The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami — New Review

My first note for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is ‘Michael likes such weird things. Why is weird good?’. It’s a note that hints at a lot of my feelings towards the story as a whole. It’s not that I dislike weird, but I don’t think I find it as enchanting as other people do. Michael described the unpredictability of Murakami as being like a staircase that turns into a slide beneath your feet, and you just get swept away for the ride. That metaphor doesn’t quite work for me.

In the early pages of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my problem was mainly that I didn’t trust Murakami. The story was unpredictable — and as such, I felt no certainty that it was ever going to be wrapped up in a satisfying bow. I expected it to be weird for the sake of being weird. That’s probably not quite fair, because Murakami does seem to be following some kind of logical pattern, it’s just that the pattern isn’t always (or ever) clear to me as a reader.

To tell you the truth, my sister says that this will be a longer story than it seemed at first.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

For me, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was not as weird as Geek Love. The people seemed closer to being real — although, as soon as I said that, I thought of several examples of characters who didn’t. The world is also more ‘normal’, with weirdness happening only at the edges.

Like Island (also recommended by Michael), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle did take me back to my days as an English literature student. There’s a decent essay to be written on the theme of pain and numbness, I’m sure.

I’m no closer to knowing whether I really enjoyed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I can say that it’s very different to anything else I’ve read.

Next, I’ll be reading The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott — New Review

I was due to pay a visit to my aunt in Selkirk last month, during which I would have been taken to see a house where Sir Walter Scott once stayed. (I deliberately haven’t looked it up, so as not to spoil the surprise for myself, so I can’t give more details.) Having no particular knowledge of Walter Scott, except that he was an author of historical and Scottish fiction, I thought I’d better read at least something he had written. I picked Rob Roy for the very simple reason that I already owned a copy.

Since I knew almost nothing about the novel, I asked a few likely friends whether they’d read it. Nickie had, and her description could basically be summed up as ‘a romp that didn’t particularly care about historical accuracy’. That sounded pretty good!

I’d assumed, naively, that Rob Roy would be the main character of Rob Roy, so I wasn’t expecting Frank Osbaldistone. I took a liking to him, especially when he decided to stand up to his father and pursue a life of poetry over one of commerce. When he started to troll his travelling companion, I thought I could really enjoy reading more of his antics.

No schoolboy, who, betwixt frolic and defiance, had executed a similar rash attempt, could feel himself, when adrift in a strong current, in a situation more awkward than mine when I found myself driving, without a compass, on the ocean of human life.

Rob Roy, Walter Scott

Sadly, Frank didn’t get up to much after that. A lot happened to him, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about the machinations of Rasheligh Osbaldistone, nor the mystery behind Diana Vernon. Frank’s decision to hare off to the Scottish highlands with a gardener and a bailiff seemed somewhat unjustified, and I struggled to follow the plot. Rob Roy was finally introduced, mostly in positions to help get Frank out of trouble. I never really understood what his motivation was, since Frank was just an Englishman he didn’t know.

I’ve read older books than Rob Roy, but I found the prose particularly impenetrable. The dialogue in various Scottish dialects didn’t help, but I don’t think that was even the main problem. I couldn’t tell you exactly what the trouble was, except that the long, long sentences were somewhat difficult to parse. There were scattered metafictional elements, which I enjoyed, but these tailed off towards the middle and end of the novel. I ended up making myself a book timeline, to see how Rob Roy compares to other things I’ve read.

My trip to Scotland ended up being postponed, and while I’ll look forward to going to see the house, I don’t think I’ll rush to read any more Walter Scott.

Next, I’ll be reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn — New Review

Geek Love is the weirdest book I’ve ever read. Michael, who lent it to me, claims that is exactly what he wanted, so already in this review I’ve made one person happy. Geek Love isn’t about the kind of geek you might find hunched over a computer. Instead, ‘geek’ in the novel means a circus performer who bites the heads of live birds. If that strikes you as darkly funny, then you may agree with Katherine Dunn, who is surprised and intrigued that anyone else would carry on reading it1. I don’t find absurdity inherently funny, so while I found individual sentences to be funny, I wouldn’t class Geek Love as a comedy. With its focus on deformity, both natural and self-inflicted, there’s no arguing that Geek Love deals with the darker sides of human nature.

The truth is always an insult or a joke. Lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

While the weird, dark, disturbing aspects of Geek Love are presented with a light enough touch that they’re not off-putting, they weren’t why I was reading. As is often the case, I was most interested in the characters. The opening of the book, with its focus on the shocking (or hysterical) nature of the Binewski family, didn’t pull me in. It wasn’t until Katherine Dunn presented Olympia’s interaction with her daughter Miranda that I was convinced I would carry on. I was rewarded with more than enough fascinating characters and relationships, the first and foremost of which is unquestionably Arturo Binewski. For a large portion of the book, everything revolves around Arturo, and the events of the narrative just get weirder and weirder. Unusually, I think Geek Love’s strongest section is the middle, with the beginning and the end feeling somewhat lacklustre in comparison.

It was becoming apparent that Chick himself had only one ambition and that was to help everybody so much that they would love him.

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

I spent a lot of time before writing this review thinking about what genre I would categorise Geek Love as, and what other novels I’ve read it might fit in with. Since I didn’t personally find it funny, I decided that it most closely resembles magical realism. If you love the picaresque narrator of The Tin Drum, or the metafictional narrative of The Moor’s Last Sigh, then it’s possible Geek Love has something about it you’ll adore.

Next, I’ll be reading Dread Nation by Justina Ireland.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov — New Review

My introduction to Bend Sinister was Michael calling me over to help him decipher how to interpret a sentence on the third page. I read a little extra for context, and got caught up in the satisfaction of untangling sentences so that I could understand them. When Michael offered to lend me the book after he was finished, I thought I was in for a difficult-but-rewarding experience. Bend Sinister, beyond the introduction, actually isn’t as challenging to read as I expected. The several chapters I read on the train to Coventry flew by, managing to be both lyrical and yet light.

On other nights it used to be a line of lights with a certain lilt, a metrical incandescence with every foot rescanned and prolonged by reflections in the black snakey water.

Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov

I read for the plot or the characters, and neither the political machinations nor the intellectual professor featured in Bend Sinister are quite my usual cup of tea. Trying to explain what the book is about, therefore, is quite a challenge, because I can only make it sound boring. I can’t easily pin down what kept drawing me through this book, except that it must’ve been some combination of the language and the emotional resonance. I don’t usually read for – or notice – particularly beautiful sentences, but Nabokov managed to write several which were striking without interrupting my reading experience.

The car vanished while the square echo of its slammed door was still suspended in mid-air like an empty picture frame of ebony.

Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov

I didn’t finish Bend Sinister in the best of circumstances. I put it down for several days in a row while I was working 12-hour days, and struggled to ever give it a long enough session to fall back into it. For the first half of the book, I felt the plot almost served as a backdrop to the language and emotions, and I was surprised when the second half became a lot more focused on concrete happenings. The brutality of the ending surprised me, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of the metafictional aspects. Now that Bend Sinister has served as an introduction, I’ll definitely be putting more Nabokov on my reading list. Tentatively, I’d recommend Bend Sinister to people who enjoyed The Outsider.

Next, I’ll be reading Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Fandom by Anna Day — New Review

Before I read The Fandom by Anna Day, I had this idea that I don’t like books in which real-world characters are sucked into a fictional or fantasy world. The Fandom and The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay made me reconsider. I think actually what I don’t like is that inevitable moment of dramatic irony where the reader knows (because it was on the back of the book) that the characters are in a magical/fictional world, but that characters haven’t figured it out yet, and their monologue is about how it’s such a convincing film set, or whatever. From a character realism perspective, you have to have that moment, but narratively it adds nothing, and it makes me cringe. Luckily, The Fandom didn’t dwell on that for too long, and started to immediately do far more interesting things.

Their physiques aren’t quite right — too skinny, slightly stooped, broad in the wrong places. I actually feel a little relieved, just seeing their humanity staring back at me.

The Fandom, Anna Day

The Fandom, Anna Day

The idea of Violet, the main character, experiencing her favourite book and movie as a real place was intriguing, and pulled me quickly into The Fandom. Violet’s emotions vacillate between excitement at meeting beloved characters and horror as the violence and deprivation of a dystopian society unfold around her. There are even meta-fictional references to tropes found in dystopian YA novels, which I appreciated despite the fact that’s not a genre I’m terribly familiar with. More than that, Anna Day clearly put a lot of world-building into The Gallows Dance (the book-within-a-book), and it pays off as Violet observes how much richer and more detailed the world is than the novel was able to convey. It made me wonder what details I would notice if I was transported into my favourite novel, but it also made me grateful I don’t have to experience quite that much ‘adventure’.

I notice the poster of President Stoneback hangs from the wall, softened by rainwater and torn by wind, same as the film. But this president has horns drawn on his head and a noose scribbled around his throat: detail which didn’t make it into the book, or the film, or my own mental image.

The Fandom, Anna Day

The Fandom, Anna Day

The plot, once it gets underway, keeps up the momentum and is genuinely exciting. Most of the characters are pretty great, and although the emotion didn’t get me in the way books sometimes do, it was definitely an enjoyable read. I have to admit, there was one aspect of the ending that I predicted a mile off, but even with that in the back of my mind, there were unexpected twists that I think Anna Day pulled off successfully.

Overall, The Fandom has a lot going for it. I’d recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Magicians by Lev Grossman or Frozen.

Next, I’ll be rereading Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta.

Rating: 3 out of 5.