Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

“He has a habit of repeating himself. So it goes”

Overview: Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.

This book is oddly engaging, unpredictable and just plain weird. This type of work can not be copied because it so utterly original.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, I had never read Vonnegut before and didn't know what this book would be like. Vonnegut does an excellent job mixing history with war criticism and science fiction. It seemed to me an unlikely combination, which is probably why this book is so peculiar.

The premise is simple: we follow the non-linear narrative as told by Billy Pilgrim, sandwiched between the author-narrator’s opening and closing chapters – so from that perspective, it makes for an unexpectedly different read if you’re used to going from A to Z.

The circumstances surrounding the bombing of Dresden during World War II are central to the story, not only the author-narrator’s fascination with it, but also the role it plays in Billy’s life. What I liked about Billy’s narrative is that we’re never sure whether his alien abduction and apparent time-traveling has any basis in reality, and I’m quite a fan of this sort of ambiguity. 

Vonnegut also put himself, along with his characters, into the story, which is weird since Martin Amis did the same thing in his book Money, which I just finished.

Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

“Fucking, fighting, drinking, smoking, swearing - all in a day’s work”

Overview: Money is the hilarious story of John Self, one of London's top commercial directors, who is given the opportunity to make his first feature film. He is also living money, talking money, and spending money in his relentless pursuit of pleasure and success. As he attempts to navigate his hedonistic world of drinking, sex, drugs, and excessive quantities of fast food, Self is sucked into a wretched spiral of degeneracy that is increasingly difficult to surface from.

Money has a wild style, moment to moment ravings and feels super realistic. It is outrageous, nerve-racking and makes you think twice about drinking so often. The story is exciting, as the hero is a reprobate, using alcohol, drugs and sex to hide realities from himself. The writing was terrific. Amis described the life in Los Angeles, New York and London very well. If you need a linear story with an upright hero, you won't like this book. 

The lead character is loathsome, the plot contains some really twisted moments, and the language is a bit more flowery than I normally prefer. Throughout the book, John Self (the hero/anti-hero of the novel) really started to grow on me. While this was my first Amis novel, I doubt it will be my last.

Here’s a quote that seems to capture the “flowery” style of writing:

"Each life is a game of chess that went to hell on the seventh move, and now the flukey play is cramped and slow, a dream of constraint and cross-purpose, with each move forced, all pieces pinned and skewered and zugzwanged… But here and there we see these figures who appear to run on the true lines, and they are terrible examples. They're rich, usually."

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

“Japanese love on a fishing island never seemed so interesting”

Let me start by saying that reading so many stories about Japanese teenagers in love wasn’t planned, it just sort of happened. Also, this was the book I picked up after I had to put down “The Coup” by Updike after 80 pages. 

So, let’s jump right into it. Mishima was crazy. He formed an unarmed civilian militia for the avowed purpose of defending the Japanese emperor in the event of a revolution by Japanese communists. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his militia entered a military base in central Tokyo, took the commandant hostage, and tried to persuade the soldiers at the base to join them in supporting the emperor and overturning Japan's pacifist Constitution. When this was unsuccessful, Mishima committed suicide by seppuku at the age of 45.

Overview: Set in a remote fishing village in Japan, The Sound of Waves is a timeless story of first love. A young fisherman is entranced at the sight of the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man in the village. They fall in love, but must then endure the calumny and gossip of the villagers.

The Sound of Waves was published in 1954 and is a coming-of-age story about Shinji and his romance with Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy ship owner Terukichi. The story has been adapted for film five times.

I really enjoyed the story, probably because the writing was characterized by its luxurious vocabulary and decadent metaphors, its fusion of traditional Japanese and modern Western literary styles, and its obsessive assertions of the unity of beauty, eroticism and death. The ending was strong, and for lack of a better word, fulfilling, much like the way Mishima described the setting of the beautiful island on which the majority of the story takes place.

The Gilt Kid by James Curtis

The Gilt Kid by James Curtis

“Even native English speakers might struggle to read this book”

The Gilt Kid by James Curtis is a crime thriller set in 1930s London that deals with working-class themes in a Social realism style. 

Written in 1936 - and containing a cast of criminals, dossers, prostitutes and down-and-outs - this is an incredibly vivid and authentic evocation of a side of London seldom depicted in fiction during this era. 

This was a really interesting book and I was forewarned by my English friend that there would be a lot of English slang and he was not wrong. 

Among the many 1930 British slangs include these gems:

  • “Irish janes were good to fellows on the bum and to the boys on the gagging lark.”

  • “And the worst of kips was better than being properly on the ribs”

  • “You berk. You gone and dropped the bloody glim.”

The book did a good job of painting the scenery and the emotions that the main character felt when committing a crime or facing the judge in court. It was almost like you were right there with him. Also, you don't need to be fascinated about London in the 1930s to get something from this book. The ending was nice, almost coming full circle but not quite, which now doesn’t make sense, but after you finish it, I’m sure you’ll be inclined to agree. 

Something that stood out in the book was the way in which the author highlighted the food and drink of the time. The main character is often in pubs, ordering food, and drinking dark, thick, foamy ale. 

For a debut novel, Curtis killed it and I look forward to reading more of his other works, especially now that I’ve brushed up on my British slang. 

Dune Messiah - Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

“Sequels are hard if the first one sets the bar”

After I finished the original “Dune”, a coworker picked this up at a flea market and I thought, why not? The problem with these books is that while reading them, there are many awkward and convoluted sentences that I often won’t understand a scene until after it’s over. At which point I’m fascinated by Herbert’s ability to do that, but also wish I felt more immersed in each individual scene.

Dune Messiah is the 2nd book in the Dune Chronicles, was half the length of the first one and less exciting. I still enjoyed it, and it was fun to read, but I didn’t feel like it was on as grand a scale as the original. I’m now stuck at a weird point where I don’t know if I want to read the other 4+ books in the series or move onto something else.

Overall, I’m impressed that Herbert was able to write Dune in the first place, and then to bang out several other books, all in the same writing style that combines epic scenes with philosophy - it’s clear why these books have sold millions of copies. I think for now, I’m going to read some other stuff and then inevitably make my way back to the Dune Chronicles. Each one ends on such a cliffhanger, it’s almost like it was intentional…

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami

“Hope, regret, what if, and probably - is love really ‘real’?”

The novel tells the story of Hajime, starting from his childhood in a small town in Japan until the age of 36. Hajime now the father of two children and owner of two successful jazz bars in Tokyo must choose between his wife and family or attempting to recapture the magic of the past.

This was the first book that I’d say I really identified with. It’s about a Japanese guy and his relationships throughout his life and how they shape who he is and the way he sees the world. In the book, a lot of the bad things that happen are due to the main character’s choices, which I liked rather than something happening to him. The end of the book is weird. You feel like you’re going down one path, and understanding what’s happening, and then all of the sudden you start to question if one of the biggest parts of the book is even real. Someone said Murakami likes to drift in and out of reality and the spirit world, which I would say was an accurate description for this book. That said, I really liked it and I connected with the main character on an emotional level, having thought a lot about my relationships and the person I want to become as I grow older.

Empire of Dragons - Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Empire of Dragons - Valerio Massimo Manfredi

“A rugged Roman Gladiator road-trip with a Chinese twist”

The story follows Roman Emperor Licinius Valerianus and his twelve guards who are dragged away to work as prisoners in a solitary Persian turquoise mine. They escape and thus begins the adventures of the Romans as they journey to China. There they will discover that they aren't the first of their kind to arrive in China: they were preceded centuries before by the survivors of the 'lost legion'. 

I read this on planes, trains, taxis, and busses while traveling through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. This book was epic, and reminded me a lot of “The Physician” by Noah Gordon. I thoroughly enjoyed this book because it was full of action, forbidden love, and both a physical and personal journey. Books like this are just a fun read and easy to get lost in. So if you’ve been reading a bit too much dystopian stuff, this was a nice change of pace.

The Chrysalids - John Wyndham

The Chrysalids - John Wyndham

“Learning to accept yourself is easier when ‘thought’ than said”

The novel takes place in a dystopian society set in the future after a nuclear holocaust. The inhabitants of the society subscribe to a fundamentalist religion focused on keeping all living things in their “pure” form, denouncing genetic mutations. 

Typically, I shy away from first person books but since my friend Carlos gave this to me for Christmas, I decided to give it ago. Five pages in, I realize the main character is a child and I’m dealing with his thoughts in first person and I almost noped right out of there. However, I stuck with it and was surprised with how well first person worked for this book, especially once the twist is revealed. The ending was cool, and one of those scenes that flows so well you can imagine it in your head.

Fatherland - Robert Harris

Fatherland - Robert Harris

“A riveting, alternative history with an über amount of German”

Set in a universe where Nazi Germany won World War II, the story's lead protagonist is an officer in Kripo, the criminal police, investigating the murder of a Nazi government official who was one of the participants at the Wannsee Conference. In so doing, he discovers a plot to eliminate all attendees of the conference in order to help Germany establish better political relations with the United States.

I almost stopped after a few chapters because there was so much German I questioned whether the book was in English or not. The titles of all the offers in the book were so long that it was difficult to keep track of who was speaking or who characters were referring to. Once I got over that, this was a really interesting concept that played out nicely. I’m looking forward to reading more Robert Harris because the structure and flow of “Fatherland” was easy and fun to read.

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

“Genetically modifying babies seems like the inevitable direction we’re going”

Largely set in a futuristic World State of genetically modified citizens and an intelligence-based social hierarchy, the novel anticipates huge scientific developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that are combined to make a utopian society that goes challenged only by a single outsider.

Again, this is such a classic that it feels like I have no right to give my opinion about it. I liked the idea behind the novel, that a society could be so utopian that it’s actually dystopian, but in general, I wasn’t really interested in a bunch of teenagers having sex. The second half of the book was great, and I liked the ending, despite it not being “happy.”

Midnight in Peking - Paul French

Midnight in Peking - Paul French

“A girl’s death, a city in turmoil - it’s true crime!”

This is the true story of the murder of a young British woman in Peking in January 1937.

This was my first True Crime book I’ve read, and quite possibly my last. I liked it, especially since I live in Beijing and have been to many places in the book, but overall I’d rather just see the movie. This book was interesting because of the historical facts, like how the Japanese controlled Peking at that time, but I think I’d have preferred a documentary or a movie rather than a novel chronicling the details of the girl’s death.

The Trial - Franz Kafka

The Trial - Franz Kafka

“You think the DMV is bad? Bureaucracy at its finest”

The novel tells the story of Josef K., a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed neither to him nor to the reader.

I needed a break from Kafka after reading this. I had planned to read a bunch of his stuff, one after another, but decided that would be a bit much. “The Trial” reminded me a lot of how things get done in China. “Go here, then do this, get this signature, talk to this person, ah but you needed this form, sorry you need 4 copies of this and not 3, we’re not open now…” Just an endless runaround that ultimately ends with the main character calling himself a dog. Weird ending, but somewhat fitting.

The Elementary Particles - Michel Houellebecq

The Elementary Particles - Michel Houellebecq

“A unique blend of life, love, and destroying human reproduction”

This novel tells the story of two half-brothers, Michel and Bruno, and their mental struggles against their situations in modern society in France.

This book had possibly one of the craziest endings I’ve ever read. The book centers on two French brothers and their relationships with women over the years. So I’m reading this book thinking “this is some sappy, sad book about these two guys that frankly I don’t care about” and then the last few pages completely changes everything. If you start this and don’t like it, I highly recommend sticking it out until the end. Well done, Houellebecq, well done.

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin


“There’s a good reason why mathematicians don’t often keep journals”

We is set in the future. D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass, which assists mass surveillance.

I read “We” after 1984 and afterwards I thought, “Did Orwell just steal the entire plot from this Russian dude?” The book itself was challenging to read because it’s in the form of a journal kept by a mathematician. His thoughts are scattered and he’s very logical about the way he presents things, which is interesting, but also a bit convoluted in parts of the story. It was an enjoyable book, and I really liked that Zamyatin incorporated the design ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer who sought to improve industrial efficiency.

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

“Drugs plus California in the 90s never seemed more appealing”

The semi-autobiographical story is set in a dystopian Orange County, California, in the then-future of June 1994, and includes an extensive portrayal of drug culture and drug use (both recreational and abusive). 

The movie was weird, so I was expecting the same from the book, and it delivered. Because many of the main characters are drug addicts, the writing also follows their drug-induced thoughts, which at times was confusing. In addition, it switches between third and first person which can be difficult to follow. Overall, I liked this book and looking forward to reading more of Dick’s harder sci-fi.

1984 - George Orwell


“Living in China doesn’t seem so bad after reading this”

What can be said about 1984 that hasn’t already been said since this book first came out? It was sad, intriguing, insightful, and unpredictable. I think so many people like this book because at some point or another, we can relate to either the plot, the theme, or the symbolism that Orwell manages to weave throughout 1984.

Animal Farm - George Orwell

Animal Farm - George Orwell

“If dystopian novels are too complicated, just use animal metaphors”

I actually read this after I published my own dystopian novel, “Contraception” and my first thought was: “Orwell wins the dystopian genre.” Simple, clear, and effective, this book is a classic for a reason.

Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari


“If you love getting lost in Wikipedia, you’ll love this”

The book surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century, focusing on Homo sapiens.

This was given to me by a girl I was seeing the summer of 2018 and I thought it would be a nice break from the fiction I usually read. Sapiens was really enjoyable, and I respect Harari’s attempt to condense the history of humankind into one book. It was really interesting to dive more in-depth into things that we already know, like how money or religion helped form communities.