“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.

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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.

“Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” by Haruki Murakami (Vintage, 1993)

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World from the incredible Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, ranks as one of the favorites on reader’s lists of his works, and for a relatively short book of around four hundred pages, there is a lot of story going on in what is essentially two separate worlds.  This book is the type that will immediately pique your interest, and before you know it, you’ll be wholeheartedly sucked in and won’t want to put it down until you’re done.  The other fact about this book is that while it is considered contemporary or literary fiction by most, it is in all honesty, a straight-up science fiction novel.

The odd-numbered chapters are told from the viewpoint of an unnamed character in the “hard-boiled wonderland.”  He is a Calcutec, a person who has the ability in his brain to process and encrypt data and to use his subconscious as an encryption key.  In this world there is the System, which is part of the government, and that is who the Calcutecs are allied with; then there are the criminal Semiotects who work for the clandestine Factory.  The Calcutec takes what seems to be a simple job for a mysterious scientist that turns into something much more, and he learns he’s a very special Calcutec.

The even chapters are told from another unnamed narrator in a place referred to as “the end of the world.”  The reader knows the narrator has arrived here recently, a strange place sealed all around by a great wall; there’s a map at the beginning of the book of this place and its various buildings.  The narrator also knows that he has been separated from his shadow, who is getting sick.  He is assigned his new job of “Dreamreader,” where every night he goes to the library and reads dreams from the skulls of strange beasts.  The narrator is very uncertain of this place and knows he needs to escape, the only question is how?

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a prime example of why so many readers like Murakami, as his sets up an enigmatic world that forces the reader to question, as their curiosity grows and grows.  The elements of this book make it a great work of science fiction that may not have all the answers, but will leave the reader contemplating it long after they’ve finished it.

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

To purchase a copy of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman  1Q84  Kafka on the Shore  Norwegian Wood

“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.

“King Raven” by Stephen R. Lawhead (Thomas Nelson, 2011)

King Raven
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Stephen R. Lawhead’s Robin Hood trilogy – Hood (2006), Scarlet (2007), and Tuck (2009) – received much acclaim and became big bestsellers when they were released, as he presented one of the more complete and superior epic tales of this forest hero and his band of merry men.  In 2011, for those looking to read the trilogy for the first time, or for those hardcore fans, Thomas Nelson released all three books in a single mighty volume, allowing readers to put it up on their shelf next to their copies of The Once and Future King and The Lord of the Rings.

Bran ap Brychan doesn’t really know if he ever wants to be king, but his father is a poor king who doesn’t treat his subjects of Elfael as well as he should perhaps, but Bran doesn’t really know what he wants to be.  Then all that changes when a group of Normans invade the Welsh kingdom and his father is killed, making Bran the automatic heir.  Except the Normans seize the kingdom, awarding it to a bishop and care little for Bran and his supposed claim to this throne.  And so begins Bran’s adventure, as he brings together a band of merry men to go see King William and wrest back his kingdom.  Thwarted in London, he is told he can have his kingdom back for a ridiculously high amount of money.  So Bran sets about getting the money the only way he knows how: from those cursed Normans who stole his land, as well as making sure his people are treated right and well.

Stephen Lawhead presents the first of his impressive trilogy on Robin Hood in Hood, explaining his detailed research in the afterword, and pointing out the unlikelihood of this character living in the thirteenth century in Sherwood Forest and going against King John.  Lawhead posits Robin Hood living in the late eleventh century in the time of William the Conqueror and his overtaking of Britain with his Normans.  Bran is a Welshman, and the Normans cared little for this distant part of Britain, except when they wanted to make it their own.  It makes perfect sense that a man out of legend would rise up to help the people against these dastardly Normans.  Lawhead also pulls from Celtic mythology to blend this story that might well have been, seamlessly.  He also does a great job of playing on the many fabled stories and clichés everyone knows about Robin Hood, though tweaking them a little to make them all the more entertaining.  Hood is a great and riveting work of historical fiction that will have any fan of the genre hooked.

In Scarlet, the book opens with the framing tale of Scarlet, who is in prison and sentenced to be hanged.  In the brief time before his execution, Scarlet tells his story of losing everything and becoming a forester when he meets this King Raven.  At first challenged to an archery contest, he reveals his extreme skill, rivaling that of King Raven, better known as Bran, and soon becomes a valuable member of his “merry men.”  But Bran needs a skilled warrior like Scarlet to fight back against these Normans steadily taking control of Wales, as William the Red doles out more land to his cutthroat barons.  The book comes to its climax as Scarlet must choose whether to be executed, or to give up the secret location of King Raven and his men.

In the conclusion to the trilogy, Tuck, told from the viewpoint of the redoubtable friar, it seems the Normans simply won’t give up, and King Raven, also known as Rhi Bran Hood to the people of Wales, must muster not only his skilled foresters, but incite an entire revolt from his people, based mainly in his kingdom of Elfael.  With the treacherous Abbot Hugo and the evil and bloodthirsty Sheriff de Glanville, it will take everyone working together to bring these Normans to their knees once and for all and send the firm message to King William the Red that King Raven and his Welshmen will not be crushed.

Lawhead rounds out the trilogy in a great way, bringing it all to a satisfying close, but still with plenty of action and subplots and complex goings on.  Again blending the history with the Welsh mythology, it is a very enjoyable read seen through the eyes of a new character.  And the King Raven tome allows readers to enjoy the complete saga in one big book and perhaps one very long sitting (though I wouldn’t recommend it), as well as featuring a sample of one of Lawhead’s other books, The Skin Map.

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

To purchase a copy of King Raven from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2006)

Blind Willow Sleeping Woman
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There are essentially three types of Haruki Murakami fans: those who enjoy his novels, those who enjoy his short stories, and those who enjoy both.  I enjoy both, perhaps his novels a little more.  For those looking to see what this great author has to offer with his talent, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman provides twenty-four examples of this, each story feeling special and unique.

In the first story, of the same name as the collection,  a half-deaf character experiences this strange world through his own filtered way, as the blind willow trees provide pollen that fly and burrow inside a woman’s ear; the story is poetic and moving.  In “The Mirror,” a man looks into a mirror to find someone else standing there, someone he doesn’t completely recognize, only to later discover there never was a mirror.  “The Shinagawa Monkey” tells the unusual story of a woman who has lost her name and the steps she takes to find it again and why she ultimately lost it.

Readers will be whisked away and become lost in these many enchanting tales of the unusual and in some instances, bizarre, but they will see the truly great talent of Haruki Murakami, and discover why so many people the world over have become timeless fans of his works.

Originally written on May 18, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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1Q84  Kafka on the Shore  Norwegian Wood

“Lucky Bastard” by S. G. Browne (Gallery Books, 2012)

Lucky Bastard
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The bestselling author of Breathers and Fate returns with another entertaining and funny book that is well keeping in the style of one S. G. Browne.  Readers who have come to enjoy Browne’s particular style, humor, and characters will be delighted in this latest offering with Lucky Bastard.

Nick Monday is not your usual private detective, by any means.  He’s what you’d call a luck poacher.  Yep, that’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  Since he was a young child, he knew he’d inherited the “family gift,” and then went on to make a business out of it, as so many luck poachers do.  All he has to do is shake the lucky (and soon to be less than lucky) person’s hand and the luck is magically transferred into him.  He’s not sure exactly how it works, it just does.  The person isn’t necessarily unlucky from them on, he or she is simply no longer lucky.  As to how Mr. Monday can tell whether a person is lucky, it’s sort of like sensing someone’s midichlorian count and the strength of their force, like an aura in a way.  There are several gradations of good luck, from some good fortune on up to easily picking those winning lottery numbers.  And just as there is good luck out there, there’s also bad luck, but Nick does his best to stay from that.

Except bad luck seems to keep finding him wherever he goes.  He lives in San Francisco, after having to leave another state for some shady business, but soon finds himself getting on a number of people’s bad sides, including the supposed daughter of the mayor of the city, Tuesday Knight, who offers him $100,000 to get back her father’s stolen luck. (Yes, Nick was the one to steal the luck originally; and no, it’s pretty much a one way thing when you take someone’s luck.)  He also finds himself mixed up and seriously pissing off a Chinese mafia kingpin.

Lucky Bastard is over the top and fast-paced, taking you all over the wonderful city of San Francisco, but Browne does a great job of suspending the reader’s disbelief, creating a character that isn’t perfect by any means – in fact he gets quite annoying – but remains true to the writing and the character, keeping readers hooked to the very last page.

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

To purchase a copy of Lucky Bastard from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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Fated  Breathers

“1Q84” by Haruki Murakami (Knopf Books, 2011)

1Q84
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Bestselling Japanese author Haruki Murakami returns with his next encapsulating novel, and this one’s a long one.  Originally released as three separate serialized books in Japan, 1Q84 has been released as a 944-page behemoth in the US.  It is the year 1984 and the main character, Aomame makes the decision and exits a taxicab on a gridlocked freeway and goes down an emergency escape staircase and finds herself transported to an alternate world of sorts, though it is still very similar to our own; she comes to call it 1Q84, where “Q” is Japanese for ?.

Aomame is a special kind of person; technically an assassin who has developed a way of stabbing a person at a specific point in the back of the neck with a small ice-pick type implement that immediately kills the person and makes it almost impossible to rule as anything other than a heart attack.  Aomame’s targets are vicious, cruel man who have been bad to their spouses or children or other people for a long time and don’t deserve to live in this world.

Then there is the other main character, a writer named Tengo, who is rewriting a most unusual novella penned by a seventeen year-old girl with the goal of having it win a literary prize and become a bestseller.  It is a most unique tale about these “little people” who create an air chrysalis, which is the title of the book.  Only, once the book becomes hugely successful, Tengo learns more about the origin of the story from the author, as well as the fact that these little people may very well be real in this 1Q84.

Aomame doesn’t notice much different with the world of 1Q84, except that the police wear different uniforms and carry automatic machines guns, and also come nightfall there are two moons that rise up: one that looks just like ours, and another smaller misshapen one that rises shortly after it.  This is also a world where the little people exist too, though only Tengo knows about that.  And yet, under Murakami’s skillful hand, the two are destined to meet and be together, after their previous involvement when they were children; it will take time, but the question remains whether it will be soon enough before the little people carry out their own special plan.

1Q84 has many of the elements that Murakami fans have come to expect from him, with his unique characters that draw you in, a crazy world that makes you feel like you’re playing a Japanese horror game in some ways, and a writing style that will sweep you along.  A weak point with the book is that while it was originally three books, it could’ve used some editing, which is always a risk with long works that span multiple volumes, and it slows the pace, detracting from the story.  Nevertheless, 1Q84 is a darkly enchanting novel that will suck you in and not let you go until you are satiated at the end, where a number of questions are answered, though of course, not all, for something must be left to the imagination, otherwise it wouldn’t be a true Murakami novel.

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

To purchase a copy of 1Q84 from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Kafka on the Shore    Norwegian Wood