At the Sharpe End by Hugh Ashton is one of those books that I probably wouldn't have come across if it wasn't for the fact that I am a member of LibraryThing. The author, taking advantage of the Member Giveaway program, was providing review copies of the book and I was lucky enough to win one. The novel is self-published and so hasn't gotten a lot of media attention, but when I went searching for reviews most of them were favorable. At the Sharpe End, released in 2010, is Ashton's second novel to be published, the first being an alternative history called Beneath Gray Skies. Ashton, who was originally from the United Kingdom, has been living and working in Japan since 1988. In addition to writing stories and novels, Ashton has experience working in both the financial and the information technology industries--a background that came in handy while writing At the Sharpe End. I probably wouldn't have picked up At the Sharpe End on my own, but I am still happy to have had the opportunity to read it.
Kenneth Sharpe is a freelance technology consultant working in Tokyo and is fairly happy with his life. One day he is unexpectedly approached by the president of Katsuyama Electronic Devices to do some work publicizing their recent developments and advancements in facial and image recognition technology. Soon later the man is reported as dead and Sharpe suddenly finds his life much more complicated; there are plenty of people interested in obtaining the Katsuyama technology and Sharpe has the only known prototype in his possession. With the help of his friends, he is able to determine that the technology is more than just a facial recognition program and is something that is potentially far more valuable. Unfortunately for Sharpe, he and the technology has caught the attention of the Japanese authorities, both the British and American governments, and even the North Korean yakuza.
I will admit that when it comes to finances, my mind tends to go blank and my attention starts to wander so I was pleasantly surprised when Ashton was able to keep me engaged throughout the entire novel. In fact, his use of the 2008 financial collapse as an important plot element was excellent. (Actually, after reading At the Sharpe End, I even understand some of what was going on then better than I did before.) When it comes to information technology, which is something that does interest me, I am on much more familiar ground and once again Ashton makes good use of it in his story. At the Sharpe End is unquestionably fiction and some turns of events may seem a bit far-fetched, but overall the novel is realistic and believable. I am not entirely clear about some of the character' motivations, though. The people involved are fairly normal, ordinary people and with a few exceptions even the situations they find themselves in aren't terribly extraordinary. In some ways it is exactly because of this realism that I found the novel to be so interesting.
I enjoyed At the Sharpe End more than I expected I would and it reads quickly. Ashton did have a habit of going off on cultural tangents that tended to break up the flow of the narrative. However, I found the subject matter interesting in most cases and so I didn't mind too terribly much. There were a few things, like one of the character's personality changes, that although explained I wasn't convinced by and a few plot elements that felt extraneous but that I was willing to go along with for the sake of the story. Perhaps what I most enjoyed about At the Sharpe End was the authenticity lent to the novel from Ashton's own experiences in Japan and his excellent use of current events to help shape the book's plot. At the Sharpe End isn't without its occasional awkwardness, but I found reading it a satisfying way to pass the time.
Not available in a library...