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.

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

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Earlier this year I read A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, and after enjoying that, chose to read more of his work! This was also selected as a book for this month’s book club:

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

The book is set in pre-war Austria where a young man is sent to Vienna to work with one of his mothers old friends at a tobacconist shop. This tobacconist was once a soldier in the trenches during which time he lost a leg and now worked in the shop to make ends meet – reading the newspapers and knowing everything about the cigars (despite not smoking).

The shop gets regular customers, one of which is the famous “idiot doctor” Sigmund Freud – a man Franz has heard much about and is excited to meet.

As war approaches however, the shop becomes vandalised as a “place that sells cigards to Jews”, and as the tobacconist fights these strange new ideas, and Franz chases love, the city of Vienna seems smaller and smaller as war approaches.

Frustrated by the Nazi’s, sad at the fate of his lost love, Franz seeks Freud’s advice and friendship, though this becomes difficult; Freud being a Jew.

The book is not unlike A Whole Life in the way that it is written – no chapters and much imagery. The constant call backs to a peaceful childhood fit effortlessly in the prose, and Franz becomes a likable character as he develops into a man in such a difficult time.

It certainly gives a good glimpse to pre-war Austria, with peoples opinions seeming to change in such a short period of time – one month mocking Hitler as a dog; the next shouting “Sieg Heil” and mocking the Jews…

The cynic in me questions our immunity to such fluctuations too – we are often blind to our hypocrisy even today, and a liberal society is in danger as being no different to a totalitarian one once it starts enforcing by law it’s liberal ideologies – “believe in liberalism, or face punishment, or public shame, or jail”. We must be on guard and soberly check our logic in such things.

Overall a thought-provoking read though an acquired taste – often slow and seemingly insignificant, but all rounded to a big picture of change and the loss of hope in the face of your own country against you.

The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

I bought the second in the Discworld series after enjoying the first one. The ease in reading this, and the light-heartedness of the stories, have become something I look forward to between reading more challenging books:

In the sky appears a red star, which gets bigger day-by-day as Great A’Tuin approaches it. The wizards of Discworld begin the search for the 8th Great Spell, which must be said along with the other 7 – only in times of crisis.

The 8th spell, safely within Rincewinds, seems somewhat reluctant to be caught, however.

Joining up with the now old, Cohen the Barbarian, Rincewind and Twoflower traverse Discworld, seeking the answer to save the world from colliding with the great red star.

The story sets place in a variety of environments, from forests, to cities, to inside an ancient spell-book. The characters continued to be developed, and the conclusion of their story-lines something which I’m eager to pursue in the following books in the series.

I did feel, however, that there were one or two lines which should have been cut somewhere in editing. Though perhaps humorous, they just didn’t sit well in the holistic atmosphere of the book.

Though perhaps not quite as enjoyable as the first Discworld novel, the conclusion to evade me until the closing pages – the threat of the approaching star seemingly unavoidable, yet the mixed reactions of the inhabitants of Discworld making it hard to guess who knew what was actually happening – which is not a bad thing.

Reading the Discworld series so far has encouraged me to branch out more in fantasy novels, and that can’t be a bad thing. I looked forward to exploring the genre more this year!

The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart (Book Review)

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I got this book for free sometime last year, and it was recommended to me by a trusted friend as a ‘cult classic’, comparable to Fight Club:

Luke Rhinehart is a psychotherapist bored of the routines of everyday life. Believing that we suppress other selves when decision making (i.e. a self that wants to steal, rape, and murder), he begins experimenting with what later becomes DiceLife – decisions and reactions decided by the roll of a dice.

Slowly this snowballs, gaining him a fame among many: thousands who follow the way of the Dice (a new religion, of sorts), and those despairing at the suggestion of destroying free will and random chance being an increasingly common claim in court.

As a short story idea, I feel this book would have worked a lot better. I got the impression about halfway through that the author had an idea, and stretched it way too far:

Firstly, positive stuff: I found the writing style to be very witty, and did like the main character – I seem to have a liking for fairly sarcastic, cynical main characters.

Secondly, the negative: Far, far too many of the decisions focus on sex, making the whole concept of a DiceLife feel little more than a sexual experiment. About 300 pages the vast majority of decisions related to who will sleep with who, and how. I felt this to be very limiting in terms of shock or interest.

Another thing is that I just didn’t buy it as a viable suggestion – that the philosophy behind it was in anyway convincing. The whole thing was just a bit silly (and I am aware some people follow it since the books publishing – likely mostly as an affectation).

Ultimately I was disappointed with the book, but I did finish it. The writing was witty and it was an easy read. I just wish that the author either shortened the length or included more varied content – as it stands, some content could have been removed with little effect in terms of the overall story.

 

 

 

The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett (Book Review)

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I bought this book about 2 years ago but never got around to reading it. I bought it after a talk with a friend of mine who has read everything Pratchett ever wrote. I recently gave it a read before starting a bigger book:

Rincewind, a wizard drop-out, becomes the unlikely guide to the Discworld’s first tourist: Twoflower. Travelling on the a Disc-shaped world, supported by 4 large elephants on the back of a giant turtle travelling through space, the characters get into a variety of situations, pursued by the overly-loyal Luggage.

To appreciate the book, a knowledge of fantasy is already required: over-the-top plots, very convenient timings, etc. as the whole book is written as a fantasy-satire. This is introduced early on when, in the case of an attempt to greet another person failing, it is said that the character realises he ‘fumbled the introduction’ – a reference to D&D.

The book follows to characters as the face a variety of challenges, mostly coming about by the eager Twoflowers want to explore and take pictures of the world.

The book is written in a very simple way but, and this was my misunderstanding, in a way which is appropriate for young children (teens perhaps, though). With references to ‘whoring’ and a fair bit of nudity aside, a lot of the humour would require a bit of explanation for children.

The book itself is light-hearted, however, and I enjoyed reading it. I’m likely to read others in the series in time, but not after a heavier read!

Alex – Pierre Lemaitre (Book Review)

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This was one of the choices for this months book club. Being a crime book, and assured that it doesn’t rely on a twist ending, I thought to give it a go. I usually avoid crime novels due to cliches after all…

Alex, a young woman, finds herself kidnapped and hanging in a cage from an abandoned warehouse ceiling; the abductor saying he only wants to watch her die.

Verhoeven is assigned to the case and must track down a girl who seems to have no connections to anyone, and who seemingly moves about France a lot.

A fairly simple premise, but a quite complex story-line as it gets going.

The crime in the book is described quite graphically, which though it could have worked, felt somewhat forced in the writing. I got the impression that I was supposed to be more shocked than I actually was (perhaps I am desensitised, but who isn’t today?)

Alex was a very interesting character, and by far my favourite in the novel. For a victim, she had none of the cliches that are common in crime novels, and I for one certainly appreciated that.

Verhoeven, however, did carry some cliches. Widowed, angry etc. But perhaps if I read more of Lemaitre’s books, I’d grow to like him more (being a recurring character).

The story-line was complicated and the ending very clever. In fact, it dawned on me what had happened at exactly the same time it did another character, which I felt was novelty: the writer had managed to keep me in the dark as much as the characters, despite knowing all the clues.

Overall, certainly a unique crime book, and for lovers of the genre, one I would recommend. Perhaps I will develop a love for crime fiction eventually, but until then, books like this certainly make an argument in favour of the genre to me.