Snakes & Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara Vintage $140 Vibrator by Mari Akasaka Faber and Faber $150 Strangers by Taichi Yamada Faber and Faber $150 Snakes & Earrings brings tears to the eyes, but not via the emotions. A slim work of vicarious thrills, it penetrates the tired image of a well-bred, tradition-bound Japan. In Hitomi Kanehara's world, polite society recedes and brutality reigns; pain is needed to feel alive and beauty is achieved through defilement. A fascination with body piercing, tattoos and split tongues brings together 19-year-old Rui, the narrator; Ama, her doting boyfriend; and Shiba, their unpredictable lover, given to levels of violence that recall Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho. As Kanehara, 21, has said, the youths she portrays aren't disillusioned, because they never expected much anyway. No support system in the form of family or company seems to exist and morality is flexible. Sex is the same as shaking hands, although, in the case of Rui and Shiba, it involves gratification as much as punishment. Even murder is taken in their stride - something Rui has to confront when Ama is tortured to death and left with a stick of incense protruding from his penis. The novel has, not surprisingly, revolted readers. But there are many more who have bought the book, moved by the shockingly plain writing that last year earned Kanehara Japan's top literary award, the Akutagawa Prize. The recognition is deserved. Similar, but mostly only in spirit, is Vibrator by Mari Akasaka, winner of the Noma Literature Prize for best new writer in 2000. Sex is again unexpurgated and thrills are mistaken for life itself. Also written in the first person, the book centres on a young female journalist, Rei, who has problems with alcohol, food and sleep. The narrative is spare but, because of the stream-of-consciousness delivery of the voices that inhabit the protagonist's head, the effect is intimate. While the title hints at carnal origins, it is actually a reference to the vibrations of the truck that takes Rei on a run through Japan. The landscape that passes outside her window and the strangers coming through on CB radio blur to allow a dose of tranquillity. Escape is also experienced in the cabin of the truck of a former yakuza runner. The two bond easily although both know what they have is only temporary. Still, as long as Rei is with her driver, she is not contemplating things such as depression, which she describes as 'looking at the perfectly blank screen of your computer the moment before you start writing'. Weakest of the three is Taichi Yamada's Strangers, but this may be owing to cultural factors. A modern rendering of a Noh-inspired story, it tells of a world shared by the living and the dead. Spooky until it becomes ridiculous, the tale revolves around a disenchanted middle-aged man, Harada, who, on the back of a divorce, enters a weird relationship with a disfigured woman. Odder still is his encounter with a couple who are the exact likeness of his parents before they were killed in an accident while in their 30s. Taking comfort in familiarity, Harada visits the couple regularly, even calling them mum and dad. The visits, however, seem to drain the life out of Harada, the only one who cannot see that he is wasting away. Although Strangers is a ghost story there are no bloody ghouls. Tension is created by making readers wonder what will happen next and then, as novelist David Mitchell says, wrong-footing them. The ending had this reader thinking Yamada, after carefully plotting the story, wanted a quick exit. His nuanced take on parent-child relationships, however, lifts the book above that of the ordinary.