Category Archives: Fiction

Book: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Originally written for Dark Matter Fanzine

High-class tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres
392 pages, ★★★★★

Adam Robots is a collection of science fiction short stories. It’s a five-star tasting menu of sci-fi sub-genres. It was perfect  for a novice sci-fi reader like me because it allowed me to discover which sci-fi sub-genres I enjoy reading the most.

By far the best story in this book was ‘Thrownness’, a twist on Groundhog Day. The title, ‘Thrownness’, is a rough translation of the German word “Geworfenheit”, which is a philosophical term used to describe the feelings people have about a past that is neither deterministic nor chosen. Author Adam Roberts brings this bizarre abstract concept to life by making the protagonist’s world ‘reset’ itself every 70 hours. After a ‘reset’, all the characters go back to where they were 70 hours ago and start going about the same 3-day routine in perfect repetition. The only difference between each cycle is what the protagonist chooses to do (his location and thoughts are not reset each time). He starts off well-behaved, but soon learns that the only way to survive is to rob, cheat and steal. (He steals from the same people in each 3-day cycle but his ‘crimes’ are forgotten after 3 days!) There’s definitely an element of dark, understated humour that’s unmistakably British underlying this short story.

‘Thrownness’ also makes a political point about incarceration and the notorious problem of reoffending. The situation, not the man himself, propelled the protagonist’s downward spiral. With no roots and no long-term direction in his life, he very quickly resorts to crime.

‘Shall I Tell You the Problem With Time Travel?’ was another one of my favourite stories in this book. Protagonist Professor Bradley, a scientist developing time travel in the near future, has realised that every time travel attempt causes a giant explosion at the intended time and place of arrival. He also notes that he can only travel into the past—not into the future. I won’t give anything away here, but the story is very cleverly-written and not contradicted by present-day scientific theories, which is important for me.

Reality is very important for me in books, which is why I read so much non-fiction. I’m not a fan of the extremely farfetched sub-genres in sci-fi—complicated alien civilisations and the like, or artificial intelligence—and I’m put off by scientific impossibility. I learned all this by reading Adam Robots. I learned that I enjoy reading sci-fi that’s set either in a believable future, or in a slightly altered present, and Adam Robots gave me a very generous serving of both. ‘The Time Telephone’ and ‘A Prison Term of A Thousand Years’ in this book were also very good.

Recommended for people who want to get more into reading sci-fi. Five out of five stars. ★★★★★

Book: The Night Guest

The Night Guest Book Cover

Originally posted on Dark Matter Fanzine

Extremely dark and bitchy.
256 pages, ★★

The Night Guest is the story of a 75-year-old widow who has a government carer arrive unexpectedly to take full-time care of her. The widow sadly declines into dementia throughout the novel and becomes increasingly dependent on her carer. However, not everything is as it seems. As you progress through this book, you’ll find yourself asking yourself what’s real and what’s not: is Freda (the carer) really a government worker? Does Ruth (the widow) really have dementia? Is Freda taking advantage of Ruth?

The ending, which I won’t reveal here, is darker than anyone but the author could have imagined. Not only is it dark, but its characters are bitchy and unpleasant and I didn’t learn anything positive from this book. I didn’t even enjoy it. Some reviewers have commended the author for creating these nasty characters and the book’s unpredictable plot in a debut novel, but personally, I think the author’s crossed a line of “negativity” and this book doesn’t deserve any credit.

There are no men in this book (not in major roles, anyway), which instantly throws its character cast off balance. What bothers me more is that nothing positive happens in this book from start to finish. The Night Guest is a gloomy, uninspiring novel with a small number of silently vindictive female characters and absolutely no point to it. I learned nothing, I didn’t enjoy it, and I would have stopped reading after 80 pages if I weren’t obliged to review it.

The “suspense” that some newspaper reviews have written about is actually just “boredom”. The “darkness” is actually “bitchiness” and the “horror” is more sickening than frightening. The relationships between all the characters are covertly abusive and become more so as you read on. This novel has no likeable characters.

So who might enjoy this book? People who enjoy horror movies, possibly? Fortunately, I’m not one of those people, so I can only give it two stars. ★★

Book: 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Beautiful, credible, vivid glimpse of the future.
565 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

2312 is a science fiction story of love, politics, and interplanetary terrorism. While the plot is interesting in itself, the futuristic setting in which the story takes place is definitely the book’s main selling point.

This book is set in the year 2312 at a time when humans have already colonized Mars, Venus, and many asteroids and moons in our solar system. Most of them were terraformed before being settled (terraforming is a process of drastic geoengineering that involves removing entire atmospheres, changing temperatures by hundreds of degrees Kelvin or manipulating collisions with other celestial bodies to import necessary resources). Humans travel in hollowed-out asteroids called ‘terraria’ that spin to simulate gravity on their inside walls. Venus now has a giant sunshield, Mars has people living in underground caves, and the inhabitants of Mercury travel perpetually westwards to keep in line with the temperate crepuscule (and thus avoid deadly extremes of hot and cold). Mercurian ‘sunwalkers’ do this on foot, while Mercurian cities move westward on rails that circumnavigate the entire planet.

Genders are diverse in 2312. Hormone interventions before and after birth give rise to about ten different genders between between ‘male’ and ‘female’. The book implies that these intermediate genders are more advantageous than either of the traditional sexes.

Quantum computing has advanced to the point that people can wear quantum-classical hybrid computers as implants or wristwatches called ‘qubes’. Qubes can listen, speak out loud, analyse vast amounts of information and serve as a perfect memory aid for the wearer. They can’t, however, transmit signals to each other. Qubes are too personal for that—they’re used more as implants than as cellphones. I particularly love how the qubes entertain their wearers by playful use of the English language. I’ve learned about exergasia, synathroesmus, anaphora, pretended dubitation, synchoresis, aporia and many more rhetorical devices from the qubes in this book! Qubes might be inhuman in many ways, but they do have their own sense of humour.

Biomedical advances abound. DNA repair, limb regrowth, telomere extensions and wearable pharmacies (controlled by wearable qubes) have increased lifespan to at least 200 years in space. Regular visits to Earth are still necessary, however, for optimum health and longevity. The reasons for this are unknown.

Earth is devastated in this novel. Countries have been decimated into nearly 500 mini-states (and groups of mini-states with varying levels of authority), while China is the only major power. Earth is overpopulated, plagued with poverty and misery, and most progress is stifled by laws, politics and taboos. My favourite criticisms of Earth are that the gravity is “too high” and “nobody looks at the stars”! Protagonist Swan says that gravity is much more comfortable on Mercury and Mars—both are just 0.38 g.

I loved how China was so powerful in this novel. Best of all, heroic protagonist Swan Er Hong, who is both male and female, and capable of interplanetary travel at over 100 years old, has an unmistakably Chinese name. Venus is inhabited by Chinese descendents and Venusian streets are cluttered with slogans written in Chinese characters. On Earth, China has been strong for “most of history” except for the “brief period of subjugation to Europe” (referring to the period between 1850 and 1949). As a massive fan of Chinese culture, all these subtle details make me proud. Even the title of this book, 2312, makes a subtle reference to China’s power: “GB2312” was the code name for the first official set of Chinese characters used on computer systems worldwide in 1980.

The notion in 2312 that space-dwellers should return to Earth every few years to recuperate (called “Gaian replenishment”) is an ironic one. Reading this, I immediately thought of overseas Chinese who return to China to ‘recuperate’ every so often—despite the crowds, the pollution, and the stress that it causes. The idea of ‘recuperating’ in such a dystopian environment reminded me that just as Earth is an integral part of human nature in 2312, China is an integral part of Chinese people today—however irrational that might seem.

I also loved the mixture of writing styles in this book. The author uses ‘lists’ (descriptive poetry that sets the scene much quicker than prose); ‘extracts’ (snippets of scientific journal abstracts that explain science fiction much quicker than prose); and ‘quantum walks’ (which follow the thought processes of a personal quantum computer called a ‘qube’). In my opinion, these diverse writing styles, which amount to about 10-20% of the book, enrich the story, not distract from it. However, some reviewers disagree. Many of this book’s worst reviews make negative reference to these ‘poetic’ chapters. I love them, though.

The broad range of themes in this book should appeal to a very wide audience. Readers with an appreciation for science fiction and human development may enjoy it more than those without; and readers with the patience and imagination to understand poetry will appreciate the chapters written as ‘lists’, ‘extracts’ or ‘quantum walks’ much more than those without. This is one of few books that I can positively recommend for anyone who enjoys reading. ★★★★★

Finally, the blurb for this book on Goodreads is completely wrong.

Book: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Life-changing classic about pursuing dreams.
174 pages, ★★★★★

I loved this book but many online critics have given it just one star. Critics say it’s too simple, too cliché, and the moral of the story is either too individualistic or only concerns men. Personally, I give it five stars for all the same reasons. Commercially, The Alchemist has been a huge success (65 million copies have been sold). Fans of this book include Bill Clinton and Will Smith.

Rather than show you my opinion on this book, check out the following video instead. Watch Will Smith talk about The Alchemist at 01:25.

★★★★★

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Book: The Disestablishment of Paradise

Disestablishment-of-Paradise

GORGEOUS sci-fi/fantasy setting, but the storyline’s not rich enough for me.
528 pages, ★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

The Disestablishment of Paradise is set a few hundred years in the future at a time when humans have colonised at least 150 planets. The majority of these planets are located outside our solar system, and a giant “fractal” network allows people, goods and letters to travel between these planets with relative ease. The setting for this story is gorgeous.

The story takes place on a planet called Paradise. Paradise is a relatively hospitable planet—there are no living predators, plant life is everywhere, gravity is at a comfortable level and oxygen is more abundant than on Earth. Early pioneers encountered nothing dangerous at all, but did discover an irrestibly delicious, aphrodesiac fruit called the “Paradise Plum”, which, along with mining, quickly became Paradise’s most important export.

However, Paradise has become plagued by problems since its colonisation by humans: mining company MINADEC causes widespread destruction to the delicate ecosystem; and the Paradise Plums contract a mysterious disease, making them unsuitable for export and causing violent vomiting and nausea in anyone who eats them. By the time this novel begins, Paradise’s two main industries (mining and plums) had already been forced to grind to a halt, and the planet goes into debt.

Disestablishment begins when the Economic Subcommittee makes the sudden announcement that all humans must abandon Paradise because it’s unprofitable—a decision, which, once ratified by Central, has no chance of being revoked. The inhabitants are required to remove or destroy all evidence of human colonisation (the regulations tell them to “leave nothing intact”), then start new lives on another planet with monetary compensation. Most inhabitants are understandably disappointed to leave the planet, but protagonist Hera Melhuish, a leading plant scientist on Paradise, is completely heartbroken. She loves her planet so much that she breaks down upon hearing the news, attempts suicide, and spends ten days recuperating in a safe-haven. The story then follows Hera and her assistant Mack while they stay on Paradise as long as possible, discover one of its hidden treasures, and ultimately become the last people to leave.

The beginning of this story is told from personal, political and scientific perspectives. It’s written in a way that makes readers empathise with the characters as they learn the disappointing news that their planet is to be ‘disestablished’. We learn the political and economic arguments from the other side for doing so, and the interplanetary legal battle to reverse the decision is a compelling one. All the science fiction is explained convincingly in the narrative or in the appendices, and the story makes clever allusions to Genesis and to Greek mythology before page 50. Over thirty characters make themselves known before page 200. I loved this richness and complexity in the first half of this book.

Spoiler alert

This book went downhill for me after page 200 when the “hunch” that leads Mack to fly half-way around the planet unguided by maps to save Hera from danger turns out to be correct. This unexplained act killed my sympathy for both of the main characters. Mack and Hera then wrestle a Dendron (an animal-like plant), a process throughout which, it becomes increasingly obvious that they love each other and will eventually have sex. Disappointingly, they do.

I am disappointed because the politics, science fiction and maturity from the first half of the book don’t continue into the second half. Character complexity and fantasy melt away and the book becomes a simple romance story between Mack and Hera. The author sexualises both characters heavily and makes them dwell on their feelings to the extent that they sound like adolescent, first-time lovers (highly reminiscent of Gale and Katniss from the Hunger Games, actually) even though they’re both fifty years old. This novel’s intense focus on Mack and Hera’s naïve, predictable relationship in the second half didn’t match the complex, political sci-fi/fantasy novel I was expecting after reading the first half of the story.

I would have preferred an alternative storyline. First, I’d have preferred to see Mack transported back to Earth or Mars after his sex with Hera. The book’s ending could be the same, but Hera would then be faced with a big question: does she care more about Mack than about Paradise? Second, I’d have preferred to bring Hemi back into the spotlight in the second half. I’d make Hemi (who has an obvious crush on Hera) work for a demolition team, and thus introduce a new conflict: should he abdicate his duties as a demolition worker to protect Hera and her scientific samples? Unfortunately, such dilemmas were absent from the second half of the book.

End of spoilers

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoyed the film Avatar. You’ll enjoy The Disestablishment of Paradiseeven more if you’re also familiar with young adult literature, science fiction and the few allegorical references that this novel makes to other stories. Even though the storyline weakens towards the end, the world that the author creates in The Disestablishment of Paradise is a beautiful one. I still enjoyed reading this book as a whole. 

Book: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Comical, surreal, unmistakably British.
400 pages, ★★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages takes ‘normal’ British life and makes it increasingly surreal. The story focuses on office worker Polly and her brother Don (who reminds me of the man who nearly adopted Juno’s baby in the film Juno), whose lives become punctuated by increasingly bizarre episodes. The story is set in modern-day Britain, and British references are glaringly obvious on every page.

Bizarre incidents begin after page 53 when Don’s desk snaps completely in half under the pressure of a brass pencil sharpener. What’s equally strange is that it repairs itself on the same page, and this doesn’t seem to surprise Don in the slightest. The book is very ‘normal’ up to this point so I started to rationalise the desk’s breakage logically—Is it a folding desk? Is is actually a portable picnic table? By the time I realised this book was logically irreconcilable, I was already 30 pages from the end.

More bizarre events include shops, houses and streets that vanish (becoming green fields) overnight, Mr Huos being translocated suddenly up a mountain, the introduction of seemingly irrelevant, disconnected storylines, and a Ford Cortina being driven by a flock of chickens. Characters take notice of these surreal events about halfway through the book and start referring to the “It” and then “magic” influencing their lives. The most obvious piece of “magic” happens when Stan Gogerty meets a real-life CGI gingerbread-man copy of himself—an impossible meeting that gives him great insight into the perpetual “chicken and egg question” that emerges later on.

The most subtle piece of ‘magic’ in this novel is when two characters morph into two of the other characters. This could be easy to miss. On page 152, we meet Mary and Martin, whose relationships with Mr Huos and with each other seem remarkably similar to those of Polly and Don, who we met in the first chapter. Then, between pages 152 and 158, the storyline of Mary and Martin becomes the storyline of Polly and Don! Page 152 uses the former pair of names (just once); page 158 uses the latter set of names (twice), and the pages in the middle use pronouns (he, she and Mr. Huos) to disguise the subtle transition. This happens again later when we learn that Rachel, Polly and “dozens of others” work simultaneously in the same office for Mr Huos; and again when Ed Hopkins, Jack Tedesci and some other characters all discover the houses they bought just yesterday have gone missing.

British humour is found throughout. Most obviously, it’s in the sheer absurdity of the plot (we Brits find that funny in itself). Finding humour in futility is also a remarkably British trait, and the introduction of apparently irrelevant storylines (such as the motorcade of world leaders) and the intermittent discussion of the “chicken and egg question” serves that end very well.

I grew up in Britain, and therefore found such overtly British jokes as “…like what would happen if the Tardis’ navigation system got replaced by the computer that runs baggage handling at Heathrow” and “…like the M25 tailback in ‘92 that became so dense it achieved critical mass and collapsed into a black hole” much funnier than if I’d grown up elsewhere. The more subtle jokes, though, such as, “caught the Tube at Livingstone Square” on page 222, might only be intelligible to people who have lived in London for some time. In fact, some of the jokes in this is novel are so British that I question whether non-Brits would find them funny at all.

There are also many similes and metaphors that use animals—I counted a daddy long-legs, a “goldfish impression”, two elephants, three cats, and dozens of chickens and pigs. The best animal reference of all was, “still looked very sad indeed, like a spaniel whose bone was stolen by an Alsatian”. Animal references made me smile in many places.

I strongly recommend this book for those with an appreciation of British humour. When reading it, challenge yourself by seeing how long you can keep track of the logical inconsistencies in this book. Treat it as a mental exercise. I’ve attached a character map below, to which you can refer if you get stuck. ★★★★★

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Sausages

Book: The Tsunami Countdown

The Tsunami Countdown

Gripping. So full of action and science that there’s no time for character development.
494 pages, ★★★★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Protagonist Kai Tanaka faces a once-in-a-lifetime dilemma when a mega-tsunami heads towards his home state of Hawaii. Kai is both the acting director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Honolulu, and also a father of two typically rebellious and hormonal teenage girls. The Tsunami Countdown tells the story of Kai’s struggle to save both the Hawaiian people and his own family from the wrath of the mega-tsunami.

The thriller is written in two parts: analysis and action. The first, ‘analytical’ part describes the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre’s investigation into some freak data that emerged from meteorological and seismological monitoring stations around the Pacific. Even though the reader knows the outcome (a mega-tsunami is going to hit), the author keeps us addicted to the chase. Suspense builds on every page as new evidence comes to light, culminating in the loss of all contact with nearby Christmas Island—as if the island had disappeared completely. For me, following the protagonist’s train of thought through the scientific and moral dilemma was the most exciting part of this book.

The book becomes a tense, gripping, slightly frustrating action thriller after the “mega-tsunami” alarm is sounded. Very quickly, the reader follows the separate adventures of Kai, Rachel and their children. Rachel is a hotel manager shouldered with the responsibility of evacuating the most difficult group of evacuees imaginable: a congregation of fearless, elderly veterans, many disabled, who speak almost no English at all. On top of that, the guests’ usual reaction to a tsunami (taking refuge above the third floor of a sixth-storey building) would be insufficient when this mega-tsunami hits—only by evacuating to higher elevation inland could they be safe. Rachel’s attempt at a group evacuation is laden with obstacles: many dismiss the mega-tsunami warning as a misjudgment or a ‘prank’, and of those who do take action, many risk their lives by not paying attention to the details. Kai, meanwhile, embarks on an equally-impossible mission to rescue his daughters from the beach, making the occasional ethical decision as he does so.

While this second ‘action-thriller’ half is probably the most gripping story I’ve ever read, it also neglects character development in favour of pure action to the point that I was completely unmoved when key characters die towards the end! The incoming mega-tsunami leaves little time for characterisation and subplots. In the face of the tsunami, most of the characters become similar with the exception of a few obvious clichés (Kai’s daughters and Chuck). Character development is noticeably missing from the ‘dragster-car’ storyline in the second half (fast, straight and narrow).

One thing I did learn from this book is that people don’t always listen to experts. When the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre asked people to evacuate the mega-tsunami on foot, many took to their cars, which slowed everyone’s evacuation. Others didn’t listen to the warning, accepted their fate, or, as in the case of Kai’s teenage daughters, blatantly defied it by going to the beach. For me, “why do people ignore expert advice?” is one of the most interesting questions raised in this book.

I particularly recommend this book for young men such as myself. I enjoyed reading The Tsunami Countdown, and I praise the author for making it not only scientifically plausible, but also crammed with real science.

As a secondary school teacher, I would be happy to teach this book in a geography or science class. I would draw on the following aspects:

  • Earthquakes: Why they occur, types of waves they create
  • Meteors: Origin, structure, impacts, investigate real meteors
  • Waves: How they move, the energy they carry
  • Ethics: Who would you save first? Why do people ignore expert advice?
  • Politics: To what extent should the government help?
  • Modern history: Investigate the Boxing Day tsunami

Finally, the compass on the book’s cover is somewhat misleading. The cover on the American edition (titled Rogue Wave) is much more appropriate for this story. ★★★★

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Incredibly influential, sadly inaccessible.
411 pages, ★★

How dare I give just two stars to a classic?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel about slaves in 19th century America. I’ve summarised the story into a character map below.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Character Map

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for white people. I say this because it doesn’t dwell on the struggles, the emotional turmoil, the fear and loathing of whites that slaves faced; nor does it stir up revolution. Rather, it tells a realistic, emotionally-restrained story of two Christian slaves who stay unwaveringly loyal despite extreme social injustice.

While the book itself has no political ideology, it was one of the most politically influential books in American history; and possibly of all time. It spread rapidly—one in six adult Americans owned a copy—and was the best-selling novel in American history at the time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stimulated the growing impetus to abolish slavery to such an extent that 50 years later, author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bust was placed alongside that of Washington, Franklin and Lincoln in New York’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Even President Abraham Lincoln made references to “that lady” who “started the great Civil War”. Many writers argue that this novel played a significant role in the abolition of slavery in America.

Most interesting is that according to a poll conducted in 1946, the majority of Negroes surveyed by Negro Digest considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin “anti-Negro” since it “presented the black in a submissive, docile, cringing role, portraying him as less than a man”. While their description is definitely true, it seems ironic that the American black population would grow to resent the book that had quite possibly set them free.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating book, and is one that everyone interested in history should know about. So why only two stars? It’s told in such dated English that I struggled to enjoy it. Read literary criticisms instead. ★★

Book: Everything is Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated
Everything is Illuminated

Inaccessible.
276 pages, ★★

Somewhere, buried deep beneath layers of Jewish humour and outrageous English, this book contains a novel about one man’s personal quest to solve a Holocaust mystery. The story is so hidden, though, so completely suffocated with humour (to the point where it stops being funny), that it would takes at least a couple of readings to fully appreciate the plot.

The protagonist (who shares the same name as the author) goes to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The story is told from a variety of perspectives, with large parts told in the form of letters in hilariously broken English from the protagonist’s Ukrainian translator, Alex.

Anyone as clueless about Jewish humour as I am would probably be able to tell you that while most of this book appears to be funny, they can’t actually identify where the punchlines are. That’s how I feel. The deeper Holocaust narrative is inaccessible to me because it’s been concealed so heavily by slapstick wordplay. The film looks much clearer, though:

Everything is not Illuminated by this book. I’m a little disappointed with its lack of clarity. While some people can understandably give this 4 or 5 stars, I can only give it two. ★★

Book: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Check out Readmill: a free app for the iPhone and iPad. It’s a light, simple, fast and functional reading app without clunky skeuomorphic clutter. You can instantly download free classics from within the app, and even see annotations made by people you’ve never met (if you want to). Readmill improves on iBooks in every way.

I got the app this morning and read by first book, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

Metamorphosis
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka sits on my Readmill bookshelf.

Mildly grotesque. No character arc, no narrative. Not much to review.
57 pages.

I imagine that small groups of PhD students and enthusiasts read deep meaning into this book. I, however, see it as pointless.

I can’t give this a rating.

Skim it.

Book: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

I’ve bitten into my university reading list before the classes even begin. My reviews will be totally honest—so if a book doesn’t make any sense to me, then that’s exactly what I’ll write. Before I start reviewing university books, though, here’s one piece of fiction:

Blind Willow Sleeping Woman

Disappointing writer’s scrapbook.
pages, ★★

I can’t relate to the good reviews of this book. These 24 surreal short stories are mostly negative, bleak, largely pointless and totally lack a common theme.

Whether taken individually, or taken as a whole, these 24 stories have no typical ‘story’ structure to them. Murakami’s novels (see my review of 1Q84) are so well-written that I had high hopes for his story collections, too. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed with all of them. ★★

Book: South of the Border, West of the Sun

South of the Border, West of the Sun
South of the Border, West of the Sun

Boy grows up, explores love and sex but never really ‘gets it’. Poor guy.
213 pages, ★★★★

Protagonist Hajime starts as a 12-year-old boy who’s never kissed or dated anyone. He explores dating, kissing, sex and marriage throughout this book. By the end, he’s in his mid-30s, and married with two daughters.

After finishing school, Hajime spends 12 years wandering around aimlessly in life. He eats alone, relaxes alone, and doesn’t think about marriage. He dates girls, but none of the relationships are long-lasting or meaningful. David Brooks defined this relatively new period of life, the “decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood”, as “odyssey” in his book, The Social Animal. Luckily, this period of my life was very short—just a few months—and I can testify that life’s much better once you’re out of it.

But poor Hajime never really gets out of it. Even when married with two daughters, he’s still driving out of town to see his lover, his ex-lover and her cousin… at 30 years of age, his romantic life is a shambles! Everyone’s romantic life is a shambles is at some point, but we’re all supposed to grow out of it. And again, life’s much better when you do.

The ending is a classic Murakami one. Two (then three) characters meet in a miracle of coincidences, seeing each other in separate vehicles at the traffic lights. This also happened at the end of After Dark.

We can learn two things from this novel. First, everyone starts life understanding almost nothing about sex, dating and romantic love. Second, unlike Hajime, we should learn these things and get better with time. Don’t do what Hajime did and waste over a decade, not learning. Poor guy. ★★★★

Book: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

She solves a murder mystery and restores all karmic balance.
532 pages, ★★★★★

Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch—and there’s always a catch—is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues. Little is as it seems in Larsson’s novel, but there is at least one constant: you really don’t want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.

The story is set in Sweden, in a realistic present-day dystopia. Murder, kidnapping, rape, embezzlement, feuds and revenge dominate the connections between the characters. The crime in question, “Who killed Harriet?” is revealed to Blomkvist on page 82.

Everyone in this book, except for Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, is creepy. Mikael gets wrongly imprisoned by one of said creeps, who is a billionaire trying to protect his business. Lisbeth suffers two sex attacks from another creep on page 220, but keeps focussed on the murder mystery and on page 420, solves it. Serial killers and biblical misinterpretations fill the middle pages (it reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, actually).

In the concluding 100 pages, Lisbeth hilariously “makes everything right”. Largely thanks to Lisbeth, all the victims are compensated, all the rapists get revenged, the bankrupted magazine gets rescued, and all the Nazis die. How very karmic.

The first book of a trilogy is almost always the best. One book was enough, though. I enjoyed this thriller but I’m not going to read any more. ★★★★★

Book: Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay

The Year of the Snake has begun and I wish all my readers a healthy, prosperous and Happy Chinese New Year!

The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay
Book 3 in the trilogy

Massive, cliché rebellion. Far too much Hunger Games.
455 pages, ★★★

I found this book boring.

Ninety percent of Mockingjay depicts a rebellion against the Capitol, during which, Peeta is captured and Katniss fights in a mockingjay costume. Mockingjay reminded me of two more disappointing trilogies: Matrix Revolutions and The Bourne Ultimatum… all were action-packed but lacked an interesting story.

Even though some people die along the way, Mockingjay ends with Peeta and Katniss living happily ever after. The evil Capitol falls.

I strongly recommend the first book, but it leaves you with no cravings for a second or third book at all. Don’t waste your time reading them just because they exist—one Hunger Games book was enough. ★★★

Book: White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
penguin.com.au

Aimless, sexless, pointless. Why the hype?
541 pages, ★★

White Teeth isn’t funny. What the reviews call “wit” is actually snide and banal comments from silly characters. To understand this book’s “relentlessly funny, clever” jokes requires a familiarity with London’s ethnic stereotypes, which I lack. Other “humour” is directed at ethnic accents—comedy which might work well in a pantomime, but falls flat in a written novel.

The only sex in White Teeth is when two morons have sex on a prayer mat. I found this neither humorous nor inventive—not shocking, not sexy, not even important. It was just dull.

By page 330, I already cared about none of the characters. There was no longer an obvious protagonist, nor any continuity to the plot. Admittedly, I started to skim-read.

This book screams, “LONDON!”. You’re inundated with British brands and euphemisms throughout. It focusses on London’s ethnic diversity, particularly the lives of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and their descendants. But rather than gaining the readers’ respect, these characters seem to be treated as the subject of slapstick humour. The author depicts them as silly.

I’ve been trying to categorise books recently, and have determined that White Teeth lies somewhere between The Casual Vacancy (four stars) and The Time Traveller’s Wife (two stars)White Teeth, however, lacks the complex, twisted ending of The Vasual Vacancy, and lacks the character development (and sex) found in The Time Traveller’s Wife.

All I learned from White Teeth is that I don’t like books about daily British life. I like more exotic fiction. Please give me more of Haruki Murakami books. ★★

Book: Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha
Thanks to bookyish for scanning the front cover.

An uncomfortable, unforgettable, necessary read.
434 pages, ★★★★★

A Japanese-born woman in New York recalls her youth as a geisha in 1930s Japan.

Reading this, though, I learned more about the sex trade than about Japan.

Protagonist Chiyo was taken into an okiya (geisha compound) as a 14-year-old virgin. There, she learned the arts of etiquette and seduction, and was trained to sing, dance, play music, tell stories, pour tea and sake, and entertain rich businessmen and aristocrats. The most valuable skill she learned there was how to endure commodified sex. Her sister, Satsu, was also taken, but promptly sold into prostitution under the new name of Yukiyo. Geishas are, in a way, upper-class equivalents of prostitutes. Both are paid by the hour for entertainment—including sex.

After being given training and kimonos, geishas are bonded to their okiya by unrealistically large ‘debts’, which they must spend many years repaying to their bosses through geisha service. For some, geisha training is a once-in-a-lifetime investment that will make them rich and powerful (by meeting a danna, or sugar-daddy), while for many geishas, it marks the beginning of a downward spiral. In this respect, too, the geisha industry is remarkably similar to the sex trade.

In fact, geisha is written “芸妓” in Japanese, which translates as “artistic prostitute”. Uneducated, uncultured geishas (i.e. prostitutes) can only entertain their clients with sex—because they don’t know how to sing, dance, pour sake or play music.

Protagonist Chiyo leads a successful geisha career. She tries to find a suitable danna in a company that makes electrical appliances. Her successful run begins when a high price is placed on her virginity (as verified by incessant hymen-touching), and she is able to repay her debts to the okiya with ease.

Pleasing male clients is paramount for the geishas. At one point, the okiya boss arranges a meeting between Chiyo and the doctor—a potential suitor—by carefully cutting her with a knife and then sending her to hospital. It paid off: the doctor ultimately purchased her mizuage (virginity).

I see glamour in politicians racing to please millions of voters, or in celebrities frolicking around to attract millions of fans. But for some reason, I feel sadness in seeing geishas cater to the irrational whims of one person. I find the idea of a “VIP celebrity” industry quite disturbing. Admittedly, this conclusion is based on gut instinct and not on logic.

There are 50 characters in this book, many of whose beautiful names are lost in translation. Women’s names which mean “Bean Leaves” and “Little Lily” in Japanese are stripped of all meaning when transliterated as “Sayuri” and “Mahema” in this book. The original Japanese version is probably more beautiful than the English one. I can’t read Japanese, but I’d like to see the original Japanese names to complement the English.

The geisha industry is shaken upside-down when Japan loses the war in August 1945. Okiya are dismantled and many geishas are sent to work on production lines, where the struggles of geishahood pale in comparison:

“Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper” — final sentence

I recommend Memoirs of a Geisha for anyone who loves Japan, and for anyone who doesn’t know much about the sex trade. Not all geishas are glamorous, and not all prostitution is tragic; there are debatable ethical boundaries between the two, which I’m not even going to attempt to discuss here. The ethical debate becomes even more complex when you substitute sake (in this book) for the modern substance-of-choice, cocaine. Memoirs of a Geisha certainly makes you think. ★★★