I understand my friend who said, of the two Murakami novels she'd recently read, that she preferred Kafka on the Shore to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I just finished Kafka and it was great. A young man leaves home, running away from a curse/prophecy and hoping to find information on the mother and sister that left him when he was little. Kafka ends up (and "ends up" is the right term, as he just seems to fall into this position) working at a private library in a town far from his native Tokyo. The elegant, mysterious Miss Saeki is his boss.
Alternating chapters follow Nakata, a simple-minded old man who uses his ability to speak with cats to help locate lost pets. He learns that cats are being abducted by an evil man in a silk hat and tall boots. This discovery leads him down a dark path that eventually crosses with Kafka's.
Kafka on the Shore is slightly more straightforward than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. At the end of the book, I felt like I knew what happened, mostly, whereas in the other book I felt like I understood about 50% of what eventually transpired. It also crammed in less side topics and strange secondary characters. That might make it the better book. But ultimately I think I slightly prefer The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That may be simply because its protagonist was someone easier for me to understand. Kafka, as a fifteen-year-old, is different enough from me in age, but his thoughts seem somehow more opaque. I had a lot of little questions about him I really wish were addressed ("why do you believe in this curse? did you have any friends in tokyo? what are your memories of your father?" and a ton more).
Still, that doesn't mean I didn't love the book. Haruki Murakami is definitely my obsession of the month, and I'm going to pick up another book of his tomorrow, most likely.