Book Review: Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out is a fantastic read for anyone who is sick of predictable narratives. It was introduced to me as a mystery novel, which always follow relatively unsurprising patterns: there is a murder, an amateur sleuth gets involved, they solve the mystery, and the crook gets their comeuppance. Devotees of the genre are in it for the twists, but the timing of them, and often the twists themselves, are all too often predictable as well. However, in Out, we are know all about the murder and its perpetrator almost from the very beginning. In fact, we see it happen, and we know the identity of everyone involved. To me, that made the book even more mysterious than most of the genre, because I couldn’t even imagine how everything was going to come together in the end. Not only did I care about the fate of Masako and the other characters, but I kept reading because I desperately wanted to know how Kirino would solve this puzzle she had laid out for herself.

The novel is told from multiple viewpoints, but the protagonist turns out to be Masako, a serious and savvy middle aged woman. Many of the characters are housewives or widows who work together at a factory making boxed lunches; others, which show up later in the novel, are involved with the Yakuza and other similarly seedy occupations. Masako, as a middle-aged, lower class woman, is given a sympathetic treatment in a way that’s rare for characters like her. She is practical, sometimes to the point of ruthlessness, and yet readers can’t help but empathize with her. Her son hates her, her husband is distant, but readers see something in Masako that her family doesn’t: an astonishing inner strength. Natsuo Kirino’s interest in psychology is evident in her portrayal of each of the very different characters, from Masako to the sexually sadistic Yakuza to the homicidal housewife who sets the story rolling. Between the structure and the characters, Out feels extremely realistic. Like in real life, there isn’t a clear sense of the narrative as a discrete, clean package. Instead, the story goes until it is over, and due to the high stakes and the way we’re made to care about the characters, it is riveting all the way through.

It was published in 1997 in Japan, so English readers will have to read the translation that came out in 2004. However, nothing about the translation, or the portrayal of Japanese culture, feels clunky. For example, since Western readers may not be familiar with bento and its cultural significance, the translator just refers to them as “boxed lunches” and fills us in a little about the type of people who eat them when a character purchases one herself. Snyder has no need for the type of exposition blocks that I have seen in other, less skillful translations, and for that I was very thankful.

This novel is suited for all relatively mature readers who would be able to appreciate its complexity. Even those who aren’t fans of mystery (like myself) should give it a try because it is gripping but doesn’t lack the humanity and subtlety that we look for in more literary fiction. However, it is not for the faint-hearted. There are many grotesque scenes, made even more grotesque by the intimacy of the author’s portrayal. If you would be disturbed by an empathetic depiction of a combination rape/murder or a dismemberment, spare yourself the nausea, because much of the book contains very detailed, very bloody acts.

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Chosen Different [Book Review]

Chosen Different by Nat Kozinn is an alternate-universe science fiction novel, the first in an in-progress series. (I only mention this for readers like me, who prefer to power through multiple books instead of waiting impatiently!) In my opinion, it would be best for a teen audience. It was a good read, and not lacking in any substantial way, but more experienced readers might appreciate more complexity and narrative beauty.

The real strength of this book is the world the author has created. Gavin, the protagonist, is a Different: a mutant with powers, reminiscent of the X-Men. In a world devastated by a terrorist during Reagan’s presidency, the Differents are slaves, robbed of Constitutional rights and forced to work thankless jobs, or risk being sent to a special prison. The ongoing mystery of Nita, the head Librarian of think.Net, the world’s internet equivalent, is reason enough to read this book and eagerly wait for the next installment.

I was really impressed with the research and imagination that went into Gavin’s character, as well. His ability is “Anthropomorphic Control,” meaning that he has total control over his body, at the cost of being forced to consciously keep it working. When his power first began to mature, he was totally incapacitated by it, but a patient teacher helped him figure out how to function well enough to become a food-tester for this universe’s McDonald’s. Kozinn never lets us forget how fundamentally different Gavin is from us, but at the same time doesn’t let it overwhelm the storyline.

In terms of plot, by a few chapters in I thought I had it all figured out– but I was wrong. Gavin seemed to be developing into a dystopian Clark Kent, until a fascinating antagonist and some very real flaws turn him into someone I could actually root for, and transformed the storyline into something really worth reading.

The narrative is a little clunky, which at first bothered me, but as I kept reading I decided that it was for a legitimate rhetorical purpose. After all, Gavin has to consciously keep his heart beating– I would feel a little terse too.

I think that the novel’s biggest weakness is a sense of “Why should I care?” throughout the first few chapters. I think he focuses on giving us a view of his fantastic world before giving us a real reason to care about his food-testing, deliberately-digesting main character. Gavin remains a little flat throughout the narrative, having only one simple motivation, but lovers of sci-fi should forgive this and give Kozinn’s absolutely fantastic worldbuilding a chance.

I am a big supporter of self-publishing, so if this sounds interesting to you, please consider getting a copy on Amazon!