Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

“It seems as if, year after year, the world becomes a more difficult place to live.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 763 pages.
Read from November 29, 2018 to December 6, 2018.

The last full-fledged novel Murakami published is the Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage which was published in spring of 2013. While Murakami published some short stories since then, Men Without Women in the spring of 2014, fans like myself have been waiting for his next feature-length publication with much anticipation. Based on some of the reviews that I have read, I can sense some disappointment within Murakami fan base with this novel, I, however, do not share their sentiments.

An unnamed portrait painter in his mid-thirties is going through a divorce as a result of an affair on his wife’s part. After leaving home he wanders aimlessly for a few weeks and tells his agent that he is no longer interested in doing any more portrait commissions, his only source of income. The protagonist isn’t an especially passionate portrait artist but he is very good at it. He has a gift for being able to capture a person’s inner essence and soul. After an old art school friend reaches out to him and offers to let him rent his famous father’s old painting studio to live in, our protagonist isn’t really in a position to refuse. The home is a quaint mountain retreat out in the middle of nowhere. He begins teaching an art class in the closest town before starting an affair with two of his students, despite desperately missing his wife.

After getting a call from his agent saying that someone is offering him a ridiculous amount of money to paint a portrait, the protagonist decides to take on the job, though he has found no inspiration or desire to paint since moving. This is how he meets his peculiar and interesting neighbour, Menshiki. Menshiki is an attractive, middle-aged man with stark white hair, he is also clearly wealthy. The reasons for Menshiki wanting such an expensive portrait are unknown to the protagonist but he is intrigued. Menshiki has given him unlimited license to paint the portrait in whatever way or method he sees fit, provided that Menshiki sits for the portrait itself, a method that the protagonist doesn’t like to use.

After meeting Menshiki, the protagonist finds a painting in the attic of the home that has been wrapped up and hidden. After unwrapping the picture called “Killing Commendatore” it becomes clear that this is an unknown piece of work was done by the famous artist that used to live there. The protagonist becomes enthralled with the exquisite painting and stares at it for days.

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Found an image resembling someone’s interpretation of  “Killing Commendatore” by bongsancomics.

Shortly after he is inspired and begins painting again. The recovery of “Killing Commendatore” has also brought with it a strange sound that emanates from a pit of rocks outside his home at the same time every evening. With Menshiki’s help, he aims to determine the cause of the sound, without knowing the whimsical and strange events that were to come.

I didn’t even notice that the protagonist wasn’t named. It wasn’t until I saw other people’s reviews that I went back to the book to verify that it. The writing makes it seem so natural that the protagonist doesn’t have a name because it feels like you already know him. The story, as with many Murakami books, is a slow burner that is part philosophical and part whimsical fantasy. The book contains Murakami’s trademark beautiful prose with themes of loneliness, war, family and inspiration. I particularly enjoyed some of the historical details on WWII. There are also, of course, awkward conversations with characters involving breasts and plenty of sex and peculiar sex dreams. While I know other readers found this book a bit drab I found it captivating. I felt like I knew every inch of the home the protagonist was living in and felt enveloped in the world and the characters that Murakami created. This book was even nominated for one of 2018’s Bad Sex in Fiction award and I still really enjoyed it.

While I admit that the music and cultural references that Murakami uses in this book are dated making the book feel somewhat socially irrelevant but this is the way Murakami has always written. Murakami has always included tidbits of things that he likes, such as very specific music references and detailed scenes of cooking.

While this book is far from Murakami’s best I still found it to be an immensely enjoyable read. It’s not the best book to start with if you haven’t read anything by Murakami before but it is still a must read for anyone that is familiar with his work.

Gina in the Floating World by Belle Brett

A stellar debut erotica novel about a young and ambitious woman in Japan in the 1980s.

4/5 stars.
ARC ebook, 328 pages.
Read from September 11, 2018 to September 14, 2018.

Erotica novels are a great pick-me-up and an escape from everyday life, that is if they’re done well. I am very selective when it comes to choosing an erotica novel; the plot either has to sound extremely interesting or the sex scenes have to sound insanely hot. What’s even better is if the two, the plot and the sex scenes, come together to create a book that completely consumes you with intrigue, which, with erotica novels, more often than not, is not the case. This book is a rare exception. Thankfully you won’t have to wait long to get a copy as you purchase this gem for yourself on September 25, 2018.

Dee Dee, or as her clients know her, Gina, has come to Japan for an internship to help her get some international banking experience so that she can get into a coveted university program. This is also how she became an escort. After her housing situation falls through she desperately needs to find income to manage the rest of her internship. Through an acquaintance, Dee Dee becomes Gina, her working nickname, and starts working at a bar in which she entertains male-clients. It’s uncomfortable for her at first but in the beginning its harmless work. She just has to look nice, deal with the crude comments from customers, flirt and sing karaoke. She then, however, starts going out on paid dinner dates in which her customers pay for her time.  Here she meets an older man, potentially a gangster, who takes extreme interest and care in her. He pays her handsomely for the time they spend together and while she is attracted to him her morals question whether or not she should engage in sexual acts with him for money. One thing leads to another and Gina finds herself with multiple clients in which she avalanches into the world of prostitution. The term ‘floating world’ or Ukiyo (浮世), was coined in the Edo period in Japan which describes a pleasure-seeking type lifestyle and popular art form.

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Source: Culture 24

Gina is definitely living life at its best in the floating world. She is taking risks and doing things she had never even dreamed of doing but her two lives, Dee Dee’s and Gina’s, are at odds and her life as Gina has begun to get dangerous. Gina needs to find a way to escape from the floating world that she is deeply entwined in before she is trapped in it forever.

The sex scenes are not as numerous as other erotica novels nor are they as long but it’s quality over quantity for this book. I wasn’t even bothered by the fact that the steamy sex scenes didn’t kick in until a little bit later because the plot was so captivating. The ending is that of an empowered and self-sufficient Dee Dee who has learned more about herself and her life with the short time she has been in Japan than she ever would have at a bank or at back at home. The unique plot setting, along with solid writing and character work make for a story that is interesting on its own, even without the sex. What also made this book a success for me is that the author did not have to stretch my reality too much to make this story interesting and sexy at the same time.

The one thing I did find disappointing in this book is that the plot did not feel like it was set in the 1980s at all but perhaps that is because I have no point of reference for what Japan would have been like in the 80s. There are a couple of music references that indicate the 80s but I found even the clothing description could have easily been applied to the present day.

This novel is a perfect place to start for any first-time erotica reader, though it may set the bar pretty high for anything afterwards. I really enjoyed reading this book and will be placed on my short list of recommendations for this genre.