tokyo by Mo Hayder

“Because ignorance, as I’d got tired of hearing, is no excuse for evil.” 

Rarely does a book haunt me but ‘tokyo’ (or ‘The Devil of Nanking’) by Mo Hayder tortured me with vivid nightmares long after I’d turned the final page.

Mo Hayder, author of ‘Birdman’ and ‘The Treatment’, takes the concept of evil and impressively, albeit shockingly, weaves it into a complex tapestry focussed on the Nanking massacre of 1937. With mass slaughter comes brutality, cruelty, and savagery – three things ‘tokyo’ is not short of.

Now imagine there was a film of such atrocities.

That’s the basis of ‘tokyo’. Grey, a young and troubled woman from England, begins her obsessive search for the Nanking film in Japan, where she locates Shi Chongming – a professor who she believes can help her. The story is split in two. It flips between 1990’s Tokyo – as Grey doggedly hunts for the roll of film – and the 1937 Japanese invasion and massacre of Nanking. It is the latter which allows Mo Hayder’s exceptionally detailed writing to shine, breathing life into historical events – though in a chilling fashion.

All good authors draw upon their own unique experiences to conjur evocative imagery simply from words in a book. Mo Hayder, previously an escort in an illustrious Japanese gentleman’s club, channels her own encounters and projects them through Grey’s eyes. Witnessing the inner workings of such secretive and unvoiced organisations was the most captivating part of the book.

The story could have done without Jason, however, a creepy American who serves no real purpose other than to be an obnoxious pervert. Grey’s infatuation, and her inability to look at him without keeling over, adds to her unappealing nature – something which intermittently threatens to quash the rousing voice threaded through the bones of ‘tokyo’.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how feeble and wishy-washy Grey’s character is. ‘tokyo’ carries an important and thought-provoking narrative that concludes with a candid look at the essence of human beings, culture, and, ultimately, existence.

Book Worm’s score: 8.5/10

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Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris

“Are you looking for sympathy? You’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.”

‘Hannibal Rising’, the pre-quel-sequel to the Hannibal Lecter series, was released in 2006. Although written by Thomas Harris, the author who held the pen for the previous three books, the story lacks authenticity in which to tie the four novels together.

The great thing about Hannibal Lecter is his mystery. It’s intriguing, it sends chills deep into our bones, and we’re never exactly sure why he commits such heinous crimes. This is why he is, in my opinion, the very best literary villain to exist. Ever. What Thomas Harris attempted to do, apart from stealing his readers’ money, was to humanise the very psychopath that we were always supposed to view as beastly and inhuman. What’s worse? He failed miserably.

LOOK AWAY. SPOILERS.

If we are supposed to believe that Hannibal, one of America’s most calculated and intelligent serial killers, became the monster he is today because he witnessed his sister being eaten alive by Nazis then I’ll devour a fava-bean-filled hat. What made Hannibal Lecter different was the absence of logical reason. He sliced, diced, and served up his victims on plates simply because he wanted to. He particularly had a taste for the rude ones. They were the most delicious. So why, Thomas Harris, do we need a feeble backstory that reads like a psychology student’s third year dissertation?

Had I not seen the jacket cover and been given the book in a word document format, I would have guessed the novel had been written by a different author. Somebody who had not been involved in the creation of Hannibal. Somebody who had not coined the essence of his evil mind. In fact, Harris could have changed the protaganist’s name and sold it as an entirely different story. In short, the entire novel lacked Harris’ unique stamp. And boy, does it show.

If you love Hannibal Lecter, avoid this book like the plague. Try the TV series instead.

Book Worm’s score: 4/10

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

“I know what they’d like, they’d like a blank they could fill in. A person already filled in disturbs them terribly.”

Forbidden love between two human beings, who both happen to be female, in an era where homosexuality was illegal and deemed to be a symptom of a disturbing psychological illness. Patricia Highsmith does an exceptional job of conjuring up vivid imagery that would be typically associated with the booming 50s – red lipstick, dry martinis, and shiny Corvettes.

Written in the 1950s, ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith is poignant, now more than ever. In a world where the far-right and intolerance is prevailing, the author’s sensitively-written story of repression and conformity still tugs at the heart strings over 60 years on. And why should it not? Everybody enjoys a story about falling in love – even the Grinch. Chemistry. Lust. Longing. But who can really say, with 100% clarity, why love happens between two strangers?

It’s almost bizarre that I found myself willing these two people to find a path to happiness, together, and yet disliked each one of them, as individuals, immensely. Carol is more than just aloof; she’s cold and consumed by bitterness. Therese, a timid mouse, is thoroughly unsure of who she really is and becomes obsessed with Carol, somebody who runs so hot and cold that it can be difficult to decide if her feelings are genuine.

Both women are products of the society they live in. Carol is so frightened of feeling the painful and delicate aches of a love that always seems to be slightly out of her grasp – a love that is taboo and frowned upon – that she shuts her heart away behind an icy facade. Therese, a deviation from a typical late-teen, finds herself floating along with the current of Carol’s bewitching tide.

The threat of heartbreak throughout the novel is what really drives its intrigue. The last chapter is awe-inspiring, rounding off the novel’s devastating honesty with an exquisitely courageous silver lining. With every carefully crafted turn of phrase, Patricia Highsmith takes the reader on an unforgettable journey that would even make the likes of Lord Voldemort shed a tear.

Oh, and Cate Blanchett does an absolutely sterling job of portraying Carol in the film adaptation. Definitely recommended.

Book Worm’s Score: 9.9/10 and a dry martini with an olive 

 

Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas

“I wish I could tell stories of ruining people, but they’re the stories most likely to get me sued – situations that involved the police and restraining orders and professional lives derailed.”

Every human has a propensity for violence, manipulation, and cruelty. Most people, however, don’t really want to hurt others and keep these aspects of personality in check and hidden from the outside world. Not sociopaths, though. While society shuns individuals who are clinically diagnosed as sociopaths, often using their shocking behaviour examples as storylines in big Hollywood blockbusters, the idea of reading a first-hand account of life according to a sociopath was too appealing to turn down.

‘Confessions of a Sociopath’ is a book by M.E. Thomas, a self-diagnosed sociopath. The memoir takes us through pages of her life events; some repulsive, some heinous, and some downright egotistical.

Imagine arriving at a dinner party with friends. You’ve been excited about the social engagement all day. However, you notice a mysterious guest at the table. You turn to the friend on your right and ask who this person is. You’re told that it’s a new partner of the host. Great, you think, and look forward to getting to know them. When the food is served, the guest begins to talk. They talk some more, so much so that partially-chewed food cascades from their mouth. Somebody tries to offer their opinion but the guest continues to talk some more. And more. And more. Until you’re literally so bored, you begin to fantasise about drowning yourself in the gravy bowl.

That’s what reading ‘Confessions of a Sociopath’ is like.

Of course, on the surface, there are interesting elements to the book. It’s almost unheard of for a sociopath – if we are to believe that M.E. Thomas is one – to write an account of their sociopathic tendencies. This is fascinating within itself. It’s true that M.E. Thomas experiences a significant lack of empathy. For example, she cuts off one of her friends who is going through a traumatic experience simply because the woman in question is not fun anymore.

M.E. Thomas’ view of herself is distorted, however, which calls into question the authenticity of the entire book.

She begins the memoir by saying she is a non-violent sociopath. Yet, in the first few chapters, details how she watched a baby possum die and fantasised about killing a metro worker who told her to not use a broken escalator. These aren’t the words of somebody who is in control of themselves, their emotions, or their mental stability.

Back in 2015, after reading this book, I wrote to M.E Thomas. My concern was, through the writing of her blog – which is also about life as a sociopath, she was not attracting fellow sociopaths but people who were searching for somewhere to belong.

The following conversation took place:

Book Worm:

Having seen the posts on your blog, I just had a question. Within my understanding of sociopathy, whilst very egocentric, the sociopath does not like to relinquish power (real or perceived) under any circumstances. Do you not think the people who actually post to your blog are giving up their power to you? They wouldn’t be commenting if they didn’t want some kind of approval from you; almost seeing you as a cult figure for them to relate to. It doesn’t seem to be very sociopathic, does it?

The world has become such a cold and cruel place that people who don’t belong and don’t connect with the world and humans as one is “supposed to” often look to minority groups to try and find a place to fit in. Maybe that’s what a lot of people who find their way to your blog to post in the public domain are doing.

M.E. Thomas:

I’m not sure I agree with you. I think the people that end up commenting on the blog are just those who are trying to figure out who they are and what is life and the nature of existence and these big philosophical questions and they just happen to think in a way that mirrors the way that I think. I don’t think I’m a coleader because these people have never met me, they only see themselves and what I’ve written, so really I feel like their attempts to communicate are not an attempt to please me, but an attempt to express themselves to themselves, if that makes sense? Of course, you’re probably right regarding a significant portion of the commenters, and maybe I am just deluding myself into thinking that people are anything other than sycophants looking for a place to pigeonhole themselves.

I don’t believe a true sociopath would comment on a blog to answer one of life’s big philosophical questions. Why? Because, simply put, they don’t care. Sociopaths don’t interact with the world like your regular person. They’re not interested in acceptance from their peers. They don’t care about belonging to a group. They’re not afraid to die and, as a result, don’t need to come to a conclusion as to what life really is and where they fit into the grand scheme of things. In the sociopath’s mind, their role is to sit on a pedestal high above everybody else. True, they step down occasionally to take something they want or to leave a trail of emotional chaos but they have absolutely no interest in accepting they’re an ordinary human being.

This is why I don’t believe M.E. Thomas is a sociopath. The entire book, while self indulgent, is an attempt to understand herself and why she doesn’t connect with others. She wants to figure out why she is shunned from society. She wants to explain why she hurts others. She wants to connect with somebody, anybody, through her writing.

This memoir is a cry for help from an individual who is so desperately lonely and distressed, they just want to be understood.

Book Worm’s score: 6.5/10 and an immaculate mask covering a cavernous nothingness underneath 

Hannibal by Thomas Harris

“Which do you think, Commendatore? Bowels in or out?”

Is the film better than the book? Is ‘The Silence of The Lambs’ better than ‘Hannibal’? These are two questions that compelled me to finally take the time to read the books that put Thomas Harris on the literary map.

It’s a little topsy-turvy that I’d begin with the third story in the series. To sum up the previous two: loved them. I couldn’t put them down and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Clarice was just as sassy on the pages as Jodie Foster portrayed her in the screen adaptation.

I had high hopes for ‘Hannibal’ but, unfortunately, was severely disappointed. Mason Verger’s plot to feed Hannibal to the pigs was dull, Margot Verger’s (who was completely omitted from the film) ploy to steal her brother’s sperm was bizarre, and Barney’s decision to live at Mason’s home was farfetched. In truth, there were many elements to the story that just didn’t fit.

There were, however, some redeeming components. Mason experiences sexual gratification from emotionally abusing children; something which is encouraged by Cordell (his right-hand man) who is a sex offender himself. There is a particular scene in which the audience learns that Mason is collecting the tears of children, which sheds a naked light on the mental stability of the beast hunting Hannibal Lecter. Margot, who has suffered psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of Mason throughout her life, kills her brother by stuffing a pet moray eel down his throat. Chilling and dark, yes, however ‘Hannibal’ would have faired better had it focused on the more gritty elements in the novel.

Did I like the ending? Yes, in a way. There was something twisted about Starling and Lecter embarking upon a romantic relationship. It definitely shocked the audience and it certainly made me feel a little uncomfortable. However, was it right for this story? No. If we take a look at Clarice’s character progression throughout both books, one thing is clear; she abides by the law and is entirely dedicated to her job as an FBI agent. She is thoroughly unaware of how attractive she is and dislikes the male attention she receives. So, the notion that she’d use her sexuality to seduce one of the most dangerous sociopaths at the time is absolutely ridiculous.

To put it simply: the ending of this book was a complete betrayal of Starling’s character.

If I were to answer the first two questions… 1. Yes, the film is better than the book because of Anthony Hopkins’ utter genius. 2. Yes, both the book and film version of ‘The Silence of The Lambs’ are better than ‘Hannibal’.

My advice: Stick with the first two books, avoid the third, and watch Anthony Hopkins own your TV screen instead.

Book Worm’s rating: 5/10 and some fava beans with a nice chianti 

 

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

“There was something repulsive (and revealing) about talking on a cell phone while handling garbage. Why did anyone pretend human relationships had value?”

‘Tampa’ by Alissa Nutting is a raw look into the mind of a female paedophile, so it isn’t entirely surprising that many readers shunned the narrative of this story. I, however, sit on the side of the fence that would put this book onto a ‘Must Read’ list.

Here’s why.

Celeste Price, a young and attractive school teacher, admits early on in the story that she chose to be a teacher solely to feed her unquenchable thirst for teenage boys. Not the type of boys who have matured early, either. Celeste is compelled to seek out teenage boys who are yet to go through puberty. The sexually-obsessed protaganist doesn’t shy away from graphically describing the sexual acts she’s involved in with pupils, nor is she afraid to express her resentment towards having sexual contact with her husband or other adult males.

Alissa Nutting does an excellent job of portraying female sexuality in a way that society is not accustomed to. Her candid descriptions that are absent of vague and flowery prose, portrayed through Celeste’s self-awareness, shed a naked light on the yearnings of female lust. Celeste knows that, in society’s view, she’s a paedophile but her desire to have sex with minors outweighs the potentially catastrophic consequences of her actions.

Later on in the book, we’re given a first-hand look at how the legal system still views females as the fairer sex. For example, Celeste is granted some mercy in the court because of her physical appearance. It’s almost accepted that young boys would want to have sex with their teacher, especially this one. Although this is deemed to be ‘wrong’ within the parameters of the law, the burden of blame isn’t placed solely on Celeste’s shoulders for grooming her pupils.

This book was always going to raise hackles. After all, it focuses on a topic that is entirely taboo within our society. Isn’t that what a compelling story is supposed to do, though? By reading ‘Tampa’, it doesn’t make you immoral. By peering into the mind of a paedophile, it doesn’t mean you condone their actions. By enjoying watching the story unfold, it shouldn’t make you feel guilty.

If we turned our backs on everything that seemed alien to us, how would we come to understand it? Without understanding, how would treatment be developed? Without opening our eyes to reality, however unpleasant it may be, how are we to grow as people?

‘Tampa’ is one of those books that resonates with you, long after you’ve finished. It will make you feel uncomfortable. It will make you question humanity. It will make you feel nauseated at times.

But that’s what I enjoyed so much about it.

Book Worm’s score: 8.5/10

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

“A book is as private and consensual as sex.”

If writers from the ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ franchises wrote a book, they’d end up at something pretty similar to ‘Haunted’ by Chuck Palahniuk. That’s not a good thing, either.

I’d be interested to find out what Chuck Palahniuk’s inspiration was for writing this book, although I fear it involved spending too much time around East London Hipsters and wondering how best he could stand out from his peers. I imagine that Palahniuk created a list of the most shocking acts an author could write about, stuck it on the wall right by his Macbook, and ticked each off one by one. Probably using a ballpoint pen filled with the blood of a sacrificed goat. You’ve got self-mutilation, cannibalism, taboo sexual fantasies, and murder, all rolled in to one exhaustingly ridiculous, and at times hard to follow, book.

I’m happy to concede that thrillers require something novel to resonate with an audience that has been spoiled by masters of atmospheric writing, such as the likes of Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Tess Gerritsen, and Patricia Highsmith, to name a few. However, in my opinion, that enigma should not consist of blatantly obvious ploys to be controversial.

I’m still unsure what the point of ‘Haunted’ is to be quite honest. If the intention was to create a book that was perfect for mindless reading, it succeeded. However, I’m afraid the only thing I was left ‘Haunted’ by was a self-serving and patronising attempt to create something special.

A note to Chuck Palahniuk: your audience isn’t stupid, don’t treat them as such.

Book Worm’s score: 5/10 and a partially-digested foot

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

“Have you ever been lonely? No, neither have I. Solitary, yes. Alone, certainly. But lonely means minding about being on your own. I’ve never minded about it.”

I’m just going to come out and say it. Mike Engleby, Sebastian Faulks’ compelling creation, is one of the most mesmerising characters of the modern-day literary world.

So, what makes this book different from a mountain of others that are stacked high in so many book shops across the world?

Empathy. 

Yes, empathy is necessary to really immerse yourself in a story but the kind of empathy readers experience for Mike Engleby is somewhat disturbing. I, myself, was one of the millions of readers who found themselves sucked into Engleby’s chilling mind and it has stuck with me ever since.

Mike is an introvert; a loner; and somewhat of an outcast throughout his life. Once he reaches his University years, after experiences of being cruelly abused at boarding school, he describes how isolation was never really his choice but something he’s had to get used to.

*sob*

He seems to be content, however, and appears to live a normal life. All is good. That is, until the reader learns the true nature of Mike’s wayward mind.

Sebastian Faulks does an excellent job of combining mundane prose with intrigue; keeping you guessing until the very last word. The narrative forces the reader to point a high-powered perception at, not just Mike, but themselves too.

What happens when somebody who is capable of behaving in abhorrent and inexcusable ways elicits the empathy of an audience who wishes somebody, anybody, had intervened in a life wasted before it even had chance to really begin?

If you’re searching for an ode to the failures of psychiatry amongst the most vulnerable, look no further than ‘Engleby’.

Book Worm’s Score: 9/10 with a cherry on top 

You can buy ‘Engleby’ by Sebastian Faulks here