Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Given its abysmal overall rating, it should not come as a surprise that A Separation is not the type of novel that will/to have a large appeal. While it bears many of the same elements and stylistic qualities as Intimacies, Katie Kitamura’s latest novel which I happen not to like, here, well, they kind of work. Similarly to Intimacies, A Separation is narrated by a nameless and nondescript female character. We never learn anything substantial about their backstories and their personalities remain blank. For some reason, in A Separation, this narrating choice works. Whereas reading Intimacies felt to me like an utter waste of my time, A Separation proved to be a much more thought-provoking novel.

A Separation follows a woman who is separated from her husband, a serial cheater. They have not officialized their separation and not only are they legally still married but his parents still believe they are together. When he goes missing on a research trip in Greece his mother pressures our narrator to go find him. Our narrator, who is now in a new relationship, acquiesces hoping that she will be able to get her husband to agree to a divorce. Once there however she realizes that he has truly vanished. She obverses the staff in the hotel, speculating on the whereabouts of her husband, wondering how and why he has seemingly disappeared, leaving his possessions behind.
I was transfixed by the descriptions of the landscapes and people encountered by our main character. The uneasy scenario our mc is in resulted in a taut atmosphere. Her ambiguous narration proved hypnotic and I felt transported alongside her to this remote region in Greece. While the uncertain nature of her journey and her husband’s unknown whereabouts resulted in a gripping storyline, this was not a fast-paced or plot-driven story. This is a very introspective and reflective work that explores themes of unity and separation, absence and presence, longing and loss, foreignness and belonging, deception and clarity.
I loved the mood of this story. The drawn-out waiting for our mc does may bore some but I found this wait to be enthralling. The tension between her and the other characters (the employees, the husband, her mother-in-law) captivated me. Her piercing narration was particularly rewarding. Not only does she express herself in such an adroit, articulate, and alert way but I found her speculations and observations to be razor-sharp. The author juxtaposes her clarity of vision with her intrinsic vagueness. We learn virtually nothing about her history or who she is. Her crystal-clear narration is in fact rather deceptive as all the while she keeps herself hidden. This ambivalence certainly complemented the precarious atmosphere of her stay in Greece.
While I did find much to be admired in this novel it is not the type of reading that will leave a long-lasting impression on me. It did succeed in making me a fan of this author even if I did not care for her latest novel. I can see why many gave A Separation a low rating. Nothing much happens and for all her navel-gazing the narrator remains a stranger to us. It is the type of novel that at the end may very well make you say “what was the point of all that?”. But, if you are in the right mood for a more muggy exploration of a fractured marriage and the limits of language, that succeeds in being both elusive and incisive, well, look no further. Subtle, erudite, and meditative, A Separation will certainly appeal to fans of psychological fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Rebellious Tide by Eddy Boudel Tan

This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel bad for not liking a book. The more I read The Rebellious Tide, the less I liked it. Yet, I really tried to pretend otherwise. Having loved Eddy Boudel Tan’s debut novel (it moved me to tears, something that does not happen often to grinches like moi) I had high expectations for his sophomore novel and I can’t help but be disappointment by it. If you are thinking of reading this novel I recommend you check out some positive reviews out as this review won’t be particularly ‘rosy’.

The Rebellious Tide follows Sebastien, a young man who is grieving the death of his mother. He resents his hometown as he believes that the townspeople have always treated him and his mother like outsiders (his mother was originally from Singapore). We learn of his on-off again relationship with Sophie and of his hatred towards his father, a Greek man who allegedly abandoned his mother when she was pregnant with Sebastien. So, naturally, Sebastien decides to take revenge on his father. Lucky for him, he manages to get himself hired as a photographer on a luxury cruise ship monstrosity (as a former Venetian I abhor cruises) which happens to captained by his father. He makes fast friends with two other members of staff and decides to make inquiries about his father, wanting to learn what kind of person he is. Soon Sebastien realises how rigid the hierarchy among staff members is, and his resentment towards his father makes him start a ‘rebellion’.
There were elements of the story that I liked, such as the cruise as microcosm of society. The ‘confined’ setting augmented the already brewing tension between the ship’s crew and the staff (who are deemed ‘inferior’ or ‘expandable’). But…I just could not believe in any of it. I couldn’t suspend my sense of disbelief, and I never bought into any of it. The characters were painfully one-dimensional, the female ones especially, and yet the storyline tried for this serious tone which…I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me. As I said, I wanted to like this so bad but the more I read the less I liked what I was reading. The story is very on the nose. The ‘Greek myth’ connection was jarring and out-of-place. While I could have bought the whole ‘lower decks=Hades’, ‘passageway in the lower decks=Styx’, okay…we get it, lots of Greeks work on this ship. But the whole thing between Sebastien and his supposed ‘love interest’ where they call each other Achilles and Patroclus? Come on! The two men barely know each other, their relationship struck me (and yes, this is once again my personal opinion) as just sexual. And there is nothing wrong with that! But why present it as a tragic love story? Bah!
The characters did not sound like real people, the dialogues were clunky, and the writing…I don’t know, I guess I preferred the author’s prose in After Elliot because it was in the 1st person (making the whole thing much more ‘intimate’) whereas here we have a perspective that is all over the place and yet it doesn’t really delve beyond a character’s surface level.
And the whole storyline is so damn cheesy and gave me some strong soap opera vibes. Convenient coincidences and clichés abound! And don’t get me started on Sebastien’s father (and that done to death line, “you remind me of myself when I was your age”).

As I said (or wrote) I do hate myself a little bit for not liking this novel. While I am of the opinion that this novel is in desperate need of an overhaul, I hope that it will find its audience and that readers will connect to Sebastien in a way that I was not able to.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½ stars

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Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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“Can you tell me what happened on the night of the murder? I asked and even as I uttered the words I felt slightly ridiculous. They sounded so old-fashioned, so clichéd. If I’d seen them in a novel, I’d have edited them out.”

Anthony Horowitz has written yet another labyrinthine whodunnit that pays homage to Golden Age Detective fiction. In Moonflower Murders readers will be reunited with Susan Ryeland, a former editor who now runs a small hotel in Crete with her partner Andreas. Running a hotel is exhausting and Susan, nostalgic about her old life, years for a break. It just so happens that she’s approached by a couple, the Trehearnes, own a five-star hotel, Branlow Hall, in Suffolk. Eight years previously a guest was brutally murdered in his room. Susan just so happens to have edited a book that was inspired by this murder (Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd Takes the Case). The Trehearnes’ daughter, Cecily, disappeared after telling them that Alan’s novel holds the truth behind the 2008 murder. The Trehearnes hire Susan, hoping that her knowledge of the book and her ties to the now deceased Alan will shed light on Cecily’s disappearance. Similarly to Magpie Murders the novel is divided between Susan’s narrative and Alan’s novel.
While it does take a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Trehearnes would hire Susan and not a private detective to find what happened to their daughter, I soon fell into the flow of story. Susan’s presence at Branlow Hall ruffles quite a few feathers. There is Cecily’s icy sister, the various hotel employees, Cecily’s husband and their nanny…we have quite a large cast. Some of them hold Susan accountable for Alan’s novel, others simply don’t like the idea of her ‘snooping’ around. Yet Susan, who is determined to find out what happened to Cecily, knows that her disappearance is tied up to that fateful night in 2008.
While I did like the story-within-the-story technique in Magpie Murders, in this novel I was far more invested in Susan’s ‘reality’ than Alan’s book. In fact, as much as I like I Horowitz’s writing, I did dislike Alan’s. I found myself agreeing with Susan’s comments about Atticus Pünd Takes the Case: Alan’s narrative is populated by cruel caricatures of the ‘real’ people from Branlow Hall. I just didn’t particularly care for Pünd and his investigation. Alan’s novel seems a clumsy attempt at imitating Agatha Christie. His dialogues lack her wit and his detective is forgettable. I wish that Horowitz had also included a few relevant chapters from Alan’s novel, rather than giving us the whole thing.
While many of the easter eggs and allusions in Alan’s novel went over my head (was all that kerfuffle with the names truly necessary?), I knew the identity of the killer early on…which is perhaps inevitable given that Alan tries so hard to emulate the Queen of Crime (view spoiler). While I do understand that much of what I disliked in Atticus Pünd Takes the Case was intentional (as characters from Susan’s narrative point out its many flaws), I still don’t understand why readers should have to read the whole thing. Also, Alan’s novel takes us away from the more interesting whodunnit.
For the most part I liked Susan’s investigation. There were so many subplots and red-herrings that it was hard to keep all the facts straight but for the most part I was intrigued by the unfolding of her investigation.
Sadly, I couldn’t help but noticing that Horowitz has written yet another book that casts homosexuality in a negative light. This is the third book by him (the other ones being Magpie Murders and The House of Silk) in which gay men are portrayed as morally corrupt (they are sadistic, pedophiles, liars, manipulative). Which…what gives Horowitz? Throughout Moonflower Murders characters make comments about ‘what can and what can’t be said’ nowadays, which suggests some sort of awareness towards ‘modern’ sensibilities’. While I do not except, nor desire, for characters to be models of virtue, it seems odd to make your 3 gay characters either horrible, such as with Alan and Frank, or a former prostitute who leads an unhealthy and unfulfilling existence. Great representation…not. While there aren’t any extremely likeable characters, Alan and Frank are perhaps the worst of the whole lot. When talking about Alan and Frank, other characters conflate their sexual orientation with their morally reprehensible behaviour. They will say ‘I have nothing against gay men’ and go on to say something that equates being gay with perversion. This is the second novel by Horowitz in which his main character doesn’t challenge other characters’ homophobic remarks (Susan…you’ve let me down).
In Horowitz’s novels being gay makes you undesirable.
This whole thing bugged me so much that I was unable to become truly invested in the story. Still, I did like Horowitz’s depiction of the publishing industry, and I was interested in Susan’s observations about the editing process or writing in general.

“Every writer is different,” I said. “But they don’t steal, exactly. They absorb. It’s such a strange profession, really, living in a sort of twilight between the world they belong to and the world they create.”

This was far from a ‘bad’ whodunnit. While I was disappointed by the way gay characters were portrayed, Horowitz’s writing is nevertheless engaging (and his quintessentially British humour gets to me). Atticus Pünd Takes the Case on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Maurice by E.M. Forster — book review

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“No tradition overawed the boys. No convention settled what was poetic, what absurd. They were concerned with a passion that few English minds have admitted, and so created untrammelled. Something of exquisite beauty arose in the mind of each at last, something unforgettable and eternal, but built of the humblest scraps of speech and from the simplest emotions.”

There is much to be admired in E.M. Forster’s Maurice. While it saddening to think that although he wrote Maurice in the 1910s he was unable to publish the novel during his lifetime, Forster did at least share it with some of his closest friends.
Maurice follows the titular character of Maurice Hall from boyhood to adulthood. In the opening chapter a teacher, knowing that Maurice’s father was dead, feels the need to educate him on sex. Maurice however doesn’t find this conversation enlightening, if anything it cements his aversion towards women and marriage. It is perhaps this incident that makes Maurice begin to question his sexuality. Although he never does so explicitly, his otherwise privileged existence is marred by self-questioning and doubt. Throughout the narrative Forster depicts the way in which homosexuality was regarded in the early 20th century: Maurice himself doesn’t know what to make of his desire towards other men. The country’s general attitude towards “unspeakables of the Oscar Wilde sort” range from pure denial, so they will dismiss homosexuality as “nonsense”, or “condemn it as being the worst crime in the calendar”.
At university Maurice becomes acquainted with Clive Durham. Clive, unlike Maurice, is a scholar, and lover, of ancient Greek philosopher and is apt to quote their teachings. While Maurice is simply enamoured with Clive, Clive wishes to attain a higher form of ‘love’ (“love passionate but temperate, such as only finer natures can understand,”) and believes that by being with Maurice their “two imperfect souls might touch perfection”. Unlike Maurice, Clive finds the idea of their becoming physical intimate to be distasteful, implying that it would spoil their relationship.
When the two are no longer at university together the two no longer have many opportunities to spend time together. their physical in their relationship, Clive insists on adhering to his ideal of love. Later on, Maurice finds himself pursuing a relationship with Alec, Clive’s gamekeeper.
The first half of the novel brought to mind Brideshead Revisited. This is quite likely to the university setting and the various hierarchies there are at play there. Both Maurice and Clive come from wealthy families. They are fairly pretentious, prone to make snobbish remarks, and are fairly misogynistic. Forster himself points out all of their flaws and is unafraid of poking gentle fun at them. Because of this I felt less disinclined towards them, even if I didn’t strictly like them.
This isn’t a particularly happy novel. There is bigotry, self-loathing, heartbreak, and suicidal contemplation. At one point Maurice is diagnosed with ‘congenital homosexuality’ and even attempts to ‘cure’ himself by way of a hypnotist. Yet, Forster’s prose is full of beauty. There are plenty of stunning passages in which he discusses and contrasts romantic and platonic love (Clive/Apollonian vs. Maurice/Dionysian), physical and intellectual desire, or where he describes beautiful landscapes. Forster adds a poetic touch to negative emotions such anguish and despair, so that even when his narrative never really succumbs to the darkness experienced by Maurice and his moments of introspection carry definite beauty.
Perhaps the thing that kept from loving this as much as Forster’s A Room with a View is the lack of chemistry…Alec appears towards the end and in no time Maurice seems in love with him. Alec’s personality is somewhat reduced to his being of a lower class. Still, while Maurice may not join what I consider to be the holy trinity of classic LGBT literature (for those who are wondering: The Charioteer, Giovanni’s Room, and The Price of Salt/Carol) I still think that it is a brave and illuminating novel (Forster’s afterword alone is worth reading).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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