#BlogTour- Michael Grothaus- Beautiful Shining People @michaelgrothaus @orendabooks

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…

Okay, so roughly six years ago I reviewed Epiphany Jones , the previous fiction book by Michael Grothaus, and my, my, my, what a seat of your pants, and hold onto your sanity read that was. Fabulous. Recently I picked up Trust No One where Grothaus delves into the pernicious rise of deep fakery, and what this means for how we process and perceive the world, much of which is masked with a thick gauze of lies and chicanery. The influence of this is redolent within the futuristic Beautiful Shining People, an exquisitely written book enveloping big themes and ideas. There is a challenging central hypothesis around AI and the endlessly moving boundaries of what impossibilities could be made possible when embracing this technology, for good and for bad, but all beautifully balanced with a storyline that stresses the very essence of  connection, emotion and cruelty that defines and characterises humanity.

Grothaus immerses us in a futuristic Japanese society as outlined in the synopsis, where technological innovation is an accepted and endlessly moving beast, where the widespread use of bots, meta-lens and driverless cars are the norm rather than the stuff of dreams. We become centred in the world where superpowers clash utilising high tech surveillance, disinformation and deep fakery to stir up tensions within the general populace, enhancing distrust and suspicion of other foreign powers. Fakery becomes the accepted truth, and the truth can never be wholly accepted as real. Unfortunately, due to events witnessed over recent years, particularly during the administration of a certain US president, and the even more recent Balloon-Gate, what Grothaus explores now seems a terrifying reality, and the sense that we are merely on a fast ticking countdown to this being the accepted norm. I thought that drawing so astutely on the motif of Hiroshima was an exceptionally clever move by the author, laden with the sense that humankind has a selective blindness to the essential lessons of the past, and how scientific endeavour can cause the worst of destruction. This is all cleverly counterbalanced with how innovation can be used for good, particularly when viewed through the lens of one character in particular, and how not all leaps of scientific ingenuity can be viewed as wholly self-defeating for society at large.

There is a stunning reveal about one of the characters which I had remained blissfully ignorant of when reading this book, so guess what folks, my lips are sealed, so you can be utterly surprised by this too. The book centres on three people predominantly, John, Neotnia and Goeido, and a unique little dog called Inu, drawn together in a small back street cafe, but whose shared disappointments and cruelties experienced in life, form an intrinsically unbreakable bond between them. We learn how John has been bullied and denigrated for his physical appearance and shunned by his peers, despite his obvious intelligence and empathetic character. Neotnia is a young woman pining the disappearance of her father, feeling rootless and unanchored when she needs to discover more about herself, and her place in the world. Goedio is an ex-sumo wrestler whose life was upended by deep fakery, and who harbours a natural suspicion of everyone, until his trust and unstinting loyalty are earned. The growing relationship between these three disparate and damaged people is just beautifully unfurled over the course of the book, representing both the connection and emotion that grows between people, but how all three have experienced cruelty and abandonment in the course of their lives. There is an endlessly swirling sense of pathos in this book as the characters’ lives are so defined by the technology and unsettled world that surrounds them, but Grothaus beautifully characterises them all with moving poignancy, that defines their grip on humanity in an increasingly non-human world. I will dare you not to have a tear in your eye at the denouement of the book too. Just beautifully done.

Not only does the author achieve this sublime balance between the humanistic and the futuristic in this book, he has also succinctly captured the feeling of Japanese fiction. I was very much put in mind of Haruki Murakami or Toshikazu Kawaguchi who always achieve this balance in fiction with notion of the spare encompassing the large, whether the writing or the themes, and the sense of humanity being inextricably linked with the supernatural or the spiritual- the otherworldliness. The book is interspersed with the rituals and spiritual beliefs that have endured for centuries, and will continue to transcend the march of technology.

I don’t think that it’s any exaggeration to say that Beautiful Shining People is just spellbinding from beginning to end. Multi-layered, thought-provoking, with sublime characterisation and encompassing big, big, themes, but never losing sense of the inherent flaws and frailties of the human condition within the bigger picture. The book is tinged with despair, but in the connection between his characters and that most poignant of endings, there is a sense of hope. It’s just wonderful, and I highly recommend it.


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.

(With thanks to Orenda Books for the ARC)

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  1. I’ve never read Grothaus book before but this review is glowing. The comparisons to elite Japanese authors particularly Murakami startled me. I’m interest is piqued.

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