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Book Review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

Friday, April 30, 2021

 




Content Warning: graphic violence, murder, domestic abuse, animal death.


Allis has moved away from her big-city life, keen to escape a scandal that she can't seem to shake off. She takes a job where she's expected to be a jack-of-all-trades, a gardener and housekeeper and cook, but what she doesn't realize is how her strange relationship with her employer will slowly turn into a frightening obsession. But what exactly is he hiding? And why is it that Allis feels drawn to him, in spite of his cold contempt towards her?

It became apparent to me rather quickly that this book wasn't going to be for me. I enjoyed the writing, dry but with the occasional beautiful descriptive flourish (something a lot of Scandi Noir novels have in common), but the story itself didn't immediately capture me. While I was intrigued by this secret in Alis's recent past, I never felt as if I was being truly pulled into her life. It doesn't help that, as a whole, she is not simply unlikable, but hard to sympathize with. One of my favorite tropes is the anti-hero (or heroine), but regardless of what evils they might be committing or how selfish they may be, one has to be able to empathize with these characters. In the case of Allis, I found myself thinking only of how pathetic she was.

Her employer, Sigurd, isn't much better. Obnoxiously rude to her, treating her as no more than a pet or a piece of furniture, I struggled to see what it was about him that fascinated her so. One element that Ravatn excelled in, however, was maintaining an air of tension. Every moment felt as if one of them could snap, as if their relationship could shift in the blink of an eye. What disappointed me was that it nothing ever seemed to come out from this brittle atmosphere.

Many reviewers praised the conclusion of the novel for its unpredictability. As soon as the entire situation was laid out before us, though, I suspected what Sigurd's "secret" was. However, I don't think the fact that the ending was predictable was what left me feeling so cold about this particular book. I'm usually fine with suspecting the outcome if the story and characters capture my imagination. This time, I'm sad to say that didn't happen. 

Now, all this being said -- I would read something else by Ravatn. I feel that her ability to make an atmosphere so chilling is a rare and wonderful thing, and while this one definitely didn't click with me, I could see the right circumstances making another amazing for me. And if you like subtle Scandi Noir, give this one a try!

Book Review: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yōko Ogawa

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

 


½

Content Warning: graphic violence, murder, child death.


A woman's heart beats outside her chest. An old man curates a collection of torture items in a museum. Strange vegetables grow like hands in a neighbor's garden. All these stories and more, loosely interwoven with one another, populate Ogawa's beautifully rendered tale. Having previously read her brilliant novel The Hotel Iris, I was very excited to pick this up. I'd actually been a touch hesitant to begin with, as there seemed to be a plethora of two- and three-star reviews, but once I started reading, I knew it would be a winner for me.

I'm not exactly sure why so many disliked this book. All of the stories were equally engaging, and when one ended I was sad to let it go, almost wishing that there was an entire book dedicated purely to whichever story I'd just read. However, as soon I would begin the next, I would be immediately sucked into the darkness lurking there. It's something I've noticed before in Ogawa's stories: her ability to make the dark so alluring. Beautiful, in spite of its grotesquery.

The ending was left a touch open, able to be interpreted in a few different ways, something I personally enjoy. Ogawa excels in allowing us to analyze everything we're given without over-explaining it to us, or assuming that we won't understand. The writing itself is lovely, lyrical without forgoing simplicity.

I would highly recommend to those who love horror, or the darker side of things, like I do. There's a lot of heaviness within this slim volume, however, so be aware if you decide to purchase it. I'll be looking forward to reading more from Ogawa in the future. She's quick on her way to becoming one of my favorite authors! 

Book Review: Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim

Friday, April 23, 2021

 


½

Thank you to NetGalley and Ecco for allowing me to read this ARC!


Content Warning: graphic violence, murder, graphic rape, sexism, graphic sexual assault, animal death.


Beginning in the snowy mountains of Korea in 1917, Beasts of a Little Land stars two primary characters, the irascible, wily JungHo, and a young girl named Jade. They're both victims of circumstance, thrust into frightening new lives by poverty and the ongoing war, and when by chance they meet in Seoul, it spurs on a friendship that will last for decades.

I can't tell you how highly anticipated this book was for me. The idea of a novel that spans the majority of the Korean War for Independence, going from place to place and following a group of several main characters who all get their own chapters at some point, was thrilling. The first couple of pages are immediately engaging, the descriptions of this snow-encrusted mountainside and the weary hunter vivid and picturesque. There were some truly beautiful similes and turns-of-phrase.

Kim's depiction of the Japanese colonizers is appropriately brutal, leaving you with scenes that are both hard to stomach and yet beautifully written nonetheless. It struck me as being aptly and efficiently done, and while there are many graphic scenes in this book, never did I feel it was used purely for shock value. Like many of the books we read about atrocities in history, this one was both grim and yet beneath the surfaced flowed a current of hope.

I'm afraid to say that I was a touch disappointed, not so much in the book itself, but in my reaction to it! I thought I would be absolutely enamored with the characters and the world, but unfortunately, it didn't quite reach that level for me. I think that because the novel spans so many decades with so many main and supporting characters, it leaves you feeling a bit as if you're rushing through their lives. There were moments when I wanted to spend another chapter in, for example, 1933, but we moved onto the beginning of WWII.

I was also unsure if I was meant to sympathize with JungHo in some parts. At first, I found him very charming, and I rooted for him, but as the novel goes on he does some things that left me feeling quite cold towards him. 

However, I by no means would not recommend Kim's beautiful, heartrending showcase of Korea's fight for freedom. If you're a lover of history and fascinated by Korea and its history, I would heartily recommend picking it up and giving it a go. Something to be kept in mind is that the story itself isn't so much about the characters within, but about Korea as if it were its own living, breathing being. 

Book Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji

Saturday, April 17, 2021

 



Thank you to NetGalley and Pushkin Press for allowing me to read this ARC!


Content Warning: graphic violence, arson, brief reference to sexual assault/rape, casual misogyny.


In a seaside city in Japan, seven university students write stories for their murder mystery club. By luck and a stroke of opportunity, they get the chance to go to the island of Tsunojima, the site of a particularly brutal multiple murder the year before. What they don't know is that soon, they'll be caught up in a dangerous game of cat and mouse where nothing is as it seems.

I was so thrilled when I saw this on NetGalley. I've been wanting to read this classic Japanese mystery for ages, but was unable to find it anywhere for purchase or in English translation. Ayatsuji's novel is considered a staple of the genre in its home country, and after reading it, it's clear why. The writing style is characteristically Japanese - very dry and pared down - but even if you're someone who prefers more descriptive or poetic writing, it doesn't draw away from the fascinating story taking place.

The inspiration drawn from Agatha Christie is well-done, and especially fun if you've read And Then There Were None. Ayatsuji's writing style is actually quite similar to Christie's as well. What really shines here is the entertaining deductions made by the characters, leading you back and forth as you make an attempt to decipher who is really pulling the strings. The tension is palpable, and despite the fact that it was written in the late 1980s, it doesn't feel dated.

There was, however, some period typical sexism. The two female members of the group, nicknamed Orczy and Agatha (for obvious reasons), are the only two characters who give in to "hysteria," which honestly made me laugh a bit. A lot of attention is also put on their looks, which I felt takes away from the fact that they're actually both interesting people in their own right. 

All seven of the members are not exactly likable, which makes it all the more fun to watch as they slowly begin to unravel. The plotting is superb, leaving me never quite sure what was going on or who to trust. As someone who reads a lot of mysteries and thrillers, I was caught in surprise by the end and can certainly say I did not see it coming!

Highly recommended for fans of mysteries, especially those (like me) who love international ones! 

Book Review: On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

 



Content Warning: misogyny, misogynoir, rape, sexual assault, child abuse (sexual, physical and verbal), graphic violence, murder. Use caution as this book is extremely graphic when it comes to the aforementioned topics.

Four Nigerian women live together in a little house in Antwerp. In spite of their close quarters, none of them could be called anything beyond passingly friendly. And sometimes, not even that. It's only when one of the women, Sisi, shows up murdered, that they begin to tell one another the stories that have brought them all to Belgium.

I've had this one my list for ages. This year, as I was making my plans for what to read, I decided that I'd finally give it a go in April. I'm so pleased that I did. Not only is Unigwe's grasp of language both beautiful and terribly stark, but her ability to craft this story and make us care for the characters within was extremely adept. Our four main characters are all the more interesting - not to mention lovable - because of their imperfections. Sometimes fiction, particularly that touted as feminist, has a tendency to make their female characters perfect. Untouchable, and therefore above criticism.

But just like anyone else, women are complex. Here, there's another layer, too: these women are black, and subject to their own unique type of oppression. Ama, the fascinating, closed-off woman who wears a tiny cross around her neck in spite of her hatred for all religion, is allowed to be angry. Emotional. To rage, and feel her anger, without being chastised for it by the narrative.

There are some flaws, however, that kept me from loving it totally and completely. I sometimes felt that there wasn't a wholeness to the individual tales of their lives before Belgium, that it wasn't quite knitted together completely. Unigwe also utilizes an interesting technique that I've actually never seen done before, telling us in the same sentence as the "present" what will happen in the future. It was certainly interesting, but I'm not sure it actually worked all that well.

All in all, I found this novel touching and regardless of the extremely heavy topics within, a rewarding read. Perhaps more so because of the hardships these women endure. I would love to read another book by Unigwe, and I highly recommend this to those that are interested.

Book Review: Beneath the Moon: Fairytales, Myths, and Divine Stories from Around the World by Yoshi Yoshitani

Friday, April 2, 2021

 


½

Stories connect us. Across continents, across cultures, it's something that brings us together. Did you know that the legend of the Phoenix, the firebird who lives for centuries and then kills itself in a fire only to be reborn once again as a chick amongst the ashes, is found in more than five cultures across the world? In Russia, the firebird drops its brilliant feathers as it flies -- feathers that hold incredible power, leading many to hunt for them against all odds. In Egypt, where the myth is believed to have originated, the gorgeous "Bennu" bird burst out of Osiris's heart.

In this collection, Yoshitani regales us with fascinating stories from all corners of the earth, replete with beautifully rendered illustrations. Some of the tales were familiar to me -- Vasilisa the Beautiful, who goes up against Baba Yaga; Sleeping Beauty, pricking her finger on the spindle; the tragic Crane wife and more -- but many others I'd never encountered before. What I found particularly exciting was the inclusion of and focus on places beyond the Western world. 

I loved, for example, reading about White Buffalo Woman, who taught the Lakota peoples prayers and sacred rites, as well as teaching them how the Buffalo could provide them with everything they could ever need. Or Princess Kaguya, who was discovered as a tiny baby in a stalk of glowing bamboo. There's Anansi, the trickster spider God of the Akan peoples, who gets up to many naughty things, too clever for his own good. Not to mention a tale including Tu'er Shen, the Rabbit God who is the patron of same-sex couples.

My only criticism is the brevity of the stories within. I understand that there were many to cover, but I would have liked to feel a bit more involved in the lives of these myths and legends. I think that each story could've done with even half a page more, simply to give us a deeper insight into the meaning or message behind each tale. 

Overall, however, it was a rewarding read. I would love to see more -- we could use a second edition, I think! The art is lovely and totally vibrant, capturing the essence of the characters within. Highly recommended! 

Book Review: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Thursday, November 12, 2020

 



Content Warning: graphic violence, murder, attempted sexual assault, suicide and discussion of suicide, murder, addiction, family dysfunction


If I was forced to guess, probably more than half of the books I read are thrillers. There's nothing quite like trying to anticipate the twists, theorizing, trying to decipher what are genuine clues and what are red herrings. But, although this is by far my favorite genre, there's a negative attached to reading so many of them: they become predictable.

A lot of the time, I'm able to figure out what's going on within the first half of the book. It isn't that the authors aren't talented, that the plots aren't interesting, or that the writing leaves something to be desired, but rather that anything you can imagine has been done before. So while I definitely enjoy the ride, I'm not exactly shocked by the twists and turns.

Final Girls, though - Final Girls is different. I was shocked. I was surprised, thrilled, astonished. But before I get ahead of myself, I'll tell you a bit about what's in store for you when you pick this book up.

Our lead character is Quincy Carpenter, one of the media's "final girls," a label she doesn't exactly relish. She is the sole survivor of a massacre that took the lives of several of her college friends. Two other so-called "final girls" round out the group: Samantha Boyd, who survived a mass murder at the Nightlight Inn, and Lisa Milner, the only girl to make it out of a sorority slaying alive. But when Quincy receives the news that Lisa has killed herself, she's shocked. That leaves two of them. And Samantha Boyd, who has been off the grid for a considerable length of time, suddenly shows up, inexplicably making the effort to connect when she never has before.

Throughout the novel, I entertained tons of different theories, trying to pinpoint the one that felt "right." In the end, I wasn't right about any of them! It was a refreshing take on the genre, and when I look back at myself in 2017, uninterested in reading this, I want to shake myself. If only I'd known!

Sager's writing is punchy and, in spite of the heavy subject matter, fun. In the beginning, I wasn't too sure of Quincy - she came off as someone who thought of herself as better because she had her life under control. As I continued to read, however, I found myself sympathizing with her, understanding the anger she fights to suppress, the way she feels her life a thread away from total destruction.

Quincy grows. By the end of the book, she's a world apart from where she started. All of the other characters were well-realized, too: I particularly liked prickly and unpredictable Samantha. She sticks out in my mind, and I have a feeling she will continue to do so for quite some time.

All in all, I'm pleased to say that Final Girls might be the highlight of my reading this year. Beautifully done, cleverly plotted, and chock-full of suspense, I'm very excited to pick up my next Riley Sager book. 

 
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