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Wednesday, 28 November 2012

1Q84 - Books One, Two and Three

I have a confession to make...the eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I have neglected to follow through with one of my plans for this blog. Back in August (!) I announced my intention to read Murakami's 1Q84 and review it on a book-by-book basis. Then a few weeks later I chickened out and decided to wait until I'd finished the whole thing to post my thoughts. And now here we are, almost in December, and that review is nowhere to be seen!

So why the delay? Well partly it's because I was enjoying this trilogy so much that I eked out the reading experience as much as possible. I left a fairly long gap in between books two and three simply because I didn't want it to end, which goes to show just how much I enjoyed it. The other problem, though, is that I have been putting off writing a review for a good few weeks because I just didn't know where to start. It's so difficult to write a review of a novel by an author who is already one of your favourites - how to be objective, how to review the book rather than Murakami himself? So here goes, I am going to try and keep it short and to-the-point, before this descends into a rambling, gushing mess of praise.

To be honest, I think I set the scene quite nicely in my initial post about this book. The novel finds us in Tokyo in 1984, where Aomame is living a double life. To the outside world she is a solitary but pleasant gym instructor, but in her spare time she works as an assassin, killing men who have been violent towards women. A bizarre encounter with a taxi driver serves as a catalyst for a sequence of unusual events that lead her to feel that something about the world around her has intrinsically changed, and this feeling intensifies when she notices a new, second moon in the sky.

Meanwhile, across town, Tengo is an aspiring author who gets an offer he can't refuse: to re-write a debut novel by the peculiar teenage Fuka-Eri in order to give it enough polish that it might become a literary bestseller. As he gets drawn further into Fuka-Eri's surreal yet captivating fictional environment, he too begins to think that the real world he is living in is not quite as it was before. Unbeknown to each other, Aomame and Tengo's lives become linked as they both get more and more involved in the curious world of 1Q84.

Much of this book represents business as usual for Murakami and his brand of magical realism. There is something enchanting about the way in which he takes ordinary, unremarkable characters and transplants them into extraordinary settings. But I especially loved the eccentric supporting cast he created here - the sinister gangsters Buzzcut & Ponytail, repulsive private investigator Ushikawa, beautiful Fuka-Eri who manages to be enigmatic and socially awkward in equal measures. Every single person who appears in the book is vividly drawn and perfectly pitched, and each sub-plot is as engrossing as the next. I really enjoyed reading about Tengo's strained relationship with his father, about the dowager's personal crusade against violent men, and about the shady cultish commune of Sakigake.

The only real criticism I have is that it is just a touch too long. As I mentioned above, I took a break between books two and three and when I returned to it I found myself growing impatient - there's a good 150 pages or so where very little happens, and I did feel that a lot of it was covering old ground. However, when you consider the delay between books two and three being published in Japan, this becomes a bit more understandable. And just as I was really starting to become disillusioned everything picked up again for the wonderful ending (which really did tug at my heart strings, and I am not usually a soppy reader).

What you really need to know is this: if you're already a Murakami convert, you'll adore this book. If you are new to his work, this probably isn't the easiest place to start. I don't know if 1Q84 has the same special place in my heart as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle but it definitely comes close.

What do you think - are you a Murakami fan or is it all a bit too surreal for your liking? And how do you find reviewing books by authors who are already favourites? Do you have any tips on how to remain objective?

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Care Of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front this week as I've been going through a tough bit of the rota at work - a 64-hour week immediately followed by a 54-hour week doesn't leave much time for reading, never mind blogging! But I have managed to finish one book that I really want to share.

For ages now I've heard avid readers and bloggers gush about the bargains they've picked up at The Works and have been left slightly puzzled. To be honest, when I have snatched quick glances at the window display in the past it has always struck me as somewhere one step up from a pound shop, full of cheap diaries and stocking fillers for kids and not much else. But a few weeks ago I sought shelter from the rain in one of their branches and was delighted to find several books from my wishlist including a lovely hardback copy of Will Wiles' debut novel for a mere £3. I am definitely a convert to shopping at The Works!

In Care Of Wooden Floors we follow an unnamed protagonist as he leaves his home in London to be a flat-sitter for an old university friend somewhere in Eastern Europe. His friend, the fastidious Oskar, has had to go to the USA to sort out his divorce, so he has asked our narrator to keep an eye on his beautiful home and look after his two cats. Initially it seems like it's going to be a breeze - with no work obligations to distract him, he can spend lazy days doing a bit of sightseeing before coming home to relax with a bottle of red wine and working on his novel. However soon he begins to realise it's going to be a more stressful job than he first thought. I had so much fun reading this book and it made me laugh out loud on a couple of occasions. It's a sort of comedy of errors, a succession of increasingly ridiculous accidents and mishaps that have you groaning along with the protagonist every step of the way.

I loved the way this book made me think about how we choose our friends, and how people with fundamentally clashing personalities can be very close. It is one thing to see a person socially on a regular basis but another thing entirely to be let into their home and take responsibility for their sanctuary. Oskar is a constant presence in the book despite the fact that he is halfway across the world and there is something overbearing and irritatingly smug about his personality. Nevertheless, at times I found myself relating to him more than the protagonist. I can be quite a messy person but at the same time a bit of a control freak (it's an 'organised mess') and I struggle to think of many friends who I'd be happy to let take control of my space, even for such a limited time!

It also made me think a lot about how the simplest scenario can take a disastrous turn when red wine is involved. Ohhh, red wine...

The whole thing is very well written and it's remarkable how Wiles keeps things interesting considering the fact that maybe two thirds of the story takes place within the apartment itself, and also that there are very few characters (the protagonist, the absent Oskar, his friend Michael and a cleaning lady who doesn't even speak any English).

I was in The Works again today - and remarkably managed to refrain from spending any money, might I add - and this is still in there for a bargain price. It is the best £3 I have spent in a while. I'd definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Perfect People by Peter James

At around the same time as the Wellcome Trust Book Prize winner was announced, I was finishing one of the shortlisted books, Perfect People by Peter James. Mark Lawson, chair of the prize judges, has said: "The judging panel includes representatives of literature and of medicine and our hope was to find a work that met the toughest judgements in both disciplines." Unfortunately I don't think Perfect People holds up to tough judgement in either field. There was a lot that I didn't like about this book, but to its credit it gave me a lot to think about and it has taken me longer than usual to process my thoughts on it.

Perfect People is a thriller with a sci-fi twist that delves into the shady world of eugenics. John and Naomi Klaesson are a couple who have been left heartbroken by the death of their son by a horrible hereditary disease. Desperate to have another child, but wanting to be sure the same fate will not befall them again, they hand over their life savings and their bodies to the infamous Dr Dettore and his shady offshore genetics clinic. He promises that he can make their dreams come true and when Naomi falls pregnant it seems like their wish for a perfect family life is about to become a reality. But has Dr Dettore got something to hide? (yes) (I hope that isn't too much of a spoiler) The Klaessons must contend not only with the stresses of pregnancy but also with the general public who consider what they have done to be an abomination, that they are meddling with Mother Nature.

To begin with, I didn't enjoy James' prose at all. I have never read any of his Roy Grace novels, and I gather that this represents quite a departure from his usual writing style. On the whole it isn't that bad but some of his turns of phrase really made me cringe:

'Naomi was awake; John could hear the faint crunching sound of her eyelashes as she blinked'

...what? I have just sat here at my laptop for 30 seconds, furiously blinking away, and can firmly state that eyelashes (mine, anyway) are entirely silent. What a bizarre sentence. I also found myself squirming at the one sex scene in the novel, which is really dreadful.

I found Naomi and John to be generally unlikeable protagonists. They throw themselves into Dettore's clinic with almost unbelievable naivety, particularly given the fact that John is supposed to be a scientist with a background in biology. Initially this made me feel sympathetic towards them, but as the story progressed it got on my nerves. John in particular makes a couple of terrible decisions that put me off him as a character quite early on in the book. And setting aside the difficulties they face with their children, I found their attitude as parents to be quite questionable at times. The more I reflect on this book, the more I am starting to consider the fact that maybe the reader is supposed to see them as very flawed human beings. I'm still not sure though, and the fact that I couldn't engage with either of them certainly affected my enjoyment of the book.

I believe that Peter James spent 10 long years researching and writing this novel but I have to be honest and say I don't think it really shows. It's not that he has included lots of false information or poorly-explained facts, he hasn't. It's more that there just isn't that much science included in the book. And to borrow from the Wellcome Trust Book Prize blog: "The science in the novel is very much fiction". For example, in the acknowledgements at the end of my copy he thanks a certain professor for providing him with material on 'Genetic dissection of neural circuits controlling emotional behaviours', and I can't identify where in the book this type of technical information has been used. Maybe it is unfair of me to talk about this in my review as it isn't detrimental to the novel at all - maybe the opposite, as there's nothing I hate more that when authors try to tackle scientific/medical topics head on and fail miserably. I would much rather they gloss over the details or avoid going into too much depth. It was just a point that interested me when I read the author's acknowledgements at the end.

As I have already said, though, from an ethical point of view the book gave me lots to think about. The morals of genetic engineering, for both medical and aesthetic reasons, could be debated all day. It's also interesting to ponder the mindset of the Christian sects who are dead against genetic engineering of the embryo but at the same time urge the Klaessons to opt for an abortion or even plot acts of violence against them. At the moment this is a topic that makes for exciting fiction but who knows what might be possible in the future? So even though my overall impression of Perfect People was not great and it kind of annoyed me, I am glad to have read it.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Wellcome Trust Book Prize 2012 - Winner

I am a little behind with this post as I was firmly convinced that the winner of the Wellcome Trust Prize was to be announced tonight, when it was actually awarded two days ago. I often see bloggers refer to their blogging journals and schedules and vaguely dream about how it would be to be that organised. I can't imagine ever being someone that manages to review books to deadlines for publishers, for example. Maybe I will make a New Year's resolution to get my blogging act together a bit more! Until then, dear readers, you will have to be content with enjoying two-day-old news, so please put on your best surprised faces and let me announce that the winner of the 2012 prize is: Circulation by Thomas Wright.

You can read my initial post on the shortlist here. This was one of the books I was most interested in reading so I'm definitely going to get my hands on a copy this week. Mark Lawson, chair of judges says that it "combines scholarly science with such narrative excitement that it will be a great surprise if we do not eventually see 'Circulation: The Movie'". I'm not sure it sounds like a concept that I would enjoy watching on the big screen but I will reserve judgement until after I've read the book!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Passage by Justin Cronin

When I have a few days off work I like to try and tackle one of the heftier tomes taking up space on my bookshelf. There's something so indulgent about immersing yourself in a really BIG book, the sort of book that you wouldn't usually pop in your handbag or take on the bus because it's just too unwieldy. So last week I was browsing my options and this Justin Cronin tome caught my eye. I didn't know too much about it but had swapped for a copy after reading several rave reviews of the recently published sequel, The Twelve. And at 900-something pages it fit the bill, as well as counting towards my RIP VII challenge.

The Passage is basically divided into three parts. The novel opens in the present day, where we see the US authorities conducting a dubious secret experiment which involves twelve Death Row prisoners and an abandoned 6-year-old girl named Amy being inoculated with a mysterious new virus. An accident results in the spread of the virus around the United States, resulting in national disaster as its victims exhibit vampire-like (vampirish? a real word?) qualities. Skip 100 years or so down the line and we meet Peter, one of the few humans untouched by this epidemic thanks to the bright lights that illuminate his Colony and keep the 'virals' away. But for reasons I will keep under wraps, he and his friends are finally forced to leave the safety of The Colony and go seeking a new life and a solution to save the human race.

The first third of this book is absolutely excellent. I was totally gripped. There is something really cinematic about Cronin's descriptions of devastation and chaos, and the scenes played out in my head as if I was watching them on the big screen straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. What's more, we meet a host of engaging and human characters who I was sorry to leave behind as the story moved on in time.

Unfortunately my interest dipped in the middle third of the novel, as the focus moved to Peter and the other inhabitants of The Colony. I didn't really find him to be a particularly inspiring hero, nor did I like any of his friends or neighbours. Much of this section seemed superfluous to the plot and I think I would have enjoyed the book just as much had large sections been cut. After they left the safety of The Colony walls, though, the action picked up again and I found myself engrossed, desperate for them to find the answers they were seeking.

I didn't love The Passage overall but it did hold my interest and I imagine I will probably read the sequel at some point, if not any time soon. The plot is excellent but for me it fell short when it came to the characters, with none being particularly distinctive. I loved that Cronin has taken pains to create a solid backstory for this post-apocalyptic landscape as I feel it's something lacking in many similar works. Nevertheless, I would have liked more information on why exactly the US government were conducting this ghoulish experiment in the first place - there were a few sketchy letters between scientists featured in the early chapters but I didn't feel their meaning was clear. The closest comparison that kept springing to mind as I was reading this is to I Am Legend (and it more closely resembles the movie adaptation starring Will Smith rather than the original novel) so definitely one to check out if you like your landscapes bleak and your vampires vicious (not handsome and sparkly!).

I read this book as part of my RIP VII challenge!

Monday, 5 November 2012


So my first blog challenge has come to an end and a whole lot of spooky fun it was too. I pledged to read four novels as part of RIP VII and to be honest I thought I'd struggle to manage that, but I actually got through six. So the books I picked to scare myself with were:

The Possessions of Dr Forrest by Richard T. Kelly
Turn Of Mind by Alice La Plante
The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé
Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson
The Apprentice by Tess Gerritsen - no review for this one as I didn't really enjoy it and wasn't even stimulated enough to come up with any points of interest to write about.
The Passage by Justin Cronin

I don't generally choose my reading material according to the season but there is definitely something satisfying about cosying up on a dark evening with a book that is packed full of suspense. Although when working the night shift on Halloween itself it may not have been the best idea to read a couple of chapters of The Passage on my break, having to then walk back from the break room along deserted hospital corridors, convinced that vampires were about to spring from every nook and cranny, eeek!

Halloween may be over but the peril doesn't have to end there...the main site for RIP VII is here and there are literally hundreds of reviews on there for you to browse should you find yourself with a notion to read something a bit dark.

Thanks to Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings for facilitating the challenge.