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Sunday, Dec. 20, 2009

Steve Finbow: Best books of 2009

AUDITION, by Ryu Murakami. W. W. Norton & Company, 208 pp., $13.95 (paper)

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Building to a bloody finale, this psychological thriller tells the story of Aoyama (a documentary filmmaker) and Yamasaki (a would-be actress) and their doomed and gore-crossed affair. The prose is racy in both senses of the word, fast and sexual, giving the reader scant time to think about love's hallucinogenic descent into violence. Not a novel for the squeamish but an intelligent and compelling twist on the horror genre. As the book reaches its climax, you will be reading it through spread fingers ready to shut out the terrors. Or you could read it behind the sofa.

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OCCUPIED CITY, by David Peace. Faber, 288 pp., £12.99 (hardcover)

The second in the planned Tokyo Trilogy series about post-war Tokyo and its crimes. Taking Ryunosuke Akutagawa's story "In a Grove" and Akira Kurosawa's film "Rashomon" as starting points, the book relates the story of the Teikoku Bank Massacre in 12 tales told from different perspectives. Peace gets visceral and compulsive, rhythmic and challenging as he charts an urban hell of murder, suspicion and dark history. Peace writes about Shiro Ishii and Unit 731 and the book itself is a violent experimentation on what the novel form should or could be. A very brave book.

THE WORD BOOK, by Mieko Kanai. Translated by Paul McCarthy. Dalkey Archive, 180 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Published by the redoubtable Dalkey Archive Press in its impressive Japanese Literature Series, Mieko Kanai's "The Word Book" challenges how we see and record the world. Realities shift and are at once dreamlike and tangible. The range of subject matter and register is dazzling. That it has taken 30 years for this book to be translated into English is a literary crime. The author fuses Japanese myth and folklore with a postmodern feel — think Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover. Let us hope other publishers have the guts to translate more contemporary Japanese fiction.

Steve Finbow lives in Tokyo. He has two books of nonfiction planned for publication in 2010, plus a collection of short stories, "Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom."

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