Fiction Review – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

On the lookout for different and interesting authors, I was suggested Haruki Murakami. “He’s one of the biggest sellers in the world”, my suggestee said to me. At first I was unsure… I’m always wary of overly-popular things. But, in the end, I thought “why not” and firstly bought The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I adored it completely and was pleased to find a second of Murakami’s novels was on my university reading list. So I went to find that; Norwegian Wood.

The differences between the two books are quite clear. Reading the translators notes from Norwegian Wood, I find that Murakami’s usual style is to dip into the supernatural, alike in The Wind-Up bird Chronicle. They said that Murakami saw it as a challenge to his writing, whereas his readers saw it as a step down. It is true that Norwegian Wood is more ‘tame’ in comparison. However, that still doesn’t depreciate from the charm. If it’s one thing that this book does have, its charm. Murakami has a strong talent in creating bold characters that, love them or hate them, create deep impressions. In this novel, the main character is probably the least alive, but surrounded by all of these oddballs, he becomes more interesting. I personally hated many of the characters because I felt their personalities clashed with mine. I feel that’s such a beautiful thing, to be able to understand and connect with a character so much you can feel your “personalities clash”. The characters are the drivers of the novel and definitely make it worth-while.

The plot runs as a slowly-paced romance novel, shown from the view of a 19/20 year old Toru Watanabe. It raises interesting topics, such as love, death and purity and Murakami shows no remorse for details. He is a writer I’m coming to see as unafraid. Expect some truly blunt dialogue and events along with many sex scenes when reading this one. With such open-ness, the book is full of surprises. Each theme explored is done so with such upfront force, it can’t help but make the book breathe.

My two issues would be the pacing and the ending. The pacing for me was a little slow. While the events were colourful, you were guided through them softly. Guided a little too softly at times. However, if you stick to it, it’s worth the effort. The ending, perhaps is a personal dislike. The last few pages hold something I think is too surprising and out of character. I can see how it possibly shows development of the character, but I’d be interested to hear others views on it. However, I’d definitely suggest one of  Murakami’s novels, as he is a beautiful writer.  Saying that, I’m more likely to suggest reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as an introduction to his work, before seeing the contrast with Norwegian Wood.

Rating: 8/10

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Fiction Review: Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

Visitation is a novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, written in the style of a selection of short stories. It follows the people who ‘journey’ through a house in Germany, following several characters over a period of seven decades. The book focuses on the issues of twentieth century Germany: such as the Berlin Wall and Nazi movements. Each character is introduced briefly, meaning we have very little time to get to know them. However, Erpenbeck writes her characters in a way that you can be attached and feel empathy for despite this brief meeting. Dorris is one such character as we follow her final hours at a camp. The use of smells and thoughts really help build the emotion of the scene: ‘for two minutes she inhales the smell of pine trees that she knows so well, but she cannot see the pine trees themselves because of the high fence.’

This book is quite heavy going. The sentence structure is fairly complicated, making for long sentences that take a certain detective quality. The mix-match of characters and the loose swaps between them also make for a tough read. The book gains an essence of looking through a window and not really understanding what you’ve seen until the different images combine. Erpenbeck conceals information from the reader and gently strings them together to reveal the greater picture in this way. This is a good technique, adding mystery and encouraging the reader to want to understand the characters.

Rating: 4/10

Alongside the quick succession of characters, the tone of writing and the style also changes. Styles including perspective bound third person narration in one ‘chapter’ or short story changes to a passage with no character focus that gives a detailed description of a specific detail. For example the second chapter goes into deep detail about women on their wedding days and the traditional things that must happen. This change of focus can sometimes be refreshing, but often simply confusing. The pace of the book is constantly sped up and slowed down due to the swaps. However, this effect does mean the book is very detailed, which adds to its charm.

Fiction Review: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

The Bellwether Revivals is the first book of young author Benjamin Wood. It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2012 and sold in several countries including the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. The book tells an interesting story of Oscar Lowe and his experiences with the Bellwether family. Following a flighty romance with Iris Bellwether, Oscar finds himself pulled into a Cambridge University social group and society of wealth. He meets a trove full of interesting characters including Eden, whose relationship with his sister is shrouded in mystery. Oscar finds himself in a whole new world, compelled into discovering the secrets surrounding the Bellwether family.  Benjamin wood works characters well and his novel is fuelled by it. You grow to understand Oscar and make his journey with him. The relationships between Oscar and other characters are well constructed and expressed, including his relationship with patient Abraham Paulson that is both intimate and touching.

The story is fairly slowly paced and the character interactions, while detailed, can slow down the piece. It feels through a large part of the book that more needs to be happening. We’d get to know Oscar even more if there were more scenes that were less ‘day-to-day’. However, the scenes we are given are devoted to the build-up of other characters, which is worth it in the long haul. The character Eden Bellwether is extremely interesting and becomes almost the focus of the novel. We learn a lot of background information about both him and his sister Iris, which help to strengthen the plot, while the topic of psychology and psychological disorders is beautifully weaved in. The last half of the book, with the introduction of Dr Crest, is by far the best: where the plot truly gets to work.

The only thing that let the book down was the climax. While the idea was good, the main characters got involved in the scene way too late. By that time the action was already over. It was like you’d gone for a toilet break in an action movie, missed the boss battle but caught the after-effects. The character reactions were effective generally but you couldn’t help but feel something had been missed. However, overall the novel was a good read and I’m looking forward to his next book, which is due to be published by Simon and Schuster publishers in 2014.

For more information on the author, Benjamin Wood, check out his website at: http://www.benjamin-wood.com/

Rating: 5/10

Fiction Review: The Stone Thrower – Adam Marek

Adam Marek paints some interesting portraits in his new set of short stories: ‘The Stone Thrower’. Each story thrusts a series of clear and concise images into your hands: each unique and sensual in their own right. The stories contain varied portrayals of slightly surreal worlds and cultures, such as Banau Batong in ‘An Industrial Evolution’ or the shark ritual in ‘Santa Carla Day’. They also give a new perspective, as the subtle surrealism becomes more striking when it affects their story-worlds that are mimetic of the real world.

Each story is cleverly written, but a few stand out. One such story is ‘Earthquakes’. It is written in letter format, addressed ‘Dear Mrs Sample’. It is written in the style of a charity letter, with the main character asking for donations. The ambiguousness of the receiver works wonderfully, as you feel as if it is you who is being addressed. In this way, the story interacts wonderfully with the reader, creating a strong emotive response. Another story that stands out is ‘The Stone Thrower’, of which the book is named. This narrative brings feelings of entrapment and fear of the mysterious stone-thrower. The fast-pacing helps capture the quickly diminishing hope and growing threat. As the stories don’t all follow the same genre, the book holds a range of different story types that keep you interested.

The blurb lets the book down, I feel. The subtle surrealist elements work well within the stories. The blurb however clumsily points out generic elements, in attempt to summarise, forming a false representation. It points out how the stories base around the absurd and mundane, yet it’s doing more than that. Marek takes surreal elements and places them into our world, which is a much more tactful act than simply including them.  Each story not only brings to you ‘the superhero dictator’ or the ‘intelligent clothing’ as an object, but as an essence. It brings these things to you and allows you to experience by seeing the effects in the story-world. However, with such intricate methods and events some of the stories can be confusing and not all of the concepts get through clearly.

Overall, ‘The Stone Thrower’ collection proves itself to be a world of experience. Marek crafts his stories well to deliver the essence of each of his story-worlds and characters. They are brilliant for lovers of all genres and those who enjoy to not just read, but feel every story.

Rating: 6/10

Fiction Review: The City and the Stars – Arthur C Clarke

This book is beautiful. From its descriptions of the city, to the smoothness of the plot, every aspect just beams with elegance. Though perhaps lacking in the action you expect from a science fiction novel, the plot is well structured and keeps you reading, regardless. The story follows Alvin, a unique boy born to a world, eons in the future. And what a world it is. Clarke paints the scene vividly. The description is definitely one of the finer details of this novel.

The book focuses more on the human, rather than alien viewpoint. We do see some alien activity, but the descriptions for these are less focused and given little importance. It would have been nice to be able to explore these worlds more-so rather than stick so closely to earth. The human society we see, however, is well portrayed. You get a real sense for the characters– even with the vast differences between their and our worlds. Sometimes the detail lets Clarke down a little. Some description around characters thoughts are put in long-winded ways. This makes a book you have to focus all attention on to follow, but it’s worth it when you do.

The most interesting part of the book beside the vast descriptions was Clarke’s strong, if fairly sudden, expression of opinion. As part of a description of society late in the book, there is a quip of a paragraph that speaks an opinion of religion. This abrupt eruption of feeling shows itself clearly through reading and it is truly fascinating. I think authors make better statements writing with their opinions shortly integrated like this, than having whole novels to make a point, such as in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, for example. Religion isn’t the main focus of ‘City and the Stars’, but an opinion is quickly and ruthlessly addressed and moved on from: perfect.

Overall I believe this book is the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read and it’s definitely inspired me to delve into this genre. I love it dearly for its description, how Clarke makes statements and the characters’ personal journey.

Rating: 8/10

Fiction Review: Anthropology by Dan Rhodes

Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology paints a series of little pictures; one hundred and one little pictures, each with one hundred and one words in them…little OCD maybe? Though the stories’ technically may be short and sweet, the content sure isn’t. Each vignette tells of a relationship where the girlfriend dies, secretly has kids, is a slut or is a ‘plain girl’. It’s a book full of depression that occasionally forms into a satirical, dark humour. Take one of the stories for an example of this humour, ‘Binding’. It begins by stating how the girlfriend was smashing her child’s toes with a rock. It then continues to mention the babies’ agonised wails. Then just to top it off, as part of the ‘punch-line’, Rhodes decides to add a stereotype about homosexuals. Oh the hilarity.

Ok, so they’re not all so bad, but most of the humour is so deep-seated that you have to almost work out what the joke would be. And, if you consider… that’s all these stories are, extended jokes; jokes where the humour is hidden. You may as well title it ‘the anthropology joke book and puzzle compendium’. Whilst they’re quite cleverly written, it just doesn’t work as a set of short stories. They don’t really link enough to create a ‘character you can be sure about’, yet you can’t feel anything for the characters if you take them as individuals. It’s stuck in a purgatory between potential humour and hidden messages.

Overall, some of the stories are enjoyable and there are some nice techniques scattered about. But I didn’t enjoy the dark humour.

Rating: 5/10

Fiction Review: Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

I must admit, I can admire this novel. While not the most adventurous of narratives in terms of story, Time’s Arrow is a masterpiece when it comes to its structure. How Amis kept his writing consistent through his unique story-telling style is beyond me. The whole story is told backwards: from events to conversations. In this way, this novel gives us a new method of viewing the world. To imagine how alien the world would be if everything was naturally played backwards is inspiring and a beautifully constructed concept. I would often step aside from the story and think of events in the real world and how they would be seen backwards: people chewing mush, to then take a fork from their mouth produce a piece of chicken, which is when sewn back to the chicken breast by a knife. It’s truly fascinating.

However, while a masterpiece when viewed structurally, this technique as a form of entertainment is quite confusing unless fully understood prior to reading. The blurb, while technically spoiling the character in terms of suspense, is more or less vital to full comprehension. Unless you’ve been told that the story reads backwards, you have a good while of being confused ahead of you before you finally realise. This is a hard one to judge because while remarkable story-telling, I feel it cuts itself off from a wide reader base.

Alongside its structure, this novel also gains interest for its setting: Nazi Germany. Historically-based novels usually flag up warning signs for anyone uninterested in History. As expected, you do have to have some general awareness of the workings of Auschwitz and the effects of World War Two on Germany for thorough understanding.  Though, while those with a wide historical knowledge will probably get more out of the novel than those who don’t, the novel does integrate history in a way that is described to the reader: at least in part. It doesn’t feel like you’re being taught exactly, but hinted and reminded. The narrator: the characters unconscious, with their backwards view of the world becomes heavily unreliable in their perspective, which forces the reader to think about the differences between both views. Such complex narrative is not really something you want to read on a quiet night in with a cup of tea between watching Countdown. You have to really focus.

However, although the book is fairly hard to read and takes effort to understand, you do get a good experience at the end. The book’s main effect (and benefit) is its portrayal of this new world outlook, which is very thought provoking: especially when coupled with such emotive history as the happenings of World War Two. If you’ve got the time and fancy a rewarding challenge of a read, Time’s Arrow is a perfect choice.

Rating: 7/10

Fiction Review: The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende

The thing with the Never Ending Story by Michael Ende is it appears to try too hard. It’s a masterpiece in terms of completely screwing the levels of narrative over and it is written very cleverly to encompass many different story-genres and expectations. However, while it masters its ‘smart’ aspects, it just doesn’t hold off as a story. It feels jumbled together like you got a pick’n’mix of stories, shoved them together, tied them with a bow and sold them as a quality sweet at a candy store… it just doesn’t slot together well enough. For most of the novel, I was more interested about the branching stories and hypodiegetic levels than the actual main diegesis! For example whatever did happen to that Centaur? Or what happened to the knight who slayed the dragon? What kinds of magical things happen in the various lands of Fantastica we don’t get to hear about in the main storyline? And guess what? Each of those stories would each be MUCH MORE INTERESTING than what we’re actually told. I’d much prefer to read about the heroic battles of a brave knight to rescue (and win the heart of) his maiden than some fat kid who wishes himself thin and heroic and ends up being a slightly more evil fat kid.

Another thing I disliked about it was how quickly it rushed over events and characters.  Some of the characters were really interesting (the fiery lion of many deaths and the centaur to name a few) and they were just rushed by and never mentioned again. And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, the worst of those fly-by characters actually made the cut to come back: I’m talking of course of those annoying clown-faced flying Acharis race, who after their transformation just got on your nerves. Even forgetting all the odd ends and bits, the narrative itself seemed rushed. Atreyu’s whole journey could have been drawn out and made into a whole book… which I guess is the point for the over-all book effect but that’s  its problem. It tries too hard to get an ‘effect’ which adds to the ‘this book doesn’t work as a book, it only works as a statement of how to play with narrative’ effect.

There were things I liked about this book, however. I enjoyed the characters and thought the world of Fantastica was well thought out. I also like the concept that every story told in the human world helps Fantastica grow and how all of our stereotypical genres are added to the mix. I liked the first half of the books’ plot (Atreyu’s adventure), but I wish we could have heard a more detailed description of his travels. I’m also quite fond of the authors supposed intention to completely mess up and toy with fiction by adding in the Man of Wandering Mountain and forming a loop within the book and how that in itself works its way into the title and very being of the book.

But… unfortunately I hate books that focus too much on a statement so that the narrative ends up getting pushed to the background. However, that is another rant and shall be told another time.

Rating: 4/10