“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 1997)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
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Sometimes books can be exactly like beautiful, perfect pieces of art; created with skill and finesse and care and brilliant ability to the point where the reader might feel they are holding the equivalent of the Mona Lisa in their hands.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is one of those magical novels that many readers consider to be a perfect work of art; it in fact represents the best this bestselling Japanese author has to offer.  His other works employ elements of his mastery, whether its compelling fully-rounded characters that are just fascinating to read about; or a great storyline that sucks you in from the very beginning and keeps you going until the very end; or strong themes that force the reader to think more on the story they are reading, and what meaning and resonance it might have on their own life.  But The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the pristine of example employing all these attributes in a perfect work of fiction.

Our unusual and flawed hero is one Toru Okada, who begins the story with a simple quest: to find his lost cat.  Okada is unemployed while his wife, Kumiko, spends her days busy at work at a publishing house and he sees her but briefly in the early mornings and late at night before they go to sleep; it is clear that their marriage and relationship is on shaky grounds.  Okada challenges himself to find this cat that has gone missing, spending his time searching up and down the streets of this ordinary Tokyo neighborhood.  While there is no cat in sight, he soon befriends a most enigmatic teenage girl named May Kasahara who is a classic Murakami character with quirks and unusual characteristics that just make her fascinating to read.

As time passes, no cat is found, and then Kumiko suddenly disappears and Okada finds himself now searching for his wife as well as his cat, as he burns through his savings.  Before he knows it, he finds himself unavoidably inveigled in circumstances and experiences that grow weirder by the chapter, as he finds himself sitting at the bottom of a dark well looking up at that small circle of light and sky.  Along the way he meets more unusual characters, such as Malta Kano, named after the island of Malta, who has been asked by Kumiko to help find the cat.  Then there is her even stranger sister, Creta Kano, named after the island of Crete, who is essentially a psychic prostitute.

Eventually Okada discovers the reason for Kumiko’s disappearance, and has to deal with her weasely and despicable brother, Noboru Wataya (whom they named the cat after), who is a political celebrity well revered in public circles.  Okada also meets and begins working with Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka in a most unusual business, as he hopes to find an answer to the strange blue-black spot on his cheek that won’t go away.  And finally there is Lieutenant Mamiya who befriends Okada after the passing of a friend in common, and begins to tell him stories of his experiences during the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo, sharing his own similar experience of spending a long time at the bottom of the well.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the type of lengthy book that can be interpreted in so many different ways, with readers getting different ideas and thoughts and concepts from it; the same reader may even reads it multiple times over a long period and see different aspects and stories in a different light.  No matter what preconceptions the reader has as they begin reading this very special book, they will be transported to somewhere they never imagined existed by the very skilled hands and mind of one Haruki Murakami.

Originally written on May 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Hard Boiled Wonderland  Blind Willow Sleeping Woman  1Q84  Kafka on the Shore

“The Casual Vacancy” by J. K. Rowling (Little, Brown, 2012)

The Casual Vacancy
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After the unfathomable success of the Harry Potter series, with over 450 million copies sold worldwide, likely making it one of the biggest phenomena of our lifetimes, J. K. Rowling is now back with her first new book in five years.  She now turns to a much more adult story about a quaint little English town where everything is most certainly not as it seems.

In the idyllic west country town of Pagford, where things pass at their own pace and everything stays pretty much the same, a change is about to happen.  A respected citizen of the community, Barry Fairbrother suffers a sudden brain aneurysm and dies unexpectedly.  It is a very sad time for the family and for the community, as he touched many lives during his time, as well as being an important member of the town’s council.  But Barry’s passing is also the lighting of a spark that sets off an explosive chain reaction, as the empty space on the town council starts many wondering who should fill his seat, and a number of unlikely candidates come out of the woodwork.

The Casual Vacancy is also the story about a number of the characters of this community, and how they begin to act and react when this person who had an effect on their lives is gone and is no longer there to provide aid and advice.  The book is by no means a happy novel, as these characters make terrible decisions that lead them down a downward spiral of despair.  By the end of the book, the reader is left hoping their might be some sort of cathartic uplift, but Rowling is going for a harsh true-to-life approach here, where things don’t all of a sudden get magically better.

Overall the book comes off as a letdown, slow and dragging at points, with nothing to drive the reader along to keep reading, as things get worse and worse for just about everyone it seems.  Rowling is perhaps pulling from some earlier experiences in her life before her fame and riches, as there are characters dealing with drug addiction, poverty, marital problems, and a whole host of unsavory issues.  The book also comes off somewhat amateurish, as Rowling constantly references many places throughout this imaginary town that confuse the reader, and could have easily been aided with a handy map at the beginning of the book.  Then there is the large host of characters, featuring many couples of about the same age, some even with the same first letters of their names, which often makes things confusing, and could’ve been helped with a simple cast list.  Finally, there is the constantly switching P.O.V. from paragraph to paragraph, without any break in between, so that the reader becomes quite untethered and lost at times.

The Casual Vacancy was an experiment by Rowling in seeing what happens to a town when an important member dies and all the people he’d had an effect on begin making bad decisions that then effect the rest of the town.  By the end of the book the reader is sad over the events of the book, though Rowling makes it clear that if any of the characters had made the decision to not think of themselves for a moment and to notice that nearby person suffering and help them, things would have come out quite differently.  But because this social message is buried in the clunky format and pitfalls of the book with no satisfactory resolution, the reader is left wondering what was the point of reading this book to the last page.

Originally written on January 8, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Casual Vacancy from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Fifty Year Sword” by Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon, 2012)

Fifty Year Sword
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From the bestselling author of House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski presents a chilling Halloween story as told third hand through characters in their own specific way with special language and diction.  The Fifty Year Sword is a relatively quick read featuring a story that leaves a lasting impression.

Chintana is a local seamstress who finds herself at a party where her nemesis is about to enjoy her birthday at the strike of midnight.  Not hoping for much, she enjoys a drink and before she knows it, finds herself in charge of five young orphans.  Unsure what to do with them, she finds a surprising answer when a stranger arrives with a very special story to tell, one about a long journey to a creator of swords, swords named for the ages in how they work.  It is a story that captivates the orphans, as well as Chintana, reaching a climax with the big black box and what resides within it.

The Fifty Year Sword, like Danielewski’s other works, employs a unique form of storytelling and book design, featuring words on the left page, and ornate needlework and cotton and wool swirling on the facing page, making designs and patterns, occasionally linking with the story.  While the idea is an interesting one, the overall effort comes off as over exaggerated and at times unnecessary.  Danielewski’s use of language, however, is an enjoying read, as he uses the language and vocabulary of his seamstress to weave and captivating tale.

Originally written on November 10, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Fifty Year Sword from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
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For any fan of books and reading, it sounds like a dream come true: a twenty-four hour bookstore, where you can show up anytime and be willingly accepted to browse the stacks and be surrounded by thousands of books and breathe in the literary scents.  But then there are some weird things going on at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore during the early hours of the morning, as well as some very strange characters coming in.

Clay Jannon is unemployed and looking for anything that will bring in some money, after being dumped out of the web-design world with the tough recession; and it ain’t cheap living in San Francisco.  And then one day he sees the help wanted sign at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  After having the interview and experimenting with going up the ladders that stretch high up the stacks of the three-story tall bookstore, he gets the job.  He works the nightshift from 10PM until 6AM, where Mr. Penumbra greets him in the early morning.  It seems like an easy job for okay pay, since there are hardly ever any customers.  At the front of the store is a small selection of regular selling books, but most of the store is taken up by unique and strange books all written in code.  Occasionally Clay gets customers coming into the story in the early hours of the morning, returning a book and borrowing a new one.  His job is to record the details and condition of these strange people in the great bookstore log.

As the story progresses, the curiosity grows and grows, for both Clay and the reader, wanting to know who these people are, what these coded books are all about, and what exactly it all means.  Clay wonders how a bookstore like this even stays in business.  And as he begins to dig deeper and deeper, he opens up the mystery and learns answers that lead to more questions and more curiosity.  The bookstore appears to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Robin Sloan’s debut novel plays well on the enjoyment of the reader, as well as slowly unraveling the mystery, in addition to taking the reader around San Francisco and into the heart of the Googleplex, and then across the country and back in time through a hidden history, all on the subject of books and their meaning.  Readers will be hooked with Sloan’s easy reading style and curious tale until the very end.

Originally written on November 10, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain” by Mark Twain (Everyman’s Library, 2012)

Mark Twain
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For anyone who’s grown up in the United States, you’ve more than likely been exposed to Mark Twain in one form or another, whether it’s having read one or more of his books in high school, seeing a biographical story about him on TV, or hearing one of the many hundreds of references about him; to many his is the quintessential “Great American Author.”  And just a little over a century after his passing, Everyman’s Library has released a beautiful hardcover edition collecting all of his short stories.  What makes these different stories compared to his novels?  Twain is freer and seems to have more fun with his short stories, being more uproarious, satirical and rollicking in the short prose than with the long.  This is the Twain that many may not be as familiar with, but it is well worth the read.

There is the strange tale of “The Facts in the Great Beef Contract” about a debt owed to a family by the US government for beef, and how as each family member passes without the payment being fulfilled, the next member ventures forth to try and get back what was owed.  There is the famous “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” set in the familiar Northern Californian “Angel’s Camp.”  “Journalism in Tennessee” is about a journalist taking on the agriculture section of a local newspaper, even though he knows nothing about farming, and proceeds to spew complete lies and fiction, incurring the ire of the local farmers.

Collectingall of Mark Twain’s sixty short stories, this collection shows the great author’s full breath from writing entertaining fiction, to travel pieces, to contemplative nonfiction; the only problem is that at times the line between fiction and reality becomes somewhat blurred.  But with Twain’s conversational and comforting voice, readers will be welcomed and taken on a truly great adventure.

Originally written on September 13, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Complete Stories of Mark Twain from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Phases of Gravity” by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2012)

Phases of Gravity
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The great Subterranean Press continues with its limited edition releases of Dan Simmons’ work, with his early bestseller, Phases of Gravity, originally published in 1989.  In Simmons’ classic style that has gone on to create many a fan and reader, as well as win multiple awards, Phases of Gravity seems to be a simple, straightforward story on the surface, but as the reader plunges deeper into its depths, it becomes something much larger and meaningful.

Phases of Gravity is a change from what fans might be used to with Simmons, as it features little of the horrific or science fictional, but is the story about what a man does when he has achieved the greatest pinnacle; how he lives his now very ordinary-seeming life.  Richard Baedecker has done what very few people on this planet have done: walked upon the surface of the room.  A former astronaut, Baedecker is now traveling around, wondering what to do with his life now that he has done what so few have.  He has a failed marriage and a son that hates him.  The book takes him to an unusual location in Poona, India, where he meets the beautiful and unique Maggie Brown who will help him in his personal quest to find his “places of power,” the locations that have had meaning to him in his past, and make him realize the importance of what he has.

Originally written on January 24, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Phases of Gravity from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Carrion Comfort    Drood    The Terror

“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami (Vintage, 2000)

Norwegian Wood
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Norwegian Wood is the book that launched Japanese author Haruki Murakami from a mid-list author to international stardom and bestsellerdom, not just in his native Japan, but throughout the world.  With its unique combination of western world references and influences combined with the story of growing up in Japan, its success forced the author to leave Japan and live in Europe for some time.  It can best be summed up as Murakami’s Catcher in the Rye for Japan.

Norwegian Wood is a change from Murakami’s more well-known and expected dark and mysterious novels – usually involving some form of magical realism – featuring a down-to-earth story with some very unusual and special characters.  Toro is working his way through college, growing up in the late sixties, and Murakami seems to pulling a little from his own college years here, with the interesting details about Toro’s strange and overly-neat roommate, along with the growing animosity of the students on campus.  Toro’s closest friend killed himself when he was a teenager, and now his late best friend’s girlfriend – Naoko – has come back into his life.  As they meet and discuss and deal with the loss, their relationship grows and develops, yet Naoko is still having a very hard time dealing with what happened to her psychologically, as well as dealing with the world.

Told from Toro’s first-person perspective, it seems that Toro is the only grounded, “normal” person in the book.  But as the reader gets further along, they realize that Toro has his own problems and issues that he has been hiding.  Then there are his few strange friends, who would certainly not be considered normal by any means, not to mention the eccentric girls he meets up with; some he befriends, others he never sees again.

Norwegian Wood is about a boy becoming a man during the sixties in Japan, educating himself through college, and learning about love and life through relationships and choices.  It is an entertaining and moving story that also has a number of life lessons hidden within its pages.

Originally written on November 20, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Norwegian Wood from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Warriors” edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (Tor, 2010)

Warriors
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When you purchase  a copy of Warriors, even if you don’t get around to reading it right away, with its mighty girth it can serve a number of alternate uses such as a doorstop, a paperweight, a bookend, or anything else you can use a large brick-shaped object for; it is after all a 700+ page hardcover.  But once you start reading this epic anthology of great storytelling, you won’t want to use it for anything else until you get to that last page.

In an interview (coming in August), editor Gardner Dozois reveals that the anthology was mainly George R. R. Martin’s idea, to request a specific group of authors to write a story about “warriors through the ages,” from a variety of different genres.  The result is a massive anthology that features bestselling authors such as Diana Gabaldon, Robin Hobb, Peter S. Beagle, Steven Saylor, S. M. Stirling and Robert Silverberg; both Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin also have stories featured in this collection.

The anthology begins with a story from Cecilia Holland, entitled “The King of Norway,” revealing the tough world of the Vikings.  There are some fantasy stories about classic warriors, but also fiction stories about people being warriors in different ways.  One of the most unusual stories comes from James Rollins in “The Pit,” told from the viewpoint of a dog who has gone through a terrible life, kidnapped as a puppy and driven to madness and anger to be a fighting dog with the goal of killing its fellow kind and winning its master lots of money; but then it is rescued and doesn’t know if it can have a normal life again, until its master comes back to haunt its life.

The best and most interesting story of the collection, without a doubt, comes from an unlikely author in Carrie Vaughan with “The Girls from Avenger.”  This is the story of the women of World War II that little is known about: the Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs.  They were never allowed to fight in combat, but they were a necessary part of the military machine in flying planes to specific bases, testing and making sure they were all working fine.  In this story a friend of a close group of WASPs dies under strange circumstances, while the military does everything it can to cover it up and pretend it didn’t happen; Em is not going to let that happen, and is going to do everything she can to get to the bottom of why one of her good friends is now dead.

Whatever type of story you’re looking for, you will find it in this wonderful collection.  The idea of the warrior has many different meanings, and with the great variety of talented authors featured in Warriors, they all have a very unique story to tell.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on June 28 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Blockade Billy” by Stephen King (Cemetery Dance, 2010)

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It’s a known fact that Stephen King is a big baseball fan, and possibly one of the biggest Red Sox fans (if you doubt this, just read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon).  After the mighty tome of Under the Dome and with a four-novella book called Full Dark, No Stars due out in November, there’s another little story King is releasing to keep fans occupied.  Blockade Billy is a short, little book – just over a hundred pages – about baseball that is a perfect read for the start of summer and America’s favorite sport.

Way back when, in the early days of baseball when the players weren’t making much money and it was all about the rule and the game and the sport, the Titans of New Jersey had a bad start to the new season.  Their everyday catcher, while driving drunk, killed a woman and is in prison, while their scrawny beanpole of a backup catcher is mowed down in a play at the plate and ends up in the hospital.  Then the Titans find a young rookie from Iowa, William Blakely.

Blakely is strange character – in that great Stephen King way – who does an impressive job catching and hitting to boot.  At his first big play at the plate, Billy tags the runner out as the man flies over the catcher and is left with a sliced Achilles heel, never play properly again.  But Blakely wins the team and the fans over in that first game, as well as others to come.  He starts hitting balls out of the park, doing a great job of catching, and making some great plays at the plate.  The nickname – Blockade Billy – sticks and a legend is born.

The season continues and while the Titans don’t win every game, they do well and Blockade Billy continues to wow the crowds and the team.  Then a terrible secret is discovered.  About Blakely.  His career is over; the Titan’s games are stricken from the record, and every effort is made to eradicate the name of William Blakely from history.

The story is told in third person to King from the former third-base coach, now in his old age, who remembers this high time of baseball and the infamous memory that was Blockade Billy.  King writes it in his colloquial, easy to read style, slowly giving out the details and keeping the reader completely hooked, needing to know what the story is behind Blockade Billy.  But I’m not going to give that away here; you’ll have to read the book to find out.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on May 18 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

 

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“Rapture” by Susan Minot (Knopf, 2002)

Rapturestarstarstar

Much like Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, Rapture is a story about a doomed relationship. Benjamin already has a fiancée by the name of Vanessa who he’s pretty sure he’s still in love with, while Kay meets Benjamin on the shooting of a movie and from then on the game plays out.  Sometimes he is madly in love with her, while she just wants to get away from him, while at other times the opposite takes place, and rarely do the two want each other.  What makes Rapture unique are a few things: the book takes place entirely around the setting of Kay going down on Benjamin, and this oral sex does not reach its orgasmic conclusion until page 112; and the reader is not only in the head of Benjamin or Kay, but both of them, each mind separated by a single asterisk, and each time you know whose head you are in because Minot follows the plan exactly.

Minot also has many lessons to give you: “Once a boy felt he’d made a conquest, then his energy was released and he was free to move on and put the girl out of his mind.  For a girl, that conquest left its hook in.”  The only think lacking in Rapture is a comfortable sense of the outside world which most books tend to offer.  Because of this  we do not know where we are, what jobs the characters have, and are confined to the narrow minds of these bizarre yet perfectly realistic characters.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on May 6th 2002.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.