Norwegian Wood

by Haruki Murakami

Paperback Edition, 389 pages

Originally published 1987

“Writing from memory like this, i often feel a pang of dread. What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud…

The narrator is a bit of a loner, who philosophises on life, death and love and during our time with him meets an array of odd characters. It’s a familiar tale in the fictional world of Murakami.

Toru is aboard a plane when he hears ‘Norwegian Wood’ by The Beatles, which stirs up memories of his 19 year old self when he was a student at University and involved with two girls at different ends of the personality spectrum. There is Naoko, who has been slowly losing her mind since the suicide of her long term boyfriend, who also happened to be Toru’s best friend. She is finding life a depressing affair and spends the majority of the book in an institution. Her complete opposite is Midori, who is overly enthusiastic about everything bordering on maniacal. Toru meets her whilst out on his own and the two strike up a bizarre friendship.

Unlike other books I’ve read by Marakami, Norwegian Wood is straight forward fiction with no elements of fantasy or the supernatural. ‘Kafka on the Shore’ and ‘Killing Commendator’ were marred by weirdness so a normal ‘slice of life’ story was a blessed relief. The main plot is the love triangle between Toru, Naoko and Midori but it is somewhat unconventional. Toru is unable to see Naoko because she had herself committed and Midori’s appearances are sparse depending on her mood, which means Toru spends a lot of time on his own, reflecting on the suicide of his friend, life and death in general and any other subject that causes sadness.

There were times when i felt i could read 100 plus pages in one sitting, which reflects how good Murakami can be. His writing is so interesting and philosophical and unlike any author I’ve read but what let this novel down was the sheer amount of graphic sex. Even though Toru is a bit of a downbeat loner he’s certainly a hit with the ladies and barely has time to put his manhood away before someone else is stroking it. I’ve come to expect sex in Murakami’s books but some of the scenes in Norwegian Wood are borderline ridiculous and after a while i was sick of reading about ‘semen’, ‘breasts’ and how ‘wet she was’. It become a bore.

Norwegian Wood is a good book but due to the sex, most of it unnecessary, i can’t go above 3 stars.

My score is 3/5

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The Ten Thousand

by Paul Kearney

Paperback Edition, 465 pages

Originally published 2008

“By the sea, Rictus had been born, and it was by the sea that he would die…

I’ve toyed with reading this before but was never fully committed until recently when i read a 10/10 review on a fantasy fiction website.

Based on a real campaign way back when just after the dinosaurs died out, The Ten Thousand is a retelling of when Cyrus the Younger attempted a coup on his brother who ruled the Persian Empire in 401BC. In the book Brother ‘A’ hires a mercenary army from across the sea to aid in his attempt to overthrow his King brother. Brother ‘B’ learns of the impending attack and takes his even bigger army to meet them half way. What follows is a brutal, bloody and dirty war. The Macht mercenaries could give Gerard Butler and his 300 a run for their money as they carve up the opposition as if they were Star Wars droids.

There is very little depth to the story. The hiring of the Macht and the invasion all happen within the first hundred-odd pages with little regard for character development, emotional interest, world building and no back story of the two brothers. I understand one wants to overthrow the other to reign supreme but a bit of family history would have been nice. So instead of a deep, intriguing plot the book is full of battles, rape and manly banter which becomes repetitive. I found The Ten Thousand a tedious read, which struggled to hold my interest. I won’t be bothering with the other two books in the series.

My score is 1.5/5

2666

by Robert Bolano

Paperback Edition, 898 pages

Originally published 2004

This morning I drove past the Santa Teresa prison and I almost had a panic attack. Don’t be shocked by what I’m about to say, but it looks like a woman who’s been hacked to pieces. Who’s been hacked to pieces but is still alive. And the prisoners are living inside this woman….”

After finishing Underworld by Don DeLillo i searched for other tomes that were as acclaimed and could hopefully leave me in as much awe as the aforementioned did. I checked a few lists and 2666 appeared on all of them and sounded the most appealing.

Released posthumously, 2666 by Robert Bolano is split into five sections all with names that sound like episodes of Friends. Each part centres around the oppressive, violent city of Santa Teresa located on the Mexican/USA border.

We open with The Part about the Critics, which tells the tale of four friends who met via their interest for elusive author Archimboldi, who sounds like a literary genius. There’s never been any public sightings of the author so the four friends make it their lifes obsession to track him down and the rumors all point toward Santa Teresa.

Part 2, The Part about Amalfitano, is the shortest and best section of the whole book as it tells the tale of one mans decent into madness since moving to Santa Teresa. The Part about Fate is next, which follows the aptly name journalist Fate as he travels to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. Whilst there he hears about the brutal slaying of over a hundred women, which nobody seems to care about and decides to pursue this instead.

Up until part 4, The Part about the Crimes, i was enjoying 2666. Chapters 1-3 were intriguing because they all had there own separate story with the murders lurking in the background. We are given snippets about the crimes but never delve fully into them, which compelled me to keep reading. I anticipated part 4 to cement this books brilliance but instead my intrigue turned to boredom. The title of the section is very literal; the deaths of 112 women are described in detail. I do like a bit of murderous gore in fiction but after the 20th death is recounted i started to find the whole thing monotonous and no where close as interesting as the chapters before. All of the mystery is sucked out of the story as the whole section is a brutal death list, which gradually becomes a chore to read. I even skimmed the last thirty pages due to no longer caring.

Due to the nose diving direction the book took during Part 4 i didn’t bother with Part 5, The Part about Archimboldi. I read a couple of pages and decided to waste no more of my time on 2666. Instead I visited the Wikipedia page to see how it ended and i was glad i didn’t bother with the last section.

Despite sections 1-3 being good i can only score this 1/5, due to skipping close to a third of the book. It was a brilliant idea for a story but the execution was lacking. Perhaps a 500 page book as opposed to 900 pages may have been better.

My score is 1/5

Killing Commendatore

by Haruki Murakami

Hardback Edition, 704 pages

Originally published 2017

“Today when i awoke from a nap the faceless man was there before me. He was seated on the chair across from the sofa i’d been sleeping on, staring straight at me with a pair of imaginary eyes in a face that wasn’t…

Killing Commendatore has an intriguing plot and after only three of his books I can quite confidently say that it’s typical Murakami. After a sudden split from his wife, the Narrator quits his job as a portrait artist, abandons built up civilisation and holes up in his friends isolated mountain home, which once housed Japans most famous artist. Whilst exploring the attic he uncovers a forgotten painting entitled Killing Commendatore. What follows is, obviously, a bizarre series of events that lead you to question what is and isn’t real.

For 500 pages this was the best book i’d read in 2019. The discovery of the painting opens up a circle of mystery and investigation that had me addicted to turning the pages as I had to know the answer to the questions the Narrator was exploring. It was philosophical, historical and just a great story and I was convinced i’d be scoring it 5 out of 5. Unfortunately after 500 odd pages the finale kicked off and it all became a bit silly.

He could have ended the investigation with a sense of normality but he decided to go full weird and stupid. I obviously wont spoil anything but I couldn’t believe the story went downhill so fast. It was as if a different writer wrote the last 15% of the book. Another thing that really ticked me off was how every loose end was tied up. Barely any intrigue was left unsolved with the last few pages becoming a boring summary of the aftermath. The sheer quantity of sex also became a chore to read and slightly creepy.

This is now my third outing with Murakmi and I’m still yet to be blown away and left in awe of the great writer he is renowned to be. I’ll persevere as I own Norwegian Wood and have The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on my to-read list and there are enough extended periods of greatness in the books I’ve read to keep me interested but his endings always let me down. 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore and now Killing Commendatore all diagnosed with Stephen King syndrome.

My score is 3/5

Return of the Crimson Guard

by Ian C. Esslemont

Paperback Edition, 702 pages

Originally published 2008

“The eruption had wounded the world…

The second addition to the Ian C. Esslemont collection of Malazan novels and it’s a massive improvement on Night of Knives. Where as its predecessor was a bit of a nothing book with a limited amount of plot Return of the Crimson Guard is epic, dense and complex; everything i want from a Malazan book.

Taking place after The Bonehunters (book 6 of the Steven Erikson series) the focus is Quon Tali, where a rebellion is slowly taking shape against Empress Laseen. The Crimson Guard are also looking to fulfill their ancient Vow of crushing the Malazan Empire. As is the way with Malazan books there are several subplots, all heading toward an inevitable convergence.

The writing styles of the two authors are very different. Erikson writes challenging prose with philosophical undercurrents whilst Esslemonts writing is a step down on the difficulty level. It’s still challenging but he’s no Erikson.

It’s a slow burner as the plot takes around 350 pages to advance but i didn’t mind. Getting back into the Malazan world a few months after finishing The Crippled God was such a pleasure that i was more than willing to be in for the long haul. The unique characters, the vastly different continents and worlds and the in-depth history reaffirmed this as my favourite fantasy world.

The Crimson Guard appear for the first time proper after brief mentions in previous books and they’re as expected; brutal and war weathered. Although this is their book they’re not overly used and have an equal share of the chapters. Laseen also appears for longer than ever before but i still wanted more from her. She’s the much feared Malazan Empress and needs more airtime to cement her status as ruler. New character Kyle is likable and there’s plenty of involvement from characters alluded to in the Book of the Fallen.

I would suggest reading books 1-6 of the Erikson series before tackling this book. Without prior knowledge of characters and how the world works you’ll get no pleasure from reading Return of the Crimson. For seasoned veterans of this brilliant series then this is a must read and it sets it up nicely for Stonewielder, which I’ve already ordered!

My score – 4/5

The Book Thief

by Markus Zusak

Paperback Edition, 584 pages

Originally published 2005

“Here is a small fact: You are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations…”

Turns out ‘Death’ is a pretty decent chap with a gift for storytelling. In The Book Thief he is our humble(ish) host as he recounts the tale of Liesel Meminger who, after her mother is ‘taken away’ and brother dies, is re-located to a foster family. She becomes obsessed with books after stealing a couple, reading them over and over and ultimately falling in love with the written word.

The family end up harboring a Jewish man, Max, in their basement who befriends Liesel and shares her passion for books. Along with Max and best friend Rudy she faces the horror and misery of war as the country gradually deteriorates to its inevitable loss.

This is the first book about World War 2 i have read from a German perspective and it really captures the oppressiveness of the regime toward the Jews and anyone else who dared oppose the Fuhrer. Although categorised as Young Adult it doesn’t hold back with its dark tone and by the end i was definitely feeling a small lump in my throat, which is exactly what i wanted from a holocaust themed story.

As a child protagonist, Liesel is likable. She doesn’t complain or cry about her situation, she carries on and adapts to the drudgery war-life throws at her. For me, all of the characters are well written and i became invested in them all with genuine care for their fates. Having Death as a narrator for the whole book works well and makes this a unique experience.

My score = 4/5

The Dragon Reborn (Wheel of Time #3)

by Robert Jordan

Paperback Edition, 699 pages

Originally published 1991

” The way back will come but once. Be steadfast …”

The third chapter in the mammoth Wheel of Time saga and I’m finally starting to realise why there are fourteen books. The scope of the story Robert Jordan is weaving finally becomes evident in The Dragon Reborn.

After two books of Rand being the focal point of the story he is barely featured in the third installment. Instead the spotlight is directed toward Perrin and Mat, who so far have come off looking like Rand’s peripheral sidekicks.

Mat has finally arrived in Tar Valon to be healed of the poison running through his body courtesy of the tainted dagger. With him are Egewene and Nynaeve who are given the task of hunting down the Black Ajah. Perrin is with Morraine and Lan on the trail of Rand who has run off seemingly on the way to Tear to take control of Callandor, the Sword of the Dragon.

Giving Mat and Perrin time to develop as pivotal characters was a class move on the authors part. Another book solely dedicated to Rand could have turned readers against him but instead he is transformed into an insane wreck of a hero whose sparse appearances contribute to the best parts of the book.

Mat and Perrin are able to breathe whilst away from Rand and their personalities come to the forefront as they commence their own journeys. I preferred Mat’s story over Perrin’s as he spends a greater amount of time on his own and is a more interesting character. Perrin is still slightly held back by Morraine and Lan but i’m sure he’ll venture out on his own at some point.

Compared to The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt this is a slow burn. At around the 300 page mark i was almost regretting reading this so close after finishing The Great Hunt but suddenly the book comes to life and transforms into a work of brilliance. The ending, although expected, is still well written and worthy of a fist pumping cheer! My favourite book so far.

My score = 4.5/5