopeful this one will come into its own. The story follows an tribe heading to a conference where the weaker members are sacrificed to make sure that the tribes are able to survive in their harsh environment. When the main character's younger brother is tossed down the sacrificial pit she jumps in to save him and discovers a bizarre world with a lot of confusing issues.

I'd give this like a 3/5, it's ok but not that good.

47. Demon in white

3rd book in the sun eater series (I assumed it was the last but I don't think that's right). A rambling and complex book that picks up many of the strands from the previous two novels, never re-explains anything (which I find a bit tricky, there's a 7-9 month gap between books so I forget a lot of the detail that's crucial to these series. So while I appreciate that the author is talking up to readers I'd recommend anyone who wants to read these pop them in order and read one after the other. Unfortunately they're still being written, so...

In book follows the protagonist Hadrian, who started his journey trying to avoid familial responsibility, stumbling onto a huge secret, then finding information which is powerful, dangerous and challenging to those in power. With his accomplishments he is now senior in the royalty that rules the empire for which he is a member, but those same powerful members don't wish for anything to change. Anyway, the novel ends with a large battle that just went on a bit too much and was a bit fatiguing, but ends in a way where you know a lot of the tension the books have been building has come to a head.

I really like this trilogy, but it is a bit clunky and wordy!
 

LonerMatt

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1. The Tangled Land
2. The Test
3. Grace of Kings
4. Wall of Storms
5. Where there was Still Love
6. The Secret Commonwealth
7. Children of Ruins
8. Hunger
9. Legacy of Ash
10. When we were Vikings
11. The Yellow Notebook
12. A Couple of Things Before the End
13. Agency
14. Sword of Fire
15. How to Fix the Future
16. The Topeka School
17. Beijing Payback
18. The Lucky Country
19. A horse walks into a bar
20. The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
21. The Secret Scripture
22. Stone Sky Gold Mountain
23. The Return
24. The Lost Decade
25. Shop Class as Soulcraft
26. Makers
27. Between the World and Me
28. How to do nothing
29. Amusing Ourselves to Death
30. The Bear
31. Eden
32. The Medium is the Massage
33. The Book of Koli
35. The End of Education
36. Exploded View
37. Quarterly Essay: Cry me a river
38. Water Knife
39. Dance Dance Dance
40. Norwegian Wood
41. Snow Crash
42. Being Ecological
43. The Trials of Koli
44. A Deadly Education
45. New Dark Age
46. The girl and the stars
47. Demon in white
48. Infinite Splendour


48. Infinite Splendour

Sofie Laguna, the author of this book, is a monster writer and this book was an unputtdownable gut punch from the get go. One of the most affectings and well drawn stories I've read this year, perhaps even ever.

It's the story of a young boy (10 years old) with the world in front of him, but it all falls apart and the novel looks at his life 10 and 30 years after it all goes to shit. The main character retreats into painting and a form of hermitage.

Fuck is it good boys. So very tender and sad, tears at the end of the novel fucking hell.

I cannot think of anyone who loves the written word who wouldn't be impressed and moved by this. Every novel of Laguna's tops her previous efforts noticeably, which is no small feat given what an absolute powerhouse she is.

If there's an Australian writing as potently about Australia I don't know their work. Nobel prize deserving output.
 

Geoffrey Firmin

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59. Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto

Three novellas which deal with a slightly numinous but ordinary metaphysics of urbane life. Quiet, gentle with but with a relative dose of strangeness. Very entertaining as an end of day read.
 

Marc Voorhees

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i hit 50. I owe you guys some reviews. But I have been.... drinking a bit Tomorrow... Some interesting books. I love how we all read differnent books at all ties. crazy, That said, anyone interested in a book swap? Lets talk
 

FlyingMonkey

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83. The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
Continuing my sporadic (re)reading of Eco's work, comes this big novel from 2006, which is, like Queen Loana (above), one of those Eco novels in which the protagonist, facing some kind of crisis, re-examines his (and it is always his) life, loves and the nature of existence. The other type of Eco novel is the historical-conspiratorial shaggy dog story as in Foucault's Pendulum, Baudolino or The Prague Cemetary. I have decided that I vastly prefer the latter. The Island of the Day Before starts in the mid-seventeenth century, with a still relatively young Italian, Roberto, marooned on an apparently empty ship, the Daphne, moored off a mysterious South Pacific island, that may be in the Solomon Islands or maybe not - either way Roberto cannot reach it because he cannot swim. His story is told by an anonymous and somewhat sceptical narrator who has supposedly acquired the papers upon which he set down both his real life story and his romantic fictions and philosophical speculations, despite being, as the narrator keeps reminding us, no real philosopher (and only weakly acquainted with writing fiction).

The story is anchored by two things: firstly, Roberto's failure in love and his continued desire for a perfect blonde woman he only vaguely knew (another tiresome late period Eco trope) while living in Paris amongst the natural philosophers and libertines, and who he comes to associate with a rare orange dove suposedly found on the nearby island; and secondly, the search for a reliable way of ascertaining longitude, a quest which obessed the amateur scientists and engineers of the period. The title comes from the notion that the international date line, upon or near which the Daphne sits, is the point at which yesterday becomes today or today becomes tomorrow, or both, a notion which starts to play an increasingly large role in Roberto's fevered imagination of his beloved and how he might be (re)united with her.

It would all be so good, were it not for the fact that the whole book is pretty much entirely diversion, and extended and not very profound reflections on everything from biology to space-time and god. And these reflections can't be that profound because Roberto, the protagonist, isn't that profound, and so we have pages and pages of mediocre speculation in verbose early modern fashion that read like the seventeenth century equivalent of a stoned undergraduate.

Not his best.
 
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FlyingMonkey

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84. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I've enjoyed the other fictions I've read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and at least when I was younger I was partial to a bit of gothic horror, so I was looking forward to this. And it didn't disappoint. If you want a tl;dr pitch, this is Rebecca meets Crimson Peaks in post-colonial Mexico.
The set-up is a classic situation: Noemí Taboada is a young, beautiful wealthy socialite in Mexico City in maybe the 1950s (it's not entirely clear and it could be earlier). Although she lives a deliberately frivolous life, behind the party frocks and cocktails, she is actually an independent and intelligent woman who wants to study anthropology, a subject that certainly plays a role in the story that follows, not least because Noemí herself is of indigenous descent on at least half of her family tree. But Noemí's indulgent life comes to an abrupt end when she is sent by her domineering father to inquire into the health and wellbeing of her slightly older cousin, Catalina, who got married very suddenly a few years before to the apparently disreputable descendant of an eccentric English silver-mine owning family, the Doyles, who live in a remote mansion in the interior of the country near their abandoned mines.
The house is the classic haunted mansion, very much a Mandalay, and the family make The Adams Family look completely normal. The house is run by Florence, an strict spinster obsessed with order. The listless and haunted Catalina is married to Virgil, a handsome and magnetically sexual but clearly nasty man, who has his hooks into Noemí as soon as she arrives. However Noemí finds herself more drawn to his somewhat fey and intellectual brother, Francis, who is a botanist and mycologist. Ruling over the family is the dying patriarch, Howard, a tremendously creepy, loathsome, foul-smelling thing, who inabits the bedroom at the top of the house, and whose every groan and whim must be catered to. But the most important character of all is the house, and more accurately the whole colonial family, alive and dead, that is surrounds, embodies... and, as Noemí soon discovers, imprisons.
There is so much more, which I can't discuss without giving away too much, but if I say that this bizarre English family are obsessed with eugenics and white superiority, you will understand that colonialism and race and their legacies in Mexico play a large part in this too, which adds a seriousness to the usual gothic tropes that also revitalizes them. All in all, this is a really strong book with a sympathetic heroine and well-drawn characters (even the minor ones) and while there are a few places where I winced at word choice or phrasing, the writing is excellent too.
 
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Geoffrey Firmin

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60. Boy On Fire The Young Nick Cave by Mark Mordue

A biography focused on the zeitgeist of where it all began in terms of the man, the myth and the music. Having lived in Melbourne during 1978-81 in St Kilda It painted some vivid memory pictures of those days both in terms of the ‘scene’ and in what it left out of the milieu. Indeed an interesting portrait of the artist as a young man and the times that spawned him.

PS upon writing this and tending the garden it made me think that their were many ’scenes’ around at that stage. I knew some of the St Kilda rock n roll crowd, not Cave who I would frequently see being a ‘face’ with his courtiers in Ackland St.

But ’Art school scenes.’ Painters, photographers fashion design and a smattering of writers were all part of the scenes. A lot of great music was played at the Crystal Ballroom.

The anit nuclear movement was awakening and would reach its political peak under the Regan years with post punk music, Oils ani‘t Oils.

One prominent thing which was left out was about a couple of Punk band News and Proles who put some interesting graffiti up around the inner city. Proles are the only hope, which with its Orwellian overtones was initially taken by some Uni of Melbourne academics as a revolutionary incitement. Finally when it was discovered they were just bands doing guerrilla marketing some one adjusted a News tag on the Punt Rd bridge to ‘how anewsing‘.
 
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FlyingMonkey

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85. The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V.E. Schwab
For people who liked The Time Traveller's Wife or The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, or any of those popular variations on the Faust or Orlando stories, we have The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue. Born in a small village in France in the C18th, Adeline La Rue is different. Of course she's conventionally beautiful - we can't have a romantic heroine being anything but, right? - but she's different. She doesn't want to get married, she just wants to wander aroud wistfully and draw and hang out with the village witch, who teaches her about the old gods and how to communicate with them. And of course she warns Adeline never to call to the gods of the darkness. She makes that very clear. So you know what's going to happen. Upon finding out her parents are going to make her marry a palid older widower with two small children, she flees the evening wedding and rushes off into the woods, not noticing the time and calls for help. Help turns out to be a dark presence which takes the form of the dark curly-haired green-eyed fantasy man she's imagined since she was a child. And he offers her a deal: she can be free forever but no-one will ever remember her, and when she has had enough of this, it will take her soul. She can't age, she can't really be injured, she doesn't need to eat, but she still feels the pain of all of these things, but as soon as she is out of the sight of any person, they completely forget her. And she can't make a record of her existence in any way: if she writes, it fades away in front of her, and photographs as she finds out much later, record her as a blur.
After a very rough few years, gradually she learns to make the best of this life, and even make an impression on artists in particular - did I mention she was beautiful? - who can record her even if they don't remember who she was afterwards and can't put a name to the beauty they have drawn or painted or sculpted. She travels Europe and then further afield, surviving revolutions and wars, before finally ending up in New York in the 2000s. And this is where the book falls apart. Up until this point the book has been sweeping and melodramatic in the best way, cutting through history and very well-written. But in New York, the book is overtaken by a group of frankly very dull and self-involved vapid hipsters, who it's hard to imagine a 300-year old woman being interested in, let along falling in love with one, even if he is the only man she has ever met who can remember her. And here the language of the book starts to purple out of control and the romantic clichés start to get tiresome. By far the best bits of the book at this stage remain Addie's deeper, longer-term love-hate (but really just hate) relationship with Luc, the ever-changing, evil, green-eyed spirit of the woodland dark who trapped her all those years ago and remains unable to stay away from her for more than a couple of decades, always trying to get her to give up her soul, but seemingly also obsessed with her.
Lots of people love this book, they seem almost in ecstasy about it. And to be fair there's a lot to love. But the flaws are large and annoying, and they have nothing to do with the type of book or the genre, they are just about the choices the author makes and the failure of the New York sections and the weak New York characters to stand up in comparison to the rest. Schwab tries very hard and fails, ultimately, to make me love New York. Frankly, there's enough New Yorkers out there who won't shut up about how great New York is. I want to read something different about the city, or just about a different city.
 
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FlyingMonkey

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86. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizu
A classic of Japanese crime fiction, this is an atmospheric, dated and also highly irritating novel. The authorial voice is smug and teasing throughout, and at times it almost seems to be a kind of fan fiction, pointing out similarities to European crime stories, and detective novels even play a role in the solution to the case, and the way in which the private detective in the story, the scruffy young intellectual, Kousuke Kindaichi, thinks. Some fans really seem to like this kind of stylized, Cleudo-esque set-up, where everything is like a puzzle (but a puzzle you can only work out in retrospect because for all that there are clues, there's no way the ridiculous solution could ever be worked out from those clues). That said, the members of the Ichiyanagi family are well-painted in the very short time we get to know them - except for the fact that some, like the younger children are mentioned at the start and must be around but are never, ever seen again in the whole novel - and there are some nice satirical touches about Japanese rural life in early Showa era, and the persistence of the old class system even in this 'modern' era of the 1930s. This was the first of over 70 novels Yokomizu wrote featuring Detective Kindaichi. Only one other has so far been translated in to English, and I may read it just to see if it's any better, but frankly my pleasure in this highly artificial sub-genre of crime fiction is very limited.

PS: Is no-one else reading right now?
 
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