I am absolutely thrilled to share my thoughts on the brand new novel from Michael Grothaus, Beautiful Shining People. This has to have been one of my most anticipated novels of 2023, and I am ever thankful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me an early copy which I devoured at New Year. My thanks also to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the invite to share the book love. Here’s what it’s all about.
About the Book
A damaged young man meets an enigmatic waitress in a Tokyo café, and they embark on a journey that will change everything … an emotive speculative literary novel set in a near-future Japan
It’s our world, but decades into the future … an ordinary world, where cars drive themselves, drones glide across the sky, and robots work in burger shops. There are two superpowers and a digital Cold War, but all conflicts are safely oceans away. People get up, work, and have dinner. Everything is as it should be.
Except for seventeen-year-old John, a tech prodigy from a damaged family, who hides a deeply personal secret. But everything starts to change for him when he enters a tiny café on a cold Tokyo night. A café run by a disgraced sumo wrestler, where a peculiar dog with a spherical head lives, alongside its owner, enigmatic waitress Neotnia…
But Neotnia hides a secret of her own – a secret that will turn John’s unhappy life upside down. A secret that will take them from the neon streets of Tokyo to Hiroshima’s tragic past to the snowy mountains of Nagano.
A secret that reveals that this world is anything ordinary – and it’s about to change forever…
Why is it that the books you love are often the hardest reviews to write? I absolutely loved Epiphany Jones when I read it. Loved its unique styling, the memorable characters and the way in which the book, and the audio version, got under my skin. I have been waiting patiently (sort of) for another book from Michael Grothaus and, with Beautiful Shining People, I can say that the wait has been well and truly worth it. Set in the future, this is second of the minor exceptions to my genre preference rules that I’ve made this year, but it has been so worth it. Because, although this is future set, in a world where artificial intelligence, driverless cars and technology dominate, this is so far from what I would consider to be a ‘sci-fi’ novel. It’s part thriller, part not. Part young adult fiction, but also exploring very adult emotions. The story is underpinned by mystery and suspense, but it is so wonderfully textured and nuanced that it is also so much more.
This is a story about the very essence of what it means to be human. Of two very different people, both searching for an understanding of who they are, to establish where they fit in the world. It is a beautiful, emotional and thought provoking read, peppered with action and the thrill of a chase, heavy in technology, but bound by compassion. A story of friendship, trust, prejudice, loss and one which had me hooked from the very beginning. It’s a mesmerising journey through a future Tokyo, a look at what could be, at technology that is nothing but a dream, and the never ceasing desire for those who seek power to harness that advantage for less than virtuous reasons. We are looking at a world where physical violence is virtually meaningless when it comes to global politics, and where cyber attacks, deep fakes and the planting of ‘fake news’ causes far more harm on a domestic scale than any cold be achieved by waging a more traditional war.
Our two protagonists, American tech genius, John, and waitress, Neotnia, are two wonderfully diverse characters. Their lives couldn’t be more different and yet the synergy between them is undeniable. John is, to a degree, running away from his past, whilst Neotnia wants nothing more than to find hers, searching for the father who left her two years earlier promising, but failing, to return. Whilst there is no doubt that there is an element of physical attraction from John towards Neotnia, there is a bond there that you can see forming from the very beginning, a kinship which will take an inevitable, but also wholly unexpected turn. I liked John. He was quiet, unassuming, uncertain, His vulnerability was endearing, but with a sadness that intrigued. The more I learned of him, the easier it was to identify with him, and the more invested I became in his story. As for Neotnia, there was a certain mysticism about her. A confidence but also a sense of her holding back. As to what, and why … well that is a secret that is best unveiled by reading it yourself.
One character who I really did like, as minimal as his interactions were to begin with, was cafe owner, Goeido. A former sumo wrestler, a man of few words, but one whose presence and judgement is very readily felt, his concern and protective attitude towards Neotnia was quite charming in his own funny way. Not a man you’d want to cross, for obvious reasons, but he has his own emotional past that is brought to the surface, one which makes his stern demeanour all the more understandable. His behaviour brought a smile to my face, and the way that the author used him and the small, perfectly coiffed dog, Inu, to create such a vivid contrast is striking and very effective.
Setting is key in this book and I don’t think there could be a better location than Tokyo for this particular tale. Already a haven for technology and technological advancement, the rise of the bots and the AI presence didn’t seem out of place, giving the book a real sense of what comes to pass being entirely possible. Michael Grothaus captures the electricity of the streets perfectly, contrasting that to the traditional temples and shrines that feature and inform the story. Taking the action away from the city to Nagano is a very clever move, marking a real change in the tone of the novel and gearing us up for a very dramatic, and intense conclusion. I don’t know where I was expecting the story to go, but some of the revelation really took me by surprise. Inconceivable and yet, somehow, also very credible. I was blindsided by one particular revelation, and yet it felt like the most natural progression. The author has done such a perfect job of integrating the science into the story that even the unexpected, as jaw-dropping as it is, makes perfect, logical, sense.
And then those final scenes. They are laced with melancholy, a sense of hope lost. But then again … That very final scene is perhaps one of the most understated but powerful scenes in the book and it really did make me smile. Beyond the conflict, the unrest and the crazy quantum technology, this is a story about acceptance, not just that offered to others, but towards ourselves. Of embracing differences, looking beyond what is considered ‘normal’ to the essence of the person. It’s a truly beautiful story of friendship, trust and love and it’s most definitely highly recommended.
And it gets a red hot read badge from me. Completely, totally and utterly hit the spot. Loved it.
About the Author
Novelist and journalist Michael Grothaus was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. He spent his twenties in Chicago where he earned his degree in filmmaking from Columbia and got his start in journalism writing for Screen. After working for institutions including The Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth Century Fox, and Apple he earned his postgraduate degree with distinction in creative writing from the University of London. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Litro Magazine, Fast Company, VICE, the Irish Times, Screen, Quartz, and others.
His debut novel is EPIPHANY JONES, a story about sex trafficking among the Hollywood elite. It was longlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger Award in 2017 and in 2018 was named one of the 25 “Most Irresistible Hollywood Novels” by Entertainment Weekly.
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