Earthlings by Sayaka Murata was not at all what I expected

Earthlings is the second book that I’ve read by Sayaka Murata. I wrote a post a little while ago about the first one – Convenience Store Woman – and I liked it quite a bit.

I went into Earthlings feeling familiar with her style, and to a certain extent her view on life. The concept of the book based on the blurb seemed to fit – she has a tendency to explore the impacts of people who live a life that goes against the grain of society, or those who seek one. It’s a fascinating and relevant concept. Normative changes shift on a regular basis and are far more malleable and fluid than they used to be. Her books fit very well in modern fiction.

Having read both Earthlings and Convenience Store Woman now I think my initial impression is still somewhat accurate, but the overall approach and resolution of the books are fundamentally different despite the shared perspective.

Full disclosure – I’m going to make a thousand references and comparisons to Convenience Store Woman in this post when talking about Earthlings. Firstly, because it is my first experience with Murata as a writer, and secondly, it is probably the first book of hers that most people will read. It feels somewhat relevant. My apologies if this is a distraction!

Earthlings quickly distinguishes itself from Convenience Store Woman by ushering in harrowing and damaging events for Earthling’s protagonist Natsuki in the opening chapters of the book. It’s unmistakably Sayaka Murata’s style, but the way that she develops the plot and her main characters this time around is a significant divergence for anyone coming into Earthlings after reading Convenience Store Woman. Earthlings is charged with layers of trauma. I think the impact for me as a reader ended up being even more significant due to the unavoidable contrast between Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Natsuki from Earthlings. Keiko glides through her book mildly baffled by the expectations and pressures of others where as Natsuki feels everything. The book feels raw and disturbing as a result, opposed to the darkly comedic and almost absurdist atmosphere of Convenience Store Woman.

Themes like relationships, sexuality, and gender politics are explored and questioned by Murata. The querying and critical nature of normative behaviour is a significant trait of Murata’s approach. There is a heavy and pervading presence of societal and familial pressure to conform to traditional paths in career, marriage and children. The way that Earthlings deals with these expectations is unique and dramatic.

Earthlings follows the life of the aforementioned Natsuki and her beloved cousin Yuu. Natsuki and Yuu have always felt themselves to be different. They imagine themselves as divergent beings that are fundamentally different from their family. They are aliens and magicians. They deal with the alienation and cruelty of the people in their lives by imagining themselves to be something or someone apart from their surroundings.

The book introduces them as children and then again as adults. The quirky and offbeat feel that one might expect of Murata is present in this book, but what I didn’t expect was the level of trauma that the characters were going to endure. Earthlings delves into some horrific and devastating crimes like rape, incest, child abuse, neglect and murder. It was not an easy read. You would not expect this based on the jacket blurb.

Natsuki seeks to reconcile her traumatic past with her adult life and find the freedom and expiation she has desperately needed since she was a child. The damage that she sustains from an early age leads her to find unique ways to deal with it. Unfortunately her escape into imagination and otherness prevents her from facing the reality of what happened to her until well into adulthood – she recedes into the protective confines of her imagination so that she can continue to live. She builds psychological walls to protect herself and when she is young they are a heartbreaking necessity.

As an adult she has precious few good memories of her childhood but she remembers her cousin Yuu and the time that they spent together at their Grandmother’s expansive house in the mountains during summers fondly – these holidays represented the brief and fleeting escapes from the abuses and neglect of her parents. The home in the mountains is lodestone of sorts that tethers both Natsuki and Yuu to the past.

Earthlings represents an expansion of Murata’s social commentary on the notions of things like work, career expectations, relationships, marriage, and children. The external pressure of other peoples expectations is stifling and pervasive. The familial expectations of Natsuki’s family and that of her husband leave very little room for fluidity or individuality.

Natsuki and her husband live together in an asexual relationship and have no physical intimacy, nor do they have any interest in it. They enjoy a supportive and friendly relationship but keep a distance. They’re both marooned in a way – the relationship isn’t one of love, it is much more like an allied front, a covenant, against the expectations of their family. Their relationship became a layer of protection that allowed them to enjoy a certain level of freedom to live how they wish. It doesn’t solve all of the or problems, or prevent the shifting goal posts of perceived life milestones, but it makes things more bearable.

The book is a journey for them in dealing with these expectations while simultaneously coming to terms with significant emotional trauma. They seek a path that enables them to be true to themselves and to be happy. They seek an escape from the ‘factory’ that they believe embodies adult life and the book is basically about how they seek to go about doing that.

Earthlings is a seriously heavy book and I honestly found myself a bit shellshocked after reading it. What sounded like an offbeat and quirky novel ended up dealing with abuse, rape, murder and cannibalism. Yeah, there is cannibalism too. I expected none of this going into it and it will be no less shocking should you read it knowing this yourself. I’ve just prepared you. There are sections of the book that are utterly horrifying and heartbreaking. It is really difficult to read at times. It’s not all darkness, however, as there are moments of surprising humour, warmth and hope despite all of this.

I’m not sure how I can meaningfully describe the latter parts of the book without spoiling anything but suffice to say that Natsuki’s journey to find a place to belong does not end up where you’d ever expect. I’ve really just given you the bones – there is a lot to it. It’s a worth while read but it is not for the faint hearted.

The Memory Police – By Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police is an interesting book. After reading it through, I think it can be summed up in one word – mournful. 

This is a book about loss. It’s a dystopian novel on a nameless island, at an indeterminate time. The world building and setting is intentionally vague.There is a dreamlike and haunting quality to it where nothing is firmly set and things could shift at the slightest touch.

I was drawn to this book by comparisons that I’d read online that likened the book to a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and a Haruki Murakami novel. I love dystopian novels, 1984, and adore Murakami so that comparison sent this to the top of my to read list. Given that this was a common contrast made by those who read the book I had pretty high expectations going in. Having finished it now, I’d agree that it does match this comparison, but not unilaterally – there are some concessions to be made. 

I think where Ogawa’s book begins to share traits with Murakami’s style is in the strangeness of the book. As the plot evolves there are moments that brought to mind Murakami stories where things diverge from the beautiful mundanity of his primary worlds and begin to descend into the surreal and strange. The comparisons to Murakami are more apt in that regard, as The Memory Police felt more firmly rooted in the strange than the mundane. 

For all of its light and vague qualities however, the dystopian aspects are quietly horrifying – this is a harrowing book and the haunting nature of it brings with it a hopelessness that I wasn’t expecting. Hopelessness, horror and harrowing events are part and parcel for a dystopian novel but they’re usually a sledgehammer – there is a message, a cautionary tale, and it is hammered home with brutality. The Memory Police is different. It’s a poisoned needle on a silk pillow. There is a real delicacy to the book that was of profound importance in not only distinguishing it from other dystopian novels, but also to the overall success of the story. 

To elaborate on that point, the plot surrounds memory (obviously), the presence of it but also the absence of it. The titular Memory Police are a shadowy organisation that appear to rule all inhabitants of the ‘Island’ and are responsible for overseeing the people living there, but more significantly, they’re the ones who enforce the disappearances. Nothing can be taken for granted in this world because the memory of something could simply disappear one day, taking with it all concern or recollection of it. When something that has been forgotten is not willingly surrendered and disposed of by the residents, they will step in to ensure that it is removed. Once something has been forgotten it simply ceases to register to the people living there, even if it rests in their hands. 

The real mystery of the book is the nature of memory and the purpose or design behind the progressive selection of things that vanish from memory. There is no way for most to know how much they’ve lost, just as they fail to recall an object, concept or its purpose once it is gone. The delirium in these moments deepens the dreamlike quality. There is a unique and keen hopelessness when one cannot comprehend what has been lost, while continuing to lose things. They are helpless to stop it. It’s a terrifying prospect and an insidious exercise in control. These voids leave a deep emptiness for the reader. You’re left to mourn the losses of the people, even as they forget and move on. Yoko Ogawa toys with the notion of how much one can lose while still remaining yourself – how would you even know that you’ve changed.

Most of what we are is memory. The totality of ones life and experience is deeply rooted in memory, in your own and that of others. It is vital to our sense of self.The concepts that Yoko Ogawa plays with here are truly haunting. There is a very good reason why dystopian novels often explore concepts like identity, individualism, freedom, and self determination. The loss of that sort of autonomy, the loss of what is irreducibly and uniquely you, is intolerable. The fact that this book is as beautiful and sad as it is, is a testament to that. 

It is a light and dreamlike read that is equally haunting, vague, and strange. If you enjoyed books like Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, you will definitely enjoy this. I highly recommend it, but make sure you have something cheery to read as a follow up – you’ll probably need it. 

Author Spotlight – Otsuichi

Otsuichi is a surprising author. Reading Otsuichi is like walking through a forest at dusk. Strips of sunlight illuminate the verdure but past the edges, in the dark, there are things waiting. They are patient, they are watching, but just out of sight. They’ll brush against you if you get too close. Perhaps more than anything else, his books are preoccupied with death.

He contrasts light with darkness, moulds them within the story, and these juxtapositions deepen them both. While you’re reading the shifts become so effortless that it almost seems like the events were predestined, something like a natural order being revealed.

There is an irresistible undercurrent of the macabre in these stories, and a deep curiosity in it. When these themes of light and dark collide the resultant reaction coruscates through everything that follows. It’s an enviable skill for a writer. He is restrained and impressive in maintaining an atmosphere, a tension.

The first thing I read from Otsuichi was Goth. It follows the story of a young man and woman who bond over their mutual interest in the macabre. Their hometown happens to be a lodestone for serial killers and unnatural events. Things are placid on the surface but there is an undertow of violence and death. It is fascinating how natural the unnatural becomes in his work. 

Since reading Goth I’ve read a collection of small novellas called Summer Fireworks and My Corpse. I also have another anthology called Zoo but have yet to read it. Based on my experience with Goth, though, Summer Fireworks was true to form lived up to the quality that I found in Goth. I was amazed to discover that he wrote this during high school. The titular story is a short novella that is written from the perspective of a young girl who has died, narrating the aftermath of her death and the actions of her killers. It was wholly unique and did not disappoint. It’s short but it really goes a long way to encapsulate the darker aspects of humanity, the cruelty of children, and the fleeting fragility of life. It is writing with a maturity and delicacy that I wouldn’t expect of somebody that age.

The second novella is called Black Fairy Tale – the blurb on the jacket likens it to a more classic Japanese horror story but I found that description to be too prosaic. It feels like that comparison is a little diminutive or formulaic. The story follows a girl who loses an eye in an accident and as a result of the injury becomes an amnesiac. The story begins with her difficulty in recovering and fitting back into her old life with none of the memories who she was. He explores the uncomfortable realities of her strained and broken relationships with friends and family who continue to have significant expectations of someone that has ceased to exist – so much so that it was almost a relief when the story shifts, the hook appears, and the eye she received in a transplant begins to reveal to her what seems to be the memories of the previous owner. 

Otsuichi is a deft hand at building tension and pressure, while seeding stories with enough mystery to remain compelling. Those aspects and his innate ability to contrast themes are pillars of his work. I just had to know what was going to happen next, even in the midst of tension, stress, and dread. These stories creep around in the lizard brain of the reader. You’ll encounter sociopaths, psychopaths, and unlikely heroes – and they’ll act just like anybody you might pass in the street, none the wiser of what they might be hiding at home, or behind their eyes. 

The atmosphere of these books weave through the spectrum from the elegiac to the cheerful and embody something unique. The stories can be meditative and contemplative and mysterious in equal measures while also exploring the quiet depravity of a serial killer. There is almost a clinical detachment at times, like that of a scientist objectively observing an experiment – there is a sense of abstract curiosity in these moments that can sometimes remove the horror and replace it with a strange sense of tranquility. It’s an odd feeling.

It’s obvious that Otsuichi’s fascination is rooted in death. He doesn’t cheapen it nor is he grotesque for the sake of it, to shock or unsettle, he just seems to be exploring these ideas and shapes of it using characters who live in close proximity to it. He writes and speculates to delve into the mystery of it. These characters are like little dark stars emitting a gravity of their own and the stories start when they begin to tug people into their orbit through their actions and compulsions. 

Otsuichi is a fascinating writer and well worth your time should this sort of thing suit your taste. His works are all available through the kindle store and they are also available in print – but I’ve found paperback copies to be difficult to source. Most of his work is from the late 90’s to the late 00’s. If do happen to track down a copy I’d strongly suggest adding him to your collection.

Pandemic Page-turners: Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

I discovered Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami after reading Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I loved that book and, as a huge fan of Haruki Murakami, I was already sold on the wistful and melancholic sensibilities that flow from Japanese authors. I decided to dig into some current Japanese writers to broaden my perspective. Hiromi Kawakami did not disappoint.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is a diaphanous, sweet and contemplative love story. It foregoes the surrealism of Murakami’s work and doesn’t have the nihilistic edge of Sayaka Murata’s books, but Kawakami has a delicacy and affection that provides her own distinction.

There is something magical about these writers. They are capable of infusing books with the bittersweet moment of parting. They possess a sense of yearning that is unique.

There are moments of loss, but these are contrasted by what is gained. The richness of an experience is that despite the pain you may endure one day when things change, it is worth it. That feeling is proof of significance. You can’t gain without loss – there is a price to be paid. To mourn the absence of something means that it was special. The presence of this philosophy in these books provides a strange sense of both pragmatism and romanticism.

Strange Weather in Tokyo is occupied with the personal transformation that takes place inside an interpersonal relationship. There is a balance between loneliness and isolation and company and companionship. I think this contrast is the key to one of the novel’s great successes. It’s firmly entrenched in the notion of loss and gain. The book is about a chance meeting rooted in the past and the profound effect that it has on two lives.

The book centres on Tsukiko and a random meeting with one of her teachers from primary school, referred to as Sensei. Despite the significant age gap between them, and his position as an old teacher of hers during her childhood, the two find themselves drawn together. They begin to bond through small similarities – tastes and appreciation of food and alcohol are significant, for example. The book weaves through small vignettes of their meetings and partings and the indelible marks each interaction leaves on them.

These fleeting moments are captured beautifully by Hiromi Kawakami. What begins as chance and casual encounters meanders into affection and then melds slowly into love. The book is short but the story is a memorable one. It shows just how fleeting and precious life is, how important it is to grasp onto the things that are important to you. Strange Weather in Tokyo is a book where you face this and the achingly melancholic truth that nothing lasts forever.

Pandemic Page-turners: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Sci-Fi? Aliens? First Contact? Check, check and check.

Axiom’s End is the first book in a new series called ‘Noumena’ by Lindsay Ellis. The second book ‘Truth of the Divine’ is due October this year, so now is the perfect time to tuck into Axiom’s End and join me being hyped.

I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi and have been since I was a kid. So any book that purports to be about Aliens and first contact are irresistible to me, regardless of execution. Name it and I’ve probably read it, the good and the bad. So given my preponderance of Sci-Fi books what did I think about Axiom’s End?

I loved it.

This book scratched a lot of itches. I realised that I haven’t read a really gratifying book about Alien life in a long time. There are a lot of great ideas in this corner of the genre and Lindsay Ellis explores some of the most fascinating ones.

First is the concept of Aliens. People have a tendency to anthropomorphise the idea of Aliens. It’s in our nature to do it. To visualise another intelligence, that could very well be unknowable, it is reasonable to assume that we would apportion these existences familiar anatomical landmarks. But in reality intelligent life out there could be so unfamiliar and unknowable to us that we wouldn’t know it if we saw it. I love that mystery. It is something that is utterly out of our comfort zone and experience. I think the book addresses this concept while also moving along a narrative vector that abides it. The concept of Aliens is, well, Alien.

One of my favourite ideas from the book came about from a discussion between two characters, that I won’t spoil, but it concerns the concept of the ‘Great Filter’. This is in relation to the Fermi Paradox, named after Physicist Enrico Fermi. I won’t go too deeply into it, but the gist of it is this: Given the enormity of space, the billions of potential of stars and planets that could theoretically support life in our galaxy, why have we not already encountered intelligent species beyond our own? The contrasting lack of evidence of other intelligences lead to the argument that there is a qualifying process that a species must pass through before extending beyond their star – a great filter for civilisation. It begs the question: when is this obstacle encountered, and when found, what is required to pass it?

This is heady stuff and I love that the book delves into these concepts.

Amongst these broad themes is the main character Cora Sabino and her family. The book is their story amidst tidal undercurrents of global change. Given how significant the events in the book, focusing on a family was an incredibly clever way to ground the story and make it relatable, while also exploring the deeper implications of Alien life and what that might do to our civilisation and our view of the Universe.

Through Cora we determine how prepared we are for the appearance of Alien life while also reconciling how we might go about quantifying it and understanding it. We have the contrasting needs of Cora’s granular concerns regarding her family and their wellbeing and her own safety and the overarching security of state and the governments mandate to protect and insulate the people in the face of something that nobody really understands.

Cora’s struggle between the immovable forces of government, the unknowable and unfathomable depths of Alien life and her own estranged whistleblowing father make for a dynamic and multifaceted conflict that explores the primary questions surrounding the idea of Alien life such as disclosure and freedom of information versus the need for security, preparation and the public’s ability to deal with this information.

And beyond all of this is the actual process of communicating and even understanding an Alien intelligence.

I’m inclined to keep talking about it but this post is more to nudge people toward reading the book, and not to break it down and spoil things. It’s better this way.

The more books we have on this topic the better and Lindsay Ellis have given us a great one. I’m looking forward to the next.

Pandemic Page-turners – Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

If I could highlight one positive about living through a pandemic it’s that I’ve been able to catch up on some reading. I imagine that I’m not alone. I’m an existence perfectly attuned for lockdowns and isolation. Providing I have books.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to dust off the blog to write about some of the good stuff that I’ve been reading lately. If you’re stuck for things to read I hope this helps.

I’ve read two books by Sayaka Murata so far and Convenience Store Woman was my gateway. So it’ll be the first one I write about.

Sayaka Murata is a quirky author. I’ve not read anything quite like her books. Her characters are odd, they are different and they stand out. They have problems with society and they have a point.

One of the many interesting things about Convenience Store Woman is how relatable some of her grievances with society are. She is an artist when it comes to taking banal moments and twisting them to produce something dark and surreal. This holds true for her sophomore effort ‘Earthlings’ too, but Convenience Store Woman is where she mastered it.

Murata delves into conformity and socially normative behaviour, along with sexual and gender politics. She muses upon the moulds that adults are expected to fit. She questions them in ways that often render them absurd and confining. They are presented as a force that is exerted. There is a Japanese saying that aptly sums up the notion here – ‘the nail that sticks up, gets hammered down’. When a point is to be made about being different this saying will often be applied. Where someone is different or unusual, there will be resistance to it. This holds true for people anywhere. This book is a case of the nail resisting the hammer.

In the eponymous Convenience Store Woman Keiko Furukura’s case, the expectation as a woman in her thirties is to find a husband, leave her part time job and have children. This quiet and insidious pressure worms its way through Keiko’s story. Murata does a great job inverting things so that the ‘normal’ people’s interest in her life becomes grotesque and their prurient curiosity grates against Keiko’s utter lack of interest.

While weathering this pressure Keiko reflects on the refuge she found in working for a convenience store. This is the meat of the novel. The world inside the store makes sense to her. There is order. There are clear instructions on what she must do. She models her behaviour after the corporate training for employees when dealing with customers. She selectively mimics the behaviour and speech patterns of co-workers. This is how she navigates social situations that baffle her. She finds a sense of belonging after spending her early years adrift in a sea of social confusion. She is a part of the convenience store machine, and it soothes her.

She has learned through her family that to be herself would mean upsetting and confusing them, in the same way that their lives confuse her. She has a painfully pragmatic attitude – she understands herself just as she understands that the people around her do not.

The book charts Keiko’s personal revelations and growth while navigating the burdens of other people’s expectations. It is an entertaining ride. The book is a rallying cry for people that wish to live their lives on their own terms.

Convenience Store Woman is excellent debut. It is dark, funny, ironic and charming. It has a knack to get you thinking about how you relate to other people and why. Everybody should reflect on that sometimes.

Ten Books to Combat an Existential Crisis

Does existence terrify you? Does life seems dark and horrifying? Have you lost your faith in people?

Are you looking for a glimmer of hope to grasp onto?

Maybe you just want a few incredible and life affirming books to read. That’s cool too.

I hope that this list will aid with any and all of these states. I present to you my list of books for your mental bomb shelter. These are the books that you crack open during times of upheaval. They are funny, sad, confronting, and most importantly, hopeful. They are a valuable resource in this day and age, worth their weight in gold.

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657The story of Scout, Jem and Atticus is timeless. Harper Lee wrote this book with enormous empathy. The book deals with tumultuous issues such as gender, race, justice, and rape. The book is eternally relevant, and the moral heroism of Atticus Finch, and the innocent optimism of Scout, is still positive and vital.

This is a book filled with hope, compassion and courage. Read this book to remind yourself that there are, and have always been, good people who will do the right thing, the good thing, in the face of ignorance and hate.

  1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

28921Stevens is a butler. The book is a meditation on his life and choices. It deals with shifting relationships, decisions made, and the loss of opportunities. The novel weaves through Stevens’ life, through past and present. I was hugely sympathetic to this story when I read it. Stevens is such a lonely character. But he is also a man of conviction, pride and professionalism.

The novel considers things like love, duty and loyalty, in addition to the influence of time on perspective and thought. It is about a man taking stock of his life, and considering what could have been but also what is. It is sad, but it is also hopeful and genuine.

  1. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

17910048The Goblin Emperor is almost entirely unique in the fantasy genre. The book defines itself by its warmth. The book addresses social issues such as class and race but does so through the unique lens of Maia, the main character.

Maia is a son of the Emperor of the Elflands, but he happens to be of mixed Elven and Goblin heritage. This renders Maia immediately as an outsider in the court, but the true difference between Maia and the denizens there is without a doubt his warmth, sympathy and empathy. Maia is simply and genuinely good.

Maia lives in isolation until the sudden death of his father the Emperor, and his elder siblings, leaves him at the head of the line of succession to the throne. The book follows Maia’s descent into the dark waters of political intrigue with all of the callously ambitious aristocracy one might expect in such a court. Maia, though, is immovable in his goodness, and he attempts to govern as such. This is a book of hope. It is emotive and positive and a breath of fresh kind-hearted air.

  1. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

22544764Like the Goblin Emperor, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is a unique and hopeful addition to the fantasy genre. The book begins in a small village with the main character Agnieszka being unexpectedly plucked from her home, and it slowly expands until the fate of the kingdom is at stake.

Agnieszka and the enigmatic wizard ‘Dragon’ are the central players of the book. Agnieszka is a hugely admirable, entertaining and grounded protagonist. She is clever, independent, brave, adventurous and empathetic. There is an effortlessly organic quality to her that can only be due to Naomi Novik’s talent as an author.

They face significant threats, conflict, and danger, however Uprooted distinguishes itself by not having a central antagonist. There is evil, and there are evil characters, but the book is more about motivations and consequences instead of forces in direct opposition. It’s a great story, full of growth and potential.

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

19063The Book Thief is set in Germany during the rise of fascism and the supremacy of Nazism, and it is utterly heartbreaking. It is horrifying, sad and filled with loss, but also with kindness and hope; the characters inspire it, and the people provide it. This terrible backdrop only accentuates how precious an act of kindness can be.

The book is narrated by Death, who observes the best and the worst of human potential during this time, all the while following the life of Liesel, our little book thief, with a fascination that appears to be unusual.

The characters are what makes this book what it is. They are flawed, frustrating, and stubborn. They are also curious, kind, and ultimately good. The German perspective is unique and powerful. It’s all too common to explore WWII narratives through the lens of the Allies, remotely, but it’s incredibly confronting to sink into a society that felt the horror of Nazism first, and the keenest.

The people in these pages are memorable and it celebrates the good in us. It is the sort of book that will touch even the most cynical heart, and it will restore a measure of faith in humanity, if that is waning. This book explores the good in people that persists even in the crucible of horror and misery that was Nazi Germany. Harrowing, tragic and disturbing, The Book Thief shows what can be achieved by small and simple good deeds, and the hope that can spring from it.

  1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

2552On the Road, to me (and many others) is about the search for meaning in life. It is the search for a purpose. It is a bouncing, breathless, and untethered exploration of the ‘beat’ subculture that is both fictional and semi-biographical. It is packed with references and allusions to people in Kerouac’s circles, and it is what I instantly think of whenever someone mentions him.

For me, it’s Kerouac’s defining work. It’s sometimes lonely and isolated, sometimes crowded and feverish. It is a book of people seeking a place to belong in a world that is shifting and changing. It is reckless, fun, and energetic. It is also oddly sad.

The excitement in Kerouac’s search throughout the novel for meaning is a vital experience. It’s a book that captures a certain desperation to step outside of social norms and embrace something new, a desire to forge a new path.

  1. Catch 22 by Joeseph Hellar

168668My overwhelming theme so far has been that of hope and this book, especially toward the end, can be bereft of it. I think that the overall treatment of war here is relevant, as is the relentlessly cold nature of bureaucracy. These things (among many others) make this an important book.

Another reason why I’m adding it here, though, is the utter irrationality and irreverence. This book is as hilarious as it is tragic, but I honestly think that despite the horror, the loss, and the devastation therein, this book is a positive one. Against all odds, against a war machine that appears intent on grinding every last character down to nothing, hope shines through the cracks in the dark.

Yossarian is a hilarious and tragic figure. He is defiant, rebellious and understandably critical of the war and their place in it. He also continues to do his duty despite the dehumanising calculation of their missions, and the likelihood that he and his brothers in arms will die. There is a certainty of death that clashes with the humour, and this contrast sharpens both aspects. The book has a broad cast of characters and they are all doing what they can to cope in the red haze of war and the very real evidence of their fragile mortality.

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

18038911Neil Gaiman is one of the best writers living today. Anything he writes is something that I strongly suggest you read, but in the theme of this list, I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the best fit.

This book is sweet, nostalgic, and scary, and captures so well the magic of childhood. This is a book about the innocence of youth and the loss that occurs during the transition to adolescence and adulthood. It carefully reinforces the idea that we will always be who we were when we were small no matter how old we get. A little bit of the magic will always be there glimmering inside.

The book flows with the vivid imagination of Neil Gaiman, capturing the wonder of a child that just so happens to find himself in the centre of an effort that will save the world from an unforseen and unanticipated danger.

You could describe this as a fantasy, and it certainly deals with themes common to the fantasy genre, but that feels insufficient to contain it. It is steeped in the recollections of childhood. There is a quality to it that is similar to a lucid daydream. The book is sufficiently rooted in reality to be genuine, but gilded around the edges with the magic found in folk and fairy-tales.

The book is spooky, sad, and unsettling. It is also hopeful, warm, courageous and good. It’s the sort of book that will transport you back to your childhood, when the world seemed so much more magical, grand, and full of unbelievable potential. Where you might walk into the woods one day and simply stroll into another world.

  1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

818108Norwegian Wood is the first of two Murakami books on this list because I am unable to pick one, and all of his books are perfect for a list like this. It really could have been ten Murakami novels on here and I’d have been satisfied. Murakami taps into something with his writing. It is something elemental that resonates with me, consistently, on a level that very few other writers have.

The story of Norwegian Wood follows the recollection of Toru Watanabe, who at the start of the book is a middle-aged man. After he hears Norwegian Wood by the Beatles play, his memories transport him back into the turbulence of his days as a student in the 1960s.

We observe his listlessness, his boredom, his loves and his losses. There is an aching nostalgia to the story that will be familiar to anybody who has left friendships and relationships behind, to anybody that has lost someone that they love.

Tender, tragic, and isolated, this book simmers with the emotion of a young man who is adrift and experiencing the uniquely keen emotion of a young adult. It is heartfelt, emotional, tempestuous, and incredibly relatable. If you’re going through a dark period, if you feel lost or rudderless, if you’ve had your heart broken, read this book.

We are creatures of memory, and this book will help in embracing that. For all the pain that memories and reflection can elicit, there is a pervading sweetness and nostalgia to it all. It makes us what we are. Murakami champions the value of memory. He suggests that a life lived is the summation of memories and experiences that range from the tragically sad, to the deliriously happy.

70933The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle continues Murakami’s pervading theme of men missing Women. Toru Okada, the protagonist, who is presently unemployed, is looking for his missing cat, and what follows is a surreal descent into a strange and inexplicable labyrinthine underworld of missing people, missing cats, eccentrics, clairvoyants, sex, murderers, and wells, where the lines of reality begin to blur.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to me, is a recovery book. It’s the sort of book you pull out and re-read as a coping mechanism. A good friend of mine refers to it as a ‘break-up’ book. And it really is. If you need an anchor, if you need something stable to grasp upon when you are uncertain or feeling lost, Murakami is a lighthouse that allows you to navigate the rocky shores. Toru Okada’s descent into this strange story, and his search for what he has lost, is isolated, compellingly strange, and sincerely affecting. 

There is slow, deliberate and meticulous quality to Murakami’s writing. His books are tethered in reality, but he opens the door to the strange and the surreal. This is especially so in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In Murakami’s stories he shows us that everyday, little by little, our experiences shape and form us into a new version of ourselves, each slightly different to the last. Murakami takes reality, the chemistry of common life, and he infuses it with mystery and magic. I can think of no other writer who so instils such a profound sense of growth, hope and recovery.

Spotlight: Raven’s Shadow Trilogy by Anthony Ryan – THIS IS A TRILOGY OF BADASSES!

17693064The Raven’s Shadow trilogy is a fantasy series by Anthony Ryan. The first book is Blood Song (first published in 2011), followed by Tower Lord (2014) and Queen of Fire (2015). The books chronicle the life of Vaelin Al Sorna, the son of the King’s famed and feared Battle Lord, after he is severed from his family and deposited into the Sixth Order. A religious sect dedicated to transforming children into elite and deadly warriors. They are bound to the tenants of their faith, and famed for their prowess.

The brothers of the Sixth Order are wherever the fighting is the hottest and wherever the deadliest foes threaten the realm. They are trained to show up, outclass, and annihilate foes – then mic-drop on the way out. This series delivers.

Blood Song is the academy book of the series. The formative years. One of the best of its kind. Blood Song delves into the training of Vaelin and his peers as they are moulded into men who will be the vanguard in combat and conflict throughout the realm. It is a coming of age story, and it is a vital book. It forms the foundation, the relationships, and the personalities that prop up and propel the story over the course of the trilogy.

It is amazing. I loved the trilogy, but Blood Song is something special. I’m going to keep this a spoiler free review, as usual, so Blood Song (Book One) will be the book I focus on here. So, what does the synopsis say? Read More »

Blog: Perfect protagonists – and their critics

darksoulsI want to talk about something that really baffles me in the book blogging/review community and it is this: the need people have to take a story with a precocious or brilliant main character and slam them as a “mary-sue” or “gary-stu”. The implicit criticism being that they are so perfect that they are annoying. As soon as a ‘critic’ introduces this label it appears to be open season on the legitimacy of both the character and the story. It is dismissive, cheap and painfully arrogant.Read More »

You must read SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson: Here’s why

sevenevesNeal Stephenson is a challenging and erudite author. He is the writer responsible for Snow Crash, one of my favourite books, along with classics like The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle and Anathem. Lauded, celebrated and awarded – Neal Stephenson has many laurels. When SEVENEVES hit shelves around the world Barack Obama, then POTUS and leader of the free world, earmarked it for his summer reading. When the POTUS dedicates time to kicking back and reading a Sci-Fi novel, you know that it isn’t an ordinary book.

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