Beautiful Shining People
(2023) Michael Grothaus, Orenda Books, £9.99, pbk, 384pp, ISBN 978-1-914-58564-7
This is a near-future thriller set in Japan told from the point of view of a 17 year old coding genius with a body image problem. John’s about to sign a megabucks deal with Sony, but that’s days away and he has plenty of time on his hands. Time enough to get his ears waxed (yes, really), meet a girl, arouse the suspicions of a Sumo wrestler, get drunk, fall in love, discover his girlfriend’s not exactly what she seems and head off into the hills for answers.
The time is somewhere in the 2140s but nothing seems to have changed much. Cars drive themselves, and the Chinese have replaced the Russians as the American’s superpower adversaries (not much of a stretch) but everything else could be 2023, particularly the level of rolled out technology – odd, considering the story’s ultimate theme, which develops via a slow reveal (but expect to catch it before the author intends you to). The setting’s interesting, though, and you get the chance to check it out via a series of tenuously plot-related sidebars that take you along neon lit streets and into incense filled temples.
This book is many things: technothriller, travelogue, love story, philosophical treatise about the nature of humanity. It is readable too, though its plot holes and some the character’s scarcely credible reactions can be occasionally infuriating. It has engaging characters, from the big Sumo, now running a humble coffee shop and his weird, cute dog to the enigmatic waitress Neotina and John himself, a stranger in a strange land. Oddly enough, considering how weird the other characters initially seem, it’s John, our point of view character, that I had most problems identifying with. It Grothaus was trying to give his a relatable backstory he’s arguably failed – too young, for a start (he’s 17 but this isn’t young adult fiction) and his body image issue is off-putting, unnecessary and skimmed over. Plus it’s 30-odd years into the future and people are still flying across the world to sign contracts?
I wanted more of the Sumo and a different ending, though Michael Grothaus is skilled enough to give us a little something at the end to make us smile. It feels like it needs an edit for length, too – some scenes, exposition and actions seem drawn out and I found myself skimming some of the (lengthy) descriptions of no doubt interesting parts of Japan. There’s a whole holocaust section there too, when the characters visit Hiroshima, that only clumsily shoehorns into the plot and feels out of place. Overall, though, this is entertaining enough and I enjoyed following the developing relationship between John and Neotina, but I scratched my head too often at some of the character and world-building choices to give it anything other than a cautious recommendation.
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