Book Reviews

For all you Japanophiles out there: 5 Non Fiction Books About Japan.

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I’m very excited to be going back to Kyoto for my honeymoon next week! Here are 5 non fiction books I would recommend reading about Japan, in no particular order.

A Geek In Japan

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The geek of the book is Hector Garcia whose original blog was called kirainet.com (it is now called ageekinjapan.com). His blog documented his move to Japan and the interesting things he found there.  His posts were often about Japanese popular culture and all things otaku. This book covers all aspects of Japanese culture, from a photographic explanation of ‘how to bow’ to a history of robots and Manga.  The final section of the book is very useful for making a trip to Tokyo as it explains the various shopping districts and sights that would interest anyone who calls themselves otaku such as the Ghibli Museum and Akihabara.

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CultureShock! Japan A survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette

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Did you know that blowing your nose in public in Japan is frowned upon?  Or that Kentucky Fried Chicken is a traditional meal on Christmas Eve in Japan? Or that buying an ill person a potted flower is a terrible faux pas?

What I love about this book is its honesty and humour.  It is full of lots of personal anecdotes as well as practical information about visiting Japan, whether short or long term.

Kawaii! Japan’s culture of cute.

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This is another gorgeous book, filled with colour photographs about all aspects of kawaii culture.  It is full of interviews with people such as the editor of the fashion magazine ‘Fruits’ and the creators of some of well known kawaii characters.  *Obviously*, it has a section on Hello Kitty but did you know about Gloomy Bear, who is guro-kawaii (grotesque cute) and looks like the love child of Hello Kitty and Hannibal Lecter?  This isn’t essential for travelling to Japan but is a fun book if you are interested in kawaii culture and Harajuku fashion.

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Hokkaido Highway Blues

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This is a travelogue that came about as the result of a drunken night out! During the celebration of the cherry blossom season, after too much sake, Will Ferguson decided to follow the blossoms as they came into bloom across Japan, hitchhiking all the way.  This chronicles the people he met and places he stopped off at and explains a bit of Japanese culture along the way.  I’ll be packing this to reread on the plane next week.

Tokyo On Foot

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This is more of an art book than travel guide.  It is a collection of the detailed sketches that Florent Chavouet made during his stay in Tokyo. Of course, one can’t help feeling that he should have Cultureshock! beforehand, as some of his stories such as the time he ‘borrowed’ a bike because it wasn’t locked up and unsurprisingly was arrested, reveal total ignorance of Japanese culture and etiquette.  But it does allow for interesting stories and sketches.

Hope you enjoy my recommendations.  See ya when I get back!

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Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King. A book that cannot escape the ghosts of The Overlook.

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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King     Rating 2/5 stars.

A lot of people are real snobs about Stephen King.  I’ve never understood why.  A good yarn is a good yarn no matter who it is by or what shelf it appears on in the book shop.  This time, however, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

I remember reading The Shining for the first time and having to have long breaks in the sunshine, so affecting is the tension and nightmarish atmosphere of The Overlook Hotel.  The infamous horror finale (yeah the famous part with the axe from Kubrick’s film) only takes up the final third of the novel.  Until then the focus is on building up the tension and introducing the reader to characters that are simultaneously sympathetic and sinister: the emotionally sensitive child Dan Torrance (REDRUM!) and his creepy imaginary friend Tony; his father Jack trying to restrain his angry outbursts and thirst for alcohol.  Stephen King has himself spoken on how Jack Torrance was reflection of himself and his own battle with alcoholism.

And here is the problem I have with Doctor Sleep: is it impossible to judge the sequel without always thinking of, always comparing with, the original story.  King himself writes in the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book:

I like to think I’m pretty good at what I do, but nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare…And people change.  The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining…

Almost as though he knows no matter what he writes it cannot possible live up to the original.

WARNING: SOME MINOR SPOILERS!

So the book catches up with Dan Torrance as an adult some years after the end of The Shining.  He (like his father) is a recovering alcoholic who helps the dying elderly pass over to the other side. He is also getting ‘the shine’ from a young girl called Abra, who needs a mentor to help her understand her place in the world.  Much like Dick Hallorann did for Dan.

Problem is that Doctor Sleep has none of the subtle tension of the first book.  Only 4 pages in, the lady from room 217 makes a cameo appearance, having somehow travelled from the burnt Overlook (where presumably all spirits were meant to have been destroyed) to pop by and say hello.  After seeing a decaying corpse sitting on your loo, where can you possibly go after that?

Well, apparently its gonna go like that 1980’s film Near Dark. The main plot of Doctor Sleep involves a group of hippies in an RV called The True Knot, who gain strength and youth from murdering people who have the shine. Basically psychic vampires.

Of course, these vampires are super strong.  Super smart.  Super psychic.  But guess what is their one weakness?

Measles.

I kid you not.

There are other things I could write about here, where a large amount of suspension of disbelief is needed but this would mean this review would be riddled with spoilers.  The ones I’ve mentioned do not really give too much away about the plot should you wish to read it for yourself.

So is there anything good?  Well, I still read to the end which means it is somehow still compelling despite it’s lack of subtlety. It also tries to give insight into the psychology of an alcoholic and what really goes on in AA meetings.

I keep wondering if I were able to judge it as a standalone book rather than a sequel, if I would be more impressed but I think that depends on what you are looking for.  If you want to be scared out of your wits, then this book isn’t going to do it. Likewise, if you want a cracking good yarn, then King has written better.

And if you really want a scary Stephen King story, reread The Shining instead! 😉

Review: Indigo by Clemens J. Setz. A postmodern puzzle that is both intriguing and infuriating.

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If any of you are old enough to remember the 90s, you might remember the whole crazy New Age belief in Indigo children.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll briefly explain: back in the 1990s, there were a group of people that believed that the year 2000 would signal an age where a new species of ‘enlightened’ children would be born.  They would be of superior intelligence and were highly emotional.  They would probably have psychic powers and they would transform the world for the better. (If you want to read more about this, Jon Ronson documents the phenomenon brilliantly in his book ‘Lost At Sea,’ where mothers of ADHD children were led to believe by some crackpot or other that their disruptive offspring were actually Indigo children.)

In Clemens J. Setz’s book, Indigo children suffer with an illness. It has no symptoms for them…however, all the adults that surround them become affected with dizziness, vomiting, intense headaches.  The intelligent children are society’s outcasts, sent to live and study at the remote Helianau Institute in the mountains where they are cared for by the rather dubious character, Dr. Rudolph.

The book tells the story of…wait for it…Clemens Setz who trains as a teacher at the institute.  Yes, the author is a character in the book.  This in itself is an interesting concept.

After a number of incidents (which I don’t want to spoil for anyone) Clemens is asked to leave.  He continues to investigate into the methods of the school which the reader explores through various documents included in the book. There are photographs, interview transcripts, snippets of academic reports and newspaper clippings.

The multi modal aspect of the book is one of the features that makes the book so intriguing.  The reader feels like they are part of this investigation, trying to piece the plot and mystery together through the various artefacts.

Alongside Clemens’ story there is a second narrative; that of Robert, a former Indigo child of the Helianau Institute.  An often unpleasant and unsettling character, (he loves nothing more than taking photos of animal experiments for his artist’s portfolio) Robert is also investigating… an incident his former teacher Clemens Setz is reported to have been involved in.

And so the reader is simultaneously trying to piece his story together, on a slightly different timeline to Clemens’. Are you still with me?

So, is it any good?  Well, yes…and no.

There is no doubt that the author Clemens J. Setz deserves every accolade he has been given for this book.  The ability to write in all manner of styles and tones to produce this book is a feat in itself.  The variety of documents adds credibility to a situation that you may otherwise struggle to suspend disbelief for and some of the studies he writes about are entirely based on fact, (I know because I checked) which shows how it has been painstakingly researched and put together.

The plot is interesting, although it drags at times, particularly in the first half, until we come to a revelation about one of the main characters.  The switch in narrative focus between Clemens and Robert keeps up the momentum.

Book groups would probably go wild over it as there are lots of themes it addresses: parenting, social responsibility, racism, medical research, trust, educational approaches.  There is also the issue of whether or not the children are actually suffering from a real disorder or whether the parents are just ‘burnt out’ by looking after their demanding offspring. Certainly it is easy to spot traits of other conditions in some of the child characters: attachment disorder, autism, depression.

So if this book is so interesting why use the word ‘infuriating’?  I don’t want to give spoilers so all I’ll say is that some of the seemingly most important threads of investigation, are never resolved.  I’m sure it is a deliberate move by Clemens J. Setz to leave some questions unanswered so it leads to discussion, but all it did was make me feel like I’d been played!

However, for the next two days, the book was all I could think and talk about.

Which is why I find it impossible to give it a rating out of 10.  I might feel infuriated but you can’t deny the man’s genius.

If you want to hear Clemens J. Setz talk about the book and why he put himself in his own story, there is an interview with him in the second half of this Guardian Books Podcast about literary dystopias.  (At about 14.48 mins in)