Review: A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

thousandpiecesofyougrayA Thousand Pieces of You
(Firebird #1)
Claudia Gray

Publisher: HarperCollins
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 360
ISBN: 9780062278968
Language: English
Genre: Young Adult, science fiction, romance
Rating: 2/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

Marguerite’s parents are brilliant. Their most recent invention, the Firebird, allows people to travel to  other universes. But her father is murdered and the culprit, her parents’ research assistant Paul, has fled to another universe. Marguerite and Theo, another of her parents’ research assistants, give chase and end up in the lives of different versions of themselves.  As she travels through these different universes and meets alternate versions of people she knows, she begins questioning Paul’s guilt. It seems that the truth behind her father’s death is far more complicated than she initially thought.

The premise seems interesting enough. Hopping to alternate universes? The ethical considerations of taking over the life of another you? These science-fiction elements are, unfortunately, not the focus of this novel.  But, to be fair, A Thousand Pieces of You briefly touches upon the ethical considerations near the ending. Marguerite finds herself considering the repercussions of taking certain decisions in another Marguerite’s stead. After all, this other Marguerite has been robbed of her agency and is now forced to live with the consequences of a decision she has never made. Unfortunately, these considerations are brief and superficial —  they are not the focus. As A Thousand Pieces of You progresses, this young adult novel turns out to be a romance novel in disguise.

The presence of a romance element is hardly anything new in the genre. In titles such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, however, the elements of their dystopian settings are still very much a part of their respective narratives. In A Thousand Pieces of You, the romance is its centre piece while its science fiction elements, world building, and even its plot are mostly sidelined. For a novel supposedly involving alternate universes, this lack of exploration is unforgivable. We only get to see a few worlds, one of which is a little ridiculous (in which Marguerite finds herself as the daughter of the Russian Tsar, which also happens to be the dimension in which they spend the most time). The main disappointment for this novel lies in the fact that the element of alternate universes is never utilized to its full potential. The same could be said about the Firebird. Marguerite is frequently described as an ‘artsy’ person, which feels as an excuse to avoid explaining the workings of the Firebird or the physics and relations between the alternate universes. Things work because they do, and they are not explained because the main character wouldn’t understand anyway.

Unfortunately, this novel also falls short in the romance department. Marguerite is a bland heroine who does not stand out as a character. Her actions are also extremely foolish, as she tends rush into things and believes people without wanting proof. She goes from hating a person to falling in love with that person nearly at the drop of a hat (or a facial expression, as it is), which makes her annoying and wishy-washy. The two love interests, Paul and Theo, are no compelling characters either. They’re flat and hardly seem to possess any flaws. There is a love triangle, but with uninteresting characters and no tension because it becomes obvious who will be the first choice quite soon, the romance falls flat. When the only good thing to mention about the romance is that, at least, the characters knew each other before the story began…something is quite wrong. The characters lack chemistry, which is a fatal flaw for a narrative focusing so heavily on romance.

A Thousand Pieces of You has an interesting concept and hints of interesting world building. It also briefly touches on the ethical considerations of taking over the body of an alternate you. Unfortunately, Gray never expands on these elements and instead allows them to be buried by an uninteresting romance plot with bland characters. If you like romance fiction, you might still want to give this a try, but if you’re looking for science fiction…you should look elsewhere. A Thousand Pieces of Missed Opportunities!

Review: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

guestcat_takashihiraideThe Guest Cat
Takashi Hiraide

Publisher: Picador
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 140
ISBN: 9781447279402
Language: English
Translator: Eric Selland
Genre: contemporary literature
Rating: 4/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

An unnamed childless couple in their thirties rents a cottage on a larger property in a quiet neighbourhood in Tokyo. They’re both freelance writers, but despite the fact that they work from home, they don’t have much to say to each other. One day, a stray cat wanders into their cottage. Though the cat, Chibi, is adopted by their neighbours, she keeps visiting the couple’s house. The couple aren’t even cat people, but Chibi brings them small pleasures and allows them to reconnect with each other. Ultimately, this book is about the way Chibi affects the couple’s lives; the joy and meaning she brings, as well as how fast these moments of joy can change.

With barely 140 pages, The Guest Cat is not a very long read. The prose of this originally Japanese novella is, despite its philosophical passages and literary references, quite simple and sparse. At the same time, however, the descriptions are beautiful and even lyrical – I wasn’t surprised to learn that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. This balance of simplicity and lyricality allows for vivid prose that is never bogged down by any unnecessary words and descriptions. Though some elements of the writing might have been lost in translation, Eric Selland has done a wonderful job conveying this in the English version.

Not much actually happens in this story. Most of the narrative takes place in the cottage or the garden it is situated on, and with the exception of the cat, none of the characters bear any names.

The prose focuses on people and places, not so much on events. Though there are descriptions of Chibi’s antics, the novel does not revolve around the cuteness of the cat (though Chibi is still very much at the centre of the narrative). Ultimately, this is a very quiet story in a quiet neighbourhood with quiet people. This, along with the prose, is why this novel appears so simple at the surface.

All this simplicity belies a depth in the narrative that is executed in a subtle way. The Guest Cat explores the small things that affect people’s lives and the way it connects them. The beauty and serenity of nature also takes a prominent place in the novel’s themes, which Chibi is very much a part of. At the same time, the story also conveys the fragility of nature as well as these small things and connections. Despite any attempts at preservation, life, and the people and moments that are part of that life, are transient. Nature itself is also subject to change. This sense of temporality is what makes this novel so moving.

However, the quiet and subtle nature of The Guest Cat might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you want something more eventful, you might want to skip this. But if you’re looking for elegant prose, a short read that has a bit more depth, or even just a story about how a cat brings meaning to the lives of a Japanese couple, you should give this a try. You don’t even need to be a cat person to appreciate it.

Harry Potter Exhibition

Last week, I went to the Harry Potter Exhibition in Cinemec in Utrecht. Though this is a book blog and the props on exhibit are technically part of the movies, I think we can all agree that Harry Potter is relevant enough. So, because I’ve been a little sparse with updating, I figured I’d write a post about my visit instead.

Anyway, upon entering the cinema, I immediately stumbled upon a very familiar sight:

harrypotterexhibit_flyingfordanglia

Yes! The flying Ford Anglia from The Chamber of Secrets! I suppose it was only fitting for it to be parked outside of the exhibit. Before entering, there was also the opportunity to don a cloak and scarf and pick a wand to have your picture taken, but I felt this was a little expensive (and I didn’t like my face on this picture anyway).

Upon entering the exhibit, there was a little introduction film. Eventually, someone showed up with the sorting hat and some of the visitors had the opportunity to be sorted in one of Hogwart’s houses after answering a couple of questions (what is your favourite book? What is your favourite character? Why?). Naturally, I was sorted in Slytherin.

After the sorting ceremony, someone showed up with a lantern and the Hogwarts train became visible. For the rest of the exhibit, you were pretty much free to wander wherever, but I felt this was a nice introduction!

The exhibit itself was split into different sections not necessarily in chronological order of the books/movies: Gryffindor, teachers, Forbidden Forest, dark magic, Quidditch, Hogwarts dining hall, and so on. I really liked the way the different sections were presented, because each section had its own atmosphere. They also played with lightning and sound effects to further present a mood. The Forbidden Forest actually smelled like a forest (and had some smoke effects going on). I also liked the sheer variety in items: there were costumes, props, but even items part of the decor. When displaying items related to Umbridge, for example, it was on a backdrop reminiscent of her sickingly pink office. Some parts of the exhibit were interactive as well: you could sit in Hagrid’s chair, and you could pull out the Mandrakes from their pots.

I’ll share some pictures here to give you an impression of the exhibition. It by no means includes everything, but it should give you a bit of an impression of what to expect. Hit the “read more” below to see them!

Read More »

Review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

thelastwish_sapkowskiThe Last Wish
(The Witcher #1)
Andrzej Sapkowski

Publisher: Orion Books / Gollancz
Publishing year:
2012
Pages: 280
ISBN: 9780575082441
Language: English
Translator: Danusia Stok
Genre: Fantasy, short stories
Rating: 3.5/5

When looking at possible video games for my inevitable PlayStation 4, it was hard to miss The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The open world looked really interesting and I liked how you would hunt supernatural creatures as Geralt of Rivia. It was a matter of time before I discovered that the video game series was actually based on a book! So what do you do as a bookworm? You read the book.

The Last Wish is the first of two collections of short stories that make up the first installments of Sapkowski’s The Witcher series (the other being Sword of Destiny). From what I’ve gathered, the overarching plot doesn’t begin before Blood of Elves, the first full-length novel in the series. I have yet to read Blood of Elves, however, so I’ll be reviewing The Last Wish on its own.

All of the short stories in The Last Wish involve Geralt of Rivia, who travels from place to place in a medieval fantasy world. He’s a Witcher; a monster hunter for hire with supernatural abilities. Because he requires payment for his services, people believe that Witchers only care about money rather than helping people; consequently, Witchers face resentment and suspicion. The stories in The Last Wish involve the creatures Geralt comes across, but the real interest lies in the accompanying backstories. The Last Wish is not so much about Geralt killing a monster, but about the people and creatures he meets; their stories that are unravelled as Geralt learns more of the situation. The supernatural beings are not as they seem and evil is not necessarily clear-cut. Though there are elves, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, and a multitude of other (mythological) creatures, they appear in a different way than what you would consider typical in a high fantasy setting. Geralt has to make some difficult decisions where”the lesser evil” is not always easy to see. There is also a certain fairy-tale-like quality to these stories despite the somewhat gritty setting. The cursed beast living alone in a mansion is an obvious link to Beauty and the Beast, but while the other stories are less explicit in their reference, they are reminiscent of such folk tales in some way. The stories are also quite varied in how they play out, which in combination with the twists, made for an entertaining read.

All of these short stories are placed in a framing narrative named “The Voice of Reason”, which unfortunately is not as interesting as the stories it frames. These chapters appear in-between and are sometimes connected with the story that’s about to be told, but often they’re not which makes their appearance a little random. The Last Wish could have benefited with more cohesion between “The Voice of Reason” and the other short stories, but as it is, there is no real link which makes the framing narrative fall short. Thankfully, these chapters are not long at all, and they get more interesting by the end. Moreover, as a collection of short stories there is no real overarching plot yet. Though I definitely have the feeling that key elements and characters (such as Yennefer) have been introduced and seem to set up context for the actual novels (which is also useful for playing the game, I’ve found now that I own a PS4), there is no real sense of urgency. In other words: there is a sense of an overarching plot under the surface, but it remains just there.

Still, with these short stories Sapkowski has managed to create an interesting fantasy world that is a little different from usual medieval fantasy and certainly piques my interest in the next installments. Moreover, the twists and backstories are what makes The Last Wish both an interesting read and a nice introduction to the world of The Witcher.

Rereading Books

When I was young, I owned a limited amount of books. I would reread the ones I had numerous times, some of them becoming quite battered in the process. Even library visits usually ended with bringing books I had read before home so I could read them again. I can’t quite recall how many times I’ve read the Griezelbus series by Paul van Loon, Het Wolfsvel by Ton van Reen, or Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren.

As I grew older, however, things changed. I got an income, so I could buy more books. Eventually, this turned into a problem I’m sure most of us are familiar with: an endless TBR pile. Things grew worse when I discovered GoodReads and its annual reading challenges. As an English major, I had to read a ton of books for university as well. In general, life got busier and busier. I began to grow less inclined to pick up a book I had already read. Sure, I meant to reread all of the Harry Potter books or the entire Temeraire series, but somehow I rarely get around to revisiting my favourite novels.

There are, of course, exceptions. Last year, I ended up rereading The Hunger Games trilogy for an essay, and I discovered that I liked the series much more on my second reading. I wrote my master thesis about Le Morte D’Arthur and The Warlord Chronicles, both of which required me to reread them. I loved to do so! Rereading Malory’s medieval text was so much more rewarding now that I’m more familiar with Arthurian fiction. The Warlord Chronicles is my favourite book series, and it was awesome to revisit it, to see details and foreshadowing I had initially missed on my first read.

These exceptions drive home the reason of why it’s so nice to reread a book. You pick up details you might have missed, sometimes certain (life) experiences make a revisit more rewarding, and sometimes you appreciate a book better on your second reading. When a sequel comes out, it’s also nice to refresh your memory. With that in mind, it’s a shame that I don’t dedicate as much time to rereading books.

GoodReads has finally added a reread function, however, so at least that’s no longer an excuse. Rereads even count for my reading challenge, so hopefully I’ll revisit my favourite novels soon! Now it’s just the daunting TBR pile that’s in the way…

So, what about you? Do you reread books? How often? Your experiences? Feel free to share in the comments!

Review: Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić


before_the_feastBefore the Feast

Saša Stanišić

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publishing year:
2015
Pages: 318
ISBN: 9781782271758
Language: English
Translator: Anthea Bell
Genre: Contemporary literature, magical realism
Rating: 2.5/5

Before the Feast was….quite unlike any book I’ve read so far. There wasn’t much of a main character or even an actual plot, which makes it a little difficult to review this book. Still, I would like to make an attempt — despite the rating I have given this book, I still feel that it’s interesting to talk about.

Perhaps I should correct myself: this book doesn’t have a main character in the traditional sense. Though there are several recurring characters in this book whose POV you see, they are not main characters. I think that the village about which the story revolves, Fürstenfelde, is the actual main character of this book. The chapters simply narrate the thoughts and events involving its inhabitants (and a vixen living in the nearby forest) on one specific evening. Mostly. Because the narrative also includes events that have happened in the past, not only of the character, but the village as a whole. The result is a portrayal of an East German village — albeit a very disjointed one.

The prose is actually one of this book’s highlights.  The voice tends to shift depending on which character a certain chapter features — if it features any character at all. One chapter solely consists of a menu. Another description of a certain character is mixed with instructions on how to build a chicken pen. The chicken pen is relevant for the character in question because this man actually keeps chickens (and also relevant for a chapter that takes place later on, involving the aforementioned vixen hunting eggs). Other than the shifting voice, there is also a lot of repetition and peculiar descriptions that convey the quirkiness of Fürstenfelde’s inhabitants and an underlying ‘strangeness’ that seemed part of the village. All this makes for a playful writing style, one that’s self-aware and a tiny bit ironic but never ‘edgy’.

Though I was initially interested in Before the Feast was going, this quickly faded. Though the disjointed nature of the book was what made Before the Feast interesting at first, its lack of focus made it difficult to care about Fürstenfelde’s inhabitants as I kept on reading. Though the inclusion of myths and stories was nice, there were also plenty of chapters that were just boring to read simply due to their lack of cohesion with anything else (other than the village itself). I think it would have helped had these separate elements been more interwoven with one another, but as it is the novel is all over the place and doesn’t actually go anywhere. Though I understand that a plot wasn’t the point of Before the Feast, I feel that some sort of focus would have made this more engaging to read.

Though the prose is beautiful and there are some interesting elements, the disjointed nature of Before the Feast makes it a little tedious to get through. A real shame…

Buy Less, Read More; Plans to Reduce my TBR & My First and “Last” Book Haul

In December, I had bought another pile of books, most of which came in some time this month. I had intended to share them with you guys (and I will further down this entry), but I’ve also been thinking. Pretty much every bookworm can relate, I’m sure: buying more books than you can read. It’s something I’m very guilty of doing as well, which means that, despite the decent amount of books I read a year, my physical TBR pile isn’t getting any smaller.

If there is something I’ve learned from another hobby of mine that includes a backlog, video games, it’s that a large amount of untouched copies can become overwhelming. I’ve purged my video game collection and I’ve decided that, for future purchases, I’ll be far more selective. Though I had purged my book collection as well, these were mainly books I had already read but didn’t really enjoy; I haven’t made any similar resolutions for my TBR pile.  After all, so I thought, I’m a much faster reader than a gamer. This week, however, it dawned on me that I probably should think of some restrictions if I want to avoid an overwhelming bookcase stuffed to the brim with books I haven’t even touched or will be touching in the near future.

So I’ve decided to do the logical thing: buy fewer books, at least until I’ve significantly reduced my TBR pile. A while ago I’ve made a shelf on Goodreads listing the books I own but haven’t read yet, and that amount it currently at 107 books. It’s about a third of my books collection, and that amount needs to go down. I definitely won’t be able to read even more books due to IRL obligations and other hobbies, so this seems to be the best solution.

I have, however, one exception to my resolution: books of series that I already have partly on my shelf, such as Sapkowski’s The Witcher and Maas’s Throne of Glass — but I’d only get the one that’s next in the series, and until I’ve read that one, I won’t be getting any of the subsequent ones. This also doesn’t include any borrowed books, obviously.

But before making this decision I had ordered that pile of books in December. Despite what I’ve written above, I’ll share them anyway: the very first book haul on my blog, and my last one for the foreseeable future:

20170124_145455

You might recognize some of these, because some titles have been mentioned in my previous entry involving my most anticipated reads of 2017. Others may be new to you.

Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie
Before the Feast, by Saša Stanišić
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Het smelt, by Lize Spit
Baccano!: 1931 The Grand Punk Railroad: Local, by Ryohgo Narita
Baccano!: 1031 The Grand Punk Railroad: Express, by Ryohgo Narita

These were at least books I had been intending to get for quite a while. Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy are the sequels to Ancillary Justice, which I loved, and I have now completed the Imperial Radch series. Before the Feast has been on my wishlist for ages, as well as A Little Life. I got interested in Rashomon after watching the anime Bungo Stray Dogs — I also intend to read something by Osamu Dazai, but that will obviously have to wait. I got Het smelt at my work, which I’ve been thinking of getting for months due to its intriguing plot. Finally, the two Baccano! books are light novels. The anime is one of my favourite series, and I did really enjoy the first light novel, The Rolling Bootlegs.

So, there you have it: my first and “last” book haul as well as my plans for reducing my TBR future purchases. I’ll be sure to let you know the results in a couple of months! Obviously, I’ll still be posting reviews and other related entries once in a while.

Have you gotten anything interesting the past month? Or did you try to buy fewer books in the past? What are your experiences with trying to reduce your TBR by buying fewer books? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!