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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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…

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!

How Saints Die – Carmen Marcus (Book Review)

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Discovering the release of this book was happy accident – the cover caught my attention, followed by the plot, followed by the discovery that the author and I share a hometown(!):

Ten years old and irrepressibly curious, Ellie lives with her fisherman father, Peter, on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It’s the 1980s and her mother’s breakdown is discussed only in whispers, with the promise ‘better by Christmas’ and no further explanation.

Steering by the light of her dad’s sea-myths, her mum’s memories of home across the water, and a fierce spirit all her own, Ellie begins to learn – in these sudden, strange circumstances – who she is and what she can become. By the time the first snowdrops show, her innocence has been shed, but at great cost.

The story is set in a quickly changing fishing village on the coast of the North Sea. Peter, a fisherman suffering from vertigo, makes a living mending nets and supporting fishermen to support his small family – his wife who is now in hospital, and his young daughter, Ellie.

Ellie is unaware what the state of her mother is, but the whole school know her mum is ‘mad’. As Robin, a new boy joins, a friendship sparks despite the current against them.

The story is interesting in the sense of it’s atmosphere – it all seems very dimly lit, but captivating. My curiosity kept me reading, despite aspects that often put me off – namely magical realism (though granted allowing for metaphor).

Allowing for the time the novel is set, I would have expected further consequences for the actions of some characters, though perhaps, not being born then, I am interpreting past situational circumstances in the light of modern time.

The characters are certainly intriguing and I quickly felt strongly about them when the novel began, and this developed well throughout.

It was great to read a book set in a location I am familiar with, and will certainly encourage me to read more ‘local’ fiction in the future.

1984 – George Orwell (Book Review)

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After much delay I finally got around to reading the famous “1984” – perhaps it following so closely after Shades of Grey is somewhat telling, but nonetheless it had been on my reading list far too long:

Nineteen Eighty-Four revealed George Orwell as one of the twentieth century’s greatest mythmakers. While the totalitarian system that provoked him into writing it has since passed into oblivion, his harrowing cautionary tale of a man trapped in a political nightmare has had the opposite fate: its relevance and power to disturb our complacency seem to grow decade by decade. In Winston Smith’s desperate struggle to free himself from an all-encompassing, malevolent state, Orwell zeroed in on tendencies apparent in every modern society, and made vivid the universal predicament of the individual.

It is likely that you have heard of this book: in a dystopian reality, there are now 3 major world powers – one of these being Oceania, ruled by The Party and their political head: Big Brother.

Within this state, people believe what they are told and think only what the party allow, or else face punishment from the Thought Police. Winston secretly has anti-Party thoughts, however, and with the similar thinking Julia, begins seeking revolution.

The story is sometimes a difficult one, and I read one person describe it as “an essay”, which I get – many chapters feel like the characters are decoration to something Orwell really wants you to understand. That being said, there certainly is a plot, the conclusion of which will have you squirming.

What is interesting about this book, and is surely intentional, is that it reflects much of society as it began changing and certainly some ideologies held highly now. Not least among this we would recognise as the post-modern thought that somehow we should no longer fight for the reconciliation of subjective thought and external truth, but that we decide what truth is – if we all agree that 2+2=5, then it must. This is something Winston argues against vehemently, and I with him – we don’t determine our external reality, simply because we don’t like it.

As news is fabricated and reports constructed in order for the thoughtless mass to believe anything, the struggle in the society where “Big Brother is watching” is surely a terrifying one. The ending left me feeling a little defeated, and it certainly had an impact.

If this is a classic you have been delaying reading, it may be worth your time. Be prepared though as it isn’t particularly light reading!