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4 Star Book Review

Book Review: ZOO by Otsuichi

Zoo by OtsuichiTitle: ZOO

Author: Otsuichi

Genre: Fiction, Short Stories, Horror

Source: Net Galley (I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review)

“Love and death are not different things, they are the front and back of the same thing.”

INFO | Goodreads

BUY | The Book Depository


Review

ZOO is a translated collection of short horror stories by Japanese writer Otsuichi.  Don’t be fooled by the bright and cheery front cover – many of the stories focus on death, and will shock you, or at the very least get you thinking.

Otsuichi adopts a minimalist writing style throughout the collection.  Sometimes this works better than other times, but mostly I enjoyed using my imagination to fill in the gaps – this works particularly well with horror I think.  The stories range in length from half a dozen chapters to just a couple of pages, but they all have one thing in common: they all challenged my preconceptions of the horror genre.  There is a brilliant quote in the afterword by Amelia Beamer that sums this up well:

“So here’s what I know about horror: it’s a genre without rules.”

That’s definitely what it felt like reading through ZOO.  Otsuichi was making up his own rules, with such interesting results.

Most of the stories in the collection are very well written, and most of them have a twist or two!  One of the first stories is ‘In A Falling Plane’, about two passengers haggling over the price of a euthanasia drug while their plane is being hijacked.  I particularly enjoyed the slither of humour with the rolling can that keeps tripping up those who try to tackle the gunman.  That’s an element of the collection that I feel is very unique – most stories have an injection of humour into them, which makes for an interesting contrast alongside some quite gruesome themes.

My favourite story was ‘Song Of the Sunny Spot’.  I would say it is more science fiction than horror, and is about a synthetic being who is created to care for a dying man.  As time goes on, the android develops through experience, aned begins to understand what death really means.  It was an exceptionally good and thought-provoking short story, and I didn’t see the twist coming at all!

Following on from this great story is another favourite of mine, ‘Kazari and Yoki’.  It is a sad tale of twins who are not equally loved by their mother, which ends in tragedy – though not how you would expect.  This was a gritty story of abuse in the home and though it can’t be considered horror in the traditional sense, it is still a chilling tale of inequality.

The collection is not for the faint-hearted.  Some stories made me flinch, others I simply had to tell someone about, as they were just too awful to keep to myself.  It isn’t a perfect short story collection, and there were a few stories that I skimmed through, and one that I didn’t finish.  Nevertheless, ZOO definitely stands out, and I recommend it to any horror fans out there who want to tackle something a little different.

Star Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)

Thank you so much to The Geek Undergraduate for recommending this one to me!

Emma

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June 28, 2016
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Book Review: A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and FuryTitle: A Court of Mist and Fury

Author: Sarah J. Maas

Genre: Fiction, Young Adult, Fantasy, Romance

I was a survivor, and I was strong.
I would not be weak, or helpless again.
I would not, could not be broken.

INFO | Goodreads

BUY | The Book Depository | Amazon


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A Court of Mist and Fury is the second part of Feyre’s story.  Her wedding to Tamlin is approaching but she struggles with the memories of being Under The Mountain, and feels suffocated by the Spring Court.  Swept away by Rhysand to uphold the bargain that saved her life, she must survive the mysterious Night Court, and learn not only how to control the new powers she has gained as a Fae, but how to stop the nightmares in her head of those awful months with Amarantha.  Meanwhile, a terrible war is stirring, and Feyre’s new powers may just be the key to stop it…

As I read this book, I had decided already in my head that it was an instant five stars without question.  It had reduced me to tears after all, and surely a book that can create such an emotive response is a good book?  I was flying the Team Rhysand flag high, right up until the final chapters.  You see, nearing the end of the book, I began to feel that I was flying the Team Rhysand flag not through choice, but because Tamlin’s character had been utterly destroyed by the author, and I had been pushed into a position where it was wrong to want to root for Tamlin.  Is this an example of a poor plot?  Or was it done intentionally?  I can’t decide.  Feyre’s integration into the Night Court changes her entire outlook – she learns things about both Tamlin and Rhysand that shock her, and I wonder if her changing allegiance is less a reflection of Tamlin’s behaviour and more a reflection of Feyre’s perspective changing.  The story is told in first person, after all – we are receiving her biased account of the story.  Or perhaps this is just me trying to justify bad writing?  Who knows…

I also can’t help but make comparisons to the first book, which in my eyes was a near-perfect piece of YA Fantasy.  The writing was a little sloppy in book two compared to A Court of Thorns and Roses.  It was repetitive too in its use of language – too much purring and growling. Speaking of which, there was an awful lot of sex in the book and sexual innuendos (more erotica than anything else at times).  I know the Fae seem like quite sexual creatures, but a lot of the word count did go into these themes, when maybe more development was needed elsewhere.

Clearly, I could write an essay of criticisms for this book, yet… I still loved it.  Loved it despite all those flaws.  I just love the world and the lore.  Feyre is feisty and strong, hungry to be active and fight for herself; she is a truly badass heroine.  Brought back to life by the high lords at the end of the first book, she possesses a unique kind of magic that has so much potential, and it is exciting to see her attempts to wield that power. I think visually the magic would work really well on film, so I’m really hoping they adapt the series at some point.

I also thoroughly (and maybe reluctantly, too) enjoyed learning about Rhysand and his backstory.  I did feel however that his character was mostly boosted by the presence of his four friends, who added some comic relief to the story too.  The moments of banter among the members of the Night Court are some of the best moments of the book for me, as I loved the chemistry of the group and found myself laughing along at their mischief.  However, I did find that I was often more engaged by what was happening between Mor and Cassian and Azriel (and their confusing love triangle) and Amren’s ancient power than I actually was by the protagonists.

If I’m being honest with myself, I really don’t know if this book is even worth the 4 stars I am going to award it.  However, there are some interesting chapters – the Weaver and the Bone Carver were particularly excellent – and clearly there was enough in the book to keep me reading like a maniac whenever I could to get the book finished.  I know a lot of fans will be upset with the book, but that certainly won’t stop me from waiting eagerly to read the third installment (out in 2017).

Star Rating: ★★★★ (4/4)

Emma

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June 16, 2016
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Book Review: For Fukui’s Sake by Sam Baldwin

12666040

Title: For Fukui’s Sake

Author: Sam Baldwin

Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel, Memoir

First Published: September 2011

INFO | Goodreads

BUY | Amazon


review

The book is a memoir of author Sam Baldwin’s experiences of the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme for the two years he taught abroad.  Upon opening his acceptance letter, he sees the word ‘Fukui’ and assumes he is being rudely rejected – hence the book title.  In fact, he is sent to the rural Japanese town of Fukui, where he makes friends, goes on adventures and must adjust to Japanese customs (often with hilarious results).

Having been gifted this back in Christmas 2015 by The Geek Undergraduate, I had been told to wait until my flight to Japan until I was allowed to read it.  Though it took the flight and then a good month afterwards to actually finish it, I’m glad I got to experience the Japanese culture first hand before reading; it made the jokes and certain moments in the book more relevant and funny.

The book started strongly – Sam’s story of applying for the job and initially adjusting are some of the best chapters.  Even the people he met while abroad had their own quirks and wild backstories.  It’s a great advert for the JET Programme; I actually know someone who has been on the programme, and it seems like an incredible opportunity to be integrated into a whole new culture whilst making a good wage.  The website can be found here, for those of you who may be interested!  I was intrigued to read as much as possible about Sam’s teaching experiences, but he predominantly talks instead about the trips he goes on with the new friends he makes.

My only real criticism is that there doesn’t seem to be any chronology to the events that are told.  Sam jumps from one great story to another, and at times this can feel random and disjointed.  This is made up for by the fact that Sam is clearly passionate about his subject; he talks of Fukui and its community with such love and fondness, and it is easy to feel his loss when his time there comes to an end.

Star Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)

You can actually check out a trailer for the book here:

Emma

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May 9, 2016
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Book Club Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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Title: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Author: Cheryl Strayed

Genre: Memoir, Non-fiction, Travel, Adventure

Format: Paperback

First Published: 20th March 2012

‘How wild it was, to let it be.’

INFOGoodreads

BUY | Amazon | The Book Depository


_Summary

(From Goodreads)

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State — and she would do it alone.

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My opinion on this book has changed very little since I did my last post for the Words & Geeks Book Club.

Surprised by the personal details of Cheryl’s life – she openly admits to cheating on her husband and drug-taking – it took me a little while to accept her for who she was.  I disagreed with her choices often during the hike, but it would take a heartless reader not to want her to succeed in her journey.

As she progresses along the trail, you get the sense that the burdens of her past are falling away from her, as if she is being reborn with each step.  In a way, the fact I didn’t identify completely with who Cheryl was made the book even more personal – she presented herself with great honesty, which in itself deserves merit.  As I said in my Halfway Checkpoint, I quickly realised that the walk only held significance if paired with the emotional trauma and poor decisions of her past – without Cheryl’s unfortunate suffering there would have been no Wild.

I often find with memoirs that it is near impossible to separate the author from the book.  I may have had mixed feelings towards Cheryl, but there is no doubt that she is a brave and inspiring woman and I commend her for her epic achievement.

The book was well-written, witty in places and emotionally deep in others.  Certain themes were repeated too often at times (her fleeting lust over many of the men she meets on the trail, for example) but overall there seems to be a comfortable balance between Cheryl’s life history and information about the trail.  If you’re interested in learning about the Pacific Crest Trail, you can visit the website (which even has a page all about Wild).

By the end of the book, I felt very invested in Cheryl’s journey, and was so proud of her for her accomplishment.  This book is truly inspiring, and reminds us that if you put in your all then anyone can achieve something remarkable.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ (4/5)

Has anyone else read this book?  What were your thoughts on Cheryl and her experiences with the trail?

Emma

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March 31, 2016
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Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

6709438

Title: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Author: François Lelord

Genre: Adult Fiction, Contemporary, Psychology, Philosophy, Culture, Self Help (the most genres I’ve ever given any one book, I think)

‘The basic mistake people make is to think that happiness is the goal’

Goodreads | The Book Depository | Amazon


summary

Hector is a successful young psychiatrist. He’s very good at treating patients in real need of his help but many people he sees have no health problems: they’re just deeply dissatisfied with their lives. When a patient tells him he looks in need of a holiday, Hector decides to set off round the world to find out what makes people happy.

review

It is a strange little book.  It is a short read – certainly readable in a day – and it managed to both enlighten and infuriate me all at once.

The narrative, despite following a psychiatrist, is told in basic, layman’s terms, and at no point is there jargon (the little there is of it) left unexplained. In this sense, anyone could pick up this book, which is written from Hector’s perspective, and understand his world. This was one of only two criticisms I have. While the style of narrative allows for the book to be accessed by a wider audience, I felt constantly patronised. I’m clearly no psychiatrist, but with a basic knowledge of people and psychology, I would have appreciated the story more if it had been told in the appropriate voice – I had expected to find the text challenging, something I tend to enjoy in books of this sort (The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, for example, got this spot on). Narrating a grown man in such a child-like way just had a kind of uncanniness to it.

Happiness. We’re tearing our hair out to try to find a definition of it, for heaven’s sake.

hector

My idea of happiness: hot chocolate, sweet treat and a good book.

Despite my issues with the narrative, I found Hector’s motives really interesting. I do agree that there are a lot of fortunate yet unhappy people, and I think increasingly with developments in technology, we are becoming self-absorbed and the pressure to be happy (and also appear happy) is high.  With our peers portraying their happiness on social media constantly, it is almost like happiness has become more of an image than a feeling.  Hector finishes his journey with a number of lessons learnt from the people he meets and the experiences he has. I got the impression that if we all stopped trying so hard to achieve happiness, we would all be a lot happier for it; it is a really important message, one that is put across by Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness (a book I highly recommend).  It is fun to see Hector stumbling into ridiculous situations, and finding ways of drawing inspiration from them for his study.  In this sense, the naivety of the narrative made it more light-hearted, and the silliness of it is probably why they thought it would make a good film.

Here are a few of my favourite lessons from Hector:

Making comparisons can spoil your happiness

Many people see happiness only in their future.

Since it influenced my enjoyment of the story so much, I must mention the other major criticism I had of the book: Hector’s attitude towards his girlfriend. Although it is clear he is dissatisfied with elements of his long-term relationship, he cheats on his girlfriend not once but twice, and is constantly enjoying the beautiful women around him (as in, way too much). In a way, I see that this shows how despite his qualifications and experience, he is actually just a human ruled first and foremost by his primal urges.  However, to add to this already annoying series of events, Hector feels very little guilt over his actions, and it is easy to assume he returned to his life without ever telling his girlfriend. Considering the enlightenment I found in Hector’s search, it was certainly dampened by his attitude towards women and sex.

On the whole, the good outweigh the bad, and I think this book could make anyone rethink their perceptions on happiness.   I finished the book feeling uplifted and positive, the lessons learnt by Hector taken on board for my own life.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ (4/5)

Emma

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November 26, 2015
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Book Review: Just So Happens by Fumio Obata

18189479

Title: Just So Happens

Author: Fumio Obata

Genre: Graphic Novel, Cultural (Japan)

‘Life has a time limit.  And we are changing all the time… So are our ambitions, desires, and purposes.  The important thing is to find something that never changes in you.’

INFO | Goodreads

BUY | The Book Depository


review

I picked up Just So Happens on a whim, drawn in by the beautiful watercolour paintings and Japanese theme.  The story follows a Japanese girl living in London, who must fly home to Japan after receiving news that her father has died; she must come to terms with losing her father while readjusting to the Japanese culture she had left behind.

After reading Goodreads reviews, I see that a common perception is that although visually stimulating, the book loses points by having a weak plot.  In a sense, I can agree with this.  The overall message I took away after reading was ‘life just goes on’, and I wasn’t sure that Yumiko, our protagonist, had truly found closure by the time she returned back to London (and therefore neither had I).

However, perhaps those critics are missing the point of it all.  Due to her cultural displacement, caught between her London identity and her Japanese one, she can not find peace within herself.  I sensed her confusion, but I think it could have been portrayed even better than it was.

Most of the star rating goes towards the illustrations, which depict Japan beautifully.  Maybe I was generous giving this four stars, but despite the thin-at-times plot, it was a very pleasant read, and I will definitely be reading more from Fumio Obata.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ (4/5)

Have you read this book, and if so, what are your thoughts on it?  Do you agree with my review or did you interpret the book in a different way?  Comment below!

Emma

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June 14, 2015
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Book Review: The Kingdom of Childhood by Rebecca Coleman

The Kingdom of ChildhoodTitle: The Kingdom of Childhood

Author: Rebecca Coleman

Genre: Adult Fiction, Contemporary, Drama

Format: Paperback

“I have learned that all anyone ever wants is to feel at peace with the sadness and love they have cobbled together into a life, with opportunities missed and those misguidedly taken…”

INFO | Goodreads

BUY | The Book Depository


_review

I read this book a couple of years ago now, but recently stumbled upon a review I had written of it, and as I enjoyed the book so much, felt it should be shared:

Considering that I was drawn to the book originally by the emphasis on the controversy of the storyline, I was somewhat disappointed by what it had to offer in that respect.  Having read stories of this nature before, I was not surprised by much of what I found.  For those who don’t know, The Kingdom of Childhood is a novel by Rebecca Coleman that focuses on the sexual relationship between Steiner teacher Judy and teenager Zach, who is both a Steiner pupil and friend to Judy’s son, Scott.  However, the book also covers other issues – from Judy’s failing marriage with her PhD-obsessed husband, to Zach’s experience of moving away from home, trying to establish himself in a new school, and battling with some very normal teenage anguishes aside from his affair with the kindergarten teacher.

For me, an interesting element of the book was the frequent change of viewpoint.  It took a little while to get used to, but in the end I rather enjoyed getting to hear the events from multiple perspectives.  It also meant that I could eventually draw a seemingly objective opinion of my own on the relationship between Zach and Judy.

I found many aspects of the book very easy to relate to.  Not so much the teacher-pupil relationship, but of the connections between friends and family.  It felt very realistic, which was helped along by the detailed insight into the Steiner way of life.  I actually have some experience of Steiner schools myself, so it took no effort at all to lose myself in the world that Rebecca Coleman has created.

My rating is based on the fact that Rebecca Coleman creates a very vivid and realistic environment for the reader to get lost in.  The characters are engaging, and I didn’t feel cheated by the ending – I was appreciative that Coleman did not fall into that “happily ever after” trap, as the sort of relationship pursued by Judy and Zach rarely can end happily.

My only criticism is that for a moment around a third of the way through, I did begin to question where the story would lead, especially when the flashbacks of Judy’s childhood began.  Fortunately, Coleman easily ties all loose ends together, and all events – both past and present – add depth to the story and characters, and are of complete relevance to the plot.  Overall, a brilliant and thought-provoking story.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ (4/5)

Emma

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June 3, 2015
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Book Review: The Savage by David Almond

The Savage

Title: The Savage

Author: David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean

Genre: Fiction, Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Fantasy

“You won’t believe this but it’s true.  I wrote a story called “The Savage” about a savage kid that lived under theruined chapel in Burgess Woods, and the kid came to life in the real world.”

INFOGoodreads

BUY | The Book Depository


review

I don’t think that anyone could say that they don’t find this book visually impressive.  McKean’s illustrations – black jagged lines with a simple, earthy colour palette – is very effective, and perfectly complements Almond’s edgy short story.  Here’s a glimpse inside the book:

The storyline is clever and interesting, yet I find it left a bittersweet taste in my mouth; after all, violence and grief form the backbone of the book.  The best example is the wild savage himself, who begins life as a manifestation of the young narrator’s grief over losing his father.  As Blue gets more and more obsessed with writing about him, the reader gets more and more concerned for the child’s well-being.

The book was enjoyable, but something holds me back from giving it five stars; despite its best intentions, I wasn’t hugely moved by the reading experience, and most of my four star rating goes towards the artwork.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ (4/5)

Emma

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May 4, 2015
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Book Review: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Attachments

Title: Attachments

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Genre: Fiction, Contemporary, Romance

Format: Hardback

Publication Date: 1st April 2011

“Is love about holding on or letting go?”

INFO | Goodreads

BUY | The Book Depository


_review

After recently finishing Eleanor and Park, I was so excited to read another Rainbow Rowell book, but this time, one aimed at adults.  The book follows the shy and lonely Lincoln, whose job it is to monitor emails at a newspaper office.  Over the months, he gets drawn in to the lives of two women at the office – Beth and Jennifer – and their personal exchanges to one another by email, despite the fact he has never met them.

I felt the story started slowly, but I quickly found Lincoln exceedingly likeable – he was awkward, enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons and was kind to his Mum.  He was also human, struggling to get over his first love of so many years ago.  ‘Attachments’ summed it up perfectly, as the book deals with a number of complex relationships which Lincoln must grow bold enough to make decisions about.

Spoiler alert – continue with caution!

The Bell Curve of Attachments

And then… the ending happened.  I hope my rough diagram (put together on Paint – can you tell?) helps you to visualise the crippling disappointment of my reading experience.

I had a peek on Rainbow Rowell’s Wikipedia page, and apparently Attachments is her first book.  It is a fantastic first novel, but I can’t help but feel there is something vital that she missed out on, something she had learnt by Eleanor and Park (her second novel), and that is to not give your characters everything they want.  Lincoln made exceptional progress throughout the story, and I initially felt really satisfied with his character development, that he was growing up, learning to let go.

I want to believe that Rowell intended for the ending to be painful for the reader.  I knew that Lincoln’s relationship with Beth wasn’t a healthy one – in my eyes, he just transferred his obsession for Sam onto Beth.  I thought the ending was a backwards step for him, after all the progress he had made, and I closed the book feeling quite unsatisfied.  So, I hope that readers weren’t meant to say, “thank goodness he got the girl, I’m so happy for him”.  I would have been happier for him to change jobs and meet someone new.  Maybe he just learnt to be happy on his own.  Maybe he accepted Emilie after all and gave her a chance.

Due to the abruptness of the ending, and the ambiguity surrounding it, I must reluctantly award Attachments a four star rating (though I almost gave it a five, I must add).  It just didn’t impact me in the same way Eleanor and Park did, but was still very enjoyable.

I would love to know how other readers interpreted the ending – please comment below with your thoughts!

Star rating: ☆☆☆☆ (4/5)

Attachments is available to buy on The Book Depository.

Emma

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April 29, 2015
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