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Haruki Murakami is a revered Japanese author whose work is much influenced by the Western media he was exposed to in his youth. David Mitchell is a British author whose work is much influenced by the eight years he spent in Hiroshima, Japan, during his twenties.As such, the two men’s experiences and expertise clearly share an overlapping area in the literary Venn diagram. This intersection of their talents is nowhere more obvious than in a juxtaposition of two of their most celebrated works, Kafka on the Shore and number9dream , since these two share many similar traits and characteristics as well as a common setting. The novels, written only a year apart, are both by turns compelling, outrageous, sensual, moving and hysterical. But which one is better?
First and foremost, these are both coming-of-age tales featuring male protagonists in their teens (19 and 15, respectively) as they embark on a search for parental figures in a Japanese setting that is violent, terrifying and unpredictable.
They both feature encounters with gruesome villains (both of which manifest themselves in the form of a father figure) who take pleasure in committing horrendous acts of violence, often with the simple aim of alienating and unnerving the protagonist, and both contain unorthodox sex scenes and unconventional blossoming romances.
…a whimsical and intriguing short story containing an anthropomorphic goat.
They are also both dictated by dual narratives, with Kafka on the Shore sharing its visions between two central characters – the eponymous 15-year-old and a mentally-handicapped older man named Nakata who possesses the odd ability of communicating with cats. Meanwhile, number9dream only has one protagonist – Eiji – but we dip in and out of his imagination, sporadically returning to a reality that becomes increasingly as surreal as the fantasies he concocts.
Which leads onto the overbearing tone of both books – surrealism.
From Nakata’s ability to communicate with felines and his quest for a mystical stone to Kafka’s nightmarish dreams and his unusual encounter with the 15-year-old ghostlike incarnation of a woman who may or may not be his mother, Kafka on the Shore is completely dominated by surreal images and occurrences. Similarly, Eiji’s frequent lapses into imagination and fantasy – along with some fantastical meta-literature within the text, including a whimsical and intriguing short story containing an anthropomorphic goat, hen and hominid – confuse the already unsettling tone of the book and challenge the reader to question what is real and what is not.
However, this surrealism is also what differentiates the books. In Kafka on the Shore, the supernatural acts occur within the story and are expected to be taken at face value (as corroborated by newspaper reports and affirmation from level-headed witnesses).
In number9dream, no such confusion or unconventionality exists. Sure, fantastical and supernatural events take place, but it is made abundantly clear that these occur only inside the mind of Eiji, or else in constructed narratives which exist apart from reality.
…a rollercoaster narrative which features implausible and unlikely events…
As such, number9dream retains a more lifelike and grounded feel which Kafka on the Shore sacrifices in favour of lyrical quality and aesthetic appeal.
Though I found the latter to be a compelling read, its overtly satirical demonisation of corporative icons (The Colonel, Johnnie Walker), along with its quite frankly ludicrous plot developments, made it just a little bit too unbelievable for me.
Number9dream, on the other hand, does take the form of a rollercoaster narrative which features implausible and unlikely events, but not impossible ones. Though the reactions of the principle characters in both novels are eminently believable, I only found the stimulants to these reactions credible in Mitchell’s work.
As a result, I find Mitchell’s novel far more convincing, and as a result, more enjoyable. It might sound illogical to look for credibility in a story that is so obviously dependent upon surreal and supernatural imagery, but I feel even the most outlandish tales must be rooted in some kind of relatable reality for them to be thoroughly entertaining.
Of course, this is not to say that I found Kafka on the Shore to be not entertaining. Indeed, the way the story lurches from one improbable scenario to the next may make the reader raise their eyebrows in disbelief, but it certainly won’t impel them to put the book down.
…incredibly unpleasant truths about the darker side of Japanese society…
Similarly, I find number9dream to be a more cohesive and well-ordered work than Kafka on the Shore. The former is clearly a story about Eiji coming to terms with the absence of a father figure in his life and learning that such an absence may not be a bad thing – especially when his father quite obviously has feet of clay. Along the way, he also learns to deal with the responsibility of a regular job, begins a burgeoning romance and comes across some incredibly unpleasant truths about the darker side of Japanese society.
Kafka on the Shore, meanwhile, is a rambling journey which unites two characters on very different paths through dreamlike and implausible methods. Though it contains some heartfelt scenes concerning Kafka’s struggle for meaning and love in his life, and some fascinatingly unusual imagery and events, it feels to me like Murakami didn’t have a conclusion in mind when beginning the book and instead simply allowed his imagination to run away with him and his pen.
This is a concern I have raised elsewhere; while I believe Murakami to have an incredible imagination and an unrivalled talent for weaving a compelling and unpredictable tale, it seems to lack purpose and direction in the same way that Mitchell’s novel does and in the way that such a prodigious talent deserves. Therefore, while I feel both novels are excellent examples of how to put a modern and unorthodox twist on the Bildungsroman, I think that number9dream is a more well-rounded and impressive novel in achieving what it sets out to do.
…probably already be familiar with his outstanding success Cloud Atlas
For the record, I would say that both texts are great reads – but neither are the best work that either author has produced.
Fans of Mitchell will probably already be familiar with his outstanding success Cloud Atlas, but should also check out the underrated The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Black Swan Green. Meanwhile, those in search of superior titles by Murakami are recommended to read Norwegian Wood (in my opinion, his finest work) and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
Alternatively, if you enjoy such works but would like to branch out into different authors, check out this list of recommendations of books which employ a similar style and discuss similar themes.
What do you make of my comparison? Are you more of a Mitchell man or a Haruki adherent?Let us know your thoughts below.