Friday, May 30, 2008

book review*: escape from amsterdam

Escape from Amsterdam, by Barrie Sherwood was a quick, fun and compelling read. And, for a first time novelist, the guy can write.

Any writer who can throw in a reference to reading War and Peace, at the end of a violent scuffle (in this case, to illustrate the length of time spent waiting for the elevator to escape said scuffle) has earned my admiration and caught my interest.

The novel is the story of Aozora, a cynical, bitter university student who is not much engaged with the world around him. He is also deep in debt to a local gangster, after losing too often at the Mah-Jong tables. An inheritance from an aunt may save his neck but to collect the money, he must find his sister, Mai (who has inherited along with him).

Aozora’s search for his sister leads him to the South of Japan, through the red light district and underworld to a gigantic theme park called Amsterdam. Along the way we meet a cast of characters reminiscent of the best of Carl Hiaasen (if Hiaasen’s novels were set in Southern Japan). The action moves quickly and even the most violent scenes are touched with ironic humour.

I didn’t much care for Aozora as a person, but I don’t typically have a ton of patience for the studied cynicism of middle class disaffected youth (although I did warm to him towards the end of the book, as he goes some distance to redeem himself). But I did appreciate his ability to laugh at himself (even after being thrown off a bridge by a pair of thugs or being chased at gunpoint by a gangster who just found him in bed with his girl). However, I appreciated the book’s cast of characters as a whole, most of whom are deeply flawed yet seem to have at least one redeeming characteristic.

The book’s setting is a character in and of itself – modern, tourist-driven, westernized Japan at odds (and yearning) for more traditional times. The author’s descriptive passages were perhaps what I loved most about the book, not overdone but highly evocative.

I also loved his descriptions of people. An old woman is said to have “the face of a dried prune” while a mobster is “a cross between Kim Jong-Il and Liberace.”

I can’t help but wonder, though what a Japanese reader would make of the book. While Aozora is Japanese, Sherwood is not and I don’t know enough about Japan or its culture to judge the authenticity of his voice.

The book is sprinkled with black and white illustrations. I am not sure that they added anything to the narrative and I actually, for the most part, just found them to be unnecessary distractions from the text.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Escape from Amsterdam and I found myself thinking about it when I had to tear myself away. look forward to another novel from Barrie Sherwood.

*This is a review of a book that was sent to me via Library Thing's Early Reviewer Program.

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