Sourcery – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)


The fifth of Pratchett Discworld series: Sourcery – one which people correct me on when I told them what I was reading (“Sour-cery”, “Sorcery”?)…

There was an eighth son of an eighth son. He was, quite naturally, a wizard. And there it should have ended. However (for reasons we’d better not go into), he had seven sons. And then he had an eighth son … a wizard squared … a source of magic … a Sourcerer. Sourcery sees the return of Rincewind and the Luggage as the Discworld faces its greatest – and funniest – challenge yet.

The book brings us back to Rincewind in Ankh Morpork as a new member joins the university – a ten-year-old boy with seemingly unlimited magic potential, set on the goal of immediately achieving the highest rank in the university.

With the danger apparent, Rincewind escapes with the Arch-Chancellors magic hat, and travels abroad led by the voices of the late arch-chancellors. With the wizards blinded by power led into declaring supremacy over the land, the end of the world nears (with the 4 horsemen drinking at a bar in preparation, led by Death of course).

The book as a whole reads a lot better than some of the previous books by Pratchett: it just seems to flow a lot better and generally be better thought out. The humour too seems a lot less forced and more on level than before, and some lines were genius in the setting.

The ending is satisfying too, and I didn’t find myself rushing to the last page. A criticism perhaps though is that quick introduction of the sorcerer, who even to the last I felt like I hardly knew despite, in a manner, being the main antagonist.

I will be reading the next shortly, as I continue to make way through War & Peace at the same time!


Piercing – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)


After reading and enjoying In the Miso Soup, I spotted this book shortly afterwards! Fairly short and so I gave it a go:

Kawashima Masayuki is a graphic designer living in Tokyo with his wife, Yoko, and their healthy baby girl. Outwardly, their lives are a picture of happiness. Every night, however, unable to sleep, Kawashima creeps from his bed and stands over his newborn child with an ice-pick in his hand, and an almost visceral desire to use it.

The book follows the decision by Masayuki to carry out a murder in order to satisfy the desire in him to harm his child. He decides that this best be a prostitute, and done under a false name. He makes his excuses and books a hotel room for a week.

His plan is set – he will hire a prostitute specialising in BDSM, have her tied up, and use that opportunity to carry out his plans. Only it turns out the prostitute sent to him is just as traumitised psychologically as he is – her upbringing too is effecting her thoughts.

The book is creepy in it’s own way as two damaged people misunderstand each other through the own false interpretations of the world: one perhaps through over-trusting, the over through distrust. This leads to some interesting insights into how the thought life of each person can interpret the same events in very different lights; a sort of cognitive-dissonance.

Though not as engaging as In the Miso Soup, this book follows very much a similar vein of writing – people with evil intentions facing various challenges in Tokyo night-life. Brutality and no barriers to descriptions of cruelties present, and absence of resolution completes it. I quite like this about Ryu Murakami though – the endings are very interesting in their “incompleteness”.

I felt in some ways that this book was trying to be creepy though. There were some clever bits, but other parts felt a little forced and predictable.

Perhaps if you have read In the Miso Soup this might be worth a read, but I certainly preferred the former! I will read more Murakami though, certainly an interesting guy in a strange way.

In the Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami (Book Review)


I’ll be honest, I was attracted by the strange title and interesting front-cover. I’m also trying to read shorter books in preparation of facing down War and Peace later in the year. But this was a pleasant (?) surprise:

 In the Miso Soup tells of Frank, an overweight American tourist who has hired Kenji to take him on a guided tour of Tokyo’s sleazy nightlife. But Frank’s behavior is so strange that Kenji begins to entertain a horrible suspicion—that his new client is in fact the serial killer currently terrorizing the city. It is not until later, however, that Kenji learns exactly how much he has to fear and how irrevocably his encounter with this great white whale of an American will change his life.

Kenji, a young Japanese man, makes living from taking foreigners around Tokyo’s nightlife, most those with the intention of finding strip clubs or hiring prostitutes. Kenji being well connected makes a fair living from this, though un-registered as a tour guide.

When he is hired for three nights on the run up to New Years Eve by an American named Frank, he first suspects a similar job to usual – a business man in the country for a few days looking to find a prostitute before leaving back to his home life in America. But, something about Frank is very strange, and Kenji becomes unnerved by suspicions of Franks true identity and desires.

The book, unsurprisingly, is very dark and described in such detail as to only be recommended with those who approach it expecting this. The descriptions of murders around Tokyo and the “sleazy nightlife” are skimped out on, and are given as graphically as possible. Though perhaps in a way to shock the reader to the realities of the life there.

It was truly saddening to hear even fictitious lives of prostitutes in Japan who are often young and down on their luck, meaning they sell “there only marketable thing”: their body. The men who approach them are looking only for a bit of fun, but for them it’s a life which has become inescapable.

I found myself drawn into the darkness of the world portrayed, and I found it hard to stop reading out of curiosity for what will happen next. I don’t often read thrillers but if many are like this one, perhaps I should…

I recommend this for anyone interesting in Japanese life or literature, but only if you approach it knowing it’s a little dark: not as bad as American Psycho, but certainly in a similar vein!

The ending was very poetic in a way, and left a lot of things open intentionally it seems, as fitting for the story.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (Book Review)


I read this after reading much about it in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. I often saw it in book shops on the “Must Reads” tables, and so reading it was inevitable:

Hundreds of years in the future, the World Controllers have created an ideal civilization. Its members, shaped by genetic engineering and behavioral conditioning, are productive and content in roles they have been assigned at conception. Government-sanctioned drugs and recreational sex ensure that everyone is a happy, unquestioning consumer; messy emotions have been anesthetized and private attachments are considered obscene. Only Bernard Marx is discontented, developing an unnatural desire for solitude and a distaste for compulsory promiscuity. When he brings back a young man from one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old unenlightened ways still continue, he unleashes a dramatic clash of cultures that will force him to consider whether freedom, dignity, and individuality are worth suffering for.

The book essentially follows two main characters who are living in a future where amusement and consumership are held in the highest regard, and where it is considered the height of barbarism to commit to only one other human in a monogamous relationship, or to (worst of all) became a parent. Babies are grown in test-tubes in this future, and abortion clinics are there for emergencies (though from a very young age, contraception is taught to be of the utmost importance).

Bernard Marx struggles in this society as he has found within himself another desire – a desire to be an individual. This world which humans exchange sex and drugs so casually sickens him, and he wishes to abandon his base desires in order to search deeper meaning – though this is actively discouraged!

Upon bringing back a “savage” (raised by a mother, taught monogamy, and to whom religion is very important) to “civilised” society, the savage shocks many with his views and disgust towards this world. Even when the girl he is in love with offers him sex so casually, he is infuriated and refuses this meaninglessness she has attached to offering her body to men.

The book is a strange one as it differs from Orwell’s 1984 in a few stark ways:

Firstly, the world is controlled through the means of pleasure and an abundance of amusement. This keeps the population so disinterested in seeking out individualism or meaning, as they are kept sedated from doing so by having all they seemingly need.

Secondly, the characters revolt against the system isn’t so much a physical one in attacking the government, but a mental one in which he must battle the things he has been taught as normative since birth (and often failing to do so).

Thirdly, the number of those in revolt against the system are so few as to make their impact near negligible. Rather than groups of “rebels”, there are only two people within the novel who seemingly want to change the world, or at least survive it differently.

There are moments when the book took a little inferring due to leaps in character development with little build-up, but otherwise it was written fairly well and with haunting clarity.

Postman suggests (and I would tend to agree) that insofar as predicting the future, Huxley was much more on target: We now have an abundance of entertainment and attach a great deal to being constantly amused (affecting all areas of our life from religion to education); we take little to no interest in politics or meaning unless it directly affects us and our comfort; and (without perhaps sounding prudish) we have diminished the meaning of sex to little more than a physical exchange, and monogamy to little more than an outdated way of viewing relationships. We are entering this “Brave New World”, not in such a dramatic way, but step-by-step.

Penance – Kanae Minato (Book Review)


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.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (Book Review)


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)


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…