Penance – Kanae Minato (Book Review)

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After reading Confessions earlier this year, I immediately bought Manato’s second book as soon as I heard there was one!

When they were children, Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko were tricked into separating from their friend Emily by a mysterious stranger. Then the unthinkable occurs: Emily is found murdered hours later. 
Sae, Maki, Akiko and Yuko weren’t able to accurately describe the stranger’s appearance to the police after the Emily’s body was discovered. Asako, Emily’s mother, curses the surviving girls, vowing that they will pay for her daughter’s murder. 

This book is similar to Confessions in some aspects – it follows essentially the results of one persons act of vengeance. After the murder of Emily, Asako vows that her friends will pay if they do not find the murderer or pay a kind of penance for not saving her daughter.

As a result of this, the book follows the girls lives as they grow up with both the trauma of finding their dead friend, and the threat from her mother. Each follows a different path in life with different consequences stemming from this promise of revenge.

I couldn’t help but think that this novel would have benefited more from being longer, however, as I didn’t feel overly attached to many of the characters or their ensuing fate. In fact I struggled to recall one of the girls story line until it was repeated in a conversation in the final chapter.

The story ends with a solid conclusion – where the actions of one are considered with the effects on the many.

It does seem like Minato has a knack for endings though and this novel is again rounded off perfectly – I felt completely satisfied with the ending, which is something which is often hard to attain.

Though perhaps not as good as Confessions, it is still worth the read. I’m hoping for many more books from this author, though I’d like to see some more variety in the stories. Clearly a very talented writer.

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Notes from Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky (Book Review)

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I have for a while been intending to pick up a copy of this book, though could never find the version I liked anywhere (the one pictured!). Pevear and Volokhonsky are fantastic translators, and so picking up theirs was a must:

One of the most remarkable characters in literature, the unnamed narrator is a former official who has defiantly withdrawn into an underground existence. In full retreat from society, he scrawls a passionate, obsessive, self-contradictory narrative that serves as a devastating attack on social utopianism and an assertion of man’s essentially irrational nature.

The book is narrated by a man who has long since began living outside of the societal norm, and in an essentially nihilistic existence. He disdains everyone and bears life unwell day to day.

There’s a lot in this book which is reminiscent to Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt and seems to me to face a similar though opposite saddening experience – namely the desire for salvation from a life of prostitution. The difference is, that the “hero” of this book has no desire to save Liza, but to humiliate her – “unable to love” as he has become. Even in a scene where the two seemingly from passion alone have relations, he follows it up by offering her money – intending to insult her.

The narrator, referred to by many as the “Underground Man”, is an unlikable and vengeful man who delights in offering insults and ruining the hope those around him. He represents though, and propounds in his notes, an interesting idea which is perhaps true: that the idea of society being able to progress it’s way out of suffering is an unachievable goal, due to man’s perplexing addiction to suffering: give a man wealth, food, shelter, and women, and he will soon “suffer” from boredom – we are unable to be satisfied fully and so suffering follows us, no matter what negative aspects we avoid.

An interesting philosphical fiction from Dostoevsky as he began what are considered his major works in his later years. Short and worth a read – though be prepared for a challenge in terms of how we perceive humanities ability (or even desire!) to achieve happiness.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (Book Review)

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I had only ever read short stories by Tolstoy up until this point. With him being often mentioned alongside Dostoevsky, I felt this was unjust and so gave Anna Karenina a try:

In 1874, in the Imperial Russia, the aristocratic Anna Karenina travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to save the marriage of her brother Prince Oblonsky, who had had a love affair with his housemaid. Anna Karenina has a cold marriage with her husband, Count Alexei Karenin, and they have a son. Anna meets the cavalry officer Count Vronsky at the train station and they feel attracted by each other. Soon she learns that Vronsky will propose to Kitty, who is the younger sister of her sister-in-law Dolly. Anna satisfactorily resolves the infidelity case of her brother and Kitty invites her to stay for the ball. However, Anna Karenina and Vronsky dance in the ball, calling the attention of the conservative society. Soon they have a love affair that will lead Anna Karenina to a tragic fate.

The plot itself was, at first, fairly unappealing to me – I had never really read what is essentially a romance novel before. The story follows various characters through their relationships and careers as they develop and deepen throughout the novel.

Tolstoy held the family unit in high regard and place of peace (certainly so in his major work: War & Peace) and so it is interesting to consider a novel surrounding the failure of the unit from within. When a proud, almost womanising, Vronsky comes on the scene and severs Karenin and Anna apart, we see the results of this failure.

At times the novel seems like a display of different variations of the family unit (perhaps reflected in the famous first line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.“). We see each couple in the novel facing different problems and approaching them with quite different motives.

I admit though that I struggled at times to find much sympathy for Anna: she had cheated on her husband (granted he was a little cold to her), become pregnant as a result, and allowed her pride to push her into a relationship with Vronsky, even whilst still legally married to Karenin. In doing this she also abandoned her son, who continued to live with Karenin. Sure you see her love for her son in a very moving scene on her return to Petersburg, but the fact remains she leaves him.

Levin was perhaps my favourite character, and certainly the most accepting of reality, being close to the peasantry and the land. His moral crisis plays out interestingly too, and his struggle with the change in his life situations seems to real that Tolstoy certainly seems to be drawing from experience.

Ultimately the ending is very tragic, with despair succeeding and paranoid hopelessness prevailing. Perhaps this was the message Tolstoy wanted to show when society turns in on itself and selfishness is sought first in relationships. Afterall, unlike Levin and Kitty, Vronsky and Anna still seem adamant in their independence.

Overall the book is certainly worth reading, with some very touching scenes and interesting writing style. It is, though, a romance, and there isn’t a lot of action involved, so it may not be for everyone!

The Man Who Laughs – Victor Hugo (Book Review)

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This was a tough find, and stayed on my shelf for quite some time beforehand due to my editions tiny font; but it’s finally read:

Raised by Ursus, philosopher and entertainer, Gwynplaine is the Laughing Man. Found at age 10 when abandoned in southern England, caryying a blind child in his arms, Gwynplaine’s face is disfigured into a constant laugh.

As Gwynplaine’s fame grows among the commoners of London, he is found by the police and his true identity revealed to him – peer of England.

Ultimately the novel is a love story between Gwynplaine, the man whose face has been intentionally mutilated into a laugh, and Dea, the beautiful blind girl he rescued whilst she was still a baby.

Replete with Hugo’s typical use of language, the novel is a pleasure to read, though I did it find moments where essentially the same paragraph was repeated multiple times, as though Hugo couldn’t quite decide who to describe the scene.

The novel is set in 17th century England and draws a strong distinction between those in the aristocracy, and the commoners of the land. Gwynplaine transcends both in some ways, raised a commoner, and ascending to aristocracy in an instant.

This creates problems for him however, as aware of the struggle for the common man, he finds it difficult to settle in to this new life of luxury which is thrown upon him.

This is a tragic story of conflicts between social classes and love, and the values which battle when success is suddenly presented to someone. The manipulation of the common people for the comfort of the aristocracy is apparent though when Gwynplaine joins them in the high seats, but tough for him to stomach.

Hugo’s views on social reform are very clear throughout. Like his books, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, execution is shot in such a gruesome light that at times it felt as though the corpses of the convicts where feet away from the reader. The need for equality across social classes perpetuated throughout, and the values of each struck constantly in every chapter.

Overall though this wasn’t an easy read, and I found myself finishing it just because I had started by the time the last 100 pages were in sight. Recommended for fans of Hugo, but not as first – unrepresentative, perhaps, of his other work…

Mort – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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The fourth in the Discworld series which I began earlier in the year:

It is known as the Discworld. It is a flat planet, supported on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin as it swims majestically through space. And it is quite possibly the funniest place in all of creation…

Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job.

After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death’s apprentice.

The book centers around a young man named Mort who has found that he has little to recommend him in many professions often undertook by people of his age. After unsuccessfully waiting in the market to be offered an apprenticeship, Death arrives at midnight and invites him to work in his unique profession – ushering people into the afterlife.

Mort accepts and begins learning the profession, and exploring much of what lies beyond mortal understanding in the afterlife.

Death, finding himself with some free time, also begins exploring new avenues, and finding himself quite apt at being a chef, begins working in a kitchen in Ankh Morpork

The book contains much of the comedy as the other books but feels a lot more structured, which is a good thing. That being said, the storyline is still very simplistic, and though identifiable, it isn’t particularly captivating.

Another positive though is that the comedy in this book feels a little bit less forced than it does in the previous one: the jokes seem to fit the context a lot better, and often simply wordplay on the situation is employed.

I will continue to read the series, however, finding them a good “light” read in-between other books. They are certainly worth a read for fantasy fans looking for something other than the typical high fantasy doorstop books.

The Last Day of a Condemned Man – Victor Hugo (Book Review)

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This has my to read list for a little while:

One of Hugo’s shorter works, The Last Day of a Condemned Man follows the journaling of a man sentence to death for an unspecified crime.

Given six weeks until the day he faces the guillotine, the man reflects on his life and his inescapable end.

The story is an intentional writing on Hugo’s behalf – a strong opponent to capital punishment in his day. Reading his other works, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, you get this impression throughout.

Faced with his inevitable and dated death, the condemned man describes the mental torment he goes through, knowing the hour of his end.

Longing for his family and freedom, or at least a quick death rather than a wait, the man describes how he feels no capacity for repentance now all his thoughts are occupied with his approaching doom, which people will watch for fun.

Dostoevsky, in his book The Idiot, reflects similar ideas – describing being hit by a horse-drawn cart as preferable to awaiting a hanging. Dostoevsky himself having been in a similar situation himself in his youth (only being pardoned minutes before his hanging) he is quite a significant sympathizer to the thoughts of the condemned man.

Capital punishment is clearly different nowadays: for one it is now very uncommon for a country to still practice it frequently. Another perhaps is that its no longer publically viewable – the Romans loved it and crucifixion drew crowds, but more recently hangings in the 19th century drew similar crowds too.

Reading this led to interesting discussions on a topic which goes deeper than I initially thought.

If you are a fan of Victor Hugo, it’s certainly worth exploring his ideas on a topic he was clearly passionate about.

 

 

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes (Book Review)

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Read based on a recommendation. I haven’t really delved into a lot of science fiction, especially not seriously:

Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone’s jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.

The story is written as a series of Progress Reports by Charlie for the lead experimenters in the study. Beginning pre-operation, Charlie struggles to write coherently and spell correctly. He explains about his job and his friends there, and how he longs to become smart and join in the serious conversations people are always having around him.

The experiment is a success, and it’s not long before Charlie begins realising that his ‘friends’ were always mocking him, and that the conversations about politics and religion he often heard were misinformed, and even that the lecturers at the university knew little in their own area.

As he begins to struggle with his new life, he begins to lift the veil of his past, especially in regards to his family, and in particular, his mother.

The storyline becomes very moving as Charlie begins to understand more about himself and his past, and begins to explore new relationships. The novel challenges many views on people with learning difficulties, and pushes to humanise those we don’t understand due to their disabilities. Echoing throughout the novel is the fact that Charlie existed long before he become intelligent: the researchers didn’t create him.

It’s written in a very unique way, and is certainly memorable; it is unlike any novel I have read previously. The book is also not very long, but felt like the storyline was full and complete, and I struggle to think of any unanswered questions. I certainly felt melancholy once it ended though, but it ended well.

A must read for sci-fi fans!