Friday, November 21, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami

As promised, I am covering the latest book by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The full title of the book is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Readers will find many themes and elements that appeared in previous books by Murakami, such as pseudo time travel, weird dreams, and of course, cooking.

The Situation: In high school, Tsukuru and his four friends were inseparable. Consisting of three boys and two girls - Tsukuru, Akamatsu, Oumi, Shirane, and Kurono - the five of them not only went to school together, but they also volunteered together after school tutoring elementary school kids. Akamatsu, which means "red pine" in Japanese, was the one with the best grades. Oumi, which means "blue sea," was the most athletic. Shirane, which means "white root," is the most beautiful of the two girls, and a fantastic piano player. And Kurono, which means "black field," was independent and tough, with a great sense of humor, and always had a book under her arm. Tsukuru is the only one of the five friends whose name is not associated with a color. He also felt that he was the only one without anything special about him. Even so, the five remained close throughout high school, and even tried to stay together once they all went off to separate colleges. The four colors remained in the town of Nagoya, while only Tsukuru went to school in big city Tokyo. But they still managed to write to him, and he always visited them when he went home.

The Problem: On one visit home during his sophomore year, Tsukuru attempts to contact all four of his friends, only to be forced to leave messages. Eventually, after not being able to get in touch with any of them, Ao (blue) informs Tsukuru that he is being kicked out of the group. The reason? Ao simply states that it isn't something he can tell him, and if Tsukuru wants to know what happened, that he better ask himself about it. Tsukuru can't imagine what Ao is talking about, and being exiled from his closest group of friends causes him to consider suicide for the next half year or so. He eventually moves forward, but even now, at the age of 36, Tsukuru has never made a friend quite like the four he had in high school, and other than a few girlfriends here and there, he really hasn't had any significant relationships. It is Sara, his latest girlfriend, who pushes him to go back to Nagoya and try to find out what exactly happened. But at this point, is it too late?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern day Japan. Like other works by Murakami, there is a sense of having to reach across time, in this instance into the past, in order to fix something that doesn't seem quite right in the present. Tsukuru's girlfriend Sara believes that never having solved the mystery of why he was exiled is holding him back even now that he is approaching middle age. She also believes it is what is keeping their relationship from moving forward. So she encourages him to seek out his former friends and finally learn what happened between them. Throughout the story, there are also familiar elements that are often found in Murakami's other novels like weird dreams, cooking, charismatic but less than likable leaders, and a somewhat clueless male protagonist attempting to find his true purpose in life, or if he even has one. This is also the third book that I have read by Murakami that includes some instance of sex while paralyzed and/or dreaming. I can't recall if this happens in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as well, but it is certainly in Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. It's now just something I have come to expect with his books. And while the story mostly focuses on the present day, there is much reminiscing about Tsukuru's college years, especially the time immediately following his exile from the group, and how he eventually survived it. It is a question of how far we decide to dig for the truth before we let it go and just try to live our lives.

My Verdict: Given that this is a Murakami novel, and how much I have enjoyed his other works, I wanted to like this book much more than I did. Just the cover alone gave me high hopes. I know, I know, I really should know better than to judge a book by its cover, but it is pretty spectacular. Even so, the story is actually kind of boring. Not a lot happens, which is a shame because the premise is pretty fascinating. Having a character go back to his hometown to investigate what caused his closest friends to cut him off certainly sounds intriguing to me. And while there is much discovery and introspection during Tsukuru's "pilgrimage," and all is eventually revealed, there really isn't much in the revelation, or much that really comes out of it. The build-up felt similar to other Murakami novels I have read, but then that build up just kind of fades away with no real results. I probably would have been okay with the lack of true resolution if the story had been more interesting, but it wasn't. Thankfully, this book isn't half the size of 1Q84. Still, I expected a lot more from nearly 400 pages of story.

Favorite Moment: When Tsukuru travels to Finland to see Kuro, especially since he has never traveled abroad in his life, and he picks Finland of all places as his first trip.

Favorite Character: Out of Tsukuru and his friends, I pick Kuro as my favorite. Even after everything that has happened, she seems to have adjusted the best and really made a life for herself. She is honest, creative, protective, and sensitive. Ultimately, she is just the person Tsukuru needs to see in order to clear up the past.

Recommended Reading: I came late to the Murakami party, so I can't just pick from his entire library and recommend any of his books, since I have only read a few of them. Of the ones I have read, I will recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is a door stop at 600+ pages. But if you really want a feel for some of Murakami's more recent writing, and you've got some time on your hands, I recommend 1Q84, which clocks in at 900+ pages. Happy reading!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 Final Round

Well this is it. The final round of voting has begun for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards. Voters have until the beginning of next week to make their voices heard before Goodreads awards the best books of 2014.

I am pleased to announce that both of the books in the Best Fiction category that I have featured, or will feature, on this blog have made it into the final round. Both Rainbow Rowell's Landline and Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki have survived the stiff competition this year to make it into the finals, and I believe I will stick with my initial choice and vote once again for Rowell. 

Sue Monk Kidd has also made it into the finals for Best Historical Fiction with The Invention of Wings. I won't be at all surprised if this book ends up taking the ultimate prize for this category.

And it looks like history was not meant to repeat itself when it came to Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Mars. As I have mentioned in previous posts, last years The Long War, the second book in the duo's The Long Earth series, also made it into the Best Science Fiction category via write-in, only to not make it into the finals. But this year, The Long Mars has passed the test and fans like myself will have the opportunity to maybe get it a win. 

Both Amy Poehler's Yes Please and Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice have made it into the finals for Best Humor. This is another instance where I won't be at all surprised if Poehler takes home the top prize. If Moore ends up taking it, I will still be incredibly pleased, but I believe it would probably be seen as somewhat of an upset.

It seems that the story of Esther Earl Grace has made as much of an impression on the general reading public as it did on me, as it has entered the final round with some stiff competition in the Best Memoir & Autobiography category. This Star Won't Go Out is an emotional book that is more than just a story about a young girl with a terminal disease. Esther was joyful, full of hope, and most of all, just so full of love: something that easily comes through in the pages of this book.

E. Lockhart's We Were Liars survived the semifinal round and will battle it out for Best Young Adult Fiction, which is always a tough category. And just as I thought, Nina LaCour's Everything Leads to You just didn't quite make the cut.

And just when I thought I was going to be ten for ten in my predictions, I click on the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction to find that Leslye Walton's The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender did not make it into the final round, which is really a shame as it is one of the most uniquely beautiful and heartbreaking stories I have read in a long time. But that is the nature of the awards. If not enough readers vote for the book, then it just doesn't make it in. 

This last round of voting is open until Monday, November 24th, and the winners will be announced shortly after that. So make sure to vote and support your favorites. And while you're there, you can also pick up some great ideas as to what to read next.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Since I plan on covering Haruki Murakami's most recent publication, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, for next week, I figured I would finally read another one of the Japanese author's works that has been sitting on my book shelf for a few years, Kafka on the Shore. Having only read two other books by Murakami, I am still not quite sure what I should expect from them, though I was sure I would recognize a few familiar themes and hopefully not feel completely lost.

The Situation: Kafka (not his real first name) Tamura has just turned 15 years old and has decided to run away from home. He hopes to escape the Oedipal curse his father put on him, while also looking for the mother that abandoned him and his father, taking his sister with her. He doesn't have a real plan, but ends up in a private library in Takamatsu. After befriending Oshima, a young man who works at the library, and his boss Ms. Saeki, a beautiful and classy older woman with troubles of her own, Kafka ends up living in the guest room of the quiet library, while also working as Oshima's assistant. Meanwhile, an old man named Mr. Nakata has found part-time work finding lost cats for their owners. Due to a strange accident when he was only a boy, Nakata can't read or write, but gets a check every month from the government for his disability. And what makes him so good at finding lost cats is his ability to talk to them. But while on his latest search, he ends up coming into contact with a strange man, somehow linking his own fate with Kafka's.

The Problem: Kafka is already worried that someone will figure out that he is a 15 year-old runaway and will attempt to send him back home. So when he finds out his father has been murdered, he knows authorities will begin looking for him in earnest, even if he isn't a suspect. Meanwhile, the story takes a turn for Nakata as well as he must now travel somewhere, but he doesn't know exactly where, and do something, but he doesn't know exactly what. All he can say is that he'll know the place and what he needs to do when he gets there. Much like Kafka, he feels that fate is moving him along, as if he has no free will and is simply destined to do whatever will happen next, even if that means possibly hurting someone.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in modern-day Japan. Like other Murakami novels I have read, there are familiar themes such as strange dreams, cooking, pseudo time travel, weird sex, curious animals, and even a male protagonist on a journey to find something, although he isn't exactly sure what that might be. Neither of the protagonists are. Kafka isn't exactly sure what to search for when looking for someone to be either his mother or his sister. And Nakata will only know what he is looking for once he finds it. The story switched back and forth between the two as the odd chapters are Kafka's story, and the even chapters are Nakata's story. The two different stories do turn out to be linked, but the two characters never actually meet. Also, the Oedipus complex comes into play in Kafka's story as he badly wants to avoid fulfilling the curse his father placed on him before he ran away from home. There is some historical fiction included as well, as some of the early even chapters tell of the accident during World War II that caused Nakata to behave the way he does now. He only speaks of himself in the third person, can't read or write, and somehow has the ability to talk to cats as well as humans. The actual accident remains a mystery. People only know that Nakata was once an incredibly bright little boy, and then, after the accident, it was like his mind had been wiped clean.

My Verdict: In general, books by Murakami make me tired, and this one was no exception. Also, at the end, I was once again left with more questions than answers. Sure, things get resolved, but not nearly enough, at least not for me. The story itself is actually really good. Two men, at different stages in life, set off on seemingly completely different journeys, but those two journeys end up linked and even intersect for a little bit. One thing about Murakami: as exhausting as he may be, he is never predictable. Even if you guess that everything will work itself out, there is no way anyone could possibly guess exactly how that will come about. With Murakami, the possibilities are endless, and he may or may not give a full explanation about how exactly stuff happens. If you're a fan of Murakami, then I am sure you'll enjoy this book as well. If you don't get too hung up on loose endings or suspension of disbelief, then you'll be able to enjoy this book just fine.

Favorite Moment: When Nakata employs the help of a smart and well-off Siamese cat to get answers from a dumber street cat that is difficult to talk to. 

Favorite Character: There are actually quite a few great characters in this book. It is a rare thing for me to have a  hard time picking only one. But I will go ahead and choose Hoshino, the young truck driver that decides on a whim to abandon his job and help old Mr. Nakata on his journey. 

Recommended Reading: To follow up this book, I would recommend Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Parts of it will feel kind of familiar, but it has its own bizarre storyline with fascinating characters and events. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 Semifinal Round

So the Semifinal Round of the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards has begun, and just like in previous years, five more books have been added to each category, because choosing from the original 15 just wasn't difficult enough. My initial recap of the first round of voting can be found here.

I am delighted to report that Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Mars has made it onto the official ballot for Best Science Fiction. And hopefully we won't have a repeat of last year when the The Long Mars made it into the semifinal round, only to be left out of the the final round. I am truly hoping The Long Mars makes a stronger showing as I do feel it was a stronger novel.

Another book from this blog that has been written into the competition is Nina LaCour's Everything Leads to You. However, I do believe I will be sticking with my original vote for E. Lockheart's We Were Liars for the Best Young Adult Fiction category. I have no real issue with LaCour's book, I just think that Lockheart's was better. I also don't think that LaCour's was good enough to be considered the absolute best of the year.

None of my other votes will be changing either, but I know there are plenty of people out there who will be changing theirs in favor of some of the new entries. If the competition wasn't stiff enough, the chance to enter write-ins has shown the importance of standing by your favorites. Many times a book that wasn't originally nominated has come from out of nowhere and taken the coveted title.

The semifinal round will be open to voting through Saturday, November 15th. I suggest getting your votes out there, and then checking back on Monday, November 17th when the final round of voting will begin. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Nonfiction: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Like every other fan of Amy Poehler, I was ridiculously excited when I found out she was coming out with her new book, Yes Please. My reaction was a mixture of raising my fist in the air Homer Simpson-style and yelling "Woo-Hoo," and sighing with a strange sense of relief and thinking "well it's about time." Seriously, there was just way too much time between Tina Fey's Bossypants and this book.

Genre, Themes, History: This is of course a nonfiction book that could probably be best categorized as a memoir since Poehler is only 42 and therefore, at least in my mind, far too young to write an autobiography. Poehler talks about her childhood in the northeast; how she fell in love with improv and with comedy in general; the rough beginnings that would eventually lead to the Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live, and of course, Parks & Recreation; and everything in between such as the her family, the people (famous and not famous) that she met along the way, her friendship with Tina Fey, and her eventual motherhood. She even touches a little bit on her divorce from fellow actor Will Arnett. If there were one general theme I could take away from this book it would be that we have to work hard for the things we want. Yes she is the famous and funny and beautiful and talented Amy Poehler, but she wasn't just goofing off in a coffee shop somewhere and Lorne Michaels walked in and decided he had to have her for a little show he puts together (she pretty much gives this exact example as something that pretty much never happens). It was a long and tough road for Poehler. And fortunately for us she doesn't mind telling us about it.

My Verdict: Yes Please is just as funny, inappropriate, irreverent, enlightening, and honest as Poehler fans would expect it to. At it's simplest, it is like a dirtier version of Tina Fey's Bossypants. But it goes beyond just being a fun memoir by one of the funniest people alive today. The book is funny all the way through, but also manages to be serious where it needs to be, but without ever taking itself too seriously. One of the first things Poehler mentions is how hard it was for her to write the book, and how those who romanticize the act of writing are lying to us. She's up front about her faults, but also confident in the things she does like about herself, and is okay with letting people know what they can do with themselves if they don't agree with her. She talks about the people she knows readers want to hear about (like Tina Fey and Nick Offerman), and gives some anecdotes about the shows through which many of us have come to love her (like SNL and Parks & Recreation). She talks about sitting in George Clooney's lap, what is was like standing next to Hilary Clinton while dressed as Hilary Clinton, and what it was like being pregnant while working on SNL. In short, the book is funny and honest. And really, that is exactly what we should expect from a memoir like this.

Favorite Moment: When she goes through her Parks & Recreation co-stars one by one and discusses them in detail. It's always fun to learn more about the guy who plays Ron Swanson.

Favorite Quotes: 

On writing: "Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea...No one tells the truth about writing a book...The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not."

On change: "Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being. See what I just did there? I saved you thousands of dollars on self-help books."

On believing in people: "The only way we will survive is by being kind. The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others."

Recommended Reading: This should be obvious, but I'll say it anyway: Bossypants by Tina Fey.     

Monday, November 3, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards 2014

It's back. The opening round of the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards has begun. This is the only book award decided on purely by the votes of readers. With 20 categories, and each filled with 15 books to choose from, plus the option to write in your own personal choice, readers may end up having to make some tough decisions. So let's see which books made it that have appeared, or will appear, in this blog.

I have read two books from the Best Fiction category, and of course there are at least three more that have been nominated that I would like to read, but I'll deal with that on my own time. Both Rainbow Rowell's Landline, and Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (blog post coming up later this month) have been nominated, and of the two, I have to go with Rowell's Landline. I have read multiple books by both of these writers before, and while I adore them both, Rowell just comes out as my top choice.

There is only one book from the Best Historical Fiction category that I was able to pick up, but it was a good one. Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings tells the story of Sarah Grimke and her slave, Handful. It's one of those books that you read knowing that awards are just going to be thrown at it because it is so good and well done. It faces some stiff competition from the incredibly popular All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, but I think it can hold its own.

For the second year in a row I have nothing for Best Science Fiction. Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Mars did not make the cut apparently, so I think I'll actually try to write it in. The Long War managed to make it into the second round of last year's voting, but failed to make the final cut.

And just for fun, since I don't have anything for Best Horror, I'm going to write in The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero. I don't even know if it really qualifies as horror, but I am going for it anyway. 

It looks to me that the Best Humor category is going to be a tough call. Christopher Moore's The Serpent of Venice has been nominated, but so has Amy Poehler's recent publication, Yes Please (blog post coming at the end of this week). Both books are incredibly funny, and they will each have to contend with other popular nominees such as One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak, and Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris. After some consideration, I think I will go with Poehler's Yes Please. If you haven't had a chance to pick it up yet, I highly recommend it. 

Looks like I'll be doing another write-in vote, but this time for the Best Nonfiction category. I honestly thought that This Star Won't Go Out: The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl was going to make this category for sure, especially since it is about the girl whom John Green based the character of Hazel from his The Fault in Our Stars

But it turns out that Esther's story did make it into the Best Memoir & Autobiography Category, so I will certainly be voting for it there too.  

I've only read one of the 15 books nominated for Best Young Adult Fiction, but fortunately I enjoyed it immensely. E. Lockhart's We Were Liars has been nominated alongside two other books I hope to read in the near future, The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira. The young adult category is always a fun one for me, and this year will prove no different. 

For the first time in the three years I have been doing this, I have actually read and covered a book from the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton is exactly as its title suggests, strange and beautiful. And it is the kind of fantasy novel I enjoy because it is just accessible enough in its weirdness for me to read it without feeling lost.

So there you have it. The first round of voting is open today through this Saturday, November 8th, and the semifinal round will begin on Monday, November 10th. The semifinal round will be when readers can see is their write-ins made the cut while getting a chance to vote again for their favorites to move on to the final round. You can vote here, and possibly get ideas for other books you would like to read in the future (The Bone Clocks, I am looking in your direction).  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Horror Fiction: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

When I read the description for Edgar Cantero's The Supernatural Enhancements, I was excited to add it to my queue as a potential post for Halloween. On the surface it is a haunted house story, but there is so much more to it than that, just as the book jacket suggests. And for me, a haunted house story probably would have been enough, so anything more than that was almost guaranteed to make me happy.

The Situation: It's 1995, and twenty-something year-old A. has just been informed that he has inherited Axton House in Point Bless, Virginia. Apparently he has, or had, a second cousin twice removed who recently passed away. And since A. is the closest living relative to the now deceased Ambrose Wells, he inherits the massive house and everything inside. So along with his companion Niamh, an Irish mute teenager who can't weigh more than 90 pounds, A. leaves Europe for Virginia to check out his inheritance. Not only is his new home more house than he and Niamh could ever manage on their own, but apparently it is haunted. Everyone in the area seems to acknowledge that this is true, both directly and indirectly. And once A. has an encounter of his own, he and Niamh begin rigging the house with video cameras and audio equipment to see what they can find. 

The Problem: The ghost or spirit that inhabits the house is the least of either A. or Niamh's worries. The house is full of so many secrets, the pair almost don't know where to begin. It also appears that Ambrose was a part of some sort of secret society that gathered together once a year during the winter solstice, which is less than two months away. Soon there is a break-in, and then the pair receive a visit from a friend of Ambrose's, who clearly believes that the late Mr. Wells intended to leave something behind for him and is eager to find it. A. and Niamh begin finding clues left by Ambrose, clues which they believe could lead them to the very thing Ambrose's friend is after. But the one person who could assist them in solving the mystery, Ambrose's butler, took off shortly after his master's death. Also, A. begins having awful nightmares, making him believe he is losing his mind. Ambrose died by jumping out of his bedroom window, just like his father before him. And if A. keeps having the troubling visions and nightmares, he may end up following in his distant cousin's literal footsteps.      

Genre, Themes, History: I have chosen to categorize this as a horror novel, although really it could be mystery, thriller, or suspense, or any combination of the above. Axton House is a haunted house, as there is a spirit living there that A. actually encounters. But there are also clues left behind by Ambrose that lead to an even bigger mystery, and possibly an answer to what he and 19 of his friends were involved in that caused them to meet every December during the winter solstice. Plus, it doesn't seem that the ghost or spirit is responsible for the awful nightmares and visions that A. has been having. Many of the nightmares are somewhat tame and not at all alarming, but others are terrifying and cause A. to feel real pain unlike any dream he has had before. The Supernatural Enhancements is a horror story that doesn't only stick with the haunted house idea. There is also a treasure hunt, a secret society, hidden rooms, crystal balls, cryptograms, murder, and a hedge maze on the Axton House property, just in case the creepy serial killer feeling wasn't quite complete. And in the grand tradition of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the entire book is comprised of letters, video footage, audio recordings, and journal entries, which can always make a story like this seem a little more real.

My Verdict: I always maintain that it is hard to find a good modern day horror movie, and horror novels aren't much different. But for me, Cantero manages to pull it off. The Supernatural Enhancements is just the type of haunted house story I love. Basically, it isn't actually about the house being haunted, although that is part of it. And there isn't an Indian burial ground in the basement, and the characters haven't been dead the entire time either. There is a hedge maze, which may seem a bit cliche, but trust me when I say that its presence is worth it. The book is more than just weird stuff jumping out at the characters from the shadows of a massive mansion. There is mystery and adventure, in addition to the prospect of being scared witless. And the secret society that Ambrose appears to have been a part of is just icing on the cake. In fact, I feel like much more time could have been spent just explaining how that works and all of the different aspects of it, as well as its history. Just when the reader is getting real answers as to how everything works, the book ends. I'm not saying I feel cheated or was left unsatisfied, but this was one rare instance in which I believe a book would have been better if it were a little longer.

Favorite Moment: While having dinner with friends of Ambrose's, A. is asked by their hosts to say the prayer before the meal. A, being more or less Atheist, passes the task onto Niamh, who can't speak. Yet somehow, the food is blessed and everyone moves on.

Favorite Character: If I had inherited a haunted house with a dangerous history and a questionable future, I would want someone like Niamh with me. More than once A. refers to her as his protector, although what qualifies her for such a title isn't really made clear. But she does the job well, despite weighing less than 100 pounds and lacking the ability to speak. She's smart, clever, stronger than she looks, and doesn't say much. Not bad as far as traveling companions go.

Recommended Reading: I could go a couple of directions with this. I already mentioned Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. But there is also Marisha Pessl's Night Film, another modern horror/mystery novel. Also, if you're into books that contain letters and newspaper clippings and handwritten notes, then you may enjoy S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.